Best books of 2015
Sky’s choices for 2015:
1. Johann Hari – Chasing the Scream
From the foundation under Anslinger, to the modern shifts in Portugal, this is a history of the war on drugs, told through the stories of the people involved: police, addicts, politicians, assassins, and the families caught in the middle. Hari says that the war on drugs can only continue because we dehumanise the people involved, and so he sets out to tell their stories.
Hari melds comprehensive research with deeply-felt compassion and some of the best prose you’ll find this year to elevate what could have been a polemic into something much grander. This isn’t just a portrait of a broken system, it’s a call to all of us to help fix it. It’s a call for us all to share his compassion.
“For 100 years now, we’ve been singing war songs about addicts. I think all along we should have been singing love songs to them, because the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. The opposite of addiction is connection.”
This is the first time I have ever picked a non-fiction work as my book of the year, but Chasing the Scream is a brilliant book that deserves to change the world.
2. Marlon James – A Brief History of Seven Killings
The winner of the 2015 Man Booker is that rarest of things: an ambitious novel that far exceeds its own ambitions. Centred around the failed assassination attempt on Bob Marley, A Brief History traces the path of Jamaica and its people on the way to the violence of the 1976 elections and beyond.
This is high-literature told with the urgency of a thriller. Course and violent, lyrical and funny, compassionate and vicious, the novel is told in many voices that slowly join together into a harmony. Each protagonists captures the reader’s attention, but it’s the way their seemingly disparate lives join together to form the bigger picture that sets this work apart, and makes it the must-read novel of the year.
3. David Vann – Aquarium
David Vann is one of the most consistently interesting writers currently working, imbuing small moments with mythic impact, and granting compassion to even the worst of his characters. Aquarium is another tale about the sudden disintegration of a small family, but without the religious or philosophical overtones of his previous work. By grounding the book in the normal lives of his characters, and by lowering the stakes, Vann grants this story an emotional impact far beyond those grander tales.
Aquarium may not resonate as strongly for everyone – some of my love for this book is personal – but I started reading this book at midnight, on my way to bed. I finished it at 3am, heartsore, and wanting to hug Vann for his insight and tenderness.
4. Colum McCann – Thirteen Ways of Looking
The novella at the heart of this collection is a beautifully lyrical story that examines the frailty of old-age, the ache of lost-love, and the limits of examining a life from the outside. Thirteen Ways of Looking combines two narratives: the last day of a retired judge, who goes out to meet his son for lunch, and is killed; and the police who are hunting through the footage of that day, captured on thirteen cameras.
This is a very brief book – a novella and a handful of short stories – and could have been a lesser collection, something between novels. Instead, it feels absolutely essential.
5. Paddy O’Reilly – Peripheral Vision & Kelly Link – Get In Trouble
I’m cheating (and tempted to cheat more), but I’m going to include two short-story collections in the final spot. Last year I complained about the ubiquity of the short story collection. It felt like most were merely proofs of concept. Something to build name recognition on the way to a novel.
This year, Kelly Link and Paddy O’Reilly (and Lorrie Moore (a 2014 book, read too late), and Murray Mackenzie, and…) reminded me that short stories can be brilliant. That in the hands of a master, the form has a potential that is different, not lesser, to the novel.
Link brings a grounded realism to fantastic tales of speculative fiction. She scatters brilliant ideas like confetti and builds complete worlds in a handful of pages, but never forgets that it’s the characters who matter most. O’Reilly examines the connections between people, the ways they burn and the ways they burn out, and one story in particular, One Good Thing, packs a harder emotional punch than almost any work this year. Both authors walk that perfect line – stories that feel complete, but leave you wanting more.