art, literature

Best Books Halfway Through 2015

It’s halfway through the year, so it’s time to update you on the best stuff I’ve been reading. This year I’m doing the Goodreads reading challenge and trying to read 50 books. I’m on pace so far, but there’s a lot of time to mess it up. As usual, this is not a “best books that came out in 2015” list (I’ve only read four or so books from this year). This is a list of the best books I’ve read this year.

In no particular order:

Philip Roth’s American Pastoral. You can see some thoughts I had on it back here.

Dan Simmon’s Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion.

Hyperion cannot easily be described. It pulls together several sci-fi elements that made me skeptical at first. Anything that deals with time manipulation, particularly time moving backwards, usually makes me groan. This cleverly makes it work.

The mystery is brought up early, and the narration is done through a sequence of stories. Each story hints at different pieces, but are wildly different in tone, style, time frame, and reference point. Each story is excellent in its own right. Together they form a beautiful non-traditional narrative.

Simmons is not only a master at suspense and mystery, but proves he can create a timeless work of art that still feels fresh and original 25 years later.

I was a little concerned when The Fall of Hyperion felt so different. Simmons is amazing with non-traditional point-of-view. He seamlessly works in a way to have both first person and third person (the first person character dreams the story of other characters in third person). It is quite a brilliant trick.

The story is just as gripping and page turning as the first. It gets weirder but in a good way. The sci-fi elements still feel fresh, unlike many novels from 1990. This is turning into one of my favorite sci-fi series, though I’m definitely concerned about continuing. This second book has a clear ending.

Ethan Canin’s Carry Me Across the Water.

This novel has exquisite pacing. It is very short, but spans three generations and never feels too quick. Each of the threads builds into a tragic, inevitable ending. The built suspense is perfectly executed.

I had serious doubts at first that this could work, because I spent the first third grappling with who was who and how they were related. It is a lot to take in, but by the half-way point, I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

I liked For Kings and Planets, because it asked the big questions. It showed how others dealt with those questions and the consequences of being flawed in answering them. This was the opposite. I liked it because each character had something familiar, but the novel as a whole remained focused on specific, non-universal questions worth pondering. This is a beautifully written and compelling story.

Ann-Marie MacDonald’s Adult Onset.

Adult Onset is a modern return to a novel form that has been relegated to history: the character study. You’ll find reviews that complain about “too much detail” or “nothing happens” or “slow” or other such nonsense.

This is a result of the age we live in. Everyone wants instant gratification. The plot has to move at this pace, in this way, with cliffhangers here and here, with a perfect Freytag pyramid structure, and on and on just so the reader can coast along with minimal effort.

Sorry to disappoint, but this book causes you frustration for a reason. It is an in-depth study of a single character through a few days of her life. Despite the focus, we end up getting a huge backstory masterfully woven into description.

The book stays highly focused on getting to the bottom of a character flaw. We all desperately want neat and tidy explanations for our psychology, yet we rarely get them. It is human nature, and it is explored with touching humanity here.

As outsiders, we want to shout at the character that sometimes life is messy. Stop trying to make it something it isn’t. Yet we can look to our own lives and find ourselves behaving just as the main character. This is the essence of a great character study.

The excessive description people complain about is done for a reason. The main character feels trapped in tedium. The description emulates these emotions by making the reader feel claustrophobic. You can sense every tiny moment of your day fill up with this stuff, and you want to escape to a moment of personal agency.

Welcome to the main character’s life. If you want plot, go read The Da Vinci Code. If you want art, you’ll find it here.

The worst book I’ve read this year has been Nell Zink’s Mislaid. This book is such a strangely overrated novel. We’ve somehow put ourselves in an emperor-has-no-clothes situation. This woman writes novels in a matter of weeks and then goes on to publish without really editing (according to her own interviews).

The effect is bad writing, but it is so different from the excellent, polished writing we are used to that people praise it for its quirkiness. It’s not. It’s just bad, and there aren’t enough people speaking out against this. This has to do with being bad for their careers to go against what many famous people are saying. Or maybe the groupthink is so strong they really believe it is good. Both scenarios represent a failure in the upper echelons of book reviewers.

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