It’s mid-day here in Kolkata — though it looks more like dusk from where I’m sitting at our dining table. It’s been drizzling here on and off for the past few days and it reminds me of December in San Francisco (just 20 degrees warmer). I am listening to the sounds of people and dishes and televisions from the two neighboring apartment buildings, along with the gossip of the drivers and assorted doormen who gather outside on the curb — and the constant wing-flapping and cries of crows.

We have slowly been making the apartment ours: we bought a new quilt from this amazing NGO in Ahmedabad, and yesterday bought a new tablecloth, mats and lamps — all in tones of pink and red and purple. The new lighting worked almost instantly to make us feel happier. We have plans to replace the curtains and perhaps reupholster the couch and kitchen chairs. We have even grander plans for removing cabinets and opening up more space in the apartment, but we’ll wait a bit on those.

There’s a lot going on in India and the world, but I wanted to dedicate some time to books I’ve read this past year. So much of what I want to do with this time in India is try to build up some practices that perhaps will stick afterwards. For some time, I’ve been wanting to get more into processing the books I read and sharing them with others, as a way to impact my own writing. I am really interested in creating a regular online presence here to write about books — as I had been doing over the past years at Hyphen and Fiction Writers Review — but in order to do that, I wanted to do some calisthenics by writing about some of the books I’ve read this year. (I guess this is also my response to all the “Best of 2010″ lists that are being published this month, and also a bit of a gift guide to anyone looking to buy books as holiday gifts, though these aren’t all new books.)

When You Reach Me (Wendy Lamb Books)

By Rebecca Stead

I read about this YA book in the NY Times, for having won the Newbury Award, and liked what I heard about it both being grounded in reality and somewhat magical. Set in New York City in 1979, it is narrated by Miranda – a sixth grader – who tells us about a series of extraordinary events that happens in the Fall and Winter of her year. Some of the extraordinary events are pretty realistic, like having her working class paralegal mom get an appearance on The $20,000 Pyramid. In fact, kindof like Vikas Swarup’s Q&A – the book that Slumdog Millionaire was based on – When You Reach Me’s chapter titles are category questions, like “Things That Burn” and “Things You Keep Secret”. Miranda is dealing with her best friend Sal, who lives in the same apartment complex, no longer talking with her after getting beat up one day. In Stead’s book, Manhattan is still a somewhat gritty place for youngsters to live – no hyper-consumerist Gossip Girl here – and Stead details Miranda’s latchkey existence beautifully. Though it isn’t mentioned directly, Miranda herself is obsessed with Madeliene L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time and that book — with its exploration of time travel — hovers above this one. I really appreciated that and have been inspired to do the same with S. E. Hinton’s The Outsiders. Though, I feel like the strength of the novel is more with Miranda’s day-to-day existence than the fantastical — I like that the book holds space for both.

The Invisible Circus (Anchor)

By Jennifer Egan

Jennifer Egan was all over the literary media this year with her new book, A Visit from the Goon Squad, which I was looking up at the San Francisco library when I came across The Invisible Circus. Also set in the 1970s, the book follows 18-year-old Phoebe who has been living in the shadow of death – her father’s of cancer and her sister’s more mysterious death in Europe – for nearly a decade. When her quiet San Francisco life with her mother is shaken by a revelation, Phoebe takes off for Europe, to follow in her sister’s footsteps and discover the truth about what happened to her. This book was especially interesting to me because I’ve been half-heartedly chasing after a dead friend over the past few years, more in my head than anything else, and so the novelistic possibilities of the journey are especially rich to me right now. I also began reading this book after I left San Francisco and soon, Phoebe left too and her reminiscing and homesickness for the fog and hills matched mine perfectly. This is a GREAT book for anyone on a journey, especially one away or towards San Francisco. Phoebe spends most of the book small, afraid and quiet – almost maddeningly so. I wanted to reach in the book and shake her, which I think meant Egan did a great job of setting you up. Then when Phoebe breaks out of her shell – both in a AMAZINGLY awful acid trip and then a beautifully vivid sexual awakening – I was rapt. This book really moved me with its deep meditations on mourning and generation change and wanting to be in the center of everything. [I guess this kindof bad movie version, staring Cameron Diaz as Phoebe’s sister came out back in 2000, but I wouldn't recommend it.]

Shutter Island (William Morrow)

By Denis Lehane

Sometimes Robin and I read books together – we trade reading back and forth, usually before going to sleep. We usually chose books that we know are being made into films, so then we can go see the movie as well. Last year, we read Revolutionary Road (maybe one of the best books I’ve ever read) and The Reader, and this year thought we’d try Shutter Island, since it looked like such a fun Scorcese flick from the previews. The book was eerie and chilling and set up the locked room mystery nicely – island psychiatric prison, big storm, missing prisoner, experimenting ex-Nazi doctors, etc. Mystic River was an amazing story and I’ve been interested in Denis Lehane ever since then and was excited to read some of his work and check out the pacing up close. We were definitely gripped by the book and found ourselves discussing what exactly was going on even when we weren’t reading, which was a good sign. Lehane’s writing is swift and not un-literary, but the most fun was in trying to decode the characters (who to trust, etc). I’d kind of like to go back and really carefully read the book again and outline exactly when Lehane leads you astray and when he gives you real clues. I’m not saying that I want to write a mystery or a crime novel, but I think any writer can learn a great deal from a well-told story. The movie was pretty close to the book, but couldn’t quite pull off the caper as well, and after seeing both Shutter IslandInception, I got pretty tired of seeing Leonardo DiCaprio wandering around looking lost, confused and in protracted mourning.

Miles From Nowhere (Riverhead)

By Nami Mun

This book contains 13 gut-wrenching stories about Joon, a Korean American runaway on the streets of New York City in the 1980s. This is one of my favorite examples of the collection of stories as novel, with the narrator journeying backwards and forwards in time to reveal characters and incidents who are sometimes heroes and sometimes junkies and then sometimes dead. This is a book that I read super fast, waiting for the worst to happen and then for some kind of redemption. This is another book that I want to read again, slowly, to savor the way each story unfolds — even though some of it is absolutely horrifying — and then read again to learn how to do the damn thing.

Mentors, Muses & Monsters: 30 Writers on the People Who Changed Their Lives (Free Press)

Edited by Elizabeth Benedict

This is an amazing and inspiring collection that would make a great present for a teacher or a student of writing. (I’m totally inspired by creatively-themed anthologies like this one — it should be a writing exercise: come up with a list of five anthologies you would edit.) Alexander Chee’s piece about Annie Dillard in this collection blew the top of my head open and changed the way I edit my own writing, along with making me wish I could be a student of both Chee’s and Dillard’s. But the book also helps cement the idea that one can be a student of any writer, just through careful reading. Just like Eklabya of the Mahabharatha, who made a clay statue of the great archery teacher Drono and studied at it’s feet, I will make an effigy of Annie Dillard out of post-it notes and burn incense in front of it every morning. Or, just read her books obsessively. (If you haven’t read A Writing Life, do it now.)

Reality Bites Back: The Troubling Truth About Guilty-Pleasure TV (Seal Press)

By Jennifer Pozner

I’ve always been a Reality TV whore, both repulsed and disgusted by the genre, and this book broke it down for me excellently. Media critic Jenn Pozner carefully analyzes mainstream reality shows like The Bachelor and America’s Next Top Model to show how media companies and corporations are collaborating to create a misogynistic backlash on television. The book does a great job of making you angry and making you laugh, and even comes with some great ideas about how to do grassroots media education in your own home. I’ve already written about it here, but wanted to give it another shout out since it was one of the few non-fiction books I read really closely in the past six months.

Never Let Me Go (Knopf)

By Kazuo Ishiguro

Oh my god, why did I not know the truth about Kazuo Ishiguro before this year??? (To confess, I think (the movie) Remains of the Day came out in the height of my adolescent anti-British period. I was 15 and only believed in passionate declarations of emotion and could find nothing interesting about a repressed butler. Oops.)  But, anyway, Never Let Me Go is really about the complex relationships between three characters — Kathy, the narrator, and her school friends Tommy and Ruth — that build up over years and come to heartbreaking final conclusions. This is one of the best science fiction novels I have ever read and one of the best arguments for the discarding of any labels of genre on any writer. (And I thought the movie captured it all as well as a movie can – the acting was grand and of course you lost some of the nuance and surprise of the novel – but still amazing.)

The Magicicans (Viking)

By Lev Grossman

I would kind of see this book out of the corner of my eye at bookstores, but didn’t really think much of it until I heard Lev Grossman read at Writers with Drinks in San Francisco this summer. (Other people on the list included Tobias Wolf and Andrew Lam – did I mention I miss San Francisco and that I’m sorry I disparaged you in my final months?) Grossman was funny and the section he read about a lonely magician who had recently graduated from a more adult Hogwart’s-like institution instantly intrigued me. A fast and engaging read, Grossman, like Stead, also makes his main character – the lonely and lovable Quentin – obsessed with a recognizable literary treasure. In this case, it’s C.S. Lewis’s Narnia series, and while the book focuses mostly on the training and transition to adulthood of a bunch of super-smart magic school kids, the book also surprisingly goes to the next level – literally – in a surprising third section, setting us all up nicely for a sequel. Grossman tells a great story about personal growth and love and betrayal and magic, but is also hilariously adept with pop culture and sci fi references. Highly recommended.

Before you Suffocate Your Own Damn Self (Riverhead)

Danielle Evans

Ever since reading Danielle Evans story “Virgins” – originally published in The Paris Review — in a Best American Short Story anthology from a few years ago, I’ve been eagerly awaiting this book. In fact, I would often go back and read “Virgins” — a story about a two teenage black girls coming of age in (and around) New York City — over and over, again, to figure out how she got the balance right, which details to include that let us know so much about the relationship of the three main characters in such brief strokes. There is a scene where the two girls dress up and go into the city to a club, and Evans masterfully breaks down the whole situation, from the dance floor to the drunken bathroom make-up fix-up to the moment the narrator realizes her friend is in over her head. Brilliant! Before You Suffocate Your Own Damn Self was my last book purchase before leaving the US and I’m so glad. I ended up reading the book in Ahmedabad, while sick and unable to do much but drink fresh lime sodas and lay around, and it was the perfect rabbit hole to fall into. (In fact, I think it might have even helped cure me.) The stories focus on young women of color — mostly black — who are dealing with the burden of being smart in a world where that is rarely valued and the failures of their families to protect them and love them and vice versa. How amazing to read a whole collection of short stories — SHORT STORIES! Where mostly white people do very little!! — all about women and men who I felt like I could have met in my life. How awesome to read a short story collection that I would want to teach at both a graduate school level and a high school level! There is the story of a bi-racial girl sent for the summer to her racist white grandmother’s house, and the pregnant college girl whose roommate is selling her eggs to upgrade her wardrobe, and then the returned Iraq soldier whose babysitting ward loves to go to the mall and get makeovers for tweens … all of the characters negotiating the mores of sexuality and race in the 21st Century. I loved how the characters were smart and painfully self-aware — the girl who goes back to her ex-boyfriend — even though he (a white boy) has moved onto a new “ethnic” artist — because she knows he will always let her in, or the little girl sent to live with her racist grandmother, how she uses the story of that summer as cultural cache in college, uses it until she realizes how she is using it. There is a real complexity there that I feel like I have been searching for in contemporary American literary fiction. (Also, this book, Nami’s book and this upcoming author make Riverhead the coolest publishing company ever!)