December 23, 2015 Slideshows » Arts

The 21 Best Books We Read in 2015 

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Have a long weekend ahead? Looking for a good read? Jessica Bryce Young, arts and culture editor of our sister paper Orlando Weekly, and writer/independent publisher Ryan Rivas have compiled a list of the best books they read in 2015. Happy reading (or, if you're looking at these books as gifts, happy shopping), happy holidays; please buy local.
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The Sympathizer, a novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Press, 384 pages)

Our hero is a Vietcong spy embedded in the high ranks of the South Vietnamese army as they flee Saigon for the United States; his keen ability to see both sides of any issue makes him the best kind of spy, but for years he must keep his true thoughts to himself, which leaves him a bitter shell of a person. The book, told in the form of a confession, is the cathartic, sprawling, darkly funny and honest story of a life caught between political extremes. —RR
Delicious Foods, a novel by James Hannaham (Little, Brown & Co., 384 pages)

The devastating story of a woman who loses her husband to racist violence, and of her son, who loses his mother to crack addiction. Each chapter shifts perspective – following its players’ inner thoughts and motivations in rich and sympathetic details – between the mother, the son and crack cocaine. That’s right: One of the narrators of the book is crack. —RR
Erratic Fire, Erratic Passion: The Poetry of Sportstalk, edited by Jeff Parker and Pasha Malla (Featherproof Books, 120 pages)

The perfect book for that sliver on the Venn diagram where poetry lovers and sports fans overlap, this anthology spins the post-game interviews of countless athletes into striking works of “found poetry.” Re-examine Zinedine Zidane’s World-Cup headbutt, or – my personal favorite – an account of the Malice at the Palace and the player formerly known as Ron Artest. —RR
Between the World and Me, memoir by Ta-Nehisi Coates (Spiegel & Grau, 163 pages)

From growing up in Baltimore, where religion and school offered no more solace than the streets, to finding his intellectual footing at Howard University, Coates weaves an unflinching examination of our country’s racist tradition with the story of his coming-of-age and lifelong intellectual journey. —RR
Voices in the Night, stories by Steven Millhauser (Knopf, 304 pages)

Millhauser has quickly become one of my favorite short story writers of all time. Known for playing with forms, from fake histories to fractured fables, his full range of talent is on display in this collection. Each story is a haunting and masterful feat of word-magic that readers will love and writers will attempt to dissect with great pleasure and frustration. —RR
Fates and Furies, a novel by Lauren Groff (Riverhead Books, 391 pages)

Groff’s prose is so incredibly lush that it almost doesn’t matter what she writes about. This particular beauty follows the marriage of Lotto, a golden boy from Florida water-bottling wealth, and his muse Mathilde, whose mysterious past is not revealed until the second half of the book, when everything we thought we knew about the last 200 pages changes. —RR
Get in Trouble, stories by Kelly Link (Random House, 353 pages)

From the slow and moody “I Can See Right Through You” (a ghost story set in Apopka) to the breakneck formal experimentation of “Valley of the Girls” (which feels like riding a roller coaster) reading this collection is an exhilarating experience. —RR
The Small Backs of Children, a novel by Lidia Yuknavitch (HarperCollins, 240 pages)

The plot propels a war orphan from Eastern Europe into the national spotlight after she’s captured on film by an American photographer. But the plot is beside the point, more of a conveyance for an idea, or perhaps a new myth, about the power of art, and its origins in violence. By balancing visceral scenes with meditative moments, Yuknavitch creates a remarkably layered novel that seems to expand and contract as you read it. —RR
Make Your Home Among Strangers, a novel by Jennine Capó Crucet (St. Martin’s Press, 401 pages)

I always root for team Miami, and in this book, Crucet captures the drama and hilarity of being raised in two worlds, the child of immigrants, the first to go to college – the culture shock of leaving the simmering blocks of the 305 for the buttoned-up cold of the ivory tower. As far as authenticity goes, like, this novel earns the “Made in Dade” stamp, bro. —RR
New American Stories, edited by Ben Marcus (Vintage Contemporaries, 784 pages)

If you love short stories, or are a newbie looking to further your knowledge of what contemporary American short fiction has to offer, this is a fantastic starting point. In his intro, our fearless curator, Ben Marcus, compares the construction of this anthology to mixtape-making. The real kind, with tapes. —RR
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After the Tall Timber, collected nonfiction by Renata Adler (New York Review Books, 528 pages)

Fans of Joan Didion who've worn out their copies of The White Album should prick up their ears. Like Didion's, Adler's work ranges from reportage to essays to fiction (her short novel Speedboat, recently re-released, is a gas); like Didion, Adler possesses cool It-Girl swag; unlike Didion, she's somehow been forgotten by history. Don't sleep on this gateway drug of a book – genius is not too strong a word. —JBY
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life, memoir by William Finnegan (Penguin Press, 464 pages)

The veteran war reporter's surfing memoir is a dreamy evocation of life on the beach and in the waves, but by "dreamy," I don't mean "hazy"; I mean that preternaturally clear-eyed total recall of physical detail that seems only to exist in dreams. That Finnegan managed to remember so much about the coasts and tides and coral and salt of his childhood is remarkable, and perhaps that fierce attention is what kept him alive through assignments in Bosnia, Nicaragua and the Sudan. —JBY
Chelsea Girls, a novel by Eileen Myles (Ecco, 288 pages)

The re-release of Myles' seminal novel is a momentous event. In Chelsea Girls, the woman who became a leading light of the 1970s downtown lesbian poetry scene "novelizes" her coming of age. But its appeal isn't limited to those who identify as lesbians, poets or old enough to have been alive in the '60s; it's a fresh, funny, picaresque tale of scrappy survival. —JBY
City on Fire, a novel by Garth Risk Hallberg (Knopf, 944 pages)

An extravagant doorstop of a novel limning the 1977 New York City blackout, perhaps its reach exceeds its grasp. But Hallberg's vision – and it is a feat of vision; he wasn't born yet when the events he relates took place – carries the reader along on a wave of word-drunkenness that's difficult to resist. —JBY
Gold Fame Citrus, a novel by Claire Vaye Watkins (Riverhead Books, 352 pages)

After reading an early excerpt, I looked very much forward to Watkins fleshing out her skeletal scenario. It's a classic California story (think Chinatown set in, yes, a dystopian future), sketching the bleak and skewed reality of life lived in a literal drought as well as the moral and ethical drought of capitalism's endgame. Watkins is a writer to watch, a chameleonic talent being forged before our eyes. —JBY
The Country of Ice Cream Star, a novel by Sandra Newman (Ecco, 592 pages)

Not since first reading my cherished Riddley Walker have I enjoyed genre fiction so much. Newman spins a story from the dystopian future (who didn't, this year?) told in an invented language (hey now) that takes time to grasp, but is worth the early slow going. Ice Cream is one of my favorite characters of the past decade; she still lives in my head. —JBY
Killing and Dying, graphic short stories by Adrian Tomine (Drawn & Quarterly, 128 pages)

In Killing and Dying, broken people navigate clumsily through their lives. The clarity of Tomine’s cool, spare drawings is matched by the sharpness of his observations; he has a phenomenal ability to create fully realized characters in fully realistic situations, often killingly painful, though sometimes lightened with a redeeming moment or two of joy. The title story, about a teenage girl with a stutter who wants to do stand-up, catalogs every cringe, every pain, every fragile hope with staggering economy. Killing and Dying seems to have been dictated by that still small voice in the night – the one that tells you what a fuck-up you are and then, in the next breath, tells you it’ll all be OK. —JBY
A Little Life, a novel by Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday, 736 pages)

After its March publication, A Little Life became one of the most talked-about novels of the year, culminating in its eventually being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize … so I won't belabor the plot details here, since you've no doubt read them elsewhere. Suffice it to say I wept so much while reading that I ended up using a handkerchief (inevitably necessary) as a bookmark. —JBY
M Train, memoir by Patti Smith (Knopf, 272 pages)

The punk poet-priestess’ newest book opens with the line “It’s not so easy writing about nothing.” Call that poetic license (a license Smith certainly has been granted in perpetuity); M Train could more accurately be described as being about everything. As in her earlier memoirs Just Kids (soon to be an HBO series), Woolgathering and The Coral Sea, this latest encompasses nothing less than the birth of an artistic soul. —JBY
St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street, nonfiction by Ada Calhoun (W.W. Norton & Co., 432 pages)

At this point, you may be thinking, "If it's about New York in the '70s or a dystopian future, Jessica will read it and love it." Fair cop; it's true that those topics increase the likelihood that I'll pick up a book. But no guarantees of loving it! However, Calhoun delivers on the promise of her earlier writing in the New York Times and elsewhere with this massive and meticulously researched history of the street where she grew up. (And where Patti Smith and Eileen Myles cut their teeth, sure.) In fact, St. Marks Is Dead even ropes in deserved comparisons to another of my pet topics: urban history à la Jane Jacobs. —JBY
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Witches of America, nonfiction by Alex Mar (Sarah Crichton Books, 288 pages)

This is that sort of nonfiction book in which the research reveals as much about the researcher as about what she seeks. Mar criss-crosses the country meeting with and filming modern pagans and Wicca practitioners, but predictably, inexorably, finds herself drawn to the philosophies expressed by the subjects of her documentary. In the end she draws back the toe she dipped into the pool of mysticism, but even skeptical readers will find they've been captivated by the journey. —JBY
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The Sympathizer, a novel by Viet Thanh Nguyen (Grove Press, 384 pages)

Our hero is a Vietcong spy embedded in the high ranks of the South Vietnamese army as they flee Saigon for the United States; his keen ability to see both sides of any issue makes him the best kind of spy, but for years he must keep his true thoughts to himself, which leaves him a bitter shell of a person. The book, told in the form of a confession, is the cathartic, sprawling, darkly funny and honest story of a life caught between political extremes. —RR

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