Oakland Public Library Staff’s Favorite Books of 2015

OPL staff look back on their favorite books of 2015.

It's that time of year when everyone publishes their best of the year lists. I look forward to seeing what the New York Times has to say on this matter, but I think my colleagues at Oakland Public Library always come up with the best reading suggestions! Here are some of our favorites from 2015. 

We'd love to hear from you, too--please share your favorites of 2015 in the comments. 

All American Boys
by Jason Reynolds and Brendan Kiely
Recommended for: Teens, Adults
Recommended by: Miriam Medow, Children's Librarian, Dimond Branch
In alternating chapters, two authors -- one Black and one White -- give voice to the very real struggles of two all-American boys -- one Black and one White. Racialized police brutality, the implications of white silence in the face of such violence, and the meaning of justice are brought to light in this powerful, important new young adult novel.

Between the World and Me
by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Recommended for: Adults
Recommended by: Nina Lindsay, Supervising Librarian for Children's Services, Main Library
Short, dense, and transformative; Coates' singular work, one of the NY Times best 10 books of the year and a National Book Award winner, is a very personal narrative exploring America's foundational history of racism. I imagine that readers will experience this book in radically different ways, but I'd wager that no one will finish it unchanged.

The Big Bitch
by John Patrick Lang
Recommended for: Adults
Recommended by: Steven Lavoie, Branch Manager, Temescal Branch Library
First-time Oakland novelist John Patrick Lang takes the tried-and-true noir formula, applies it to the economic circumstances that resulted after the mortgage meltdown of 2008, and invents a rookie East Bay private investigator, "Doc" Holiday whose luck, gall, desperation and fear helps him wing his first assignment with the aplomb of a 21st-century Jacques Clouseau.

Court of Fives
by Kate Elliott
Recommended for: Teens
Recommended by: Remy, Teen Librarian, Eastmont       
A Romeo and Juliet story set in the arena of Gladiators. Jessamy lives in a world where her very existence is taboo: her mother is a Commoner and her father a Patron, their love forbidden by strict hierarchy and social custom. She and her sisters will not be able to marry into wealth, and they are prohibited from working, so Jessamy's future is uncertain. Her only joy is running the Fives, a game of strength and strategy that provides entertainment for the public -- but even a whiff of recognition would be disastrous for her father's political advancement. When a handsome Patron youth notices her talent at Fives, will he reveal her identity and doom her family? Exploring struggles of class, race, and gender, this fast-paced fantasy adventure will thrill teen readers.

by Ottessa Moshfegh
Recommended for: Adults
Recommended by: Steven Lavoie, Branch Manager, Temescal Branch Library
Ottessa Moshfegh, who has based herself in Oakland while she's completing a Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, uses her exceptional talents as a writer to bring to life a truly damaged and unlikable character, pulling the reader slowly along the course of reality faced by a personality consumed by anxiety, self-loathing and dread. To tackle the starkness and distress this novel addresses is a monumental literary challenge, and Moshfegh has the unique gift to assemble it into an unforgettable reading experience.

Fates and Furies              
by Lauren Groff               
Recommended for: Adults
Recommended by: Alice McCain, Library Assistant, Piedmont Ave Branch            
The author gets to the meat and gristle of the two married characters and explores how they at once support--and somewhat destroy--one another. Fascinating.  

Furiously Happy
by Jenny Lawson
Recommended for: Adults         
Recommended by: Dayni, Librarian, Asian Library            
Furiously Happy is the funniest book I've read in a long, long time.  Find out what happens when a woman with depression, OCD and crippling anxiety decides to be furiously happy.  Hijinks include visiting Australia and attempting to hold a koala . . . while dressed in a koala costume, hanging out with Rory, a stuffed raccoon and so much more.

Gold Fame Citrus
by Claire Vaye Watkins
AND The Water Knife
by Paolo Bacigalupi
Recommended for: Teens, Adults           
Recommended by: Christine, Librarian, Main
I could not pick between my two favorite books published in 2015: Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins and The Water Knife by Paulo Bacigalupi.  Each drought-themed post-apocalyptic novel offers similar yet distinctly compelling visions of an ever-more arid Southwest.   In The Water Knife, climate-change refugees overwhelm Phoenix as corporate- controlled states battle over rights to disappearing rivers. Gold Fame Citrus follows a couple fleeing the insane violence of LA, only to be swallowed up by a cult in the shadow of the enormous sand dune replacing the Mojave Desert.  Both books use exquisite language and detail to show that in the absence of water, violence surfaces and floods communities large and small, springing from that great underground aquifer- fear. Lest we be lulled into forgetfulness as we batten down for “El Nino-zilla” this winter, these accomplished authors remind us that the future is dry.

I Can Give You Anything But Love
by Gary Indiana
Recommended for: Adults
Recommended by: Sean Dickerson, Library Assistant, Main Library/Elmhurst Branch
Intercut with scenes of its own editing in present day Havana, Gary Indiana’s account of his early years is spiked with portraits taken from the saturnalia of a fading Haight-Ashbury, Gay Marxist Liberation groups of 1970's Los Angeles, and literary friendships with the likes of Susan Sontag. The perennial bridesmaid (as he'd prefer it), Indiana's "first and last" memoir is a reminder why many consider him among America's greatest underground writers. His finale is refreshingly anti-nostalgia: “Like everything irreversible and embarrassing, I’d like to remember it differently.”

Listen, Slowly
by Thanhha Lai 
Recommended for: Children
Recommended by: Helen, Children's Librarian, Main Library
Twelve-year old Vietnamese-American Mai believes that her summer at the beach has been ruined when she has to accompany her grandmother back to their family village in an attempt to discover what happened to her grandfather during the war. This child of immigrants fish-out-of-water story deepens and transforms as Mai develops relationships with her family, adapts to village life and ultimately learns her grandfather's fate.  Mai's voice is perfect and the story is filled with realistic, three-dimensional characters.

A Manual for Cleaning Women: Selected Stories
by Lucia Berlin
Recommended for: Adults
Recommended by: Steven Lavoie, Branch Manager, Temescal Branch Library
These moving and captivating stories, which have languished inside several small-press editions attracting far too little attention while Lucia Berlin was producing them in her various Oakland and Berkeley residences, have finally found the wide audience they deserve. Although this collection leaves out a story or two that I particularly enjoy, its editor, Stephen Emerson, a loyal library patron, did an extraordinary job with the selection, the introduction and the hard work of extricating Berlin from her undue oblivion.

Modern Romance
by Aziz Ansari
Recommended for: Adults         
Recommended by: Jamie Turbak, Associate Director, Main Library
Actor and stand-up comedian, Aziz Ansari, is on a roll.  Not content to rest on his laurels following the end of the TV sit-com "Parks and Recreation", Aziz teamed up with NYU sociologist Eric Klinenberg and designed a massive research project in order to craft a book that combines humor and serious social science. "Modern Romance" analyzes courtship and romantic behavior over the past 100 years and makes a cross-cultural comparison about what love looks like and means now.  As soon as you finish this great book, check out Ansari's brilliant Netflix series "Master of None" to see if you can watch just one episode at a time!

The Racial Imaginary: Writers on Race in the Life of the Mind
by Claudia Rankine, Beth Loffreda, and Max King Cap, editors
Recommended for: Adults         
Recommended by: Nina Lindsay, Supervising Librarian for Children's Services, Main Library
In 2011, Claudia Rankine composed an open letter about race and the creative imagination on her website and invited others to respond.  The Racial Imaginary project developed in collaboration with Beth Loffreda and Max King Cap, involving visual art as well as writing.  They have assembled a selection of the project in this book.  "The essays gathered here unveil race's operations in the act of creativity," writes Loffreda in her introduction. Each one is personal, specific, and provocative, and I treasure being able to dip into the collection and any place, read one short essay, and walk away with a new perspective on writing, reading, and being a citizen of Oakland and the world.

Ray Davies: A Complicated Life
by Johnny Rogan
Recommended for: Teens, Adults
Recommended by: Steven Lavoie, Branch Manager, Temescal Branch Library
For London-based biographer Johnny Rogan, his pop music idols serve as the subjects for epic chronicles of both the person his book is about and the circumstances surrounding the life he records. (The Byrds: Timeless Flight Revisited, his second book on the watershed California band, is widely recognized as the finest music biography ever written.) For his most recent epic, he leaps into the life one of the most enigmatic survivors of the musical phenomenon known as the British Invasion. The result is a compelling, often poignant, portrayal of the origins and the aftermath of one of the 20th century's most significant periods.

Red: A Crayon's Story    
by Michael Hall
Recommended for: Children, Families
Recommended by: Mary Dubbs, Children's Librarian, Elmhurst Branch Library
A crayon with a red label can't seem to get anything right: not fire engines, not strawberries, not hearts... At this point, kids hearing this book read aloud are clamoring to point out what the crayons in the story don't yet see: that "red" crayon is obviously blue! Clever details, such as the grandparent crayons being shorter than the young crayons, encourage careful re-readings. Managing to avoid didacticism, the story nevertheless invites discussion about the labels placed on us and their consequences. This is one of my favorite picture books of the year to read to preschoolers up through fifth grade.

TWO librarians loved this book! Here’s what Kate Conn, Librarian at Main had to add:
Although his label may have said "red" it wasn't until one day a new friend asks him to draw a blue ocean, that Red crayon realizes he's Blue! Finally he can let his true color shine; no longer dictated by labels or other crayons' opinions he goes on to do incredible drawings of blueberries, bluebells, blue jeans, blue skies, etc. Not only is this terrifically fun to read aloud, it has a great classic message for kids: Be true to yourself!  

by Daniel Jose Older
Recommended for: Teens
Recommended by: Remy, Teen Librarian, Eastmont       
Set in a vibrant Brooklyn community, this story blends the mystical with the mundane. Sierra Santiago is an artist bringing beauty to abandoned buildings with her murals, but her grandfather's secrets hint at another side to her art -- one that will send her on an urgent mission to stop a supernatural killer stalking the neighborhood. With her friends guarding her back, Sierra sets out to discover the truth about her family and herself.

So You've Been Publicly Shamed
by Jon Ronson  
Recommended for: Adults         
Recommended by: Xochitl Gavidia, Librarian, Chavez
This extremely moving and entertaining book about public shaming is one of the best books I’ve read all year.  Ronson examines why some people are shamed by the public and some aren’t.  He also investigates the power of social media and the way’s the public can use it to ruin some people’s lives.  This book made me laugh, feel anger, feel empathy, and total amazement about the world we live in.

by Chris Kraus
Recommended for: Adults
Recommended by: Sean Dickerson, Library Assistant, Main Library/Elmhurst Branch
Of the spate of great reissues in 2015 (Chelsea Girls by Eileen Myles, Resentment by Gary Indiana) perhaps most welcome was the republication of Chris Kraus' Torpor, now with critical afterword by McKenzie Wark. Written during the "post-MTV, pre-AOL" 1990's (a time when "'collateral damage,' a military term coined to describe the accidental wasting of civilian populations, is just beginning to cross over into self-help therapeutic terminology"), Kraus' narrative of a search for relationships uncomplicated by politics and subsequent paralysis still feels pressingly timely.

The Turner House
by Angela Flournoy
Recommended for: Adults         
Recommended by: Christy Thomas, Librarian, Main Library
The story of a family, a house and a city. The Turner family consists of a widowed matriarch with 13 grown children and their families. Their bonds are tested by sibling differences, marital strife, illness, addiction and even a haint who haunts the eldest son. They’re in danger of losing their beloved home on Yarrow Street, now surrounded by abandoned lots and saddled with an underwater mortgage, and over the last 75 years, they’ve seen Detroit change drastically under the pressure of political discord and financial depression. A 2015 National Book Award finalist, this book is a great choice for readers who love family sagas, African American fiction, potent settings, and stories that are both funny and poignant.

The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip
by George Saunders, illustrated by Lane Smith
Recommended for: Children, Teens, Adults       
Recommended by: Jenera! Librarian, Piedmont Ave Branch
This is a parable about good and bad neighbors and goats. I liked it because it's super-short (82 pages, illustrated) and reminds you not to be a jerk.

Wolfie the Bunny
by Ame Dyckman; illustrated by Zachariah OHora
Recommended for: Children, Families
Recommended by: Miriam Medow, Children's Librarian, Dimond Branch
When Wolfie (a baby wolf) is found on the doorstep of the Bunny family's Brooklyn-styled home, Dot (a young bunny) doesn't like him one bit. Wearing a red hoodie and a fierce scowl, Dot tries to convince her parents that, "He's going to eat us all up!" -- but they love the adorable wolf and his goofy overbite, and raise him as their own. Giggle-inducing details, like Wolfie's huge pink bunny onesie, and a delightfully surprising climax belie more serious themes of trust and loyalty in this wholly original sibling story.


What a great list, OPL. It's

What a great list, OPL. It's one of the great reasons that I check out your website--to find these gems. Thanks so much for sharing

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