1. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot (Crown)
It is impossible to read this book without having your jaw dropped onto the pages. Rebecca Skloot marvelously weaves the tale of Henrietta Lacks, a poor African American woman who in 1951, tragically died at the young age of 30 from cancer. A sample of Lacks’ cancerous tissue (which was taken without her consent), however, provided the medical world with an enormous revelation: cells that could survive in the lab. These cells became platforms for countless scientific breakthroughs (such as the cure for polio) and played a pivotal role in defining contemporary medicine. As gripping as it is educational, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks is an incredibly important book which questions not only our legacies, but the ownership of our own bodies.
2. The Passage by Justin Cronin (Ballantine Books)
In these vapid Twilight-obsessed times we live in, the concept of yet another vampire novel originally made me completely dismiss even reading the first page of this book – but holy hell, am I happy that I did. Cronin’s masterpiece begins like the Green Goblin’s origin story: a top secret project to use a virus to create a mega soldier backfires, unleashing a villainous tirade that kills the majority of the population. In this post-apocalyptic world, a six-year-old girl is the only one who can destroy this army of mutant-vampires dominating the planet. Equal parts horror and science fiction, The Passage is as addictive as the world within its pages is treacherous (think Cormac McCarthy mashed up with Neil Gaiman and a bloodthirsty young Stephen King). The first in what’s bound to be a legendary trilogy, The Passage is already in development to be made into a film by acclaimed director Ridley Scott (Alien; Gladiator).
3. Everything Here Is The Best Thing Ever by Justin Taylor (Harper Perennial)
Taylor’s debut shares more than just a similar title to Miranda July’s classic, Nobody Belongs Here More Than You. Both short story collections are composed of heart-wrenching tales that challenge the morals, meanings, and relationships that define being human. Writing with a similar minimalist and dry wit as July, Taylor creates everyday characters faced with make-or-break scenarios. The book’s highlight, “In My Heart I Am Already Gone,” the Gilbert Grape-esque protagonist is given the horrendous task of putting down his uncle’s cat, all the while dealing with crippling feelings resulted by having not left his on-and-off-again girlfriend or hometown. Written with a fine-tuned understanding of the human psyche that is too rare in contemporary short fiction, Taylor’s collection is a must-have for anyone who has ever had a shattered heart and/or crushed soul.
4. Room by Emma Donoghue (Little, Brown & Company)
Easily the most original book of 2010, this is one of the few books actually deserving of all of the massive hype surrounding it (here’s looking at you Jonathan Franzen). Told from the perspective of five-year-old Jack, Room tells the story of a little boy who believes the entire world is contained within an 11x11 space. Jack is unaware that a larger universe exists (“dogs are just TV” he says), but as he grows older and more curious, it becomes increasingly difficult for his mother to convince him that the confined place they inhabit is the extent of reality. What Jack does not know is that he and his mother are in fact imprisoned and that he himself is the product of his captor’s brutal rape of his mother. Donoghue brilliantly uses Jack’s voice to (unbeknownst to him) describe some of the darkest and cruelest extremes of humanity, leaving her readers hooked and devastated by the truth they know lies behind Jack’s observations. Although at times terrifying and heart wrenching, Room has hope shining throughout it, making it one of the most resonant books I’ve read in recent memory.
5. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Lydia Davis (Viking)
All hail, Lydia Davis! Seriously though: there is no other contemporary writer that is even in the same league as her. Her style is meticulous and unprecedented; crafting the tiniest, simplest things into short sentences that read like the most beautiful medley of words ever strung together (if you have not picked up The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, you haven’t experienced true contemporary literary greatness yet). While Madame Bovary has been around for more than a century-and-a-half, never before has an English translation of it stayed so true to the postmodern style of the French original as does Davis’ new translation. For the first time, there is an English edition of this book that displays how experimental and extraordinary Flaubert’s writing really was. Davis’ French-to-English carbon copy translation shines a fresh (and necessary) spotlight on Emma Bovary, the visceral ingénue who birthed the literary feminist movement. And who better to give justice to Flaubert’s avant-garde voice than the queen of postmodernism herself? I found myself re-reading paragraphs and sentences over and over again, astounded at how beautifully the words flowed together – an experience I haven’t had since … well, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis. With its gorgeous, flawless, and lavish language, Madame Bovary is a masterpiece of high art. This new collaborative edition between Flaubert and Davis is ready to resurrect this treasure and have it redefine the form of the novel all over again.
Honorable Mention: Half A Life by Darin Strauss (McSweeney’s), The Killer of Little Shepherds by Douglas Starr (Knopf), Just Kids by Patti Smith (Ecco), Memory Wall by Anthony Doerr (Scribner), The Instructions by Adam Levin (McSweeney’s), and The Girl Who Kicked The Hornet’s Nest by Stieg Larsson (Knopf).
2011 Book I Am Most Excited About: Blue Nights by Joan Didion (Knopf)