Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Favorite Books, 2015

An analysis of my favorite reads this year proves I was almost as equally into memoirs as novels. As usual, I tended to read books written by women more than men. And Knopf seems to be my favorite publisher, no surprise since they are known for their roster of literary giants. Seven of the ten titles below were published this year and three are older. And so here they are:
Coming Into the End Zone by Doris Grumbach (Norton, 1991). Wrestling with her 70th birthday, Grumbach takes readers deep into her mind and soul, often quoting fellow writer friends. I felt a fine kinship with her love of the written word, solitude and the ocean.
11 Stories by Chris Cander (Rubber Tree, 2013). This unusual novel features a 9-fingered Chicago super named Roscoe Jones. One night while playing his trumpet on the roof of his building, he falls. We fall with him in exquisite slow motion, reading tales about his tenants, his life and regrets as each story of the building passes by. Tender, quiet, soulful.
Hausfrau by Jill A. Essbaum (Random House, 2015). As the secret and adulterous nature of her life escalates, a German "hausfrau" marooned in Switzerland experiences much turmoil. A stunning novel that bears comparison to Madame Bovary by Flaubert.
In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume (Knopf, 2015). Imagine three tragic plane crashes in your neighborhood in the span of a year or so. Judy Blume grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey in the early 1950s, and yes, those plane crashes really happened. Blume's characters struggle with fear, anger, love and loss in a way that I found exceptionally real. Dive into this if you are in the mood for a long, emotionally moving novel you can really settle into.
Last Bus to Wisdom by Ivan Doig (Riverhead, 2015). Wondrous storyteller Doig left this awesome novel behind when he passed away this year. It is a Great American Road novel featuring eleven year-old Donal Cameron. Some of his stops are planned, others totally spontaneous. Donal's summer on the road, riding buses, fearing a future that may include an orphanage or poor house, is chock full of toil and trouble, newfound friends and much adventure. Truly a classic!
M Train by Patti Smith (Knopf, 2015). There is a strong theme of pilgrimage to musician/poet Patti Smith's latest memoir. She proves herself to be a star at following her own obsessions, be they Frida Kahlo, Genet, a good cup of coffee or  totemic objects. Though there is much travel described, there is also a sense of coming home when she buys a rundown house in Rockaway Beach, New Jersey --  no matter that hurricane Sandy tears through it shortly after her momentous purchase. Little remembrances of her late husband Fred Smith are among the most intimate moments shared.
Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf (Knopf, 2015). In my life, a new novel by Haruf has always been a cause for celebration; reading this one was bittersweet in many ways since it was his last (he died in 2014). In Our Souls at Night, we meet a widow and widower who venture into a friendship that turns into a romance. We witness some healing of loneliness, yet also sense there will be no happily-ever-after. Melancholy, spare, eloquent.
Split: a Memoir of Divorce by Suzanne Finnamore (NAL, 2009). A soul-splitting, gut-wrenching memoir of divorce, telling it like it was before, during and after the author's husband walked out the door. Surely the legions of women who have been through divorce dramas would appreciate this book; I know I did.
Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (Knopf, 2015). Blue is my favorite color and Anne Tyler my favorite author, so I am biased. Yes, here we have yet another Baltimore family in all its beloved messiness. The house that generations of the Whitshank family lives in is unthinkably up for sale by book's end, but in between, oh how I enjoyed bustling around with all of these classic Tyler characters. I did not want the book to end and hope for a sequel.
Unforgettable: A Mother and Son's Final Two Days -- and the Lessons that Last a Lifetime by Scott Simon (Flatiron, 2015). This book is a tribute to Simon's mother, Patricia: to her spunk, courage, humor and sheer loveliness. NPR broadcaster Simon (whose voice is familiar to me from decades of listening to NPR) slept on the floor next to his mother when she was in the hospital dying. What fine times they had! They shared memories and many laughs. I envy him the closure he found during his last days with her. Poignant and substantial.


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