I’d like to stop saying we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. At the very least, we should be able to admit if the cover is striking enough then it is totally fine to give the book a little more consideration. Pretty things are nice! We should want more of them in our world and in our lives.
Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk and Paul Beatty’s The Sellout both have striking covers, and although I’d fully intended to read The Sellout the moment I opened the package, I wasn’t as familiar with Macdonald, so the cover got me to look over the synopsis a little faster than I may have if the cover wasn’t as good looking. Sorry if that sounds petty, but it’s the truth.
I assume I liked Beatty’s book so much because hearing it was a “biting satire” just sounded really good to me. We’re living in a time where the whole “This is not an Onion article” thing pops up at least once a day in whatever timeline you look at, proof that the truth is weirder than satire at times. Still, 2015 needed a book like The Sellout. Beatty gave us a comic masterpiece, one that I was frankly shocked not to see considered for more awards this year, but whatever.
With Macdonald’s book, it was something different, something I didn’t necessarily think I needed, but after I finished H is for Hawk, it dawned on me just how important it was that I read the book at the exact moment I did. The thing is that I wasn’t dealing with any one particular strain of grief, nobody close to me died right before I read the book (thank God), I wasn’t mourning anything in particular, and I wasn’t training a goshawk. Yet I felt this constant sadness haunting me throughout the year, something I couldn’t necessarily peg to chemicals in my brain; it was some existential garbage I couldn’t quite get rid of and that was trapped under another massive pile of worldly woes. Macdonald’s book didn’t cure any of that, but it gave me a boost of strength that I needed, and made me realize that while we’re never completely out of the dark, there’s always going to be a little light if you strain your eyes.
The funny thing about Macdonald’s book is that I really shouldn’t have read it. The same goes for Margo Jefferson’s Negroland and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, both of which were also superb and as essential as other writers and critics have made them out to be. The reason I probably shouldn’t have read any of those great books this year is because I spent most of 2015 writing my own book about my life, and they all did it so much better and in ways I never could have imagined. I obviously can’t compare myself to any of them, but it made me think that I was doing everything totally wrong. All three of those books deserved every ounce of praise they received.
In terms of other fiction, Karolina Waclawiak’s The Invaders was as fun a book you can find on things in a gated Connecticut community totally falling apart. Shades of Lynch and even maybe Hitchcock more than any contemporary fiction writers I can think of. Kelly Link and Lincoln Michel went a little further in the weird waters with their two brilliant collections (Get in Trouble and Upright Beasts), and the collection of Charles Beaumont’s short stories, Perchance to Dream, had me cracking up at a lot of points, a little disturbed at others. What more could you ask for? One author who I know for her short stories, but switched over to the novel in 2015, Laura van den Berg, gave me one of my early favorites with Find Me. A novel that has been sticking with me since I read it way deep in February.
It was a stellar year for debuts. If I did an actual list of X amount of favorite novels of the year, Bright Lines by Tanwi Nandini Islam, Dryland by Sara Jaffe, and Naomi Jackson’s The Star Side of Bird Hill would all stand alongside books by veteran authors. That fact, maybe more than anything, made me happy about the current state of fiction. (If you have to know, I’d also put Welcome to Braggsville by T. Geronimo Johnson, The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch, Elisa Albert’s After Birth, The Strangestby Michael Seidlinger, Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen, Desolation of Avenues Untold by Brandon Hobson,Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, and Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life on my list that doesn’t actually exist.)
Older stuff? This was my year of Grace Paley. I read and reread a lot of her stuff. I’d read her before, but I spent months with a big collection of her stories in my bag because I just had to read her stories over and over for some reason. In some ways, my year of reading Paley probably opened me up to loving Lucia Berlin’s collection, A Manuel for Cleaning Women. If I had a list of writers I’d make everybody read, they’d both be on it. Other stuff? César Aira’s The Musical Brain was a joy, and I ripped through The Complete Stories by Clarice Lispector, both of which were put out by New Directions.
I didn’t get to read a lot of comics this year, but I did go through Ariel Schag’s high school comics from a few years back. That was a highlight. I felt the need to go back and give Lindsay Hunter’s Ugly Girls another read over the summer. Somewhere in the back of my head I kept thinking that maybe I loved that book even more than I initially thought, and now I’d like to go ahead and say it was actually one of my favorite books of 2014. Can I do that on this list?
I read a billion great essays this year. Some of them were in Sean Doyle’s This Must Be the Place, Isaac Oliver’s hilarious Intimacy Idiot, The Other Serious by Christy Wampole, Censorship Now!!! by Ian Svenonius, and I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son by Kent Russell, while others weren’t even in books. Rachel Syme’s selife essay was epic and wonderful, and I’m still talking about Helen Rosner on chicken tenders, “A Low and Distant Paradise” by Rahawa Haile, Jess Zimmerman on Turkish Delight, this BuzzFeed piece by Jenny Zhang, this and a bunch of other pieces by Hazel Cills, this by Scaachi Koul, Pilot Viruet’s “Binge-Watching Television Got Me Through the Hardest Summer of My Life,” and I will never stop talking about this Grantland (RIP) piece by Amos Bashard on how some ex-straight edge kids popularized the “Yankees Suck” t-shirt. These barely begin to scratch the surface. There were so many more and I get the feeling 2016 will offer up another round of wonderful things to read. That gives me hope.
Eating at restaurants, at least in New York, has become a somewhat spotty affair as of late. Places open up and try to use all the buzzwords and cool looking stemware, but ultimately I found myself really disappointed more times than not with my newer eating experiences in 2015, and a lot of my friends have shared similar feelings. Thankfully, the way things go, that opens things up for something interesting to happen on another front, and I found a lot of food writing in 2015 to be interesting and often great. It didn’t necessarily need to be commentary on a new establishment, but essays like the longform stuff you find at Eater, this by Matt Buchanan at The Awl, Matthew Gavin Frank’s gonzo exploration of what he considers the signature dish of each state in The Mad Feast, or The Food Lab by J Kenji Lopez-Alt, made 2015 a good year for people who like to read about things they might eat.
And then there was the food media/art project/whatever you want to call it, that Anna Hezel and Gabriella Paiella put together for Lucky Peach: “Disney Princesses Reimagined as Hot Dogs” and also the wonderful dek: “So inspiring. Wow.” I actually talked to Anna a little bit about this over Gibsons with Tom Kretchmar a few nights ago, about how it almost feels like more places are trying to make food that isn’t as tasty as it is Instagram-worthy, and how what she and Gabriella do at Lucky Peach (read all of the posts, they’re all great) is so wonderful because it sort of mocks the whole fashionable foods trend, but also shows just how much the two of them really love food. It’s weird, funny, brilliant, and also more necessary than I probably thought at first glance.
I traveled a lot in 2015. I was away from home at least three times a month for all 12 of them on the calendar. I longed for home a lot, but would come back depressed and feeling down about what New York City is becoming. So the best thing possible was to open up books that brought me back to a time way before mine, and one of the books that painted a picture of an older New York was Jami Attenberg’s Saint Mazie. Since the main character in Mazie was based off of a person Joseph Mitchell wrote about, I decided to sit down at Veselka in the East Village one afternoon and read as much from Up in the Old Hotel as possible. I read or reread a few books about the New York once was. I blew through Ada Calhoun’s wonderful St. Marks is Dead, never stopping to think she was basing basically the entire book on the history of a street I’d walked down a million times, it’s a must for anybody of weird history, New York City, or both. And then there was Luc Sante. In order to prepare for my conversation about his latest history on the underbelly of a great city, The Other Paris, I felt the need to go back and read Low Life again. I’m pretty thankful for any excuse to do that.
I get that this is a lot, and I recognize it would have probably been easier to make these into lists. If you made it this far, thank you, I hope you’ll check out some of these thing I mentioned if you haven’t already because everything mentioned in this piece, and probably a bunch of stuff I’m probably forgetting, made me feel like I’m not so alone in the world. 2015 was rough for all of us, but there are always bright spots in the books we read and some of the links we click.