Favorite Books of the Decade

This is a nerve-wracking list to post because even at the very last second I keep rearranging it and swapping books out – but I’m going to commit to what I have right at this moment.  So, here we are: my favorite books of the decade.  Note the use of ‘favorite’ and not ‘best’.  I am not here to argue about the objective merits of any of these.  Such is the nature of favorites.

Unlike my ‘favorites of the year’ lists, where I include books I read in that year regardless of publication date, here I am only going to focus on books published in the last decade.

Also, if you’re wondering at all the new releases on this list – I think it has less to do with recency bias and more to do with the fact that I just did not read very much between 2010 and 2015.  Mystery solved.

Also, doing the Lit-Hub thing and listing some titles that just barely missed out on making this list: Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko, Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon, Tender by Belinda McKeon, Human Acts by Han Kang, Say Nothing by Patrick Radden-Keefe.

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10. The Idiot by Elif Batuman

“Even though I had a deep conviction that I was good at writing, and that in some way I already was a writer, this conviction was completely independent of my having ever written anything, or being able to imagine ever writing anything, that I thought anyone would like to read.”

Books like The Idiot are why I bother with literary prize lists.  The summary didn’t particularly grab me (a girl goes to Harvard – that’s it, that’s the book) and if it hadn’t been shortlisted for the Women’s Prize I would have not only missed out on a book that ended up being an instant favorite, but on a protagonist who I relate to more than any other I have ever read.  This book isn’t for everyone – it’s slower than slow, there is no plot to speak of – but the subtle comedy and the careful construction of Selin’s character as an observer within her own life completely won me over.  I still think about this book constantly, and Selin felt so real to me that I occasionally find myself wondering how she’s doing.

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9. The Pisces by Melissa Broder

I’d been wrong about death … There was no gentle escape. When I had taken those Ambien in Phoenix I thought there was a peaceful way to just kind of disappear. But death wasn’t gentle. It was a robber. It stole you out of yourself, and you became a husk.

I have never read another book where a female protagonist is allowed to be as imperfect as Lucy, the heroine of Melissa Broder’s literary mermaid erotica.  Again, not a book for everyone.  This isn’t a particularly nice or pretty book; it’s gritty, dirty, ugly, and perverse, and I loved every second of it.  This book has more incisive things to say about the current state of love and romance than anything else I’ve read, and it’s also one of the most daring and original things to be published this decade.  That alone would earn it a spot on this list, but my own personal respect and admiration for what Broder achieves here definitely surpass its objective achievements.  I would really love for more people to give this book a chance.

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8. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel

“WHAT WAS LOST IN THE COLLAPSE: almost everything, almost everyone, but there is still such beauty.”

And now, on the contrary, a book that does seem to work for everyone.  The fact that it made it onto this list despite not ostensibly being my kind of book really says it all.  Set in the near future, Station Eleven explores the aftermath of an epidemic that mostly wipes out civilization.  But it’s not a hard sci-fi action novel – it’s more ‘soft apocalypse’ and ultimately a love letter to the humanities.  I’ve read this twice (a big deal for me, I rarely ever reread) and both times I loved every second of it.  It’s an unpredictable, achingly hopeful book that never tips the scale into saccharine.  That’s so difficult to achieve.

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7. Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

“Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”

I often think of this as the perfect book.  What Celeste Ng manages to achieve in under 300 pages is astounding.  She weaves together a compelling mystery with a hard-hitting social commentary, balancing the macro and the micro, charting the ways in which the intersections of racism and sexism are ultimately the undoing of one family in 1970s Ohio.  It’s clever and heartrending and it ultimately shattered me.  If you were underwhelmed by Little Fires Everywhere, this book still deserves your attention.

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6. The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney

“It’s a funny thing that the ritual is more powerful than the killing. What’s tied to the earth is less important than what’s tied to the heavens. You’re crosser about my language in the confessional than you are about the fact that I killed a man.”

Lisa McInerney writes the literary Irish soap operas of my dreams.  The Glorious Heresies is riotously funny, but this saga of drug deals and prostitution and murder also got under my skin and broke my heart.  I think Lisa McInerney writes some of the most compelling, multifaceted characters of all time, and I just adore her candid, vulgar, lyrical prose style.  I also think Ryan Cusack is one of the best protagonists I’ve ever read, and I sincerely hope McInerney continues his story into a third book.

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5. Burial Rites by Hannah Kent

“Now comes the darkening sky and a cold wind that passes right through you, as though you are not there, it passes through you as though it does not care whether you are alive or dead, for you will be gone and the wind will still be there, licking the grass flat upon the ground, not caring whether the soil is at a freeze or thaw, for it will freeze and thaw again, and soon your bones, now hot with blood and thick-juicy with marrow, will be dry and brittle and flake and freeze and thaw with the weight of the dirt upon you, and the last moisture of your body will be drawn up to the surface by the grass, and the wind will come and knock it down and push you back against the rocks, or it will scrape you up under its nails and take you out to sea in a wild screaming of snow.”

This book seamlessly combines my three favorite genres (literary fiction, historical fiction, mystery) into something that manages to be compelling, informative, and infinitely moving.  Burial Rites tells a fictionalized version of the true story of Agnes Magnúsdóttir, the last woman to ever be sentenced to death in Iceland in 1830.  Kent’s Agnes is fallible and vulnerable, and the journey she undergoes in these pages is unforgettable.  The ending of this book broke me.

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4. Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney

Gradually the waiting began to feel less like waiting and more like this was simply what life was: the distracting tasks undertaken while the thing you are waiting for continues not to happen.

No other contemporary writer possesses Sally Rooney’s uncanny ability to balance the internal and the interpersonal in such an insightful way.  In my review I called this book “stupidly good” and I stand by that.  The amount of startlingly incisive self-reflection in these pages had me spellbound.  (In my opinion, it’s much stronger than Normal People.)

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3. Milkman by Anna Burns

“The day Somebody McSomebody put a gun to my breast and called me a cat and threatened to shoot me was the same day the milkman died. He had been shot by one of the state hit squads and I did not care about the shooting of this man. Others did care though, and some were those who, in the parlance, ‘knew me to see but not to speak to’ and I was being talked about because there was a rumour started by them, or more likely by first brother-in-law, that I had been having an affair with this milkman and that I was eighteen and he was forty-one.” 

I will never forget watching the broadcast of the 2018 Booker winner announcement, not even bothering to be nervous on Anna Burns’ behalf, so confident was I that Milkman was going to win, which it so obviously did.  This lyrical, violent evocation of the Troubles is a dense read, but such a worthwhile one.  I think it’s one of the most impressive literary achievements of the decade.  And the passage about the color of the sky is something I will never forget.

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2. The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

“Long before we discovered that he had fathered two children by two different women, one in Drimoleague and one in Clonakilty, Father James Monroe stood on the altar of the Church of Our Lady, Star of the Sea, in the parish of Goleen, West Cork, and denounced my mother as a whore.”

John Boyne may be annoying on Twitter, but he is also regrettably one of my favorite writers, and The Heart’s Invisible Furies is one of my favorite books that I have ever read.  This book completely swept me away – I read this 600 page epic in under a week and it brought me to tears a grand total of three times, which I think is a record for me with a single book.  The balance of comedy and tragedy that Boyne strikes in this book is nothing short of masterful.

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1. A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

“‘I’m lonely,’ he says aloud, and the silence of the apartment absorbs the words like blood soaking into cotton.”

There was never any competition.  This book held me captive for the three days it took me to read it, and hardly a day goes by now when I don’t think about it.  I’ve never had a more viscerally painful and yet cathartic reading experience and I will never forget this book and these characters for as long as I live.

So there you have it, my 10 favorite books of the decade!  What are yours?

top 5 tuesday: Favorite Quotes

Top 5 Tuesday is a weekly meme hosted by the fantastic Bionic Bookworm.  This week’s topic:

OCTOBER 17 – Top 5 book quotes

Narrowing down this list PAINED ME so think of these as my top 5 book quotes at this exact moment in time (8:54 pm on a Monday in October), because in ten minutes I’m sure I would have chosen a different selection.  Also I’m not going to add my commentary to these, I’m just going to let them speak for themselves, but if there’s anything that needs clarifying or if you’re curious as to why any of these struck me, do let me know.

31548“It is an illusion that youth is happy, an illusion of those who have lost it; but the young know they are wretched for they are full of the truthless ideal which have been instilled into them, and each time they come in contact with the real, they are bruised and wounded. It looks as if they were victims of a conspiracy; for the books they read, ideal by the necessity of selection, and the conversation of their elders, who look back upon the past through a rosy haze of forgetfulness, prepare them for an unreal life. They must discover for themselves that all they have read and all they have been told are lies, lies, lies; and each discovery is another nail driven into the body on the cross of life.”

– W. Somerset Maugham, Of Human Bondage


michaud-the-subversive-brilliance-of-a-little-life-320“Now he got out of bed and wrapped his blanket around himself, yawning. That evening, he’d talk to Jude. He didn’t know where he was going, but he knew he would be safe; he would keep them both safe. He went to the kitchen to make himself coffee, and as he did, he whispered the lines back to himself, those lines he thought of whenever he was coming home, coming back to Greene Street after a long time away – “And tell me this: I must be absolutely sure. This place I’ve reached, is it truly Ithaca?”- as all around him, the apartment filled with light.”

– Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life


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“If you show someone something you’ve written, you give them a sharpened stake, lie down in your coffin, and say, ‘When you’re ready’.”

— David Mitchell, Black Swan Green

 

 


harper-perennial-edition“I saw my life branching out before me like the green fig tree in the story. From the tip of every branch, like a fat purple fig, a wonderful future beckoned and winked. One fig was a husband and a happy home and children, and another fig was a famous poet and another fig was a brilliant professor, and another fig was Ee Gee, the amazing editor, and another fig was Europe and Africa and South America, and another fig was Constantin and Socrates and Attila and a pack of other lovers with queer names and offbeat professions, and another fig was an Olympic lady crew champion, and beyond and above these figs were many more figs I couldn’t quite make out. I saw myself sitting in the crotch of this fig tree, starving to death, just because I couldn’t make up my mind which of the figs I would choose. I wanted each and every one of them, but choosing one meant losing all the rest, and, as I sat there, unable to decide, the figs began to wrinkle and go black, and, one by one, they plopped to the ground at my feet.”

— Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar


51yqc21t3nl-_sy344_bo1204203200_“He stood between death and life as between night and morning, and thought with a soaring rapture, ‘I am not afraid’.”

— Mary Renault, Fire From Heaven

 

 

 

What are your favorite quotes and what did you think of mine??  Comment and let me know!

top 5 wednesday: Favorite Angsty Romances

Top Five Wednesday was created by Lainey from gingerreadslainey and is currently hosted by Sam from Thoughts on Tomes. Check out the goodreads group to learn more.

March 22nd- Favorite Angsty Romances

This is a great topic, but it’s a bit tricky since I don’t read the romance genre. I don’t think I ever have. Actually, that’s a lie. When I was younger, my family used to rent a cabin by a lake in upstate New York for a week every summer, and the only book in that entire cabin was some tawdry 80’s historical romance novel, which my best friend and I found absolutely hilarious for some reason, so every time we saw it we’d read random passages out loud to each other. This was the beginning and end of my career as a romance reader.

But I still wanted to see if I could come up with 5 within the genres that I do read, which it turns out I can! Because let’s be real, while I may not be much of a romantic, I love angst.  So here we go…

41cigepew5l-_sy344_bo1204203200_The Secret History by Donna Tartt (Francis Abernathy & Charles Macaulay): Though far from perfect, this is probably one of my top 5 all-time favorite books. I was fascinated by the dynamics between this group of characters, but there’s one relationship in particular that stands out to me, that I couldn’t get out of my head for weeks after reading.  Francis/Charles is a miserable, unrequited pairing – Francis is in love with Charles, who’s in love with someone else (spoilers!), who won’t even fully acknowledge his bisexuality, who only agrees to have sex with Francis when he’s had too much to drink.  Francis is my favorite character in TSH, and I have to admit, in fiction I’m really drawn to this particular self-destructive dynamic where a character knowingly embarks on a relationship that isn’t going to end well.  I feel like this relationship isn’t even examined in the novel to its full potential, and I can’t help but to try to fill in the gaps in my mind, about how they were first drawn to each other, about what they might be able to become under different circumstances.  Because in so many ways, they’re what the other character needs to be – Francis with his false bravado admiring Charles for his natural charisma, and Charles admiring Francis’ openness about his sexuality.  I find their dynamic far more interesting than any of the endgame pairings in this book.

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A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: I feel sort of weird putting A Little Life on a romance list, because this book is decidedly not a romance. However, there is a relationship in this book – one that I found profoundly, devastatingly, horribly sad and beautiful, and thinking about these two haunts me still. I actually consider the relationship in question a bit of a spoiler since it doesn’t begin until half-way through the book, and until that point it’s a major uncertainty as to whether this relationship will ever happen, so, A Little Life fans, highlight the rest of the sentence to read on (I apologize if you’re viewing this in reader, where the white text doesn’t work)! Also major SPOILERS for the ending, so if you haven’t read this book yet, beware. (Jude St. Francis & Willem Ragnarsson.) The pure depth of the love between these two characters is beautiful and devastating. Their relationship – in all its manifestations, from friendship to romance and everything in between – is horribly, aggravatingly imperfect. And yet. That’s exactly what’s so resonant about this book, and this couple in particular – their love is no less important and no less strong for how difficult it is. MAJOR SPOILER: a particular kryptonite of mine is when two characters are in a relationship and one dies, and the one who’s left behind is the ‘wrong’ one, because they’re the one who’ll have the harder time living without the other. That’s exactly what Hanya did to us here, and I cried my eyes out when Willem died (me!!! I never cry!), not only because I loved him as a character, but because I felt Jude’s loss so acutely. This book destroyed me in every way possible, and the love between Willem and Jude was hugely at the center of the reason why.

11250317The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller (Achilles & Patroclus): I mean, I loved Achilles/Patroclus long before The Song of Achilles came along, but there’s definitely a distinction between their characterization in Homer, and the characters that Miller creates. Some Iliad purists detest The Song of Achilles for exactly this reason – Miller renders Achilles far, FAR more likable than he was ever meant to be, and Patroclus far more helpless. However, if you can look past the liberties Miller takes and enjoy this book as its own separate entity, The Song of Achilles is a beautiful story, and I found myself drawn into her version of Achilles’ and Patroclus’ relationship so fully that I was truly devastated by the ending, even though I knew exactly what was coming.  The Song of Achilles aims to fill in gaps, chronicling Achilles and Patroclus’ relationship from friends to lovers, from a childhood raised in the palace of Achilles’ father to the battlegrounds of the Trojan War.  It’s an epic, timeless romance, and a tragic story of two soulmates who love each other completely.  I mean, even in Homer, their ashes are mixed together so they won’t be apart even in death.  How can you beat that?!

pillars-of-the-earthThe Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (Jack Jackson & Aliena of Shiring): The Pillars of the Earth is such an sweepingly epic story and I can’t help but get caught up in the lives of these characters. And it’s always so devastating when you have two characters who are meant to be together, but it takes them impossibly long to get there. That’s Jack and Aliena in a nutshell, and I adore them. Early on in the book Aliena is sexually assaulted, and so much of her narrative and her relationship with Jack is about recovery, which isn’t by any means fast or simple.  There’s a particular trope I hate where a woman is raped and her true love helps her heal, which is bullshit (in that it often minimizes her trauma and makes it about the male character), but that’s not the way this relationship is written at all.  Aliena’s narrative is largely about personal recovery, and Jack eventually factors into her story; not the other way around.  It’s extremely well written and convincing and at times horribly sad.  I’m really not much of a romantic, but I’ll admit, this line really got me: “She wanted to say, I love you like a thunderstorm, like a lion, like a helpless rage; but instead she said: “I think I’m going to marry Alfred.””  Also highly recommended is the BBC miniseries, with Eddie Redmayne and Hayley Atwell in these roles.

1371The Iliad by Homer (Hector & Andromache): It is a truth universally acknowledged that the single most devastating scene in the Iliad is the one where Hector is saying goodbye to his wife Andromache and infant son before returning to battle.  The tragedy of Hector is that his fate was entirely unavoidable, not because he was fighting for personal glory like Achilles on the other side, but because he was fighting to protect his family.  Also tragic is the fact that one of the last things he says to Andromache is that he’d sooner die than see her become a war prize, which of course is eventually what happens to her (as well as the murder of their son) after his death.  Things were never going to end happily for these two, so it’s that horribly sad inevitability that always gets to me when I’m reading this famous domestic scene between them.  You can’t help but to get caught up in the ‘what if’s, and think about the life they might have had together.

What are some of your favorite angsty romances?  Comment and let me know!