December is the time of the year for listmaking: All the critics name their best movies, songs, sandwiches, whatever, from the previous year. And since y’all know how much I love lists, I don’t want to get left out! Hell, I already did a post on my 10 favorite songs of this year.
When it comes to books (the only thing I’m more holier-than-thou about than music), I have a little bit harder time coming up with a year-end list. This is largely because I rarely read any new hardcover novels—I stick to cheaper, easier to carry on the train paperbacks. But, even though they may not have come out this year, I did read a bunch of great books in 2015, and I wanted to write about them. And then I got to thinking that it’d be fun to look back at the best book I’ve read every year for the last few years. Fortunately, I’ve been a member of Goodreads since 2008 (coinciding with my matriculation into my MFA program), so I have a record of everything I’ve read and how I rated each book in that time period. So, I decided to take a little stroll down memory lane and figure out what was my favorite book each year. Consider this a Christmas gift for all my bookworm friends.
The year I joined Goodreads and entered grad school. Out of the 16 books I read, I gave four of them 5-star ratings. My two favorites were True Notebooks, Mark Salzman’s deeply moving memoir about teaching creative writing at juvenile hall in Los Angeles (which I read while I was preparing to teach a workshop at juvie in Oakland), and Waiting for the Barbarians, South African Nobel Laureate J.M. Coetzee’s masterful allegory of the evils of colonialism. I truly love Salzman’s book, but the edge goes to Waiting for the Barbarians, which may have been the best book I read in grad school.
This was a big year. I was immersed in school and trying to get better at writing, and so I read constantly—to the tune of 42 books in one year. I’ll never get anywhere near that again. I gave nine of those books 5-star ratings, so we’ll have to whittle down. We’ll disqualify Marilyn Robinson’s Housekeeping and Raymond Carver’s Cathedral, as I had read each of those previously; we’ll eliminate Dexter Filkins’ The Forever War, about his time covering the Iraq War for the NYT, due to my preference for fiction; we’ll toss out Nicholson Baker’s hilarious and profane Vox, a fun book that doesn’t have quite the same emotional resonance as some of these other choices, and we’ll scratch Edward P. Jones’ The Known World, a brilliant novel about slavery, because I don’t love it quite as much as the remaining four. That leaves us with Italo Calvino’s beautiful, evocative, fabulist Invisible Cities, in which Marco Polo describes all the wondrous cities of Kublai Khan’s vast empire to the emperor, who will never see them, and three Cormac McCarthy novels: The Road, Suttree, and The Crossing. As enchanting as Calvino’s book is, it has to be one of those three, because this was the point at which McCarthy became my favorite writer, and the one that stands out the most is The Crossing, the second book in the Border Trilogy. I read this novel while I was traveling in Europe (I bought it at Shakespeare & Co. in Paris) , and I became so engrossed in the tragicomic tale of Billy Parham, who traps a wolf and then decides to return it to its home in the mountains of Mexico, that I actually burned one of my five days in Paris just lying in a hostel bed reading the book. It’s probably my favorite book of all time.
The year I finished grad school and moved to New York. Read just 21 books this year—I spent a lot of time writing a novel of my own—and gave just four of them 5-stars. All Quiet on the Western Front is a classic; I loved William T. Vollman’s sad, lewd novel about Southeast Asian prostitutes, The Butterfly Stories; and Jennifer Egan’s narratively dexterous A Visit From the Goon Squad was the rare book that left me so intrigued that I paid full price for a new hardcover. But the best book I read this year was David Foster Wallace’s Consider the Lobster. His essays range from tales of the porn industry to a moral investigation of crustacean consumption to a dive inside John McCain’s presidential campaign, and each one of them leaves little doubt that DFW was his the greatest writer of his generation.
Read 22 books this year, and gave five of ’em 5-stars. DFW very nearly repeated, as I followed up Lobster by reading A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. And I was deeply impressed by Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson’s story of racial strife in post-WWII Puget Sound. But easily my favorite book of this year was Joshua Mohr’s Damascus, a novel set in a Mission District dive bar that captured so much of what I feel about art, post-Iraq America, and gentrifying San Francisco. (Just look at that cover!) This book feels like home.
As far as quantity, this was my second best year of the past decade, with 26 books. I gave eight of them 5-star ratings, including two of Jeffrey McDaniels’ collections of cracked, surreal poems; another great San Francisco book, Stephen Elliott’s memoir The Adderall Diaries; and Stewart O’Nan’s weirdly poignant Last Night at the Lobster, a novel set in a mall Red Lobster during a snowstorm. I also re-read McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, which I hadn’t loved the first time, but upon second examination I came to my senses and realized it’s a masterwork, featuring one of the great villains of all time, the Judge. My favorite book, though, was Katherine Dunn’s brilliantly weird Geek Love, about a father who uses radioactivity to breed himself a family of carnival freaks. This novel features another of literature’s greatest villains, Artie the Aquaboy, the manipulative mutant who starts a cult in which he convinces his followers to amputate their own limbs. It’s so fucking weird—and so fucking brilliant.
Again, high quantity this year, with 25, but only four 5-star ratings. One was Thomas Bernhard’s shape-shifting collection of vignettes, The Voice Imitator, and two were pocket-size short story collections I bought from Hobart Press at the AWP conference: Dylan Nice’s Other Kinds and Mary Miller’s Big World. I especially love Miller’s stories, which read like Raymond Carver shorts—if Carver wrote about young women and teenage girls in the South. But the best book I read this year was Colum McCann’s Let the Great World Spin, a shattering novel (and deserving National Book Award Winner) of numerous plots and characters that all revolve around the day Phillippe Petit walked between the Twin Towers on a tightrope. It’s like if Crash had been a great novel instead of a sophomoric film.
Sort of fell off a cliff this year. Read just ten books, and only gave two of them 5-stars: The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende’s magical-realist allegory for Chilean history (which I read on a trip to Santiago); and Like You’d Understand, Anyway, Jim Shepard’s versatile collection of comic yet depressing short stories. While I didn’t have as much to choose from, Like You’d Understand, Anyway is a fantastic collection, and a worthy winner.
I haven’t quite bounced back to grad-school levels of quantity, but of the 14 books I’ve finished this year, a very respectable six earned 5-stars. These books were diverse: Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a darkly funny satirical look at a squad of soldiers being honored during the Dallas Cowboys’ Thanksgiving Day game; Claire Vaye Watkins’ fantastic collection Battleborn; Alexis M. Smith’s Glaciers, a quiet yet moving novella about a librarian in Portland who falls in love; Phil Klay’s stunning collection of Iraq War stories, Redeployment; and Mario Alberto Zambrano’s Lotería, an inventive, deeply tragic tale of an immigrant family in Texas, told from the perspective of an abused 11-year-old girl. As great as all of these were, the winner was the last book I read, Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. This epic novel, a sort of Trainspotting/Mean Streets mashup about gangsters in 1970s Jamaica (with some 1980s New York thrown in) was the longest book I read this year, and even though it was almost 700 pages long, at no point did I feel like I could put it down. I often disagree with literary awards, but James won the Man Booker Prize for a reason.
That’s all folks: the best books I’ve read since 2008. Now stop reading my ramblings and go pick up a book. And always remember what John Waters said: “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ’em!”