Best Books of 2015
Saturday 12 December 2015
As I catalogue my favorite reads over the last six months (July to December), I’m a bit surprised. I am a lover of fiction. I often crave an escape from this world and revel in the universe an author creates for me. But as I put together my top ten list, I had to admit that the books I can’t stop thinking about, the books I can’t stop talking about, the books that have become a part of who I am as a reader were all nonfiction texts.
My top three slots are all very different types of nonfiction: a polemic against smartphones; a memoir about surfing; and a historical account of a famous Russian composer. You will also find four YA titles on the list. I read a lot of YA and I’m more than okay with my choice in doing so. I enjoy it all – as long as it’s well crafted. I looked for narrative voices that captivate me, but I can fall in love with almost anything in a book: the characters, the conflict, the setting.
I decided to tell you about my favorite books, and to make this a bi-annual post, because I believe in creating a community of readers. David and I realize you come to InThinking to find resources for your classes, to get model examples for your students, and to ask questions when the subject guide is frustratingly ambiguous! We are also hoping you will come to InThinking to connect with a larger community of teachers, professionals, and yes, readers.
Tim's Top Ten Books of 2015 (July - December)
Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age by Sherry Turkle
I know my smartphone is alluring. I know it has the ability to control my attention and habits. I just didn’t realize how – and to what extent – it does. Turkle’s new book (she wrote Alone Together) really struck a chord in me. If you have a smartphone and are worried about how it interferes with your work, your family, or your relationships, I highly recommend it. In fact, I can’t stop telling people to read it.
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
One of the best things about books is being able to talk with others about them. After finishing Barbarian Days, I keep coming back to conversations with the librarian – a friend and a fellow surfer – about it. We gush about the lyrical descriptions of the waves. We envy his grace and style, both in surfing and writing. We laugh about his youthful ignorance about not wearing deodorant and thinking he doesn’t smell. Even if you don’t surf, this memoir still resonates. It’s a classic coming of age story and a gem of a book.
Symphony for the City of the Dead: Dmitri Shostakovich and the Siege of Leningrad by M.T. Anderson
I’m not an idiot when it comes to World War Two, but I felt like one as I read this book, and it’s considered YA, written for teens! The book itself didn’t make me feel dumb; I did that to myself when I realized the huge gaps in my knowledge about Russian music during this time. M.T. Anderson weaves together the story of composer Dmitri Shostakovich’s life, and his famous 7th Symphony, as Nazi Germany tries to suffocate Leningrad. I had no idea the role music played in the war and I had no idea how music could perhaps turn the tide in a war.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff
It starts slow. You need to know that. The first half – “Fates” – is well written, but there’s nothing worth noting: a man marries a woman. Told from Lotto’s perspective, it follows their marriage. Get through that first half as fast as you can, because it’s the second half, titled “Furies” that really matters. Told from her perspective, Mathilde, secrets of unimaginable proportion are revealed. I was consistently and constantly shocked at what I read. I think I’m still a bit tongue-tied when talking about it.
Bone Gap by Laura Ruby
The second YA book in the list is just strange. I needed to suspend my disbelief often, and I had to often move past improbable plot developments that confounded me. But I kept coming back to it because of the character – Roza – who goes missing. I needed to know what happened to her. I found myself caring and caring so much that it didn’t matter if the magic realism was believable or not. A vivid look at love and loss, Bone Gap is worth a read.
The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen
The best satire I read this year was The Sympathizer. It is an insightful and incisive look at how the West views the East. Set during the Vietnam War, the plot follows first person narrative of “The Captain” as he works for the South Vietnamese, but spies for the North Vietnamese. The sharp criticism left me reeling for days.
Mosquitoland by David Arnold
This YA novel has one of my favorite elements in this genre: a snarky teenage narrative voice. It’s biting, perceptive, and fun. After having to move with her father and new stepmother, Mim is on a journey from Mississippi to Ohio to find her mother who has stopped communicating with her. Taking a Greyhound bus across several states, she bumps into memorable characters in the process. Mim’s development as a character is what kept me hooked.
Go Set a Watchman by Harper Lee
I was recently asked to name my classroom after an author or character. How cool would it be to say, “Let’s meet in Vonnegut” or “3pm in Woolf. Be there.” When I thought of a character, Atticus Finch instantly came to mind. But after reading Go Set a Watchman, I just couldn’t do it. Still, I enjoyed reading it, especially through a Language and Literature lens (context of production and context of reception kept coming to mind).
Belzhar by Meg Wolitzer
A play on The Bell Jar – you find out why about halfway through – it’s a deeply touching story about five teens coping with various forms of loss. Set in a boarding school for students who have had some sort of major trauma occur in their lives, the novel centers around an English class where the characters learn to cope with living in a world that doesn’t make sense to them anymore.
Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris
Mary Norris has worked for The New Yorker for over three decades and in this highly entertaining memoir, she details that work. Along the way, she also explains what makes the Oxford comma so contentious. I think I was most struck by the dictionary wars of the 1960’s. I had no idea – and I should have – that words could cause such strong and heavy disagreements among grammarians.
That’s it for me. These ten books are the ones that have been occupying my mental space for the last six months! I’m looking forward to finding even more for 2016. In the very near future, will be asking you about your favorite books this past year.
I'd like to also say happy holidays to those of you celebrating one this time of year. If you are on break, may it be restful and rejuvenating! And thank you – to all of you and to David – for the wonderfully kind welcome to the InThinking community in 2015.