Friday, December 18, 2015

My Top 10 Books for 2015

I find top 10 lists hard to put together. Mostly, because I know I didn't all the books in my pile for the year. One of these years, I might compile a top 10 books I am mad that I didn't read for that particular year. I have at least 5 for this year.

Lists are always subject to what the writer has had time to read. Did they read the right books? Why did they read those books? Could they have been in a reading groove with  certain subjects and just gravitated towards them? You can see the difference in reviews from different newspapers, as the New York Times Top 10 differs greatly from the Washington Post's Top 10 books of the 2015. So many books, so little time. It is good that these lists have differing opinions on what was the best books of 2015 (you can usually figure out what was a universal pick by seeing what overlaps from list to list to list), it gives us, the potential readers, a chance to find a book we may not have heard of or seen (or, perhaps, simply forgotten about).

Below is my list of Top 10 books I read this year. I only picked books out that were published in 2015, older books were excluded, as were future books. You should easily figure out where my reading interests gravitated towards this year.

Adam Briggle really takes a deep look at fracking as it embeds itself in Denton, Texas, where he made his home and living. Realizing that most people have no idea of what fracking really entails, he begins to ask a ton of questions that any field philosopher would ask. He looks at the environmental and health impact as well as the economical one. He would like to offer a system to fix fracking, to make it as beneficial for all concerned parties. He is ignored. He leads a citizens group with local activists as they lead a fight to stop the fracking that is causing all kinds of problems. It is a hard won fight. Having never lived anywhere near fracking, reading this has made me glad that there are groups out there willing to take on the big oil and gas companies and fight for what seems logical and right.

This could well be Neal Stephenson's best work to date, equal parts Arthur C. Clarke’s 2001: A Space Odyssey and J.G. Ballard’s The Drowned World. An event occurs that leaves humanity on the brink of extinction with very little time on the clock to attempt to survive. Most writers would start well after the event and leave out all the important how parts, the parts readers want to know, like how does civilization continue or barring that, humanity. The leaders of Earth hatch a harsh plan to save humanity; nothing is easy and survival is not assured, but there is true heroism in the early pages of this novel as humanity has to learn to live in a foreign environment without the cozy confines of atmosphere or terra firma. To say this was a great novel does not do it justice; Stephenson creates a breathtaking take on the catastrophic ending of the world and the saving of the human race. Then he brings it full circle, leaving me completely in awe.

Paolo Bacigalupi writes some bleak futures in his novels. First in, The Windup Girl, and now in his new intense, water-deprived world of The Water Knife, we come to see the many different ways our civilization and ecosystems could go terribly wrong. This is an intense and violent cli-fi (climate fiction) novel that follows Angel Velasquez and Lucy Monroe on a hunt for an ancient water deed that could change the southwest water rights. Can they trust each other? Is finding the deed going to solve the water problem or lead to a bigger ill for most everybody? Characters are multidimensional and you can never peg somebody as always being the good person or the bad, and that is how Paolo sucker punches you time again as the plot unfurls. Brilliant novel, if a bit too close to reality sometimes, but that could be what we need.

Bennett Omalu was the right person at the right time to discover CTE in football players. He was an outsider from Nigeria, he battled anxiety and depression, he was considered a bit too smart to be tough, and he was born to a very amazing family. Discovering the disease in Mike Webster completely surprised and shocked Bennett, but not enough to silence him. He started publishing papers. The NFL started slandering his name and reputation. He has never had much of the credit for being the first to look and find CTE, however he was instrumental to the NFL slowly changing their ways and stop ignoring an epidemic problem among his players. Jeanne Marie Laskas has woven Bennett's tale with thoroughness and careful consideration to his entire life, because it was not just one thing that put him on the path to helping so many, it was a series of hard and serious problems that made Bennett Omalu the person he was to be able to accomplish this heroic task.

This is a brilliant collection by Jesse Eisenberg, who is better known for his roles in The Social Network and Zombieland. Though, if he keeps this up, then he is going to be heralded as a great writer as well. The stories are soaked and riddled with characters anxieties and quirks. The first story, and possible my favorite,  is from the point of view of a nine-year-old, who has become a restaurant critic, because his Dad will pay for any meals that his Mother goes on with him, since the two are separated. He rates his experiences on a scale of one to 2000 stars. The best is when he has to endure a vegan Thanksgiving!

This Napoleon book stands out from others I have read in the last couple of years. Patrice Gueniffey takes Napolean from his days in Corsica to the declaration of Consulate for Life in 1802. Not only does Patrice demonstrate how Napoleon was "born in war," but he also shows how, after witnessing the Revolution, he comes down on the side of centralized authority. There are great passages of his courting Josephine de Beauharnais to secure his French nationality. In this first volume, in which there will be a second companion volume covering the second half of Napoleon's life, we see his single minded, tireless and creative approach to raising his future self to the highest his brilliant mind could fling him.

If you didn't have pleasure of coming to hear Mary Doria Russell talk about Epitaph earlier earlier in the year here at Boswell, then you should find her on her paperback tour and go. She is a dynamo when talking about what drove her to write this and Doc. This remarkable historical novel does what readers like me want, to take an event we think know about and give us an angle we have been blind to or blocked from. In this case, it is the O.K. Corral and one of the most famous gunfights in Old West history. Just read it, the prose will have you, the characters will have you and Mary will not let you go.

This was one amazing read - the language was lush and beautiful and the reality of the world that Marguerite Reed created was brutal and harsh. On the planet of Ubastis, Vashti is one of the original offworlders to settler here. The planet has been on lock down from more colonists coming, with the Earth dying and that last world that was colonized and brutalized, Vashti is part of a group that is attempting to preserve this world. There is so much going on in this book, so many dual meanings and dual stories entwining around Vashti and her Beast, a bio-engineered human (who she thinks of as non-human and her enemy). The next book can't come soon enough!

This is a novel of tragedy and love told on the landscape of World War I. The McCoshes have four daughters and they are neighbors to an American family called the Pendennis and their three sons. One of the sons proposes to Rosie McCosh before he enlists in the war, along with all his brothers. To say very little, the tragedy strike particularly hard on both families. This is a war like no other before it and the scenes depicting the horrors of war are frightening. Not only are the soldiers in the trenches of France, who are constantly wet, cold and dirty, but the wives and mothers at home in England are shown to be living in a blackish world of death and loss. Louis de Bernieres is a brilliant storyteller, mixing up the characters who tell the story and giving us detailed historical detail of the period, but not too much. Now, I have to somehow wait for another story from him

Johannes Fried doesn't focus so much on the kings and emperors of the Middle Ages, instead he is interested in the 'thinkers' like Thomas Aquinas, Dante Alighieri and William of Ockham. It is the revolution of thought through the Middle Ages that Johannes Fried wants to trace. In another scholar's hands this book could be dry and dull, but Fried has the ability to capture the readers attention at this monumental evolution of thought, which is counter of what we think of the Middle Ages as being. He successfully argues, at least I think, that there was more diverse, creative and mature reason than we think they had. Here is a history book for the holidays that can go to people who love history for a good story or for those who want their history to argue new points of view. A great read.