Here are some books that I enjoyed this year; not all of them, of course, were published in 2015.
River Town: Two Years on the Yangtze by Peter Hessler.
Maybe my favorite non-fiction book of the year, a charming memoir of the author’s time as an English teacher working for the Peace Corps in a Chinese city where foreigners were rare enough to point and shout at in the street. He and his buddy would make their Chinese friends laugh by calling each other “foreign devil” and “capitalist rotor.”
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke.
Attempt to revive English magic and bring back the glory days of the Raven King threatened by professional jealousy and spite. Takes a while to get rolling, but ultimately quite compelling.
Reckless: My Life As a Pretender by Chrissie Hynde.
A strangely stereoscopic memoir, in which Hynde winces at many of her exploits as a young ne’er-do-well and punk pioneer, but still seems stuck in punk’s misogyny and contempt for people who prefer affection to violence. Interesting to watch her wrestle with the past.
The Secret History of Wonder Woman by Jill Lepore.
Full of weird connections, to lie detectors and contraception and S & M and Hollywood and other stuff.
The Secret Place by Tana French.
Murder mystery with somewhat disturbing detectives in a pretty plausible Ireland, not the usual Emerald Isle where everybody is a trad virtuoso in their spare time.
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell.
Super heroine in Holly Sykes, plus the usual suspects, human predators you might recognize from Cloud Atlas. Mitchell is in good form here, except that he sometimes loses track of which characters are fascinating and which are just filler (was anybody really dying to read 50 pages of his take on the Iraq War?).
John Wayne’s America by Garry Wills.
I devoured this book even though I had zero interest in John Wayne. That’s a testament to Wills’ talent.
The Stairkarm Handshake by Susan Price.
Zoftig lady transports herself back to a time when men appreciated a fine big lass. Also a time before personal hygiene, but she seems to feel the tradeoff is worth it.
Boltzmann’s Atom by David Lindley.
Especially interesting in its account of why many scientists resisted atomic theory for decades after its usefulness had been proved, especially the philosopher of science Ernst Mach.
Living the Dream by Hakeem Olajuwon.
I have a soft spot for athlete memoirs, but this one has the added feature of a Nigerian childhood and then sudden immersion in Texas.
Darkness, Take My Hand by Dennis Lehane.
Hard-boiled Boston detective; like bananas, the first one of these that you read is really tasty, the second is OK, the third makes you wish you’d stopped at two.
Headlong by Michael Frayn.
Comic novel, rather over-the-top but some fun satire of scholarly obsession and the art world. It’s especially amusing if you’re a fan of Brueghel.
The Brothers by Masha Gessen.
A compelling portrait of the bombers family background and cultural milieu. When she gets to the actual bombing and its aftermath, Gessen strikes a lot of wrong notes, seeming both strident and out of her depth.
Uncle Tungsten by Oliver Sacks.
Memoir of a London childhood complete with the Blitz, nightmarish boarding school, brilliant but emotionally demented parents, and nerdy adventures. Also a history of chemistry.
Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes by Svante Paabo.
Memoir by the Swedish pioneer of archaic DNA reconstruction. Very interesting description of the problems the researchers encountered, and also a rather varied sex life.
The Difference Engine by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling.
The defining novel of steampunk. Lots of cute hi-tech Victoriana.
Three Days to Never by Tim Powers.
Acharming father-daughter time-travel story. With Einstein lore.
Empire of Cotton: A Global History by Sven Beckert.
Aclear-eyed look at how much of our world was shaped by cotton, and at how the ‘free market’ has been shaped by violence and exploitation. Grownup history.
A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan.
Well-written, occasionally funny novel about people whose claim on us seems to be that they were once cool and managed to move to New York. It’s not much of a claim, but Egan is a better storyteller than is usual for a writer of official literature these days.
On the Move by Oliver Sacks.
The adult Sacks, physician, author, iron-pumper, pill-popper, daredevil swimmer, habitue of the fleshpots of San Francisco and the Village and then decades-long celibate.
Funny Girl by Nick Hornby.
Hornby’s love of pop culture is always catching. Our heroine wants to be Lucille Ball, and gets her wish, mutatis mutandis.
In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson.
Daughter of the US Ambassador to Hitler’s Reich flirts with Nazism, screws everybody in Berlin who isn’t nailed down, including the head of the Gestapo, then switches to sleeping with a Soviet spy and probably doing some light espionage for Stalin. All in the spirit of fun, I guess…it’s a weird and depressing story.
The Gates of Ivory by Margaret Drabble.
More engaging than most literary fiction. Middle-aged writer goes off to war-torn Cambodia in search, I guess, of material or authentic experience, and finds what he should have expected to find. His friends try to figure out what’s happened to him. MOre discussion of menstruation than any other book I’ve read.
The Man Who Sold the World: David Bowie in the 1970s by Peter Doggett.
An annotated discography sounds dreadfully boring, but isn’t. Bowie is a fascinating figure without being at all likable, and his invention of the self-impersonating star continues to be a model for our culture.
Frank: A Life in Politics From the Great Society to Same-Sex Marriage by Barney Frank.
Contains an interesting critique of progressive activists, who Frank wishes would learn more from the strategy of the NRA. Would have liked more juicy personal stuff and less policy exposition, but still worth reading.
Mastering the West: Rome and Carthage at War by Dexter Hoios.
Nice to read a history that is not infected with Roman manifest destiny, one that portrays the victory of Rome as neither inevitable nor necessarily desirable (not that the Carthaginians were exactly Quakers either).
Goblin Secrets by William Alexander.
In general, far too many fictional characters have run off with traveling theatrical companies, which are always packed with wise and/or wacky personages. But Alexander redeems the cliche with weirdness that is on the other side of cute, about halfway to Kelly Link territory.