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Leslie Jamison
Photo: Beowulf Sheehan, Graphic: Natalie Peeples

As part of The A.V. Club’s best of the 2010s coverage, we asked some of our favorite authors to share their 10 favorite books of the decade. First up: Leslie Jamison. Jamison has managed to fit what could be an entire lifetime’s worth of writing into the past 10 years. She published her debut novel, The Gin Closet, in 2010, followed four years later by her breakout essay collection, The Empathy Exams, which won publisher Graywolf’s Nonfiction Prize and would go on to become a bestseller. It is a thoughtful, compassionate book about how we do (or do not) regard the pain of others. Last year’s The Recovering stretched the bounds of the addiction memoir to not only tell the story of Jamison’s alcoholism but to also consider how writing and drinking are portrayed in literature. In September of this year, she published her second collection, Make It Scream, Make It Burn, whose subjects—including Second Life, reincarnation, and the world’s loneliest whale—she treats with just as much sensitivity. We’d understand if Jamison wanted to take a break in the 2020s, but we hope she won’t (and don’t think she will). In her own words, here are Leslie’s 10 favorite books of the decade.

Witch Wife by Kiki Petrosino (2017, Sarabande)

These are poems about the things that compose us—our names, our flesh, our vexed relationships to both—and about feral ambivalence turned glittering, about the question of what the body can and cannot stomach. It’s a book that reads like a hothouse in winter, adamantly fertile, full of strange blossoms. Someone has drawn pictures in all the steamy windows. Kiki Petrosino’s language turns organs into verbs, and verbs into organs, metabolizing the strangeness of presence, regret, and hope. When I read this book on the subway, the investment banker sitting next to me was reading over my shoulder. He could tell I was warming myself by some kind of fire. And I was. It was glorious.

Lila by Marilynne Robinson (2014, Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

Marilynne Robinson’s novels are like a collective creed to me, but this one explores the aching gifts of surprise and renewal with particular force: how love can find us when we’re least expecting it, after we’ve given up on it, and how it rarely looks like what we imagined. Robinson doesn’t traffic in airbrushed fairy tales, but in the messy, ambivalent, vexed, glorious complexity of how we actually live, and the “marriage plot” of this book is absolutely written in the dialect of that complexity.

Loitering: New And Collected Essays by Charles D’Ambrosio (2014, Tin House)

No living writer has influenced my own writing more than Charlie D’Ambrosio—as a teacher, a writer, a human being—and his essays in Loitering move me and provoke me every time I come back to them. He close-reads his father’s poetry and his brother’s suicide note, observes the hallways of a Russian orphanage, ruminates on the rain and longing of a Seattle youth spent yearning for other lives. But the electricity animating every essay is his refusal to settle for anything more shapely than the ragged shapes of experience—he insists on the frayed, unraveling loose threads of what we can’t easily reconcile.

Aug 9-Fog by Kathryn Scanlan (2019, MCD x FSG)

The origin story of this book is a beautiful lyric in its own right: Kathryn Scanlan salvaged an old woman’s diary from an estate sale in Illinois and spent the next decade whittling its entries into sharp, slivered shards of beauty, every page a small prose poem of ordinary living, in all its banality and force: first snowfall, berries for jam, a house burnt down, a husband dying. The searing strokes of this book remind me of the infinitude inside every life.

Summer Of Hate by Chris Kraus (2012, Semiotexte)

This is a novel about a couple coming together under improbable conditions: A writer decides to go into slum real estate in New Mexico, and ends up falling for a man recently out of prison. These pages are full of desert heat and judicial bureaucracy. There’s something about Chris Kraus’ voice that compels me and provokes me in ways I’ve never been entirely able to explain, and it’s not a mystery I’m entirely interested in solving or even reducing—I know there is a sharpness and a lucidity and a prickly edge and a tenderness to her attention that makes me feel like I’m plunging into cold water and getting woken up by it.

Calling A Wolf A Wolf by Kaveh Akbar (2017, Alice James Books)

These are poems about drinking, not drinking, joy, surprise, and trying to pronounce the experience of consciousness through a mouthful of cake. The nerve endings of these poems are open to despair, delight and bafflement; they disrupt me and console me at once. “Some people don’t even want to drink, / aren’t tempted by the pools of liquor / all around them,” Akbar writes. (I’ve always been confused by this too!) “This seems / a selfishness. God loves the hungry / more than the full.”

Off Course by Michelle Huneven (2014, Sarah Crichton)

This is a novel about an affair, and about a graduate student trying to finish her dissertation in a cabin on a California mountain, but it’s also about so much more—it’s about love that never quite becomes what we want it to become, about what it feels like to lose the thread of your own life and wonder if you’ll ever get it back. It’s one of the most acute chronicles of being lost I’ve ever read.

Heart Berries by Terese Marie Mailhot (2018, Counterpoint)

This memoir is a deftly crafted dissection of the messy psychic intersection of trauma, passion, motherhood, and creative ambition. It’s about being a Native woman (Mailhot is a member of the First Nations Salish tribe) and also about what it’s like to be constantly seen through that lens. It’s about surviving abuse, intergenerational trauma, mental illness, and bitter custody battles; about falling in love with a man who “looks like a hamburger fried in a donut” and reckoning with the competing vectors of intimacy and panic that love inspires. It’s about being a mother who longs for the milk breath of her infant son. It’s about being a pregnant woman consumed by rage. It makes room for the kinds of cognitive dissonance we are often tempted to dismiss, elide, or reconcile too easily.

Where Reasons End by Yiyun Li (2019, Random House)

An absolutely devastating novel about grief and language: A mother imagines an ongoing conversation with her teenage son, who has recently committed suicide. It sounds like it would be unbearably painful, and it is, but it’s also so many other things—it’s an exploration of how playing with someone is part of being close to them, how languages are shared and built, how conversations with other people live inside us even after they are gone.

Fire Sermon by Jamie Quatro (2018, Grove Press)

A novel I consumed in a single afternoon, and never got out of my system. A lot of people described it as a novel about infidelity, and it is, but to me it’s really about the ways we feel alive in the world—how that sense of aliveness comes through faith, through divinity, through the small daily acts of caring for children, the ecstatic bewilderment of falling in love, the impossible electric surges of transgression, the long-term arc of showing up for intimacy.

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