Here are my favorite books from 2015. Some new, some old, some fiction and non-fiction. I even read a few books written by authors who reside in countries other than America to keep those comparative lit snobs off my back.
I read three collections of short stories by Melissa Bank (The Girls’ Guide to Hunting and Fishing), Annie Proulx (Close Range) and Miranda July (No one belongs here more than you), which included some of the best writing I encountered all year.
I found two books about Amsterdam, one documented the history of bikes in that city, which I really appreciated, especially the section about World War II, when the Nazis took over the country and stole the people’s bikes. For decades after the war, including today, some Dutch refused service to Germans by simply saying, “But first, give my grandfather his bike back.” The other book was a romantic story called, “Girl with a Pearl Earring.”
I read 26 books on the year, many were found via a new service I subscribed to called Bookbub, which sends me daily deals on digital books. Since I love books and bookstores, I’ve disciplined myself to only buying books at $1.99.
“The Art Forger” took me three days; “Middlesex” took me two months.
My least favorite book … I really struggled with Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.” Another all-time classic that I just did not connect with, joining “Catch 22.”
Here’s my top 10 list for 2015.
10. This Way for the Gas, Ladies and Gentlemen, by Tadeusz Borowski
Stories from a concentration camp survivor of Auschwitz and Dachau. This riveting, brutal inside account, beautifully written by Polish poet and journalist Tadeusz Borowski, has become a masterwork of world literature. Borowski, not a Jew, was a political prisoner. He tells the stories of being forced clean out the box cars after the new arrivals were separated in two lines … those going to slave labor, those going to the gas chambers … and later was put to work in a Nazi medical experiment hospital.
9. The Art Forger, by B.A. Shapiro
“A highly entertaining literary thriller about fine art and foolish choices,” said Parade, so naturally I was drawn to it. I found the book as part of a service that I subscribe to, Bookbub, that sends me daily discounted books. In this mystery, a talented, young artist is asked to forge an actual Degas masterpiece that was stolen as part of the largest unsolved art theft in history. Lots of behind-the-scenes from the art world, art forging and technique with many layers, twists and turns, which Publishers Weekly called “delightful.”
8. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry, by Rachel Joyce
The story of a recently retired man, who was sitting around doing nothing when he receives a distressing letter from an old co-worker. She has cancer and she’s written to say goodbye. He writes a reply. He walks it over to his post office, but in the spur of the moment, decides to deliver the note in person … by walking to the hospice 500 miles away. He thinks if he keeps walking, she will keep living. This long walk gives him plenty of time for reflection. He was attempting to help his friend, but also to atone for his mistakes. A pilgrimage. Eccentric, sad, inspiring, hopeful, real.
7. The Spy Who Came in From the Cold, by John le Carre
Considered the best spy novel of all-time, featuring Cold War espionage, “The Spy Who Came in From the Cold” shows what similarly amoral lengths both sides will go in the name of national security. Time magazine named the book in its top 100 novels list, saying it is “a sad, sympathetic portrait of a man who has lived by lies and subterfuge for so long, he’s forgotten how to tell the truth.”
6. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, by J.K. Rowling
I’ve watched all the movies so I decided to read one of the books. I liked it. This is the first in the Harry Potter series. The book gives you some details left out of the movie, like Rubeus Hagrid is nearly 12 feet tall. J.K. Rowling spent five years writing the book and a year looking for a publisher and found one, in part, because the eight-year-old daughter of the cheif executive like it. She was given an advance of 2,500 pounds. The initial print-run was just 500 copies with 300 given to libraries. The book has been published in 67 languages.
5. The Black Count: Glory, Revolution and the Real Count of Monte Cristo, by Tom Reiss
This book, Pulitzer Prize winner for Biography in 2013, tells the story of Thomas-Alexandre Dumas, a French General, who served as the inspiration for The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers, both written by his son, Alexander Dumas. This is an unbelievable life story. When he was 14, his father sold him into slavery in Haiti. But being a good dad, he repurchased his son and sent him to France, where he was educated in literature, sword fighting and military arts. He becomes a hero of the French Revolution and later is named the General-in-Chief of the French Army of the Alps in 1794. He was the highest-ranking black commander ever in any white military until Colin Powell became a four-star general in 1989. He served with and under Napoleon. The research is amazing. In fact, the book begins with the author discovering a cache of materials about the General in a safe that hadn’t been opened in decades.
4. Everyman, by Philip Roth
I loved this book. I’m a sucker for old guys who have been through it all, making mistakes, trying to make amends, but not being that great at it; the passage of time, regret, reminiscing, fathers, etc. The main character has all kinds of medical and relationship problems. He is a father and a philanderer, married three times. He was a successful ad man, who becomes an art teacher, following his passion through painting, but ultimately that is unfulfilling. A 71-year-old who has had all kinds of medical issues, but still thinks he has game with the ladies. He is still looking down the road, making plans. His deterioration felt real to me. Very personal moments. “Aimless days and uncertain nights.” He was self-centered and now alone. Old colleagues are dying. My dad was the last to survive of his siblings and friends, and outlived his wife, two sons and a daughter. There are a lot of shitty things that happen if you’re lucky to live a long life. Everyman has to ponder what has he contributed to the world, if anything. He retires at the same beach where he used to play as a kid with his mom and dad and brother. The story is bleak, but thoughtful and beautifully written. The New Yorker wrote, “Our most accomplished novelist … (With Everyman) personal tenderness has reached a new intensity.”
3. My Autobiography, by Charles Chaplin
An autobiography written by Charlie Chaplin at 75 from memory living in exile in Switzerland. Great, fun, and insightful stories throughout. I felt like I was having a conversation with the man. Some readers are disappointed that he didn’t go into greater detail about his movies, but other books do that. He was the most popular man in the world, who basically invented or at least perfected story telling in the very first days of moviemaking, elevating the form through his innovative ideas and iconic character of The Tramp. Chaplin’s beginnings were bleak to say the least with an absent, alcoholic dad and a mom, who was committed to an asylum for the mentally ill. Before he turned 10, Chaplin was placed into workhouses twice. But Chaplin crawled out of those vividly impactful circumstances through performing on stage. Then he was discovered, made successful movies and then became rich. Everyone in the world wanted to meet Chaplin. When he traveled throngs of people greeted him at the port or train stations. His friends and acquaintances included the leaders of nations, kings and princes, Einstein, Ghandi, H.G. Wells, FDR, Churchill, William Randolph Hearst (his wife and mistress), Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbanks, George Bernard Shaw, Walt Disney, Helen Keller, and many, many more. It seems to me that Chaplin with his faults was a sensitive, thoughtful, passionate, lovely man.
2. The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach
I liked this book right off the bat. I immediately thought of John Irving’s “A Prayer for Owen Meany,” one of my favorite books. Owen, in this book, is a baseball player named Henry, who is a can’t miss pro prospect, who loses the ability to throw accurately to first base, or anywhere for that matter. But while the book is set in the world of baseball, the story is about several characters, a couple friends, a father and daughter. The book is also set on a college campus in Wisconsin, just like me. Like half the books on my list, this book was a debut novel for author Chad Harbach, who studied English at Harvard and who makes several literary references throughout the book. I loved the slow pace, the steady build and flip on the cliched sports ending in the big game. I loved the characters, the relationships and friendships. I enjoyed reading it and couldn’t wait to get back to it. The New York Times named the book one of the ten best of 2011. Very satisfying for me.
1. The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
My new favorite book (as recommended to me by Kirsten Akens at the East Library book sale). It is hard to sum up the plot. But basically it’s about a boy and a book from the Cemetery of Forgotten Books and it’s about the boy’s life and the author of the book’s life. There are loads of mysterious intrigue, amazingly awesome and funny characters, romance, lost romance, side trips, twists and turns, fantasy, mystery, a dude with no face, scary bad guys, a scary mansion, tension, and an historical Barcelona backdrop. I loved every minute of this adventure. This book has sold 15 million copies worldwide; one of the most popular books of all-time. The author, Carlos Ruiz Zafón, and this book are compared to Umberto Eco and “The Name of the Rose.” The Shadow of the Wind is better. The Daily Telegraph wrote, “The Shadow of the Wind is a triumph of the storyteller’s art. I couldn’t put it down. Enchanting, hilarious and heartbreaking, this book will change your life.”
My Favorite Books … 2014
10. Into the Wild, by Jon Krakauer
9. Hologram for the King, by Dave Eggers
8. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell
7. A Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes
6. The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green
5. The Family: Three Journeys into the Heart of the Twentieth Century, by David Laskin
4. The Princess Bride, by William Goldman
3. Jackson Pollack: An American Saga, by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith
2. Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett
1. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman
My Favorite Books … 2013
10. Tribes: We Need You to Lead Us, by Seth Godin
9. High Fidelity, by Nick Hornsby
8. The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
7. The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by Brian Selznick
6. A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan
5. All the Pretty Horses, Cormac McCarthy
4. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman
3. Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem
2. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak
1. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving