Looking back upon 2015 reveals it was a great year for books. Here are the 10 best books – five fiction, five nonfiction – of the year, as selected by Printers Row Journal editors and contributors.
"A God in Ruins" by Kate Atkinson
Kate Atkinson just keeps getting better. After a decade of impressively intricate Jackson Brodie mysteries, 2013's "Life After Life" represented an ambitious shift in tone. The follow-up, "A God in Ruins," is a stunner. The novel, which Atkinson calls a "companion piece" to "Life After Life," focuses on Ursula's beloved younger brother Teddy. A third-rate poet by temperament, Teddy becomes an RAF pilot, flying a Halifax bomber over Germany in a series of dangerous, ineffective and morally questionable air raids. Teddy comes home but never quite believes his luck. The narrative jumps forward and backward between wartime and this unexpectedly long future of Teddy and his offspring. Atkinson is a master of the off-kilter chronology, and here it not only preserves a sense of mystery but also lends a vertiginous air of fragility to the narrative. Toward the end of the book, Teddy's loathsome daughter, now a successful novelist, regrets her failure to mine his WWII memories for a book: "One that everyone would respect. People always took war novels seriously." It's a self-referential wink from an author who, while garnering critical praise, has never quite gotten the respect she deserves.
"A Manual for Cleaning Women" by Lucia Berlin
In one of Lucia Berlin's short stories, a bunch of junk in a dentist's office includes "domes you turned over and it snowed." Think how many writers you could ask for a simple description of a snow globe before one came up with that. Berlin's terrific posthumous collection, "A Manual for Cleaning Women," makes the case that syntax is a way of noticing things, as sentence after sentence spins out in an unexpected but, it turns out, exactly right direction. Berlin's characters are the scraped-raw, scraping-by types who populate every medium of American art, but they don't feel familiar. The mythos that drags down Denis Johnson's or Charles Bukowski's stories is sublimated here, turned back on itself. If there's something beautiful or romantic about Berlin's laundromats and crosstown buses, it's a surplus that no one in them can collect, and yet the stories are funny, warm, light-footed even when they break your heart. Which they do.
"The Story of the Lost Child" by Elena Ferrante
What words do you save? Here's your chance to bring them out, like the silver for the wedding of the first-born: genius, tour de force, masterpiece. They apply to the work of Elena Ferrante, whose newly translated novel "The Story of the Lost Child" is the fourth and final one of her magnificent Neapolitan quartet. The books portray the profound, ferocious friendship of Lila and Lenu, the two brightest girls in a poor and violent Naples neighborhood. It's hard to describe the greatness and beauty of the three novels that precede "The Story of the Lost Child." Few books have ever seemed closer to life, so utterly honest, so utterly human – the experience of reading them something close to spiritual. Now that this tetralogy is complete, it's possible to step back and take in just how much it contains. Like its predecessors, "The Story of the Lost Child" effortlessly balances the social, political, personal and artistic; almost incidentally, Ferrante has conducted one of the signal investigations into the history of women in our time.
"Welcome to Braggsville" by T. Geronimo Johnson
T. Geronimo Johnson, whose first novel, "Hold It 'Til It Hurts," was a 2013 PEN/Faulkner Award finalist, is a fearless writer, and "Welcome to Braggsville" is one of the most provocative, daring novels we've seen in a while. The novel starts as a liberal college satire but takes a devastating turn after a class project involving a fake lynching goes horribly wrong. By combining stream-of-consciousness and traditional storytelling with abrupt shifts in time and point of view, Johnson concocts an unsettling story that forces us to examine our own prejudices and what, if anything, we're doing to make America more tolerant. The novel confronts race-related tragedies, including the killings of unarmed black men, and asks: Can we really be so naïve?
"Thirteen Ways of Looking" by Colum McCann
The title novella in Colum McCann's latest collection alludes to Wallace Stevens' poem "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird." The framing of a detective story with poetry allows McCann to develop a deeper analogy: "Poets, like detectives, know the truth is laborious: it doesn't occur by accident, rather it is chiseled and worked into being, the product of time and distance and graft." It's an intriguing and suspenseful work, followed by the three extraordinary short stories. In the shorter fiction, McCann's prose becomes incandescent. In one story, a mother and her adopted teenage son step into "a shaft of light so clear and bright it seemed made of bone." This is precise and evocative writing, strengthened by later events in the story that sharpen the analogy's menacing edge. In another story, McCann narrates his own efforts to write. This risks becoming self-indulgent metafiction. On the contrary, by braiding authorial anxieties and decisions into the story they occasion, McCann makes us exquisitely aware of our complicity in fashioning fictions.
"Between the World and Me" by Ta-Nehisi Coates
In "Between the World and Me," Ta-Nehisi Coates delivers a searing indictment of America's legacy of violence, institutional and otherwise, against blacks. Framed as a blunt, sometimes bitter, often anguished letter to his teenage son, this brief volume includes his memories of Chicago, which he once visited to report on segregation in the North as a product of government policy. "'Black-on-black crime' is jargon, violence to language, which vanishes the men who engineered the covenants, who fixed the loans, who planned the projects, who built the streets and sold red ink by the barrel," Coates writes in relation to what he calls the "caged neighborhoods" of Chicago's West Side. "The plunder of black life was drilled into this country in its infancy and reinforced across its history, so that plunder has become an heirloom, an intelligence, a sentience, a default setting to which, likely to the end of our days, we must invariably return." So often books are touted as "essential"; it has never been more true than in this case — a point sadly reinforced by recent revelations about the Chicago police shooting of Laquan McDonald.
"The Secret Game" by Scott Ellsworth
On a Sunday morning in the spring of 1944, two college basketball teams laced up and squared off against each other in Durham, N.C. The game wasn't advertised; almost no one but the players and coaches themselves knew what was happening. The doors to the gymnasium, at what's now known as North Carolina Central University, were locked. The stands were empty. And for decades afterward, the game played in secret that morning never came to the attention of the public. But the mystery is over. "The Secret Game" uncovers the events of that day — and of the months and years leading up to it — as an early blow against the ironclad segregation of the Jim Crow South. The all-black Eagles, of what was then known as the North Carolina College for Negroes, and an all-white team of former college basketball stars from the Duke University's medical school, faced off in a test of wills and skills, putting a serious dent in the wall of separation between black and whites a full decade before the beginning of the civil rights movement. It was a battle of titans, the best against the best, the color line be damned — and a forerunner of today's college basketball, both in style of play and diversity of personnel. The book is thoroughly, thoughtfully reported and vividly written. The history of civil rights is fleshed out just a bit more, and lovers of the game of basketball will be engrossed.
"Ghettoside" by Jill Leovy
Jill Leovy's "Ghettoside" is a penetrating look at the Los Angeles Police Department, but its implications range far beyond. A staff writer at the L.A. Times, Leovy is not a newcomer to crime reporting. In "Ghettoside," she adopts an anthropologist's gaze to unravel the workings of this tribe. She tracks the daily movements of homicide detectives working cases that rarely attract the media spotlight. This is gritty reporting that matches the police work behind it. By peering behind the curtain of police work, we see that the inequities in criminal justice cannot be reduced to neglectful or racist police. The daily, pragmatic hurdles police must clear ultimately stifle their attempt to help communities victimized by gun violence. Leovy has created a book that is part reportage and part sociology. Her diagnosis is clear and compelling — an important part of the conversation we should all be having about race and police in today's America.
"H is for Hawk" by Helen Macdonald
Helen Macdonald's "H Is for Hawk" is one of a kind. Macdonald is a poet, her language rich and taut. The book was born in sorrow. Macdonald became undone by her father's sudden death. Grieving and drifting, her university job drawing to a close and her path uncertain, she found herself seized by a powerful notion: She wanted to tame a goshawk. As she descends into a wild, nearly mad connection with her hawk, her words keep powerful track. Training a goshawk promised the intensity and wildness she sought as an escape from her grief. As deeply as she bonds with her hawk, in the end she must decide what wildness can and cannot do for the suffering human heart.
"The Argonauts" by Maggie Nelson
"The Argonauts" is a thrilling read for the way in which Maggie Nelson crafts an exceptional form uniquely suited to her exceptional content: the story of falling in love with the gender-fluid artist Harry (formerly "Harriet") Dodge, building a queer family and having a child through IVF. Yet this summary can do neither the book nor Nelson's huge-brained and big-hearted ambitions for it justice. One could call what she has done a motherhood memoir, which it undeniably is, but that label risks reducing its scope, which is practically boundless. For "The Argonauts" is a memoir, yes, but Nelson's strategies are those of the personal essayist, the poet and the philosopher, and her goals are nothing less than affording her readers new ways of thinking about — and employing new language to describe — our experiences of gender, marriage, sexuality, difference, thought and humanity itself.
More great reading
"In the Country" by Mia Alvar; "Beatlebone" by Kevin Barry; "Mothers, Tell Your Daughters" by Bonnie Jo Campbell; "Purity" by Jonathan Franzen; "The Mare" by Mary Gaitskill; "Fates and Furies" by Lauren Groff; "Speak" by Louisa Hall; "Submission" by Michel Houellebecq; "The Buried Giant" by Kazuo Ishiguro; "The First Bad Man" by Miranda July; "My Struggle" by Karl Ove Knausgaard; "Get in Trouble" by Kelly Link; "The Complete Stories" by Clarice Lispector; "Music for Wartime" by Rebecca Makkai; "The Dream of My Return" by Horacio Castellanos Moya; "The Fishermen" by Chigozie Obioma; "A Strangeness in My Mind" by Orhan Pamuk; "I Refuse" by Per Petterson; "Cries for Help" by Padgett Powell; "The Whites" by Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt; "A Spool of Blue Thread" by Anne Tyler; "Women Crime Writers," edited by Sarah Weinman; "The Cartel" by Don Winslow; "The Visiting Privilege" by Joy Williams; "A Little Life" by Hanya Yanagihara.