I had a hard time identifying my top ten books of the year. In part, this is because I was a tough customer: Being a new mom meant that I read less than last year, and it also meant that a book had to be really good to capture my attention, since my mind was so thoroughly exhausted and entranced by my new baby. So I definitely had fewer books this year that I loved. I had some clear favorites, but then beyond these were a whole bunch of books that I loved but that didn’t necessarily stand out. Choosing from these books to make a nice even “top ten” was hard. I’m sure I could have a whole bunch of “honorable mentions,” but I’ll keep the list a tidy ten.
In The Light of What We Know by Zia Haider Rahman
This book was the best book I’ve read in a long time; I am surprised it didn’t win any awards this year. (See review below.)
Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
What makes this book stand out among the many that I read this year is its voice. The narrator has Tourette syndrome, and his tics are funny and illuminating, often shedding light on the strange sounds of words or their relationships to other words; there’s a poetry to the language of his malady, and I laughed out loud many times while reading this. The novel is a crime novel, which is not really a genre I get excited about, and, I have to admit that I wasn’t as interested in the unwinding of the mystery as perhaps other readers might be, but it was still a remarkable read.
Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem
I liked Motherless Brooklyn so much that I decided to read Lethem’s later novel. This is a bildungsroman of sorts that spans several decades starting in the 1970s in Brooklyn. The protagonist is the white son of counter-culturalists who are some of the first whites to move into the lower-income Black Gowanus neighborhood. Despite his befriending of the hip, biracial son of a great soul singer, the protagonist, Dylan, is bullied and teased for being white. The novel follows his friendship with Mingus as the two delve into comic books, music, graffiti, and sex, and it explores race politics, gentrification, art, and more. And, oh yeah, there’s this little supernatural element thrown in; this fantastical element only lightly affects the plot and in some ways reads more like allegory than anything, but it means that Fortress of Solitude is not just a typical, straightforward coming-of-age novel.
A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers
Aging, struggling Alan Clay finds himself in Saudi Arabia to sell holographic technology to the King. Though he and his associates must wait endlessly to meet with a representative for the King in what becomes a Kafkaesque situation, he still hopes that this sale will stave off financial ruin and help fund his daughter’s college tuition. Clay is the ultimate old-school American businessman: He believed in the promise of entrepreneurship and started his own bike manufacturing company. But times have changed, and now manufacturing is being outsourced, and more and more Americans are unsure how they fit in the changing economy. This is the context for Egger’s novel, which is full of these larger scale ruminations about our social landscape while still being an intimate, sometimes sad, sometimes funny portrait of a man who is very human.
The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach
This book wasn’t much more than just a really good story with developed, interesting characters, but it caught me right off. It helps that I love baseball, in part because it’s such a mental and psychological game, and Harbach’s novel spends a lot of time exploring the psychology of baseball. It’s not just about baseball though, which is why a reader who isn’t interested in the sport could find this compelling as well. It has unconventional (and conventional) romances, delves into father/daughter relationships, and explores college life. The characters are flawed but likeable and realistic, and the story unfolds in interesting ways.
Runaway by Alice Munro
I feel like I need not say much about Alice Munro since she’s so prolific and so widely loved. That said, I sheepishly admit that this was the first complete collection of stories of hers that I’ve read, and I understand the heaps of praise she’s garnered. Her writing is so precise and seemingly simple. Her characters are everyday people–in this collection mostly young women–who are in everyday situations, but she brings such honesty and love to these people that even the simplest story seems a revelation.
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly by Jean-Dominique Bauby
I was deeply moved by the movie based on this book when it came out in 2007. I finally got around to reading the book. The backstory is astounding: Bauby, at the age of forty-three had a stroke. His mind remained alert while his body was almost completely paralyzed, forcing him into a condition called “locked-in syndrome.” He still had control of his eye movements and so used these to write this small memoir: his assistant would run through a list of letters, and when she got to the letter he wanted next, he would move his eye. He tells his story here but does more than that: He ruminates on his memories, contemplates his children, admires beautiful women, all the while working to craft poetry out of a terrible, devastating situation. It’s a beautiful book.
Man V. Nature by Diane Cook
This collection of stories is often surreal and funny: In the opening story, widows are imprisoned while they await a new husband to select them for remarriage. Another story involves the final days for a wealthy man living in his mansion while the waters rise around him as the world ends, and my favorite story, “Somebody’s Baby” is about a neighborhood where a man steals babies. Cook’s voice is deadpan but also observant. Many of the stories feel allegorical and about bigger ideas, though they stand on their own as simply good stories too. In “Somebody’s Baby,” for instance, Linda is distraught about the kidnapping of her brand new baby daughter, and yet the neighbors all assure her that she can just have another, that everyone knows the man takes babies, and there’s really nothing to do but accept it. This story has a sadness to it, not only because babies are being stolen, but because I know that many people live in this world with the reality that their babies could be taken by war, disease, or poverty, and “there’s nothing to do but accept it.”
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters
Frances and her mother have fallen on hard times after World War I and so must take in boarders in order to make ends meet. This is, at first, an uncomfortable situation, but Frances eventually grows close to Lilian, the young wife. Lilian seems to be unhappily married to Len, and their marriage becomes further complicated by Lilian’s growing feelings for Frances, an unconventional young woman. Like The Art of Fielding, this is mostly just an intriguing story with well-developed characters. It has some plot twists, but that’s not really what makes the book (in the way that the plot twists make Waters’s Fingersmith). It also raises interesting questions about class and social convention.
Leaving the Atocha Station by Ben Lerner
See review below.