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?