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?

Best Books of 2018

Mamma mia here we go again.  I’ve read a grand total of 131 books so far this year which far and away exceeds any of my former records, and narrowing this list down to 10 was a little torturous.  But I will say, even though I read so many fantastic books this year, my reading year on the whole wasn’t as strong as the last couple of years have been.  Although I loved each and every one of these books, I’m not sure any of them would make my list of top 10 favorites of all time.  I also didn’t have a definitive #1 favorite, whereas last year East of Eden blew all of its competition out of the water.  I guess this just goes to show that quantity =/= quality.  Who’d have thought it?!

But enough rambling, let’s get into the books.

Honorable mentions, in no particular order, all of which I want to talk about but I feel like a 20+ favorites post would get boring for all of you: The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo by Taylor Jenkins Reid, Ghost Wall by Sarah Moss, The Poppy War by R.F. Kuang, In Our Mad and Furious City by Guy Gunaratne, Tin Man by Sarah Winman, On Chesil Beach by Ian McEwan, The Italian Teacher by Tom Rachman, When I Hit You by Meena Kandasamy, How to be Both by Ali Smith, and My Year of Rest and Relaxation by Ottessa Moshfegh.

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10. Vita Nostra by Marina & Sergey Dyachenko, translated by Julia Hersey.  Look at me starting off my books of the year with fantasy!  Who am I!  But this spot was very well-earned, as Vita Nostra is one of the most singular and spectacular books I’ve read in my life.  It follows Sasha Samokhina, a young girl manipulated into attending a magical school filled with eccentric teachers and incomprehensible lessons.  I was expecting a rather run of the mill fantasy novel, but instead I got something esoteric and darkly horrifying that enchanted me from start to finish.  Full review here.

There are concepts that cannot be imagined but can be named. Having received a name, they change, flow into a different entity, and cease to correspond to the name, and then they can be given another, different name, and this process—the spellbinding process of creation—is infinite: this is the word that names it, and this is the word that signifies. A concept as an organism, and text as the universe.

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9. Dopesick by Beth Macy.  This book is a masterclass in how to fuse the personal and the professional in nonfiction.  Macy treats the subject of the opioid crisis and its innumerable victims with the compassion they deserve, but also remains factual and informative.  I learned so, so much from this book, and it was written in such a starkly compelling way that I didn’t want it to end.  I’d recommend this to absolutely everyone.  Full review here.

Opioids are now on pace to kill as many Americans in a decade as HIV/AIDS has since it began, with leveling-off projections tenuously predicted in a nebulous, far-off future: sometime after 2020.

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8. The Silence of the Girls by Pat Barker.  It has been well documented that I am a pretty big fan of Greek mythology and the Iliad in particular, and that I live for a good retelling.  Pat Barker’s feminist spin on the Iliad proved to be everything I ever wanted and more.  It follows Briseis, a Trojan captive given to Achilles as a war prize, and does a spectacular job at giving voice to the female characters who litter the background of Homer’s epic.  Barker put her own unique stamp on this story while honoring the original to such an extent that I wanted to reread the Iliad (yet again) the second I finished.  Full review here.

Men carve meaning into women’s faces; messages addressed to other men.

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7. The Blood Miracles by Lisa McInerney.  The Glorious Heresies was one of my books of the year in 2017, so it’s with great pleasure that I can say that its sequel also earned a place on my end of year list.  In fact, I think I loved The Blood Miracles even more.  It narrows down the first book’s bird’s eye focus to just one of the main characters, and it happened to be the one character that I was the most invested in, so I was riveted by every single second of this bleak and tragic account of Irish drug deals and gang violence.  Lisa McInerney’s writing just thrills me.  Full review here.

This, like so many of Ryan Cusack’s fuck-ups, begins with ecstasy.

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6. The Pisces by Melissa Broder.  On the surface, this isn’t the kind of book I like.  If you look at how this is commonly shelved on Goodreads you see Romance, Fantasy, and Magical Realism – that should be strike one two and three right there.  But I gave it a try and my god was I glad that I did.  This book was everything I didn’t even know I needed.  Lucy is one of the most unnervingly realistic protagonists I have ever read about, and the thematic depths to which this mermaid erotica novel dove were… unexpected, to say the least.  And it has one of the most unforgettable endings I have EVER read.  This managed to be both hilarious and haunting.  Full review here.

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.

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5. The Idiot by Elif Batuman.  I’m not Turkish-American and I didn’t go to Harvard.  But otherwise, I have never read a book where I’ve seen myself reflected on the page more starkly than in The Idiot.  The simultaneous disillusionment and fascination with academia that characterize Selin’s first year of college were so, so real to me, as was her obsession with the function of language.  This cerebral, plotless work is not something that I would recommend to most people, but I couldn’t help but to feel a very strong connection to it.  Full review here.

“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.”

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4. Asking For It by Louise O’Neill.  This is hands down the best YA novel I have ever read.  It doesn’t patronize its reader or tread lightly with its harrowing subject matter.  In fact, it’s almost viscerally painful to read at times.  Louise O’Neill takes on the subject of rape culture through a criminally under-examined lens, and highlights the fact that victims of sexual assault aren’t always going to be very nice people, they aren’t always going to behave and respond to trauma in one particular way, but they are every bit as deserving of justice and compassion.  This book’s rawness and honesty really struck a chord and I’ve been unable to put it out of my mind since reading it early this year.  Full review here.

They are all innocent until proven guilty. But not me. I am a liar until I am proven honest.

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3. Conversations With Friends by Sally Rooney.  I think Sally Rooney is one of the most perceptive writers working today.  The little observations she makes about human nature are subtle and searing.  Rooney’s character work in both Conversations with Friends and Normal People is just outstanding – she writes about real, ordinary, flawed individuals who I somehow desperately want to read about, despite how real and ordinary and flawed they are, or maybe because of that.  Full review here.

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.

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2. Self-Portrait with Boy by Rachel Lyon.  This is one of the first books I read in 2018, and it has haunted me all year long.  This is probably the best book about art and artists that I’ve ever read, which asks of its protagonist in a startlingly harsh way how much she’s willing to sacrifice to achieve her ambitions.  I just loved everything about this.  The antiheroine is one of the best I’ve ever read, the atmosphere of a Brooklyn neighborhood that I’m quite familiar with was rendered perfectly, there’s this one scene where the protagonist is trying on a dress that was so vivid I will never, ever forget it, and the final sentence made me cry.  Just, read this book.  Full review here.

The very act of recall is like trying to photograph the sky. The infinite and ever-shifting colors of memory, its rippling light, cannot really be captured. Show someone who has never seen the sky a picture of the sky and you show them a picture of nothing.

Still I have to try.

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1. Milkman by Anna Burns.  I mean… it has to be my book of the year, doesn’t it.  I gave it 4 stars and then I changed it to 5 stars; I was sure it was too niche to make the Booker shortlist and then I gradually became convinced that it was going to win.  I would say that this book crept up on me, but that implies past tense and I’m not positive that this book is done with me.  I still think about it constantly, and I think it is one of the most masterful things I have ever read.  This is a stylistic and thematic feat. Full review here.

“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.” 

What was your favorite book of 2018?  Comment and let me know!

Man Booker 2018 Winner – Anna Burns

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Huge congratulations to Anna Burns for winning the 2018 Man Booker with her subtly powerful novel Milkman, which will be published in the U.S. by Graywolf Press in December.

Kwame Anthony Appiah, 2018 Chair of judges, says: ‘None of us has ever read anything like this before. Anna Burns’ utterly distinctive voice challenges conventional thinking and form in surprising and immersive prose. It is a story of brutality, sexual encroachment and resistance threaded with mordant humour. Set in a society divided against itself, Milkman explores the insidious forms oppression can take in everyday life.

I couldn’t believe it – not only did I predict the winner which I think is a first-time occurrence for me, this is exactly the result I had wanted.  I do think that any of the other five would have been perfectly worthy winners – there isn’t a single one that would have made me angry had it won, even my least favorite Washington Black, which I do see the merit in even though I wasn’t crazy about it personally – but I wouldn’t have been excited by any result other than this one.  So, I had a 1 in 6 chance of my 2018 Man Booker journey concluding on a happy note, and I got it.  I’m so thrilled.  I thought Milkman was a quiet powerhouse of a novel, which comprehensively examines the reality of living as a young woman in a community divided by civil unrest, under the constant and pervasive threat of violence.  It’s funny and unsettling and intelligent, with one of the most unique voices I’ve read in anything recently, and I absolutely loved it.  Full review here.

Also, I said this before on Twitter, but I just want to reiterate that this was my first year reading the entire Man Booker longlist, and part of what made it such a fun experience were all the wonderful people I’ve met and the fantastic conversations I’ve had across social media about this year’s list.  So, if we’ve chatted at all about the Man Booker this year, I just wanted to say thank you for making this such a fun endeavor for me.

What did you think of Milkman, and which book did you want to win this year?  Comment and let me know!

book review: Milkman by Anna Burns

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MILKMAN by Anna Burns
★★★★★
Faber & Faber, 2018 (UK)

 

I loved Milkman, but it’s so painfully niche I can’t think of anyone I’d personally recommend it to. Set in an unnamed city that’s probably Belfast in the 1970s, Milkman follows an unnamed narrator who’s believed by her community to be having an affair with a man known only as ‘the milkman,’ who isn’t actually a milkman. Told in stream-of-consciousness prose and set against the backdrop of the Troubles, Milkman doesn’t offer much of a plot, but it does provide a perceptive and intelligent look at a community under duress and constant surveillance.

It also starts with these stellar opening lines:

“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.”

But this book is hard work, I will readily admit that. Though I loved the narrator’s sharp observational commentary, even I found the narrative style painfully long-winded at times. Paragraphs go on for pages; chapters go on for hours; the kind of concentration it takes to really immerse yourself in this novel can be draining. This is not what anyone would describe as an easy read, and I think it’s the kind of book that’s going to fall under the category of ‘I appreciated it but I didn’t like it’ for a lot of people.

This line of thought actually made me reflect on what it means to ‘like’ a book, because I wouldn’t describe my reading experience as ‘fun,’ necessarily, but despite that, I found Milkman incredibly rewarding. Anna Burns deftly crafts a living, breathing community, and paints a portrait of the realities of living in a city torn apart by civil unrest. Rumors and false perceptions dog these characters, and our narrator in particular, who’s considered an oddity, a ‘beyond-the-pale,’ due to the fact that she often reads while walking. In order to fit in in a society like this, every time you leave the house you have to bury a part of yourself, and Milkman incisively and comprehensively examines the toll that takes. I don’t know if I’ve ever read another novel that so expertly evokes the kind of anxiety that comes from the inability to trust your neighbor or even your own family. Characters in this novel operate under a veil of formality that you as a reader want to peel back to reveal their genuine hopes and fears and aspirations, but of course all you’re able to do is mutely watch them navigate social situations while unable to truly express themselves. This book can be infuriating because of that, but it’s supposed to be. There’s also an undeniably feminist undercurrent to the whole thing, as the narrator laments the difficulties unique to women during this time, though it remains a subtle element throughout.

Though it’s ultimately more of a psychological story than a historical one, drawing obvious parallels to any number of totalitarian regimes across history, Milkman does feel firmly rooted in its Northern Irish setting. This is a recognizably Irish novel, from its stream-of-consciousness prose to its pitch-black humor, and there’s no question that that played a huge role in my ultimate enjoyment of it, so above all else I think I’d recommend this to anyone who loves Irish lit and Irish history, but who can tolerate a lack of plot and likes their novels a bit on the philosophical side.

Personally, I’ll be thrilled if this is shortlisted for the Booker, but I also doubt that likelihood as it’s not the kind of novel that’s destined to reach a wide audience – not that the Booker necessarily prioritizes accessibility, but I would just find it unlikely if all five judges are in complete agreement about this one’s merits enough to advance it. But who knows. This had already been on my radar before the longlist announcement, but I’m very happy that it pushed me to read it sooner than I otherwise would have.

EDIT on 10/15: I changed my mind. I think it’s going to win!

More of my Man Booker 2018 reviews:

From a Low and Quiet Sea | The Water Cure | The Mars Room | Snap