Books of the Year, 2015

  • Thank You For Your Service : David Finkel
  • Between the World and Me : Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • Our Souls At Night : Kent Harouf
  • The End of Vandalism / Hunts in Dreams / Pacific : Tom Drury
  • Assorted Fire Events / The Secret Goldfish : David Means
  • Orchid Blue/ Blue in the Night / The Blue Tango : Eoin McNamee
  • The Darkling Spy/ The Whitehall Mandarin / The Midnight Swimmer : Edward Wilson

According to my notes, I’ve read close to 60 books this year, fiction and non-fiction, and there are two that stand out from the rest: both non-fiction and both books about America, American lives, and distinguished by a quality of writing and sense of purpose that make them difficult to set aside or to forget.

David Finkel’s Thank You For Your Service is a sequel to The Good Soldiers, his account of the time he spent with an Infantry Battalion on the front line in Baghdad. This later book describes, in painful and compassionate detail, the difficulties that some of those soldiers faced when they returned home.

Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is written in the form of a letter to his son, a letter in which he describes what it is like – what it has been like since the days of slavery – to be a black person in America. “Here,” he writes at one point, “is what I would like you to know: in America it is traditional to destroy the black body – it is heritage.”

In comparison, none of the fiction I read had the same vividness or power.

But there were good things, nonetheless. Discoveries, too. I picked up Tom Drury’s The End of Vandalism because Jon McGregor’s name was on the cover and he had written a foreward, and I’ve learned to take McGregor’s recommendations seriously. After that I read all the Drury I could lay my hands on and enjoyed them all, Hunts in Dreams and Pacific, the other two Grouse County novels set in the rural mid-West, especially.

At first you read Drury – this was my experience, at least – with a sense of precarious enjoyment; the characters are unbelievable and yet all too believable, they behave in ways that are unpredictable but make a kind of sense, pulling the narrative in directions that confound and confuse yet seem sort of okay, sort of right. This oddness – their oddness – seems to be holding them at a distance rather than encouraging us into any strong sympathy, but then sitting us down on our backsides with a thwack when we realise, as the end approaches, that we’re more emotionally involved than we might have thought possible around page 90 or so. How did he do that?

Kent Haruf was no new discovery. Our Souls at Night will be his last novel – a novella, really – finished, I imagine, not so long before he died. And it has, in its telling of a friendship and brief affair between two ageing people, more than a strong sense of mortality. Like all of Haruf’s work, it is tender and unflinching and written in prose that is direct and evocative. I know I shall re-read this and his earlier books with continuing pleasure.

Three other discoveries: Eoin McNamee’s overlapping crime & conspiracy novels set in Northern Ireland – Orchid Blue, Blue is the Night and The Blue Tango; Edward Wilson’s espionage novels – The Darkling Spy, The Whitehall Mandarin and The Midnight Swimmer (thanks to Woody Haut for putting me on to these); and – quite brilliant, (most of) these – David Means’ short stories, collected in Assorted Fire Events and The Secret Goldfish. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that Jon McGregor liked those, too.

And finally, with Julia Briggs’ Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life, a biography arranged around the work, and VW’s own diaries as my guide, I’ve begun re-reading Virginia Woolf’s novels in chronological order, a project that will continue, happily, next year.

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