As the end of the year approaches and the "best of" lists continue to roll out, we are reminded that the best readers are writers. Our writers, specifically. So we asked a handful of FSG Originals authors to share the best book they read in 2015. Their answers, unsurprisingly, are positively original...
Frank Bill, author of Crimes in Southern Indiana and Donnybrook
Went back to working nights in February and started reading like a meth raged librarian. The ones that stood out with an everlasting effect for story, word-whoring and made me envious has to start with Ron Rash’s Burning Bright and Nothing Gold Can Stay,—best damn short story writer BAR NONE!
Other bad-ass fiction this year: Where All Light Tends to Go by David Joy, I read the ARC the previous year and got the finished hard copy—signed, thanks David—and read it again. Then met and had bourbon with David earlier in the year, damn cool squire! The Exiled by Chris Narozny, it hits next year, but it’s a helluva read, mixes crime, noir with a powerful literary voice and style that keeps you navigating page to page. The Power of the Dog by Don Winslow was a tour-de-force, totally blown away by this guy. And All We Need of Hell by the late great Harry Crews was everything you want in novel, go find it and you’ll see what I’m talking about!
And some great pieces of nonfiction too. Reefer Madness by Eric Schlosser was eye opening and powerful. Deep Down Dark by Héctor Tobar—I started it last year, I believe, when I was on days, never finished it because of time constraints, picked it back up this year, and let me say, it’s a very absorbing read about the Chilean miners. Death’s Acre by Dr. Bill Bass and Jon Jefferson was damn interesting, if you’ve ever wondered about decomposition. Hell’s Angels by Hunter S. Thompson, really dig Hunter’s style and choice of words. And I finally finished Murder City by Charles Bowden, who passed last year, and is one of my favorite writers. It's fitting that he was recommended to me by singer/songwriter and dear friend Ray Wylie Hubbard when we first met way back in 2011, as he just published a memoir, A Life…Well, Lived—I finished this book weeks ago and let me say its my favorite read this year, had me laughing out loud many times, but most of all it’s TRUE, and the way he tells his story is just as invigorating and foot-stomping-hysterical as the way he writes and sings songs, the man is an icon.
Jace Clayton, author of Uproot (forthcoming summer 2016)
Back in 1974 Fran Ross published the great American novel, Oreo. It's an anti-essentialist picaresque about a teen from Philly who goes to Manhattan in search of "the king of the voice-over actors," her father. The novel runs through Greek myth and sex/math/food jokes gassed by polystylistic riffs, with Yiddish in spades and a masterful use/abuse of language at the heart of it. Very smart, very funny.
How did Oreo not become an instant classic, revising the way we think of contemporary lit lineages? For all those selfsame reasons it seems. When Oreo failed to make waves, Ross moved to LA—to write comedy for Richard Pryor.
This actually happened. I love this woman.
In 2015 Oreo was published (for the third time). Three different publishers have tried to bring Fran Ross to our attention. How long until we are ready for her? The bitterness of Ross not having the last laugh reminds us that all the good jokes have a knife twist to them.
Friends of Koons Crooks, editors of Iterating Grace
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Joshua Davis, author of Spare Parts
My fave book of the year was The Brief and Tragic Life of Robert Peace by Jeff Hobbs. Hobbs tells the heart-breaking and deeply reported story of the life of his former college roommate. It’s beautiful and maddening at the same time: Peace had so much talent and ability that it is hard to accept the choices he made.
My favorite, most original book is hands down And the Band Played On, by Randy Shilts. What a colossal work of reporting. Moving between about fifteen time zones and a few dozen characters, he recreates the rise of AIDS and its lethal march across America, speeded along by the self-interest of so many groups involved in supposedly stopping it. It's a murder mystery, a great work of science writing, an elegy to a period, a meditation on the connection between sexuality and social movements, and a profoundly political work about the neglect shown by the Reagan administration in the face of a terrible epidemic, largely because the people it were affecting were gay and poor and of color. I loved it and learned so much in reading it.
Amelia Gray, author of THREATS and Gutshot
Bird by Noy Holland. Absolutely stunning at the line level. The experience of reading it is like picking a thick scab off a wound and watching it well up again.
Lian Hearn, author of The Tale of Shikanoko (the first volume, The Emperor of Eight Islands, comes out in April 2016; the remaining three volumes will be published throughout the year)
I have been in awe of the mysterious intelligence and short beautiful lives of cephalopods since childhood so The Soul of an Octopus by Sy Montgomery was essential reading. I found it illuminating and heartbreaking. Can we really only understand other creatures by keeping them in captivity?
In a year when the Middle East descended into even greater chaos, confusion and tragedy, Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads; A New History of the World, offered clarity and a kind of grim reassurance.
The African settings were for me among the many delights in two stay up all night novels of startling originality: The Book of Phoenix by Nnedi Okorafor and The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne.
Published in 2005 but new to me, The Bonds of Civility by Eiko Ikegami opened my eyes to the way that even in the most repressive of societies horizontal networks of art, literature and culture can survive and flourish.
Eli Horowitz, author of The Pickle Index and co-author of The Silent History
Chronicle of a Death Foretold. For some reason I waited until my 38th year to read any Marquez, and for some reason I started with this thin novella. (Actually, I guess that’s the reason, the thinness — I’m a lazy dabbler, sorry!) But the book is a little marvel—somehow manages to feel like both a fable and a documentary, simultaneously lyrical and objective.
Catherine Lacey, author of Nobody Is Ever Missing
I did not get much reading done this year, as I was mostly writing, traveling and intentionally doing nothing, but I picked up Jesse Ball's Silence Once Begun and could not put it down. I won't insult this novel by trying to describe it, but it affected me so deeply I had to immediately read and buy his new one, A Cure For Suicide and I expect I start working through his backlist soon.
J. M. Ledgard, author of Terra Firma Triptych
Ursula K. Le Guin's Wizard of Earthsea (read aloud), Jeff VanderMeer's Annihilation (!), and Paul Slack's Invention of Improvement.
I read a lot of science papers, a lot of intelligence reports on jihad (for the film version of Submergence), and a lot of Thomas Hardy. I enjoyed meeting Eleanor Catton. I am saving the new Asterix for Christmas. I also have a stack of neuroscience papers on out of body experiences suggesting that spectres are only the misplaced orientation of the body in time and space.
Geoff Manaugh, author of A Burglar's Guide to the City (forthcoming April 2016)
The Strait Gate by Daniel Jütte was one of the year’s most pleasant surprises. Jütte, a junior history fellow at Harvard, explores the everyday folklore, political symbolism, and omnipresent criminal temptation of the doorway throughout European history. Equal parts architectural history and a spatial anthropology of the threshold, Jütte’s book is an exhaustive compendium of what it means to maintain that fine line between an inside and an outside.
Future Crimes by Marc Goodman is an excellent futurist perspective on breaking the law, with a strong technological bent—from cybercrime to murderous robots—and really should be required reading for anyone who uses the internet.
It was a strong year for graphic novels, as well; The Fade Out by Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips was particularly noteworthy. The (still ongoing) series is a wonderfully nuanced L.A. noir set in a time of anti-Communist witch-hunts, depraved studio heads, full-throttle alcoholism, and the often-skewed morals of lost people determined to reinvent themselves in Hollywood.
I will confess to not being a fan of artist Tony Oursler’s installation work, but Imponderable: The Archives of Tony Oursler is a massively interesting encyclopedia of all things spiritualist and occult. Ghost photography, “electronic hypnosis inducers,” haunted catacombs, gaudy circus showmen, the Tibetan god of death, Hitler—countless color photos, illustrations, and nearly a hundred pages of essays come together in a great doorstopper of a design by London’s Zak Group.
Finally, amid many other books worth reading this year, including The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf and Inside the Machine by Megan Prelinger, a novel I finally got around to reading—although it was first published in 1991—was the brilliantly strange Flicker by Theodore Roszak. Picture Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum rewritten as a bonkers film world conspiracy, complete with sex magic, sinister orphanages, the Cathar heresy, and an optical device known only as a “Sallyrand,” and you can begin to imagine the outlines of Roszak’s brazenly ambitious story, where moving images are anything but a mundane form of private entertainment.
Mary Mann, author of Yawn: A History of Boredom Without the Boring Bits (forthcoming 2017)
Ryszard Kapuscinski's Travels With Herodotus is so good that I read it twice this year, once in the winter and once in the fall. He's just the kind of person whose voice you like having in your head.
Shelly Oria, author of New York 1, Tel Aviv 0
Miranda July's The First Bad Man outsmarted me, again and again, and so I had no choice but to fall in love with it. And I did—harder than for any other book this year. Books can of course outsmart us all kinds of ways; The First Bad Man does it not so much with plot twists or unexpected turns—though there are a few of those, too—but with a kind of elasticity. Every time you get comfortable, the book changes the rules on you, becomes something new. And you keep following and can't put it down not only because the prose is beautiful and the voice so funny and so, so weird, but mostly because there's rawness in every page, an honesty of the kind that arguably separates all good art from great. That honesty, I think, is also how July succeeds—in 2015!—in taking on sexuality, and fantasy, and motherhood, and anger, and actually looking at these issues from a new angle. Isn't that a small miracle?
Robin Sloan, author of Ajax Penumbra 1969
This year's most memorable reading experience wasn't my own. After a string of unsatisfying novels, my girlfriend Kathryn was casting about for something new to read; I recommended Nicola Griffith's Hild, a saga of 7th-century England, 546 pages long, the perfect winter book. What followed was like watching someone fall under the power of a literal magic spell. For the next 72 hours, Kathryn hardly moved or spoke. Her spot on the couch grew semi-permanent. Blankets accrued; food was carried to her. I was mesmerized by her palpable pleasure; watching her read, I fell under a second-order spell. I took pictures.
And I knew from my own experience reading Hild two winters ago that there would be no plot hangover afterwards—not a trace of “well THAT book was a waste of time but at least I know who killed High Prince Threnodon.” Hild's magic is the nourishing kind.
Sure enough, when Kathryn returned at last to the realm of speech and action, she declared 'Hild' the best book she's read since Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series—in our household, the highest possible praise.
The satisfaction of making a perfect recommendation (Kathryn, you're welcome) plus a reminder of the power & pleasure of the big, wintry saga: this was my most memorable read of 2015. And I didn't even read it.
Cote Smith, author of Hurt People (Forthcoming February 2016)
Before this year, I was among the countless unfortunates who'd never heard of Lucia Berlin. And even when I held a copy of A Manual for Cleaning Women in my hands, I had no idea of the splendor before me. Here are stories that remind us of the simultaneous danger and reward of a life boldly lived. A book that, through its parade of badass and complicated characters, encourage us to take chances. To move. Change jobs. Get married. Get divorced. Marry again. Divorce again. Love your children. Mess up your children. Love them even more. Drink. Drink too much. Apologize. Don't apologize. Repeat. Repeat. And above all else, read Lucia.
Laura van den Berg, author of The Isle of Youth and Find Me
I read a lot of books I deeply loved this year, and one of my favorites was The End of Days by Jenny Erpenbeck. The novel is structured as five “books,” with each centering around a different death, in a different moment in time, of the same unnamed woman, and interspersed with “intermezzos” that explore how things might have gone differently. The structural vision is balls-out virtuosic, and Erpenbeck’s prose is unmatched in its precision and unrelenting intensity. You won’t read anything like it this year—or ever.
Jeff VanderMeer, author of Area X: The Southern Reach Trilogy (Annihilation, Authority, Acceptance)
Michael Cisco’s novel Animal Money is like an uncanny Infinite Jest remixed by way of Bolaño and Pynchon—all in the service of telling the story of five heavily-bandaged economists who come up with a radical idea at a bizarre conference next to an even weirder university. It includes economist jumping duels, a swarm of microscopic Dobermans, and quests to find the uber-economist. Scary and hilarious and brilliant.
And from the peanut gallery...
Emily Bell, Editor, FSG Originals
This year I read Joy Williams’ The Quick and the Dead for the first time, though it certainly won’t be the last. It is entirely original and had me doubled over in laughter. It was published in 2000 and, miraculously, nothing feels dated about it. In fact, it’s fresher than most of what I read that was published this year. Somehow this book is both deeply skeptical and utterly sincere. She’s a magician, that Joy Williams. Plus, it’s set in the desert and I’m a sucker for the dusty West.
Sean McDonald, Publisher, FSG Originals
Like everyone else who grew up on the beach and knows how to read (we are legion!), I’ve been waiting for William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days for years now. And since it arrived this summer, I’ve been reading it very, very slowly—because the Great Surfing Book is very rare and must be savored. And Barbarian Days is legitimately great, at least so far—I’ll be reading the last chapter over our imminent 70-degree New York Christmas. I’m not saying that I hold Finnegan responsible for this endless summer—which even I, avowed season-hater, can acknowledge as outrageous—nor will I blame/credit this year’s instantly indispensable California Sunday Magazine or the inspiring NYRB Classics reissues of Leonard Gardner’s Fat City and Eve Babitz’s Eve’s Hollywood...but it is tempting. For all that, though, weather patterns, surf stories, and gritty glamour aside, it was a very different California book that affected me most this year: Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside hit with full, searing force—and with an unexpected narrative embrace that made it as page-turning as it is heartbreaking. It feels like the book is being read this year as a kind of companion to Ta-Nehisi Coates's Between the World and Me, and they make a powerful, provocative duo. Throw in Kendrick Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly and maybe 2015 is the year we learn that maybe we just can start a revolution.
Bring on 2016!