Qualifying books is really hard to do. Who’s to say Book X is “buzz-worthy,” while Book Y is a dud? What makes Book N listicle fodder, while Book B is destined for the donation bins?
But it’s these complications (or snobberies, or proclivities, or whatever you want to call them) that makes the books world so fascinating. Do you think D.H. Lawrence was a critical darling? Did you have any idea you’d fall in love with that random book you were forced to buy in the airport that one time? No, and probably no. You can only know what books will speak to you once you read the damn book; and only time can tell what’ll last and what won’t.
Considering these factors, 2015 has so far been a banner year for big books: to name just a few, this year has seen the release (and attendant mania) of Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins, Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman , Judy Blume’s In the Unlikely Event, and Toni Morrison's God Help the Child . Oh, and coloring books. You probably have all of these on your shelves.
All this hype can definitely be overwhelming: while you've likely made time to read the year's books that've struck your bespoke radar, you may have been missing a whole other world of 2015-so-far books that are so worth picking up. To give you a hand, we've curated a list of the 13 books from this year that you should clear your schedule for. Whether it's progressive nonfiction (Meghan Daum, Kate Bolick, Sarah Hepola), stylistically inventive (Sarah Gerard, Louisa Hall), or a radical bildungsroman (Asali Solomon, Chinelo Okparanta, Sara Novic), these are the 13 books from this year that every well-read woman should have on her desk — right next to Harper Lee's latest.
1. Almost Famous Women by Megan Mayhew Bergman (Scribner)
History is written by the winners. But, in 2015, that antiquated vision of the world doesn't really fly anymore. Luckily, we've got seriously talented writers like Megan Mayhew Bergman to deliver to us some long-overdue revisionist history: in her stellar short story collection Almost Famous Women, Bergman tells the little-known stories of women who've slithered along the sidelines of mainstream consciousness, visiting Allegra Byron (Lord Byron's bastard daughter), Violet and Daisy Hilton (conjoined twins, circus act, probable Ryan Murphy inspiration), and Beryl Markham (the transatlantic aviator who is also the subject of Paula McLain's Circling the Sun), among others. I have a feeling that time will be kinder to Bergman's fascinating collection, which you'll be passing along to all your super-smart girlfriends, than it was to the marginalized women to whom she lovingly gives their due.
2. Binary Star by Sarah Gerard (Two Dollar Radio)
I can't guarantee that you'll feel warm and fuzzy feelings about Sarah Gerard's Binary Star, but I can promise you that this brilliant new talent's slim novel will change your outlook on what literature (oh, and the universe itself) can be. This formally progressive novel takes on several forms — lyric poem, astronomy textbook, train-of-thought scribblings — as it narratively tracks the steady disintegration of a dangerously anorexic young woman. Like many progressive books, Binary Star is a difficult read, but what it reveals about body dysmorphic and eating disorders — and what its successfully experimental form signifies for the future of literature — makes this small press release one of the most exciting books of 2015 so far.
3. Disgruntled by Asali Solomon (FSG)
There's a lot to love about a coming-of-age story mired in brutal honesty, and Asali Solomon's Disgruntled doesn't shy away from the stuff: the story tracks the maturation of Kenya Curtis, a shy West Philadelphian 8-year-old whose father, a black rights activist, exposes Kenya to a politically and philosophically tough world. But although Kenya encounters, and considers, fraught political ideologies, at its heart Disgruntled is a deeply personal account of a fiercely smart young woman's journey toward selfhood.
4. Selfish, Shallow, and Self Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids edited by Meghan Daum (Picador)
Whether you want children, don't want children, already have enough children, or don't know what you think about having children because you have 5,000 much more compelling things to do right now thank you very much, I still urge you to read Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed. This Meghan Daum-edited essay collection compiles 16 writers' eloquent justifications behind their decision not to procreate or adopt (which in her introduction Daum makes clear is very different from not being physically, emotionally, or financially able to have kids). It's required reading for our Modern Family age, in which a "family" can take on so many iterations — not all of which must include one's own personal children.
5. Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own by Kate Bolick (Crown)
What Meghan Daum's Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed does for the modern family, Kate Bolick's Spinster does for the modern single woman. Here, Bolick shares her personal reasons for choosing not to marry, alongside portraits of the accomplished, never-married ladies throughout history, including Edna St. Vincent Millay and Edith Wharton, who've inspired her. And although Bolick herself is happy to remain single, Spinster isn't a treatise on why one should never marry: rather, Bolick urges the reader to figure out for herself — disregarding historical or cultural pressures — how she wants to live her life. Whether or not that includes a ring on her finger is up, entirely, to her.
6. Girl at War by Sara Nović (Random House)
Ana Jurić is 10 years old when civil wars breaks out in her native Yugoslavia, altering utterly the shape of her day-to-day-life — which is now frayed by sniper fire and punctured by deep hunger — and the course of her maturation. In 2001, Ana is a college student in New York, and although she was lucky to make it out of the warzone alive, she continues to struggle against her stunted childhood. It's hard to believe that Girl at War is Sara Nović's debut novel: she writes with the precision and hard-earned perspective of a pro; and although only a few months old, Girl at War is surely one of the most important books yet written about the Croatian War of Independence.
7. In the Country: Stories by Mia Alvar (Knopf)
In her debut story collection, Manila-born Mia Alvar pays homage to the country of her birth, sketching portraits of the place through its people. Whether Philippines-based or expatriated — like the privileged wives of powerful men stationed in Bahrain, or the ex-senator training for the Boston Marathon — all of Alvar's characters, either wracked by guilt or plagued by boredom or crippled by self-doubt, provide a picture of humanity that ultimately transverses geographical or cultural borders.
8. Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola (Grand Central Publishing)
From her first sneaky sips of beer at age 7, Sarah Hepola was a diehard, lovestruck drinker. In her memoir, which is refreshingly devoid of the self-pitying (or self-aggrandizing) evident in many addiction memoirs, Hepola tracks the course of her decades-long addiction which were punctured, in her adult years, by blackouts: chunks of time in which Hepola literally lost sight of what she had done during those blank hours. But what sets Hepola's memoir apart from a genre stocked with Sturm und Drang is the Salon editor's unflinching, unfailing humor, which she sicks even on her darkest demons.
9. Speak by Louisa Hall (Ecco)
You don't need to be a sci-fi fan to appreciate the brilliance of Louisa Hall's second novel, Speak. Although the underlying theme has something to do with artificial intelligence, Speak is much more than its genre: it's a literary accomplishment and a compulsively readable piece of fiction. This has much to do with the several interlocutors Hall introduces to the narrative, which include among them the computer hero Alan Turing; a 17th-century Puritan woman; an imprisoned Silicon Valley wunderkind; and a near-future girl who can only engage in meaningful conversations with a chatbot. Yes, Hall's book offers insight on computer-human relationships, but you should mostly read Speak because it's a straight-up awesome read.
10. Barbara the Slut and Other People by Lauren Holmes (Riverhead)
How can it be that Lauren Holmes makes the awkward and boring things we experience every day such a pleasure to read about? Is it that she's brilliant, or that we're all just narcissists who only want to read about our exact selves? It's probably some mix of the two, but I'm gonna go with the former: what Holmes offers in Barbara the Slut is some groundbreaking stuff. Here, the debut writer provides a series of snippets from the lives of very modern people doing very modern things — touching on both small-scale annoyances and larger cultural and personal problems — like spending an awkward weekend with a former close friend, or misunderstanding a foreign accent at work, or being the target of awful bullying, or struggling to come out to a parent. Holmes gets it. She gets you. So, to be fair, you should really just get her book.
11. Under the Udala Trees by Chinelo Okparanta (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Chinelo Okparanta's remarkable September 2015 debut will no doubt feature heavily on "best-of" lists, not only because this coming-of-age story is set during the Nigerian Civil War and features a female protagonist whose being gay, if made public, could result in the death punishment: Under the Udala Trees deserves to be lauded because the Okaparanta is a damn good writer. Like fellow debut novelist Sara Nović, Okparanta tackles her tough topics with a controlled grace that belies the writer's young age. Under the Udala Trees is courageous and important. Pick it up ASAP.
12. M Train by Patti Smith (Knopf)
Punk chicks and beatniks and New Yorkers and poets and bedhead-rockers and black-coffee drinkers, rejoice! In October, our patron saint The Great Patti Smith will be releasing M Train, her latest memoir since 2010's gloriously successful Just Kids, which brought to life the rough-and-tumble, '70s downtown New York of our nostalgic dreams. In M Train, the celebrated musician/artist/writer recounts the spaces and places that have inspired her throughout her life, from a memorable road trip through French Guyana to Frida Kahlo's Mexican villa to Jean Genet's grave in Morocco. But it's New York that has Smith's heart, and it's here that she returns, both lyrically and physically, to better sing its praises.
13. The Mare by Mary Gaitskill (Pantheon)
Ginger, an artist and recovering alcoholic, and her husband Paul, an academic, married in their 40s and never had children of their own. When Ginger comes across the opportunity to host an inner-city kid for the summer, she and Paul take it: enter Velveteen Vargas, the 11-year-old Dominican girl who becomes their charge, and an integral member of their family in the years following. This is the love story between a husband and a wife, between parents and a child not biologically or legally theirs, and between a girl and the horse who becomes her unlikely source of solace. But don't expect treacle from this Bad Behavior author: Mary Gaitskill made a name for herself for her rawness and grit, and although November's The Mare doesn't feature the BDSM evident in her (in)famous short story "Secretary," it's still rife with the honesty and originality we've come to expect from Gaitskill.