The first book I remember reading this year was an advance copy of Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, handed to me by my friend Amanda. I had a six-month-old baby, and Amanda and I had both, coincidentally, just moved from New York to Portland. I am sure I’d read things in the first six months of my son’s life, but I don’t remember any of them. I think mostly I tweeted and Googled paranoid things late at night. She pressed this book to me and I read it on a car ride out to the Oregon coast, baby napping in his car seat. At first it made me mad, all the theory getting in the way of what I really wanted, THE LIFE OF MAGGIE. She is one of those people for me, writers who I want to cross all boundaries with, writers from whom I ask too much. She makes me want more than, as a reader, I deserve. She already gives us more than we deserve. It isn’t fair. I read about how she put a laminated copy of her Guggenheim fellowship announcement (given to her by her mother) under her son’s high chair to catch everything he tossed, and my heart soared. I got used to the theory, came to love it. I read the book a few times over. Then I read Bluets again. Then I ordered The Art of Cruelty, and was told we already owned a copy. Actually I put it on the stoop before we left New York. It was a galley, I rationalized. But really, that book makes me mad. It’s hard to get into and it isn’t Bluets — this is how unfair I am to Maggie. I always call her Maggie in my mind. Anyway, in my newly regained readerly flush I paid for this book and it’s still on my nightstand. I haven’t been able to get through the first few pages. I am an apostate, I know it. Still, though, I think of this as the year of Maggie Nelson, for the world and, more specifically, for me. She brought me back into loving reading.
I read Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness soon after, the Graywolf one-two punch of 2015, but it just made me want to reread Manguso’s book The Two Kinds of Decay, which is such a mean thing to say, I know. Anyway I did reread it, in the mornings before settling into writing for a few weeks. Reading someone else’s book during the work day feels like the ultimate indulgence to me. It makes me anxious, but then the words, the voice, the confidence (if it’s the right book) soothe it, too. I’m not sure it serves as anything more than a more virtuous, exciting way to procrastinate. Even still: Grace Paley, Nora Ephron, Manguso, they all put the voice back in my head, helped settle the whirling panic and reform it into something more confident and at ease. I felt like they were the band playing me in.
When a certain ferocity was needed, I listened to Sylvia Plath read her own work on Spotify. Afterward, I started reading parts of her journal. Her mundane anxiety about publishing her work, applying to residencies, and walking to the mailbox looking for checks is what made me put it down. Not today, Sylvia. Not today. Same goes for Adrienne Rich’s Of Woman Born. And Paula Bomer’s Baby & Other Stories. I recommend these in a certain state of mind, when you can handle them. It’s important to know when you can’t. This is a skill I’ve yet to master.
If it was the year of Maggie Nelson, for me, it was also the year of Heidi Julavits. She’s “Heidi J” to me and my writer-reader friends, because we refer to her constantly. Her book The Folded Clock came out in earlyish spring and this book and iced coffee were about all I saw on Instagram, and all I cared to see. At first I thought it was the Leanne Shapton cover, but it goes deeper. It’s a book that seems effortless, which means it was brilliantly engineered. The kind of book that makes you happy to have to wait somewhere, because you have it in your totebag; happy to go to bed early so you can sit up reading it. I saw Heidi J read one night at Powell’s and my friend and I left immediately to get a drink. She was so funny, so charming, so effortlessly beautiful (like her writing!), we sat in the car sighing. “Her kids are older right?” Right. She makes me excited to be a decade older, to be more settled into life, to work my ass off and to know myself. This, and the hidden work of the book, is its power.
On the occasion of Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City being published, and a friend texting me photos of random pages of Gornick’s backlist, I said, Fine, and ordered a bunch of her books from Powell’s. I’d read her best book, Fierce Attachments on a road trip a few years ago; I was 30 weeks pregnant and the bookstore owner confessed she was pregnant, too. When she sighed and proclaimed her love for the book as she rung up my purchase, I knew it was brought to me by fate. We became friends and I sent her a box full of baby clothes. I read the rest of Gornick’s books this year like they were the key to something, though none of them touches Fierce Attachments. The End of The Novel of Love felt a lot like a brilliant incisive woman writing on Tumblr, full of the sort of projection and assumption and familiarity that is absent from more traditional criticism. In other words, I loved it. The Situation and the Story was that kind of clarifying reading experience where the clarity might be a delusion but at least you have the confidence, the reassurance, of clarity. Months later I couldn’t tell you what I took from The Situation and The Story aside from that mental cheering and gratitude for a book coming into your life at the exact right time you think you need it (for me, I was finishing a nonfiction book proposal). The Odd Woman And The City itself seemed sharp and funny and a little sad. Did it ever really cohere? Transcend? I’m not sure, but I am grateful to have spent time inside her head.
After that, propelled forward by fate, the final Neapolitan novel from Elena Ferrante was coming out, so I finally GAVE IN and bought the first two books, My Brilliant Friend and The Story of a New Name. My initial reaction was something like, “What is this shit, enough with these dolls!” But then I got sucked into what was one of the most satisfying reading experiences of my life. I finished these books in the course of a few days, stopping only to drive to the bookstore one late afternoon, cursing myself for not buying all of them at once. When I finished all four I was bereft. I was mad at Ferrante. I thought she screwed up the ending. Really, I was mad it was over.
I didn’t read anything for awhile, or nothing memorable. How do you follow Ferrante? After a few weeks of false starts and Googling furiously to try and figure out Ferrante’s secret identity, I found my cure: Barbara Comyns. I knew of her from an Emily Books pick: Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead, brilliantly reissued by The Dorothy Project, and still unread by me. I have learned in my time as a reader that the writers Emily Books publishes will always be the ones people come to be obsessed with, even if it takes, regrettably, a few years. Elena Ferrante! Eve Babitz! Ellen Willis. Eileen Myles. Those are just the people whose names start with E, for fuck’s sake. Renata Adler! Nell Zink! I could go on. Resistance is foolish.
All this to say Barbara Comyns’s Our Spoons Came From Woolworths got me out of my own head and onto the couch for three hours, reading this in one setting after my son went to bed. Her voice is sui generis and I goddamn love her. She reminded me of a thing that Emily Gould — who along with Ruth Curry started Emily Books, and who also not coincidentally wrote the introduction to the edition of the book I was reading — told me once when I was having a crisis of confidence. Okay, a crisis of jealousy. She said something like, with regard to writing, it’s useless to be jealous because, “No one can ever be better than you are at being you.” No one else can be better than Comyns is at being Comyns, that is no one can write like Comyns, so I ordered her book The Vet’s Daughter and inhaled that one, too. I need more.
As the year comes to an end, this is all I want, to read books that aren’t the key to anything except themselves. Mary Gaitskill’s The Mare made me sad and anxious. I am waiting for David Copperfield to come in the mail.
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Critics who produce the same tired titles for these infernal end-of-the-year lists are as useless as austere accountants who refuse to fox trot on the dance floor. They are stiff, unimaginative, uncultured, incurious, and, quite possibly, lousy in bed. They are the literary equivalent of unadventurous tourists who cling to tired maps and who are hopeless with a Swiss Army knife.
The authors who are afforded predictable laurels are not to blame for this. Don’t get me wrong. These folks know how to cut the rug. Paul Murray (Skippy Dies), Yiyun Li (Gold Boy, Emerald Girl), Tom McCarthy (C), Cynthia Ozick (Foreign Bodies), David Rakoff (Half Empty), Adam Ross (Mr. Peanut), David Mitchell (The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet), Matt Taibbi (Griftopia), Paul Auster (Sunset Park) and Marilynne Robinson (Absence of Mind) hardly need any help from me. Chances are that you’re already familiar with these fine titles. As for some “masterpieces,” well, you don’t really need me to tell you that the emperor wears no clothes.
But who needs such unpleasantness! 2010 was a great year in books! This was a hard list to assemble! There were only two books this year that almost made me consider suicide!
The following list represents an effort to identify books that were completely marginalized, modestly outside the radar, or needlessly condemened by certain hatchet wielders who lacked the grace and/or the intelligence to embrace a peculiar magic.
Allison Amend, Stations West – Jewish cowboys, vagabonds, 19th century multiculturalism, and an elaborate storyline covering a good fifty years. It isn’t often when a novelist crams so much enjoyable story into a taut 250 page container. In addition to the book’s telling but unobtrusive historical details (“inexpensive porcelain dishes” delicately placed inside a glass case for a quiet dignity, the newspapers taking so long to deliver the news, et al.), Amend is very careful in giving the reader much to infer. Garfield, for example, is an indolent trainhopper who becomes something of a politco. The reasons behind this unlikely ascent are skillfully delivered: “As the country entered a new century, so did Garfield. He was tired of the raised eyebrows, the barely polite refusals, tired of fighting just to get the same food or service everyone else did. Just because he had a Jewish surname.” Yet remarkably, this book has received scant notice from the book reviewing outlets. Perhaps because it’s too readable to be true.
Toby Ball, The Vaults – “So he leaned against a thick timber that had at one time served as a post for a jetty and with his collar up and hat down inhaled the sweet, moist smoke and felt the cold become a more-interesting-than-uncomfortable sensation on his skin.” That’s probably the type of hyperspecific pulp prose style that’s going to infuriate the Millions readership. The time has come to loosen up. From a worldbuilding standpoint, why shouldn’t we know the origin point of the post? Why shouldn’t we know how someone faces the cold or contends with competing dermal sensations? These may seem flippant questions. But if we can accept this level of detail in William Gibson or Nicholson Baker, then surely we can offer some wiggle room for an engaging novel that somehow manages to squeeze such intriguing sentences into brisk chapters (did I mention that this book moves?) for a high-octane, multiple character story that involves a parallel dystopian America in the 1930s.
Robin Black, If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This – Forget Wells Tower. Robin Black’s marvelous short story collection, which was needlessly ignored by The New York Times and The Washington Post, is very much on the level: far truer to human existence than anything written by that lumbering Young Turk. These subtle and mature stories avoid belabored metaphors and neat conclusions, revealing numerous nuances about the human condition in its careful use of understated language Black knows “the heavy lifting when the conversation sags.” In “A Country Where You Once Lived,” cybersex involves “gasps from behind a curtain of shimmering color blocks.” The striking possibility that humans can surrender to their baser instincts is suggested by “Harriet Elliott”’s narrator sleeping in a bedroom filled with stuffed animals. Some stories are interrupted by terrible accidents, often of the car crashing variety. But these stories don’t just tell the truth; like much great literature, they make a quiet case for perseverance.
Paula Bomer, Baby – These darkly hilarious tales are somewhat reminiscent of Kate Christensen, Iris Owens, and Maggie Estep. Yet Bomer is more willing to investigate that uncomfortable territory between extreme behavior and insanity. In a Bomer story, you’ll find a perverse passage (“She didn’t know what to do. But that was how it was. Babies screamed, you tried all sorts of things, and sometimes, they just kept screaming anyway.”) that makes you ponder why the character hasn’t been arrested for outright neglect. (What “things” did this mother try? And why is her partner so complicit?) Unfortunately, mainstream publishers don’t have the stones to publish such material anymore. Fortunately, Word Riot Press is there to cover the gap.
Jane Brox, Brilliant – In The Journal of American History, Jill Lepore unfurled a Bummer Bertha, suggesting that microhistories, by way of auctorial passion, have little to offer the serious minded. Such a distressingly humorless attitude can be handily answered by Jane Brox’s fascinating book, emerging from a straightforward examination of how artificial light has permanently altered human existence. Before reading this book, I had no idea how difficult it was for astronomers to locate dark patches of the sky. I knew that the end of the curfew had augmented nightlife, but I hadn’t fully considered how swiftly gaslight had superceded candlelight, making such items as theatrical makeup more garish. The common electricity that we now take for granted is a relatively recent phenomenon. Imagine that you’re a farmer in the 1930s who has recently received rural electrification. Now imagine that you’re given the sudden ability to see beyond the circumference of the kitchen table and how this alters your everyday family life. Brox’s book is loaded with such examples. And I include it on this list, with the proviso that you may become as intoxicated by the subject matter as I was: so much so that you will find yourself flocking to the library, seeking the many sources and pondering the vantage point of someone illuminated in 1849.
Andrew Ervin, Extraordinary Renditions – Ervin’s debut novel is one of two Hungary-themed books on this list. I don’t know what it is about Hungary, but maybe the Budapest Tourist Office will explain this obsession to me one day. Extraordinary Renditions was one of those novels (or three interconnected novellas; pick your category!) that made it into my backpack at BEA (I have no recollection of acquiring it; so perhaps it was a plant!) and which I very much enjoyed. Like the Amend and Bomer books, it’s very much the kind of book you don’t see published by a major house anymore. No coverage in The New York Times, nothing in The Washington Post, some coverage in some newspapers. See a trend? Anyway, this book’s about national identity and expatriates running around Hungary. It’s funny, alarming, evocative, and, very often with its internal description, defies its apparent historical setting. It echoes political texts while presenting political folly (and youthful folly). Said folly even extends to the naivete of a celebrated composer of some years, who shuffles the Budapest streets like a young man.
James Hynes, Next – Knowing of my needless difficulties in obtaining review copies from Little Brown, a good friend placed this novel in my hands and urged me to read it. Not only did I finish this tome in one sitting, but I plunged into Hynes’s backlist, discovering the wonderfully twisted book, Kings of Infinite Space. I don’t say this lightly, but James Hynes is very much the real deal. He is as worthy a literary satirist as Sam Lipsyte, Lydia Millet, George Saunders, Jess Walter, and countless others. But you won’t see him in The New Yorker anytime soon. And that is because, from his homebase in Austin, he understands the human condition too well. Hynes knows that what occurs on your way to a job interview is often just as important as whether or not you get the job. The result here is a novel that is both hilarious and revealingly introspective.
Charlie Huston, Sleepless – The prolific and highly enjoyable Charlie Huston has given us some gleefully brutal moments, vampirism afflicting the marginalized, and comic capers involving a crime scene cleanup. But Sleepless signaled an unexpected gravitas and several ambitious steps forward. With its plot set in the daringly recent future (six months from now), with 10% of the population suffering from permanent insomnia and addicted to a massively multiplayer game called Chasm Tide, Huston portrays an increasingly more persuasive world in which life is dictated by the cultural dregs that remain. Where Gary Shteyngart offered little more than expansive (yet enjoyable) detachment with his dystopian epic, Super Sad True Love Story, Huston wants to get at the manner people carry on. Does it come from fatherhood? Some larger sense of responsibility? The ability to withstand horrific torture or loved ones disappearing? Manhood’s certainly part of the game, but the chessboard’s much larger. And Huston only gets better.
Julie Orringer, The Invisible Bridge – This sweeping epic was, at 624 pages, perhaps too much for some critics to take in. One snarky scribbler condemned this book for “feel[ing] birfurcated” without bothering to cite a reason. (Perhaps the events of the Holocaust? Known to unsettle populations and disorder romantic harmony? Just a few wild stabs in the dark.) Such foolish snaps don’t even begin to approximate what Orringer’s magnificent debut novel does. Using beautiful language to depict the near disappearance of an idyllic paradise (“He entered through a floriated wrought-iron gate between two stern figures carved in stone, and crossed a sculpture garden packed with perfect marble specimens of kore and kouros, straight from his art history textbook, staring into the distance with empty almond-shaped eyes.”), this powerful novel is equally unflinching in ilustrating how its colorful cast of characters (including an acrobatic family member) “might grow up without the gravity…without the sense of tragedy that seemed to hang in the air like the brown dust of bituminous coal.” This is a book that approaches unspeakable barbarism with a rare ebullience, feeling neither inappropriate nor unconsidered. It is a call for hope and small acts of resistance. It may be set in the past, but this is very much a novel for our times.
Gary Rivlin, Broke USA – Many flocked to Matt Taibbi’s excellent Griftopia as the high finance expose of the year. But Gary Rivlin’s understated look at predatory lending is also worth a look. The book collects perspectives from every end of the spectrum. There’s Chris Browning, the former manager of a Check ‘n’ Go in Ohio, who was fired because she was required by the higher ups to upsell and lend money to anybody who walked through the door; Martin Eakes, the man behind the Center for Responsible Lending offering a more reasonable APR through his credit union. And then there’s the sordid history of the rapacious corporations that built up their businesses with the refund anticipation loan, disguising the hidden costs of tax preparation. Like Howard Karger’s Shortchanged and John Lanchester’s IOU, Rivlin’s book is vital in understanding some of this nation’s most underreported issues.
Matthew Sharpe, You Were Wrong – Lips are “two fat garden slugs making love.” There is “no worse violation of a soul than hope.” We’re told that “tones can be tough for everyone and were extratough for Karl, who was lately an avid pupil in the urgent remedial project of tones.” Sometimes the reader is subtly addressed. Sometimes not. There is a curious precision to the description in the way the “midafternoon sunbeam entered the house through a bedroom window to the right.” These are just some of the many nonsequitur joys (or planned pleasures?) to be found within Matthew Sharpe’s extremely goofy and very enjoyable novel, which seems to be channeling Flann O’Brien’s madcap spirit.
Scarlett Thomas, Our Tragic Universe – Scarlett Thomas’s subtle efforts to examine the relationship between narrative and life – to say nothing of the omega point – were drastically misunderstood by those who expected another The End of Mr. Y. For this masterful novel — defiantly plotless after the success of Thomas’s previous pageturners — is very much interested in how narrative must rely upon contrivances in order to present life. Beyond this, it dares to portray Meg Carpenter, an intelligent woman whose identity is occluded by the driftless mumbling of her flaccid partner. By offering a protagonist brazenly defiant of reader expectations, Thomas subtly channels Henry James’s Isabel Archer (with Meg, like Isabel, even running into some money), while also demonstrating that the quest for the new often leads to the same old cycles.
Donald E. Westlake, Memory – This lost novel in a drawer, published by Hard Case Crime after four decades of dutiful dust collection, revealed that Westlake was far more than a mystery master. The book’s taut and fatalistic narrative arguably aligns itself with Knut Hamsun’s Hunger and Dostoevsky’s Notes from Underground. And had Westlake pursued more solitary outcasts like protagonist Paul Cole, he may very well have pursued John Banville’s trajectory (ironically, with Banville finding his alter ego, Benjamin Black, in the end). Which isn’t to take away from Westlake’s Dortmunder books or Westlake’s wonderful Parker novels (written under Richard Stark) – all very deserving of praise. Memory confirms that “inferior” genres must be reconsidered by the seemingly discriminating.
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