The Best Books of 2015

Lee Polevoi


A selection of the year’s best works of fiction and nonfiction, some of which were reviewed this past year in Highbrow Magazine.


H is for Hawk

By Helen Macdonald

Grove Press


When her father died unexpectedly several years ago, the British naturalist Helen Macdonald was left unhinged by grief. She sought comfort in an unusual activity--training a captive-bred goshawk from infancy to maturity. The result is H is for Hawk, one of the most striking memoirs to appear in recent years.


I read this book early in 2015 and images MacDonald conjures up still haunt me. The author as a young girl accompanies masters of falconry into the English countryside and sees for herself the birds’ ineradicable yearning for freedom. When the falcons are released into the air, not all of them come back:


“It seemed that the hawks couldn’t see us at all, that they’d slipped out of our world entirely and moved into another, wilder world from which humans had been utterly erased. These men knew they had vanished. Nothing could be done except to wait. So we left them behind: three solitary figures staring up into trees in the winter dusk, mist thickening in the fields around them, each trusting that the world would later right itself and their hawk would return.”


H is for Hawk demands to be read slowly, in order to savor the texture of emotions Macdonald so cunningly evokes, and for the simple joy of following one human being’s attempt to connect with a creature of the wild.



Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania

By Erik Larson



How the Lusitania, a turn-of-the-century luxury steamship, came to be torpedoed off the Irish Coast remains a powerful episode of history, no matter how many times the story’s retold. In Dead Wake, Erik Larson is up to the task.


On May 17, 1915, after a placid transatlantic journey from New York City and nearly within sight of its destination of Liverpool, England, the Lusitania was attacked by a German submarine and sunk in less than 20 minutes. Of nearly 2,000 passengers aboard, only 764 survived—a devastating loss of life and a shock to neutral countries assuming that (even as the Great War raged on in Europe) no combatant nation would intentionally attack a nonmilitary vessel at sea.


In Dead Wake, Larson juggles multiple narratives, ranging from anecdotes of daily life among the cruise ship passengers to Room 40 in London (the British Admiralty’s top-secret wartime unit) and, most ominously, the predatory journeys of German sub U-20. In the early days of submarine technology, life aboard this deep sea hunter-killer came with many challenges, including the quality of air inside the vessel:


“First there came the basal reek of three dozen men who never bathed, wore leather clothes that did not breathe, and shared one small lavatory. The toilet from time to time imparted to the boat the scent of a cholera hospital and could be flushed only when the U-boat was on the surface or at shallow depths, lest the undersea pressure blow material back into the vessel … Then came the fragrances that emanated from the kitchen long after meals were cooked, most notably that close cousin to male body odor, day-old fried onions.”


Larson describes social conditions amid the transatlantic upper class, circa 1915, before plunging readers into the cold, deadly sea. One hundred years on, the story of the Lusitania remains as compelling as ever.



Crow Fair: Stories

By Thomas McGuane



Over a 40-year career that includes the pivotal 1970s novel, 92 in the Shade, Thomas McGuane’s work has grown leaner and more mature, while continuing to juggle over-the-top comedy and heartbreaking tragedy. In Crow Fair, his new collection of short stories set mostly in Montana’s Big Sky country, McGuane depicts better than most what one character thinks of as “the blizzard of things that could never be explained and that pointlessly exhausted all human inquiry.”


Like others in the collection, the narrator of “On a Dirt Road” wants to stay out of trouble but can’t seem to muster the necessary spiritual resources to achieve his goal:


“I have a way of extolling peace and quiet in theory without enjoying it in practice and end up fending off the idea that I’ve been abandoned. As I’ve grown older, I’ve begun listing my more regrettable traits, and this one has always made the cut. I think the list was supposed to help me improve myself, but it’s turned out to be just another list alongside yard chores, oil changes, and storm windows.”


The opening stories in Crow Fair have their place in the McGuane canon, but in the later pages (with stories like “Stars,” “Motherlode,” and “Canyon Ferry”), he reaches for—and often achieves—a profundity elusive to most other writers of his generation. It’s impossible to read these stories and not come away awed by his vision and talent.



Killing a King: The Assassination of

Yitzhak Rabin and the Remaking of Israel

By Dan Ephron



On November 4, 1995, a right-wing Hebrew zealot named Yigal Amir pushed through a weak protective cordon of bodyguards and fired two bullets into the back of Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. Rabin’s death a short time later can be seen as crippling forever the chances of peace in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict—precisely the assassin’s dream.


Dan Ephron, a former Jerusalem bureau chief for Newsweek, offers a full account of this shocking murder in crisp, clear prose well-suited for a story whose ending is already known.


At times, Killing a King is hard to read, given recent acts of terror, also inspired by fanatical interpretations of religion, in Paris, San Bernadino and elsewhere. But Ephron skillfully lays out the framework of Israeli politics at the time and proves to be an efficient, knowledgeable guide to that particular span of troubled Middle East history.


Two years before the murder, Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat met at the White House Rose Garden for a signing of the Oslo Accords. It seemed a way had finally been found to end decades of bloodshed in the region:


“In the coming years, signing ceremonies and Middle East peace conferences would take place with some regularity. Eventually, they would come to serve as reminders that peace itself remained elusive. But at this first event, the sheer enormity of the moment, the unscripted interactions, the nervous asides, all generated currents of electricity. Until their encounter in the White House, the two protagonists had never met, which meant the audience, on the lawn and at home via television, was seeing in real time the body language of icy hostility slowly thawing. Even the speeches, predictably lofty and infused with biblical quotations, had a mesmerizing quality—less for the words and more for the astonishing context.”


While Ephron never generates sympathy for the killer, the reader finishes Killing a King with a deeper understanding of the young man’s motivations. Whether the death of his larger-than-life Nobel Peace Prize-winning victim helped to permanently topple peace in the region is a question he wisely leaves unanswered.



A Hand Reached Down to Guide Me: Stories

By David Gates



The characters in David Gates’ impeccably crafted stories are ruthlessly self-aware, for all the good it does them. They are, for the most part, of a certain age and beyond – mostly (but not exclusively) men, often accomplished in their professions (theater, music, journalism), and given to disastrous behavior when in the throes of love and family life.


You might think spending time with a host of smart, but disagreeable people wouldn’t translate into pleasurable reading, but in fact, the opposite is true. Gates writes with such an acerbic, unflinching intensity that even when the reader suspects the worst is coming—and is rarely disappointed in this regard—it’s impossible to stop. He knows these characters inside and out, and doesn’t shun the occasional (and seemingly inevitable) acts of spite and violence they perpetrate on their so-called friends and lovers.


Drug use and adultery are common themes, as is a weary sense of “end-of-life-ness,” but taken as a whole, these stories feel like an act of redemption, due to the courage and creativity it takes to put them on the page.




By Kevin Barry



Some of the best ideas for novels are the simplest ones. In 1978, John Lennon—spiritually adrift, at the end of his tether—travels to an island he owns on Ireland’s west coast. See? It practically writes itself, except nothing like the way Kevin Barry does it.


The Irish writer’s previous novel, The City of Bohane, made my "Best of 2013" reading list, and his short stories in Dark Lies the Island and elsewhere are a treasure-trove of wonders.


Above all else, Kevin Barry can write—light-years beyond what I’d imagined any mere mortal was capable of. Here’s “John,” as he’s known throughout the book, thinking back on family life in the Dakota, on Central Park West and 72nd Street:


“By night he’ll creep in on tiptoes to watch the child sleeping. There is something in the way that he breathes that stops all the time inside. A trace of slime above his lips—a snail’s slime, a silver—and John wipes it clean with an edge of his T-shirt softly as he can so’s not to wake him. The city outside quiet as it ever can be. The black breathing of the park. And the way the past is dropping away. He stays as quiet as he can, he hardly takes a breath—at last the past is dropping away—and the kid unglues an eye—so silently—and has a peep and he takes him up to love and they stand together in the blue of the night above the streets and park, and the city for half a moment is quiet as it ever can be, and they are blue in love and doomed in all the usual ways.”


What feels so profound about Beatlebone is a bit elusive, particularly since the tale largely revolves around John’s quixotic attempts just to get to his island. But Kevin Barry has some metafictional tricks up his sleeve, which add additional layers of meaning to the story. I have no choice but to read it again soon.


How much does the angst-driven urges of a global musical superstar resonate with us common folks? You’d be surprised.



Station Eleven

By Emily St. John Mandel



I’m a little late for the party, but when it comes to reading an exquisitely created dystopian novel like this one, better late than never.


The doomsday scenario Emily St. John Mandel lays out in Station Eleven is appallingly credible, and the characters she portrays are satisfyingly complex—both as they live out the last days before “the Collapse,” and in the dire years that follow. I can’t recall another novel that so adroitly intermingles present-day narratives and flashback. The structure is so elegant and well-conceived the reader comes away feeling like it couldn’t have been told any other way.

And then there’s the prose itself. Here is a glimpse of what’s been lost after the “end” of the world:


“No more Internet. No more social media, no more scrolling through litanies of dreams and nervous hopes and photographs of lunches, cries for help and expressions of contentment and relationship-status updates with heart icons whole or broken, plans to meet up later, pleas, complaints, desires, pictures of babies dressed as bears or peppers for Halloween. No more reading and commenting on the lives of others, and in so doing, feeling slightly less alone in the room. No more avatars.”


If you have time in 2016 for only one post-apocalyptic tale, Station Eleven should be at the top of your list. 


Author Bio:


Lee Polevoi, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, is the author of a novel, The Moon in Deep Winter.

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