Well, as promised last week, here is a short list of my favorite books published during 2015 that I read! It seems that this year I focused mainly on non-fiction books and comics, but I guess that not's unusual! Those seem to be my top genres most years! In any case, looking forward to some more awesome reading in 2016!
One of my favorite irreverent literary history nerd cartoonists working on the web today, Kate Beaton had an awesome year in books, publishing her first children's work, The Princess and the Pony, as well as the hefty new collection of her webcomic, Hark: A Vagrant, Step Aside Pops!
The book is, right off the bat, an absolutely adorable work of children’s literature. However, I feel it is more than that, as well. The cartoony, detailed art lends itself perfectly to the simple story. Princess Pinecone, the littlest warrior, wants to fit in and be a right menace in battles like the other warriors, with their cool helmets, cloaks, and amulets, but for her birthday she receives a roly-poly, farting, none-too-bright pony.
Of course, she learns to love the creature and becomes the star of the annual Great Battle, making the lesson ostensibly something like not “looking a gift horse in the mouth.” However, under the surface of this useful little life lesson, there is more going on; this work would appeal, I feel, equally to children of both genders and does not distinguish between what young girls and boys are stereotypically “supposed” to be into; Without any sort of preaching, Beaton illustrates a world that does not condescend to tell readers what they should like. A great picture book for any storytime!
Like Hark: A Vagrant, Jillian Tamaki's funny, witty work of Canadian humor began as a webcomic, but here, instead of cute, nerdy literary and historical references, the focus is on cute, nerdy sci-fi and fantasy tropes, set in that ever popular magical school, with all of the typical and not-so-typical characters. I loved the realistic high school drama coupled with magic, cat people, and people who just can't die! Tamaki's artwork is a great compliment to her writing as well, and I don't think I would ever tire of flipping through this one!
History: Lafayette in the Somewhat United States by Sarah Vowell
It's been awhile since Sarah Vowell’s last captivating collection of essays on a historical topic, sharing her deep interest and love of American history with the reading and listening audience, so I was excited for her latest obsession, the Marquis de Lafayette. Using the idealistic young Frenchman and his quixotic devotion to the cause of the American Revolution to explore how the Revolutionary War have come to be seen by the loosely affiliated United States and his legacy today. Traveling with Vowell as she visits the various sites of the Revolutionary War battles Lafayette participated in across Pennsylvania, we encounter plenty of interesting facts and the usual local eccentrics, including some very interesting Quakers with philosophical opposition to books discussing war.
Vowell’s trademark acerbic yet optimistic interpretations of these historic events made Lafayette in the Somewhat United States another absorbing work of popular history. Vowell, I feel, is always particularly adept not only at explaining how these nearly legendary events in our nation's history really went, but connecting them with our culture today as well.
Social Sciences: Chasing the Scream by Johann Hari
This book was a difficult one for me, a book that struck really close to home but one that riveted me with its insights, compassion, and arguments for how our world could be different. In another facet of the century long “war on drugs” that has captured the world, Minneapolis and St. Paul are currently in the grips of a major heroin “epidemic” that has struck the suburbs as well as the city, a close relative being among the victims. Now many from privileged backgrounds have been effected, a debate has sprung up on how to treat this issue. After reading Chasing the Scream, I was able to get some context into the reasons behind this; a very intriguing response to some of the major debates regarding the so called war on drugs.
Journalist Johann Hari, himself suffering personal loss and hardship from addiction and drugs, embarked upon a three year quest to discover how things have come to this; with overdoses, poverty, rampant and violent crime, corruption and the host of other social ills, he demonstrates how current global policy, headed by the United States, has failed. His compilation of facts provides a very compelling argument for not online the decriminalization of drugs throughout the world, but their legalization as well, for the purpose of strengthening order. In visiting places where the universal prohibition of narcotics has been loosened, even a little bit, he shows what things could look like in a world just a little different.
Kill City” contains a fascinating collection of images, shedding light upon a neglected and oft maligned subculture. These intimate, vivid photographs capture a specific and interesting period in the 1990s, as young squatters, following egalitarian and creative dreams, transformed the Lower East Side neighborhood of Manhattan. While I’ve yet to visit NYC and was in grade school for the majority of the period explored here, the influence of these experimental living space still resonate throughout the country and the world. Thayer’s masterful photography illustrates this important and inspiring community in a way not seen before.
I wrote about this very interesting topic back in July in my Reading Online segment of Reading Rainstorms, so check it out over here!
Essays: The World is On Fire by Joni Tevis
Another of my favorites this year, I included this fascinating, gripping collection of essays on a diverse and amazing collection of topics in my entry, Libraries at the End of the World. Through a series of creative nonfiction essays, she explores various interesting topics through the lens of apocalypse and collapse, including popular culture and how your understanding of the past can transform your life in the future.
Food: Brew Better Beer by Emma Christensen
After checking out a variety of homebrewing how-to books, trying to get started on brewing my own beer, I felt that this one was the most user friendly, nicely organized, and comprehensive one I looked at, offering instructions for a lot of varieties of beer, including gluten-free types. Whether starting with with simple extract based kits, or going all in with all grain recipes, Emma Christensen shares all of the equipment, ingredients, and background information you will need. Along with plenty of troubleshooting info on how to respond to questions and things going wrong along the brewing process, it really is a great place to start. Focusing on gallon batches, a batch easier to just pick up and start brewing, especially in cramped quarters, but there are also recipes provided for larger batches as well once you get the procedure down.
I tried the recipes for a couple of old fashioned, historic types in the British and Session ale styles, a “braggot,” which is a mead-beer hybrid, and a “gruit,” which is an ancient Scottish style using fresh herbs rather than hops. All in all, for my first attempt, I think the braggot worked out, making an extremely alcoholic heavy beer, while the gruit, sadly, didn’t work out, but as Christensen points out, you have to start somewhere!
You never know what to expect in the short stories of China Miéville- that’s not to say they all have a “twist” like in an M. Night Shyamalan movie or anything so obvious. Each story, from the most to the less successful ones included in this collection experiments with the very mechanics of storytelling in some very atmospheric, ingenious and unsettling ways. Each of them is different in subject and style and each takes on a different, genre defying theme. Intricate, complex constructions of language, it really pays off to pay attention to the deeper connotations of each of these tales and this a collection that would really award a second reading, I feel.
These stories take the world we know and shake them; maybe immense, floating blocks of ice appear orbiting above London. Maybe a plague strikes that causes people to develop ever deepening trenches or moats in the soil around them- needless to say, a devastating development for modern infrastructure. Maybe an archaeological dig turns up human and non-human beings living in harmony, falling victim to the same volcanic event. Also, the collection includes two of the most chilling stories I’ve read in a long time, “Säcken” and “The Rabbet-” I’ll leave it to other readers to find out more. “The Dowager of Bees” was another of my favorites, about mysterious cards that appear in high stakes card games, with rules of their own that are broken at great peril.
I cannot wait to enter the world of words put together by China Miéville once again!
*Theme music; "Auld Lang Syne," Andrew Bird, Holidays Rule, 2012