Thursday, December 31, 2015

Stef's Favorite Books of 2015.

In which I discover that I overuse the words lovely and wonderful and beautiful! 

Favorite Favorites:
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
Fates and Furies opens with Lotto and Mathilde, young and newly married and drunk on love and attraction, before spooling back the story of their meeting, their falling in love and getting married, first from Lotto's perspective, then from Mathilde's. The marriage of Lotto and Mathilde, two of the most compelling fictional characters I've read in ages, is the madly beating heart at the center of this gorgeous novel. Groff has plotted this very character-driven novel with a masterful hand-- the careful meting out of the secret lives of a book's characters is always a joy to read, being able to look back and see the currents shifting underneath the story, the way the truth affects your reading, the way a perfectly placed detail can make or break a novel, but never has it been done so elegantly, so truly, as in this book. It's really extraordinary. And it's not a gimmick-- the way the story falls open into two equal halves, his and hers, feels completely natural, not a device. The longer you look at something, and from every angle, the more you understand it. If that wasn't enough, Groff's lush prose is a delight to read.

A Little Life by Hanya Yanigihara
So much has been written about this book already. Some reviewers found it to be "too much"-- Jude's pain and anguish were just too much, and the otherwise perfect lives of the other characters (all professionally successful in a way that would be fairly unlikely in a set of four friends, though they are Ivy-Leaguers, aren't they?), completely unrealistic. I get that charge. I did remotely feel annoyed that all four men were so successful, as I don't tend to love reading about the lives of the rich and powerful, especially men. It annoys me. BUT I definitely don't think Yanigihara went over the top with Jude's life story and suffering. You know what? People are raped, pedophiles are out there taking advantage of children, and aspects of the foster care system in this country are appalling. People are cruel. I think having to take a close look at someone else's pain is something we should all do now and again to remind ourselves what life is like, the seesaw imbalance of the human experience. And what friendships she created in this book, what rich and full characters! I was bowled over by it. I think it's absolutely a masterpiece. (Look up her interviews too-- after reading that she saw the story as fairy-tale-esque made the larger than life aspects of it justified, and it clarified how I read the book too.) 

Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
Claire Vaye Watkins (who is a dynamite writer—check out her short story collection, Battleborn) has created a terrifying dystopian world that feels like a frightening possibility. California has run out of water. Most of the Southwest has been evacuated, but Luz and Ray, two young drifters who are desperately in love, have decided to stay. They hole up in an abandoned mansion, because, why not. They scavenge for food and drink cans of Coke. One day, when they are out in a big group of people, they see a baby being abused. Before they realize what they’ve done, they take the baby home and care for her, name her Ig. The walls of their life are closing in though— Ig’s people are coming for her, life isn’t sustainable, and Ray can’t legally cross the border. They have to set out on their own, through the desert. There are two parts to this story, and the transition between them is absolutely devastating. But keep reading. Watkins’ writing is electric and beautiful, unique and eminently underline-able. And jeez, look at that gorgeous cover!

The Prize: Who's In Charge of America's Schools? by Dale Russakoff

This is a fascinating account of the Newark, NJ school system and the attempts made by both public officials and private donors to turn it around. With a dismal graduation rate, poor test scores, crumbling school buildings, and teachers and administration with the bad habit of advancing students who haven’t learned basic skills, the Newark school system is a mess. Newark mayor, Cory Booker, along with NJ governor Chris Christie, enlisted Facebook’s Mark Zuckerburg to donate $100 million to fix the city’s schools. Can you imagine what happened when buckets and buckets of money were thrown at a problem? Well, it’s complicated, but at the end of the day it didn’t work. This book is about more than just Newark, NJ. It’s about the systemic problems in America’s urban schools, and the challenge involved in “fixing” them. Lots of teachers and administrators are doing good work in these schools. We need to figure out how to help them. 

$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America by Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer
This is such an important book. Edin and Shaeffer’s concept is that there are millions of people in America who are “cash poor”--they have access to SNAP (food stamps), housing/heat assistance, EITC, and other forms of assistance, but so many of people’s daily needs can only be satisfied with cash. Things like a new outfit or haircut for a job interview, school supplies for children, the electric bill, and gas to get to work. This group of people get stuck in a rut of poverty, sometimes going from homeless shelter to staying with family, often as unstable as they are. When you don’t have a stable address, it makes it that much harder to get and keep a job. Everything is harder. This book tells the stories of several people who are stuck in this situation, and those stories are heartbreaking. Even sadder? The fact that all of the workable, realistic solutions the authors present would just be *too much* for our current crop of all-star politicians to take on. 

Etta and Otto and Russell and James by Emma Hooper
This is a beautiful, quiet book about friendship and love, aging and dying, holding on and letting go. It’s quite lovely. Otto and Etta are married and have been for decades--one day, Otto discovers that Etta has left their home. She has decided to walk across Canada, quite a feat for a woman in her 80s. Luckily (for her and us), she finds James, possibly the most wonderful and magical dog of all time, who accompanies her and takes care of her on her journey. Otto is left behind and must find out how to survive on his own--just what Etta had to do when Otto was overseas during the war. Part of that is reconnecting with Russell, his childhood best friend and neighbor. This book doesn’t sound like much when it’s described, but it’s just a perfect little specimen of a book--sweet and sad, with lovely, lyrical prose, and just the most wonderful characters you'll ever met on the page.

The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora
This stellar collection of stories is one of my favorite books of 2015. All set around a fictional Connecticut town just north of New York, these stories navigate issues like relationships, affairs, parenthood, appearances, expectations, work, and how we all manage life in the suburbs. It’s funny, quirky, and often quite profound. The first story, “Ground Fault,” introduces you to the community, through a day in the life of John, a home inspector. The stories just get more complex and richer as the book goes on-- the characters get a bit stranger, their lives more sordid and complicated. If you’re not a fan of the abruptness of leaving a short story, have no fear-- these interconnected stories circle back and return you to previous characters. It’s a bit like life--I found myself saying, “That person sounds familiar--have I met her yet or just heard someone else gossiping about her?” as you do.

The Girl Who Slept with God by Val Brelinski
When teenaged Frances returns pregnant from a mission trip to Mexico, insisting that an angel impregnated her for the glory of god, her father sends her to live alone in a farmhouse on the edge of town. It’s the 1970s in Idaho and their family belongs to a strict evangelical church—Frances can’t be seen pregnant in town. She can’t be alone, so her younger sister Jory is sent with her. Their parents are loving, but distracted. They think they are doing the best for their daughters. Meanwhile, Frances and Jory make friends with the older woman who owns the farmhouse and lives nearby and a young man who drives the ice cream truck. Jory starts school and tries to fit in, all the while trying to get Frances to tell her the truth about what really happened to her in Mexico. It’s funny and sad and surprising, and the writing is great. I loved it.

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
What a completely wonderful book. A companion to her Life After Life, but it’s not the same. It doesn’t feel ground-breaking like that book did, but it feels like it fits Teddy, Ursula’s brother and the protagonist of A God in Ruins. He’s an unassuming guy, a bit of a troublemaker as a boy (like the boy in the Augustus book series his aunt based after him), but an unsure man--wandering around Europe, glad for the outbreak of the war as an escape for him from the life of a boring banker. We watch him return from his missions flying bombers over Germany, marry, and have a daughter. We watch his daughter, Viola, grow up, and her two children, Sunny and Bertie. Atkinson jumps back and forth, as if Teddy is reflecting on the life he led. It is a profound look at the way each of our lives touch one another’s, how no person lives their life in a vacuum, and why that’s difficult sometimes, but ultimately the only way worth living. I loved every page. 

Infinite Home by Kate Alcott
This is a really beautiful story about a group of people living in a Brooklyn brownstone. When the aging landlady’s son arrives one day and hangs eviction letters on their apartment doors, intent on taking over and remodeling so he can jack the rent up, the results could mean the end of something big for each of them. The characters are just lovely— there’s Adeleine, the beautiful agoraphobic woman, surrounded by antiques and the dusty knickknacks of someone else’s life, who hasn’t really left her apartment in years. Thomas, the artist whose recent stroke left him unable to paint. Edward, the formerly successful stand up comedian whose life went off the rails when his great love left him. Paulie, suffering from a condition that left him bright and happy but stunted, and his sister Claudia, whose only joy comes from caring for him. And lovely Edith, their landlady, whose friendship and need holds them all together. It’s just dear.

Days of Awe by Lauren Fox
This book is truly wonderful. It’s sad and hopeful at the same time, literary yet accessible. Isabel is happily married, a teacher with a young daughter, when her best friend is killed in a car accident late one winter night. As with most things in life, it’s not just the accident and her friend’s death. It’s everything that came before. As the details of their friendship are spooled out through the book, you get a closer look at the complexities of a close relationship—men, work, life—all the expectations and disappointments that friendships are full of.  Meanwhile, Isabel and her husband, Chris, have decided to separate. As you can imagine, she feels her life spiraling a bit. Luckily, she has her mother to ground her (their relationship is hilarious and so, so true), and the support group her mother drags her to. This is a story about saying goodbye—to her friend who died, to her husband and their life together, to the person she was before, and the person her grief has made her. It’s not all doom and gloom though—there is humor and awkwardness and romance, too. It really stayed with me.

Did You Ever Have a Family by Bill Clegg
This is an incredible story, sparely and beautifully told, best read in just a sitting or two. The night before her daughter is to get married, tragedy strikes June Reid when a house fire kills her daughter, future son-in-law, ex-husband, and boyfriend. She survives, but her grief forces her out of town and on the road, still wearing the same clothes she wore that night. Meanwhile, we learn about the small Connecticut town where she lived, divided among “weekenders” and “townies,” from other people in her life--most notably, her boyfriend Luke’s mother, the town pariah. It’s a terribly sad, lonely book, but there is hope in the end, and the message of the power of friendship and the promise of a new day radiate from the book once the final page has been turned. It’s quite the book.

Crooked Heart by Lissa Evans
Noel is living a happy, if somewhat unconventional, life with his elderly godmother, Mattie, in London during WWII. When Mattie suddenly dies, and the bombing begins, Noel is evacuated to the countryside.  He’s a funny kid, intellectual and not afraid to say what’s on his mind. Needless to say, he doesn’t exactly blend in well with the villagers. The woman who takes him in, Vee, has her own problems. Quickly though, they team up and begin collecting donations for various war-related causes and pocketing the cash. It’s a different look at England during WWII than we usually get, with memorable characters, witty dialogue, and a lovely story of friendship and family. 

Everland by Rebecca Hunt

This book is fantastic, especially if you have an interest in Arctic/Antarctic exploration or survival stories. (But even if you don't! Still good!) This is the story of two Antarctic explorations of the same island-- one in 1913, when the island, Everland, is first discovered, and the other in 2012, when a group returns to the island for a 100th anniversary expedition. Both groups are of three people, and their components are eerily similar--one veteran, one cocky, self-assured workhorse, and one newbie. The 1913 expedition did not end well, and though the 2012 expedition is fully prepared for every possible issue they might encounter, the specter of the earlier expedition hangs over them. The stories are told in alternating chapters, and the details are meted out in such a way that you can’t put the book down when you finish a chapter. 


Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by Jon Krakauer
Krakauer is a fantastic investigative journalist, and in Missoula, he has set his sights on the campus rape crisis by looking at it through the lens of one large, well regarded state school in Montana. He lays out the experiences of several women who were raped on campus by fellow students, from their experiences with the men, to dealings with campus security, the local police, and school administration. Because this school, like many large state schools, is bankrolled in part by its successful sports programs, student athletes are given special treatment. Women who accuse these men of rape were frequently not believed and belittled by authority figures, bullied by defense attorneys, and torn apart in the local media and by sports boosters. Krakauer provides national statistics as well as the details of this specific school and lays out the cases from every angle. The treatment of these women, and the regularity of the crimes made me spitting mad. Worth the read.

The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander
Elizabeth Alexander wrote the poem for President Obama's first inauguration, "Praise Song for the Day." I love this poem dearly. (I also love the heck out of the picture book version, illustrated by David Diaz.) Her memoir is just as beautiful, her writing is clear, clean, uncluttered, and perfectly spaced as only a poet can do. It reminded me of The Year of Magical Thinking, but with more passion, more crazy love. Alexander's husband Ficre died so young, so unfairly young, that you feel that theft beating in each page of this book. They had so much life left to love. But this book is more than just a grief memoir, it's a beautifully written account of a talented artist, a man so interesting and with such a fascinating life journey from his home country of Eritrea to America, he honestly ought to have had a book written about him anyway. And with Alexander's gorgeous prose, he got such a beautiful, heart-thumping, genuine tribute. 

Between the World and Me by Ta'Nehisi Coates
So much has been said about this book already too. I will just add that Coates' story really opened my eyes to this other America, the America inhabited by people for whom the "dream" is not attainable. And it's not about education, or "culture," or even poverty or reform. It's about what our country was built on, how it was built. Who built it. He sums it up here: "And for so long I have wanted to escape into the Dream, to fold my country over my head like a blanket. But this has never been an option because the Dream rests on our backs, the bedding made from our bodies." It's such powerful writing, that packs a punch with both emotional truth and the brilliant argument he makes for how we're looking at the core of race the wrong way. It really should be required reading. Absolutely deserving of all the acclaim Coates received for it. 

The Rising: Murder, Heartbreak, and the Power of Human Resilience in an American Town by Ryan D'Agastino
This was a great portrait of a man whose life was torn apart by a violent crime done to his family, basically the worst thing that could ever happen to your family. Really, the very, very worst. I appreciated that D'Agastino didn't go into detail about the horrific crimes, as most "true crime" books do, but instead focused on Bill Petit's life after-- how he survived, how he turned his life into something good, something meaningful. Not schmaltzy at all, but actually inspiring. Makes you question the BS you find yourself complaining about. I loved the writing too--conversational, colloquial, like a friend telling you about a friend. It's hard to describe without making it sound like a Lifetime movie, but I promise, it's worth the read.
Waking Up White, and Finding Myself in the Story of Race by Debby Irving
I read this book after reading Between the World and Me and it just knocked my socks off. Debby Irving has written a really interesting book about coming to understand race as a white person. She explains that many white people don't even see themselves as having a race, that they are the "default" or "normal" and all the other people are the different ones. She talks about her discovery that her life, in an upper middle class white family from a nice suburb in Massachusetts, wasn't just a result of her ancestors "working hard" and "getting ahead." She explains that systemic racism is the way of life in America that gives advantages to white people that people of other races don't get. Every single chapter had huge revelations for me, someone who considered herself progressive, an "ally," and maybe even "colorblind" (ugh I was such an idiot). It's a great book to read alongside or after reading a memoir from a person of color-- get an understanding of their perspective and journey, then try to change your own. 

Dreamland: The True Tale of America's Opiate Epidemic by Sam Quinones
Wow, just wow. Quinones convincingly explains the explosion in America's opiate/opioid addiction in this compassionate, heavily-researched yet very readable book. He traces the two sources of the addiction, black tar heroin from Mexico and prescription painkillers, mostly in the form of Oxycontin, and how they each crossed the country creating a network of supply and demand addiction. Addicts hooked on Oxy were primed for the introduction of heroin into their communities, it was cheap and easy to get, delivered directly to their door by a network of ever-replaceable Mexican farm kids. Sales reps for Purdue Pharmaceutical, the company that created Oxycontin, intentionally misled doctors into believing that it wasn't addictive. Prescriptions went through the roof, and people got hooked. Quinones looks at specific communities that were deeply affected by the heroin crisis, getting a close and personal look at their troubles and tragedies. It's a respectful book, one that recognizes that addiction is a disease and that no one solution will be the answer to this crisis. I highly recommend it for anyone wanting to understand how these drugs became so ubiquitous.  

Dumplin' by Julie Murphy
I love this book, and you will too. Willowdean is just the best main character. So, as you’ve probably surmised, this is a book about a girl who is not a size 2. Here’s the refreshing part though-- for the most part, she’s happy with her body. Sure, it’s annoying when people giver her looks or when her mom suggests crash diet after crash diet, but she’s not praying for liposuction or the approval of her peers. She’s a cool chick, with a great best friend, Ellen, with whom she shares a mutual love of Dolly Parton. Things are strained with her mom since her live-in aunt died, but things are also kind of interesting with the boy she works with at a local fast food restaurant. Then one day, she decides to enter the local beauty pageant, sort of like an F you to the establishment. Only problem? Her mom runs the pageant. Lots of girl power, positive body image, but also a cute romance, hilarious dialogue, and great characters.

Vivian Apple Needs a Miracle by Katie Coyne
I loved this series. It’s a great mix of funny, realistic characters in the vein of John Green, with a splash of the requisite adorable romance angle, with a quirky world-on-the-edge-of-apocalypse storyline. I liked it because it sounds vaguely like something that could maybe happen (A fringe church declares the coming Rapture, causing people to join the church en masse. Eventually the church becomes so powerful that takes over parts of the government including schools and police--very sketchy.), but it also is a bit wacky and outlandish and even pretty funny. Add in some action and suspense, and you, my friend, have it all. The sequel continues the story in a satisfying and interesting way-- and I don’t think it will be a trilogy, imagine that!

The Children's Crusade by Ann Packer
This lovely novel tells the story of the Blair family, an All-American family living in California in the second half of the 20th century. It starts with Bill, a GI just home from the war, who finds first a beautiful tract of land (in what would one day be Silicon Valley), and then a beautiful wife. Though she’s a bit mysterious and inward, they fall in love and start a family. He becomes a busy family physician, and Penny is left to be a homemaker with four children, a job she is neither suited for nor enjoys. Each chapter is a different character, and the story is unspoiled through their varied perspectives. Packer masterfully demonstrates how small experiences, party preparations, the searching for a key, everyday hurt feelings, can so profoundly affect a life. It’s a beautiful story, sad sometimes, but ultimately redemptive. The audio was AMAZING. Each character is a different voice actor, and one of them is Thomas Sadowski, who I just adore.

Coming in 2016:

The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie (Jan)
Such a funny, quirky, lovely novel! I adored Veblen, an unusual woman in a relationship with a straight-laced doctor working at a university hospital in Palo Alto, California. Veblen translates obscure Norwegian authors and temps for a living. She's a free spirit who talks to squirrels. He's a neurotic researcher being courted by the DoD for a piece of medical equipment. They're an odd match. Veblen spends the book trying to figure out her relationship. What's the most important thing-- animal attraction? Perfectly symmetrical values and beliefs? Or something else all together? Great, snappy, unique writing with unusual and thoughtful vocabulary. My favorite: "tuneful"!

Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey (Feb)
I loved this slim novel with the lovely and intriguing first paragraph. Though not a long novel, it captures a moment of transition for a woman--sometimes you just realize you aren't so sure about your boyfriend anymore, and sometimes the author you translate goes missing after climbing into an almond tree and you have to fly to Brazil to help find her. And then you realize you aren't actually in love at all. Life's complicated sometimes.

What is Not Your Is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi (Mar)
Like everything Helen Oyeyemi writes, this short story collection sparkles with magic and delight, romantic entanglements, bizarre characters and circumstances (I'm talking a whole story on puppetry, and she pulls it off too), and lovely, profound musings on love and belonging. It's strange and wonderful and bursting with intelligence and warmth.

No comments:

Post a Comment