We come at last to the final installment of the Stevereads Best – and Worst – Books of the Year for 2015 (which followed hard on the heels of the Donoghue Interregnum, to make for a very list-y December indeed!), a year in which I read more books than I’d ever done before in a single twelve-month span, a year in which I wrote more reviews of new books than I’d ever done before, and a year in which my life was more wholly composed of bookish things than it had ever been before. It was a wonderful year-in-books as a result of all this, and I’d be remiss here at its close if I didn’t extend a laurel & hearty handshake to all you Stevereads readers who’ve made your way through that year-in-books right alongside me (and even followed me elsewhere – to my beloved “Weekly” feature of Open Letters Monthly, to The Washington Post, to The National on the other side of the world, and, lately, to Boston’s own Christian Science Monitor (and those of you who can find me in my two other publishing homes are industrious indeed). It’s been an enlivening privilege to be part of this ongoing book-conversation, and it’s my happy duty now to finish the year by recommending its best works of nonfiction for your consideration:
10 Dead in Good Company, edited by John Harrison – This lavishly-illustrated local-history volume about Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts very much puts the stress of its title on the “company” rather than the “dead,” because this is in actuality a wonderfully energetic and intimate natural history of the various birds and beasts who’ve made the cemetery’s sculptured grounds their home. Owls, frogs, egrets, hawks, and foxes enjoy center stage in these collected essays and reminiscences, with the various buried Brahmins shoved into the background.
9 The Complete Works of Primo Levi, edited by Ann Goldstein (Liveright) – This impressive production from Liveright is also intentionally stark: a boxed block of black-and-white to reflect the contents, the collected writings of one of the 20th century’s most jagged and unaccommodating writers. The experience of slipping each of these hefty volumes out of the case and re-submerging into Levi’s works over the course of a solid week is like no other reading experience provided by any of the books on any of my lists this year.
8 A River Runs Again by Meera Subramanian (PublicAffairs) – This startling and ultimately hopeful book begins as a more or less straightforward account of various measures designed to reclaim something of India’s reduced and ravaged natural spaces. But under Meera Subramanian’s careful elaboration – and helped along by her lovely, understated prose – the story broadens into something very much like a portrait of an entire country and its people. India has received many wake-up calls like this one over the last thirty years, but none quite so eloquent, or with such a human face.
7 Katrina: After the Flood by Gary Rivlin (Simon & Schuster) – In many ways, Gary Rivlin’s look at the city of New Orleans ten years after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina is the mirror image of A River Runs Again: here, the human stories all revolve around recovering a civilization from nature, rather than nature from a civilization. But the human stories – stirring, irritating, outraging, and ultimately uplifting – are every bit as well-written and absorbing.
6 The Life & Love of the Sea by Lewis Blackwell (Harry Abrams) – If we’re lucky, almost every publishing year will have a lavishly-gorgeous photo-book like this one by Lewis Blackwell, which in this case mixes cutting-edge photographic techniques with good old-fashioned excellent aesthetic judgement to present page after page of haltingly beautiful photo-spreads of the world’s oceans and ocean inhabitants in all their moods and movements. I’ve spent a great deal of time on the oceans of the world, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen photos that brought it all so vividly to life.
5 Circling the Square by Wendell Steavenson (Ecco) – From the reign of Hosni Mubarak to the fitful possibilities of Tahir Square and the Arab Spring to the fall of Mohammed Morsi, Wendell Steavenson acts throughout her courageous and endlessly sympathetic book as both the perfect listening ear and the shrewdest of insiders, giving readers both the events and the personal street-level emotions behind them. These pieces represent some of the finest writing to come out of Tahir Square and the chaos of Egypt’s wrestling with modernity.
4 So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson (Riverhead) – It’s hard to suppress a delicious shiver of Schadenfreude at some of the stories Jon Ronson so wonderfully serves up in this dry-witted study of the public shaming to Western life two hundred years after stocks and branding vanished from the culture. But the stories – of ordinary people who inadvertently sparked social media firestorms that then took on unholy lives of their own – are scary too, as Ronson smartly demonstrates again and again, because they could happen to almost anybody. In the instant, blundering karma of the Twitter era, Ronson’s book should be required cautionary reading.
3 Ars Sacra by Michael Orda (H. F. Ullmann) – By a wide margin, this is the most stunningly opulent book published anywhere on Earth in 2015, a gigantic, 25-pound illustrated compendium of Christianity-inspired artwork from Late Antiquity through all the glorious epochs right down to the present day, all photographed in precisely-detailed splendor by Achim Bednorz and presented on thick, textured pages. It’s a thrilling, almost overwhelming celebration of some of the finest artwork ever created, as argument-ending a refutation as could be imagined to the contention of a certain dead demagogue that religion poisons everything (to paraphrase another dead demagogue, “Some poison! Some everything!”). Also: the book, supported on sufficiently sturdy pylons, can double as a dwelling.
2 Latest Readings by Clive James (Yale University Press) and Browsings by Michael Dirda (Pegasus) – Given my long-standing love of reading (with the obligatory nod of thanks to the great teacher who instilled that love) – and given my profession – it’s probably not surprising that I’ve read every book of book reviews to come down the pike. I esteem the peculiar craft of writing book reviews to word-count and on deadline; it’s not literary criticism, but it’s not dream-journaling either – it’s a strange kind of hybrid-voice, and it takes some work to do well. Clive James and Michael Dirda are two of the best living writers of that peculiar craft, and as these two latest offerings show, they’re also very enjoyably different from each other, James being more capacious in his approach and Dirda more monkishly contemplative. Their different approaches are united, however, in sure way they pitch their book-discussions beyond specific books – these are ruminations fit to stand for a while.
1 One of Us by Asne Seierstad (Farrar, Straus and Giroux), The Mystery of the Lone Wolf Killer by Unni Turrettini (Pegasus) – These two magnificent, bleak books share the distinction of being the Stevereads Best Nonfiction of 2015, and they share a subject matter as well: in July of 2011, a young man named Anders Breivik set off a bomb outside a government building in downtown Oslo, Norway, then took a ferry to a Youth League summer camp island and proceeded to shoot sixty-nine more defenseless victims, including many children, before calmly surrendering himself to the police. The entire civilized world was thrown into shock (except the United States, where in the 190 minutes of Breivik’s killing rampage there were 14 gun fatalities, and 14 more during the 190 minutes of his booking by Norwegian police, and 14 more while he waited for prison transport, and 14 more while he spoke with his attorney, and 14 more as he fell asleep that first night in custody, and 14 more every 190 minutes, day and night, ever since, including 14 more in the time it’s taken you to read these book-lists), and these two intensely good books are very different attempts by their authors to come to some kind of understanding of the tragedy. Both books handily exceed the tidy limits of strict reporting: both search brilliantly into the heart and horror of that inexplicable day.
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