The Best Books I Read in 2015

Here’s my annual round-up of the 12 best books I read over the past year, one for every month. They are presented here alphabetically by title, with my favorite of all of them, which I saw on virtually no other list, saved until last. Happy reading!

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After Birth, by Elisa Albert (2015)

 

Ball: Stories, by Tara Ison (2015)

 

 

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                             The Cartel, by Don Winslow (2015)

 

The Cult of the Presidency, by Gene Healy (2008)

 

 

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The First Bad Man, by Miranda July (2015)

 

I Am Pilgrim, by Terry Hayes (2014)

 

 

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               A Little Life, by Hanya Yanagihara (2015)

 

                      Mr. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell (1969)

 

 

 

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Purity, by Jonathan Franzen (2015)

 

Strangers Drowning, by Larissa McFarquhar (2015)

 

 

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                                                          Terms of Service, by Jacob Silverman (2015)

 

 

 

 

And my selection for Favorite Book of the Year is…

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The Best Books Read in 2014

Another year, another barrage of best-of lists for us all to wade through; here’s one more, just in time for Christmas.

You know, if you pay enough attention to these lists, you can zero in on a handful of titles that have coalesced into establishment favorites. Such titles this year might include Richard Flanagan’s Booker-winning The Narrow Road to the Deep North, Matthew Thomas’ We Are Not Ourselves, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven, Jenny Offill’s Dept. of Speculation, and Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See. I am sure these are all excellent books, and I look forward to getting to each of them in time. (I tend to reflexively hold off on reading books at their hypiest so as to avoid getting drowned by it.)

So you won’t find any of those consensus favorites here. This year I read somewhere around 70 books — not bad considering I lost nearly six full weeks to a move — and this list of the 12 best reflects I think a librarian’s curiosity, zig-zagging from new to old, fiction to non, one genre to another, whatever seems appealing on a given day.

I have chosen the first 11 books in random order, saving my favorite read of the year for last.

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#19: The Berlin Stories (1945), by Christopher Isherwood

Over there, in the city, the votes were being counted. I thought, of Natalia: She has escaped — none too soon, perhaps. However often the decision may be delayed, all these people are ultimately doomed. This evening is the dress-rehearsal of a disaster. It is like the last night of an epoch.

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Christopher Isherwood, born in 1904 to a prosperous English family, dropped out of medical school, renounced his middle-class upbringing, and followed his friend and mentor W.H. Auden to Berlin in 1929, a place synonymous with decadence, where the public attitude toward homosexuality was far less restrictive.

His four-year sojourn produced a pair of “documentary novels” that Otto Friedrich in his history of pre-Nazi Berlin Before the Deluge called “a matchless portrait of the city.” Eight decades later, those novels have retained their potency and historical value.

Even after Isherwood left Berlin in 1933, he seemed to know his window for capturing his experiences was closing and began writing with no little urgency, as Brian Finney notes in his biography of the author:

Prompted by…alarming predictions, Isherwood lived throughout most of the 1930s quite sure that war would break out at any moment. He begged [Virginia’s husband] Leonard Woolf to publish Mr. Norris Changes Trains earlier, convinced that by 1935 it would ‘no longer have any meaning whatever’ because, as he wrote to [his friend, poet Stephen] Spender in November, ‘what with Yugo-Slavia and the Saar, I have the gravest doubts whether my novel will ever see the light at all.’

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#18: Under the Net (1954), by Iris Murdoch

After the dignity of silence and absence, the vulgarity of speech.

 

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Iris Murdoch’s first novel Under the Net is a perfectly charming, shambolic escapade filled with colorful characters, whimsical romantic entanglements, and all-around good cheer.

It is also a novel of serious ideas, written by an author who produced many volumes of hardcore philosophy, and a novel of influences, unabashedly putting its literary ancestry on display. Murdoch herself called Under the Net a blatant imitation of the works of French author Raymond Queneau, to whom she dedicated it, and Samuel Beckett.

It’s interesting, then, that Murdoch’s most famous novel — not only does the Time 100 include Under the Net on its official list, but the Modern Library also includes it (Murdoch is one of eight women to make the cut), as does the coffee table book 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die — might well be the least representative novel she ever wrote.

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#17: A Death in the Family (1957), by James Agee

That’s what they’re for, epitaphs, Joel suddenly realized. You can feel you’ve got some control over the death, you own it, you choose a name for it. The same with wanting to know all you can about how it happened. And trying to imagine it as Mary was. Andrew, too. Any poor subterfuge’ll do; and welcome to ’em.

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One of the great side effects of reading a lot is that you can’t help but bring all the books you’ve previously read into anything you read next. Different books about different subjects can actually start talking to each other.

After finishing James Agee’s A Death in the Family last month, I picked up David Finkel’s Thank You For Your Service, a staggering piece of immersive reportage about the “after-war” many of our returning troops are fighting and the withering toll it’s taking on their families. With the Follets still fresh in my mind, I read Finkel’s account of a woman named Amanda Doster, whose husband was killed in combat. Here, she recalls the day the doorbell rang:

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