Copyright ©2010 NPR. For personal, noncommercial use only. See Terms of Use. For other uses, prior permission required.

TERRY GROSS, host:

Our book critic Maureen Corrigan has a wish for this holiday season: that everyone read a terrific book, and she has some to recommend. She says she doesn't care whether you read the books on her 2010 best-books-of-the-year list, electronically or the old-fashioned way.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN: Sometimes there is justice in the world.�That was my first thought when I heard that Patti Smith had won the National Book Award this fall for her glorious memoir "Just Kids" - which has just come out in paperback.�Smith wrote the book to honor Robert Mapplethorpe, her youthful partner in love, art, and ambition; but "Just Kids" is also a celebration of the frayed beauty of New York City in its so-called years of decline - the late 1960s into the '70s.

Early in her memoir, Smith likens herself to the iconic Audrey Hepburn, a young girl full of pure yearning. Smith says that she and the more brooding Mapplethorpe were a curious mix of "Funny Face" and "Faust."

Another standout work of nonfiction this year also explores a famous relationship that defied convention: Hazel Rowley's biography of the marriage of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt, called simply "Franklin and Eleanor." Rowley charts the evolution of the Roosevelt union from a standard-issue, high-society alliance to something we don't even have a label for - maybe semi-open marriage comes closest.

Speaking of conformity and rebellion, Rebecca Traister's so-very-smart and lively book about the 2008 presidential campaign called "Big Girls Don't Cry" teases out how our reigning cultural narratives about femininity and playing nice came to wield so much power during the campaign and, finally, in the voting booth.

For all its daring allure, early 20th�century American detective fiction pretty much played by the rules when it came to the standard-issue look of its detective heroes: Same Spade and company were white straight males who were quick to pull the trigger on any characters who were different.�One enormously popular detective hero however who smashed the stereotype was Charlie Chan, the subject of a fascinating mish-mosh of a book also called "Charlie Chan," by Chinese born scholar Yunte Huang.

In the late 19th�century, ordinary people - mill girls, garment workers and miners - embraced the revolutionary idea that by joining together they might better their lives. Philip Dray's spectacular narrative history of the American labor movement called "There Is Power in a Union" reads like a novel, filled with dramatic acts of barbarism and bravery.

This nonfiction best-of-the-year list has turned out to be composed of stories and people who refused to play by the rules, so I'll end it with two other out-of-the-box mentions: first, Laura Hillenbrand's "Unbroken," the unforgettable and, yes, inspirational World War II tale of Louis Zamperini, Olympic athlete and prisoner of war. Zamperini's story puts to shame all of us these days who use the word survivor casually.

Second, two books by Gabrielle Burton, a writer now in her 70s, who's near near-lifelong obsession with Tamsen Donner, the wife of the leader of the notorious Donner Party inspired her to write a fabulous on-the-road feminist memoir called "Searching for Tamsen Donner," as well as an evocative recreation of Tamsen's lost journal called "Impatient With Desire."

Since we're on to fiction now, here are my top picks: certainly, Jonathan Franzen's "Freedom," a novel about a marriage, deserved all of its applause despite the literary spitball fight over Franzen's demi-god status.�

My personal favorite novel of the year was Lionel Shriver's "So Much for That," a moving black comedy about the emotional and financial cost of health care in America.

I also admired David Mitchell's beautiful novel "The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet" which traces the life of its title character who starts working in 1799 on a small European outpost in the harbor of Nagasaki, Japan.

Finally, Gary Shteyngart's novel "Super Sad True Love Story" moves at warp speed, telling a dystopian but comic story about a future where books are derided as objects that smell like wet socks.

I can never close out a literary year without giving a nod to mystery fiction. The late Stieg Larsson's last Lisbeth Salander novel, "The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest," deservedly overpowered all. But this was the year I also belatedly discovered suspense writer Tana French. French's police procedurals about the Dublin murder squad, including this year's "Faithful Place," are brilliantly dark and moody.

I want to end by doffing my hat not to a book but to an independent bookseller and small press publisher. David Thompson was known throughout the mystery world. He died suddenly this year at 38. David introduced me to the wonders noir writers like Reed Farrel Coleman, Daniel Woodrell and Martin Limon. His legacy is a reminder to all of us who love books that, as someone once said about the lake critic Irving Howe, enthusiasm is not the enemy of the intellect.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. You can find links to all the books on her best-of-the-year list, along with links to excerpts of those books and Maureen's original reviews of some of those books on our website, freshair.npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

Copyright © 2010 NPR. All rights reserved. No quotes from the materials contained herein may be used in any media without attribution to NPR. This transcript is provided for personal, noncommercial use only, pursuant to our Terms of Use. Any other use requires NPR's prior permission. Visit our permissions page for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by a contractor for NPR, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of NPR's programming is the audio.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and Terms of Use. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.

Support comes from: