You’ve seen plenty of best books of 2015, but what about favorite? Trust us: there’s a difference. A piece of writing might be the best in its field—renowned for its surprising use of language, its daring feats of prose — but did it keep you up late? Did it inspire you to tell everyone, “You must read this”?
The fiction, nonfiction, and poetry listed below did that and more for Hugo House instructors and visiting writers. Add the following to your reading list for the new year. It’s work bound to make you stop, think, wonder, and create.
A World of Light, Floyd Skloot (University of Nebraska Press)
No memoirist is as exquisitely tuned to the workings of the brain as Skloot. In A World of Light, Skloot weaves his own story—of living with brain damage caused by a rare viral illness—with that of his mother, whose dementia-afflicted brain has become a “meaningless dazzle of refractions and glimmers.”
The Road In Is Not the Same Road Out, Karen Solie (Anansi and Farrar, Straus and Giroux)
Solie’s poems are witty, dark, and densely packed, jamming imagery from the museums and farms of Ontario right up against language from travel brochures, road signs, newspaper headlines, and rifle manufacturing. But no matter the content, the “feet of [her] ladder” are firmly planted in history. Which is also to say: these poems are meticulously researched, their worlds minutely recorded. They indict and rail and keen with quietly powerful observations, and I love how unapologetically perplexed they are about the circumstances people come to know as normal. Solie’s music can often feel submerged, but it is also finely tuned to the “inaudible catastrophic orchestra” of which each poem in this collection is a part.
Redbone, Mahogany L. Browne (Aquarius Press/Willow Books)
This bio-mythographical work is rich in language that is bold and truth-splitting. Browne creates her own myths and lives within them. There’s fearlessness in how she writes: “I can’t stand to hum along / to a man with a hole in his heart.” Browne redefines what a poem can do on the page — the words take over the page; they are centered; they are couplets, haiku-like; they are whatever form is necessary to denote meaning.
The Walls Around Us, Nova Ren Suma (Algonquin Young Readers)
Walls is the story of three girls: Amber, who has been in juvenile detention since she was thirteen; Violet, a ballerina about to attend Juilliard; and the girl who connects them, Orianna, who was Violet’s best friend until she was convicted of a terrible crime. This gorgeously written book is a ghost story—a thriller overlaid with magical realism—and, at the core, it’s a powerful and very realistic portrayal of how teenage girls can be caged—by society, by the criminal justice system, and by each other.
The Complete Stories, Clarice Lispector (New Directions, translated by Katrina Dodson)
For the first time in English, all of Lispector’s shimmering, knock-you-off-your-chair stories have been gathered in one volume, from the earliest to those written as she was dying. The collection reveals her as “the female Chekhov,” a sui generis writer whose fiction created a new story form and whose work is at once spare and lyrical, attentive to the lives of all social classes, and probing of the depths of the heart. Her inventive prose, created to express the hidden reality of the visible world, is astonishing. You’ll love her work or hate it, but you won’t be unaffected by it.
—Mary Lane Potter, teaching Free Your Voice, Throw Your Voice, and Sentences ARE the Story this quarter
M Train, Patti Smith (Knopf Doubleday)
Patti Smith’s memoir, M Train, is fragmentary, episodic, and graceful as a poem, yet the reader feels her passion for living and the grief and loss at the heart of this book. Interestingly, she doesn’t talk about her music but talks a lot about her writing in effortlessly elegant and beautifully constructed sentences. Like a poem, it reveals through a carefully restrained reticence. She has done her homework as an artist, and her references sent me to learn more about many other artists. She is a Maker, and this is a poet’s book.
Descent, Tim Johnston (Algonquin Books)
A seamless stylistic effort that perfectly combines literary style with mystery and suspense. The disappearance of college-bound Caitlin off a mountainside in Colorado pushes the members of the Courtland family to the brink of grief and sanity. What follows is a gripping, devastating search for the truth of what happened to their daughter.
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates, (Spiegel & Grau)
This was the most important book I read in 2015. The writing possesses both the lyricism of the best poets and the investigative rigor of long-form journalism. Between the World and Me is one of the best examples I’ve seen of using a personal narrative to bring alive not only the individual experience of violence and oppression but also the collective one. Here is just one of the sentences that stopped me short as I read: “Race is the child of racism, not the father.” Toni Morrison, not a person prone to overstatement, calls Between the World and Me “required reading.” Read it.
A Small Needful Fact, Ross Gay (Split This Rock Poem of the Week)
Gay brilliantly, movingly answers the call to be a diligent witness of current events by deftly rendering incidents of deep historical and cultural impact. What is especially poignant about his approach in this particular poem is that he doesn’t focus directly on grief, loss, or injustice; he focuses on the life and the spirit of Eric Garner that has been absented as a result. Readers feel the import of Garner’s humanity rather than his reduction to a statistic as a casualty of state-sanctioned violence.
In the Unlikely Event, Judy Blume (Knopf Doubleday)
In Blume’s first adult novel in years, she explores a peculiar episode in New Jersey history. In 1952, three planes crashed within eight weeks of each other in Elizabeth, a town located near Newark Airport in the early days of commercial travel. The story is told through the points of view of several citizens—young, old, poor, rich, good, not so good. At the heart of the story is a fifteen-year-old girl named Miri and her family and friends, and how each reacts to this strange and tragic time. Blume’s accurate, honest, and detailed portrayal of 1950s northern New Jersey draws the reader into every single storyline.
The Argonauts, Maggie Nelson (Graywolf Press)
The book I most engaged with was Nelson’s chronicle of her pregnancy while her partner was taking testosterone hormone therapy. This reductionist synopsis doesn’t begin to capture the depth of the book’s intellectual and artistic breadth, scope, and curiosity. Part memoir, part cultural history, part critical thesis on gender and sexuality, The Argonauts is a world unto itself.
Heaven, Rowan Ricardo Phillips (FSG)
Phillips’s poems are like diamonds with sharp edges; they’ll cut you before you know it and damn, they brilliantly shine. Reaching back to the Greek underworld and Dante’s paradise, these poems embroaden the unknowable afterlife and its earthly manifestations, its metaphors, its uncertainties. This is a book of magnitude, summoning all the force of a star in its eternal journey into deep space.
The Invaders: How Humans and Their Dogs Drove Neanderthals to Extinction, Pat Shipman (Harvard University Press)
Shipman discovers how primitive humans seeing eye-to-eye with their dogs elevated the former to the most successful invasive species the Earth has known. Among other things, I learned that some biologists call evolution The Jagger Principle: “You can’t always get what you want, but if you try sometimes, you just might find, you get what you need.” If you want a book that combines your love of the Stones with dogs, science, and visions of the apocalypse, this one’s for you!
—Johnny Horton, teaching Trigger Warning: Reading and Writing Disturbing Poems this quarter
The Bride Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors, Even: A Novel, Chris F. Westbury (Counterpoint Press)
After reading page one, I was already dreading the moment this book would end: I wanted Isaac, the hilarious and philosophical narrator, to be my best friend forever. He and his pal Greg, both germophobic obsessive-compulsives (who happen to be—yes—obsessed with the work of Marcel Duchamp), plan a bus trip to Philadelphia to see the artist’s famous glass sculpture. While they struggle with navigating daily life (the endless hand washing!), Isaac steers us straight into the eye of beauty, empathy, and joy. What Westbury has sculpted here is a tiny bit of genius.
The Visiting Privilege, Joy Williams (Knopf Doubleday)
I’ve been working my way through this career-spanning collection in order, alternately binging and savoring, but always gobsmacked. I don’t know if I’ve ever read another book that gathers so much intensity and strangeness into one place and then puts it to such forceful, focused use. She’s some kind of chaos angel.