Finally! Just squeaking by before the end of the first quarter… here’s my list of the best books I came across LAST year. As always, this list has nothing to do with release dates. Honestly, I was a little disappointed with what I read in 2015. I pulled in a couple from 2014, because there were SO MANY I loved from that year I couldn’t fit them all in. The good news is that 2016 is already looking great.
I’ll start with my top pick; after that, totally random order.
A Little Life, Hanya Yanigahara. I won’t say I enjoyed it, but it was the most thought-provoking, chewy novel I read all year. I’m still thinking about it. I’ll think about it forever I bet. Like those great books we read in high school. One of which was…
Jude the Obscure, Thomas Hardy. I read this twice and it bummed me out totally both times while feeling absolutely true. I swore I’d never read it again, but after reading A Little Life, I felt I had to revisit it. Yanagihara never says anywhere that she was writing in counterpoint to Hardy, and neither do any of the reviewers I read, but it seems obvious to me.
The Neapolitan novels, Elena Ferrante. There are four. Read them in order, starting with My Brilliant Friend. Weep because they are so good, so right, so rightly done, and how did she do it?
Nora Webster, Colm Toibin. Another novel looking at a woman in a small impoverished community, in a country where women’s lives are tightly controlled by said community and by Catholicism, and where poverty is also strictly enforced by social mores. Yet, the narrative is handled very differently. Beautiful book.
Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf. Perhaps not as polished as some of Haruf’s other books, but it was his last, and I figure he ran out of time. Much to think about here, and to be moved by, as is usual with Haruf. With this story, I found myself considering how wrapped up with their own lives adults become, how insensitive to the needs of their children and parents, how insensate to the fact that their children and parents HAVE interior lives.
Let Him Go, Larry Watson. If you’re missing Kent Haruf, go read Watson.
The Blazing World, Siri Hutsvedt. Can never go wrong with Hutsvedt. She should win everything. An outsized, unfashionable, and rather shrill woman, gifted as an artist, but overshadowed by her art-critic husband, may have gone a little crazy by the way she’s been marginalized, and by
the way her work has been stolen (at first with her blessing as part of her performance art, as part of her POINT about the way women artists are not taken seriously, but later, actually stolen), but then again maybe not, as her final work unequivocally shows her genius.
The Dark Room, Rachel Seiffert. Three ways of looking at the Holocaust from the POVs of ordinary Germans, including leading up to it, during the war, and from long after. The middle novella was made into the Canadian movie Lore, also worth watching.
Day of the Oprichnik, Victor Sorokin. A Russian writer has recently made a list: the 10 best books for understanding contemporary Russia. This little horror of a novel, though set in the not-so-distant future, should have been on it.
Telex from Cuba, Rachel Kushner. First novels have become so workshopped and polished these days. Here is one that may have serious flaws but that also pays off big. This novel takes huge risks. It’s vivid and daring—well worth the read.
Someone Else’s Garden, Dipika Rai. Stands out among Indian novels for its emphasis on lower-caste women. Beautifully written.
Hausfrau, Jill Alexander Essbaum. I didn’t actually rate this novel very highly on Goodreads, but it still stands out for certain reasons. The question of mental health vs. personality disorders for one thing. What the hell was WRONG with that woman?
Girl at War, by Sara Novic. Another very interesting first novel. This book came under fire for getting some of the details wrong about what may have happened in Zagreb, but I maintain it stays true to what a 10-year-old girl may have remembered. The war in the title stands for a lot of different struggles, both external and internal. Perhaps the ending was a bit too clean, but the book stays with me, and that’s what I look for.
Einstein’s Beach House, Jacob Appel. It’s hard for a short story collection to make this list, because often some stories really rock and others seem just blah, but this collection shone all the way through. Appel is one of those writers who has published hundreds of stories and won dozens of prizes but only recently has begun seeing his books published. I hope he soon gets the broader recognition he deserves.
Men We Reaped, Jessmyn Ward. A grief memoir, as Ward gives us the backstory of the young men she grew up with, including a brother, who died violently in her neighborhood, sometimes as a result of their own misdeeds, or just by being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Structural poverty is the main culprit.
Madam Secretary, Madeleine Albright. No matter what quote you think you’ve heard and why you believe you hate her, you should still read this book. You should read all the books by the secretaries of state. It’s no easy job, and maybe you’ll find out about the deals and the trades and why it’s impossible not to do some harm in this role, and maybe you’ll stop armchair quarterbacking.
Zealot, Reza Aslan. Makes a good case that Jesus was crusader who wanted all non-Jews out of Israel. That is, he may have been the Jewish equivalent of a jihadist.
The Beast in the Garden, David Baron. How mountain lions changed their ways and came to threaten suburban communities. Reads like a thriller.
Worlds of Arthur, Guy Halsall. While it’s extremely unlikely that there was ever a King Arthur, here’s a great window into the era in which he would have lived, if he had. (And there are a few assumptions Halsall dismisses out of hand that I’m not sure he should, so maybe there’s a teeny bit of hope, still, though not for a King.)
Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey. What I admire about Trethewey is the precise way she combines the narrative and the lyric… a good chunk of this collection looks at a company of black soldiers who held an island off Louisiana for the North during the Civil War. Trethewey was recently the U.S. Poet Laureate.
Nox, Anne Carson. Designed like a scrapbook, the “book” emphasizes the hopeless nature of trying to reassemble our memory of a person who has committed suicide.
Hard Love Province, Marilyn Chin. This collection is also chasing something ephemeral, a “beautiful boyfriend” who has died.
Many Parishes, Adrian Koesters. One of the best collections I’ve read in years, this debut approaches childhood abuse, sequesterdom (is that a word?), deep religious inquiry, and spiritual emergence with fortitude and tenderness.
Once in a while I come across journals that I actually read from cover to cover, so I go ahead and recommend them (on top of other journals I’ve mentioned in past years, and my standards, such as Beloit Poetry Journal, The American Poetry Review, Tin House, and that lot):
Tar River Poetry
Iron Horse Literary Review
Ploughshares Solos Omnibus 3