The best books we read in 2015

Janes:

The Portrait of a Lady

Henry James

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No one delves into a character’s psychology quite like Henry James, and in Isabel Archer, he found a protagonist more than worthy of his meticulous deconstruction. She’s a formidable intellectual who doesn’t see the value in intellectual pursuits, she’s an idealist who isn’t quite sure what her ideals are, she’s an independent who is completely and utterly controlled by the malignant, vicious people in her life. She has a complex, distinctive personality and an indomitable will, all of which is systematically broken down by a small man with “exquisite taste.” It’s as tragic as it is insightful, sensitively portraying the experience of patriarchal oppression through the eyes of a woman who is determined to “behave picturesquely.”

Acquired: through kht, who warned me I would relate to the protagonist to an uncomfortable extent. I’ve thrice been told that I am like Isabel Archer, once as a lament, once as a compliment [To be clear, this was me –kht], and once as a scathing criticism. Only a Henry James character could find so many different ways to be relatable to a real person’s life.

Swann’s Way

Marcel Proust

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I expected to appreciate Swann’s Way, if not to love it. How could you not begrudgingly admire what is arguably the defining work of modernism, written by the only author who could extend the memory of a mother’s madeleine for pages and pages on end? But surprisingly, my enjoyment of the book wasn’t limited to an English student’s curiosity; I couldn’t help but be swept away by it. Proust’s infamously long sentences, rather than feeling cumbersome, felt as if they were easily rolling down the page, very much like the tenuously connected thoughts that run through a real person’s musing mind. It portrays life as an impressionistic painting, simultaneously dreamy and enhanced, filtered through the romantic, red-and-orange tint of nostalgia. Memories may not be particularly reliable, Swann’s Way tells us, but they sure are beautiful, at least if you’re an artistic neurotic lucky enough to live in the south of France.

Acquired: at The Strand, along with a used paperback of metaphysical poetry, because I wanted something small enough to fit in my purse and Proust just wouldn’t cut it.

 

Fates and Furies

Lauren Groff

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Lauren Groff’s incisive, almost sadistic dissection of a seemingly happy marriage represents a trend in contemporary literature that pleases me to no end: a return to classical structures and themes. The first half is dominated by the husband, Lotto, a man who is charmingly effortless in spite of (read: because of) his deep-seated malleability, his ignorance to all of the external forces shaping his life and identity. He paints his wife, Mathilde, as a distant mythical creature, but by the time the novel switches to her perspective, we’ve already guessed that he is the one who isn’t quite real, who is missing something at his core. Mathilde, as we find out, is his exact inverse, a woman with an indestructible veneer of insubstantiality but a quite substantial core of pure, unadulterated fury. The narrator tells us at the beginning of the novel that Lotto and Mathilde are blissful newlyweds when a “third person” sneaks its way in: their marriage. Fates and Furies is about privilege, intimacy, self-deception, and a whole host of other topics, but mostly it’s about that third person taking on a life of its own, like the wayward spawn you thought you could control simply because you made it.

Acquired: at Barnes and Noble in beautiful and expensive hardcover, when the glowing reviews and the promise of a highbrow, feminist version of Gone Girl made me too impatient to wait for the paperback.

 

Unicorn 

Angela Carter

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Angela Carter is primarily known for her fiction, but her provocative and bewitching poetry was finally published as a collection this year. In Unicorn, she subverts familiar fairy tales, such as the virgin seducing the unicorn or Alice tumbling through the looking glass, into unmistakably nightmarish distortions that illustrate the psychological violence that accompanies our cultural mythologies. The eponymous “Unicorn,” in particular, stuck in my mind for weeks on end in the worst and best of ways: “Q. What have unicorns and virgins got in common? / A. They are both fabulous beasts.” It’s not subtle, but blisteringly defiant in its deconstruction of the notion of “virgin,” and even “woman,” as a myth in itself.

Acquired: at a Daunt Books in Hampstead Heath, London on my way to Keats House. Keats House is closed on Fridays, as it turns out, but the outside was gorgeous, Hampstead Heath was a real-life version of what I picture the moors of Wuthering Heights to look like, and I bought one of my favorite books of the year, so it was still a good day.

 

A Pale View of Hills 

Kazuo Ishiguro

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The first novel of one of my favorite contemporary writers, A Pale View of Hills was certainly less assured than the nearly perfect Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. But like his later novels, A Pale View of Hills is masterfully subtle, depicting the quiet devastation of suicide through an indirect, unreliable narrative that challenges readers to constantly question their assumptions. The novel takes the form of a story told by a mother to her youngest daughter, right after her eldest daughter has killed herself, and describes an increasingly unsettling past encounter with a fellow mother who is neglectful and oftentimes cruel to her young daughter. Is the story intended as fatalistic foreshadowing, as the narrator is pregnant with her first child at the time? Is it a none-too-veiled critique of her own failures as a mother? It hardly matters, as the pleasingly ambiguous narrative illustrates the universal need to filter, repress, and misrepresent events that are too painful to experience all at once.

Acquired: at Blackwell’s in Oxford, which contains the largest single room for book sales in all of Europe. They were having a 3 for 2 sale, which I obviously couldn’t resist, so I picked up A Pale View of Hills, a particularly pretty hardback of Beyond Good and Evil (which is in the public domain, but whatever), and a snarky God book as a Christmas gift for one of several anti-theists in my life.


 

 

kht

Common As Air 

Lewis Hyde

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From the man who wrote The Gift, a remarkable book about measuring  artistic value within a capitalist society (and how to separate the two), a less anti-capitalist but still passionately pro-social discussion of copyright. Lewis Hyde discusses the competing claims of society’s need to protect the commons (the culture that we all share, the vast resources created by all the artists and writers and creators that exist in dialogue with each other) and of the need to enable artists to do what they do—by paying them, for one thing; by giving them due credit, for another. Did you know that the parsimonious grandchildren of a not-so-recently-deceased author can block a critical study of that author if it does something so audacious as to quote extensively from the work it examines? Did you know that there is no legal way to actually add your work to the common domain in America (except, of course, by killing yourself and then waiting 75 years)? I didn’t, and I found this book so illuminating. We run the risk of allowing copyright laws that are essentially Disney’s bespoke laws to destroy the riches of American culture by stifling dialogue until it’s too late for it to be relevant. If enough people read this, maybe that will change. (But first, if you haven’t, read The Gift.)
Acquired: at City Lights in San Francisco, on a shelf that I believe was called Cultural Materialism, because every bookstore worth its salt has one of those.

 

The Book of Strange New Things 

Michel Faber

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On my honeymoon this summer, I often found myself wishing we could delay going to the beach or to dinner just a few more minutes so I could find out what happened next in this strange and lovely novel. At its start, a minister leaves the wife he loves deeply on Earth in order to go on a mysterious corporate-sponsored mission to space. There, he wrestles with how to translate his spirituality to a world where even the nature of consciousness is different than our own. Meanwhile, his wife, who thought he would be the one in danger, faces the prospect of apocalypse herself. It’s not a book written for the evangelical, or even for the religious; it’s intensely philosophical, gripping, beautiful, and romantic. A perfect honeymoon read, I suppose.

Acquired: as a wedding present from a friend at my MFA program. jd and I got so many books for our wedding that we still haven’t read them all yet. Our friends know us so well.

 

Bossypants

Tina Fey

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I have just noticed that each book I chose was read in a different season. I read Common As Air this spring, The Book of Strange New Things in the summer. Bossypants was a fall read, and I remember sitting outside at a restaurant on a crisp evening, waiting for a friend, drinking a huge glass of white wine, and laughing hysterically as I read Bossypants while a group of neighbors hung out on the sidewalk nearby and stared curiously at me. I doubt that Tina Fey needs my endorsement for any readers to believe that she is hilarious, but in case there are any naysayers, here are some of her thoughts on Photoshop:

and:

Photoshop is just like makeup. When it’s done well it looks great, and when it’s overdone you look like a crazy asshole.” – Tina Fey, via Goodreads

Acquired: in my first annual Book Exchange with my college roommate, a tradition we belatedly established in imitation of another pair of roommates who lived down the hall from us freshman year.

 

10:04  

Ben Lerner

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For my winter book, a novel by a recent winner of the MacArthur fellowship about a writer who sells a book for a bunch of money, considers doing in vitro with his best friend, deals with a health crisis, and tutors a little kid named Roberto. It is insistently, almost aggressively, postmodern in its emphasis on the ephemera of today’s culture; and it is deeply metafictional, as each part of the “real” story is retold in the form of a fictionalized, transformed narrative by the writer-hero of the novel. I tend to be wary of meta-fiction and its tendency towards narcissism on the part of writers. Why would other people read this, I often wonder, why would people want to examine so deeply the nature of fiction-making? But in Ben Lerner’s hands, the metafictional is also the psychological. What is fiction doing for this narrator, who feels himself wildly careening towards death (in the form of his own health crisis and the ever-more-frequent extreme weather events hitting New York City) and immortality (in the form of his own fiction and his own potential offspring) at the same moment in his life? So I liked that. But I also, especially, liked the long, chewy, self-deprecating, self-indulgent sentences of the prose, and the underlying, tough, pragmatic moral sense of the novel.

Acquired: from Three Lives & Co. in the West Village, a quiet, beautifully curated bookshop heavy on international and indie literature.


 

jd

The Ocean, the Bird, and the Scholar 

Helen Vendler

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Vendler’s criticism is remarkable for how much it does with so little strain—her readings are always assembled from simple explication of the poems, or when explication is unnecessary, from bare quotation. The power of her readings comes exactly from their simplicity: an insight that gently unfolds the better part of an intensely complex poet’s work is laid out with no protestation or pretense, and leaves you shocked at how much more you see in a poet you’ve only just met, or that you’ve struggled with for years. Wonderfully, she ends up covering so many poets in this volume that by the last few essays it feels like you’ve taken the Intro To 20th Century Poetry course you never knew you missed. The additional space given to Vendler’s primary interests, like Ammons, Graham, or Stevens, feels very welcome, but even surprising one-offs like the essay on Melville’s poetry are refreshing and enlightening.

Acquired: City Lights Bookstore – same West-Coast trip as kht

 

Franny and Zooey 

J. D. Salinger

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As one of the approximately-all-of-the-non-serial-killer population who hated reading Catcher in the Rye in high school, I didn’t really plan to read Salinger ever again until a friend recommended this novel. Novella? Whatever. It was by turns critical, self-critical, sensitive, and wonderful, always in ways that I didn’t expect. Its primary narrator is so (delightfully) cynically British, by which I mean Britishly cynical, that the book at times sounds insincere in its austerity, coming from a so-American author. But the narrator is a narrator, and his austerity is fully and believably explained, such that despite all of my best efforts, I have to admit that I had been wrong 15 years ago, and Salinger can actually write wonderful things.

Acquired: Temporarily. Loaned from a friend—the best way to find books.

 

The Dark Forest 

Cixin Liu

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This second book in the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, more commonly known as the Three Body trilogy [kht: which by the way Obama is reading on vacation right now], became (as soon as I finished it) for me a member of the highest echelon of “trilogy-keystones,”—sitting comfortably next to Godfather Part II, Empire Strikes Back, The Dark Knight, Fifty Shades Darker*… I’m extremely conscious of my peculiar impotence as a reviewer here, discussing a trilogy that is in theory and practice complete, but which, not speaking Mandarin, I can’t know the end of before the translation of Death’s End is released this August. With that all said, The Dark Forest keeps the political and personal tensions that drove The Three Body Problem alive, while also digging deeply into the macrocosm—the function and dysfunction of human societies as a whole—and the microcosm—the unknowable tension and sacrifice of individual conviction—of Three Body Problem’s concerns. Given that the book is so centrally concerned with the inaccessibility of individual intention, and the degree to which history can turn on those intentions, there’s very little I can say about the actual plot without spoiling part of the pleasure of the novel. Suffice it to say that there was more than enough to enjoy, and be troubled by, through the entirety of this book.

* I can make awful jokes but I can’t not asterisk them.

Acquired: Amazon.com, as soon as the translation was released for pre-order.

 

The Duino Elegies 

Rainer Maria Rilke

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This wasn’t the first year I’ve read The Duino Elegies, but it qualifies as one of my best books of the year, because it happens to be one of the first times that I returned to a poem and felt that I myself was being rewarded for bringing something new. One barest qualification for a poem about love and death should be that we learn more about the poem all of our lives, and in my emo-kid early twenties I had loved the Elegies, but had unthinkingly filed them away as emo-kid melodrama about love and death. I can’t describe how fulfilling it felt to read them again and find that rather than falling behind me, they had opened a few more doors for me to step inside and feel at home in. Well worth a first or a fiftieth read.

Acquired: One copy as recently as last year, one at least ten years ago, a few others in between.

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