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The 15 books we couldn’t put down this year

By Alli Maloney on December 28, 2015

It was a strong year for book-lovers and Women in the World was fortunate to engage with a bounty of incredible authors, diving into their books and discussing their work in candid conversations. From that trove of treasures, we selected the 15 books that really wowed us in 2015. Hit the local bookstore and curl up next to the fire this winter break – it’s time to get some reading done!

In Order to Live: A North Korean Girl’s Journey to Freedom
In her memoir, 21-year-old North Korean defector Yeonmi Park paints a harrowing portrait of family life in the notorious Hermit Kingdom, where she and her sister were born and lived with their parents under the rule of Kim Jong-Il. In Order to Live provides a detailed look at the lengths some will go to escape life under an oppressive regime that doubles as home – a country Park called “the darkest place on Earth” at the Women in the World London Summit this year. She and her mother escaped North Korea in 2007, only to be trafficked into sexual slavery in neighboring China.

The Jemima Code: Two Centuries of African American Cookbooks
America has a way of erasing the accomplishments of African Americans from its history, but food journalist and author Toni Tipton-Martin is working to restore glory to the generations of cooks whose skill and artistry went unrecognized. Her beautifully designed book, The Jemima Code, brings together 150 forgotten recipe books from cooks, chefs, and authors whose work was dismissed as black slave labor as opposed to culinary art, and takes its name from the popular breakfast-food brand that many feel perpetuates negative stereotypes about the African-American woman.

Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town
Jon Krakauer’s examination of four years of rape allegations at the University of Montana stunned critics. Over 200 cases were reported, only a few were prosecuted and Missoula law enforcement refused to work with the author, forcing him to rely on trial transcripts and testimony from victims. He became an expert on the subject, detailing how sexual assault is the more under-reported crime in the United States in an article for Women in the World. “Consent shouldn’t be that complicated!” he declared, on stage alongside Senator Kristen Gillibrand in a panel about college rape at the Women in the World Summit.

Women Crime Writers
Female-authored whodunits of the past get another chance to shine in this two-part anthology of eight novels from authors like Vera Caspary, Dorothy B. Hughes, and Elizabeth Sanxay — names you may not know but true masters of their craft, overshadowed by male authors. Curated by crime fiction scholar Sarah Weinman, Women Crime Writers highlights women pioneers of the psychological suspense novel who masterfully built dynamic female characters, too. “The men were telling stories that assuaged masculinity and gave people an escapist fantasy,” Weinman said. “The women were just telling the truth.”

The Sex Myth: The Gap Between Our Fantasies and RealityWho among us is gettin’ it on, really? Rachel Hills tackles the myth that everyone but you is getting busy – the Australian journalist spent three years investigating sex and “hook up culture” in Canada, Britain and the United States and found that today’s young people are having sex less frequently then those in generation’s past. The Sex Myth takes a look at how different cultures and genders approach sexual experiences and debunks the myth that “in order to be an adequate person in our culture you need to be sexually active and good in bed.”

A Manual for Cleaning Women
This collection of short stories from the late, Alaska-born Lucia Berlin takes readers across continents and into the lives of fictional characters who double as creative manifestations of her own experience. Like so many great artists, Berlin suffered from alcohol addiction and saw little success while alive, but lyrical prose that made her “one of America’s best-kept secrets” is finally enjoying the praise it deserves. Women in the World called Berlin’s unadorned writing beautiful and “laden with complexity.”

Witches of America & The Witches: Salem, 1692
Just call it the season of the witch: this year, paganism was everywhere and women were at the center of the story. In Witches of America, author and disenchanted Catholic Alex Mar, who immersed herself in spiritual communities around the country, paints the modern Pagan community in an empathetic light, tracing the history of witchcraft today to its roots. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Stacy Schiff focused on famous historical witchy moment in The Witches: Salem, 1692, which chronicles how three young girls in Massachusetts suffering from “hysteria” managed to take hold of the male-dominated community, or how “women in peril being turned into perilous women, and women running the show in a very strange and indirect way.”

Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy
Kawashima Yoshiko was the fourteenth daughter of a Manchurian prince who came to be known as “Joan of Arc of the Manchus” for cross-dressing as a commander and spy for the Japanese army during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Though born into China’s last royal family, she lived in Japan with an ally and eventually aligned herself with the country’s military, playing a prominent role in the takeover of Manchuria. Yoshiko dressed and lived her life as a man, according to Manchu Princess, Japanese Spy author Phyllis Birnbaum, who said the princess suffered from “tremendous confusion about her sexual identity.” She was eventually executed by China for her involvement with the Japanese.

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg
What isn’t to love about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, a.k.a. Notorious RBG? She’s a long-time champion of the law, pushing for gender equality as a lawyer and then on the bench of the Supreme Court because she knows it benefits women and men both. In Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik’s Tumblr-blog-turned-book, there’s much to learn about the wise 82-year-old justice – but you’ll have to read to discover how many push-ups RBG can do!

Women of Will: Following the Feminine in Shakespeare’s Plays
Theater kids, this one is for you! Long-time acting and directing veteran Tina Packer had performed in about 25 William Shakespeare plays when she started to recognize a trend in how the Bard told women’s stories. At the start of his writing career, Shakespeare just projected onto women, “like many teenage boys,” Packer told Women in the World, but this changed with Romeo and Juliet, she said. In Women of Will, readers are taken across the trajectory of his career and how the women of Shakespeare’s work grew and changed with him.

Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl
Carrie Brownstein may be known by most for her work on sketch comedy show Portlandia (and now in her supporting role on Transparent), but the Pacific Northwest icon has spent a storied career as guitarist for Sleater Kinney. In her poignant memoir, Brownstein tells how pushed back against a confusing troubled home life (co-starring her anorexic mother and closeted dad) to discover herself through music and become a pioneer for women in the DIY rock scene. Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl takes its title from a song she wrote.

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed
Online shaming is a modern reality that all people risk when signing into their social media accounts, but one that leaves women attacked with threats of sexual violence and rape more so than men. Journalist Jon Ronson explored public shaming to find that men tend to recover from public shaming more quickly – and we’re quicker to forgive men when they publicly shame others, too. So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed is an insightful look on how women are the losers in these scenarios, offering plenty of IRL examples that show how public shaming benefits no one.

The Goddess Pose: The Audacious Life of Indra Devi, the Woman Who Helped Bring Yoga to the West
The incredible subject of The Goddess Pose is Indra Devi, a Latvian-born woman whose lifespan fell over three centuries. She is a major figure responsible for spreading yoga around the world and a woman who happened to be in important places at pivotal times in history: Russia during its Civil War, as a cabaret performer in post-WWI Berlin, WWII Shanghai during the Japanese invasion, Dallas during the JFK shooting, post-colonial Panama as spiritual advisor to to Roberto Díaz Herrera … the list goes on. Devi — called a “godparent” of the modern movement by author Michelle Goldberg — eventually came to Hollywood and counted Greta Garbo among her students before her death at 103.

Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget
“I drank myself to a place where I didn’t care, and I woke up a person that cared enormously.” That’s one of the striking lines Sarah Hepola uses to describe her relationship with alcohol in Blackout, that chronicles the author’s blackout-inducing habit of drinking to excess that started at 12 and ended at 35. Women in the World spoke with Hepola this year in a candid conversation about how she used drinking to “keep up with the boys” and had trouble being intimate once alcohol was out the equation. Her memoir offers a modern take on women and drinking, paying homage to Caroline Knapp’s 1996 book, Drinking: A Love Story.

The Secret Loves of Geek Girls
Geek girls, unite. Canadian comic book publisher and self-professed fangirl Hope Nicholson’s anthology of 50 essays and illustrations (including from Canadian treasure Margaret Atwood!) offers a wide range of diverse genders, races and sexual orientations for the reader to relate to. The characters navigate love – both the blissful and the painful – but their emotions are shaped by their passions and fandom, to which Nicholson thinks plenty of geeky women can relate.