Required Reading: The 25 Best Brooklyn Books of the Decade (So Far)

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We’re pretty firmly of the mind that no matter how grim things seem in the world at large, life will always be at least kind of OK as long there’s something good to read. And so, lucky for us, even if the last five years have had their ups-and-downs, we’ve always been able to find an escape. Here, then, are the 25 books—all by Brooklyn authors—that have allowed us—and some other notable people in the local literary scene—access to other times, places, states of being, if only for a little while. 

Nobody Is Ever Missing by Catherine Lacey 
“Catharine Lacey’s Nobody is Ever Missing is a mesmerizing treatise on loneliness, loss, and how we learn to live with ourselves.”
Benjamin Samuel is the Editor-at-Large at Electric Literature

Drinking with Men by Rosie Schaap
The New York Times Drink columnist’s moving, funny, heartbreaking memoir is a paean to the communities that form at our local watering holes.

The Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg
“You pass a sign that says “Oy vey” when you cross the Williamsburg Bridge, so the borough always needs one or two great Jewish books every decade or so. Jami Attenberg’s The Middlesteins filled that void, but it’s really the sort of book that anybody can relate to and love regardless of their background.”
Jason Diamond is the Vol. 1 Brooklyn founder and author of the forthcoming memoir Searching for John Hughes (William Morrow, 2016)

Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
A memoir of growing up in the turbulence of the civil rights era and its aftermath told through poetry, Woodson’s book, though aimed at a young adult audience, is a mesmerizing read for all ages.

Redeployment by Phil Klay
This recent National Book Award-winning collection of short stories takes readers to the warfronts in Iraq and Afghanistan, shedding light on a reality that is all too distant and easy to ignore for many of us.

Friendship by Emily Gould
Gould’s debut novel is a spot-on portrayal of what it’s like to be a young woman in Brooklyn figuring out life, and is a moving testament to one of, if not the, most important, enduring relationships in a woman’s life—the one she has with her best friend.

Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offill
“The koan-like paragraphs in Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, which is set in Brooklyn, are funny, intimate, and thought-provoking. It’s both formally experimental and emotionally impactful, which is a thrilling and rare combination. One of the novel’s concerns is the permanency of art—the Voyager’s Golden Record is treated as a cliché and a talisman. I don’t know how aliens are supposed to play a phonograph record, but, if you’re looking for an enduring document of humanity, I can say this book’s got legs.”
Halimah Marcus is the Editorial Director of Electric Literature

Adam by Ariel Schrag
This hilarious, frank look at a young man pretending to be a trans-man in order to get a girl is transgressive and brutally honest—the rare book that pulls no punches for anyone.

The Lowland by Jhumpa Lahiri
A novel that spans two continents and multiple generations, The Lowland shows Lahiri at the height of her storytelling powers.

My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
New Yorker writer Rebecca Mead’s examination of Middlemarch is part love letter, part astute analysis, and part memoir.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub
Straub deftly explores the internal mechanisms of a family on a two-week vacation in Mallorca, a delicious, smarter-than-your-average beach read.

The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P. by Adelle Waldman
When it comes to books I could give to my children to be like “yes, it was kind of like this,” Waldman’s story about a bright young man and his relationships with women— particularly a young woman named Hannah — is the first that comes to mind. It holds up to re-readings as a wonderful example of a novel of manners, where psychologically precise sentences rule the day with a terrible beauty. Perhaps its greatest gift to the lexicon, however, is the fact that “he’s such a Nathaniel P.” certainly holds up as a secret code for fuckwittery.
Elisabeth Donnelly is the nonfiction editor at Flavorwire and the co-author (as Alex Flynn) of teenage superhero series The Misshapes

Once by Meghan O’Rourke
O’Rourke is one of our finest contemporary poets, and Once is a beautiful meditation on death, life, and motherly love.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Though it’s not strictly Brooklyn-centric–parts of the book take place as far away as Kenya—Jennifer Egan’s eloquent, gripping A Visit From the Goon Squad deserved every accolade that it got in 2010 and 2011.

10:04 by Ben Lerner
“I knew almost no one when I moved to New York just two weeks before Hurricane Sandy, one of the storms that bookends Ben Lerner’s excellent 10:04. Reading that novel two years later, I was taken back to those three days alone in my apartment, questioning my decision to move to New York and worrying about the future in a way that was both meaningful and self-indulgent—an intensely Brooklyn feeling, if there ever was one.”
– Kevin Nguyen is the editorial director at Oyster and writes book reviews for Grantland

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
The tale of a group of nomadic Shakespearean actors navigating a post-apocalyptic landscape, Station Eleven is gripping, imaginative, and the kind of novel that you never want to end.

And Yet They Were Happy by Helen Phillips
This haunting, beautiful book comprises dozens of miniature stories, each as sharp and faceted as the most brilliant diamond. It can be read in bits and pieces, or practically all in one sitting, but no matter how you take it in, it will stay with you, stuck inside, forever.

Forgotten Country by Catherine Chung
A haunting tale of loss and identity, redemption and family, Chung’s debut novel is a look at the true meaning of what it means to look for a home.

Open City by Teju Cole
Cole’s slim novel leaves an everlasting impression; narrator Julius attempts to find his—or rather, a—place in the world, while meditating on larger ideas of displacement; responsibility, both personal and societal; and identity. Readers are lucky to go along for the journey.

A Night in Brooklyn by D. Nurske
This poetry collection is a beautiful, at times painful look at love, loss, and, of course, Brooklyn.

Prelude to Bruise by Saeed Jones
A work of insight and great beauty, Jones’ first poetry collection manages to be both ferocious and and subtle.

Follow Me Down by Kio Stark
“What impresses me most about Kio Stark’s novel Follow Me Down is its sense of place, and the way that history can be used as a weapon. It’s a short novel, but the sense of place that emerges, and the way that a lack of knowledge becomes increasingly fearsome, are hard to shake.”

Tobias Carroll, Managing Editor of Vol.1 Brooklyn

The Ask by Sam Lipsyte
A wide-ranging, acidly hilarious exploration of living a life of pure mediocrity in the big city; banality has never been so funny.

The Residue Years by Mitchell S. Jackson
“Mitchell S. Jackson’s astounding debut novel The Residue Years is a bold, wry, and searing portrayal of a black family in a ‘90s era Portland, Oregon community devastated by poverty, addiction, and the drug wars. In rhythmic prose infused with rich imagery and street vernacular, Jackson unfolds his story in alternating chapters narrated by an ambitious student incarcerated for drug dealing and his well-meaning mother, a recovering crack addict.”
Penina Roth is the Founder and Curator of the Franklin Park Reading Series

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride
This masterful novel is a retelling of the story of abolitionist John Brown, and manages to be not only historically poignant, but also at times uproariously funny.

Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead* 
“Colson Whitehead’s beautiful novel Sag Harbor instantly comes to mind when I think about books that I’ve loved over the past half-decade, Brooklyn-made or otherwise. I love all of his work, but this semi-autobiographical coming-of-age tale taps into the humor, generosity, and sweetness that Whitehead is capable of writing with without sacrificing any of his enormous talent and inventiveness. Admittedly, this book is also beloved to me because I’ve spent summers in Sag Harbor since I was a small child, and feel lucky that Whitehead managed to capture the quirks and idiosyncrasies of this black middle class summer colony tucked away on the East End of Long Island.”
– Lisa Lucas is the Publisher of Guernica

*Though published in 2009, we didn’t think that arbitrary time constraints should carry all that much weight—not when it might mean missing out on celebrating Whitehead’s Sag Harbor.

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2 COMMENTS

  1. Of the 11 of these books I read, I would have to agree. For people who bemoan the state of American literature and how it’s never as good as it was, these books are clear evidence that, whatever the changes in the book publishing industry, this is still a golden age if only you take the time to look.

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