The 2015 Literary Gems We Forgot to Read
This year was a great, big, beautiful, shit show–as so many years are–and we’re not complaining. We got caught up in careers, found our best baes sliding into DMs, and went through the classic ups, downs, and Sunday hangover depressions as we did last year. And once again, we didn’t get around to the best books. Maybe you didn’t have time or, like me, you’re a snobby reader who refuses to read too much contemporary ink without feeling like you’ve trumped the Beats, the Bloomsburys, and the eons of books that came before. Skirting around excuses, it’s time to vamp up our knowledge on the greats of this year, and take a look at some of the gems we missed. After all, what are New Years resolutions if not for committing to love yourself like Kanye loves Kanye, cutting your vices, and reading more books?
A Little Life by Hanya Yanigihira
Published mid March, A Little Life chronicles the lives of four post grads dudes following their move to New York City. Shaped by success, failure, addiction, and more general woes, the story navigates each characters growth into a respective life, and the deepening darkening ties that connect them to each other–and root them to the past. At the quad’s center of gravity is Jude, who carries the trauma of a hushed past and a painful childhood. The story hinges on issues of rape, prostitution, camaraderie, and betrayal, all in a brutally honest look at life and its meaning to each man.
The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy by Masha Gessen
This story brings back a not too distant past, narrowing in on the attacks during the Boston Marathon in 2013. It’s a story about the distortion of the traditionally held “American Dream”, and its revision as a nightmare. Told from the perspective of an immigrant author, Gessen grapples with the story of the two Tsarnaev brothers accountable for the bombings, and the perception immigrants carry about America, assimilation, identity, and alienation.
Fairy Tales by Robert Walser
Revising the classics has caught on in film with movies like Maleficent and empowering princesses in Tangled and Frozen. Lit has also latched on, and this latest publication is a brilliant example of fairy tales turned on their heads. In the form of sequels and prequels, we see Snow White forgiving the evil queen, Cinderella doubting her marriage, and Mary and Joseph a little pissed about getting their baby snagged–not to mention a bit skeptical about the what lies ahead for baby J. Written long before film adaptions, in the turn of the twentieth century, the text was dusted off and translated by Daniele Pantao this year.
Sphinx by Anne Garreta
Despite its age, Sphinx manages to speak powerfully to the attitude of the year, the past decade, and the next decade to come. (Although it was published in France in 1986, this year marks the first English translation.) First, it’s an erotic(ish) novel. Second, its an erotic(ish) novel with gender-less characters. Third, it’s an erotic(ish) novel with gender-less characters, who fall in love in the club. Sounds like a summer in Berlin. Sexy plot appeal aside, the novel deconstructs age old tropes of love and intimacy, and tinkers with language to reveal how words cater to biases and confining modes of thought. If you’re up for a challenge, read the OG version in French–which has naturally gendered verbs, yikes.
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
The Argonauts outlines the relationship between Nelson and a gender fluid Harry Dodge, as they tread into queer family life. Wrapped up in notions of desire, identity, and the bounds of language and love, this genre-bending memoir is an intensive look at the questions that face queer couples; it covers the obstacles and joys that make the path to family life more difficult than parsing apart a GOP debate. The novel has been quietly praised by theory superstars like Susan Sontag and Roland Barthes–definitely a gem for critical theory buffs.
Father Comes Home from the Wars (part 1,2, & 3) by Suzan-Lori Parks
Throw back to the Civil War: Hero, a slave, is offered his freedom at the cost of joining the confederacy. Taking up the Faustian bargain, Hero is thrown into the middle of battle. While away, his family contemplates how to move on and function without his presence. Do they escape or wait for his return? Can they create hope in such an seemingly hopeless situation? The three part tale is part of a larger full 9-play cycle, which draws from the past and into the present, creeping into the context of current racial issues.
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
Through war reporting, travels, and drug trips–all with the backdrop of swells, tides and the interminable appreciation for surfing–the novel traces a life from boyhood to adulthood. The novel spans across the globe, from the all too familiar coasts of California and New York, to the more foreign terrains of the South Pacific, Asia, and Africa. The entire narrative is book-ended by political upheaval and civil unrest in the ’60s, giving it a dreamlike relevancy to current civil strife.
Neapolitan Quartet by Elena Ferrante
The series follows the friendship of two women set against poverty, violence, and political struggle. In the fourth and most recent novel, The Story of the Lost Child, Ferrante focuses on motherhood and marriage, balanced by her enduring preoccupation with female identity in tussle with social demands.
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli
This novel weaves through life of factory workers in Mexico city and Luisellii’s own literary influences. An odd exploration of art genesis and narrative credibility, weird images and arresting scenes, The Story of My Teeth is baffling, upsetting, and so so (ugh) lovable. Prepare to feel things and be emotionally conflicted.
Vertigo by Joanna Walsh
A feat of beautiful language that takes on the real disorientation of vertigo, Walsh takes the sensation of an experience and twists it with a new uncertainty. A woman dealing with a husband’s unfaithfulness experiences with the literal upheaval of gravity and space. In what feels like a crazy drug trip, the mundane becomes otherworldly and the simple becomes an optical illusion. Grab a handrail.
Images via Vogue Anatomy, Intraspectrum, The Boston Calendar, Boston Globe, Amazon, Spectator, and Feathers and Wax.