My top 10 of ’15: my top 10 list

1- Zone by Mathias Enard

Zone is 520 pages and, except for a book-within-a-book sequence, is all one sentence. Even though I love modernism, I don’t think I would’ve ever picked Zone up if it weren’t for my great friend Neil Griffiths, who recommended it as one of the best books of the century. And he was right.

Zone is the story of a Frenchman who volunteers to fight in the Serbo-Croatian war, then goes on to work in a secret service agency in a ‘zone’ that includes Algeria and the Middle East. When Zone begins, he is on a train bound from Milan to Rome, where he’s going to sell all his secrets and cash out of his turpid occupation.  As the overnight train heads south, his exhausted, drug-addled and alcohol-fueled brain reviews his life as soldier and spy, as well as the dark history of the Mediterranean and Balkan countries.

The first 100 pages were intellectually interesting to me, but mostly an academic exercise. (I highly recommend looking up many of the historical events online – it’s so hard to believe that many of them are true.) But then something clicked and I became deeply emotionally engaged as well. It is an astonishing novel – distilling a millennia of bloody history through one man’s personal consciousness – and is probably the most exciting thing I’ve read in years.

2- The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks

I began following herdyshepherd1 on Twitter when he had about 2000 followers. I remember him tweeting then how absurd it was that 2000 people would want to follow the life of a random shepherd in the Lake District in England. Now he has 72,000 followers – and a bestselling book to his name.

The Shepherd’s Life is a wonderful story of generations of shepherds working the land and tending their flocks. It’s the story of fathers and sons, of hardship and beauty, of devotion and gratitude. It’s a story of love and respect – for family, for neighbors, for animals, for the land. It’s the truest thing I’ve ever read.

3- The Enigma of Arrival by V.S. Naipaul

This beautiful book is a must-read for any serious Anglophile. Naipaul recounts his emigration from Trinidad to England and his years of a kind of convalescence of the spirit in the English countryside. I love to underline great passages in my books, but as with The Shepherd’s Life, there were so many wonderful lines that I would just have to underline the whole thing.

4- Virginia Woolf: Art, Life and Vision by Frances Spalding

I believe this was the companion to the National Portrait Gallery’s Virginia Woolf exhibition. As an ardent Woolfian who couldn’t attend the show, I thought it would be a great way to get a taste of the exhibit, but the text was a strong accompaniment to all the wonderful photos.

5- All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

I was afraid this book would be overly sentimental, but it wasn’t. Doerr showed us the complexity of WW2 Germany, offering up examples of people who relished Naziism, as well as people who didn’t think they had much choice. Ultimately, though, this book is about the power of art to connect, unite and inspire people, regardless of country, culture or background.

6-Stitches by David Small

This was the year of the graphic novel for me. I’ve never had ANY interest in graphic novels whatsoever, but I’ve had Stitches on my shelf for a while (as part of Powell’s Indiespensable subscription) and decided to just give it a look through. I think I ended up reading all of it in one sitting. A powerful, cinematic story about a boy’s torturous childhood and his road to artistic recovery.

7- Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? By Roz Chast

Another great graphic novel – a must read for anyone with aging parents.

8- Career of Evil by Robert Galbraith

If there’s a heaven, it will be filled with unlimited J.K. Rowling books. I love the Cormoran Strike series, even if it’s way too gory for my taste  – and a little too manipulative. I eagerly await each installment of the series, then keep my iPad open next to me and look up on street view all the locations she mentions. (They’re all there – all the apartments, streets, businesses and pubs she mentions are firmly rooted in place.)

9- The Tortoise and the Hare by Elizabeth Jenkins

A great Virago Classic about a middle-aged barrister, his beautiful young (but meek and uninteresting) wife, and a female neighbor who is her mirror opposite – not beautiful, not young, but is strong, intelligent and opinionated – and captures her husband’s heart.

10- Deceived with Kindness by Angelica Garnett

Angelica Garnett, the daughter of painters Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant, offers up so much unique insight into the Bloomsbury group in this biography. But a sadness pervades this book at its heart. Garnett blames her mother  – who she alternately seems to think is either overbearing or too remote – for many of her adult problems. But why don’t either Clive Bell (who she thought was her father until early adulthood) or Duncan Grant (who she learned was her father in her 20s) ever receive the blame? And why, if Vanessa was so terrible, did Angelica seem to be at Charleston constantly – and even go on vacations with Vanessa and Duncan as an adult? And can she really keep blaming Vanessa for her bad choices and aimlessness, even when she’s in her 60s?

Honorable mention:

  • Recollections of Virginia Woolf, edited by Joan Russell Noble
  • Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
  • The Yellow Wallpaper and Other Stories by Charlotte Perkins Gilman
  • The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller
  • Journal of a Disappointed Man by WNP Barbellion.

Rereads:

  • Howard’s End by E.M. Forster (I’d gone on a big Forster kick about 25 years ago, with Howard’s End being the only book I didn’t like. Even though I ended up loving the movie (I saw it in the theater 5x!), I never reread it until this year. I absolutely loved it this time out, but I did feel like Forster’s amusing authorial voice prevented the story from carrying more weight, a certain heft, that would make it a more significant work.)
  • Other Voices, Other Rooms by Truman Capote (my first favorite piece of literature: it is still a florid hothouse of writing, and I mean that in the best way possible)
  • Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (probably my fifth time reading it, and certainly not the last)

Best book of poetry: There were many lines to love in Nick Laird’s On Purpose.

  • “Are you now or have you ever been/ in want of courage or direction?” from The Immigration Form
  • “Around a pylon three sheep graze./ A pale copse of birches jostle,/ pale as human skin. Newcastle.” from The Garden

Biggest disappointments: Alain-Fournier’s The Lost Estate (I just didn’t get it) and Hamlet in Purgatory by Stephen Greenblatt, which didn’t even begin discussing Hamlet until page 200 or so in the 260-page book (not an exaggeration).

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