2015 was a great year for fiction, largely dominated by doorstoppers (like Death & Mr. Pickwick and City on Fire, in addition to the Franzen and Yanagihara listed below) and Harper Lee. I’ve decided to pass on Go Set a Watchman, but I’ve read plenty of the year’s big-name fiction, as well as some more obscure titles I’d like to bring to your attention.
As difficult as it is to pit books against each other and come up with a numbered list, I’ve given it a go and come up with my top 15 fiction works of the year. To keep it simple for myself and straightforward for potential readers, I’m limiting myself to two sentences per title: the first is a potted summary; the second tells you why you should read it. I also link to any full reviews.
Let the countdown begin!
- The Shore by Sara Taylor: Gritty and virtuosic, this debut novel-in-13-stories imagines 250 years of history on a set of islands. Every region needs a literary chronicler, and I reckon Taylor – channeling David Mitchell with her cross-centuries approach – is it for the Eastern Shore of Maryland and Virginia’s islands.
- Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins: Gold, fame, citrus: reasons people once came to California; now, only a desperate remnant remains in the waterless wasteland. As a smart, believable dystopian with a family at its heart, this trumps any of last year’s efforts (like Station Eleven or California).
- Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish: Like West Side Story, this debut novel is an updated Romeo and Juliet narrative – a tragedy-bound love story with a grimy contemporary setting and a sobering message about racism and the failure of the American dream. The matter-of-fact style somehow manages to elevate the everyday and urban into an art form. (Reviewed for Third Way magazine in August.)
- Circling the Sun by Paula McLain: Before she ever thought of flying solo across the Atlantic, aviatrix Beryl Markham was just Beryl Clutterbuck: raised in Kenya, one of Africa’s first female horse trainers, its first professional female pilot, and the other side of the love triangle featuring Karen Blixen (Isak Dinesen) and Denys Finch Hatton. McLain describes her African settings beautifully, and focuses as much on the small emotional moments that make a life as she does on its external thrills.
- Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal: One of my favorite debuts of the year: a culinary-themed collection of short stories loosely linked through the character of Eva Thorvald, a young chef with an unfortunate past and a rare palate. Read it for a glimpse of how ordinary, flawed Americans live – no fairytale endings here.
- Hausfrau by Jill Alexander Essbaum: This arresting debut reads like a modern retelling of Madame Bovary, with its main character a desperate American housewife in Zurich. Watch Anna’s trajectory with horror, but you cannot deny there is a little of her in you.
- The Versions of Us by Laura Barnett: In this impressively structured, elegantly written debut, Barnett chronicles the romantic lives of two Cambridge graduates through three-quarters of a century, giving three options for how their connection might play out. There is no one perfect person or story: unsentimental this may be, but it feels true to how life works. (Reviewed for Third Way magazine in July.)
- Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff: An incisive study of a marriage, beautifully written and rich with allusions to Shakespeare and Greek mythology. Groff makes it onto a short list of women I expect to produce the Great American Novel (along with Curtis Sittenfeld, Jennifer Egan, and Hanya Yanagihara).
- Purity by Jonathan Franzen: East Germany, Bolivia and Oakland, California: Franzen doesn’t quite pull all his settings and storylines together, but this is darn close to a 5-star Dickensian read. It’s strong on the level of character and theme, with secrecy, isolation and compassion as recurring topics.
- You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman: Kleeman’s first novel is a full-on postmodern satire bursting with biting commentary on consumerism and conformity. Think of her as an heir to Dave Eggers and Douglas Coupland, with a hefty dollop of Margaret Atwood thrown in.
- The Animals by Christian Kiefer: Kiefer’s second novel contrasts wildness and civilization through the story of a man who runs an animal refuge to escape from his criminal past. A tough opening sequence establishes themes that will be essential to the novel: the fine line between instincts and decisions, the moral dilemmas involved in environmentalism, and the seeming inescapability of violence.
- The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra: A collection of tightly linked short stories giving an intimate look at Russia and Chechnya in wartime and afterwards – revealing how politics, family, and art intertwine. Just as he did in his first novel, Marra renders unspeakable tragedies bearable through his warm and witty writing.
- Girl at War by Sara Nović: This pitch-perfect debut novel is an inside look at the Yugoslavian Civil War and its aftermath, from the perspective of a young girl caught up in the fighting. The way Nović recreates a child’s perspective on the horrors of war is masterful: Ana’s viewpoint is realistic and matter-of-fact, without the melodrama an omniscient narrator might inject.
- Adeline by Norah Vincent: Set in 1925–1941 and structured like a five-act play, the novel revolves around Virginia Woolf’s philosophical conversations with Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey and his lover Carrington, T.S. and Valerie Eliot, W.B. Yeats, and her doctor, Octavia Wilberforce. Vincent has produced a remarkable picture of mental illness from the inside.
- A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: Jude St. Francis: Dickensian orphan, patron saint of lost causes, Christlike Man of Sorrows, and one of the most memorable characters in recent fiction. This novel is an attempt to tackle the monolithic question of what makes life worth living; among the potential answers: love (though it doesn’t conquer all), friendship, creativity, and the family you create for yourself.
Debut Novelists Whose Next Work I’m Most Looking Forward to: Jessamyn Hope (Safekeeping – reviewed here in June) and Carmiel Banasky (The Suicide of Claire Bishop – reviewed for Foreword’s Fall 2015 issue).
The Year’s Biggest Disappointments: Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper; Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks and Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving (both rehash the authors’ familiar themes; I couldn’t make it past 15% in the latter).
Novels I Most Wish I’d Gotten to in 2015: Nell Zink’s Mislaid, Sara Baume’s Spill Simmer Falter Wither, and the final two volumes of Jane Smiley’s “Last Hundred Years” trilogy.
What are the best novels you read this year? Any new favorite books or authors? Your comments are always welcome.
I’ll be back tomorrow with my top 15 nonfiction books I read this year (most of them not published in 2015, however – I seem to have been a nonfiction slacker!)
Scribner sent me a copy of this one entirely at random. I had barely heard of the author (an indie filmmaker and visual artist) and knew nothing about the book before starting it – which is probably for the best given that a simple synopsis makes it sound even weirder than it really is and would likely have turned me off. That black-and-white cover doesn’t really give you any clues, either, though when you open it up you get the riotously colored modern art swirls of the endpapers. You could think of the design as emblematic of the book itself: unpromising from the outside but reasonably rewarding once you get into it.
Cheryl Glickman is a neurotic 43-year-old manager at Open Palm, a Los Angeles area women’s self-defense organization that now mostly runs fitness classes. Her obsessive personality comes through with her devotion to “the system,” a strict minimalism that involves as few possessions as possible, plus reusing everything to save time and increase efficiency, and her crush on Phillip Bettelheim, an odious colleague 22 years her senior.
The book opens with two key events: Phil recommends she undergo chromotherapy for the globus in her throat; and her bosses con her into hosting their 21-year-old daughter, Clee, who seems to do nothing but lie around watching TV. The color therapy morphs into more general therapy with Ruth-Anne, while the unwanted houseguest changes Cheryl’s life forever, though not at all in the way one might expect.
“What was the name of the situation I was in? What category was this?” Cheryl wonders to herself. Clee messes with her system and starts mocking and even physically abusing Cheryl. Instead of kicking her out, though, Cheryl codifies their fights into reenactments of some of Open Palm’s 1990s self-defense videos (the title phrase comes from one of these scenarios).
And then things get sexual. First Phil starts texting about his infatuation with a 16-year-old, asking permission to make a move. Next Cheryl starts an intense masturbation campaign, imagining Clee in various pornographic situations. Sometimes Cheryl pretends she is Phil diddling Clee. To take her mind off things, Ruth-Anne suggests that Cheryl sing. She chooses a David Bowie song.
(Still with me?)
Cheryl has conflicted feelings about Clee. She likes the physical closeness of their combative relationship. At the same time, she’s disgusted by Clee’s laziness and smelly feet. Still, she’s fixated. “Her cowlike vacuousness didn’t really bother me anymore. Or it didn’t matter—her personality was just a little piece of parsley decorating warm tawny haunches.”
Eventually Cheryl wakes up to the reality that she is “a middle-aged woman who couldn’t keep her hands off herself.” The first half of the book is about fantasy and fabrication. “Real comes and goes and isn’t very interesting,” as Ruth-Anne says. In the second, though, things swiftly turn concrete when Clee realizes she’s pregnant. Cheryl takes on an advisory and later a supportive role; “I’d been her enemy, then her mother, then her girlfriend. That was three lifetimes right there.”
Does Clee love Cheryl? Does Cheryl love Clee? It’s hard to say; “maybe that was the point of love: not to think.” Regardless, all of a sudden, Cheryl finds herself a mother. “[Clee] was the worst possible person to do this with—that was evident now, but what could I do?” July herself had a new baby at the time of writing this novel, which accounts for how authentic the Jack sections feel. It’s a bit of an aimless story, but watching Cheryl’s development is certainly interesting. I could have done without most of the Phil stuff, but it turns out he’s important to the plot.
If I had to compare July’s style to anyone else’s, it would be Douglas Coupland. At times Cheryl was also a bit like Don Tillman in The Rosie Effect, what with her matter-of-fact recounting of Jack’s fetal development. Blend the voyeuristic raunchiness of The Heart Goes Last with the uncomfortable physical reality of After Birth, two novels I’ve previously reviewed on this blog, and you get an idea of the dynamic at work here.
I can’t say I entirely enjoyed the book; I don’t always appreciate quirky-for-quirkiness’-sake. However, my utter lack of expectations was a good thing, and I thought July did a solid job of making her somewhat unpleasant characters sympathetic by making them go through one of life’s central challenges: parenthood. She also comes up with some delightfully off-the-wall sentences, as in my favorite passage, in which Cheryl vocalizes her thoughts to baby Jack:
“You are a sweet potato.”This sounded literal, as if I was letting him know he was a root vegetable, a tuber. “You’re a baby,” I added, just in case there was any confusion on that last point.
Have you ever read a book by a celebrity known for their achievements in a different field? What did you think?
One of my goals with this blog is to have one convenient place where I can gather together all my writing that has appeared in disparate online locations. To that end, once a month I’ll provide links to all the book reviews I’ve published elsewhere, with a rating (below each description) and a short taster so you can decide whether to click to read more. A couple of exceptions: I won’t point out my Kirkus Indie or BlueInk reviews since I don’t get a byline.
Dandelion Angel by C.B. Calico (& interview): This was inspired by a non-fiction work, Understanding the Borderline Mother by Christine Ann Lawson. The four mother/daughter relationships in this Germany-set novel – all marked to some extent by dysfunction, physical and/or verbal abuse, and borderline personality disorder – are based on Lawson’s metaphorical classifications: the hermit, the queen, the waif, and the witch. Looping back through her four storylines in three complete cycles, Calico shows how mental illness is rooted in childhood experiences and can go on to affect a whole family.
The Last Pilot by Benjamin Johncock: Cinematic descriptions of the California desert setting plus excellent characters and dialogue enliven this debut novel about a fictional test pilot and his family troubles during America’s Space Race. Johncock is British, but you can tell he’s taken inspiration from stories about the dawn of the astronaut age. If I allowed myself small points of criticism, I would say that it’s a challenge to accept the passage of time in the final 50 pages, and that a keen interest in astronauts is probably a boon to keep readers going through the test flight portions, which to me were less compelling than the domestic drama of Jim, Grace and Florence.
Home Is Burning by Dan Marshall: At age 25, Dan Marshall went home to Salt Lake City to care for a father with ALS and a mother with leukemia. He and his four hapless siblings (a Sedaris-like clan) approached caregiving with sarcasm and dirty humor. Gleefully foul-mouthed, his memoir lacks introspective depth. He hardly ventures deeper than initial descriptions like “My gay brother, Greg” and “My adopted Native American sister, Michelle.” And even when his sentiments about his father are sincere, they are conveyed via what sound like clichés: “I wanted my poor dad to get better, not worse.” But to my surprise, Marshall made me cry in the end.
Of Orcas and Men by David Neiwert: Inspired by personal sightings near his home in Seattle, Neiwert set out to learn everything he could about orcas. The result is a thorough study of whales’ behavior and interactions with humanity from native mythology through modern-day aquarium shows. Some specialist interest would probably be helpful to those attempting this book, although there are plenty of black-and-white photographs to keep even casual readers interested. “Recovering our humanity may be the real gift of the orcas, what they can teach us. It’s our choice whether to listen.”
This Is Your Life, Harriet Chance! by Jonathan Evison [a subscription service, but an excerpt is available for free]: A widow in her seventies relives the ups and downs of her life while on an Alaskan cruise to scatter her husband’s ashes. Chapters alternate between a third-person account of the cruise and a second-person survey of Harriet’s past, delivered in the format of TV’s This Is Your Life. The narration is fresh and effective because the gradual revelations undermine Harriet’s elderly persona in such surprising ways. She is an out-of-the-ordinary but believable protagonist who, like all of us, has a mixture of victories and disappointments behind her. This is a charming novel about learning to reckon with the past.
Speak by Louisa Hall [subscription service, but the full text of my review will be available for free during the week starting September 25th as part of Editor’s Choice]: Hall interweaves disparate time periods and voices to track the development of artificial intelligence. The fact that all six narratives are in different documentary formats – memoirs, letters, the transcript of a dialogue, a diary, and so on – means they are easy to distinguish. One might argue that two of them (Alan Turing’s letters and Mary’s shipboard diary) are unnecessary, and yet these are by far the most enjoyable. They prove Hall has an aptitude for historical fiction, a genre she might choose to pursue in the future. A remarkable book interrogating how the languages we converse in and the stories we tell make us human.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman: Think of Alexandra Kleeman as an heir to Dave Eggers and Douglas Coupland, with a hefty dollop of Margaret Atwood thrown in. Her first novel is a full-on postmodern satire bursting with biting commentary on consumerism and conformity. Television and shopping are the twin symbolic pillars of a book about the commodification of the body. In a culture of self-alienation where we buy things we don’t need, have no idea where food comes from and desperately keep up the façade of normalcy, Kleeman’s is a fresh voice advocating the true sanity of individuality. Don’t miss her incredible debut.
Conflict Communication by Rory Miller: Based on “ConCom,” the police verbal de-escalation program Miller developed with Marc MacYoung, this book aims to introduce readers to more conscious methods of verbal communication that will sidestep instinctive reactions and promote peaceful solutions. The advice is practical and intuitive, yet picks up on tiny details that most people would not notice. Concise, helpful, and well-organized, this is strongly recommended for readers interested in the psychology of violence and improving communication skills.
Detained by Brian Rees: Rees intersperses witty e-mail updates from his tours of Iraq and Afghanistan with clued-in commentary about war tactics, terrorism, Islam, and the benefits of transcendental meditation (TM) for soldiers with PTSD. The mixture of formats and topics generally works well, though the spiritual material deserves its own book. There’s no denying Rees’s expertise, and his fluid writing keeps the pages turning. This could make a fascinating companion volume for fans of recent war fiction such as The Yellow Birds, Redeployment, and War of the Encyclopaedists.
Talk to Me of Love by Julia Anne Bernhardt: The poems in Bernhardt’s first collection range from erotic to spiritual as they investigate love in all its forms. Repetition, rhyme, and mantras produce hypnotic sonic effects and support the central message of the epigraph: “God is in the detail.” The everyday and the eternal mix here. This well-structured collection celebrates different types of love through meditative verse. The themes’ strength is enough to recommend it to readers of Jo Shapcott and Julia Copus.
The Hidden Treasure of Dutch Buffalo Creek by Jackson Badgenoone: Otherworldly ghost writers (the “Neverborn”) compose biographies for ordinary people in this playfully metafictional novel. James is a strong central character whose memories from the 1950s through the present give a sense of history’s sweep, while vivid descriptive language enlivens the settings. Although well written, the book as a whole is an unusual amalgam of spiritualism, historical nostalgia, and technology. James’s story might have been better told as a simple coming-of-age novel with flashbacks.
Common Ground by Rob Cowen: An unassuming patch of edge-land outside Harrogate is Cowen’s nature paradise, providing him with wildlife encounters and imaginative scenarios. Essentially, what Cowen does is give profiles of the edge-land’s inhabitants: animal and human, himself included. For instance, he creates an account of the life and death of a fox; elsewhere, he crafts a first-person narrative by a deer being hunted in medieval times. These fictions emulating Watership Down or Tarka the Otter, though well written, are out of place. When the book avoids melodramatic anthropomorphizing, it is very beautiful indeed.
We Love This Book
Where My Heart Used to Beat by Sebastian Faulks: In Faulks’s thirteenth novel, his trademark themes of war, love and memory coalesce through the story of a middle-aged psychiatrist discovering the truth about his father’s death. Reminiscent of Birdsong as well as John Fowles’s The Magus and Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, this does not have the power of Faulks’s previous work but is a capable study of how war stories and love stories translate into personal history. [A few extra thoughts at Goodreads.]
I also post reviews of most of my casual reading and skimming on Goodreads.
How to Write a Novel by Melanie Sumner: Our would-be novelist is Aris (short for Aristotle) Thibodeau, 12.5 years old and as precocious as Flavia de Luce. Diane is her single mother, and Max her downright weird younger brother. Using Write a Novel in 30 Days!, Aris is turning her family’s life story into fiction. In some ways they are very out of place here in Kanuga, Georgia. The child’s wry look at family dysfunction reminded me of Sue Townsend’s The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 ¾. I would probably read something else from Sumner, so long as it wasn’t quite as silly and YA geared as this.
The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr: I would recommend this to anyone who reads and/or secretly wants to write memoirs; for the latter group, there is a wealth of practical advice here, on topics such as choosing the right carnal details (not sexual – or not only sexual – but physicality generally), correcting your facts and misconceptions, figuring out a structure, and settling on your voice. Along the way Karr discusses a number of favorite memoirs in detail, sometimes even line by line: Wild by Cheryl Strayed, Stop-Time by Pat Conroy, A Childhood by Harry Crews, Maya Angelou’s books, Speak, Memory by Nabokov, and so on.
Emblems of the Passing World: Poems after Photographs by August Sander by Adam Kirsch: A charming mix of historical photographs (1910s–1950s Germany) and poems. Kirsch uses his poetry to bring these one-dimensional figures to life, imagining the stories behind their generic titles (“Office Worker” or “Farming Family”) and sometimes slyly questioning the political and status connotations of such designations. One of my favorites was “Student of Philosophy.” This book could draw people whose interests usually run more to nonfiction – especially social history – into giving poetry a try. Releases November 17th.
Browsings by Michael Dirda: Dirda wrote this pleasant set of bibliophilic essays for the American Scholar website in 2012–13. He’s the American equivalent of the UK’s John Sutherland: an extremely well-read doyen of the classics with a special love for Victorian and Edwardian genre fiction, often as revived by small presses and specialist societies. At times Dirda’s interests can be a bit obscure for the average reader, and some of the essays feel redundant. Still, it’s easy to relate to his addictive book purchasing and hoarding.
The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels: I read this on the train to Manchester, appropriate reading when approaching one of the UK’s biggest centers of Victorian industry and the place where Marx and Engels met to discuss ideas in the mid-1840s. Like Darwin’s Origin of Species, another seminal Victorian text, this has so many familiar lines and wonderful metaphors that have entered into common discourse that I simply assumed it was composed in English. My eyes glaze over at politics or economics, so I valued this more for its language than for its ideas. Part II, “Proletarians and Communists,” is the most focused part if you want to sample it.
Number 11 by Jonathan Coe: This is a funny and mildly disturbing state-of-England and coming-of-age novel. I’d only read one previous book by Coe, Expo 58; this is a better example of his usual pattern: multiple, loosely linked storylines. Here the theme is the absurdity of modern culture, encompassing many aspects: unjust wars, the excesses of the uber-rich, the obsession with celebrity, and suspicion and exclusion of those who are different from us. The number 11 keeps popping up, too. My favorite parts were a Survivor-type reality television show and a laughably over-the-top prize ceremony banquet. Releases November 11th.
My Family and Other Superheroes by Jonathan Edwards: Edwards displays his proud Welsh heritage with poems reflecting on his family tree and the country’s landscape. One of my favorites was “View of Valleys Village from a Hill,” in which the narrator, with a God’s-eye view of his family, envisions messing around with them. The witty “In John F. Kennedy International Airport” imagines that Wales has been abolished and recreated in miniature in a small Kansas museum (a bit like Julian Barnes’s England, England).
The Whole & Rain-domed Universe by Colette Bryce: Many of these poems are about the author’s Irish family inheritance, both literal and figurative, as in “Heritance”: “From her? Resilience. Generosity. / A teacher’s gravitas. / Irish stew. A sense / of the ridiculous. High ceilings.” I loved the first line of “Signature” – “When I finally gave up and became my mother.” It’s particularly nice how enjambment often makes the thought go just that one line beyond what you expect. I’d read more from Bryce.