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.

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