Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The Best Novels of far...

Like a keg at a frat party, it seems like we just tapped 2010, but now it is already half-finished.  Lest we find ourselves face down in the yard, wondering what the heck happened last year, The Ape offers the three best novels from the first six months. (Note: these are books published in 2010)

In ascending order:

3. The Ask by Sam Lipsyte

Comic novels rarely enjoy much award-love (Take a look at the past winners of the major book awards; you’ll find more laughs at a burn unit), but Lipsyte’s inventive, caustic, and down-right funny The Ask should be on your radar. Milo Burke, Lipsyte’s protagonist, is the worst kind of mediocrity—the kind that not-so-secretly believes they are destined for some ill-defined greatness. Struggling along at this job as a fund-raiser for a pretentious, mid-level university in New York City (this is starting to hit a wee close to home), Burke has disdain for the wealthy donors he must woo, contempt for comfortable liberalism of his friends, and a one-liner for everything. One to scratch your misanthropy itch, by way of your funny bone.

2. The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

From our review:

Like many Holocaust stories, this one is harrowing, but the time Orringer spent establishing these characters and these stories in the first half of the book deepens our investment; the dreadful cost is brought home all the more powerfully because The Invisible Bridge shows us a time before the fall. Orringer's great achievement here is to give us the Holocaust anew, to remind us of the scale of what was lost and to cherish what survived.

The Invisible Bridge is a two-fer: the first half about a young man going to school in Paris, getting into trouble, and falling in love. (It’s the “We’ll always have Paris” backstory from Casablanca, if Bogie were Hungarian and Bergman older and had killed a cop.) The second half leverages our emotional investment from this deep grounding, as the Nazis, and their allies, round-up and exterminate Eastern Europe’s Jews. This is an engrossing read that has lingered in our minds, even as our raging bibliophilia has marched on.

1.  Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes

We’re not alone in our admiration for Marlantes’ steady, enveloping novel of the Vietnam War, and it is sure to be in the mix for all of the major American literary awards. From our review:

Marlantes [is] unrelenting in his account of the Vietnam War's operational and political confusion; he doesn't spare us the arcana of a Marine officer's life, knowing full well, as one of the characters says, that the truth is not found, but assembled:
"Intelligence, Lieutenant," Simpson went on, "is built up by the fastidious collection of minutiae. You understand that, don't you? It isn't the result of spectacular finds. It's the result of hard work, constant attention to detail--to minutiae. Mi-nu-tiae."
And though Marlantes tries to guide us through the minutiae with a chart of the chain of command, a detailed map of the operation, and a lengthy glossary of military terminology, the deluge of call signs, equipment, procedures, ranks, titles, and tactics is beyond comprehension. And once Mellas [the novel’s protagonist] realizes (the reader alongside) that these particulars are not in themselves meaningful, but the minutiae out of which meaning is made, he comes to be himself at last.

Like The Invisible Bridge, Matterhorn re-visits familiar territory, but, and this is the sign of great writing, forces to reconsider what we thought we knew.


So, there you go—the leaders in the clubhouse for 2010. Several marquee releases await (seriously, just release the new Franzen already), but someone's going to have to bring some serious heat to top Matterhorn.

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  1. I'm reading Matterhorn now. The terminology is sometimes maddening, but the characters are so well drawn and the story moves so well. It really reminds me of Band of Brothers, but even more intimate.

  2. Haven't heard of any of these yet. Still stuck reading the oldies but goodies. If I get a minute I'll give Matterhorn a go.

  3. The Ask is that good, eh? Hmmm. Read an article with Lipsyte in Poets & Writers that sort of made him sound like a d-bag. But, based on The Ape's recommendation, he's going to re-enter my list...

    My best of 2010 is Bloodroot, by Amy Greene. But I think you knew that already...

  4. Patrick-
    Band of Brothers is a fair analogy, but Matterhorn doesn't romanticize "comradeship" like that series does. I love Band of Brothers, but it's a little rose-colored.

    If my sense is right, Matterhorn may very well be, someday, an oldie-but-goodie.

    I have no doubt that Lipsyte might be a bad guy. But he's dark, acerbic, and funny too. I thought it a better comic novel than the Tropper, but also more challenging and thoughtful. I definitely am going to read Bloodroot, by the way. After Mr. Peanut and Super Sad True Love Story, I think that one's next.

  5. The Ask sounds really good, and not just because I'm not a fan of war books.
    Also, this - "the kind that not-so-secretly believes they are destined for some ill-defined greatness." - cracked me up.
    Definitely will be checking this book out soon!

  6. Great list.

    There was such a great buzz when Matterhorn emerged onto the scene but it's pretty quite these days...I'm not sure readers are as enthused as critics are.

    And you're right about Franzen. Freedom is sure to be something special.

  7. Gonna have to add Amy Greene's Bloodroot, published Jan 2010, to this list. It's excellent.

  8. Sarah-

    I'm convinced. It's two novels away for me at the moment.

  9. I am chagrined that I've not read any of these novels (though I'd at least heard of two of them... do I get points for that?)!

    Not sure what my favourite 2010 book is, though I'd say a contender might be The Blasphemer by Nigel Farndale, which I finished reading a few days ago. I also really liked The Hand That First Held Mine by Maggie O'Farrell, Faithful Place by Tana French, and The Rehearsal by Eleanor Catton. Can't wait to see what crops up in the latter half of the year!

  10. Mayowa-

    Well, sometimes readers get it wrong. And a 600 page Vietnam book isn't exactly a great hook for the average reader. But mass taste does not necessarily line up with merit, as we all know.

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  12. Jon-

    I'm surprised you found Matterhorn overwritten; I was impressed with Marlantes' restraint. I'm not sure what an ending of merit means, but Matterhorn doesn't resolve as much as it reveals.

  13. Skip, just read a great review on Matterhorn at

    You might enjoy this, too.

  14. For unusual and well-written American fiction inspired by a real event, try "Deep Creek" by Dana Hand (a/k/a the writing partnership of Anne Matthews and Will Howarth) which was named a Best Novel of 2010 by the Washington Post...

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