From Training Hawks to World War III: A Short List of Great 2015 Books
Haunting, thought-provoking, and everything in between, here are some of last year's books that would make great additions to your winter reading list.
A spare and slashing accounting of the writer’s grief over the death of her father, H is for Hawk is the unlikely story of her coming to grips with the ineffability of life and death via her training of a goshawk to do the thing they do best: Hunt and kill. If it sounds suspiciously like the kind of therapy nonfiction we’ve seen too much of -- here’s a simple story about how busy-busy me traveled to Borneo / volunteered with Habitat for Humanity / learned origami and what it taught me about my heart -- MacDonald’s bleached-bone prose and unsentimental introspection stands in a class by itself. The merging of her bleak and grieving viewpoint with the hawk’s predatory fixations is seamless, as is her weaving together of a naturalist’s background on the goshawk itself with a sympathetic biographical essay thread on T.H. White’s doomed attempt to reconnect with life by doing the same as her. Uncompromising and beautifully styled, this is the year’s most unlikely masterpiece of a memoir.
Somehow Ottessa Moshfegh hasn’t yet been widely announced as one of the Next Great Voices of American fiction. Hopefully that will change once the paperback edition of Eileen starts making the rounds. Moshfegh’s queasy and immersive pseudo-noir tracks the efforts of a dyspeptic young woman trapped in a miserable '60s life in a small New England town where she’s stuck in a falling-down house with her drunk father and working at a boy’s prison. Eileen’s pitch-black world outlook is thronged with self-erasing hatreds and obsessions.
Then a glamorous new female co-worker appears and the story takes a sharp veer into a bleakly amoral noir landscape of guilty desires and bad decisions. Like a twisted thought balloon that popped out of some unpublished Patricia Highsmith novel and was given an even starker and more modernist modernist rewrite.
A certain kind of boy spent long summers during the '80s reading those doorstop-sized Tom Clancy Cold War potboilers, thrilling to their rivet-specific descriptions of semi-secret fighter planes and submarines and flipping right past his paper-thin characters. Two of those kind of boys grew up to be August Cole and P.W. Singer, whose debut novel is a highly satisfying, Clancy-esque technothriller thick with drones and military-scale hacking.
China launches a Pearl Harbor-like military assault on a woefully unprepared United States, which has to scramble for survival. The approach is both throwback and futuristic; Its near-future setting is just far enough away that China has become a world-dominating military power and just close enough that the high-tech weaponry is advanced but very plausible; Singer’s background as an expert non-fiction writer on mercenaries (Corporate Warriors) and robotic warfare (Wired for War) gives the seemingly far-fetched scenarios credence. The human element is canned but still more fleshed-out than one expects from this kind of thing and it can read at times like a warning to Washington (wake up! America won’t be the only superpower forever). Its lively engagement with technology and military strategy, a dazzling what-if factor, and some timely critiques of a corrupt and ossified Pentagon makes this an addictive yet thoughtful summer read, for any season.
Although history is written by the victors, the losers always make for the better story. Viet Thanh Nguyen’s tightly knotted debut novel proves that point with fire. The narrator is a self-described “spy, a sleeper, a spook, a man of two faces” who was embedded by the Viet Cong into the upper echelons of the South Vietnamese military command, where he became a captain and trusted confidant to a general.
The novel picks up his story after the fall of Saigon, when the dazed and traumatized boat people have washed ashore in America and the captain is still working as a sidekick of sorts to the general. While the general falls into an increasingly dissolute reverie of revenge fantasies and vaguely corrupt business dealings, the captain loses himself in a John Le Carre-esque internal labyrinth that has him not only doubting which cause he is fighting for but whether or not he should be fighting at all. Haunted and intensely empathic, The Sympathizer is an astute portrait of divided loyalties as well as a timeless story of the refugee’s eternal plight.
For the last few years, Naomi Novik has been doing great work with her Temeraire series of alternate historical fantasy -- think of the Napoleonic Wars, and add squadrons of dinosaurs … who talk. With Uprooted, she delves into more straightforward fantasy territory, with richly rewarding results. In a remote valley threatened by a menacing forest riddled with dark, sick magic, young Agnieszka is apprenticed to a gruff old wizard known as the Dragon who wants to train her in the magic arts.
At first, with its clumsy but plucky heroine and fish-out-of-water setting, it purrs charmingly along like a great old Caldecott Award-winner from a bygone time. But as the dark wings of Novik’s story begin to unfold with all the mythic terror of the Polish folklore that she draws from so freely, the true depth of the story’s riveting drama turn the book into an unlikely page-turner that ripples with tragedy. This is arippingly good fantasy that you can safely pass along to fans of everyone from Elena Ferrante fan to the latest YA dystopia.