Spending between 10 and 15 hours on public transportation a week isn’t good for much, but it’s been excellent for my reading life. The downside, of course, has been a lack of free time to write about it. I can usually juggle a book or iPad on a train sardine-packed with my fellow commuters; less so a laptop.
But while 2015 was a lousy year for blogging, it was a great year for reading. The following were some of my standout books over the past 12 months:
Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad – M.T. Anderson
Marketed as YA, and as such has its moments of elision when it comes to Shostakovich’s life, not to mention the Siege of Leningrad—this is not a big fat history. But it’s informative, and if I had read this as a high schooler for my mid-century history class I think I’d have gotten a sharp, interesting picture of the time and politics (as opposed to sleeping through most of first period for four years and graduating largely clueless, but that’s another story). This is a solid overview of the composer’s life as seen through the complex moral and political lens of the time, and Anderson also gets points for weaving commentary about his source material into the narrative, stressing the awareness that any history is pieced together from facts of varying degrees of reliability. Some of the writing edges over into the hyperbolic, but some of it is just terrific, too, and often very affecting. Recommended, though if you’re a serious Shostakovich/World War II Russia historian it may feel slim. The rest of us, though, should go for it.
A Manual for Cleaning Women – Lucia Berlin
Berlin’s is a strong and significant voice, with some transcendent attention to the details of what it means to hover around the cracks and margins. I’m glad to see she’s getting the attention she deserves, even if it’s posthumous. I do wish this collection had been pared down a bit, though. The majority of her inspiration is taken from autobiographical sources, and while she lived a hell of a life it’s still one life spread out over 40-something stories; some of the later selections felt repetitious, covering ground that had been mined better earlier in the collection. Still, I’d rather have them all than none, and this is a great body of work to be seeing a renaissance.
Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl – Carrie Brownstein
Terrific: sharp, smart, introspective, complex, funny, and sad. What you (I) want in a rock memoir—a little creative process, a little zeitgeist of the times, a lot of self-awareness without too much self-indulgence. I also appreciated that Brownstein focused on Sleater-Kinney and left Portlandia for another installment. I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that she can really write, but it made me happy. (As did Sleater-Kinney’s reunion tour, which I caught in Boston in February; I don’t doubt there will be a volume two somewhere down the line.)
Drawing Blood – Molly Crabapple
This puts to rest the idea that someone so young couldn’t possibly have a memoir in them. Crabapple tells the story of her life globe-trotting with sketchbook in hand, as should any restless artist escaping the suburbs. But she keeps up a lively interior travelogue as well, chronicling the simultaneous processes of radicalization, developing a graphic style, and growing up. Crabapple’s politics, whether overt or private, are what make her illustration work pop, and it’s fun to follow her journey. Plus the art is integrated well within the text, keeping the book’s jittery energy pumped. A good job from a young author, and I’m looking forward to the next installment in another 20 years or so.
Sweetland – Michael Crummey
Sweet, sad, strange, and surprising, Sweetland isn’t an easy book to pin down. It’s an old man’s odyssey, the story of Moses Sweetland, the last inhabitant of the tiny island off the coast of Newfoundland that shares his name after the rest of its residents take a government buyout to leave. It’s a story about loneliness and aloneness, and how the two are not necessarily the same thing; it’s a story of the many things that home can mean. Crummey’s language is wonderful and weird, much of it as intensely local as his protagonist—a little dwy of snow, a bare-legged cup of tea. It’s the deep sense of place that makes this novel sing, and gives logic to Moses Sweetland’s refusal to leave even in the face of a long northern winter and chilling solitude: “He looked up at the hills surrounding the cove, sunlight making them ring with meltwater. He’d always love that sound, waited for it each spring. Hearing it made him certain of the place he came from. He’d always felt it was more than enough to wake up here, to look out on these hills. As if he’d long ago been measured and made to the island’s exact specifications.”
Trampoline – Robert Gipe
There are the books you like, and the books you love, and then there are the ones you want to hold to your heart for a minute after you turn the last page. Trampoline is one of those—not just well written, which it is; and not just visually appealing, which the wonderfully deadpan black-and-white drawings make sure of; but there is something deeply lovable about it, an undertow of affection you couldn’t fight if you wanted to. Or I couldn’t, anyway. Coming-of-age stories are supposed to do that, aren’t they?—make you love their young heroes or heroines, no matter how difficult they might be. And most, I find, don’t. But Gipe has done it with 15-year-old Dawn Jewell, growing up at the end of the ’90s in a poor Kentucky mining town with a sprawling (in more ways than one) dysfunctional family, as well as loyal and not-so-loyal friends, drugs and moonshine, strip mining activism, car wrecks, Black Flag on the radio, and a sympathetic DJ. And Gipe deftly avoids every single cliché that could trip such a story up, which includes having a pitch-perfect ear for dialect and making it into something marvelous. There are arrests, fights, bad reputations—”When they showed up, it was like it started raining washing machines. Things got broke.”—and fierce scraps of beauty pulled from anywhere Dawn can find them. Trampoline is a wonder. You can catch a couple of chapters on the publisher’s website.
Euphoria – Lily King
As the daughter of an anthropologist, I do love a good anthropological novel, and the Margaret Mead connection interests me to no end (my father worked with her). The conceit of a strong woman written through the eyes of a smitten man is always fun, though I agree with a few friends who’ve read this—I still would have liked the main character to have come through with a little more clarity than the fellow narrating could offer, though that was surely intentional on King’s part. Still, a good lively read.
The Dog – Jack Livings
A great, tight collection; folks who say they don’t like short stories might want to get over that for this one. It’s worth it. From my review at Bloom: The Dog’s eight stories cluster at the more familiar end of Chinese history: post-Cultural Revolution, post-Mao. But although the stories are written by an American for a Western audience, this is not a portrait of an Open-door China brightly lit by progress and McDonald’s. Livings’s Beijing has no allegorical agenda. Rather, the workers, outlaws, bosses, journalists, and one hapless American college student who populate The Dog operate in corners that don’t let in a lot of light; each story bears its own whiff of dust, rot, and more than a hint of menace. The book’s underlying tension comes not from individuals endlessly pushing back against the machine of state. Rather, each player in The Dog is straining, in ways large and small, to metabolize that machine—to absorb the everyday contradictions of unwieldy authority and get on with their work, their lives. The low tide of a great bureaucracy leaves behind constraint, fear, a fossilized caste system, and, in the end, a crust of absurdity. This absurdity is the main affliction of Livings’s characters—some of it laughable, much of it soul-crushing. It does not make for happy lives, but it does make for some very good stories. The full review is here.
H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald
This has made a lot of people’s year-end lists, and I do think it deserves the accolades. The book has several very different facets: it’s a memoir of Macdonald’s journey through her grief after the death of her father; a tale of falconry, with lots of thrilling technical descriptions thrown in; and an exploration of the life of T.H. White, who wrote The Once and Future King, The Sword in the Stone, and a small, bleak, but beautiful little book called The Goshawk. Which, in fact, I read several years ago and hadn’t thought much about since. But Macdonald has been thinking about it from the time she was a child, and when she gets a goshawk of her own—the wonderfully-named Mabel—as an attempt to combat the numbness of mourning, she revisits the book and its complex, often very sad, author. If this sounds to you like too many moving parts to make a coherent whole, you would be wrong. It is a wonderful, very three-dimensional, very aware portrait of a time in one person’s life. And Macdonald’s writing is gorgeous, whether she’s describing her interior landscape, the natural world outside, or her goshawk—who manages to bridge both states believably (but not un-selfconsciously; some of my favorite musings are on our dependence of capital-N Nature as a metaphor). This is an excellent, very grown-up book—the kind that lets you walk around looking at your own flawed world through that particular prism of wonder, which is really the biggest kindness a book can do a reader.
Thirteen Ways of Looking – Colum McCann
My last book of the year, finished on New Year’s Eve, and a good book to ring out the old one. “How do we look out into the dark?” McCann asks the reader. That’s a good question for pretty much any night of the year, and a good reason to read, period. Just reviewed this one here.
Marvel and a Wonder – Joe Meno
You have to wonder, sometimes, how self-conscious an author is about his title. Did Meno envision the review that would begin “Marvel and a Wonder is indeed one”? Because it is: simultaneously dark and almost painfully sweet, sometimes at the same moment. I loved this book, although it’s brutal and bloody and full of unrepentantly nasty characters. Definitely not for the faint of heart. But I think Meno writes like an angel—proof positive being that I, who have a low threshold for violence or animals in peril, ate it up in spite of both. Comparisons to Cormac McCarthy are not far off the mark, but Meno brings his own eye for the ways that beauty and ugliness are often facets of the same lumpen thing. Also, a notably beautiful cover. I felt like a better person every time I read it in public.
The Soul of an Octopus: A Surprising Exploration into the Wonder of Consciousness – Sy Montgomery
This was a lovely book—both fascinating and deeply kind, with a lot to interest a broad swath of readers. The science is accessible without being dumb, and at the same time Montgomery brings the octopuses (NOT octopi!) and their personalities (yes, they have ’em) vividly to life. Plus I like reading about any interest that attracts the oddballs among us, and octopuses definitely seem to fall into that category—part of what makes this book so engaging is Montgomery’s vivid cast of supporting octopus lovers. I guess I can count myself among those oddballs now… thus ends any pulpo consumption for me ever again, and no big loss. I gave this a starred review for Library Journal, not least in hopes that readers everywhere will come to appreciate these weird, wild, endlessly cool creatures.
Beasts and Children - Amy Parker
Whoa, this book. Did I say Marvel and a Wonder roped me in in spite of its dark side? This must have been my year of overcoming my no-read zone. The beasts and the children here—every story features at least one of each—are not in good places. The children are at the mercy of self-absorbed and narcissistic adults—misled at their best, and often cruelly negligent—and the beasts are at the mercy of children and adults alike. Anyone who knows me knows that I have little stomach for children in peril, and even less for endangered animals (I know it should be the other way around, but that’s how I’m wired). And there were a number of points early on in the book where I just thought I’d have to put it down. But the writing is wonderful—strong and innovative—and the stories feed into each other in a way that ramped up my attention, not so much linked as braided, a few strands that come together as the book progresses. The publisher’s blurb invokes Lorrie Moore, Claire Vaye Watkins, and Rebecca Lee—which, along with the fabulous cover, is certainly why I picked up the galley in the first place—and some of Parker’s bemused, slightly sad children’s voices remind me a bit of early Ellen Gilchrist. It’s a grueling experience that works its way up to a kind of emotional transcendence; I’m not sure how else to describe it. Beautiful writing that takes the reader on a journey, a lot of it painful, a lot of it gorgeous. Not out until February but you can—and should—preorder.
The Sunken Cathedral – Kate Walbert
Also reviewed here. I’ll quote myself, then: Kate Walbert has calibrated The Sunken Cathedral to the very real concerns of New Yorkers in the second decade of the 21st century without ever taking an easy step. Rather than Google and Amazon, her characters are thinking about real estate, progressive private schools, the lovely, ubiquitous High Line, and—perhaps most urgent, as it is firmly out of the control of even the most carefully insulated city dweller—the weather. For those of us who, in the past five years, have lived through Hurricane Sandy, Tropical Storm Irene, and even an earthquake—remember the earthquake?—not to mention reports from around the world of far more devastating events: tsunamis, earthquakes, hurricanes that level entire towns, Walbert’s book neatly calls up that sensation of previously solid ground shifting under our feet. As New Yorkers, we expect certain kind of chaos: crime, noise, social unrest. When the elements level our respective playing fields, on the other hand, we’re undone. This was not what we planned for. 9/11 made us jumpy, and as Walbert gently points out, we’re jumpy still.