Top 10 Books for January 2015

Our books editor picks her favorite reads for January 2015.

Happy New Year, readers!

There are a few of us left—right? One thing I know for sure: No one resolves to read fewer books. There are people, of course, who can’t read (more on that group later this year) and people who don’t like to read; but of the people who do like to read, most would be happy to do more reading, not less. Time goes so quickly between each January 1 and December 31.

Time’s arrow encourages lists, like the ones we make of resolutions. One of mine, this year, is to get these Top 10 lists up as close to the month’s start as possible. That is no small matter, as it doesn’t simply involve hitting a bunch of keys; it also means I have to be firm and quick in my choices. Less dithering on my end means more advance notice on yours—so that you can arrange your schedule to fit in more reading in 2015.

NONFICTION

The Test: Why Our Schools Are Obsessed with Standardized Testing, But You Don’t Have to Be by Anya Kamenetz

NPR’s lead digital education reporter takes on the bane of most modern parents: Common Core curricula and their increasingly standardized evaluation methods. While many of us would like to bang our heads against the wall when faced with this problem, the author’s background as a journalist (o dying breed…) allows her to examine the issue from all sides and show where and why and how it hits that same wall. Fortunately for us headbangers, Kamenetz has some ideas about how to fix things.

Tasty: The Art and Science of What We Eat by John McQuaid

Each time I think I’ve read all the books about food—and I read them all, trust me—a new one comes along that reveals something I hadn’t yet considered. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer John McQuaid considers flavor’s plasticity “wild and unpredictable;” he has little use for the commonplace notion of “five flavors.” His forays into Soylent food-replacement “shakes,” the role of genetics in taste preferences, and how the advent of cooking zapped our taste receptors forever are just a taste (geddit?) of this terrific read.

Sympathy for the Devil: Four Decades of Friendship with Gore Vidal by Michael Mewshaw

My own view of the iconoclastic American man of letters Gore Vidal has long been colored by his dictum that the world doesn’t need any more writers. Easy for him to say, I would think, furiously—but now I know that Vidal set those words out carefully as a sort of artistic steeplechase. If you can pass this hurdle and keep writing, then maybe you’re worthy. Mewshaw’s lovely elegy to a difficult and wickedly smart friend should be a required text for anyone who admires good writing and loves good reading.

Zillow Talk: The New Rules of Real Estate by Spencer Rascoff and Stan Humphries

If I didn’t live in Northern Virginia and write for a magazine based in Washington, DC, I might not choose this book, but I do and I do, and I know how Wild West it can be out there in the world of realty. While Zillow Talk has a lot of service-y bits (never put the word “cute” in your listing, e.g.), the book starts out and follows through with the idea that houses aren’t simply economic markers and financial investments—they’re also homes, places invested with emotions, memories, and community ties.

One Nation, Under Gods: A New American History by Peter Manseau

Manseau is one of my favorite writers on spirituality (Rag and Bone, e.g.), and he doesn’t disappoint in this lively and well researched look into our country’s wonderfully checkered religious past. While most of us trace a Christian-centric past from the founding Puritans to a Fundamentalist present, Manseau argues that the USA is the most religiously diverse nation in the world—and backs up his argument with examples ranging from the earliest Wiccans through present-day cults and movements. Fascinating stuff.

FICTION

Descent: A Novel by Tim Johnston

You don’t have to take my word for it; Patrick Anderson raved about it in the Washington Post, too—but you should read it, because Tim Johnston’s novel is a thriller is a novel is a thriller. In other words, it’s that rare thing: A fully realized piece of literary fiction that is also a gripping piece of suspense fiction. As several members of a family grapple with a young girl’s disappearance during a vacation, nerves will stretch—but so will many other emotions, and none of them simply to show off the author’s range. Highly recommended.

Hall of Small Mammals: Stories by Thomas Pierce

Say you haven’t read any short fiction in a while. Here’s the volume I’ll tell you to pick up, because Pierce uses the form properly, making each story in his debut as glittering and multifaceted as a single gem—but with a jeweler’s eye, stringing pieces together so that they also work as real collection. The characteristics of that collection are strangeness, juxtaposition, and surprise; those qualities work in short stories because belief needn’t suspend for long. “Hall of Small Mammals” is both treat and nourishment.

Her: A Novel by Harriet Lane

After devouring Alys, Always in 2012, I longed for another novel by Harriet Lane; she is the one writer I believe could fill Ruth Rendell’s mighty (but tiny; Rendell is so petite!) shoes. Lane knows and (more surprisingly) acknowledges the creepy back alleys of the female psyche. In Alys, she vivisected the posthumous stalking of a woman’s life; in Her, she brings her scalpel to bear on the delicate membranes of the postnatal new mother’s life, revealing how quickly vulnerability can turn into opportunity, with ghastly results.

Outline: A Novel by Rachel Cusk

While I’ve placed Cusk’s novel in the middle of things, here, consider it so because otherwise its brilliance might blind you. If there’s one piece of fiction you read in January 2015—and maybe in 2015, full stop—it should be Outline. You might want to prepare yourself by reading Rebecca Solnit’s Men Explain Things to Me so that you’ll truly get what’s happening as the flickering, evanescent narrator of Cusk’s novel in conversations slowly takes shape. A stunning literary achievement, worthy of its current and future accolades.

Ostland: A Novel by David Thomas

You may think you’ve learned everything there is to know about the Holocaust—then along comes a novel like Ostland, and you realize the surface of horror has still only been scratched. Based on a true story, Thomas’s book follows a young Nazi officer named Georg Heuser, who is sent to Minsk, which is under German occupation. Initially he’s investigating a series of murders—then we find out that 20 years later, he was arrested himself for murder. What happened? It’s complicated and horrific, but worth reading and pondering.

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