Maureen Corrigan’s Best Books Of 2015

This year, most of the best stories I read came in small-ish packages. Many books that were either big in size — like Garth Risk Hallberg’s over-900-page opus, City on Fire, and Jonathan Franzen’s 500-plus page Purity — ended up being just “OK.” The same, in my opinion, went for some books that generated “big buzz,” like Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies. Short stories and fragmented, intense memoirs dominate my best books list, along with the incredible true story of a short-haired dog.

The Tsar of Love and Techno: Stories
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Anthony Marra followed up on his acclaimed 2013 novel, A Constellation of Vital Phenomena, with this year’s superb short story collection, The Tsar of Love and Techno. The opening story, “The Leopard,” whose themes extend throughout this linked collection, focuses on an artist named Roman living in the Soviet Union of the 1930s. Roman has been ordered to erase the faces of dissidents from paintings. His own brother, Vaska, is one of those executed dissidents and, in defiance, Roman begins painting Vaska into the background of landscapes and state portraits. Roman tells us: “When I painted in [a] … party boss, I give him Vaska’s face … I realized that before I was a correction artist, a propaganda official, a Soviet citizen, before I was even a man, I was an afterlife for the images I had destroyed.”

Honeydew: Stories
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Edith Pearlman is a master of the short story, as well as a downright delicious writer, so it’s apt that her latest collection is called Honeydew. In the story, “Assisted Living,” for instance, the owner of a vintage jewelry and furniture store recognizes that her shop has become a second home for a wealthy couple named Stu and Muffy. Here’s how Pearlman conveys some of the pallidness of Muffy’s personality through this description of her voice: “It was as if [Muffy] had once been almost smothered and then allowed to live only if she limited her vocabulary and breathed hardly at all.” In contrast to Muffy’s whispery utterances, Pearlman’s own voice as a writer is sensuous, and her insights into the oddities of human behavior, unfailingly wise.

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories
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Lucia Berlin’s posthumous short story collection, A Manual for Cleaning Women, is filled with many kinds of voices: voices of clerical workers, hospital staff and switchboard operators, and, yes, cleaning women who put their jagged imprint on these 43 short stories — many of them extraordinary. Berlin’s stories are so much more than mere sociology: you can imagine their narrators sitting down next to you in a bar after work, ordering their first bottom-shelf shot and, unbidden, starting to talk about their crappy day. Here’s the opening of a story called “My Jockey,” which, at 1 1/2 pages, is one of the shortest pieces in this collection:

“I like working in Emergency — you meet men there, anyway. … They’re always coming into emergency rooms. Jockeys have wonderful X-rays. They break bones all the time but just tape themselves up and ride the next race. Their skeletons look like trees, like reconstructed brontosaurs. St. Sebastian’s X-rays.”

H is for Hawk
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Helen Macdonald’s best-selling memoir, H Is for Hawk, is certainly the roughest, toughest and, perhaps, the oddest meditation on grief that I’ve ever read. To read this memoir is to feel as though Emily Bronte just turned up at your door, trailing the windy, feral outdoors into your living room. Macdonald is a naturalist and a scholar of the history of science. When her father, a photographer, suddenly died, she spun downward into grief. “Memories” of him, she tells us, “are like heavy blocks of glass.” In response, Macdonald immerses herself in training a goshawk — a bird of prey — which she aptly describes as a thing of “death and difficulty.”

 

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