I worked too much this year. Maybe that’s an excuse for a larger and nastier ambivalence though—it usually is. But for whatever reason, there were a lot of big books this year I couldn’t bring myself to read. They seemed like they would require too much of me in future conversations, and it’s so much easier to say “I haven’t read that yet” knowing that “yet” is disingenuous. The few things I read and loved, the books I easily could talk about for hours, are below. Caveat: I haven’t gotten to the Marilynne Robinson essays yet. Saving those for when I feel super serious, over Christmas.
The Visiting Privilege, Joy Williams, and A Manual for Cleaning Women, Lucia Berlin
“Genuine thinking is rare,” says the mother of a murderer in one of Joy Williams’s stories, and I agree. Both Williams and Lucia Berlin have/had the kinds of brains that come up with details I’m profoundly glad someone notices. These were the biggest books for me in 2015, their impact immeasurable, and they go nicely together. One key difference, I think, is that I wouldn’t mind having Joy Williams over for dinner, and I would have wanted to keep Lucia Berlin at a distance. Not sure why; probably alcoholism has something to do with it.
Missoula and Under the Banner of Heaven, Jon Krakauer
I don’t want to spoil the more important parts of these books, so I will just say this: one of these books made me cry, and the other triggered a lovely bout of insomnia. You probably won’t guess which one is which. Or maybe you will! Jon Krakauer is the best at what he does, which is more than anyone can expect of themselves, honestly.
“Turnt” by Juliana Spahr
There is a remarkable amount of texting in this poem, which I really like. It’s also remarkable how you find yourself noticing the tricks of Spahr’s trade, like the way she goes from vague to specific, or the way she plays fast and loose with perspective, and you don’t even hate it. Even with words like “FOMO” or “feed,” definitely words to hate. Or when she tries to define what her poem “is,” which I find pretty tedious in most situations, or when you realize she’s talking about a bunch of poets who are also activists, another tedious thing. It’s all somehow necessary when you see what this poem is really about: reaching out, and how lonely and important that is.
Talk, Linda Rosenkrantz, and 5 Films by Frederick Wiseman
Some of my favorite movies make me feel like I’m witnessing a lot of ugliness and misinformation without ever losing love or generosity. That’s how I felt reading Talk; that’s how I felt reading dialogue transcribed from five of Frederick Wiseman’s films. Talk made me hyper-aware of all the little ways we ingratiate ourselves to others, with jokes and performances and white lies, and all the significant ways we show others we care about them. Wiseman makes me aware of how people fail to do all of that. Dialogue is super fucking hard.
The Wicked Pavilion, Dawn Powell
A funny satire about failure. Dawn Powell understood that the foundation of a losing battle is faith. She also got that the most vexing and rewarding parts of a relationship, romantic or professional or otherwise, are the assumptions. All the characters in this novel are people I think I have met, even though the story takes place in the 40s. New York is sometimes always the same.
Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford
A sad piece of delicious gossip. Nancy Mitford is darker than I thought. Sort of like Candace Bushnell, if Bushnell had been born with, instead of chasing after, an absurd amount of money. That’s a compliment, FYI, and if you don’t think so, I’ll wait until you do.
Monogamy, Adam Phillips
I’ve liked everything by Adam Phillips I’ve gotten my hands on. He’s kind of like a sphinx, spitting out aphorisms about fear and fiction. He’s by far the best I’ve read on the subject of why people choose to be together or apart, what the “important pleasures” are in life, and how we decide (beautifully) to lie to ourselves. These are problems the fortunate have, he points out in his prologue, and with that out of the way he puts into words what you think you know. A friend read passages of this book out loud to me as I cooked us Thanksgiving dinner, and then I bought it, took pictures of pages I liked, and sent them to other people. It’s that kind of book. The kind that reshapes your thinking by confirming it.