Although I’ve not finished my reading for 2015, ’tis the time of lists. A number of ‘best of’ lists this year have me scratching my head, since I read some of the books and didn’t care care for them very much, and the fact Kim Kardashian’s SELFISH made the Globe & Mail’s list… well… the less said about that the better. Reading preferences are so personal, aren’t they?
Nonetheless, in case a few of you may share my sensibilities, here are my best 10 reads of the year — some new, some quite old indeed, but in my opinion all of them well worth reading. Enjoy, and tell me what you’ve loved this year, won’t you?
Stoner by John Williams
“William Stoner is born at the end of the nineteenth century into a dirt-poor Missouri farming family. Sent to the state university to study agronomy, he instead falls in love with English literature and embraces a scholar’s life, so different from the hardscrabble existence he has known. And yet as the years pass, Stoner encounters a succession of disappointments: marriage into a “proper” family estranges him from his parents; his career is stymied; his wife and daughter turn coldly away from him; a transforming experience of new love ends under threat of scandal. Driven ever deeper within himself, Stoner rediscovers the stoic silence of his forebears and confronts an essential solitude.
John Williams’s luminous and deeply moving novel is a work of quiet perfection. William Stoner emerges from it not only as an archetypal American, but as an unlikely existential hero, standing, like a figure in a painting by Edward Hopper, in stark relief against an unforgiving world.”
John Williams writes about an ordinary man and his ordinary, often painful life with such unsentimental beauty and compassion as to transform it into the extraordinary. Carol Shields did the same thing in THE STONE DIARIES, and after reading this I can’t help but wonder if STONER wasn’t an inspiration for Shields’ own wonderful book. The ending, which is splendid, reminds me of Tolstoy’s THE DEATH OF IVAN ILYICH.
William Stoner’s quiet dignity and moral core is something we see very little of in literature any more, and it’s a great pity. We could use more inspiration of this sort. This is a life lived small. There is no social media, no reward for self-regard and narcissism. There is merely doing the right thing, because it is the right thing to do, and trying to cause the least amount of harm possible in the living of a life.
Without a mention of God, it proves to be a deeply spiritual work.
All the Light We cannot see by Anthony Doerr
What a splendid book. The structure is elliptical and complex, the imagery startlingly beautiful, the pacing breakneck (for the most part), and the characters wonderful drawn. Doerr’s language is lyrical (perhaps a shade overwritten at times) and the world he draws us into is perfectly detailed. I was impressed by how sensuous the descriptions were — so fitting for a blind protagonist — and by Doerr’s attention to symbols from myth and fairy-tale.
The light we cannot see is, it seems to me, the small light of goodness kept alive in the darkest of times.
Lost for Words by Edward St. Aubyn
Edward St. Aubyn is best known for his brilliant and scathing “Patrick Melrose” novels, which, if you haven’t read, I urge you to immediately. It is pertinent to mention here that it was short-listed for the Booker.
This book deservedly won the 2014 Wodehouse Prize for comic fiction. Here’s what the back of the book says:
Edward St. Aubyn’s Patrick Melrose novels were some of the most celebrated works of fiction of the past decade. Ecstatic praise came from a wide range of admirers, from literary superstars such as Zadie Smith, Francine Prose, Jeffrey Eugenides, and Michael Chabon to pop-culture icons such as Anthony Bourdain and January Jones. Now St. Aubyn returns with a hilariously smart send-up of a certain major British literary award.
The judges on the panel of the Elysian Prize for Literature must get through hundreds of submissions to find the best book of the year. Meanwhile, a host of writers are desperate for Elysian attention: the brilliant writer and serial heartbreaker Katherine Burns; the lovelorn debut novelist Sam Black; and Bunjee, convinced that his magnum opus, The Mulberry Elephant, will take the literary world by storm. Things go terribly wrong when Katherine’s publisher accidentally submits a cookery book in place of her novel; one of the judges finds himself in the middle of a scandal; and Bunjee, aghast to learn his book isn’t on the short list, seeks revenge.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
From the back of the book:
An audacious, darkly glittering novel set in the eerie days of civilization’s collapse, Station Eleven tells the spellbinding story of a Hollywood star, his would-be savior, and a nomadic group of actors roaming the scattered outposts of the Great Lakes region, risking everything for art and humanity.
One snowy night Arthur Leander, a famous actor, has a heart attack onstage during a production ofKing Lear. Jeevan Chaudhary, a paparazzo-turned-EMT, is in the audience and leaps to his aid. A child actress named Kirsten Raymonde watches in horror as Jeevan performs CPR, pumping Arthur’s chest as the curtain drops, but Arthur is dead. That same night, as Jeevan walks home from the theater, a terrible flu begins to spread. Hospitals are flooded and Jeevan and his brother barricade themselves inside an apartment, watching out the window as cars clog the highways, gunshots ring out, and life disintegrates around them.
Fifteen years later, Kirsten is an actress with the Traveling Symphony. Together, this small troupe moves between the settlements of an altered world, performing Shakespeare and music for scattered communities of survivors. Written on their caravan, and tattooed on Kirsten’s arm is a line from Star Trek: “Because survival is insufficient.” But when they arrive in St. Deborah by the Water, they encounter a violent prophet who digs graves for anyone who dares to leave.
Spanning decades, moving back and forth in time, and vividly depicting life before and after the pandemic, this suspenseful, elegiac novel is rife with beauty. As Arthur falls in and out of love, as Jeevan watches the newscasters say their final good-byes, and as Kirsten finds herself caught in the crosshairs of the prophet, we see the strange twists of fate that connect them all. A novel of art, memory, and ambition, Station Eleven tells a story about the relationships that sustain us, the ephemeral nature of fame, and the beauty of the world as we know it.
A book that lives up to its hype. This is beautifully written. It’s well thought out and structured. Okay, there might be a couple of spots where logic skips a beat (pushing 12 fully loaded shopping carts at one time through a Toronto snowstorm? I don’t think so.), and perhaps the epistolary section lags a tad, but when viewed as part of the larger work, these are insignificant quibbles.
I was enthralled, challenged and haunted every time I put the book down. Images linger. This is one of those rare books that might actually change the way a person views his or her life, and the world itself. If you are not, after reading this, filled with gratitude for all you have, and wonder at the modern world, there’s something wrong with you. I am immensely impressed.
I recently read ANNIHILATION by Jeff Vandermeer, about a similar post-collapse world and was left a bit chilled. Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD, haunted me ways similar to STATION ELEVEN, but is FAR darker. THE DOG STARS, also about a post-epidemic catastrophe, was more violent, although well-written, but ultimately lacked that ‘something larger’ that makes a fine book into a literary wonder. St. John Mandel hits the perfect note. Bravo.
Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson
The importance of this book can’t be overstated. The information here probably won’t come as a surprise to African-American readers, but should be required reading for everyone else. It will (or should) change the way you view just about everything.
From the back of the book: “Bryan Stevenson was a young lawyer when he founded the Equal Justice Initiative, a legal practice dedicated to defending those most desperate and in need: the poor, the wrongly condemned, and women and children trapped in the farthest reaches of our criminal justice system. One of his first cases was that of Walter McMillan, a young man who was sentenced to die for a notorious murder he insisted he didn’t commit. The case drew Bryan into a tangle of conspiracy, political machination, and legal brinksmanship—and transformed his understanding of mercy and justice forever.
Just Mercy is at once an unforgettable account of an idealistic, gifted young lawyer’s coming of age, a moving window into the lives of those he has defended, and an inspiring argument for compassion in the pursuit of true justice.”
Apart from the cases documented in this book, which are heartbreaking and fury-inducing, the example Bryan Stevenson provides us is invaluable. We need heroes like this — dedicated, brilliant, brave, relentless, compassionate, clear-eyed, open-hearted, humble and, yes, hopeful.
There are passages toward the end of the work that moved me to tears. This is one of them:
“For the first time I realized that my life was just full of brokenness. I worked in a broken system of justice. My clients were broken by mental illness, poverty, and racism. They were torn apart by disease, drugs and alcohol, pride, fear, and anger. I thought of…dozens of other broken children we worked with, struggling to survive in prison. I thought of people broken by war…people broken by poverty…people broken by disability. In their broken state, they were judged and condemned by people whose commitment to fairness had been broken by cynicism, hopelessness, and prejudice…you can’t effectively fight abusive power, poverty, inequality, illness, oppression, or injustice and not be broken by it. We are all broken by something. We have all hurt someone and have been hurt. We all share the condition of brokenness even if our brokenness is not equivalent. … But simply punishing the broken–walking away from them or hiding them from sight– only ensures that they remain broken and we do, too. There is no wholeness outside of our reciprocal humanity.” Amen, brother.
Stevenson meets an old woman who visits the courtroom every day. Her grandson was murdered by other teenagers and she had, at the end of the trial convicting those boys and sending them to prison for life, been comforted by a stranger. And so, she in turn comes now to comfort others — mindful only of their need for comfort, not caring if they are the ones harmed, or the ones who have done harm. She says, “I decided I was supposed to be here to catch some of the stones people cast at each other.” And then she talks about the biblical parable of Jesus and the woman accused of adultery who was brought to Jesus. This is moment when he says, “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone,” when he saves her from her accusers, forgives her and urges her to sin no more. The old woman suggests that Stevenson is a stonecatcher, too.
I think she’s right. I think we should all begin catching stones, and we can begin learning how by reading this book.
A Meal in Winter by Hubert Migarelli
Dark, humane, and profound, this slim novel about three German soldiers in WWII, hunting for “one of them” (Jews), explores what it means to be human and the intersection of fear and hate. Given all the ‘us vs them’ rhetoric on the political scene these days, it seems awfully timely, doesn’t it? Set during less than a day, it centers around the simplest of metaphors — warmth and soup. I’m haunted by this novel and know it’s going to linger in my mind for a long time. HIGHLY recommended.
The Good Son by Paul McVeigh
Full disclosure — I met Paul last year at a short story conference and heard him read a story there that floored me, it was so wonderful. Then, in April of this year, I saw him again, in Ireland, and heard him read from this book. The reading was fantastic — animated, funny, absolutely crackling with energy, and to be honest I was a bit concerned the book itself might not live up to my expectations after that performance. I needn’t have worried. This book is astonishing.
It’s hard to believe this is a first novel, it’s so good. A masterful combination of tragedy and humor, stirred into a batter of scathing social commentary. So much more than a simple coming of age book, and yet somehow it manages that as well. Paul McVeigh is a writer we’ll be hearing a great deal from in years to come. Well done, sir.
A Life Like Other People’s by Alan Bennett
What an amazing piece of writing. It’s heartbreaking. It’s without what Ferdinand Mount of the Spectator called, “a drop of splother”, meaning no self-indulgence, no writerly artificial pyrotechnics, no sentimentality, just brave, searingly honest and often surprisingly (given the subject matter) hilarious writing. Alan Bennet has long been one of my favorite writers, this book also makes him one of my favorite humans. It’s beyond memoir. It’s art.
The Train by Georges Simenon
Most people are familiar with Georges Simenon as the creator of Commissaire Maigret, but the man wrote over 400 novels. The Train was first published in 1961, re-issued here by Melville House Publishing as part of their “Neverlink Library” (which I encourage all serious readers to explore). It is arguably one of the most accomplished of his work. And that’s saying something.
Set in France, in this novel we meet Marcel Feron, an Everyman, an ordinary man, even perhaps a bit of a bland person, in the midst of extraordinary times — the outbreak of war, just as the Germans are invading. Marcel’s mother disappeared when he was young, after being labelled a collaborator during WWI. His father returned from the war broken and alcoholic. Marcel himself has suffered TB as a young man and never expected to live a normal life, with wife and children, but has managed to create just such a life, and now his wife is pregnant with their second child.
As word spreads that the Germans are advancing, Marcel takes his wife and daughter and abandons his home and his radio repair shop. He is not, however, surprised this is happening. Ever since the alarming events of his childhood, he felt such a destiny was awaiting him, and so he settles into a strange calm. It’s a testament to Simenon’s writing — the 1st person narration is the perfect choice — that we are drawn so far into Marcel’s reality, and never question his state of mind.
On the refuge train he is separated from his wife and child, but meets a tragic-looking girl in a black dress. With her, and in this aberrant parenthetic span of time, Marcel finds passion. The book might have no more than an albeit satisfying psychological study of an ordinary man in wartime, but the end of the book is so shattering (I shan’t give it away), that it transforms the work into something deeply thought-provoking, not to mention unsettling — a trait of Simenon’s work.
The Waterworks by E. L. Doctorow
I adore Doctorow. I love the sound of his sentences and his vision. I don’t know how WATERWORKS slipped under my radar, so I’m grateful to Ta-Nehesi Coates for his recommendation in the NYTimes. It is, as Coates says, a strange and beautiful book. The narrator’s voice is elegant and the tone perfect. The images are similar to those Mark Helprin plays with in WINTER’S TALE and REFINER’S FIRE — Victorian and otherworldly, mechanical and dreamlike. The pacing is perfect and the way Doctorow unspools the mystery at the core of the plot masterful. My only complaint is that it ended so soon.
There you have it, a few of the best books, among the 75 or so I read this year. Now, your turn!