The Atlantic’s editors and writers share their favorite titles—new, classic, or somewhere in between—from a year of reading.
The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August by Claire North
Harry August, the narrator and protagonist of Claire North’s 2014 novel The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August, is an “ouroboran,” gifted and cursed with a sort of immortality: Death, for August and others like him, is merely a reset button. When he dies, his life begins again from birth. On top of that, August’s memory is cinematic; he remembers in vivid detail everything that’s happened to him after infancy throughout all his lives.
In less deft hands, this recursive reincarnation could have easily made for a messy, thematically incoherent plot. (Though from Groundhog Day to Life After Life, it’s worth noting, this certainly isn’t the first well-crafted run at the conceit.) But this book is a marvel of plotting—intricate and fast-paced, yet lucid and digestible. Best of all is the novel’s thematic richness; this is a book about many, many things. To me, it was a striking portrayal of aging—the way an earlier stage of life can come to seem like a different life altogether, how the emotion of an intense and abruptly ended love affair gradually and unexpectedly softens, the process of coming to terms with death. To you, this book will likely be about something quite different. And perhaps it will acquire yet more meanings in the lives we have ahead.
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf
I’m from California, which means mostly that I have strong opinions about avocados, but also that I grew up surrounded by “Humboldts.” Humboldt Bay, Humboldt Park, Humboldt Fog … a notable number of my home state’s most notable features bear a German name. It wasn’t until reading The Invention of Nature that I appreciated why.
Andrea Wulf’s sweeping 2015 book—part biography, part vicarious travelogue, part history-of-ideas—celebrates the man behind the memorials: the explorer and author and scientist and Romantic Alexander von Humboldt, born in Berlin in 1769. The story revolves around Humboldt’s most enduring insight: that the global environment is, on top of everything else, a dynamic system. Animals, farms, oceans, storms, people—“in this great chain of causes and effects,” Humboldt wrote, “no single fact can be considered in isolation.”
Nature as network: It’s one of those ideas that has so saturated our understanding of the world that it has ceased to seem like an idea at all. But it was, in its time, revolutionary. Humboldt’s hipster naturalism (before it was cool, etc.) inspired Darwin, who credited his boarding of the Beagle to his friend’s influence, and also Goethe, and Bolívar, and Jefferson, and Emerson, and Muir. And his thinking continues to inflect our own, Wulf suggests, whether the topic at hand is climate change or sustainable agriculture or the culinary fate of, yes, the avocado.
All of which makes it especially unfortunate that today’s tributes to Humboldt—in California, and around the world—have been so neatly relegated to peaks and parks and cheese. Memory can be an arbitrary thing; The Invention of Nature argues, lyrically and compellingly, that the man who gave us “the concept of nature as we know it” deserves not merely to be remembered, but to be celebrated once again.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James
The Bone Clocks reads like two books at once: It’s at times overlapping, disjointed, and altogether engrossing. The story begins in 1984 with Holly Sykes, a 15-year-old British runaway who has precognition, and it follows her life—intermittently, and sometimes through the eyes of people who love her—across the globe over the course of six decades.
Mitchell is known for his skill in weaving narratives that leap through time, space, and perspective, and the scope of The Bone Clocks is dizzying and delightful this way. But it isn’t just Mitchell’s propensity for projecting far into the future and across cultures that’s impressive. He often freezes time, too, enlarging snapshot details, narrative moments that are tucked into his work like found poetry: “The dune grass sways. Clouds’re unrolling across the sky from France. I put my jacket on.”
Much of the tension that drives The Bone Clocks comes down to the way small moments in life don’t always emerge as significant until much later, if at all. Mitchell once said that the key to understanding how people change from one generation to the next is to ask what they fail to appreciate, an attitude that permeates this novel. “Having a spectrum of worlds where different things are being taken for granted, because they are in different times or different cultures, allows me to examine similarity and difference,” he told The Atlantic last year . “It allows me to examine change.”
I found the book’s odd fantasy subplot, which many reviewers deemed unnecessary, gripping. It isn’t that Mitchell, who is known for genre-busting, is able to keep the story grounded despite its supernatural elements; it’s that he convinces the reader that the experience of living isn’t ever anchored to any one reality. To live in this world is to become unmoored, again and again, and to find a way back to the things—and usually that means the people—that matter.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
In an era when a dozen Tower Records’ worth of inventory can be accessed with the swipe of a finger across a screen, music can seem ephemeral and invisible, like the air it vibrates through. But Stephen Witt’s fascinating reporting reminds us that this state of affairs—which nearly killed the music industry itself—came about only through very tactile means. Scientists in Germany, slaving in a lab and repeatedly listening to jenky rips of “Tom’s Diner,” invented the miraculous technology known as the MP3. A rural blue-collar worker, driven by a desire to trick out his car and using an oversized belt buckle to smuggle CDs out of the manufacturing plant that employed him, uploaded the bulk of popular music accessed by users of Napster and Kazaa in the aughts.
Always, Witt fixates on the concrete details and distinct personalities that drove the online music revolution, many of whom were not on the payrolls of record companies or major tech firms. Reading How Music Got Free makes you wonder about the physical spaces in which the next cultural-technological shift is being born right now—by flesh-and-blood people who someday will need a journalist like Witt to tell the story of what they’ve done.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon
I first encountered H Is for Hawk via review: Kathryn Schulz’s magnificent New Yorker essay on the author, Helen Macdonald, and the process of grieving through falconry. That Macdonald’s book was deemed worthy of Schulz’s precision gaze suggests something in itself: Here is a book that is rare, intense, and not likely to be encountered often in the wilds of urban bookstores.
Indeed. The structure of the book is unusual—part memoir, part instruction manual, part exegesis of a mid-19th-century non-fiction guide to training hawks (written by the author of The Sword in the Stone). Macdonald weaves the august domesticity of her academic home, Cambridge, with her ventures into the forests, her hawk Mabel in tow. This juxtaposition is all the more striking because she so clearly delights in language: “It is sitting there with a cooling coffee that I think seriously for the first time about what I am doing. What I am going to do with the hawk. Kill things. Make death.”
Make death. Yes. This book could be a million cliches—about the death of a father, and the metaphor of wildness, and a spiraling life bedecked in privilege—but instead, Macdonald crafted something truly original. Even the jacket is satisfying: a cream-feeling matte texture, a charming drawing of the eponymous hawk. Like the book, it’s a way of finding life’s small pleasures, even in a story about death.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:The Complete Stories by Flannery O’Connor
Submission is a novel of politics—sort of. It’s set in a not-too-distant future that Michel Houellebecq presents as inevitable: In order to prevent the far-right National Front from coming to power, France’s socialist and conservative parties agree to support the newly formed Muslim Brotherhood. The charismatic new president, Mohammed Ben Abbes, enacts changes that comply with shariah law, including mandating that only Muslims can hold teaching positions. This change, in particular, affects Francois, a Huysmans scholar who teaches at the university.
Francois is a typical Houellebecq protagonist. Although not old, he has realized he is alone. He’s tired of the life, relationships, and easy sex capitalism has to offer. He drifts from one day to the next, ruminating about philosophy, the state of France, and ways to obtain, and procure, women. This is, in other words, bleak stuff.
Houellebecq’s writing can seem dry and matter of fact, and his graphic descriptions of sex are almost comedic in their ordinariness, but it’s his melancholic musings about (post)modern Europe that really make an impression. Life is pointless, he seems to say, and we’re powerless to do anything about it. That is despondence, of course, but it’s also what drew me to the novel, which was first published in France soon after the attacks on Charlie Hebdo, and which I began reading last month days before the attacks in Paris. I finished it on Saturday, one day after which the National Front won a stunning victory in regional elections.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:Two Years Eight Months and Twenty-Eight Nights by Salman Rushdie
Donna Tartt’s debut novel, published in 1992, is set at the fictional Hampden College in Vermont and narrated by Richard Papen. Richard is a young man of unremarkable origins and keen intellect who’s enthralled by the privilege he encounters when he arrives as a freshman. The story in many ways is a murder mystery, with Richard confessing his complicity in the death of one of his acquaintances in the first pages, then revealing over the first half of the novel how the crime came about.
The Secret History is simple in structure but elaborate and allusive in style. Richard is drawn into a small crowd of elite students tutored in Greek by a charismatic professor, and becomes infatuated with their eccentricities and their weathered aristocratic ways. His absorption into a world he feels fundamentally inadequate in recalls Brideshead Revisited and The Great Gatsby, but while the novel itself is hazy about its era, it’s set in the 1980s, with Tartt drawing parallels and contrasts between the mythological preoccupations of Richard’s friends and the casual, MTV-generation hedonism of the other students at Hampden. One major theme in the book is the darkness of beauty; Tartt also considers morality, history, and the ties that bind people together. “The more cultivated a person is, the more intelligent, the more repressed,” she writes, “then the more he needs some method of channeling the primitive impulses he’s worked so hard to subdue.” Epic in ambition and scale, and tightly controlled in execution, it’s a most extraordinary novel.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives: As of This Writing: The Essential Essays by Clive James
It’s easy to see why Tom Reiss thought the tale of Alexandre Dumas’s father (also named Alexandre) would be a great book. Dumas grand-père was born to a dissipated, disinherited French aristocrat and black slave mother in present-day Haiti; was brought to France as a young man, raised in luxury and trained in swordsmanship; was forced to enlist in the army when his father squandered a fortune; became a staunch republican as the Revolution began; quickly skyrocketed from enlisted man to general to war hero; was handpicked to go to Egypt with Napoleon, but was sent home after quarreling with Bonaparte over republican principles; was captured, tortured, and imprisoned en route (likely inspiration for The Count of Monte Cristo); and made it home, but died young and impoverished, leaving behind a son who would become the famous novelist.
What’s not easy to see is how General Alex Dumas had become so thoroughly forgotten. (Reiss has a knack for digging up fascinating but forgotten figures.) The author combines exhaustive, intrepid historical research with fluid, gripping prose. Almost equally fascinating is the story Reiss tells of race relations in revolutionary and post-revolutionary France. For a fleeting moment, France adopted radically progressive race laws, allowing Dumas—the eponymous Black Count—to become a heartthrob. Then, almost as suddenly, the laws were reversed, wiping him from the history books; and leaving his quarter-black son to contend with racism throughout his career. Given Dumas’s story, it would be hard not to write a compelling book, but only Reiss realized it, and his primary-source research and the cultural history he uses to contextualize it make this book truly outstanding.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:The Hard Way on Purpose by David Giffels
At the beginning of Taiye Selasi’s 2013 novel, Kwaku Sai dies in his garden in Ghana. This event allows for the story of his life and family to unfold: his ex-wife Folasade and their four children, whom he abandoned to protect them from disgrace that they inherit nonetheless. As the story moves from Ghana to America and then back again, it becomes clear that hurt is both individual and collective, much like the larger experience of immigrant parents and their children.
As the last of four children born to Ghanaian parents, I appreciated how Selasi conveys that very little in this experience is clean, or simple. When leaving is love and love is sacrifice, a very particular rootlessness develops that can be too heavy to hold. Ghana Must Go is all about that love-hurt and longing. The wounds the book reveals are breathless; they ache, even as they so often go untouched and unmentioned. But Selasi wants the bruises to bloom openly. For love to exist in this family, certain things demand reckoning, or maybe just recognition. And at its core, Ghana Must Go is a love song.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:The Farming of Bones by Edwidge Danticat
Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China by Evan Osnos
Forty years ago, Hedrick Smith returned from Moscow—where he’d served as bureau chief for The New York Times during the height of the Cold War—and published a book that became a No. 1 bestseller. The Russians was justly celebrated for spotlighting the everyday people Smith met in the Soviet Union. Evan Osnos, who spent eight years in China for the Chicago Tribune and The New Yorker, produced a similar book in 2014 about this era’s emerging superpower and the people who live there.
In Age of Ambition, Osnos chronicles China’s quarter-century metamorphosis from state-imposed sameness to a nation that’s on the brink of transformation and riven by the contradictions of communism and free enterprise. China today, writes Osnos, is a story of the “collision of two forces: aspiration and authoritarianism.” Osnos is good with his analysis, but what makes the book stand out—and what made it remind me of Smith’s work on Muscovites—are the deft portraits he sketches of the entrepreneurs, bureaucrats, laborers, activists, and mobsters he met during the course of his reporting. Best of all: The book manages to be substantive and nourishing even as it’s great fun to read.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:The Remedy: Robert Koch, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the Quest to Cure Tuberculosis by Thomas Goetz
The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson
Historical retellings can be tough to pull off—specifically, getting them to include all the nuance, shifting dynamics, and small but important developments without losing a reader in the weeds. For me, 2010’s The Warmth of Other Suns did all that with grace. It chronicles the movement of southern black Americans up North during the Great Migration, a period spanning from 1915 to 1970. It’s a lot of ground to cover, but Wilkerson organizes her book in such a way that it makes the topic at hand resonate more deeply.
Her narrative follows three people: Ida Mae Brandon Gladney, George Swanson Starling, and Robert Joseph Pershing Foster. Each account is compelling, broken up into installments that swell with their own triumphs and devastations. Something about Foster’s story stuck with me the most—maybe because it was the most recent, or because his represents the highest degree of achievement (Foster heads west and becomes a prominent surgeon in Los Angeles, with a reliable patient base in the black community there), followed by a slow but sure decline. If convenience is a motivating factor in your book selection process, Wilkerson’s structure lends itself to the working reader’s schedule, and makes the 622-page work perfectly accessible. Each chapter felt like an episode; cracking it open in bed at the end of the day meant I’d find another quietly enthralling snapshot of the marginalized lives I’d quickly become invested in.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:Asking for It by Kate Harding
The Son is really just a great, old-fashioned epic of the American West. Published in 2013 and named as a Pulitzer finalist, the novel imagines the rise to power of the McCulloughs, one of Texas’s most dominant oil and ranching families. The patriarch is Eli, a.k.a. The Colonel, who begins life humbly enough by watching his family get murdered by Comanches and becoming their captive. Obviously, I’m not spoiling anything by revealing that he survives. Meyer intertwines Eli’s story with those of two descendants: Eli’s son Peter and his great-granddaughter Jeannie.
I read both of Meyer’s excellent books last year and had trouble deciding which one I liked better. American Rust, his debut novel, is a more confined tale of two troubled young men set against the backdrop of a Pennsylvania steel town in decline. The Son is the more ambitious work, and Meyer succeeds at combining several genres—coming-of-age, the rebellious son, a woman-in-a-man’s world—into one giant yarn. Despite the title, the character that resonates most is Eli, whose brutal beginnings seemed like they could have been a prequel to the story of Daniel Plainview in There Will Be Blood. The undercurrent of the McCulloughs’ accumulation of wealth, land, and power—of Texas’s, and of America’s—is violence. It’s deeply engrossing, and plenty relevant.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives: Lila by Marilynne Robinson
All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers by Larry McMurtry
I knew McMurtry, as most people do, from his 1985 novel Lonesome Dove. Which is hilarious at points, but overall too authentically a Western novel about a 19th-century cattle drive to make it seem possible that the same author writes anything but Western novels about cattle drives. Much less some incisive critique of modern (1960s) bon vivant literary culture.
All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers is the story of a wide-eyed young man finding his way as a young writer, but also a parody of that sort of story, done as self consciously as if it were going to be vetted by an audience of fully jaded blogger-critics, in 1972, by a guy who never really seemed to care what anyone thought of his work. Which may be the only way to make art, I suppose. McMurtry still lives in the small town of Archer City, Texas, where he no longer writes but considers himself to have been “a minor original novelist.” Even though Lonesome Dove won a Pulitzer for fiction, and it was adapted as a TV miniseries starring Robert Duvall and Tommy Lee Jones which won seven Emmys. (“It was a very popular book and fine and dandy, but it doesn’t stir me, and I haven’t cracked it since I wrote the last sentence,” he said in a 2011 interview.) If All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers is the work of a minor novelist, then that’s my aspiration.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink
Crossing to Safety is a portrait of adult friendship. Set in the decades preceding its 1987 publication, the novel chronicles the lives of the Morgans and the Langs, two couples who meet in Wisconsin where the husbands teach university English. As the characters seek to establish their careers, families, and adult lives, a complicated friendship develops. Recalling its anchoring role, Larry Morgan reflects earnestly on his life:
In high school, in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a bunch of us spent a whole year reading Cicero—De Senectute, on old age, De Amicitia, on friendship. De Senectute, with all its resigned wisdom, I will probably never be capable of living up to or imitating. But De Amicitia I could make a stab at, and could have at any time in the last thirty-four years.
Stegner pairs philosophical questions—about the nature of fulfillment or the tragedy of illness—with powerful psychological insight into individuals, couples, and friends. He creates four admirable and flawed protagonists, often placing them in vivid natural settings. The engaging narrative changes pace, slowing or speeding to accurately evoke the way we experience and remember our lives.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives: The Righteous Mind by Jonathan Haidt
If you read a dust-jacket synopsis of 2011’s The Night Circus, you’d learn that this is a book about two magicians embroiled in a life-long duel that uses the circus as its backdrop. And while that’s true, it’s not what I loved about it. I found myself racing through the chapters that drove the main plot forward to get back to the interludes that describe the different tents at the circus, such as the Ice Garden and the Wishing Tree. This is a story where the canvas on which the narrative is painted completely outshines it.
It’s the circus itself, Le Cirque des Rêves, that I still catch flickers of in my thoughts, almost a year after reading this book. The conspiracy that keeps the circus afloat and the threat of what will happen to it once the conspirators are no longer there to support it is the real heart of the novel.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:Notorious RBG by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik
As a self-identified Aziz Ansari superfan, I’ve followed the comedian and actor since his role on Parks & Recreation, frequenting his live shows, and appreciating his slightly uneven but consistently well-intentioned Netflix series, Master of None. It’s the latter work that comes closest to mirroring the soul of Ansari’s 2015 nonfiction book Modern Romance: a serious and at times wistful exploration of how we love and woo today, written and researched in partnership with the New York University sociologist Eric Klinenberg.
While humor plays a key role in making this book accessible, its strength lies in the pairing of Ansari’s comedic voice with the rigorous research methods he and Klinenberg employ, digging into text histories, a custom subreddit they created for the project, online dating profiles, and focus groups. Modern Romance is incredibly earnest in its evaluation of the uncertainty that comes with dating and love—highlighting all the ways that emotion is now amplified by both technological advances and societal shifts, including the ability to encounter endless potential partners, and the freedom to marry for love beyond economic gain.
Ansari’s willingness to acknowledge and confront his own uncertainty is a huge part of his power as both a writer and a comedian.This honesty is illustrated by both the opening and final chapters of the book when he turns the magnifying glass inward. To admit vulnerability and thereby expose it: That’s about as old school as modern romance can get.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:The Clasp by Sloane Crosley
Roy’s Booker Prize-winning debut novel is set in a small town in rural India in the late ’60s and early ’90s, and tells the story of a pair of twins whose lives are disrupted when their visiting English cousin drowns in the river by their house. Told through the young twins’ perspective, the narrative is built around this accident and the morally murky circumstances that precede and follow it. Their voices paint the world in details first, and their childlike formulations—most strikingly, the “Love Laws” that dictate who can be loved, how much, and by whom—touch the most intimately unsayable things in a society where breaking boundaries has dire consequences.
While gorgeously written, Roy’s sentences illuminate only glimmers at a time, forcing the reader to haphazardly piece together a story that starts at the end and works toward the middle, jumping forward and backward in time until dizziness ensues. But as a result, the ultimate arc of the story hits more powerfully when it reaches its climax, fueling an emotionally profound critique of the caste system and small-minded provincialism.
This isn’t the first time I’ve read The God of Small Things: I reread the novel while visiting Roy’s home state of Kerala in India this summer. It’s one of those instances where a piece of art comes more intensely into focus when your own lens changes.The river there serves as the novel’s most arresting metaphor, and Roy’s piercing language became even more powerful when I was able to walk along its banks.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
This was the year that I had trouble starting new books. I’d open one on my Kindle, read a page or two, and then lose interest, perhaps surrendering to a rhapsody about whether e-books had killed my attention span, or whether my increasing preference for listening to books on Audible means that I’m officially Old or Lazy (probably yes to both). So I returned to an old classic, Richard Russo’s The Risk Pool, a coming-of-age story about Ned, an observant boy in upstate New York, his put-upon mother, and his mysterious and impossible father, Sam.
Nothing much happens in The Risk Pool, except for the dozens of tiny events that characterize any boy’s upbringing, but Russo writes with a sardonic humor about Ned and his evolving relationship with his father, who, friends say, “should have been issued with a warning label.” The Risk Pool takes place in the fictional town of Mohawk, a one-time industrial town on a downward spiral, but Russo doesn’t let the town’s depressed economy bring down the tone of the book. I frequently laughed out loud while reading this book, which was first published in 1989, and by the end, I even cried a little. Perhaps the thing that recommends it the most is that I finished it, and then turned to the beginning and started again.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:The Story of a New Name by Elena Ferrante
This year was a dry year for me, books-wise, so reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane— a bizarre, haunting story written mostly from the credulous perspective of a young boy—felt like taking a shot of Bacardi 151 after being sober for months. The book’s prose is lyrical but candid, forcing the reader to believe that the pond at the end of the lane truly is an ocean, that the girl the (unnamed) protagonist befriends truly has magical powers, that his world is actually eaten up by “hunger birds,” and that the evil spirit he finds lodged inside his foot one morning is in fact his evil nanny.
But the book is hardly a fairytale: Certain parts were so dark and vivid—so eerily personal—that I was too scared to read it some nights. Gaiman’s demonstrates an uncanny ability to capture the world through the eyes and raw interpretation of a child, giving renewed truth to the realities that define adulthood.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
In late February, I caught a cold that made my head feel like a pot of boiled water and my limbs like the noodles within. Being that sick is liberating, in a weird way. I could barely walk to the kitchen and back, so how could I be expected to work ? Freed from the expectation of being productive, I read Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children—slowly and indulgently, myself wrapped in a blanket, and the blanket wrapped in the thick air from the Vicks Warm Steam Vaporizer.
The plot could be a season of Gossip Girl: A pompous journalist celebrity, his beautiful waifish daughter, and her endlessly reckless friends get in all sorts of trouble in the shadow of a national tragedy. It’s all Upper West Side salaciousness dressed in West End prose—purple, regal, hypotaxic. The Emperor’s Children was so good that I look back on the last two weeks of this February with a weird fondness, even though I was nearly too sick to stand up. I can’t imagine a better compliment for a book: It’s made me nostalgic for the flu.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
Carry On—the story of Simon Snow and his adventures saving the world (with a lot of help from his friends) at the Watford School of Magicks—is the fantasy book I didn’t know I’d been waiting for for years. Not my whole life—first I needed to read a bunch more fantasy, particularly books with teen protagonists who carry the weight and the fate of the world on their shoulders. Because Carry On is both a critique and an appreciation of those Chosen One stories. It’s full of references, but is also a wonderfully realized world in its own right, a world where language is magic (you can cast a spell by quoting Star Wars!), good and evil are unclear, and political power sometimes has heavier consequences than magical power.
Carry On also has a meta-thing going with Rowell’s earlier book Fangirl, though you don’t need to be familiar to enjoy it. It stands alone, though you may be reminded of fanfiction anyway: The romance between Simon and his roommate/mortal enemy Baz feels like the fulfillment of a million Harry/Draco slashfiction dreams. Hate turning into love is the best kind of romance there is (for fiction, not for life), and woven into all of Rowell’s mystery, magic, and political intrigue is the sexiest love story I’ve read in a long time. So come for the makeouts and stay for the magic, or vice versa—either way, you’ll want more.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
The Theory of the Leisure Class by Thorstein Veblen
Veblen published his wry, scathing The Theory of the Leisure Class in 1899, but it felt awfully timely this year. Sure, some particularly tangled passages tell us more about the author’s own outlandish understanding of history than about the nuances of our present-day social hierarchies. But readers who can stomach Veblen’s verbose, jargony prose are rewarded with the unorthodox economist’s devilishly smart insights into the nature of wealth and power.
“Conspicuous consumption,” a term Veblen coined, is only the beginning. His observations are enduringly perceptive: “It frequently happens that an element of the standard of living which set out with being primarily wasteful, ends with becoming, in the apprehension of the consumer, a necessary of life.” “Many ostensible works of disinterested public spirit are no doubt initiated and carried on with a view primarily to the enhanced repute … of their promoters.” Or, my personal favorite: “Even those varieties of the dog which have been bred into grotesque deformity by the dog-fancier are in good faith accounted beautiful by many.” In a time of athleisure, Berniebros, and famous cats, Veblen remains—to use a capitalist metaphor—pure gold.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:Negroland: A Memoir by Margo Jefferson
Ben Metcalf’s debut novel took more than 10 years to write, and may take even longer to catch on. No matter. This book is for sentence lovers, misanthropes, and relishers of the weird. The chapters are shaped like personal essays, each aimed with sparkling hatred at so-called life in Goochland, Virginia. The language is spring-loaded and barbed. But the fiction works from behind—what you don’t see is what you get: a creature of bruised majesty, with a voice apart. If you’ve ever dreamed of a life in the countryside where, as the song goes, “seldom is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all day,” then here, from page one, comes thunder:
I was worked like a jackass for the worst part of my childhood, and offered up to climate and predator and vice, and introduced to solitude, and braced against hope, and dangled before the Lord our God, and schooled in the subtle truths and blatant lies of a half life in the American countryside, all because my parents did not trust that I would mature to their specifications in town.
An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales by Oliver Sacks
Oliver Sacks seems to inspire every person touched by his consciousness: a deep intellect combined with a rare, expansive generosity of spirit. Upon reading of the neurologist and author’s death a few months ago, I dedicated a day to reading one of his older essay collections.
An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales is a series of medical case histories from Sacks’s clinical work with neurological patients. Each essay is an investigation of what it means to be human when you think and perceive in ways outside the familiar. These lucid and lyrical stories about individuals with autism, color blindness, or Tourette’s syndrome are rich and wisely balanced with analysis and emotion. In-depth scientific explanation blends seamlessly with narrative, as Sacks describes his subjects with humility and deference, inserting himself only occasionally, and always with great care.
To read the book is to inhabit Sacks’s singular mind, and his role as both observer and participant, healer and investigator. His interview with the autism advocate and animal behavior scientist Temple Grandin—from whom the book’s title emerges—is one of the crowning jewels. Like all of his writing, this book demonstrates Sacks’s way of illuminating the frontiers of both human knowledge and self-knowledge. I am grateful, for all of our sakes, that we’ll never lose the self that’s distilled in his sentences.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby
The Disaster Artist by Greg Sestero and Tom Bissell
More than a decade after its release, the cult-classic film The Room continues to hold the title of one of the “best worst” movies ever made. For diehard fans and the uninitiated alike, The Disaster Artist offers a brilliant, keenly observed dive into the bizarre film’s even more bizarre origins. At its center is The Room’s eccentric writer, director, and star, Tommy Wiseau, the curiously accented auteur who spent $6 million of his own fortune making what he believed was his magnum opus. As a close friend of Wiseau’s for over 10 years and one of The Room’s stars, Sestero infuses the book with a sense of intimacy. He also has an arsenal of anecdotes—the kind that’ll have you reading entire passages to anyone within earshot when they ask you (in an irritated voice) why you’re laughing so much.
It’s a funny, smart book that’s elevated to “great” for refusing to take sadistic glee when describing Wiseau’s innumerable idiosyncrasies (his obsession with Tennessee Williams, his silence about his hazy past, his fear that a valet would fart on the seat of his Mercedes-Benz, his inexplicable insistence on shooting with 35mm and high-definition cameras simultaneously). Yes, the making of The Room was more absurd than even the most avid fan could imagine. But Sestero and Bissell succeed in balancing honesty with empathy, and even affection, for Wiseau and the strange film he created.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta
Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder by Samuel Fussell
The muscular memoir might not seem a legitimate genre, but Sam Fussell’s Muscle, published in 1991, is worth dusting off and delving into. In a few hundred pages (and some alarming photographs), the author charts his transformation from stork-like Oxford grad to hulking bodybuilder—and, with it, his changing ideas of masculinity.
Sam Fussell—the son of the award-winning authors Betty and Paul Fussell, and with his own degree in literature—can really write. He conjures the specifics of the subculture—the bodybuilder’s distinctive waddle (“The Walk”), the clichéd catchphrases, the tedious training regime—with a level of detail and self-deprecating wit that only a true insider can pull off.
Refusing to shy away from the more controversial aspects of the “sport,” Fussell also explores its drug use, homoeroticism, and inherent solipsism. He describes the calcium deposits that form hard knots under the skin of those bodybuilders who inject steroids, and gives a play-by-play account of shaving his legs with 10 Lady Bic razors in preparation to take the stage. He writes of men introducing themselves with their body fat percentage (“I’m seven percent”) and of posing on stage in briefs the size of a postage stamp.
Meanwhile, we come to see how, in spite of the mindlessness and monotony (how does a daily breakfast of eight egg whites and a skinless chicken breast grab you?), the pursuit of muscle can have meaning. For a while. Required reading if you like lifting, literary references, or vicariously experiencing unusual worlds.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
“Thought-provoking” and “surprising” have become overused phrases casually plopped onto font-heavy non-fiction book covers, purportedly intent on enticing readers seeking unconventional knowledge. So much so that it’s almost hard to use these words earnestly to describe a book. But for Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens, I will make an exception. This was the most surprising and thought-provoking book I read this year.
In just over 400 pages, Harari, an Israeli historian, packs in a brief history of humankind. Sapiens is an account of an animal that conquered its planet and everything on it—a feat Harari attributes to humanity’s unique ability to organize ourselves in large numbers using myths. For a non-fiction book that’s a narrative of humanity, fictions play a huge part. There seems to be no topic Harari won’t tackle with intellectual voracity: the “cognitive revolution,” religion, the origins of racism (and sexism), science, why we own dogs or grow wheat, Nazis, happiness, capitalism, and whether we’ll destroy ourselves or perhaps be replaced by cyborg post-humans.
Much like Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs, and Steel, Sapiens is an incisive “big history” book about everything. Flawed as this genre of books might be (bring on the anthropologists!), you have to admire Harari for the feat (his photo captions throughout the book are also gems from his brain). You also have to wonder what he could possibly write about now that he’s completely exhausted the topic of humans.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman
Somehow I made it through multiple American Literature classes and an English major without ever reading Moby Dick. I know it’s a masterpiece, one of the great American novels. But when I finally started the book last month, it was hard to shake the feeling of doing a homework assignment I had put off for years.
Which got me thinking about that sense of obligation. I never felt it as a fourth grader, but adulthood has made me a worse reader—more impatient, less willing to immerse myself in a story without anticipating its ending. Reading Moby Dick has become important to me because it requires the patience I worry I’m losing. Melville will pause the narrative to spend 10 pages anthologizing the different categories of whale, and the subcategories of those, at which point it becomes tempting to scan the paragraphs mindlessly and wonder when I’ll get to A Hundred Years of Solitude, or watching Pulp Fiction, or a thousand other things I should have done by now. And then I’ll come across his description of the mealy-mouthed porpoise (“He is of quite a neat and gentleman-like figure”) or of fish without spouts (“I deny their credentials as whales”) and be reminded that the point of reading is, in fact, reading—not having-read. Even Moby Dick’s narrator, Ishmael, is skeptical of finish lines: “God keep me from ever completing anything. This whole book is but a draught—nay, but the draught of a draught.”
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives: Burning Down The House by Nell Bernstein
In Dave Eggers’s 2009 book, Abdulrahman Zeitoun, a Syrian immigrant and contractor, opts to stay in New Orleans while his wife and four children evacuate in the days leading up to Hurricane Katrina. Once the storm ends, the real difficulty begins. Zeitoun canoes around a flooded New Orleans, attempting to make himself useful, helping neighbors, feeding dogs, and sheltering friends. But he’s soon arrested on suspicion of looting, and what follows is a veritable nightmare, the type of injustice that one hopes couldn’t possibly happen here, yet does.
Zeitoun is the story of one family’s ordeal. It helps to illustrate the devastation and the ongoing attempt of the city and its residents to recover, painting a day-by-day portrait of what surviving the unimaginable looks like. “In the grand scheme of the country’s blind, grasping fight against threats seen and unseen, there would be mistakes made,” Zeitoun laments.
It’s not just a story about Katrina, though. This is also a tale about what can happen in even the wealthiest countries when the systems meant to protect during the worst of times prove to be a staggering failure, and fear and ignorance remain unchecked. Oscillating between the storm and the history of the Zeitouns, in Syria and America, Eggers tells the tale of an ambitious, hard-working immigrant whose self-made business and respected reputation mean little in chaotic New Orleans, where law enforcers are ultimately just as dangerous (if not more so) than lawbreakers.
Zeitoun is captivating, in part because of the complexity and fallibility of its characters—both in print and in reality. And the larger issues of the book: race, religion, xenophobia, power, and justice, are just as relevant, troubling, and unresolved today as they were in a near-anarchic post-hurricane city 10 years ago.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:Gateway to Freedom by Eric Foner
“I have pulled out one thread from the tangle or tapestry of that time,” writes Rebecca Solnit near the middle of The Faraway Nearby. “Nothing in my account is untrue, except perhaps the coherence of a story, when really there were many stories, or the heap of events and details and imperfect memories from which stories are spun.”
Some of the stories: a journey to Iceland, Che Guevara’s attainment and loss of empathy, Mary Shelley’s birth, a mother’s loss of memory, the death of a friend. Some of the topics: apricots, fairy tales, labyrinths, cannibalism, leprosy, ice. Solnit compares human psyches to landscapes and sets out to map the distance between them, spiraling out from her own story into others’ along the meandering patterns of thought.
Meanwhile, running along the bottom margin like thread through a labyrinth is yet another story, which begins with moths that drink the tears of birds. It’s an odd, unexplained typographical Easter egg, easy to skim over; yet its presence, I think, is key to the purpose and power of this book. Read it page by page, fragment by fragment, and see how the thoughts that flit at the edge of attention can build to a larger understanding. Or go back to read it all at once, and see how it seems to gather the themes of the book’s far-ranging heap of details into a single narrative—all stories collapsing into another, one story expanding to take them in. One mind, the writer’s, and then yours, containing them. It’s that quality of expansion, the flexible boundaries of self and story, that Solnit captures so well, and makes The Faraway Nearby such a worthy example of how, in Solnit’s words, “books are solitudes in which we meet.”
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives: Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins
As pretty much everyone knows (from reading, if not from first-hand experience), Americans take very little vacation compared with their counterparts in most of the developed world. This, it turns out, is no modern invention or beast of the smartphone age: Americans have long had conflicted feelings about leisure—whether they have “earned” it and what they ought to do with it.
This 1999 book by Aron, a University of Virginia sociologist, is a fascinating and superbly written history of American vacations, from early elite tourism of America’s natural scenery (“This beautiful country stimulates my patriotism,” one traveler wrote), to the rise of middle-class camping and road trips, coinciding, not accidentally, with the rise of the middle class itself, along with cars and roads. Aron fills this history in with one curious detail after the other, such as the physician who wrote to the owners of New York’s Mohonk resort in 1886 inquiring as to whether he “could get enough practice in the hotel to warrant him to stay during the month of August & part of September”—proving that working on vacation is nothing new. And she rounds it all out with thoughtful analysis about the gender, racial, and class dynamics this history illuminates.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about work—what makes it stressful, what makes it meaningful, what is the right amount of it. I’ve spent far less time thinking critically about leisure, and Aron’s book showed me what a mistake that’s been. Vacations are a backdoor to understanding how people feel about work, and Aron portrays those feelings with the intellectual clarity and meticulous research that they deserve.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:The Making of Home: The 500-Year Story of How Our Houses Became Our Homes by Judith Flanders
Most of the language I encounter every day—in status updates, banner ads, headlines—is tuned and polished in a way that’s optimized to take and hold my attention. Too often, it succeeds. Teju Cole’s 2014 novel Every Day Is for the Thief was the most evocative reminder I got this year that language can be fashioned toward different ends. Cole’s writing is crisp and poised, and, like a trekker scrubbing over the tracks he leaves in the snow, he hides the emotional processing and ruthless editing that it must have taken to produce it.
The book’s narrator is an unnamed Nigerian expat who, wandering through Lagos on a trip back “home,” is dismayed at the corruption he finds in nearly every social crevice. Cops shake down drivers with the same regularity that Americans pass through stoplights; young men gather in Internet cafes to compose scam emails for another day’s work. For a novel that’s about the desperation that drives the need to take things from others, Every Day Is for the Thief is composed of language that is awfully subdued and unshowy—yet it monopolized my attention nonetheless.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:White Noise by Don DeLillo
With the teacher wars still raging, Dana Goldstein—who herself comes from a family of public-school educators—offers a thorough and thoughtful story of three centuries of American education. From Horace Mann to TFA, Christian missionaries to the Common Core, she examines the pedagogical and the political, tackling issues of race, class, and gender. The voices of high-profile education reformers and rank-and-file teachers combine with Goldstein’s exhaustive historical research to create a fair, comprehensive, and illuminating read.
Goldstein takes up today’s questions about the efficacy of standardized testing, the role of teachers’ unions, and the extent to which the educational system can help students overcome troubled lives. But, tracing these questions over time, she reveals that these fundamental debates—what students should learn, how teachers should teach, and what exactly the purpose of education is—are hardly just modern concerns. Rather, they address an enduring moral anxiety: What do we hope for our children?
So, it’s no surprise, then, that teaching has become, as Goldstein says, “the most controversial profession in America.” While acknowledging that American education has sometimes gone badly astray, Goldstein highlights its successes. Finally, she offers her own solutions—and a sincere belief that schools must—and can—be both reformed and reimagined.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:The Dead Ladies Project by Jessa Crispin
Earlier this year, I plowed through a stack of books about China’s past and present in preparation for a reporting trip that never happened. There were a number of standouts in this stack, and quite a few from journalists, including Evan Osnos’s Age of Ambition, Peter Hessler’s China trilogy, and even one from our very own James Fallows. But my piece-that-never-happened had a historical focus, and so the histories were the most illuminating—and none more so than Jonathan Spence’s The Search for Modern China.
In just under 1,000 pages, Spence covers four centuries of Chinese history, beginning with the decline of the Ming Dynasty and ending with the demise of the pro-democracy movement in 1989. A classic in the field, the book was first published only a year after the Tiananmen Square crackdown, but a new edition (the one I read) came out in 2012. As a work of history, it’s notable for its panoramic scope. Spence’s prose style is uncommonly elegant, especially for an academic historian. He takes you into China’s political struggles, but also its social and economic life, and even into the arts. It’s been some months since I finished the book, but I can still recall his vivid description of Dream of the Red Chamber—the consensus “Great Chinese Novel”—and its cultural impact at the time. That, too, made it into my stack, but I had to cancel my trip before I got to it. Maybe next year?
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf
In Cold Blood is that rare combination of book I’ve always been embarrassed I hadn’t read yet and book I genuinely wanted to read (as opposed to all the English period literature on moors I tend to avoid). Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was captivated. Truman Capote’s original “nonfiction novel” makes Eric Larson look downright didactic. At its best—which it often is—In Cold Blood is pure poetry, describing how “the tawny infinitude of wheatstalks bristle, blaze.” And it’s also an entire horror movie in just one line: “Blue light exploding in a black room, the glass eyes of a big toy bear.”
In many ways it’s a straight line of a story. Capote starts with Mr. Clutter examining his farm on his last day alive—which is made plain. The Clutter family is brutally murdered that night, but it isn’t clear how or why—and that becomes the central mystery. Capote toggles between the killers’ journey and the town’s inflection point in the crime’s aftermath. But finally these two halves merge—and only then do we go back in time for the spectacularly chilling tick-tock of that night at the Clutter family farm: the killer’s confession.
Capote shines when he ponders the unfathomable. (He’s also somehow both fully present and totally invisible in the pages.) He does a lot of legwork to make the murderer’s deep insecurity and latent rage perfectly clear—but, in the end, it’s all completely inexplicable. And that too is scary as hell.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:The Making of Zombie Wars by Aleksander Hemon
The Rules of Civility is a book named after a book: One of the characters carefully studies George Washington’s work of the same title, a compendium of advice for how to behave in polite society. But while Washington’s is all about acting with purpose, this one is all about serendipity.
The book, which opens on New Year’s Eve in 1937, follows a 25-year-old woman over one tumultuous 1938 in New York. Love is lost and found, friendships are tested, social ladders are climbed; things happen, in short, that make The Rules of Civility into the type of novel that book blurbers would ordinarily call a “romp.” That word’s an injustice, though. Because as all of these things are happening, there’s a wonderfully wise sort of sadness that infuses it all—the narrator is acutely aware, always, that each choice she makes means the closing off of an unknowable number of possibilities. This is a book about serendipity, but it’s also a book about the loss that inevitably comes with all good things.
I loved it enough to forgive the moments when it slipped into Manhattan porn, like when the narrator describes the view of her city as “simply so improbable, so wonderful, so obviously full of promise, that you wanted to approach it for the rest of your life without ever quite arriving.” That’s fine. I feel that way about a lot of things. I felt that way about the end of this book.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr
For the last three years, clever and kind friends, with inquisitive brains and mental senses of the world I trust, would reference phrases from Paul Edwards’s A Vast Machine. It would be a different friend every time, and a different phrase every time too: Maybe “shimmering data” or “computational friction.”
Where is that from?, I’d ask. A Vast Machine, the answer would come. Oh, right, I’d say. I want to read that.
Finally this year I did.
Edwards’s book is a history of climate science as a “global data infrastructure,” (which sounds dull but is not), but it’s not only that. It’s a biography of a field inventing tools and coming to terms with them—but it’s not only that, either. It’s scholarship about the origins of our modern abundance of data, and a thoughtful work about what it means to create and think with models—but it’s neither of those by themselves.
A Vast Machine tells of how humanity came to understand the planet as a global system. It’s a history of thinking with and through technology—about our home, about our species, about their profound interdependence.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives:The Girl in the Road by Monica Byrne
What addicted me to Liu’s novel, the first in a trilogy whose other installments I have yet to read, was how dissimilar it was from any other science fiction I’ve recently consumed. There are no chosen ones, or wise old men, or galactic despots, or warrior princesses, or any of the other worn-out tropes of sci-fi storytelling today. Also refreshingly absent is the familiar veneer of American politics that shapes so much Western sci-fi, for better and (more often) for worse.
The story sets itself against the backdrop of modern Chinese history, tracing its characters from the upheaval of the Cultural Revolution to the dynamism of the country’s present day. Even a brief summary can’t do justice to its intricate plot. Liu employs secret military projects, mind-bending astrophysics, virtual-reality games that meld science with philosophy, and a puzzling extraterrestrial signal to vex his nuanced (and numerous) characters.
Connecting all these storylines is Liu’s palpable sense of unease. You can feel his anxiety about China’s struggle to adapt to its rapid rise, the looming threat of climate change, the dizzying pace of technological advancement, and most of all, his concern about humanity’s ability to overcome these problems. He’s not the first author to explore these themes, but he does it exceptionally well. By the time I turned the last page, I felt like I’d just read the first true 21st-century novel.
Book I'm hoping to read before 2016 arrives: Black Earth by Timothy Snyder
I moved away from New York this year, and one of the last things I did before I left was watch the Fourth of July fireworks over the Brooklyn Bridge. I hadn’t started City on Fire yet, but it’s impossible to think about those fireworks now—or New York, even—without thinking about Garth Risk Hallberg’s debut novel.
The story is about the shooting of a girl on New Year’s Eve in Central Park, and how the lives of the people around her converge in reaction. Initially a mystery—who shot the girl and why?—the book ultimately encompasses the decay of late-’70s New York, culminating in the blackout of 1977. The main characters are wealthy bankers, anarchist punks, Long Island teenagers, a heroin addict, a California expat, a grizzled journalist, a dogged detective, and an aspiring writer from Georgia. (It’s over 900 pages long, and stuffed to the max.)
While Hallberg delves into the gritty locale of a city teeming with lost souls, the most resonant impression left by the book is one of fireworks. They’re on the cover in technicolor, eye-popping glory, and reading it is just like watching them: exhilarating. “Feelings, people, songs, sex, fireworks,” a character thinks at one point, “they existed only in time, and when it was over, so were they.” City on Fire, by contrast, promises to endure.
Book I’m hoping to read before 2016 arrives: Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs by Lisa Randall
I finished 2014 thinking Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Americanah was the greatest book I had ever read, maybe even the greatest book of all time. This year, I read her older novel, Half of a Yellow Sun, and loved it even more.
Half of a Yellow Sun was originally published in 2006 and tells the story of the Nigerian Civil War, or Biafran War, in the late 1960s. Like Americanah, Adichie uses a nonlinear style of writing to switch between three narrators. The war unfolds through the eyes of Richard, a British expatriate studying Igbo art in Nigeria; Olanna, the daughter of a wealthy businessman; and her houseboy, Ugwu.
I remember learning about Biafra in school as a journalistic tragedy, the beginning of an era where conflict in African countries was reduced by Western media to images of starving Nigerian children on the cover of Life magazine. I like to believe Adichie’s use of intercutting narratives is her way of piecing together a chapter of Nigerian history that was told wrongly so many times before. By focusing on the stories of individuals, she proves that love, life, and humor can survive even the darkest times of war.
While seemingly disjointed at times, the change in narrators prevents readers from relying too much on any single story from this turbulent time in Nigeria (a concept Adichie famously addressed in her TED talk). It also makes the book that much more unpredictable and compelling to read.