Notable Books and More | ALA Midwinter 2015

On Sunday, February 1, 2015, at the Book & Media Awards Ceremony and Reception in Chicago, the Reference and Users Services Association announced its 2015 Notable Books List, comprising 26 top titles for libraries in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. That list, along with the 2015 Booklist Editors’ Choice list, serves as the basis of the longlist for the Andrew Carnegie Medals for Excellence, to be announced at the ALA Annual Conference in San Francisco this June. In addition, the Chicago ceremony saw the announcement of award winners in areas ranging from reference to audiobook narration to Jewish literature.

Chosen by the Notable Books Council, which consists of 12 readers’ advisory and collection development librarians, this year’s Notable Books List embraces some recognizably strong titles with an admixture of pleasant surprises, though nothing daringly out-there. Fiction, for instance, includes Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot (Scribner), a New York Times doeerBest Book and surprise best seller approaching a million copies in print; Richard Flanagan’s Narrow Road to the Deep North (Knopf), a Man Booker Prize winner; Chang-Rae Lee’s On Such a Full Sea (Riverhead), a National Book Critics Award finalist that shows the highly regarded author in a new light; and Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven (Knopf), a National Book Award finalist and a breakout for the author, who has previously published with small presses.

Less-expected works like Miriam Toews’s All My Puny Sorrows (McSweeney’s), Rene Denfeld’s The Enchanted (Harper), and Patrick Ness’s The Crane Wife (Penguin Pr.) still leave readers gratefully reminded of good books. Publishing with a small press, Canadian author Toews got starred LJ, Kirkus, and PW reviews and a few best book nods for her study of sisterly sacrifice. She should soon be better known here, especially as she has just received a nomination for Britain’s Folio Prize. Denfeld’s debut, a fantastical novel set in a prison, received uniformly strong reviews; and award-winning children’s author Ness proves himself by writing an adult book that gracefully recalls a Japanese fairy tale.

Nonfiction’s big hitters include Bryan Stephenson’s Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Spiegel & Grau), named a best book by a half dozen publications, including Time and the New York Times Book Review; Jonathan Eig’s The Birth of the Pill: How Four Crusaders Reinvented Sex and Launched a Revolution (Norton), which made a handful of best book and best science book lists last year; and Elizabeth Kolbert’s The Sixth Extinction: An mercyUnnatural History (Holt), a New York Times and LJ Best Book.

Nice surprises include Lizzie Stark’s Pandora’s DNA: Tracing the Breast Cancer Genes Through History, Science, and One Family Tree” (Chicago Review Press), with starred LJ, Kirkus, and PW reviews, and Kevin Birmingham’s The Most Dangerous Book: The Battle for James Joyce’s Ulysses (Penguin Pr.), an important study of cultural politics and the censorship battle that gives good background to ongoing intellectual freedom debates today. As always, the poetry list is small—just B.H. Fairchild’s The Blue Buick: New and Selected Poems (Norton), which focuses on the working class experience in the Great Plains, and Edward Hirsch’s Gabriel: A Poem (Knopf), an elegy to his son that was longlisted for the National Book Awards. One wishes RUSA could establish a separate notable books list for poetry titles, compiled by librarians with a special interest in the topic.

More hot books
In other top book news, the 2015 Sophie Brody Medal, funded by the Brodart Foundation and given to honor outstanding achievement in Jewish literature, was bestowed on Boris Fishman’s A Replacement Life (Harper), a bitterly funny tale about forging Holocaust restitution claims that was also a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers pick and a National Jewish Book Award finalist. The runner-ups, Stuart Rojstaczer’s The Mathematician’s Shiva (Penguin), winner of the 2014 National Jewish Book Award for Outstanding Debut Fiction, and Ruchana King Feuerman’s In the Courtyard of the Kabbalist (New York Review Books), also a National Jewish Book Award finalist, both deserve shout-outs as well.

The 2015 Stonewall Book Awards, given for works of exceptional merit relating to the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender experience, include two adult awards: the Stonewall Book jonessaeAwards–Barbara Gittings Literature Award and the Stonewall Book Awards–Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Award. This year’s Stonewall-Gittings literature award goes to Saeed Jones’s Prelude To Bruise (Coffee House), an punch-in-your-gut fusion of racial, sexual, and personal struggle and a National Book Critics Circle finalist. Honor books in this category include Tatamkhulu Afrika’s Bitter Eden (Picador USA), Emma Donoghue’s Frog Music (Little, Brown), David Leavitt’s The Two Hotel Francforts (Bloomsbury USA), and Jo Walton’s My Real Children (Tor).

The Stonewall Book Awards–Israel Fishman Non-Fiction Award was given to Scott Siraj al-Haqq Kugle’s Living Out Islam: Voices of Gay, Lesbian, and Transgender Muslims  (New York Univ.)—strikingly, a book from an academic press written by academic (the author is an associate professor of Middle East and South Asian Studies at Emory University) yet offering personal stories and strategies of people struggling with identity and faith. Honor books in this category include Robert Beachy’s Gay Berlin (Knopf), Janet Mock’s Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More (Atria), Martin Duberman’s Hold Tight Gently: Michael Callen, Essex Hemphill, and the Battlefield of AIDS (New Pr.), and Rachel Hope Cleves’s Charity & Sylvia: A Same-Sex Marriage in Early America(Oxford Univ.)

Amazing reference
Reference always has a big showing at this awards ceremony, topped by the bestowal of the Dartmouth Medal, given for most outstanding reference work. This year’s winner was Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr.’s Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism (Princeton Univ.), which received a starred LJ review and was also one of Choice’s Outstanding Academic Titles for 2014. Given its 5,000-plus entries totaling over a million words, the book is both broad and deep enough, said the LJ review, that it “will supersede previously published titles” in the field.

The Outstanding Reference Sources List, aimed at small and medium-sized public and academic libraries and compiled by a committee associated with the Collection Development and Evaluation Section (CODES), ranged from American Indians at Risk, edited by Jeffrey Ian Ross (Greenwood) to Muhammad in History, Thought, and Culture: An Encyclopedia of the Prophet of God, edited by Coeli Fitzpatrick and Adam Hani Walker (ABC-CLIO). ABC-CLIO, Princeton University Press, and Sage Publishing made especially strong showings here, with two titles each on a ten-title list.

The annual list of Best Free Reference Websites, selected by RUSA’s Emerging Technologies in Reference Section, includes 14 sites ranging from College Navigator (National Center for buddhismEducational Statistics) to World Public Opinion (Program on International Policy Attitudes). The annual list of Outstanding Business Reference Sources, selected by the Business Reference Sources Committee of the Business Reference and Services Section (BRASS) of RUSA, included four outstanding titles, six notables, and an “Overlooked Treasure”: Research Starters—Business (EBSCO Publishing).

Two important awards for individuals who help further the cause of literature were also announced. Carolyn Garnes won the Zora Neale Hurston Award, which honors an ALA member who has demonstrated leadership in promoting African American literature. Garnes is founder and CEO of Aunt Lil’s Reading Room, which serves as a platform for children, authors, and illustrators of color and African descent. Brad Hooper, a 40-year veteran of Booklist and now its adult books editor, received the Louis Shores Award, given by RUSA in recognition of an individual reviewer, group, editor, review medium. or organization for excellence in reviewing materials for libraries. Garnes and Hooper will be presented with plaques at the ALA Annual Conference in June.

Other important awards included the Reading List Council’s compilation of eight top titles in adult genre fiction ranging from mystery (Ashley Weaver’s Murder at the Brightwell, Minotaur) to romance (Sonali Dev’s A Bollywood Affair, Kensington); for the full story, see “RUSA’S Top Pop Fiction.” The evening awards were rounded out by The Listen List: Outstanding Audiobook Narration for Adult Listeners, awarded to 12 audiobooks for exceptional narration, and Best of the Best Business Websites, selected by the BRASS Education Committee.



Barbara Hoffert About Barbara Hoffert

Barbara Hoffert (, @BarbaraHoffert on Twitter) is Editor, LJ Prepub Alert; past chair of the Materials Selection Committee of the RUSA (Reference and User Services Assn.) division of the American Library Association; and past president, treasurer, and awards chair of the National Book Critics Circle.