Best Books of 2015, picked by Berkeleyside editors, guests

Photo: Angelica Portales
Photo: Angelica Portales

Every year the Berkeleyside editors, aided by ardent readers in the community, select their favorite books of the year. Here are our selections for 2015 (feel free to share your picks in the comments):

Tracey Taylor, co-founder, Berkeleyside

betweenBy far the most thought-provoking book I read this year was Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Conversations around my dinner table in 2015 have often centered on race, and Coates’ memoir, written in the form of a letter to to his teenage son, goes a long way towards addressing some of the thornier questions we all struggle with. It’s short, and elegantly written, but the book, which won the National Book Award, is not an easy read. That’s what makes it so good.

When I met Molly Antopol at a reading in Berkeley, she was introduced to me as “the next Chekhov.” I don’t buy the comparison, but Antopol, recipient of a Stegner Fellowship at Stanford where she teaches, is being hailed as a writer to watch, and I loved her debut short-story collection, The UnAmericans. If there’s a theme, it’s families’ roots in the ‘old country,’ and the author’s skill is in portraying fascinating, though ordinary characters grappling with internal demons in meticulously drawn lives. I believed Antopol when she said it took her about a year to research each story.

lightI’m not alone in having thoroughly enjoyed the Pulitzer Prize-winning All The Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr. Set during WW2, it follows the lives of two young people — a blind girl whose ingenious father, a master locksmith at the Natural History Museum in Paris, finds ingenious ways to help her ‘see,’ and a German orphan boy whose precocious interest in radios gets him noticed by the Nazis. Beautiful writing, engaging story.

I was concerned that Kate Atkinson, one of my favorite authors, might be making a mistake in revisiting some of the characters and territory of her previous book, Life After Life, with her latest tome, A God in Ruins. I needn’t have worried. Another engrossing read, especially the insight the book offers into a Royal Air Force pilot’s perspective of Bomber Command flights over Nazi Germany.

A friend told me she found Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng too dark, but that’s precisely why I devoured this novel. How can you not be intrigued by its opening sentence: “Lydia is dead. But they don’t know this yet.”


Lance Knobel, co-founder, Berkeleyside

GottlandMariusz Szczygiel’s Gottland: Mostly True Stories from Half of Czechoslovakia was the oddest book I read this year, but it has stuck with me. It’s a sui generis mashup of Kafka, Communist era social observation, and an investigative journalist’s eye for telling stories.

I’m a sucker for poetic reworkings of classics (Christopher Logue’s War Music is my touchstone). Lavinia Greenlaw takes on another great Trojan story, Geoffrey Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde, in her A Double Sorrow. Greenlaw follows Chaucer, but her poem — a sequence of over 200 seven-line rime royal poems — is much more than a translation. Deeply affecting.

Remember when the Arab Spring seemed a moment of hope Thanassis Cambanis’ Once Upon a Revolution: An Egyptian Story recaptures the heady days when a bottom-up popular movement overthrew a seemingly well-entrenched despot. But Cambanis is also clear-eyed about what went wrong in Egypt (although the book predates the increasingly darker turns of the Sisi government).

Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, this year’s Pulitzer Prize winner, is a book I didn’t want to end. The two intertwined stories, of a brilliant German orphan turned into a young Nazi soldier, and a blind French girl, feeling and hearing her way through Paris and then Saint Malo, swept me away on every page.

Late in the year, I discovered Dave Hutchinson’s Fractured Europe sequence and devoured both Europe in Autumn and Europe at Midnight. Gripping, funny, politically aware science fiction. I hope there are more volumes to come.

Mal Warwick, author and voice behind Mal Warwick’s Blog on Books

All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony DoerrI’m by no means alone in pointing to this extraordinary novel of World War II as one of the most outstanding books of 2015. This is a deeply affecting story about two teenagers caught up in the horror of the war, one a young German soldier, the other a blind French girl, whose lives intersect through the unfolding tragedy that surrounds them. Critics have fallen all over themselves in praise. The book won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, and it has appeared at or near the top of national fiction bestseller lists ever since its publication.


The Lives of Others, by Neel Mukherjee: Neel Mukherjee’s masterful tale encompasses the lives of three generations of a large family in Calcutta, caught up in the turmoil surrounding the violent Naxalite Rebellion in the early 1970s. Not a single individual in the household, old or young, escapes the impact of India’s turbulent history in this revealing historical novel. The Lives of Others was shortlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize.

water knifeThe Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi: Paolo Bacigalupi, one of the most outstanding of the younger generation of science-fiction writers, is a Hugo and Nebula Award winner as well as a National Book Award Finalist. In his latest novel, a dystopian thriller, he paints a grim picture of a future Southwest in which powerful forces are at war over the meager remaining supplies of water.

The Pentagon’s Brain: An Uncensored History of DARPA, America’s Top-Secret Military Research Agency, by Annie Jacobsen: It’s well known that DARPA, the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency, invented the Internet. What’s not so well known is that the agency also invented Agent Orange, the M16 assault rifle, the F17 stealth fighter jet, MIRVs that carry several independently targeted nuclear warheads on a single missile, and a host of other weapons systems, many of them still closely guarded secrets. This is a deeply troubling expose that should be read by every Member of Congress before voting on funding for the Pentagon.

The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf: His name is little recognized outside Europe today, but in the 19th century Alexander von Humboldt was one of the most famous people of the age, and for many decades running. He was a genius at science who wrote about climate change in 1800 and anticipated the work of Charles Darwin. To many of the giants of his time — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Thomas Jefferson, Simon Bolivar, Charles Darwin, Henry David Thoreau — he was a colossus whose genius overshadowed their own. This is one of the most fascinating biographies I’ve read in a long time.

A Banquet of Consequences, by Elizabeth George: Elizabeth George has produced 19 novels about Inspector Thomas Lynley and Detective Sergeant Barbara Havers since 1988. Amazingly, since George is a Californian, the Inspector Lynley series is set in England, where Lynley and his sidekick work out of New Scotland Yard. George earned a graduate degree in counseling and psychology, and it shows in this book. It’s a penetrating tale about relationships that sometimes define simple logic — between husband and wife, mother and children, father and sons, and seemingly every other possible combination of human beings. This fascinating book transcends the limitations of the conventional detective novel and explores the varieties of human experience in 21st-century Britain.

Paul Laity, editor on the books desk, The Guardian

It’s rare that a non-fiction book comes along that does something new with form and structure, and is hugely enjoyable because of it. John Aubrey, whose life spanned much of the 17th century, has been called the father of English biography: his Brief Lives comprises vivid, gossipy portrayals of Shakespeare, Walter Raleigh, Francis Bacon and others. But Aubrey the man has been hard to pin down. He brought his contemporaries to life while himself seeming slowly to vanish, leaving only a Cheshire-cat smile. (He was clearly sociable, and delightful company, but was also rather modest as well as very disorganized.) How to write the biography of this elusive biographer? Ruth Scurr looked at thousands of scattered, unordered documents and decided the only way was to invent his diary. This might seem a risky, even suspect, endeavor, but she pulls it off wonderfully well in John Aubrey: My Own Life, sticking to what he wrote (she judges him ‘one of the finest English prose writers there has ever been’) and producing something that stands alongside the diaries of John Evelyn and Samuel Pepys, both of whom Aubrey knew. The reader gets a feeling of what it was actually like to live through a defining era of British history — the subjects range from fairies to the Civil War to heroic drunkenness. Somehow, with the lightest of touches, Scurr has managed a reinvention of life writing.


friendLike so many other readers this year, I’ve fallen under the spell of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and the mesmerizing closeness of attention they pay to the friendship of two talented, ambitious women from a rough neighborhood of Naples. Friendship turns out to be such a rewarding universal theme, and I defy anyone to get to the wedding reception scene near the end of the first book in the series, My Brilliant Friend, and not want immediately to inhale the next three novels.

I also admired City on Fire, the epic fiction of 1970s New York written by Garth Risk Hallberg. It might be overlong, and sometimes sprawling, but so many of Hallberg’s sentences announce his confidence and unusual descriptive talent that it’d be wrong for the book to get lost in the hype surrounding his mega-advance.

Finally, who could make a history of ancient Rome more pleasurable than Mary Beard? Her book SPQR is both breezy and hugely learned, and she’s terrific on the way thinking about Rome is like walking on a tightrope – if you look down on one side, it all appears reassuringly familiar, with questions of war and empire and sex and urban life and migrants that make sense today, not to mention political concepts and language we still use. But look down on the other side and there are stray dogs walking into posh dinner parties clutching in their mouths human body parts picked up in the street; and thousands of unwanted newborn babies thrown on to rubbish heaps … Beard debunks myths (about Caligula, and so on) but does so without being po-faced, and makes a superb case that we need to carry on interacting with the Roman past.

Paul Laity is an editor on the books desk at the Guardian newspaper. He has recently moved to the Bay Area.

Frances Dinkelspiel, author, co-founder, Berkeleyside

I love nonfiction, but I love fiction too, which is why I was surprised to discover that my favorite books of the year were all non-fiction. Most of the books led me to dark places but offered a perspective on life I hadn’t considered previously. In no particular order:

Ghettoside: A True Story of a Murder by Jill Leovy: I have reported and written about a fair number of killings and murders in my 30-year long reporting career, but I was impressed how Leovy was able to demonstrate the concentric circles of pain a murder causes. Leovy, a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, traces the story behind the murder of a cop’s son in south central Los Angeles, among other killings. Along the way she shows the system’s indifference to finding the killers of black victims. She also argues that black neighborhoods need more policing, not less, to stop the violence, a view not broadly embraced in this #BlackLivesMatter era.

mercyJust Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson: If Leovy talks about how communities are impacted by murder, Stevenson shows what happens when the killers – or those falsely accused of killing – end up on death row. At the age of 23, Stevenson, a Harvard Law School student, took a job in a death penalty project in the south. He eventually made defending death row inmates his career and opened the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama. In his memoir Just Mercy, Stevenson convincingly shows how too many prosecutors rush to judgment and focus on African-American men, particularly if the victim is white. What is particularly disturbing about his experiences is that the court system is not set up to correct mistakes. Stevenson writes: “Presumptions of guilt, poverty, racial bias, and a host of other social, structural, and political dynamics have created a system that is defined by error, a system in which thousands of innocent people now suffer in prison.” Despite its grim subject matter, the book is a compelling read, and a call to undo a biased justice system.

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a Small Town by Jon Krakauer: Best known for his page-turning tales of snowy lands, such as Into Thin Air and Into the Wild, Krakauer uses his narrative skills to tell the story of the misdeeds of certain members of the University of Montana football team. Prosecutors and Montana football boosters not only overlook a culture that degrades and harms women but refuse to go after players who have raped women, Krakauer argues. Krakauer also exposes how university officials often disbelieve the stories told by young women who have been abused and turn around the conversation to make them seem like willing participants in their own rapes.

Being Mortal by Atul Gawande: I was moved by his essay on dying in the New Yorker and was further convinced that American postpones death to the detriment of the old and ill by reading this book. Gawande, one of our best chroniclers of the impacts and costs of modern medicine, explains how there are good ways and bad ways to house the elderly. There are also good deaths (at home, with hospice, without too much medical intervention) which make death seem like a natural progression, not something to be prevented at all odds, however costly. This is a very important book.

The Oregon Trail by Rinker Buck: Finally some levity. Buck got the crazy idea to ride the length of the Oregon Trail in a mule-drawn covered wagon. Given his history, maybe it wasn’t so crazy. His father had taken him and his family on a shortened version of this trip through New Jersy and Pennsylvania when Buck was seven. Buck brings along his brother, Nick, even though they are temperamentally different. What follows is a book that explores the natural history of much of the country, a rumination on roads and wagons, axles and mules, and a lively and amusing interplay between two very different brothers. Of course, they discover that they need one another.

And of course, since I wrote it, Tangled Vines: Greed, Murder, Obsession and an Arsonist in the Vineyards of California.

Don’t forget these highly praised books released in 2015 by Berkeley authors:

Custer’s Trials by T.J. Stiles
Becoming Richard Pryor by Scott Saul
Nabokov in America by Robert Roper
Saving Capitalism by Robert Reich
Rad American Women A-Z by Kate Schatz and Miriam Klein Stahl
Berkeley Walks by Robert E Johnson and Janet L. Byron
Ocean Country by Liz Cunningham

Related:
Best Books of Summer 2015 (05.22.15)
Best Books of 2015 (12.16.15)
5 local cookbooks that will make great holiday gifts (12.02.14)
18 books about Berkeley for Berkeley lovers (12.23.13)
The Best Books of 2013 (12.17.13)
The Best Books of 2012 (12.21.12)
The Best Books of 2010 (12.16.10)

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