What I read in 2015

This year was a kind of amazing reading year for me, quite possibly the best of my life (so far). I am part of a facebook group  that keeps track of our reading on a big spreadsheet (I know!) and I swear the tracking made me read more. It certainly did something. I decided at some point this year that I should pretty much just stick to fiction when it comes to books (I do read nonfiction articles all the time) as that always feels the most luxurious when I’m reading an actual book. Also, much as I am interested in the new books that come out every year (and definitely read some of these this year), there is something satisfying about reading books from, shall we say, not this century.

Anyway, here are the books I read in 2015, in order. With a brief summary and my brief thoughts.

  1. Essays of E.B. White. Essays that span his life, about his farm in Maine, life in NYC, the past, the future, etc. All of it is so damn smart and funny and beautifully written. The man was a treasure.
  2. My Antonia by Willa Cather. A man remembers his youth growing up in Nebraska in the late 1800s with his friend Antonia, an immigrant from Bohemia.  This book was lovely. It appealed to me exactly the way the Laura Ingalls Wilder books did. Cather was a wonderful writer.
  3. Alone by Richard E. Byrd. Byrd, who was an incredible writer, describes his time living alone for five months (in a shack!) at the South Pole in 1934. My god. This book was exactly what I wanted/needed to read. So beautiful and compelling. I will never forget it.
  4. The First Bad Man by Miranda July. A high-strung middle-aged woman’s world turns upside down when a 20something girl ends up moving in and never leaving. There is so much to love about this book, which is quirky and hilarious and also, ultimately, quite moving.
  5. The Dinner by Herman Koch. Two couples sit through a dinner together and it is revealed that their teenage sons did something terrible. This book is probably considered a biting social commentary and it probably is, but that is not quite my thing. It was a quick read and was definitely well-written, but I dunno. Eh.
  6. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. “Written during the darkest period of Stalin’s repressive reign and a devastating satire of Soviet life.” I stopped after about 50 pages. I thought it was funny and interesting but highly complex and I was just not in the mood. I may revisit it someday, however.
  7. The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton. A single society woman’s fall from grace in New York City, 1905. There were parts in the middle that felt a bit too long, but the gut-wrenching ending was worth every minute. My god, the ending.
  8. Wish Her Safe at Home by Stephen Benatar. A very unreliable narrator is left a beautiful old house by her aunt and slowly goes insane. It was at times hilarious, but at those same times, also quite sad. We see the world from the narrator’s point of view but we also realize from the reaction of other characters, how completely nuts she is.
  9. We Learn Nothing by Tim Kreider. Essays and cartoons by a smart, funny guy. Smart, funny, often quite moving.
  10. How to Be Both by Ali Smith. The story of both a teenage girl in contemporary England who has lost her mother and a 17th century painter who leads a secret life. Funny and so moving and surprising. The first part (about the teenage girl) is a total delight and the second part (about the painter) (which took me a little while to get into) is just as wonderful, but in a totally different way. And they do connect!
  11. St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves by Karen Russell. Short stories from the wonderful and hilarious Karen Russell. She is so strange and brilliant and delightful.
  12. The Flight of Andy Burns by Alice Mattison. Short stories from the lovely Alice Mattison. Her stories are delicious. They are generally about family relationships and they are just capitivating by their every-day-ness. I love her.
  13. Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon. The memoir of Kim Gordon (of Sonic Youth). I liked it, but mostly because of who she is. It isn’t really well-edited and Kim weirdly sounds like an insecure 20something much of the time. But there are interesting people in it, including herself.
  14. Wild Ones by Jon Mooallem. The subtitle says it all: “A sometimes dismaying, weirdly reassuring story about looking at people looking at animals in America.”  I think I read about half of this book. I did really like it, but I find sometimes with nonfiction books that I can only read so much of a topic before wanting to move on. This is totally my fault and not at all the fault of this really great book.
  15. Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner. A man confined to a wheelchair writes the story of his grandparents who lived out west in the late 1800s. Oh. This is without question one of the best books I have ever read. It is stunning. An incredible portrait of a marriage and disappointment and sacrifice. And an amazing story of life out west as it was being transformed.
  16. The Bird’s Nest by Shirley Jackson. A story of a young woman with mulitple personalities, told from various points of view. Though I am a diehard Shirley Jackson fan, this was not one of my favorites. It had some funny and delightful moments, but it got a bit tedious at times and I’m not sure it really worked.
  17. May We Be Forgiven by A.M. Homes. “An unflinching account of a catastrophic, violent, black-comic, transformative year in the history of one broken American family.” So compellingly disturbing and hilarious! It wasn’t flawless but it was pretty damn terrific at times. If you like A.M. Homes it’s probably her best.
  18. Gutshot by Amelia Gray. Unconventional short stories and flash fiction. Eh. I wanted to like it much more than I did. Occasionally there is brilliance, but mostly I found that she tries so so hard to be weird. I felt impatient mostly.
  19. Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill. A tiny riveting book you can read in one gulp. The story of a married woman with a young child, but told in a wonderful, spare way. I wasn’t sure about the spare writing at first (seemed too precious) but it really was a fantastic way to tell a story that has been told a million times. It really hit me on a deep emotional level.
  20. Nothing Right by Antonya Nelson. Short stories from another wonderful storyteller. Great characters, complex plots. “Honest, witty, and quietly revelatory.” The brilliance kind of sneaks up on you and by the end I was heartbroken that it was over. Must read more of her!
  21. Clever Girl by Tessa Hadley. The story of a woman’s life “unfolded in a series of beautifully sculpted episodes that illuminate an era, moving from the 1960s to today.” It is what you might call a quiet but deep novel. Very satisfying.
  22. A Sport and a Pastime by James Salter. The brief love story of a young American man and a young French girl in France in the early 1960s. The first 50 pages almost turned me off, but then suddenly it became amazing. His writing is gorgeous and once the story finally got going it was breathless and compelling. I was so sorry when it ended.
  23. The Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers. A sensitive 12-year-old girl in 1940s Georgia is desperate to leave her small town and have a real life somewhere else. Oh man. Carson McCullers is everything they say. And more. Such a dark fascinating book that ends up punching you in the gut. I loved it.
  24. A Time of Gifts by Patrick Leigh Fermor. In 1933, the author, a young English writer, decided to leave England and travel east across Europe by foot. And write about it. In this book, he gets as far as Hungary. There were times his descriptions were laugh-out-loud hilarious (they were so pleasurable to read aloud!) and I was totally enraptured. Other times, though his writing was always beautiful, I found parts tedious and plodding. There are two more books about this journey, but I’m not sure I will read them. At least not now.
  25. The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan. A little slip of a book that I read in one hour. A nameless narrator tells the story of his relationship as a series of dictionary entries. I liked it, but it’s less of a book and more of just a journal of sorts. Still, it’s moving at times. A clever concept that I was afraid would be too clever for its own good, but it works.
  26. Vampires in the Lemon Grove by Karen Russell. The newest collection of wonderful, weird, funny, disturbing stories from Karen Russell. Some stories in this book are so disturbing they will haunt me forever. Her imagination is wild. She is a remarkable writer.
  27. Life Is Meals by James and Kay Salter. The Salters (writers, husband/wife, amateur chefs) write a kind of “year in food” – there are entries for every day. I will read this book over and over, I’m sure. Such a lovely book about eating together and the history of all kinds of foods.
  28. Love in a Cold Climate by Nancy Mitford. A terribly witty novel depicting the London social scene circa 1930. Just completely delightful. The dialogue is fantastic and the addition of a fabulous male dandy character toward the end of the book made me absolutely love it.
  29. Light Years by James Salter. The story of a long marriage that falls apart, beginning in the 1960s and going for about 20 years. Their family and friends also figure into the story quite beautifully. It was intense and moving. His writing is beautiful and spare, sometimes a little confusing due to its spareness. At first I thought the book went too far past a good ending, but its powerful ending made me love it more.
  30. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel. Bechdel’s graphic novel memoir about growing up: including the death of her father, a closeted gay man, and her own coming out. I read this book in one sitting – about two hours. It was both funny and incredibly moving. Bechdel’s literary references throughout were amazing. God, she’s wonderful.
  31. Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. The story of two couples and their long friendship from the 1930s to the 1970s. No one can write about relationships like Stegner. The book is lovely and nuanced and quiet and profound.
  32. Wind/Pinball by Haruki Murakami. The first two short novels Murakami wrote (in the late 70s), published in English for the first time. Everything about Murakami’s later stuff is all there, in nascent form. I’m definitely glad I read it as it was fun to see that he was already writing in the classic Murakami way. But it was more disjointed than usual.
  33. Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (translated by Lydia Davis). Emma Bovary’s tragic life as a bored, unhappy housewife told in the gorgeous, wicked, hilarious voice of Flaubert.  Holy fuck! This is one of the most perfect books I’ve ever read. I cannot recommend it enough.
  34. The Moviegoer by Walker Percy. A 30-year-old guy wandering through his life in New Orleans, looking for something. It takes place in a week or so in the early 1950s. You feel yourself wandering around with this guy as he makes lots of smart, strange, funny observations about the world.
  35. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard. Written in 1974, and set over a year, the author details what she sees and thinks about during each season while wandering around near her home in Virginia. Her long excellent descriptions of insects, snakes, and parasites are not for the squeamish! There is so much intelligent reflection about life here. And her descriptions of the straightforward brutality and beauty of the natural world are always wonderful.
  36. The Good Soldier by Ford Maddox Ford. You could say it is a “tale of passion” as the book is subtitled, but the best thing about it is how the details of two marriages (circa 1900) are told completely out of order and it’s almost like a detective story in its revelations. The writing is amazing. As more details are revealed by the self-admitted unreliable narrator, you realize that everything you thought was completely wrong.
  37. M Train by Patti Smith. Patti Smith reflects on her life and her dreams as she sits in coffee shops and hotel rooms. I liked it, but not as much as “Just Kids,” which I loved. This is much more stream of consciousness and dreamy. And yet I gobbled it up pretty quickly.
  38. The Maytrees by Annie Dillard. The story of a couple over the course of their marriage in Cape Cod. I could not stop reading this book. Annie Dillard’s writing just completely compels me.
  39. H Is For Hawk by Helen Macdonald. A woman who loses her father grieves for him while training a goshawk. Her writing is beautiful at times and the story was captivating. It went on longer than I wanted it to and so I liked but did not love it.

And now, on to the next.

 

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