This year’s list is compromised slightly by the introduction of the Summer Book Club, a totally fun summer project in which I posted about the best books I read each week. Accordingly, I have linked back to reviews of Summer Book Club favourites, rather than repeating myself. However, there are a few new entries here – I got a little bit of reading done even when I wasn’t on holiday!
1. The Signature of All Things: Elizabeth Gilbert’s blockbuster manages to be a thrilling 500-page adventure story about a 19th-century moss expert. It is amazing. Full review here.
2. Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant?: New Yorker cartoonist Roz Chaz has written and drawn one of the finest graphic memoirs ever, about her struggle to care for her aging and loony parents. Will make you cry; will also make you laugh until you fall off the couch. Full review here.
3. Astonish Me: On the surface, a book about ballet, but really a book about the many manifestations of unrequited love. Full review here. Maggie Shipstead is my best discovery of the year; Seating Arrangements also blew my socks off.
4. The Middlesteins: Jami Attenberg’s family saga about how hard it is to love people, especially when they’re intent on destroying themselves. Full review here.
5. The Secret Place: I was surprised not to see this book get more attention – it did not, for example, show up in the NY Times’ top 100 books of the year – but I may be a bit blind when it comes to Tana French. As I’ve said before, I don’t read a lot of mysteries, but she is a consistent exception. This book is one of my favourites of hers, although that may be due to some of my other biases: I love stories about cliques of teenage girls, and have been a sucker for boarding-school stories since I was a child reading Enid Blyton. In this installment in French’s Dublin Murder Squad series, Holly Mackey – whom we first met as a six-year-old in Faithful Place, which I reread immediately after finishing this one – is now a sullen teenager, and she shows up at the police station with information about a year-old cold case, the murder of a boy her age on her school grounds. The Secret Place unfolds over a single day of interrogation, replete with lots of flashbacks. The thing to love most about French’s books is her characters: Holly, her friends and enemies, her father, the police officer she turns to and his belligerent partner are all seductively drawn, and the atmosphere of menace that hangs over the school is due in large part to the very real teenagers within, and the lengths they will go to to be themselves, regardless of what it will do to others.
6. Asterios Polyp: A dreamlike graphic novel about an architect who floats out of his unraveling life and into a job as a car mechanic in the middle of nowhere. Mysterious and moody, it has haunted me ever since. Full (if brief) review here.
7. The Property: I love Rutu Modan’s graphic novels, and this one is no exception. Her bright, colourful, meticulous panels and her sharp sense of humour illuminate challenging subjects: in this case, a woman and her grandmother visit Warsaw on a mission that turns out not to be what the granddaughter expects. Full review here.
8. The Dinner: I sometimes say that I’m no longer capable of enjoying a book that doesn’t have a sense of humour. I’m not sure whether The Dinner contradicts me or not. If it does have a sense of humour, it’s a very bitter one. It’s difficult to talk about the book without giving too much away, and it’s difficult to put my finger on just what’s so wonderful about it, aside from the easy, clean, yet unsettling narrative voice. Perhaps its greatest strength is its ability to tap into the most unappealing thoughts we’ve ever had. For example: imagine you walk into the only ATM in your neighbourhood, to find your path to the cash machine blocked by a sleeping homeless person and the air to be filled with an odour so vile you have to back out the door. What is your first emotional response, the one you then tamp down because you are a good and empathetic person? What if you were the sort of person who didn’t tamp down this response? That’s what this book is about. It’s impossible to put down.
9. Bark: If you’re a reader and also a writer, you already love Lorrie Moore and don’t need to hear too much more about her. Birds of America is for my money the greatest short story collection of the 20th century. Bark is also great. The conceit – that of the various meanings of the word “bark” – was a bit thin to me, but it doesn’t matter; I kept falling over because of her turns of phrase and wry asides, gems like “My brain’s a chunk of mud next to hers” or “It wasn’t he who was having sex. The condom was having sex and he was just trying to stop it.” (I found those by just opening the book open to random pages. It’s astonishing.)
10. The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.: I picked up this book in bookstores a couple of times and put it down again because I thought, Really? We need more books about self-important young male writers dating in Brooklyn? Then I had to go into the hospital for a bit, and for some reason, it struck me as exactly the book I wanted to read. I read the first 100 pages lying in bed waiting for surgery. Then, when I got home, I didn’t pick it up again for several months, until one day I finished a book and didn’t have another new one handy; I plowed through the remainder of it in no time flat. It is the classic problem of the unsympathetic narrator who is revealing truths that may or may not be important – if nothing else, anyone who’s ever been a young heterosexual female artist will recognize Nathaniel and be impressed by Adelle Waldman’s ability to render his inner life so convincingly. I had to admit, once I’d put it down, that I’d really liked this book in spite of myself.
What books did you love this year? Tell me so I can read them!