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Our favorite books of the year

The best of 2015

Illustration by Lucy Knisley (www.lucyknisley.com)
Illustration by Lucy Knisley (www.lucyknisley.com)

After a stellar year for the written word, The A.V. Club provides some of our favorite books for your consideration as you buy, borrow, or download your next read. Besides some flops and disappointments—the less said about Go Set A Watchman, the better—2015’s output showcases some surprisingly awesome celebrity-penned volumes, thoughtful analysis on the state of the world, and page turners already getting the big-screen adaptation. Below are the best 2015 had to offer.

Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, Carrie Brownstein

Carrie Brownstein has always been a little enigmatic: In interviews, the co-founder of Sleater-Kinney and co-star of Portlandia tends to be candid about the band and the show, but rarely discussed her life beyond the projects that made her famous. That’s partly why her memoir, Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl, was an exciting prospect: Maybe she’d finally fill in some of the blanks. She does and doesn’t; while she reveals much about her family life (her mom’s anorexia, her dad’s homosexuality), she focuses on her time in Sleater-Kinney. For fans, it’s enormously compelling, especially because Brownstein writes honestly. Memoirs tend to make their subject look good, but Brownstein doesn’t shy away from sharing her failings and their repercussions. Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl is crisply written and insightful, and for fans of Sleater-Kinney, it’s required reading. [Kyle Ryan]

So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, Jon Ronson

Where Jon Ronson succeeds as a journalist (and where many of his imitators fail) is in his ability to find humanity in the most unexpected and outrageous places. So while his newest book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, is, on the surface, about “them”—people who have been cast out of society due to an insensitive comment, bigoted joke, or some other online transgression—really it’s about “us.” In the book, Ronson interrogates call-out culture, asking not only what happens to the people who get publicly shamed online, but what our willingness to virtually tar and feather strangers says about those who are doing the shaming. It’s enough to make anyone pause before hitting the “retweet” button, and that alone is an invaluable public service. [Katie Rife]

Modern Romance, Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg

Among the few who didn’t like it, the biggest complaint about Aziz Ansari’s foray into publishing was that, for a comedian’s book, it wasn’t very funny. This argument isn’t wrong, necessarily, but it misses the point of what he and co-writer Eric Klinenberg were setting out to do, which was to take a fair-minded and scientific look at dating in the 2010s. (Data wonks, rejoice.) At this, they succeeded magnificently, creating a work that’s incredibly insightful, judgment-free, and never less than compulsively readable. As he would also demonstrate in Master Of None, Ansari has gotten mature enough to get out of his own way; rather than shoehorning in jokes, he trusts the strength of his material, making points that are convincing, but never didactic. With Modern Romance, Ansari firmly establishes himself as one of the country’s best cultural commentators. [Ryan Vlastelica]

Notorious RBG, Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik

A portmanteau of Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s initials and Notorious B.I.G. has resulted in the odd celebrity of the Supreme Court justice, likely introducing her to many people not usually interested in the highest court of the land, and the reason this book exists, too. Ginsburg is worthy of the attention, however: Her life, chronicled here, is a fascinating look at a lifelong feminist with a succinct legal mind. A blend of substance and puns, her legal opinions are printed next to some of the internet memes that made her a household name (or at least her initials), making this as informative as it is fun. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

Between The World And Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates

Already it is clear that Atlantic correspondent Ta-Nehisi Coates has written a landmark book on the state of our nation, one that will be studied and debated and cherished for decades; no less an authority than Toni Morrison touted it as “required reading... as profound as it is revelatory.” Easily the most important book of 2015—a year marked by Black Lives Matter advocacy and race-baiting political campaignsBetween The World And Me sees Coates deliberately picking up the mantle of James Baldwin to explore what it means to be a black man in America, looking at his youth, the progress and setbacks of today, and what his adolescent son might expect with his own maturation. Beyond the cathartic frankness of Coates’ diagnosis and insights, what lingers is the powerful eloquence of his prose, a voice both stirring and anguished, those qualities inseparable. [Ryan Vlastelica]

The First Bad Man, Miranda July

Miranda July’s debut novel plays out exactly as anyone who loves her short stories or films might want it to: It’s weird and sweet in equal measures, and populated by characters that at first seem unlikable but who prove themselves utterly human in the best ways. Her co-workers think Cheryl Glickman is the most boring person possible, but the main character’s interior life lights up every page of The First Bad Man, especially as the world starts to encroach on her systematic behaviors. An unwanted roommate, a new therapist, and an ongoing obsession with a soul mate who takes the shape of a baby force Cheryl into the real world, which turns out to be just as weird as the one she’s created. [Josh Modell]

The Rabbit Back Literature Society, Pasi Ilmari Jääskeläinen

A gripping mystery that haunts the reader in the most pleasant, shivery way, The Rabbit Back Literature Society falls into similar terrain as Twin Peaks, with unexplained phenomena, a strange town, and bizarre characters. Centering on a Finnish town home to a renowned children’s author, the “society” of the title is composed of children the author mentored, now famous as adults for their own literature. But that’s all upset when a character disappears just as the narrator is about to be inducted in to the secretive society. The author’s website lists particularly illuminating passages in the book that’ll help the reader solve the mystery, because it’s never explicitly solved. That’s what makes this book so compelling: It trusts the readers to figure it out for themselves. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

The Girl On The Train, Paula Hawkins

Paula Hawkins certainly doesn’t need our help promoting her latest book, the psychological thriller The Girl On The Train. After a seemingly unceasing tidal wave of positive reviews and press, the novel about an alcoholic divorcée trying to make sense of the events unfolding in a house near her old residence has become the kind of cultural juggernaut that makes all those Gone Girl comparisons a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Her protagonist’s penchant for day-drinking and blacking out makes for an interesting angle on the old missing-woman scenario, and the seat-of-her-pants gumshoe work is delivered in taut prose and at breakneck speed. But there’s one thing that doesn’t change, even after more than 6.5 million copies have been sold worldwide, and the movie version starring Justin Theroux and Emily Blunt began production: It’s a gripping mystery and a damn good book. Just make sure you buy the right version. [Alex McCown]

Made To Kill, Adam Christopher

The year is 1965. The city is Los Angeles. President John F. Kennedy is still alive and well, but other than that, America looks quite similar to how history remembers it—oh, except for the robots. In Made To Kill, the first installment of a trilogy by Adam Christopher, a failed attempt in the ’50s to convert the United States to a robot labor force failed, leaving Raymond Electromatic as the last robot in the country. Installed in a Hollywood office as a private investigator (with no qualms about taking a hit job here and there), Ray becomes embroiled in a wonderfully outrageous plot by Soviet agents, all while trying plumb the secrets of his own creation. It’s 50 percent hardboiled, 50 percent science fiction, and 100 percent retro-pulp spectacle. And in Ray, Christopher has created a mysterious, sympathetic antihero cast in titanium and steel. [Jason Heller]

Yes!, Daniel Bryan and Craig Tello

There have been plenty of professional wrestling memoirs written by a few generations of sports entertainers, but Daniel Bryan’s stands among the best. A well-woven combination of (often humorous) road stories, behind-the-scenes insights, and the underdog tale that was one man’s journey to the top of the proverbial mountain, Yes! tells Daniel Bryan’s story in Daniel Bryan’s way. It is a little less bombastic, a little more clean cut, and probably much less exaggerated than some of the 1990s’ stories of debauchery. But it is unique in its portrayal of a success story who never had a conquer-the-world mentality but instead rode to that success on waves of hard work and fan support. Yes! may have a bit less flair than one might hope, but it makes up for that by being a technically sound memoir from start to finish, which reflects how many fans feel about Bryan the wrestler. [Bill Jones]

West Of Sunset, Stewart O’Nan

Lists of best books tend to lean toward the ones that set out to be masterpieces, works of staggering ambition or untold history or great stylistic risk. That’s understandable, but there’s something to be said for the simple pleasure of a good story told well, and by that score, Stewart O’Nan’s West Of Sunset is one of the most purely enjoyable novels of the year. The book is a candid but forgiving look at F. Scott Fitzgerald’s lost years in Hollywood, where one of America’s best writers found himself sinking in a quicksand of booze and glamour, his triumphs far behind him. Those who ache for the Art Deco era will find it irresistible, but even Gatsby virgins will find it as captivating as a bottle of champagne, with O’Nan providing the fizz and Fitzgerald the hangover. [Ryan Vlastelica]

Sick In The Head, Judd Apatow

Even now that he’s firmly established as one of the most influential people in comedy, the quintessential image of Judd Apatow is of him as kid, geekily interviewing his stand-up idols about their careers and philosophies. That every comic approaches comedy differently no doubt informed his later work, which is nothing if not inclusive. Sick In The Head compiles those interviews—some conducted years ago, before Apatow or his subjects became famous, others done expressly for the book—into one hefty tome that’s indispensable for comedy buffs. While this is admittedly well-trod territory (Misery Loves Comedy, WTF With Marc Maron, the books And Here’s The Kicker and Poking A Dead Frog), the results are undeniably fascinating, especially in the thoughtful and candid discussions with names like Adam Sandler (Apatow’s long-time friend) and Steve Martin (his first idol). The person uninterested in that is uninterested in comedy. [Ryan Vlastelica]

Collected Fiction, Leena Krohn

There’s been a big push over the past few years to better recognize the contributions of international authors to the canon of speculative fiction—and when it comes to Finnish spec-fic, Leena Krohn reigns. In Collected Fiction, a massive hardcover anthology of her work (assembled by the renowned editing team of Ann and Jeff VanderMeer), the acclaimed and award-winning author is given a lavish introduction to American readers. Populated by sentient insects, an archivist of paradoxes, and the surveyor of an imaginary city—reminiscent of everyone from Jorge Luis Borges to Italo Calvino to Margaret Atwood—the stories and short novels contained in this volume layer language, consciousness, and morality in a dreamlike fugue that captivates as it transcends. [Jason Heller]

The Children’s Crusade, Ann Packer

Look at one in a certain way, and a family is not just a collection of related people but a kind of machine, one where each person serves as an interlocking gear, and one where a single broken piece can make the whole thing seize up. Ann Packer’s lovely and quietly devastating The Children’s Crusade examines such a broken machine, piece by piece, with thoughtful and sympathetic chapters dedicated to each member of a troubled family at different moments in his or her life. Packer probes so gently as she pulls back each layer of dysfunction that it’s easy to miss how surely she’s laying the groundwork for her powerfully emotional denouncement. Some great books announce their greatness immediately; this one sneaks up on you. [Ryan Vlastelica]

The Folded Clock: A Diary, Heidi Julavits

The Folded Clock is more than the sum of its parts. It reads as a diary—each short section headed with a date (day and month but no year) and each beginning with the word “today”: “Today I was stung by a wasp,” “Today I ordered 10 toy stethoscopes from a party supply company,” “Today I trespassed at twilight.” But the entries are not in any particular order and each transcends its diary-like format to become something of an essay. In these meditations, Heidi Julavits reflects on subjects as varied as depression, modern art, bath salts, desire, and The Bachelorette. Read together they become a window into Julavits’ thoughtful and thought-provoking mind, a mind you will want to spend time with for a long series of “todays.” [Randon Billings Noble]

1965: The Most Revolutionary Year In Music, Andrew Grant Jackson

Andrew Grant Jackson’s 1965: The Most Revolutionary Year In Music is no mere hagiography of the Fab Four, The Rolling Stones, The Beach Boys, and The Byrds. Jackson may be an incurable Beatle-maniac and longtime Angeleno, but he is also Detroit native who understands the contribution of his hometown and of Nashville and Bakersfield to the hearty musical stew of rock, pop, folk, jazz, soul, funk, and country that reached a boiling point in the book’s titular year. Moreover, Jackson acknowledges the behind-the-scenes songwriters at Motown and NYC’s Brill Building and the session musicians known as The Funk Brothers and The Wrecking Crew. Although not as well known by their individual names, they deserve immeasurable credit for some of the most popular music ever recorded. By not limiting his geographic or stylistic foci, Jackson offers a convincing case for the bold claim that he puts forth in the title. [Blake Maddux]

A Head Full Of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay

Tales of demonic possession have been a staple of horror fiction since Ray Russell’s 1962 novel The Case Against Satan (reissued by Penguin Classics this year) and William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel The Exorcist. But Paul Tremblay takes the possession story to new dimensions with his latest book, A Head Full Of Ghosts. Set in suburban Massachusetts 15 years after a family’s alleged possession ordeal was captured by a reality show, Tremblay’s intricate, dizzying thriller weaves commentary about social media, blogging, and pop-culture obsession in the internet age into a jaw-dropping reinvention of familiar tropes. And beneath the complexity and exquisite construction is a nerve-shredding odyssey into darkness whose ending will chill the heart. [Jason Heller]

The Good, The Bad, And The Furry, Tom Cox

Tom Cox writes absurdly charming books, essays, and tweets, and his latest volume to make its way Stateside is a delightful examination of life, cats, and life with cats. Cox delves into the deceptively simple topic of cats to expose deep truths on relationships and death: Don’t let the reductive “cat book” subject matter and the author’s sizable Twitter following trick you into not taking this book seriously. Cox writes sensitively about the end of his marriage and the beginning of a new relationship, rural English living, and a cross-country move. His many cats become distinct personalities, and anyone who’s loved a pet can empathize with the deeply felt portraits he draws of each. It’s one of the most heartwarming books of the year. [Caitlin PenzeyMoog]

Love And Lies: An Essay On Truthfulness, Deceit, And The Growth And Care Of Erotic Love, Clancy Martin

Love And Lies: An Essay On Truthfulness, Deceit, And The Growth And Care Of Erotic Love boldly claims that lying—or taking a creative approach to the truth—is necessary to sustain long-term love. The book is a blend of memoir, self-analysis, philosophical argument, and, “because many of the most fascinating lovers are in literature,” literary criticism. Through his own stories of experience as well as those of writers, artists, novels, and stories (Goethe’s The Sorrows Of Young Werther, Joyce’s “Araby”), Martin explores why and how we lie to ourselves and to each other, maintaining that “every lie we tell is itself a small separation, an assertion of loneliness, a reminder that you know the contents of your own mind and the other person does not.” Instead we should try “refining the truth” so that we can thereby preserve, protect, and deepen our love. [Randon Billings Noble]

The Wright Brothers, David McCullough

David McCullough is America’s most popular historian because his books recreate the past in a way that is accessible, but not simplified. At the risk of being ridiculously corny, he makes learning fun. Rather than coming off as lectures or homework, his books tell stories, and in the tale of Orville and Wilbur Wright he’s got a corker of one. While The Wright Brothers doesn’t exactly resurrect the reputation of an undersung hero, as McCullough’s Pulitzer-winning John Adams did, it does provide a marvelously entertaining look at the early days of the aeronautic age. Knowing the broad history—and Kitty Hawk is nothing if not a well-known part of the American mythos—hardly diminishes the impact of the story. Really—isn’t it crazy that we can fly? [Ryan Vlastelica]