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I read about fifteen novels for every nonfiction title, but out of the 2010 books I read, it was two nonfiction titles that stole the show. So in slow-tease style, I’m starting with the novels.
Next, by James Hynes
I read Next just before moving to Austin, and not only did it paint for me an accurate depiction of my new city, it’s also a hell of a good novel. And funny, to boot. Kevin Quinn is a mid-level editor in Ann Arbor who flies down to Austin for a job interview without telling his maybe-pregnant girlfriend. Planted firmly in mid-life crisis mode and full of an impending sense of doom, Kevin follows an attractive young Asian girl (whom he dubs “Joy Luck”) around the city. While doing so, he reflects on his life in Michigan. This book contains two striking passages—what is probably the best sex scene I’ve ever read, and an ending so stunning and unsettling that to even hint at its contents would be sinful. Let’s just say, this writer has some heavy balls.
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky, by Heidi Durrow
Heidi Durrow’s debut novel is a quick and moving tale about the young survivor of a family tragedy. After the deaths of her mother and siblings, teenager Rachel Morse is sent to live with her grandmother in Portland, where her exotic, biracial looks cause her to stand out more than she’d like to. This book has a great rhythm to it, Rachel’s voice is a compelling one, and the backstory that Durrow slowly fills in is well executed. It’s not the most riveting book you’ll ever read, but it serves as an excellent character study of coming to age as a biracial American.
Great House, by Nicole Krauss
There are those who found Krauss’s novel The History of Love to be gimmicky, but there’s no real gimmick to Great House. Sure, it’s narrated in several different voices nebulously connected by a giant desk that has been around the world and back—but stylistically, it is a more traditional narrative. It’s also among the gloomier novels I’ve ever read. Krauss’s characters all seem on the verge of suicide as they detail their lives of loss, pain, alienation, and writing (several of them are writers), but what keeps them from dragging us into their murky depths is the author’s talent. It is always, always exciting to see what Nicole Krauss is capable of doing with words.
We Take Me Apart, by Molly Gaudry
This book is labeled a “novel(la)” by the publisher, but it’s just as accurate to call it a narrative in verse. In lyrical direct address, the narrator reflects on her mother, her own childhood, and the fairy tales she used to believe in, while setting the groundwork for a reveal that tells us where she is narrating this story from, and why. It’s a book that’s hard to describe. Better to just quote a passage:
What I want is to taste with
deliberation the way a quiet meadow
becomes dimmer after a wetting around the
Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, by Steve Almond
This book is just flat-out fun. Almond shares with us what it’s like to be a Drooling Fanatic (a music obsessive) as he covers his career as a rock critic, spotlights some lesser-known artists, and provides some amusing sidebars like “Ten Things You Can Say to Piss Off a Music Critic.” I could quote a selection from the book … or I could send you here so that you can see Almond do it himself as he explores the lyrics to Toto’s “Africa.” It’s a good book and a quick read. After you’re done, check out my interview with him at Fringe.
The Poetry Lesson by Andrei Codrescu
This was the best 2010 book I read. Andrei Codrescu is rapidly becoming a favorite of mine, and this memoir kept me amused and riveted as he takes us blow-by-blow through the initial Intro to Poetry Writing class of his final semester as a professor. During the nearly three-hour class, Codrescu assigns each of his young pupils a “Ghost-Companion” (a dead poet that the student will take on as a sort of muse), reflects on his heyday of the 60s and 70s, and wonders how he’s fallen so far out of touch with the youth of today. Or has he?
Codrescu’s prose shows a cynical poet at heart. Here he reflects on a visit to a volcano in Hawaii:
There was a sky full of stars overhead and the scent of ginger flowers saturated the brisk air. Die now, I ordered myself. No such luck. Returned to the homeland. Am teaching Intro to Poetry Writing.
Just get this book. It’s a slim volume written by a sadly underrated writer and published by a small press. Do the right thing.
Other 2010 Books worth noting:
The Forty Rules of Love, by Elif Shafak
The Wilding, by Benjamin Percy
The Wake of Forgiveness, by Bruce Machart
When All Our Days Are Numbered, by Sasha Fletcher
For the record, the best book I read this year is Toni Morrison’s 1992 novel Jazz. The moment I finished it I started reading it again, and if not for other literary obligations I would’ve read it a third straight time. Toni Morrison has an alarming amount of talent. I guess there’s a reason she’s won the Nobel and the Pulitzer.