Best nonfiction I read in 2021

So much good nonfiction consumed this year. I learned so much! I will talk your ear off about all of it!

1. Empire of Pain: The Secret History of the Sackler Dynasty, Patrick Radden Keefe

An American tragedy and capitalist parable of how worshiping money will turn you—and your entire family, if you’re the Sacklers—into monsters. In Patrick Radden Keefe’s capable hands, this book reads like a thriller, and yet it’s admirably researched and brilliantly told. Highly recommended.

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2. How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds, Alan Jacobs

“To think independently of other human beings is impossible, and if it were possible it would be undesirable. Thinking is necessarily, thoroughly, and wonderfully social. Everything you think is a response to what someone else has thought and said. And when people commend someone for ‘thinking for herself’ they usually mean ‘ceasing to sound like people I dislike and starting to sound more like people I approve of.’”

A slim, humbling book with the much-needed call for us to be people adept at the art of thinking (especially the kind of slow System 2 thinking that Daniel Kahneman describes in his landmark book Thinking, Fast and Slow). This is not the kind of thinking that humans are particularly skilled at, preferring to dwell on the instinctual System 1 brain, but slow thinking is a facility needed now more than ever. Alan Jacobs, a professor at Baylor University, writes with compelling clarity, and I picked this up with a great desire to be refreshed by his own clear thinking after enjoying his most recent book, Breaking Bread With the Dead (review of that below). Mission accomplished. I feel humbled and challenged by his wisdom.

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3. Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family, Robert Kolker

Riveting, gut-wrenching account of a family unusually afflicted by mental illness. Robert Kolker shares the Galvin family’s story with restraint and skill, blending their personal histories with the history of schizophrenia. Two takeaways I had while finishing the book: (1) There is still so much we don’t know about the human brain, and accordingly, the treatment of schizophrenia has changed very little since the 1960s, and (2) women bear the enormous load of a family’s emotional and physical needs, time and time again.

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4. The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, Yuri Slezkine

An unreal and singularly compelling history of Soviet Russia. Yuri Slezkine unites the rare capabilities of a scholar and a storyteller in this appropriately epic-length history, which pivots around the House of Government, the massive housing complex for the socialist/communist faithful. It is a massive book, but incredibly readable from start to finish.

Slezkine is particularly adept at zooming in and out on his subjects. At one moment, he relates the intimate thoughts, letters, and diary entries of individual people; at the next, he pans out and assesses human history, religion, and culture in broad strokes. Along with direct quotations and painstaking research, he spends a great deal of time analyzing Soviet literature, showing us what it reveals about ascendant revolutionary beliefs.

Throughout this history, Slezkine argues that Soviet socialism and its attendant fantasies of true communism were the latest in a long line of millennarian sects (mimicking many features of Christian apocalyptic cults, among other religions). This was a revelatory lens for me through which to better understand Russian communism. The Russian insistence on the coming utopia and the abolishment of the family and private property as the path to social enlightenment can be found in every chapter of the revolution. Slezkine makes it easy to understand how such a charming-sounding fundamentalist vision could result in the brutality, inhumanity, and absolute disregard for human life that characterized the Russian revolution.

Recommended especially to young progressives who think Marx is a cool avatar and that socialism is super-rad, bleating it’ll be different this time…

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5. In the Land of the Cyclops: Essays, Karl Ove Knausgaard

“What if we got rid of television? The Internet? It would give us back our sense of place, but also our pain, and for that reason it’s a nonstarter, absence of pain being what we strive for and have always striven for, this is the essence of modern life. It’s why we live in the image of the world rather than in the world itself.”

In a series of essays focused primarily on art, Karl Ove Knausgaard reflects on artists and moments that have affected him profoundly, including a number of provocative American women photographers, Knut Hamsun (always), Ingmar Bergman, short stories from the Old Testament, Kierkegaard, and Emma Bovary. Knausgaard writes with his characteristic openness, an honesty that often veers into uncomfortable realms, and this is perhaps why I enjoy him as much as I do. I know he’s not everyone’s cup of tea, but his style and self-deprecating wisdom is refreshing to me, time and time again. My only small quibble is that the format of the book—square with heavy glossy pages, so as to display the photographs well—makes for an awkward reading experience for a book with so much text. I am happy, however, that I bought it, as I hope to return it in time.

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6. Breaking Bread with the Dead: A Reader’s Guide to a More Tranquil Mind, Alan Jacobs

“Reading old books is an education in reckoning with otherness; its hope is to make the other not identical with me but rather, in a sense, my neighbor. I happen to think that this kind of training is useful in helping me learn to deal with my actual on-the-ground neighbors, though that claim is not central to my argument here, and in any case there’s nothing inevitable about this transfer: I know people who are exquisitely sensitive readers of texts who are also habitually rude to the people who serve them at restaurants. But surely to encounter texts from the past is a relatively nonthreatening, and yet potentially enormously rewarding, way to practice encountering difference.”

An impressively slim book that packs a powerful argument for attending to books of ages past. Why? So that we may have character, grace, and foresight; so that we may resist the high informational density of our time in favor of greater personal density for ourselves. Alan Jacobs, a professor of humanities at Baylor, writes with tremendous sensitivity and wisdom, and I was struck by how deftly he weaves together a whole host of quotations and references, spanning from the Aeneid to Frederick Douglass to feminist literary theory. An incredibly worthwhile and challenging book and one that I hope will stay with me for a long time, keeping the temptations of screens at bay and pulling me deeper into the words of men and women who are no longer with us.

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7. At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails, Sarah Bakewell

“Ideas are interesting, but people are vastly more so.”

I am not smart enough to read straight philosophy, but I am glad that Sarah Bakewell is, because she explains ideas so well, with such fluidity, poise, and mastery. In this book, Bakewell gives us a tour of the existentialist movement in Europe, principally through the biographies of Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, and gives us a brilliant primer on the philosophy itself, as expressed through some of its other luminaries (such as Husserl, Heidegger, Jaspers, and Merleau-Ponty). I feel more educated, having finished it, and also more thoughtful. Warmly recommended.

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8. A Swim in a Pond in the Rain: In Which Four Russians Give a Master Class on Writing, Reading, and Life, George Saunders

In this charming collection, Saunders shares his favorite Russian short stories and reflections on why and how these stories work, much in the form of his lectures at Syracuse. He is personable, funny, and thoughtful, and I felt like I got to take a mini-MFA class with him. I’d already read most of these stories before, but it was such a pleasure to revisit them again with Saunders, benefiting from his careful attention and instruction. It is perhaps neither here nor there, but Saunders also strikes me as incredibly kind and wise, as a human being, and there’s good life advice buried in here, alongside his sage counsel about writing better stories as we learn from the masters. Recommended for all writers.

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9. Amity and Prosperity: One Family and the Fracturing of America, Eliza Grisworld

Impeccably, patiently researched. Eliza Griswold writes in that detached, traditional style of third-person journalism that I miss so much these days (it is a rarity). Griswold is barely in the book at all, admirably; she writes so that she can get out of the way and tell the tragic story of the Haney family, whose lives and livelihoods were ruined when fracking came to their tiny Pennsylvania farm. Through much suffering, sickness, and lawsuits, Griswold tells the larger narrative of what fracking threatens to do to similar families and towns across Appalachia.

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10. What Are We Doing Here?: Essays, Marilynne Robinson

“So, beauty disciplines. It recommends a best word in a best place and makes the difference palpable between aesthetic right and wrong. And it does this freely, within the limits it finds—cultural, material, genetic. Another paradox, perhaps, a discipline that is itself free, and free to make variations on such limits as it does choose to embrace. Beauty is like language in this. It can push at the borders of intelligibility and create new eloquence as it does so.” — “Grace and Beauty”

If I trust anyone to tell us what we are doing here, it may be Marilynne Robinson. Her wise, far-ranging mind considers American history, Christian theology, redemption of the Puritans, and a smattering of politics in this heady collection of essays. (Her tribute to President Obama and their sweet friendship was a particular delight.) It was a pleasure to read someone with her depth of thought, wit, and high vocabulary on topics that are dismissible at first glance as dry and unappealing. In her talented hands, everything becomes a subject of wonder.

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Honorable mentions

  1. Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, Richard Hofstadter
  2. Grow Wild: The Whole-Child, Whole-Family, Nature-Rich Guide to Moving More, Katy Bowman
  3. The Periodic Table, Primo Levi
  4. Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland, Patrick Radden Keefe
  5. Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse, Timothy P. Carney
  6. Ecstasy and Terror: From the Greeks to Game of Thrones, Daniel Medelsohn
  7. The Enchanted Hour: The Miraculous Power of Reading Aloud in the Age of Distraction, Meghan Cox Gurdon
  8. Dominion: How the Christian Revolution Remade the World, Tom Holland
  9. Memorial Drive: A Daughter’s Memoir, Natasha Trethewey
  10. The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee,: Native America from 1890 to the Present, David Treuer
  11. Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood
  12. The Search for Roots: A Personal Anthology, Primo Levi
  13. Earth Keeper, N. Scott Momaday
  14. The Great Indoors: The Surprising Science of How Buildings Shape Our Behavior, Health, and Happiness, Emily Anthes
  15. Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds, and Shape Our Futures, Merlin Sheldrake
  16. Uncanny Valley, Anna Wiener

Best fiction I read in 2021

Quick reviews of the best fiction I read (for the first time) this year. I re-read a handful of all-time favorites (Lolita, Madame Bovary, The Collected Stories of Lydia Davis, and Ada, or Ardor) in 2021, which felt like a comforting choice during a never-ending pandemic, but I have not included them in this list, as they are all #1 picks. Without further ado!

1. No One Is Talking About This, Patricia Lockwood

“Why were we all writing like this now? Because a new kind of connection had to be made, and blink, synapse, little space-between was the only way to make it. Or because, and this was more frightening, it was the way the portal wrote.”

Patricia Lockwood descends into “the portal,” the life we all live online, and emerges with flashes of brilliant insight, humor, and pathos. The novel is structured in a very piecemeal, Lydia Davis-y style, which also seems appropriate for the subject matter, and it takes a surprisingly emotional turn in the second half, which I felt unprepared for. (I actually cried toward the end of the book, which I rarely do with any novels, and which I surely did not expect this book to make me do, given the jovial, self-deprecating tenor and content of its first half.) I wanted to read more from her after becoming obsessed with her essay in the London Review of Books about Elena Ferrante, and this curiously moving little book did not disappoint my high expectations.

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2. Crossroads, Jonathan Franzen

It’s uncool to like Jonathan Franzen, but gosh, guys, he is really great. This novel is a perfect example of his skill at interpersonal insights and all the drama that goes on in the minds of family members. Here, toward the waning years of the Vietnam War, an American pastor’s family is coming apart at the seams. Franzen, while not claiming Christianity for himself, writes with sensitivity and clarity about the Jesus Movement and how people of faith might have navigated it during this tumultuous decade. Riveting and heart-wrenching at times.

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3. Stoner, John Williams

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The clean plainness of John Williams’s prose befits his protagonist: William Stoner, a featureless farm boy who slides into a role as an English professor at the University of Missouri. We follow his quiet, largely uneventful life as a teacher in the early half of the 20th century, and Williams presents to us a character we come to admire and yet expect nothing from. It is a fascinatingly quiet novel and yet it accomplishes a great deal. As a whole, it brings to mind the beautiful closing paragraph of Middlemarch, thinking of people, like Stoner, “who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

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4. The Abyss, Marguerite Yourcenar

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Having recently finished Diarmaid MacCulloch’s enormous history The Reformation, I felt well-prepared for this thorough novel about the risks of being an intellectual dissident during the Reformation. The great Marguerite Yourcenar never disappoints. Her far-ranging imagination and depth of historical insight is astonishing, and her prose (here translated by Grace Frick, her lifelong partner, who also translated the peerless Memoirs of Hadrian) is gorgeous without being stuffy. The Abyss is a novel about Zeno, a physician and alchemist making his way through the heady, deadly period of the Reformation in and around Flanders. For his atheism and for his scientific practice, he is perpetually under suspicion of heresy wherever he lives, and he meets and saves many different people (mostly men) throughout the course of the book. His philosophical dialogues with the Prior are particularly enjoyable; Yourcenar renders the contrast between the former’s great doubt and the latter’s great faith with sensitivity and warmth. (For what it’s worth, Zeno is also a very archetypal, classic portrait of an iconoclastic 5, for those who ascribe to the enneagram.) It’s a dense, impressive work of historical fiction; a welcome escape during pandemic winter.

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5. All for Nothing, Walter Kempowski

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An episodic, humane, unusual novel, set in East Prussia in 1945, as the Red Army is advancing and forcing the migration of thousands of refugees. In a ramshackle estate, a woman lives with her 12-year-old son and a number of attendants, and they all play host to an array of wandering strangers, including a drifting painter, a Nazi violinist, and a Jewish refugee, before they themselves have to take to the road, and the horrors of war become increasingly personal. Walter Kempowski published this, his last novel, in 2006, and in it, reveals a sensitive and yet unflinching portrayal of Germans at home, the ones trying to determine whether they had enough ration coupons, if their husbands and sons were still alive at the front, what their neighbors were doing, and what the point of living was, after all. Kempowski writes plainly, with skill, and does not embellish or romanticize. His characters all have rather flat affect, which creates an unusual effect when they are faced with such horrors. Remarkable novel; a memorable achievement in historical fiction.

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6. The Morning Star, Karl Ove Knausgaard

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Oh, Karl Ove! Look at you, writing about people who aren’t yourself (although I suspect there are a few strong resemblances here)! Through a chorus of characters, this unexpectedly creepy novel meditates on death and how we might all reckon with a quiet, spooky apocalypse. I did not expect to be so riveted. I wanted it to end with a bang, not a whimper, however, and the conclusion left me feeling a bit disappointed.

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7. Second Place, Rachel Cusk

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Gloomy introspective novel by Rachel Cusk; unmistakably by Rachel Cusk. Who else could write such a deeply sad, deeply conscious, deeply strange novel? I’m still not entirely convinced that I really love her, but I keep coming slowly back to her writing, often failing to resist her witchy magnetism. Some segments of this felt very Woolfian to me, which is perhaps why I kept going even when the first 40 pages failed to capture much of my interest. I picked up enthusiasm as the novel wore on (once L and Brett arrived).

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8. Heat Wave, Penelope Lively

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Penelope Lively is so good at what she does, and I get the sense that she is sadly under-read. In Heat Wave, a middle-aged copy editor named Pauline takes up a summer residence in a ramshackle cottage with her daughter, Teresa, and her daughter’s family: husband, Maurice, a writer, and infant son, Luke. In Lively’s skillful hands, a story in which little happens becomes rich with internal drama, past reflections on former lives (and lives that could have been), and a fair dose of heartache. Thrillingly quick and a pleasure from start to finish.

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9. Passing On, Penelope Lively

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As may be evident by now, I’m always in the mood for a Penelope Lively novel. She’s so delightfully English and introspective. Her particular affection for middle-aged people is compelling, too.

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10. Last Night: Stories, James Salter

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It’s such an unpopular, unfashionable opinion, but wow, I love these old white male novelists, with their casual, upper-class sexism and narrow field of vision. They’re so charming, and Salter is a real stylist. This collection bears some resemblance to Cheever stories, but the stories lack Cheever’s characteristic depth. The last story (the titular story) is the best one, I think.

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Honorable mentions

  1. Breasts and Eggs, Mieko Kawakami
  2. Hamnet, Maggie O’Farrell

Rather than in the world itself

The older I get, the more I care about understanding history. I pretend like I have a basic grasp of the sequence of modern world events, but the more I read, the more I realize how facile and shallow my understanding has been. (This is always one of the great, humbling pleasures of reading, in my experience.) To this end, I have been enjoying two riveting books: The House of Government, by Yuri Slezkine, and Say Nothing, by Patrick Radden Keefe.

The House of Government is a saga of the Soviet Revolution, with an enormous cast of real-life characters presented in a Tolstoyan array, which makes for very enjoyable reading. This is a big benefit, because the book is nearly 1,100 pages long. You’re going to want it to be interesting and well-written. Slezkine is a talented historian, with a far-ranging grasp of his subjects, and a personal investment in the history, being a former Soviet himself (who is now a professor at UC Berkeley). I’m learning a lot, and my mistrust of socialism (and of the American young people who claim to love it) only continues to grow.

Say Nothing traces the forgotten murder of a widowed mother of 10 in Northern Ireland in 1972, weaving her tragic story into the overall scope of IRA activity during the Troubles (especially focused on some high-profile IRA actors, such as Dolours Price and Brendan Hughes). Aside from watching both seasons of the (excellent) show Derry Girls, I have been woefully under-educated about the terror and violence that afflicted Northern Ireland for decades, and this book is making quick work of amending this gap in my information.

. . .

“What if we got rid of television? The Internet? It would give us back our sense of place, but also our pain, and for that reason it’s a nonstarter, absence of pain being what we strive for and have always striven for, this is the essence of modern life. It’s why we live in the image of the world rather than in the world itself.”

— Karl Ove Knausgaard, “Idiots of the Cosmos,” from In the Land of the Cyclops

. . .

Moses is growing up quickly, and it is hard for us to believe, in the parlance of parents, that he will be 2 next month. He is chatty, curious, and bossy, and we love spending time with him in the garden or squiring him around to all of the local parks. His little curls are coming in quite nicely, too, which makes us loath to give him a much-needed haircut.

It will also be hard for him to believe that he’s getting a baby brother, due late in the summer. Sometimes, I confess, I also forget about this, but that’s becoming increasingly harder to do the larger I get. (And this is a boisterous dude, who is really enjoying kick-punching me as much as he can.)

Guion and I are both excited and frightened about having another baby, as the memories of the doldrums of newborn life are never far from me. (A friend from my writing group just reminded me of the existence of the witching hour, and I felt a fresh sense of panic about that happening again.) But there are sweet things, too, right? Like: Swaddling, putting them in baskets or other small receptacles, smelling their heads and skin, laying them down on the floor and watching them not be able to go anywhere, etc., etc. These are nice things about babies.

Best fiction I read in 2020

It seems that I read less and less fiction every year, but I still love it and crave it in particular seasons. This was a year of tackling books that I had long owned and needed to get to (and was surprised to find that I loved) as well as discovering some (new to me) authors.

The Collected Stories

1. The Collected Stories, Grace Paley

What a thrill! I feel almost resentful that no one urged me to read Grace Paley before now. I can’t believe it took me so long to encounter her brilliant, febrile, wholly unusual fiction. Every story is wrapped with a radiant, wry humor, suffused with the diction of Brooklyn, and packed with tiny surprises. Let me now be the one to urge you: Your life will be a little brighter for having read Grace Paley. (Get a copy)

The Golovlovs

2. The Golovlovs, Mikhail Saltkov-Shchedrin

A profound (and at times darkly comic) parable of generational misery. Just brilliant: I am astonished that it is not better known or more widely read. I somehow ended up with this old 75-cent mass market paperback copy, and it gathered dust on my shelf for the better part of a decade. I always put it off, because I had never heard anyone mention it. But I am so glad that the pandemic urged me to read all of these forgotten books I own, because wow: This novel stings and dazzles. Arina Petrovna, the conniving matriarch of the Golovlov family, centers the story (and reminds one often of a Russian Lucille Bluth, particularly in her relations with her worthless sons), set when serfdom is overturned, leaving many hapless estates to languish and decay. As time rolls on for this deeply unhappy family, the story shifts to her son Porfiry, who becomes exclusively known as Judas the Bloodsucker, for reasons that become apparent, and his niece, the orphaned erstwhile actress Anninka. I was captivated, from beginning to end, despite it being a story with almost no redemption, no forgiveness, no hope. It is a strange, cold country, Mother Russia, and its people have suffered for many generations. (Get a copy)

Don Quixote

3. Don Quixote, Miguel de Saavedra Cervantes (translation by Edith Grossman)

Totally delightful! I should not have put it off for 10 years. (It only took being locked inside during a pandemic to get me to finally read it.) A sprawling and essential novel, and most of it is laugh-out-loud funny. A thoroughly fun escape. (Get a copy)

The Lying Life of Adults

4. The Lying Life of Adults, Elena Ferrante

“What happened, in other words, in the world of adults, in the heads of very reasonable people, in their bodies loaded with knowledge? What reduced them to the most untrustworthy animals, worse than reptiles?”

A searing novel of adolescence from the inimitable, unflinching Elena Ferrante. All of the elements that made the Neapolitan Novels so transfixing are present here but reconfigured to focus on a different angle from the violent country of young womanhood: one’s fractured relationship with adults (specifically, parents and a persuasive, fearsome aunt), the attending breakdown in trust and authority, and the search for self amid the pressures of sex. Brava! (Get a copy)

5. My Struggle, Book 6, Karl Ove Knausgaard

“No matter how broken a person might be, no matter how disturbed the soul, that person remains a person always, with the freedom to choose. It is choice that makes us human. Only choice gives meaning to the concept of guilt.”

A daring ending to a daring series. Knausgaard reckons with what he has written and wrought in this final installment, which I read hungrily, from start to the finish of its 1,230 pages. His long exploration of young Hitler, Nazism, and the dangers of collective identity (more or less) is also impressive, along with his typical blend of no-holds-barred self-loathing, domestic living, and rumination. It is an accomplishment. (Get a copy)

Sweet Days of Discipline

6. Sweet Days of Discipline, Fleur Jaeggy

“So there I was, with my beret and the initials, on the other side of the world, on that side where one is protected and watched over. I foresaw the pain, the desertion, with an acute sense of joy. I greeted the train, the carriages, the compartments, all split up, the burnished alcoves, the velvet, the porcelain passengers, those strangers, those obscure companions. Joy over pain is malicious, there’s poison in it. It’s a vendetta. It is not so angelic as pain. I stood a while on the platform of a squalid station. The wind wrinkled the dark lake and my thoughts as it swept on the clouds, chopped them up with its hatchet; between them you could just glimpse the Last Judgment, finding each of us guilty of nothing.”

Absolutely savage. A thrilling, gorgeous novella on the psychosexual machinations of teen girls. (Get a copy)

Mortals

7. Mortals, Norman Rush

A marriage novel that becomes an adventure novel and then a marriage novel again. It was just the right thing to get lost in, during quarantine, and I admit that I may have liked it less if I had read it at a different time and place, but Norman Rush’s energetic and wide-ranging vocabulary was a sustaining delight. His deep pleasure in words and in using them animates this fat novel, set in Botswana and concerned with the life of Ray Finch and his wife, Iris. A perfect distraction. (Get a copy)

Dept. of Speculation

8. Dept. of Speculation, Jenny Offill

“There is a man who travels around the world trying to find places where you can stand still and hear no human sound. It is impossible to feel calm in cities, he believes, because we so rarely hear birdsong there. Our ears evolved to be our warning systems. We are on high alert in places where no birds sing. To live in a city is to be forever flinching.”

This was just the thing; I am glad I reattempted this tiny book after abandoning it some years ago. It is a “novel” in the sense that Lydia Davis books are “novels,” but that is just what I love about it. Fragmentary, brilliantly spare. (Get a copy)

A Breath of Life

9. A Breath of Life, Clarice Lispector

“I write as if to save somebody’s life. Probably my own. Life is a kind of madness that death makes. Long live the dead because we live in them.”

In which Clarice Lispector, herself dying of cancer, imagines a metaphysical dialogue between an author and a character, called Angela Pralini. Beautiful and aphoristic, unfinished and raw. (Get a copy)

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead

10. Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead, Olga Tokarczuk

A Polish murder mystery for vegans! It’s fun. The voice of the narrator is delightful and unique. Tokarczuk has many pretty turns of phrase, I presume, as translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones. An enjoyable end-of-winter book with a great title and a memorable narrator. (Get a copy)

Honorable Mentions

  1. Every Day Is for the Thief, Teju Cole
  2. Weather, Jenny Offill
  3. The Stories of Breece D’J Pancake
  4. Independence Day, Richard Ford

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?

The view from my window is a constant reminder

Front yard in July 2015
Daylilies in the front yard. July 2015.

“In my youth, I considered Cicero’s claim, that all a man needs to be happy is a garden and a library, utterly bourgeois, to be a truth for the boring and middle-aged, as far as possible from who I wanted to be. Perhaps because my own father was somewhat obsessed with his garden and his stamp collection. Now, being boring and middle-aged myself, I have resigned. Not only do I see the connection between literature and gardens, those small areas of cultivating the undefined and borderless, I nurture it. I read a biography on Werner Heisenberg, and it’s all there, in the garden, the atoms, the quantum leaps, the uncertainty principle. I read a book about genes and DNA, it’s all there. I read the Bible, and there’s the voice of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day. I love that phrase, “in the cool of the day,” it awakens something in me, a feeling of depth on sunny summer days that hold a kind of eternal quality, and then the winds from the sea come rushing in the afternoon, shadows grow as the sun sinks slowly on the sky, and somewhere children are laughing. All this in the cool of the day, in the midst of life, and when it’s over, when I’m no longer here, this view will still be. This is also what I see when I look out my window, and there’s a strange comfort in that, taking notice of the world as we pass through it, the world taking no notice of us.”

— Karl Ove Knausgaard, in Windows on the World, by Matteo Pericoli

Favorite books from July

The best books I read in July (all fiction this month!):

Coup de Grâce

Coup de Grâce, Marguerite Yourcenar. This is the third novel of Yourcenar’s that I’ve read, and I’m increasingly convinced that she’s perfect. Her psychological analysis is unmatched. This tiny novel is narrated by an egotistical young Prussian who is in love/hate with a damaged and yet strong young woman.

My Struggle: Book 2: A Man in Love

My Struggle, Book 2, Karl Ove Knausgaard. Karl Ove. How’d you get to be so wonderful.

The Story of a New Name

The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante. If you can’t tell, summer 2015 is the year of dueling masterful series for me: Knausgaard and Ferrante, Ferrante and Knausgaard. I am reading them both breathlessly, in quick succession. This is book two of the Neapolitan Novels series, and it’s just as dazzling as the first, although a heckuva lot darker.

Victory Over Japan: A Book of Stories

Victory Over Japan: Stories, Ellen Gilchrist. I’d never heard of Gilchrist before, but this was a completely charming and engrossing series of stories featuring powerful, memorable Southern women in starring roles. A lovely summer read, actually. I am usually reading very seasonally inappropriate books, but I’d recommend this to someone for a beach vacation.

What was the best thing you read in July?

Previously:  Favorite books I read in March, April, May, and June.

The seeing eye

Mýrdalsjökull
Mýrdalsjökull, Iceland (June 2015).

“No, when evening came and we sat down to watch a film we wanted to be entertained. And it had to be with as little effort and inconvenience as possible. It was the same with everything. I hardly read books anymore; if there was a newspaper around I would prefer to read that. And the threshold just kept rising. It was idiotic because this life gave you nothing, it only made time pass. If we saw a good film it stirred us and set things in motion, for that is how it is, the world is always the same, it is the way we view it that changes. Everyday life, which could bear down on us like a foot treading on a head, could also transport us with delight. Everything depended on the seeing eye. If the eye saw the water that was everywhere in Tarkovsky’s films, for example—which changed the world into a kind of terrarium, where everything trickled and ran, floated and drifted, where all the characters could melt away from the picture and only coffee cups on a table were left, filling slowly with the falling rain, against a background of intense, almost menacing green vegetation—yes, then the eye would also be able to see the same wild, existential depths unfold in everyday life. For we were flesh and blood, sinew and bone, around us plants and trees grew, insects buzzed, birds flew, clouds drifted, rain fell. The eye that gave meaning to the world was a constant possibility, but we almost always decided against it, at least it was like that in our lives.”

— Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book 2

Favorite books from June

The best books I read in June:

H is for Hawk

H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald. Stop everything and go read this book. It entranced me completely. Macdonald is a masterful writer, and she held me in her spell for the entirety of this gorgeously written book — part grief memoir, part goshawk guide, part meditation on the beauty and mortality of the natural world.

My Struggle: Book 1

My Struggle, Book 1, Karl Ove Knausgaard. The Norwegian Proust! It is everything everyone says it is (magnificent, breathtaking, compelling, mystifying). I read it on the plane to and from Iceland, and it made that sum total of 12 hours in air feel like a beautiful passing minute.

Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus

Kingdom, Grace, Judgment: Paradox, Outrage, and Vindication in the Parables of Jesus, Robert Farrar Capon. To a skeptical, literature-loving, doubt-filled Christian like myself, the pleasures of reading Capon are vast. This book brightened my own weak conception of my faith and what matters about it in the end.

Mislaid

Mislaid, Nell Zink. Bizarre and impeccably told. The New Yorker  profile on Nell Zink made me intensely curious about her, and I devoured this novel, her most recent, with great fervor. The frequent references to the University of Virginia and the Virginia countryside, in which I reside, were also delightful.

Huck's Raft: A History of American Childhood

Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood, Steven Mintz. I’ve always found American history interesting, and this is a particularly interesting history textbook. Steven Mintz covers the movements within American childhood (and parenting) from the Puritans to Columbine High School. It’s extremely fascinating. We’ve come a long way, regarding children, and we’ve changed our collective minds about them over and over again.

Anna Karenina

Anna Karenina, Leo Tolstoy; translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. This is the third time I’ve read AK, and it never fails to please and delight. Read for my church book club. I love the way that this novel, after centuries, still has the power to enchant and enrage readers (our book club was divided strongly into pro- and anti-Anna camps). I think it’s an immortal work of art.

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on Their Decision Not To Have Kids

Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids, ed. Meghan Daum. I’ll probably still have kids, Mom, but it was intensely interesting to read a variety of perspectives on why people choose not to have them. I read this book in a sitting, with great focus, on my deck. It was only after I’d finished that I looked up and thought, The only reason I was able to read this book in one breathless sitting is precisely because I do not have children.  So there’s that. The women’s perspectives, naturally, were more resonant with me on a theoretical level, but the three men’s essays were the funniest and most lighthearted on the topic (probably because men, biologically and culturally, can be more laissez-faire about childrearing).

Austerlitz

Austerlitz, W.G. Sebald. I’m not sure if I really get  German literature, but this was beautiful and unusual, even if the prose was murky and dark at times. The photographs were so fascinating to me.

What did you read in June? Any recommendations?