Another year is passing, and I find myself putting together my seventh year-end retrospective list for this site. If I look at my past lists, I find that I do indeed tend to post the books that stick with me long after I’ve read them, and I think the same will be the case with this year’s crop. This list is composed simply of my favorite books that I read and reviewed on this site in the last year. That leaves off some good ones I have yet to review, but that will come in due time, and I’m pleased with this list as it stands.
Normally, I post this list unranked, by chronological order of review date. But, what the heck. Let’s rank them this year. Below, my countdown.
I hope all of you have a wonderful holiday season and a tremendous 2016.
by Marilynne Robinson
(original review from February 23, 2015):
Coming in at number ten for me, is Robinson’s third book in her Gilead trilogy, this one focused on the story of Lila, the wife of the Reverend John Ames.
This uneasy relationship is beautiful, and Lila expresses it perfectly when she finally says to John: “I can’t love you as much as I love you.” It’s a paradox that makes perfect sense after the often frustrating book. I don’t want to get too coy here, but it makes the book better than it can be. It makes me love it more than I do. That’s why I think I will someday learn to love it as much as I do.
9. Henri Duchemin and His Shadows
by Emmanuel Bove
translated from the French by Alyson Waters
(original review from August 12, 2015):
The male narrators ask us to listen to their stories and to judge the teller. In “The Story of a Mad Man,” the narrator decides to leave everyone dear to him. He’s moving on. He’s cutting all connections. He’s confident about this track, yet in the very act of telling us, in the act of needing to justify his actions, he lets slip that he’s not all too sure. Here’s how he addresses us toward the end of his story:
I have an idea. Tomorrow morning I will carry it out. And then you will be forced to understand. Above all, do not say a word.
We have an inkling what that idea is.
These men — whether because of poverty or because they simply lose confidence in their own story — are perfect shadows of Henri Duchemin, and I’m very excited at the prospect of discovering more work from Emmanuel Bove. May his lost souls find their way to us.
8. The Physics of Sorrow
by Georgi Gospodinov
translated from the Bulgarian by Angel Rodel
(original review from April 23, 2015):
To tell these stories, Gospodinov’s narrator, who has a life similar to Gospodinov himself, introduces himself as someone who can walk through the labyrinths of others’ memories. More than simply relive them, though, he can move through them with some degree of volition, thus fully assuming the identity of such figures as his grandfather and father. He says, as he begins, “I have always been born.” From the “We am” of the prologue, we move from memory to memory, from person to person. Meanwhile, Gospodinov remembers his own life in the latter part of the century. All are one and the same.
7. Thus Were Their Faces
by Silvina Ocampo
translated from the Spanish by Daniel Balderston
(original review from January 27, 2015):
These are fiendish stories, usually about an individual, a man or woman, whose emotional state might seem stable on the outside but that is absolutely in extremis. I was often reminded of “The Yellow Wallpaper,” the fury that builds up and then snaps into a calm madness. Many of these characters are, perhaps unbeknownst to us when the story begins, already in that calm madness. And sometimes — strange, this — I felt like I was reading from the perspective of that elusive woman on the other side of the yellow wallpaper. I can think of none that are about more mundane scenes, though several of the characters seem to want us to think their world coincides with what most of us would consider normal.
6. The Musical Brain and Other Stories
by César Aira
translated from the Spanish by Chris Andrews
(original review from June 24, 2015):
It’s always with deep pleasure that I return to Pringles, the city of Aira’s youth and memory, and the first story in this collection, “A Brick Wall,” begins just there: “As a kid, in Pringles, I went to the movies a lot.” This grounding in place and time is important to Aira’s structure: while his works are mysterious and, frankly, sometimes nonsensical, they are usually placed in a space that is almost tangible: the mysterious and nonsensical corridors of memory. The Musical Brain as the title of the collection, then, is quite fitting.
5. The Prank
by Anton Chekhov
translated from the Russian by Maria Bloshteyn
(original review from July 31, 2015):
The Prank completely disarmed me. I’m a fan of Chekhov, and I have my idea of who he was and what he was about. However, that idea come from reading only a dozen or so of his most famous short stories and having only seen a couple of his plays — that is to say, my idea of the great writer is mostly inherited: his work is concise, observant, often sad with soft tickle of humor. I’m delighted to have my conception of the artist — a conception so clearly deficient — enhanced (though not proven incorrect) to include the kind of whimsy and silliness on display in The Prank. Silliness of the first order, I should say, as it is usually employed to skewer the subjects in these books (I admit, and am not ashamed, that I thought of Monty Python quite often while reading The Prank).
4. Voices in the Night
by Steven Millhauser
(original review from July 2, 2015):
Millhauser’s work is beautiful, there’s no question in my mind. He not only has the ability to tease out the strangest things but he does so with exquisite art. I love his writing. He’s a natural story-teller, and he can get the blood pumping whether he’s writing about voices in the night or picking up the newspaper from the driveway. As he moves into his seventies, I truly hope he finds the will to keep going, to give us even more.
3. Winter Mythologies and Abbots
by Pierre Michon
translated from the French by Ann Jefferson
(original review from April 10, 2015):
Each passage focuses on one individual, usually somewhat removed from whatever time period we just read about. [. . .] This is a wonderful cycle, time flowing onward, bones drying, lives forgotten and on the edge of being forgotten. It has the wonderful effect of making these individuals ever-present. This is emphasized by Michon’s ability to briefly evoke those moments that made the blood pump faster through these now-dead individuals’ veins.
2. A Wreath of Roses
by Elizabeth Taylor
(original review from July 23, 2015):
The author of twelve novels and many short stories (a wonderful collection of which was published last fall by NYRB Classics), Elizabeth Taylor is one of those twentieth-century, British, female authors that we here in the United States will miss if we’re not paying attention. Fortunately, there are a few publishers that have focused on bringing her work to our hands: Virago Modern Classics and NYRB Classics. I’ve got all of her novels and the NYRB Classics edition of her stories, and I’m anxious to explore her work fully. A Wreath of Roses was an excellent reminder to me that the time to do so is now.
by Richard Blythe
(original review from October 9, 2015):
In so many ways, while exploring the village lives, Akenfield burrows into the roots of the relationship between identity and place. It ends with “In the Hour of Death,” a section on the rather grumpy gravedigger William “Tender” Russ. He’s been digging graves for forty years, since he was just twelve. He’s familiar with death and with the similarities and differences in which the people of Suffolk approach it. He remarks, “Dust to dust they say. It makes me laugh. Mud to mud, more like.” Earth to body to earth: there they stay, in Akenfield.