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This isn’t a comprehensive list or a ranked one. It is just the five books I read in 2010 that I was the most moved by, think about most often and will likely return to again and again. I didn’t set out to list books published in 2010, but all of them, with one exception, were. I’m fighting the urge to list ten–I read so much wonderful work this year–but am going to stick to five.

(Now I’m thinking about how this is also the end of the decade; what would it be like to list the best books I read in the last ten years?! Off the top of my head, in terms of “life-changing”: the queer theory text that shaped my end-of-college career The Mismeasure of Desire by Ed Stein, the book that contains what’s probably the most affecting writing I’ve ever encountered, The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard, and the first book I came across that seemed like the embodiment of the kind of short stories I aspired to write, Self-Help by Lorrie Moore. To do real justice to a list like that would probably take longer than I care to spend, though, so I’ll let this parenthetical stand and go for my short list from 2010.)

Please leave your favorite, or favorites, in the comments!

1. Room by Emma Donoghue

I just finished this book and then immediately gave it away so I am afraid I probably won’t write a full blog post about it. It’s been on many “best of” lists and for good reason. Narrated by a five year old boy, it’s more sophisticated, heart-wrenching and engaging than you can possibly imagine until you’ve read it. Why give away plot? I read it between the hours of 8am and 1pm two Saturdays ago. All you need is a few hours and you’ll know why it’s so good.

2. Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong

3. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender

4. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

5. Love Medicine by Louise Erdrich

 

When I first heard that Monique Truong’s novel Bitter in the Mouth was about a girl with synesthesia–she tastes words–I was immediately intrigued. Sure, that premise is interesting in its own right, but my interest was piqued because of its surface-level similarity to a book I read earlier this year and adored, Aimee Bender’s The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, which is about a girl who tastes the cook’s feelings in his or her food. I was also nervous–I didn’t want to read a book that attempted something close to, but fell short of, Ms. Bender’s phenomenal novel. My anxiety was proved unfounded, though, when I saw Monique Truong read from Bitter in the Mouth back in September at the Brooklyn Book Festival. The passage she chose was intimate, telling and incredibly beautiful. She was also, I thought, endearingly nervous reading–her voice trembled, adding to the charm of her protagonist, Linda.

Linda recounts this story, which takes place predominantly in her childhood, from a present in which she is thirty, deftly weaving together past and present. The narrative starts when she is seven years old and answers a simple question her father reads in a letter from her soon-to-be best friend, Kelly–“What’s your favorite color?”–with the bizarre answer, “Fire.” Read the rest of this entry »

I’ve been waiting for this collection to come out since I read Danielle Evans’s story “Virgins” in The Best American Short Stories 2008. I can’t remember the last time I was so excited about a story. Obviously I’ve loved other ones before and since, but this story remains special. I wrote about it on this blog in January 2009; I encourage you to check out that entry, but more so, of course, to read it in Ms. Evans’s collection now that it’s finally been released.

Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self lived up to my expectations. The eight short stories contained within it are very contemporary in terms of subject matter and language, very honest, again, in terms of subject matter and language and incredibly moving. Most of the protagonists are young African-American women, although there are a few male narrators.

In the story “Someone Ought to Tell Her There’s Nowhere To Go,” one of these male narrators, Georgie, an army vet recently returned from Iraq, begins babysitting the young daughter of the woman he was sleeping with before deploying. She is now with someone else, a hapless guy who regards Georgie with a humiliating dose of pity. Georgie tells a very stupid lie involving the child, a lie that the reader can see will have disastrous results, but the way Ms. Evans writes it, the whole scenario is inevitable. I so clearly understood why he was making increasingly awful choices, which made the whole thing all the more tragic.

The collections kicks off with “Virgins”–still the highlight–peaks again in the middle with “Someone Ought to Tell Her…” and then ends with, in my opinion, the second best story, “Robert E. Lee is Dead.” In this story, Crystal is a super-smart high school student–the only black girl on the honors track in her highly segregated school. She falls into a friendship with badass Geena who protects her and integrates her into a crowd of black football players and cheerleaders, who accept her because Geena does. ┬áTheir friendship goes through ups and downs; at the end of the story, it is proven at the same time redemptive for one girl and damning for the other.

The second to last story, “Wherever You’re Going, There You Are,” wasn’t overall completely successful, I thought–it seemed to be trying to mash together two different stories. Often, that works, even in this book–the stories support and elevate each other. In this case, though, the lesser story never developed enough to mean much in its own right. But, the central relationship in the story, between a twenty-five year old woman and her fourteen year old cousin, Chrissie, was deep, complicated and cause for Ms. Evans to write this insanely brilliant, hilarious paragraph, which I will reprint here in closing. From page 180:

Maybe I’ve kind of freaked her out, because somewhere north of Columbia we pass a Friendly’s, and she gets all excited about it. Even though we’re nowhere near Richmond, I agree to stop when she asks. She’s dropped the diet stuff, at least, but if you’ve ever seen anything more disturbing than a kid eating a Reese’s Pieces Happy Face Sundae after you’ve just explained to her how to give a proper blow job, I don’t want to hear about it.

There you have it! If you have any readers on your Christmas gift list, Before You Suffocate Your Own Fool Self would look excellent under the tree.