One lazy Sunday late in 2009, I tapped out a list of books that had resonated with me that year. It was a wonderful way to think seriously again about books I had read months prior. I wrote a few reflections about each book and then emailed the list to friends and family. And so the tradition was born.
Why thirteen? First, I just wanted to avoid the “Top 10” trope. I decided to select a dozen books instead. Then, not only was I unable to cut one more book from my list, but I also realized there was wonderfully silly alliteration to “Bodwell’s Baker’s.” Happy Reading!
2016 BODWELL’S BAKER’S DOZEN
(W.W. Norton, 2014)
I was reading “5 Under 35” honoree Molly Antopol’s sure-footed and confident debut short story collection from the end of 2015 into the first days of 2016, making it the first book I finished in 2016. Today, nearly twelve months later, Antopol’s stories, her characters and conflicts and scenes, are still burrowed in my brain. Antopol is an old soul—it’s a hackneyed term, I know, but it is accurate here: her stories are so damn assured even as they brim with historic sweep across far-flung geographies, but more than anything else they are full of wisdom beyond her years. Her stories feel both old fashioned and vital; they crackle with a current of curiosity. I’ll never forget the former Czech dissident-turned-New England university professor and his semi-estranged daughter in “The Quietest Man,” nor the storytelling structure of “My Grandmother Tells Me This Story” and its description of a makeshift Jewish camp in the Russian woods during World War II, nor the heartbreaking yet stunning conclusion of “The Old World” in which a middle-aged tailor meets and marries a Ukrainian widow, then travels with her back to her hometown.
(Random House, 1988)
Richard Babcock’s debut, Martha Calhoun pairs beautifully with his second novel, Bow’s Boy (which I read earlier this year): while Bow’s Boy is focused on the lives of three men in a small, Wisconsin logging town on the wane during the 1960s Vietnam War-era and women barely feature, Martha Calhoun is set in post-WW II early 1950s Illinois and centered almost exclusively on the lives of women. In the opening chapter, sixteen-year-old Martha is detained by police on a morals charge after a misunderstood incident with a nine-year-old boy she was babysitting. Martha is taken from Bunny, her beautiful but erratic mother, to live with the religious, anxious Mrs. Vernon (whose own teenager daughter has recently drowned), while the court-appointed social worker Mrs. O’Brien investigates. In a series of unfortunate events, Martha’s life spirals out of her control. The first-person narration is quietly riveting: Babcock convincingly casts Martha as both naïve and searching. About half-way through the book she asks a kindly Baptist minister “Do you think it’s possible to make one mistake—just one, simple mistake, when everything else is basically all right—and then have that mistake ruin your life?” and there’s no teen melodrama in the question, only an honest mix of curiosity and fear.
HERE AND NOWHERE ELSE: Late Seasons of a Farm and Its Family
(Beacon Press, 1995)
While sitting in the woodsmoke and glow of a campfire in Baxter State Park in August, I devoured Jane Brox’s L. L. Winship/PEN New England Award-winning debut Here and Nowhere Else. The book traces Brox’s return as an adult to live on her family’s farm in the Merrimack Valley. She illuminates the complexity of family and farmland with a lyrical, poetic precision full of love and celebration that is tinged with the frost of longing and disappointment. Her spare lines brim with breathtaking detail and accrue a power that reverberates after a scene is over, after a workday is done, after the last page is read and the book closed. I went on immediately to read Brox’s second book, Five Thousand Days Like This One: An American Family History, whose chapter “Influenza 1918” is a like a Chekhov short story, a city’s entire disease outbreak told in just a few dense, breathless pages. On Labor Day weekend, I finished Clearing Land: Legacies of the American Farm, the final book of Brox’s unofficial “Farm Trilogy,” reading by oil lamp in a circa-1920s cottage on a small Maine island.
THE ROAD TO LITTLE DRIBBLING
Sometimes I feel the need to defend Bill Bryson as a guilty pleasure. To those who only know the Midwesterner-turned-honorary-Englishman by his best-selling A Walk in Woods, I always suggest his masterwork: Notes from a Small Island. And while it’s not its equal, The Road to Little Dribbling revisits that book’s basic idea of slowly traversing England. So I was helpless to its sway. This time out, Bryson has calculated the longest distance one can travel in Britain in a straight line is from Bognor Regis in the south to Cape Wrath in the north. He christens it the Bryson Line and sets out, though never in a forced-march fashion: “The first principle of a British system,” he writes, “is that it should only appear systematic.” It’s been twenty years since his original adventure and Bryson has grown not just crankier but perhaps moved beyond cranky to full on misanthrope; the New York Times wrote Bryson’s view of Britain is “an irresistible mix of frustration and fascination.” But even when Bryson’s humor is at its bleakest, he’s often laughing at himself.
(Gerald Duckworth & Co., 1978)
As I read Penelope Fitzgerald’s elegant short novel The Bookshop with a growing sense of giddiness, I wondered Why is no one writing 120-page novels today?* Set in 1959, the novel is a snapshot of kindhearted, middle-aged widow Florence Green’s attempt to open a bookstore in the fictional East Anglian seaside village of Hardborough. Things are off to a promising start—leaking, haunted shop be damned—until Florence earns the ire of Violet Gamart, a retired general’s wife, who wants the book shop’s building for her own pet project. Filling out the cast are: Mr. Raven, the local marshman; Mr. Brundish an eccentric recluse nonetheless respected as the scion of Hardborough’s oldest family; and Christine Gipping, Florence’s heartbreakingly astute and tough 11-year-old assistant. You can open to any page and find astonishingly original lines such as “…a pile of novels which had the air, in their slightly worn jackets, of women on whom no one had ever made any demand.” Kirkus Reviews called The Bookshop “Pitch-perfect in every tone, note, and detail: unflinching, humane, and wonderful.” Few authors, I realized, are writing these kinds of slim, elegant novels today because they’re incredibly difficult to write.
(*Well, until November of this year, William Treavor was actually writing stunning short, 200ish-page novels such as Fools of Fortune, Felicia’s Journey, Love and Summer, and, of course, The Story of Lucy Gault. Trevor once quipped: “I’m a short-story writer who writes novels when he can’t get them into short stories.”)
JUBILEE HITCHHIKER: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF RICHARD BRAUTIGAN
William Hjortsberg’s 800-plus page biography of hippy king Richard Brautigan is not only endlessly exhaustive in detail but seriously somber in tone, making it something of a slog. And yet, I compulsively read the heavy biography. Hjortsberg, who was a neighbor and friend of Brautigan in Montana, spent more than two decades researching Brautigan’s life in minute detail and you can wonder if he left so much as a scrap of his findings on the cutting room floor. Thankfully, he rarely delves into excerpting or attempting to explain Brautigan’s work, instead training his laser focus on the man. I was startled to discover what a damaged soul Brautigan was, how cruel he could be to those around him, how calculating he could be about the personae he’d created for himself. I discovered Brautigan at perhaps nineteen years old and devoured everything he’d written. While Trout Fishing in America, A Confederate General From Big Sur, and In Watermelon Sugar are his most often cited books, his relatively subdued 1971 novel The Abortion and The Revenge of the Lawn, his sole short story collection, remain my favorites. In the end, the surreal and naïve innocence of Brautigan’s art belied a complex and often morose artist.
HEMINGWAY IN LOVE: HIS OWN STORY
(St. Martin’s Press, 2015)
This year, I read five books about Ernest Hemingway; I blame Key West. In January, I attended the always-exceptional Key West Literary Seminar for my third (and perhaps favorite) time, and moderated on-stage panels with legends such as Thomas McGuane and Joy Williams. While in Key West, I picked up Remembering Ernest Hemingway edited by James Plath and Frank Simons at Key West Island Books on Fleming Street, and on a high corner shelf at the Hemingway Home bookshop I couldn’t pass up the absolute nerdiness of Hemingway and The Mechanism of Fame: Statements, Public Letters, Introductions, Forewords, Prefaces, Blurbs, Reviews, and Endorsements edited by by Matthew J. Bruccoli. Later in the year, I read Lesley M. M. Blume’s Everybody Behaves Badly: The True Story Behind Hemingway’s Masterpiece The Sun Also Rises, which was exceedingly readable, but lacked any new or reveling academic research, or even fresh analysis. Ernest Hemingway: A New Life by James M. Hutchisson is arguably the best new biography of the author in years and makes a technical move few biographers have the luxury of making (for few biography subjects are as well known as Hemingway): he constantly injects information out of sequential order—writing about a moment in teenage Hemingway’s life, he’ll leap ahead to reference a specific short story. But Hemingway in Love: His Own Story by Papa confidant and biographer (of sorts) A. E. Hotchner feels intimate, concise, and utterly surprised me with descriptions of Hemingway’s return to Key West from Cuba in the 1950s with his fourth wife to deal with the Whitehead Street house he’d lived in with his second wife. This elegiac memoir is a flawed but fascinating companion to A Moveable Feast, the memoir Hemingway left unfinished when he died in 1961.
Vermont has always felt like the most un-New England of all New England states; less puritanical, more wild. Robin MacArthur lives on Vermont land her grandparents settled in the 1940s but the Vermont stories in her debut collection Half Wild are not stories of maple syrup and cheddar cheese from a tourism brochure. MacArthur’s is a Vermont of old farmhouses and trailers, drinking and smoking, people who have never left and others who have left but been drawn back; they are stories concerned with the have-nots more than the haves. With every gesture of love for place comes a complex reckoning with that love: “I don’t hate it here; I hate what happens to me when I am here,” says one of MacArthur’s protagonists. “I hate the way it draws me in. The way it leads to nowhere but itself. The way everyone and everything is connected and a person cannot be free.” MacArthur’s fine dispatches from the Northeast Kingdom not only brim with a sense of primeval place, there is authentic affection every time she writes potent words such as pin cherry, maidenhair, and sumac, or field, stonewall, and creek.
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2016)
Everybody’s Fool is not simply a sequel to Richard Russo’s beloved 1993 novel Nobody’s Fool; Russo is too curious a writer for such a thing. The new novel opens one decade after Nobody’s Fool and while all (well, almost all) of the characters we remember are still schlepping along, this isn’t Sully’s (and Rub’s) story but rather Officer (now Chief) Raymer’s story. The author of eight novels, two story collections, a stand-alone novella, a memoir, and more than half a dozen screenplays, Russo is in full command of North Bath as he juggles, in Ron Charles’s Washington Post list, “mudslides, grave robbery, collapsing buildings, poisonous snakes, drug deals, arson, lightning strikes and toxic goo.” As is to be expected in Russo’s declining mill town stories, this wonderfully unhurried novel brims with wry humor and ruminative protagonists, and his great gift for drawing hilarity from his characters’ pathos is on full display. When I discussed this novel with Russo earlier this year, we got onto the topic of his own cautious, hard-won optimism, and he said something that’s stayed with me all year: “One reason I’m not more pessimistic is that it doesn’t get you anywhere.”
THE DREAM LIFE OF ASTRONAUTS
(The Dial Press, 2016)
The dust-jacket of Patrick Ryan’s short story collection is lousy with gushing blurbs from some of my favorite writers: Ann Beattie, Maile Meloy, and Richard Russo. The first story alone—“The Way She Handles”—proves that this book more than lives up to its dust-jacket praise. Ryan builds narratives that feel familiar and inviting, yet prove consistently surprising. His stories seem elegantly effortless flow and often lull the reader with laughter before handing out a gut punch. And my god, Ryan can squeeze a profound sense of yearning from his characters, be it sixteen-year-old Frankie in “The Dream Life of Astronauts” or a beautiful teen auditioning for a shady, self-proclaimed talent scout in “Miss America.” Throughout this near faultless collection, Ryan stirs together children (or young adults) and adults (or adults behaving like children) in complex and escalating situations while delicately adjusting the balance of humor and tragedy. “…if Mr. Ryan…is unflinching in depicting their liabilities,” wrote Michiko Kakutani in the New York Times, “he also displays a gift for excavating the dashed hopes and yearnings that lie beneath.”
THE BOOK OF ARON
(Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)
While I read Jim Shepard’s slim masterpiece The Book of Aron, young Aron’s naive, deadpan narration haunted my days. Driving to work, driving home, cooking dinner, brushing my teeth, I thought of Aron. I thought of Aron in Nazi-invaded Poland, always hungry and cold in the shrinking ghetto, always desperate, fleeing disease, ricocheting from horror to horror but still unaware—unable to even imagine—what we the reader know is coming: the Holocaust. I have long admired Shepard’s short stories, and gifted many copies of the One Story edition of his breathtaking “The World to Come,” but this novel may be his most masterful, mature work to date. Shepard’s risky artistic decision with this novel is also its greatest success: he gives Aron sole narration of the story. Even though Aron is not educated and often seems emotionally stunted, stubborn, and selfish, and is disliked by both his family and other children, Shepard keeps his lens tight and forces our empathetic focus on Aron as his world devolves at a relentless pace. Thank god The Book of Aron is just 250-pages because this novel is devastating. It gutted me. But I couldn’t put it down.
MY NAME IS LUCY BARTON
(Random House, 2016)
Last year, in the course of two sittings on one day, I devoured Kent Haruf’s final novel, Our Souls at Night. This year, the novel that captivated me with the same inescapable grasp was Elizabeth Stout’s My Name is Lucy Barton. At 200-pages, this is Strout’s slimmest novel to date, and in Lucy’s voice she delivers perhaps her most crystalline prose. The novel begins: “There was a time, and it was many years ago now, when I had to stay in a hospital for almost nine weeks.” Lucy’s semi-estranged mother arrives, ghostlike, from the Midwest and sits with her daughter. From within the rawness of this mother/daughter relationship and the stories Lucy’s reveals and ruminates on, Strout spins complex wisdoms. Writing in the New York Times, Claire Messud noted Lucy might be a distant relation of Strout’s Pulitzer Prize-winning protagonist Olive Kitteridge in how she “hovers at the edge of the sayable, attempting to articulate experiences that have never been and, without the force of her will, might never be expressed.” Throughout the novel, Lucy occasionally recalls writing advice from a former teacher, such as “…she said that her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.” Luckily for us readers, Strout has been beautifully heeding this very advice for decades now.
Simon Van Booy
Simon Van Booy’s third novel, Father’s Day, eschews the wistful lyricism of his first novel, Everything Beautiful Began After, and gentle melancholy of his second, The Illusion of Separateness. Father’s Day shifts between Harvey as a twenty-something American woman living in Paris, preparing for and visiting with her uncle Jason—who adopted and raised her from age six after her parents’ sudden death—and Harvey and Jason in the early years of the adoption. While Harvey is in many ways a typical six-year-old roiling with a mixture of innocence, sweetness, and stubbornness, the younger Jason is a rage-filled ex-con who smokes, drinks, and is prone to violent outbursts. The seething scenes before Jason’s slow evolution and embracing of fatherhood are sometimes difficult to read, but the book’s rawness is balanced with Van Booy’s hallmark of quiet compassion. He writes here with a restraint similar to one of my favorite books of last year, Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night. Van Booy’s sentences are crisp and unadorned and, in the end, strike a tender, redemptive note.
2016 BONUS LISTS!
Favorite Re-Read Short Story Collection
The Night in Question by Tobias Wolff
Favorite Short Story Collection of Men Behaving Badly
Middle Men by Jim Gavin
Favorite Audio Book
So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (read by the author!)
Favorite Paperback Original Novel
The Motel Life by Willy Vlautin
Favorite Debut Novel I Missed in 2013
The Next Time You See Me by Holly Goddard Jones
Various Wonderful Short Stories
“For the Best” by Ann Beattie from the New Yorker
“Save a Horse Ride a Cowgirl” by Ann Beattie from the New Yorker
“When in the Dordogne” by Lily King from One Story Issue #212
“Madame Lazurus” by Maile Meloy from the New Yorker
“A Little Customer Service” by Lori Ostlund from ZYZZYVA