BECAUSE I AM NOSY and curious to a fault, one of the best parts of my job is asking Portland writers about their favorite books. This is especially true at the end of the year, when we look back on the contents of our backpacks and bedside tables, and consider who wasted our time (is Jonathan Franzen too cheap a shot?), which book we shamelessly recommended to everyone we know (in my case, The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson, for whom I am a fangirling zealot), and what books came out of nowhere to become the sleeper hits of our hearts (mine was Mark Vanhoenacker's pilot memoir, Skyfaring, OMG). So I asked a slew of Mercury contributors and local authors and publishers to share their highlights from a year in reading. These are the books—and one literary journal—we couldn't put down in 2015.
"I read some great books this year, but I want to give some love to a literary journal that is an annual reading highlight for me. Noon's once-a-year publication schedule makes it a special occasion and the 2015 edition was awesome as usual. Edited by flash-fiction legend Diane Williams, Noon is full of stories and writers that take such refreshing risks, it makes other journals look like The Boring Potato Review. This year's issue includes the poetic trance of Deb Olin Unferth; Clancy Martin's engrossing essay about his older brother; a strange, stalker-ish story by R.O. Kwon; and more than a dozen other sharp little wonders. The art is also finely curated and presented as pleasingly as your favorite fancy-ass art magazine. Noon isn't one of those journals that splashes famous names on their cover in an effort to impress you. In fact, Noon looks understated and is so unique that it's sort of its own island—one that fans of bold fiction should explore and savor every year."
—Kevin Sampsell, Future Tense Books, futuretensebooks.com
"Viv Albertine's Clothes Clothes Clothes Music Music Music Boys Boys Boys is my rave read for 2015. Just as Patti Smith does in her tales of cool days gone by, Viv transports readers to a specific time and place—in this case, 1970s punk-era London (mostly). It's magic, deeply personal, and wildly vivid, because, you know, the clothes and music and boys and antics and voices and heroes and game changers. I, too, am crazy for those very elements of that very particular era, so diving into Viv's revealed world was super fun. It's a smart, raw read."
—Eve Connell, University of Hell Press, universityofhellpress.com
"Many writers have attempted to capture the sentence-by-sentence insane brilliance of Denis Johnson's magnum opus, Jesus' Son, to varying degrees of success. Kevin Maloney has come as close as anyone I've read, while also evoking the bleak depravity of Scott McClanahan's short stories. Maloney's debut novel, Cult of Loretta, published this year by Lazy Fascist Press, is a drug-addled journey through adolescence and love (or whatever passes for love these days), and Maloney's prose is wistful without being sentimental, passionate without resorting to cliché. Best of all, Cult of Loretta is set in old-school Portland! Bonus points!"
—Santi Elijah Holley, Mercury contributor
"As always, at the end of the year the list of books I wanted to read by far outnumbers the books I did read.
So, some favorites and books I read in 2015 that I can't stop talking about: Outline, by Rachel Cusk. The Verging Cities, by Natalie Scenters-Zapico. Bluets, by Maggie Nelson. Some books I'm looking forward to getting to in 2016: H Is for Hawk, by Helen Macdonald. The Argonauts, by Maggie Nelson. Her 37th Year, by Suzanne Scanlon."
—Katie Pelletier, Mercury contributor
"Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me is one of the best books ever written about race and racism in the United States. It is simultaneously direct and poetic, personal and expansive, political and removed. Coates' conclusion is undeniable and difficult: In the US, society and citizens tolerate the breaking and killing of black bodies. That might sound like an uncomplex conclusion, but Coates makes that simple reality sound as terrifying and as despairing as it should be.
Through it all, Coates subtly assails what he calls the 'Dream.' The Dream, to him, seems to be America's self-image of imagined greatness. The Dream is hope, idealism, and the scales on your eyes that tell you that racism is over. Coates masterfully takes those scales away with language that is poetic and political in equal measure, and brings the reader to frightening conclusions that cannot be refuted or denied."
—Joe Streckert, Mercury contributor
"Man v. Nature, by Diane Cook: In 2014, former This American Life producer Diane Cook published a collection of fabulist short stories that blew my freaking mind. I suspect Man v. Nature passed under a number of radars, due to it being Cook's first book, as well as the likely misconception that she is comedian Dane Cook's time-traveling mother. With the recent release of a paperback version, I'm all Yo, can I include this in my books of the year? It's still relevant! Check out this sweet little plum of unrelated worlds, perfect for train and bus travel.
Seveneves by Neal Stephenson: Sometimes when the concerns of the world get me down, I escape into the not-too-distant sci-fi future of Seveneves, where the Earth's atmosphere is about to burn off. It feels SO GOOD not to worry about climate change! Stephenson outdoes himself at both his engineering digressions and keeping them concisely corralled. You can skip the robot bits and still hang out in space with the survivalist nerds.
SuperMutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki: Do you like cartoons? Do you wish Harry Potter had been a little more art school? Collected into a big, hilarious tome of ennui and unrequited queer crushes, the unpredictable humor of Jillian Tamaki might be just your thing. Winter is dark, y'all. Read some funnies."
—Suzette Smith, Mercury contributor and author of Ce/Ze, sparkplugcomicbooks.com
"When I picked up Catherine Lacey's Nobody Is Ever Missing last week, I didn't expect it to take over my world so completely. I didn't expect to dog-ear most of its pages. I didn't expect to become irrationally upset with my friends for not telling me about it sooner. I didn't expect to drag out the last chapter, reading lines multiple times to try to absorb the book before it was over and I would have to move on to something else, something that couldn't possibly be so precise and unruly.
So many fantastic books came into the world in 2015. Books that reminded me how amazing Portland's literary community is (Margaret Malone's People Like You, Sara Jaffe's Dryland) and books that altered my worldview (Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, Maggie Nelson's The Argonauts). So it seems wrong to celebrate something that came out a year ago, a book that already had its moment, its year-end lists. Hélène Cixous says we pick up books in the dark and every once in awhile we open a book's covers and find a family member, a book that's already a part of us. Nobody Is Ever Missing was that rare book for me, 'the totally unexpected and completely hoped for.'"
—Joshua James Amberson, Mercury contributor
"My favorite read of 2015 was Sara Jaffe's novel Dryland. It's the quiet, exquisitely nuanced story of a teenage girl coming of age in '90s-era Portland. She's seeking clues about her older brother, a former Olympic hopeful swimmer now estranged from the family. After a flirtatious upper classmate convinces her to join the swim team, her quest for a lost sibling morphs into a more deeply personal struggle for connection and identity. Yet Dryland skillfully avoids any tropes of a more conventional 'coming-out story.' I read it concurrently with City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg's 900-page doorstopper of a novel. Hallberg's is certainly more ambitious in its scope and vision; the author received a $2 million advance and no small amount of media coverage. In nearly every way, these books are polar opposites (except for the bizarre fact that both use "hot dog water" to describe olfactory experiences on the exact same page—103 to be precise). Whereas I ripped through Dryland, though, I abandoned City on Fire after 700 pages. Maybe for the same reason I tend to avoid the loudest, most garrulous talkers at a party. I'd rather slip off into the kitchen, or better yet take a swim in the pool with a fellow introvert."
—Justin Hocking, author of The Great Floodgates of the Wonderworld
"Rad American Women A-Z, by Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl: This brilliant picture book was the first kids' book published by the historic San Francisco press City Lights, and sold out before it hit the shelves in April! It went on to become a New York Times bestseller—a rarity for a small press—and immediately went into a second printing. Rad American Women has done five printings since its release this spring, and sold around 50,000 copies. It warms my heart to know thousands of kids will grow up with this impressive list of feminist role models, from the famous to the obscure, and I look forward to future volumes. Appropriate for all ages—it's never too early or too late to get rad!"
—Chloe Eudaly, Reading Frenzy, readingfrenzy.com
"I'm only halfway through Helen Macdonald's H Is For Hawk, but her memoir is already in a class by itself. The book sounds relatively straightforward: In the wake of her father's death, Macdonald embarks on an obsessive quest to train a goshawk, one of nature's purest hunters. Nothing about this process sounds remotely appealing, and yet it is never less than fascinating to watch her watch the bird. Somehow she weaves in a narrative about the author T.H. White (who invented our modern conception of Camelot) and the resulting back-and-forth structure is seamless and consistently surprising. Most importantly, I haven't read better sentences than these in many years, and perhaps ever."
—Michael Heald, Perfect Day Publishing, perfectdaypublishing.com