Maureen Corrigan's Best Books Of 2015: Short(ish) Books That Pack A Big Punch

Dec 7, 2015
Originally published on December 7, 2015 5:18 pm

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.

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Transcript

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. It's time for our book critic Maureen Corrigan's best-of-the-year list. Maureen says the motto for 2015 is, size doesn't matter.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: This year, most of the best stories I read came in smallish 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 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 shorthaired dog. Anthony Marra followed up on his acclaimed 2013 novel, "A Constellation Of Vital Phenomena," with this year's 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, (reading) when I painted in a party boss, I gave 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.

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 store recognizes that her shop has become a second home for a couple named Stu and Muffy. Here's how Pearlman conveys the pallidness of Muffy's personality through this description of her voice. (Reading) 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.

Lucia Berlin's posthumous short story collection "A Manual For Cleaning Women" is filled with other kinds of voices, voices of clerical workers, hospital staff, switchboard operators and, yes, cleaning women, who put their jagged imprint on these 43 short stories, many of them extraordinary.

Speaking of jagged, Helen Macdonald's best-selling memoir, "H Is For Hawk" is certainly the roughest, toughest meditation on grief that I've ever read. As a response to the sudden death of her father, Macdonald immerses herself in training a goshawk, a bird of prey which she describes as a thing of death and difficulty.

Another idiosyncratic memoir about grief is poet Elizabeth Alexander's "The Light Of The World," which chronicles the sudden death in 2012 of her husband, a chef and painter. Alexander describes her late husband's paintings as mostly dark but lit with brilliant corners of insistent life, which isn't a bad way to describe her own memoir.

Patti Smith's "M Train" also touches on the sudden death of a spouse. Unlike her first memoir, the now-classic "Just Kids," which was all about the thrill of becoming, the more incantatory "M Train" is mostly about the challenge of enduring erosion.

My final nominee for a standout memoir of 2015 is George Hodgman's "Bettyville." Hodgman, who had a big publishing career in New York, writes of moving home to Paris, Mo. to care for his elderly mother, Betty, who's never acknowledged that her son is gay. In the opening scene, Hodgman is roused by a fretful Betty in the middle of the night. (Reading) Here she is, all 90 years of her, curlers in disarray, peeking into our guest room, where I have been mostly not sleeping. It is the last place in America with shag carpet. In it, I have discovered what I believe to be a toenail from high school.

On to some terrific novels. Mary Gaitskill's "The Mare" explores the charged relationship between a Fresh-Air-Fund kid of color from Brooklyn and her white middle-class sponsor. As you'd expect from Gaitskill, the novel sidesteps sentimentality and goes straight for the jugular.

Kazuo Ishiguro's "The Buried Giant" is an eerie fantasy tale about a pair of elderly medieval pilgrims fighting through the mist to hold onto their memories and each other.

"The Story Of The Lost Child," the fourth and last installment of Elena Ferrante's remarkable "Neapolitan Novels," about the decades-long friendship between two working-class girls also deserves a mention. Though, do yourself a favor, and read the three earlier novels first.

I promised a dog story as a bonus, and here it is. "No Better Friend," by Robert Weintraub, is an account of World War II's only canine prisoner of war, a pointer named Judy who spent three years alongside her servicemen companions in a Japanese POW camp. When I originally reviewed it, I somewhat glibly called "No Better Friend," the canine version of "Unbroken." And in this dark season, at the end of what's turned out to be a dark year, an inspiring story of steadfast courage sounds more appealing than ever.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. You can find her list of the best books of the year on our website, freshair.npr.org. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.