10. City of Thieves, David Benioff
Lev Beniov (a fictional version of the author?s grandfather) is barely surviving the 1942 siege of Leningrad when he hooks up with a charismatic army deserter named Kolya. The good news is that they become fast friends. The bad news is that if they don?t find a dozen eggs for a wedding cake, an unpleasant secret-police colonel is going to have them executed. Hair-raising (and sometimes hilarious) adventures follow.
9. The Help, Kathryn Stockett
You’ve probably read it. If not, you’re in for a treat as you watch Skeeter Phelan, a child of privilege in pre-civil rights Mississippi, get her consciousness raised — and her social position endangered — as she begins writing about the lives of the maids who polish the silver and make the beds. The book is warm, decent, and often funny, but what elevates it — odd but true — are the hundreds of domestic details.
8. Swamplandia!, Karen Russell
Sisters Ava and Ossie Bigtree are left in charge of their family?s fading Everglades theme park, Swamplandia!, when a flashier attraction (World of Darkness — think hell with roller coasters) opens nearby. Russell is a tremendously gifted writer, and Swamplandia! goes rollicking right along…until you get to the bone-chilling second half, which is as terrifying as Deliverance. It?ll be published in early 2011. Don?t miss it.
7. Blood?s a Rover, James Ellroy
It’s a boiling cauldron of conspiracy, murder, paranoia, and kinked-up sex. All the good stuff, in other words. Whether or not you believe the Kennedy assassination was a put-up job, it’s hard not to be fascinated by this trip through the lower intestine of the ’60s.
6. Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes
A grunt’s-eye view of one battle for one hill during 1969. The GIs are brave, the brass incompetent and out of touch, the action unremitting. You can smell the gunpowder and taste the mud. The Vietnam equivalent of Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead.
5. Last Night in Twisted River, John Irving
It starts with the accidental killing of a Native American woman (the youngster who brains her with a skillet mistakes her for a bear). Father and son take off, pursued by the relentless Constable Carl for nearly 50 years. There?s a lot of Canada here, a lot of cookin?, and a lot of gorgeous (and cynical) Americana. Irving?s best since Garp.
4. Savages, Don Winslow
Chon and Ben, the antiheroes at the center of this novel that?s every bit as savage as its title, aspire to be kinder, gentler drug dealers, but when the smoke clears, one is tempted to quote Sarah Palin: ”How?s that hopey-changey stuff workin’ out for ya?” This is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid on autoload. Winslow’s stripped-down prose is a revelation.
3. I?d Know You Anywhere, Laura Lippman
The best suspense novel of the year. Eliza Benedict has got a nice house and a nice family, and has managed to put the trauma of her life behind her. At least until the serial killer who kidnapped and raped her — but let her live — when she was 15 gets in touch from death row and says he wants to see her.
2. Freedom, Jonathan Franzen
If you haven?t met Walter and Patty Berglund of St. Paul, it?s time. Franzen chronicles their ups and downs (mostly downs) with a cold mind and a warm heart. Two wedding rings go into the toilet over the course of this novel, but there?s a measure of redemption for both of those who do the casting away. I finished uplifted and energized by Franzen?s storytelling ability. Where the hell was the National Book Award nomination for this one?
1. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace
To my mind, there have been two great American novels in the past 50 years. Catch-22 is one; this is the other. For pop culture vultures like me, the central plot is fascinating: The late James O. Incandenza has created an ??entertainment?? — Infinite Jest — so irresistible you can?t stop watching it. Three dozen terrific characters spin out from this, my favorite being Joelle Van Dyne, a.k.a. the P.G.O.A.T.: Prettiest Girl of All Time. But it all comes back to that lethal film — because for guys like me, irresistible entertainment, lethal or not, is the holy grail.