The State of the Art: Books 2015

Looking at my entire year in any area of pop culture leads to some really weird and interesting meta conclusions. Grading everything as I consume it often means that I don't see the trends of how I've been behaving until late December. So I'll be reading merrily along, figuring that I'm generally doing what I always do, but when I compile everything into one list, suddenly I see that I've been favoring some particular genre. 2013 was the Year of the Short Story. 2014 was the Year of the Parallel Universe. And here in 2015, I'm just now realizing that it has been the Year of Family Drama.

Naturally, I've tried to read books from all over the spectrum. I always have a healthy mix of fiction and non-fiction. In 2015, I've started to incorporate things I don't have a lot of experience with - comic books and graphic novels, for example. I'm trying to follow my author friend Jeffrey's lead in seeking out novels by a more diverse range of authors (an ongoing goal for 2016). But even with all these efforts to broaden my reading horizons, the majority of the books I've read this year seem to center around families in crisis. Whether it's a Dutch housewife desperately attempting to connect with her husband, an African-American man unable to wrangle his siblings, or a poor young girl coming to terms with her father's alcoholism, troubled households were apparently all the rage on my nightstand.

That sounds depressing, but in looking at the number of books I got through in 2015 and their relative quality, things are actually looking up! Last year, I jumped to 36 books, and this year, it's even higher, standing at 39. That may be cheating a bit, because a couple of them were comic books that I could knock out in a single day, but I'll go ahead and count them. The real news is the jump in quality. Last year, only 28% of the books I read managed to rank a grade of B+ or higher. This year, the number has risen to 33%. That, combined with the fact that nothing I read in 2015 ranks below a C, means that this was a pretty great year for books. Hooray!

Before we get to the rankings, some disclaimers. As always, the list doesn't include books that I re-read, childhood favorites, etc. I've tried to explain how my general grading system works, but there are always intricacies. Grades are often a reflection of how well I think a book did in accomplishing what it was going for, so as in TV and movies, non-fiction has a lower bar to clear for a high grade. Non-fiction just has to lay out the facts in an interesting way, whereas there's always something to nitpick in fiction. That's just the nature of the beast. "Best" doesn't necessarily mean "favorite". I can recognize that something is a great achievement and still rank it lower than something I just flat-out enjoyed more.

And finally, I'm not going to list comic books or Pop Culture Homework Project books in my top five, no matter what grade they got. State of the Art posts are an attempt to summarize the culture of the year as a whole, and those don't really fit into that goal. Naturally, they'll still be listed in the full ranking. Speaking of which...enough chatter! Let's talk about some books!

#1: The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites - Libby H. O'Connell

What I Said: This book was essentially designed to hit all my sweet spots. It digs into hidden pockets of American history, and the way that earlier generations went about the challenges of feeding themselves. It uses food as a backdrop to explore the topics that Americans are passionate about, and what trends we embrace. It organizes everything into neat capsules. In fact, it appealed to me so much that I bought a copy before I even finished reading the one I borrowed from the library, which is a feat that no other book has ever accomplished. [This book has also inspired the American Plate Project over at Tastes of Lime - so it's been good reading AND good eating!]

#2: The Turner House - Angela Flournoy

What I Said: The book avoids the issue of spreading itself too thin by focusing on just a handful of the kids and the emotional baggage that comes along with an ill, aging parent, unhelpful siblings, and a sackful of money problems. This was a remarkable book, and is the rare novel that really succeeds at being transportive. I haven't read something that was so good at making me feel I was actually in the book's universe since The Night Circus.

#3: Single, Carefree, Mellow: Stories - Katherine Heiny

What I Said: All of the stories revolve around the romantic entanglements of the narrator, one of whom appears in three of the stories. Generally, I'd consider that a been-there-read-that sort of idea, but Heiny does something special here. Namely, the characters don't do anything that special. People don't blow up at each other. Big, life-changing catastrophes don't arrive out of the blue. These are just normal women leading normal lives, and the stories are more about their private thoughts than any propulsive event.

#4: The House We Grew Up In - Lisa Jewell

What I Said: The family makes an effort to stay somewhat tethered to each other and to offer emotional support to the mother that won't admit to the mental illness she clearly suffers from. It's a tough road, though, and each of the family members has their own issues to work through as well. Hoarding has always been a fascinating topic to me, and makes a terrific premise to center a novel around. Jewell writes with her usual wit and relatability, and I tore through the book in no time flat.

#5: Golden Son - Pierce Brown

What I Said: Firstly, it was able to stand apart as an entity capable of existing on its own merits, rather than just serving as weak connective tissue between the first and third books. Secondly, and here's the real coup, it's not only a good read, but it's better than the first book. Really! The series is actually building on its foundation, which you'd hope would happen all the time, but never does.

And now, for the fully ranked list, with books published in 2015 underlined:

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn - Betty Smith (1943) (A)
The American Plate: A Culinary History in 100 Bites - Libby H. O'Connell (2014) (A)
The Turner House - Angela Flournoy (A-)
The Fault in Our Stars - John Green (2012) (A-)
Archie #1 - Mark Waid and Fiona Staples (A-)

Single, Carefree, Mellow: Stories - Katherine Heiny (B+)
The House We Grew Up In - Lisa Jewell (2013) (B+)
Golden Son - Pierce Brown (B+)
The Magician's Land - Lev Grossman (2014) (B+)
Roller Girl - Victoria Jamieson (B+)
The Halloween Tree - Ray Bradbury (1972) (B+)
Choose Your Own Autobiography - Neil Patrick Harris (2014) (B+)

The Luminaries - Eleanor Catton (2013) (B)
Double Down: Game Change 2012 - Mark Halperin and John Heilemann (2013) (B)
The Alex Crow - Andrew Smith (B)
Red Rising - Pierce Brown (2014) (B)
So You've Been Publicly Shamed - Jon Ronson (B)
The Girl on the Train - Paula Hawkins (B)
Song of Spider-Man: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History - Glen Berger (2013) (B)
The Fever - Megan Abbott (2014) (B)
Fables, Volume #1 (Legends in Exile) - Bill Willingham (2002) (B)
Fables, Volume #2 (Animal Farm) - Bill Willingham (2003) (B)

The Paying Guests - Sarah Waters (2014) (B-)
The Miniaturist - Jessie Burton (2014) (B-)
Us - David Nicholls (2014) (B-)
Mommie Dearest - Christina Crawford (1978) (B-)
Tease - Amanda Maciel (2014) (B-)
The Land of Stories: The Wishing Spell - Chris Colfer (2012) (B-)
Dietland - Sarai Walker (B-)

Nine Inches - Tom Perotta (2013) (C+)
Around the World in Eighty Days - Jules Verne (1873) (C+)
Inherit Midnight - Kate Kae Myers (C+)
Yes Please - Amy Poehler (2014) (C+)
Outlander - Diana Gabaldon (1991) (C+)
All My Puny Sorrows - Miriam Toews (2014) (C+)
How Not to be Wrong: The Power of Mathematical Thinking - Jordan Ellenberg (2014) (C+)

Kiss Me First - Lottie Moggach (2013) (C)
The Blondes - Emily Schultz (2012) (C)
Fables, Volume #3 (Storybook Love) - Bill Willingham (2004) (C)

This is normally the place where I'd list the books that I dropped before finishing them, but as I said at the top of the post, this has been a pretty remarkable year. I didn't have to jettison anything! If there's one thing to fix, it looks like I may have slightly over-relied on popular, mainstream books. There's nothing wrong with enjoying those, of course, but I'd like to challenge myself a bit more. In order to discover those hidden gems, though, I'll need recommendations. And in order to get those, we all need to get reading. To the library!


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