Culture Connoisseur: The Best Books I Read in 2015

All the books.

All the books.

In 2015, I read a respectable 41 books. While I attribute part of the 41 to being a literature student, I read most of the 41 in the last six months post-graduation. I told myself that I would work on filling in the gaps of my literature education and catching up with recent releases, and my list just keeps growing and growing. It’s the only to-do list I enjoy adding items to. I know you’re probably tired of the December deluge of Best Of lists, but I’m not going to restrict myself to 2015 releases for this list. We should all be reading the older stuff in addition to the new, but time is arbitrary and this is my blog. Here are the best books I read in 2015, complete with specific recommendations for what to read next — some of which I also read this year.

Between The World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

This is just required reading for all humans everywhere. Ta-Nehisi Coates talks about his experiences of growing up and being black in the United States, framed as a letter to his adolescent son: “This is your country, this is your world, this is your body, and you must find some way to live within the all of it.” I’ve spent a lot of this year reading and talking about race, and I’ve been making a more conscious effort to read books written by women and people of culture. It was fitting that I closed out the year with this book. Coates writes beautiful prose, and is one of the most insightful authors I’ve read in a long time. This is probably the best book I read all year, and I highly, highly recommend it. If you like it, try If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin.

Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay.

I waited almost two months to get this through interlibrary loan from my local library (Current students, take advantage of all of your university library resources) and it was entirely worth it. I love this collection of essays a lot and I think everyone should read them, especially college students who are interested in race, sexuality and culture. There were a lot of people on Goodreads who criticized the hell out of this, but they’re just haters. Roxane Gay is a national treasure and we should protect her at all costs. If you like it, you’ll appreciate Loose Woman by Sandra Cisneros.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen.

This summer, I sat down to try and read this novel for the third time. Both times I tried to read it, I only got a few chapters in before getting distracted with something else. I finally did it, and in only two days.  I love the 2007 film version of this novel, but you have to read this to fully appreciate the nuances of the films. Some of the lines in this novel sent me reeling because of their romanticism, but in a good way. In reading P&P, I got a better understanding of this novel as social criticism rather than just a romance novel. If you haven’t read it before and want to, I highly suggest getting a copy that has really good footnotes: I had the Longman Cultural Edition version. And when you’re done, read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë. (And for the record, I prefer Mr. Darcy over Mr. Rochester any day.)

Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff.

This. Novel. Is. Incredible. There are two halves to this book, which at its foundation is about a marriage: the first half is about the husband’s perspective, while the second half is about the wife’s. The two things that I loved about this book the most was that it continually surprised me in the best ways, and that Mathilde Satterwhite became one of my favorite female characters of all time. Barack Obama cosigned the love for this novel, so with my and his recommendation you know you have to read it. Make it #1 on your 2016 reading list. And if you love it, read Stieg Larsson’s The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. (Fates and Furies is not particularly a thriller, but if you appreciate Mathilde you’ll appreciate Lisbeth Salander.)

The White Album by Joan Didion.

I’ve always felt a kindred spirit in Joan Didion, so it wasn’t surprising that I loved this collection of essays. She’s one of my main writing inspirations, so I’m slowly reading her work and savoring every word. I would try and pick a favorite essay, but it’s too hard because I loved every one. I intensely admire her writing about California, and find that a lot of what she wrote in the 1960s is still incredibly relevant. When you’re done, start right in on another collection of her essays, Slouching Towards Bethlehem.

Citizen by Claudia Rankine.

Reading this book of poetry was a highlight of my college career. Much like Between The World And Me, this is an intensely emotional book about being black in the U.S., and discusses concepts like language and microaggression, as well as analysis of the prejudice and violence inflicted against black people. If you’re interested in educating yourself about the language we use to talk about race and body politics (as you should be), this is a good introductory book that will give you priceless knowledge. I read this book in two classes I took concurrently, and was lucky enough that she visited Cal Poly Pomona to read some selections and explain her stories. To hear her talk about this was an incredible opportunity that I’m glad I took advantage of. After you’re done, read Zone One by Colson Whitehead.

Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein.

This has to be one of the best memoirs I’ve ever read. Carrie Brownstein talks about her life growing up, starting / being in Sleater-Kinney and trying to find a sense of family and belonging. She doesn’t talk about Portlandia, but this book isn’t really about that. Carrie Brownstein is an incredible writer, and I’ve really enjoyed listening to interviews for this book. If you read this and like it, I suggest Patti Smith’s Just Kids.

Franny and Zooey by J.D. Salinger.

One night in the springtime, I woke up at about 4 a.m. and couldn’t go back to sleep. I don’t know what possessed me, but I decided to watch the Salinger documentary on Netflix. This brought on a mini-obsession where I read two of his short story collections and some of his New Yorker essays, all of which are world-class examples of how to write. Franny and Zooey is about two members of the Glass family and a discomfort with inauthenticity. People know J.D. Salinger for The Catcher in the Rye more so than his other work, but I think his short stories are much better. After you read this, read his Raise High The Roofbeam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction.

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway.

My dad had a copy of this book for the longest time, and in sixth grade I tried to read it on my own and had absolutely no idea what was going on beyond Europe and bullfights but finished it anyway. Eleven years later, I enjoyed it so much more — a story about a dude just trying to figure his life out. Now I really know why Hemingway was celebrated as the voice of the Lost Generation. And of course, the Gertrude Stein epigraph sold me immediately. If you like it, read A Farewell to Arms — another Hemingway I read in 2015.

Honorable Mentions: Mr. Palomar by Italo Calvino, On Beauty by Zadie Smith, Underworld by Don DeLillo, Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson, A Gate At The Stairs by Lorrie Moore and Going After Cacciato by Tim O’Brien.

What did you read this year? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

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One response to “Culture Connoisseur: The Best Books I Read in 2015

  1. Pingback: Think Tank: The Case for New Year’s Goals | Zoë Lance.

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