Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Best of 2015

It's always fun to see how the year started and ended; 2015 started with J.A. Jance (somewhat frighteningly, I read more J.A. Jance than anyone else this year) and ended with Toni Morrison. In between were sufficient good books to make me happy to be able to access books in so many forms. I read 159 books this year but was undoubtedly proudest when I finished Middlemarch; I'm currently working on Anna Karenina and anticipate feeling equally puffed up by my own achievements when I finish it.

Anyway, here are the books I liked best in 2015.

Best Novels
A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson. Two years ago, I picked Kate Atkinson books as the best of the year in two different categories and she came through again this year with a follow-up to Life After Life focusing on Teddy, the beloved brother of that novel's heroine Ursula. Again, she experiments with form and challenges the reader to think about their assumptions about fiction, while educating us (or at least me) about pilots in World War II--since my dad was one, this is a fascinating topic for me--and giving us insight into human relationships.

Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf. This novella tells the story of two older residents of Haruf's fictional Holt, Colorado, who begin sleeping together to assuage their loneliness (and, at first, it's just sleeping and talking). It's a lovely reflection on friendship, aging, and, indeed, humanity that is also sad, a sadness deepened by the fact that Haruf wrote it as he was dying. There won't be another story from Holt or more passages like this: "I do love this physical world. I love this physical life with you. And the air and the country. The backyard, the gravel in the back alley. The grass. The cool nights. Lying in bed talking with you in the dark."  That is a loss for all readers.

Honorable Mention: The History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters, by Julian Barnes

Best Short Stories
Redeployment, by Phil Klay. These stories about the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and the psychological damage done to those who fought them should be required reading for those of us who supported or opposed those wars but were safe at home all the while.

Best Mystery
The Skeleton Road, by Val McDermid. This is a double mystery (who killed the person whose skeleton was found on the roof of an abandoned building in Edinburgh and who is the vigilante killing Balkan war criminals?) but it is also a history lesson about the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. Definitely not a perfect mystery, but the best of the year by a large margin.

Best Nonfiction
Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande. I'm 65 and my mother is 91, so books about aging and dying have resonance. Being Mortal is a clear-eyed examination of the disservices our culture--particularly medical culture--does to the elderly and the terminally ill. This passage from the book is one of my favorites from the year: "In the end, people don't view their life as merely the average of all its moments--which, after all, is mostly nothing much plus some sleep. For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens. Measurements of people's minute-by-minute levels of pleasure and pain miss this fundamental aspect of human existence. A seemingly happy life may be empty. A seemingly difficult life may be devoted to a great cause. We have purposes larger than ourselves."

Missoula, by Jon Krakauer. This examination of rape in one college town is one of the most frightening books I have read in a long time. If you can read this book and still deny there is a problem with rape on college campuses--a problem fueled by alcohol, a sense of male entitlement, and inadequate education for police officers, prosecutors, and young men and women--I have serious doubts about your rationality.

Honorable Mention: The Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander (Michelle Obama's favorite book of the year)

Best Poetry
Citizen, by Claudia Rankine. I don't think Citizen is actually classified as poetry, but to me its language was poetic. Take, for example, this passage: "The world is wrong. You can't put the past behind you. It's buried in you; it's turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you."  Even with Rankine's wonderful language, reading this material is painful. Rankine forces our attention to everyday racism--the thoughtless remark, the refusal to sit next to an African American on the bus, the easy judgments about prominent African Americans who, for one moment, lose their equanimity. But she also looks at the larger problems of race in our society, including police killings of African Americans.

December's Reading

December was definitely an interesting reading month, with some definite highs, unfortunately not in the first category.

The Unbidden Truth, by Kate Wilhelm
The Short Drop, by Matthew FitzSimmons
Dance of the Bones, by J.A. Jance

I wouldn't recommend any of these mysteries--Dance of the Bones was an especially disappointing offering from the usually reliable J.A. Jance.

Glitter and Glue, by Kelly Corrigan

A few years ago, Corrigan penned a memoir about her relationship with her father. Glitter and Glue is  purportedly about how she came to appreciate her mother, with whom she had a more distant relationship. Unfortunately, it focuses mostly on the author herself, offering little real insight into the mother-daughter relationship. Corrigan exemplifies why I don't care greatly for memoirs--she thinks her life is interesting and meaningful in some way that should engage others (and, to be fair, she has many fans), but I think her life to be about as memorable as mine--i.e., she's just a regular person and her efforts to make her life into some kind of metaphor fall flat.

The State We're In, by Ann Beattie
The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishigura
Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin
Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal
Redeployment, by Phil Klay
God Help the Child, by Toni Morrison

Sometimes I wonder why I continue to read short stories (and memoirs for that matter) when I rarely like them. Ann Beattie is a well-regarded practitioner of the form but the Maine stories in The State We're In mostly left me cold. My favorites were three stories that featured teenager Jocelyn, sent to live with a peculiar aunt and uncle while her mother recovers from surgery; Jocelyn is taking an English course in summer school, a course requiring her to consider such topics as "What Magical Realism Would Be." While the other stories do convey a sense of place, I was not enthralled.

And speaking of not enthralled, I could not figure out what Kazuo Ishigura was trying to achieve with The Buried Giant--unless he's just trying to prove he can write in many different genres. This book is a historic fantasy, in essence an exercise in myth-making. It recounts the journey of an elderly couple seeking to find their son; they cannot remember much about their pasts, allegedly because of a mist that lies across the English countryside. On their quest, they encounter knights, monks, strange animals, a dragon, magical children, and more; the two appear to be devoted to one another, but as they begin to remember troubling incidents in their past, that devotion is called into question. While I appreciate Ishigura's versatility and creativity, The Buried Giant was too obscure and quasi-allegorical for my taste.

Revolutionary Road, in contrast, is the realistic story of a young couple starting a family and moving to suburbia in the post-World War II years. While veteran Frank Wheeler believes he is somehow superior to others and destined for unspecified intellectual achievements, his girlfriend April gets pregnant, they marry, he takes a dead-end, do-nothing job at the same company where his father worked, and they move to the suburbs. As they sink into conformity, they still long for another life; they even go so far as to plan a move to Paris, where Frank can find the niche where he will excel. Instead, April becomes pregnant with their third child, and their marriage, deprived of the dream that propelled it, begins to collapse. It's a story of self-delusion, isolation, and conformity and, though the characters really have only themselves to blame for their problems, a tragedy nonetheless. Highly recommended.

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry, Novel Conversation's selection for January, is much more upbeat. It's the story of widower AJ Fikry, who lives above his small bookstore in a tourist town on an island off the Massachusetts coast. He drinks too much, carries only books he likes (he's not a fan of David Foster Wallace), and doesn't really like most of his customers. But then someone leaves a baby in the store and soon he's raising the child, dating a book rep, organizing a book group for police officers, and hosting author events. The book talk/gossip is fun and, although there are some sad moments in the book, overall it leaves the reader feeling positive about humanity. Also highly recommended.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest is another quirky book, this time featuring a Minnesota girl, Eva Thorvald, who has the finest palate of her generation. The book follows Eva from her birth, through difficult family circumstances, to a teen-age dating experience, to success as a chef who creates exquisite dining experiences that people wait years to gain entry to. The chapters are like vignettes, many telling the story of how she met someone who would later become part of her "constructed" family. I wanted to like this book more than I did, and I can't really explain why I didn't find it as entertaining as The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

Iraq war veteran Phil Klay won the National Book Award for Redeployment, a collection of 12 short stories that depict the physical and psychological effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on those who fought them. The characters range from a recently returned Marine struggling to figure out how to reestablish himself in life stateside to a chaplain, a serviceman who served on corpse detail, and an Arab-American college student who tries to explain his service in psychological operations to a fellow student. Through the stories, Klay portrays the psychological damage and dislocation that the war has wreaked on those who have fought it. It's impossible to say I enjoyed this book--and I wouldn't have chosen it as the best book of 2014--but those who want to understand the wars of the past decade plus should add it to their reading lists.

God Help the Child is more contemporary than most of Toni Morrison's work. It is the story of Bride, a successful young woman whose mother disliked her because of her extremely dark skin. As the book opens, Bride's lover has left her with no real explanation, and she is devastated. At the same time, she is planning to meet a woman she testified against as a child as the woman leaves prison; when the woman beats her within an inch of her life, Off work while she recuperates from her injuries, Bride begins to deteriorate in other ways, apparently morphing back into the little black girl she once was. She decides to take a road trip to find her ersatz lover Booker, who has deep-seated issues of his own. She crashes her Jaguar and spends weeks recuperating with a hippy couple who stole a child off the street. When she does find Booker, yet another tragedy occurs. While Bride and, to a lesser extent, Booker are the primary characters, others also have a chance to narrate sections of the book; these include Bride's friend Brooklyn, whom Bride trusts completely but is actually plotting to take her job; Sweetness, Bride's delusional mother; the woman whom Bride accused of child abuse; and others. Bride, Booker, and others were affected by child abuse/neglect and the one character who seemed to reach out to  child--Booker's aunt Queen--neglected her own children. God Help the Child is as sad as the title suggests and it's not entirely satisfying, but it's still worth reading. After all, it's Toni Morrison!

Gratitude, by Oliver Sacks
The Best American Poetry 2015, edited by Sherman Alexie

Gratitude is a slim collection of four essays by Oliver Sacks written in the last two years of his life. Focusing on age, illness, and death, they reveal Sacks to have been an amazing human being who provides a compelling model of what it means to face death with dignity and courage.

It can surprise no one that Sherman Alexie has more sophisticated taste in poetry than I. On first reading, I found many of the poems opaque, but enjoyed Madelyn Garner's reflections on dementia in "The Garden in August," James Galvin's poem about a "Wedding Dress" for sale at a thrift store, and Rebecca Hazelton's lovely "My Husband," which celebrates the beauty of the mundane.  I started to enjoy this collection more when I got to the author notes, which included many interesting discussions of the poets' work--how one compelling rhyme can morph into a series that create the base for a poem, how experimenting with form drives some poets' work, how a poet found the raw stuff of her poem on Craig's List. Reading the poems again in conjunction with the notes led me to greater appreciation of the poems. While I feel certain most readers will not like all of these poems, I feel equally certain they will like some of them and will learn something from reading the notes.

Pick of the Litter
Revolutionary Road, The Storied Life of AJ Fikry, and Gratitude.

Favorite Passages
I cannot pretend that I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.  
--Oliver Sacks, Gratitude 

How resigned she seems
to the eviction notices her body is receiving.
--Madelyn Garner, "The Garden in August"

The less-than-distinguished GOP field for a DiCaprio biopic: Leo, Revealed.
A brand new wok for Lou Brock
--Cody Walker, "Trades I Would Make" (hilariously silly)