2015 was sort of a strange year as far as my reading habits went. I changed jobs within the book industry – weirdly leaving me with less time than ever to read with the reckless abandon of my youth. Plus my wife and I added a Junior Catapult Operator to our household, leaving me reading Dr. Seuss’ ABC and Room on the Broom over and over and over again instead of slogging through the new Franzen or whatever. Which is just fine by me. In the latter part of the year, I reached some degree of equilibrium with my reading and I’ve managed to right the ship a bit – but I still didn’t read nearly as many books this year as in years past. So, this – the TENTH – Catapult Notable List, is a bit shorter & different than earlier editions.
H is For Hawk by Helen MacDonald
This was far and away the best book I read in 2015, fiction, nonfiction or otherwise. It’s a gorgeous mix of nature writing and grief memoir that’s both heartbreaking and endlessly fascinating. When her beloved father dies suddenly, historian MacDonald is set adrift without anchor or compass and retreats into the only world she has ever been comforted by – the ancient art of falconry. She decides to train a young goshawk – a notoriously difficult bird to wrangle – drawing on the memoirs and somewhat parallel experiences of author T.H. White. (White’s self-pitying memoir, The Goshawk, provides a sort of emotional backbone to MacDonald’s experiences.) The hawk (the wonderfully named, Mabel) acts as a grief counselor for MacDonald, as she pours her soul into forging a bond with this bird. Gradually we learn how intertwined the hawk and she truly are – and she starts to deal with her heart-rending grief. “The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.” It’s not all sadness and tears, mind you – and her descriptions of this amazing bird she has literally brought into her home are lush and vivid entries into a world I know nothing about.
Fates & Furies by Lauren Groff – Everything I read about this told me it was “a novel about a marriage” blah-blah-blah, which sounded boring as hell to me. But the more I heard about it – and I heard about it a lot – the more I felt drawn to it, not because I needed a novel about marriage, but that there seemed to be something extra-compelling about these characters and the interlocking threads of their lives. Turns out, this was the best work of fiction I read this year. Yes, it is a novel about a marriage – Lotto and Mathilde meet at 22 and get married after a 2 week courtship – but it lays bare the intricacies, secret hidey-holes, and revisionist memories that make up a long-term, intimate relationship and the psyches of the people inside it. There’s always more below the surface of a person, as we all know, so why would a union between two people be any different? The narrative twists in this were exquisitely rendered, keeping you guessing and puzzling over who these people really are – much like real life. Absolutely loved it.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanigahara – the most heartbreaking, infuriating, & incredibly fucking sad book I think I have ever read. Yet, before I read Fates & Furies, this was the best piece of fiction I read this year. The little life is that of Jude, who is so incredibly damaged from his youth (left in a dumpster as an infant, sexually & mentally abused by monks, literally pimped out by a perceived savior) that throughout his adult life he cannot allow anyone close enough to see his scars – either physical or emotional. Even the people that love him – and there are many – are never allowed to truly help Jude, mainly since he is utterly incapable of helping himself. You root for him SO HARD it’s crazy – you want him to get past his past and live his life so very badly, but ultimately, he is so mangled, crushed, and destroyed that he just can’t. All I can really say is that I’m glad I’m no longer a bookseller trying to pitch this novel to customers. Lovingly written and the characters are so rich they feel real, but it was all just so unbelievable heartbreaking. If you can make it through all 700 pages, you’ll be both glad and upset that you did. Sigh. (A finalist for the Man Booker and the National Book Award.)
Blood-Drenched Beard by Daniel Galera – A very elegant novel from a Brazilian author (and Portuguese translator of David Mitchell). After the suicide death of his father, our unnamed narrator – who suffers from Prosopagnosia or face-blindness – retreats from his past and the big city (Porto Alegra, Brazil) to the small coastal town of Garopaba. Grieving his father and uncertain about his own life trajectory, he rents a small seaside cottage and tells himself that he is there to learn what happened to his mysterious gaucho grandfather in Garopaba years before. Is it true that he was murdered in a dance hall by the entire town? He soon finds that the people of the town have long memories – and no desire to dredge them up, defending their own past violently if need be. He half-heartedly tries to insert himself into the fabric of the town, teaching swimming lessons and dating a local girl, but his grief and questions about his familial past force him to an arms length with everyone he meets. There is a great dreamlike quality to this – a face-blind narrator often doesn’t even know who he is talking to each time he encounters another person, so we in turn have to just float along with him.
All Involved by Ryan Gattis – a blazing, ferocious novel set amidst the 6 days of race riots in Los Angeles in 1992. Rather than being about the riots themselves, this is about the vacuum left by the chaos – what the criminals and gangs did while the cops were distracted by arson and looting all over town. Each chapter offers a different perspective – mostly from the members of one Latin gang in South Central – as a series of violent circumstances and lapses in judgement unfold as a Shakespearean tragedy. (In a strange twist, Gattis has written a young adult novel called Air that is being published in the Spring by one of the publishers I rep.)
The Cartel by Don Winslow – Don told me once that he would never return to the world he researched and in turn created for his blistering 2005 novel, The Power of the Dog. Too emotionally exhausting – he thought he poured everything he had into that first book. Yet here we are, finally, happily. This is a crime novel, make no mistake – and reads like a pulp thriller for the most part. But I found it incredibly vivid and scarily realistic, knowing that much of what I was reading was not far from the truth at all. Bottom line: the American War on Drugs has never worked, never will work, and has just made everything infinitely worse, not just in the U.S., but much more so in Mexico. Living in San Diego, you can always feel the heat coming from the Mexican border crossing, a mere 20 miles from my front porch, but the cartel-related violence never really walks down our palm-lined streets. Winslow shows just how close all of that really is to our backyards – and how shameful it is that we’ve allowed it to perpetuate for as long as it has, just because America has an insatiable taste for drugs.
And, let’s be honest, even though Slade House by David Mitchell wasn’t perfect by my uber-nerdy Mitchellverse-loving standards, it belongs here on the Catapult Notable List. See my last post for the full rundown.
These next few are books I read in the Fall of 2014 when I was on the Indies Introduce Panel for ABA – I didn’t include them in last year’s Notable List, I think because they hadn’t been published yet… I don’t know what I was thinking. All I know is these are most excellent, came out in 2015, and you should read them:
Hammer Head: The Making of a Carpenter by Nina MacLaughlin – MacLaughlin was a journalist working in Boston throughout her 20’s, when the shift toward young, hip (read: vapid) digital content happened and she found herself sitting and clicking and scrolling all day at work. “Mouse in my limp, damp hand, my head raw and frayed, I spent months thinking, I’ve got to get out of here.” So she quit. Wanting to do something “more to do with reality,” she stumbled on a Craigslist posting that read “Carpenter’s Assistant: Women strongly encouraged to apply.” So she did – and she got the job. This book is about that life-altering experience of building things with her hands – real things, in the real world. Stairs and walls and cabinets for people to walk on, lean against, and store things in. And I’m super jealous. At the time I read this, I was DYING in my job, clawing at the walls, desperate to do something different with my life. Through this gem, Nina MacLaughlin gave me hope – in the form of her eloquent, wonderfully written memoir – that if I want to do something different with my life, all I have to do is DO IT.
Young Skins by Colin Barrett – These short stories set in & around the small Irish town of Glanbeigh, County Mayo are just small glimpses, vignettes of the lives of some of the younger class of residents. A bit of grit clings to each story, each sentence – maybe a hint of an outburst, a drinking binge, a fight, a spat over a girl. Yet they didn’t strike me as overtly dark stories, even if they are a bit mournful at times or introspective, at the least. “I am young, and the young do not number many here, but it is fair to say we have the run of the place.” I thought they were just brilliant – infused with life and realism and characters that stick in your craw.
Soil by Jamie Kornegay – A gritty, blackly comedic Southern Gothic about bad decisions and their consequences, written by the owner of the well-known Square Books in Oxford, Mississippi. One of the main narrators is one of those guys that makes horrible decision after horrible decision, forcing us to watch his descent down the slippery slope of madness. What would you do if you found a dead guy on your property in the aftermath of a flood? A: call the police? or B: chop the body up in to small pieces and burn it into charcoal in your backyard? Ahhhh!!!! Stop it!!!
The Sunlit Night by Rebecca Dinerstein – Kind of a weird little book that I tried and tried to push through to the final round in the Indies panel I was reading if for, to no avail. Too strange for some folks, I guess. Frances’ family is disintegrating (a divorce and a marriage) before her eyes as she heads for an internship at a Norwegian artist colony. Yasha’s family disintegrates in a different way, through abandonment and untimely death, both of which lead him, bizarrely, from a Brooklyn bakery to the same Norwegian oasis of art. I especially loved this because it has two narrative perspectives – Frances in first person, Yasha in third – and when the two intersect, you can see the other narrator through the eyes of the other, but in a strange sort of way due to the differing tense. The endless sun above the Arctic Circle, the out-of-sync sleeping patterns of all the characters, and the oddball art being produced all around lent everything a bit more strange. Plus it made me laugh – and I wanted to find out if love conquers all. So there.
All the other books I read in 2015: