The Casual Optimist

Books, Design and Culture

A Year in Reading 2010


2010 was a year of losing battles and one of the first casualties was time for personal reading. The moments I did have were snatched on the subway and, if I could keep my eyes open, last thing at night. I often found myself unwittingly rereading chapters I had read the previous day, or worse, that very morning. The difficulty this week of compiling a list of my favourite books of the year — and the predictability of that list (to be posted soon) — made it very clear that not only did I read less than previous years, I rarely strayed off the beaten path.

The year was thus defined, for better or worse, by two big novels that were in some senses polar opposites: C by Tom McCarthy and Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. If C was modern experimental novel masquerading as an early 20th century bildungsroman, Freedom was a Victorian drama in modern dress. It felt like “Two Paths for the Novel” all over again.

Someone cleverer than me observed C “was surrounded by the sort of buzz and static which it contained and described.” But while the buzz amplified C to the Booker shortlist, the hype around Freedom and Franzen seemed to diminish the book. It was so ludicrously overpraised, and subsequently criticized and shunned, that it was almost impossible to evaluate fairly.


Like just about everyone else, I started 2010 reading Stieg Larsson, but now, with 2011 just around the corner, The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest remains unfinished, my bookmark at Chapter 6.

I loved the architecture and weird psycho-geography at the heart of the mysterious The City and the City (published in paperback this year) and went on to read China Miéville’s earlier, equally architectural, novel Perdido Street Station.

I was also happy to belatedly discover that Phillip Kerr had resurrected his Bernie Gunther Berlin Noir detective series. Better late than never…

Sadly neither The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman nor Zero History by William Gibson really added up to more than the sum of their (occasionally really quite good) parts.

I simply abandoned Justin Cronin’s clunker The Passage.

Better was Canal, Lee Rourke’s L’Étranger in London. I wasn’t entirely convinced by it, but an off-beat novel about urban ennui and existential violence was a welcome change of pace. Rourke is no doubt an author to watch.

Canal had the added virtue of being short, something of  a rare and undervalued quality these days. In fact almost all of the fiction I enjoyed the most this year — the icily beautiful The True Deceiver by Tove Jansson, the bonkers Memories of the Future by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, and the lyrical The Blue Fox by Sjon — were short. And not actually published in 2010.

Colony by Hugo Wilcken, also short and published in 2007, was unquestionably my favourite novel of the year. Drawing its title from Kafka’s The Penal Colony (and, in turn, Joy Division’s song Colony), the book seemed to me more like a post-modern Conrad, or perhaps Camus trying his hand at a Boy’s Own Adventure. Needless to say, I’m looking forward to Wilcken’s next novel…


I waited too long to read Patti Smith’s wistful and self-depreciating memoir Just Kids, but I was charmed by it nonetheless. I was less enthralled with Bob Dylan in America by Sean Wilentz. I was not, I suspect, the target audience however…

Jared Lanier’s You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto and Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows both raised intelligent concerns about development of the internet. I was less convinced by Lanier’s polemic than Carr’s tweedier defense of long-form reading, but neither were as reactionary as they were sometimes characterized, and both offered interesting insights whether one agreed with them or not.

The subjective magazine-style reportage of War by Sebastian Junger and the gossipy Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin were both signals of what we can expect from nonfiction in future.  But both were troubling, especially War, which felt both narcissistic and yet, at the same time, voyeuristic and exploitative. Neither book properly addressed the complications of embedded insider journalism.

Both War and Game Change were, at least, entertaining. That cannot be said of Bob Woodward’s less than electrifying Obama’s Wars. There is something to be said for detailing events in chronological order, but that doesn’t make it any more readable. Worse, perhaps, I didn’t gain any greater insight into what had happened.


Even though Dan Clowes is the godfather of the miserable asshole, it is now such a common trope in indie comics that despite his undeniable virtuosity I was somewhat disappointed by the uncompromising Wilson. It was, however, unfair of me to expect Clowes to be anyone other than Clowes, and just about everyone whose opinion I respect tells me I am wrong about this book, so don’t take my word for it.

KENK took up a lot of my professional time this year so I was glad to see it get such a positive critical response and I’m hopeful that it will finally see a US release in 2011.

Having a short attention span, I enjoyed the latest installment of Hellboy, and its gothic spin off Sir Edward Grey Witchfinder, but continued to be underwhelmed by Mignola’s plodding BPRD series.

Like just about every other nerd in Toronto I read the 6th and final installment of Bryan Lee O’Malley’s Scott Pilgrim series (now handily available as a box set). I also finally read Jeff Smith’s epic Bone from cover to cover and revisited The Rocketeer stories by the late Dave Stevens, which were collected, at long last, in a slim hardcover edition at the end of last year.

I loved The Outfit, the latest installment of Darwyn Cooke’s adaptations of Richard Stark’s Parker stories (my Advent Book Blog recommendation this year), and Jason’s strange and delightful Werewolves of Montpelier.

Footnotes In Gaza (published late in 2009) left me depressed, but thoroughly in awe of Joe Sacco.


The list of new books that I had every intention of reading this year but didn’t is far, far, too long. Here, however, are a few of the books (in no particular order) that I intend to get to sooner rather than later: Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes, Our Tragic Universe by Scarlett Thomas, Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Sheyngart, A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, Every Man Dies Alone by Hans Fallada,  Boxer, Beetle by Ned Beauman, Kraken by China Miéville, What Ever Happened to Modernism? by Gabriel Josipovici, The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund Dewaal, A History of the World in 100 Objects by Neil MacGregor, Just My Type: A Book About Fonts by Simon Garfield, Set to Sea by Drew Weing and H.P. Lovecraft’s At the Mountains of Madness adapted by Ian Culbard. There are no doubt many, many more… I would love to hear what you read and enjoyed this year and what I should add to the list of books for 2011…

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  1. Dan, hello. Google Alerts brought me to your site thanks to Josipovici, who I think is someone to read every year. In 2010 three of his books came out, one of which I read _(WEHTM_), leaving two to look forward to in 2011 (along with Joseph McElroy’s latest).

    Now, I’m not going to say what you “should” add – you’re obviously finding lots of fascinating material already – but I could suggest Mati Unt (estonian writer), in particular his novel _Things in the Night_ (Dalkey) – or his two other novels from the same publisher; _Primeval and Other Times_ by Olga Tokarczuk (translated from the polish); and a novel from 2000, _Gold Fools_, by Gilbert Sorrentino (told entirely in questions). Lastly, and this is a toot of my own horn, _Verbatim: A Novel_, by me, which came out in October of this year.

    Good luck with your reading, and I enjoyed your comments too.

    Jeff Bursey

  2. Hi Jeff. Thanks for your recommendations — especially Mati Unt as I have an Estonian connection (maybe this will also be the year I finally read some Jaan Kross?)…

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