Let’s face it: there’s no way this is going to be a definitive list of the best books of 2015. There were too many books that came out this year and too few reviewers to read them all. Plus, there are some books you’re just more interested in reviewing than others, either because you have definite preferences in authors or genres or because you’re more willing to accept certain recommendations than others.
Here at the Reader, we’re also limited by our mission to be a Chicago newspaper. Most of the books we write about in these pages are about our city or were written by people who live here or are passing through for a reading or a talk.
We also seem to write a lot about books we like—the vast majority of our reviews this year have been positive. I’m not sure why that is. Do we subconsciously preselect books for review that we’re already pretty sure we’ll like? Time is short, after all, and there’s so much good TV to watch! Seriously, it would probably take longer to slog through the new Jonathan Franzen than to binge watch the entire final season of Mad Men, and, based on our reviewer’s verdict, Mad Men—or any modern classic TV series of your choice—would be a far better time investment.
Or have we somehow fallen prey to the epidemic of niceness that has swept through the literary community—and the accompanying hope that the authors of the books we review will someday be in the position to give us jobs or at the very least retweet our best and wittiest 140-character thoughts and let us think they are our friends?
Was 2015 an unusually good year for books? Or is our reluctance to trash too many books a sign of the ongoing decline of literary culture, a sad reversal of the days when writers and critics would get into fistfights at cocktail parties? Or so I’ve been told. I cannot imagine people who sit behind desks all day are very adept at fisticuffs, especially if there’s alcohol involved.
I do not feel equipped to answer any of these questions on behalf of the other book reviewers. I do know that I, personally, would love if Judy Blume or Sarah Hepola wrote to me offering their undying friendship just because I declared in a public forum that I thought their books were great. Sadly, this hasn’t happened yet. Still, it did not mean my admiration for In the Unlikely Event and Blackout was any less sincere. Conversely, fistfighting at cocktail parties is not really my style. I’d be more likely to hide behind a bookcase and read all the titles very, very slowly (which is actually what I did do the one time I found myself at an event with someone whose book I disliked).
As for 2015 being an unusually good year for books—I don’t know, maybe we were just lucky in the books we chose to review? Maybe next year we’ll get some real stinkers. And then we can justly eviscerate them for your entertainment. But for now, here’s a list of all the books, arranged by category, that, in the past 12 months, earned our reviewers’ stamp of approval.
Displacement: A Travelogue by Lucy Knisley
March: Book Two by Andrew Aydin, John Lewis, and Nate Powell
Out on the Wire: Storytelling Secrets of the New Masters of Radio by Jessica Abel
The Oven by Sophie Goldstein
Captain Underpants and the Sensational Saga of Sir Stinks-a-Lot by Dav Pilkey
Fear of Dying by Erica Jong
The Ghost Network by Catie Disabato
The Girl in the Spider’s Web by David Lagercrantz
In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume
I Will Love You for the Rest of My Life: Breakup Stories by Michael Czyzniejewski
Marvel and a Wonder by Joe Meno
The Physics of Sorrow by Georgi Gospodinov
Single, Carefree, Mellow by Katherine Heiny
Cocktails for Dingdongs by Dustin Drankiewicz and Alexandra Ensign
Cooking Like a Master Chef by Graham Elliot
Dinner at Home by JeanMarie Brownson
The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science by J. Kenji López-Alt
Blood Runs Green: The Murder that Transfixed Gilded Age Chicago by Gillian O’Brien
Emmett Till: The Murder that Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement by Devery S. Anderson
MEMOIR / BIOGRAPHY
Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life by William Finnegan
Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola
M Train by Patti Smith
Reagan: The Life by H.W. Brands
Silver Screen Fiend: Learning About Life From an Addiction to Film by Patton Oswalt
Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink by Elvis Costello
Your Band Sucks: What I Saw at Indie Rock’s Failed Revolution (But Can No Longer Hear) by Jon Fine
The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic by Jessica Hopper
Breakbeat Poets: New American Poetry in the Age of Hip Hop ed. by Kevin Coval, Quraysh Ali Lansana, and Nate Marshall
Infested: How the Bed Bug Infiltrated Our Bedrooms and Took Over the World by Brooke Borel
Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg v