Best of 2015: Books

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by Andrew Osborne

Not all of the books on the list below were released in 2015…but they were all new to me, and comprised my favorite reading experiences of the year!

BEST CHILDREN’S BOOK:  FRANKIE LIKED TO SING by John Seven & Jana Christy

Got kids? Like Sinatra? Like your kids? Then be sure to check out this fantastically cool and entertaining new children’s book, featuring sharp text from John Seven and ring-a-ding illustrations by Jana Christy. It’s a gas!

1. GO SET A WATCHMAN by Harper Lee

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No, wait, hear me out!  I know there are plenty of folks who believe poor, doddering Harper Lee was shamefully bamboozled into releasing an unfinished work-in-progress that was never meant to be published (while other folks say all the exploitation rumors are “hogwash”) — yet regardless of the actual or imagined foul play surrounding the release of this quasi-To Kill a Mockingbird sequel, the real controversy stemmed from America’s favorite fictional white man, Atticus Finch, turning out to be racist.  And that’s why I think Lee’s novel is the most important (and weirdly meta) literary achievement of the year.  In the age of #BlackLivesMatter, the Latino population boom, the Syrian refugee crisis, politically correct First Amendment backlash on college campuses, etc., it’s more important than ever for Americans to finally engage in some open, honest, (and, yes, potentially awkward) conversations about culture, race, and identity — which is exactly what Watchman‘s sheltered protagonist, Jean Louise “Scout” Finch attempts to do when she returns home to Maycomb, Alabama from her adult life in New York City, only to discover that most of her white friends and family are unapologetic bigots and her old black maid, Calpurnia, kinda hates her.  Mockingbird let us believe the comforting fiction that good guys don’t ever see color, yet Watchman confirms the classic Avenue Q lyric, “everyone’s a little bit racist” and then asks the difficult question: so now what?  Is it the duty of a righteous person to eliminate any trace of racist thought from their minds?  And is that even possible?  Should we cut all ties with anyone (or any city, state, or region) we know to be racist?  Can we love someone’s virtues while abhorring their far less admirable traits?  Is an attempt to see things from a racist’s point of view in order to understand the roots of racism in itself inherently racist?  And most importantly, how do we define and grapple with racism beyond just wagging our fingers at anyone who uses “the N-word”?  Lee doesn’t provide answers (or, indeed, much of a plot), but the questions she raises are as thorny as the fact that many readers simply refused to consider them, preferring to live in a black and white world where heroes like Atticus Finch can only be perfect, no matter the consequences of ignoring those pesky grey areas.

2. IN THE MISO SOUP by Ryu Murikami

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Released in 2003, this gripping deadpan thriller provides a fascinating, clear-eyed view of modern Japanese youth culture and the uncomfortable realities of Asian sex tourism geared towards gaijin foreigners.  Told from the prematurely world-weary yet charmingly sardonic perspective of a twentysomething “nightlife guide” named Kenji, Murakami’s novel depicts a very specific subculture with a sociological eye for detail before raising the stakes and suspense with the introduction of Frank, a mysterious American who’s either a desperately lonely businessman, a dangerous predator, neither, or possibly both.

3. DEAR COMMITTEE MEMBERS by Julie Schumacher

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Composed almost entirely of uncomfortably honest recommendation letters, Schumacher’s 2014 epistolary novel is a grim yet satisfying satire of higher education as seen through the jaundiced eyes of a misanthropic writing professor at a third-rate university.  Besieged on all sides by mediocre technocrats, social-climbing colleagues, hapless students, and his own stalled career and self-destructive past, the book’s eloquently eccentric protagonist skewers the ritualistic idiocies of academia while mourning the slow death of liberal arts in a world that cares more for economics than humanities.

4. LONG-FORM RELIGIOUS PORN by Laura Lee Bahr

As with her debut novel, Haunt,  Bahr’s latest depicts the quiet desperation of isolated individuals through a funhouse mirror of fizzy pop culture references and bizarro genre elements like Hollywood vampire cult deprogammers and kinky bondage murder.  But for all the mayhem (and startling celebrity cameos) in this spiraling tale of show biz hustlers angling to exploit a tabloid tragedy, it’s the author’s smart comic voice and bittersweet empathy for her book’s outré characters that really make this one a page-turner.

5. CARSICK by John Waters

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Arguably, the “prince of puke” has always been a better writer than a director, though Carsick proves he can still dream up some damn fine mise-en-scène (like his visceral depiction of a triumphant hand job in the midst of a demolition derby).  At first, I was disappointed to learn that Waters’s true life tale of hitchhiking cross-country at the age of 66 only took up a third of this 2014 book, fearing the remainder (fictional depictions of his best and worst case fantasies of the journey) would be nothing but filler.  Instead, his imaginary road trips are actually the highlights, including surrealistic spins on his favorite obsessions and an idyllic reunion with Edith “the Egg Lady” Massey that left me downright misty.

Honorable Mention:

The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum, The Whites by Richard Price/Harry Brandt

On Deck:

The All-Inclusive Church of Cancun by Will Berkeley, The Toucan Trilogy by Scott Cramer, Human Furniture by Devora Gray, Last Night at the Lobster by Stewart O’Nan

MOST DISAPPOINTING:  PERFIDIA by James Ellroy  

The rat-a-tat noir style of Ellroy’s latest isn’t much different from earlier works I couldn’t put down like American Tabloid, The Cold Six Thousand, and most of Blood’s A Rover — so maybe it’s just that I’ve slowly grown weary of the author’s minimalist ultra-violence and pitch black view of humanity (plus there’s probably a limit to the number of times a person needs to read about teeth shattered by lead pipes, brass knuckles, and saps).  Or maybe the fact that I know half the characters in Perfidia make it to the cast lists of future novels while I can barely keep track of the other half lowers the suspense quotient.  But for one reason or another, it’s taking me a very long time to get to the end of this very long book about murder, corruption, and Japanese internment in post-Pearl Harbor Los Angeles.

PULL LIST:  THE BEST COMICS AND GRAPHIC NOVELS I READ IN 2015

  1. Woman Rebel by Peter Bagge:  a funny, informative, and timely 2013 biopic of Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger.
  2. Nowhere Men by Eric Stephenson, Nate Bellegarde & Jordie Bellaire: a promising new title set in a world where science is the new rock & roll.
  3. Morning Glories by Nick Spencer & Joe Eisma: I have no idea what’s really happening in this ongoing series about a supernatural boarding school, but I can’t stop myself from reading every issue.
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