This isn't a list of the best books of the decade — I've already made it clear how I feel about those. It's just a selection of especially awesome books by women, all published in the '00s.
Alison Bechdel, 2006
I think the popularity of the term "graphic novel" is really unfortunate, because it sounds cheesy and pretentious, like something you proudly display on your shelf to prove how cool you are. For me, books with pictures (can I call them comic books? This seems to imply that they have X-Men, which, to be fair, I also like) are what I reach for when I can't sleep because I'm scared of the universe, and I want to be reminded that other people exist. Graphic novels (fuck it) seem more like company to me than their non-illustrated brethren, probably just because you can see people's faces, and in Fun Home the faces reveal fear and pain and love and confusion as eloquently as the words. The story is about Bechdel's coming-of-age as a gay woman and her realization that her father is also gay — a realization that comes along with family tragedy. Fun Home is especially touching and effective as a graphic novel because the drawings reveal the family resemblance between father and daughter — a resemblance especially striking when Bechdel compares their taste in clothes. The book is about lies and secrets, but it's also the public record of a daughter's choice not to hide her life story as her father did, but to tell it and to show it — and Bechdel does both very well.
The Last Of Her Kind
Sigrid Nunez, 2006
This was the best book I read in 2006, and for a long time it was my favorite novel. Two roommates meet at Barnard in 1968 — Ann comes from a wealthy family and Georgette is working-class. As Ann becomes a radical and gets deeply embroiled in the racial politics of the 1970s, Nunez examines her activism through the eyes of Georgette, to whom it sometimes seems like a luxury. Ann turns out to be disturbingly committed to her cause, but the position of a privileged person fighting for the underprivileged remains a fraught one. Nunez doesn't pull emotional punches — Georgette's narration sometimes simmers with resentment, and her observations exist outside polite American discourse in a way that makes the way we talk about "political correctness" seem restrictive and misguided. Nunez's writing, too, is beautiful, but what made me love this book was the way it managed to portray the ambivalence we feel in a world where all politics is personal.
The Collected Stories of Amy Hempel
Amy Hempel, 2006
Seriously, read this book. Especially if you think you don't like short stories. Some of Hempel's stories sound more like jokes — "Memoir," in its entirety, reads "Just once in my life—oh, when have I ever wanted anything just once in my life?" Many are the kind of jokes that make you sad. All of them — whether they deal with a possibly-fabricated motorcycle crash, a pre-mastectomy party, or the death of a best friend — are so witty and weird they remind you that art's purpose is not to represent life, but to augment it.
Mary Gaitskill, 2005
This book gave me nightmares. I've always found Gaitskill's writing scary, not just because it often deals with abusive or otherwise fucked-up relationships, but because it reveals how the intensity of any human relationship can be enough to wipe you out. Veronica portrays the international modeling scene in the eighties as a heady and terrifying world of sex clubs and hard drugs and exploitation, but what really stabbed me in the heart about this book was its portrayal of how people love and hate and discard each other, how they create makeshift families every bit as loving and as awful as the ones they left behind, and how a platonic touch between friends can be as revelatory as orgasm.
Brother, I'm Dying
Edwidge Danticat, 2007
The beginning of this book made me tear up on the subway, and the ending made me shiver. Danticat writes about her childhood separation from her parents — they moved to the United States while she and her brother stayed in Haiti — their eventual reunion, her father's illness and death, and her uncle's ill-fated attempt to gain asylum in America with language whose matter-of-factness and precision become a perfect conduit for love, fear, regret, and outrage. It's impossible to read Danticat's account of her octogenarian uncle's incarceration at a Florida refugee camp, his shoddy medical treatment and ridiculous interrogation there, and his eventual death in custody, without raging against the way America treats people who wish to come here. But still the most moving part of the book for me was near the beginning, when Danticat's father announces at a family meeting that he is dying, and her brother asks, in a halting voice, "have you enjoyed your life?"
Alice Munro, 2004
In a way Alice Munro is the opposite of Amy Hempel — while Hempel's stories are often short without feeling as though anything's been left out, Munro writes long, meandering pieces in which every word seems absolutely essential. Her stories feel like lives, not just because they often span many years and many miles, but because they render human interiority so clearly and completely that each character feels like a fully realized, functioning brain. In fact, her writing is often so consuming that it takes over my brain — I have been that character, I think, or I will be her. Her stories are especially strong when her characters look back at the past, with a perfectly rendered mixture of regret, resignation, and longing. The linked stories "Chance," "Soon," and "Silence," in which a lonely woman meets a man on a train, moves in with him, and has a child who later cuts off all contact with her, provide ample opportunity for looking both backward and straight ahead, and this may be why Runaway is the best of the collections Munro has published this decade.
Michelle Tea (illustrations by Laurenn McCubbin), 2004
Yeah, okay, there are two graphic novels on this list. Whatever: my friends and I passed around Rent Girl the summer after I graduated from college, and I highly recommend both this method and this timing. Yes, Tea's story of her time as a sex worker was titillating to a bunch of still-relatively-sheltered 21-year-olds, but it also inoculated us against easy, black-and-white opinions about sex work. More importantly, Rent Girl is an incredibly absorbing tale of being young and dumb and in love, and slightly older and wiser and still in love, and how sex both paid-for and not fits into all this. The accompanying illustrations are both beautiful and hot.
Marilynne Robinson, 2004
A lot of people describe this book as "boring," which it kind of is — if you think of the sum total of a man's life, examined in old age after both great disappointment and great, unexpected happiness, as boring. It's true that Gilead contains few fights, few twists, and few fireworks, and that it is in some ways about the struggle to be a good person, which is not traditionally seen as exciting. It's also true that this story of Reverend John Ames, married late in life, and the flawed young man he desperately wants to help, should be required reading for any coastal person who thinks midwestern Christians are all narrowminded assholes. But all this is kind of beside the point — I could not fucking put Gilead down (I should say here that Marilynne Robinson was my teacher for a semester, though I read and loved the book before I met her). I ordinarily like fights and twists and fireworks — the fact that this novel is one of my favorites of all time speaks to both the sublimity of its language and the deep importance of its subject matter. Many of us, at the end of our lives, will wonder if we did what we could for those around us — but we probably won't wonder it as beautifully as Reverend Ames.