Take a look around. Upon park benches, in cafes, in restaurants, by monuments, in the backseats of cafes, on blankets within copses of trees, in window seats: people are reading books. And, no, this isn’t some whimsical New Yorker cover illustration—this is real life. These are adults and children. The big box bookstores are crowded, obnoxiously, with readers who crave literary physicality; the indie and mom & pop joints may attract a thinner number of thrill seekers, but they’ll at least linger longer, fingering ‘zines, grazing on graphic novels, drooling over a buffet of therapeutic coloring books. Take that, Ray Bradbury and Gary Shteyngart: the novel, the memoir, the airport schlock-fest, the beach read, the poetry collection, and every other permutation of the written word remain alive and well, even if, say, a Purity can’t quite muster the cocktail party conversation-eclipsing punch of yore. Books are here to stay, and below, a few of us had some things to say about the tomes released this year. Unofficially, the winners of this poll were Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band and Ta’Neshi Coates’ Between the World and Me—each book received two votes—but we’ve opted to present our 10 picks in alphabetical order.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me (Spiegel & Grau). All American parents of color have “the talk” with their children—not a talk about sex, but a talk about race, a frank or somewhat couched explanation of where non-whites stand in the American pecking order. For some, it’s a one-time thing; for others, it’s more of an ongoing dialogue. Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates went us all one better by building his “talk” with his son into a despairing, richly-written memoir that would inevitably—and deservedly—become a bestseller; I like to imagine conscious, concerned parents nationwide gifting Between and Vince Staples’ Summertime ‘06 to their college-aged sons and daughters, in tandem. Coates’ furious African-American scholarship and personal experiences with racism strand him in a hopelessness, and white readers in particular bristled at the strident bluntness evinced—overlooking the fact that what’s expressed here is perspective, not holy writ. The intensity of this reaction speaks both to the author’s authority of late on matters of race, and to this country’s continuing inability to truly recognize and understand itself. When Coates writes about Dreamers, he isn’t referencing Martin Luther King, Jr. or weighing in on the immigration debate—he’s calling out a lie America repeats, mantra-like, as it unconsciously sublimates generations of its own citizens en route to a nirvana that’s little more than a fantasy.
Marc E. Fitch, Shmexperts: How Ideology and Power Politics Are Disguised by Science (WND Books). Science itself reveals that most of what passes for science is baloney. Studies keep showing that most science reports’ conclusions—especially ones based on small statistical fluctuations—are so weak as to be meaningless, or are soon overturned by subsequent studies. Certain fields—nutrition, toxicology, climatology—are so prone to irreproducible results that one begins to suspect there is greater wisdom in the common person’s tendency to ignore it all or say dismissively, “Ah, they say one thing one week and the opposite thing the next week.”
I worked at the American Council on Science and Health for a while, and we constantly said that the common person was largely right about that. (Smoking and drunk driving are deadly, but you can ignore almost anything else you read about health unless your doctor tells you to pay special attention, to put it in overly simplistic terms.) I also know Marc Fitch, who takes this analysis a step farther—without for a moment claiming to possess scientific expertise—and in this book examines how an exalted few “experts” get treated as if their scientific (or sometimes pseudo-scientific) claims will last throughout the ages, mostly just because they suit the urgent need of TV news or magazines or political activists for a crude semblance of certainty.
Fitch shows a subtle sympathy for religion in his comparisons between the legitimation rituals of old and the present. He’s not, however, condemning the pseudo-experts—his “shmexperts”—for running afoul of some other body of certain truths, though these may well exist. Rather, he is defending agnosticism, or what might better be called by the more old-fashioned word “humility,” against all the blustering pretense that we can calculate our way to confidence about everything from longevity to love to the precisely-numbered secrets of success. Lest Fitch sound too dismissive of the topics the experts debate (and he’s at times too quick with the technical details), rest assured the plague of “shmexperts” about which he warns has very important real-world consequences. As he recounts, for example, the BP oil spill was finally stopped, after countless futile efforts by the exalted experts of the day, with a simple idea from a non-credentialed, non-collegiate, low-level working Joe—who felt obligated to feed the idea to a professor first to ensure that it would become part of the conversation. Officials will neither confirm nor deny that the working Joe’s suggestion made the crucial difference and saved the day. While the experts and shmexperts run the world and talk a good game, common people who may well know better from direct experience – but who know their place in the social order – quietly look on, waiting for rare opportunities to make the world a better place. Or, if shmexperts continue to reign unopposed, perhaps the common folk will one day soon just give up. Then the shmexperts can all explain their plausible-sounding theories with their dying breaths as the world ends.
Kim Gordon, Girl in a Band (Dey Street Books). My single biggest disappointment about the Girl in a Band media cycle was its lack of Joan Didion. Didion’s influence—a certain cool, unsparing reserve, a distance, a cruelty, the musings on the nature of California—so haunts Kim Gordon’s memoir that a conversation between the two women or at least Didion dissecting the book in The New York Times seemed in order, at the very least. Girl, thankfully, isn’t a Sonic Youth memoir. Gordon skips a flat stone across the Pacific of her personal mythology, each dip offering a glimpse rather than a long stare: the mentally troubled, abusive older brother; the remote parents; the years drifting along the fringes of the bi-coastal art world; the earliest stabs at musical expression and the power realized; the genesis and ascent of Sonic Youth. Darts are thrown at recognizable and unsurprising targets, drawing blood, but the book comes to vicious life when Gordon details the disintegration of her marriage to Thurston Moore, her ex-husband and bandmate. If you’re unfamiliar with the significance of the iconography here, this part of the story is sad and typical; if, like me, you’re vested, it’s pure tragedy that Gordon’s uneasy emancipation can’t quite overcome.
Jennifer L. Knox, Days of Shame and Failure (Bloof Books). Poetry in 2015 is a hard sell unless you’re advertising Kendrick Lamar’s Rap Genius account. I mean, where do you even buy poetry? Most Barnes & Nobles stores stock little more than Lord Byron and Charles Bukowski. And the whole “snaps” culture? Barf. But Jennifer L. Knox is worth reading. Her irreverent 2005 poem “Chicken Bucket” set the tone for her career, establishing Knox as a writer unafraid to experiment and offend. The poems in Days of Shame and Failure vacillate between clear-eyed recollection and ineffable imagery spurts. “Certainty Is Born of Pain” chronicles the significance of a “horribly swollen taste bud worthy of an ER visit.” “Iowa Plates” opens with the spectacular first sentence “Whoever tied the Mylar birthday balloon to the dead squirrel on Main Street thinks big,” and grows wilder from there. Part James Tate, part Denis Johnson, Knox’s examines middle-class life through an absurdist lens.
Kelly Link, Get In Trouble: Stories (Random House). It’s easy to pigeonhole Kelly Link as a magical realism revivalist, the contemporary fantastical writer invited to eat lunch with the “literary” clique. This type of critical tunnel vision, focusing only on the speculative aspects of Link’s fiction, ignores her deft sentence-level talent and ability to convincingly execute her thematic projects. Link is more George Saunders and Sam Lipsyte’s peer than Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s. She’s a linguistic acrobat, selecting each word for its precision, specificity, and originality. Her stories are dense with concrete nouns and active verbs that combine to form lasting—and yes, fantastic—images. Her off-kilter storylines work best when focusing on adolescents, like in “The Summer People” and “Valley of the Girls,” where the shape-shifting, mystifying narratives function as objective correlatives for adolescence itself.
Thomas Mallon, Finale (Pantheon). I’m not a fan of historical fiction; it’s mostly larded with implausible alternative scenarios and heavy-handed prose. But Thomas Mallon, a noted novelist and professor at George Washington University, is a master of the form. His 2015 offering, Finale, an examination of Ronald Reagan’s worrisome (to Republicans) 1986, which included a crucial summit in Reykjavik with an on-his-last-legs Mikhail Gorbachev (though both leaders perhaps didn’t quite realize that), the rush of revelations about the Iran-Contra scandal, and a midterm Congressional shellacking by the Democrats, is a punchy, and often hilarious takedown of St. Reagan. Mallon’s decidedly liberal, but that matters not in the least when reading his books. He presents Reagan as a president already in the throes of dementia—not explicitly stated, but omnipresent nonetheless—guided by his astrology-driven wife Nancy, who comes off as a scheming shrew who orchestrates every detail of her husband’s schedule. Whether that was actually true isn’t the point, and it makes for gut-splitting and catty scenes with old Hollywood friends, especially Merv Griffin. That Nancy was actually considering that “Ronnie” ought to resign is tough to swallow, but the reader, who obviously knows that the 40th president went on to iconic status, is along for the ride. (As is the then-liberal journalist Christopher Hitchens, who mysteriously appears suddenly at crucial historical moments, a semi-Zelig figure.) Richard Nixon’s surreptitious messages to a fictional National Security Council aide, Anders Little—Mallon’s imaginings of Nixon’s political observations are the best part of the book—form a key component of Finale. Mallon’s a Nixon buff, in a gleeful sort of way, as he wrote the excellent Watergate: A Novel several years ago, and the disgraced president also pops up in his 2007 McCarthyism novel Fellow Travelers. I don’t suspect Mallon will ever send up Barack Obama in the future, but if he’s not currently at work on a novel about George W. Bush, I’d be very surprised.
Paul Murray, The Mark and the Void: A Novel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). Fair warning: Paul Murray’s previous novel, Skippy Dies, is my favorite book of all time, a 650-page epic I’ve revisited—cover-to-cover—I don’t know, maybe fifty times? Skippy has been called “The Moby Dick” of prep-school novels, a postmodern mash-up of John Knowles’ A Separate Peace, J.D. Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye, and Richard Russo’s Straight Man. It was surprising, then, when Murray announced the synopsis of his follow-up novel five years later. The Mark and the Void is presented as an eye-roll inducing snooze-fest. Protagonist Claude Martingale, a high-powered investment banker, is stalked by a novelist named Paul, who wants to write a book about the financial world. Yes, Mark is a math-dense, 500-page flirtation with meta-fiction, but it’s also hilarious, insightful, and zeitgeist-capturing. How can a book like this attract readers in 2015? It can’t, and it admits just that. Mark confronts the most important question facing the literary world now: what is the value of a book in the Internet Age?
Rand Paul, Taking a Stand: Moving Beyond Partisan Politics to Unite America (Center Street). As I write this, libertarian Sen. Rand Paul is one of 10 candidates supported by a percentage of likely Republican voters that languishes in single digits, while authoritarian Donald Trump hovers up at around 30 percent. The main case for reading this lovely book, then, may be to see what might’ve been. Viewed in that light, this combination memoir and manifesto makes for very poignant reading. Criticize Paul’s campaign all you like, but on nearly every page, Paul points out a severe, urgent problem with our overweening big government that, odds are, no other candidate from either major party will address in or out of the Oval Office. This book, by contrast, is a blueprint for shrinking leviathan and restoring civil liberties and doing so in the short time remaining before society collapses. The book also reveals Paul as someone intelligent who values bipartisanship, civility, inter-ethnic outreach, and being an eyeball doctor.
He also seems convincingly like a nerd and, without being at all authoritarian or theocratic about it, a Christian. If he doesn’t experience a surprise uptick in the primaries, there will be no shortage of ideologues and analysts looking to explain “what went wrong” with his campaign. Everyone understood that his tricky tightrope walk would be getting conservatives and libertarians to work together—and demonstrating he could have eventual crossover appeal to the left as well. If you ask me, he was doing just that, so maybe I shouldn’t be a political campaign consultant. The most disturbing revelation of the current campaign season might prove to be that while we commentators debated whether Rand Paul should be tacking right, left, or pure-libertarian, the secret to his father’s greater success was not ideological purity but populist rabble-rousing. In his quiet way, Ron Paul sounded as pitchfork-bearing as Trump, and the voters may just like “crazy.” I think the speed of media and political change has also made people less patient and thus less trusting. Instead of people seeing the things they like in Rand Paul, the libertarians were quick to see a conservative sell-out, the conservatives quick to see someone who should go join the Democratic Party, and the left prone to see someone playing the usual Republican game of putting a libertarian veneer on cultural conservatism (which I would add tends to be just a veneer itself, at least among politicians). Read this book and see if it all seems like triangulation, or a coherent philosophy, though. I will still be adhering to something like this philosophy even if others insist it doesn’t exist. Of course, some on the left refuse to believe that libertarianism ever serves as anything but a cloak for a right-wing cultural agenda. In my experience, on the other hand, libertarians, while all agreeing property rights should be strong and government small or non-existent, are in fact quite culturally diverse. If Paul sounds too right wing or too Christian, you could always read as a supplement libertarian Bretigne Shaffer’s Asia-inflected, pacifistic Urban Yogini superhero comic book, for example. Liberty is for everyone; he masses just haven’t figured that out yet.
Katherine Taylor, Valley Fever: A Novel (Farrar, Straus and Giroux). You can sense a mind like a poet’s at work in this novel. Each line contains word choices that help to capture rather subtle circumstances: a young woman returning to her relatively quiet hometown of Fresno after a break-up and trying not to envy her sister, who spends more time in places like L.A. and New York. There’s an accumulation of convincing little empirical details, such as: “Beside the guest room I could hear Anne in the kitchen, drying the Saint-Louis and setting them back in the cupboard. Anne doesn’t let anyone else wash her expensive glasses.”
As in a Henry James horror story, though, you gradually realize that larger things are at stake, frightening outcomes possible, even if the casual observer would notice little physical action. The old family homestead is such solace—but is Dad dying? Old friends are a comfort—but are they liars? The family wine business is newly fascinating to our heroine—but is it an immersion in the real world at last or merely a cowardly retreat? And will it all end in financial ruin? The reader slowly becomes a bit neurotic worrying about it all while the narrator heroine remains deceptively calm, even when describing moments of (quiet) neurotic crisis: “I woke certain that if I did not immediately flush all my Lunesta and Vicodin and all my Tylenol PM down the toilet, I’d swallow pill by pill with bourbon. This is why I don’t own a gun. Everyone else in my family owns a gun, including Anne.”
We know this is not exactly a crime novel, and yet there’s the nagging worry that crime or something like it is possible here. Secondary characters have engaged in financial dirty dealings. There may be townsfolk with mob ties. How bad could this situation get? Worse than a mere romantic break-up? Surrounding the subtle emotional uncertainty is the deceptive solidity of wine-growing and business-managing, related with a level of detail and care that shows that the author did her homework. That groundedness prevents this from being merely a tale of neurosis—but will that groundedness save our heroine from further emotional betrayal? Farming and business are more risky than they appear to the untrained eye. Worry along with her.
Don Winslow, The Cartel (Knopf). If money and power are appetizers in the violent world of drug trafficking, revenge is the main course. That’s the not-so-buried subtext of The Cartel, Don Winslow’s 616-page, narco-centric odyssey. In this sequel to 2006’s The Power of the Dog, a pair of former friends—retired D.E.A. agent Art Keller and jailed Mexican drug lord Adan Barrera—engage in a border-hopping game of cat and mouse with unimaginably deadly consequences. Three white boards wouldn’t offer enough space to diagram every connection, interconnection, or triple-cross at play in this novel, but suffice it to say that Winslow’s research was as thorough as his scope is downright cinematic; anyone wondering how or why the downfalls of cartel leaders sow carnage and chaos is in for a master class here. Everyone’s implicit, and everyone gets touched, from toughs peopling the gangs cartels use as recruiting pools to the newspaper journalists who dare not reject envelopes of cash to politicians and police.
The Cartel reels with a blunt poetry, a screenplay of horrors singing out in numerous voices, and Winslow has a sneaky, uncanny ability to write true, distinct characters, instilling rhythms of place and happenstance so effectively that it’s crushing when the escalating conflicts disrupt those rhythms. This book is bleakly funny, too; every moment we spend with rising narco Eddie Ruiz is a guilty, giggly pleasure—he’s a Texas bro who stumbled into pushing for the money, and the reader can sense him rolling his eyes at the privileged indignities of hopping from safehouse to safehouse, each one outfitted with a soundproof torture room. What’s most terrifying about The Cartel isn’t its ISIS-esque mass murders or its anarchic depravity; it’s the fact that every word carries the heavy, heart-wrenching weight of probability. Late in the book, United States agencies discuss a raid on Guatemalan soil; the White House washes its hands—despite having employed drone and satellite reconnaissance over Central America for related operations—then kicks the mission to a Blackwater-esque private security firm. This is the world we live in now, we’ve been here for a while, and everybody you know who scored cocaine for New Year’s Eve is contributing to the nightmare.