Wendy Bartlett: Best Books 2015
Cuyahoga County Public Library's Wendy Bartlett shares her favorite fiction and nonfiction books from the year 2015.
Wendy’s Best of 2015—Fiction:
The Mare by Mary Gaitskill
A stunner of a book. A young girl from Brooklyn is sent for two weeks to a rich family in upstate New York. She quickly falls in love with a horse that has been abused (so has she) and that no one can control. Gaitskill does a great job of exploring issues of race, class, motherhood, and childhood—or lack thereof. It’s a tough story, tenderly told, and ultimately, one that leaves you filled with hope. FABULOUS read, and one of my very favorites this year.
We That Are Left by Clare Clark
This fabulous work of historical fiction looks at the members of a wealthy English family who have lost two of their bright and loving sons to the trenches of World War I. Each family member has a wildly different grief reaction which Clark describes with elegance and empathy. At the same time, a young scientist is seduced—or is he?—by the huge pull of spiritualism that exploded in England after World War II. FABULOUS choice for a book discussion group in 2016!
The Prize by Jill Bialosky
Cleveland native Jill Bialosky has written the best novel about marriage this year. We had Groff’s Fates and Furies (I hated it.) and Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread, which was good, but more about family than marriage. This one though……..explores the huge gulf between who we are at work and who we are in our marriage. And most interestingly, it’s told from the man’s point of view, which is unusual for a book like this.
Edward Darby is an art dealer in NYC—this is also a good “NYC novel” …..lots of our readers like books set in NYC, who falls in love, or more accurately, falls out of love, with his wife and in a very real sense, his life. Think a male Emma Bovary…..only you like this guy.
The Green Road by Anne Enright
At one point in their lives, the four children of Rosaleen Madigan couldn’t wait to leave the nest and the sleepy Irish coastal town in which they were born. Now that Rosaleen is getting older and wants to sell the house, however, the grown children are drawn back. Readers who read and liked Angela Fournoy’s The Turner House, or Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread will love this novel. Anyone who has ever faced helping a parent move out of a family house, or gone through the emotions of preparing a family house to be broken up will find this book very relatable. Also very good for book discussion groups.
Honeydew by Edith Pearlman
A master of the short story, Edith Pearlman always gets my vote for “Author-You-May-Never-Have-Heard-Of-But-Should-Read. In this collection, like most of her work, we meet very ordinary people whose inner lives are anything but. Makes you really wonder about the people across from you in the airport waiting area. In that way, she’s very like the more well known Alice Munro. But what brings the reader up short with Pearlman’s stories is how time and time again, people can rationalize their way through pretty much anything. This doesn’t make the stories less interesting; far from it.
The Book of Aron by Jim Shephard
This stunner of a book is based on a real life story. Janusz Korczak was a doctor in Warsaw who operated an orphanage in the Jewish ghetto and refused to leave his orphans, even when they were transported to Treblinka. The story is told from the point of view of Aron, an extremely poor little boy who barely scrapes by until he is taken in by the “Old Doctor, “ and this powerful story is made more relatable, and at the same time, much much sadder, because it’s told by an innocent child. What we don’t really know is Aron’s ultimate fate. Perhaps he survived to serve as a witness. Shephard leaves the door open, as he tells an incredibly powerful and little known story.
Wendy’s Best of 2015 List—NonFiction
The Shape of the New: Four Big Ideas and How They Made the Modern World by Scott L. Montgomery and Daniel Chirot
How did capitalism, Marxism, Darwinism, and democracy shape the modern world? I think I answered that on my World History final in college, didn’t I ?? But make no mistake, this wonderful read from Princeton University Press is far from simplistic. I thought I kinda sorta knew the answer until I began reading! Montgomery and Chirot, both at the University of Washington, use the history of ideas to explain far more about our current world situation—even when they are contrasting these with more repressive ideas. The writing is excellent, and the pace—for a book about ideas, of all things—is excellent, and I learned a great deal about some of the twists and turns these four ideas took before they became widely accepted. Fascinating reading!
Reporting Always: Writings from the New Yorker by Lillian Ross
If Sherrod Brown listens to our show, he should write this title down, because it’s a great present for Connie Schultz. Lillian Ross was hired as a staff writer for the New Yorker when all the “boy” reporters were off fighting World War II. Her incredible knack for narrative non-fiction gave birth to a whole new genre of non-fiction, and set the tone for New Yorker pieces ever after. She is now in her late 90’s and has chosen the articles for this volume. I loved the one on Robin Williams and Mrs. Doubtfire. Like many of her works, it explains so much more than just the identified subject matter—in this case, you learn about the entire movie industry in a few short pages. Her most famous article is one about Hemingway, written in a parody of his own famous staccato style. Everyone thought she’d be fired for it. Hemingway loved it. She knew and wrote about everyone. A true pioneer in journalism, Ross never quits.
The Billion Dollar Spy by David E. Hoffman
Some people love true crime; I love true Cold War spy stories. In this one, Hoffman relates the story of Adolf Tolkachev, who was a Soviet engineer, but who also wanted very much to help the Americans. Like a lot of spies on both sides of the Cold War (I’ve read a lot of these books!!) Tolkachev was not a fan of his bosses or the government, and if he couldn’t stand up to the Soviet machine, he could sell it out. Unlike many spies, though, he wasn’t recruited. He volunteered, which is fairly unusual. The details are interesting, but of course, the real fascination is with the psychology behind what makes someone give away their country’s biggest secrets.
Once in a Great City: A Detroit Story by David Maraniss
Clevelanders like stories and books about Detroit, and this book was no exception and did well for us. Instead of focusing on Detroit’s current problems, Maraniss takes a really fresh approach and sets his story in Detroit in 1963, when, he says, the golden era of Detroit ended and the issues started. Most people wouldn’t have pointed back that far, but Maraniss makes a very strong case, and a poignant ending—the last chapter is about Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society.” And Maraniss’ “Great City” is great reading, especially for her Cleveland neighbors.
The Battle of Versailles: The Night American Fashion Stumbled in to the Spotlight and Made History by Robin Givhan
The irony of someone like me who is the Queen of Business Casual liking this book is not lost on me, believe me. But I’m old enough to remember when NO ONE had heard of Oscar de la Renta, or Bill Blass, or Anne Klein. About the only designer I’d ever heard of growing up was Coco Chanel. And then all of a sudden, Cher was talking about her designer this and that, and designers were everywhere in the ‘70’s. This great little slice of cultural history explains exactly where, when, and how that explosion happened. I was transfixed, although it had no lasting effect on my wardrobe.
M Train by Patti Smith
Clevelanders also love stuff by and about rock and rollers, so we always take a good look at these, but even if you have no clue who Patti Smith is, and even if you missed her standout autobiography, Just Kids, you’ll enjoy this excellent book of musings, and prophecies, and observations. Patti Smith, we learned some time ago, can write far more than lyrics. She claims this wonderful book came from jottings in her daily notebooks. My journal entries should look this good. Sigh.
Wendy’s Best of 2015—Poetry, Teen, and Kids
Voyage of the Sable Venus by Robin Coste Lewis
Lewis had an incredibly original idea for this volume. For the long title poem, she took actual art catalogues and used descriptions of artworks with black female figures to create fabulous jarring, imaginative, and striking poetry. It’s amazing. The long narrative poems remind me of Rita Dove’s work. And okay, Lewis won my heart with this dedication:
“ ‘Voyage of the Sable Venus’ is dedicated, with profound admiration, to the legacy of black librarianship, and black librarians, worldwide.” Wow.
Application for Release from the Dream by Tony Hoagland
Think: somber, depressed Billy Collins. Hoagland takes every day life……..a plastic grocery bag with too heavy milk jugs, hearing aids, high heels……..and turns them in to fabulous, insightful poetry. Don’t read it if you’re looking to be cheered up, however. Might want to save this one for after the winter blues have passed. But it’s great stuff!
Teen—Most Dangerous: Daniel Ellsberg and the secret history of the Vietnam War by Steve Sheinkin.
GREAT stuff!! Listened to this one on audio, and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was a kid when Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers happened, and a young teen during Vietnam, so I absolutely loved this book. The author compares Edward Snowden’s experiences as a parallel for contemporary teens, and does a great job of keeping the story moving. Highly recommend for teen or adult!
Kids—The War that Saved My Life by Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
Ada’s mother makes her stay in their London apartment, because she’s ashamed of her daughter’s disability. But World War II is threatening London and Ada and her brother Jamie sneak off with a group of children being evacuated to the English countryside. Ada soon learns that her disability does not define her, and Jamie and Ada discover the true meaning of family. Heartwarming and upbeat, it’s a great read-a-loud for middle elementary kids, and reminded me of A Little Princess and other classic stories of brave kids.
Wendy Bartlett, Collection Development and Acquisitions Manager Cuyahoga County Public Library