From your favorite purveyors of beautiful online garbage, here are the books, essays and pieces of journalism that’ve stuck with us throughout the year. It’s a long list and a good one: we hope it’s useful as you prepare for the plane trips, family avoidance, blissful solitude and last-minute presents that will close out 2015.
Barbarian Days, by William Finnegan: What a rough, holy, sharp and weightless memoir, about a subject that seems almost technically impossible to put into words. After my initial submersion, I rationed off 20 pages of Barbarian Days per night, so I could spend all summer reading my favorite book of the year.
Love and Other Ways of Dying, by Michael Paterniti: “The Long Fall of One-Eleven Heavy,” the first essay in this collection, opens with a scene of dark maritime beauty that immediately melts into the paralyzing dread of a plane crash. On this, on a suicide Samaritan in China, on Albert Einstein’s brain and more, Paterniti reports with extraordinary literary artistry; for anyone who’s read Pulphead too many times already, this is your next one.
Fates & Furies, by Lauren Groff: A character in Fates & Furies, bothered by the predictability of the “fat social novels,” starts craving “something messier, something sharper, something like a bomb going off.” That’s exactly how Groff’s third novel, particularly the spiraling second half, felt to me. The language is very extravagant, but is tuned so tightly; it’s mimetic and absorbing and surreal.
Agua Viva, by Clarice Lispector: Late on the Lispector train, I read this and felt the exact effect of being submerged in a river I could never otherwise deliberately access—of a brain between ideas, between unconsciousness and conscious states. It is pure instinct, total propulsion, incredibly disciplined in its unformed state.
“Veterans Try to Save One Another,” by Dave Philipps, New York Times: 13 veterans in a single Marine unit—which, in 2008, fought brutal battles beyond supply lines in Afghanistan and “regularly ran low on water and ammunition while coming under fire almost daily”—have committed suicide since the unit’s return. Reading about what was expected of them, what they did, the tragedy seems almost pre-written; what’s extraordinary is how they are still unsupported, still scrappily fighting back, this time for each other.
“Whale Fail,” by Rebecca Giggs, Granta: A sick humpback whale washes up on a beach; the town’s mood shifts and changes, as does the way they look at the whale, which is more polluted by our efforts than the beach it washed up on—it’s a living landfill, a deity, a metaphor, a decaying thing that’ll have to be exploded with dynamite and then put in a dump. This piece is quiet, enormous, perfect.
“A Wrestler’s Book of Saints,” by Mairead Small Staid, The Awl: By our wrestling correspondent and a dear friend of mine as well, this is an immensely forceful, beautiful crown of sonnets about wrestling and bodies and salvation: with the grounding line “Track any madness back: it grows holy,” the poem made me want to lock myself in a room and write.
Love Me Back, by Merritt Tierce: Jia suggested Tierce’s novel to me almost a year ago, a novel thatstrikes an exquisite balance between brutality and tenderness: I’ve never read a better book about what it means to possess a female body and to navigate both the demands you place on it—pleasurable and not—and everything the rest of the world wants from it too. In Marie I’ve found one of my very favorite protagonists: one who labors, fucks, jokes, and loves in the most bare-boned ways. The galloping momentum of the last pages left me breathless.
The Neapolitan Novels (especially Book 4), by Elena Ferrante: There are certain books that I finish, only to realize that the desire propelling me to keep reading was a survival mechanism: the tapestry of Lena and Lila’s long intimacy so vividly depicts the way friendships become worlds of their own, the simultaneous ecstasy and peril of investing so much of yourself in another person—and regarding them as a muse. The last book in the series is probably not the *best* of the four; book two, The Story of a New Name, is probably the strongest. But I cannot help but feel the most affection for book four as the installment that traces out the twilight of a capacious friendship. The ending smarts, but in the best way.
Written on the Body, by Jeanette Winterson: I’m not sure if this book would make the list were it not for the deft way that Winterson refuses to assign a gender to her protagonist and narrator. I hope that this choice—or, more importantly, the philosophy underpinning it—will feel like less of a novelty before too long. Still, the text is a lovely meditation on eroticism, sexuality, and loss, and it inspired me to think about the ways our sexual desires shape our lives.
Marbles, by Ellen Forney: Let me say first that I would recommend this delightful graphic novel to most anyone, but if you struggle with mental health, it’s required reading. Forney describes her own experiences with humor and unflinching honesty while reaching out to her readers with warmth. And as someone with a checkered history of anxiety and depression, I appreciate the way Forney addresses the intersection of mental health and creativity. I’ve sometimes feared therapy and medication would dull my perceptiveness, and I don’t want to divulge any of Forney’s arguments, but let’s just say that I felt reassured after finishing the book.
“Have You Heard the One About the Murdered Sorority Girls?” by Stassa Edwards, Jezebel: Yes, this is me listing an essay by someone I dearly love, but the essay exemplifies some of the reasons I love her. Stassa is an insightful and creative historian, the sort of writer who finds the weird and the gruesome and renders it beautiful — both through her gentle, crystal-clear prose and the sharpness of her analysis. Marry me, Stassa Edwards, I’m your biggest fan!
Make Your Home Among Strangers, by Jennine Capó Crucet: This comical and poignant coming-of-age novel tells the story Lizet, the daughter of Cuban immigrants who flies the proverbial coop, leaving Miami’s Little Havana to attend a fancy New England college. Crucet navigates muddy waters—what it means to be American, class and race—with wit and a sharp eye for the absurd (there’s a nice subplot that’s a fictionalized Elián González, the tiny human that practically tore the city apart and a name that’s still divisive in Miami). She also captures the utter uncanniness of growing up in Miami, a city that, to the rest of America, often seems lost in translation. MYHAS isn’t a “local novel” but, in some respects, I think it’s the definitive Miami novel.
“Have You Ever Thought About Killing Someone?”, by Rachel Monroe, Matter: Rachel Monroe is undoubtedly one of my favorite writers. Her piece at Matter, a true crime story that tells the story of a grisly Texas murder and an unrepentant murderer, really exemplifies Monroe’s ability to navigate a gruesome story with empathy and grace. Monroe is a masterful observer of human nature and her simple prose bruises in the most unexpected ways.
“The Curious Case of Bog Bodies,” by Kristen C. French, Nautilus: Nautilus is a wonderful niche publication that is, ostensibly, devoted to stories about science. But their approach to science is broad and the magazine looks a bit more like a cabinet of curiosities than a science journal. French’s “Bog Bodies” really exemplifies what Nautilus does best—it’s a fascinating and well-researched essay about the violently murdered bodies that were thrown in European bogs and perfectly preserved by the peat. This is also where I learned that there are scholars of bog bodies and I immediately began to regret specializing in the 19th century (there are no bog bodies in Victorian England).
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World, by Andrea Wulf: Wulf’s biography of the German explorer and scientist Alexander von Humboldt was one of the most compelling books I’ve read in a long time. Humboldt was a kind of radical naturalist and, though deeply influential on major figures like Charles Darwin, he’s been virtually forgotten by the English-speaking world. Wulf makes the case for a renewed appreciation of Humboldt—he predicted human-caused climate change—and situates him in the canon of naturalists (Darwin, John Muir, etc). Wulf is a lucid writer, she moves back and forth from Humboldt to his international adventures, his influence, and the natural world with impressive ease. But she’s also a deeply intellectual writer which is a perfect companion to her clear enthusiasm for her subject.
Chris Harrison: The Reigning King of #BachelorNation, Taffy Brodesser Akner: As promised, this piece (released January 1, 2015, a release date that incorrectly made it seem as though 2015 would be a year not full of garbage like the rest of them) made it on both my mid-year list and my final 2015 list for obvious reasons.
Teach Yourself Italian, Jhumpa Lahiri: A hater of language/things I am bad at, I nonetheless loved this Jhumpa Lahiri piece on her many years of struggling to learn to speak Italian, told from the apt perspective of a writer with a masterful grasp on storytelling in English.
Mary Karr on Fresh Air: Not something read as much as consumed, Mary Karr’s Fresh Air interview put her new book The Art of the Memoir on my shortlist of books to read, and her work in general back on my radar. She’s deeply honest about herself and others in a way that isn’t crude or rude but simply refreshing. Like her (much talked about) comments on David Foster Wallace: “Let me correct something: David Foster Wallace wanted celebrity as much or more than any writer I’ve ever known, let me just correct that.”
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates: There was obviously lots of talk around this, so I bought it after reading Jason Parham’s excellent Q&A with Coates on Gawker. You already know what you’re getting with Coates as far as depth, heft and historic exploration. But there was also a subtly to his dissection of white privilege and black psyche that I appreciated. The concept of speaking to his son through this broad social rhetoric really worked, too (he said in a Longform podcast interview that the format wasn’t figured out until the fourth draft of the manuscript). I found myself highlighting a lot of passages just for the prose.
Has Diversity Lost Its Meaning? by Anna Holmes: This was my favorite dissection of the major problem so many companies have hiring minorities that really shouldn’t be a major problem.
Modern Romance, by Aziz Ansari: On the middlebrow side, I was really impressed with the thorough amount of research put into this book, which was well-paced, funny, and full of real-life anecdotes. I wouldn’t say he knocked it out the park, but I was surprised how much of a genuine and relevant read it was. I also loved that instead of struggling to find impossible solutions, Aziz focused on just observing the truths of our silly, confusing dating lives.
Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel by Carl Safina: In this beautiful book about the inner lives of orcas, elephants, and wolves—which I happily gobbled up in no time despite its 400-page length—conservationist Carl Safina reminds us gracefully and painstakingly that humans are not at all alone in our intelligence, or our emotions.
Jumpers, by Tad Friend, The New Yorker: This was written back in 2003 and re-introduced to me by my colleague Julianne; it’s a fascinating look at the suicides of the Golden Gate Bridge, which continues to this day (a net project was only just approved) to operate as some kind of otherworldly death magnet.
I Don’t Believe in God, But I Believe in Lithium, by Jaime Lowe, NYT Magazine: A sufferer of bipolar disorder, Jaime Lowe introduces us to the drug that keeps her sane while slowly killing her, an extreme version of the internal “which is worse” tug-of-war that haunts most on psychiatric drugs. Her manic flashbacks are some of the best paragraphs I’ve read all year.
The Dickonomics of Tinder, by Alana Massey, Medium: “Dick is abundant and low value,” the stern refrain of this essay by Alana Massey (the phrase originally comes from writer Madeleine Holden), has rung in my ear during more than a few crucial moments since reading. Massey is great at slapping down male entitlement in its tedious modern incarnations, reframing dating as an entirely governable action that, when done correctly, can actually be enjoyed.
Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates: Ta-Nehisi Coates is such a challenging writer in so many ways. The topics he addresses are complicated and heavy and his wordage incredibly specific and layered. It took me longer than I thought it would to read this relatively short book because I often had to go back to fully absorb what I had just read or to simply marvel at his writing and momentarily consider quitting my job because what’s the point of reading anyone other than Ta-Nehisi Coates?
Ghettoside, by Jill Leovy: Leovy explores the cycle of homicide among black men in central Los Angeles through the eyes of witnesses and LAPD detectives. I found myself agreeing with topics such as the need for more policing of areas like south central which initially seemed counterintuitive considering the wave of police violence we’ve witnessed in the past year. The book also does a great job of helping civilians better understand the work that law enforcement does—although she largely focuses on detectives, not patrol cops. Approaching the idea from a somewhat different angle, Leovy does an excellent job showing why these black lives do, in fact, matter.
The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace: A Brilliant Young Man Who Left Newark for the Ivy League by Jeff Hobbs: Robert Peace was a brilliant young black kid from Newark who, as you can tell by the title of the book, died tragically at age 30 in a drug-related shooting. Against so many odds, he attended and graduated from Yale only to be drawn back into the exact same difficult world he left. The book raises questions about whether or not anyone can or should “escape” from their background and how what many assume to be a height of success—attending an Ivy League university—does not guarantee safety and security for all.
On Pandering, by Claire Vaye Watkins: Originally a lecture at the Tin House Summer Writers’ Workshop, Watkins explores her own internalized sexism and questions whose opinion and validation she most values: “It was Toni Morrison who pointed out that Tolstoy was not writing for her, who said she was writing toward black women. It makes you wonder, Who am I writing for? Who am I writing toward?”
The Worst Parents Ever, by Michael J. Mooney: Honestly, this deserves a prize for the title alone. Mooney tells the story of Ethan Couch, a poorly parented Fort Worth area teen who avoided jail after killing four people and injuring two others in a drunk driving accident. He made headlines when a judge gave him only ten years of probation after his attorney successfully argued that he suffered from “affluenza.”
You Too Can Have A Body Like Mine, by Alexandra Kleeman: This book made my list not only because it’s great and hilarious, but, also because I am supremely jealous that I didn’t write it (not that I ever could have). The book follows “A,” a health-obsessed copy editor at New Age Plastics, as she becomes immersed in a wacko, fun-house version of consumer America. An obsession with a type of Hostess-like dessert Kandy Kakes ultimately influences her to join a cult called the Church of the Conjoined Eaters, where different kinds of foods are ascribed morality, either working to build the eater up, or tear her down. The book is funny, incisive, grotesque, and, more generally, discusses women’s relationships with their bodies in a gloriously unprecious way.
Sorry I Didn’t Respond to Your Email, My Husband Coughed to Death Two Years Ago, by Rachel Ward: I casually read this Medium article one afternoon this summer, and it has since completely changed the way I think about death and dying. It is blunt, funny, and totally devastating.
The Strange Case of Anna Stubblefield, by Daniel Engber: In 2011, Anna Stubblefield, a 41-year-old professor of ethics at Rutgers University, admitted she had become romantically involved with D.J., a 30-year-old man with cerebral palsy said to have the “mental capacity of a toddler.” Engber’s article recounts how Stubblefield began working with D.J. using a controversial method of helping physically-handicapped people to communicate called “facilitated communication,” and how, using that method, D.J. ultimately confessed his love for Stubblefield. The article follows Stubblefield to trial for aggravated sexual assault (she and D.J. ultimately slept together), and attempts to ascertain whether or not she was taking advantage of D.J., who she swears is an equal participant in the relationship. Oh my god, I could think about this forever.
“How I Identify Is Not Your Choice,” by Sultana Khan, Gawker: In a country that makes being brown so difficult, it was tear-jerking to read Sultana’s story of growing up with her Pakistani father and American-by-way-of-Indiana mother in Vermont. As she described sorting through her angsty teen years, this graf killed me:
No parent escapes the warpath of teenage uncertainty, but the conflict of an internal battle about being white or black or brown or somewhere in between adds a unique weapon to the dilemma. My father simply continued to buy itchy salwar kameez, make chicken korma, and insisted I thank my grandparents for their generosity in Urdu; it’s how he showed me who he was, and in turn, how I discovered I was still Pakistani.
“How Black Women Have Been Leaning In Forever,” by Allison P. Davis, New York Magazine: This article spoke to the frustration many women of color had with Sheryl Sandberg’s entire argument of speaking up. For outspoken women, speaking up is rarely the problem, instead it’s how your ambition is received by (or rather terrifies) the people in your office.
“Here’s What’s Missing From Straight Outta Compton: Me and the Other Women Dr. Dre Beat Up,” by Dee Barnes + “Remember When Dr. Dre Bashed a Female Journalist’s Face Against a Wall?” by Rich Juzwiak, Gawker: Both of these pieces spoke to me because I knew the history of Dr. Dre’s physical abuse against women that so many in music gloss over because of their fealty to a myth. It speaks to a larger issue that society has with great people doing horrible, illegal, stomach churning things like Bryan Singer, R.Kelly, Bill Cosby, Eminem or Dr. Dre. Does creating The Chronic really absolve one of repeated acts of domestic violence? No, it doesn’t and it was a shame to watch a grown man act like people didn’t have access to Google’s search function in 2015 just because he assumed his star power would blind them.
“How A Brutal Beating Became The Symbol Of Oakland’s Gentrification Struggle,” by Joel Anderson, Buzzfeed: As a Bay Area baby, Joel’s reporting on both America’s love of gentrification and hate of poor people was chilling—and doesn’t it always go back to Whole Foods these days? This wasn’t the overpriced grocery store’s year. Also, Joel Anderson is an amazing writing and if you see his byline, read whatever he’s written, you won’t regret it.
Expecting Better: Why the Conventional Pregnancy Wisdom Is Wrong—and What You Really Need to Know by Emily Oster: I am pregnant and this book is keeping me sane. I once read an entire chapter before taking a bite of a ham sandwich I really wanted.
On Pandering by Claire Vaye Watkins: Like many of my colleagues, I haven’t been able to stop thinking about Claire Vaye Watkins’ On Pandering since reading it a few weeks ago. In a passage that particularly spoke to me, Watkins writes:
“I am trying to write something urgent, trying to be vulnerable and honest, trying to listen, trying to identify and articulate my innermost feelings, trying to make you feel them too, trying a kind of telepathy, all of which is really fucking hard in the first place and, in a culture wherein women are subject to infantilization and gaslighting, in a culture that says your ‘telepathic heart’ (that’s [Lorrie] Moore on [Miranda] July) is dumb and delicate and boring and frippery and for girls, I sometimes wonder if it’s even possible.
I have built a working miniature replica of the patriarchy in my mind. I would like very much to bust it up or burn it down.”
This was the exact thing I needed to read in the exact moment that I needed to read it in. Working in women’s media, I’ve come to view my own sensitivity—my own propensity to let my “telepathic heart” take over—as a fault or weakness. But it’s a choice to view it that way, at least partially. Watkins’ essay was was an excellent reminder that who you write for changes the way you write—and I’ve been writing for the wrong person.
How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti: Over Thanksgiving, my aunt loaned me her copy of Sheila Heti’s 2010 nonfiction novel How Should a Person Be?, asking me to read it and tell her what I thought. I ended up reading the book cover to cover on the flight home. Heti’s willingness to put herself in the most unflattering light, to be completely vulnerable and still have a sense of humor about it, left me flabbergasted in the best of ways. Check out this utterly perfect line:
“We tried not to smile, for smiling only encourages men to bore you and waste your time.”
Thank you for the loan, Aunt Vic.
M Train by Patti Smith: It took me two tries to get into Patti Smith’s M Train, her slow and meandering prose only seizing me once my overly anxious mind stopped trying to fight it. Smith is an excellent and delicate wordsmith even when she’s writing about her favorite detective shows for what feels like chapters on end.
The Run of His Life: The People v. O.J. Simpson by Jeffrey Toobin: Around the time of the anniversary of the O.J. verdict, I started reading some of Toobin’s old New Yorker coverage, including this piece on his legal team’s defense strategy and this piece (which is paywalled) on Marcia Clark’s approach to the case and overall failure to recognize, and respond to, how Robert Shapiro had succeeded in centering the story on race. When I was through with those I ordered Toobin’s book, and it didn’t disappoint. Read it if, like me, you were a kid during the trial and don’t know the specific details of L.A.’s political/social landscape at the time. It’s a fascinating, sad, and far-reaching read.
The Meaning of Serena Williams by Claudia Rankine: The best thing written about Serena Williams in her banner year.
The standalone line, “i said ‘babe. Neither of us r the same’” from Zola’s story: Try whispering it to a friend or to yourself at the end of a long day. It helps.
Millihelen by Jane Marie: The beauty blog none of us deserved. RIP.
Dirty Old London by Lee Jackson: I cannot shut up about this book. I bought it for my husband for Christmas last year, mostly because I thought it was a funny gift for a spouse. But I picked it up over the fall and found an accessible, fascinating chronicle of one very specific slice of Victorian history. Plus I learned a lot about the history of public toilets.
The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution by Jonathan Eig: This is a straightforward retelling of an important chapter in American history. But it’s also a bracing reminder how hard, how desperately women have fought for the right to control their own bodies, and how many kids a woman of thirty might have without reliable birth control—and how recently you couldn’t even get information about goddamned diaphragms without legal interference.
Lady be Good and Rules for the Reckless by Meredith Duran: There were many great romances released this year—I enjoyed books by Tessa Dare, Victoria Dahl, Rebekah Weatherspoon, and Zoe Archer/Eva Leigh, and there are many more I haven’t gotten to yet—but I did want to shout out Duran’s two-part Rules for the Reckless series. That’s because protagonists Lilah Marshall and Catherine Everleigh are a pair of tough, prickly broads, and as much as it’s enjoyable to watch them find their heroes, it’s even more rewarding watching their unlikely friendship bloom. Plus, there’s this exchange, a middle finger raised to the old damsel in distress stereotype:
“We saved ourselves,” came Catherine’s clear voice in reply. “Nobody else seemed likely to do it.”
His laugh rang out. “Pints for everybody then! To women who save themselves.”
The Story of the Lost Child, by Elena Ferrante: This could actually apply to the entire series of Neapolitan novels, all of which I read over the course of the year. Though My Brilliant Friend took some time to fall in love with, it was a love that kept growing—book after book—all the way to TSotLC’s quietly satisfying conclusion. I cared more about the lives of Lila and Lenu than I ever have for two fictional characters, and watching them both traverse through their ever-evolving lives—periodically taking flight, though never leaving each other’s orbit—was as moving and hypnotic a reading experience that I feel is possible for a writer to create. While waiting for TSotLC, I devoured the brief and mysterious Troubling Love, as well, which I found captivating in a host of different ways.
The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith: Before seeing Carol, I felt like familiarizing myself with its source material, Patricia Highsmith’s The Price of Salt. Though it’s regularly referenced as one of the first popular gay novels that ends happily, I put off reading it for some time—perhaps for reasons similar to those that make us love watching sad movies or listening to sad music. But after finally reading it, I discovered that The Price of Salt truly is something to treasure. Todd Haynes’ adaptation (Carol, my favorite movie of the year) did it proud—leaving in the book’s most memorable line of dialogue (“What a strange girl you are. Flung out of space.”) and adapting its final lines (which I’ll quote here because holy shit) as perfectly as text can be adapted to screen:
“Therese waited. Then as she was about to go to her, Carol saw her, seemed to stare at her incredulously a moment while Therese watched the slow smile growing, before her arm lifted suddenly, her hand waved a quick, eager greeting that Therese had never seen before. Therese walked toward her.”
Ina Garten Does It Herself, Eater, by Choire Sicha: I’ve been an Ina fan for the better part of this century, so this piece was very close to my heart. It’s a wonderfully insightful (and kinda sorta beautiful?) examination of Garten’s love for her husband, her career, and cooking. It’s the best celebrity profile I read all year.
Hamilton by Ron Chernow: At times while reading the mostly-captivating tome that influenced Lin-Manuel Miranda’s smash hit Broadway musical, I wondered if I was doing so just to further annoy my friends with my unimpeachable Hamilton enthusiasm. Those times directly coincided with minutiae about what exactly was contained in revolutionary war arsenals, and other historical deep-factoids; the rest of the time I buried my face in this hot-shit historical jawn with pleasure, if not just to find all the corresponding Hamilton-Hamilton easter eggs then to indulge in jaunty 1700s dialogue that was, for the most part, bitchy as hell but disguised in genteel, florid language. It also encouraged me to better learn the history of the city I so adore, New York; I used it like a tour guide and finally visited Alexander Hamilton’s grave downtown one fall day and reveling in majestic 18th Century fonts. Heady, dense, a delight. I don’t recommend reading it on your phone, however; it took the entire year.