Top Books of 2015

The New York Times has three daily book critics — Michiko Kakutani, Janet Maslin and Dwight Garner — who shared their favorite books of the year. Learn more about their choices here: http://nyti.ms/1m850Sp
  1. “The Story of the Lost Child” (Elena Ferrante)
    This concluding volume to the author’s Neapolitan quartet spans 6 decades in the lives of its 2 heroines: Elena, the conscientious good girl, and her best friend, the tempestuous Lila. Their intertwining stories give an indelible portrait of Naples, and an intimate understanding of the women’s daily lives and their efforts to juggle the competing claims of men, children, housework and their own artistic aspirations.
  2. “The Whites” (Richard Price writing as Harry Brandt)
    This novel’s title is a reference to the Ahab-like obsessions that drive a group of New York cops and former cops, who remain haunted by cases they handled in which shameless criminals — their white whales — “walked away untouched by justice.” Price surrounds his good-hearted, weary-souled hero with an appealing ensemble, and uses his gifts as a writer to turn what is essentially a police procedural into an affecting study in character and fate.
  3. “M Train” (Patti Smith)
    This achingly beautiful memoir is a ballad about love and loss, an elegy for the author’s husband, brother, and her friend Robert Mapplethorpe. It’s an elliptical, almost stream-of-consciousness prose poem that traces Smith’s many quixotic travels and maps the landscape of her mind. There are ruminations on books and music, on people, places and memories — a requiem for all that she has “lost and cannot find” but can remember in words.
  4. “Leaving Orbit: Notes From the Last Days of American Spaceflight” (Margaret Lazarus Dean)
    In this wonderfully evocative book, the author sets out to chronicle “the beauty and the strangeness in the last days of American spaceflight,” and while she overstates the end-times nature of NASA’s future, she writes with the passion of a lifelong lover of space exploration. She conveys, with great energy and verve, the glory and danger of its missions — from Mercury, Gemini and Apollo, on through the final flights of the space shuttle.
  5. “City on Fire” (Garth Risk Hallberg)
    This 900-plus-page novel is a virtual-reality machine that transports us back to the gritty, graffitied New York City of the 1970s, when the Bronx was burning, Son of Sam was on the loose and starving artists could still afford a Manhattan apartment. Although the multi-stranded plot pivots around the shooting of a suburban teenager in Central Park, the novel is kaleidoscopic, nimbly zooming in and out of myriad characters’ lives while traversing huge swaths of the city with audacity and panache.
  6. “The Meursault Investigation” (Kamel Daoud)
    This inventive debut novel is an artful reimagining of Albert Camus’s “The Stranger” — told from the perspective of the brother of the nameless Arab murdered by Meursault in that existential classic. It not only makes us reassess Camus’s novel, but also nudges us into a contemplation of Algeria’s history and current religious politics, colonialism and postcolonialism, and the ways language and perspective can radically alter a seemingly simple story and the shadows it casts.
  7. “The Harder They Come” (T. Coraghessan Boyle )
    Arguably the most resonant novel in Boyle's long career, this story is at once a gripping tale of a father’s flailing efforts to come to terms with a violent child wanted by the law, and a dynamic meditation on the American frontier ethos and propensity for violence. The novel recapitulates many themes that have preoccupied Boyle in the past — the hazards of ideological certainty and obsession; and the imperatives and responsibilities of freedom — even as it showcases his virtuosic talents.
  8. “Between the World and Me” (Ta-Nehisi Coates)
    Addressed to the author’s 14-year-old son, this powerful and timely book is a searing meditation on what it means to be black in America today. Coates writes eloquently about the perils of living in a country where unarmed black men and boys are dying at the hands of police officers — killings that signify larger historical forces at work in a nation where African-Americans were enslaved, their families and bodies broken, and where terrible injustices persist.
  9. “The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches From an Ancient Landscape” (James Rebanks)
    This captivating book about the author’s small family sheep farm in the Lake District of England is also about continuity and roots and a sense of belonging in an age that’s increasingly about mobility and self-invention. It’s a keenly observed account of the vocation handed down to Rebanks from his father and grandfather and their ancestors before them, and the seasonal rhythms and rituals that define life on a farm.
  10. “Black Flags: The Rise of ISIS” (Joby Warrick)
    This richly detailed book provides a compelling narrative account of the evolution of the Islamic State (in its various incarnations); the role that American missteps played in fueling its rise; and a sharply drawn portrait of the group’s godfather, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — a small-time thug who found religion and embraced jihad.
  11. “The Sellout” (Paul Beatty)
    This jubilant satirical novel (it’s about an artisanal watermelon and weed dealer in Los Angeles) is as incisive about race and other issues as the best monologues and interviews of Chris Rock, Richard Pryor and Dave Chappelle. Yet the author also has a delicate literary and historical sensibility.
  12. “A Manual for Cleaning Women” (Lucia Berlin)
    This overdue collection of stories by Lucia Berlin (1936-2004) displays a voice that’s messily alluring and casually droll. She takes us into Raymond Carver territory: The trajectories are downward, and white-collar existences have gone blue. The sound her prose makes, however, is all her own.
  13. “Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ’n’ Roll” (Peter Guralnick)
    Guralnick is a sensitive biographer who has landed upon a perfect topic in Phillips, the brilliant Memphis producer who, in the 1950s, recorded the earliest work of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis and Howlin’ Wolf. This is vital American history, smartly and warmly told.
  14. “James Merrill: Life and Art” (Langdon Hammer)
    This nearly flawless literary biography tells the story of James Merrill, the son of a co-founder of Merrill Lynch, who became one of the 20th century’s most important poets. He also led a big, strange life. (Those Ouija boards!) The historian and the critic in Langdon Hammer are in elegant synchronicity.
  15. “Negroland: A Memoir” (Margo Jefferson)
    A sinewy and graceful memoir, from a former book critic for The New York Times, about her childhood in an upper-middle-class black family in Chicago. Her book examines privilege, racial and otherwise, from a hundred angles.
  16. “H Is For Hawk” (Helen Macdonald)
    Macdonald’s beautiful and nearly feral book, about her attempts to train a goshawk, reminds us that excellent nature writing lays bare the intimacies of the human world as well as of the wild one. The author is a poet as well as a naturalist. This memoir draws blood, in ways that seem curative.
  17. “Hold Still: A Memoir With Photographs (Sally Mann)
    Sally Mann, the photographer, has written a weird, intense and uncommonly beautiful memoir. The author has a gift for fine and offbeat declaration. She’s also led a big Southern-bohemian life, rich with incident. Or maybe it only seems rich with incident because of an old maxim that still holds: Stories happen only to people who can tell them.
  18. “One of Us: The Story of Anders Breivik and the Massacre in Norway” (Asne Seierstad)
    This is a nonfiction horror story. It moves slowly, inexorably and with tremendous authority. It’s a sober book that smells like fresh construction, a house built from plain, hard facts. You’re forced to bring your own emotion, and it pools beneath Seierstad’s steady sentences.
  19. “The Visiting Privilege: New and Collected Stories” (Joy Williams)
    A 50-course, full-tilt tasting menu of misanthropy and guile. This career-spanning collection of Ms. Williams’s stories solidifies her position as a thorny American writer of the first rank. Dire circumstances blend with offbeat wit in Ms. Williams’s work. The mental heat they give off places them at the far end of the Scoville scale, yet they are plump with soul and real feeling.
  20. “Mislaid” (Nell Zink)
    Zink’s second novel is a tangled satire about a well-born Southern woman who decides to pass as African-American, and when it came out in May, NYT critic Dwight Garner gave it a mixed review. But he finds that “Mislaid” has stuck with him. Zink has an interesting mind, and, at its best, “Mislaid” reads like a Donna Tartt novel if Tartt had taken a night course in sweet brevity.
  21. “The Cartel” (Don Winslow)
    This second half of this novelist’s magnum opus completes a drug war version of “The Godfather,” with all the sweep, intimacy and searing power that implies. Together with “The Power of the Dog” (2005), it’s a brutal, terrifyingly reportorial epic that entwines American law enforcement with Mexican organized crime. “The Cartel” twofer spans 40 years and pulls no punches about its drug lords’ savagery. This great read requires great fortitude.
  22. “World Gone By” (Dennis Lehane)
    This haunting book closes out the trilogy that began with “The Given Day,” an ambitious post-World War I novel with shades of “Ragtime,” then moved into bootlegging with its second installment, “Live by Night.” The common thread is the Coughlin family, and this book finds the adroit mob fixer Joe Coughlin at the end of his rope. Here is Joe, delicately poised between this world and the next, in a suspenseful, beautifully constructed book.
  23. “Dylan Goes Electric!” (Elijah Wald)
    Wald offers an account of Dylanageddon — the night in 1965 when Bob Dylan savaged the acoustic sanctuary of the Newport Folk Festival by making loud, electrified noise. With supremely insightful new eyes, he analyzes the different values embodied by Dylan, the mercurial genius, and by Pete Seeger, the stern populist; the stubbornness of both; and the irrevocable damage Dylan’s 35-minute set did to the reputation and body of work Seeger had painstakingly created over a lifetime.
  24. “The Girl on the Train” (Paula Hawkins)
    This thriller arrived on Jan. 5. And like “Gone Girl,” which it resembles in sneakiness, it just won’t go away. We’re experiencing a brain drain among mystery writers with devious plotting skills, so when a new one comes along, we really pounce. Hawkins makes fine use of an unreliable narrator — a hard-drinking woman who delivers observations from a moving train — and knows how to rattle readers. Though it has a few twists too many, her best seller shows no signs of running out of steam.
  25. “Look Who’s Back” (Timur Vermes)
    The moment “Mein Kampf” goes back into print in Germany might not seem to be the best time to publish a comic novel with Hitler as the protagonist. But this book is unapologetically hilarious. It tells of a time-traveling Hitler who somehow wakes up in Berlin in 2011 and thinks Germany won World War II. There’s a highly polished sitcom sensibility at work here, but beneath the satire lies a sharp provocation about the creeping return of Hitler’s ideas. Look who’s back, indeed.
  26. “Frog” (Mo Yan)
    This Nobel laureate writes a broad, humanizing tale exploring the effects of China’s one-child policy, just as that policy fades into obsolescence. A rich and troubling book, “Frog” describes clashes between prospective parents and government abortionists who truly believe they are doing what is best, not just following orders. Mo Yan’s flights into the dreamlike and surreal turn what might have been a tragedy into an improbably buoyant fable.
  27. “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed” (Jon Ronson)
    Ronson has a gift for ratcheting up small, trivial-sounding ideas until they really matter. Here, he takes on one of the most egregious perils of life in the age of social media — the whopping magnification of some gaffe or misstep or lie — to the point that it achieves life-wrecking power. He studies incident after incident of public shaming and asks how each starts, how it escalates and how its victims wind up handling it. There’s a lot to learn from his funny, insightful look at this topic.
  28. “A Little Life” (Hanya Yanagihara)
    Love it or not, this was one of the year’s big books, a dense and hefty drama following a close-knit group of male friends through triumph and adversity. Mostly adversity: The book’s universe revolves around Jude, a mysterious wounded bird who has been hurt so deeply that it takes Yanagihara 720 pages to explain him. Overwrought but indelible.
  29. “The Train to Crystal City” (Jan Jarboe Russell)
    The mind-boggling story of America’s only family internment camp during World War II. Ms. Russell mined the memories of Japanese and German children whose families were spirited off to a camp in snake-and-scorpion-rich South Texas to wait out the war. This isn’t an easy story for the author to organize, but her reporting is excellent and her subject relatively unexplored.
  30. “The Wright Brothers” (David McCullough)
    Concise, exciting and fact-packed, this look at these pioneers of flight is the veteran historian’s best book in quite a while. McCullough explains the Wrights with dignified panache and with detail so granular that you may wonder how it was all collected. He explains his methods precisely. The Wrights loved recording that kind of information, so why shouldn’t he?