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 wednesday: Problematic Faves

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.

November 8th: Problematic Faves: Characters you don’t want to love, but you can’t help liking.

Before I get to my list, I just want to talk for a second about how much I hate the word ‘problematic’.  It’s a pointless catch-all word people use when they don’t want to think too critically about the things they’re criticizing.  I think it’s so important to engage critically with media, but I find that ‘problematic’ barely skims the surface of the issues that lie beneath it.  We shouldn’t be afraid of words like ‘racist,’ ‘sexist,’ ‘transmisogynistic’ – these issues are too important to write off with the lexical equivalent of a vague wave of the hand.

Moreover, I cannot tell you how much I hate the false equivalence between fictional characters and real people.  I feel like there’s a lot of very bad discourse on the internet which condemns the actions of fictional characters (and worse yet – condemns people who consider themselves fans of these characters) as though they were real.  Here’s the thing – flawed characters make good stories.  What’s the point of reading about a group of faultless individuals?  Stories need conflict, they need characters who exist in moral grey areas.  Characters like Snape and Dumbledore are fantastic examples – you don’t need to ‘like’ these characters (I sure don’t), but before dismissing everyone who does, consider that ‘I like Snape’ does not necessarily mean ‘I condone every one of his actions, and if he were a real person I’d like to shake his hand and take him out to dinner,’ but rather, ‘in a fictional universe populated by people who are mostly Good or Bad I enjoy examining the nuances of this character who exists somewhere in the middle, whose ambiguous loyalties provided a stimulating element that the Harry Potter series would be rather lacking without.’

So with all that said, I love ‘problematic’ characters.  I love books about horrible people.  I love fiction that digs into human imperfections.  Here are some problematic faves who I embrace, whose narratives would be nothing without these characters’ fascinating flaws.

41cigepew5l-_sy344_bo1204203200_Henry Winter (The Secret History by Donna Tartt).  I could easily have comprised this list entirely of characters from The Secret History, but if I had to choose just one, I have to go with Henry.  Henry Winter is one of the most intriguing characters from anything I’ve ever read.  The fact that he’s a murderer barely scrapes the surface of his faults, and yet….. The Secret History would be nothing without his evil genius propelling the story forward.  From the second he’s introduced, how utterly frustrating and enigmatic and ruthless and unknowable Henry Winter is becomes one of the most compelling things about this book.

29441096Ryan Cusack (The Glorious Heresies by Lisa McInerney).  Ryan Cusack begins this story as a teenage drug dealer, and it only gets worse from there… but still, he breaks my heart.  What The Glorious Heresies does so exceptionally well is depict the nuances of inter-generational crime and poverty in Ireland – how it’s such a difficult cycle to break.  Ryan finds himself right in the middle of that, striving to be a good person and only failing because his socioeconomic status is preventing him from succeeding.  Add that to That Thing that we find out happened to him at the end of the novel, and it’s no wonder he’s so messed up.  But never beyond redemption.

22299763Kaz Brekker (Six of Crows/Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardugo).  Kaz is the leader of a ruthless gang, driven singularly by a need for revenge that stems from a tragic childhood.  Though he has a reputation for being monstrous, the more Leigh Bardugo reveals about this character, the more we discover how tragic circumstance has made him the way he is.  The softer side he shows with Inej also makes it difficult to utterly condemn him as heartless.  I have to say, I have such a weakness for characters who lash out or pull up a wall around themselves only because they’re hurting – from the minute Kaz was introduced I knew he was going to be my favorite, and even had the thought ‘I’m probably not supposed to like this character at this point before I reach the tragic backstory, am I.’

33253215Julian Woodbead (The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne).  I was initially going to choose the novel’s protagonist, Cyril Avery, but I’m writing this post rather late and Chelsea already did a great job writing about Cyril, so I’m going to instead choose Cyril’s best friend and the object of his affections – Julian.  Julian is ostensibly awful.  He’s a bit of a womanizer, he doesn’t really care about anyone but himself, and yet, he’s so funny, so charismatic, you can’t help but to fall a little in love with him the way Cyril does.  The real strength of The Heart’s Invisible Furies is how simultaneously hilarious and aggravating all of the characters are, and Julian is such a good example of Boyne’s brilliance in this regard.  If Julian were a ‘better’ person, this book wouldn’t be what it is: such a startling reflection of life’s imperfections.

752900Medea (Euripides/classics, Bright Air Black by David Vann).  In one of the most harrowing climaxes in literary history, Medea murders her children.  So.  I don’t think we’re gonna get more problematic than that.  But to write off her character as a monster is to entirely miss the point of how tragic this character is – she leaves her home and betrays her family to help Jason, who she falls in love with, only in turn to be betrayed by him.  She’s wild and ruthless but not utterly soulless, which is the most haunting thing about this character.

Who are some of your problematic faves?  Comment and let me know!

book review: The Heart’s Invisible Furies by John Boyne

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THE HEART’S INVISIBLE FURIES by John Boyne
★★★★★
Hogarth Press, August 2017

This book wasn’t perfect, but then again, the books I rate 5 stars rarely are. But I loved it. I loved it, I loved it, I loved it. I can’t remember the last time I read something that managed to be both wickedly funny and devastating, often at the exact same time.

The Heart’s Invisible Furies is a sweeping epic about the life of a gay man growing up in twentieth century Ireland. The story begins with Cyril’s mother, Catherine Goggin, being denounced by her village church for becoming pregnant at 16 and forced to relocate to Dublin. Deciding she can’t raise the child alone, Catherine gives Cyril up for adoption to a very odd couple who constantly remind him (in a surprisingly humorous way) that he’s “not a real Avery.” The closest companion that Cyril has is his friend Julian, whom he loves and idolizes in a way that he’s forced to downplay as the two grow up together.

This is an ambitious novel which spans about seventy years, addressing themes of sexuality, religion, the hypocrisy of the Irish Catholic church, as well as how attitudes change over time. As a protagonist, Cyril is incredibly flawed – he makes arguably unforgivable mistakes, but never out of malice; always out of a desire to find his place in a society that refuses to accept him. Despite the absurd humor, at its core this is a very sad story that actually moved me to tears more than once.

Much like The Glorious Heresies, another fantastic contemporary Irish novel that I’d highly recommend, The Heart’s Invisible Furies subtly makes use of fate as a prominent theme. Characters show up in each other’s lives with a regularity that stretches coincidence, so fair warning, you’re going to need to suspend your disbelief early on. But this is ultimately a story about how Cyril and Catherine come to find one another – you learn in the first few pages that they eventually reconnect, so it’s always a question of when and how – and though neither is actively searching for the other, they weave in and out of each other’s lives in unexpected ways, never knowing the other’s identity. It’s such a moving saga of these two flawed but strong individuals living with their regrets and the mistakes they’ve made.

I’ve seen some reviews that criticize this book’s length, and it’s a fair point. I thought the pace was fantastic until the last hundred pages or so, which I thought could have been condensed. But for the most part, I absolutely flew through this – I couldn’t put it down and I was sad when it was over. This was my first John Boyne novel, but it will certainly not be my last.

I chose this book as my August Book of the Month selection.  If you’re interested in checking out this great subscription service, use my referral link!