Don’t you love Best Books of the Year lists? Every book page publishes a fascinating list. One of our holiday traditions is betting on when the New York Times daily critics will post their lists: these cool critics wait till after the Black Friday rush. (It was Dec. 10 this year.)
Dwight Garner of the NYT made a traditional list, but also wrote a good alternative-to-lists article, “Reading Is About the Lines That Leap Off the Pages.”
When I think about the outstanding things I read this year, however, what comes to mind isn’t a stack of “best books.” Instead, I recall a flickering series of moments I’ve been unable to shake: killing jokes and stolen kisses and fleeting glimpses; scenes and ideas and sleights of hand.
I also admired an unconventional “Best of” article at The Guardian, “Winners and losers: publishers pick the 2015 books they loved, missed and envied.”
And now I’ve made my list and left out many favorites, but at least I’ve arranged it by categories!
Best New Novel:
Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant caused controversy last summer: was it literary fiction or fantasy? Was Ishiguro writing genre fiction? (No.) Set in a post-Arthurian mythic post-war England, this gorgeous novel is the story of Britons and Saxons living in a mist of forgetfulness. The two protagonists, Axl and Beatrice, an elderly married couple, cannot remember what happened yesterdays, let alone during the wars in King Arthur’s time. On a journey to find their son, they discover the causes of their amnesiac culture.
Holly LeCraw’s The Half Brother. The hero of this brilliant, lyrical novel is Charlie, a dedicated private-school teacher who inspires his students to love English literature. Raised in the South, where all dark deeds happen, he ends his relationship with the headmaster’s daughter after he learns a family secret. When his charismatic half-brother, a veteran of the Afghanistan war, arrives to teach at the school, all is truly fucked-up!
Best Novels in Translation:
1 Angelica Gorodischer’s Kalpa Imperial, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin. First published in 1983 in Argentina and in 2003 by Small Beer Press in the U.S., it is a stunning mix of realism and the surreal. Her work has been compared to Borges and Calvino. This strange little novel about “an empire that never was” is a collection of legends, geography, and (invented) stories of emperors and common people. It also borrows from Homer, and at one point mischievously satirizes the Iliad and the Odyssey. Each story begins with a storyteller who knows, or at least shapes, the story. The storyteller will say, “I’m the one who can tell you what really happened, because it’s the storyteller’s job to speak the truth even when the truth lacks the brilliance of invention…” You can read my post here.
2 Minae Mizumura’s A True Novel, translated by Juliet Winter Carpenter, is a brilliant modern Japanese retelling of Wuthering Heights, and won the Yomiuri Prize For Literature in 2002. The author, Minae Mizumura, reflects in the long prologue (one third of the first volume) on “how to take ‘a story just like a novel’ and turn it into a novel in Japanese.” She ponders the difficulty of transferring an English novel to Japanese culture. The novel is based on an oral tale of doomed romance related to her by a young Japanese man, Yusuke Kato, who heard it from Fumiko, a maid at the summer cottage of Taro, a Japanese billionaire. The frame story reflects the structure of Emily Bronte’s masterpiece.
Best Classic Novel:
Charlotte Bronte’s Villette is Jane Eyre for adults, and is Bronte’s most autobiographical novel. Lucy Snowe, the narrator, finds a job teaching English at a girls’ school in Belgium, excels in the classroom but is depressed by the drudgery, doesn’t attract the doctor she loves, is pursued by a rather ridiculous misogynistic male teacher (her only real friend after a while), sees ghosts, and is high on laudanum at a summer night’s festival! Charlotte taught in Brussels, fell in love with the married headmaster, but did she see ghosts? I’m not sure.
Brian Kiteley’s Still Life With Insects. Reissued by Pharos Editions, this masterly, stunning, layered novel is written in the form of an amateur entomologist’s journal. Elwyn Farmer, a “cereal chemist” for a flour company, makes spare, detailed notes about insects on his travels, but also describes scenes at work and home. Each brief entry is headed by a note with the date and place of the insect finding.
Conrad Richter’s The Waters of Kronos. This little gem of a novel won the National Book Award in 1961. The hero’s trip to his hometown turns into a mythic, revelatory descent to the past. John Dalton, a famous novelist, travels to the site of his hometown, which no longer exists because the government built a dam and buried the town under a lake. He describes the terror of loss of place when he first views the dam and the lake. A classic katabasis (descent) in the tradition of Dante’s Inferno and Book VI of Virgil’s Aeneid, it describes his drive down a road that should end in water but eerily takes him back to the town he knew as a child. Perhaps Richter had been reading the Beats! This is one of the most stunning novels I’ve read this year.
Best Narrative Poem:
Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, translated by Stanley Mitchell. In this brilliant novel in verse, Pushkin tells the story of Eugene Onegin, a rakish Byronic hero who, bored by carousing, wine, women, song, writing, and even books, moves from St. Petersburg to the country after inheriting an estate. He befriends a young poet, Lensky, to whom he is very devoted, but thoughtlessly wrecks their friendship by flirting at a dance with Olga, Lensky’s fiancée. The fiasco results in a duel with Lensky. (Eugene doesn’t want it, and yet somehow he doesn’t say no.) And the whole thing is complicated by Eugene”s rejection of Olga’s sister, Tataina, who writes a love letter to him.
Women Crime Writers: Four Suspense Novels of the 1940s, edited by Sarah Weinman (Library of America). Did you know women in the ’40s wrote noir fiction? This volume includes Vera Caspary’s masterpiece, Laura, Helen Eustin’s The Horizontal Man, Dorothy B. Hughes’s In a Lonely Place, and Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s The Blank Wall. All four are fabulous, but I especially loved Laura, a psychological suspense novel revolving around the murder of an advertising executive.
Best But Strangely Neglected SF Novel:
Pat Murphy’s The Falling Woman (1986). It was published as SF and won the Nebula Award, but reads like literary fiction, with a touch of mysticism. The setting is an archaeological dig on Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula. The chapters alternate between the viewpoints of Elizabeth Butler, an archaeologist and expert on Mayan civilization, and her daughter, Diane, who was raised by her father but after his death shows up unanounced at Elizabeth’s dig. Elizabeth, who spent time in the mental hospital as a housewife, finds that madness has helped her make discoveries: she sees Mayan ghosts in temples and villages as she walks around the excavation sites. Her relationships with ghosts, and a casual friendship with her archaeologist colleague, Tony, are sufficient for her. The ghosts become threatening when her daughter appears.
We Took to the Woods by Louise Dickinson Rich. This classic memoir (1942) is a delightful record of the Rich family’s life in the backwoods of Maine in the 1930s and ’40s. After years of living in cities, Louise and her husband, Ralph, both writers, moved to the woods with their son. They bought a property with several buildings, originally built as a fishing camp. This book records the beauty and the humor of life in the woods. Louise does not miss civilization: she has time to read all the books she never read (she reads all of Proust and doesn’t think much of him); listens to music on the radio; and gets her news from Time once a week.
Best Short Story Collections:
1 Jonathan Lethem’s Lucky Alan and Other Stories. I loved this book! Lethem’s flamboyant writing is laced with humor, his verbal pyrotechnics are incomparable, and his stories utilize elements of fantasy and magic realism. In the surreal story, “Procedure in Plain Air,” the umemployed hero, Stevick, sees two men in jumpsuit uniforms jump out of a truck, dig a hole, and lower a bound-and-gagged man wearing a jumpsuit into the hole. After Stevick complains it will rain on the prisoner, they hand him an umbrella. Holding the umbrella becomes, in a way, his job. In “Traveler Home,” a dark fairy tale, the hero deals with snow, wolves, and a foundling. But the most dazzling story in the collection is “Lucky Alan”: the narrator, Grahame, an actor, gets acquainted with Blondy Sigmund, the “legendary” theater director, because they both go to the movies every day . When Grahame realizes Blondy has left the neighborhood, he tracks him down to find out why he left his rent-controlled apartment. It all centers on a nerdy neighbor named Alan.
2 Karen E. Bender’s Refund, shortlisted for the National Book Award. The stories are linked by the theme of money. In “Reunion,” a woman with a failing home appliance repair business has an affair with a con man. In “The Third Child,” the financial responsibility of raising the two children is more than enough for a struggling couple: the heroine. a freelance editor, decides to have an abortion. In the title story, two artists dream of sending their child to an expensive pre-school, but 9/11 gets in the way of the easy money of subletting their New York apartment.
3. Wrote for Luck, by D. J. Taylor, was published in the UK by Galley Beggar Press. Taylor, an English novelist, biographer, and critic, is perhaps best known for his historical novel, Derby Day, shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, but his short stories are equally witty and percipient. Some of Taylor’s best stories deal with the workplace. In “The Blow-Ins,” a couple struggles to keep their bookstore afloat when tourist season is over. In “Teeny-Weeny Little World,” an exasperated teacher must justify teaching poetry to a new headmaster. In “Jermyn Street,” a down-and-out employee at an antique shop is exasperated by his boss’s daily fights with his wife. In “To Brooklyn Bridge,” set in Chicago, a young woman escapes her job sewing in a sweatshop in Chicago to go to college; on the beach she recites Hart Crane’s poem “To Brooklyn Bridge”to her boyfriend, a salesman who does not understand.
Jo Walton’s What Makes This Book So Great won the Locus Award for Best Non-Fiction. This lively book, subtitled “Re-Reading the Classics of Science Fiction and Fantasy,” is the best book I have ever read on rereading. (Critics, eat your heart out!) In these short essays, originally a series of blog posts written for Tor.com, Walton, an award-winning SF writer, not only analyzes the greatest SF and fantasy books, but also where Doris Lessing goes wrong (Shikasta) and where Michael Chabon goes right (The Yiddish Policemen’s Union).