Every year I share a list of the books I read in 2015, with brief descriptions of each. The books are listed in alphabetical order by title. An asterisk * denotes the books I particularly enjoyed. Fiction comes first, followed by nonfiction.
Feel free to share this list. I hope you find some good reads here – and that you’ll share your own book recommendations in the comments.
*A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
Not exactly a sequel to her wonderful novel Life After Life, this is a standalone novel that involves some of the same characters and centers on Teddy, the beloved brother of Ursula, who lived and died and lived again in the previous book. The pivotal time for Teddy was when he served as a fighter pilot in WWII, and that experience affected his life in surprising ways.
Across a Green Ocean by Wendy Lee
A middle-aged woman, Ling Tang, gazes out at the lawn of her suburban house, which hasn’t been mowed since her husband Han died suddenly a year ago. Like the overgrown lawn, the novel seems familiar at first, but grows more mysterious and compelling the further you explore. The Tang family is saturated in secrets, from the parents, both Chinese immigrants, to the American-born daughter and son, now adults. The children begin to untangle the knotted family ties only after the son discovers in his late father’s papers a recent letter from a Chinese friend that says, “Everything has been forgiven.” (Read my full review here.)
*The Angel of Losses by Stephanie Feldman
The Angel of Losses is beautifully written and full of wonders: miracles, myths and mysteries. The story centers on two sisters, Marjorie and Holly, who grew up as close as could be. They adored their grandfather, who lived with them and told them enthralling stories. Both girls were heartbroken when he died. But by the time we meet them, the two adult sisters are estranged, taking dramatically different paths in life. Then Marjorie finds one of her grandfather’s old notebooks and discovers something shocking. He was Jewish, it turns out, a survivor of the Holocaust bearing a dreadful secret. “He’s coming for me,” Marjorie’s grandfather tells her in what she hopes is a dream. “And then he’s coming for you.” (Read my full review here.)
*Blue Stars by Emily Gray Tedrowe
When soldiers are wounded, their families – mostly mothers and wives – live ever after with the legacy of war. Blue Stars is the story of two such women, and it takes you deep into the world of tedium and terror that was Walter Reed Military Hospital in Washington, DC during 2005. One woman is a literature professor, a war opponent, and essentially (although not technically) the mom of a young Marine who returns from Iraq as an amputee. The other is married to an officer in the Reserves and lives in “Mil-world,” surrounded by other military families. These two women – whose respective age and class would normally ensure that they never meet – become close friends and lifelines for one another in the high-stress fishbowl of a medical military village where everything is at stake but nothing makes sense. (Read my full review here.)
Days in the History of Silence by Merethe Lindstrom
This Norwegian novel is about a long marriage undermined by silence: the things they cannot say to one another, to their children, to themselves. Ultimately the husband retreats into total silence and a gentle kind of dementia, leaving the wife to excavate their years together and salvage what she can. The writing is austere and its impact surprising from such an understated narrator.
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Picture a mobile made of flat, shiny pieces of metal, hung near a window to sway in the wind as it captures and refracts the light. That is the structure of this singular and moving novel about a faltering marriage. Written in small, faceted snippets by the wife (we never learn any character’s name), we see the romance bloom, struggle, crack. She invokes philosophers, scientists, writers, and uses language in fresh ways: Her husband has none of her “raised by wolsvesness.” When she asks him to do something shocking, “He looks shaken by this request, but still I monster on about it.” This is a novel to savor.
The Devils that are Here to Stay by Pamela di Francesco
The novel is allegorical: a nameless Narrator takes an epic journey to find his wife and his own redemption, along the way meeting up with a Native American man with strange powers whose moral mission is larger than his life, and a terrifying Stranger whose lust for gold has made him vicious and vulnerable. At the same time, the book is so grounded in the specifics of daily life in California during the Gold Rush – what people ate, how they dressed, how they spoke – that the hallucinatory aspects of the book are balanced by its tangible details. You can read it to see what happens next, or as a powerful indictment of the cruelties of the Gold Rush years in America or of capitalism itself, or just to submerge yourself in unique characters and a distinctive historical place and time. (Read my full review and an author Q & A here.)
*Erebus by Jane Summer
Part poetry, part elegy, part narrative, part accident report, this was the most remarkable book I read in 2015. It is a new kind of book about an old and aching loss, the death of the author’s beloved friend and 255 others when a New Zealand Air jet smashed into Mt. Erebus in the Antarctic during a sightseeing flight in 1979. Evocative and unsettling, Erebus lets you glimpse the icy landscape of the Antarctic and the equally unforgiving landscape of loss, the moonglow of friendship tinged with regret. (Read my full review here.)
The Hollow Ground by Natalie S. Hartnett
In her matter-of-fact way, the novel’s 11-year-old narrator tells us about her life and that of her family, a white Irish-American clan in the Pennsylvania coal country that she believes has been cursed for generations, either by a priest’s malediction or by their own bad choices and worse luck. They live in a plundered landscape where mining companies have gouged the ground hollow and made the earth’s thin crust rage with sink holes, poison gases and underground fires that cannot be extinguished. But when Brigid accidentally discovers the body of a murdered man, things really get tense. (Read my full review here.)
How to be Both by Ali Smith
This novel has won a slew of literary prizes, and you can see why. The book is composed of two gorgeously written stories, one about a painter in 15th century Italy, and one about a contemporary teenage British girl whose mother has just died. The two stories are connected in astonishing ways, and the structure of the book is such that it works whether you start first by reading the painter’s story or the teenager’s. Smith tells two captivating stories, and raises important questions about art, love, gender, power, and how – or whether – we can know one another.
The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessey by Rachel Joyce
The sequel to Joyce’s 2013 novel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, about a middle-aged man who impulsively decides to walk across England to visit an old friend who is dying. Queenie Hennessey was that friend, and this book tells the story from her point of view.
The Martian by Andy Weir
A fun read about an immensely resourceful astronaut whose crew accidentally leaves him behind on Mars, believing he has been killed. The astronaut, Mark Watney, is a great character, full of snark and creativity, and the book includes one or two other sharp characterizations. But most of the characters – including all of the women – are mere collections of tics, many of them implausible. Read this book for the plot and the science, not for the writing.
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan
A young Australian Army doctor falls in love with a married woman, then is deployed and captured by the Japanese in this sweeping novel that moves from the WWII era to decades later. The sections that take place in the POW camp are breathtaking, as are the segments that follow Australian prisoners and their Japanese captors after the war. But the portrayal of the intense love affair at the center of this novel strains credulity, as does the ending. For example, there’s a moment when the doctor is so smitten he forgets his own name. The novel has won much acclaim, including the Man Booker prize. I hate to think how far back in the Romance section the book would have been buried if it had been written by a woman.
Nora Webster: A Novel by Colm Toibin
Another fine, quiet novel by Toibin about a complex woman, in this case the newly widowed Nora Webster, who must deal with raising children, making a living, and creating an independent life amidst her own grief and the political and cultural upheaval of Ireland in the 1960s.
*The Normal State of Mind by Susmita Bhattacharya
In urban India during the last years of the 20th century, two women tumble off the small, flat world known as “normal life.” Dipali has been married for only three years when her beloved husband is killed in one of the terrorist bombings that have convulsed Mumbai. Far away in Calcutta, Moushumi has also found love, but in a dangerous place – the arms of another woman. She is exiled from her family and flees to Mumbai. Dipali and Moushumi, both teachers, develop a friendship as they explore their shared experience of being “edged out into the border of society.” (Read my full review here.)
The Race for Paris by Meg Waite Clayton
Engaging novel about two women journalists, a writer and a photographer, struggling to get to Paris in time to cover the Allied liberation of the city from years of Nazi occupation. They must face all the danger and deprivation of the ongoing war, as well as the determined efforts of the military to prevent women correspondents from doing their jobs by, for example, denying them access to the information, transportation, food and housing provided to male correspondents.
Rose Under Fire by Elizabeth Wein
During WWII, a young American woman pilot gets shot down over occupied France and ends up in Ravensbruck, the infamous women’s concentration camp.
*Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones
Silver Sparrow is a book with a beating heart. The novel is about two girls growing up in Atlanta during the 1980s who have much in common. They’re the same age, live in the same middle class black community, frequent the same malls and follow the same rules and rituals of teenage life. But only one daughter, the smart and beautiful Dana, knows what they really share: a father. And she’s understood since she was six years old that she and her mother are the family that must remain a secret. (Read full review here.)
The Small Backs of Children by Lidia Yuknavitch
A desperately depressed writer is obsessed with a photo her best friend took, of a young girl blasted away from an explosion that killed the rest of her family. To save the writer, her friends – all of them artists – decide to find that young girl and rescue her from her war-ravaged Eastern European county by bringing her to the U.S. But that plot serves as only the skeleton of this raw, wild novel that has attracted such critical acclaim.
*Tell the Wolves I’m Home by Carol Rifka Brunt
A well-written novel about two teenage sisters and their struggles as they face the death of their beloved uncle from AIDS, and the discovery that he had a long-term partner the girls did not know about, and no one else in the family accepted.
The Untold by Courtney Collins
Fictionalized and stylized story of a real-life woman who stole horses and carved out an arduous but free life (except for her stints in prison) in Australia during the 1920s. Once you get past the identity of the narrator, this is an enjoyable read, with lovely language.
*Vera’s Will by Shelley Ettinger
The novel is about two women, a grandmother and her granddaughter, who grow up as perpetual outsiders: Jewish, leftist, and lesbians. Vera Resnick and her family flee the pogroms of Czarist Russia and end up in New Jersey. There she falls in love with a woman, loses her to the influenza epidemic, and marries a businessman. When she falls for another woman years later, Vera’s husband decides she cannot be allowed to raise their two sons. He takes the children away but Vera eventually finds them and follows them to suburban Detroit, where her sons grow into resentful adults. One of them has a daughter named, unwittingly, after Vera’s first, lost love. That daughter also grows up to be a lesbian, and the second storyline in the novel is hers. Through their eyes and their activism we see wars, McCarthyism, labor action, the civil rights movement, the rise of the women’s and lesbian/gay rights movements – a history of social change in America. (Read my full review here.)
*White Light by Vanessa Garcia
A beautiful novel about difficult subjects: loss, regret, and the craving of artists to create art. Veronica Gonzalez is a young artist in Miami, the daughter of Cuban immigrants. She is barely scraping by when she is offered a gallery showing that could finally open the doors to the art world for her. Just as she begins to prepare for this show, her father dies suddenly, throwing her into grief and the chaos of their tumultuous and unresolved relationship. The book is filled with lyrical language, such as this description of a woman talking, “a slight Caribbean accent tracing her words like smoke.” White Light gives the reader a dynamic view of the creative process from the inside, a glimpse of a Cuban-American family at the breaking point, and a reason to look forward eagerly to future work from this multi-talented writer and artist. (Note: In January, look for my full review and a giveaway of White Light, which was published by my own publisher, Shade Mountain Press.
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Originally published in 1859, this novel is widely considered the first detective novel. I found it tense and gripping, despite its Victorian pacing and flourishes. The plot centers around two half-sisters who are devoted to one another. The younger sister inherited wealth, and her father on his deathbed promised her in marriage to a titled gentleman. But since then she has fallen in love with an art teacher – a man who straddles the class line between gentleman and working man – and a mysterious woman in white has raised disturbing questions about her promised husband and a secret he holds. The older sister is smart, resourceful, courageous and loyal – and both sisters are in peril because of this secret. The novel is narrated in sequential sections by several characters, as each gives individual testimony about the crimes, conspiracies and tragedies sparked by the baronet’s greed and his need to hide his secret. The art teacher acts as an amateur detective to piece the storylines together and resolve the mystery. I was surprised by how boldly the novel addresses issues of gender and class, making it clear, for example, that it is the sisters’ powerless legal status that puts them in such danger.
Being Mortal by Atul Gawande
This doctor argues convincingly that America manages aging, death and dying by handing them over to doctors, who are utterly untrained and unprepared to deal with these inevitable life processes. There are no truly new ideas in the book, but Gawande uses stories from his medical practice and his own life to illustrate how we could face our mortality more humanely – and how difficult this is.
Dead Wake by Erik Larson
A gripping retelling of the sinking of the British passenger ship Lusitania in 1915, which caused 1,200 deaths and propelled the United States into World War I. Telling the story from the perspective of both the people on the doomed ship and the German U-boat commander who destroyed it, Larson reveals the national hubris and corporate greed that led to this utterly predictable and preventable disaster.
*Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital by Sheri Fink
In the days following Hurricane Katrina, the doctors, nurses and staff in New Orleans’ Memorial Hospital had to care for their sick and terrified patients in an apocalyptic environment with no electricity, floodwaters rising, and racially-charged rumors of violent crowds roaming the streets. Faced with this catastrophe, some doctors and nurses decided to euthanize patients they thought could not survive being evacuated once rescue finally arrived. Sheri Fink does a captivating job of recreating the crisis and the decisions the exhausted staff faced, exploring their perspectives, and noting pivotal moments when events could have gone a different way. She then places the entire experience within a broader context of how different communities conduct triage and decide who is considered worth saving – and who is qualified to make that judgment.
*Ghettoside: A True Story of Murder in America by Jill Leovy
So many murders take place in South Los Angeles, and yet so few are solved by police even though many people in the community know who the killer was and why they committed the act. This book begins as a tale of a particular murder and a particular police detective who is determined to solve it. It then pulls back to show us the landscape in which such intimate crimes take place: the anguished black communities that generation after generation have been estranged from the law, its benefits and protections – a direct legacy of Jim Crow. “It’s not the guns,” Leovy writes about what distinguishes such communities, “it’s the grief.”
*H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
Beautifully written memoir about how Macdonald handled her grief about her father’s sudden death by submerging herself in the ancient art of training a hawk. And not just any hawk, but a large, fierce goshawk she named Mabel. Throughout her own story, Macdonald weaves the stories of other hawk trainers, particularly the writer T. H. White, whose own account of trying to train a goshawk is both an inspiration and a warning to her. If you enjoy audiobooks, try listening to this one. Macdonald narrates it herself, and she has a lovely voice.
Master of the Senate – Part 1 by Robert Caro
Another chapter in the remarkable saga of Lyndon Johnson, who both created and destroyed modern American politics.
Means of Ascent by Robert Caro
This segment of Caro’s comprehensive exploration of Lyndon Johnson examines how he charmed, cajoled, cheated and clawed his way to power, from his early Congressional experience to his service (or lack of it) in WWII to his hotly contested and improbably won Senate election. These years saw the evolution of the political process in America from a person-to-person connection to the mass marketing approach we recognize today – and Johnson either created or was among the first to use each innovation.
Midnight in Siberia by David Greene
David Greene – the co-host of NPR’s Morning Edition with the warm, confiding voice – decided to travel across Russia on the Trans-Siberian railway to meet regular people and hear their stories about life in Russia today. He and his wife had lived in Moscow for three years, but that was not the “real” Russia he wanted to see. So Greene and his translator traversed the vast country on the train, stopping for a few days where the train stopped. Traveling mostly third class, Greene learned that everyone shares food and drink and no one considered his American protein bars as food. I enjoyed this travelogue and the glimpses of Russian life it revealed.
Nixonland by Rick Perlstein
“Nixonland is the America where two separate and irreconcilable sets of apocalyptic fears coincide in the minds of two separate and irreconcilable groups of Americans.” Perlstein’s thesis is that Richard Nixon created the Divided States of Red and Blue that we now live in, and he supports it in 750 entertaining pages of facts, anecdotes and narrative. I had forgotten, before reading this book, just what chaotic and consequential times my generation has lived through. Perlstein’s writing is a little too “Look at me!” for my tastes, but his insights are compelling.
On the Run by Alice Goffman
As a young sociology student, Goffman – a white woman – spent six years in a low-income African American neighborhood in Philadelphia, chronicling at close range the lives of a group of young men who were rarely employed, sold drugs to support themselves and their families, and defended their turf with guns. Goffman lived in the neighborhood and spent all her time with these men, their friend and families, and their constant fear of and strategies to evade the police. The book reveals the astonishing extent to which every single part of life – every casual transaction, every stroll down the street, every visit to a friend – is made criminal and perilous by the constant intrusion of the police. Goffman illustrates how often a young man is turned into a fugitive because he can’t pay court fines: hundreds of dollars levied against already poor people, even in the frequent cases when they are dragged into court unfairly. She describes how police pressure women to reveal the whereabouts of their sons and lovers: through beatings, threats of eviction, and threats to take away their children. Goffman concludes that police presence in low-income black neighborhoods constitutes “the last remaining repressive regime of our time.”
The Path to Power by Robert Caro
In this first volume of Caro’s sweeping biographical series on LBJ, we see deeply into his life, from childhood through winning his seat in Congress and losing his first Senatorial campaign because his opponent “stole more votes than we did.” Johnson is a fascinating character, with gigantic energy, dedication and faults, and an almost total lack of ethics or political values. So much of the 20th century political process was shaped and in many cases invented by him, for good and ill. Despite the heft of this book – I listened to it as an audiobook 40 hours long – I was hooked, and immediately moved on to the next book in the series.
Sisters in Law: How Sandra Day O’Connor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg Went to the Supreme Court and Changed the World by Linda Hirshman
This interesting and accessible examination of the first and second woman on the Supreme Court explores their upbringing, their struggles as women in an all-male field largely controlled by all-male legislatures, and their roles and rulings on the Supreme Court as they affected women’s ongoing quest for legal equality.
To End All Wars by Adam Hochschild
A British political and social history of WWI that features not only soldiers and statesmen, but activists – particularly the suffragists and pacifists who played such a major role in shaping the war years and their aftermath.
*To the River by Olivia Laing
A lovely and thoughtful examination of the river Ouse in England, the role of rivers in human history, and the writers through whose lives the Ouse flowed, including Virginia Woolf, who lived near the river and drowned herself in it.
What was the best book you read in 2015?
Please share in the comments. I’ll give you a shout out in 2016 if I review a book you recommended.