Search This Blog

Sunday, December 13, 2015

2015: A (Very Short) Reading List

I was thinking it would be nice to put together a year-end list of the books I'd read and loved in 2015, but that list got too long and complicated by various factors that I had trouble editing out (for instance, I wanted to find a way to include the Twitter account* that gave me the most delight this year), and so I decided rigor was required if I were to do this at all.  What follows is the result of an internal dialogue that you do not need to hear.  This then, is the Very Short List.  These are the books that made my brain and heart bigger than they were in 2014; they are the books that I hope that if you've already read them, you shout, "Yes!" when you see them here; they are the books that if you haven't already read them, you either write them down in the notebook you keep for when you go to your favorite local bookstore, or you skip that and just immediately download it/them onto your e-reader.

For the this-may-blow-your-mind category:
The Wake, Paul Kingsnorth.  In an interview with the New York Times, Kingsnorth says, "We are living...through the “age of ecocide,” and like a long-dazed widower, we are finally becoming sensible to the magnitude of our loss, which it is our duty to face."  So there's that cheery note.  It's an apocalyptic novel set in 11th century (pre) England in the aftermath of the Danes and William the Conquerer.  It's awful, and it's told in the voice of an awful man who seems to believe he can channel the old gods to save his land.  It's also remarkably difficult to read since Kingsnorth took the trouble to invent what he calls a "shadow language," a mash up of old, middle, and modern english to write the novel.  In one of the most enviable, and potentially biggest labor intensive time-waste risks in recent memory, the whole book is written in a made-up, but linguistically viable, language.  But here's the thing: it's utterly compelling.  The language, and the gore, and that voice combine to create a force of nature.  It is this Nature that emerges as the largest voice with the most to loose.  Word of warning: I bought the e-version of this book, which was a mistake as I could not for the life of me flip back and forth to the dictionary/index at the back of the book, which you need to be able to do--not too often, but often enough that I wished I had it in book form. 

For more apocryphal-nature-stories, but this time sci-fi:
Image from Jeff Vandemeer's Southern Reach website.

I think I've read the Southern Reach Trilogy by Jeff Vandemeer all the way through three times this year. They were the kind of books that after downloading them on my Kindle, I would buy them in hard copy.  I waited in the difficulty of real waiting for each installment after part one, Annihilation, came out.  I got the date wrong for the third book's release and suffered disappointment for days, checking back repeatedly to make sure I hadn't missed it.  These book are so weird (Joshua Rothman called him "The Weird Thoreau" in his New Yorker article with heavy emphasis on weird.) and so affecting, and by now you are probably thinking I may have gotten a little too obsessive, but it's not me.  It's the books.  Reading them, I had the sensation that, like the characters, I could grasp the difference between the world I knew and the one that was unfolding in front of me, but I could not comprehend what was unfolding in front of me. And it never got normal.  I have since gone back and read most of Vandemeer's work, much of which is not nearly as interesting to me as this series.  It's as if his work took a giant leap in focus and capability, and it's remarkable to see. I keep wanting to cheer for him.  I keep wanting him to write more of this.

Dorothy and Sir Thomas Browne, circa 1645.
CreditNational Portrait Gallery, London
For the how-in-the-world-did-I-not-know-of-this-guy?!?! category
Thomas Browne.  As in the 17th century Sir Thomas Browne, who may be the best writer in the English language, and yet I'd never read him before.  There is a new, but not very enthusiastically reviewed biography out on him this year.  It was through the wonderful John D'Agata anthology The Lost Origins of the Essay, howeverthat I just (as of last week) found Browne.  W.G. Sebald loved him, as did Virginia Woolf, and Borges.  He is consistently rated as the author most unread and most passionately adored by other writers.  Like Kingsnorth above, the writing takes a few minutes for your reading mind to calibrate to it, but once it does...brace yourself for the most wide-ranging, beautifully written ride.  Amazon's author page groups the writing--all essays for you.  As for those who point to that nasty business of a witch trial for a reason to not read Browne, I need to read more on this, but given his writing's remarkable broad mindedness in religious matters, I find it difficult to see his hands shoving those poor women into the water to drown.

For the Optimism-and -Romantic-Era-are-not-dead-Long-live-the-humanities category
"Newton" by William Blake.  Source: William Blake Archive. 

This was fueled by reading Curtis White's rampage in The Science Delusion, which connects to other reading this year in Richard Rorty (specifically, "19th Century Idealism and 20th century Textualism"  The Monist Vol 64, No. 2, April 1981) and Donald Davidson, who I love to try to read regularly.  (As a result of reading these last two, I've added Mary Hesse to my need-to-read list).  White's triumphant chewing of the scenery in his book is meant to be a accessible; he clearly wants everyone to think about the way we've thrown culture (especially the arts) under the bus in order to embrace science.  His argument that we are still in the Romantic age of rebellion and love of the individual's relationship to freedom is not new, but it's great to see someone not just championing it so fiercely, but taking it to the people.

For another-rage-against-the-machine book:

Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine.  If you haven't already read it, and if  you are reading this list to add to your own list of books to read in 2015 and only pick one, pick this one. A National Book Award finalist in 2014,  it's in that genre bending non-category (much like the next writer Maggie Nelson) that I like to call the poetic essay.  It takes up the subject of race as its primary topic, particularly as experienced by middle class black women in the U.S..  Given the project and the times we are in, it's been reviewed by all the heavy hitters, The New Yorker, The Guardian, etc., but Rankine's reading from the work is lovelier. It's a beautiful and sobering book, and yes, so full of anger and heart-break that you will have to put it down at points.  You must, however, pick it up again.  You must.  
Maggie Nelson

For the So-you-want-to-feel-the-force-of-the-Romantic-fight-against-conformity? category:
Maggie Nelson.  I read Bluets earlier this year (twice and then kept dipping into it) and then Argonauts as soon as it came out.  The descriptions in reviews of either book don't do the force of the all out, never hold back beauty of a writing that manages to forge erotics, emotional rigor,  and intelligence with shocking vulnerability, but here's a pretty great interview with Nelson and Chloe Caldwell in Salon.

And-now-for-something-completely-different category:

Drawing from nature … The Dangerous Journey by Tove Jansson PR
Moomin!  If you haven't already discovered them, you are in for the best grown-up childhood mashup of surreal joy ever.  The whole series is fantastic.  If you read them in order, you'll see a development in the depth of characterization, but there's no need to read them in order.  I keep them in heavy rotation on my bedside table.  Author Tove Jannson (1914-2001) , a Swedish speaking Finn,  led a fascinating life— raised in an artist colony in Helsinki, she survived the Russian bombing of Finland, and drew satirical cartoons for an anti-fascist magazine before dreaming up the Finn Family Moomin.

In the Books-that-don't-act-like-books category:
This has been one of my top reasons to keep buying material books this year, as opposed to just loading up the Kindle.  From the glow-in-the-dark flip chart, to a

fold out map of world history, to the book-within-a-book of S by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst, to The Familiar series, which author Mark Z. Danielewski says will reach 27 volumes (Volume 1 was, meh, more experiment than success, but according to a review on NPR, volume 2 gets much better).  My favorite though was a book for which I'm uncertain of either the intended audience or genre.  I'm not sure if it's for young adults or grown ups, if its science or art, or even how somebody convinced someone to spend the money on the really great 3D cover.  If it's a graphic novel (one of the categories Penguin Random House gives it), it's unlike any I've ever seen.  The book is called, Thunder & Lighting: Weather Past, Present, Future by previous National Book Award finalist Lauren Redniss.  Redniss travelled the world to research the book, often sketching on location.  It's beautifully made using two different etching methods, then hand-colored with some pages with little or no text and some that are almost text only (Redness created the font specifically for this book).  Some of the content is biographic (I especially enjoyed the section on Diana Nyad), some science of weather,  some ecology, even politics come into their own section.  This book roams through them all with a curiosity and intelligence that I felt recharged my own.

*That Twitter account is "Evghenia--First person on Mars."