Monday, January 4, 2016

Books of '15: Recommendations

Since September, anytime anyone has asked for a book recommendation, I have enthusiastically stumped for the non-fiction book of 2015 that I will discuss in detail below.  There were other challengers, but that one made it to the top of the heap.  On the other hand, I must say that of the 10 works of fiction that I read this year, I only assigned my top rating "highly recommended" to two of them.  One of them gets the nod here, but I just have to ask: what's up with all of the disappointing fiction out there?

Best of the Year: Non-Fiction

A Kim Jong-Il Production; The Extraordinary True Story of a Kidnapped Filmmaker, His Star Actress, & a Young Dictator's Rise to Power, Paul Fischer, 2015

A book that includes the word "extraordinary" in its subtitle ought to deliver, and this one does.  Kim Jong-Il loved movies and wanted North Korea to rival the world leaders in filmmaking.  Unable to create an indigenous film industry that was up to his standards, he kidnapped South Korea's best actress and best director to use them to create films in North Korea.  Any story out of the hermit kingdom is very difficult to research, but Fischer did exhaustive research.  What's more impressive is that he tells the story in a gripping way.  Some creative non-fiction authors can't get over the hump of not showing their work.  Fischer tells this story with cinematic detail.  It's just amazing.  If you read nothing else this year, read this book. 

Honorable Mentions: Non-Fiction
The Corner; A Year in the Life of an Inner City Neighborhood, David Simon and Ed Burns, 1997
Against Football; One Fan's Reluctant Manifesto, Steve Almond, 2014
How About Never?  Is Never Good for You?; My Life in Cartoons, Bob Mankoff, 2014

Best of the Year: Fiction

Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout, 2008 - Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2009

When this won the Pulitzer Prize, it had its moment on my social media feed.  I remember people being excited about the book, and I remember not being able to get a copy at the library.  I just parked it on my list of books to read and waited until the furor died down.  It died down enough that I could not only get it out of the library but also renew it enough times to finish it while reading other books.  I seem to have left my book monogamy ways behind me, at least for now. 

But to the book itself, this is a loose collection of short stories with the Olive Kitteridge character as a throughline connector.   I"ve become jaded to the short story form in general (too many seem to rely on the supernatural to advance plot).  Also, as the satirical Lit-Crit Hulk Twitter feed (possibly defunct) said "HULK SMASH TREND OF HIP NOVELISTS WRITE 'LINKED' SHORT STORIES AND CALL IT NOVEL. YOU WANT WRITE SHORT STORIES, FINE. IT NOT A FUCKING NOVEL."  Refreshingly, Strout does not rely on the supernatural to move her stories forward.  Also, she strikes a nice balance between introducing new characters and vignettes while keeping enough of the core team together that the reader cares all the way through.  I'm a sucker for big arc of life literature, and Olive Kitteridge fits that mold, although we only really get to know Olive as she gets older.  Strout's writing is not only perceptive, descriptive and humane.  It also feels important. 

Worth the hype, amazingly. 


Honorable Mention: Fiction
Everything I Never Told You, Celeste Ng, 2014

Happy reading!

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