One favorite book I’ve read all year? Impossible. But when I think it over, I do see a trend in the books I’ve most enjoyed in 2010. This probably says way too much about my year, but I have delighted most in narratives peopled with characters who have come undone in some fashion, be it by history, by the failing of their bodies or minds, their screwed up finances. These characters are negotiating how to remain in their own skins, or they are doing what they can to unzip their hides, step out of their pelts.
Or they are figuring out how to come undone alone. Marisa Silver’s story collection Alone With You was one of my favorite reads this year. I admire all of Silver’s novels—The God of War was one of my favorites of 2008—but her stories go even deeper into the vast terrain of human longing. My favorite story in the collection is the title piece, which gets into the head and heart of someone dealing with mental illness, who, “has come to understand that identity is a porous thing, an easily felled house of cards.” Like the keen way Charles D’Ambrosio’s stories delve into the pain of that loss of self, this story—the whole assemblage—works with the backdrop of family, motherhood in particular, and the result is a stunning collection, sad in all the best, thinking ways.
Dear Money, Martha McPhee’s fourth novel, was a favorite for many reasons, one of them being that writing about money has always seemed to me to fall under the purview of men. Well, McPhee goes at it whole hog with her character, India Palmer, a financially strapped writer married to a visual artist who is more concerned with his work than financial security. (Here is where I must confess: I am a financially strapped writer married to a visual artist.) With the help of a mentor, India is transformed Pygmalian-style from midlist writer into a Wall Street wizard (is that even a term?) and McPhee manages to realistically remodel this woman—what she wants, what validates her, what grants her power—while bearing miraculous witness to the financial crisis. The book, which is also an investigation of what it means to want, takes no prisoners and it ends terrifically.
Switching gears entirely, I found An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken, published in 2009, to be one of my more exquisite, if difficult reads this year. This is the story of the author’s experience giving birth to a stillborn child. I have never not admired anything McCracken has written and I imagine I will always love whatever she offers up, but what I admired most about this memoir was how she put order to her devastating experience. What happened leading up to discovering her child would not live, and the after effects of that shattering moment of discovery is quite miraculously contained in these few spare pages. McCracken’s ability to convey that experience—convey grief, convey hope, convey despair, convey relief, convey unspeakable want—all the facts and emotions that accompany terrible loss, whatever that may be—is breathtaking.
There were many other books read and loved: Matt Bondurant’s utterly gripping The Wettest County in the World, in which Sherwood Anderson, here an investigative reporter, chronicles the story of these three distinct brothers, the author’s kin, who have been distilling and distributing moonshine in Prohibition-era Virginia. I also re-read The Book of Daniel, by E.L. Doctorow, which to my mind is one of the most perfect novels on earth, one written from the fictionalized and incredibly wacked out and necessary point of view of the Rosenberg’s—as in Ethel and Julius’s—son. It’s about the end of the American old left and start of the new, about a family and a country undone but their respective histories. And Hyatt Bass’s The Embers, also about a family in crisis, negotiating how to stay knit together after a death in the family threatens to unravel them. Which led me to what I am embarrassed to admit is the first time I’ve read A Death in the Family by James Agee, a novel that gives terrific insight into how we think during a moment of tragedy.
Who hasn’t been unmoored? Each of these characters in these terrific books in some way is granted a new beginning. It’s not all unicorns and daffodils, to be sure, but there is something gained here after loss. Always. Which feels very promising for my favorite books of 2011…
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