As a writer, I learn something from every book I read. These are the twelve best books I read in 2015. Although I read much fiction, I’m a bit surprised to see how many of the books I’ve selected are nonfiction. Please check the links to the blog archive for a fuller discussion of each book.
1. Nine Gates: Entering the Mind of Poetry, Essays by Jane Hirshfield
The nine essays in this book contain much depth and beauty. In them, Hirschfield explores the magic of poetry, pulling back the curtain to show what makes some poems work. Her insights leave space for the imagination, equally inspiring for poetry readers and those who write.
2. A Map of Glass, by Jane Urquhart
Within this absorbing story of Sylvia and Jerome and Andrew lies a profound meditation on love and memory and geography and change. I was deeply moved by this story and came to a new understanding and acceptance of losses that still haunt my dreams.
3. Offshore, by Penelope Fitzgerald
Set among a motley group of people living on barges on the Battersea Reach of the Thames, this Booker Prize-winning novel follows Nenna, a woman struggling to make a home for her two young daughters. This image of being neither on land nor at sea underpins the lives of the people on the barges. All of them live in the littoral, hanging onto the edge of survival. Fitzgerald is often quite funny, her humor coming from the absurdity of life’s situations and some of its people. However, rather than satirising them, she treats them with compassion and respect.
4. Fierce Attachments, by Vivian Gornick
Gornick’s highly praised memoir, Fierce Attachments, explores her relationship with her mother. In the introduction Jonathan Lethem calls the book “mad” and “brilliant”, but it is more than that. The story of these two women, and the other men and women drawn into their orbit, drives forward with an intensity and, yes, ferocity that I’ve rarely encountered.
5. Testament of Youth, by Vera Brittain
I’ve read a lot about the Great War: poetry, history, memoirs. What I hadn’t thought much about are the women. The land girls, yes, and the misguided women handing out white feathers, but not about the nurses or the women waiting for the next letter from the front and anxiously scanning the lists of the dead. Vera Brittain’s brilliant memoir fills that gap. Written in the early 1930s, she describes the horrors that stunned her “cursed generation” in a calm yet unforgiving voice, the voice of the sternly practical and compassionate nurse she became.
6. Penelope Fitzgerald: A Life, by Hermione Lee
In this rich and readable biography, Hermione Lee gives us not just Fitzgerald’s story, but also a discerning evaluation of her work. By giving us the events and people that shaped and influenced Fitzgerald as a writer, this remarkable biography sheds new light on Fitzgerald’s novels. Plus I love that it sent me back to read all the novels again.
7. A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler
My book club rarely comes up with a unanimous verdict on a book, but we all loved this book by Anne Tyler, as we have loved other of her books we’ve read. It’s not just because she writes about Baltimore, and specifically the part of Baltimore we are most familiar with. I think the quality that we love in Tyler’s novels is her ability to give us people who, with all their quirks and flaws, yearn for something better and have faith that they can get there, people whose stories play out in families so true that we recognise them immediately.
8. On Such a Full Sea, by Chang-Rae Lee
Set in a future version of Baltimore, called B-Mor, Lee’s latest novel represents a logical outcome of the tensions currently tearing the city apart. We have the story of the B-Mor community and we have the story of one young woman, Fan, who leaves B-Mor in search of her boyfriend, Reg, who has disappeared, apparently removed by the powers that be for their own purposes.
9. Glaciers, by Alexis M. Smith
Sometimes you want a big, fat novel; sometimes you want a small, quiet one. Only 112 short pages, Smith’s novel follows a young woman during a single day. Twenty-something Isabel is many things: a thrift-store aficionado, a librarian who repairs damaged books, a child of divorced parents, a resident of Portland, Oregon. But most of all she is a person whose imagination is both deep and wide.
10. Maps for Lost Lovers, by Nadeem Aslam
The rich, luxuriant writing in this novel felt like lowering myself into a hot perfumed bath after a long but rewarding day. Poetic doesn’t begin to describe the fragrant mass of images and sense-impressions that fill every sentence. Aslam’s personification of the natural world adds to the atmosphere of mystery, of legends handed down through the generations. Aslam presents his characters with compassion, gently asking the reader to recognise the reasons they act as they do. And he wraps the story, with its many pairs of lost lovers, in the beauty of the world in all its flavors and in the intoxication and deep comfort of love.
11. I Hate to Leave This Beautiful Place, by Howard Norman
I’ve long been a fan of Howard Norman’s novels and memoirs. I especially enjoy the way he conveys the magic of ordinary moments. Reading this memoir is like listening to my best friend tell me stories. Most of us, especially in our later years, feel the need to discover or construct the narrative of our lives. Norman shows us a way to piece the past together without forcing it into an artificial pattern.
12. The Tender Bar, by J. R. Moehringer
Moehringer describes how, growing up without a father, he finds a refuge with men who hang out at Dickens, the local bar, where Moehringer’s Uncle Charlie is a bartender. As we get to know them, each one stands out in brilliant eccentricity coupled with a deep, if flawed, humanity. Moehringer treats them with the tender dignity that Anne Tyler so reliably employs with her misfits and oddballs. His great achievement is making these men with their beer bellies and balding heads, their drinking and gambling, their apparent aimlessness (beyond getting drunk and having a good time) into heroes.
What were the best books you read last year?