I read some books this year.
Not as many as I did in 2014, to be honest. Chalk that one up to a shift in time management more than anything. This was the first full year I spent as a full-time freelancer; not having a very long commute every day meant that I needed to set aside more time for reading. Sometimes that was at home; at others, it was at a coffee shop or on a long subway ride to the end of the line and back.
Here are thoughts on thirteen books that particularly impressed me this year, followed by thoughts on some other themes and books that might also be of interest. Alternately? There were a hell of a lot of books that I enjoyed that came out this year. Maybe this list will lead you to something you’ll savor, too.
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Buried Giant
This was one of the first novels I read in 2015, and its hold on me remains strong. It also falls into the category of books that really shouldn’t work, but do–it’s a dreamlike book about myths and atrocities in the distant past that uses the language of legends to tell a story that subverts the way legends resonate with us. And the final scene absolutely gutted me.
Mairead Case, See You in the Morning
Familiar and experimental; unpredictable and evocative. It’s a short novel, but there’s plenty going on: a friendship slowly dissolving, a portrait of a small town, and the story of a narrator finding their way in the world and trying to figure out just who they are.
Margo Jefferson, Negroland
In terms of year-end pieces, I wrote about Margo Jefferson’s absolutely stunning memoir for the StarTribune as well. All I’ll say here is that it’s a fantastic work that covers history, race, and events that haunt us–and it does so in a way that makes its structure a subtly critical part of the experience.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me
Essential reading, and a success both from the perspective of work that grapples with vitally important questions and as a powerfully written work of nonfiction.
Sean H. Doyle, This Must Be the Place
Over the course of this book, fragments of a life that seem to be structured at random gradually come together. Certain scenes are wrenchingly powerful on their own, but when the shape of this book is fully revealed, the effect is stunning.
Yuri Herrera, Signs Preceding the End of the World
Like Ishiguro’s novel, this story set around the border between Mexico and the United States invokes a strain of timeless mythology to powerful effect. I’m not entirely sure how to describe it, other than to say that it’s a bracing, haunting, constantly shifting novel.
Fiston Mujila Mwanza, Tram 83
An ecstatically-written novel of estranged friends in a city-state under military rule, Tram 83 was, for the most part, an utter joy to read–a mesmerizing journey into one of the most vividly rendered fictional nations I’ve encountered in a long while.
André Alexis, Fifteen Dogs
One night in Toronto, two gods make a wager that results in fifteen dogs being granted human intelligence. The premise of André Alexis’s novel is the sort of thing that could have inspired a crowd-pleaser; instead, this book is at times brutal and at times incredibly moving in its study of what exactly makes us human.
Lidia Yuknavitch, The Small Backs of Children
To say that this is a departure from Lidia Yuknavitch’s previous two books would be stating the obvious, but it’s also a departure from itself, again and again. Just when you think you have the shape of this novel figured out, it changes gears, exploring the effects of war, journeying into metafiction, and experimenting with structure along the way.
Jessica Hopper, The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic
The first time I read any of Jessica Hopper’s writings on music was sometime in the late 1990s–I have memories of reading an issue of her zine Hit It or Quit It in 1997, so let’s say 1997. I’ve been an admirer of her work ever since. The work collected in here spans genres and styles, but never fails to be insightful, and stands on its own remarkably well.
Valeria Luiselli, The Story of My Teeth
Valeria Luiselli made a huge impression on me with her first two books, Sidewalks and Faces in the Crowd, which demonstrated her skill at both essays and a surreal strain of fiction. The Story of My Teeth is something entirely different: a novel with roots in art that can be read with no art-world knowledge; a powerful story of reinvention; a haunting tale of walking through cities, and what one might find there.
Kevin Maloney, Cult of Loretta
There are novels of relationships gone sour, and then there’s Kevin Maloney’s Cult of Loretta, which finds its obsessive narrator locked in a deeply unhealthy, borderline-apocalyptic fixation with a woman who recurs throughout his life. It’s at once rooted in the quotidian and deeply hallucinatory, a combination that pays off repeatedly.
Kelly Link’s Get in Trouble continued its author’s streak of writing compellingly weird, unpredictable, disconcerting stories. Lincoln Michel’s collection Upright Beasts delved into similar territory, evoking everything from folktales to zombie apocalypses. Helen McClory’s On the Edges of Vision featured brief, cutting stories set in landscapes where the boundaries between the real and the impossible have broken down. And the short stories in Rios de la Luz’s The Pulse between Dimensions and the Desert explored questions of revenge in settings that sometimes felt familiar and sometimes disconcerted entirely.
Mark Doten’s The Infernal remixed the last decade and change of American history into a surreal, nightmarish fugue, while Bhanu Kapil’s Ban en Banlieue shattered literary forms as it addressed questions of national boundaries, race, and perception. The narrative of Karolina Waclawiak’s novel The Invaders addressed questions of class and privilege, all the while taking on an increasingly apocalyptic mood. And Penguin Classics’ omnibus of Thomas Ligotti’s collections Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe was packed full of enough bizarre imagery and dismantling of existence to haunt a reader’s dreams and waking hours both.
And in a time when alienation of all sorts surrounds us, Kamel Daoud and Michael J. Seidlinger both examined and unraveled Albert Camus’s The Stranger in their novels The Mersault Investigation and The Strangest, respectively. And very different accounts of alienation showed up in Rupert Thomson’s Kathryn Carlyle and Sarah Gerard’s Binary Star, both of which featured haunting accounts of protagonists pushing themselves away from society and towards a haunting unknown.
Jami Attenberg’s Saint Mazie told a fascinating historical story in its own right, but also managed one of the most impressive uses of a framing narrative I’ve seen in a good long while. With two novels released this year, Colin Winnette showed off an impressive stylistic range: Haints Stay deconstructed the revisionist Western, while Coyote brought the narrative to the present day and explored a more contemporary nightmare. And Natalie Eilbert’s Conversations With the Stone Wife utilized a work of art thousands of years old to explore a host of emotions and contemporary situations.
The essays found in Joni Tevis’s The World is on Fire ran the proverbial gamut in terms of exploring notions of the apocalyptic, whether contemporary of Biblical. Sarah McCarry’s About a Girl brought together a small Washington town with figures out of mythology, while Carola Dibbell’s The Only Ones found its own powerful syntax in the telling of a story of a mother and daughter in a near-future New York. And Wendy S. Walters, in her collection Multiply/Divide, moved between fictional and nonfictional forms to ponder questions societal and historical.
The Bodies, The Tension
Elisa Albert’s novel After Birth examined questions of parenthood, of aging, of culture, and of art and creativity; in her book, Albert took certain familiar elements and turned them phantasmagorical. Sara Jaffe’s Dryland and Tracy O’Neill’s The Hopeful took readers inside the mind of young athletes figuring out essential questions of identity, desire, and family. And a very different kind of search for identity made itself manifest in Gregory Howard’s Hospice.
Maggie Nelson’s memoir The Argonauts explored questions of gender, family, and parenthood; like nearly everything Nelson writes, it pushes against the expectations of genres and forms. Sarah Manguso and Heidi Julavits each found fascinating ways of turning the diary into gripping literature with their books Ongoingness and The Folded Clock. And Lucy K. Shaw’s The Motion featured and range of styles and pieces that took the reader into Shaw’s point of view.
For grippingly primal narratives, exploring the limits of endurance and of physicality, Cynan Jones’s The Dig and Matt Bell’s Scrapper focuses their narratives on haunted men in impossible positions. And the newly-translated edtion of Anne Garetta’s Sphinx tells a powerfully compelling narrative while separating that narrative from elements that most readers would consider essential.
For those of you keeping track, I wrote about highlights from the year in narrative nonfiction for Signature, and about the music I liked in 2015 for Dusted. And, in the interest of full disclosure, we’ve published stories from Helen McClory, Rios de la Luz, Mairead Case, Sean H. Doyle, and Tracy O’Neill as part of Sunday Stories at Vol.1 Brooklyn, some of which were featured in the books referenced above.