A Blog of Seattle Arts & Lectures

What SAL’s Reading: Best of 2015

Just before 2016 begins to reveal all of the new places literature will take us, we asked SAL staff, WITS Writers and board members to share the best books they read in 2015, to continue our What SAL’s Reading series. While preferences varied widely, the most oft-cited titles included one of SAL’s most memorable speakers this year: Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Happy New Year from all of us! We look forward to reading, writing and thinking with you in 2016.

Peter Mountford, WITS Writer-in-Residence:
“2015 saw so many great books land in the world, but I especially enjoyed Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts and Marlon James’ A Brief History of Seven Killings. Also, my old pal Jennine Capó Crucet’s extraordinary first novel, Make Your Home Among Strangers, was released over the summer.”

Alicia Craven, WITS Program Director:
“Unspeakable by Meghan Daum. Daum’s writing is so incisive, funny, and heartbreaking, all at the same time. She used to be a columnist for the LA Times, and her essays in this collection cover everything from how we construct ideas of family, to illness, to our love for music, to her relationship with her dog. But, the connective line explores the disparity between how we project ourselves to the world and what we’re all secretly thinking and feeling.

The Whispering Muse by Sjón. This novella-length book is set in 1949 and centers on an Icelandic fisherman’s journey to the Black Sea. One of the characters is the mythical hero Caeneus, who claims to have sailed with Argo on the Argonauts’ quest and regales the crew nightly with tales of his conquests. It’s a story within a story— disorienting, dreamy, and lovely.”

Corinne Manning, WITS Writer-in-Residence:
“The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson. This is probably one of the best books I’ve ever read! Written in Nelson’s characteristic style of lyric meeting logic and heart, The Argonauts explores the various desires for fluidity, within gender, radical family making, and radical communities. The book scratches around this question: How do we struggle, in the face of the various binaries placed on us, to find the freedom of birth and death within that?

Dryland by Sarah Jaffe. This novel takes place during the 90s in Portland and is a beautiful exploration of teenage longing and sexuality.

I’m Very Into You, correspondence between Kathy Acker and Mckenzie Wark. Kathy Acker and McKenzie Wark are two writers who met in the 90s, had a fling, and then carried on a beautiful and heated email correspondence. Their emails were recently collected into this book by Semiotexte. Another book about longing! This book also explores different ways to be and make relationships in the world.”

Vicky Edmonds, WITS Writer-in-Residence:
“The Soul of Rumi, translations by Coleman Barks

The Spice Box of Earth, Leonard Cohen (©1965, accidentally not returned to my high school library in my junior year. I wonder what the fines would be…).”

Jenn Pearsall, Secretary, SAL Board:
“Mink River by Brian Doyle. Where has this man been all my life?  His crazy, long descriptions and magical realism???  His symbolism made this a charming beyond charming, beautiful, lyrical read.  I can’t wait to move through all his works.

Like everyone, I have to include Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel.  I started reading this book on a rare day off, while I was eating lunch at Loulay downtown. I was only 10 pages in before I took out my phone and sent a text, encouraging all of my reading friends to drop what they were doing, go out, buy this book and immediately start reading.  WOW.  It is such a great story, with amazing characters.  I can’t believe how fast I started caring about these characters.

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. Having spent many years in Baltimore, this book really hit home.  But, what I truly loved about it are the conversations that were sparked as a result!”

Michael Overa, WITS Writer-in-Residence:
“Loitering by Charlie D’Ambrosio. I’m an inveterate fan of Charlie D’Ambrosio. This collection of essays is outstanding. A great read for any Seattleite.

All The Light We Can Not See by Anthony Doerr. It’s hard to think that someone out there may not have read this yet. It took me forever to read because the sentences were so beautiful I kept re-reading them.

Times Arrow by Martin Amos – As a fan of non-traditional narrative structures, I somehow discovered this one late. Amos writes the story in reverse chronological order (think watching a movie on rewind). The dramatic effect is rather intense.”

Christina Gould, Patron Services Manager:
“Being Mortal by Atul Gawande is an exploration of aging, death and the medical profession’s mishandling of both. It is compelling, personal, and honest, as well as instructional on how to have a good life all the way through the end. I have recommended this to friends with ailing parents and to those who desire quality over quantity of life.

Just Mercy A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson. The author, the founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, is a true hero in my mind, who has dedicated his life to defending those most desperate and in need. He demonstrates the extent to which unfairness and racial bias infect our criminal justice system and at the same time recounts compassion, mercy, and justice that offer hope.

 Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. As Toni Morrison has said, it should be “required reading.” This slim book of 152 pages was written as a letter to the author’s son. It is a beautiful, major work whose concerns are shamefully perennial while the way they are expressed is personal, lyrical and bluntly honest.”

The Whites by Richard Price written as Harry Brandt is another atmospheric New York City crime story by one of my favorite masters. Like The Wire (an all-time favorite series), it is hard to separate the good guys from the bad. The razor-sharp writing and fierce momentum of the storyline make it a page-turner.

We the Animals by Justin Torre is a beautifully written debut novel that was recommended by the Seattle Public Library for our Summer Book Bingo. Narrated by the youngest son of a Puerto Rican father and white mother, it is an affecting story of love, loss and the irreversible trauma that a single event can bring to a family. This novel packs a punch within its 144 pages; it was both a heartbreaking and heartwarming surprise that continues to linger in my mind.

A God of Ruins by Kate Atkinson is the story of Teddy, a RAF bomber pilot in WWII. We see Teddy as a handsome golden boy as he fades into a 90-year-old man. This novel seems to mourn the passing of the WWII generation and reminds us of life’s fleetingness. I find myself consistently dazzled by Atkinson’s writing scope, and this novel is no exception.”

Anastacia Tolbert, WITS Writer-in-Residence:
“White Girls by Hilton Als

In Love & Trouble: Stories of Black Women by Alice Walker

100 Crushes by Elisha Lim”

Wood Graham, SAL Board Member:
“The Road to Character by David Brooks

 Fates & Furies by Lauren Groff

 The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo. This funny, slightly odd book was ultimately an effective organizing advice that helped me reframe my relationship with objects and possessions—large, small, recent, ancient. My biggest takeaway: pick it up and, if it doesn’t spark joy, let it go.”

Erin Langner, WITS Program Associate & Sonder Editor:
“The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison. I love an essay that leaves me gasping for air by its final word. Almost every one in this collection did precisely that.

Loitering by Charles D’Ambrosio. I will never see the streetlights of Seattle the same after reading of their “crazed tarantellas,” as D’Ambrosio described them—an affect that these essays had on the way I see both the world and writing in the broadest sense.

 Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay. I wasn’t sure how I felt about this book as I was reading it, but since I finished, I keep noticing the way Gay’s insights continue to ripple through my perceptions almost everyday.”

Sierra Nelson, WITS Writer-in-Residence:
“In 2015 I found myself reading books by smart women reflecting on being an artist and the nature of time, intersected with having children. I appreciated their darkness, humor and astuteness, reckoning with (sometimes terrifying) unknowns, and varying perspectives. My top three were:
Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso
100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write by Sarah Ruhl
Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Plus, honorable mentions to The Folded Clock: A Diary by Heidi Julavits, The First Bad Man by Miranda July (is this the first appearance of breast pumps in fiction? Thank you, Ms. July, for shining a light), The Room Lit by Roses by Carole Maso — and I haven’t yet read Deborah Landau’s new book of poems, The Uses of the Body, but after hearing her recently read at the Copper Canyon Press party at Hugo House, I’m looking forward to adding her to this list.”

Tim Griffith, Vice President, SAL Board:
“Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.  I read it twice – first to appreciate the writing craft (as he said at McCaw Hall, “I wrote the hell out of that book”) and again to absorb the fact that this book might expose some of the most important questions of our generation.

Wild by Cheryl Strayed.  I admit that I got caught up in the phenomenon of this story.  The story itself, the nerve that it struck across America and Cheryl’s personality as a speaker.  The experience was far more than just reading the book.

Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond.  This was a re-read, but I felt compelled to remind myself how civilizations throughout history have interacted, influenced and impacted one another.  Climate-influenced migrations, territory expansion and advancements in technology have impacted (and destroyed) populations throughout human history.  This seemed like a good time for a reminder.”

Rachel Kessler, WITS Writer-in-Residence:
“My top 3 books I read in 2015 were:

There but for the by Ali Smith
100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write by Sarah Ruhl
Weak Messages Create Bad Situations by David Shrigley

Or, maybe those are the last three books I read. I also loved these books:
All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews
Outline by Rachel Cusk
Woman: An Intimate Geography by Natalie Angier”

Rebecca Hoogs, Associate Director:
“Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. I can’t stop thinking about this book. About the world it created that could be ours. About what I would do, would have done. And about what’s next for those characters. There’s got to be a sequel, right? Please, Emily?

100 Essays I Don’t Have Time to Write by Sarah Ruhl. These short ruminations on art, motherhood, and writing that I didn’t have time to read were just the thing that I needed to read this year.

Here by Richard McGuire. This graphic novel is spare, hauntingly beautiful, haunted. Though few in words, it said so much. I’m always already too aware of the passage of time, and this hit me in that bittersweet spot.”


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