In terms of Best Books I Read in 2015, Elena Ferrante takes the cake by far, unquestionably. Other stand-outs (in no particular order) include:
- IFFP-winner (of both the shadow jury AND “real” prize!) The End of Days (Jenny Erpenbeck)
- The Serialist (David Gordon)
- In the Beginning Was the Sea (Tomás González) and The Dead Lake (Hamid Ismailov), two IFFP books that have lingered long in my memory
- 10:04 (Ben Lerner); The First Bad Man (Miranda July); The Buried Giant (Kazuo Ishiguro); All My Puny Sorrows (Miriam Toews); all badass contemporary novels I thoroughly enjoyed.
- A Place of Greater Safety (Hilary Mantel) was the most impressive book in terms of ambition, achievement, and just plain FUN. A Little Life would come in second, minus the fun (replaced by cathartic fascination…!).
- The Boy Who Stole Attila’s Horse (Iván Repila) = Most Haunting
- A Death in the Family (Karl Ove Knausgård), Dept. of Speculation (Jenny Offhill), and Sisters By a River (Barbara Comyns) had the biggest effect (for now) on my own writing.
- A Spool of Blue Thread (Anne Tyler) was my most comforting cup of familiar tea.
- And finally, Wallflowers (Eliza Robertson) and We Don’t Know What We’re Doing (Thomas Morris) are two kickass and inspiring short story collections. In full disclosure, I know both of these authors, but I wouldn’t bother mentioning their books on this blog if I truly didn’t FERVENTLY believe that their books are THAT good. Highly recommended, both of them.
Here are some other books I read last year (not yet discussed on this blog) that stood out to me:
A Little Lumpen Novelita (Roberto Bolaño)
“Everything seemed as clear as could be and as entertaining as a TV show and still I was close to tears.”
I’ve reviewed almost every single Bolaño book I’ve ever read on this blog and see no reason to break the trend with his latest opus to be translated, the arguably minor work A Little Lumpen Novelita. Minor Bolaño is still enjoyable Bolaño, though, especially for a card-carrying fangirl such as myself. A lot of Novelita sounded very familiar to The Secret of Evil, but I’d have to compare the texts side-by-side in order to officially verify this.
Themes of Novelita include bodybuilding as art, orphanhood, sight and cinema. I liked the first part, with the sister and brother befriending the refugee bodybuilders, but the second half definitely sloooows down. Thankfully the book is short, so it’s not really a problem. Is the main theme of this work the innate appeal of the visual? The triumph of cinematic storytelling? With this in mind, it’s interesting that the book itself (as said before) is so slow–it’s basically all set-up, a VERY anti-Hollywood crime tale. Nevertheless, the last paragraph still worked as an effective pay-off for me (is anybody better at writing those long, hypnotic, breathlessly long sentences than Bolaño?).
With both this book and The Secret of Evil, would it be safe to ask if Bolaño’s post-2666 work was entering a phase or taking an interest in a more avant-garde style, in the sense of an almost Knausgård-esque obsession with the mundane (as opposed to the plot-driven, almost crime novel set-ups of Savage Detectives, Distant Star or even 2666)? An interesting question to consider, but since this is one of the last books Bolaño published, it’ll be hard to ever say for sure.
The other thing this book made me think about was the question of belief when reading–what books ask us to do. I’ve already started and abandoned a book in 2016 (Fates and Furies), a very critically acclaimed and popular novel that I nevertheless unfortunately just couldn’t get through (I REALLY TRIED!). Some of it might just have to do with personal preferences in terms of style: I tend to prefer the easy, minimalist, straightforward readability of Chekhov, Carver, Bolaño, Vonnegut and Ferrante (that being said, I love Faulkner, Borges and Woolf, so am by no means a purist). And yet I just couldn’t deal with Fates and Furies because it came off as so “written” to me–I was aware of the author on every page. The Author Writing, Being Writerly. The writing itself was amazing: very flow-y, great similes, but in the end I didn’t believe or care about the story. I never got lost or absorbed or obsessed with in it the way I got lost in Ferrante, and ultimately it just didn’t feel worth the time or effort.
It’s such a tricky feeling to describe–the way a novel asks you to “read” it, what it wants you to believe–and yet it feels so integral to my experience as a reader. I was thinking about how this notion of belief in the fictional is just one reason among many that Don Quixote is The Best Book Ever (talk about a book I really should reread this year!). I remember that some of the most interesting parts of Quixote is when he appears startlingly lucid and self-aware, leading to questions of how much is he really lost in his vision of a knight-errant world, or how much of it is a deliberately crafted illusion for him–an escape versus a genuine delusion. I guess ultimately I prefer books that come off as delusions to me–obsessive dreams I sink into–rather than well-crafted, admirable, lyrically-written escapades.
Family Life (Akhil Sharma)
This is definitely one of the best books I read last year, if not THE best after Ferrante. I learned so much about both writing and reading from this book. I especially recommend this article by the author–captivating, astonishing stuff.
What I most admired about this book is the plot. Basically, there is none. The plot is family life. The family suffers, but it doesn’t fall apart, not really. Instead they plod on and try to endure, just like us all. More and more I’m finding myself intrigued by books that aren’t traditionally plotted (hellooooooo Knausgård and Lydia Davis). It feels to me like there’s a lot of exciting, interesting potential to explore with this. Forget traditional plot twists and build-ups and convenient revelations and coincidences. YES YES YES to momentum, energy, obsession and drive (especially on the level of the sentence).
Other things I loved about this book: the dark, dark humor (“You’re sad?” the father says at one point to the narrator. “I want to hang myself every day.”) The narrator’s visions of God-as-Superman. The brutally tender scenes with the brother (an antidote to the way we turn our eyes away from illness, suffering, and decay in everyday life). The Chekhovian writing style, the page-turning readability. The classic-yet-surprising and subversive immigrant story, the tender details and painfully honest depiction of the local Indian community.
I can’t believe I didn’t read this book earlier!
This book is absolutely fantastic and made me want to read ALL of the Nabokov now, immediately. I very nearly finished Pale Fire before leaving for India and getting derailed–yet another book I will have to return to and finish!
I first listened to an excerpt of Pnin via Aleksandar Hemon’s reading of the first chapter on the New Yorker fiction podcast, which I highly, highly recommend. It’s definitely a brilliant introduction, especially with the discussion that follows. Sadly, I didn’t take notes when reading this book (I read it on the plane to Colombia in one sitting), but what I remember standing out to me is the hysterical humor, the wonderful use of detail (no wonder Hemon is a fan; his short story “Islands” will never not be exemplary to me in this regard); the brilliant parallels with Quixote; the oh so relevant themes of exile, home and immigration, the dancing back and forth between comedy and tragedy… oho man. I would totally reread this. Dare I say… I may even prefer it to Lolita?!?
Martian Time-Slip (Philip K. Dick)
My old friend Philip. What would I do without him? What a classic Dickian read. Set on (where else?) the Wild West-esque Mars, we follow a cast of characters, including a union boss who controls the water supply, a schizophrenic repairman, local Martians who resemble Australian Aborigines, and an autistic child who is ultimately responsible for the titular “time-slip” (the sections narrated from his perspective are definitely some of the most admirably demented). This wasn’t the best Dick novel I’ve read (Dr. Bloodmoney and VALIS are still up there for me) but when do I not enjoy reading him? Even the bland female characters don’t bother me. Themes include the blurring of madness with reality, the question of what it means to be sane, and again that debate about belief, about what makes something “true,” if reality is just whatever we choose to believe (“The mind is its own place” and all that jazz). I will never get bored of reading stuff like this–science fiction as an intellectual debate or exercise.
Also, there’s paragraphs like this one:
Both boys had pets, Martian critters that struck him as horrid: praying mantis types of bugs, as large as donkeys. The damn things were called boxers, because they were often seen propped up erect and squaring off at one another in a ritual battle which generally ended with one killing and eating the other. Bert and Ned had gotten their pet boxers trained to do manual chores of a low calibre, and not to eat each other.
Ban en Banlieue (Bhanu Kapil)
This book is nuts. I didn’t enjoy my experience of reading it, but I would still recommend it, but more as an intellectual exercise. I’ve never had a reading experience like this book before. I’ve never read a book like this before, period. It’s not even a book per se–it’s a collection of notes, jottings, thoughts, and fragments of a failed novel, a book that never came into being, a Failed Book, a novel that doesn’t exist and never will. It’s more like a performance art piece than a proper book, really (and indeed, the final book is apparently based on performances done by the author). Basically, Kapil is obsessed with the idea of telling the story of Ban, a young dark-skinned schoolgirl, as she walks home from school during the first moments of a riot in 1979 London. As the riot begins, Ban lies down to die.
…That’s pretty much it. That’s the whole book. The book returns to the gesture again and again, circling around it, describing it, relentlessly, obsessively: the image of this girl lying down, at certain points turning into soot, diesel oil, dirt, meat.
I sympathized with and admired this book because more than anything else, it shows that writing IS REALLY ****ING HARD AND YOU HAVE TO BE A REAL BADASS MOTHER****ER IF YOU WANNA DO IT. If you wanna write a novel, you better not be shitting around because the writing process is going to eat you up and leave you gasping, raw, and bruised in sight of the most painful revelations from the innermost core of your Jungian Shadow-being. To me, this book shows how certain images (in this case, that of a brown girl lying down as the world around her burns) can grab an author and never let you go–it becomes a compulsion; you HAVE to write about it, you have no choice. But how to bring that image into being? How to turn it into a novel or a story you can share? How do you put it into a narrative, shape it, craft it? In this case, the author wasn’t able to do so–she wasn’t able to get past the singular image. As the author writes at one point, “I want a literature that is not made from literature,” and that is SO… FREAKING… hard to do. Instead of literature, she’s done something else with this book. I have no idea what it is or how to talk about it. But due to its sheer force of will, determination, and doggedness, this book earned both my admiration and respect.
The Musical Brain (César Aira)
(Thank you New Directions for the review copy of this book!)
Another one of the best books I read last year. This may be one of the best César Aira books I’ve read, and would serve as a jolly good introduction to anybody unfamiliar with his madcap visions.
One of the highlights of this collection is the sheer diversity contained within. It’s like twenty mini-Aira novellas contained within one volume, twenty glimpses into utterly unique universes that are often reminiscent of Cortázar at his best and most experimental. There’s nostalgic childhood-themed pieces about intricate games (“A Brick Wall,” “The Infinite”), contrasted with the sheer utter insanity that is the title story (think 1950’s horror movie cross-bred with Philip K. Dick and Duchamp). There’s creepy Kafkaesque fables with unsettling endings (“The Cart,” “The Dog”). There’s even a story that reads as half-fairy tale, half contemporary political allegory (“Acts of Charity,” placed near the end of the collection and arguably one of the strongest pieces).
A strange continuity links these stories. We are informed more than once that nine is the maximum number of times a piece of paper can be folded in half, and there are at least two cameos by a polyhedron. There’s an obsessions with numbers and precision throughout, with the micro and macroscopic, eternity and ephemerality. Non-human characters include a subatomic particle, a shopping cart gone rogue, a melancholic ovenbird and drops of Renaissance-era paint that flee the Mona Lisa and go around the world having adventures (and that’s just a cursory summary, believe me…).
Originality and innovation are clearly important to Aira: “human creativity,” he writes near the collection’s end, “was inexhaustible.” To put it plainly, the inventiveness and unpredictability of these stories is a big reason they are so enjoyable to read. “Only the unrepeatable was truly alive…” Now that’s an Aira call to arms if there ever was one.
To wrap up this post, I guess I’ll give a shout-out to books I didn’t enjoy, even though I don’t like being a hater (god knows that writing a book is hard enough… authors deserve credit “just” for that!!). Off the top of my head, When Mystical Creatures Attack! by Kathleen Founds was not my cup of tea, despite reviews in The Rumpus and NY Times that made me believe that it would be. I wonder if I am sort of over that whole “quirkily experimental” form of writing–maybe I just plain prefer the dark nihilistic “quirkiness” (and just plain mental beserk FUN) of César Aira. Anyway, all of this doesn’t mean that Mystical Creatures isn’t a book (or genre even) that other people won’t enjoy–I totally own up to it being a matter of taste.
I also did not enjoy The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie. Reading this book made me realize what a blessing George R.R. Martin is, and how spoiled I’ve been by the Song of Ice and Fire series. It may have ruined other fantasy novels for me forever. The Blade Itself started promisingly enough–I basically just wanted a guilty pleasure read, something to read mindlessly on buses or planes or late at night when trying to fall asleep. Gradually, though, I lost interest due to too many fight scenes and (most importantly) the utter lack of interesting female characters. Too much of a boy’s club for me.