Our tally of the Best of the Best Books of 2015 already points to a consensus, and as it so happens, I, too, count Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, and A Little Life by Hanya Yanigihara among my favorites for the year. These books are emblematic of major themes in my reading (as well as publishing zeitgeist): Between the World and Me crested the wave, then led subsequent ones, on the country’s lingering, unresolved issues of race and the urgency with which we must reckon with those issues. On the surface, Fates and Furies is about a long marriage and the secrets kept by a husband and wife from one another, while A Little Life is about friendship and the corrosive effects of child abuse — but both novels are as much about perception, about the stories we fool ourselves with in a desperate need to create cohesive narrative, and why art can’t solve or save anyone from anything.
In no particular order, but alternating nonfiction and fiction, here are the other newly-published books that resonated with me most this calendar year:
Larissa MacFarquhar, Strangers Drowning. The first (!) book by the longtime New Yorker staff writer, this really made me think about morality, doing good, the lengths some humans are capable of in terms of altruism, and my own limitations. This is such a thoughtful, philosophical book that doesn’t beat you over the head with a message because the message is: Here are people, these are their stories, make of it what you can, but don’t dare mock or demonize them. We are human because we are different and have different capabilities.
Chinelo Okperanta, Under the Udala Trees. My heart broke over and over while reading this splendid, tragic, garment-rending novel, as much about doomed love as it is about religion, shame, and wanting badly to fit into a culture that won’t fit around you.
Jill Leovy, Ghettoside. Leovy lived and breathed this book, chronicling the difficulty trying to tackle large systemic issues of race and poverty that threaten to boil over daily, if not hourly, as seen through the people who live in those LA neighborhoods and the cops who strive for justice but don’t always get it. There are only gray shades of humanity on display here, at a time of easy polarization, which makes Ghettoside all the more vital.
Jami Attenberg, Saint Mazie. It’s an audacious task to create an entire fictional world around a woman made famous, and indelible, in a Joseph Mitchell profile. But this is what Attenberg does, and it reads the way I would imagine a Laurette Taylor performance: lived-in, utterly naturalistic, sensual, unforgettable.
Dean Jobb, Empire of Deception. This book is a wild, impossible-to-believe tale of a 1920s Chicago swindler who, upon fleeing his financial misdeeds, refashioned himself as a (fake) Canadian literary critic. Reading it was like getting on the storied Cyclone roller coaster at Coney Island – opened the very year Koretz was caught – holding your breath throughout its peaks and valleys, then getting out of the car, flushed and shaken, only wanting to ride it all over again.
Lisa Lutz, How to Start a Fire. Simply put, one of the best and smartest novels about female friendship I’ve read in ages. Anna, Kate, and George are women we know, we are, we cheer for but also cringe at. Just like life, in all of its messiness.
Helen Macdonald, H is for Hawk. Macdonald is able to juggle so many narrative balls in the air, from devastating grief over the death of her father to training a Goshawk, filling readers in on the life of T.H. White and contending with nature and beauty. That she does so with supreme command instead of mere authorial competence is nothing short of a triumph.
T. Geronimo Johnson, Welcome to Braggsville. There were a lot of wonderful novels about race and social justice in America, but this stuck with me the most, in part because of its audacious premise – college students brimming with privilege and information decide to stage a mock lynching in a Southern town, with catastrophic results – but also because of the bone-deep truth of Johnson’s satire of academia, which seemed to ring more true as the year progressed.
Asne Seierstad, One of Us. Mass shootings have become depressingly evergreen, the horror of these events contrasted against the futility of not doing the obvious to contend with the problem. Which is why Seierstad’s careful, well-researched account of Anders Brievik’s monstrous 2011 Norway massacre is of paramount importance, showing, with accuracy and necessary but awful detail, how the seemingly unimaginable has roots in the mundane.
Finally, other books that didn’t quite make the top list, but deserve mention:
Elisa Albert, After Birth
Lucia Berlin, A Manual for Cleaning Women
Elisabeth de Mariaffi, The Devil You Know
Angela Flournoy, The Turner House
James Hannaham, Delicious Foods
Don Winslow, The Cartel
Paul Fischer, A Kim Jong-Il Production
Luc Sante, The Other Paris
Amy Stewart, Girl Waits With Gun
— Sarah Weinman