Wednesday, December 30, 2015

A Year of Reading: Best Books From Other Years

While most of the books I read in 2015 were released this year, I have to give a hearty nod of appreciation to those volumes published in years gone by—from the near-past to the farther-distant classics. The piles of books scattered in varying heights throughout my house are populated by authors and their works that I’ve been longing to read for years. Regrettably, most of them are rudely elbowed to the back of the line by louder, shinier, more-impatient releases of the here and now. Every so often, though, I’ll turn to those older, slightly-dusty books and say, “Okay, you’ve waited long enough; your time has come.”

In the near future, I’ll announce my favorite books published in 2015; but for now, here is the best of the backlist I read this year. They are ranked by the order in which I read them.

The Fever
by Megan Abbott
This was my first foray into Megan Abbott’s work. It won’t be my last. Not only does her writing smell like Teen Spirit, this novel about a mysterious illness infecting girls at a high school moves along at a blood pulse. From start to finish, The Fever had me in its grip.

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination
by Elizabeth McCracken
“This is the happiest story in the world with the saddest ending,” Elizabeth McCracken writes in this memoir about losing her baby in the ninth month of pregnancy. While there’s nothing inherently uplifting about miscarriage, McCracken tunnels into her grief and re-emerges with a gem of a book that left me profoundly stricken with both sorrow and, yes, joy—the kind of joy that comes from reading a sad story bravely and beautifully told.

by Louis L’Amour
I’ve made it an annual tradition to begin the new year by reading one of the nearly 100 Louis L’Amour paperbacks on my shelf—after closing out the old year by reading one of the Agatha Christie mysteries I’ve collected over the years (maybe—but probably not—I’ll work my way through their entire canon before I die). I typically regard L’Amour westerns as palate-cleansers: entertaining diversions that never really reach literary heights. Hondo was different. Without hesitation, I gave it five stars at my Library Thing account. This tense and tender story of a lonely pioneer woman, a rugged gunman, and an Apache warrior on the warpath is flat-out great. The John Wayne movie is terrific, too.

by Stephen King
This year’s reading was dominated by the inimitable King of Horror. Not only did I finally get around to reading this doorstopper-whopper of a novel about a time-traveling schoolteacher who goes back to try and stop Lee Harvey Oswald’s assassination of John F. Kennedy, but I also read It (which splashes over into 11/22/63’s plot) and re-read The Stand for the first time in more than three decades. I’d always touted The Stand as my favorite of Stephen King’s books; unfortunately, it didn’t hold up as well for me this go-round. With a jaunty nudge of its elbow, 11/22/63 knocked The Stand right off its pedestal. The newer novel is King at his best. It’s complex, full of heart, and wound tight with nail-chewing tension.

Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel
If the apocalypse turns out to be as beautiful as Emily St. John Mandel describes in this novel, then I can’t wait for the end of the world. Sure, there’s plenty of misery, starvation and deprivation in this tale about how the world puts itself back together after a pandemic, but the ultimate outlook of Station Eleven is one of hope. This is a book I plan to re-read just for the sheer pleasure of going back over Mandel’s pitch-perfect sentences.

Fourth of July Creek
by Smith Henderson
This was a big novel—as big as the Big Sky state of Montana in which it’s set—but it never felt loose or flabby. Quite the opposite, in fact. I connected with social worker Pete Snow from the very first chapter and never let go for the next 450 pages as he struggled to hold his life together while trying to mend other broken families. It’s still hard for me to believe this was Smith Henderson’s debut novel. It has the depth and heft of a writer at the polished height of his career.

The Mysteries Of Pittsburgh
by Michael Chabon
As a long-time fanboy of Chabon’s work, I can’t believe it took me nearly two decades to get around to reading The Mysteries of Pittsburgh. But when I did, I took a slow swim through the lush language of his debut. Chabon’s narrator, Art Bechstein, has a voice as memorable as that of The Catcher in the Rye’s Holden Caulfield. And that opening line? “At the beginning of the summer I had lunch with my father, the gangster, who was in town for the weekend to transact some of his vague business.” I was snagged hook, line and sinker.

by Peter Stark
Peter Stark’s excellent book has the unwieldy subtitle “John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire: A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival,” but it really could be boiled down to a simple “Hardship and Endurance.” I started reading Astoria just before my wife and I took a road trip to the titular Astoria, Oregon during Memorial Day weekend. Whenever possible, I like to have the full-immersion, Sensurround experience while reading books. Of course, the route the members of the 1810 Astor Expedition took on their three-year journey to forge an American empire on the Pacific Coast is radically different now. Those poor, bedraggled explorers probably could have used a warm croissant and a steaming cappuccino from Starbucks right around the time they were eating the soles of their boots in the Idaho wilderness. Stark put me there on the cross-country trip, every step of the way, and made me feel the misery.

The Short Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald
Stewart O’Nan drove me to drink…and to read F. Scott Fitzgerald. Midway through West of Sunset, O’Nan’s brilliant novel about the last days of Fitzgerald, I made it a habit at the end of each workday to pour a few fingers of whiskey, neat, and sit at the bar in my basement with a copy of the three-inch-thick collection of Fitzgerald’s short stories, edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Sure, I’ve read and re-read many of Fitzgerald’s classic novels and have been a long-time fan of his work, but for the most part his short fiction had remained an undiscovered country. What a pleasure to explore these expertly-crafted stories and to roll them around on my tongue like the sweet smoke of bourbon! (Oh, and West of Sunset is pretty damn fine, too.)

The Lay of the Land
by Richard Ford
Though I normally put Richard Ford to the top of the To-Be-Read heap as soon as he releases a new book, it’s taken me nine years to get around to The Lay of the Land. Truth be told, I’ve never been the biggest fan of Ford’s Frank Bascombe novels. While I thought The Sportswriter and Independence Day were well-written, I’ve always had a more emotional connection with Ford’s fiction set in the American West (Rock Springs, Wildlife and Canada). Bascombe always left me feeling a little meh. The Lay of the Land was different. Maybe it’s because Bascombe and I are close in age (he’s 55, I’m a few years behind that), or maybe the time was right for me to read about a white male in 2000 riddled with anxiety over the unresolved presidential election results, his wayward children, his ex-wife, his real estate business, and—most of all—a recent diagnosis of prostate cancer, or maybe because there’s some damn fine writing on these pages—whatever the cause, I connected with this Bascombe in a deeply spiritual way.

Related posts:
A Year of Reading: Best Poetry of 2015
A Year of Reading: Best Gift Book of 2015 for Bookworms
A Year of Reading: Best Short Stories of 2015
A Year of Reading: Best Book Cover Designs of 2015
A Year of Reading: Best First Lines of 2015


  1. Happy New Year, David! Thanks for sharing your favourites. I spotted the Elizabeth McCraken memoir in the used bookstore a few months ago and was wondering if I should pick it up. I read her short stories last winter after reading your recommendation. I really enjoyed it. I think I'll add her memoir to my TBR list.

    Thanks for all that you do!

  2. It is equal parts heartbreaking and uplifting. And completely unforgettable...