Thursday, November 26, 2015

My Year's Best List 2015

The best things that I read, watched, listened to, and otherwise ingested in 2015!

(Previous lists: 2014, 2013.)

Best Books—Fiction

John Banville, The Sea (2005)

Grieving the death of his wife, a man moves to the seaside town where he spent summers as a child. It was there, too, as a child that he met a little girl and fell in love with her. That sets the psychological stage for The Sea, a melancholy and uncanny novel with prose so magnificent that I often gasped or even blurted out "WOW" while reading it.

Every review of the book that I saw online had spoilers, so I won't link to one. Not that it's a novel of suspense or anything—I just tend to think that reviewers tell too much.

Buy it online: The Sea

Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend (2012)

Characters and setting are wonderfully realized in this coming-of-age novel about female friendship set in 1950s Naples. Ferrante has an excellent sense for plot, and meanwhile the prose is good caliber and does what it needs to do. If I could say so without in any way suggesting that the book is a pastiche, I would describe My Brilliant Friend as great Italian cinema committed to paper.

This is the first book in a series of four "Neapolitan novels"—you can read about the series and its famously reclusive author at the New York Review of Books (contains spoilers).

Or, you can just jump right in and buy it online: My Brilliant Friend.

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book 4 (English edition 2015)

My Struggle is an international literary sensation and a milestone in artistic realism. Knausgaard's hybrid novel-memoir plays back seemingly every event, idea, and urge of the author's first forty-three years of life. That ought to be boring, but if you go into a bookstore and begin reading this book on any randomly chosen page, fifteen minutes later I think you'll still be standing there, pulled along by the ceaseless current of prose.

Four volumes of My Struggle have been translated into English so far. I began the series with Book 4, which was a good starting point; Jeffrey Eugenides calls Book 4 "the fleetest, funniest and, in keeping with its adolescent protagonist, most sophomoric of the volumes translated into English thus far."

Buy it online: My Struggle, Book 4.

Best Book—Nonfiction

Marie Kondo, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up (2014). Japanese lifestyle expert Marie Kondo shares profound insights about clutter and categorization, and she teaches a practical plan for radically changing the complexion of your household. Kondo's pronouncements are amusingly extreme, and she can sound like a cult leader; but if it's a cult, then count me in. Buy it online: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying up.

Best Short Stories

Joe Dunthorne, "The Line." Winter 2014 Paris Review.  Buy the issue online.

James Lasdun, "Feathered Glory." Spring 2015 Paris Review. Read a teaser excerpt here, and buy the issue online.

Best Poem

Nick Twemlow, "Attributed to the Harrow Painter." Summer 2015 Paris Review. Buy the issue online.

Best Essay

Edward Hoagland, "Walking the Dead Diamond River" (1973). Ted Hoagland is a master of the essay form, and this work displays all of his hallmarks: carefully controlled tone, often wryly elegiac; finely crafted sentences and noteworthy diction; subtle development from paragraph to paragraph, following a logic that is associative and peripatetic yet never meandering; and a wealth of reportage about colorful characters and lore plus loads of physical observation and detail. The essay is reprinted in the 2014 compendium On Nature. Borrow it from a library or, if you have a large library of your own at home, buy it online: On Nature.

Best Long-Form Journalism 

Michael Finkel, "The Strange & Curious Tale of the Last True Hermit."
For nearly thirty years, a phantom haunted the woods of Central Maine. Unseen and unknown, he lived in secret, creeping into homes in the dead of night and surviving on what he could steal. To the spooked locals, he became a legend—or maybe a myth. They wondered how he could possibly be real. Until one day last year, the hermit came out of the forest.
This story appeared on Conor Friedersdorf's list in 2015. Read it online.

Best Play

Fool for Love at the Samuel J. Friedman Theater

Sam Shepard's Fool for Love is an emotionally charged one-act play about two tortured lovers, set in a cheap motel room on the edge of the Mojave desert. This year's Friedman Theater production was Fool for Love's first outing on Broadway (Shepard wrote the play in 1983).

If you read the play, you'll notice that the stage directions at the beginning are peculiarly specific; the producers clearly took that cue and invested enormously in designing the excellent set, lighting, and sound. It would be easy for the actors in such a violent play to overdo their lines and movements, but Sam Rockwell as Eddie was controlled without sacrificing physical potency, and Nina Ariande gave a staggering performance as May. There comes a moment in the play when May collapses to the floor, crying raggedly, unable to speak, suffering a pain so exposed and so pure that I wept along with her. Here is the NY Times review. UPDATE: And here is a New Yorker review of the play combined with an essay on Shepard's life and work.

Best Movies

(Links point to reviews.)

The Conversation – Coppola at his peak...'70s art-house thriller still looks & sounds great.
Fury Road – IMAX auteur-cinema, where have you been all these years??
It Follows – Joins Halloween in the hall of Midwestern hormonal horror.
John Wick – Stylish shoot-em-up with elements of fantasy
Once Upon a Time in the West – Sergio Leone's operatic apotheosis rendered additional Westerns forever unnecessary.

Deserving of special mention is Satyajit Ray's heartbreakingly beautiful 1955 masterpiece, Pather Panchali, in a newly restored print that I was able to see this year at New York's Film Forum.

Biggest disappointment: American Sniper. The film had some excellent aspects, but in key places it suffered from poor artistic taste, and I couldn't escape the conclusion that it was made to serve social purposes as much as artistic ones. (Here is an article analyzing people's reactions to the film.)

Snootiest Cocktail

"Last Caress," Hotel Surrey. Made with, get this, chartreuse snow, foraged immature berries of juniperus virginiana, and house-label champagne. Louis the XVI's favorite slushie flavor, basically. 

Best Meal in an Airport

Saison Bistro, Newark Airport, Terminal C. Over the years I've seen restaurants come and go in this location, including a steakhouse and a Soul Food place. Currently it's a French bistro, and I had a very good piece of salmon there in early 2015. (In fact, it appears to be an Alain Ducasse project.) They have iPads for ordering and you know that never works, but the waitstaff quickly remedied the situation and I made it to my gate in plenty of time.

Best Solo Drive

In July I was doing some work in Boise, so for a change of pace I extended my visit and drove around Idaho, a trip that took me to the impressive Snake River Plain, the eerie landscapes of Craters of the Moon National Monument, and the dramatic Sawtooth Mountains.

Best Diner

Louisa's Place, San Luis Obispo, California. Downtown SLO is a lot more posh than it used to be, with clothing boutiques and single-source coffee purveyors everywhere you look. But walk into Louisa's and you step into a more comfortable past. My brothers, my sisters, and I all grew up in our parents' diner, and being in Louisa's felt to me like being at home. I stopped at Louisa's for breakfast during another great solo drive, one that started in Big Sur and ended in Orange County.

Best Art

On Kawara, "Silence," at the Guggenheim Museum. Kawara (1933–2014) was a conceptual artist, and although his date paintings get most of the attention, his obsessive array of codebooks, postcards, maps, and catalogs are just as important. His decades-long body of work coheres as a whole; Kawara appears to have made his own life into a single staggering artwork. Here is the Guardian UK review of the Guggenheim show, and here is the NY Times review.

Marc Yankus, "The Space Between" (photography, 2014; combination chemical-digital process).  Arresting, gorgeous, and lonely, these images of buildings are simultaneously dreamlike and concrete. (The artist cites de Chirico as an influence.) Online: The Space Between.

Best of the Year—Period. 

Dianne Reeves, Valentine's Day Concert, Jazz at Lincoln Center

Jazz vocalist Dianne Reeves has a godlike musical talent and a generous musical soul. When I wasn't grinning like an idiot at this concert, I was wiping away tears.

Reeves has been tilting toward pop forms in recent years, and on Valentine's Day she sang fabulous versions of "Waiting in Vain" by Bob Marley and "Dreams" by Fleetwood Mac. Another song in a world-music vein transcended the genre, hopping mysteriously from continent to continent before coming in for a smooth landing in South America.

The diva still unleashes power on standards! Her "Don't Explain" was especially memorable— in fact, overwhelming. She sang the song without a microphone (she has no trouble being heard without one), and she slowly paced the stage as a woman stunned, vulnerable, tragically naked. It is, after all, a brutal song.

Here is the NY Times review of the show.

You can check out her latest album on iTunes.

I'll bring this year's list to a close with some vintage Reeves. Here she is singing (the verb seems insufficient) the jazz standard "You Go to My Head." Enjoy!

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