For the third straight year, we’ve asked the authors of PW’s top 10 books of 2015 (announced in our November 2 issue) to each share a favorite title published this year. Read on to find out which books blindsided our authors and kept them up reading into the night.
Finnegan’s Barbarian Days (Penguin Press) is nominally a memoir about surfing, but it also covers his travels around the world and describes how he found his way into journalism. His pick is by an author you may know.
Finnegan’s Pick: Purity by Jonathan Franzen (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Franzen hardly needs touting. He’s the opposite of obscure. But this novel’s so good that I feel the need to sing its praises. Purity is as ambitious as The Corrections and Freedom and, in some ways, is even more satisfying. It’s consistently amusing. On the writing life of an annoying novelist: “A day of frustration was mourned with three large bourbons. A day of conceptual breakthrough and euphoria was celebrated with four large bourbons.” Purity (the title, as with Freedom, only reads ironically) makes ingenious use of recent history, with a main plot thread connecting the former East Germany (the Republic of Bad Taste) with the present moment through Andreas Wolf, a megalomaniac, who ends up running a Wikileaks-like operation in Bolivia. Wolf’s working definition of totalitarianism emerges—as “a system that was impossible to opt out of”—and the Ostdeutschland connection is made: “You could cooperate with the system or you could oppose it, but the one thing you could never do, whether you were enjoying a secure and pleasant life or sitting in a prison, was not be in relation to it. The answer to every question large or small was socialism. If you substituted networks for socialism, you got the Internet.” We are all in relation to it. Franzen builds big narratives out of overlapping novellas, each told from a different character’s perspective, and the cumulative effect is symphonic. I finished this book in a fugue state. The trivia-choked tide of daily life had receded to the horizon. I wanted to stay in the novel, read it again immediately. Franzen is not reinventing the form but he is filling it with new and intelligent life. He’s become an indispensable writer.
The Argonauts (Graywolf) is Nelson’s intelligent and disarmingly candid memoir about identity, motherhood, and family. Her pick, like The Argonauts, is a personal memoir.
Nelson’s Pick: Repetition by Rebecca Reilly (Four Way)
Repetition is Reilly’s first book, and it’s the kind of first book well earned by years of living, losing, learning, reading, loving, traveling, and, above all, reckoning—with self, with family, with loneliness, with literature, with history, with beauty, with pain. This reckoning is painstaking work, which Reilly here performs while walking (and biking!) the streets of Paris through a multiyear period of self-exile. After a difficult upbringing in the Northeast, Reilly finds herself in Paris on the heels of her beloved father’s death; her linguistic and cultural estrangement provide the grounds for her to recollect, suffer, observe, disappear, read, and write. Gertrude Stein and Paul Celan—her “happy friend and her sad friend,” respectively—are two of her closest companions, along with a beloved from whom Reilly has recently parted. The structure of the book combines literary analysis, personal account taking, gorgeous descriptions of landscape, philosophical musings, memory writing alive with anger and grief, and daily anecdote; the white space surrounding each entry gives the reader space to breathe, meditate, and recover. As its title suggests, the book’s lyricism and emotional logic depends on revisitation, a certain circling back, suggesting that what we know about ourselves, our others, or our world (or what we allow ourselves to know) is often found through retracing the path of how we arrived wherever it is that we are, as well as keeping our eyes open to whatever is right in front of us. This is a quiet book with a vicious undertow, full of a calm, solemn beauty made all the more vital by virtue of its fellowship with ugliness, rage, and sorrow.
Kurniawan’s debut novel, Beauty Is a Wound (New Directions), is a magical, violent epic tracing the history of his native Indonesia. Kurniawan selects a memoir.
Kurniawan’s Pick: The Seven Good Years by Etgar Keret (Riverhead)
I always enjoy reading memoirs, or anything about a person’s life. It’s always enjoyable to learn how someone approaches life and how their life has shaped them. And it’s even better when we hear about their daily existence, that on the surface seems mundane, but we know in fact isn’t ordinary at all. Keret writes about himself, as a writer, a Jew, an Israeli citizen, a father, a husband and also as a child, in his short essays complied in the book The Seven Good Years. Like most of his short stories (I have read two of his collections over the years), these essays are full of humor, frequent self-deprecation, and of course incisive allusions to the geopolitical situation in the Middle East. There is the hot-tempered Tel Aviv taxi driver who even apologizes with a bit of spite, and the corrupt officials who imagine themselves lazy fat cats beyond the reach of human law. From the story filled with Keret’s paranoia around a drunk German to his fear of going to Indonesia, filled with Muslims, some parts of the book are incredibly moving (for example, his story about his homesickness for Warsaw), some naïve (about how to safely save money in foreign bank accounts) and others silly (how to lie to an unyielding telemarketer). The book is like a self-portrait drawn in short sketches from a variety of perspectives: on the one hand very rich, and on the other hand quite entertaining.
Hannaham’s Delicious Foods (Little, Brown) follows a mother and son at the mysterious titular farm, located in the American South. Hannaham jumps categories and picks a poetry collection.
Hannaham’s Pick: Shipbreaking by Robin Beth Schaer (Anhinga)
You have to admire any modern poet who, like Schaer, sails antique ships as an avocation. Actually, I’m not sure there are other contemporary poets who sail ships on the side. Schaer was a deckhand on the tall ship Bounty, a “180-foot full-rigged ship lost in Hurricane Sandy,” so she knows how tragedies that seem archaic can become tomorrow’s current events. Shipbreaking, her debut poetry collection, accordingly, is eerily great at linking concerns of the past—even those of prehistory—with living urgencies, combining a fantastic lyricism with near-scientific precision, her subjects caught like orchids under bell jars. Her most fanciful statements always have one foot in reality, though: “Even coral must dream of cobwebs,” she speculates, her narrator careful not to presume to know the “mind” of coral. Schaer’s work fearlessly explores not only the ancient sea but the troubles of us landlubbers as well. “White Matter” is my favorite conceptual poem so far about Ferguson and its repercussions, lifting and transforming language from the grand jury’s report: “To begin, mistaken.” “Exit wounds are conversations the bullet denies.” “Natural History,” inspired by the author’s pregnancy, goes well beyond the limitations of such material into ambitious, unsentimental territory. In one gorgeously wrought line, Schaer swoops from the historical to the physical, through the topographical, toeing the line between fatalist and funny: “Your inheritance of calcium was starfish,” Schaer informs her fetus, “then mountain, then lettuce, and will be a third of what remains when we are afterward and underwater again.”
McGuane has reached his zenith with his 16th book, Crow Fair (Knopf), a story collection. And here he chooses another story collection, featuring America’s marginalized and disillusioned.
McGuane’s Pick: A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Berlin’s story collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women, begins to redress the outrageous neglect of a writer who worked in plain sight for a long time before dying a decade ago. Berlin lived a life beyond imaginable complication, from privilege to dereliction, sexual abuse, alcoholism, god-awful survival level jobs—somehow without being engulfed by discouragement, neither losing her sense of humor nor her uncanny eye for experience. Her voice and originality are like no others. In these great stories her spirited presence had me skeptically rechecking the dates of her life. Surely, I thought, she must still be alive. She brought the virtues and electricity of the famous dirty realism writers but kept the comic sense they lacked. Sometimes compared to Raymond Carver or the Denis Johnson of Jesus’ Son, I like her better. If this sounds crazy, read the book.
Black Earth (Crown/Duggan) is Snyder’s exploration of the stories of Holocaust survivors, as well as an argument that the Holocaust was made possible by the failure of nations to provide legal and public protection for their citizens. Snyder’s pick is also a WWII book, though one with a much different focus than his.
Snyder’s Pick: Europe on Trial: The Story of Collaboration, Resistance, and Retribution During World War II by István Deák (Westview)
On Christmas Eve, 1944, a young Hungarian journalist was gunned down by the native fascists of the Arrow Cross. Béla Stollár was trying to help Jews threatened by the German occupation of the country, the Hungarian authorities Germany had installed, and their fellow Hungarian citizens. Stollár and his friends did the best they could and were killed anyway, along with the Jews they were trying to help and several bystanders who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. Stollár wanted a liberal Hungary and hoped to found a newspaper. But Communist power was coming, and even had he lived, this aim could not have been achieved. Stollár was engaged to be wed to the older sister of his younger friend István Deák. Deák grew up to become one of great pioneers of the study of Eastern and Central Europe, and spent decades contemplating the lessons of the choices and the murder of his older friend. In this book, published in Deák’s 89th year, he brings together a persuasive account of all of the dilemmas of occupation, as experienced by exceptional people such as Stollár and by the less courageous majority. It unites experiences that are usually separated, between east and west, between the occupied states and the actively collaborating ones, between left and right. His major case is all too relevant today: Europeans were too willing to make an accommodation with Nazi power when Western democracy seemed weak. The governing myth of Europeans is that they have learned something from the Second World War; this book indicates how much remains to be learned, on that side of the Atlantic and on this one.
Wulf’s The Invention of Nature (Knopf) is an exciting history of Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859), the perpetually curious Prussian polymath who examined the interconectedness of nature. Wulf’s pick is an epic New York story that, she says, almost made her miss a flight.
Wulf’s Pick: A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday)
I would have loved to pick a less-hyped book than A Little Life, because I like to support the underdog, but I haven’t read anything this year that comes anywhere close to this harrowing, haunting, and absolutely riveting novel. It’s a book about friendship, love, and pain; about the demons of the past; and about memory and humanity—but there is no point in rehashing its content here because it has been reviewed everywhere. If you’ve not read it, you absolutely have to. I devoured it while I was on a book tour this fall. And as I zigzagged the U.S. and spent far too much time at airports, A Little Life just grabbed me, pulled me, and let me disappear. I almost missed a plane because I had forgotten the world around me, and several times I was the last person to leave the plane because I wanted to finish a chapter or section. There were moments when the story of the novel’s protagonist, Jude St. Francis, becomes so utterly agonizing that I had to put the book down. It’s relentless. At the same time, the deep love that powers this novel just swept me up. I think Yanagihara has written the great American novel and might have just pushed Jonathan Franzen off the pedestal.
Julie Buntin is the director of writing programs at Catapult. Her debut novel is forthcoming from Henry Holt.