1) Michael W. Hudson, The Monster: How a Gang of Predatory Lenders and Wall Street Bankers Fleeced America – and Spawned a Global Crisis (Henry Holt and Co./Times Books)
As round two of the Federal Reserve’s “quantitative easing” program gets underway, the Euro implodes and corporate profits return without jobs, one book explains better than any other how and why the American middle class is screwed. The Monster reads that much better than the rest because, along with subprime godfather Roland Arnall (Ameriquest) and serial scammers such as Russ and Becky Jedinak (Quality Mortgage), it brings us into the lives of people like Travis Paules, a conscience-free daily drug user who ran Ameriquest’s operations in Pennsylvania and Maryland. Fraud is not just a discrete act, or even a pattern of acts; it is a culture, and it permeates the mortgage-banking business from top to bottom. Read it yourself, then give it to your brother-in-law who thinks Barney Frank is to blame for this mess. –Edward Ericson Jr.
2) Nadifa Mohamed, Black Mamba Boy (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Nadifa Mohamed’s debut novel is a classic quest story. But the setting is unusual, and Mohamed’s painterly style brings it vividly to life. Jama is an 11-year-old Somali boy who, in 1935, leaves the rough streets of Yemen to find his long-lost father. (Mohamed based the story loosely on that of her own father.) Colonization in wartime is the backdrop for his journey, and some scenes are unsparingly brutal. But as Jama travels through Eritrea, Sudan, Palestine, Egypt and Somalia, he is nevertheless a dreamy, perceptive tour guide. Black Mamba Boy is a moving story and a colorful introduction to a world that has rarely been written about from the perspective of the colonized, let alone a child. –Andrea Appleton
3) Dave Tompkins, How to Wreck a Nice Beach: The Vocoder From World War II to Hip-Hop, The Machine Speaks (Stop Smiling Books)
Subverting the already passed vogue for single-subject histories, music writer Dave Tompkins dives into the two distinct lives of the voice-altering technology that would come to be marketed as the Vocoder – as both a top-secret cryptography tool used by the likes of Churchill and Kennedy and a funky vocal effect beloved by musical Afrofuturists such as the Jonzun Crew and Afrika Bambaataa – and finds (or sometimes creates) connections running through the cultural subcutaneous. Extensively researched, lavishly illustrated and deeply personal, it feels like a book no one else could write but that someone had to. –Lee Gardner
4) Gary Shteyngart, Super Sad True Love Story (Random House)
Set in New York City in the not-too-distant future, Gary Shteyngart’s third novel recounts the love affair between shlumpy Lenny Abramov, who wants to live forever, and the much younger and emotionally disconnected Eunice Park, who spends most of her time trying to distract herself from what’s going on around her by “emoting” and chatting with friends on a mobile “apparati.” When the world comes crashing down around them in a civil war that pits the poverty-stricken middle class against the corporate conglomerates that control the world’s resources (and judge people’s worth by their credit scores), they learn the difference between love and infatuation. What sets this love story apart is not its characters, which are mostly difficult to like, or the elements of its love story, which are somewhat predictable. It’s the on-the-brink-of-apocalypse world in which they live – a world just different enough from the one we live in to make it seem foreign and futuristic but just similar enough to keep this novel from veering off into the realm of science fiction. Disturbingly absurd – but even more disturbingly realistic. –Erin Sullivan
5) Bret Easton Ellis, Imperial Bedrooms (Knopf)
The sixth novel from erstwhile Brat Pack-er Bret Easton Ellis is, like life itself, brutish and short. In less than 200 breezy and blustery pages, Less Than Zero anti-hero Clay is resurrected as a callous, narcissistic screenwriter who can go peccadillo-for-peccadillo with old comrades-in-arms Julian (pimp), Trent (agent), Blair (desperate housewife) and Rip (cutthroat underworld wraith). They’re older, but no wiser. Alternately benign and nightmarish – sometimes the contrast between extremes can jolt – Bedroom boils down to a three-way tug of war and a denouement that resembles the beginning of one character’s season in hell. Worse: This cruel, nasty piece of work insists that readers dismiss Zero as total subjective fiction. –Raymond Cummings
6) David Mitchell, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet (Random House)
David Mitchell’s novel of Western traders scrambling for purchase in cloistered 18th-century Japan is too thoughtful and wrongfoots too many standard plot expectations to pass as a rollicking historical novel, despite its page-turner ending. The matter-of-fact adventures of the titular bookkeeper and various other Dutch and Japanese characters remain beguilingly elusive as fodder for a literary term paper. Perhaps, like the historical Dutch trading enclave of Dejima, where it’s set, the novel is best regarded as a narrow portal where the two worlds meet and mix with ultimate success. –L.G.
7) China Miéville, Kraken (Del Ray)
Sure, the plot is a little out there and not altogether logical. And yes, Miéville’s dense prose can be annoying, as if he enjoys obfuscation. But it’s a brilliant mess of a book. Reading Kraken is sort of like visiting the Mütter Museum on hallucinogens: an evil talking tattoo, a giant god squid that engenders a cult, a pair of villains that can fold their victims like origami, a glass jar that rolls around and kills people. It’s the kind of enthralling book that compels you to stay up late reading until the heavy tome falls on your face. –A.A.
8) Anton Zeilinger, Dance of the Photons: From Einstein to Quantum Teleportation (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
There are few able and reliable guides to quantum mechanics out there, which may have less to do with understanding the freakishness of the field than possessing the creativity to explain it. Feynman’s QED theory, which reduced the linear algebra and imaginary values of quantum electrodynamic’s grueling math to simple addition of arrows, was a near-perfect guidepost. Dance of the Photons is another, attacking the phenomenon of quantum entanglement – a sort of instantaneous communication that defies Einstein’s theories – not from the perspective of a teacher but from that of a student presented with just evidence, left to figure out the concept for himself. Brilliant. –Michael Byrne
9) Gary Indiana, Andy Warhol and the Can That Sold the World (Basic Books)
It’s easy to take the idea of distorting, quadrupling and assigning eye-grabbing colors to celebrity portraits for granted – in 2010 it’s just one more facet of the catch-all multimedia whirlwind we all live in and click through. But Andy Warhol invented, or legitimized, the concept, as well as the idea of line drawings of commonplace objects as overpriced high-art objects and assembly line-generated paintings and silkscreens blessed by the artist’s pen. In Can That Sold the World, Gary Indiana offers a guided tour of Warhol’s neurotic youth, conventional advertising career, homoerotic early art career, wildly feted run as a pop art master, plateau into route repetition and ultimate decline. It’s a work as unsentimental and fastidious as its subject. –R.C.
10) Gilbert Hernandez, High Soft Lisp (Fantagraphics)
With Love and Rockets, the three Hernandez brothers didn’t just help fuel the 1980s underground comics explosion, they became the Guy de Maupassants of late 20th-century and early 21st-century Mexican-American life – especially the lives of women. And in High Soft Lisp, Gilbert Hernandez takes the shorter stories of one of his L&R peripheral characters, Rosalba “Fritz” Martinez – the half-sister to his bombshell heroine Luba – and expands her tale into the sort of high melodrama and sweeping adventure that Douglas Sirk might’ve cooked up if he ever set his sights on an alterna-Latina punkette who grows up to be a fearlessly intelligent, sexually uninhibited B-movie actress, serial monogamist and psychiatrist. Heartbreaking and human. –Bret McCabe
A version of this story first appeared in Baltimore’s City Paper.