This year offered far more books that I wanted to read than I could get to, but the ones that I did get to were some of the best ever. This year was dominated by books that drew me in with gorgeous covers but kept me turning the pages with inspiring, entertaining, and emotional stories inside. There were certainly characters in these books that have stuck with me and words that inspired and illuminated truths for me with poetic styles and powerful stories. I’ve discovered new authors that have become quick favorites for me for the future as well as experienced masters that demonstrate what it means to be a truly great writer. I share this list hoping that it will encourage some others to find the joy and beauty and wealth of feelings from these books as I have this year.
1. I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson
This book quickly became a real contender for one of the best books that I’ve ever read. Ever. I fell in love with the prose and the way that Nelson strings words together into phrases that would wash over me full of color and life and vitality. The characters are brilliant creations, the main two of which are teenage twin brother and sister, both of whom are artists exploring the world and life in bold and dangerous and sensual ways. I think what makes this book so satisfying to me is that the relationship between these two twins represents something so real and yet indescribable that each one of us yearns for in our own lives. And yet, the way that Nelson writes, we are able to go on an individual journey with each of them as well and see the world through each of their very different perspectives. The book also takes place in two different time frames, each told from one of the twin’s point of views as they seek to mend broken relationships, discover their own identities, and try to understand how to love in a crazy and wild world.
2. The Painter by Peter Heller
Another book with an artist for a protagonist, not surprisingly also one of the best books that I’ve ever read. I enjoyed it almost equally as much as I’ll Give You the Sun, but for very different reasons. The story of The Painter is much more suspenseful and takes us on a ride where at every turn we find ourselves questioning our own beliefs about what’s right and wrong. Are there different degrees of evil and how do we as a society deem certain acts justifiable based on our impressions of the victims and the perpetrators? It’s a book where it is told in such a way that you become very sympathetic towards the main character, however you can also imagine that if the narrative was told from any other point of view it would be a very different story and you as the reader would feel very differently about this man, the painter. One of the also rather lovely side effects of the way that the story is told is that we get a glimpse into this man’s art and how it channels his feelings of guilt and regret and truth while also providing us a much more genuine picture of his character and who he is. (A note to all other writers in the world: make your protagonist an artist and it opens up a whole world of new tricks for characterization that you wouldn’t get otherwise.)
3. Euphoria by Lily King
Euphoria by Lily King wins the award this year for best cover design. I decided to read the book based solely on it’s beautiful cover but was also overwhelmingly pleased by the story that I found inside. It follows three young anthropologists working in isolated areas of Papua New Ginea in the the 30’s as they each struggle to find their own relevance through their research as well as through each other. It eloquently explores the feeling that we’ve all experienced of knowing overwhelming loneliness despite being surrounded by people. For these three anthropologists, their jobs are to study people, so they are constantly in relationship with those they are researching but that doesn’t fill the voids inside of them that they feel personally. The story of this book follows the lengths that they go to to fill that void and the characters are so relatable and vivid that you are happy to join them on that ride as they each make decisions that change all of their lives forever. Yet this book also holds value for the cross cultural issues that it illuminates as well for the native people of these areas that get caught in the tangled web of these foreigners’ passions and ambitions.
4. Give and Take by Judy O Haselhoef
Give and Take by my dear friend, Judy Haselhoef, wins high points primarily because it quotes the Green Mango Blog in its narrative. But even beyond that this is a great book that tells the story of one community artist who tries to navigate the messy waters of nonprofit work in Haiti. It also tells the story of the nonprofit that she started, Yon Ede Lot. But what’s great about the book is that it is not a marketing tool for Yon Ede Lot, in fact it tells the entire story of the organization’s evolution which eventually ended in dissolution. Throughout the book it is very honest about both the failures and triumphs that led to that end, but through it all, teaches a number of very important lessons that anyone involved in the nonprofit sector can learn from. One of the most clear of those lessons is the importance of an exit strategy, which is unique in a sector where most organization’s goals are growth, growth, growth. Through Give and Take we are able to see one nonprofit that started with a very clear mission, did what it could to complete that mission, and then exited gracefully. But for me, what is even more interesting about this book is Haselhoef’s own evolution from community artist to nonprofit manager and the compromises that she has to make as well as the rewards that she gains for making that journey while continuing to remain true to herself as an artist.
5. Falling to Earth by Kate Southwood
This book touches on so many things that I could relate to: survivor’s guilt, scapegoating, grief, relief, jealousy, superstition, and yet it does it all through a fictional story that literally sucks you in and spins you around, leaving you breathless. It is far from the feel good book of the year. I don’t advise anyone to read this book if you are in a fragile emotional place at the moment. It will leave you wounded and reeling but you will come away from it knowing that you just read an incredible piece of writing as well. The author is able to create a setting and make you feel like you are right there like no one else. And that is exactly why it is almost traumatic to read because the story follows one small town in Kansas after a supercell tornado sweeps through and destroys the whole town. Because of the adept writing you become a victim right along with all of the citizens of this town. But there is one family, and only one family, who comes away from the storm completely unscathed. Their house, their business, their kids, everything is fine and they suffer no damage while everyone around them is dealing with death, homelessness, and absolute loss. Through relating to this one family, your heart gets ripped out, tossed about, and exhausted. I’ve made an explicit effort to avoid reading books about the Haiti earthquake and even earthquakes in general because I know the emotions and memories that they will bring up for me. This book did all of that and more without being about an earthquake. And somehow, I still came away from it loving the book and wanting more from the author.
6. God Help the Child by Toni Morrison
I am late to jump on the Toni Morrison bandwagon, but this year when she released her new book, God Help the Child, I decided it was time, and I immediately became a fan of the Nobel prize winning author. I ate this book up like the delicious morsel of literature that it is, every word, every metaphor, every symbolic social commentary. The main character, Bride, endures a traumatic childhood at the hands of her mother who never treated quite as human because of her dark black skin. She doesn’t let that define her however as she fights to define her future for herself claiming professional success and owning her beauty with a fierce defiance of all her mother told her she would ever be. As an adult she encounters a number of other characters that help define her path and her own identity as she struggles with love, her own self worth, race, social class, fortune, and more. It is a quick and easy read which I have since discovered is not necessarily comparable to some of Morrison’s older works, but she packs a tremendous amount of raw humanity into the pages of this book.
7. Zealot by Reza Aslan
Zealot was to me this year what Redefining Realness was to me last year, a book that I decided to read because I had seen the author on multiple cable news programs as a commentator on different issues and really respected his perspective on things. In particular, Aslan is known as an expert on contemporary Islamic issues and frequently appears on television to represent a modern American Muslim point-of-view on current events. But what was enticing about Zealot is that it is an entire book about Jesus but written by this author who is Mr. Expert on Islam. It started off very heavy on the historical side of ancient governments and politics leading up to Jesus’s life. And if I hadn’t have been listening to it on audiobook during my huge road trip this fall, I’m not sure I would have been able to get through that first half for this reason. But by the time that it got into the second half and really started delving deep into Jesus’ life and who he was, specifically drawing a distinction between the historical man Jesus of Nazareth and Jesus the Messiah as worshiped as Lord in modern day Christianity, I really learned a lot that I had never stopped to think about. There is so much context and historical facts that can be found in texts outside of the Bible that once you start to piece those together as Aslan does, it provides a much different picture of Jesus than most people allow themselves to consider. In the end though, my favorite part is that Aslan, a Muslim scholar of world religion comes to his own conclusion that Jesus of Nazareth truly was a man worth following and worth praising. But at the same time it seems that the majority of people in today’s world who claim him as their savior would do a better job following him if they understood him more fully beyond the Bible school stories and Sunday sermons.
8. Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle
This book was captivating primarily because it kept me reading just to find out what the title meant. It reveals the title late in the book and as soon as it does the entire rest of the book immediately means so much more. And to me that is a sign of a very skilled writer committed to his craft. The book spends most of its time setting up a series of questions in the reader’s head that must be answered to satisfy the reader. To me the story and prose itself in this book were not that engrossing but this structure of writing kept me invested. In the end you are left with revelations about the devil that resides in all us, usually in hidden unacknowledged places. We’re led to these revelations by one very unique character as we follow his journey to search for meaning and answers to his own existence in the midst of social isolation. Along the way we also get a healthy dose of fantasy through the world that the protagonist creates for himself and the reader gets lost in the grey area themselves once in a while between fantasy and reality.
9. A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson
This book asks the fascinating question of what one might do with a life that he never expected to have. The main character of the book, Teddy, fought in World War II and witnessed so many of his friends and fellow soldiers perish in the war, that he always expected he would as well. When he survives to live in a post-war Great Britain, he is met with the seemingly impossible task of rebuilding a life that he thought would have been over by then. He goes on to marry a woman that he knew since childhood and become the father to a single daughter. The book jumps around in time and space to show Teddy as a child, a soldier, a father, and eventually a grandfather, all the time showing glimpses into the lives of all his family. In this way we see how the experiences and trauma of one man radiate out to affect the lives of all of those around him in emotional, sometimes beautiful, and sometimes even comical ways. An entertaining book that revealed a lot of history without reading at all like a textbook. Beyond the concepts of war it can touch any reader by introducing these characters that show us how we adjust and evolve through all of the curve balls that life throws at us. It makes the reader naturally wonder about the certain paths they’ve taken in their own lives and how things might have been different through a series of small seemingly insignificant choices.
10. Living With a Wild God By Barbara Ehrenreich
This one was actually the opposite of Zealot in that I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more if I had read a hard copy of it rather than listening to it on audiobook with Ehrenreich’s droning voice reading the text. Because when I step away from her voice that makes everything sound like she’s bored with what she’s saying, the content of the book was actually quite revealing. I downloaded the book because I had appreciated Ehrenreich’s previous book, Nickeled and Dimed, and thought that this was an intriguing concept for a book (also with a very pleasing cover). It tells her personal story as an atheist going through life not believing in God or any higher power yet constantly encountering personal mystical experiences that make her question everything that she’s ever been taught and taught herself not to believe in. The book follows her through her phases of science and reason and solipsism but also curiosity and wonder. In the end it never presumes to provide any absolute answers to what does or doesn’t exist, but I feel like it does an excellent job of portraying the absolute undefinable but undeniable mystery of the spiritual realm that every human being must reckon with in one form or another. For the author she comes to a place where she acknowledges it but never labels it, and that in itself is sort of refreshing.
On my To-Read list for 2016:
The Sellout by Paul Beatty
The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi
Orphan Train by Christina Baker Cline
Allah: A Christian Response by Miroslov Volf
The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho
What were your favorite books of 2015? Please share in the comments and let me know if you read any of these on my list, what you think of them. I hope everyone has a wonderful and blessed Christmas holiday and a beautiful New Year! May you find glorious bundles of books in your stockings! Peace.