Posted by: Matt Compton | January 5, 2016

My Favorite Books of 2015

So, this is late, and I’m sorry for that. It took longer this year—for a very specific reason. When December finally came around, I was close to doing something I’d never done before: knocking out 100 books in 12 months.

And for the last few days of 2015, I stressed about that. I read as furiously as I’d read in a long time. I finished things I’d started and put down months earlier. I dug up an old graphic novel that I’d meaning to read for years and tore through it. And just before the end of December 31 (and for the first time in my life), I actually did hit the century mark.

Here are my ten favorite books of 2015:

BETWEEN THE WORLD AND ME by Ta-Nehisi Coates is a fully-charged, wholly-realized argument about where we stand as a society on the question of race — a searing, powerful, emotional memoir of what it means to grow up black in America. It takes the form of a series of letters Coates writes to his son, which means it’s also full of tender, often heartbreaking, observations. The writing here is so finely crafted that you occasionally find yourself holding your breath. Can a sentence so delicately constructed, you wonder, support the weight of the ideas it’s asked to contain? That it succeeds so magnificently is just part of why this book is the most important thing you’re likely to read in recent memory.

FATES & FURIES by Lauren Groff is a powerhouse. It’s the story of a marriage, told from two sides. We begin with Lotto, a failed actor who grows into a wildly successful playwright — supported, encouraged, and adored by his wife Mathilde. Midway through the story, the perspective flips, and we see life through the eyes of Mathilde. The fundamental condition of their relationship never changes, but the way we view specific events diverge wildly. The result is a portrait with depth and breadth — filled with characters we come to know and understand intimately.

GHETTOSIDE by Jill Leovy is a book about murder in America — an argument about how lawlessness manifests itself in violence. Levoy, a writer for the LA Times, spent almost a decade embedded in the city police department, and for two of those years, she kept track of every homicide in Los Angeles County. The central narrative of the book hinges on the investigation of one death — the killing of Bryant Tennelle, the black son of an LAPD homicide detective. Her protagonist is John Skaggs, the complicated and deeply idealistic cop assigned to work the case. As his team follows leads and tracks down suspects, Levoy zooms out to place this particular murder in the context of history to show the lack of value America has placed on the lives of young black men. This book is a rock-ribbed piece of old-school journalism that quivers with rage.

H IS FOR HAWK by Helen Macdonald is about how people process grief, birds of prey as culture artifacts, and how we take responsibility for things other than ourselves. It’s also, somehow, a literary biography of T.H. White. You think there’s just no way all those threads come together, but it works — and does so beautifully. That’s in part because MacDonald, a professor of history at Cambridge, is a crackerjack writer. Again and again, she takes small moments and quiet observations and transforms them into visions of pure wonder.

THE LAST PILOT by Benjamin Johncock is a gorgeous, nostalgia-soaked debut novel about ambition, the Space Race, and loss. Jim Harrison is an Air Force test pilot in the aftermath of World War II, part of a team pushing jets to break the sound barrier over the Mojave Desert. At home, he and his wife, Grace, quietly grapple with their inability to have children. For a time, that changes. But the daughter they never expected is taken from them too soon, and each parent struggles to cope with that loss. Rather than grieve, Jim throws himself into work — joining the Gemini space program — until he’s forced to make a choice about what he actually values. This is a book constantly weaving in real history. Real people (like Chuck Yeager, Jim Lovell, and Pancho Barnes) help shape its contours. But its well-earned humanity is very much a product of the fictional family at its center.

LAFAYETTE IN THE SOMEWHAT UNITED STATES is exactly the kind of wry, road-trip history lesson that we’ve come to expect from Sarah Vowell. But seldom has she been so well served by a subject. Even nearly 200 years after his death, Marie-Joseph Paul Yves Roch Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, bounds through these pages full of life. America’s favorite fighting Frenchman is earnest and charming, equally capable of a stunning display of immaturity or cool courage under fire — all in service of the birth of a new nation. The audiobook version of this story is a particular winner — with John Slattery giving voice to Lafayette, Patton Oswalt playing Jefferson, and Nick Offerman chewing up his scenes as George Washington.

PURITY by Jonathan Franzen doesn’t shock you. Like many of his previous novels, the story revolves around a single family, bounces from location to location across the globe, and gradually teases apart a major set of culturally-relevant issues. But there are two qualities that set PURITY apart from those earlier books. First, Franzen ups the plot — a middle section of the book set in Stasi-era Berlin reads like a tight spy thriller. Second, while Frazen’s view of humanity in general remains as jaundiced as ever, for his characters, at least, he’s developed some sense of empathy. And this touch of nuance does a lot of work to enhance his many talents as a writer.

THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE by James Rebanks is an attempt to capture and distill life on a farm in the Lake District of northwest England. So it’s a study of a place with a deep history and sense of self. It succeeds because it features some knockdown beautiful writing about nature and our relationship to it. But it also works because Rebanks is more than just a keen observer of his family tradition who can turn a pretty phrase. He’s also an expert advisor to UNESCO on sustainable tourism — who can put his community into context and infuse his observations with meaning.

THE WRIGHT BROTHERS by David McCullough allows our most popular historian to pursue his preoccupation with the qualities that make up American heroes. It’s a story of pluck — about how two guys from Ohio, with high school educations, decided to do the impossible. It’s a story of ingenuity — and how the brothers combined self-taught mechanical know-how with years of research, then designed, tested, and tweaked until they literally got off the ground. It’s a story of courage — how the Wrights realized that they’d need to risk their lives to put their ideas into practice. And not for nothing, it’s a story of community — how friends, family, and their neighbors in Kitty Hawk stood by the brothers through failure and disappointment, until that moment of triumph.

THE WATER KNIFE by Paolo Bacigalupi is near-future science fiction, set in the American Southwest a few decades from now. The entire region has been crippled by drought, and the local governments have learned to use every tool at their disposal to secure water rights — or they’ve collapsed altogether. Rumors of a new claim to a major water source brings together a lot of conflicting interests in Phoenix, bodies start to pile up, and shortly after, this book becomes pretty much impossible to put down.



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