A Year of Favorites

Books! I love them. I live for words and I live for stories that can move me and tell me how to exist in this complicated, fucked-up world that we call home.

Here are ten books that challenged me, entertained me, or stayed with me long after I read the final paragraph.

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud

Earlier this year, Messud received some attention as the literary world argued about unlikable characters. Nora isn’t an unlikable character. She’s likable because of her imperfections and her hunger for a more fulfilled life. Personally, my favorite characters are ones that can be classified as “unlikable”—mostly because they are far more human than people like to admit. “The Woman Upstairs” tells the story of an unsatisfied school teacher and artist who becomes obsessed with the family of one of her student’s. The only thing that would have made this book better for me was if Nora didn’t want a family of her own. (Why, do you ask? Because I like reading about unconventional women.) Messud’s at her best when she’s talking about the incredible yearning an unfulfilled artist can have to create a life for themselves that’s inspiring and productive. Nora is someone who is trapped in the routines of her day-to-day, much like the art she is working on. It’s interesting to me that she is so fixated on replicating the rooms of famous writers and artists. By defining their work in a miniature space, she’s commenting on her own life and how confined she feels. I think it’s easy at any age to feel like your peers are at a different stage in their life and have things or certain experiences you somehow missed out on. As someone who doesn’t want children, I find myself in an odd spot at 30, feeling like most of my friends are moving into another stage in their lives that I’ll never truly relate to since I don’t have the desire to procreate. I don’t want to switch places with them, but I also relate to the incredible loneliness Nora deals with. At one point Sirena, the mother of Nora’s student, says “But you’re more independent than anyone!” and Nora replies “More alone, maybe.”

The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer

Ambition vs. talent—what does it mean and what matters more? This is the central question in Meg Wolitzer’s incredibly addictive and tremendously readable novel.  She follows a bunch of friends who meet at a summer arts camp as they grow up and attempt to make their way in the world. What does it take to live a successful life as a creative person? Is ambition really enough? Fans of “Freedom” will find much to like in this book.

Submergence by J.M. Ledgard

This is easily my favorite book of the year. My friend Katie Freeman of Riverhead recommended the book to me, and I’ll read anything she likes. She has the best taste in literature. This atmospheric, lyrical novel tells the story of a man and a woman who meet on the French coast and have a romance. The story flashes forward to when the man, a spy, is captured by Somali terrorists. The woman is a biomathemetician obsessed with the microbes in the deepest part of the ocean. Describing the plot is useless; read this book if you want to know what it’s like to be submerged in luscious language .

The Night Guest by Fiona McFarlane

One of the most overlooked books of the year! Fiona McFarlane’s debut novel tells the story of a widow living alone by the ocean. At night she fears a tiger is in her house. One morning a mysterious woman shows up who claims that the government has sent her to take care of her. This is a literary page-turner that’s as much about the insecurities of aging as it is about unrequited love and how memories shape us.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell

If you want to feel like you’re a teenager again and experiencing that first painful and all-consuming passionate love that is so conducive to adolescent hormones, you must add this book to your to-be-read list. Eleanor is a misfit at a new school. Park skirts around the edges of the more popular crowd, but he’s a nerd—he loves good music and comic books. Eleanor lives with an abusive stepfather and her mom and siblings. She’s poor and different and gorgeously unique. They bond over their shared nerdery, of course. I dare you to read this book and NOT cry.

Unmastered by Katherine Angel

If you’re a fan of Virginia Woolf, Jeanette Winterson, or Maggie Nelson: you need to read this book. If you’re not a fan: you still need to read this book. Angel’s fragmented nonfiction book examines female sexuality and desire. We need to write more about this topic. We especially need to read about this topic.

American Dream Machine by Matthew Specktor

Who better to write about Hollywood than the talented son of a famous movie agent? Specktor’s latest novel (published by one of my favorite presses, Tin House) is for anyone who wants to read about the movie industry—especially Hollywood during the Golden Ages. I couldn’t help but think of “Mad Men” while reading it, even though it’s a different era.

In The House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods by Matt Bell

In The House Upon the Dirt Between the Lake and the Woods is one of the most beautiful creation myths you’ll ever read. It’s also grim and terrifying at parts, like the best fairy tales. His incantatory prose brings an urgency to this mythological story.

Blue Plate Special by Kate Christensen

Kate Christensen is one of my favorite novelists, so I wasn’t surprised to discover that she’s equally talented at writing nonfiction. Her memoir is largely devoted to one of her biggest passions: food. It’s also about some other topics I love to read about: becoming a writer; living in NYC and Maine; falling in and out of love. Reading this book has inspired me to learn how to cook.

Spectacle by Susan Steinberg

I interviewed Susan for The Rumpus earlier this year. Her stories are experimental and sharp. As I said in my introduction to the interview: “To read Susan Steinberg’s short stories in Spectacle, her latest collection from Graywolf Press, is like experiencing a hypnotic trance from which when you emerge, the world is different. It’s clearer somehow; lit up by her prose. Her sentences are sometimes raw and sometimes rhythmical. She has the eye of a painter, and it’s no surprise—she’s an artist, in addition to being a writer. But there’s also a musicality to her writing.”

White Girls by Hilton Als

You know how it feels when you’re reading a book that’s so good that you want to quote sentences to strangers on the subway? That’s the experience I had while reading this. Don’t worry—I didn’t start any conversations with strangers. But I should have. This is a book to discuss and obsess over. Als writes my favorite kind of nonfiction: blending the personal with cultural references and criticism. Take this, for instance: “No, she was words, and they always came up short against her presence, and if you were a poet whose vocation it is to take the words out from in between other words, and relish white space, then you would be more suited to the task of relaying who she was, as Wallace Stevens seemed to do when he wrote, in 1947, twelve years before she was born, and sixty years before she died, in his poem “So-and-So Reclining on Her Couch”: “She floats in air at the level of/The eye, completely anonymous,/Born, as she was, at twenty-one,/Without lineage or language, only/The curving of her hip, as motionless gesture,/Eyes dripping blue, so much to learn.”

Michele Filgate is a writer, indie bookseller/events coordinator at Community Bookstore, and critic. Her work has appeared in The Paris Review Daily, Salon, Time Out New York, The Daily Beast, O, The Oprah Magazine, Capital New York, The Star Tribune, Bookslut, Poets & Writers Magazine, The Quarterly Conversation, The Brooklyn Rail, and other publications. She’s working on a nonfiction book. 

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