Saturday, December 19, 2015

Memorable books

I said I couldn't do a "best books of 2015" post, but I thought I'd share a few of my memorable reads from this year. Note that these are books I read in 2015; most of them were not published in 2015. I'm lucky if I can get to a book within a decade of its publication.

The Unspeakable, by Meghan Daum.
The Folded Clock, by Heidi Julavits.
Kensington Homestead, by Nic Esposito.

These three memoirs/essay collections cover a variety of topics. Daum and Julavits cast wide nets, discussing various aspects of their lives. Esposito focuses on the challenges and rewards of running a farm in the middle of a city. I particularly like the way Julavits handled time in her book: the pieces are not arranged chronologically (they jump back and forth in time), but they are meant to be read in the order in which they are presented.

Love: A Philadelphia Affair, by Beth Kephart.
Let's Take the Long Way Home, by Gail Caldwell.
Devotion, by Dani Shapiro.

Kephart presents short pieces on Philadelphia; even if you don't know Philadelphia, you can appreciate these slices of urban life. Caldwell's account of her friendship with writer Caroline Knapp covers so much territory: friendship; solitude and introversion; rowing; the bonds people make with pets; alcoholism; loss. (Be warned: Caldwell's book was also one of the few books that has ever made me cry.) Shapiro pursues the spiritual while touching also on family ties, on what it means to be a parent and a daughter.

Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast.
Trespassing on Einstein's Lawn, by Amanda Gefter.

Speaking of parents: they figure prominently in Chast's graphic (i.e., illustrated) memoir on dealing with her parents' end-of-life issues, and Gefter's search for, oh, nothing more than the key to the Universe (a search sparked by, and shared with, her father). Both books are funny while dealing with extremely serious issues. Gefter's book came closer than any other book ever has to explaining physics and cosmology at a level I could (mostly) grasp.

Bad Feminist, by Roxane Gay.
Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit.

These books deserve to be in the canon of feminist literature, and I suspect they are or soon will be. Gay's book covers a wider range of topics. Recommended for anyone who wonders why feminism, or why we needed a Third Wave, or for anyone who already knows but wants like-minded company and a view of what's next.

This One Summer, by Mariko Tamaki and Jillian Tamaki.
Backlash, by Sarah Darer Littman.
Prisoner B-3087, by Alan Gratz, based on the story by Ruth and Jack Gruener.

Backlash is a YA novel, a fast and compelling read, about bullying in the online era. The inciting event--a miscommunication--was so realistic, as was the non-sugary but satisfying ending. Littman explores some very nasty goings-on from multiple points of view, making it easier to understand the characters' motives even when we find them appalling. The other two are more "tween" books, This One Summer a stunning graphic novel about family, loss, and growing up; Prisoner B-3087 based on the true story of a teen who survived ten concentration camps in World War II.

Five Days at Memorial, by Sheri Fink.
The Crazy Iris, ed. by Kenzaburo Oe.
The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading, by Phyllis Rose.

Fink's account of a New Orleans hospital during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has stayed with me, as have the stories in The Crazy Iris (about the aftermath of nuclear bombings). Both are emotionally tough but rewarding and thought-provoking. And on the lighter side, Rose's account of reading through a shelf of library books is likely to delight any big reader or book lover.

Disclosure: Beth Kephart is a friend, and I've had friendly conversations with Sarah Darer Littman. Nic Esposito's press published one of my short stories. Nevertheless, my recommendations here are based purely on my views as a reader. All books listed here, I either bought or checked out of the library.

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