Feed, by M.T. Anderson
This is a book that, since it was published in 2002, I have given as a gift every year. And I will continue to do so until the curmudgeon in me takes over and I stop giving people anything, ever, at all. This is the beacon of all YA fiction, the crowning dystopia of dystopias, the kind of future that you can feel happening right now.
It’s a kid’s world of in-body internet, IM-ing at the literal blink of an eye, the country run by School, skin lesions worn as body art. One girl attempts to resist the Feed. I won’t tell you how it ends.
Perfect for: Everyone. Anyone. It’s decidedly not a kids only read.
Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray
It’s true. Skippy does die. And it’s the story of how this happens to a strangely sweet 14-year-old boy in a well regarded Catholic school that gives this tragicomedy all its charm. And there is a lot of charm to account for: 672 pages of smart characters, complex parallels, hormonal youth, the terrible anguish of teenagers, the equally terrible anguish of adult hood, and moment after moment written to perfection.
Perfect for: Adults who want to reflect on youth. Anyone who went to boarding school.
How Did You Get This Number, by Sloane Crosley
It’s not a book for the exhausting and/or pretentious reader (they’d be better off with a collection by David Foster Wallace, perhaps), but Crosley’s second go at a collection of essays has most of the earmarks of her first, best-selling I Was Told There’d Be Cake. Fun, easy to read, and often poignant, HDYGTN details the twenty-something experience from months abroad to city living, boyfriends to roommates, and all the hopes and dreams that fulfilled – and crushed – when real adulthood arrives.
Perfect for: Women, age 30 and under.
Just Kids, by Patti Smith
Just Kids is the winner of the 2010 National Book Award, so you can just go ahead and assume it’s going to be good. The goddess of punk crafted this love letter turned memoir to her closest friend, Robert Mapplethorpe, who died of complications with AIDS in the late 80s. This is their story of friendship and love and art steeped in New York City’s fiery 60s and 70s, and it is crafted with all the poetic eloquence and passion one would expect from Ms Smith.
Perfect for: Girl rockers. Art lovers. Memoir junkies.
Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers, by Mary Roach
It’s by no means a new book: Stiff has been a popular read since 2004. And it’s with good reason – who knew dead bodies could be so funny? Roach is delicately witty and wry in her exploration of the postmortem experience in its many forms (including medical experiments to transportation safety research to plastic surgery testers). It’s non-fiction that feels light and airy and informative, if not a little macabre.
Perfect for: The dark and disturbed, the bright and bubbly (there is a wide readership). Those who prefer non-fiction.
The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender
I. love. magical. realism. There – I said it. And TPSOLC was my magically realistic favorite of the year. Rose can taste (yes, taste) the emotions of whoever prepares her food. It may sound superfluous, but her insight (and their subsequent complications) produces a story fraught with fantastical neuroses, crippled emotions, and a coming of age story unlike most. What her novel lacks in a conventional storytelling, Bender makes up with imagination, spirit, and deliciously sumptuous writing.
Perfect for: The lovers, the dreamers, and me.
I Am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe
It’s disturbing and disheartening and often disgusting, but Wolfe has created the most accurate, utterly believable college experience in Charlotte Simmons since… ever? Told mostly from the point of a view of a small-town savant on her first foray into the glamorous world of the Division I elite, we meet jocks and frat boys, intellectual nerds and snotty East Coast girls. Each one, through a haze of hangovers, sexual frustrations and/or social pressures, is uniquely affected by the strange power of one little Charlotte Simmons.
Perfect for: Freshmen girls who come home for winter break crushing on Betas and Sigmas.
Medium Raw, by Anthony Bourdain
The post-celebrité follow-up to Kitchen Confidential and Nasty Bits, Bourdain’s newest dives into the feuds and behind-the-scenes functionality that exist in the world of a super-chef. Bourdain’s passion and stylized bite is ever-present, and let’s not forget that this guy can actually write. His stories are compelling (albeit often crass) and he insider knowledge of the sub-tiers of kitchen staff will never get old.
Perfect for: Friends who like to watch No Reservations.
Red Plenty, by Francis Spufford
There was a time when the Soviet dream of unprecedented good fortune was about to be realized. Following Sputnik and Russia’s trip to space and a communist community of planners/economists/mathmaticians who knew exacty what to do, there was really nothing stopping them. Yet, there was. Spufford’s series of sort-of fictional vignettes explore what went wrong, from human error to Stalin’s domination (read: destruction) with adeptness and dexterity.
Perfect for: Conspiracy theorists, anti-communists, history junkies, self-righteous Russian friends.
The Flavour Thesaurus, by Niki Segnit
Pair by pair, flavor by flavor, Segnit has created a Roger’s Thesaurus-like compilation of flavor inspirations beyond the average “salt ‘n vinegar.” Sixteen flavor themes and 99 specific pairings give both gourmands and gastronomes the kind of sensual experience usually reserved for the palate. Blueberry and mushroom anyone?
Perfect for: Foodies, chefs. The inquisitive.
Tinkers, by Paul Harding
Relevant intellectuals in your inner circle should have already read this book: it is the 2010 Pulitzer Prize winner, after all. Now it’s time for everyone else. Tinkers is Harding’s debut novel, and what a beauty. It is a lyrical and melancholy story – in some parts downright sad – of a dying grandfather with a rich family history and a penchant for antique clocks. In Tinkers pages, Harding manages to pinpoint the psychological and metaphysical power of a family’s spiritual inheritance.
Perfect for: Language lovers. Story lovers.
Room, by Emma Donoghue
A story of a 5-year-old who has lived his whole life trapped in one room by his mother does not sound uplifting. The potential for a disturbing horror story is right on the surface, but instead Donoghue has crafted an elegant story of hope despite of a desolate situation. Jack’s world is abruptly altered when he is brought outside the four walls of his existence, and from there on it’s a story of desperate survival that leaves the reader staggered.
Perfect for: Anyone with a soul.
A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
AVFTHGS is complicated and contemporary, a kaleidoscope of fascinating characters, crystal-clear prose, and all the earmarkings of a new school of post-modernism-meets-something else. Egan discusses time and change and change over time under the umbrella of the music industry, focusing on the evolution of friendships, rebellions, addictions and influences that affect everyone’s lives. With quick-stepping shifts in era, place, and point of view, it’s a 300 page wild ride.
Perfect for: Those bored by the conventional story arc.