Joy of Reading

Very Good Books of 2015

Lovers of great books also tend to be lovers of good books. Many of us just can’t resist hunting through the piles of books published every year for those that seem most promising. Here are a few books I read in 2015 that seemed particularly good to me.

I’ll start with the most emotionally shattering book I read last year: Julian Barnes’s Levels of Life, which was published in 2013, but already seems to be on its way to becoming a classic. This intimate account of the author’s grief over the death of his wife is both unbearably sad and exquisitely beautiful. Just a taste: Reflecting on his viewing of a film version of Gluck’s Orfeo ed Euridice, Barnes comes to realize a new perspective on loss: “I had quite underestimated Orfeo, the opera immaculately targeted at the griefstruck; and in that cinema the miraculous trickery of art happened again. Of course Orfeo would turn to look at the pleading Euridice – how could he not? Because while ‘no one in his senses’ would do so, he is quite out of his senses with love and grief and hope. You lose the world for a glance? Of course you do. That is what the world is for: to lose under the right circumstances. How could anyone hold to their vow with Euridice’s voice at their back?” Levels of Life is gorgeous and devastating, reaching down to the utter depths of the despairing soul.

The second book I’d like to mention actually is a great book: Joe Sachs’s new translation of Homer’s Oddyssey, which I discussed at some length here in SignPosts early last month.

I read every new translation of Homer’s Iliad and his Odyssey; each provides a fresh way into the poem and a fresh interpretation. Sachs’s version has a tell-it-like-it-is directness that sweeps the reader along. In the Introduction, Sachs writes that all serious translations convey something of the original. Using them cooperatively, using them to check against one another and against the original, can spark real engagement with the work. Thinking about what a translator has gotten right or wrong draws the reader into interpreting the work, rather than simply letting the words make impressions as they fly past. Sachs’s translation gives us one more finely crafted vision of Homer’s masterpiece to compare with earlier versions, and helps us develop our own interpretations of the poem.

Speaking of translations, I read a few others that make my list of good books read this past year, though published before then. There was Marion Faber’s and Stephen Lehmann’s translation of Thomas Mann’s 1943 novelette The Tables of the Laws, a playful piece that follows Moses as he is tasked by God to deliver the Decalogue to his people while leading them out of captivity in Egypt. A sharp rebuke of Nazi attempts to destroy the Judeo-Christian moral code, Mann’s book also tweaks the traditional understanding of the Biblical story. And then there was Ralph Freedman’s translation of Sten Nadolny’s The Discovery of Slowness, a novelized account of the life of Sir John Franklin (1786-1847), a larger-than-life soldier and adventurer who eventually perished in the Arctic on a search for the Northwest Passage.

For forty years, I have been a huge fan of Dick Francis, whose more than three dozen books feature crime in the English horseracing culture. They always center on a lone hero, determined to defeat the forces of evil while facing long odds of survival—and finding the culprit of a fixed race or a couple of murders along the way. He always created characters with charm, and he knew the racing world like the back of his hand. A few years ago Dick Francis passed away, but his son Felix, who co-authored a few of Dick’s last books, has taken over the franchise. Felix Francis is a worthy successor, and he is in top form with his latest mystery, Front Runner.

I also pay particular attention to literature for young readers because I always need to have books to recommend to my sixteen grandchildren. In 2015 I was especially taken by S. J. Dahlstrom’s Wilder and Sunny, the third installment of the The Adventures of Wilder Good series. The story follows Wilder, a twelve-year-old boy growing up in Southern Colorado, through those anxiety-producing years between childhood and adulthood, when life’s most important and simplest lessons are learned. But each book in the series also takes our young hero through a hair-raising adventure in the wilderness.

Lastly, I’d like to mention E. O. Wilson’s The Meaning of Human Existence, which was published in 2014, but which I didn’t get around to reading until 2015. With a title like that, how could one not want to read further? In this book, Wilson takes up an ancient quest, largely abandoned in modern times, to explore the possibility of unifying the two great branches of learning – the sciences and the humanities – in order to grasp the meaning of life.

These are some of the very good books I read in 2015.

What were some of yours?