The year draws to its close tonight, and I'm joining others with my list of favorite books read in 2015! Fiction, nonfiction, novels and short story collections. . . I didn't read as much as I would have liked (I never do) but these are the ones that stayed most powerfully with me.
Best Novel—Pen Pal by Francesca Forrest
The best novel I read this year was a hard-to-pigeonhole, slipstreamish epistolary novel self-published in 2013. I first heard of Francesca Forrest when I came across her lovely short story, Seven Bridges, in the archives of the digital magazine, The Future Fire. Pen Pal is her first published novel (I think). It is gorgeous and affecting. These are the first lines:
Dear person who finds my message,
I live in a place called Mermaid's Hands. All our houses rest on the mud when the tide is out, but when it comes in, they rise right up and float.
They're all roped together, so we don't lose anyone. I like Mermaid's Hands, but sometimes I wish I could unrope our house and see where it might float to. . .
Em is the child who places this letter into a bottle and tosses it into the sea. Mermaid's Hands is an imaginary village somewhere on the Gulf Coast of the United States. Em and her people are a fictional cultural minority in the U.S. with their own sea-based religion, traditions, and identity. They are also a marginalized group with a precarious existence, treated with suspicion and disdain by their neighbors on the mainland.
Em's message-in-a-bottle finds its way to a brave young woman on the other side of the world: Kaya, a political activist fighting for the rights of her own cultural and ethnic minority group. When Kaya receives Em's letter, it is brought to her by her pet crow, for Kaya herself is unable to go to the sea. She is trapped in a prison-house suspended over a live volcano.
The novel that unfolds is told in letters exchanged between Em and Kaya, as well as in entries from their journals and excerpts of news reports and other outside documents which flesh out their world. This is a beautiful novel of arresting images—Kaya's volcano, Em's floating village—and it flirts on the border between "realism" and "magical realism." Both Em and Kaya's story lines are absorbing and moving, and ultimately intersect. It's a book that tackles complex, real-world issues of culture and marginalized ethnic communities, of identity and assimilation, but it never feels preachy and it always feels honest. As Kaya's political storyline picked up danger and speed, I started to feel impatience when reverting back to Em's point of view. . . but then Em would suck me in with her own intimate, family drama. This is a novel that works on multiple levels. I think it's a novel that would work for multiple audiences. The story is accessible enough for middle-grade readers (who would be Em's age), but complex and resonant enough for adults as well. I keep marveling over how the author was able to pull off everything that she does—how she was able, for instance, to create vivid secondary characters and a delicate, heart-tugging love story in so few words. This book made me cry. This is a book that stays with you.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
This book is more generally well known than Pen Pal, to put it mildly. It won and was nominated for a slew of literary awards, and was backed by George R.R. Martin for a Hugo. It's a post-apocalyptic novel, but in a quiet vein. Lovely and elegiac, it moves back and forth through time, following characters just before the great apocalypse that has destroyed the world as we know it (the apocalyptic agent is a particularly deadly strain of flu virus) and after. Above all, this novel set in the ruins of civilization—where people reminisce about electricity and refrigerators and episodes of Star Trek--is an ode to our present day, to the fragile beauties and wonders we take for granted.
The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu (winner of the 2015 Hugo Award)
Remember Golden Age science fiction, as it's termed? Remember the mind-blown awe with which you read the last lines of Isaac Asimov's Nightfall or Arthur C. Clarke's stories? The Three Body Problem by Cixin Liu recaptured that for me. This story of alien first contact left me dazzled with vast expanses of time and space and alien worlds. Bonus: the prose (translated by Ken Liu from the original Chinese) is a great deal more graceful than Asimov's workmanlike prose and much of the prose of the American "Golden Age" of sci-fi.
Short Story Collections
Bone Swans by C.S.E. Cooney
Speaking of minds blown. . . Bone Swans collects five novellas by noted short story writer C.S.E. Cooney; one of them, "The Bone Swans of Amandale" appears for the first time. These are all rich, strange, and utterly beautiful. The titular "Bone Swans" is a mashup of fairy tales—the Juniper Tree plus The Pied Piper, graced with old legends of swan-women and trolls, and narrated by a smart-alecky (and hungry) rat. "How the Milkmaid Struck a Bargain with the Crooked One" is a wonderfully satisfying retelling of Rumpelstiltskin. Other stories are wholly invented worlds. Cooney's stories are filled with wit and humor and horror and beauty, and above all they are filled with heart. One of my favorite story collections ever.
Magic for Beginners by Kelly Link
I'm trying to catch up on the contemporary "canon" of speculative fiction, and at this point I think we can say that Kelly Link is part of that canon. The stories in this collection will reach into your braincase and pull your mind inside out. There's almost no way to summarize a Kelly Link story; she defines her own subgenre of weird. My favorites here were the titular "Magic for Beginners" and "Stone Animals" (the latter is like a John Cheever story of suburban family angst. . . shredded and pushed through the weirdest Filter of Weird that you can—actually, you probably can't—imagine).
Redeployment by Phil Klay
And for my nongenre fiction selection. . . You expect that a critically acclaimed short story collection about the American war in Iraq will be devastating. But you likely don't know how many different kinds of devastating these 12 stories will be. Marine veteran Phil Klay shows an astonishing range here, inhabiting fully a variety of voices: a young, barely-out-of-his-teens soldier trying to find his refooting on American soil; officers in the midst of war; a Marine chaplain grappling with faith as he tries to minister to the soldiers whom he sees spinning out of control; a Foreign Services officer caught up in absurd bureaucracy; and a young Egyptian-American Coptic Christian war veteran who tells his story while attending college at Amherst in the aftermath of his service. These stories are all brutal and devastating and brilliant. . . and many of them are also funny. Bleakly and blackly hilarious. The biting dialogue, the gallows humor and bravado and pain and vulnerability of Klay's male characters (they are all male protagonists) is a revelation. The most harrowing fiction that I read this year.
The Evil Hours: A Biography of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder by David J. Morris
While Klay's short story collection is harrowing fiction, Morris' book is harrowing nonfiction. I read these two books almost back-to-back, and they became companion pieces in my mind. Morris calls his book a “biography” of PTSD, and it is deliberately modeled after another biography of a disease: Siddhartha Mukherjee’s acclaimed The Emperor of Maladies: A Biography of Cancer. Like Mukhjerjee’s book, Morris’ work is a deeply researched synthesis of history, science, and personal experience. A former Marine officer, Morris covered the Iraq War as a news correspondent from 2004 to 2007, and himself suffered PTSD in the wake of his experiences there. This is a fiercely intelligent, often infuriating, beautifully written and ultimately moving book. Morris’ writing makes for compulsive reading, and I tore through his pages as though through an airport thriller. The science and descriptions of PTSD therapy may be of particular interest to scientists and clinicians, but the human story at the heart of it all is what moves most powerfully.
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
I'm not a surfer and I know nothing about surfing. But yes, this is one of the best things I've ever read. As I wrote in an earlier post, this is a book not just about surfing but about questing in general—about chasing pure joy. My in-depth review of this book can be found here.
Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life by Dear Sugar by Cheryl Strayed
This is one of the (many) good things about my mothers' book club: I'm forced to read books I would have never chosen on my own. Cheryl Strayed is most famous for Wild, her runaway best-selling memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. I admit that I bounced off that memoir; I could acknowledge that the writing was good, but the narrative simply wasn't one that personally spoke to me or engaged me. Tiny Beautiful Things was different. This book collects highlights of the advice column that Strayed has written in the persona of "Sugar" for the website The Rumpus. The letters from readers are wide-ranging and yet, as "Sugar" points out, they cut to a core of common human interests and needs. Strayed's responses are wise, lyrical, and yes, profound. When the mother of a child with a brain tumor writes in asking whether or not she can believe in God if He gave her baby cancer. . . well, Strayed (who admits that she does not personally believe in God) gives the best, most compassionate and intellectually honest response I've ever seen articulated on this theme. Strayed's responses are little jewel-like essays. In them she reveals pieces of her own life, and in aggregate the advice columns become an unconventional memoir.