Friday, January 01, 2016

Favorite Books of 2015

Everyone connected with the book world is required by law to have a list of the best books of the prior year -- similar regulations cover movies and music -- and so here is my obligatory list to keep me out of the Book Hoosegow. This is the eleventh time I've done this; it's been a feature of Antick Musings since the very earliest days, when this blog theme was just amusingly old-fashioned-looking, and not a sad eyesore. (Those previous lists, for those craving more books anointed by a random blogger: 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, and 2005.)

I shortened my weird rules last year down to something terse and mostly comprehensible, so I'll just copy that again here, to explain why I do this the way I do.

The Rules:

  1. My list is finalized on the last day of the year, so it includes all my reading for the year.
  2. This is a list of "favorites," not "bests."
  3. I try to favor books from this year.
  4. My reading includes many genres and formats, and the list mixes that all together.
  5. I pick a favorite for each month, to make a top twelve.
  6. And each month also gets a paragraph about other notable books.

The Field:

I read only 175 books in 2015, down substantially from 2014's 383 and back in line with the three years before that (which averaged a bit over 150). Of course, last year was a Book-A-Day year, and this one was both a find-a-new-job and a settle-into-the-new-job year, so I've got excuses. (Oh, boy, do I got excuses.)

If I didn't read a book, it can't be one of my favorites for the year. (Simple, right?)

I always wish I read more -- even in the years when I got through five or six novels a week, I complained that there were as many other books that I wanted to read but didn't get to. I don't know if it's "worse" now, but there's always more books to read, no matter how many I do read. (This is a good thing.)

So the below is what I read in 2015 that I want to celebrate and call out and point at, for various reasons. It's not as complete as I wish it was -- once again, man's reach exceeds his grasp.


I started the year re-reading a great crime novel by a great wild-man writer, James Crumley's Dancing Bear. But that really doesn't count here, since that book is around forty years old now. There were also two big interesting graphic novels from opposite sides of the world -- one of which looks smaller in retrospect, and the other of which looks larger.

Scott McCloud's The Sculptor is the book that's shrunk a bit in memory: it was swinging too obviously for the fences, and trying to show supposedly great visual art within a comic was a shaky idea to begin with. It's big and full of life and fiercely ambitious: all of those things are still true. But I tend to think now that it fell shorter of that ambition than I thought in January.

But Inio Asano's giant story of ennui and Japanese slackerdom, Solanin, looks more impressive at a remove -- it's a book full of the messiness and contingencies of life, about people who aren't sure what they want but want to want something, who have hit adulthood and find that it's hitting back harder than they expected. You don't need to be twenty-something to read it -- it might be better, in fact, if you have some distance from those years.


I only read four books in this whole month, because I was busy searching for a new job -- and that's vastly more time-consuming and nerve-wracking than any actual job. Of those few books, one was a guide to job-hunting, one was a big book of newspaper comics, and one was a jokey book about marketing.

Luckily, the fourth book was more substantial, and would have been the best thing I tread that month in a field of thirty books. The third book in Lemony Snicket's current series for kids in the middle of their school careers, "Shouldn't You Be in School?", is smarter and more knowledgeable about loss and heartbreak and despair and than maybe tween need...but who am I to say what anyone needs? Somewhere out there, there's a twelve-year-old who needs exactly this book, and "Snicket" gave her a powerhouse to fill that need. Once again, he managed to talk up to his audience -- I can't explain it any more clearly than that, but it's what he does.


I saw two very good, interesting, and flawed graphic novels this month, from creators at opposite ends of their careers. Shoplifter was the first book from Michael Cho, and it tells a moody story about a young woman looking for her authentic life -- though it traffics in an awful lot of tedious creative-person cliches along the way. So it's a lovely book that tells a compelling story that made me grind my teeth far too often.

Jules Feiffer has been making comics -- and screenplays, and novels, and other things -- for sixty years or so, but Kill My Mother is his first graphic-novel-published-as-such, since the world has finally caught up to him. I found it somewhat confusing and self-indulgent, a wallow in noir tropes that could have used a bit of editing and character designs that differentiated all of the various women from each other more clearly. But it's a big Feiffer graphic novel, full of spiky Feiffer awesomeness.

The best book of the month was a travelogue, from one of the few people I admit is a bigger curmudgeon than I am: Paul Theroux's Dark Star Safari. Theroux doesn't claim to hate humanity, but he certainly doesn't like most of it, and this journey, down the east coast of Africa in about 2001, gave him a lot of scope to see appalling people and their works. Theroux's eye is as clear and precise as ever, and this is a part of the world most of us know nothing about -- thought Theroux has a long history there, making him the perfect guide.


This month gives me three plausible choices, out of the five books I read, though each has its distinctive faults. In a previous life, I probably would have given the nod to Elizabeth Bear's fun steampunk novel Karen Memory, which gives a cast of mostly women agency and vigor in a world that would deny that to them. But it's also very much a genre exercise, without rising above or transforming its material: it reads like a textbook example of "How to Write a Feminist Cyberpunk Novel."

Todd Hignite collected a lot of great Jaime Hernandez art for his book The Art of Jaime Hernandez -- that sentence sounds like a tautology, but there are plenty of art books, and their editors, who don't manage to do as well. And Hignite finds a decent through-line to Hernandez's career. But it is, in the end, a collection of someone else's art, arranged to look pretty, and just isn't substantial enough for a list like this.

That leaves me with the useful and deeply recommended How to Speak Money, a primer on the concepts and terms of the finance world by sometime novelist and explainer-of-money John Lanchester. He previously wrote the excellent I.O.U., which explained the Crash of '08 for a non-finance audience, but How to Speak Money tries to do more in a smaller space: Lanchester's goal here is to explain the basic concepts of working finance -- not the academic subject, but the things people who work with money swim in every day -- and the terms that financiers use among themselves. No book like that could be completely successful, since finance is a big world, with many pockets of dialect and nuance that are alien to each other, but he gives the rest of us a foothold into that world, which we need ever more in our ever-more-finance-driven world.


I got back to work in mid-May, which immediately had an effect on my reading. To work down the backlog on my shelves, I adopted a policy of taking two books for the commute each day: one book of comics and one of prose. The comic got read that same day, pretty much every time, which the prose stuck around for a few days -- sometimes for weeks on end, as summer turned to fall and the commute stopped being new and exciting and became just another slog to get through every day.

But that was still in the future at this point. I jumped into a bunch of comics I'd wanted to read -- a collection of Hunt Emerson's Calculus Cat stories, mostly from the '80s; Dylan Horrock's not-quite-autobiographical ode to the power of comics, Sam Zabel and the Magic Pen; and Cameron Stewart's moody crime fable Sin Titulo.

I also read two excellent books about the lives of writers. Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking is a few years old now, and so lauded it doesn't need me to add to it. John Baxter's biography of J.G. Ballard, The Inner Man, though, doesn't have nearly as high a profile, though it's about a much more quintessentially 20th century writer, and does a great job of explaining the sources of his compelling images and themes.

In another month, I probably would have named Christopher Miller's American Cornball as my favorite: it's a deeply engrossing encyclopedia of the things that Americans used to think were hilarious, from mothers-in-law to town drunks to falling safes. For anyone who likes thinking about humor, it was easily the book of the year in that narrow category.

But I also saw a great wordless graphic novel in May, the second such book from Manix Abrera, a great Philippine cartoonist who I only know from his work. Unlike his previous book 12 -- which was one of my favorite books of 2010 -- 14 isn't a collection of shorter stories, or, more precisely, isn't only that. Abrera still includes other tales in 14, within his frame story, but this book is a single work -- the story of one person who discovers a secret world, and learns more than he could have guessed about its inhabitants.


I was still reading lots of comics in June, but more in bulk -- a dozen books by Mike Mignola and his collaborators about Hellboy's world, and half of the collections of John Allison's old webcomic Scary Go Round among them. They were all interesting in their own ways, but there's nothing I feel compelled to call out here individually.

I did read two good novels by men better known for writing under other names. Daniel Handler, who has already appeared on this list as Lemony Snicket, had a new adult novel, We Are Pirates, which told its story sideways and nearly inside-out, creating quirky parallels to Handler's great first novel The Basic Eight.

But even more impressive was the first novel by John Darnielle, songwriter and occasionally only member of the band The Mountain Goats. Wolf in White Van is the story of one profoundly damaged man, and what he's been able to do with his life after that damage. Unlike some songwriters, Darnielle scales his plots and concerns up to novel length without a hitch -- though Wolf is clearly a work by the same creator as such songs as "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton" and "Autoclave," with the same tight focus on characters and their demons.


A stinky "classic" threw a wrench into my reading life this month -- I plan to tell that story elsewhere, within the next week -- but I still had a small pile of books worth mentioning, for one reason or another.

Mary Norris's Between You and Me is not yet another memoir of years spent at the New Yorker. Thankfully, this copy editor wrote something much more useful: a guide to punctuation and clear writing, from someone deep in the trenches for many years. Also purporting to be nonfiction is The World of Ice and Fire, a gazetteer to the world of George R.R. Martin's epic fantasy series, but Martin with some able collaborators and illustrators.Every fantasy world should be this well mapped, and this worth of mapping.

More frivolously, Mallory Ortberg channeled the heroines of a hundred works of high literature (including Harry Potter and Sweet Valley High) to produce Texts from Jane Eyre, a book both laugh-out-loud and brilliant in its unwavering default feminism and insistence that women should be able to live their own lives. (Did I just say the same thing twice? I apologize.)

That leaves me with two graphic novels, both humorous takes on autobiography. Pascal Girard continues to mine his own life as a cartoonist for amusement and unexpected depths in Petty Theft.

But even more impressive -- and unexpected, and deeply welcome -- was the return of Mimi Pond with the large memoir of her youth, Over Easy. It evokes a whole world in one small cafe, and shows that Pond's sharp pens -- both the one she uses to write dialogue and the one she uses to draw her characters -- are still as pointed and well-guided as they ever were.


I read a lot less this month than expected -- partially due to the heat, partially due to some vacation time, and partially because I was still trying to get the taste of that one book out of my mouth -- but there are a couple of things to pointy out.

Maira Kalman provided paintings and Daniel Handler (him again!) words to accompany a number of old photographs from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art. All of those things were about Girls Standing on Lawns. It's a hard book to describe, but an easy one to read -- so don't wait for me to think up words, but just go find it.

The book of the month was an unabashed genre fantasy novel, the story of one young man who fights literal demons in the modern world -- with the added handicap of being (not so literally) something of a demon himself. Dan Wells brought back his series character John Wayne Cleaver -- a sociopath who wants to kill almost as much as he knows he needs to keep his urges controlled -- in The Devil's Only Friend, with higher stakes and a newly-adult Cleaver. It's still about Cleaver more than the heroics and the monsters, which is what makes it work so well.


There's no theme this month, so I'll dive in with a couple of good comics-based books by younger women. Lucy Knisley took on aging and family with the remarkably deep and assured Displacement, showing that she's one of America's great creators of comics. And from the other side of the Atlantic, Margaux Motin gave us But I Really Wanted to Be and Anthropologist..., which looks like a bunch of strips collected from her webcomic, individual adventures of Motin and her family and friends, but really is more holistic and singular than that.

I wished once again that I'd worked harder, and on more solid stuff, in school by T.F. Peterson's Nightwork, a history of pranks and exploits at MIT. Ah, the lives we could have lived!

Michael Swanwick gave us a leisurely tour of a China of the future in his deeply entertaining Chasing the Phoenix, featuring his series heroes Darger and Surplus at the head of a conquering army despite themselves.

But the pride of place for the month has to go to a short book that made me want to read science fiction again, after a long period of being sour on fiction in general and techno-babble in particular. Alastair Reynolds's Slow Bullets uses SFnal ideas to tell a story that mainstream fiction never could -- and that's a story of characters, about memory and redemption and second chances and traditions and justice and revenge.


I dove into another good SF novel right after that, and dawdled reading it for most of the moth. That's not the fault of Steven Gould's zippy and fun teleportation adventure Exo -- I don't think anything could live up to the image of "good SF" in my head at that point.

I also came back to Alan Moore and John Totleben climax of the original 1980s revisionist superhero in Miracleman, Book Three: Olympus -- it's too wordy, especially reading it today, but the art is breathtaking and the story is cruel and lovely by turns.

In the end, though, the best book of the month was by two Frenchmen, one of whom was dead for many years before it came out. Jacques Tardi adapted another dark crime novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette to make another deeply noir story, Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot -- taking the cliche of a hitman who wants to retire and turning it into something near a Greek tragedy, full of inexplicable fate and inexorable destiny.


This was another month all about comics, and I make no excuses for that. When prose kept letting me down, comics was always there for me, a world where I could read a dozen stories across a dozen genres in two weeks and refill my capacity for wonder and appreciation.

I read two great collections of older works this month -- one was new to me, and the other was an old favorite. Roger Langridge's The Show Must Go On had work from across twenty years and probably twice that many publications, all of it in Langridge's unique vaudeville-derived idiom. And that fever dream of the 1980s, Elektra: Assassin, possibly the climax of creator Frank Miller and Bill Sienkiewicz's careers to that point, was still as mad and energetic and plausibly insane as it was when it was new.

And the best book of the month was another collection of comics, this one of newer work: Jason's If You Steal. Each story has its own mood and impetus, sharing only Jason's deadpan affect and fondness for the plot furniture of classic genre fiction, and each one has a slice of odd life with unexpected depths. 


And now we come to the day before yesterday -- the books I was reading recently enough that they're still entirely clear and present in my memory.

My rules really don't allow me to make Ian Frazier's Family the pick of this month -- it is a great book, mixing family history and American history, but it's twenty years old -- so I'll just mention it here.

But I can allow the four books of Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell's Zenith into that last slot, because even though the work is from 1987-1992, these books didn't come out until this past year. (Rules need to be nitpicky and precise in odd ways, or else what would all the rules lawyers find to do?) It's a strong revisionist superhero, by two great creators, that has been tucked away out of sight for a whole generation -- so it's very welcome to see it back out in public again.

2015's Top Twelve

    • 14 by Manix Abrera 
    • Solanin by Inio Asano 
    • Wolf in White Van by John Darnielle 
    • If You Steal by Jason 
    • How to Speak Money by John Lanchester 
    • Zenith by Grant Morrison and Steve Yeowell
    • Over Easy by Mimi Pond 
    • Slow Bullets by Alastair Reynolds 
    • "Shouldn't You Be in School?" by Lemony Snicket 
    • Like a Sniper Lining Up His Shot by Jacques Tardi and Jean-Patrick Manchette
    • Dark Star Safari by Paul Theroux
    • The Devil's Only Friend by Dan Wells

    That's what I read this past year and want to celebrate -- the books that I most want to recommend to other readers and to see succeed out in the world. Of course, I'm just one guy, with idiosyncratic opinions and ideas -- but I like to think that I read a wide variety of stuff, and so there could be something of interest here for just about anyone.

    It's a pleasant dream, at least. Happy reading in 2016, everyone!

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