Here at Public Books, our editorial staff and contributors are hard at work to provide readers with thought-provoking articles, but when the workday is done, what is actually on our nightstands? Each month this year, we’ve given you a behind-the-scenes glimpse into our cultural diets. Now, for this special holiday edition of On Our Nightstands, we reflect on the best things we read and watched in 2015.
Shirley Jackson, Let Me Tell You: New Stories, Essays, and Other Writings
Before Erma Bombeck, before David Lynch, there was Shirley Jackson, turning out grimly funny gems of domestic surrealism. Now best known as the author of “The Lottery,” one of the most famous and creepy short stories of all time, Jackson also wrote two classic Gothic novels as well as hilarious sketches about raising three children in a ramshackle Vermont house. A wonderful new anthology, Let Me Tell You, collects previously unanthologized short stories along with lectures Jackson gave on the craft of writing. Treats abound for both the novice and the long-standing fan.
Deanna Fei, Girl in Glass: How My “Distressed Baby” Defied the Odds, Shamed a CEO, and Taught Me the Essence of Love, Heartbreak, and Miracles
Amy Ellis Nutt, Becoming Nicole: The Transformation of an American Family
Two books of my 2015 favorites, one a memoir and the other nonfiction, center on the struggle to love a child in the face of fear. Deanna Fei’s daughter arrived weighing one pound nine ounces. For weeks she hovered between life and death in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care ward. Fei’s sentences render her terrified emotional detachment with the excruciating clarity of the life-sustaining vitrine that gives title to Girl in Glass. Fei’s infant daughter plays the role of silent protagonist, leading Fei toward motherhood as the child grows into her own life.
In Becoming Nicole, a teenager points the way. The book’s most moving scene zooms in on a simple exchange at a dance. Nicole extends her hand and invites her father onto the floor. He accepts, finally and fully embracing his transgender child. Still smarting with their own fears, the parents in both books are forced to defend their daughters publicly, in the media and in the courtroom, demanding recognition for their child’s essential being. Fei steps up when her husband’s boss uses her daughter’s healthcare costs as an excuse to cut back his company’s retirement plan and his employees’ security. Nicole’s dad speaks out when the Christian Civic League bullies her all the way to the Maine Supreme Court. Each book finds satisfaction in the provisional steps of public recognition and celebrates the substantial triumph of finding connection among family and friends.
Rachel Cusk, Outline
My favorite book of the year came out in the US almost a year ago. We ran an excellent review of it, by Loren Glass, this past September. I only caught up with it last week, though, when I sought to see if this well-regarded novel about a British woman traveling to Athens to teach a creative writing course might make a good Christmas gift for a novelist in my family who had lived abroad for many years. The self-reflexive premise was not, for me, an attraction, but in this quiet, continually surprising work, the writer narrator largely stays in the background, her character only slowly emerging through interactions with more monologuing others. And these others are us! There are so many compelling stories and characters here, a teeming world, stuff for a dozen novels; so many observations that feel like insights, then half of those are complicated by another character’s reply, or by the action of the next chapter, all of which makes the wise whole so much more than its elegant parts. Cusk, via a becoming and deceptive modesty, a graceful ventriloquism, seems to offer us a great deal more than her own perspective, something like collective wisdom—individual by individual.
Nell Zink, Mislaid Transparent Season 2, created by Jill Soloway
If 2015 was the “year we obsessed over identity,” then two of my favorite works fit right into the zeitgeist. Transparent (which just entered its second season) centers on a Jewish family whose patriarch comes out as transgender late in life; Mislaid follows a gay white woman and her daughter who are “passing” as black in the rural South. In both of these dysfunctional-family ensembles, characters range from deeply to irredeemably selfish. Maybe this suggests an ambivalence, on the part of these stories, toward the changing worlds they depict, in which markers that once seemed fixed (gender, race, sexuality) now seem fluid. On the other hand, the tone of both works is more zany than melancholy, capturing the euphoria of newfound freedoms.
John Durham Peters, The Marvelous Clouds: Toward a Philosophy of Elemental Media
While I would hesitate to call it the best, this was certainly one of my most memorable reads of 2015. In this ambitious work, Peters attempts to reframe elements of the natural world as “media,” disrupting primarily technological understandings of the term. “This does not mean that the sea, fire, or the sky are automatically media in themselves,” he clarifies, “but that they are media for certain species in certain ways with certain techniques”—for example, how the sun and stars in the sky mediate our sense of time, place, and direction in the context of navigational techniques. Although Peters’s project urges us to think more broadly about the relationship between media and environments, it’s not entirely clear to me what is achieved by framing environments as “media,” besides further expanding the catalogue of mediating objects and forces relevant to the field of media studies. Still, I’m sure future scholarship will wrestle with this question and pick up the many interesting threads he lays out.
Ha-Joon Chang, Bad Samaritans: The Myth of Free Trade and the Secret History of Capitalism
Economic theory seems more and more politicized these days—less of a science, and more of a marker of ideological identity. It’s never felt more clear, however, than since I read Bad Samaritans. Written by South Korean economist Ha-Joon Chang, the book presents macroeconomics and the modern history of trade in such clear and readable terms, and makes a very strong argument against “free trade” and lax governmental regulations. In the year that Obama celebrates the passage of the TPP, and Angela Merkel wins Time’s person of the year, Bad Samaritans stands out as a call for sane economic policy.
Nick Hornby, High Fidelity
This is one of those books that has long sat on the to-read shelf in my Goodreads app, and in April, most appropriately, I finally picked it up off a table of second-hand books near London Bridge. It wasn’t my first foray into Hornby (that was How to Be Good, a masterpiece for another paragraph), but it was his debut, a classic, a John Cusack movie. It brings together a lot of things I love: clever structure, complicated characters, good humor, and romance. It’s celebrated; it gets away with being a really good, really heartening romantic comedy (maybe because there’s a man at the center of it, but I won’t get into that). That’s one of my favorite things. It’s a book that loves pop culture and understands that most people are still working themselves out, setting themselves to music as they do. For that, it’s desert-island, all-time, top-five, for sure.
Emily Dickinson, The Gorgeous Nothings: Emily Dickinson’s Envelope Poems, edited by Jen Bervin and Marta Werner
This beautiful tome, painstakingly edited by Marta Werner and Jen Bervin, features high-resolution scans of what have been deemed the poet’s “envelope poems.” The envelopes themselves are often manipulated by Dickinson prior to composition—she variously cuts out stamps, unglues seams, tears off sections, and pins together separate papers to create a uniquely shaped substrate for each poem. Each page features a life-sized scan of the envelope, or envelope-portion in question (sometimes accompanied by the reverse side of the envelope, if there is writing there too) as well as a transcription in a special typeface designed to mimic Dickinson’s distinctive hand. It is a marvel of archival research and aesthetic production.
Edward Bellamy, Looking Backward: 2000–1887
In this early science fiction book, a man falls asleep in 1887 and wakes up in the year 2000. Much of the work’s predictions about the political, social, and economic features of 2000—nationalization of all industry, a bloodless transition to socialism, humanity’s golden future—are off the mark. The novel is also fairly didactic. Dr. Leete’s lengthy explanations of 19th-century transformations dominate the text. Not much in the way of briskly paced narrative. But for all its stylistic quirks and miscalculations, Bellamy’s work—like all good science fiction—encourages the reader to reflect on the present at a remove, and critically. The political and critical spirit behind the work is what makes it. From the opening pages, it is little wonder how this novel influenced so many Marxist and utopian political movements of its day.
Rudyard Kipling, Kim
I picked up Kim again for a class this year. I had last read it about two years ago. It reminded me how powerful Kipling is as a writer and how well he understands India and Indian culture, even though the novel has sympathies with the British Empire, like the author. Still, Kipling’s extraordinary descriptions of Indian landscapes, his attention to characters belonging to different cultures and how these characters interact, make Kim one of the most exciting novels written on India. Only someone like Kipling, who had lived in major subcontinental cities like Lahore and Bombay, could come up with such an interesting, engaging novel.