One of the unfortunate realities of literary marketing is that so many books, once they pass their initial window of newness, get swept offstage and forgotten. Even with music this is unfair, and it takes what, 45 minutes to listen to an album? Am I betraying something significant about my worldview by thinking in terms of albums rather than songs? The point is, it takes time to read a book. With the sheer volume of new releases out each week, no reader makes it through more than a handful before another batch is acclaimed as must reads. This isn’t even me saying the diagnosis of must read is necessarily wrong, just that there’s necessarily something lost in the churn from one batch of new books to the next. So, here are five books worth buying and reading from 2015 that I either didn’t get a chance to read or write about when they were brand new.
- Image via University of Wisconsin Press
The thing about Mark Merlis is, he’s a really good writer. Once upon a time, Walter Kirn wrote an essay in praise of the good novel (as opposed to great, if I remember right, if the essay ever really existed – can’t seem to prove it did). JD is a good novel, every bit good enough that you’ll look forward to getting back to it when you have time each day. What we have is this: a novelist-cum-scholar, Jonathan Ascher has died, and years later, a scholar writes to his widow, asking to work with his papers. His widow, Martha, is uneasy with the request, and finally digs into her late husband’s papers, his journals in particular, to see if she’s being unreasonable.
It all sounds like a sort of low-stakes matter, but Merlis has complete command of the voices here. The whole thing unfolds across Martha’s weeks/months of sizing up and remembering her life with Jonathan, and the pseudo-private entries Jonathan made in his journals. Pseudo-private because she suspects he’d always wanted them to be read and studied. What’s betrayal, what’s honesty – it’s all in play here, and it’s to his credit that there’s never a moment when it feels like the conclusion that emerges really belongs to Merlis rather than someone in the novel. There’s a touching moment, to me at least, when the scholar who got in touch with Martha talks about “coming out as second rate.” Merlis won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction in 1995, among other prizes, and also managed a career working on health care policy, including the creation of the Ryan White Act. If I had to narrow this list down to one book, JD would be the one, and the other four are very good.
- Image via Text Publishing
Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’m good with that, actually, but it’s nice to see Gerald Murnane’s name mentioned once a year in American publications handicapping who might get the prize. Its abiding concern is Murnane’s lifelong devotion to horse racing, but from the outset it’s clear that he’s long since accepted that what happens on the track means as much to him personally, as part of his mythos, as it does on an emerging, day-to-day basis. His car’s radio no longer picks up all the races, and the newspaper coverage is condensed. He doesn’t mention it – the event occurred after his memoir’s publication – but Michelle Payne became the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup in November of 2015. Murnane doesn’t seem likely to lament the change. It’s the horses that capture his imagination, the silks they and their riders wear and the drama of the uncertainty as they head into the final turn. Well, that and the exaggerated tales from trainers, punters and the like. If there’s a reason I’m let down that Dylan got the Nobel, it’s that Murnane would’ve suddenly had a much larger readership if he’d won.
- Image via Paul Russell/Cleis Press
Paul Russell wrote a pair of novels centered on the same four friends, twenty-five years apart. That in itself is enough to justify your interest. It also sort of means I’m recommending the first book, The Salt Point, as well, even though he does an admirable job of filling in the blanks in Immaculate Blue, without making it awkwardly apparent that he’s doing so. In fact, three of the four – Anatole, Lydia and the estranged Chris – are back together for Anatole’s wedding. They’re much different after twenty-five years, naturally – both more and less serious, which is to say their ideas of what matters now correspond to the larger number of people they’re committed to and responsible for. Lydia has a husband and son. Anatole is set to marry Rafa and they’ve discussed kids by various channels. Chris, well, he’s dealt with matters of life and death up close, in Iraq and more recently Nigeria. Leigh, “Our Boy of the Mall” as they refer to him in The Salt Point, is forty-four now and also in a committed relationship. Their inevitable changes are no less notable than those Russell himself has undergone, to judge by the two books. The Salt Point is brooding and poetic, truly gorgeous line by line, and the ending is almost hermetic in its darkness. Immaculate Blue refutes a lot of that brooding. It’s not without its introspective, reflective moments, but it also acknowledges that there’s life after what seem to be signal moments, big decisions that later aren’t so big for the immediate break as much as the options they afford us afterward.
- Image via Rebecca Barry Rego/Voyageur Press
I don’t collect books as seriously as I’d like. It’s an expensive hobby and I lack the expertise to avoid pissing away large sums of money. What I do appreciate, admire, choose the word you like, is the romance of that pursuit. In truth I’d own a bookstore, in another time, place, life. Rebecca Barry Rego writes here about people bold and knowing enough to own bookstores in the here and now, and how they came by some of their most prized quarry. I should add she’s one of my most favorite editors. Without her Fine Books & Collections wouldn’t be nearly the magazine it is.
In Rare Books Uncovered, she writes, “For better or worse, serendipity plays a significant role in antiquarian book collecting and bookselling.” Absolutely, and I won’t spoil a single one of the serendipitous moments she writes about in the book. I’d say we should all be so lucky, but if we were, stories like these wouldn’t mean nearly as much. Highly recommended.
- Image via Vintage Books
Know how many writers like David Shields we have in America? One, I’m going to say, just the one. He’s intelligent and endlessly curious, but if you can’t say that about a writer, that writer’s just painting by numbers. What takes Shields a step beyond, or many steps at times, is that he turns that curiosity on himself, his own thought processes, and he seemingly refuses to offer himself the comfortable way forward in those moments. About a dozen years ago, I sent him some emails about his book Black Planet, which deals with race and a season with the NBA’s then Seattle Supersonics. Leaving aside the fact that allowing the Sonics to move was a gross miscarriage of justice, I disagreed with him completely on a number of things. I said so (I was younger and more likely to bother with these disagreements then), and what happened? He wrote back, granted that I might be right but he had his reasons for the conclusions he reached, and then we discussed the Sonics summer league games. We both watch a lot of basketball, is the other takeaway there.
This is the kind of writer who should get the Macarthur Genius Grant. Can you imagine how he’d torment himself, with 600 or so grand and a bunch of time to write and think? Sign me up to read the results. I Think You’re Totally Wrong is unlike anything else in recent American letters. He goes off for a weekend with a former student, Caleb Powell, who’s also a writer, and they go back and forth on a variety of topics. The resulting book is funny and irritating as hell and really smart. I went away feeling really fond of them both but also glad they didn’t invite me on their weekend trip. James Franco’s made a movie of it, a metafictional extension of the premise that apparently includes James Franco, who should not ever get the Macarthur Genius Grant under any circumstances. And you know what? Powell holds his own, at least in the book. We should hear a lot more from him in the future. Just give him all the access and exposure James Franco gets. The world will be a more exciting place.
– John McIntyre