I have mentioned how writing can actually make you less literate, sometimes; sad, but true. But I did manage to sneak some reading in here and there this year. According to LibraryThing, where I keep track of my yearly reading adventures, I managed to finish 27 books this year -- everything from a collection of Sedaris essays to a trilogy that makes getting lost on Lost look like a trip to Disneyland, from Oliver Sacks's final memoir to the worst thing I read all year (made all the more disappointing by all the reviews I read that proclaimed it super scary and un-put-down-able; I did not find it to be either of these things). But why dwell on the unpleasant? I know the year isn't quite up, and that a week spent visiting my parents will mean that I probably manage to knock back at least a couple more novels. In the meantime, though, I've been thinking about some of the books I got to read this year, so now seems like as good a time as any. Here's the best of the best on my 2015 reading list:
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
My year got off to a great start once I caught up with everyone else by reading Station Eleven and realizing how brilliant it is. This is exactly the kind of fiction I yearn for: It has elements of genre (post-apocalypse fiction, in this case) but it also leans "literary," with lovely prose and complicated characters and themes that go deeper than just "oh, shit, the end of the world!" Much of the book is really about the bits and pieces of individual lives, how they intersect, and how individuals create (or recreate) community.
Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi
"Modern twist on a fairy tale" is not an automatic for me. I'm not really into fairy tales, and the idea of taking one and reinterpreting it in whatever way seems interesting, but not necessarily like required reading. But Boy, Snow, Bird -- a sort of reimagining of the Snow White fairy tale -- is phenomenal. Oyeyemi uses motifs from the fairy tale to tell a story that goes beyond female beauty or what it means to be wicked and explores mother-daughter relationships, race, and feminism. The main character, Boy, is a complicated and often difficult character, and both her daughter and stepdaughter become variations of her but also confront her with creatures very different than herself.
Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own by Kate Bolick
As an affirmed spinster myself, it's nice to see one's own life choice validated. Spinster strikes the perfect balance between personal memoir and historical research and builds a bridge between the two as Bolic adopts her five "awakeners," those women who represent a steadfast determination to make lives of their own. There's something about Bolick's voice, too, that I find intimate and frank, funny and headstrong. At first, I was the teeniest bit put off by the fact that neither Bolick nor most of the women she examines are single in the strictest terms -- Bolick has had a series of romances, while four out of five of her women married at some point (some of them more than once) in their lives. But I changed my mind when Bolick ended her book by transforming the idea of singlehood: It's not determined by the status of your relationships, she asserts, but by your determination to live a singular life in which you are the one in control, deciding your own fate.
Shock Value: How a Few Eccentric Outsiders Gave Us Nightmares, Conquered Hollywood, and Invented Modern Horror by Jason Zinoman
This is actually a re-read; I first read Zinoman's treatise on 1970s/80s horror when it was published in 2012. This time around, I realized why I like horror films from this era so much: The combination of a willingness to experiment and take risks on the part of the directors, paired with the limitations they faced in creating special effects, results in films that push the boundaries of what can be done in a horror movie while retaining a realism created by actors reacting to practical special effects. Zinoman's writing is lively and his research is thorough; reading about the movies he digs into is almost as fun as actually watching them.
On the Move: A Life by Oliver Sacks
I have loved Oliver Sacks's insatiable curiosity and singular way of looking at and interpreting the world ever since I saw Awakenings. I've loved his contributions to Radiolab, and his last interview with Robert Krulwich for that podcast moved me to tears. The world is a little bleaker without Sacks in it, but he left us with a last, vibrant glimpse into his life, his loves, his adventures, and his ability to continue asking questions and see beyond a disorder or disease to the person, in every case.
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
I mean, sometimes it takes me a really long time to get to the party. I'd heard about this book from every podcast I listen to, read about it a million times before I finally read it. I admit to being a bit of a snob: If everyone likes something, how can it possibly be that good? (That's why it took me so long to read Gone Girl, too.) As usual, Linda Holmes of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour finally convinced me, and I was not disappointed. Taut and twisty, smart and dark, The Girl on the Train is a revealing look at addiction and obsession that also serves as a great summer thriller (which is when I read it).
Flora by Gail Godwin
The plot of this book is maddeningly simple: Girl's father leaves her with seemingly naive aunt for the summer, girl experiences a coming-of-age, girl instigates a terrible incident that transforms everyone's lives. The what happens of Flora, though, is hardly the point. The interior lives of the characters and the way they intersect is the most compelling piece. Godwin nails an adolescent girl's simultaneous superiority and insecurity in Helen, while giving Flora enough of an edge -- hidden beneath layers and layers of what the character Finn would call "simple-heartedness" -- to make her interesting in a more-than-meets-the-eye way.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
This is the kind of book that makes a writer envious in the best possible way. It's so beautifully written and paints such a thorough, complicated, delicate portrait of the couple at its center, you almost ache with jealousy at Groff's achievement -- but knowing that managing something so well written is possible inspires you to keep striving to write your very best, too. It was a pleasure every time I opened the pages Fates and Furies and became engrossed with the story of Mathilde and Lotto, their marriage, and their separate experiences of it.
Into Thin Air by John Krakauer
I saw the movie Everest, based in part upon Krakauer's book, this year and thought that was about as intense as it could get. Then I read Into Thin Air and gave myself nightmares about falling off of narrow trails at high altitudes and freezing to death in the Himalayas. Still, I love a good adventure book. Sadly, the thrill (and thrall) of Everest is tempered by the knowledge that so many people -- more than just the ones in Krakauer's expedition -- have died on the mountain.
The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
Time traveling serial killer. How has no one thought of this premise before?! To be honest, I'm glad they didn't because in Lauren Beukes's hands, the premise goes from being the pulpy cat-and-mouse chase through time it could have been and is instead refracted through the author's singular point of view, her examination of how a city changes (and doesn't change) over decades, and her desire to put the emphasis not on gratuitous violence but on the bright, shining lives of the female victims and the tenacity of the final Shining Girl. Also, it's a really captivating thriller.