Thursday, January 14, 2016

A Year of Reading: Best Books of 2015

Headlines-wise, 2015 was a disheartening year, one I’m glad is now in our rear-view mirror. I don’t have to list all the horrors here–you know them, you lived them–but I think we can all agree it was the kind of year that made you want to pull the covers over your head and stay in bed. Or go out and march in the street, trying to yell the political stupidity and incomprehensible violence back into silence. Whatever your method for dealing with the last twelve months, I think we can all agree that every now and then we needed the solace and escape provided by literature. In 2015, I vowed to read more novels than I did headlines. The very best books did more than just “take me away from reality,” they reminded me that words are stronger than bullets, sentences are sharper than knives, and books are almost always smarter than blow-dried politicians. Here are my very favorite books published in 2015, listed by the order in which I read them and prefaced by some choice cuts from their pages.

The Sasquatch Hunter’s Almanac
by Sharma Shields

It was a dreary Wednesday in early October when Eli informed Gladys that he planned to give up his flourishing podiatry practice and pursue, full-time, the region’s elusive Sasquatch.

I’m cheating a little with this one because I read an advance copy in late 2014, but since Sharma Shield’s debut novel came out in January 2015, I’m going to include it–if nothing else, because I don’t want it to get lost in the year-end rush of books released after Labor Day, and because I’ve been telling everyone I know they’ve got to read this utterly charming, magical, and weird novel about a man’s lifelong quest to find a man he believes is Bigfoot. The novel opens when the man, Eli, is a boy and watches his mother walk out the front door with the big, hairy “Mr. Krantz,” never to be seen again. The book gets even better from there as it explores the issues of abandonment, obsession and the need for revenge.

The Valley
by John Renehan

In the dream he climbed a narrow foot-trail alone in the sun, on a bare mountainside littered with metal corpses.

John Renehan’s debut novel is about an Army lieutenant who leaves the comfort of his forward operating base to travel deep into the heart of darkness in Afghanistan where he’s assigned to investigate a maverick platoon of soldiers who fired a warning shot into a crowd of villagers. The situation disintegrates into violence almost as soon as the aptly-named Lt. Black sets foot at the remote outpost. The Valley has all the best hallucinatory qualities of Apocalypse Now, combined with the taut moral suspense of a writer like Graham Greene. It’s been nearly a year since I read the novel, but I can still recall the fear it generated in me. It tasted like copper pennies.

Recipes for a Beautiful Life: A Memoir in Stories
by Rebecca Barry

According to my horoscope this past weekend was supposed to be a great one for romance. Well. Ha. Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Meet Rebecca Barry: mother, writer, wife, self-distracting procrastinator who makes clay cats and mermaids instead of working on her novel. Meet Rebecca and Tommy, a charming, witty couple who love, fight, kiss-and-make-up, and then start yelling at their toddler sons to stop peeing on each other. Meet Rebecca Barry–she’ll make you laugh on one page and maybe get a little misty-eyed on the next with her “memoir in stories” which is full of hilarious dialogue, recipes for things like “Angry Mommy Tea,” and tips on how to fool your kids into picking up their toys (scare them with stories about a green-toothed fairy named Gladys who steals un-picked-up toys at night). I laughed, I cried, I twisted readers’ arms, insisting they drop everything and read these Recipes right goddamn NOW. This book holds many rewards, and they’re all delicious.

West of Sunset
by Stewart O’Nan

The moon was a thin white sickle, and he thought of that last summer in Antibes, before the Crash, when Zelda was still his and everything was possible.

Stewart O’Nan’s terrific biographical novel of F. Scott Fitzgerald led me down a rabbit trail to reading more of the Jazz Age genius’ short stories. Though I’ve always liked Fitzgerald for his novels, I felt like I rediscovered him in 2015 thanks to O’Nan. West of Sunset chronicles the last years of Fitzgerald’s life–his Hollywood years–as he struggles to develop screenplays for the big movie studios, while trying to write his own work (including, as we know now, that final unfinished novel, The Last Tycoon). I’ve always been a fan of O’Nan’s work, but he nearly outdoes himself in these pages which are permeated with sadness, soaked in whiskey, and full of near-perfect sentences–like this one of Fitzgerald’s final moments: “He lost his grip and felt himself falling, flailing blindly, and with his last helpless thought before the darkness swallowed him, protested: But I’m not done.”

The Dead Lands
by Benjamin Percy

They rode through forests that had burned down to blackened lances and others electric with the yellow-and-red music of fall. They rode across glinting fields of obsidian that looked as though the night froze and fell and shattered.

This past year’s reading was dominated by the apocalypse (I was going to say “plagued,” but refrained from that cheap pun; besides, the doomsday lit I read was, for the most part, pleasant, not plague-y). Of all the end-of-the-world novels I read in 2015, Benjamin Percy’s The Dead Lands was without a doubt the most inventive. For starters, it has a great set-up: the 1804 Lewis and Clark Expedition is recast as a post-SuperFlu/post-nuclear holocaust odyssey of a brave and desperate group, led by Lewis Meriwether and Mina Clark (see what he did there?). Like Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, the America-to-come is a frightening and devastated wasteland with the survivors’ belief there’s still some untainted green world out there. Percy writes with gusto and has a keen knack of timing, so the pages flew through my fingers. But most importantly, he made me care about his characters so that when sudden and unexpected death strikes the bunch (which it does frequently), I was genuinely moved and mourned for the loss of these made-up people.

Bad Sex
by Clancy Martin

      I went to the bar and asked the bartender to pour me a club soda. Then I said, “You know what, add a couple of fingers of vodka to that. Just float it on top. There, yes, a little more, thanks.”
      I drank it standing there and got a second. “Easy on the soda,” I told him.

Sure, there’s sex in this short novel–some of it is even bad (as in, harmful to the participants’ emotional well-being)–but what you’ll find more frequently is good writing. And heaps of it. Told in terse chapters, as if the story is being extracted from the narrator’s mouth by a dentist using minimal amounts of novocaine, Bad Sex chronicles the downward spiral of an alcoholic writer struggling to maintain her slippery grip on respectability. The novel opens with our anti-heroine Brett in Central America, away from her husband, and we watch (shaking our heads in judgment) as she begins a love affair with her husband’s friend Eduard. Her actions may lead to no good for all characters involved, but they also make for a great book.

American Copper
by Shann Ray

A single butterfly moved toward her as if climbing poorly made stairs.

If I compared a book to a twilit mountain range washed in purples and oranges and reds, the sight of it causing you, the reader who has trudged through a dull landscape of ordinary novels, to stumble in your sojourn and fall to one knee in reverence for the toothy horizon; and if I said reading this particular novel was as bracing and invigorating as drinking from a cold, clear alpine stream; and if I said it was gorgeous as a coffee-table book and deeply meditative as the Book of Psalms; and if I said just one book can, however briefly, change the way you look at both the natural world and human nature–if I said all that, you’d want to read this book, wouldn’t you? Good, glad to hear it, because American Copper by Shann Ray is all this, and more. And if you think I’m overstating the qualities of this novel set in Montana, well then my dear friend, it’s obvious you haven’t read it. Ray's debut novel has a huge, panoramic timesweep, from the Sand Creek Massacre of 1864 to the years just before World War II, but it is, at heart, an intimate novel. You may have overlooked American Copper in the year-end crush of new literary fiction hitting bookstores; don’t commit that same crime in 2016. Put this beautifully-written, spiritually-grounded novel at the top of your must-read list.

City on Fire
by Garth Risk Hallberg

Then they crested the ridge of Weehawken, and there it was, New York City, thrust from the dull miles of water like a clutch of steely lilies.

Garth Risk Hallberg’s big, bold debut novel invites comparison to blockbuster novelists like Charles Dickens and Tom Wolfe–and it certainly deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as those literary giants–but it more than holds its own as a fresh, inventive narrative that paints on a big canvas and never loses sight of its characters in all that vast page-length. The shooting of a girl in Central Park is at the heart of City on Fire, but around her swirl a cast of characters which include a fireworks manufacturer, a reporter (who may care too much for his own good), anarchists, estranged heirs to a family fortune, a pimply-faced teenager, and a self-doubting novelist named Mercer Goodman who writes what I can only guess is a Hallbergian self-reflection on page 867 (of 944):
In his head, the book kept growing and growing in length and complexity, almost as if it had taken on the burden of supplanting real life, rather than evoking it. But how was it possible for a book to be as big as life? Such a book would have to allocate 30-odd pages for each hour spent living (because this was how much Mercer could read in an hour, before the marijuana)—which was like 800 pages a day. Times 365 equaled roughly 280,000 pages each year: call it 3 million per decade, or 24 million in an average human lifespan. A 24-million page book, when it had taken Mercer four months to draft his 40 pages—wildly imperfect ones! At this rate, it would take him 2.4 million months to finish. 2,500 lifetimes, all consumed by writing. Or the lifetimes of 2,500 writers. That was probably—2,500—as many good writers as had ever existed, from Homer on. And clearly, he was no Homer. Was not even an Erica Jong.
No, but he is Garth Risk Hallberg and that’s good enough for me.

Nothing But the Dead and Dying
by Ryan W. Bradley

Frank leaned his head against the window. The glass was still plenty cold. If he were to cry, Frank thought, his face might actually freeze to the window.

Raymond Carver once wrote a story called “What’s in Alaska?” In the course of the story about two couples who get together, smoke some marijuana, and dance around the question of adultery, one of the characters answers the titular question: “There’s nothing in Alaska.” With all due respect to Mr. Carver, there is something in Alaska and it’s hot enough to finally and fully melt all the state’s glaciers. That something is a someone: a writer named Ryan W. Bradley and he writes some of the best bare-knuckled, roll-up-the-sleeves fiction I’ve come across in years. I bring up Raymond Carver because his ghost lingers in Bradley’s sentences, running his cold, bleak fingers across the words. This is not the Alaska of majestic mountains or Last Frontier homesteaders who have to trap their own food and pee into a bucket; it’s not even the wacky Palinesque side of the state. This is a grimmer, more realistic portrait of Alaska, one where collars are blue, the meth is sweet as candy, and life is taken one day at a time. As someone who lived in Fairbanks and Anchorage for nearly a decade, I can tell you this is about as spot-on true as I’ve seen Alaskan fiction get. I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of the short story collection and gave it a blurb, which I’ll just repeat here by way of a review:
Just like the State of Alaska itself, in which they’re set, the stories in Ryan Bradley’s Nothing But the Dead and Dying are beautiful, dangerous, hardcore, and strong enough to break your ice-brittled bones. Here are the losers and the strivers, the broken and the just-fixed, the down-but-not-out and the ones crawling back for forgiveness on hands and knees. These are the people of Alaska, yes, but they are also all the citizens of the world. They are you and me in our best and worst hours. Ryan W. Bradley goes full throttle down an icy road with these stories. GodDAMN, can he ever drive a story!

Fates and Furies
by Lauren Groff

Great swaths of her life were white space to her husband. What she did not tell him balanced neatly with what she did. Still, there are untruths made of words and untruths made of silences, and Mathilde had only ever lied to Lotto in what she never said.

Lauren Groff’s justly-acclaimed novel is a masterclass in writing sentences that are cut like jewels and fitted together like a cogs in a clockwork. Tick-tock gems, one and all. I won’t say too much about the structure of Fates and Furies, for fear of spoiling the first-time reader, except to say that the narrative division which lops the book into two pieces is vital and intrinsic and comes at just the right time. By mid-book, I was completely tangled in the decades-spanning marriage of Lotto (Lancelot) and Mathilde; it made me think about my own marriage and how many times all of us–married or not–say things without ever saying them.

People Like You
by Margaret Malone

Gladys smokes like it was just invented, brand new and full of possibility.

Margaret Malone’s debut collection of stories marches straight to the top of the hill and plants a flag: Here is an important writer to watch. This book embodies everything I love about short fiction: it dances on boxer’s feet, moves in quick, punches hard, and then leaves my head ringing. Malone writes about people who are sometimes distraught, sometimes depressed, often anxious, and occasionally misguided; but one thing they are—always, always, always—is real. Take the titular story, for instance, where average American married couple Cheryl and Bert attend a surprise birthday party for a “friend” they don’t particularly like. They get lost en route, drink too much once there, and leave with some stolen balloons. On the surface, it’s an ordinary evening; but what sets this story apart, what gives it an electric buzz that tastes like you just licked a lamp socket, is what doesn’t happen. With remarkable restraint, Malone takes us on a tour of the tip of the iceberg without feeling the need to state the obvious: there’s a massive, continent-sized chunk of ice right below our feet. A current of tension between Cheryl and Bert hums throughout the story. Their marriage is in free fall when we begin our 13-page eavesdrop and they’re both (or at least Cheryl is) frantically scrabbling their hands across their bodies, trying to find the ripcord that will open the marriage-saving parachute. It may or may not happen. That’s not the point. The point is the ride: the wry, jolting, cynical, sweet, hilarious ride Malone takes us on with her sentences. Sentences like: “We drive in silence for minutes, the inside-car hush of our motion, all the best-times feelings dissolving, the thick familiar air starts up between us. Me, driving. Him, sitting there.” Bottom line, readers like you need to read People Like You.

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary
by Sarah Manguso

I wrote so I could say I was truly paying attention. Experience in itself wasn’t enough. The diary was my defense against waking up at the end of my life and realizing I’d missed it.

At one time or another, many of us have kept a diary. I started mine in 1984, but it’s sporadic: I water its garden erratically. I’ve given it the wholly-pretentious title “My Life (and How I Lived It)” and it currently stands at 350,000 words. That’s nothing compared to the diary Sarah Manguso kept for twenty-five years: it eventually ballooned to 800,000 words. She felt compelled to write down, in detail, every single thing that happened to her every single day. “Imagining life without the diary, even one week without it, spurred a panic that I might as well be dead,“ she writes in Ongoingness. “The trouble was that I failed to record so much...From the beginning, I knew the diary wasn’t working, but I couldn’t stop writing. I couldn’t think of any other way to avoid getting lost in time.” Time–the tick-tock of pendulums, the silent flicker of numerals on a digital clock, the rustle of calendar pages–time is the main character in Ongoingness. Time, you ugly, teasing, despicable beast! I hate you, but I must come to terms with you. And that’s what Manguso tries to do in this stunning meditation (compressed into 104 pages) on how to live for the present moment. Of all the books I read in 2015, Ongoingness is the one that halted me in my tracks, made me stop what I was doing (suspended in time!) and read slowly, and repetitively, its words of wisdom. I’ll leave you with just a few sentences–pearls in a long string of them:
I tried to record each moment, but time isn’t made of moments, it contains moments. There is more to it than moments.

Lives stop, but life keeps going.

Left alone in time, memories harden into summaries. The originals become almost irretrievable.

Perhaps all anxiety might derive from a fixation on moments–an inability to accept life as ongoing.

Look at me, dancing my little dance for a few moments against the background of eternity.

Related posts:
A Year of Reading: Best Novellas of 2015
A Year of Reading: Best Books From Other Years
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 comment:

  1. I too loved O'Nan's West of Sunset. Also Fates and Furies. Now you have encouraged me to tackle City on Fire, a book sitting on my shelves for a few months, calling to me.