You know that feeling? That feeling of finishing a book and not wanting to let go? Of diving so deeply inside that when you look up, you don’t know where you are or even who you are?
I so love that feeling. I kind of live for that feeling.
And I found it this year, in a series of books ranging from memoir to nonfiction, poetry to fiction. Some were published by big-time publishers, many by small presses and one, self-published.
I’ve learned that it doesn’t matter where or how a book is published. What matters is what that book gives to you, how it moves or transports you to another world or another realm or another emotional state.
So without further wordiness, here are some favorites of the many, many books I read this year.
Wave, by Sonali Deraniyagala. One of the most beautiful, heart wrenching and brave books I’ve ever read. Deraniyagala’s husband, two sons and parents were killed in the 2004 Sri Lankan tsunami and she writes about her grief in simple, bare-bones yet lyrical prose that bites with honesty. Deraniyagala isn’t afraid to show herself and her emotions in less than favorable light, which makes the book all the more powerful.
The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein: This book, oh, this book! I loved it so much, loved the voice of the dog Enzo, which was so lovable and warm and funny that it made me wish all dogs could speak. I cried at the end, cried so hard that my shirt neck was damp. Then I immediately turned to the beginning and started to read again.
Major Characters in Minor Films by Kristy Bowen. I read poetry, yes, I do. Some weeks, it’s all I read. I love the way words drip off my tongue and over my lips. I’ve been known to read one poem over and over until I can feel it thump with my heartbeat. And I love Bowen’s new work, especially the section called I Hate You James Franco, which is funny and clever and behind it all, shadowed with sadness.
The People of Forever Are Not Afraid by Shani Boianjiu. What a fascinating, compelling and unusual book. Written from the POV of three young female Israeli soldiers, the story chronicles coming-of-age experiences in unique and sometimes unsettling circumstances. The writing is funny at times, tender at others. What I loved best was the matter-of-fact tone, such as this section narrated by Yael: “They shot Dora after they put here inside the trunk. They shot her right before Mom’s red phone rang.”
The Brink by Austin Bunn: Holy, holy, I don’t know where to begin–this short story collection totally rocks. The writing is enviously smart and funny, real and authentic, and Bunn has a gift for digging down inside ordinary situations and turning them extraordinary. From a boy who takes a class on how to win a nuclear war to a young man caught in a cult to father who finds a dead baby in the basement and buries it, each story offers small slices of humanity and, sometimes, thwarted love. Reading them, it’s impossible not to want to call Bunn up and ask him out for tea, just to pick his brain a little bit more.
The Ghost Bride by Yangsze Choo. This book haunted me, and I stayed up all night reading, the covers pulled over my head as I traveled to the underworld, the plains of the dead, in this Chinese story weaving romance, myth and tradition. It’s a magical tale in one sense, yet gritted and real in another.
Altitude Sickness by Litsa Dremousis. My only complaint with this book is that I wish it were longer. Much, much longer. Dremousis ends it too soon; there is too much left unsaid, too much I still wanted to know. Still, it’s a gem of a memoir that gives the perspective of how loved one feels after a fatal mountaineering accident. Dremousis chronicles her relationship with “Neal” (his real name was changed for the book) and the aftermath of his death. “But still, I can’t help but wonder why Neal felt most alive risking death,” she writes.
Brief Encounters With Che Guevara by Ben Fountain: I didn’t expect to like this short story collection and put off reading it for months. Then I read the first story “Near-Extinct Birds of the Central Cordillera” and I was so stunned that I couldn’t move when I finished. I simply sat there, still engulfed in the story. I felt similar after reading “The Good Ones Are Already Taken.” These aren’t quick reads, loaded as they are with metaphor and meaning, but their very meatiness makes them worthy. P.S. Don’t forget to read the title story, “Brief Encounters With Che Guevara,” which is odd and funny and almost perfect.
The Geography of Water by Mary Emerick: This coming-of-age story set in Southeast Alaska reads like a poem, with a taste of water behind the words. I called in sick and stayed home to read and when I finished, I read it for a second time (I’ve since read it again). It’s a beautiful book, mythical and haunting and lovely.
Other memorable reads: