Best Books of 2015


I waited until the very last day of the year to put this list together. Mostly because I wanted to read until the very last day, but also because I wasn’t sure I would be able to choose a limited number of favorites from all of the many, many books that moved me in 2015.

I read an article earlier this year about people who were unable to read while grieving, and just the idea of this was nearly another loss. Words, language, stories, ideas were saviors to me in this most difficult year. I don’t let myself consider how much more difficult it would have been without them.

I wanted to acknowledge a few of the books that had the most profound impact on me this year, beginning with the two that resonated the most. (The other 13 are listed in alphabetical order within genre.) This list only includes books published in 2015, because I could not otherwise narrow down to any reasonable number all of my favorites of the past twelve months. Thank you to everyone who recommended these books to me this year. I have cherished them all.



The Light Of The World—Elizabeth Alexander

“The story seems to begin with catastrophe but in fact began earlier and is not a tragedy but rather a love story. Perhaps tragedies are only tragedies in the presence of love, which confers meaning to loss. Loss is not felt in the absence of love.”

From its above opening to the very last line, I was spellbound by this memoir from poet Elizabeth Alexander (also chosen by Michelle Obama as her favorite book this year). Alexander’s husband, artist Ficre Ghebreyesus, is dead from the beginning, but is so alive in these pages, its as though we can hear his heart beating even though it was the stopping of that heart that inspired this book. After a year of reading extensively about loss, this memoir is the one I want to tuck under my arm and bring with me everywhere.

“A brave and beautiful book about love and loss—the deep pain that comes with such a loss, and the redemptive realization that such pain is a small price to pay for such a love.” –Jeannette Walls



A Little Life—Hanya Yanagihara

Oh, this heartbreaking book. As soon as I finished reading it (and wiping my tear-stained face), I wanted to develop amnesia so I could immediately begin re-reading it, and experience it again for the first time. I relished every one of its 720 pages, and mourned them when they were over. An epic story of friendship and despair, of the tragedies and miracles of humanity, I add this magnificent book to the list of books that will stay with me forever.

“Yanagihara’s novel can also drive you mad, consume you, and take over your life. Like the axiom of equality, A Little Life feels elemental, irreducible—and, dark and disturbing though it is, there is beauty in it.” –The New Yorker



Between The World And Me—Ta Nehisi Coates

A letter to Coates’s teenage son, this examination of race, history and humanity is as powerful as it is illuminating.

“The language of Between the World and Me, like Coates’s journey, is visceral, eloquent, and beautifully redemptive. And its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory. This is required reading.” –Toni Morrison

The Folded Clock: A Diary—Heidi Julavits

“As a writer, I have mistaken how to use words. I write too much. I write like some people talk to fill silence. When I write, I am trying through the movement of my fingers to reach my head. I’m trying to build a word ladder up to my brain.”

Offering insight into a writer’s brain, Julavits’s diary becomes a craft book for anyone who ponders how to translate thoughts to words, and experiences to stories.

H Is For Hawk—Helen Macdonald

“Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.”

Written after the sudden death of her father (and read by me just a month after the sudden death of my father), Macdonald copes with the loss by raising and training a goshawk. I knew nothing of falconry, and very little of this type of grief, before reading this raw, beautiful portrayal of both, and wished to stand alongside Macdonald, calling her goshawk home.

“One part memoir, one part gorgeous evocation of the natural world, and one part literary meditation.” –The Economist

Ongoingness: The End of a Diary—Sarah Manguso

“And then I think I don’t need to write anything down ever again. Nothing’s gone, not really. Everything that’s ever happened has left its little wound.


The best thing about time passing is the privilege of running out of it, of watching the wave of mortality break over me and everyone I know. No more time, no more potential. The privilege of ruling things out. Finishing. Knowing I’m finished. And knowing time will go on without me.

 Look at me, dancing my little dance for a few moments against the background of eternity.”

After twenty-five years of diary-keeping, Manguso recounts an almost compulsive desire to capture time within the 800,000 words she has recorded, which turns upside down with the conception of her child. I highlighted lines on nearly every page of this slim book of fragmented narrative, which left its mark on me long after the short time it took to read it.

After This—Claire Bidwell Smith

An exploration of the afterlife, Bidwell Smith meets with rabbis, shamans, mediums and psychics in order to better answer the question: when life is over, where do we go. She uses gorgeous prose to share her own experiences with loss, and to open our eyes to the many possibilities of what might await us when we die.

“With wisdom and grace, Claire Bidwell Smith navigates the mysteries of grief to show us that there is great meaning and even magic to be found in the unknown.” –Maria Shriver

M Train—Patti Smith

“We want things we cannot have. We seek to reclaim a certain moment, sound, sensation. I want to hear my mother’s voice. I want to see my children as children. Hands small, feet swift. Everything changes. Boy grown, father dead, daughter taller than me, weeping from a bad dream. Please stay forever, I say to the things I know. Don’t go. Don’t grow.”

This was my introduction to Patti Smith, this meditation on the world through her artist’s eye, and now I want to read every word she has written, see every photograph she has shot, hear every word she has sung.


Ordinary Light—Tracy K. Smith

Another memoir written by poet, this lyrical memoir leads us through Smith’s childhood in California in the 70s and 80s, with her mother’s life and death weaved eloquently throughout every experience.

“A lyrical, evocative, and poignant memoir: a poem in stunning prose, a book in which Smith holds the child she was in her adult hands, examining the things that bridge the two—memory, parents, siblings, time, and, of course, her extraordinary eye. The result is something quite beautiful.” -Abraham Verghese



In The Country—Mia Alvar

I first heard Alvar read from this beautiful short story collection a few months before its debut, and I not-so-patiently waited for it to finally arrive in my mailbox, devouring it in two days. Each story was so real, so vivid, that I had to remind myself that this was a collection of fiction.

“Alvar’s diamond prose sparkles brightly and cuts deeply. Each marvelous story shows us a facet of the Philippines at a distance—through the eyes of expats in Bahrain and Saudi, immigrants abroad and returning, and casual visitors—but what they illuminate most clearly is the distance between home and heart, and how our ties to the past can be simultaneously tenuous and tenacious.” -Celeste Ng

The Manual For Cleaning Women—Lucia Berlin

A posthumous collection of the best of Lucia Berlin’s stories, a writer I was not familiar with before this book and now can’t forget, it’s her voice that is remarkably unique, and drives these stories.

“[The stories] are set in places Berlin knows best: Chile, Mexico, the Southwest and California, and they have the casual, straightforward, immediately intimate style that distinguishes her work…[They] are told in an easy conversational voice and they go from start to finish with a swift and often lyrical economy…Berlin’s stories capture and communicate these moments of grave and cast a lovely, lazy light that lasts. She is one of our finest writers and it is a pleasure to see her represented at the height of her powers.” –San Francisco Chronicle

The Clasp—Sloane Crosley

I savored the writing so much in this book that I read the first fifty pages slowly, most sentences more than once, captivated by Crosley’s wry and deliberate language. Then I got swept up in the characters and the plot and forgot about everything else entirely until the end of the novel, where I reminded myself to slow down, and to chew on Crosley’s words again, attempting to make them last as long as they possibly could.

“I took so much pleasure in every sentence of The Clasp, fell so completely under the spell of its narrative tone—equal parts bite and tenderness, a dash of rue—and became so caught up in the charmingly dented protagonists and their off-kilter caper that the book’s emotional power, building steadily and quietly, caught me off guard, and left me with a lump in my throat.” -Michael Chabon

The Turner House—Angela Flournoy

My last read book of 2015, Flournoy’s debut novel stands out mostly because of its both familiar and unique characters, and their complex and complicated relationships with each other. Detroit becomes a fascinating and tragic additional character in this story, and the family’s relationship with the city and with their home is central to their motivations and actions.

“This book is so beautifully written, so perfectly observed and heard—it’s about aging and parenthood and above all that misunderstood lifelong union, siblinghood—but it’s also pure pleasure to read: funny, heartbreaking, with the sort of characters you’ll miss like family when you finish.” –Elizabeth McCracken

Fates And Furies—Lauren Groff

What can I write that hasn’t already been written about Fates and Furies? Everyone from my mom to President Obama loved this book. Masterful, unique, and so wonderfully written, it lives up to every rave review and award.

“Fates and Furies is a dazzling novel, its people and its prose wondrously alive from page one. At once intimate and sweeping, this is the story of a marriage as parallel myths—flaring with passion and betrayal, with redemption and retribution, with the sort of heartbreaking, head-slapping secrets that make you want to see out someone else who’s read it.” -Jess Walter

The Book Of Aron—Jim Shepard

“My mother and father named me Aron, but my father said they should have named me What Have You Done, and my uncle told everyone they should have called me What Were You Thinking. I broke medicine bottles by crashing them together and let the neighbors’ animals loose from pens. My mother said my father shouldn’t beat such a small boy, but my father said that one misfortune was never enough for me, and my uncle told her that my kind of craziness was like stealing from the rest of the family.”

Shepard’s novel, about a young boy in the Warsaw ghetto in the early 1940s, hooked me from the first sentence, and held onto me long after I finished reading this masterpiece. This book moved to the top of all Holocaust reading for me, and being able to hear Shepard, a master writer and reader, read selections from it on multiple occasions in 2015 seared it into my heart and memory forever.

On Moments of Happiness and Hope

I drove home from Manhattan today, after a whirlwind day of visiting friends and familiar haunts in the city I once called home but in which I never truly felt at home. I sped west in my stepfather’s old Highlander along Route 78 in the bright sunshine, singing along to Ellie Goulding and Maroon 5 (as their songs are apparently the only ones currently in rotation on the radio). As I put more distance between myself and the city, the trees became denser and I breathed more deeply. Right around exit 41, everything in me paused, and I turned down the music. It was a moment when I needed to identify what I was feeling, because the sensation was so odd that it interrupted all other thoughts.

I felt happy.

And happiness was the singular emotion that existed in that moment.

Throughout most of this trip to New Jersey, I have been overwhelmed: by grief, by loss, by anger, by sadness, by dread, by unease, by shame. There were so many firsts without my sister and my dad in the course of a week that completely depleted—and often defeated—me. 

The first Easter

The first birthday (Kelly’s)

The first National Siblings Day (also my first knowledge that this day existed)

The other first birthday (my dad’s)

The dread before each occasion was almost as painful as the arrival of the actual date. My grandmother’s birthday, nestled in the middle of this crazy week, somehow felt like a relief, if only because it was not so terribly awful anymore after thirteen years.

I planned last week to drive my mom to the city yesterday, and to spend time with friends and stay overnight there. When yesterday arrived, I felt completely unprepared for anything past get out of bed, brush teeth. All of the steps beyond that were foreign, and I worried were beyond my capabilities.

How do you go back out into the world when it feels like your skin is on inside out?

I didn’t really figure that out, but I did get myself dressed and where I had committed to being. And it was hard, but nice. I was able to see places I once loved, but was also grateful to have left behind. I was able to see friends I feel safe with, and talk about my dad and Kelly without breaking down or shutting down. I was able to feel like an actual person again for the day. I never could have anticipated that simply interacting with the world would feel like an accomplishment, but such is life in this new “normal”.

I also never anticipated that feeling happy, with the absence of guilt or regret or any other accompaniment would be so alien a sensation.

There have been some wonderful moments on the inside of the sorrow of the past five months. Watching rays of sun bisect a room on a farm in Virginia; glimpsing the magical light bouncing off the water in Positano; sipping tea with koalas in Australia; the simple grace shared by friends every day; hearing and reading words of loss and comfort and love and grief from gifted writers; writing something true. And yet, also present in those special moments: guilt, and fear.

What if I’m not sad enough?

What if I deserve the sadness?

What if someone else dies? 

What if this is how it will always be?

Just last week, I drove that stretch of highway in sobs, because it is the same route that my dad always drove to bring me home from the airport, and how could I be driving on that road without him? The loss of him on that drive was as acute as it was the night he died.

There was nothing extraordinarily remarkable about the drive today. Except that within it existed a moment of such ease, such peace and such happiness that it became remarkable.

Because it allowed for hope; the hope that more of these moments might someday occur, when I least expect them and when I need them most.

*Thank you to Mom, Julie and Aidan (and the Rowlets!) for leading me to this moment today. Thank you to every person who has reached out to me at any time in the last five months. I will never forget the gestures of love and kindness that have been extended to me. 

Stillness and Sunset in Virginia

Stillness and Sunset in Virginia

The Year Of Us

While many people do their reflecting and goal-setting at the end of each calendar year, I typically wait until my birthday at the end of January to look back at the year that has passed and to make my plans for the year that is beginning for me.

The year that followed my turning thirty-six broke the mold of all years that came before. It broke me.

And now that my birthday is, once again, here, I find that I don’t want to do things as I have previously done them.

I don’t want to look back and reflect on the year I became an only child. I don’t want to examine all of the ways this year has changed me. I don’t want to make silly lists of all of the things I plan to do on this next trip around the sun (Get back in shape! Visit new countries! Find life’s purpose!!)

My windows of time now are shorter, more fragile. Long term reflecting and planning have both been abandoned out of necessity rather than any rational choice.

Instead of ruminating about all that has occurred since my last birthday, I can only reminisce about my most recent experience. Instead of formulating plans for the upcoming year, I can only arrange for today.


When I booked my trip to Guatemala, life looked a lot different. It was a new country to visit, and an opportunity to connect with friends, but it really didn’t extend past that for me. Once it came time to leave, however, the circumstances of my world had so drastically changed that I was now assigning a new weight to everything, counting on each trip to save me. I worried that Guatemala, or I, might crumble under this pressure.

I arrived in Quetzaltenango (Xela to locals) with three suitcases full of clothing and random belongings to distribute to the children and women at Education and Hope, an organization founded by my friend Julie Coyne that brings access to education to impoverished children in nearby areas of the Western Highlands. Specifically, they provide scholarships, bus tickets, school supplies, clothing, day care, food, and love to the Educación y Esperanza family.

What they actually do can only be encompassed in one word: miraculous.

I was intimidated by the closeness I witnessed, each person who walked through the doors of the Proyecto offering a hug and kiss to Julie, her husband Gordon, me. I was intimidated by my elementary grasp of Spanish, and what to say to people who spoke no English. I was intimidated by the enormity of what happens there. As the week went on, I tried to memorize all of the faces and names. I didn’t succeed but I managed with a few.


On my last night in Xela, Lorena walks with me to set up my ride out of town the next morning. I am taken care of here, never left to fend for myself, and Lorena takes over this duty happily tonight.

I ask her how long she has worked at Education and Hope, and she tells me she has been there for twelve years, first as a student and now working there. She loves it, and loves the people. They are my second family, she says. I ask her if she has children. She tells me she has nine siblings and that as the second oldest, that is enough work for her.

She asks me if I have brothers or sisters.

It’s the first time someone has asked me since my sister died. It’s the question I have been most dreading each time I meet someone new. I anticipated it coming up on a first date, or maybe even a job interview at home. Instead, it hits me in Spanish, with the force of a sledgehammer. Tienes hermanos?

I say no, only me. But that doesn’t feel right, so I think of how I can say this in Spanish. Mi hermana está muerta. Mi hermana murió. Mi hermana no está vivo.

Sometimes even when you don’t want to know the words, your body, your mind, your heart still knows them.

Lo siento, she says. I can feel how deeply she means it. She pauses for a moment while I blink back tears, before touching my arm and telling me, Now you have a second family here, too.

On my final morning in Xela, I spend thirty minutes with the smallest of the children, letting them climb all over me, playing peek-a-boo, pretending to sleep while they shriek with laughter above me. I don’t worry about the language barrier anymore. There is no language for their smiles, and no miscommunication in their fierce hugs. The love they offer me is simple and crosses all cultural divides. As it is happening, I think I have maybe never been this happy.

It’s nearly time for me to leave.

I make my way to the kitchen to begin saying goodbye to the ladies working there, who have fed me so lovingly all week. The little kids are napping, and the bigger kids are across the street in class. The kitchen is almost empty; I discover it is because all of the women are waiting in the main room, in a receiving line of sorts, to send me off.

They each hug me, and somehow I have no trouble understanding the things they say to me, my Spanish coming through in a way it hasn’t all week. Thank you for sharing your heart with us. Please come back again to see us. We love you.

Rosenda is there, one of the younger women, hugging me intensely, before drawing back and putting her hand firmly on my heart while she looks straight into my eyes. Tu tienes un gran corazón.

I cry, because I can’t fathom how she can see this, especially with the big fault line running through its center. Until I realize that she sees the fissure too, and maybe loves me just a little more because of it. I cry harder. For Kelly, for my parents, for the women here, for all of our collective losses, for myself.

And a tiny piece of the crack fuses back together again. Not healed, not like before, but held together somehow from the purest form of love I have been shown in this special place. When I walk outside and find all of the students standing in the street yelling, Adios Katie, before running to hug and kiss me goodbye, I understand that this is the kind of day worthy of reflection. This is the kind of day worthy of planning. This is the kind of day you learn how to change someone’s life.


This is the year I turn 37.

This is the year that will remain largely unplanned.

This is the year that I turn the front facing camera in my mind around, and point it outwards.

This is the year of ordinary and extraordinary miracles.

This is the year of doing more, for others; of giving back that love I have received.

This is the year of sharing, nurturing, assisting, comforting, trusting, hugging, believing, smiling.

This is the year of love.


This is the Year of Us.


***To learn more about Education and Hope, or to make a donation (I can make this request, it’s my birthday), please visit It is so easy to make a difference in the lives of these wonderful people. Thank you!

Mis nuevos amigos

Mis nuevos amigos