Top Ten Books 2015

ami mizuno bath reads

We might be well into 2016, but that doesn’t mean I can’t retrospect.

Although this is an anime blog, in truth I read a lot more books than I watch of anime. Where altogether I watched thirty shows and six movies in 2015, I read ninety-eight books. Of these, I have, after much agonizing, managed to narrow it to my ten favorites. The struggle to cut the list to only ten was a fair bit more trying than it was to pick my top ten for anime, although in that case I was able to include nearly half the shows that I watched as they aired! I also did not consider the older shows and movies which I watched – but, had I, the only real contender would’ve been the Mobile Suit Gundam movie trilogy.

For this list, instead, I considered all books I read this year regardless of publication date. Had I limited myself to only those from 2015, I would’ve had only eight books to consider. Four of these, I did not like very much, and one of which was fascinating, but in large part because of its flaws and because of the reactions that blossomed around it (Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, for which reviews of it almost immediately became something which told you a lot about the person writing it but not terribly much about the book itself). As it stands, none of the 2015 books made it into my top ten anyway.

One thing I will note – one of the things I tried to do this year was read older books (as in, pre-1940), particularly in terms of one’s oft-designated as “classics”, such as Jane Austen’s novels and the various works of the various Brönte sisters, as well as doorstoppers like William Makepeace Thackeray ground out. And this made me realize that the racial diversity of the authors I was reading completely cratered! It wasn’t even just a matter of how narrow the “classic” English-language canon is, but a clear demonstration of the fact that authors of color were rarely published at all for most of commercial book publishing’s history. While I’m glad to have given myself more depth insofar as older books go, in 2016 I think my focus should instead be on reading more by authors of color.

With all that said, let’s finally get to my top ten. Without further ado, and in alphabetical order by title since I couldn’t manage to numerically rank them (I’ve linked to the ones that are public domain):

balkan trilogy

Fortunes of War: The Balkan Trilogy

(Olivia Manning)

The Balkans Trilogy was originally published as three separate novels, but in the decades since it has been published as a single volume. In it, an Englishwoman, Harriet, marries a man she barely knows and ends up in Romania; the year is 1939, and the Nazis are on the prowl in Eastern Europe. But even as international events and forces threaten, Harriet is forcefully brought face-to-face with the fact that her marriage will not at all prove to be what she’d hoped. Her husband, Guy, may be faithful to his vows in a sexual sense, but he is rarely present and seems to prefer to company of dozens of admirers to spending time with his wife. He also has a distinct lack of concern about the Nazis, and their sympathizers, as they close in with each passing day.

Despite its bulk (a little over nine hundred pages), I devoured The Balkan Trilogy in less than a week. Guy is impressively terrible, likely the worst husband I’ve encountered in literature. He never does anything like hitting Harriet, or throwing her out of their home, or something of that sort, but his callous carelessness and its inseparability from his own self-centered nature is exquisitely rendered. The rest of the cast is filled out by deeply flawed people in varying degrees of sympathetic. Harriet, for her part, is very sympathetic, but its also very irritating to watch her fold ceaselessly in the face of her husband’s intractability. That the men who do end up materializing as potential extra-marital lovers are nearly as incredibly selfish as Guy doesn’t do much to persuade one of her taste in men.

I’m not doing a great job of selling this, I fear. The world that Manning renders is lively and involving, populated with the sorts of off-beat and downbeat people one might expect to find washed up in a nation on the brink of occupation. This is one of those books that is frequently very funny but also quite disheartening.

[no cover available!]

Dead Yesterday

(Mary Agnes Hamilton)

I knew next to nothing about Dead Yesterday when I started it, as at the time that I read it, I couldn’t find a single plot description anywhere. I found my way to the book at all as it was referenced in another book which I read, and that it was free in digital made it very easy to commit to despite little knowledge of its contents. I knew it took place during WWI and that it had a pacifist bent, and that was honestly all I knew.

Dead Yesterday begins roughly a year prior to the beginning of World War I and initially concerns Nigel Strode, a man who acts younger than he is and spends much of his free time running with a “smart” set in London. Nigel, though, is profoundly bored with just about everything. Into the gaping void of his boredom comes romance first, followed by what could be most exciting thing of all for him – WWI. As the story progresses, the picture fills out as we spend time in the heads of several other members of the cast, to include Nigel’s would-be mother-in-law, his fiancee, and his room-mate, among others, and the true measure of Nigel begins to become clearer in ways that are frequently not rosy.

Having read it, while there is certainly a good bit of consideration and discussion of pacifism by the characters, calling it a pacifist book isn’t quite accurate. Instead, it’s more about whether its characters possess the maturity and convictions to stand firm by their views and to act in ways that support them. Nigel is happy to trumpet the goodness of the war in newspapers and in speeches, but he doesn’t have the guts to participate as a combatant, or even to go forth as a war correspondent. Meanwhile, his pacifist room-mate is willing to go forth as a Red Cross volunteer – for him, to simply speak against the war doesn’t suffice, as regardless of his rhetoric, people are being injured and killed in real time. Then there is Nigel’s much younger fiancée, who begins by not having an opinion at all, and whom we witness coming into her own as a true adult, particularly as the focus shifts to her and away from her fiancée.

Available for free here and here. That first one will only work for you if you’re in the U.S., but the second should work in all of North America, South America, and most of Europe.

deathless

Deathless

(Catherynne Valente)

It’s a bit hard to sum this one up. The book begins with Marya Morevna, whose three elder sisters manage to marry birds who’ve taken on human form, and who herself ends up marrying Koschei the Deathless, a figure of Russian folklore. The narrative follows the history of Russia in the late 19th and 20th centuries, telling the story of that tumultuous era through Russian folklore and myth, as the struggle between Koschei and his brother, Viy, the Tsar of Death, parallels the trials and tribulations of the USSR. Marya, though, is central to this struggle, and it is she whom we follow.

I hemmed and hawed a bit about including this, as I do feel a bit complicated about this book. I didn’t like it as much as the others here, but the ending hit me hard – after finishing the last page, I put it down and simply stared out at the sea for a long while before I did anything else. It’s also impressive how thoroughly author Valente recasts Russian lore as a means of telling the story of modern Russia.

I should note, though, that the relationship between Marya and Koschei is oft discomfort-inducing, as both are highly flawed and given to being abusive. Valente doesn’t portray theirs as an ideal romance, nor is their possessive nature depicted positively, but it’s still very much a part of the story.

howards end

Howards End

(E.M. Forster)

A tale of two families in Edwardian England, the Schlegels and the Wilcoxes, who find themselves drawn together by an initial chance meeting in Germany, only to find themselves much more entangled years later. Where the Schlegels are of the intellectual sort, the Wilcoxes are new money with little regard for the cultural pursuits of life. Impulsiveness complicates the picture, first when the youngest members of each family become engaged and break it off in rapid succession, and then when the dying matriarch of the Wilcoxes tries to leave her beloved childhood home, Howards End, to Margaret Schlegel. Ultimately, it is a story about England in a time of great change, as traditional social structures were being eroded and expectations and mores shifted.

Reading this, I was genuinely impressed with how well Forster wrote from the vantage point of a woman; this book was published in 1910, but over a hundred years later, its still frustratingly uncommon to come across a male author who can pull this off convincingly. But not only does Forster do a good job with this aspect, he handles his cast as a whole in a remarkably humane manner, even when the characters themselves are behaving poorly.

(The one sour note was that the edition of this which I read, from Barnes & Noble’s in-house press, bizarrely implied that Forster’s homosexuality came about as a result of his father dying when he was young, which lead to Forster being “raised by women”. Uh, wait – because fathers were doing the primary childrearing duties in 19th century Britain otherwise? And too many ladies leads to onset of the gay? My edition had a date of 2005 on it. What the hell?)

Available here for free from Project Gutenberg.

the land of green ginger

The Land of Green Ginger

(Winifred Holtby)

The Land of Green Ginger is about a woman, Joanna, who in her starry-eyed youth marries a man who joins up with the military during WWI, and comes home embittered and physically disabled. As part of a government scheme to ensure that veterans have work, they end up with their small children on a terrible piece of land, barely eking out an existence as farmers in an unfriendly village. Joanna ends up increasingly between a rock and a hard place, as her husband grows more distant and emotionally cruel, and the villagers judge her efforts and behavior harshly.

This is a sometimes grim book which manages to end on an unexpectedly optimistic note. It’s frustrating to watch Joanna try so hard and get stuck as the one who must keep her family financially afloat, only to be demonized by villagers and husband alike. The description sounds potentially melodramatic, but it steers clear of that air, partly in how things happen, and also in letting it’s heroine be a flawed person herself. Bad things happen, but the ways in which they tend to compound and birth new problems proves so disheartening since, like in life, it all begins with little things, and snowballs catastrophically. Joanna’s impulsive teenaged marriage by itself wouldn’t necessarily have proven bad, but her husband’s concealment of his health problems before their marriage, his insistence on joining up to fight in WWI despite those health problems, a lack of access to family planning, and a bad economy combine to moor her in poverty and isolation.

Green Ginger is at times a difficult read, but it was certainly an enthralling one, and it made me seek out more of Holtby’s fiction. This one has remained the favorite thus far. On a note unrelated to content, I read the Virago UK edition, and I really loved the cover design.

the long shadow

The Long Shadow: The Legacies of the Great War in the Twentieth Century

(David Reynolds)

The Long Shadow is a book about WWI, but it is also a book about the 20th century in Germany, the U.S., Great Britain (to include some of its former colonial possessions, such as India and Australia), France, Russia, and Ireland. Reynolds is specifically interested in, as the title suggests, examining and tracing the effects that WWI had on these various nations and societies. But he also looks at the shifting attitudes toward and conception of that conflict across time, both in people’s direct considerations of the war, and also in how these attitudes colored how people reacted to other events of the century (such as Irish independence, WWII, and even the Vietnam War). Changing opinions on the war, though, aren’t used only as a lens through which to examine European (and world, really) history post-1918. Reynolds, too, demonstrates the fact that perception of it has undergone massive upheavals almost since before the guns even stopped firing, which affected everything from how veterans were treated, to how its deceased were memorialized, to how it was integrated into the national history.

This was a dense book, and it was an incredibly fascinating book, so much so that I lugged its hardback, five hundred page bulk from one continent to another during the winter holiday season. I genuinely couldn’t bear to *not* bring it, even as foolish as it clearly is to lug around a bulky, heavy book while traveling. While I would fault Reynolds for arguing for a more narrowly European conception of the war itself (and also his odd repetition of the myth that colonial Indian troops couldn’t handle the cold on the Western Front – this may seem like a minor detail, but its pernicious hogwash and furthers the absurd idea that non-Caucasian people had little involvement in the war), he goes into great depth in analyzing the echoing impacts across the century on many of the participant nations, and in comparing and contrasting the different effects it had from country to country.

Another big point in its favor is that this is the sort of book that ends up leading one to other books. The footnotes were fantastic! I have so many more books to read now!

suite francaise

Suite Francaise

(Irene Nemirovsky)

Suite Francaise was supposed to be a pentalogy but Nemirovsky was sent to a concentration camp after only writing two of the books, which were published under this title (she died of typhus while imprisoned). Suite Francaise, then, consists of two parts, the first of which follows various people of varying stations in life as they flee Paris in the face of the Nazi advance. Part two is more narrowly focused on a town as it adjusts to the presence of Nazi troops, as the townspeople come to slowly realize that even in such seemingly life-altering circumstances as an occupation, life does go on.

I’m amazed at how Nemirovsky was able to write such sympathetic portraits of low-ranking WWII German officers and the French townspeople who came to have personal relationships with them given her own context. It is entirely understandable that because time does continue to march onward regardless of events, then human relationships would form in Vichy France, but Nemirovsky herself fled Paris with her family as she was a Catholic convert from Judaism and rightly feared for her life.

swastika night

Swastika Night

(Katharine Burdekin)

Hundreds of years after the Axis prevailed in WWII, an Englishman named Alfred learns that the official history promoted by the Reich contains many falsehoods. Alfred’s world is one in which Hitler is worshipped as a literal god, the Germans and Japanese have divided the world between them, and women have been reduced to an animalistic existence where their only purpose is as breeding stock. Burdekin’s book is an examination of the logical conclusion of Nazism’s misogyny, and was originally published in 1937.

This is a fascinating, if bleak, read. When I say the women have an animalistic existence, I really mean it – here the women are essentially housed in barns, they don’t know how to read, they’re said to have no souls, they’re never allowed to go anywhere, they have no say in reproduction, their male children are seized from them while the boys are still toddlers and they never see them again, and their subjugation has gone on for so long that they are genuinely incapable of reason and higher-level thinking. In fact, Burdekin has a male lead instead of a female one because in her effort to demonstrate the misogyny of Nazi ideology, her conclusion was that Nazi dominance could only end in women being reduced to complete incompetency. If it seems a little too extreme, one should consider that even now the sexism of the Nazi regime is little remarked upon, and Burdekin wrote her novel at a time when there was an interest in and sympathy to German fascism in British society that included members of the royal family. Some of the reviews I’ve read criticize the book for being too dry and too much like a history lesson, but I found it wholly engaging throughout.

toby's room

Toby’s Room

(Pat Barker)

The sequel to another of author Barker’s books, Life Class, this takes place a few years before, and then during, WWI. Elinor Brooke is an art student of the Slade School who is struggling to maintain her independence as her family increasingly questions her dedication to art, particularly in light of their belief that she should be doing war work or taking care of her parents. That she finds herself working to aid with the nascent field of reconstructive surgery on wounded veterans does little to change their opinions. Against this, Elinor strives to discover the true circumstances of her elder brother’s presumed death, as the family receives a telegram stating that he is “Missing, believed killed.”

This book gutted me. The answer to the mystery of what happened to Elinor’s brother, Toby, was downright enraging, regardless of its fictitious nature, and no other book affected me quite like this in 2015. Barker presents the era and it’s attitudes without the varnish and romance many others writing historical fiction are wont to, and manages to do so without even spending any time in the lionized space of the trenches of the Western Front. Some of Elinor’s personal choices and attitudes are themselves frustrating and can make it occasionally hard to like her, but its in Barker’s willingness to fully flesh her out that she shines as a character.

the world's war

The World’s War

(David Olusoga)

This is a history book about WWI that takes a different angle than the standard approach to the conflict, as it specifically examines the ways in which racist ideologies influenced the ways in which colonial troops and troops of color experienced and participated in the war. Olusoga also reframes the Great War as a truly global conflict, with violence occurring across three continents, rather than the narrowly European one it is frequently remembered as.

One of the issues I run into now with books on WWI is that it’s gotten a bit difficult for me to find ones that aren’t largely a rehash of things I already know from books, museums, and MOOCs (I’m an absolute fanatic on the topic). Even given my background, The World’s War was a complete eye-opener for me, and really challenged some of my conceptions of the conflict. It, too, deepened my understanding of colonial/people of color’s placement within the war; I was well-aware of the ugly hypocrisies of black American troops wartime service versus homeland treatment, and also of the grueling experiences of Chinese laborers on the Western Front, among others, but this added a dimension I largely lacked. A completely fantastic book, and strongly recommended for anyone who’s already got the basics of WWI down.

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