Best fiction I read in 2015

I read a tremendous amount of five-star fiction this year, and it was a year notable for the number of authors I read for the first time. Without further ado, here are the 10* best books of fiction I read in 2015 (*with a bit of fudging).

1. The Stories of John Cheever

The Stories of John Cheever

[Insert sturdy expletive!] Maybe Cheever is all I have ever wanted in a story. I do not think I will ever be able to get over this. The pitch-perfect prose, wrapped around a bunch of sad, rich, white New Englanders, left me breathless. Yeah, it’s a narrow subject matter, on the whole, but I am incapable of denying his clear genius. Six stars.

2. The Neapolitan Novels, Elena Ferrante

My Brilliant Friend (The Neapolitan Novels, #1)Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (The Neapolitan Novels, #3)The Story of a New Name (The Neapolitan Novels, #2)The Story of the Lost Child (The Neapolitan Novels, #4)

Cheating, but I blazed through all four of the Neapolitan Novels (My Brilliant Friend, The Story of a New Name, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, and The Story of the Lost Child) this year, and I feel like they can all count as one formidable work. As I have said to many friends, I am at a loss for words when I try to explain the draw of Elena Ferrante’s power and brilliance. I can’t say what she does that is so affecting, but these novels are not to be missed. They appeal to everyone. (Yes, even men. If you can get over yourself/the intentionally bad cover art, you will not regret it.)

3. My Struggle (Books 1 and 2), Karl Ove Knausgaard

My Struggle: Book 1

My Struggle: Book 2: A Man in Love

Another cheat, but I was also seduced by Karl Ove Knausgaard and his sprawling Proustian novel My Struggle this year. It lives up to all the hype. I read books one through three this year, but the first and second were the ones that genuinely moved me.

4. A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara

A Little Life

As a rule, I am not someone who cries when reading, but I sobbed (I think actually sobbed) a few times while reading this novel. Good grief, Hanya Yanagihara; have mercy on us. This is an extremely dark and extremely moving novel. The characters are rich, complex, and heartbreaking. A Little Life is not for the faint of heart, but it is for all who have suffered, for all who have received (and yet wanted to reject) unconditional love. It’s a beautiful portrait of the love and grace that broken people can to extend to each other despite the horrors of life. Whew. I read all 720 pages in about two days, and upon finishing, I felt like I needed to recover from the death of friends. What a tremendous literary accomplishment.

5. Independent People, Halldór Laxness

Independent People

Where has this book been all my life? Never have I read a novel so beautifully, darkly comic and moving, all at once. Bjartur, a sheep farmer in Iceland, has determined that he will be an independent man, and rely on no one for anything. His singleness of purpose and pride bear out the action of this gorgeously written novel, as his desire for independence drives his family and his farm into despair, starvation, heartbreak, and death. Sounds fun, right? And somehow it is.

The humor is especially surprising. There are these moments of complete absurdity (everyone is talking about worms in the dogs and livestock; ghosts on the heath; the high-minded poetess who pretends to be a friend to the common farmer; trying to tell the neighbors that he found his wife dead, frozen in a pool of blood, after having given birth to a daughter, who is found barely alive under the dog, who is keeping her warm, and instead tells them stories about his sheep and asks them about the weather), and extremely dark humor, and then there’s this lyrical vein that runs through the whole thing. I can’t even begin to say what the quality is, but it’s beautiful. (It also was the perfect literary prelude to our visit to Iceland this past summer.)

6. Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf

Between the Acts

Upon my third reading of this novel, I am happy to say that the pleasures of revisiting Woolf are manifold. Years later, I still feel like I never left this novel. I read it twice in 2009 in preparation for my undergraduate thesis, and then, in 2015, I was happily astonished that it felt so fresh and memorable to me. Rereading Between the Acts felt like visiting an old friend in her garden. My undergrad marginalia in my copy was often embarrassing to reread, but I think these copious, juvenile annotations served to cement a strong recall of the themes and overall emotions of this novel. Mainly, I’ve come away with this impression: Snob as she was, Woolf noticed everybody. And here we notice ourselves in these characters, as at the end of the play, when the (literal) mirrors are held up to the audience, casting a chilling democracy over the crowd. “So that was her little game! To show us up, as we are, here and how.”

On a summer evening in the English countryside, a family and their neighborhood friends gather to put on an annual pageant that spans the history of noble Britain. As to be expected with Woolf, a multiplicity of psychological distress simmers under the social surface. Isa is the quiet center of this novel, and we live in her sad, observant mind. As with most Woolf heroines, she is a secretive poet and an unhappy wife and mother, imprisoned by the luxuries of her domestic situation. And yet she is still sympathetic and very human.

This is not her strongest novel, and it’s not the one I’d recommend to newcomers, but it has all the trappings of Woolf’s timeless appeal as a novelist: the incisive characterization, the lush prose, the beautiful meditations, the moments of playfulness.

7. The Blue Flower, Penelope Fitzgerald

The Blue Flower

If 2014 was the Year of Discovering and Falling in Love with Lydia Davis, I’m going to declare 2015 the Year of Discovering and Falling in Love with Penelope Fitzgerald. This is only the second novel I’ve read by her, but I am perpetually enchanted by her effortless style, wit, and perfect characterizations. (She also writes children very well, in a very clever, realistic manner. “The Bernhard,” the protagonist’s little brother, was a consistently hilarious character to me. Everything about him is delightful.) I am eagerly looking forward to reading everything else from her (and remain perplexed that she seems to get consistently low numbers of Goodreads stars).

In the lush and dramatic time of Goethe, we meet a young Friedrich “Fritz” von Hardenberg, later known as the German Romantic philosopher/poet Novalis. In the middle of his university education, he meets and falls desperately in love with a 12-year-old girl, Sophie von Kühn, despite the fact that she seems to have not much to recommend herself (except, according to him, being the spitting image of a woodcut of the painter Raphael). His family and friends are appalled. The young genius is so taken in by this very normal kid, who is 10 years his junior, and no one can understand the deep attraction he has for her. Fitzgerald is hilarious to me, throughout her depiction of the sincere and yet puzzling romance. A lovely little novel. It is funny and light and strangely, whimsically profound.

8. In Persuasion Nation, George Saunders

In Persuasion Nation

Brilliant and weird and funny and meticulously executed. This is such a delightful collection. Not as beloved, in my mind, as The Tenth of December, but here we have all of the characteristic blend of quasi-sci-fi American-life criticism, poignant family dramas shown from odd angles, and that biting and somehow wise wit.

9. Moon Tiger, Penelope Lively

Moon Tiger

Masterful. Claudia Hampton, a brilliant and unorthodox historian, looks back over her life and loves as she dies. I was a touch skeptical at first, by the jumpy perspectives and narration, but Penelope Lively’s unerring control won me over. I was thoroughly charmed by this short, beautiful novel and didn’t want it to end. Easily the best Booker Prize winner I’ve read.

10. Coup de Grâce, Marguerite Yourcenar

Coup de Grâce

I typically find war novels extremely dull, but in Marguerite Yourcenar’s capable hands, not even a war novel can be tedious. (And, besides, Coup de Grâce is not really a battlefield narrative but rather psychological tension in the midst of wartime.) I think I might love Yourcenar; I don’t think she can do anything wrong. This is the third novel of hers that I’ve read, and all three have been flawless.

Erick, the narrator, is a young, emotionally cold Prussian who becomes entangled with Sophie, a beautiful, serious, and tragic young woman. Sophie loves him despite his detached and even unkind nature, which gives the misogynistic Erick plenty to brood and philosophize about while the bombs are falling around them. And, oh, the ending! I won’t say a word about it, but the fact that Yourcenar says this was based on a true story makes it all the more romantically tragic and perfect.

Honorable Mentions

  1. The Death of Ivan Ilych, Leo Tolstoy
  2. The Sweet Cheat Gone, Marcel Proust
  3. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  4. Offshore, Penelope Fitzgerald
  5. All the King’s Men, Robert Penn Warren
  6. 2666, Roberto Bolaño
  7. Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing, May Sarton
  8. Herzog, Saul Bellow
  9. Mating, Norman Rush
  10. The Charterhouse of Parma, Stendhal
  11. Slaughterhouse-Five, Kurt Vonnegut
  12. Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald
  13. The Heart of the Matter, Graham Greene
  14. Mislaid, Nell Zink
  15. As We Are Now, May Sarton
  16. Thousand Cranes, Yasunari Kawabata
  17. Victory over Japan, Ellen Gilchrist
  18. Mr. Palomar, Italo Calvino
  19. We Need to Talk about Kevin, Lionel Shriver
  20. The Queen of Spades and Other Stories, Alexander Pushkin
  21. The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford
  22. The Sellout, Paul Beatty
  23. The Life and Times of Michael K, J.M. Coetzee
  24. Bastard out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison

What fiction did you read and enjoy in 2015?

Best nonfiction I read in 2015

I consumed a lot of excellent nonfiction this year, and this was a particularly difficult list to make. So many gorgeous, mind-expanding books!

1: Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey through Yugoslavia

An enormous and spellbinding work of art, history, and memoir. Rebecca West travels to the former Yugoslavia with her husband in the late 1930s, on the cusp of World War II, and produces this gigantic and gorgeous book of her travels and observations. West, who is brilliant and yet endlessly entertaining and quick, sees the clouds gathering over Europe from the vantage point of the Balkans and produces this remarkable record of that pregnant historical moment. Their travels are chaperoned by Constantine, a Slavic Jew, who is a fascinating character in himself, and they are often unfortunately joined by his appallingly horrible German wife, Gerda, who is an outspoken Nazi sympathizer (which surely makes for a horrific marriage between them, at the very least). West is game for any adventure, however, even with such a dizzying array of characters and cultures.

Her style is breathtakingly beautiful and can win over even the most lax armchair historian (like myself), and she’s also devilishly funny and eloquently sarcastic. She, like most people of her time period, can be prone to racial stereotypes and overgeneralizations of people (she loves to use the word “sluttish,” for instance, to refer to people or art or cultures that she finds distasteful), but I think, on the whole, she comes down on the side of fairness and humanity more often than not. I will rave about this massive, unexpected treasure to anyone who will listen. It was worth every minute spent in its jam-packed pages.

2: Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Between the World and Me

Gut-wrenching and terribly, beautifully composed. Essential reading for all Americans, especially us white ones, because we are still steeped in such shameful ignorance. Ta-Nehisi Coates’s repeated refrain of “the body,” in this letter to his son, was especially powerful and eye-opening to me, to consider the ever-present threat to the only thing you truly have, your physical self, if you are a black American. Until we so-called white Americans can acknowledge and bear our mutual, omnipresent complicity in perpetuating racism in a systematic, universal way, nothing will change in this country.

3: H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald

H is for Hawk

The main thing that needs to be said is that this book is as incredible as everyone says it is. Helen Macdonald comes to terms with her beloved father’s sudden death in an unusual way: She adopts a goshawk. Goshawks are, I learned, one of the bird world’s finest killing machines, and training one to hunt with a human is no easy feat. In this marvelous book — half-grief memoir, half-hawk-training-narrative — Macdonald wrestles with the belief that animals can heal us, and finds that they can, but also discovers that animals can invert us, revealing our most dark, sad selves; a relationship with a wild thing can make us wild, a creature foreign to other humans and to ourselves.

Her prose is perfect, luminous; I couldn’t get enough. (It’s evident that she is also a poet; she knows how to make language bend and sing for her.) H Is for Hawk is gorgeously written and smart and heartbreaking; it elicited tears from me, and wry grins, and a hopeful, thoughtful perspective on the mystery of death and of the connection between two living things.

4: Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End, Atul Gawande

Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End

Having recently lost a beloved grandmother and now watching my parents (and parents-in-law) wrestle with end-of-life care decisions for their parents, Atul Gawande’s book was very relevant and poignant to me. As a general surgeon, he writes with medical context and experience, but he also writes as a son watching his father die. Gawande is willing to ask the hard questions and to do so with grace and eloquence. What is important toward the end of our lives? Is there a better model for elderly care? How can we improve the quality of our lives when the years ahead are few? Gawande addresses these questions with sincerity, tact, and feeling, and I think this book ought to be required reading for any child with aging parents.

5: The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander

The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

If you think the US justice system is fair and not implicitly racist, think again. Michelle Alexander’s well-researched and devastating book argues that the War on Drugs has created an enormous prison caste system, composed primarily of black men. The United States is 5% of the world population but 25% of its imprisoned population, and the majority of those prisoners are minorities. Increasingly, white Americans have had to come to grips with the fact that we live in a foolishly innocent parallel universe, in which we are largely ignorant of the racism and widespread unconscious bias that permeate law enforcement and the courts. We naively believe that (a) if someone ends up in jail, he deserves to be there and (b) that there is a sense of colorblind fairness in policing, sentencing, and convicting. Nothing could be further from the heartrending truth. (It is particularly sad and notable that this book came out five years ago, before the well-publicized spate of grotesque police violence against black people. What does it take to make us pay attention?)

The evidence Alexander presents to back up her case is vast and impossible to ignore. And the historical and legal context that she provides is very valuable and eye-opening, particularly for readers curious about the implications of court cases and criminal justice legislation. I think the book could have benefited from clearer framing. She mentions this a few times, but Alexander is not talking about the entire criminal justice system; rather, she focuses on the War on Drugs and its vast implications for creating our age of mass incarceration. This is a strong, readable, and important work of scholarship that demands sweeping policy change.

6: The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight into Beauty, Soetsu Yanagi

The Unknown Craftsman: A Japanese Insight Into Beauty

A perfectly expressed treatise on the theology of craft, specifically the characteristics of Japanese and Korean folk art. This book had been on my to-read shelf for years, and I am pleased to say it did not disappoint. Yanagi elevates the artistic and spiritual merit of wabi sabi work, especially pottery, and draws on Zen Buddhism (with dashes of Christian mysticism to appeal to Western readers) to form his philosophy of art. It’s clear, cogent, and elegantly simple. All I could think when finishing was, When I go back to Japan, I’m taking a whole suitcase just for ceramics.

7: The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, Elizabeth Kolbert

The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History

This is probably the first nonfiction horror book I’ve read. And it’s worth the existential dread and terror, because that might be the only thing that will make humankind act at this point. (The part of humankind who cares about science and what it’s been telling us for decades, i.e., how can any intelligent person possibly vote for politicians who deny climate change? But that is neither here nor there.) Here, Elizabeth Kolbert presents well-researched and solidly written accounts of extinction — and displays the considerable evidence that we are careening toward the sixth great episode of the decimation of biological diversity on Earth. The Sixth Extinction will make you sad and will make you begin to preemptively mourn the death of all the beautiful life on our planet, but it may also make you want to stand up and shout about it. Happy to hear that it was awarded the Pulitzer Prize.

8: The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11, Lawrence Wright

The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11

Superbly researched and written. This book won the Pulitzer when it was published, in 2006, and although that was nine years ago, it is still incredibly relevant and helpful as we watch the rise of ISIS (Da’esh). I marveled at the depth and breadth of Wright’s research.

9: Letters to a Young Poet, Rainer Maria Rilke

Letters to a Young Poet

What a lovely book of wisdom: for writers, specifically, but for human beings, in general. Rilke shares thoughts on writing, art, grief, love, and solitude with his characteristic blend of honesty and power. It is a shame it took me so many years to get to this little book. It will be a pleasant thing to return to in times of discouragement or confusion.

10: The Givenness of Things, Marilynne Robinson

The Givenness of Things: Essays

In which Marilynne Robinson says everything I want to say about being both a free-thinking progressive and a self-identifying Christian. Five stars for a handful of the essays, which are luminous and so wise. A few I found a bit dry and tedious (the obsession with John Calvin is something I don’t totally understand), but overall, recommended particularly to American Christians, especially the ones who want to use their minds.

Honorable Mentions

  1. Pro: Reclaiming Abortion Rights, Katha Pollitt (a quote here)
  2. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman
  3. Women in Clothes, ed. Sheila Heti, Heidi Julavits, and Leanne Shapton
  4. Hold Still, Sally Mann
  5. The Diary, vol. III, Virginia Woolf
  6. Oranges, John McPhee
  7. A Life in Letters, Anton Chekhov
  8. A Joy of Gardening, Vita Sackville-West
  9. Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber
  10. White Girls, Hilton Als
  11. No Good Men among the Living, Anand Gopal
  12. Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, Steven Mintz
  13. On Immunity: An Inoculation, Eula Biss
  14. Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves
  15. The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion, Meghan Daum
  16. Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?, Roz Chast
  17. Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on Their Decision Not to Have Kids, ed. Meghan Daum
  18. Kingdom, Grace, Judgment, Robert Farrar Capon
  19. The Birth of the Pill, Jonathan Eig
  20. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Elizabeth McCracken
  21. Stuart: A Life Backwards, Alexander Masters
  22. Ongoingness: The End of a Diary, Sarah Manguso
  23. Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, Anne Lamott
  24. An Unquiet Mind: A Memoir of Moods and Madness, Kay Redfield Jamison
  25. The Folded Clock: A Diary, Heidi Julavits
  26. The Writer in the Garden, ed. Jane Garmey

What were some of the best nonfiction books you read in 2015? I’d love to hear about them.

Best poetry I read in 2015

To kick off my annual lists of the best things I read in the past year, here are the best 10 books of poems I read in 2015.

Voyage of the Sable Venus and Other Poems

1. The Voyage of the Sable Venus, Robin Coste Lewis

Selected Poems

2. Selected Poems, Rita Dove

Electric Light: Poems

3. Electric Light, Seamus Heaney

Life on Mars

4. Life on Mars, Tracy K. Smith

Almanac: Poems: Poems

5. Almanac, Austin Smith

Elephant Rocks: Poems

6. Elephant Rocks, Kay Ryan

The Long Approach

7. The Long Approach, Maxine Kumin

[Out of print; I seem to have the only copy in the world.]

8. House, Bridge, Fountain, Maxine Kumin

Of No Country I Know: New and Selected Poems and Translations

9. Of No Country I Know, David Ferry

What Goes On: Selected and New Poems, 1995-2009

10. What Goes On, Stephen Dunn

Up next: Top 10 nonfiction books I read in 2015. Any favorite books of poems you read this year?

10 Best Fiction Books I Read in 2014

And again, I have to say that this was a very difficult, painful list to make. It seemed cruel, not to rank everything in the top 10 for this past year. But I have made my choices. And I stand by them.

1. The Stories of Paul Bowles

The Stories of Paul Bowles

How do you talk about something that left you consistently gasping for air? I was introduced to Paul Bowles in 2011 with his novel The Sheltering Sky (which ranked on my Top 10 list for that year). For all his brilliance, he is under-read and gravely underappreciated; when I found this copy of his stories at a local bookstore, I snatched it up and proceeded to devour it with unflagging fervor. It’s a thick, dazzling, astonishing collection of stories about human nature, particularly its darker and weirder representatives. Many stories involve Morocco, where Bowles lived for most of his adult life. Most, if not all, stories hinge on a complicated, compelling character, perfectly animated by Bowles’s vivid, incisive prose. And all of the stories will render you a bit breathless.

2. Alexis, Marguerite Yourcenar

Alexis

Marguerite Yourcenar is the heavy-hitter that hardly anyone talks about. She was a total genius (first woman to be inducted into the Académie française), and I think it’s criminal that we aren’t talking about her all of the time. This unbelievable little novel, for instance, was her first. She wrote it when she was a mere 24 years old, in 1928 (published in 1929). And this is Alexis: A confessional letter from a gay man to his ex-wife, about his childhood, internal struggles, hopes, and fraught ambitions. And it is so gorgeous and riveting. I can’t get over it. There are shades of Proust here too (the insightful inner examinations of a frequently ill, shy gay man who is extremely intelligent), but the short of it is that Alexis is incredible and worth every minute.

3. Pale Fire, Vladimir Nabokov

Pale Fire

This is the second time I’ve read Pale Fire, but it’s so good that it would be a crime not to rank it so highly in this roundup. I read it again for church book club (promoted to the list because of my gushing recommendation), and everyone hated it because the narrator was “creepy” and “unlikable.” I felt like all I could say was, “Well, naturally. But that’s entirely, utterly missing everything. Just everything.” (I didn’t say that, but I wanted to.) The novel is deliriously funny and wickedly sincere and plays tricks on you from the beginning to the end. Here we have a delusional professor (or is he?), a masterful poem, a fake Slavic kingdom, a murder mystery, an allusive treasure trove. You cannot ask for much more, but if you did, Nabokov would give it to you on a silver platter.

4. The Forsyte Saga, John Galsworthy

The Forsyte Saga

I decided to read the enormous Forsyte Saga because a visiting preacher raved about it, noting how underappreciated Galsworthy is, and structured his sermon around the novel’s story of grace and redemption.* John Galsworthy was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1932, primarily for this book. The Nobel committee usually gives the prize for a lifetime of work, but in their decision, they specifically noted that Galsworthy deserved the prize “for his distinguished art of narration which takes its highest form in The Forsyte Saga.”

Well said, committee, and I agree with your judgment. Accordingly, I’m fascinated by the fact that hardly anyone has read this book. Or by the fact that no one really talks about it. One factor could be the length (my edition topped out around 960 pages). Yes, it’s not as brilliant as Tolstoy, who can write 960 pages and never be accused of having taken excessive liberties, but The Forsyte Saga is brilliant by degrees and should be read much more than it is.

I love sprawling family dramas, and the Forsytes are an excellent subject. All of the familiar themes of the English upper class are here — money! Class! Preventing unsavory marriages! Gossip! Hating on the less fortunate! Art! Wit! — but Galsworthy presents them with a fresh, engaging, and sometimes unpredictable style.

As Galsworthy intended, Soames Forsyte is particularly fascinating. Soames is deeply unlikable to everyone who knows him, even (especially?) to his own family. As readers, we follow him quite closely and receive his inner monologues with regularity, and we have no good reason to like him either. So Soames is such an interesting and therefore perfect choice for a complex, distasteful protagonist.

All in all, this is a splendidly written novel. There are some moments of real beauty here. And enough interludes to make you pause, lift your head, and think deeply about your own extended family.

*Upon finishing the novel, I realized that the visiting preacher just watched the BBC miniseries version and didn’t actually read the book, because the miniseries deviates grossly from the text and fabricates an entirely new ending. Shock! Brief indignation! But. I’m still obviously very glad I read it. So, no harm done.

5. The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis

2014 is the year I discovered Lydia Davis and had my life subsequently changed by her. In my reading life, the mark of a very special book is one that forces me to slow down and savor every line. I’m usually speeding through books at a voracious (if often uncomprehending) pace, but not so with this collection, which includes all of the stories from Break It Down (1986) to her penultimate collection, Varieties of Disturbance (2007). As I’ve mentioned before, something about Lydia Davis sticks with me, long after I’ve read the last little story, and echoes in my mind throughout my day. She isn’t easily forgotten, and I love her for that. If you need someone to shake you by the shoulders and tell you to READ LYDIA DAVIS, give me a ring. I’ll come over.

6. Can’t and Won’t, Lydia Davis

Can't and Won't: Stories

I wasn’t kidding. 2014 was the Year of Lydia Davis. This is her most recent collection, and it’s highly recommended to anyone who has eyes capable of interpreting text.

Here is the titular story, in is entirety:

I was recently denied a writing prize because, they said, I was lazy. What they meant by lazy was that I used too many contractions: for instance, I would not write out in full the words cannot and will not, but instead contracted them to can’t and won’t.

7. Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellow

Henderson the Rain King

“Hell, we’ll never get away from rhythm, Romilayu. I wish my dead days would quit bothering me and leave me alone. The bad stuff keeps coming back, and it’s the worst rhythm there is. The repetition of a man’s bad self, that’s the worst suffering that’s ever been known.”

I wasn’t sure about Saul Bellow, but Henderson convinced me completely of his brilliance.

Henderson is the perfect narrator: flawed, humorous, fascinating. His continual refrain — “I want, I want, I want” — rings throughout the book and echoes a bit in all of us as we read his story. It’s a quest, an archetypal journey of rebirth, and at the same time, a journey into the darkest part of the self: the hidden psychosis that lurks beneath the surface.

8. Light Years, James Salter

Light Years

What can you do with prose like this except bow down?

The book was in her lap; she had read no further. The power to change one’s life comes from a paragraph, a lone remark. The lines that penetrate us are slender, like the flukes that live in river water and enter the bodies of swimmers. She was excited, filled with strength. The polished sentences had arrived, it seemed, like so many other things, at just the right time. How can we imagine what our lives should be without the illumination of the lives of others?

This is a novel about a dreamily disintegrating marriage. It sounds odd to say that a marriage could fall apart in a “dreamy” way, but this is an odd novel, and I think that’s exactly what happened here. Viri and Nedra live in the countryside outside of New York City with their daughters, Franca and Danny, and they might all love each other. Or they might not. Salter’s style is lush and impressionistic and everyone seems very beautiful and very confused but not quite devastated. There are no dramatic scenes; everything happens quietly. There is a pony in the grass at dawn; light reflected off wine goblets; half-finished art projects on the kitchen table; loose conversations with quasi-intellectuals at night; oblique moments of love-making. I was completely entranced by this book, mainly because of Salter’s gorgeous prose, but even now, I’m not entirely sure what to say about it. Except that it was lovely and strange.

9. Americanah, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Americanah

Three-quarters through Americanah, a character says, “You can’t write an honest novel about race in this country.”

And yet I think that is what Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has accomplished with this book. This is a large, beautiful novel with engaging, complex characters. Adichie is constantly reminding the reader of the promises and pitfalls embedded in the American cultural landscape — pitfalls especially if you happen to be black.

Ifemelu moves from Nigeria to the United States to pursue a university education and hopefully, better job prospects. The novel moves back and forth between Ifemelu’s past (girlhood in Nigeria to young adulthood in the United States) and present, as she prepares to return home to Nigeria — for good.

Even though I am a white, non-immigrant, US-born citizen, I never felt boxed out or uninvited to the conversation that is going on in Americanah. The characters are accessible, complicated, delightfully human; they held my rapt attention throughout this large and yet swift-moving novel.

Through the medium of Ifemelu’s blog about being a non-American black in America, Adichie expresses cogent, relevant arguments about the complexities of racism in America, exposing just how little progress we’ve made, even when we pat ourselves on the back for our sense of having overcome, for achieving civil rights, for electing a black man president, for parroting the line that white conservatives enjoy, that “racism is over.” It’s far, far from over. Americanah is that strong — and readable and compelling — reminder: Racism, unfortunately, is alive and well in America. So, round of applause for Adichie, for teaching us something about ourselves that we are always unwilling to learn.

10. The Orphan Master’s Son, Adam Johnson

The Orphan Master's Son

It is rare to find a book like this: a thriller — an adventure novel, in a sense — that also happens to be extremely well written. It’s a story of murder and intrigue — salted with delicious dark humor — in North Korea, where Adam Johnson actually spent some time working and doing research for this novel, which was awarded the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. Recommended for its energy, precision, and probing action.

Honorable Mentions

  1. Lila, Marilynne Robinson
  2. Crossing to Safety, Wallace Stegner
  3. Cloudsplitter, Russell Banks
  4. Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, David Foster Wallace
  5. A Haunted House and Other Short Stories, Virginia Woolf
  6. The Patrick Melrose Novels, Edward St. Aubyn
  7. The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel
  8. What We Talk about When We Talk about Anne Frank, Nathan Englander
  9. Go Down, Moses, William Faulkner
  10. Fools, Joan Silber
  11. Battleborn, Claire Vaye Watkins
  12. Transparent Things, Vladimir Nabokov
  13. Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
  14. The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt
  15. Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
  16. Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
  17. Out, Natsuo Kirino
  18. Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson

What were your favorite novels you read in 2014?

Previously…
Top 10 Poetry Books I Read in 2014
Top 10 Nonfiction Books I Read in 2014

Top 10 Nonfiction Books I Read in 2014

2014 was a banner year for me in excellent nonfiction, so this was an extremely challenging list to make. It’s worth noting that every book in the honorable mentions category is also fantastic. Without further ado…

1. Arctic Dreams, by Barry Lopez

Arctic Dreams

I write the worst reviews for the books I love the most. I have nothing coherent to say; all I can do is gush. And just say: Read this book, if you do anything at all.

Arctic Dreams is a masterful account of the natural, scientific, historical, and cultural landscape of the Arctic. Lopez writes beautifully and conscientiously and yet with a researcher’s painstaking attention to detail. The book was published in 1986, and so I’m late to the party, but I found it just as moving and relevant as if it had been written yesterday.

Essentially, I think it’s perfect; all I could ever want in a book of nonfiction. From a passage near the end of the book:

“No culture has yet solved the dilemma each has faced with the growth of a conscious mind: how to live a moral and compassionate existence when one is fully aware of the blood, the horror inherent in all life, when one finds darkness not only in one’s own culture but within oneself. If there is a stage at which an individual life becomes truly adult, it must be where one grasps the irony in its unfolding and accepts responsibility for a life lived in the midst of such paradox. One must live in the middle of a contradiction because if all contradiction were eliminated at once life would collapse. There are simply no answers to some of the great pressing questions. You continue to live them out, making your life a worthy expression of a leaning into the light.”

2. The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America, by George Packer

The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America

Riveting, brilliantly researched and written. The Unwinding may be the truest portrait of post-financial crisis America that we have, and as such, it should be cherished and honored. By taking a simultaneously macro- and micro-level view of a deconstructed America, George Packer shows us what this country is made of. I still feel as obsessed with this book as I did when I finished it, many months ago. Highly recommended to all US residents.

3. Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures, by Mary Ruefle

Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures

“I used to think I wrote because there was something I wanted to say. Then I thought, ‘I will continue to write because I have not yet said what I wanted to say;’ but I know now I continue to write because I have not yet heard what I have been listening to.”

A gorgeous collection of essays and lectures on poetry, meaning, and inspiration. Mary Ruefle’s style combines many of my favorite elements in an essayist: mystical asides, plenty of literary allusions, mini-anecdotes, and snippets of history and fact. I couldn’t get enough of her.

Her lecture on reading (“Someone Reading a Book Is a Sign of Order in the World”) had me in total raptures. I started writing down quotes from it and then slowly realized that I was just copying the entire piece verbatim. (We read Proust in the exact same way—one volume a year, in our twenties, because an older man told us it was the only thing that mattered—I feel that we might be soulmates, Mary and me!) I also loved her joint lecture on Emily Dickinson, Emily Brontë, and Anne Frank; her meditation on fear; her lecture about theme and sentimentality; an exposition of the irreverence of art.

Read it; savor it; thank God we have poets such as these.

“Did I mention supreme joy? That is why I read: I want everything to be okay. That’s why I read when I was a lonely kid and that’s why I read now that I’m a scared adult. It’s a sincere desire, but a sincere desire always complicated things—the universe has a peculiar reaction to our sincere desires. Still, I believe the planet on the table, even when wounded and imperfect, fragmented and deprived, is worthy of being called whole. Our minds and the universe—what else is there?”

(With gratitude to Celeste for telling me about this book and lending me her much-loved copy.)

4. The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression, Andrew Solomon

The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression

The Noonday Demon is an important, comprehensive, compassionate book about depression, the seemingly ubiquitous plague of modernity. As always, Andrew Solomon is gracious and thoughtful in his portrayals of real stories (continually and gently humanizing the face of the illness, both with his own experience and the experiences of others), and thorough and incisive in the sweeping scope of his research. After chapters of the various methods of reckoning with depression (whether physically or philosophically), the book ends with powerful, raw honesty and light.

“The opposite of depression is not happiness but vitality, and my life, as I write this, is vital, even when sad. I may wake up sometime next year without my mind again; it is not likely to stick around all the time. Meanwhile, however, I have discovered what I would have to call a soul, a part of myself I could never have imagined until one day, seven years ago, when hell came to pay me a surprise visit. It’s a precious discovery. Almost every day I feel momentary flashes of hopelessness and wonder every time whether I am slipping. For a petrifying instant here and there, a lightning-quick flash, I want a car to run me over and I have to grit my teeth to stay on the sidewalk until the light turns green; or I imagine how easily I might cut my wrists; or I taste hungrily the metal tip of a gun in my mouth; or I picture going to sleep and never waking up again. I hate those feelings, but I know that they have driven me to look deeper at life, to find and cling to reasons for living. I cannot find it in me to regret entirely the course my life has taken. Every day, I choose, sometimes gamely and sometimes against the moment’s reason, to be alive. Is that not a rare joy?”

5. The Wisdom of the Desert, Thomas Merton

The Wisdom of the Desert: Sayings from the Desert Fathers of the Fourth Century

I first read this book many years ago, and I finally bought myself a copy, because I loved it so much. Re-reading this book — Thomas Merton’s collection of the proverbs of ancient Christian hermits/mystics in North Africa — brought a renewed sense of pleasure. This little book served as a powerful reminder to me, in my general throes of doubt and mistrust, that Christianity was and is beautiful and mysterious and humble.

6. The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard

The Poetics of Space

“Great images have both a history and a prehistory; they are always a blend of memory and legend, with the result that we never experience an image directly. Indeed, every great image has an unfathomable oneiric depth to which the personal past adds special color.”

For many years now, this elusive little book has haunted my to-read list. A handful of my favorite writers and critics were always dropping oblique references to The Poetics of Space, but the library didn’t have a copy, and so I kept putting it off. Foolishly, I now acknowledge. I finally bought myself a busted old copy and read it with a great deal of reverence and delight.

In this charming and surprisingly readable text, the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard discusses the intersection between poetry, imagination, and buildings — and does it in such a way that makes you want to constantly scope your surroundings for hidden meaning. He draws inspiration from nature, dreams, Rilke, Baudelaire, a great deal of lesser-known French literature, smatterings of Thoreau, and his own experience.

I am often intimidated by philosophy, but here Bachelard fashions it into a welcoming arena. Nothing is too minor or mundane for him. As he says, “I am moreover convinced that the human psyche contains nothing that is insignificant.” Images, after all, are simple; we experience them every second and no weighty scholarship can improve their reception. Bachelard is concerned with this topic, how the imagination processes space and transfers it to memory, to art, to awareness.

It’s a beautiful book, and upon finishing it, I wish I had read it more slowly.

7. Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, Mark Doty

Still Life with Oysters and Lemon: On Objects and Intimacy

I am admittedly obsessed with the poet Mark Doty, particularly after his memoir about dogs and grief (Dog Years), and so I was elated to find this slim volume at the library.

I read the entire book while on a train to DC, and I don’t think I looked up once. I was completely engrossed. In Still Life with Oysters and Lemon, Doty commands his notable powers of language to discuss a small Dutch still life painting from the 17th century. And from there, how this painting stirred his heart and mind regarding art, life, and death.

It is a difficult book to recommend, because everything I say about it seems distant and disengaged, but it is tremendously beautiful and moving. I’d like to read it again right now instead of doing anything else.

8. How Fiction Works, James Wood

How Fiction Works

Sometimes you read a book and you can’t escape this constant refrain: This book GETS me.

James Wood, at the very least, gets me, and this little book on the art of fiction was tremendously charming.

For literary nerds like myself, Wood provides a great deal of delight in How Fiction Works. Honestly, I enjoyed it for a few vain, puerile reasons: (1) It’s deeply confirming when a respected writer and critic shares your taste, (2) the way your brain lights up when you actually get all of the allusions, and (3) the sense of reassurance that comes from knowing you are a snob, utterly.

But it’s pleasant and very readable, and the book made me pay attention to fiction in a way that I didn’t think was possible anymore, outside of English classes at college. In short, recommended to anyone who reads.

9. Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time, Brigid Schulte

Overwhelmed: Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time

“Now America has among the highest percent of working mothers of any country. They work among the most full-time hours. They clock the most extreme paid work hours. They do so despite laboring in some of the most demanding and unforgiving workplaces with the most family-unfriendly policies of any developed country on Earth. And, compared to mothers in other countries, American mothers spend among the most time with their children, sacrificing sleep, personal care, and leisure time to do so.”

This book is essential reading for every American woman.

Let’s hear it for US moms. No wonder they are so strung out all of the time.

I had no idea how truly backward our country was, when it comes to workplace policies for women and families, until I read Overwhelmed. I had an idea of the injustices, but not how deeply they extended.

Brigid Schulte tackles the consuming problem of living in a society that does not support mothers and leaves them feeling utterly overwhelmed, all day, every day.

I was riveted by this book, and I can’t stop thinking and talking about it even now. Schulte provides fresh, honest examples of the state of American working moms, along with insightful research and interviews. She paints a frankly horrific portrait of the state of family policy in this country. (Her time with Pat Buchanan also left me with the strong feeling that he might, in fact, be very evil and that the GOP is, at the very least, living in a fantasy America that does not exist and perhaps never existed.)

Politics aside, every US woman who has children or is thinking of having children ought to read this book. It’s a rousing call to improve both our family policies and our family lives. High praise to Schulte for her research, authenticity, and important message.

One can only hope and pray that our governments and our corporate cultures take notice. Immense change is needed in the ways we work, love, and play, and Schulte has — significantly — hit a nerve here.

10. Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, Paul Greenberg

Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food

I still talk about this book all the time, and yet part of me wishes I hadn’t read it, because I like seafood. And now I have all of these deep, ethical qualms about eating it at all.

Paul Greenberg likes seafood too, but his interests extend beyond mere taste. Rather, in this excellently written and deeply researched book, he explores the future of fish, namely the four that we fish and eat the most: salmon, bass, cod, and tuna.

Without some drastic policy changes, the fate of these four fish looks rather grim. Greenberg is a great storyteller, on top of being a first-rate reporter, and this book will change the way that you think about and eat fish.

Honorable Mentions

  1. The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Steven Pinker
  2. Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, David Foster Wallace
  3. Wanderlust: A History of Walking, Rebecca Solnit
  4. Holy the Firm, Annie Dillard
  5. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki
  6. The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, Marie Kondo
  7. Men Explain Things to Me, Rebecca Solnit
  8. My Age of Anxiety, Scott Stossel
  9. Citizen Canine, David Grimm
  10. To the End of June: The Intimate Life of American Foster Care, Cris Beam
  11. The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit
  12. Lectures on Russian Literature, Vladimir Nabokov
  13. Among the Believers, V.S. Naipaul
  14. The Writing Life, Annie Dillard
  15. This Boy’s Life, Tobias Wolff
  16. The Control of Nature, John McPhee
  17. Unapologetic, Francis Spufford
  18. Animal Madness, Laurel Braitman
  19. After the Music Stopped, Alan S. Blinder
  20. All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, Jennifer Senior
  21. The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, Alan Jacobs
  22. Cocktail Hour under the Tree of Forgetfulness, Alexandra Fuller
  23. A Wolf Called Romeo, Nick Jans
  24. Texts from Jane Eyre, Mallory Ortberg
  25. Just Kids, Patti Smith

What were your favorite nonfiction books you read in 2014?

Previously: Top 10 books of poetry in 2014. Coming up next: Top 10 books of fiction I read in 2014.

Best Poetry I Read in 2014

For 2014, a new category in my top 10 book lists: Poetry! I seem to be reading more and more poetry each year, which is a trend that I enjoy, but I also don’t think I have the slightest idea how to write about poetry. So, here’s my top 10 for the year, sans review.

1. Every Riven Thing, by Christian Wiman

Every Riven Thing: Poems

2: Some Ether, Nick Flynn

Some Ether

3: The Shadow of Sirius, W.S. Merwin

The Shadow of Sirius

4: Once in the West: Poems, Christian Wiman

Once in the West: Poems

5: Collected Poems, Philip Larkin

Collected Poems

 

6: Actual Air, David Berman

Actual Air

7: Astonishments, Anna Kamieńska

Astonishments: Selected Poems

8: Stay, Illusion, Lucie Brock-Broido

Stay, Illusion: Poems

9: Incarnadine: Poems, Mary Szybist

Incarnadine: Poems

10: Against Which, Ross Gay

Against Which

Honorable Mentions

  1. Delights and Shadows, Ted Kooser
  2. Faithful and Virtuous Night, Louise Glück
  3. The Wingless, Cecilia Llompart
  4. Metaphysical Dog, Frank Bidart

What books of poetry did you enjoy this year?

Coming up next: Top 10 books of nonfiction and fiction I read in 2014.

10 short story collections you have to read

Stop what you are doing and go read ALL of these short story collections. All of them! (These are the 10 best that I have ever read, with some honorable mentions below.)

The Collected Stories

  1. The Collected Stories, by Eudora Welty
  2. The Duel and Other Stories, by Anton Chekhov
  3. The Complete Stories, by Flannery O’Connor
  4. The Stories of Paul Bowles, by Paul Bowles
  5. Rashomon and 17 Other Stories, by Ryunosuke Akutagawa
  6. Close Range, by Annie Proulx
  7. Tenth of December, by George Saunders
  8. The Marquise of O and Other Stories, by Heinrich von Kleist
  9. Runaway, by Alice Munro
  10. The Wonders of the Invisible World, by David Gates

The Wonders of the Invisible World

Honorable Mentions

  • The Aleph and Other Stories, Jorge Luis Borges
  • Drown, by Junot Diaz
  • The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories, by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • The Snows of Kilimanjaro and Other Stories, by Ernest Hemingway
  • Dubliners, by James Joyce
  • Interpreter of Maladies, by Jhumpa Lahiri
  • The Garden Party and Other Stories, by Katherine Mansfield
  • Drinking Coffee Elsewhere, by Z.Z. Packer
  • Binocular Vision: New and Selected Stories, by Edith Pearlman
  • Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger
  • Fools: Stories, by Joan Silber
  • Sleepwalker in a Fog, by Tatyana Tolstaya
  • First Love and Other Stories, by Ivan Turgenev
  • A Haunted House and Other Short Stories, by Virginia Woolf

A Haunted House and Other Short Stories

What are your favorite short story collections? What did I grievously leave off the lists?

Top 10 books I read in 2013

And here are the top 10 best books I read in 2013 (comprising novels, short stories, poetry, and plays).

1. Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

Anna Karenina

This is my second time with Anna Karenina but my first time with Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky’s lauded translation — and my first time to read this novel as an adult. I was pleased to discover that I love this novel as much now as I did when I first read it, when I was probably 16 or 17. And I feel that I love it in a deeper, sincerer way now. Because this is not a novel about an adulterous woman or about rich Russian people from the mid-19th-century. No. This is a novel about what it’s like to be human. That’s why it will never wither or fade, and that’s why I will always love it.

2. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace

Infinite Jest

This book broke me. After I finished it, closing the back cover on the 1,079th page, I felt like weeping — and like running away. I didn’t read any fiction for months after I finished Infinite Jest. In a creepy way, it was almost as if the film of its title produced a similar effect on me as a reader as it did on its fictional viewers: I was so completely engrossed by the pleasure and complexity of Infinite Jest that I was dead to everything else thereafter. I don’t really know what to say about it, except two things: 1) This is a book for people in their twenties, and it could be utterly meaningless to you if you’re not, and 2) This is one of the most important novels I’ve ever read.

I won’t say anything more, except to close with the words of John Jeremiah Sullivan, writing about David Foster Wallace in GQ:

When they say that he was a generational writer, that he “spoke for a generation,” there’s a sense in which it’s almost scientifically true. Everything we know about the way literature gets made suggests there’s some connection between the individual talent and the society that produces it, the social organism. Cultures extrude geniuses the way a beehive will make a new queen when its old one dies, and it’s possible now to see Wallace as one of those. I remember well enough to know it’s not a trick of hindsight, hearing about and reading Infinite Jest for the first time, as a 20-year-old, and the immediate sense of: This is it. One of us is going to try it. The “it” being all of it, to capture the sensation of being alive in a fractured superpower at the end of the twentieth century. Someone had come along with an intellect potentially strong enough to mirror the spectacle and a moral seriousness deep enough to want to in the first place. About none of his contemporaries—even those who in terms of ability could compete with him—can one say that they risked as great a failure as Wallace did.

It’s important. And I think I will still consider Infinite Jest important, even when I’m no longer young and have neither the spirit nor the energy to re-read it.

3. The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner

The Sound and the Fury

2013 was a year of re-reading greats for me, because this was my second visit with The Sound and the Fury. I first read it as a sophomore at UNC-Chapel Hill, and I rushed through it and ended up deciding that I just couldn’t ever get into Faulkner. Then, last year, Absalom, Absalom! changed my life and the way I looked at literature, and I became a Faulkner fan. And so I decided a reattempt of The Sound and the Fury was in order. Faulkner wrote, in a later introduction to the novel, that he was always writing “to escape and to indict” the South and that in The Sound and the Fury, he felt that he had finally accomplished both. Quentin’s section was still my favorite, but this time around, I was especially struck by the women in the novel. Faulkner is sensitive to them, and shows you how horribly, horribly trapped they are, and how their lives are shown such scant mercy. It’s moving and dark and beautiful, and I am thankful that I returned to it.

4. Time Regained, by Marcel Proust

Time Regained (In Search of Lost Time, #7)

2013 was also an important year in reading for me, because this was the year that I finished my beloved In Search of Lost Time. It’s hard to believe I’ve been reading Proust for six years now and hard to believe that he has passed from my life — but never completely. Because once you’ve gotten into Proust, he never really leaves you. His words and descriptions and incomparable insights haunt your life — your real life, your life with dirty cereal bowls and Twitter and road rage — like a joyful specter. I did actually cry when I finished Time Regained, because I am very emotional about books, one, and two, because Proust had become a companion, an annual visitor I looked forward to every summer. But enough of that. I’ll let Proust tell you what this 6,000-page novel was about:

And then a new light, less dazzling, no doubt, than that other illumination which had made me perceive that the work of art was the sole means of rediscovering Lost Time, shone suddenly within me. And I understood that all these materials for a work of literature were simply my past life; I understood that they had come to me, in frivolous pleasures, in indolence, in tenderness, in unhappiness, and that I had stored them up without divining the purpose for which they were destined or even their continued existence any more than a seed does when it forms within itself a reserve of all the nutritious substances from which it will feed a plant. Like the seed, I should be able to die once the plant had developed and I began to perceive that I had lived for the sake of the plant without knowing it, without ever realising that my life needed to come into contact with those books which I had wanted to write and for which, when in the past I had sat down at my table to begin, I had been unable to find a subject. And thus my whole life up to the present day might and yet might not have been summed up under the title: A Vocation.

And what a good and true and inspiring vocation, indeed. I’ll always love you, Marcel.

5. Memoirs of Hadrian, by Marguerite Yourcenar

Memoirs of Hadrian

I begin to discern the profile of my death.

I’m flabbergasted by this novel — mainly that more people don’t talk about it or haven’t read it. Marguerite Yourcenar spent nearly 30 years writing this quiet masterpiece. It is serious, pitch perfect, and exquisitely researched. The Emperor Hadrian is nearing death, and here he reflects on his life, his accomplishments, and all that he has seen and learned in a letter of sorts to his successor. Her writing! Oh, it is gorgeous. Like this passage from Hadrian:

Keep one’s own shadow out of the picture; leave the mirror clean of the mist of one’s own breath; take only what is most essential and durable in us, in the emotions aroused by the senses or in the operations of the mind, as our point of contact with those men who, like us, nibbled olives and drank wine, or gummed their fingers with honey, who fought bitter winds and blinding rain, or in summer sought the plane tree’s shade; who took their pleasures, thought their own thoughts, grew old, and died.

I particularly enjoyed the appendices, especially Yourcenar’s collection of notes and asides from while she was writing and organizing the book. As Yourcenar writes about the novel and the challenge of good historical fiction (in a subtle compliment to herself for her laborious work), “Whatever one does, one always rebuilds the monument in his own way. But it is already something gained to have used only the original stones.”

6. Tenth of December, by George Saunders

Tenth of December

People are not kidding when they talk about how wonderful George Saunders is. This collection of short stories is the first thing I’d read from him (aside from a totally amazing/obscene rip on Ayn Rand in the New Yorker; I love anything that mercilessly mocks Rand), and it just blew me away. The stories are deeply funny and weird, and each one is wholly unlike the next. In some ways, Saunders made me think of a modern Mark Twain, but somehow a touch darker and touch closer to the specific strangeness that permeates all of our lives. It’s so good. I want to re-read these stories all over again right now.

7. Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky

Suite Francaise

Irène Némirovsky died at Auschwitz before she could finish this novel, but the book that she left us is beautiful. In general, I dislike war novels, but this book is about people — not war. Suite Française does not dwell on the violence and trauma of war but rather on the lives of the people who had to endure such violence and trauma in their daily lives. The book is filled with complex, engaging characters who deal with WWII in their own ways during the German occupation of Paris. It’s gorgeously written and enchanting. I hope to revisit it in the years to come.

8. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, by Tennessee Williams

Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

You have to read this play. You just have to. Even if you’ve seen the excellent film adaptation with Paul Newman and Elizabeth Taylor. You have to read it. Tennessee Williams is an incomparable master, and one of the few playwrights whose work is as deeply enjoyable to read as it is to see performed. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is thrilling to read, and it sizzles with heat, emotional treachery, and complexity. It’s heart-rending and complicated in all of the right ways. You put it down and still wonder, With whom does my allegiance lie?

9. The Idiot, by Fyodor Dostoyevsky

The Idiot

God knows what’s locked away in these drunken and weak hearts.

During my summer Colorado, I went hiking with a guy who was reading The Idiot. On our lunch break on an icy boulder, he read aloud to my friend Sonya and me, and I remember saying, “This is surprisingly hilarious.” And it is. I finally got around to reading The Idiot this year, my second book of 2013 that was translated by the great Pevear and Volokhonsky. In his introduction to the novel, Pevear writes: “The Idiot is built on that eschatological sense of time. It is the desolate time of Holy Saturday, when Christ is buried, the disciples are scattered — and worse than that — abandoned.” Yes, it is a dark book, maybe one of Dostoyevsky’s darkest, and it is also a funny book. Dostoyevsky wonders what it would be like if we knew a person who was as pure of heart, noble, and good as Jesus Christ. How would he live in the modern world? How would we regard him? Like Prince Myshkin, we would probably just call him an Idiot.

10. The Complete Poems of Anne Sexton

The Complete Poems

These are not poems for the faint of heart. Anne Sexton is the real deal. I went through this phase last year in which her name kept popping up everywhere, and I felt that I finally had to commit and get to know her, and so I went and bought her complete works. I appreciated reading this giant volume, as it provided a fuller picture of the artist and her transformation over time. The anger and darkness grow as the years pass, but Sexton never loses her focus and courage. And for that she is remembered and cherished.

Honorable Mentions

  1. On Love, Alain de Botton
  2. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell
  3. The Cherry Orchard, Anton Chekhov
  4. The Aleph and Other Stories, Jorge Luis Borges
  5. The Chaneysville Incident, David Bradley
  6. Totem, Gregory Pardlo
  7. Written on the Body, Jeanette Winterson
  8. Eugénie Grandet, Honoré de Balzac
  9. The Talented Mr. Ripley, Patricia Highsmith
  10. The Housekeeper and the Professor, Yoko Ogawa
  11. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
  12. Laughter in the Dark, Vladimir Nabokov

Previously: The top 10 nonfiction books I read in 2013.

What about you? What were your favorite books you read this year? I’m always looking for hearty recommendations.

Top 10 nonfiction books I read in 2013

I read 125 books in 2013, down somewhat from last year. But as far as I can tell, here are the 10 best nonfiction books I read.

1. My Bright Abyss, by Christian Wiman

My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer

I think I’ve already said everything I wanted to about this marvelous little book, but the critical thing is that it saved me. I felt like I could keep believing in Christianity after reading Wiman’s memoir of faith. So, if you’re ever in a place like me and find yourself deep in doubt and ennui, turn to Wiman. He has some beautifully perfect and powerful things to say about being a modern believer in an ancient religion.

2. Far from the Tree, by Andrew Solomon

Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity

Topping out at about 1,000 pages, Far from the Tree was my Big Tome of the year. The fact that I, a childless person, so enjoyed this book about parents and children speaks to Andrew Solomon’s gift as a writer and storyteller. The book is also riveting and frightening to me, as a childless person, but Solomon writes with honest hope about what he calls “horizontal relationships” between parents and children — that is, children who differ markedly from their parents (e.g., parents to kids who are transgender, deaf, or autistic; have dwarfism or Down syndrome; are criminals, etc.). Solomon spent 10 years researching this book, and his meticulous attention to his subjects is filled with grace and understanding. Each chapter tackles a separate identity and how those parents and children have learned to live and love through their differences. It’s a momentous book on a rarely discussed topic.

3. The Architecture of Happiness, by Alain de Botton

The Architecture of Happiness

This completely charming, intelligent, and engrossing little book is for everyone. Provided that you’ve ever lived inside a structure or been enchanted by the form of a building, Alain de Botton has some words for you. Why is it that we are attracted to beautiful buildings? Why, as he asks, do we feel different inside a McDonald’s than inside the Westminster Cathedral? This is a beautiful, thoughtful foray into the theoretical ramifications of architecture, and I want to read it all over again right now.

4. Pulphead: Essays, by John Jeremiah Sullivan

Pulphead

Yes, I feel a few years behind the John Jeremiah Sullivan craze, and I am embarrassed that it’s taken me this long to read it, but maybe I should say that it was worth the wait? This is an ideal collection of essays: deeply funny, honest, and far-reaching. Plainly, Sullivan is just a great writer. Favorite essays: His experience at Creation, the giant Christian rock festival (“Christian music is the only music industry that has excellence-proofed itself”); the essay about his brother’s “resurrection” after being electrocuted; and the essay about caring for “the last Confederate,” Mr. Lytle. They’re all good; they’re all perfect; they’re all delightful; you should go get a copy of this book right now.

5. Behind the Beautiful Forevers, by Katherine Boo

Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death, and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity

If I’m being perfectly honest with you, I’ve never been much interested in foreign poverty narratives. You know what I’m talking about: Those sentimental books by non-native writers about the noble, angelic people trapped in desperate poverty in the Third World. For these reasons, I didn’t really want to read Behind the Beautiful Forevers. A white journalist writes about life in a Mumbai slum? Sounds like it’s going to be out-of-touch and cheesy. But this book is so far from that — which is probably why it has garnered such widespread acclaim. Katherine Boo spends several years living with and researching the people of Annawadi, a specific Mumbai slum, and produces this book, which reads like a thrilling novel with a complex array of characters. The best part about this book, though, is that Boo displays real life with real people in Annawadi. These are people as complicated as any of us; no one is purely good or purely evil. Behind the Beautiful Forevers was so refreshing to read, and it vitalized this small, difficult part of India in my mind.

6. An American Childhood, by Annie Dillard

An American Childhood

This year, I read this book for the second time as part of my church book club. I’m an ardent Annie Dillard fan, so even though this memoir wasn’t new to me, I had to include it on this list: It’s just that good. I first read this book when I was 15, and reading it again at 25 left me with such a different impression. Instead of being pulled in by the stories of childhood adventure and discovery, as I was before, this year I was more entranced by her careful portrayal of the nuanced pain and beauty of growing up and the intricate process of figuring out who you really are. Dillard has such a fertile, curious mind; she’ll always be a writer that I turn to year in and year out.

7. How We Die, by Sherwin B. Nuland

How We Die: Reflections of Life's Final Chapter

Artists and writers love to portray death in all sorts of romantic and eloquent images and phrases, but what is it really like to die? Dr. Sherwin B. Nuland wants to tell you, in this little book, his classic account of what happens to our bodies at the end of our lives. It is rare that we get to hear about death from someone who is actually in the business of living and dying, and Nuland writes with unsentimental clarity and precision. Recommended, because it’s going to happen to you and me one of these days.

8. Overdressed, by Elizabeth L. Cline

Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion

This book does for the fashion industry what Michael Pollan and his ilk did for the food industry. Journalist Elizabeth L. Cline researches the dark side of the cheap fashion business, which comprises the vast majority of the clothes that are purchased in the United States. A dramatic shift has occurred in the way that Americans consume clothing. Much like food, we now spend more money on clothes than ever before and have far bigger wardrobes than we actually need, and yet the clothes are vastly poorer quality. We see clothes as disposable items, which has created a powerful fashion industry that is unethical, wasteful, and unsustainable. I do believe that Overdressed is a book that every clothes-consuming American should read. It’ll change the way you think about what you wear.

9. Delusions of Gender, by Cordelia Fine

Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference

Finishing the book Delusions of Gender really took the wind out of my sails. Rather than making me proud to be a woman — o, the happy, beleaguered sex! — the barrage of studies and debunked gender myths has only made me more dejected, more frustrated, more hopeless. Gender roles and stereotypes are all so ingrained. You are already disadvantaged in the workplace, in math and in science, in general living and everyday safety by having been unfortunate enough to have been born a woman. That’s all you had to do to lose, just be born.

And yet, while reading the book, I was filled with a frantic, Sisyphean energy to do all of these things:

  • Stand up taller!
  • Make eye contact with men!
  • Take a math class!
  • Benchpress something! (Is that a thing? Is that what you call it?)
  • Study for and take the GRE!
  • Have a baby girl just so I can NOT buy her anything pink!
  • Write a children’s book with a female lead! (And with a boy character who is nurturing and gentle and needs to be saved, like Peeta.)
  • Punch a wall!

Which just made me feel more tired and more despondent. We still live in a country in which women live in fear of men on a daily basis — a feeling that most men would be hard-pressed to even sympathize with. It’s a sad state of affairs. But Fine’s book explores the ways that we’ve been misled to think that men and women are “hardwired” to act in certain ways. Rather, we’ve all been insidiously cultured to act in certain ways — even from the womb. It’s fascinating, and it’s a great book, even if you’re unlucky enough to be a woman.

10. The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf

The Letters of Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf

I love Virginia Woolf, and I love when she’s in love. Most famous people’s letters are desperately boring, but Vita and Virginia couldn’t be boring if they tried. Recommended even for those who only have a passing interest in Woolf.

Honorable Mentions

  1. The Perfectly Imperfect Home, Deborah Needleman
  2. The Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport
  3. The Big New Yorker Book of Dogs
  4. Lean In, Sheryl Sandberg
  5. Deluxe: How Luxury Lost Its Luster, Dana Thomas
  6. American Sphinx, Thomas J. Ellis
  7. The Possibility Dogs, Susannah Charleson

Up next: Best 10 fiction (novels, poetry, and plays) books I read in 2013.

Top 10 books I read in 2012: Absalom, Absalom! (#1)

Absalom, Absalom!

Absalom, Absalom!

WILLIAM FAULKNER
Vintage, 1991; 320 pages.

“Tell about the South. What’s it like there. What do they do there. Why do they live there. Why do they live at all. — Absalom, Absalom!

I don’t want to write this review.

I don’t know how to even talk about this book, except to say that I feel like it changed my life.

I don’t think it should be surprising that this is my best book of 2012, the best book out of the 142 that I read. Absalom, Absalom! is called the best Southern novel over and over again and I think it should be called the best American novel.

This is the second time I read this book. The first time I read it, I was probably 18, and I swore I’d never read Faulkner again. I didn’t understand even a third of it. But this time around, I took it seriously. I spent hours with it. I took copious notes. I treated it like a class. It is not easy to read. (Some liken it to the American Ulysses.) But don’t take that to mean that this novel isn’t enjoyable, beautiful, profound, or moving. It is all of those things in full volume.

Absalom, Absalom! is the ultimate testament to memory. Particularly, are our family histories reliable? Is anyone’s history reliable?

Faulkner’s prose is unbearably vivid and alive. His language is precise and startling. His images are disturbing and resonant. He writes with a breathlessness that sweeps you up, into the dusty plantation hallway, into the dark bedchamber of a dying man, into the cold space of a New England dorm room.

Absalom, Absalom! is remarkably relevant. As John Jeremiah Sullivan writes in his essay about the novel, published in the New York Times, regarding Faulkner’s choices:

Even when he does tell you everything, you can’t entirely trust it. No surer sign exists of the book’s greatness than how it seems to reconfigure itself and assume a new dimension, once we feel we know it, and these shifting walls of ambiguity were designed by Faulkner himself. They allow the text a curious liquid quality, so that it can seem alive, as if it might be modified by recent history too.

America’s preoccupying obsession with race is still present. It is dangerously present in Absalom, Absalom! and it is dangerously present today. Faulkner won’t let us forget this. Let it sit with you now. Let this novel bring a historical consciousness to life. Let it make you see that we have not progressed with any great strides.