Top 10 Must-Read Books of 2010

Writers who showed the way
By JON GARELICK  |  December 21, 2010

O WISE MAN! Keith Richards has, astonishingly, lived to tell — and tell it well.

Here, listed alphabetically by author, are 10 notable books that the Phoenix wrote about in 2010.

Released at the end of 2009, this plump volume of 99 alphabetically ordered poems demonstrated that, at 81, John Ashbery was still going strong. So accepted is Ashbery's post at the top of the contemporary American poetry heap that the question of just how to read him seems doomed to languish beside the point. To fans, and a generation of imitators, interpretive guidelines run the gamut, from appreciating his language as one might music to gazing into it as one would the night sky — perhaps with a planisphere for bearings. The flattened, impossibly charted universe accorded by that title object makes a fitting emblem for these poems, as often his most carefully controlled coordinates offer little more than beautiful uncertainty.

The main character's name is Adam, as is his son's. Adam II has come to his dying father's bedside, along with his sister, his stepmother, and his wife, who's named — not for nothing — Helen. The gods are also there (they're everywhere), with Hermes spreading tender mercies and Zeus hurling thunderous orgasms. Booker Prize winner Banville's latest is mysterious, warm-hearted, and elegant, with traces of such literary gods as Vladimir Nabokov and fellow Irishman Oscar Wilde. What he shares with those two, along with an ability to write great prose, is a sense of mischief — here grown to cosmic proportions with his playful attempt to grasp not only infinity but also an infinite number of infinities.

Despite their prevalence in contemporary cinema, pubescent creeps are conspicuously absent from the current crop of US literary fiction. That could explain, in part, why the first printing of Citrus County sold out almost immediately. The novel follows two 13-year-olds with anti-social tendencies, and a synopsis reads like a TV Guide description of a Lifetime movie: orphan neglected by crazy uncle kidnaps little girl. The greatest of the novel's many feats is its ability to make this plot seem plausible — almost inevitable. Brandon's writing is at once sweet and completely unsentimental, the landscape of Citrus County being as oppressive as the solipsism of adolescence. In this urgent, contemporary exploration of free will, Brandon trades once vogue-ish apathy for bruised idealism.

Before she died of lung cancer — in 2002, at age 42 — Caroline Knapp had gone bestseller with the most private of torments: her alcoholism (in Drinking: A Love Story) and her anorexia (Appetites: Why Women Want), and in the Phoenix she had created Alice K., her neurotic-insomniac alter ego. In real life, Knapp was restrained and somewhat elusive. One person who got a protracted, full-on look at her was former BostonGlobe book critic (and also former Phoenix writer) Gail Caldwell. Here Caldwell writes movingly about their friendship, how they bonded as fellow dog lovers, as accomplished professional women nagged by self-doubt, as recovering alcoholics. Like Caldwell's previous memoir, A Strong West Wind, this one is notable for its gorgeous language and lack of spectacle, it generosity and warmth, and its precise expression of friendship.

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