Better Than Freedom

Slatewriters and editors share their favorite books of the year.


The Ask by Sam Lipsyte
The Gen-X coming-of-middle-age novel we’ve all been waiting for, and, fittingly, none of us bought it. C’mon, people, skip an Angry Birds session and flip through this on your iPhone instead. It will leaven your anger, bake it up, and serve it back to you in the form of impolite metaphors, funny observations, and unheralded moments of non “ironic” emotion. You will also never look at a turkey wrap sandwich again without thinking of melancholy office life. Milo Burke, the book’s hero, may be an overeducated loser, but he has the unfiltered wisdom of the condemned. Bonus titles: If you have kids, read them Hyewon Yum’s There Are No Scary Wolves and Christoph Niemann’s Subway.
Michael Agger, senior editor

C by Tom McCarthy
I liked Tom McCarthy’s debut novel, Remainder, so much that I read two-thirds of it without once leaving my seat. (I had the window on a trans-Atlantic flight. But still.) I enjoyed his latest effort, C, a densely allusive yet unpretentious work, even more. The opening section, on Serge Carrefax’s turn-of-the-century childhood, is part Victorian pastiche (as Adam Kirsch put it in his review for Slate), part Freudian case study, part Atonement. I felt sorry when McCarthy let Serge grow up, but only momentarily—the character lives up to his promise. I relished his brief stay at a sanatorium on the continent (hat tip The Magic Mountain), his Grand Illusion-ish experiences in World War I, and his Forster-ian trip to Egypt. It is rare to find an unabashedly philosophical book that is also a page-turner, or an avant-garde text that is also accessible to anyone just along for the plot, or a historical novel that also feels completely contemporary. C is all of those things.— Juliet Lapidos, associate editor

The Finkler Question by Howard Jacobson
Weisberg’s Law states that any Jew more religious than you are is mentally insane, while any Jew less religious is a self-hater. The Finkler Question demonstrates this rule’s applicability in Britain, where the striations of Semitism have their own complications and subtleties. It centers on three old friends, one a goy who thinks he might be Jewish, one a Jew ashamed of Israel, and a third who thinks the other two must be nuts. Like Phillip Roth, to whom he is fairly compared, Howard Jacobson is a magnificent prose stylist who is often at his most serious when he is being uproariously funny. This novel, which won the Man Booker Prize this year, is both a send-up of some very silly people, and an examination of Jewish identity in relation to rising tides of anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism. I don’t think you have to be Jewish to find it funny, touching, and troubling.  — Jacob Weisberg, editor-in-chief of The Slate Group

The Imperfectionists by Tom Rachman
I read The Imperfectionists: A Novel in one sleepless gulp. It is a novel, as the subtitle informs you, but a multifaceted one: Each chapter stands as its own finely wrought short story about one of the various employees (and in one case a consumer) of a once-revered international newspaper based in Rome. For a group of professional observers, the journalists have whopping blind spots—the fossilizing stringer has never gotten around to purchasing a computer; the lonely business writer decides to date the very thief who robbed her. Rachman’s prose is wildly witty but never arch, and even as his characters tangle themselves into absurd predicaments, you can’t help but sympathize with them.— Sara Dickerman, contributor

The Lost Books of the Odyssey by Zachary Mason
I’m still a little disappointed that Zachary Mason didn’t see fit to send Slate a custom-made Trojan Horse like the ones he sent to the Los Angeles Times and New York Times. The wooden horses contained copies of his debut novel, which Mason, a computer scientist by trade, wrote during weekends and lunch hours. It was a PR stunt worthy of Odysseus, the must cunning of the Achaeans and the star of Mason’s book. The Lost Books reimagines Odysseus’ life in a series of 44 impressively economical vignettes. Some, like the one in which the Ithacan king is portrayed as a cowardly deserter, challenge the image of the hero from Homer’s epics. Others are more playful, like the one that addresses the age-old question: Are we really supposed to believe Odysseus didn’t knock boots with Nausicaa? Almost all of them are wildly entertaining.
John Swansburg, culture editor

The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie
Ann Beattie used to be the most famous young writer of her generation, but today she’s largely fallen off the public radar. The New Yorker Stories, a compilation of much of her best work from the ‘70s until this decade, is a bid to bring her back into the limelight. It’s a startling collection. Beattie is perhaps best-known as a stylist (her cool, flat, journalistic prose sometimes gets her grouped—inaptly, I think—with the likes of Raymond Carver and Bobbie Ann Mason) or else as an MFA-program ideal of craftsmanship. But the greatest pleasure in these early stories is in their emotional pull: Beattie’s characters of the ‘70s are young people foundering in nostalgia and quiet loss, trying to figure out how to move forward in a world where every choice is open but no markers of adulthood seem fixed. To a young person in today’s recessionary lull, these early pieces are markedly, sometimes unsettlingly, resonant. To a student of a postmodern fiction, meanwhile, Beattie’s recent stories are engrossing for their quiet innovation. The collection (which I reviewed at greater length in Slate) is not so much a museum of past work as a dynamic, entertaining, 32-year exploration of the form—a reminder that, in the hands of a career virtuoso, the short story is very much alive.— Nathan Heller, copy editor  

Room by Emma Donoghue
Emma Donoghue pulls off two feats in Room that I wouldn’t have thought possible: She successfully uses the stuff of tabloid horror and the voice of a 5-year-old. Jack has never known any world but Room, where he lives with Ma. He spends nights in Wardrobe, tucked out of sight—though not out of hearing—when Old Nick unlocks Door and makes Bed, with Ma in it, creak. Jack counts “till he makes that gaspy sound and stops.” When morning comes, if Skylight is all blurry, Jack knows it’s raining, because that’s what Ma has told him. “Ma knows everything except the things she doesn’t remember right, or sometimes she says I’m too young for her to explain a thing.” In evoking their barricaded life, trapped by a psychopath in his backyard shed, Donoghue explores many things: the mysteries of childhood, motherhood, time, reality, language, evil, hope, hopelessness, resilience. As Ma does for Jack, Donoghue proves a remarkable guide in the face of daunting obstacles.— Ann Hulbert, books editor

Super Sad True Love Story by Gary Shteyngart
Nearly every time my phone bleeps or I read some inane Web acronym I don’t understand (pwow) or I see a Victoria’s Secret ad or watch a Judd Apatow movie, some small part of my brain flashes back to Gary Shteyngart’s Super Sad True Love Story. The book has stuck with me much longer than I expected it would (I just had to beg my copy back from the person I lent it to)—and it took me a long time to realize why. Beneath the book’s slightly absurd vision of a futuristic, tech-obsessed, police state America, and an even more absurd love pairing (sad sack Russian émigré Lenny Abramov and Korean hottie Eunice Park), there lie some very deep, recognizable, and true emotions: nostalgia for old New York, the pain of immigrant isolation, a love for musty old books and old-fashioned romance. In short, 1984 with a heart.— Hanna Rosin, founding editor of Double X  

The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris
I had barely finished being aggrieved by the smug showiness of Joshua Ferris’ first novel, Then We Came to the End, when my mother handed me a copy of his second novel, The Unnamed, and urged me to read it. The Unnamed tells the story of a successful lawyer seized by a compulsion to walk, walk, walk until he collapses. This compulsion—undiagnosable, unstoppable—disrupts and then massacres his life. The Unnamed shook me like nothing I’ve read since The Road, and in fact the novels are oddly similar. Both gruelingly dissect a human relationship (in each case a relationship central to my own life). I rarely remember my dreams, but The Road gave me nightmares about my two sons for weeks. The Unnamed does for marriage what The Road did for fatherhood. Its depiction of a happy marriage being shattered is almost unbearable. I read The Unnamed at bedtime, and each night when I closed the book, I would look at my dear wife empillowed next to me and think: Tomorrow, I am definitely not going for a walk.— David Plotz, editor  

A Visit From The Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Like her 2007 novel, The Keep, Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From The Goon Squad is intricately crafted, wildly imaginative, and written with verve and grace. Egan’s subject here is time, specifically its baffling intrusion on the punk-rock youth culture of the 1970s, which Egan evokes with deft precision through a series of interlocking narratives that jump forward and back in chronology. Her characters accept (indeed, celebrate) suffering and death, but growing old isn’t on the playlist. The paradox of becoming middle aged in a culture defined by adolescent rebellion is a theme that also runs through Jonathan Franzen’s much-celebrated Freedom, but Egan explores its nuances more successfully, and while I liked Freedom a lot I judge Goon Squad the better book. Give it to the superannuated goth in your life.— Timothy Noah, senior writer


The Backlash by Will Bunch
First, a disclosure: I’m in this book. In February 2010, Bunch and I shared the cost of a hotel room to cover the National Tea Party Convention; he split his time between gathering string for his book and reporting a story for his paper, the Philadelphia Daily News. I bring all of this up to say that The Backlash is not another book about conservatives that psychoanalyzes and dismisses them, or looks for political leaders and grants them soft coverage in the name of access. Bunch hustles, puts himself where the stories are, and lets people talk. He does not mock Tea Party activists. He argues with them, respectfully, and puts the results in his book. He does not treat that Nashville convention like a historical hinge point. He exposes what now seems obvious, that it marked the first surge of profit-seekers into the nascent grass-roots movement. This is the only book, so far, that coherently explains who led the counterrevolution to hope and change, why they did it, and why it worked. And it is the furthest thing from a political science slog.— Dave Weigel, political reporter

The Big Short by Michael Lewis
Early in 2008, a college friend who was then a new analyst in Citibank’s mortgage department picked me up from work in a company-expensed taxi, toting loads of company-expensed Thai takeout for us to share. She explained her job, which involved bundling auto loans, and it was the first time I’d heard someone use the phrase “repackaging shit.”

Over the next couple of years, both before and after the fall of Lehman, I listened to lots of college friends explain where precisely they worked on the shit-repacking assembly line. I thought I had a pretty good picture of how it all worked. But it wasn’t until I read Michael Lewis’ The Big Short that I understood with clarity just how costly my free Citibank takeout really was. Lewis spins a thrillingly good, novelistic yarn around a handful of interlinked characters who reaped massive profits by betting against the subprime market (hedge-funder Steve Eisman, lone-wolf Michael Burry, and Greg Lipmann, among others), plus explains some of the most complicated financial maneuvering there’s ever been. The Big Short wasn’t just the book I devoured quickest this year—it was also by far the most important.
—Noreen Malone, contributor

The Conservative Assault on the Constitution by Erwin Chemerinsky
This was a banner year for legal nonfiction and picking just one favorite hurts my head. But I’m going with Erwin Chemerinsky’s The Conservative Assault on the Constitution. It’s a powerful, readable account of the ways in which recent changes at the Supreme Court have quietly impacted constitutional law in areas ranging from presidential power, civil liberties, church-state separation, and access to courts. Chemerinsky can explain even the most complex constitutional ideas in clear, urgent terms, and his firsthand accounts of participating in high-profile cases provides great background. As public interest in the meaning of the Constitution, the intent of the Framers, the nature of judicial “activism,” and the role of judges continues to rise, this book is a crucial response to the question of what the Constitution was intended to preserve and why, as well as a call to action about the need to fight for it.— Dahlia Lithwick, senior editor

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a detective story about a poor black woman and her magical cells. Born on a Southern tobacco farm, Henrietta Lacks died in 1951 after being treated for cancer at Johns Hopkins. Without her knowledge or consent, scientists cut cells from her cervix and cultured them. In the lab, they grew into a cell line, called HeLa, that proved more robust than any before it. Lacks’ cells were the ingredients for research into everything from the polio vaccine to chemotherapy and gene mapping. Skloot follows the cells on their scientific journey, using them to teach us about major medical advances. Even better, she takes us deep into the Lacks family, which learns about HeLa almost by accident and then grapples with feeling excluded from its powers. “Them doctors say her cells is so important and did all this and that to help people,” Lacks’ daughter tells Skloot. “But it didn’t do no good for her, and it don’t do no good for us.” This is a voice not often heard in discussions of science. Skloot gets credit for bringing it to the fore and carefully thinking through the hard questions surrounding informed consent. Best of all, her book sings. She spent 10 years reporting and writing, and the effort pays off—she has turned unlikely material into a pleasure read.— Emily Bazelon, senior editor

Mourning Diary, by Roland Barthes and NOX by Anne Carson
Two books on my best of list this year are about mourning: Roland Barthes’Mourning Diary and Anne Carson’s NOX. Barthes’ posthumously published Mourning Diary is a beautiful, lapidary portrait of mourning his mother over the course of about two years, before his own untimely death. (Barthes was hit by a laundry van and died some weeks afterward from the injuries he sustained.) Because the volume comprises notes toward a more fleshed-out book on mourning, it is fragmentary and repetitive—and captures the dislocated, searching mind of the mourner as brilliantly and movingly as any book I know. NOX is Anne Carson’s elegy for her brother; a book in a box, it incorporates photographs and images as well as text in its drive to find a language for loss. A moving meditation on character and estrangement, it’s also an examination of Catullus’ poem 101, an elegy for his own brother. — Meghan O’Rourke, culture critic

The Possessed by Elif Batuman
Reading is strange, when you think about it. And writing about reading, especially about the delirium of obsessed readers, the madness and melancholy of book lovers and scholars, can be even stranger. Few writers can capture these Chekhovian love affairs with the deadpan humor, charm, affection—and pitch-perfect voice—that Elif Batuman brings to The Possessed.

If you love reading you will love this book, which ranges from Batuman’s half-serious (I think) effort to prove to Tolstoy scholars that Tolstoy was murdered, to a summer trip to Samarkand which results in a hilariously Borgesian attempt to explain the impossibly convoluted evolution of the Old Uzbek language. “What did you know about Uzbekistan once you learned that Old Uzbek had a hundred different words for crying?” she asks herself. “I wasn’t sure, but it didn’t seem to bode well for my summer vacation.”
Ron Rosenbaum, “Spectator” columnist

Secret Historian: The Life and Times of Samuel Steward, Professor, Tattoo Artist, and Sexual Renegade by Justin Spring
Samuel Steward was a man of obsessions. Born in 1909, his first love was literature, and he struck up lifelong friendships with Gertrude Stein, Thornton Wilder, and other prominent authors. Soon, though, his true passion came to dominate. He was preoccupied with sex, and he devoted his talents as a scholar, writer, and artist to the erotic. Steward’s mania for self-scrutiny—he kept precise records of his “contacts” and “releases”—and his rejection of the shame that was supposed to accompany homosexual desire, led him to sex researcher Alfred Kinsey. His passion for sailors, meanwhile, drove him to abandon his academic career to become a pioneering tattoo artist. Steward was a cranky loner—at the age of 73 he noted that though he had “slept with 807 persons for a total of 4647 times … I never had a ‘love affair’ with anyone, nor lived with him.” Yet biographer Justin Spring has managed to transform such raw data into a loving chronicle of a fascinating life.— June Thomas, foreign editor

They Live by Jonathan Lethem
Novelist, essayist, and avowed sci-fi nerd Jonathan Lethem’s They Live—a pocket-size ode to the greatness (and electric incoherence) of John Carpenter’s 1988 film—takes as its object of affection a film some might rank in the sci-fi/horror genre maestro’s top five, but few (not even Lethem) consider his best. Still, the movie proves ripe for exploration. Its premise: A Reagan-era, working-class vagabond (professional wrestler “Rowdy” Roddy Piper) dons special sunglasses, discovers a secret ruling class of yuppie aliens, and then sets about taking them down, one shotgun shell and lug-headed bon mot at a time. Lethem combines sharp-eyed scene-by-scene analysis with freewheeling riffs and tangents. Topics discussed include John Wayne’s posture, the Tompkins Square riots, District 9, Jenny Holzer, and Slavoj Zizek’s Marxist-Lacanian parsings. All the references keep the book percolating, rather than bogging it down—and it’s a testament to the daffy riches of Carpenter’s film that it more than sustains them.
Jonah Weiner, pop critic

And keep in mind books published this year by Slate staffers and regular contributors: Hitch-22 by Christopher Hitchens; The Disappearing Spoon by Sam Kean; How To Become a Scandal by Laura Kipnis; All the Devils Are Here by Bethany McLean and Joe Nocera; Makeshift Metropolis by Witold Rybczynski; Being Wrong by Kathryn Schulz;  The Sabbath World by Judith Shulevitz; Grounded by Seth Stevenson; The Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam; Palinisms by Jacob Weisberg; The Master Switch by Tim Wu.