Arts District

Best Books of 2015

Our year-end review of literature related to Baltimore.

Our list of Baltimore’s best books in 2015 run the gamut of genres— memoir, fiction, poetry, history. Two explored the issues of race and equality we face as a country, while others provided a literary escape or made us pause to consider our lives. And while the literary world provides endless options each year, we feel sure that these extraordinary books will stand the test of time.

Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

It’s no wonder this tour de force has made critics’ best of 2015 lists and, earlier this year, won the National Book Award. Between the World and Me is a wake-up call, a mind-altering analysis of why our country has failed to provide equality for everyone, regardless of color. Coates carries us from his boyhood in West Baltimore through his time at Howard University and adulthood as he reflects in a letter to his 15-year-old son, Samori—who is learning what it means to be black in America. Coates enlightens us all.

A Spool of Blue Thread, Anne Tyler

Every book this Charm City resident writes demonstrates depth and feeling, but A Spool of Blue Thread is truly remarkable. The book chronicles four generations of the Whitshank family of Roland Park, a regular, middle-class brood. Yes, you will feel as if you know them, but Tyler elevates this story’s ordinary setting into something profound. You’ll be left musing on the roles each of us play in our own families, and what it means to go home.

The Beast Side, D. Watkins

If you were to pick a quintessential Baltimore writer right now, you’d be hard pressed not to choose D. Watkins. With his sharp eye for detail and unsentimental prose, he highlights the characters in his beloved East Baltimore, the economic, social, and racial divides in the city, his own drug-dealing past—and just how badly social change is needed here. Watkins’ book has garnered national attention, with good reason, and people across the country are joining Charm City in contemplating his message.

Get a Grip, Kathy Flann

Flann is a master at developing her characters and creating plots that have you gripping, so to speak, on every word. With nearly all of these short stories set in Baltimore, Flann, a Goucher College creative writing professor, explores different facets of the city—from an Estonian teenager living in West Baltimore to a 40-year-old woman devouring her own birthday cake in Catonsville. But the best part are Flann’s unresolved endings. With each, she takes you to the edge, and leaves it up to you to decide which way life will turn.

It Shouldn’t Have Been Beautiful, Lia Purpura

Each of Purpura’s poems in this collection read like spontaneous gems, as if she was struck by a moment of inspiration and paused to scribble down her thoughts. But don’t think that makes them any less profound. Purpura—writer in residence at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, whose work has appeared in The New Yorker and The Paris Review—provides poignant insight into our existence and all its mysteries. The collection is an absolute wonder.

Intimacy Idiot, Isaac Oliver

Baltimore native Oliver moved to New York City a decade ago and started chronicling his sexual misadventures in hilarious, cringe-worthy detail—from his liaison with an Italian guy who was into spanking to encounters with a hockey player with aggression issues. This memoir is funny and touching in a style reminiscent of David Sedaris. And trust us—your awkward hook-ups won’t seem that bad ever again.

Clash by Night, edited by Gerry LaFemina and Gregg Wilhelm

Emotions run strong in this poetry anthology published by Baltimore’s own CityLit Press—outrage, despair, infatuation, longing, to name a few. But how could they not? Each poem is based on The Clash’s 1979 album London Calling, a post-punk masterpiece of raw energy and intense creativity. The poems describe the longing of youth, social or political displacement, or simply how the authors felt upon those first formative listens to punk-rock classics such as “Train in Vain” and “Spanish Bombs.” You can almost hear the buzz of the needle on the vinyl and feel the vibration of the speakers.

Showdown, Wil Haygood

Thurgood Marshall was one of Charm City’s greatest native sons—his long list of achievements include being the attorney behind the legendary Brown vs. Board of Education case and becoming the first black Supreme Court justice. But little was written about the confirmation hearings that led to his Supreme Court appointment until Haygood, a Washington, D.C, based writer, came along. And he found ample drama to showcase—weaving narrative from the proceedings with background details about those influencing them—that will make you realize just how important Marshall was to our country’s history, and how relevant his story still is today.

One Child for Another, Nancy Murray

In her debut book, Murray, a graduate of the University of Baltimore’s MFA program, creates a poignant example of what memoirs can achieve. She relates the story of how she became pregnant as a teenager in the 1970s and her decision to give up her child for adoption with remarkable detail and candor. Her story is one of surviving abuse, sacrifice, and ultimately, resilience, told with such honesty that you’ll feel as if you are living it with her.