Five of my favorite books published this year are not just great reads — books you put down reluctantly, not a slog among them — but meaty, serious stories that manage to provide a few laughs while raising controversial questions you'll want to discuss with others, whether they've read the book or not. These issues encompass health care and bioethics, the existence of God, race in America, child-rearing, nature versus nurture, our gluttonous society, marriage, love and adultery. In the case of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, probably the most discussed book of 2010, there's the additional question of what makes a book chat-worthy. Herewith, my guide to some of the best literary conversation starters of 2010, guaranteed to give you something to talk about.
By Jonathan Franzen, hardcover, 576 pages, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, list price: $28
If you want to be in on the cultural must-read of the year, Freedom is your ticket. Jonathan Franzen's first novel since his wildly acclaimed National Book Award-winner The Corrections (2001) has been hyped, praised, debated, disdained and anointed by Oprah for real this time, although oddly passed over for a National Book Award nomination. Much of the heated discussion has been about whether it's really any good. Readers who don't love Franzen seem to love to hate him, but the answer is, yes, it's really good.
Like The Corrections, Freedom dissects the vicissitudes of an unhappy, white, middle-American family, zeroing in on a destructive ongoing love triangle to illuminate problems in contemporary American culture. Personal moral lapses reverberate and spill over, until domestic, political, environmental and global issues all become intricately, impressively commingled.
For Franzen's characters, freedom means, in part, the liberty to make mistakes. But is there such a thing as too much freedom for one's own good, Franzen asks? How can we heed the engraved message his heroine notices during a college visit, "Use Well Thy Freedom"?
So Much For That
By Lionel Shriver, hardcover, 448 pages, Harper, list price: $25.99
If you want ripped-from-the-headlines relevance in your fiction, Lionel Shriver's outraged and occasionally outrageous ninth novel, So Much For That, nominated for the National Book Award, takes on our hurting health care system with a story that gives life to the issues. Shriver's hero is about to quit his detested job and retire to a less expensive Third World country when his wife, an artist who works in metal, announces she has deadly mesothelioma and needs his health insurance. He hunkers down and dedicates himself to her care, but soon learns how inadequate their insurance is. At the same time, his father needs to be moved into a nursing home, and his best friend, whose teenage daughter suffers horribly from a rare degenerative disease, succumbs to a vanity procedure that goes wildly awry. Shriver's graphic descriptions of various grotesqueries rival for shock-and-guffaw value the memorable castration scene in John Irving's The World According to Garp.
There's plenty to discuss here, beginning with penetrating questions about the value of a human life and government's role in health care. What is the ultimate merit of prohibitively expensive, misery-inducing procedures that barely prolong life? Is there such a thing as a better way to die?
By Emma Donoghue, hardcover, 336 pages, Little, Brown and Co., list price: $24.99
Irish-born Emma Donoghue's gripping novel Room, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, may feel like it's been ripped from the headlines, but what's news here is what she does with her heart-stopping story of a kidnapped teenager held captive in a hidden, hermetically sealed garden shed for seven years.
Narrated by the girl's 5-year-old son, whom she has resourcefully provided with a happy childhood while protecting him from her rapist, Room gives twisted new meaning to the notion of a sheltered childhood. Young Jack's skewed point of view and extreme disorientation in the world outside what he calls Room lead to a fresh look at our culture of glut and fascinating questions about childhood development.
More than just a prurient horror story, Donoghue's tour de force probes the intensity and many challenges of motherhood, including the difficult but essential need to carve individual space and identities for both mother and child — rooms of their own.
36 Arguments For The Existence Of God
By Rebecca Goldstein, hardcover, 416 pages, Pantheon, list price: $27.95
Rebecca Goldstein and I became friends in the early 1990s, when I interviewed her for an article about contemporary philosophy and we couldn't get off the phone. Happily, I wasn't alone in finding 36 Arguments for the Existence of God: A Work of Fiction one of the more fun, substantive reads of the year, further grist for the conversational mill. Not just ours, but everyone's. After several darker, less playful books, 36 Arguments recaptures the joyousness (and jokiness) of Goldstein's popular, equally brainy first novel, The Mind-Body Problem.
Her hero, a professor of the psychology of religion, has been dubbed "the atheist with a soul" after the runaway success of his twist on William James' The Varieties of Religious Experience, called The Varieties of Religious Illusion. In lieu of religion, Cass Seltzer worships at the altar of various unworthies, including his first wife, an icy French poet; his risibly pompous academic mentor; and his current girlfriend, a cutthroat economist dubbed "the goddess of game theory." Filled with stunningly clear explanations of seemingly abstruse mathematical concepts and brilliant riffs on the clash between faith and reason, 36 Arguments is an academic satire that deftly mixes heft and hilarity. The 50-page appendix, which cogently spells out 36 arguments (and counterarguments) for the existence of God, is worth the price of the book, and will provide ammunition for endless debates.
The Immortal Life Of Henrietta Lacks
By Rebecca Skloot, hardcover, 384 pages, Crown, list price: $26
Back in 1951, a poor African-American woman named Henrietta Lacks died of cervical cancer in the "colored" ward of Johns Hopkins Hospital. Before she died, scientists harvested tissue from her cervix. Dubbed HeLa cells, these were the first human cells to thrive in culture, spawning an industry that has changed medical research and is worth billions today. These cells have been instrumental in viral and cancer research, as well as in developing the polio vaccine and drugs to treat leukemia, influenza, hemophilia, herpes and Parkinson's disease.
Yet, as science reporter Rebecca Skloot discovered in her intrepid 10-year pursuit of the woman, her family and the ethical issues behind the famous HeLa cells, Henrietta's children continued to live in poverty, unremunerated for their mother's contribution to medical science and unaware of her strange immortality. Approached by scientists to donate their own cell samples for gene research, they were discomfited to learn that parts of their mother had even gone up in space missions to test what would happen to human cells in zero gravity.
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is a remarkable feat of investigative journalism and a moving work of narrative nonfiction that reads with the vividness and urgency of fiction. It also raises sometimes uncomfortable questions with no clear-cut answers about whether people should be remunerated for their physical, genetic contributions to research and about the role of profit in science.
Heller McAlpin is a New York-based critic who reviews books regularly for NPR.org.