I made a book tree, buying a tree is a hassle, and these books might as well start pulling their weight around here. pic.twitter.com/ScRCisp25p
— Hilary Lawlor (@Lawlorbabble) December 9, 2015
By Hilary Lawlor / Special to CHS
As a bookseller at one of the most famous bookstores in the country, the Elliott Bay Book Company, I see a lot of books come and go. It gets to the point where it seems overwhelming. How could anyone ever read all of these? What’s the point of writing anything, if the market is flooded with so many great choices? Well, the point of writing, and encouraging authors to continue to write, is that once in a while, a book appears that is so fantastic, so memorable, so great that it eclipses all the others, if only for a moment. This is my list of the books that came out in 2015 that I think accomplished that difficult feat.
- 15) Too High and Too Steep by David B. Williams
In the late 19th and early 20th century, the entire topography of downtown Seattle was reshaped. As hilly as Seattle-ites may think the city is now, the landscape was once much more varied, particularly in the downtown area. In Too High and Too Steep, WIlliams describes the processes that leveled Denny Hill and erased cliffs and tide flats from Seattle’s waterfront. He evokes the setting the way it used to be, and you won’t believe it now, but you might wish you could have seen a hillier Seattle.
- 14) Stories in the Stars by Susanna Hislop
In this beautiful volume, Hislop combines beautifully designed illustrations of constellations with page-long histories concerning the legends behind them. Or sometimes, when they’re not interesting enough, she makes up new ones, and her prose is warm, funny, and engaging. After laying out Hercules’s to-do list (including items like “Snatch Hippolyte’s snazzily-decorated girdle” and “Go to Crete and deal with a white bull”), for instance, she includes a note-to-self at the bottom: “Urgent: Buy Life Insurance.”
- 13) Seattle City of Literature: Reflections from a Community of Writers
In this awesome book from local publisher Sasquatch Books, several of Seattle’s best-known writers combined their powers to create Captain Planet a work that embodies the history of literature and growth in this great city. Advertised as a “bookish history of Seattle,” the little red paper-over-board volume boasts essays and stories from the likes of Tom Robbins, Sonora Jha, Garth Stein, Frances McCue, and Karen Finneyfrock, among many others. Pick this one up if you want to feel a little bit more connected to the ground beneath your feet, or at least to the history behind it.
- 12) The Witches: Salem, 1692 by Stacy Schiff
You might know Stacy Schiff from her biography of Cleopatra, or her Pulitzer-Prize-winning biography Vera: Mrs. Vladimir Nabokov. Safe to say that Schiff writes about famous women very, very well, and her depiction of the people in and around the Salem Witch Trials is at once illuminating and horrifying. Of course, we think to ourselves, that would never happen now, how ridiculous. But is it? Aren’t innocent people still dying because of lies and fear-mongering? Schiff goes a long way to show us that what happened in Salem wasn’t about magic or insanity – it was human fear and folly that caused it, and it happens every day.
- 11) The Secret Loves of Geek Girls, edited by Hope Nicholson
I may be slightly (very) biased, because I am EXACTLY the intended audience for this particular book, but allow me to explain why a. that doesn’t matter, because it’s still great and b. it could still appeal to anyone with a brain. This smart anthology includes essays and comics from the likes of Margaret Atwood and comics greats Mariko Tamaki and Marguerite Bennett, and is about everything from personal experiences with racism and hateful prejudice to advice on how to write a compelling online dating profile. More than anything else, the stories in this book add up to one message: accept yourself.
- 10) Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton
Kate Beaton is the coolest Canadian you probably don’t actually know in real life. She has turned her awesome webcomic, Hark! A Vagrant, into two books of unbridled hilarity, and this is the second volume. Beaton’s comics are at once hilarious and brilliant, requiring a quick wit and a thorough knowledge of various historical and literary characters to get most of the jokes. She has comics about how awesome Lois Lane would’ve been if Superman hadn’t always been butting his large head into her journalistic work, and comics about Chopin and Liszt and their strange, competitive friendship. It’s just so great.
In the age-old argument of whether or not animals can have consciousness and emotions in the same way that humans can, André Alexis throws in his two cents with this beautiful take on the apologue. Hermes and Apollo, bored in the heavens, make a bet about whether or not dogs could be happy with human consciousness and speech, and grant it to a group of 15 dogs in a veterinary clinic. The story that follows is part Lord of the Flies, part Benji, and part philosophical quandary. Alexis’s prose bends to allow the dogs all of the graces and pitfalls of natural human existential crises.
- 8) Beauty is a Wound by Eka Kurniawan
This modern epic follows several characters as they move through an Indonesia rife with political and social upheaval, as it was following the 1965 massacre of more than one million people. Kurniawan’s prose is darkly funny and filled with the undead returning to live out old resentments and the terrible realities of the rape, incest, and brutality that existed in all social classes in Indonesia during that time. This novel is an eye-opener, and not for the faint of heart.
- 7) Bitch Planet Vol. 1: Extraordinary Machine by Kelly Sue Deconnick and Valentine De Landro
How far are we, do you think, from living in a world where non-compliance is punished by imprisonment? Well, now that China is rolling out a new social media tool designed to reward people based on social obedience, probably not too far. In the world of Bitch Planet, “non-compliant” women – women who are too loud, too smart, too black, too this, too that, too anything – are sent to another world known as Bitch Planet, where they are kept in a prison and killed at will. Upheaval is necessary and inevitable. Read the comic that inspired a million tattoos.
- 6) What About This: Collected Poems of Frank Stanford
Say what you will about Frank Stanford’s strange life (and even stranger death), the man could write a beautiful poem. When I read Frank Stanford, I am transported to midnight on a back porch in rural Louisiana, with a tin can of moonshine in my hand and two dogs lying at my feet. But, somehow, Stanford turns that into a beautiful, fantastical dreamworld. The moon is heavy and the air is light. This is the first widely-distributed collection of his work, and I feel so lucky that I get to read his words.
In this wonderful memoir, Margo Jefferson describes what it was like to grow up as part of a prominent, wealthy black family in Chicago in the 1950s. During that time, there was a black upper class in Chicago – a world of education and sophistication that Jefferson called “Negroland.” But the country was currently in a state of judging the entire black race by the successes and failures of individual members. The pressure to do well or risk disgracing an entire race of people was overwhelming. Jefferson’s writing is beautiful and her story, culminating with her growth beyond the false tenets of Negroland, is fascinating.
- 4) The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
Maggie Nelson’s Argonauts defies brief description. At base, it is an examination of what it means to love and be in love, explored through the use of language and theories about identity. But it’s not really any of those things, either. Nelson wrote this book to come to terms with the way she was falling in love with artist Harry Dodge, but it can really be applied to any situation in any life. Every time I hear or read a description of this book, it fails, so all I can say is this: (terminator voice) read it if you want to live.
- 3) Supermutant Magic Academy by Jillian Tamaki
The first time I tried to read Supermutant Magic Academy, I gave up, because I didn’t think it made any sense. Each page seemed to be totally unconnected and the characters weren’t compelling. But when I sat down with it again and really read it, I was blown away: the seemingly-unconnected stories are individual pieces of a larger story, like episodes of a brilliant series. The characters change and move over the course of the book in ways that reflect reality so perfectly. I mean, the reality of being at a wizard high school. But that’s the thing: Jillian Tamaki makes you recognize yourself in wizard high school in a way that would make J.K. Rowling blush.
- 2) Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Listen, if the point of this list was, “What was the most important book of 2015?” This would be number one, no questions asked. It’s probably the most important book of the last decade, particularly when read in the context of the current racial climate in the U.S. Not only that, but Ta-Nehisi Coates is an amazing writer, and with the book being structured as it is as a letter to his son about the realities of living as a black man in this country, it would take a cement-laden hard to avoid being moved to tears at certain points. It at once terribly sad that this needed to be written and obvious that we all needed to read it.
- 1) Fates and Furies – Lauren Groff
But the point of this list wasn’t to rate the most important books of the year, it was to rate my favorite books of the year, and this one tops that list. In fact, I might even say that this book will enter into my top ten list for favorite books of all time. Like The Argonauts, description does it no justice: it’s a novel divided into two sections, the first being a tale of a life and marriage from the man’s perspective, and the second from the woman’s. The characters are so real you can reach out and prod them with your mind – Lotto and Mathilde, Fate and Fury. Their relationship is layered and deep and flawed, but the strength of their marriage abides. I can’t recommend this book enough.