Books We Read And Loved In 2015
Here are the shining gems pulled out of the constantly-flowing river of garbage that culture can be. Treat this as your reading list for the quiet weeks before and after the holidays, or buy any and all of these for anyone you forgot about this year.
The two books published this year that I liked a lot were Elisa Albert’s After Birth and Jon Ronson’s So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed. However, the majority of my year was dominated by reading David Foster Wallace, specifically Infinite Jest, which was a humbling experience that it would be hard to describe without my copy on hand so that I could refer to my annotations. However, I do have A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, maybe Wallace’s greatest essay collection, and let me just quote a footnote on an essay about tennis professional Michael Joyce:
“When he speaks of tennis and his career the eyes get round and the pupils dilate and the look in them is one of love. The love is not the love one feels for a job or a lover or any of the loci of intensity that most of us choose to say we love. It’s the sort of love you see in the eyes of really old people who’ve been happily married for an incredibly long time, or in religious people who are so religious they’ve devoted their lives to religious stuff: it’s the sort of love whose measure is what it has cost, what one’s given up for it. Whether there’s ‘choice’ involved is, at a certain point, of no interest… since it’s the very surrender of choice and self that informs the love in the first place.” (228)
This essay, and many essays in A Supposedly Fun Thing and Both Flesh and Not, and Infinite Jest in its entirety, center on the difficulty of making choices about what you believe in, what you love, what’s worth making sacrifices for, and what’s worth losing in a modern day that bombards us with information and choices and accessible consumer options. I work on the internet, maybe our main source of information- and consumption- and choice-bombardment. And in blogging, you can find an opinion or a conversation on pretty much anything; but sacrifice, humility, and knowing what principles you would lose everything for – literally die for – is a conversation you don’t hear much, online. I dove into Infinite Jest this year and it’s for this precise reason that I have not managed to pull myself out. – Rebecca Vipond Brink
A notable chunk of 2015 was spent binge-reading the works of Elena Ferrante, particularly The Neapolitan Novels, so it’s no shocker that the Neapolitan finale The Story of The Lost Child was one of my favorite reads of 2015. Seamlessly marrying meticulous prose with the ability to show a bird’s eye view of a city and its people, Ferrante portrays the paths of the two best friends with an honest complexity that forces you to nod and admit your ugliest flaws as you’re reading along. The Neapolitan novels in general, and especially the melancholic conclusion of The Story of The Lost Child forced me to reflect on the occasional jealousies, enduring loyalties and necessary hypocrisy present in my closest friendships. She’s basically a doctor that tears your guts out with her unrelenting-yet-compassionate prose and leaves them piled there in front of you, as you feel like a confused and yet grateful goddamn idiot. Also, she does an amazing job addressing the complex relationships between women and their bodies.
Read her shit, I guarantee even if you don’t enjoy it, you’ll have some sort of uncomfortable and necessary internal dialogues spark up. – Bronwyn Isaac
There’s a strange phenomenon that happens on Twitter that used to amuse me but now sort of depresses me. You can watch, almost in real time, the same piece of news — Kim Kardashian eating her placenta, for example — regurgitated over and over again in the various house styles of different websites, like a weird zombie that you slaughtered that keeps coming back to life. This feels like the direct opposite of reading. I have spent most of 2015 using books as a means of course correction, directing my mind out of the mire. William Finnegan’s Barbarian Days is a beautiful meditation on surfing and delayed adulthood. I dove into this book and read it in great big gulps, racing through it because I wanted more of the words in my brain. It’s my favorite book of the year. Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between The World And Me is short, but should be required reading in all classrooms moving forward, as should Margot Jefferson’s elegy to her childhood and reflection on blackness, Negroland. It’s written with grace and is refreshing for its brevity; we don’t need to say a lot to impart meaning.
Claire Vaye Watkins’ post-apocalyptic hellscape of a sun-bleached Southwest being slowly consumed by human hubris and climate change, Gold Fame Citrus features some of the meatiest sentences I’ve read in recent memory. In the same vein, Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies, a behind the scenes telling of a marriage slowly souring over time, is like the literary equivalent of prestige television, absorbing and repellent, at times in equal measure. Angela Fluornoy’s The Turner House serves as a reminder that all families are trouble, in their own very special ways. Hanya Yanigahara’s A Little Life is at best evocative and at its worst abject misery porn, but it’s an achievement, however you want to look at it. I didn’t care for it, but it deserves mentioning because I can’t remember the last time a book caused so much discussion, over cold beers in dark bars, between friends. — Megan Reynolds
My taste in books this year has primarily centered around fairly dry Russian history and labor movement history. Fun! One of my favorites though, is Imperial Legend: The Disappearance of Czar Alexander I by Alexis S. Troubetzkoy, a 2002 book about the theory that Tsar Alexander I faked his own death and lived out the rest of his life as Siberian monk Feodor Kuzmich, who was later canonized as a saint in the Russian Orthodox Church.
While I’m not sure I believe the legend — although I definitely want to — it’s a really well-written book and an interesting mystery that also provides a lot of insight into 1800s Imperial Russia. – Robyn Pennacchia
I read all four of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels in quick succession in 2015, which defined my year because it was the 2015 Woman’s magnum opus. However, two other novels also stood out as companions to Ferrante, which you must pick up.
I literally just finished The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vita on the train this morning, and it floored me. It fulfilled all my fantasies of running away from my current life and being able to shed everything and start anew. However, the fantasy is still imbued with fear, panic and caution, even as this woman has fled her life in the US for a completely uncertain one in Morocco. The plot is thick and exciting to boot. With rich descriptions of Casablanca and Meknes, Vida paints a picture of what it is like to be a woman who has dove head first into her identity crisis; an examination of love, pain, loss and renewal.
The Dept. Of Speculation by Jenny Offill is a devastating, hilarious and exceptionally poetic account of a woman revealing the unravelling of her marriage and it was one of my favorite reads of the year. Similarly to Diver’s Clothes, Offill gives her readers the perfect illustration of what can happen to our (silly female) brains when on marriage. In one of the best moments, the chapter titled “How Are You?” contains one reaction repeated about 100 times — it was so poignant and hilarious that I had to put the book down, breathe, and open it up again to stare ( and then Instagram the page because I’m a rotten millennial). This is a must read for every woman; the Brooklyn staccato version of a Ferrante. –Katrin Higher
I share and/or have at the top of my reading list a number of the favorites reads others have put on this list: Between the World and Me increased my understanding of and empathy towards what it means to be Black in a racist society in ways I never expected, and moved me to tears throughout; Negroland and Fates & Furies both are sitting on my nightstand, ready to be ripped through during my time off the rest of this year; and had Bronwyn not snagged Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels for her own list, I would have waxed on and on about how they are my favorite books I have ever read, that I was tempted to reread them all over again as soon as I finished. Instead, however, I will sort of piggyback on that, and say that in addition to her books, just about every interview with the mysterious Ferrante has been a mind-blowing read in its own right. Her insights – into feminism, writing, what it means to be a woman now and before, in Italy and elsewhere, and all that patriarchy does to subjugate our lives and squash our voices – are so perfectly worded that I am tempted to go on a pilgrimage to Italy to find her, even though she doesn’t want to be found, and hail her as my spiritual guru.
Beyond having a hardcore case of Ferrante fever, I also was wild about a couple of great memoirs this year, both of which I “read” on audiobook while weaving. Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band rocked my world and solidified the Sonic Youth singer’s place in my personal pantheon of badass feminist heroines, while Leah Remini’s Troublemaker delighted me with its refusal to mince words when sharing insider stories on the Church of Scientology. It was fun to listen to both on tape, with Gordon and Remini’s voices literally telling their own stories in ways only they could. – Amelia McDonell-Parry