Many people lament the trend toward end-of-year lists and best-of round-ups, but then again many people are terrible. I am not beholden to terrible, joy-despising people. Sharing awesome things is a joy-conducive activity and one that I'm very fond of, so without further ado, here are just a few of my favorites from 2015. This is Part 1 (books and music); Part 2 (food, podcasts--yes, podcasts again--and other fun things) is TK in the near future.
**NB: These are things I enjoyed this calendar year, not necessarily things that were released in the last 12 months. I'm behind the curve pretty much always, but on the assumption that you might be, too, I hazard that some of these might still be useful!**
Barbara Pym, Excellent Women - This is my most belated discovery; Barbara Pym was a British author who wrote and published mostly in the third quarter of the 20th century. I had a bit of a Baader-Meinhof moment with her early in the year where it felt like everyone was suddenly talking about this writer I'd never heard of before. This was in large part due to the flurry of cultural discussion around the concept of "the spinster" that cropped up, partially around Kate Bolick's April release, Spinster: Making a Life of One's Own (which I still haven't read). There was an excellent piece in the New Yorker called "Barbara Pym and the New Spinster" which was what convinced me I really needed to read Pym. Excellent Women is incredibly funny, SUPER British, gently feminist, and completely delightful. I have been on the constant hunt for more Pym at my usual used bookstores since finishing it but so far no luck. However, I have a feeling that Pym (and the Spinster Agenda more generally) will feature heavily in 2016 for me.
Heather Cocks and Jessica Morgan, The Royal We - This one actually came out this year! And like the Pym book, it is also very British, which is a definite soft spot for me (see also Rainbow Rowell's Carry On). I used to read a fair amount of romance writing, but I'd drifted away from it when I had a hard time finding books that were both well-written and non-offensive in their gender politics. This book is both of those things, and while it is certainly full of a lot of the ridiculousness that makes romance novels unappealing to some people, I think it participates in all the tropes and themes with a certain knowingness and sense of fun. This book is basically an alternate universe version of a Prince William-Kate Middleton-style romance but with many twists and complications. It's fun and fluffy in the best way.
Leslie Jamison, The Empathy Exams - I don't read that much nonfiction, which I consider a bit of a failing, but when I do, I tend towards essay collections by smart women writers. This collection is astonishing. It's one of the first books I've read since leaving graduate school that made me pull out a pen and start taking notes. My favorite essay (and the one I marked up the most) is "In Defense of Saccharin(e)." Jamison's discussion of the ways that traditional literary criticism has denigrated a certain kind of "sentimentality" in literature and her partially recuperative but also just stunningly nuanced and reflective take on that canonical attitude spoke to me on so many levels. I also found this essay, and the book on the whole, to be a beautiful model of how to mix personal writing into a more analytical/philosophical piece. Of course that mix is in some ways at the heart of the subject she's writing about, so it's particularly apropos.
a brief, illustrative passage from "In Defense of Saccharin(e)":
I think our fixation with complication and opaque figuration has something to do with an abiding sense of this banality, creeping constantly around the edges of our lives and language. Perhaps if we say it straight, we suspect, if we express our sentiments too excessively or too directly, we'll find we're nothing but banal. There are several fears inscribed in this suspicion: not simply about melodrama or simplicity but about commonality, the fear that our feelings will resemble everyone else's. This is why we want to dismiss sentimentality, to assert instead that our emotional responses are more sophisticated than other people's, that our aesthetic sensibilities, testify, iceberg style, to an entire landscape of interior depth.
A few more that I enjoyed: Americanah (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie), Afterworlds (Scott Westerfeld), The Queen of the Tearling/The Invasion of the Tearling (Erika Johansen), Pictures at a Revolution: Five Movies and the Birth of the New Hollywood (Mark Harris), Nimona (Noelle Stevenson)
I've made a Spotify playlist including a few songs from each of my favorite albums of the year (all of which actually came out this year) plus some random songs that I liked a lot (most but not all of which are 2015 releases). You can listen right here or on Spotify.
My top 5 albums were the Original Broadway Cast Recording of Hamilton, San Fermin's Jackrabbit, Sufjan Stevens' Carrie and Lowell, Son Lux's Bones, and Pearl and the Beard's Beast. I highly recommend you check those out in full.
Come back in a few days for Part 2 of my 2015 faves round-up and if you had any favorite books or music this year that you want to share, please leave a note in the comments!