In hindsight, my Best Books I Read in 2015 List was a little boring, and at best, predictable. I still stand by every single book on that list, but I’m hoping that this year’s list can tell you a bit more than what you already know.
First, the honorable mentions, the notables that just weren’t quite as good as these (but still great):
The Liars’ Club – Mary Karr
The Haunting of Hill House – Shirley Jackson
Freedom – Jonathan Franzen
Cat’s Cradle – Kurt Vonnegut
On Writing – Stephen King
And for the best of the best, out of the 42 novels I read this year, here are the 10 I thought were the best.
I never thought that a book that started so slowly could so absolutely mesmerizing by its end. Gilead is the story of a small town preacher named Jack Ames who, after being diagnosed with a terminal illness, sits down to write his infant son a letter that will tell him everything he would have been taught had he be able to know his father. While the letter begins as boring, prototypical things you would tell your child, when Jack’s best friend’s son returns to Gilead, Iowa and he is skeptical of his intentions, the letter takes a turn. Gilead is a fantastic novel that I highly recommend patience with, as it pays off in droves, with each character so well composed and offering so much insight into the human condition that it is deserving of any recognition it gets.
Against the Day, to me, is Thomas Pynchon’s retry at Gravity’s Rainbow to make it less cynical and more sincere. It is Pynchon’s longest, and perhaps his most difficult, but it is a worthwhile read just to the the full arc of Thomas Pynchon in his move from some cynical, young idealist to an older writer that, while still well in-touch with the brutal aspects of humanity’s worst qualities, also knows the best of humanity and, more impressively, can write it earnestly into a novel.
I had heard so many good things about George Saunders when I bought Tenth of December, that when it disappointed me, the disappointment was severe. But I was certain I was missing something, so I flipped a coin and ordered CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, and it utterly redeemed him. In fact, the title story “CivilWarLand in Bad Decline” may be the best piece of fiction I’ve read in my life. That alone earns it a spot on my top ten list. Buy this book for that story alone.
That The Nix isn’t #1 on this list is probably a grave injustice, as Nathan Hill’s debut novel accomplishes so much in conveying the struggles of its main character that it is a wonder to behold. The Nix affected me in such a meaningful way that I can’t necessarily say it isn’t my favorite on this list despite it being closer to #10 than it is to #1. While it at times tries too hard, it hits so well so often that it may be a masterpiece of American Literature. At the least, it is profound.
This is the only novel I’ve read twice this year, and it is also the longest novel I read this year. Adam Levin’s debut is maddeningly funny and exciting. The story of a ten year old Jewish boy named Gurion Maccabee who will neither confirm nor deny that he believes himself to be the Messiah, The Instructions is a novel that is an exercise in midrash, offering up so many delicious meditations on Torah and life that you’ll find yourself having to remember that the main character is likely a terrorist, not someone to adore. It should be stated that beginning here, I would call each novel forthcoming a masterpiece, required reading for all book nerds.
What’s more exciting than taxes? Everything, and that’s the point. The Pale King is David Foster Wallace’s crowning achievement, and it is a tragedy that he could not finish it. While Infinite Jest is more entertaining, after reading The Pale King it reads like a young man’s novel, while The Pale King appears patient and wise, focused on everything that really matters. This is a novel about boredom and death, and its insights into both should be listened to with open ears and eyes.
McBride makes the difficult look effortless in this novel that is as much about racism in the 1860s as it is about racism, homophobia, and transphobia now. The Good Lord Bird is a novel that teaches while remaining relentlessly entertaining and funny. McBride takes risks and paints what is absolutely a picture that is unmistakably his own. As you journey through the pre-emanicipated south with Onion and John Brown, you’ll learn as much about each character as you also will about yourself, whether it be your own prejudices or a good within you that you weren’t aware was there. And perhaps most remarkably, the novel is a pretty simple read.
What Adam Johnson manages to pull off in these stories is unfair to the average writer, taking old themes such as loneliness and truth and making them fresh and new. Johnson will challenge the limits of your empathy, nearly always making his heroes detestable people in some way, or at least people who you just are not sure you should be rooting for. In particular, stories such as “George Orwell Was a Friend of Mine” and “Dark Meadow” are unforgettable and bold.
Without a doubt a die-hard Pynchon fan is reading this and has now closed the tab. If you don’t know, Bleeding Edge is a bit of a controversial topic in the world of Thomas Pynchon fans, some regarding it as the biggest piece of drivel the man ever put to print, others, like me, regarding it as a masterpiece. What you need to know is this: This doesn’t need to be the first Pynchon novel you read, but it can be the second. What Bleeding Edge shows is Pynchon’s movement into something beyond simple postmodernism. This book, more than any of his others, is full of love and care while admonishing his own generation for its failures. It is a deeply moving novel, and perhaps the only one of Pynchon’s to be accurately regarded so.
(Drum Roll Please)
This novel should have swept every major book award of 2015, I do not care what else was published. A Brief History of Seven Killings is as if the brainchild of Cormac McCarthy and James Joyce visited Jamaica and managed to encompass it within a novel. What Marlon James does in 770 pages is rarely done in literature, and has almost no comparison simply because it is so difficult: he has captured the essence of place through a select few people, letting them tell their own stories and letting morality be damned. The novel is impossibly complex, but also richly satisfying. It will reward endless rereads, and it earns them. It is far and away the best novel I read this year, standing above the rest as if on the top of a mountain.
That is it for this year, dear reader. From the bottom of my heart I want to thank you for stopping by and reading my weekly exercises in narcissism. My pace slowed halfway through the year, but I’m hoping that next year that will be be fixed since I have adjusted to teaching. Before you exit your browser, though, be sure to check out my friend Mattia’s booktube page, The Book Chemist. Make a point to watch his 2016 Top Ten list and subscribe to his channel. He is a brilliant reader.