By Stephanie Lenz (Baker)
Last November we shared some of our favorite reads from the year. We decided to do it again for 2015 and as our list came together, we discovered that our suggestions range from audio books to blogs to novels. These were all things we read in 2015, regardless of when they were published. The list includes at least one ARC for a work to be published in 2016.
Background Image: Fatima M/Flickr (CC-by-nc-sa)
I read practically all day long, mostly non-fiction and news. I’ve always been a slow reader. More accurately, I’m a reader who likes to savor the read. When I get close to the end of something I’m loving, I read more slowly and in shorter bursts so that it lasts. My recommended reads from 2015 made it impossible for me to throw that brake.
Essays by Charles Pierce
Charlie is my political reading recommendation for 2015. He writes for Esquire, usually from a progressive viewpoint but those on the left aren’t any safer from his laser focus than those on the right. His humor is impossible to hide but when the subject is serious, his wit becomes razor-sharp critique. My feeling about his writing, particularly his voice, makes me think of a line Clark Gable delivers as Rhett Butler in Gone With the Wind: “We’re alike. Bad lots, both of us. Selfish and shrewd but able to look things in the eyes and call them by their right names.” Nearly every day, Charlie’s essay (or essays; he’s prolific) gives voice to what’s on my mind.
“The Last Days of Graceland” by Elise Jordan
I read this article on a somewhat stressful day, when I needed a portable distraction. With free wifi and lots of downtime, I thought Buzzfeed would fit the bill so I headed to the site. Instead of another silly list or meme, I found this fascinating, inspiring account of Paul MacLeod’s life, death, and passion: Graceland Too, a “museum” that was little more than a display of a zealous fan’s collection of memorabilia. The key to this essay is Jordan’s connection to its subject; Graceland Too was the stop-and-point house in her hometown of Holly Springs, Mississippi. By adding her personal experience, she creates the frame of community within which she sketches out a near-Shakespearean tragedy of family, obsession, and murder.
Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
My favorite read of 2015, this is more than a memoir. Coates structures the book as a letter to his son, which makes this reflection on blackness in America an intimate conversation as well as an impetus to a long overdue examination of race in our national history, in our culture, and in our future as well as in our own hearts and minds.
Not My Father’s Son: A Memoir by Alan Cumming
Another memoir, this time by actor Alan Cumming. I liked the “then/now” structure, the suspense and mystery carried throughout, and the theme of fathers, sons, and what we withhold versus what we give and how.
“Being A Girl: A Brief Personal History of Violence” by Anne Thériault
Women share universal experiences relevant to their sex. Thériault chronicles a handful of instances of abuse, sexism, assault and more against the backdrop of male aggression that’s accepted in our culture. In the final section, she states that she tries not to be afraid yet admits that she is (a piece of bravery in its own right). In an online world where outspoken women receive death threats and rape threats for the simple act of speaking their truth, voices like Thériault’s are rare and deserve to be amplified, not silenced.
Mystery Science Storybook: Bedtime Tales Based on the Worst Movies Ever by Sugar Ray Dodge
On a light note, I loved this comic by Sugar Ray Dodge. Dodge maintains the RiffTrax wiki and is also a talented artist. His unique drawing style fits perfectly with the RiffTrax aesthetic and his story work hits the sweet spot between homage and satire (like its source material). Drawing on the original works that the RiffTrax and Mystery Science Theater 3000 crews riff(ed), Dodge follows in the traditional by skewering all sides. No one is safe and your sides will pay the price.
Snapshots From Space by Emily Lakdawalla
Lakdawalla blogs at the Planetary Society website about planetary science, and did a lot to piece together the pictures from the Pluto flyby of the New Horizons spacecraft (the data are still coming in!), in addition to other space probes out there exploring our solar system.
Bad Astronomy by Phil Plait
Plait is also in the business of making astronomy accessible. Phil’s interests are more wide ranging, including some non-astronomical topics, and he’s great at explaining things in the news.
Widower’s Grief by Mark Liebenow
And to shift gears completely, check out Liebenow’s blog. Mark lost his wife suddenly a few years ago, and he writes honestly (and well!) about the process of coping with grief.
Finding time to read this year has been a challenge. Yet the idea of not reading is so unfathomable. I met that challenge with a little ingenuity and some stolen time—I’m learning to multitask. My personal reading selections this past year have been exclusively audio books. I generally read about 30 minutes most mornings while running or walking really-really fast. The 30 minutes explains the shortness of my list. It takes several hours to finish a story. And I never do the math when I am contemplating purchasing a story; I never ever calculate in advance how many hours it will take me to finish a particular book. That would be depressing with so many books on my list.
Winter People by Jennifer McMahon
Winter People has elements of mystery and historical fiction. It is the story of two women separated by time whose fates cross in a thrilling realization: The dead can come back. Think Laura Ingalls meets Sleepy Hollow. This story is also about the family ties; mothers and daughters are prominent. This is my current listen and McMahon’s story has hooked me with her rural characters and eerie setting. The landscape in this story holds many secrets revealed bit by bit in its folklore. I’ve met some of the historical characters and anticipate meeting their modern counterparts soon.
Bird Box by Josh Malerman
This story was recommended by my friend, Lisa, who loves horror and psychological thrillers. She is my go-to-girl for a good thrilling read. Malerman’s story has has elements of both. A realistic fiction story set in an alternate, post-apocalyptic world. This story is terrifying because in order to survive, the characters must keep their eyes closed when they venture outside—outside to where curious and dangerous creatures roam. Much of the story is told in flashback by the main character—a young mother of two in a desperate flight to find a mysterious sanctuary from the creatures and from a hopeless existence. The pacing is excellent. Malerman dials up the terror, chapter by chapter, leading the reader up a very steep climax and over the edge to the very last page.
At the Water’s Edge by Sara Gruen
Gruen’s story, set in Scotland during World War II is a cozy, entertaining read. Three wealthy American socialites cross the Atlantic to hunt the Loch Ness Monster. The characters reminded me of classic old movie characters with their speech, mannerisms and triangle—say Cary Grant, Clark Gable, and Loretta Young. Gruen writes great characters and I enjoyed all the discourse and conversations that strayed from what I thought was the main plot. Or was it? This story is more about the journey than the destination and much is revealed in small moments in the small Scottish village where Maddie and her two handsome friends wait out the war hunting for Nessie.
All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
I love reading stories set during World War 2. This Pulitzer Prize winning story was exceptional. Two star crossed characters—one a brilliant young orphan boy who is commandeered by the German army to fix radios and the other character, a young blind French girl who spends her days in a Paris museum where her father works as chief locksmith. The two characters are drawn to each other unknowingly at first by a legend of an exquisite diamond that the blind girl’s father smuggles out of the museum before Paris falls. The Germans know of its existence and of the legend it promises to its owner. Meanwhile, the French resistance is infiltrating German intelligence and the brilliant German orphan boy finds himself in Paris working for the wrong side when he becomes aware of the lovely, blind French girl with a dangerous secret whom his commanding officer will kill for.
Lumberjanes by Noelle Stevenson
As I wrote on Goodreads, I really, really loved this. I saw that another reviewer described it as “If there were a Girl Scout camp in Gravity Falls,” and I was like, “Yeah, that’s about right.” If paranormal weirdness isn’t your thing, you might want to skip this one. Some people seem to be put off by the art style, but I thought it was cute and suited the story quite well.
As You Wish by Cary Elwes
Published in 2014, but I read it in 2015. Delightful.
Yes Please by Amy Poehler
Amy Poehler: SNL alum, Tina Fey bestie, Leslie Freakin’ Knope. Amy Poehler is an awesome lady who does awesome things, of which this book is just one of many, many examples.
Reflections (Indexing #2) by Seanan McGuire
Indexing is a Kindle serial. It combines a procedural with fairy tales and I often wonder how no one has optioned it for a TV series yet.
Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen by Lois McMaster Bujold
This latest installment in Bujold‘s Vorkosigan series is a change of pace from the usual, so it may not appeal to someone expecting her usual fast-pasted adventures. Described as “a book for grownups”, I’d classify it as a pastoral story, and I found it a delightful change of pace. One of the reasons I return to Bujold over and and over is for her persistent message of how it’s never too late. It’s never too late to turn your life around, or to find your life anew, or to change. That’s a message I never tire of, and Gentleman Jole and the Red Queen is a trumpet of defiance in the face of the constant “You’re too old…” messages society bombards us with.
The Glass Sentence by S. E. Grove
The world-building premise of The Glass Sentence is that time and space have fractured and resettled in unconnected pieces. So 1890s Boston and the prehistoric ice ages coexist side by side. In addition, the “Great Disruption” that shattered the world caused many of these eras to develop alternate histories to the ones people were familiar with. Map-making is half science, half magic, and the various maps include maps to people’s memories. It’s a fascinating world, and the adventures of Sophia Tims, the thirteen-year-old heroine of the book, create a solid story within it.
The Riverman by Aaron Starmer
This is a dark book for middle grade readers. It looks at friendship and trust through a very twisted lens. Alistair is approached by his grade-school friend Fiona, who tells him about a world where kids’ daydreams are made real, but that the kids there end up disappearing from the real world when they are taken by The Riverman in the other world. Starmer does a really good job of creating a truly creepy and disturbing atmosphere where it is hard to tell what’s real, what’s imagined, and what’s good or bad.
“The way we tell stories is evolving along with our smartphones” by Kate Pullinger
Pullinger is both a traditional novelist and author of digital fiction. She co-created the ongoing digital novel Inanimate Alice.
As well as using our phones more, we are also accessing multiple forms of content on these devices. We make and watch videos, we take and share photos. We chatter. We play games. We watch movies and TV. We listen. And we read. We read texts and messages, we read social media feeds, we read journalism, we read gossip, we read commentary. A lot of the time we spend staring at our phones we are reading.
And yet most of us don’t consider our phones to be our primary reading device, despite evidence to the contrary; when asked “what are you reading?” (does anyone ask this question anymore?) we might look a bit guilty, as the title of the last book we finished escapes us.
Humans of New York. “HONY provides a worldwide audience with daily glimpses into the lives of strangers in New York City.” Yes, there’s a book, but the best way to read/view these snapshot stories is in their original form on social media. The typical story is a one-shot, but others are serialized over multiple posts. Tumblr | Instagram | Twitter | Facebook
Where Love is Illegal. “Documenting and sharing LGBTI stories of discrimination and survival from around the world.” Similar in format to HONY—glimpses into the lives of people around the world through a single photograph and brief story. Tumblr | Instagram | Twitter | Facebook
“What Would You Grab in a Fire?” by Megan Stielstra
There’s a Tumblr I’ve followed for years called The Burning House. It’s a hypothetical exercise in what you’d grab if your house was on fire. Stielstra’s piece is The Burning House come to life—the decision-making moments after she finds out her home is on fire. I read it in January, but the piece took on added weight a few months later when I woke in the middle of the night to shouts of “fire!” It turned out it was the building next door, but it was a close enough call that I did learn for myself what I’d really grab in a fire.
“Farewell to America” by Gary Younge
Of the many things I read this year on the current state of affairs in the US, this piece lingered with me, perhaps because of Younge’s outsider/insider perspective.
This is the summer I will leave America, after 12 years as a foreign correspondent, and return to London. … [W]hile the events of the last few years did not prompt the decision to come back, they do make me relieved that the decision had already been made. It is why I have not once had second thoughts. If I had to pick a summer to leave, this would be the one. Another season of black parents grieving, police chiefs explaining and clueless anchors opining. Another season when America has to be reminded that black lives matter because black deaths at the hands of the state have been accepted as routine for so long. A summer ripe for rage.
“The Chef Who Saved My Life” by Brett Martin
A story about life and food and writing…
Meanwhile, through the years, I told the story of my own meal with Jacques. Often. It’s a good story—heavy but not too heavy, semi-confessional, a dash of celebrity, a happy ending. One evening, occasioned by a shared plate of prosciutto at The Tasting Kitchen, a restaurant in Venice Beach, I told it to an especially sharp friend. When I was done, he looked at me for a long time. You should write about that, he told me. Sure, I plan to, I said.
Then he said, ”Don’t make it an obituary.”