Here are my favorites out of the books that I read for the first time in 2015, regardless of date of publication (the same rules as previous instalments). This year I (in hindsight anyway) favored fiction about poor white people living in harsh conditions; in non-fiction there were some very good China books, which I do not often recommend. The lists are alphabetical by author, since I find it hard to rank books.
- The Night of the Gun, by David Carr. It was only after this legendary journalist died early this year that I discovered he had written a memoir. I generally don’t have much time for memoirs, but this one grabs you from the opening and never lets go. In an an unflinchingly honest investigation into his own past, he destroys all the convenient fictions about his past that he himself had come to believe. Few people have ever been better at calling bullshit.
- The Utopia of Rules, by David Graeber. Graeber is the only current example I know of a public intellectual who is an anthropologist (a species whose influence has always lagged economists, historians and sociologists). He’s a clear and vigorous writer, and is good at mining the minutiae of daily life for broader insights. These essays are always thought-provoking, though there is always plenty to disagree with.
- Exit, Voice and Loyalty, by Albert O. Hirschman. A legendary work of social science that fully lives up to its reputation–there are more ideas per page than in anything else I read this year. This 1970 book contains, among other things, a startlingly prescient analysis of how American political parties work, and reflections on the relationship between producers and consumers that provide a ready-made conceptual framework for understanding internet commerce. I’m still digesting it.
- Why Did Europe Conquer the World?, by Philip T. Hoffman. An admirably clear and concise entry in the genre of big-idea books explaining European dominance. Though there are lots of interesting historical tidbits in the book, it is less a narrative than the presentation of a model that that explains why Europeans could conquer so many other peoples. The clarity of his model also allows him to make good comparisons and to think through counterfactuals very logically. More history should be written like this.
- Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius. Okay, I know it’s a bit corny to put Meditations on a list like this, but it fits: I had not read it before, and it is certainly one of the best things I read this year. I doubt I have much to add to the centuries of commentary on this work already out there, but it’s instantly clear why this book is a classic: its immediacy and directness are almost shocking. I read the fairly new Gregory Hays translation, which is very clear and contemporary sounding; I’d be interested to see if other translations read very differently.
- In Manchuria, by Michael Meyer. It’s a real pleasure to see a popular and nicely written book on my favorite part of China. It mixes memoir and reporting on rural conditions with a quixotic attempt to recover the mostly-forgotten history of northeast China. A reminder of how many stories about China still remain to be told.
- China Under Mao, by Andrew Walder. An excellent and very clearly written analytical history of China under socialism. Despite the title, it is not a book about Mao per se, but really an effort to understand the economic and social systems that the Communist Party created under Mao’s leadership, and of the problems those systems in turn created. The account of the early days of Communist rule and the gradual transition to the planned economy is excellent, as is the comparison of how China fit into the development of other Communist states globally.
- Fourth of July Creek, by Smith Henderson. A vivid and emotionally intense novel about some rather bleak lives in rural Montana (what we used to call poor white trash). There are a couple of larger plot threads, involving a survivalist who may be a terrorist, and the protagonist’s search for his lost daughter, that flirt with the conventions of the thriller. But these help give structure to the daily struggles of our characters rather than distract from them.
- Get Shorty, by Elmore Leonard. Joan Acocella’s retrospective of Leonard’s career was the prod for me to check out this universally-praised writer, and her recommendations did not disappoint. An endlessly amusing novel whose twists repeatedly threaten to turn into an ordinary mystery plot, but thankfully never quite do so.
- Aurora, by Kim Stanley Robinson. A very unusual book: an epic piece of hard science fiction about why space flight is a bad idea. The polemical component of the book leaves it open to nitpicking from space geeks, but it is nonetheless a compelling and emotionally authentic story. Robinson is certainly on a roll of late–after a few books I found somewhat uninspiring, he has in short succession delivered both this book and Shaman, which was on my best-books list last year (Shaman I think has been underpraised relative to Aurora; it is a less polemical and better book).
- Air: Or, Have not Have, by Geoff Ryman (late addition). A moving and vivid portrait of how an unpredictable new technology changes village life. A rare example of that tiny genre, science fiction for development economists.
- The Greenlanders, by Jane Smiley. An unforgettable portrait of a people on the brink of social breakdown and environmental disaster, this 1988 novel is easily one of the best things I have ever read. Both the subject and the style recall the great medieval Nordic sagas, with their dry humor and matter-of-fact approach to death and dismemberment. Smiley pulls off the difficult trick of not having a single protagonist–the focus of the narrative moves among a number of different though related figures–without confusing the reader or losing the thread. We see the ups and downs in a family’s daily life, and how small events ramify into years-long feuds with enormous consequences. Altogether completely engrossing and convincing, historical fiction at its best. I don’t think I really have the same taste in books as Jonathan Franzen, but it’s nonetheless interesting that in 2012 he called this the best American novel of the last 20 years.
- The Color of Money, by Walter Tevis. I have no memory of seeing the 1986 film with Tom Cruise and Paul Newman so I came to the book fresh. The story arc is simple: aging pool player tries to get his mojo back. But there are lots of surprises along the way, and the emotional struggles are as compelling as the action in the poolhall. Tevis had a fondness for the novel of competition–his The Hustler (also pool) and The Queen’s Gambit (chess) have the same structure–but this one is the best of the lot.
- Annihilation, Authority, and Acceptance, by Jeff VanderMeer (aka the Southern Reach trilogy). Stunning and truly unique works of imagination. They are clearly inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, but unlike Lovecraft they are actually good: hallucinatory but also emotionally powerful, and distinguished by a close and loving attention to the landscape (which is unnamed but clearly the coast of the Florida panhandle).
- 361, by Donald Westlake. I thought I had already read most of the classics of hard-boiled crime fiction, but occasionally I still find a great one. It’s hard to describe without giving too much away, so I won’t.
Genre fiction runners-up
All of these books I quite enjoyed and would happily recommend for a read on the beach or a plane ride, but they each had some weaknesses that don’t allow me to in conscience say they were among the best things I read this year.
- The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins. Ancient gods walk among us, and they are mean.
- Radiant State, by Peter Higgins. A warped retelling of the rise of Stalin, with golems, aliens, witches and suchlike.
- Europe in Autumn, by Dave Hutchinson. Political thriller in a divided future Europe.
- Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson. Classic problem-solving science fiction with plenty of orbital mechanics: what to do when the Moon blows up?