If it’s mid-December, it must be time to tally our reading year, laud the books that moved us (grieve the time we didn’t make to read all the ones we’d hoped to), and plan our holiday binges.
We asked some of our favorite novelists, poets and book people to chime in on the books they loved this year. While most of the following selections appeared in 2015, we gave our contributors free rein to discuss any of their books of the year, regardless of publication date.
This was the year of long books for me. The highlight was Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, so moving and instructive, a breathtaking portrait of the damage human beings can inflict on one another, and a reminder of the tender and passionate attention we owe our friends, even when their lives are mysteries to us, even when they harbor such damage. This long, satisfying novel took my breath away; I know I will read it again. I was also completely awestruck by Garth Risk Hallberg’s achievement in City on Fire, a brilliant love song to New York, to the American dream of getting to that city and making a place in it. Writing it over those long years was such an act of faith. I enjoyed meeting Garth when he came to New Orleans on tour and gave such a fine reading. Loved Elena Ferrante’s novels and Clarice Lispector’s stories—what a feast!
Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own was another favorite, a tale of creating the singular life, searching for the possible self in the lives of others. Loved Nancy Princenthal’s fascinating biography, Agnes Martin: Her Life and Art; Shirley Jackson’s Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays and Other Writing, a celebration of her dual genius for the spooky story and the domestic comedy; and I Shock Myself: The Autobiography of Beatrice Wood, the unconventional and inspiring ceramics artist. She describes herself as “I, who wanted danger, adventure, and love.” Well, who doesn’t?
ESTRAGON: I can’t go on like this.
VLADIMIR: That’s what you think.
—Samuel Beckett, Waiting For Godot
I fell back into Beckett in a big way this past year, reading and rereading a Bible of a thing called I Can’t Go On, I’ll Go On, a collection of Beckett’s greatest hits edited by Richard W. Seaver. You might recognize the title. It’s the last utterance in Beckett’s novel The Unnameable, and for me this line is second only to Beckett’s weathered, withered bird-of-prey face as the most perfecto encapsulation of the poet’s genius. I’m looking now through my second-hand copy of this plastic-covered gem; WITHDRAWN is stamped way deep into the top of its empty (Empty, I say! Empty!) checkout card in the first inner page, courtesy of the Kankakee Public Library. Oh well. The book is a wild herd of Beckett—fiction, prose, crit and plays—and I hovered over it all summer, mostly while sitting at the edge of a lukewarm swimming pool where I had to occasionally look up to make certain my small sons’ toe heads were still safely above water. Sam Beckett. Existential angst? Tussles with a godless God? O, the horror! The horror! Hardly. Closer to Laurel and Hardy, Comedy Central. Samuel Beckett’s world is wicked funny and bright, bright, bright. All these years and I never got that.
Seneca’s Letters From A Stoic was a real downer. I loved it. And me thinks anyone interested in American history would greatly benefit having a sit-down with Eugene Genovese’s Roll, Jordan, Roll, a wonderful rendering, an exhaustive research I’d say, of slave life in America. It brings home the point and something many of my fellow Southerners know in their bones: the culture we enjoy here is not a white culture with a black influence, but a black culture with a white influence. Take it to the bank, brothers and sisters.
Michael Martin’s collection of poetry, Extended Remark, is published by Portals Press.
My pick of books this year: all novels. The Chimes by New Zealander Anna Smaill is an absorbing, inventive YA dystopian story set in a London that feels both medieval and post-apocalyptic. In this world the written word and memory are banned, replaced with a music that deafens and dements.
Boyhood Island is the third (English) installment of Karl Ove Knausgaard’s My Struggle series, and my addiction to his work continues to grow: it’s an acquired taste, I know, but I love its intensity, audacity and obsessive detail.
After many recommendations, I finally read The Group by Mary McCarthy, a novel first published in 1963. An account of the politics, pretences and more of New York in the ’30s via the lives of eight Vassar grads—what McCarthy herself called “a true history”—was compulsive reading, breathless and biting.
My book of the year, though, is Hanna Krall’s 2006 Chasing the King of Hearts, about one woman’s evasion and ensnarement during the Holocaust; the English translation (from Polish) by Philip Boehm was published in 2013. It’s the sparest of thrillers, a based-on-a-true-story novel that’s profound, lyrical, unsentimental and disturbing. Such a book! I’m giving it to everyone I know.
Paula Morris is the author of several novels and story collections, including Rangatira, Hibiscus Coast and Queen of Beauty. Her story “False River” was shortlisted for the 2015 Sunday Times EFG Short Story Award in the UK. She is a senior lecturer at the University of Auckland.
Transition and motion, love and longing, and the writing life have preoccupied me this year. Science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany’s memoir The Motion of Light in Water is a poetic and moving recollection of his life as a young gay writer living in an open marriage (with poet Marilyn Hacker) in the 1960s, in the Lower East Side of New York City.
The beautiful mood of longing and love with which Delany remembers himself is also a hallmark of his novels, and Delany’s peculiar, almost experimental The Einstein Intersection was one of my favorite reads this year. There is a basic plot, though Delany’s style is the reason to read this: a post- or super-human hunter-herder, Lo Lobey, whose weapon is a machete that doubles as a flute, goes on an Orphic quest to find his dead love, Friza. Tremendous blasts of adventure story writing are mixed with a strange, compelling, philosophical-poetic voice and vigorous sci-fi imaginings.
Maggie Nelson’s Bluets was the book I loved best this year, a collection of short prose-poem essays, resistant to categorization and stunningly written. Nelson refracts the suffering, pain, loves, lusts, yearnings of her life through the color and concept blue. This way too the book is about the shapes of obsession and attention. A masterpiece.
Daniel Stephensen writes poems and stories and plays cello.
2015 became my year of discovering authors I somehow missed the first time around—and then reading them obsessively. The top contenders in this category: Kent Haruf, especially Our Souls at Night and Plainsong, and anything and everything by Laurie Colwin, a writer I wouldn’t mind becoming when I grow up. Haruf and Colwin both mine the relationships of ordinary people who try to do the right thing but get snagged in life’s difficulties. They’re both compassionate without ever becoming sentimental.
Elena Ferrante completed her quartet of friendship, feminism, passion and history beautifully this year with The Story of the Lost Child. I’ll keep rereading her chronicle of these two friends that spans the scope of Italian history post-World War II to the present and the complexities of intimacy.
I’m thankful for the Neustadt Prize, awarded through World Literature Today at the University of Oklahoma, which alerted me to this year’s winner, Dubravka Ugrešić, a Croatian novelist and essayist. I defy anyone interested in the future of writing and publishing not to find her pieces in Thank You for Not Reading alternately devastating, hilarious and comforting. (My favorite novels of the year about publishing: Dear Reader by Paul Fournel and Muse by Jonathan Galassi.) Ugrešić has helped me to craft my New Year’s reading resolution: read fewer hyped books (or at least get through them more quickly), read more widely, more wildly. Hold me to it.
I’m in awe of the searing intellect and inventive style at play in Karine Tuil’s The Age of Reinvention, her Prix Goncourt-nominated novel about shape-shifting identities set in contemporary Paris and New York.
The Algerian novelist Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation retells Camus’s The Stranger from the perspective of the brother of the Arab whom Meursault murders on an Algiers beach. Daoud’s timely examination of relations between Muslims and Westerners gives us not only an essential companion to Camus’s classic but a novel that should be read and studied on its own terms.
Mary-Louise Parker had me laughing and crying from one paragraph to the next in Dear Mr. You, her book of letters to the men she has known or imagined. Her prose contains more seductive wit than the actress gives her West Wing character Amy Gardner, so for anyone who didn’t already have a guilty crush, well, read a few pages of these letters that read like prose poems by someone with several PhDs.
My favorite recent “discovery” has been Wright Morris, the woefully neglected Nebraska-born winner of the 1956 National Book Award. Watch these pages in the coming year for more details about this major novelist who deserves a worldwide renaissance.