Well-Read in 2010: Books (2010 edition)

Books I Liked in 2010 (Part 2: 2010’s Books)

Posted by Tobias Carroll

And here, following last week’s list, are thoughts on the eight books released in 2010 that affected me the most. If they had anything in common, it’s a tendency to stay lodged in my head, whether by tapping into a relevant anxiety or finding something even more primal to evoke. They all haunted me, in their own way; they still do.

Sam Lipsyte, The Ask
Jami Attenberg, The Melting Season
Here’s my dilemma: what I really want to do is find a non-intrusive way to talk about middle-class economic anxiety and, more specifically, how it looms large in both of these novels, and yet how neither of them feels especially like the sort of social novel in which one might expect to find such things. The Ask is an academic comedy of manners; The Melting Season is about escape and redemption and community. And sections of both are hilarious: Lipsyte’s descriptions of unexpected breastfeeding; Attenberg’s inclusion of one character’s less-than-satisfactory encounter with cosmetic surgery. But as much as I want to volley out the term “comic novel” to describe both, there’s white-knuckle fear to be found in both, and it’s what helps make both resonate long after their stories have come to an end.

Lindsay Hunter, Daddy’s
In all honesty, Daddy’s would be on here even if the book consisted of the story “Kid” — about a sex-obsessed teenager who encounters a pregnant woman in a convenience store parking lot — and 150 blank pages. It’s that good — funny and creepy and oddly life-affirming. Thankfully, the rest of the stories to be found in here are also terrific: transgressive and wise, they shape their own geography.

Grace Krilanovich, The Orange Eats Creeps
A hallucination, a horror story, a travelogue, a chronicle of transgression. Grace Krilanovich’s first novel is indescribable and uniquely tactile and brutally evokes a particular subcultural corner, then spins a whole world from it.

Patrick Somerville, The Universe in Miniature in Miniature
When you chart it out, Patrick Somerville’s second collection (and third book overall) probably shouldn’t work. It blends psychological realism with unabashed homages to pulp fiction, veers into dreams, and shifts tones from the impeccably mannered to the heartrendingly honest. And yet it gets inside your head, coming at you from so many angles it’s near-impossible to resist. It’s a haunting book, and its imagery remains embedded deeply in my mind.

Emma Donoghue, Room
I’m tempted to volley out Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time as a reference point here: both are stunning examples of writers exploring trauma through the perspective of a narrator deeply unqualified to be objective. Where Donoghue excels, however, is in the low-key quality of her plotting: certain images and moments that seem minor towards the start of the novel end up returning with a massive emotional impact by the book’s end. And the voice of Donoghue’s narrator, Jack, is pretty much etched into the back of my brain as of now.

Paul Murray, Skippy Dies
First things first: this book made me laugh harder than anything else I read this year; in particular, there’s one character’s riff on Robert Frost that nearly brought me to tears while riding the subway. It’s also broke my heart at least a half-dozen times. Murray’s plotting and thematic juggling is precise, and he seems at times to be engaged in a race with his characters, a game to see whether they can pinpoint the themes that he raises before he moves on to the next invocation.

Justin Taylor, Everything Here is the Best Thing Ever
In the best of the stories in his debut collection, such as “Estrellas y Rascacielos”, Justin Taylor excels at describing the conflict that emerges between tradition and radicalism — specifically, how one reconciles the two. Alternately, if you’ve ever found yourself wondering about the lack of a correlation between political liberalism/conservatism and artistic liberalism/conservatism, you’ll find plenty of thematic food for thought. Taylor knows punk rock and leads off this book with epigraphs from Shakespeare and Lutz and….he pretty much pulls it off.

Alyssa Knickerbocker, Your Rightful Home
This novella charts the sudden end of a childhood friendship, and the lifelong consequences for one of the friends in question. Over the course of its seventy-odd pages, it hones in on a central question: to what extent are we defined throughout our lives by actions we took before we knew the consequences? And the answers it raises, through cycles and decisions good and bad, are thoroughly heartbreaking.

(Not pictured above: The Ask, as my copy is presently lent out.)