No matter which hat each FSGer wears in the office—art, contracts, design, editorial, foreign rights, marketing, permissions, production, publicity, sales, or otherwise—they’re often first and foremost a reader.
With that in mind, we asked the staff of Farrar, Straus and Giroux to pick the best books published in 2015, name their favorite titles—new, old, or forthcoming—that they read this year, and to share which FSG books they’ll be giving during the holidays. As in years previous, it’s a highly subjective list, handicapped by memory (what was I reading in January?), riddled with unwritten caveats, and delivered with a healthy skepticism of publicly picking favorites.
These are FSG’s Favorite Books of 2015.
What were the best books published in 2015?
Most mentions: A Manual for Cleaning Women by Lucia Berlin
Second-most mentions: The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
Tying for third-most mentions: Submission by Michel Houellebecq, Purity by Jonathan Franzen, The Sellout by Paul Beatty, The Story of the Lost Child by Elena Ferrante, Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff, and The Door by Magda Szabó.
What were your favorite books you read (or reread) this year?
This year I read Joy Williams’ The Quick and the Dead for the first time, though it certainly won’t be the last. It is entirely original and had me doubled over in laughter. It was published in 2000 and, miraculously, nothing feels dated about it. In fact, it’s fresher than most of what I read that was published this year. Somehow this book is both deeply skeptical and utterly sincere. She’s a magician, that Joy Williams. Plus, it’s set in the desert and I’m a sucker for the dusty west.
I finally did it—I finally read Infinite Jest. Despite hearing tell of “Infinite Summer” I slammed through the doorstopper in ~30 days. August, I wish you were longer, for bragging purposes. I laughed manically, I cried uglily, I was embarrassed to carry it in public.
I read The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson in itinerant fashion, really kind of haphazardly, but always with great pleasure. Let’s say it’s about the multiplicity of pleasurable touch, or maybe as LA Review of Books quipped, “Queering the Momoir.”
Submission. While the timing of this book is truly unfortunate, it has stayed with me perhaps more than any other book I read this year. There’s a jolly ring to Houellebecq’s nihilism that I can’t help but identify with.
The Pine Barrens by John McPhee – This year I read, for the first time, John McPhee’s nearly fifty-year-old portrait of that mysterious and diminishing swath of wilderness in the heart of New Jersey. It’s an artfully crafted classic and an antidote to clichéd thinking about the state.
Iterating Grace by Koons Crooks – The shortest book ever published by FSG, which means you can read it over and over, thousands of times—and you should! Who ever said venture capitalists contribute nothing useful to society? The tweets collected here demonstrate otherwise. I think.
Every Song Ever by Ben Ratliff – This nimble work of criticism will be released by FSG in early 2016, and I suspect that many, many people will love it. As someone who stubbornly refuses to give up my CDs and records, I was challenged and intrigued by Ratliff’s full-hearted celebration of listening in the digital age. It’s loaded with dazzling observations, such as this, on the Louisiana metal band: “Eyehategod plays rock as a kind of sauce that has been reduced and left to burn in the pan.”
One of the best books I read this year was Eula Biss’s On Immunity.
I’m almost afraid to tell you what my three favorite books of the year were because it will reveal too much about me. But they were: The Odd Woman and the City by Vivian Gornick, M Train by Patti Smith, and Cathleen Schine’s new novel, They May Not Mean To, but They Do, which will come out in June. All three turn a brilliantly original and often mordant eye on life, love, loss and how to grow (a little bit) older with your bite (and heart) intact.
DANIEL DEL VALLE
The two best books I read this year were The Emerald Light in the Air by Donald Antrim and Tinkers by Paul Harding. Both books have a quiet grace and mastery of language in every sentence. They knocked me out. The title story in Antrim’s collection is heartbreaking and close to perfect. Submission by Michel Houellebecq has stayed with me longer than any book this year. Houellebecq’s book shows clearly how apathy and ignorance can have dire effects on culture and general life, not only in France but all over the world.
The Metaphysical Club by Louis Menand – I’m terribly embarrassed that I hadn’t read this book until this summer. Better late than never, I guess! A masterpiece.
The Invention of Nature by Andrea Wulf – The best scientist-biography-cum-adventure-tale-cum-intellectual-history you’ll ever read. I can proudly declare that I am now a Humboldtian.
In the Country by Mia Alvar – An incredible debut short story collection about the diverse lives of the Filipino diaspora that’s redolent of Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies. I would describe Alvar’s prose in precisely the same terms that Michiko Kakutani applied to Lahiri’s: “so eloquent and assured that the reader easily forgets that Interpreter of Maladies is a young writer’s first book.” I’m eagerly awaiting her novel.
The Lusitania, the subject of Erik Larson’s Dead Wake, is a fascinating history of the ocean liner’s final voyage in 1915. The ship was one of the fastest of its time and was believed to be able to outrun a submarine. Yet, despite Germany vowing to sink the ship after it declared the seas around the UK a war zone, the Lusitania still set sail from New York to Liverpool. Nearly 1,200 people lost their lives when a U-boat torpedoed it. I particularly enjoyed reading about the life of the U-boat captain and life aboard his ship, as well as how the mysterious Room 40 was able to break Germany’s encrypted messages.
Dan Marshall’s Home is Burning is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read. It’s about a father of five dying from ALS. And the mother has cancer. And one of the daughters has an inappropriate relationship with her high school teacher (and then marries him!). The Marshalls, who live in Salt Lake City, curse like sailors and drink like them too, so all their Mormon neighbors HATE them. While none of that sounds funny, it is, in fact, laugh-out-loud, people-on-the-train-asked-what-I-was-reading funny . . . and then, looked at me like I was the sick one when I said it was a heartbreaking memoir about a family coping with ALS.
I loved Carol Shields’s The Stone Diaries, a strange portrait of a Canadian woman named Daisy Goodwill Flett. Don’t forget to read the gorgeous poem “The Grandmother Cycle” (by “Judith Downing”) at the very beginning of the book. Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides put me in a dreamy, melancholy mood for days, especially as I spent some time wandering in suburbia that month. I read Outline by Rachel Cusk and her extraordinarily sharp analysis of the men and women she meets in Greece completely knocked me over.
Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff. Her language reminds me of James Salter, one of my all-time favorite writers. Plus there’s a lot to think about here—marriage, trust, genius, love, fate.
My Brilliant Friend by Elena Ferrante. I’d heard so much about her Neapolitan books and this first one lived up to the hype, despite a sluggish section near the middle. The twist at the end made me want to start the second book immediately.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain. Informative and validating for an introvert like me.
The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown. I’m adding this mainly because it’s the first adult nonfiction book my ten-year-old read on his own, and he loved it so much he recommended it to everyone he knows. A well-told, uplifting story.
New to me: Lauren Groff’s Fates and Furies and Yoko Ogawa’s Revenge. And I re-read Vivian Gornick’s Fierce Attachments when we took over the rights, and it’s just as amazing as it was when I first read it in college, sharp and funny and completely unsentimental.
I have a soft spot for horse racing and Australians, so Gerald Murnane’s memoir Something for the Pain was a welcome read this year. And I was blown away by Valeria Luiselli’s The Story of My Teeth, a wonderfully strange book she wrote with a bunch of factory workers. The selection of Max Beerbohm’s slippery essays from NYRB was a romp and I can’t believe it took me so long to read Calvin Tomkins’s biography of Marcel Duchamp.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell. Remarkable history of Dutch traders in Japan at the end of the 1700s, with complex machinations on both sides, and a very dark religious cult lurking behind the scenes. Very compelling read.
The Owl Who Liked Sitting on Caesar by Martin Windrow. Erudite and fascinating story of owls, and of one owl in particular. Very interesting and not at all a “cute pet” book (to its great credit!).
The Stories of John Cheever by John Cheever. I had read some of these, here and there, over the years, but to sit down and actually read the entire collection was amazing. He is the best anthropologist of a certain swath of mid-century life, in the city and the suburbs and off at the summer house.
Uncle Fred In Springtime by P. G. Wodehouse. I am working my way through the Jeeves and Wooster and the Blandings novels and stories again; this is one of the latter. Wodehouse’s endlessly entertaining characters and absurd situations are pretty much always the best thing to take along on a trip.
There are certain books that take over your life. They occupy space in your head. Command attention, re-reading and reflection. Such is Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women. This book brought the most joy this year from both a personal and professional perspective. Unknown to me before, Lucia is now on her way to becoming world famous with sixteen international publishers (and counting).
There are other books you can’t stop talking about. To anyone willing to lend an ear. To strangers on the subway. To those who’ve already walked away. H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. As I cycled to the train last week I spotted a red tailed hawk perched on a low branch. I stopped to stare. Thought about extending my arm and whistling. I didn’t, not because I knew it wouldn’t work (it might have, doubters), but because I recalled the description when Helen’s hawk hit and latched on to her arm the first time. I felt the pain. The hawk flew higher. I cycled away. I’ve looked for the hawk every day since.
There are other books that take you by surprise. They land without any preconception. Only the praising words of an eager publisher. In this case, Jacques Testard of the wonderful Fitzcarraldo Editions in London. He handed me Pond by Claire-Louise Bennett at the Frankfurt Bookfair. I’ve found reading on the plane home from Frankfurt to be a difficult task. After an exhausting ten days, I’d rather spend every hour watching crap movies. On the flight home this year, the entertainment system failed (thank you, United). I pulled out Pond with some hesitation. A book of stories narrated by a predominantly solitary woman. While this could easily have turned maudlin, Bennett’s prose is delightful, witty, stark, and surprising. She makes the everyday magical. I will never look at sliced almonds in yogurt the same way. It’s a brilliant debut. One I’ll be entirely envious of when Riverhead publishes it here next year.
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri. Talk about gorgeous writing . . .
The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka. Recommended to me by my writing teacher in a lesson on POV, I read, and cried, and immediately re-read.
The Country Life by Rachel Cusk. Laughed a lot, and the ending was ::kisses fingertips::
All too honestly, my favorite books of the year don’t extend far beyond the collected works of Leo Lionni, with dashes of Eric Carle, P. D. Eastman, and Dr. Seuss. And unfortunately I can’t really remember the first half of the year, so anything read then, well, one day I’ll cherish it.
As for books published this year, Arthur Bradford and Chuck Webster’s 43 Monsters is pretty great, if not too far from the Lionni/Seuss canon, and perhaps not the best book Bradford published this year. . . I’m not sure if it counts as a book, but I do think Freeman’s is extraordinary and thoroughly impressive—the quality of the prose, the range of the writers, and the energy with which it’s being published. Oh, and I was glad to see Leonard Gardner’s Fat City come back as an NYRB Classic, though they failed to top the original FSG cover.
Wait, the first half of the year is coming back to me . . . I thought Jill Leovy’s Ghettoside was fucking fantastic . . . sharp & revelatory. Also deeply impressed by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, though that hardly needs me to cheer it on. I’ve kept thinking about Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Water Knife—one of those books in which the imagined future feels distressingly close to reality by the time it comes out (same deal with Claire Vaye Watkins’s Gold Fame Citrus)—it seemed impossibly on point while reading it, and it’s only gotten moreso. Speaking of which, Luc Sante’s magnificent The Other Paris took on a sharp new resonance, as, I suppose, did The Clasp—remember when Paris was a place on which we could easily project our literary-minded nostalgia and escapist croissant fantasies . . .? But don’t let me forget The Sellout! The Sellout is great. And while I’m voting for FSG books, Find Me and The Making of Zombie Wars goddammit.
Astonish Me by Maggie Shipstead popped out at me from the “new in paperback” shelf at Third Place Books in Seattle this past spring. Honestly, I picked it up because I liked the cover (yes, the cardinal sin) but it was so incredibly well-written, it really blew me away.
After seeing “The End of the Tour,” I dusted off David Foster Wallace’s Both Flesh and Not on a trip to California this summer (Infinite Jest wouldn’t fit in my carry-on, okay?) And after my other beach read, Valley Fever, I fell into a Katherine Taylor k-hole and found that Rules For Saying Goodbye was one of the most affecting novels I’ve read in years.
As for the up-and-comers, Greg Jackson’s debut collection, Prodigals, will knock people off their feet in 2016, and I also loved Three Scenarios in Which Hana Sasaki Grows a Tail by Kelly Luce—A Strange Object published that collection, but Emily Bell snapped up Kelly’s debut novel Pull Me Under for FSG, which is going to be brilliant.
Sarah Manguso’s deceptively slim treatise on diary-keeping, Ongoingness, is one of the wisest books I read this year. I wish I could count the number of discussions I’ve obnoxiously derailed by asking, “But have you read Ongoingness?”
Reading through Clarice Lispector’s The Complete Stories for the first time was like the best kind of fever dream. I’m astonished by her power to make even the most mundane moments feel like surreal, mystical experiences.
I aspire to write with a voice as paradoxically brilliant as Eileen Myles’s in Chelsea Girls—both tough and vulnerable, both swaggeringly cool and impatient with posturing. I’m delighted this beloved novel was reissued this year.
The Heart by Maylis de Kerangal, which we’ll publish in February, might be the best reading experience I had this year. The book takes place over a single day where a young man dies and his heart is given up for a transplant. We come to know all of the characters—the teenage boy, his parents, the nurses at the hospital, the possible transplant recipient—so intimately and Kerangal draws them so completely that the novel doesn’t so much take you in as engulf you.
The Visiting Privilege by Joy Williams. Statues should be built in city squares of Williams, in dark glasses, surrounded by her beloved German shepherds.
Witches of America by Alex Mar – I worked on this book, so it might be cheating to mention it, but I can’t leave it off my list. It’s not just a fascinating study of Pagan subcultures in America (though it is definitely that), but also a moving exploration of what it means to have faith in something that you can’t see, and of what lengths people are willing to go to in their search for the ecstatic. I don’t have a religious bone in my body, but Mar describes the Pagan rituals in this book so evocatively that I found myself convinced, very nearly, to believe. If I hadn’t wanted to be a witch before, I definitely do now.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman – Strange, original, and deeply creepy, this is one of the most interesting novels about advertising (the Trix Rabbit-inspired Kandy Kat commercials are disturbingly spot-on), makeup, food, and modern womanhood that I’ve read. It makes your skin crawl, but in a good way; it’s been months since I read it, but I can still feel the styrofoam texture of Kandy Kakes between my teeth.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara – Controversy aside, no other book this year (or maybe any year) so totally engrossed me, nor was any so emotionally resonant. I don’t know if I’ve ever read a novel that so accurately captured the near-overpowering, often unrelenting, and destructive cycling of mental illness, or was so clear-eyed about what it might mean if you can’t get better. I know I’ll be reading it again.
After Birth by Elisa Albert knocked me out. Smart, honest—sometimes caustic—and stunningly visceral. It defies every expectation you might have formed from its title or plot summary (which I won’t attempt here) but you should know it’s relentless about shredding common wisdom on motherhood, female friendship, and the way women live in their bodies. It’s political and feminist and funny and deft. I tore through this shortish novel in ebook, then immediately bought three hard copies and began pressing them on friends.
I think my first reaction after finishing Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts was: I didn’t know you could do that with a book. And then I read Bluets and thought the same thing. Maggie Nelson is a genius. Look for The Red Parts, which our friends at Graywolf are re-releasing in April.
Just thinking about Elizabeth Alexander’s The Light of the World fills me with gratitude. This memoir—chronicling her marriage, her husband’s sudden death, and the grief afterward—is simultaneously devastating (I sobbed through a good half of the book) and incredibly healing. I was more whole after reading.
And two favorites in 2015 were recommendations from last year’s list: Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (the best series I’ve ever read that didn’t feature a boy wizard) and Parallel Lives by Phyllis Rose (who knew a book on five Victorian marriages would be the most delightful reading of my year?).
Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women was one of my favorite books this year. These are ferocious, funny, unpredictable stories—a wonderful surprise. Other old favorites I re-read this year: the elegant and marvelous Paris Stories by Mavis Gallant, and the odd, tender confections of Robert Walser’s Selected Stories, reissued by FSG in 2012.
I did not read as many new titles as I intended this year. However, out of everything I did read, I think Koko Be Good by Jen Wang was my favorite. At the beginning of the year, my son suggested I read the graphic novel. When he noticed it still sitting on my coffee table a few weeks ago, he dropped it in my knapsack so I would read it on the train. The main character’s growth during the course of the book was amazing and it had me cheering for her by the end.
Some of my other favorites included Southern Comforts by Nan Dixon and Stay by Karyn Lawrence. I also reread Acheron and Styxx by Sherrilyn Kenyon, Fast Track by Julie Garwood and Big Bad Beast and Bear Meets Girl by Shelly Laurenston.
The Lost Child by Caryl Phillips is my hands down favorite book of 2015. It is an opera of a novel. In fact, someone should turn it into an opera. Gorgeous, haunting, mysterious and all too real. I think about it all the time.
Give Us the Ballot is another book that I think about all the time but for a completely different reason. A book about the battle over voting rights in America since the VRA was enacted fifty years ago. It’s got everything—an incredible but true story, great writing, and unbelievable characters—from Nixon and Reagan to young Ted Cruz and John Roberts. But most of all I learned so much. Essential reading—period.
Among new books I loved Mark Greif’s The Age of the Crisis of Man. The subtitle is “Thought and Fiction in America 1933-73,” but if you care about thought and fiction in America now, this book will tell you a lot about how we got here. I also tore through Adam Thirlwell’s Lurid & Cute—a satire on extended adolescence that lives up to its title—and Paul Beatty’s frenetic, fertile satire The Sellout, which doesn’t. Among older books (but new to me): Dag Solstad’s ruefully funny, breathtakingly concise short novel Shyness and Dignity, about a high school teacher at the end of his tether; Helen Garner’s novella The Children’s Bach, about a bohemian marriage in early-80s Melbourne; Nancy Mitford’s witty biographical essay Voltaire in Love, and a tiny, elegant book about Chinese poetry and why it’s hard to translate (into English or French), Trois essais sur la traduction, by Jean François Billeter.
Over the summer I finally got around to reading a couple big books that had been sitting on my shelves for way too long: Bleak House by Charles Dickens and Postwar by Tony Judt. Both were completely absorbing, and probably my favorite (non-work-related) things I read this year. I went to central Europe in June, and did a fair amount of geographically-appropriate reading around that. There were a couple highlights, but Magda Szabó’s The Door will probably stay with me the longest.
When I started working at FSG this year, the first book I read was A Manual for Cleaning Women. Lucia Berlin knew how to pack a punch in just a few pages. That’s what I love most about her writing—that it doesn’t hold back, that it’s fearless. After I read A Manual and was learning more about Lucia herself, I found out that someone I befriended in my college days is her grandson.
I’m admittedly late to the Elena Ferrante party, and now I know the error of my ways. I’m so glad I read The Days of Abandonment this year, and it lit a fire under me to read the rest of her books in 2016.
For years, my favorite McSweeney’s column has been Jesse Eisenberg’s hilarious “Bream Gives Me Hiccups: Restaurant Reviews from a Privileged Nine-Year-Old.” So when I found out that Grove Atlantic was publishing the whole column in addition to other pieces of humorous short fiction by Eisenberg, I was thrilled. As expected, I loved Bream Gives Me Hiccups & Other Stories and had no shame laughing out loud on a packed plane while reading the galley.
The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe (The Shadow of the Torturer, The Claw of the Conciliator, The Sword of the Lictor, The Citadel of the Autarch, and The Urth of the New Sun) – If you’re someone who turns their nose up at science fiction and fantasy and you haven’t read The Book of the New Sun, you’re missing out on one of the best literary works in or out of any genre, period. Technically four volumes plus a coda, the whole series is the kind of work you could read over and over again and discover new tidbits each time. I reread it this year with Michael Andre-Driussi’s Lexicon Urthus at my side and had one of the most enjoyable reading experiences of my life as I found new interpretations and readings for events and characters I’d previously considered secondary. Read it before it gets turned into a blockbuster TV series and you have to buy the editions with HBO posters for covers.
What FSG book(s) are you looking forward to giving this year?
A good friend of mine recently picked up a master’s degree in Western Esotericism from Universiteit van Amsterdam. What more perfect gift for him than Alex Mar’s stunning journey into American paganism, Witches of America? If there are over 1,000,000 practicing pagans, let’s just say your neighbors might not be as “normal” as they appear.
I’m giving a copy of The Horse by Wendy Williams to my sister-in-law, who loves horses, and a copy of Here Lies Hugh Glass by Jon T. Coleman to a friend who loves exaggerated stories about mountain men.
The book-reading members of my family have already read Outline, Purity, and Give Us the Ballot, so I’ll be giving A Manual for Cleaning Women, The Unfortunates, The Fellowship, and Witches of America.
KL will enrich my sister’s impressive collection of books about Jewish history and Holocaust narratives. I’ll be giving My Two Italies to my mother, whose family hails from Naples and who loves all things Italian. My father (who likes to ponder) will get Earle Labor’s biography of Jack London. My friend in Baltimore will get A Manual for Cleaning Women, as she is an uncanny observer of people who has accomplished a crazy amount of things in her life, like Lucia Berlin.
I’d like to give The Horse to my nephew, who is on the equestrian team at Johnson and Wales as a sophomore and is studying equine business management. I’d like to give Brain Storms to my mother-in-law and step-father-in-law, because my step-father-in-law was recently diagnosed with Parkinson’s and I think they’d find it helpful. I’d also like to give them A Wild Swan because they like Michael Cunningham, and The White Road because my step-father-in-law is an art conservator who will appreciate it. I’d like to give What the Eye Hears to a friend who tap-danced at her own wedding, and I can’t wait for The Secret Life of the American Musical to come out so I can give it to my uncle and his girlfriend, who see more shows than anyone I know. And I have several Francophile friends who would love The Other Paris.
Lucia Berlin for everyone!
Luc Sante’s The Other Paris – Ok, it may be bad form for me to say this is a beautiful book, since I designed the interior, but Sante’s collection of Parisian ephemera and his brilliant entertaining writing add to up to a really great book about the many underworlds of Paris at the end of the 1800s and into the 20th century.
I’ll be giving The Horse to my mother because she has spent her entire life either riding or thinking about riding. And my sister gets Christian Kracht’s Imperium because she is probably thinking about starting her own coconut cult somewhere too.
I’m giving Asali Solomon’s Disgruntled to all the novel-lovers in my life; Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women to the short story fans; Sinéad Morrissey’s Parallax to the poets; Vivian Gornick’s The Odd Woman and the City to the essay-writers and city-wanderers; and the beautifully reissued edition of Flannery O’Connor’s Complete Stories to my whole family, or maybe just about everyone.
I’ll be giving The Other Paris.
A Wild Swan, a book of twisted fairy tales by Michael Cunningham with fiendishly sexy and imaginative drawings from Yuko Shimizu, is my gift of choice this year. The book is pure treasure—Cunningham is at his best here, and the book is filled the sort of prose that makes him, for lack of a more superlative term, Michael Cunningham, but it’s also one of the most exquisite visual packages I’ve seen in a contemporary book.
I can’t wait to wrap up Edmund de Waal’s gorgeous book on porcelain—The White Road—for my boyfriend’s mother, an art lover and excellent reader who visited China, where de Waal’s story begins. I’m also gifting Selected Later Poems by C.K. Williams, The Big Green Tent by Ludmila Ulitskaya, and as much from the brilliant Adam Phillips (starting with Missing Out and Monogamy) as my beloveds will accept.
I will be handing out many copies of Lucia Berlin’s A Manual for Cleaning Women to all the strong women in my life. I’m also planning on gifting The Givenness of Things by Marilynne Robinson to my friends and family, and for my sister, whose favorite author is Flannery O’Connor, I’ll be sure to give her the beautiful reissues.
I’m going to be giving a copy of Mia Couto’s Confession of the Lioness to my sister, because she loves Faulkner and the book reads like The Sound and the Fury filtered through Mozambican culture and myth.
Sarah Scire works at FSG. You can find her online @skeery.
YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: