Monday, December 28, 2015

The Seventy Books of 2015

This past year I read with eagerness and intensity, and read a lot of spectacular books. It's been a long time since I've read so much, or with so much joy, (even though many of these books are not uplifting), and I look forward to reading more broadly and more intentionally in the years to come. I'll write a bit about ten of my favorites but you can read my reviews on nearly all of these books on Goodreads. I also made a video about some of the books I've been reading as I've been thinking about the role of race in America, and if you'd like to watch that, it's right here

The vast majority of books I read this year were new books to me, but the ones I reread (mostly listening to them on audio book with Owen) are marked with an asterisk.

For a prettier version of this list click here

Middlemarch by George Eliot
This book is perfection. I love the narrator--just when you've formed your ill opinion of a certain character you get drifted some private thoughts or feelings of that character that make you want to like them better. The plot twists! The insecurities people feel about each other! I'm not sure I've ever loved a character as much as I love Dorothea. Reading a one hundred page book is nice sometimes, but reading the last hundred pages of a thousand page book? That is just joy. All the work you put in (sometimes literally making charts of the characters so you remember who's who) all the work the author put in of setting up expectations, drawing characters together to a climax, all of it comes together so beautifully.
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood
The Color Purple by Alice Walker
The Passion by Jeannette Winterson
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
The Remains of the Day by Kasuro Ishiguro
This book is so incredibly beautiful. The story is simple: A butler looks back at his life in service while driving across England on his first vacation in decades. But the telling is complex and tender: so much of emotion, of Englishness, of nationalism, of blue blood and new money, and the sympathies and prejudices between the two world wars. Sad and tender.
Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
The Marriage Plot by Jeffery Eugenides
The Unexpected Mrs. Polifax by Dorothy Gillman
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
This is not the sort of book I usually love. It's super gritty, irreverent, violent, and it's fantastic. The writing is so good, and I learned a lot about the Dominican Republic while reading it. That seems to be one of Junot Diaz' main intentions, with his hilarious and informative footnotes, making fun of his white readers for not knowing anyone else's history, and telling the story with the zip of a comic, and the craft of a poet. Looking forward to reading more of his writing. 
(Not recommended if you don't like to read about: violence, characters who swear all the time, friendzones, or corrupt governments.)
Go Set A Watchman by Harper Lee
A Room with a View by E. M. Forester
All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
This book is not only beautiful sentence by sentence, even the structure is stunning. There's a central event (the bombing of St. Malo in WWII) and two central characters, and you live through that day of the bombing hour by hour. Between those hours you jump back in time for rich, colorful backstory, so that as you get each successive piece of that day in St. Malo the characters matter to you more and more as their situations become increasingly dire. This book also focuses a lens on the light of humanity. Not always shone, not always seen, but beautiful.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman
A Prayer for Owen Meany by John Irving
Home by Marilynne Robinson
Lila by Marilynne Robinson
Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
The Red Tent by Anita Diamant
The Awakening by Kate Chopin
The Maytrees by Annie Dillard

The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris
Steal Like An Artist by Austin Kleon
Yes Please by Amy Poehler
The Art of Asking by Amanda Palmer
Bossypants by Tina Fey
I listened to Tina Fey read her own audiobook and just laughed so hard I cried a little. So much of her humor is in handing us the unexpected, but I was also charmed by her voicing her own fears and her own perspective on them.
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
Freakonomics by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner
At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson
Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks
Pilgrim at Tinker Creak by Annie Dillard
I want to own this book and pull it off the shelf and read it again and again. Biking over the fields near Leiden in January, I would try to frame what I could see in words, and then I'd hear Annie Dillard had the words already. “Today is one of those excellent January partly cloudies in which light chooses an unexpected part of the landscape to trick out in gilt, and then the shadow sweeps it away. You know you’re alive. You take huge steps, trying to feel the planet’s roundness arc between your feet.”
I Am Malala by Malala Yousafzai
A Room of One's Own by Virginia Woolf
Why We Can't Wait by Martin Luther King Jr.
It is difficult to say how much this book moved me. The message, the fearless pursuit of justice through nonviolence and love, the exquisite writing, everything about this book left me hungry for more. Not only more of Martin Luther King Jr and his writing, but more of his vision enacted in our world today. Read it. Even if all you read is his letter from the Birmingham Jail, read this book.

Our Town by Thornton Wilder*

Beginning Chapter Books:
The Great Cake Mystery by Alexander McCall Smith
Mr. Popper's Penguins by Richard Atwater
Make Way for Dyamonde Daniel by Nikki Grimes

Middle Grade Fiction:
A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park*
The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman
The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman
The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman
The Tale of Despereaux by Kate DiCamillo*
Goodbye Stranger by Rebecca Stead
I love this book. When people talk about "contemporary realistic fiction" for young people the books sometimes the ground is shaky. Maybe they're already dated like the books I read growing up where none of the teenagers have cell phones. The books that really mattered then still matter today because they dealt with bigger issues than phone styles, but here is a book of today. A book I think will last a long time, and which represents a lot of current issues really beautifully. It deals with PTSD, with mysterious and the scary in social interaction, with mean kids, but also with really beautiful siblings and friendships. I was particularly touched by her sensitivity with issues of school dress codes, and "slut shaming" and exploring how these issues come out, and what they mean. It's also just great. You should read it. And also everything Stead has written because it's all fantastic.
Al Capone Does My Shirts by Gennifer Choldenko
The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner*
The Queen of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner*
Frindle by Andrew Clements*
The House of the Scorpian by Nancy Farmer
The Secret Garden by Frances Hodgson Burnett
Roll of Thunder Hear my Cry by Mildred D. Taylor*
I remember this book being both sad and scary from when I was young. I remember asking, "but why?" a lot of times, but I wasn't expecting it to be so incredibly moving as I reread it now as an adult. The story is just beautifully laid out, plot and character, twists and history, and it makes me happy and pains me to read it. I know a lot of people are rereading To Kill a Mockingbird this year with Harper Lee's "new" book coming out. Let me suggest that this is also a book that could use a read or a re-read. There are many ways in which it twins To Kill a Mockingbird, but I love that it tells the story of a black child coming to terms with the implications of her skin and what it means. The questions this book raised about how much property matters startled me. Again and again people talk about--who owns what--be it land or a new car or people or coats or pearl handled pistols, ownership seems to central to this story.
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
The City of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau*
The Amulet of Samarkand by Jonathan Stroud
The Crossover by Alexander Kwame
Ghost Knight by Cornelia Funke
The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Young Adult Fiction:
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
East by Edith Pattou
A nostalgic, emotional five stars for this book. I really, really, liked it. The fable of east of the sun and west of the moon told in a novel form, it reminds me of fairytale retellings I read as a young teen, (Robin McKinley and such), and it was very easy to submerge myself in the story. I found it... cozy. Reading it at a bus stop in the freezing rain was comforting, and reading it cozied up with blankets and tea was exactly what I wanted. If you had mixed feelings about His Dark Materials, but still really like polar bears and legends from the far north? This is the book is for you.
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Part 1: The Pox Party by M. T. Anderson
The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing Part 2: Kingdom on the Waves by M. T. Anderson
Seraphina by Rachel Hartman*
Shadow Scale by Rachel Hartman
Speak by Laurie Halse Anderson
Flight by Sherman Alexie
Divergent by Veronica Roth
Insurgent by Veronica Roth
Allegiant by Veronica Roth


  1. Yay, Clara's book list! (I loved Pattou's "East" as well.)

  2. Thanks for a beautiful list! I wish you could be part of Book Club.

  3. I watched your video and want to enthusiastically pound my fist on the table on behalf of James Baldwin. The man is a monument. Amazing, fiercely compassionate, writer. He is one of the few authors for whom I want to be a completist and read everything he ever published. As far as where to start: Notes of a Native Son (essay collection), Going to Meet the Man (short story collection), Giovanni’s Room or In Another Country (novels). These are works I can read again and again. If you decide to do audiobooks for any of Baldwin’s work, I recommend Dion Graham as the reader - he’s extraordinary.

    Also, I really recommend Alice Walker's essay collections Everything We Love Can Be Saved and The Way Forward is with a Broken Heart. My mother gave me Saved one year and I bought Way Forward after that. Saved in particular is a touchstone for me when I feel down or burnt out.

    Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is a treasure. Pure reading bliss.

    Among my favorite writers of recent years is Edwidge Danticat. She is Haitian-American. I found her work by way of her incredible memoir Brother I'm Dying centered around the death of her uncle in US detention when he tried to immigrate to the U.S. following the political upheaval in Haiti in 2004 but going back to her own father's immigrant story. It's tremendous. Her fiction is also incredible but if you are going to read one book by her, read this one.

    As far as history, I think these two books are excellent and serve as good companions to Michelle Alexander’s book in terms of the evolution of racism post Civil War and the institutions supported by it:

    Slavery by Another Name: The Re-Enslavement of Black Americans from the Civil War to World War II by Douglas Blackman &

    Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present by Harriet Washington

    1. Yes! Clearly I should read James Baldwin! I just checked out the audiobook of Going to Meet the Man with Dion Graham. Thanks for giving me some suggestions on where to start. I remember being totally captivated by Their Eyes were Watching God when I read it in high school, but I'd love to read it again. These are all wonderful suggestions. Thanks you.

  4. Dear Clara,I have a letter for you, but realize I haven't updated an address for you in over two years! Have you moved or changed mailing addresses since May of 2014? If so, drop me a note at the usual Houghton email. Love love love,
    Your Sylvius (Laura (Day) Benhardus)


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