This next list is a bit different because the choices were not selected from entries produced in the last year. I do not read nearly enough contemporary fiction to single out a top 5 list, so instead this is simply the top 5 works of any fiction, published anytime, that I read in 2015.
- The Sparrow by Mary Doane Russell
(And its sequel Children of God)
This is a book about Jesuits in space. It’s a mind-blowing exploration of the implications of Earth-oriented anthropology, philosophy, and theology on a different planet, inhabited by different sentient species. Chances are if you see me on a regular basis, you have heard me obsess about this book. (I actually wrote a review on it last year.) It’s not a light nor easy read. It will likely affect you viscerally. And it will change the way you think about the order of the world around you.
If you pick it up, make sure to read the sequel right after. Children of God ties up quite a few loose ends, and it provides some much-needed emotional resolution.
Kudos to Andy Motz for the recommendation.
- Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson
Red Mars is another tale set in space, but unlike The Sparrow which is light science fiction, Red Mars belongs quite definitively to the hard sci-fi genre. The delineation of light/hard in science fiction essentially references how “sciencey” the writers gets. If a writer regularly uses complex physics or biochemical equations and notions throughout the text that go straight over your head, then it’s probably hard sci-fi. I am certainly not a scientist, but I have come to love hard sci-fi because it opens up perspectives that I, as a humanities person, don’t often consider.
Red Mars is the first book in a trilogy documenting mankind’s colonization of Mars. The sequels are Green Mars and Blue Mars, so as you might guess, this is also a story about humanity’s transformation of the red planet into something that more resembles Earth. The science of the transformation itself is fascinating (Robinson spent years researching the terraforming of Mars to get his facts right), but even more fascinating is the political, economical, and social ramifications that take place as a result of the physical transformation of the land. As with The Sparrow, Robinson addresses some really interesting philosophical implications underpinning our assumptions about biology and ecology. In addition, his characters are super interesting and complicated.
Kudos to Aaron Kleist for the recommendation.
- Fates & Furies by Lauren Groff
This is actually a book that came out in 2015, and it is truly phenomenal. Believe all the hype. Groff tells a sort of post-modern epic about a strangely complex marriage in which everything is both as it seems and simultaneously not. The first half of the book documents the marriage from his perspective, and then the second half shifts to hers, following a pattern that has been popularized in films like Gone Girl. The text is saturated with nods to classical mythology and Arthurian romances, building multiple layers of meaning into every scene and every encounter. While in some senses, this is an easy read, if you read it quickly, you will miss the subtle depth to Groff’s prose. As I result, I would recommend working through the text attentively and consider reading it with some friends and discussing it together. For those of you who are sensitive to content in books, just a heads up that there is quite a lot of sexual content in this novel. (As is fitting for a book that is following in the path of the great Greek epics . . . )
Kudos to Becky Boss-Masi & The Sophias Book Club for the recommendation.
- Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
If you have listened to Beyoncé’s track Flawless, you may be familiar with Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi, who is sampled on the track. Otherwise you may have also seen one of her TEDTalks, my favorite being “The Danger of the Single Story,” or you may have actually read one of her novels. I’m one of those people who had seen her TEDTalks and knew about her connection to Beyoncé, but had never actually picked up any of her written work until I read this for a book club. I had no idea what to expect, so I was pleasantly surprised to discover this intriguing story about a Nigerian woman, Ifemelu, accustomed to her relatively comfortable urban life in Lagos, who moves to the United States and must navigate not only a dramatic shift of culture, but also a sudden reduction of her societal status. While my story is quite different to hers (for instance, I didn’t have to combat the racial tensions that Ifemelu experienced), there were many moments throughout the novel that I resonated strongly with, from my own emigration experience, leaving South Africa for Tennessee. Even for those without a similar experience, Adichie addresses her audience through Ifemelu with such intimacy that it is easy to forget that one is not reading an autobiography.
Woven throughout this beautifully told narrative are fascinating philosophical and sociological examinations about topics such as the replacement of the intellectual life with an academic life. She also dives right into messy conversations about race and gender, making some extremely bold but insightful statements without hesitation. This juxtaposition of Ifemelu’s vulnerability and transparency with Adichie’s sharp analysis of culture is what makes the book such an incredible read. I look forward to reading more of her fiction.
Kudos to Cambria Hayashino and the American Spirits Book Club for the recommendation.
- Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
Finally, we get to number five, which is completely different in genre from the previous four. Tada! A graphic novel. I was assigned this one for class, and I actually got to teach it. Quite simply, its a fictional retelling in comic form of the author, Marjane’s, childhood and adolescence as a young Iranian woman during the rise of the Ayatollah Khomeini. Like Americanah, Persepolis explores themes about migration and diaspora, following Marjane to Austria, where her parents send her during the unrest. It also unpacks the complications and nuances of womanhood and identity, especially within a nation that was secular at her birth but then morphed into an Islamic state.
While the themes and setting are heavy and often bleak, the story is delightful since it is told from a child’s perspective. Using this framing device, Satrapi offers a sense of wonder and naiveté to aspects of the world towards which we might otherwise be cynical or ignorant.
She also inspired my new obsession in graphic novels–there will definitely be one or two on next year’s top five list. (I’m collecting recommendations so post below!)
Mitchell writes wonderfully chilling urban fantasy. I fell in love with Cloud Atlas, so this past year, I decided to pick up The Bone Clocks and the accompanying Slade House, which came out in 2015. Both were fantastic and well worth a read. I wrote a review on Slade House recently as well.
Gaiman is another one of my favorite fantasy writers that I discovered in recent years. I’ve been steadily working through his material, and I finally got to The Graveyard Book, a chilling but simultaneously lovely story about a little boy raised by ghosts. Because as the book tells us, it takes a graveyard to raise a child.
As a bonus, if you are interested, here is my Goodread’s Year in Books.