2015 was an odd year for fiction, unsettled, lacking greatness in general, but heartening to see so many younger writers from around the world taking to fiction, to writing novels, in spite of all the technological changes and the failing assumption that the physical book, the object, will soon be a thing of the past. (I note, too, that when people I know read on a kindle, for example, that they talk about the kindle, rather than the book they may be reading). People like me who love to read (I read four novels per week) may read for different purposes: I still love a good story, a writer who can weave a great plot, but am also fascinated by the psychology of people whom these writers create (Sigmund Freud considered Dovestoyesky to be the finest of all psychologists; I might give that vote to Marcel Proust, but the point’s the same). But we also read for the beauty of how language is used, how words are put together, phrases, clauses, sentences , and paragraphs, and live for the perfection of the well-chosen word (one of the main reasons I miss Anita Brookner’s novels is that her prose was always perfect, her word choices so stunning, as in poetry at its best). And I read to learn how minds work, and how my own might work better or differently or more subtly , so that truly great writers such as Joan Didion altered my entire world view and perspectives on things: Didion, who once wanted to be a geologist, is a literary one, as she senses/sees/understands that which is beneath the surface of things, her greatest strength as a thinker, although she’s also the most remarkable stylist of the now aging Baby Boomer generation and its predecessors: Philip Roth having retired, we readers wait til someone else of his genius comes along, while we mourn the loss of their creativity , their surprises, their genius (as I still mourn the loss of Dame Iris Murdoch).
A cautionary note, too, about novels this year (and much nonfiction, as well): the seeping of political correctness into fiction is an alarming trend, as writers who do so are mixing and confusing ideology and propaganda as fiction, so those three tropes of postmodernism, race, gender, and class, leap out of the pages of too much contemporary fiction, or what passes for fiction. Fiction doesn’t have to be ideology; writers do, of course, have points of view, but it always depresses me to hear, for example, that Philip Roth or Saul Bellow were ‘misygonists’ (if even true), as if such javelins of spite thus ruin or wreck those writers’ entire oeuvres with a sweep of that politically correct, pointed finger/arrow. Thus, Lauren Groff’s 2015 novel, Fates and Furies, gets utterly lost in her own ambivalence (her word) about marriage; the book fails because she doesn’t understand men at all, almost perversely not, and I’m not so sure she gets women, either. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ nonfiction Between The World and Me, a kind of letter to his son about what it means to him to be black, is alternatingly fascinating and extremely informative , and maddening, sometimes way off base factually, and as likely to be a victim book as an educational one, though it’s definitely worth reading because of its topicalities, and because he writes so well.
These thoughts in mind, here’s my list of the twelve best books of 20l5; usually I just include fiction (I read most nonfiction in magazines, not books) , but this year I’m combining the two lists into one, because of a dearth of truly excellent novels, and because a couple of nonfiction books are so outstanding. I’ve also rarely seen a year when so many publications’ “top ten” books of the year are so utterly different; only about two books, which also appear on my list, seem to be making the rounds of these lists as a kind of mini-consensus. And I’ve decided to stick to books that were published in 2015, and skip a book that’s just appeared in English for the first time, though it may have been published for the first time some decades ago (if I were to include those, H.G. Adler’s The Wall, the third of a triology of novels with The Holocaust as their main theme (the writer’s a survivor of same) would be first and little else might make the list, except for Helen Macdonald’s astonishing H is for Hawk. Most books on my list were reviewed in aeqai during 2015, and all aeqai issues are archived.
1. Atticus Lish, Preparations for The Next Life. This debut novel by Lish is so astonishingly brilliantly written, so visual and aural as well as linguistic, that it’s a virtual feast for all the senses. Lish proposes that a woman from Western China, probably a Uigger, illegally emigrates to America, where she meets a newly returned American soldier, right after his tour of duty in Iraq has ended. Both find themselves in New York, and the vast majority of the novel takes place in Queens, a part of The City that most of us just drive through (or are taxied through), a borough long known to house new American immigrants (thus its endless vitality, as well as its constant decline). Their meeting is random, and Lish takes on some very tough territory in this novel: the love affair between these two is doomed from the beginning, tho it has some of the most moving moments in literature from 2015. The hero has decided to hang around New York and get drunk (etc.) to celebrate his return, but is plagued by memories of battles fought, and the death of his best friend by an explosive device on a road in Iraq. In the course of this novel, we will see his decline into ferocious, and increasingly violent, PTSD; she senses that something’s wrong, but is too frightened as an “illegal” to get help or to know how to get help (The VA is much damned in this book). She works in series of low end Asian restaurants and is frequently demeaned and treated very unkindly, but she’s steely, and smart, and she intends to improve her lot. He, of course, can’t keep any job, but has his money from exiting the Army. Some of their walks through Queens, which may go on for miles, are the most splendid descriptions in the novel, miles and miles of decaying , ugly buildings in which they find solace and a certain odd beauty, which is very moving to read. She “creates” the mountains of her homeland through a distorted look at various high rises: we see survival in the making, of two groups, our returning Vets, and our new “illegal” immigrants, both of whom are regularly screwed in America, and Lish minces no words on the treatment both groups receive. Her resilience will see her through, and his PTSD will not , with him. This novel is nearly a masterpiece, may indeed be one, and I urge all to read it.
2. Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk, is one of the finest memoirs written in decades. Macdonald is an English woman in her thirties, whose father had recently died. She was wonderfully close to him as a child, and one of their favorite activities together was to go into the English countryside and watch men train hawks and falcons (which breed naturally there). Thus, one of her responses to his sudden death is to acquire a baby goshawk, the wildest of the predatory birds, and the purchase thereof, and her daily training of the bird, and how she bonds with it, and it with her, is soaring linguistically and very moving emotionally. Macdonald uses the journal entries of another person who also acquired a hawk about a hundred years before (he is the author of The Once and Future King), and his failure to bond with his bird helps her with her own. As her grief intensifies, her own behavior becomes increasingly feral, like the hawk’s itself (whom she names Mabel, which tickles me still). Her entire world becomes this hawk—her experiences in the past allow her to seek help when she needs it: she does know men who breed and train them–but every time this hawk takes off, we wonder at its return to her arm/glove just as she does: it’s thrilling reading, full of the history of working with goshawks, the lands in which they bred, and how these ‘sports’ became an aristocratic pursuit. There’s not a word out of place in this memoir, every one perfectly chosen, and by the time Macdonald must write and read a memorial piece she writes for her father’s much delayed memorial service, we begin to sense her coming out of her deepest grief, and she’s able to individuate, if you will, from the bird. The subject matter’s very unusual, even eccentric, but the writer’s totally brilliant, and she lets us into the most inner of her inner worlds while we experience some of her own grief and are mesmerized by the training of the bird, and of the closeness of woman and goshawk: she even gets it to play with her, when she remembers, at first, that it’s just a baby. Wonderful reading, one of the highlights of 2015.
3. Mary Costello’s Academy Street is a novel of such extraordinary depth, power, and beauty that it’s nearly like reading poetry all the way through. It’s a little noted novel by young Irish writer Costello (I’m unfamiliar with her). Typically for Irish novels, the land itself becomes a character in the book (we were also treated to an excellent Irish novel by Anne Enright, The Green Road, this year, and a whole batch of stories by Irish writer supreme Edna O’Brien, too–and Irish writer Colm Toibin’s novel Brooklyn just made into a highly acclaimed film. A father is left widowed with six children on a family farm, a relatively affluent one for Ireland in the forties and fifties, but because of his widowed status, three of his children go to America, and three stay in Ireland. As with other recent immigrant literature (Anita Desai from India , for example, and several newish Nigerian writers), the immigrants to America do not fare well in this country ; some return to their homelands, though not those in Academy Street, the name of a small street in Brooklyn where our narrator, a young daughter, moves to and lives. Her experience in America is frightfully limited, her friends and contacts very small in number, though she does become a nurse and accidentally bears a child, alone (from the one single sexual experience of her entire life). The rearing of this son is a huge part of the novel: you’ll rarely read of a bleaker existence, though she does have one great friend, a black woman who lives in the same apartment building, and their friendship is brilliantly rendered. When, late in the novel, our narrator goes back to Ireland for the funeral of one of her brothers who stayed there, and she sees the land upon which the house she’d grown up in torn down, Costello writes that she “could hear the land weeping”, the single most beautiful line in literature that I read this year. Academy Street is astonishingly fine, flawless, moving and stern concurrently, and yet again enriches our own understanding of the new immigrant experiences. This novel hasn’t appeared on any other lists, as I doubt that it was read much, but it’s absolutely one of 2015’s best.
4. Hanya Yenagihara’s A Little Life may have been the year’s most discussed (and, I think, least understood) novel. A debut novel, it’s dense, intense, often gorgeous, and very tough to read, as large parts of the plot deal with the very worst types of child sexual abuse. Four young men meet in a college dorm, at a school presumed to be Harvard, and these friendships will last in various ups and downs and permutations through the next thirty years or so: the writer’s understanding of the nature of friendship between and amongst men is astoundingly astute/acute, and she incorporates and integrates social changes regarding both gender and sexuality throughout the novel, making this novel one of the most contemporary around, yet not ideological or pedantic in the least. The novel centers around the most mysterious of the four men, whose horrid background will emerge as the book proceeds, and that’s the toughest part to read: the most common complaint about this novel was that parts of it are ‘unpleasant’, as if life itself isn’t often difficult and depressing at times; more and more writers are taking a dystopian view of American life and culture, because that’s what they see. A Little Life is also very long, but riveting and a nail biter at times. It’s interesting to note that the three novels on this list so far are either first/debut novels or second. This author is also a magnificent writer, and she has a whole lot to say. In the bargain, you’ll ‘meet’ four of the most fascinating men in recent literature.
5. Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Sympathizers. One of a new breed of novel wherein the author was still in Vietnam during the war, and then emigrated to America. The Sympathizers is a very detailed, highly intelligent rendering of the lives of three male friends who grew up together in Vietnam, and who, by the time the American War there is in full swing, have all taken different paths, ranging from Communist sympathizer to spy. Although their loyalties to one another never recede entirely, the horrors of war alter them and their lives, and for all the Western press wants us to believe that the Vietnamese are ‘over’ this war, we can clearly tell in this and other such novels that the war is still central to their existences, here and in Vietnam. Survival is often at stake in this novel, and the horrors of the ‘reeducation camps’ led by the Communists after the fall of South Vietnam has never been rendered so specifically, and so brutally (and so realistically). The author does not shy away from the topics of psychological torture and abuse—amongst these friends–and the decline and fall of South Vietnam makes the novels of Graham Greene, many of which are set in similar countries, look tame and urbane. The Sympathizers is an exceptionally fine novel, beautifully paced, and laced with secrets, duplicity and doubt.
6. Jane Smiley, Early Warning and The Golden Age. These two novels, part of a trilogy, both came out during 2015, and complete the Smiley trilogy which she calls The Last Hundred Years (no doubt something of a play on Marquez’ The Hundred Years of Solitude, and brilliantly so, at that). Smiley’s back in Iowa, as she was in her Pulitzer Prize winning novel A Thousand Acres, and, again, the land of Iowa, farming, weather, climate et. al. are forefronted almost like major characters, in the three books. (The first, Some Luck, came out about two years back). All three of the novels are exceptional, and Smiley is not only one of America’s leading storytellers, but she’s also an incredibly astute psychologist, and as the Langdon family blossoms through third and fourth generations, we see characteristics appear frequently in the extended family (Smiley is amazingly adept at describing the inner lives of small children and the very old). The first generation are both children of Iowa farming families, and they work long hours and cook huge meals, and they have six children, all of them remarkably different, only one of whom will remain in Iowa on a farm. By the third novel, we’re in the big greedy l980s, and not only will some of the children and grandchildren lose their houses, but also their lives in freak accidents–again, a very astute touch on Smiley’s part as she sees the trajectory of American life from nearly Utopian to Dystopian in three generations. Some of the characters are painfully lovely, and some of the siblings in each generation are very close to one another. This trilogy’s nearly as fine as Galsworthy’s The Forsythe Saga, one of the greatest of family sagas (along with Thomas Mann’s Buddenbrooks, a family we watch going downwardly mobile in a couple of generations). These families are at their most smug when they’re materially too comfortable, yet all the Langdons in some way manifest their Iowa farming roots. Smiley also makes almost all of the women characters in all the generations strong, determined women, and that’s a great joy to watch , to read and to admire. (Some of the Langdons are also absolute crooks, and literally steal the land and houses of their siblings from under them). Jane Smiley is basically kind to her characters; they are well formed, always smart, generally loving and supportive, but the country that they inhabit changes radically from the twenties to the ‘now’ (she goes slightly beyond the present into a time of extreme violence due to lack of employment, and a time when, for example, The Dakotas are virtually unpeopled, due to climate change: this is a particularly admirable part of these novels, as she has the Langdons only a couple of years ahead of where we are now, right after what will be the next Presidential election (which, of course, is rigged/stolen because of computerized voting). For those of you who like a good plot and fascinating characters, the Jane Smiley trilogy will rivet you.
7. Jim Shepherd, The Book of Aron. This novel is set in The Warsaw Ghetto in Poland during World War II, and the brutality of the life within the ghetto–where all Warsaw Jews are forced to live, with decreasing amounts of food, and during which the most ‘fit’ will be carted off to “Labor Camps”, mainly Auschwitz. An orphanage lies in the heart of this novel, and it’s real, it was indeed where hundreds of Jewish children lived for awhile, under the charismatic care of a man who was also real, and whom the Nazis and their Polish collaborators keep trying to ‘liberate’ as he gets too much good press in the West. The cleverer children find ways to smuggle food in and form networks of friendly ‘spies’ on the outside, and Shepherd is particularly astute in writing about the daily lives of the few remaining intact families, the raiding of small one family apartments into rooms for several families, and how they attempt to get along and/or to meddle or eavesdrop on one another: the Nazis also established groups of Jewish spies and collaborators, so one never knew who was a friend and who wasn’t. People vanish all the time, and people turn on one another; the Nazis, of course, enjoy all of this. A character, a young man, named Aron becomes detached from his entire family (presumed dead in the camps) and he is one of the likelier survivors, and presumably it’s his story that’s being told; he is the narrator. Given the increasing amount of barbarism in the 21st century, and the numbers of genocides occurring and flourishing, this novel’s even more important. By focusing mainly on the gentler sides of human nature within the orphanage and within the Ghetto itself, Shepherd reminds us of the underlying humanity of those caught in one of civilization’s worst atrocities.
8. Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women. These short stories are completely captivating, charming, tough, sensitive. They read almost like a diary, or like letters from the writer to us readers, as if we’re close friends of hers. Berlin, whose short life is over, was a South American woman who lived in many classes , and whose life was severely downwardly mobile. Many of the stories are indeed about how to survive as a cleaning woman in the houses of the rich, and are often hilarious as well as tender and tough. Since the stories often connect, novel-like, they seemed almost addictive to me, partly because Berlin writes so well, and her powers of observation so acute. Because she once was an upper middle class woman–occasionally upper class–her eye for detail is exceptional, and the main character(s) extremely sympathetic as well as brave and tough, real survivors. These were the best short stories I read this year, with Ann Beattie’s being a close second.
9. Jonathan Franzen, Purity. Franzen has written a fascinating novel, complex and often disturbing. His characters, too, are complex, brilliantly rendered, and more flushed out that some in his other novels. Centering on the life of a girl named Purity, nicknamed Pip, the author draws concentric circles of lives around hers, all of which will eventually enter into each other’s spaces and existences. From a nearly hermit-like woman hiding in a near shack in California, Pip’s mother, to a charismatic but mentally unstable East German young man whose parents’ power under Communism keeps him out of trouble, to his unwieldy and manipulative mother, to his young girlfriend for whom he commits a terrible crime which plagues him and does him in , in the end, to two journalists whose lives intersect working on investigative reporting, Franzen stares the world of computers and technology in the face coldly and what he sees is a world where people routinely steal one another’s secrets from their computers, entire industries are created specifically to hack other computers, and the like: the computer may well be the central theme of the book, or certainly one of them, while Pip tries valiantly (and ultimately successfully ) to find out who her missing father either is or was. So Franzen also introduces an element of mystery, possibly because the mystery is such a ubiquitous novelistic choice amongst Americans (Purity’s not a spoof of one, but it borrows liberally from that literary format to good effect). Yet there’s still more than a touch of human romanticism in this novel, and many of the ‘good guys’ do win in the end, and Franzen’s ease with these different literary genres is part of what makes Purity both a delight to read and so intelligent to follow.
10. Paul Theroux, Deep South. Theroux remains America’s most fascinating ‘travel’ writer and one of our finest novelists and purveyors of short stories. Deep South, a work of nonfiction, is Theroux’s most recent–and one fears, possibly last–travel books, and it must in some way be an homage to his very good friend V.S. Naipaul, who wrote a similarly titled work of nonfiction some years back, though to different affect/effect and through utterly different eyes. Rather than focusing on one single journey to and through America’s Deep South (Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, and parts of Tennessee and Georgia), Theroux found himself returning repeatedly, and looking forward to doing so as he begins to understand a totally different, and slower, time frame that runs through the South. Skipping Southern cities entirely, as he believes that all contemporary cities have a certain sameness (and do they, ever), Theroux chose to stay on secondary highways, and penetrates into those parts of the American Deep South virtually forgotten by the rest of America, and almost a country unto itself. Remnants from the Civil War days abound, as do others from the original civil rights marches of the l960s; Theroux meets both black and white Southerners, and is equally understanding of both, in spite of the fact that both races still do live in separate parts of small towns , cities, and counties, leading almost entirely separate lives. His truly astonishing abilities at opening people up and soliciting their stories continues to amaze. But the Theroux of Deep South is also a mellower man; his notorious cynicism is virtually absent in this book, reminding me that Oscar Wilde was probably correct when he observed that the cynic is always the failed idealist, and, I might add, a lingering Romantic at heart. All of Theroux’s best personal and literary traits are evident in this book, and some of the finest writing anywhere in 2015 also runs through Deep South. The writer’ s empathy with both blacks and whites is palpable throughout; he also refers to Faulkner and his version of the Deep South frequently, and includes some real contempt for Faulkner’s comfort (relative) on the Oxford, Mississippi campus where he resided. The people and places that Theroux finds are remnants, descendants from more prosperous times, most recently car and textile factories that went from New England to The South to overseas (“outsourced”, to use the corporate jargon) in less than thirty years, and Theroux notes that there aren’t any jobs nearly anywhere in The Deep South. He also laments the total lack of financial support throughout the Deep South from both The Gates and Clinton Foundations, and frequently wonders why these philanthropists skip their own countries for development overseas (my guess is that they have found Africans more docile and/or more desperate, and that both Foundations are looking to enhance international trade agreements, and simply have written off their fellow citizens in the American Deep South). Somewhere in the book, someone introduces Theroux to a rather worldy white gentleman in his sixties, whose house is a sea of books, all read, who has a woman friend of 95 publishing short stories about life in The Deep South. A meeting is arranged–three months hence, a typical Southern time frame. The three discuss the writings of Chekhov, in one of the most Chekhovian settings possible, and Theroux’s ability to see the Chekovian within such a setting is a highlight of this book: the two Southerners are old friends, of course, and the gentleman brings a pound cake made by his 85 year old mother as a ‘hostess’ gift: this is great literature, and the two welcome Theroux into their homes and their lives. (I remember underlying page after page in this section of perfect prose and high sophistication). Churches and pastors abound throughout the Deep South, and Theroux does meet a number of African-American women who’ve gotten themselves good jobs, and out of dire poverty, and each of these women is differently fascinating: travel, ultimately, is more about people than places, and Theroux’s many journeys around the world stand him in particularly good stead in this book. For those interested in understanding this section of America, and/or the ways in which the rest of America has abandoned it, and for others who love flawless writing and penetrating insights into our national character, Deep South will please you and stimulate you and move you greatly, as it did Paul Theroux himself, one of America’s greatest living writers.
11. Geraldine Brooks, The Secret Chord. Brooks’ fascination with ancient cultures from the Middle East and in the origins of cultures, continues that search in this brilliantly researched and highly energetic version of the life and times of the original King David of Judea; we learn how he comes to be anointed King, and how he manages to pull together all kinds of wandering tribes of Hebrew peoples and makes them into one nation, merging Judea with the Israelites (Benjaminites) into the original Land of Israel. It’s a very moving and highly detailed story, and Brooks has managed to capture the character of this brilliant, occasionally vain and sulking man, but a man who inspires great loyalty and love from his peoples. If Moses’ role in The Old Testament/the History of the Jewish people was to lead them out of slavery in Egypt and into The Land of Milk and Honey–but not be able to enter it as Moses has broken a commandment of The Lord’s–then David’s is to unify these peoples and to build a small town with a terrific water source on the border between Israel and Judea into what we now know to be Jerusalem; but David, too, has sinned against his God (and thus His people, a key tenet in Judaism: there is no sense of a sin against God, but a sin against one’s fellow man is thus a sin against God) will not be able to build The Temple as his punishment. David has, as I recall, seven wives, and Brooks lets us know that these awful ‘blood feuds’ of today throughout the Middle East were very much a part of ancient Hebraic culture as well. David is famous for playing a harp, an instrument that he takes into battle, and plays to calm himself down; his singing voice was apparently beautiful, and many of the psalms which appear in The Old Testament are attributed to King David. He sings to his troops at the end of battles. Brooks also, thus, slyly introduces some of the tenets of contemporary gender studies, as King David seems a very contemporary sort of man, with characteristics which used to be called ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’. His last wife, Bethseva, will bear him one amazing son, whom we know as Solomon; the kind of men who came through a line from Moses through Solomon, and how all of Western law originates in ancient Judaism, is, of course, a theme of the novel. Brooks has the book narrated by the prophet Nathan, who becomes David’s most trusted advisor, and whose visions and prophecies are integral to ancient Hebrew life and culture. And after King David has moved his people into Jerusalem and the Hebrews have integrated with the natives, Brooks creates a scene wherein David meets those carrying The Tabernacle, The Ark, Judaism’s holiest texts, up into a temporary temple, and David leaps into the air, singing and dancing with a kind of ecstasy rarely more beautifully conceived than in Brooks’ words as David meets His God (known simple as The Name). The Secret Chord is both fascinating and a novel of extraordinary beauty.
12. Bill Clegg, What Is a Family? is another beautiful and very moving, relatively short novel, and it, like Jane Smiley’s novels, penetrates into the question of what constitutes a family and how people make new ones through choices as well as through blood ties. Beginning with a horrendous accident, in which various family members about to be united in the morning through marriage, become victims of an accidental explosion in the house the night before, the sole survivor, the woman whose house this was, leaves in a complete state of shock, and Clegg lets the histories of those involved (and implicated) play out through the rest of the novel. Different combinations of the survivors will eventually find and comfort one another, in scenes of extraordinary beauty and comfort, solace and love. Clegg questions when and how outsiders became such, and how some become insiders, and how in the end , most of those categories don’t matter at all, but along the way, he’s created some of the most dimensional characters in any novel of 2015, a novel about healing, and empathy, and love, and gentleness and kindness, characteristics in rarer supply these days, so that What Is a Family? is ultimately a redemptive novel. I think that writing, or making art, or music, or dance, is always redemptive, no matter the topic or the reasons for its creation, for in structuring loves and losses and tragedies into art, we redeem ourselves and make our humanness just a little more godlike, as we’re told was the intention of The Lord in the first place.