Nancy Pearl's best books of the 2010s
We never quite figured out what to call this decade: the teens? The tens? In any event, it's ending tomorrow and to send it off in style, we're sharing the decade's best books with you.
It’s the end of a decade! And as we leave the awkward teens behind and enter into the hopefully roaring 20s, we asked librarian and book critic Nancy Pearl for her favorite books of the 2010s.
Nancy Pearl's best books of the 2010s
Are you ready for the Roaring Twenties? More importantly, is your bookshelf? Beloved Seattle librarian and book critic Nancy Pearl joined Marcie Sillman for a review of the best books of the decade, year by year.
She delivered abundantly - a fiction and nonfiction pick per year; some years had several ties. Listen to her conversation with Marcie Sillman below, or skip straight to the books! A full transcript of Marcie and Nancy’s conversation can be found at the end of this post.
Fiction: Tatjana Soli, The Lotus Eaters
Nonfiction: Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes
Fiction: Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding
Nonfiction: Erik Larson, In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin
Nonfiction: Robert Massie, Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman
Fiction: Ali Smith, There But For The
Nonfiction: Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing: Essays and Cartoons
Fiction: Bob Shacochis, the Woman Who Lost Her Soul
Nonfiction: Sheri Fink, Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital
Fiction: Siri Hustvedt, The Blazing World
Nonfiction: Helen Thorpe, Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War
Fiction: Priya Parmar, Vanessa and Her Sister
Nonfiction: Christian Appy, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity
Nonfiction: Jill Leovy, Ghettoside
Fiction: Chris Bachelder, The Throwback Special
Fiction: Brit Bennett, The Mothers
Fiction: Bonnie Nadzam, Lions
Nonfiction: Sally Mann, Hold Still
Fiction: Andrew Sean Greer, Less
Fiction: Gabe Habash, Stephen Florida
Nonfiction: Hisham Matar, The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land In Between
Fiction: Rebecca Makkai, The Great Believers
Nonfiction: Sam Anderson, Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis
Fiction: Binnie Kirshenbaum, Rabbits for Food
Nonfiction: George Packer, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century
Nonfiction: David Treuer, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present
Bill Radke spoke with David Treuer about the book in November:
David Treuer, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee
The book Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee ends in 1890, when according to the author “the culture and civilization of the American Indian was destroyed.” Not so fast, says Ojibwe author David Treuer. His new book, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, BEGINS in 1890. Rather than being a chronicle of Native tragedy, he says, it’s a story of Native life.
MARCIE Do you keep a reading log?
NANCY I don't. But I do so much public speaking about books to various organizations that I have records going back to, in some cases, the 1990s of what books I talked about at that presentation.
MARCIE So it's sort of like one in 10 people writes a letter of complaint to public radio, one in 10 books you remember? What I'm trying to get at is are we talking about thousands of books?
NANCY No, because, you know, I do not finish books that I'm not enjoying. And so I have a lot of books that I know what they're about, and I can talk about them, but not with any enthusiasm. Which I think is important especially for a librarian, when you're recommending books. All you'd need to know is why someone would like this book. And if you didn't like it, that's a good clue, if you understand your own reading.
MARCIE Well, as I mentioned, we don't have time to talk about everything that you did read, but we're going to run down the top picks for each year - and granted, some of them have more than a nonfiction and fiction category. We're going to start at the beginning of the decade. I know you have your list there. So you're ready to read.
NANCY I am. 2010 Nonfiction: Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes. Fiction: Tatjana Soli's The Lotus Eaters.
MARCIE Now picking your favorite child of those two.
NANCY I think it would be The Lotus Eaters. It was Tatjana Soli's first novel. It's a pretty amazing Vietnam novel about a woman whose brother has disappeared in Vietnam. He was a photographer and she decides she's going to go and try to find him and photograph Vietnam during the war. Very beautifully written, very powerful. My gosh, this just turned me into a Tatjana Soli fan.
MARCIE Tatjana Soli's The Lotus Eaters. Nonfiction: Edmund de Waal's The Hare with Amber Eyes.
NANCY 2011 nonfiction: Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin, tied with Robert Massie's biography of Catherine the Great. Fiction: Chad Harbach, The Art of Fielding. Very hard to choose among these three books. But let's go with Robert...mmm, let's go with The Art of Fielding.
MARCIE That's the fiction.
NANCY The fiction. I have to say, I am not as big a baseball fan as I am a football and basketball fan. But this is a big, character-driven novel. I know. Marcie, you read it and enjoyed it. I think we probably talked about it back in 2011. It was a first novel. Harbach is editor of a small literary magazine, n + 1. And I think that it's one of those books that you don't have to be a sports fan to really enjoy it. You just have to enjoy big character-driven novels.
MARCIE And if you're from the Midwest, it's a double plus, because I believe this was set in Iowa. The favorite for 2011: Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding. And nonfiction: it's a tie! Robert Massie's Catherine The Great biography. Erik Larson's In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin.
NANCY 2012 nonfiction: Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing: Essays and Cartoons. Fiction, Ali Smith, There But For The. Gosh, this is like choosing my favorite daughter, which would be just impossible because it changes day to day. How about today... let's do the Tim Kreider, We Learn Nothing. I had never heard of Tim Kreider. He does political cartoons for different newspapers. But this is - what I loved the most about this book are the essays. And he does essays about a wide - what used to be called personal essays, that we all read and had to write in high school.
MARCIE And to get into college.
NANCY And to get into college. And these deal with relationships. They don't deal so much with politics. There's a wonderful essay about Tristram Shandy, the Laurence Sterne novel, in which he makes the point - I've never forgotten this. He makes the point that Laurence Sterne both constructed the first novel and deconstructed the novel.
NANCY All of this in the most entertaining way. And since then, I have been searching always for Tim Kreider's op-eds and the little essays that he still does.
MARCIE So the winner for 2012, at least as far as Nancy Pearl is concerned (on this day that we speak): nonfiction, Tim Kreider's We Learn Nothing: Essays and Cartoons. Fiction, Ali Smith, There But for The.
NANCY 2013: Sheri Fink, Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital. And fiction, Bob Shacochis, The Woman Who Lost Her Soul. Can I please talk about both of these? Can I please choose both?
NANCY [Laughs] The nonfiction, Sheri Finks: really an important book about Hurricane Katrina and a hospital in the midst of that, that raises many important issues about how we choose who lives and who dies. Any book about New Orleans I'm fascinated by, because you can't talk about New Orleans without talking about race. And this was a very, very important book and very - extremely readable. And it's the kind of book that you will want to ask your doctor as you go into a hospital, "do you have a disaster preparedness plan?".
NANCY But Bob Shacochis' novel is a big, big novel that is set partially in Turkey, partially in Haiti, partially in Montana. It's a story of of a woman, and how and why and what it means to lose your soul. In addition to all the politics that are in it and just the the the story of this woman's life, it's a wonderful, just a wonderful love story. You might notice I'm saying nothing about the plot because it's the kind of book where you don't want to give away anything.
MARCIE Wow. That's Bob Shacochis' - am I saying his name right?
MARCIE Shacochis' The Woman Who Lost Her Soul. That's fiction. Nonfiction pick Sheri Fink's Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital.
NANCY 2014. Helen Thorpe, Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War. And Siri Hustvedt's The Blazing World. ...Oh my gosh.
MARCIE I'm not going to let you set a precedent!
NANCY I know, I know.
MARCIE You must choose.
NANCY I must choose. Okay, let's do Soldier Girls by Helen Thorpe. Marcie, I believe you and I talked about this when it came out as well. What Helen Thorpe did was find three women in Indiana, three women from the Midwest, all of whom joined the Reserves, the Army Reserves, and all of whom were sent to Iraq and then in Afghanistan. What I found fascinating about this book is the insight that you get into why people join the Army Reserves and what happens to their lives. These are three very different women who come from very different backgrounds and walks of life. It's a book that I think illuminates a group of women who many of us would never have the chance to know. And I think books like that are extremely, extremely important.
MARCIE The 2014 nonfiction pick: Helen Thorpe's Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War. Fiction: Siri Hustvedt's The Blazing World. Just like saying her name.
NANCY I know.
NANCY Yes, she's great.
NANCY 2015 Nonfiction: Christian Appy, American Reckoning: The Vietnam War and Our National Identity. Tied with Jill Leovy's Ghettoside. And fiction: Priya Parmar, Vanessa and her Sister. You know, I'm gonna do the nonfiction and I'm gonna do Christian Appy's, I think. American Reckoning: the Vietnam War and Our National Identity. The Vietnam War is a long time ago now. And yet what happened to America at that time, really, I think Christian Appy would say has set the course for where we are today.
Christian Appy is a history professor. And what he's really talking about here is American exceptionalism. The idea that whatever we do because we are America is fine. Forget those other countries. And how false - how that has played us false. Probably before Vietnam, but how it especially played us false in Vietnam and since. I think this is a really important book; it's incredibly readable. And I think anyone who's interested in mid-century, 20th mid century to the present, anyone who's interested in contemporary politics, contemporary issues. This is a book to take a look at.
MARCIE That's Christian Appy's American Reckoning: the Vietnam War and Our National Identity for nonfiction, tied with Jill Leovy's Ghettoside, which I'll just put in a little vote for because I thought that was amazing. Fiction, Priya Parmar's Vanessa and Her Sister.
NANCY 2016 nonfiction: Sally Mann, Keep [sic: Hold] Still. And fiction: Chris Bachelder, The Throwback Special; tied with Brit Bennett's The Mothers; tied with Bonnie Nadzam's Lions.
NANCY It was a great year for fiction, I have to say.
MARCIE I guess!
NANCY They're all wonderful. Let me just mention Chris Bachelder's The Throwback Special. So, The Throwback Special is about a group of 16 men who, every year, get together for three days to replay a terrible event in football history. And this event was when Lawrence Taylor tackled Joe Theismann so hard during a football game that Joe Theismann's football career was ended.
MARCIE Oh, my.
NANCY And these men come to replay it. And you think, how could you make a novel out of that? But the way the book is written, which is done in snapshots of all the different people, of the 16 different men who come together and every year they pick by chance, you don't know who you're going to play. They're all assigned a role from each of the two football teams. It's one of those books that I think: if you're interested in writing a novel and you're not interested in writing like a straightforward narrative, how Chris Bachelder has illuminated for us the lives of each of these men and what it means when they play, especially Theismann or Lawrence Taylor.
MARCIE Now, you mentioned that this is about this moment in football. You are a football fan. Do I have to be a football fan?
NANCY No, I don't think you need to be a football fan. I think you just need to be a fan of humanity.
MARCIE Okay. Fans of humanity: for fiction, Chris Bachelder's The Throwback Special tied with Brit Bennett's The Mothers and Bonnie Nadzam's Lions. Nonfiction for 2016, Sally Mann's Keep [sic: Hold] Still.
NANCY 2017 Hisham Matar's The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between. And fiction, Andrew Sean Greer's Less tied with Gabe Habash's Stephen Florida. The Return is a wonderful, a wonderful memoir, but I'm gonna go with Less. Andrew Sean Greer's novel Less, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 2017. And I was the chair of the fiction jury.
MARCIE Oh, okay! So you picked.
NANCY I can't take credit for it. But I loved this book.
NANCY I loved this book because it's a funny, tender account of a man turning 50 who's feeling that his life is a mess. You know, his young lover is marrying someone else. He's never been the success that he wanted to be in his writing career. And so what he does is decide to - he can't stand to be in California while his lover is getting married. And so what he decides to do is accept every single invitation to speak or to teach all over the world.
MARCIE I read this book.
NANCY Yes. And it's it's really the first Pulitzer that is a comic novel. But the comedy rests on it's kind of a bedrock of... if I say seriousness, that might give the wrong impression. But it rests on, I think, feelings that we all have.
MARCIE It's a really good book. Andrew Sean Greer's Less tied with Gabe Habash's Stephen Florida. For nonfiction, Hisham Matar's The Return: Fathers, Sons and the Land in Between.
NANCY 2018 Nonfiction: Boom Town: The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis. Fiction: Rebecca Makkai, The Great Believers. Because we're in Seattle, and because I spent many, many, many years in Oklahoma, I've got to go with Sam Anderson's Boom Town.
Now, people might think there is no earthly reason why I would want to read a book about a flyover city that I'm probably never gonna set foot in. Let me tell you that first, Sam Anderson's a wonderful writer. And this book began with a long essay in in The New York Times Magazine about the stealing of the Seattle Supersonics by these Oklahoma businessmen. And then he enlarged it into this book, Boom Town.
MARCIE Wait, is he from here?
NANCY No, he's not from here. No, no.
MARCIE Wow! OK.
NANCY This is one of those books that is so unusual and so much fun to read. And yet at the same time it really illuminates, I think, cities. You know: how cities work, how cities are run, how cities in general make sense of the people who live there and how the people who live there, make sense of of the city. Of course, Oklahoma City was the scene of the terrible bombing. That's a long chapter in here and a very moving chapter. But everything about Oklahoma City is kind of bigger than life. And, you know, you don't have to have been from Oklahoma to love this book. It's a book that is just such a pleasure to read.
MARCIE That's Sam Anderson's Boom Town: The Fantastical - I just, because I want to read this title - The Fantastical Saga of Oklahoma City, Its Chaotic Founding, Its Apocalyptic Weather, Its Purloined Basketball Team, and the Dream of Becoming a World-class Metropolis. If the title alone doesn't sell you, I don't know what will. Fiction for 2018: Rebecca Makkai's The Great Believers.
NANCY 2019 Nonfiction. David Treuer, The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, and tied with George Packer, Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century. Fiction: Binnie Kirshenbaum, Rabbits for Food.
I'm going to go with David Treuer, which is a book that was a finalist for the National Book Award, and I knew it would be. At least a finalist. David Treuer's mother is Native American, his father was a Holocaust survivor. He grew up on a reservation. He is a novelist, teaches creative writing in California. And what he is doing in this book is not refuting Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. He's in conversation with Dee Brown's Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee.
And it is really demolishing, in a way, the argument that Native American history ended with the defeat at Wounded Knee. It's again: for me, for nonfiction, one of the most important things is readability. I had enough textbooks in my life. I want something that moves. And this is one of those books. I think also it's up to the minute. It's a very important book. And he has done a great service, I think, to all of us, to readers everywhere.
MARCIE That's nonfiction for 2019. David Treuer's The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee: Native America from 1890 to the Present, tied with George Packer's Our Man: Richard Holbrooke and the End of the American Century. Fiction pick for the year: Binnie Kirshenbaum's Rabbits for Food.
MARCIE So that's a quick scan of a decade of reading, Nancy. We're looking ahead to 2020. What are you book wise thinking about?
NANCY Well, one of my favorite novelists, Jamie Harrison, who has written both mysteries and a terrific novel called The Widow Nash a few years ago, has a new novel coming out. So I'm very excited about that. Emily St. John Mandel has a new novel, which I quite enjoyed.
MARCIE Me, too.
NANCY And looking forward to having that out, so I can talk about that a lot more.
MARCIE Do we have to hold it close to our chests, those of us who've read it?
NANCY I think so. I think so.
MARCIE Okay, okay. (It was really good. Just throwin' that out.)
NANCY Well, and while we're waiting for that to come out, this is the chance to go back and read her earlier four novels, beginning with the first one, The Last Night in Montreal. And what Emily St. John Mandel does is: there's a secret at the heart of every one of her books. I mean, a secret that is only very gradually uncovered. And I love that.
MARCIE And they're not mysteries, but they're mysterious.
MARCIE A lot we see bestseller lists in The New York Times, and even the Seattle Times. So it's it's an industry that's driven by how many... How many units that you sell. But I'm wondering how we might think about literature in a different way and how maybe you view it in a different way.
NANCY Reading books is, is such a personal thing to do. When you read a book, you are creating the book that you're reading: literally. And a writer like Paul Auster has said this, Siri Hustvedt has said this. It's not a passive kind of activity. You are there making the book what it is. And the bestseller lists are always going to be focused on - with a very few outliers, perhaps - focused on very much plot-driven books. These are the books that you kind of scarf down, because you want to see what happens next.
But there are so many books that are not necessarily plot-driven. I would say that of this list, very few of these books, I would say are plot-driven. I happen to like books, as you do Marcie, that are character driven where the action grows out of who that character is. And it's not that the character is a galley slave, as Vladimir Nabokov said about his characters.
You know, somebody asked Vladimir Nabokov once, they they said, 'you know, sometimes you hear authors saying that, oh, their characters just come alive and tell them what they want to do in the book.' And Vladimir Nabokov said, 'my characters are my galley slaves.' You know, that he had control over his characters. But really, there's a choice. And Ursula Le Guin talked about this. There's a choice between the characters who are in the service of the plot, as opposed to the plot, which is in the service of the characters.
MARCIE Well, Nancy, I know as the author of many published books of fiction and nonfiction, you have a new book?
NANCY I have a new book that I wrote with a Seattle writer, Jeff Schwager, who's a playwright. He's the person who turned [The Adventures of] Kavalier and Clay into drama for Book-It [Repertory Theater]. He and I - oh, gosh. He and I have interviewed more than 20 authors about the books that they have loved to read over their lifetimes. And it's called The Writer's Library. And it will have some sort of subtitle, but it'll be out next September from Harper.
MARCIE 2020. September 2020.
MARCIE Something to look forward to.
MARCIE Nancy Pearl, thank you so much for reading everything ahead of time so that we can just pick and choose.
NANCY Well, it's my pleasure, Marcie.
MARCIE Happy New Year to you.
NANCY And you.