Best books 2015: Slate critic Laura Miller on the year in publishing.

Laura Miller’s 10 Favorite Books of 2015

Laura Miller’s 10 Favorite Books of 2015

Reading between the lines.
Dec. 3 2015 5:42 AM

Laura Miller’s 10 Favorite Books of 2015

The year publishing discovered that discovery is still a task at which humans excel.

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Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker

Slate’s Best Books of 2015 coverage:

Monday:
 Overlooked books of 2015.
Tuesday: The best lines of 2015.
Wednesday: The best comics of 2015. 
Thursday:
 Laura Miller and Katy Waldman’s favorite books of the year.
Friday: The best audiobooks of 2015.

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Metaphorically speaking, the year and the mood in book publishing and reading can be bracketed between two unlikely best-sellers. The first is Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, an assessment of American race relations in the form of a letter written to Coates’ son. Between the World and Me wasn’t one of the year’s blockbusters, exactly, although its recent capture of the National Book Award can only boost its profile higher. But the book did sell upward of 200,000 copies, according to Nielsen BookScan, despite addressing a problem many of Coates’ fellow citizens would prefer to ignore, and despite offering very little in the way of America’s favorite cultural drug: uplift.

The other book isn’t really one title, but dozens. Still, let’s pick a single example: Enchanted Forest by Johanna Basford. Clocking in at nearly 500,000 copies sold, Enchanted Forest is only one of the most successful in an avalanche of adult coloring books that Americans have seized upon with startling enthusiasm. (And not just Americans. The trend originated in the U.K. and quickly spread to France.) As Julie Beck explained it in the Atlantic, it’s facile to scoff at this hobby as merely a kidult self-indulgence; coloring books like these—featuring intricate, complex and sometimes abstract patterns—are a soothing strategy for nervous hands in the harried age of multitasking. Two of the most popular titles announce as much: Stress Relieving Patterns and Angie’s Extreme Stress Menders.

That’s the reader of 2015: bouncing back and forth between the pillar of hard truths and the post of simple, old-fashioned comforts. The best-selling book of the year, Go Set a Watchman, an old manuscript by Harper Lee published under doubtful circumstances (many observers believed that Lee was too ill to grant informed consent), represented both desires sandwiched between a single pair of hard covers. Watchman brought back a beloved character from a familiar and reassuring childhood classic, only to reveal him to be a racist. In literary circles, readers seemed equally enamored of the bleak and unrelenting ordeal suffered by the central character in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life and the classic narrative gambits of the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante, who published the final volume in her page-turning Neapolitan series, The Story of the Lost Child, this fall.

Book buyers showed a similarly polarized attitude toward domesticity. The Pioneer Woman Cooks: Dinnertime sold a flabbergasting 130,000 copies in the week it was released alone, and Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up remains an inexplicable juggernaut, with more than 1 million in sales since its publication late last year. Yet, on the fiction side of the charts, if you want to pen a novel that will park itself on the best-seller list for years, then write one about how our most intimate familial relations are fraught with deception, betrayal, and homicide. Nothing moves a thriller like calling it the “next Gone Girl”; this year the pallid The Girl on the Train won the Gone Girl sweepstakes, racking up a mammoth 1.2 million copies sold since it was published in January.

On the business side, the sales of digital books leveled off. The rapid adoption of e-books following the launch of the Kindle in 2007 did not, as so many self-styled prophets predicted, continue apace. Furthermore, study after study indicates that younger readers, who are also the most avid readers in America, overwhelmingly prefer print books. The e-book revolution also failed to kill off the bricks-and-mortar bookstore. Enormous chain superstores have closed down in droves, but independent booksellers staged an unlikely revival in 2015. Thriving operations like Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn are opening new locations. Even Amazon has conceded this point by opening its own non-virtual bookstore in Seattle in November.

That shop amounts to an Amazonian admission that there’s a piece of the bookselling equation it still hasn’t mastered: discovery. People readily head to Amazon when they want to buy a particular book, but they don’t go there to browse or ask for recommendations. Independent booksellers, however small their slice of the total book sales pie, are still essential to introducing new authors to the reading public. Indie booksellers have made their case to readers over the past few years, pointing out that unless customers shop with them, they'll no longer have a neighborhood place to survey new releases and get suggestions from a human being who understands their tastes. That campaign—combined, granted, with the shuttering of so many superstores—has succeeded for many of them.

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There’s still a place in the world for people who want to tell you about the books they loved and that they hope you’ll love too: Music to the critic’s ears! What 2015 books were my favorites? Surprisingly little fiction. I enjoyed a dozen or so novels, but fell in love with only three. Fortunately, short stories, comics, and especially memoirs (as well as the memoir’s most eloquent defender) stepped in to fill the gap. Some say that as you get older, you come to value the information nonfiction has to offer more than the beguiling dreams of fiction. That’s not the case for me, but there are always a few works of reportage whose real-world significance makes them overwhelmingly riveting. This year, it was a close call between Sam Quinones’ Dreamland and ISIS: The State of Terror by J.M Berger and Jessica Stern, both equally urgent dispatches. In the end, I chose the crisis closer to home.

Here are my top 10—with one caveat: I compared notes with Katy Waldman so that our two lists wouldn’t overlap; I second her emotion on Helen MacDonald’s H is for Hawk and a couple of other titles, but with so many good books published during the past 12 months, why repeat ourselves?

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The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Technically, The Art of Memoir is a volume of advice, but since it’s by one of the most consistently charming writers of American English, even people who don’t plan to write memoirs themselves will find much in it to love. The memoir still comes in for a lot of knee-jerk abuse, and parts of this book defend the form ably. Karr can be bracingly frank about her dislike for memoirists who blatantly “make shit up” (as opposed to acknowledging the fallibility of memory), and she can rhapsodize with the best of them over the idiosyncratic beauty of her favorite literary genre. She’s a raconteur born and bred, and she could probably talk anyone into anything, but she has never been more persuasive than she is here, celebrating “the sheer convincing poetry of a single person trying to make sense of the past.”

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Many nonfiction books are padded magazine features, but Dreamland, the three-pronged story of how heroin addiction became epidemic in small-town America, is the book Quinones had to quit his job at the L.A. Times to write. You won’t find this story told better anywhere else, from the economic hollowing-out of the middle class to the greedy and reckless marketing of pharmaceutical opiates to the remarkable entrepreneurial industry of the residents of the obscure Mexican state of Nayarit. All of these factors combined to create an opiate-addicted population in small American cities like Portsmouth, Ohio, where residents, priced out of pill mills, turned to a new, and newly cheap, high. Dreamland—true crime, sociology, and exposé—illuminates a catastrophe unfolding all around us, right now.

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The Fox and the Star by Coralie Bickford-Smith. Penguin.

This year has seen a resurgence in enthusiasm for the physical book, and The Fox and the Star is the most physically beautiful book I had the pleasure of holding in my hands in 2015. It may look, superficially, like a kids’ title, but who could bear to let those grubby-fingered munchkins mar its gorgeously embossed binding or tear its exquisitely composed pages? Really, The Fox and the Star is an art book, a chance for the abundantly talented Bickford-Smith—best-known for designing the crave-worthy Penguin hardcover classics—to create an entire book from scratch. The simple story of a young fox who loses his best friend only to discover a whole new world makes a sweet premise, but the main attraction is Bickford-Smith’s masterful exercise of the book designer’s craft.

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Get in Trouble by Kelly Link. Random House.

Link’s short story collections are few and far between, but stuffed with treasure. Each story in this one is marked by her trademark meshing of the mundane with the archetypal: in “Light,” for example, a character has a dull government job in Florida but two shadows, one of which she has to trim back daily with a pair of crooked scissors. Link makes the sort of fictional world in which people have the ability to access pocket universes, but mostly use it to take posh vacations and dump their trash. Yet in her stories, the shiver of the sublime is never far away. This collection, Link’s first for adults in a decade, opens with perhaps the most perfect modern fairy tale ever written, a precious thing meant to be savored and revisited, however long we have to wait for more Kelly Link.

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Loving Day by Mat Johnson. Spiegel & Grau.

Like all of Johnson’s keen but fundamentally humane satires of race relations and cross-cultural obtuseness, Loving Day is high-end fusion: a little bit gothic, a little bit Nerdungsroman, a little bit up-to-date comedy of manners. And so, in a way, is his narrator, Warren Duffy, a mixed-race American comics artist who identifies as black but is often presumed to be white. After years of lying low overseas, Warren returns to the ramshackle Pennsylvania mansion, located in the middle of a poor black neighborhood, that he inherits from his white father. He discovers he has a teenage daughter and the two of them reluctantly join the Melange Center, a group for people attempting the seemingly impossible task of claiming multiple identities at once. Wherever you think this hilarious and wise story is likely to go, you’re probably wrong.

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On the Move by Oliver Sacks. Knopf.

The late good doctor’s final full-length book, this memoir crowns a life characterized by endlessly joyful curiosity and a writer’s love of people and the world. That’s not to say that Sacks didn’t face troubles; this is where he addresses his own homosexuality head-on, as well as his long struggle to find acceptance of it in both his family and himself. But On the Move is largely the tale of a glorious career that produced so many great books, and an observant, compassionate life: Sacks made friends with poets and madmen, bikers and Venice Beach weightlifters, scientists, artists and politicians. He treated people whose conditions might have seemed merely bizarre to the casual observer and showed us how to recognize the beauty in their experiences, however difficult. “I am a storyteller, for better or for worse,” Sacks writes on the last page. It was always for the better.

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A dispatch from the edge of human experience, Axelrod’s memoir of the two years he spent in a cabin in the Vermont woods brings with it the blessing of stillness. Not that there isn’t plenty of turmoil in Axelrod’s past, in particular a freak accident that left him blind in one eye and easily spooked by the most casual social contact. The writing is lovely—the flap of a crow’s wings is “loud and papery”—but what makes this book extraordinary is the conjured presence of so much that can’t be put into words at all.

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Purity by Jonathan Franzen. Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Forget the fussing over what this book means—the author himself doesn’t seem to be taking its cultural role all that seriously. Instead, this is a big, well-iced, three-layer cake of a novel, scrumptiously written and replete with all the stuff you long for in a fat work of fiction: a clever plot, intriguing characters, evocative settings, sad parts, exciting parts, horrifying parts, sweet parts, and many, many funny parts. The central character, a recent college graduate seeking her long-lost father in hope that he’ll help pay off her student loans, gets mixed up with a Julian Assange–like Internet activist and a pair of middle-aged investigative journalists. Her quest takes her from Berkeley to a cult-like high-tech compound in Bolivia to Colorado, where she stumbles on a first-person account of one of the worst marriages ever depicted in literature. Great American Novel debates aside, Purity offered the most abundant supply of sheer readerly pleasure I found all year.

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Step Aside, Pops! by Kate Beaton. Drawn and Quarterly.

Beaton makes comics, typically cheeky, three-panel strips, on topics literary and historical. The odd couple of Chopin and Liszt bicker over their differing models of egotistical genius. Benito Juàrez is exasperated by the clueless amiability of Maximilian, the emperor he’s trying to depose. Those dreadful Wuthering Heights people ruin a picnic for Elizabeth Bennet and Mr. Darcy. A scantily-clad threesome, ironically named the Strong Female Characters, behave in the worst way imaginable. And in one epic saga, Beaton recounts the travails and redemption of an extra from a 1986 Janet Jackson video, including his stint in St. Jude’s Home for the Nasty. Along with a finely tuned sense of comic timing, Beaton has an unerring eye for the human folly at the heart of great works of art and great moments in history, which is why her work only gets funnier each time you read it.

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The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen. Grove Press.

The narrator of this marvelously worldly debut novel, redolent of Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh, is an aide-de-camp to a South Vietnamese general during the war, but also a mole for the North Vietnamese communists. His undercover assignment takes him from the fall of Saigon—a bravura depiction that opens the book—to a shabby exile’s subsistence in Los Angeles. He gets consulting work on one of those bombastic American movies about Vietnam, allowing Nguyen to deliver a delicious parody of the cultural follies of superpower narcissism. The narrator’s curse, as the title confesses, is a propensity toward sympathizing with anyone he gets to know well enough—in other words, a reader, or a writer, and therefore a misfit in world dominated by polarized loyalties.

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