Thursday, December 31, 2015

My Ten Favorite Books of 2015, plus runners up, plus a few other top-ten lists, plus don't forget we're open 10 am to 5 pm New Year's Eve and New Year's Day.

For a bookseller, picking your favorite books can be a challenge. Your top ten should sort of be a reflection of you. What are the kinds of books you read and which were the best. I already fear that next year is going to be more difficult, as I've read seven books that are being published in 2016, some of which I really loved. For some reason, at the end of 2014 I found myself catching up with books published that year. I feel like 2015 got the short end of the stick.

I'm running out of time so I'll update this post with images and links later in the day.

1. Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff. While publishers are always hyping first novels, there's something magical about an author who breaks out after publishing for a while. Last year we saw the explosion of Emily St. John Mandel, and this year it was Lauren Groff's turn. My enthusiasm was helped by reading Arcadia for our book club beforehand, which sort of gave me an entree into what made Groff tick as a writer. There was no question that this was my favorite book of 2015, and the negative reviews (most notably from Sam Sachs and James Wood) just fortified my resolve. It was grand and glorious, as one person said, "Greek tragedy writ large." The language is beautiful, and the theatrical elements reinforce this sort of theme of facade that runs through the story, most notably between husband and wife. Plus it's pretty easy to describe, the story of a marriage, first through the husband's perspective, then the wife's, and the ambition of the book is tempered by the page-turning nature of the second half. "Must keep reading!" your brain demands.

Unlike last year, when All My Puny Sorrows and Station Eleven were fighting it out for #1, there was not really a horse race this year. But there were plenty of books I loved (and loved selling) and it was not hard to come up with a top 10.

2. How to Bake Pi: An Edible Exploration of the Mathematics of Mathematics, by Eugenia Cheng. One of the things I learned about this book is that many mathematicians who are not in category theory are not exactly the target market for this title, thought I think they would enjoy it. Cheng teaches math to artists at the Art Institute (she's the scientist in residence) and that's really the place you need to start from to understand this book. Cheng mixes cooking (lots of cooking), running, music, and transit maps into the study of math. I love seeing a music piece transformed into a mathematical diagram, and I love how making a recipe gluten free, allergen free, and vegan is akin to generalizing a mathematical formula. Here's a math blog post I wrote earlier this year. Note a preview of the jacket in paperback. They also went white on the jacket and I'm noting a great "pie" focus on the design. Honestly, I think that's the wrong way to go. Yes, I think food people would like this book, but this cover looks a bit too homespun for me.

3. A Kim Jong-Il Production, by Paul Fischer. Many of the nonfiction books I read are simply too niche to put in a top ten. But A Kim Jong-Il Production is the kind of book I think I could sell to someone who wants an exciting nonfiction narrative. It's been very amusing to see the way that publishers have reacted to The Boys in the Boat success by publishing more stories of mid-century champions, such as The Three Year Swim Club (swimming) and Speed Kings (skating) and I expect there are more to come. But I think excitement can come from anywhere and I really enjoyed this story of North Korea's attempts to build a film industry to rival the Soviet Union, which of course led them to kidnap a star director and actress from South Korea to improve the quality. After all, the kidnapping was a matter of course for the country for many years, whether to teach spies English or provide concubines. Film people would love this book, as would history fans. But this is also a story of survival, and I don't see why a fan of Unbroken wouldn't take to this too.

4. The Red Notebook, by Antoine Laurain. As a bookseller, our enthusiasm is enforced by our ability to sell it. I worried about whether I would enjoy Laurain's follow-up to The President's Hat, but it turns out the worry was misplaced. It's such a charming story, of a man (a bookseller, of course) who finds said notebook (a Moleskine, of course) with no identifying marks but pages and pages of journal entries. And yes, he falls in love with the writer. Where The President's Hat had Francois de Mitterand as the public character whose presence drives the story (the Maypole, so to speak), The Red Notebook has Patrick Modiano, as the mystery woman's love for the author's work is really the only clue to her identity. And that was fun because we the reader knew that Modiano had not won the Nobel Prize for Literature when Laurain wrote the book. It's a book that is driven by emotion, for sure, but it's smart escapism, and the sure-footed translation by Jane Aitken and Emily Boyce, preserves the French spirit.

5. The Book of Aron, by Jim Shepard
While I am of the fence that anyone can write about anything they want, and if someone starts screaming "cultural appropriation", I'll take a stand, I have to admit when I started reading Shepard's novel, I did think, "Is he Jewish and how does that affect my reading?" But there's something to be said for a novel that's not inspired by incidents in the life of the author's grandparents (or more likely of late, great grandparents), much the way some say a novel can capture truth more authentically than nonfiction. Shepard's story of an everykid whose family is sent to the Warsaw Ghetto, is beautiful in writing, character, and conception, the way he takes the life of Janucz Korczak, the Jewish-Polish educator, and makes him a side character in the story, yet central to the narrative. This is no young adult novel, but I can see a teen reading it. 

6. The Fishermen, by Chigozie Obioma. If you need any further proof that my reading is often connected to context, imagine this. A publisher calls, and says, we have this first novel we like. The author wants to do some events, and we know you'll do a good job, but we warned that he knows absolutely nobody in Milwaukee. Oh, and you're getting the event the second day of the book being on sale, so you have pretty much no time to hand-sell it to anybody. Now sometimes I read a book under these circumstances, and say, "I better stop because my reading isn't going to help." And sometimes, like for B.A. Shapiro's The Muralist, the reading helped me immensely, as I stopped thing so much art novel, and started thinking, "perfect for fans of Sarah's Key, a historical with a French twist, Jewish interest, and for fans of modern art and its development, so much the better." So when I read Obioma's tale of a family of boys whose lives were cursed by a soothsayer in 1990s Nigeria, my brain went into overdrive. I loved the way it was both a timeless folktale and a timely allegory. And there's nothing like validation to reinforce your thoughts; The Fishermen was shortlist for the Man Booker Prize.

7. The Jesus Cow, by Michael Perry. I was on the fence here. I almost picked Lauren Fox's Days of Awe as my fifth adult fiction title, but I thought that it tilted my picks too much into broken marriage and despair. And while Fox is insanely funny in her dark way, I needed more of a classic multi-character comedy to round out my list. These are really my favorite kinds of books, though they are often not billed as comedies, as that turns off reviewers. And I think the best of what I read this year was Michael Perry's first novel. I love that it was Wisconsny (so it hit that Shotgun Lovesongs slot of last year), and had a juggling balls in the air kind of quality about it. I know that Perry is too seasoned a writer of nonfiction to start out with a first-person memoiry novel, but it was so much fun for him to get in the heads of so many different kinds of people. And there's a grace about the story too which I like, not just because a lot of characters are dealing with faith (in a very different way from Marillynne Robinson, I might note), but because he tries to find the good in all his creations, even if they are kind of assholes. Runner up for this slot: Days of Awe, by Lauren Fox.

8. The Boy in the Black Suit, by Jason Reynolds. There's a bit of slottiness going on here; I'm not doing a separate kids' list so I wanted to include at least one book that was from a kids' publisher. And while I read some great books this year, including two from Jason Reynolds, I decided to pick his quieter second novel over the also great All American Boys. It's really the quietness I love about the story, a teen loses his mom and immerses himself in his after-school job at a funeral home to work through his grieving. Matt is such a great creation, a very distinct Black teen who yet is completely himself, authentic and yet confounding some of the stereotypes that writers unknowingly burden their creations with. I love the mentor relationship he has with the director, the person he needs when his dad can't come through. And I love the fact that there are a lot of different kinds of funerals in the world, for lots of different people. 

It's funny that I read a lot of short story collections this year, and I don't think I even hit even a fraction of the major ones. Daresay the category seemed fulsome? I think it's harder for stories sometimes, as I want the collections connected by some element. While I'm not advocating for connected stories by plot and character, which almost seem like and are often marketed by publishers as novels with clever structures, it's nice to have a recurring tone or philosophy running through the collection. Sometimes I want to say to an author, these seven stories work well together; these four others might work better in a different collection. So I do not have a short story collection in my top ten but I will say that Liam Callanan's "140 Characters," from Listen and Other Stories is the most memorable story I've read this year. Yes, it's a bit of a trick, but it's one that I'll bet you can't try at home.

9. The Great Beanie Baby Bubble: Mass Delusions and the Dark Side of Cute, by Zac Bissonnette. A the end of the year, Jason asks us for our favorite books to feature, but I had such difficult selling this book from my rec shelf that I went with another title that had more success (a runner up - Between You and Me, by Mary Norris). But in the end, I decided that I liked this more, though it was  a tough call. I can't believe that someone interested in business or marketing wouldn't enjoy this book. Or a someone interested in economic theory. Or someone interested in pop culture. Or someone in retail who lived through this. Ty did a lot of things right, but their success was also partly accidental. Bissonnette got some great first-person narratives from colllectors, and wasn't really hurt by Ty Warner's lack of interest in being interviewed for the story. The Beanie Babies haunt me to this day; after learning that their customer service people always fudged expected delivery dates, I never believe a vendor on a hot item, and was shocked to see us get our second shipment of Kid Made Modern pencils in short order. Note: we sold them all (about 100 sets) in about three weeks.

One of my quirks is that I list all the advance copies I read in the year they came out so seven books (that's very good, it's up from two in 2014) qualify for my 2016 year-end list. But the books I read in 2015 that were 2014 titles with 2015 paperback reprints generally don't qualify either. It feels funny to list books that everybody was talking about last year, and in fact, I've had more than one bookseller wonder why I was reading "old news." Two reasons actually -- the first is that we get a lot of book events on the paperback tour (like Matthew Thomas for We Are Not Ourselves) and the second is that I run the in-store lit group and like to focus on titles that I missed the first time around, with about three slots a year to tie into upcoming events. But I thought, there has to be a dedicated slot for my favorite book in 2015 that was written before that. So that's what I did.

10. Florence Gordon, by Brian Morton. This was also a close call. But what I loved about this book was a surprise. Hearing Jane talk about it all 2014, I thought "I don't think I'm going to like this." But I thought, let's put it on the book club program for the paperback, and then I thought, let's pick this for in-store. And what really sealed the deal was how much fun it is to sell. The truth is that for all of these books, the experience of the book is as important for me as the book itself, which is why so many event titles wind up making the list. I get all wrapped up in getting the word out, so when I like the book, so much more rides on it. As you might remember from my book club blog post, Florence Gordon is an obscure feminist academic in New York, who is quietly working on her memoirs, fearing at any moment she could lose her contract. She's estranged from her family (despite their best intentions), only things turn around when: 1) she gets a major piece of positive press 2) and a piece of bad news about her health and 3) her granddaughter offers to help out as her assistant. She tries so hard to be an off-putting character, but the reaction of many readers is to fall in love with her. And Morton really captures the various waves of feminism in the characters. To me, this is the classic book that has a huge market at indie bookstores if only other booksellers discovered it and started hand-selling it.

Here's Jason Kennedy's top ten, as chronicled in The Boswellians. He counts down, and I think his attention to detail and order encouraged me to think about ranking. Back in the days of me making top 100 music lists, putting a song at 10 had dramatic significance, compared to a ranking of #11. I apologize, but I listed it in list order rather than countdown. It's still exciting!

1. The Middle Ages, by Johannes Fried
2. The Dust that Falls from Dreams, by Louis de Bernieres
3. Archangel, by Marguerite Reed
4. Epitaph, by Mary Doria Russell
5. Bonaparte:1769-1802, by Patrice Gueniffey
6. Bream Gives Me Hiccups, by Jesse Eisenberg
7. Concussion, by Jeanne Marie Laskas
8. The Water Knife, by Paolo Bacigalupi
9. SevenEves, by Neal Stephenson
10. A Field Philosopher's Guide to Fracking, by Adam Briggle

And as a special bonus, here's Nancy Quinn's top ten, my long-time colleague who now works at the Schlitz Audubon Nature Center (and with whom Boswell is now doing events, including the long-awaited appearance of Helen MacDonald, author of H is for Hawk and Shaler's Fish. Tickets are available now for this event on April 12.
Here's Nancy Quinn's Top Ten, not ranked.
All My Puny Sorrows, by Miriam Toews
Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf
The Red Notebook, Antoine Laurain
Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng
Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff

As you can see, we have overlapping tastes. All My Puny Sorrows was my favorite book of 2014, but many, many people have been discovering it in paperback, and the world of mouth is great.
Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the New American City, by Matthew Desmond (To be published in 2016)

So here is where we differ. Had I read Evicted in 2015, it would still go on my 2016 list. And in fact I do plan to read it, just after I finish the novel I brought on a family trip. And yes, Desmond will be coming to Milwaukee in March. Details to come.

Honorable Mentions:
Honeydew, by Edith Pearlman (I still have to read her)
Our Only World: Ten Essays, by Wendell Berry
Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel
H is for Hawk, by Helen MacDonald (see above)

Don't forget, we have special hours for the holiday, but we are open!
December 31: 10 am to 5 pm
January 1: 10 am to 5 pm.

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