Friday, January 1, 2016

The Best Books of 2015

The best books I read in 2015, in the order I read them.  (Because we were in Budapest from February through April, the first part of this year was dominated by Hungarian novels).




The Door.  Madga Sazbo.iCompulsively readable. Many of the reviews mention its autobiographical elements, but if it is autobiographical it is in no way sentimental or self-forgiving.  The novel's language--it's style, tone and affect--creates  a world that is uncanny and is difficult to visualize, even for someone reading it in the city in which it's set.  There is something deep, elemental, and Greek (as the novel hints) in its tragedy--a tragedy born in Hungarian history but hidden behind the barriers of conventional life.   conventional life.  More here from my blog.  



















The Sun Worshiper [sic].  Istvan Gall. Probably unfair to include as it is probably unavailable in the US.  But a great book.   The Sun Worshiper is a short novel that, on one plane takes place during a single night, but on another across the whole lives of a middle-ages married coupl.  Their stories encompass their lives during World War II and their identities within the Communist party after World War II, and their various political and personal struggles.  It is often difficult to tell exactly what time period they are thinking about, as the various parts of their past blur into one another and into the present.  More here on my blog.  



The Smell of Humans.  Erno Szep.  The book describes events between October and November 1944, after the brunt of the "organized" part of the Holocaust in Hungary had largely transpired: the deportations and transports to Auschwitz.  During this period, Szep occupied one of the Jewish Yelllow Star houses but had been saved from deportation, in part, by being protected by Raoul Wallenberg.  Nevertheless, on October 20, 1944, the 60-year old Szep, along with about fifty other elderly Jewish men, was rounded up and sent on a forced "labor" march by Arrow Cross thugs.  The Smell of Humans narrates the 19 days of the march that Szep experienced.  A very different Holocaust memoir; more here on my blog. 



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The Goddess of Small Victories.  Yannick Grannec.  A fictional account of Adele Godel, the wife of Kurt Godel (of the incompleteness theorums).  Godel was brilliant but deeply troubled.  Adele kept him alive and in the world.  Grannec takes the very few facts known about Adele and turns them into a a brilliant novel.




Journey by Moonlight.  Antal Szerb.  One of the greatest Hungarian novels of the 20th century.The story of  a young man, Mihaley, who is on his honeymoon in Italy.  One night he unexpectedly meets a man from his youth, and then tells Erzsi, his new wife, the story of his relation with this man, another man, and a brother and sister during his school years and early adulthood.  Later, he "accidentally" gets on the wrong train while in Italy and becomes separated from his wife.  He then wanders through Italy, meeting other people from his past, until he arrives in Rome.  His Italian journey (like that of so many others) is to some hoped for self understanding.  It is a journey by moonlight--outside of the world of "the fathers, the Zoltans, the business, world, people."  Except that it is not.  He ends by going home.  The book exhibits what its translator, Len Rix, calls "an irony distinctively Middle-European in character.   More here on my blog.



The Stone Bridge. Alexander Terkhov.  Loosely, there are two inter-related plots in The Stone Bridge.  The immediate plot is the story of an investigator, Alexander Vasiliyevich, who decides to find out exactly what happened on The Stone Bridge when two children of prominent Soviet leaders (sometimes called Stalin's wolf cub) were killiked; Vasiliyevich is the narrator of The Stone Bridge, and much of the book is focalized through his consciousness.  The underlying plot is the retrieved history of the Stone Bridge incident.The story of Vasiliyevich's quest to find out the "truth" of what happened propels the novel.  The narrative line takes him from one source or archive to another.  As he discovers more, the things he wants to discover grow exponentially.  The investigation generates a huge web of information and an ever larger set of unaswered questions.  Terekhov draws on material from now-public Soviet archives, including transcripts of interviews; memoirs written by contemporaries of the Umanskys; and representations of historical figures, particularly Maxim Litinov and his daughter Tantaya Litinov. Terekhov spent ten years researching the book.  More here from my blog. 



Parallel Stories.  Peter Nadas.  Parallel Stories is huge: in length, scope, and ambition.  It includes many (sometimes very, sometimes barely) linked stories that are located in Hungary and that range from the 1930s up to 1989.  This means it includes the lead up to World War II; the Holocaust; the years under Communism, including the 1956 revolution; and the fall of Communism in Europe. It took 18 years to write. I began this book when I was in Budapest and finished it here at the lake.  (I took breaks from it every now and again.). Published in Hungarian in 2005 and translated into English in 2011, it is considered one of the greatest Hungarian novels of the 21st century.  Peter Nadas's (b. 1944) earlier novel, A Book of Memories, was described by Susan Sontag as "the greatest book written in our time, and one of the great books of the century,"  More here from my blog.  "

 
The Zone of Interest. Martin Amis.  It is impossible to imagine a serious book about the Holocaust that is "funny."  Amis's book, about a work camp at Auschwitz, tells the stories of 3 men.  One, a Jewish man who accompanies victims to the gas chambers, trying to make their last minutes as peaceful and unfrightening as he can; he is as aware of the irony as his readers.  Two, a man who manages one of the projects and does whatever he can to slow down or undercut the work.  Three, the captain of the camp, a man who is a blustering boor; he is the source of "humor" in the extraordinary vocabulary and tone.  A tour de force and a series of moral confrontations that include the reader.

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The Narrow Road to the Deep North.  Richard Flanagan.  The absolute best book I read in 2015.  Booker Award winnder.  It tells the story of an Australian man who becomes captain of an Australian army company captured in Japan.  The title reverberates, in many way, througout theh book.  Morally complex and deeply felt.



Purity.  Jonathan Franzen.  I have been a big Franzen fan since I first read the The Corrections, which I still think is the best.  Purity is a kind of post-modernist re-telling of Great Expectations (The main charater's name is Pip, etc.)  It was a little programatic in parts but a genuinely engaging read.



The View from Castle Rock.  Alice Munro.  I had never read Munro, mainly because I am not a big short story reader.  But in this collection the stories are connected (and autobiographical in part).  I absolutelyy loved it, and am now set to read more Munro (and there is a lot)>


 

Ulysses.  James Joyce.  I read it, and I couldn't not include on this list, even though reading was sometimes a chore.   I read it over the course of several months with Tony. We tried to read it without scholarly scaffolding (to the degree possible) and try to read it as "readers."  In the end, we realized that there were huge chunks of Ulysses we didn’t get, and that we could live with that: reading  Ulysses was not going to be a project of our lifetimes.  But there were many parts that we read for the pleasure of the text.  We both loved the exploration of Bloom’s consciousness—its richness and diversity.  We loved (as do most readers) Molly’s interior monologue.  We liked Stephen’s argument in the Library about Shakespeare.  We were in love with Nausica√§.  We were stirred by Cyclops. In the end, we were glad to have done it and were glad it was done.  More here  from my blog.  PS Also returned to The Rainbow by DH Lawrence, which was a complicated reading experience, narrated here on my blog. 

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Voices from Chernobyl.  Svetlana Alexievich.  I read this because I was curious about how a book that is made up of oral histories collected by a journalist could win the Nobel Prize for literature.  All I can say, is that the Nobel committee made a great (and innovative) choice.  This book, a collection of people's memories of Chernobyl was absolutely riviting.



Thirteen Ways of Looking. Colum McCann.  The book sets a contemporary New York murder "mystery" against the Wallace Stevens' poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird."  Although it got mixed reviews from some of the people I recommended it to, I thought it was a profound examination of what it means to read poetry and fiction.



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