Thursday, December 31, 2015

My Favorite Books of 2015

Oh, 2015: this was a year of upheavals for me. I left a job at Facebook, a company I loved, and started a new job at Stripe, a company I’m still getting used to. (Can I be that honest, in a lighthearted note like this? I like Stripe and don’t regret my choice, but the adjustment has been harder than I anticipated.) I traveled, with trips to Ireland and England in the early part of the year and Africa in the late spring, visiting Namibia, Botswana, Zambia, Tanzania, Rwanda, South Africa, and Lesotho, passing through sand dunes, tropical jungles, and snow-capped mountains, plus some short trips to southern California and Utah. I set some goals at the beginning of the year, as I usually do, and achieved some of them: quit my job and travel (yep), finish a quilt (yep), do another triathlon (yep, twice ), be able to do 10 pushups (yes!), write creatively (yeah), write in a journal at least once a month (giant nope).
I didn’t set a goal to read a truly absurd number of books, and yet, in the midst of change, it’s what stayed constant. I typically read somewhere around 100-150 books in a year, already an unusual number, but this year I outdid myself: 285, plus my habit of every article in every issue of the New Yorker. I finished my goal to read every book that’s ever won the Booker Prize (silly, given how few of them I liked, but I am an achievement-oriented person), and I got 65% of the way reading every novel that’s ever won the Pulitzer Prize (much more fun, aside from the paternalist racism of the 1920s and the dude-dominated 1970s and 80s).
The books I read were, as always, a mix of everything, from books that friends had recommended to books whose covers were pretty to nearly every book that made any “best of” list from 2014. (From that, I learned that I share NPR’s taste much more than Slate’s.) Shamelessly copying from a friend, I also analyzed my reading list for gender and racial diversity: 54% of the books I read were by female authors, and 21% of the books were by non-white authors (with 40% of those women). I’m pleased with that gender breakdown, but I could probably up my game on non-white authors. In 2015 I wasn’t trying on either front—being interested in women’s issues and going through all of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s and Helen Oyeyemi’s books really helped me out—but now that I’m tracking it in 2016 I might make a conscious effort.
Top 10 Fiction
In no particular order:
  • The Patrick Melrose novels, by Edward St. Aubyn. I’m going to cheat here and count all 5 novels in the series as one. One would think that every novel about the English aristocracy has already been written, but these still felt fresh and new, a take far darker and more vicious than Evelyn Waugh or Oscar Wilde. These were sharp and sardonic should-I-be-crying-or-laughing tragicomedy, and I loved them.
  • Submergence, by JM Ledgard. I’m not sure that I can describe what I liked so much about this one, or for that matter, what it was even about: a British spy captured by Somalis. Oceanography. Love. Death. It was quiet and serious and unexpected but pulled me in and stayed with me.
  • Tenth of December, by George Saunders. This was my introduction to George Saunders and I don’t know how I missed him before. A short story of his caught my eye in the New Yorker and so I sought out this collection, and found it satirical, imaginative, and all-around fun.
  • Beauty Is a Wound, by Eka Kurniawan. Magical realism typically isn’t my thing, but somehow it worked for me when set in Indonesia, maybe because everyday life in Indonesia always seemed to fall somewhere between magic and realism.
  • Skippy Dies, by Paul Murray. It seems odd to say that a book that begins with a major character dying could be funny, but this was funny despite its topic, full of living characters and pitch-perfect sentences I wish I could have written.
  • The Sympathizer, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I guess I gravitate towards funny books for my favorite novels, because this, like Skippy Dies and Tenth of December and the Patrick Melrose novels, tackled weighty topics—in this case, the Vietnam War-- with a satirical eye and a generous sense of the absurd.
  • Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel. I’m a sucker for books about world-ending epidemics, and this hit the spot.
  • Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, by David Shafer. I hear they’re making a movie of this. It won’t be as good as the book.
  • Clever Girl, by Tessa Hadley. No frills here, just a straightforward account of one woman’s life, starting with her girlhood in the early 1960s, told with forgiveness and an eye for detail, with prose to die for.
  • Dear Life, by Alice Munro. Two short story collections in my top 10? What is the world coming to? Alice Munro is clearly a master of the form, though, with vivid imagery, fully-realized worlds, and not a word out of place.
Bonus! I can’t help but mention Tana French’s Dublin Murder Squad series; after reading everything Agatha Christie ever wrote in a few heady months back in 6th grade, I’m still burned out on mystery novels and rarely read them, but these were gorgeously written and featured actual character development in addition to good plot twists.
Top 10 Non-Fiction
This time, in order of how much I liked them:
  • The Looming Tower, by Lawrence Wright. This was by far and away my favorite book of the year, of any category. I liked it so much that I paced myself, interspersing my reading of it with two or three novels at the same time, just so it would last longer. It’s history made as gripping as a novel, and I couldn’t stop turning the pages to find out what would happen next. (Spoiler alert: 9/11.) I also read and liked Going Clear—so I guess I’m a Lawrence Wright fangirl now?—but thought The Looming Tower was better. Perfect, actually.
  • Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Yeah, yeah, cliché, but sometimes the crowd is right.
  • The Half Has Never Been Told, by Edward Baptist. If you’re looking for a (bitter, sardonic) laugh, read The Economist’s review of this book, a detailed history of slavery and its economic impact on the US, which complained that “almost all the blacks in his book are victims.” If you’re looking for an education, read this book.
  • We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, by Philip Gourevitch. Rwanda was one of my favorite places we visited in Africa, and I came home hungry to know more about the genocide, and this book did not disappoint. (Also, if I were making a separate list of the best titles I read this year, this would win.)
  • The Seasons of Trouble, by Rohini Mohan. This was another read inspired by a trip: after we visited Sri Lanka last summer, I wanted to know more about its civil war, and this was a great way to learn.
  • How Not To Be Wrong, by Jordan Ellenberg. Math! Interesting anecdotes! Humor! I’m in.
  • The Hiding Place, by Corrie Ten Boom. How did I not read this as a school assignment, like everyone else? I really liked it.
  • Soldier Girls, by Helen Thorpe. There are so many stories that deserve to be told, you know?
  • A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace. I think you could probably present any sentence from this book to me, chosen at random, and I’d gasp at its perfection.
  • Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters In the End, by Atul Gawande. I love Atul Gawande (who doesn’t?) and now dread aging (who doesn’t?).
And now, for fun, some miscellaneous categories.
Or, how to cheat to get to mention more books I liked:
  • One more Thing: Stories and Other Stories, by BJ Novak.
  • After Birth, by Elisa Albert.
  • Dear Committee Members, by Julie Schumacher.
  • The Seven Good Years, by Etgar Keret.
  • Letters Of a Woman Homesteader, by Elinore Pruitt Stewart.
I’m the Wrong Kind of Nerd: Popular Sci-Fi I Disliked
Why do I even keep trying?
  • The Martian, by Andy Weir. The only parts I found interesting were the scenes of NASA’s bureaucratic infighting. I can’t imagine anything more boring than calculating water needed to grow potatoes on Mars.
  • Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. Maybe I would have liked this better if I had played more video games in the 1980s.
  • Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, by Robin Sloan. This just felt like a first novel, you know?
Books I Re-Read Without Realizing It
This is why I keep a list.
  • Kindred, by Octavia Butler. How could I have forgotten reading this? (My list tells me I read it first in 2003.) I don’t regret reading it again.
  • The Ghost Road, by Pat Barker. My list tells me I first read this in 2010. I do regret reading it again.
What Am I Missing?
All these books were critically acclaimed and…fine. Just fine.
  • Lila, by Marilyn Robinson. I should have just re-read Gilead.
  • My Brilliant Friend, by Elena Ferrante. I have the second book on hold at the library so maybe I will start to see the magic then.
  • H Is For Hawk, by Helen MacDonald. Am I just not as into birds as everyone else?
  • Nora Webster, by Colm Toibin. I found this almost as boring as The Master.
  • All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr and The Narrow Road to the Deep North, by Richard Flanagan. For years, I’ve had an anti-South policy, in that I’m sick of novels about the South and try to avoid them unless there are mitigating circumstances (i.e. the author is William Faulkner or Flannery O’Connor). I’m close to instituting a similar World War II policy: is there a point at which we can all agree that enough WWII novels have been written and authors can start creatively mining other historical settings? Because I think that point was 10 years ago.
  • A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride and How To Be Both, by Ali Smith. I want to be the sort of reader who gets really into cool experimental works and can enthuse for hours about stream-of-consciousness prose, but I am not. I like punctuation. Lots of it. Used properly.
I Have the Whole Rest of My Life Ahead of Me Now
At one point this year I was complaining about having to finish a boring Pulitzer Prize winner (Independence Day, by Richard Ford, if you’re curious) and Mike interrupted my whining to say, “Just think: after you finish this book, you have the rest of your life ahead of you!” That’s how I felt about these books.
  • Rabbit Is Rich, by John Updike. The Rabbit books are full of prose I admire, with an attitude towards women I just can’t stand. At one point I was telling Mike about it and summarized the main character’s take on women as "Rabbit thinks about how sexy that woman over there is. Look at her breasts. He wishes she would shut up and stop asking things of him. She's probably going to get fat." Ten pages later, I came upon this sentence: “Women. They are holes, you put one thing in after another and it’s never enough...”, and, later in the same paragraph: “Sometimes when he looks at her from behind he can’t believe how big she has grown...” Turns out I wasn’t exaggerating: the mid-century misogynists don’t need it.
  • Rabbit at Rest, by John Updike.
  • The Red and the Black, by Stendhal. I bought this at a used bookstore years ago because we had read an excerpt once in a high school French class. Why did I think that was a good reason to read a book?
  • Gravity's Rainbow, by Thomas Pyncheon. I mean, I get it, fine, you’re clever, but now can we all just move on with our lives?
Happy 2016, everyone. Go forth and fill it with books.