In 2015 I read exactly 91 books: 45 were authored by women, 45 by men, and one was a collaboration. While I covered a great many in the pages of The Floating Library, here's a look at a few of my favorites that I haven't already written about:
The Pledge by Friedrich Dürrenmatt (1958)
This slender little novel was published in Switzerland in 1958 but has had a lasting impact. The story concerns an obsessed police detective who is assigned a case—the murder of a young girl—shortly before he is set to retire and finds he cannot let it go. This scenario can be found in hundreds of crime stories, each more reductive than the next, but there is something about Dürrenmatt's story that sets it head and shoulders above the rest, and he seemed to know it, too. (Its subtitle is Requiem for the Detective Novel.) Sean Penn adapted it for his directorial debut and it was a huge influence on True Detective (Season 1). (We won't talk about Season 2. Ever.)
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn (1989)
This is one of those books that I've been carrying around with me for decades. My late aunt gave it to me after I graduated from college in the early '90s. Even though she passed away not long afterward, I was reluctant to read it for reasons I can't explain. My aunt was very clever but she could be cruel, too, and I didn't know quite what to expect from the book. She acquired it at a sale at her local library in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and the book is stained and worn by people who thumbed its pages more than 20 years ago. I knew Geek Love was strange—it's about a family of freaks in a traveling circus—but I wasn't prepared for how delightfully, wickedly perverse this little monster of a book is.
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli (2015)
Valeria Luiselli's second book of fiction may have been the most surprising book I read all year. Ostensibly, it's about an auctioneer named Gustavo "Highway" Sanchez with an incredible gift for persuasion and can sell absolutely anything, including his teeth. Luiselli's Highway enters the great tradition of unreliable narrators in a book that is itself unreliable. With each chapter my sense of what I was reading changed and kept changing all the way through the end. If The Story of My Teeth were a movie, the trailer would ruin it, so the less said about the book's mechanics the better, but it can safely be said that, with this wildly inventive tale, Luiselli has achieved something that no novelist has done before, which in itself is an achievement. Beautifully illustrated and laid out in lavish style, The Story of My Teeth is a feast for the imagination.
Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal (2015)
To be perfectly honest with you, I didn't think I was going to like this book. I'm familiar with the author and his work and know him to be a sharp, funny and genuinely likable person, but I didn't think Kitchens of the Great Midwest was for me. The book tells the story of a remarkable chef's rise to fame told through the point-of-view of several different characters that interact with the chef at various stages in her life. I didn't have a problem with the structure; it was the words "Kitchen" and "Midwest," that I struggled with. It might as well have been called Sappy and Sentimental as far as I was concerned. The book has recipes in it for crying out loud—a strong indicator that this book simply wasn't for me. I couldn't have been more wrong. I loved this book. It reminded me of Jennifer Egan's A Visit from the Goon Squad in its power to make me feel a wide range of emotions. It's funny, it's sad, and it's very, very smart. What it is not is sappy or sentimental. That for me was the biggest takeaway: that an artist can mine the most nostalgic material of his youth and transform it into high art. I did cry reading Kitchens of the Great Midwest—while reading a fucking menu. I don't know how he did it, but Stradal can set his next novel in a nursery or nursing home or a farm with talking animals and I will read it.
Thank you for reading The Floating Library. I look forward to embarking on many more journeys with you in the coming year.