Everyone else has picked their top books, but since I read up until December 31st I don’t like to make my list too early. As before, these are the books I read and enjoyed this year regardless of publication date. Fiction first, then nonfiction, not in rank order.
Urza, Gabriel. All That Followed. Holt, 2015.
An engrossing political novel, set in Spain, told from multiple points of view. Did you read The Catastrophist by Ronan Bennett? Another great political novel.
Gornick, Lisa. Louisa Meets Bear: Linked Stories. Sarah Crichton Books, 2015.
A college romance echoes through the lives of Louisa and Bear, their families, and friends. Poignant and insightful. I love linked stories–previous favorites: In Case We’re Separated by Alice Mattison, A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert. (No need to mention Olive Kitteredge.)
Clark, Claire. We That Are Left. Houghton Mifflin. 2015.
An absorbing story set in England before and during WWI about the devastation wreaked by the war on a wealthy family. Great character development. Did you enjoy the TV mini-series The Cazalets? This is for you. For fans of Downton Abbey too, but not as soapy.
Marra, Anthony. The Tsar of Love and Techno. Hogarth. 2015.
Marra is an astounding writer–A Constellation of Vital Phenomena is one of those books that I want to read again for the first time. This new one is linked stories set in Chechnya; sad, violent, haunting, and totally human.
Schwartz, Lynne Sharon. Leaving Brooklyn. Houghton Mifflin. 1989.
Not sure how I missed this, since I’ve read and enjoyed many of Schwartz’s novels. It’s a brilliant coming of age story, with lots of 1950s New York atmosphere and piercing insight into a teenage girl’s thoughts. Read this with Schwartz’s memoir Ruined by Reading. Two gems.
Foulds, Adam. In the Wolf’s Mouth. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2015.
A political/war novel set in Italy during WWII. An American infantryman and a British field security officer try to deal with the politics (and Mafia) of an Italian village. They haven’t got a clue. Beautifully written, a classic war novel.
Price, Richard. The Whites. Holt. 2015.
A good police procedural is so entertaining, and this is a great one. “Whites” refers to the unsolved cases that haunt a group of police detectives who work the Manhattan Night Watch. You may not remember the plot after a month, but you’ll have a great time while you’re reading it.
Evans, Lissa. Crooked Heart. HarperCollins. 2015.
Noel Bostock is a great creation–an orphan who’s wise beyond his years but still very much a child. Evacuated from London in WWII, Noel ends up living with Vera, who just wants Noel as an accomplice in her con games, but she gets more than she bargained for. Delightful and memorable.
Pierpont, Julia. Among the Ten Thousand Things. Random. 2015.
An adulterous relationship has serious consequences in this novel that’s so beautifully written it’s hard to remember it’s a debut by someone under 30. I can only compare it to Jay McInerney’s The Good Life, another tour de force about how people mess up their lives. Waiting for her next novel…
Hallberg, Garth Risk. City on Fire. Knopf. 2015.
Well, I read the whole 900+ pages and enjoyed every minute of it, but I’m not sure that it’s more than the sum of its parts when all is said and done. There are some great set pieces and Hallberg has done a great job of recreating NY in 1977, a terrible time.
Taseer, Aatish. The Way Things Were. Farrar, Straus & Giroux. 2015.
This is probably, no absolutely, the best novel set in India that I’ve read in a long, long time, maybe since A Suitable Boy. It’s a very literary piece, about the role of language and history in shaping personal relationships. It’s not for everyone, but if it’s for you, you’ll be blissful. Maybe J.M. Coetzee is a readalike?
Weisman, Jonathan. No. 4 Imperial Lane. Twelve/Hachette. 2015.
Another political novel that I loved this year, about David, an American student, who extends his year abroad in England by taking a job caring for the aging, paralyzed Hans Bromwell, who lives with his sister and her daughter. The politics comes from the family’s entanglement with Portuguese colonial Africa in the era of rebellion and independence. A life-changing experience for David and maybe for the reader, too.
…and I’m currently reading (and enjoying) Henry Green’s novel Loving, first published in England in 1945. Green’s a great prose stylist, works the language in wonderful ways. Years ago I read his memoir, Pack My Bag, always meant to read the novels…
Shapiro, James. The Year of Lear: Shakespeare in 1606. Simon & Schuster. 2015.
What was going on in Shakespeare’s world in the year he wrote King Lear, Macbeth, and Antony and Cleopatra? Shapiro elucidates the political, social, and religious concerns that influenced his plots and characters.
Russakoff, Dale. The Prize: the High-Stakes, Big-Money Race to Save Our Failing Schools. Houghton Mifflin. 2014.
This is the heartbreaking story of how billionaires like Mark Zuckerberg couldn’t rescue the public schools in Newark; of good intentions gone bad; of politics as usual; of children deprived of a good education. If you read this, you’ll have to stop periodically to let the steam out of your ears.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. Between the World and Me. Spiegel & Grau. 2015.
Coates writes this as a letter to his son, about the issue of race in the U.S., for African-American young men in particular. Powerful, sad, and important.
Kim, Suki. Without You There is No Us: My Time with the Sons of North Korea’s Elite. Crown. 2014.
Kim spent 6 months teaching English to bright young North Korean teens, astonished at their isolation from the outside world and their acquiescence in the system that perpetuates their ignorance. Riveting stuff.
Lightman, Alan. Screening Room: Family Pictures. Pantheon. 2015.
A lovely lyrical and impressionistic memoir of the author’s Memphis family from the 1930s to the 1960s. Lightman’s grandfather was a movie theater impresario, a larger-than-life figure whose influence is still strong, years after his death.
Sacks, Oliver. On the Move: A Life. Knopf. 2015.
I’ve read Sacks’s books for years but had no idea that he rode motorcycles, was a serious weight lifter, and a sometime drug addict. This is a very personal glimpse into his life, and worth every page. Humorous and touching, especially in light of his awareness of his imminent death.
Deen, Shulem. All Who Go Do Not Return. Graywolf, 2015.
Deen bares his soul in this memoir of his childhood and young adulthood in a strict Hasidic community and his growing realization that he had to leave. A fascinating insider’s look at an unusual way of life. Over the years I’ve read a number of memoirs on this subject; this is by far the best.
Macdonald, Helen. H is for Hawk. Grove/Atlantic. 2015.
When Macdonald’s father died, she was particularly bereft and decided to tame a goshawk, the wildest of the falcons, in an effort to tame her own grief. More than a bereavement memoir, this is nature writing at its best.
Fuller, Alexandra. Leaving Before the Rains Come. Penguin. 2015.
I’ve read all of Fuller’s memoirs, starting with the hilarious and touching Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight; this latest one may be the best. It traces the rise and fall of her marriage to an American and the way that her unorthodox childhood in Africa affect her relationship with her husband and her own efforts to find contentment.
Gornick, Vivian. Emma Goldman: Revolution as a Way of Life. Yale Univ. Pr., 2011.
Gornick applies her own brand of insight and investigation into the life and motives of Red Emma, the complex and contradictory anarchist.
Klein, Naomi. This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs The Climate. Simon & Schuster. 2014.
Klein gives us the bad news: the global free market economy is killing our planet and international trade agreements now take precedence over national laws. Important reading, not for the gloom-and-doom, but for her ideas about how we can make changes.
O’Neill, Joseph. Blood-Dark Track: A Family History. Knopf/Doubleday. 2011.
O’Neill probes his Turkish and Irish ancestry, giving us not just the unusual, colorful personalities, but the social and political history that influenced–and upended–their lives. If you enjoyed Out of Egypt by Andre Aciman or She Left Me the Gun, by Emma Brockes, you’ll find this irresistible.
…and I’ve been listening to Doris Kearns Goodwin’s The Bully Pulpit: Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism. Simon & Schuster, 2013. What a great story Goodwin tells and there’s so much relevance for the issues we struggle with today in politics and journalism. Her writing keeps it all lively and engrossing and the reader, Edward Herrmann does a great job of varying his voice and emphasis to keep the sentences interesting.