Skippy Dies by Paul Murray
Although it’s set at a boarding school, Skippy Dies bears no resemblance to the recent touchstones of the genre: Prep, Harry Potter, etc. Instead, it’s a thick and vital tragi-comic novel set at an Irish academy run by a faculty of Jesuits whose extinction is imminent. All of the multiple story lines are engrossing, from a nerd’s courtship of a popular girl to a pair of troublemakers’ adventures in small-time drug dealing to a young teacher’s flirtations with infidelity. Murray’s novel is also expansive, tackling everything from M-theory and the mysteries of the universe to the great embarrassment of human sexuality — two concepts that, in Skippy Dies, converge more often and more believably than you’d expect.
Just Kids by Patti Smith
Is there any justice in a world where Keith Richards’s swollen memoir, Life, appears on the Times‘ list but Patti Smith’s beautiful story of her friendship with Robert Mapplethorpe — which won the freaking National Book Award a few weeks ago — doesn’t make the cut? Bitch (and by “bitch,” we mean Michiko Kakutani), please. In case you somehow haven’t heard, Smith’s eulogy for Mapplethorpe and love letter to late-’60s/early ’70s New York is a vividly written and deeply heartfelt story about a pair of artists struggling and sustaining each other as they launch their brilliant careers.
Rat Girl by Kristin Hersh
Like Smith’s, Throwing Muses frontwoman Kristin Hersh’s memoir is the story of an eccentric musician on the brink of success. But the two books couldn’t be more different. Much of Hersh’s tale takes place when the author was a teenager, beginning and dropping out of college, playing gigs at bars she couldn’t legally drink in, and, most notably, trying to manage a debilitating mental illness while dealing with an unplanned pregnancy — without losing her mysterious gift for songwriting. Culled from journals, Rat Girl is told in the blunt and funny voice of its young narrator and, with relevant lyrics scattered throughout, reveals much about Hersh’s creative process and the inspiration for many of her songs.
Role Models by John Waters
It’s become a cliché to ask artists for their influences, but aren’t you curious about who makes the Pope of Trash’s heroes list? Role Models is a memoir told through the artists and oddballs Waters loves most, from Johnny Mathis and Cy Twombly to reformed Mansonite Leslie van Houten and some particularly out-there pornographers. There’s also a fascinating cast of “Baltimore heroes” — a butch lesbian stripper, a tough-lady bar owner, an awkward drag queen. Through it all, Waters’ signature wit is tempered with priceless tidbits of loving advice to the next generation of freaks.
C by Tom McCarthy
Those who complain that the time of experimenting with the novelistic form is dead need to give McCarthy a try. While the book is “about” an English boy growing up in the early 20th century, fighting in World War I, and moving to Egypt, those details, the Washington Post‘s Samantha Hunt likens this simple plot summary to saying “‘Ulysses’ is the story of a man taking a walk” before going on to better describe the novel: “Rather than complicate the novel, this mash of cultures serves as a decoder ring. Meaning, quite suddenly, is doubled, tripled. Scenes that were, on first take, merely finely crafted historical fictions are revealed to be the work of a mind entranced by refrains. Only the dullest of readers will be able to resist diving back into the text for a second look.”
Drinking at the Movies by Julia Wertz
It’s been a great year for graphic novels, and Wertz’s (of Fart Party fame) may just be our favorite. Drinking at the Movies tells the story of its hard-drinking author’s move from San Francisco to New York and the underemployed, romantically challenged months that followed. Like the lives of most creative 20-somethings, it’s funny and sad and ultimately a bit hopeful. And, as Wertz discussed with Flavorwire, actress Lizzy Caplan is adapting the book into a TV series.
How Did You Get This Number by Sloane Crosley
It’s sad but not surprising that How Did You Get This Number didn’t make the Times list — humor writing has always been undervalued by critics. But it would be a damn shame to ignore Crosley’s book. Even better than her debut, I Was Told There’d Be Cake, this collection of uproariously funny personal essays spans everything from youthful games of Girl Talk to the complications of love and furniture-buying in your late 20s. Although the book made us laugh, it also left us thinking about the small mysteries of our coddled, metropolitan, middle-class lives. Read some of our favorite selections here.
Burning Bright by Ron Rash
Set over 150 years in Appalachia, Burning Bright is easily our favorite short-story collection of 2010. Rash’s book is not quirky or sweet — it’s dark and plainspoken and often violent, its characters languishing in abject poverty. As Christian Williams described it in The Onion A.V. Club, the author is “interested in how Southern pride runs aground in an increasingly interconnected world — and what the consequences are for those who hold fast to a code of ethics that can put them on the wrong side of history and the law.”
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
Aimee Bender has long been one of our favorite authors, and this fantastical novel is no exception. Its heroine Rose Edelstein can physically taste the emotions of the people who cook her food — giving new literalism to the expression “eating your feelings.” Read our interview with Bender here.
Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution by Sara Marcus
The history, purpose, and meaning of riot grrrl has been contested and debated since, well, pretty much the beginning of riot grrrl. Marcus, who grew up outside of DC and came to riot grrrl a bit after its golden age, cleans all of that confusion up into an account that is fair, smart, and engaging. In profiling the movement’s biggest personalities, from the ladies of Bratmobile and Bikini Kill to well-known zinesters and organizers, Marcus conveys the excitement and righteousness of riot grrrl — and youth itself — without sugar-coating its most disappointing moments. Just try to finish it without getting inspired to start a riot of your own.