Thursday, December 24, 2015

Annual Favorite Books

Top Ten Books I Read In 2015

These are the top books I have read since January 1, 2015.  The listing  includes fiction, non-fiction and poetry and is actually more than ten as I have chosen to group more than one book by three of the authors.  It was a very rich year for reading although the quantity of books I read declined in total from my recent experience.  There is no particular order to the list and  I highly recommend all of the following:

The Siege of Krishnapur   by J. G. Farrell.  
Set in India, 1857, during the Great Mutiny, this novel by J. G. Farrell is both a mighty work of historical fiction and a humane study of man. Farrell has the ability to create a world filled with flawed but often sympathetic characters and that sets this novel apart from typical historical fare.

The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science  by Richard Holmes.  
Described as "a relay race of scientific stories", it is that and more, combining the literary milieu of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries with the increasingly wonderful scientific discoveries and enterprises from the voyages of Captain James Cook through the crossing of the English Channel by balloon through excursions into the study of gases and electricity, ending with the first voyage of Charles Darwin.

John Donne's Poetry by John Donne, Donald R. Dickson (Editor).  Donne is often considered a difficult poet. Other metaphysical poets, such as Andrew Marvell, have enjoyed a steadier, if less glamorous, regard, since much of their poetry is more accessible. Donne, who almost never seems completely accessible even at his most seemingly transparent, requires great dedication on the part of the reader--and, perhaps, gives more lasting rewards.

Death in Venice and The Confessions of Felix Krull by Thomas Mann.  These two novels, one from early in Mann's career and the other his final completed novel are perfect bookends to the prize-winning career of one of my favorite authors.  Last year his seminal work The Magic Mountain was on my annual list.

The Buddha in the Attic  by Julie Otsuka.  
Using simple prose and the first person plural the author created a unique perspective on a very real historical episode in Japanese-American history. 

Paradise Lost  by John Milton.  
In Paradise Lost, Milton produced a poem of epic scale, conjuring up a vast, awe-inspiring cosmos and ranging across huge tracts of space and time. And yet, in putting a charismatic Satan and naked Adam and Eve at the center of this story, he also created an intensely human tragedy on the Fall of Man.

Blood Meridian and The Road by Cormac McCarthy.   
These are two of the best novels by one of the greatest American novelists.  Blood Meridian rivals the works of Melville and Faulkner in depth of meaning and style;  while The Road is a searing, post apocalyptic novel.

Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe.  
This was Wolfe's first novel, a unique cornucopia of beautiful prose about a young man's burning desire to leave his small town and tumultuous family in search of a better life.

The Cossacks  and The Death of Ivan Ilych  by Leo Tolstoy.
While Tolstoy is famous for his massive novels, these two short novels are pinnacles of the writer's art.   In The Cossacks one finds a story that mirrors War and Peace in miniature.  The Death of Ivan Ilych explores the life in death and the epitome of its existential meaning.

The Boys in the Boat: Nine Americans and Their Epic Quest for Gold at the 1936 Berlin Olympics  by Daniel James Brown.  
This riveting narrative tells the story of the University of Washington’s 1936 eight-oar crew and their epic quest for an Olympic gold medal, a team that transformed the sport and grabbed the attention of millions of Americans. The sons of loggers, shipyard workers, and farmers, the boys defeated elite rivals first from eastern and British universities and finally the German crew rowing for Adolf Hitler in the Olympic games in Berlin, 1936.

Some very good books I read this year that came close but did not make the top ten included:  Sirius by Olaf Stapledon,  On Heroes and Hero-worship by Thomas Carlyle, The Search Warrant by Patrick Modiano, and Hadji Murat by Tolstoy.


cleopatra said...

You have a very eclectic and interesting list! I read Paradise Lost last year and it was my favourite book of the year and possible my favourite of all time. Milton's portrayal of Satan was brilliant. I'd like to read Mann's Death in Venice at some point; I read his The Magic Mountain, and while it wasn't my favourite, it made me curious to read more of his works.

In any case, I hope that you have a very Merry Christmas, and wishing you a great reading year for 2016!

James said...


Thanks for sharing your reading favorite from last year. If I were to put one on the top of this list it would be Paradise Lost! Last year The Magic Mountain was on my top ten list. Thomas Mann is one of my favorite authors and I hope you can enjoy more of his works.

A Merry Christmas and Happy New Reading Year to you as well!

Brian Joseph said...

Great list James.

I agree with the Blood Meridian. It belongs in any list of great American novels.

Though I would like to read several books on your list, I really hope to get to The Age of Wonder this year.

James said...


I appreciate your endorsement of Blood Meridian. While it is hard to rank these books I would include Blood Meridian in the top five along with Paradise Lost and Death in Venice.
Your interest in The Age of Wonder is well-founded as Richard Holmes has a great style.
I am already reading a similarly-entitled book, The Age of Insight, by Eric Kandel that will likely make next year's list of best reads along with a wonderful novel, The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan ( ).

Stephen said...

In "The Age of Wonder", does the author connect the spirit of the age WITH literary romanticism, or is Romantic Generation used as a kind of timestamp, like "Edwardian"?

James said...


That's a great question. Richard Holmes definitely links the spirit of the age with literary movements, particularly the rise of romanticism. Three of the eight epigraphs for the whole book are from Keats, Byron, and Wordsworth. This signals one of his themes: the influence of science on literature and vice versa. The book covers the linkage between changes in art, philosophy, literature, and science during the last decades of the eighteenth century and the beginning of the nineteenth century. Holmes argues that Romanticism was not hostile to science but that they both are united by the concept of "wonder" and developed in consort.

Charles said...

This is such a fascinating list. There is something special about such end-of-year inventories, and you've given me a few authors/titles that I need to add to my "must read" list for next year, so thank you!
Charles @

James said...


Thanks for your comment. I'm glad you found some titles that piqued your interest. I'll visit your literary blog eager to find suggestions for my own future reading.