It’s somewhat ironic that my first post of the year about books comes during the last week of the year. Ironic, but a good reminder to myself that one of my goals in starting this blog was to share my love of cooking and baking, true, but also my love of reading and books. (Hence the “read” part of cook.can.read.) I adore lists and recaps and favorites and “best of”s (I don’t think that’s a real term, but you get it…), so it was certainly a treat to look back on a year of exceptional books and put together this post. Thank you, once more, to Goodreads for allowing me to remember what I read way back in January, and reminding me that just because City of Fire and Purity, etc. were on lots of well-regarded critics’ lists doesn’t mean they have to be on mine– because what a reading year it was. The stars aligned to give me more than usual reading time, or the willpower to prioritize reading over other distractions, at the same time the publishing world gave us new Franzen, Gaitskill, Groff, Ishiguro, McCann, D’Ambrosio, Haruf, Irving, Rushdie and more. I have to say quick words of praise for The Book of Aron by Jim Shepard and Mothers, Tell Your Daughters by Bonnie Jo Campbell, respectively numbers 11 and 12 on my list. I probably could have done a list of twenty, with previously mentioned City of Fire and Purity, Loitering, A Marker to Measure Drift, Thirteen Ways of Looking, Euphoria, Sweetland… I read so many engaging, thoughtful, witty, beautiful books this year. But discipline is good, so here are my Top Ten, in descending order. Not all were published this year, just read by me in 2015.
- A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara. I started ALL in early October and finished in mid-December; I had to keep taking little breaks. Some of the plot is so devastating I would cry my way through 50 pages straight. An utterly complete novel: it’s as if it takes place in real time, and I felt a Jude-shaped hole in my life for a few days after I stopped reading. I missed catching up with the characters on a daily basis. Don’t be put off by the size or the reviews of it being “too heavy”– this was a National Book Award finalist, and rightly so.
- The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan. No theme here, I promise, but this was another emotional roller coaster of a novel. The winner of the 2014 Man Booker prize is the story of an Australian doctor and his unexpected love, contrasted by the story of men searching for hope in a bleak Japanese slave labor camp on the infamous Thai-Burma Death Railway. Though I usually avoid “war stories”, this was more of a character study and I loved every page.
- The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits. I had to be forced to read this. I kid, but only slightly, because I have been confounded by Julavits in the past and was not a willing reader at first. Until about page 14, when I decided that the author and I, given the correct circumstances, would more than likely be best friends… and I would share in all the fun and glamour she writes about. In diary form, this one was clever, sometimes terribly snobby, and almost painfully vulnerable, in turns.
- A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James. I cheered out loud, maybe even jumped, when Mr. James won the 2015 Man Booker Prize for this novel. I loved the tension and energy of the book; my first jotted comment about it: “visceral”. Set in Jamaica, the characters are complex, the tempo is quick and the story flows. I learned about history, music, culture, politics… and how to construct a novel. Except I could never come close to the level at which he writes– this is a masterwork.
- Two Years, Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie. I finished this just before Christmas, but enjoyed it so much it made the list, despite my usual criteria: do I think of the book after I’m done, do I recommend to friends, can I remember how I felt about it while reading even months later? I have a feeling the answer to each will be yes. Inspired by One Thousand and One Nights, Rushdie’s newest novel is a rollicking tale of jinns and their unknowing human descendants, battles and history, levitating men and magical babies, love and understanding. A timely read, chock full of his usual clever and biting commentary on our modern world, and so much fun.
- The Tsar of Love and Techno by Anthony Marra. When I last visited Mr. Marra’s literature, it was to cry my way through A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Seeing his name would cause me to tear up in a most Pavlovian way, so I was nervous heading into this, his first collection of stories. Not to worry. I struggled through the first story, reread it, had A Moment of Clarity, and barely breathed as I rushed to see what would happen next. My primary note for this book: “seamless”. It is ridiculous farce at times, then transitions to love story or poignant social commentary. Keep an eye on Marra: at last check, I think he is thirty years old… which means we will be treated to gems like this for decades to come. I was surprised that only one short story collection made my list, but not that it was this one.
- Fourth of July Creek by Smith Henderson. I feel a personal responsibility to tell the world about this novel. Unlike the other award shortlist regulars I’ve written about so far, there’s a chance you’ve never heard of Smith Henderson. Let me tell you, he is quite a writer. In the spare-and-tough style of some of my favorite authors– Larry Brown, Tim Gautreaux, Tim Winton– he covers dysfunctional family drama like Grisham covers courtrooms. It’s a little bit mystery, a little psychology, and a debut that shouldn’t be missed.
- All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews. Another family drama that stayed in the back of my brain all year is this tale of two sisters: one wants to die, the other doesn’t want her sister to die. Somehow, from that premise (which is not even a spoiler) comes a funny, heartwarming, engaging little novel that made me think for the one millionth time how lucky I am to have a sister and be a sister, and how families don’t all have to look the same to be just right. I immediately started looking for the author’s backlist titles and haven’t been disappointed in anything I’ve read.
- Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. What more can I possibly add to the discussion of this book, which may be the best work of nonfiction I have ever read, ever. I think about the author and his words on an almost daily basis. I think about how I can learn from what he has to say and be a better person. I want everyone I know, no, everyone everywhere, to read this book. It is a change-inspiring book and a hopeful book. I was in an auditorium filled to capacity with readers waiting to hear Anthony Doerr speak when the announcement was made that Mr. Coates had won the National Book Award for Nonfiction; the applause and excitement was immediate, passionate, almost rowdy, and my voice was as loud as I could make it to show that I agreed. READ THIS BOOK.
- Our Souls at Night by Ken Haruf. And with this slim novel my reading relationship with Mr. Haruf comes to a close, and what an unimaginably perfect ending it was. I loved Plainsong and Eventide, but Our Souls at Night is special. I read it in one day, with tears streaming down my cheeks for the last fifty pages– not because it was sad, though you can’t possibly show me a more tender, sweet, lovely little novel published this year– but because it was over. There will never be another Ken Haruf novel. Thank goodness we were left with this as the last memory of his relatable characters and beautiful narratives. He will be missed.
Well. I’ll say it again– it was a marvelous year for books, and though my taste may not be yours, I stand behind all ten on this list as read-worthy. Please comment: did any of your favorite reads make my list? What was your own top choice? Here’s to an equally page-turning 2016!
Check back in Wednesday for my favorite cookbooks of the year!