What I Read in 2015

Holly Burns
Jan 15, 2016 · 14 min read
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In 2015, I read 26 books, a number I wasn’t completely horrified by, given that I have a demanding 2-year-old, a demanding job, and a demanding addiction to piddling around mindlessly on my phone as my life slips away disappointingly before my eyes.

I kept track of what I read every month, and — as boorish as it feels to boil a work of literature down to a numerical rating and then splash my unqualified opinion about it on the internet; I mean, it’s not like I’ve written a book, done all the work to get it published, and then bravely shepherded it into the wild for public critique; people in glass houses of unfulfilled ambition shouldn’t throw stones—I…well, I guess I’m about to boil each one down to a numerical rating and then splash my unqualified opinion about it on the internet anyway. I guess that’s what we’re doing here.

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas
Look what a strong start I got off to in January! This epic family saga was one of the best novels I’ve read in years, but my god, was it depressing. It got more and more and more depressing until you thought “No! How can it get any more depressing?” and then it did get more depressing, and then you thought “Well, this must be as depressing as it can get. Surely this is as depressing as it gets, right?” and then it got more depressing still. This is certainly not a light read, but oh, it’s such a good one. Public consumption of the last hundred page is not advised—assuming you are not a callous monster with a shriveled piece of organic tofurkey in place of your heart—due to the unflattering snort-crying to which you will undoubtedly succumb. I am still haunted by the closing line.

Well, I guess I was too busy being young and alive in February because I forgot to read anything. I did buy Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, but as the subtitle predicted, I didn’t even have the time to read it. It’s still on my nightstand, eleven months later! I guess I should read it so I can figure out why I was so overwhelmed that I didn’t read it, but that is the sort of vicious cycle of overthinking that lands you in the ER with a $100 co-pay, so no thank you.

The Vacationers by Emma Straub
This novel about a dysfunctional family (is there any other kind?) who rents a house in Spain was beautifully written and I remember enjoying it, but I also remember feeling sort of indifferent to it at the end. Some of the characters were irritating and some of them were just revealed to be terrible people, and I guess the problem was that I didn’t much care what happened to most of them, really. The biggest thing I remember about this book now is how admirably Emma Straub rocked her jaunty headscarf in her author photo, and how I then wasted an entire naptime trying and failing to tie an equally jaunty headscarf of my own.

Not That Kind of Girl by Lena Dunham
I went through a bit of a Lena Dunham phase in early 2015, when my husband and I got a free HBO trial we weren’t even angling for from a flustered Comcast rep who was trying to appease us for something else. We watched four seasons of Girls back-to-back because one should never look a gift subscription to a premium cable channel in the mouth, as I believe the original Latin translation goes, and then two weeks later Lena Dunham randomly came to my workplace to do a promotional Q&A for Not That Sort of Girl, and I asked her a Q that she A-ed so charmingly that I was compelled to buy her (signed) book on the spot. It was exactly what I was expecting—the most Lena Dunhamlike distillation of Lena Dunham you can imagine—but I think I had perhaps overdosed on her a little bit by then.

To Rise Again at a Decent Hour by Joshua Ferris
I liked this tale of a sardonic dentist whose identity is stolen by someone on the internet a lot less than I thought I was going to like it, and that was disappointing. I loved both of Joshua Ferris’ other books and still call them to mind frequently, but there was a pretty major plot point in this one that had me skimming over lots of dense paragraphs of religious text that I guess I just wasn’t into. Parts of this book were so clever and sublime, and then other parts just felt like doing your homework.

We Were Liars by E.Locke
Admittedly, I did not see the shocking twist coming—maybe because I didn’t even know there was going to be a shocking twist? Huh, sorry if I just ruined it for you, Sixth Sense style—but this book about privileged rich kids kind of drove me nuts. I mean, I’m all for living vicariously through moneyed youngsters with names like “Cadence” and “Gat,” and I will always take a delicious eye-rolling delight in the sort of people who use “summer” as a verb, but—possibly because I am not part of the teenage audience for which it was intended—this book did it way too hamfistedly for me.

The writing style alone—lots of dramatic standalone sentences like the whole thing had suddenly devolved into that third-rate fashion blog your twentysomething cousin is currently getting rich “curating”—was like nails on a chalkboard. Also, nobody called this group The Liars, despite the narrator’s dogged insistence otherwise, which reminded me of the time, aged 11, when I tried to get my classmates to call me by my new self-appointed nickname of “Hobie,” when I should really, after several days, have just stopped trying to make Hobie happen. On the upside, I read this book in two and a half hours on a plane, and it took my mind off the turbulence.

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng
I have a rather specific favorite genre of fiction and that genre is “coming-of-age tale set in the 1970s midwest.” I will read anything that is a coming-of-age tale set in the 1970s midwest—Jo Ann Beard’s In Zanesville and The Silver Star by Jeannette Walls both do this wonderfully—and so I was thrilled when my brother gave me this highly-praised bestseller last Christmas. I liked it very, very much. Didn’t quite love it enough for the full five-star-parade, but it’s won a whole bunch of literary awards, so don’t listen to me.

The Children Act by Ian McEwan
This was short, almost a novella, and haunting in the way only Ian McEwan can haunt you: thoroughly and Britishly. I have yet to read anything by McEwan that doesn’t make me think about it for a few days after I’ve finished it, and while this wasn’t my favorite (Enduring Love is the best, in my opinion), it’s not like the guy can do much wrong.

The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins
As luck would have it, I read this hyped-up psychological thriller in London, where it’s set, including large chunks of it actually on a train, which did rather lend it a compelling authenticity. Still, I had a great number of problems with it, most of them at the end, although I’m certainly not too proud to admit that it was totally unputdownable for large swathes in the middle. Most importantly, it reminded me of the UK’s excellent invention of pre-mixed G&Ts in a can, which, due to the fortuitousness of my whereabouts, I was able to purchase and consume throughout the rest of my trip. Not a total loss, then.

How To Build a Girl by Caitlin Moran
I wasn’t really familiar with Caitlin Moran before I picked this up (unlike now, when I am fairly confident she has taken a restraining order out against me) and I was like uh, what even IS this? for the first few pages of this book. A couple of chapters in, that internal narrative became oh, this is the book I wish I had written!, because Caitlin Moran’s writing is the writing my writing wishes it could be when it wakes up on January 1st and vows to be a better person who doesn’t roll her eyes when the woman in front of her at Target asks the cashier if the Advil she’s buying is gluten-free. As a person who was a teenager in England in the 1990s, there are, in my opinion, very few not-interesting books about English teenagers in the 1990s. Still, this rowdy novel is one of the best.

The Actress by Amy Sohn
I’ve always enjoyed a nice juicy Amy Sohn book—so wicked and soap-opera-ish and gratifying!—but this one….eh. It passed the time, I guess, but there was none of the usual scandal and slander that usually keeps me turning the pages in a oh-this-is-terrible-no-this-is-wonderful way. (Side note: while Steven was unbearable, I did rather imagine enjoying he was based on some sort of George Clooney/Tom Cruise hybrid. Have you read it? What do you think? Was he?)

How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
I couldn’t stay away! I came back for more Caitlin Moran! The women I have since recommended this to have been decidedly more lukewarm about it than I am, but I thought this collection of essays was hilarious and poignant. There were times—like, more than one actual time—that I found myself simultaneously laughing and crying in the three worst ways one can simultaneously laugh and cry: loudly, excessively, and in public. Maybe it’s because I was reading it on vacation, on a beach, with a glass of wine at three o’clock in the afternoon, but to me, this was an almost-perfect book. Of particular note: I re-read Moran’s description of motherhood—the “pure, chemical pleasure” of it—over and over again. Spot on.

The Woman Who Stole My Life by Marian Keyes
More like the book that stole my life, or at least the couple of afternoons it took for me to struggle wearily through it. I’ve eagerly enjoyed pretty much anything else Marian Keyes has written; she is synonymous, for me, with days spent lolling in the sun next to large bodies of water, and I’m pretty sure every book of hers I’ve ever read is splotched with sunscreen and crackling with leftover sand lodged in the spine. But even as a frothy beach read, this was an exercise in diminishing returns. I would have abandoned it, but I was on vacation and had nothing else to hand. I was really happy when it was over.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed by Jon Ronson
Jon Ronson is another person who can, for me, do no wrong. I remember reading him in the Guardian in the late 1990s and forming a complex literary opinion along the lines of “wow, this guy is great!” and I have read almost everything he’s written ever since. As a person who’s made an awkward mistake or two online, I thoroughly enjoyed this wonderful, insightful book about how we vilify the public shortcomings of others. Funny, but also terrifying. But mostly funny. But also terrifying.

The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
I feel like I’m the only person in the world who didn’t think this was god’s gift to wacky romantic comedy, but I found parts of it a little grating. An entertaining story, sure, and a narrator you wanted to root for, but there was just a little too much do-you-see-how-quirky-this-is?-admire-how-quirky-this-is! (technical term) happening for my liking. And maybe this says more about me than it does about the book, but even with a bit of confused googling after I’d turned the final page, I’m still not 100% sure I really understood the ending.

The Husband’s Secret by Liane Moriarty
Ooh, now this is what a delicious suburban drama should look like! I thoroughly enjoyed this snappy, addictive story of three middle-class Australian women grappling with circumstances that end up uniting them. While you’re not going to be searching for subtle literary motifs or anything, the story was well-crafted, the writing super sharp, and the characters totally believable. I immediately put three other Liane Moriarty books on my library request list.

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola
I’ve always enjoyed Sarah Hepola’s writing and her candid, unflinching memoir is no exception. One day last August, my kid—perhaps recalling fondly our repeated readings of Goodnight Goodnight, Construction Site — seemed somehow to understand that his mother occasionally needs to lose herself in a good book, and graced me with a magically long nap, during which I was able to get through most of this. A few weeks later, I heard a really good interview with Sarah Hepola on NPR’s Fresh Air, which I enjoyed as much for its unassuming insight as for the definitive answer it gave me on how to pronounce her last name.

The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan Daum
The excellent Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived In That House was one of my favorite books of 2011, and I eagerly awaited Meghan Daum’s collection of essays, only to find my (admittedly high) expectations dashed. The trouble was, I loved some of the essays and loathed others—the Joni Mitchell one, for instance, has totally ruined Joni Mitchell for me, why would anyone do that to another person—and I found myself disconcertingly put off by the faintly self-congratulatory tone that occasionally seeped in. There’s still some really good stuff here, though.

Luckiest Girl Alive by Jessica Knoll
Apparently Reese Witherspoon loved this dark thriller and immediately snapped up the film rights, which was enough for me to be interested, because Reese Witherspoon seems like one of those always-right friends who’d whip her favorite book out of her bag over post-Pilates mimosas and say GIRL, you HAVE to read this, except you’d be really gross and sweaty and Reese Witherspoon wouldn’t be sweaty at all. Anyway, I guess Reese Witherspoon and I are going to have to agree to disagree on this, because I was distinctly underwhelmed. Probably should’ve learned my lesson from Girl on a Train, but there can only be one Gone Girl and this ain’t it.

Primates of Park Avenue by Wednesday Martin
I took the bait and read this one, because the premise—an outrageous expose of Upper West Side motherhood!—was too delicious not to, but guess what? Mothers on the Upper West Side are kind of competitive with one another, preschool waitlists are really long, and also, don’t be shocked, but it turns out that the Pope has been Catholic this whole time too! Apart from the fact that nothing about this book was very shocking or novel—or at least nothing I didn’t already know from, like, every pop culture reference to the UWS ever—the whole “I have observed the species and here are my field notes” schtick got real old, real fast. Also, I’m going to run for president the minute I get US citizenship and my entire platform will be banning grown women from referring to other grown women (repeatedly) as “mommies.” Ew.

In The Unlikely Event by Judy Blume
Oh, Judy. Oh, Judy, Judy, Judy. You are the grande dame of adolescent fiction and I wanted to just give you a straight-up 5 out of 5 for this without even reading it, mostly as a thank you for getting me through those awkward teenage years, but also just because you’re Judy goddamn Blume and it would be rude to do otherwise, like spitting on a kitten or drinking straight from the communal carton of milk when you’re pretty sure you’re coming down with glandular fever. And yet….and yet, this dense novel—Blume’s fourth for adults—just didn’t really end up coming together for me, in a way that was sort of disappointing. I mean, I loved the 1950s New Jersey setting, and obviously Judy Blume is a master at, you know, dialog and character development and all that, but something about this book just fell flat, particularly towards the end. Great, I’ve just insulted a national treasure. Might as well have kicked a sandcastle in a child’s face

A God In Ruins by Kate Atkinson
My favorite book of the year? Top three, for sure. I sing the praises of Kate Atkinson to anyone who’ll listen—I vividly remember lying in bed all day as a teenager to finish Behind the Scenes at the Museum (arguably her best, although that’s kind of like getting someone to choose their favorite child)—instead of studying for my German A-level and to that I still say WORTH IT, which I could probably also now say in German if I’d made better choices in life. Anyway, this book: you should read it. I always think the mark of a good book is how long you think about it afterwards, and I thought about this one for months (I still think about it sometimes.) There was a line that absolutely killed me, when one of the characters—filled with longing and regret—imagines what she’d ask for if a genie granted her three wishes: “Her children back as babies. Her children back as babies. Her children back as babies.” I never wanted to not be reading this book.

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty by Vendela Vida
I have a friend who I really hope gets engaged this year; 97% of the reason is because her boyfriend is a standup guy and they’re clearly perfect for each other, but the other 3% is because there’s the slimmest of skinny-slim chances that Vendela Vida would be at this wedding, and one of my life’s goals is to be in the same place at the same time as Vendela Vida so I can tell her how much I love all her books. This one, about a woman who arrives in Morocco and immediately has her backpack stolen, was a quick, riveting read that unfolded elegantly to a gut-punching climax. No one captures the feeling of traveling—the disorientation of arriving in an unfamiliar place—like Vendela Vida does.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty
I’m wondering if I should have spaced my Liane Moriarty novels out a little, since Big Little Lies was just a little more similar to The Husband’s Secret than I’d expected, but damn, this woman knows the formula that works for her, because I was hooked into this one too. As a person who grew up on a steady diet of Neighbors and Home & Away, I am all about that suburban Australian drama. And now they’re making this into a movie!

Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpoint
Great title, great cover, but it took me a long time to get into this prickly novel about a splintering marriage. The characters were mostly pretty unlikeable, but for some reason I did care what happened to them this time around—and the unorthodox structure (you get a “where are they now?” about two thirds into the book) made it pretty satisfying to actually find out. Beautifully written, but it’s not like I’m buying copies to force into strangers’ hands or anything.

Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
What usually happens when I go somewhere on a plane is that I use three-quarters of my hand luggage to stack books on top of books on top of books, my primary fear being that I will run out of books to read while traveling, because can you imagine anything worse? Nay, it is not engine malfunction I fear while trapped in a tin can thirty thousand feet up in the sky, it is boredom! I misjudged the amount of reading I could get done on a recent trip to Austin, though, and had to pick something up at the airport for the return leg back to San Francisco; I chose this because it was literally the cheapest book in the whole shop. And sure, it passed the time the way addictive thriller-mysteries centering on “The Satan Sacrifice of Kinnakee, Kansas” are likely to do, but it kind of got more and more implausible as the story went on, until the ending was basically a cartoon version of actual life. Still, credit where credit’s due, I guess: I turned the pages like whoa.

The Last Bad Man by Miranda July
I had such a chip on my shoulder about Miranda July—it’s hard to remember why now; I think she just seemed way too cool or something?—and for maybe the first third of this novel, I was all eh, hipster book, whatever, go stand in line for your cronuts and then something changed and this became just…oh, just so good. Just so, so, so good. I mean, weird still, but wonderful. Apart from anything else, this is probably the most accurate portrayal of motherhood—at least the first few months of it—I’ve ever read; I actually got my phone out and started taking pictures of paragraphs of text, because I wanted so badly to remember them. I’m also going to need to know if anyone is available to discuss the epilogue. I need to discuss the epilogue with someone immediately.

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