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The Village Voice’s Favorite Books of 2015

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Here’s eleven titles we loved this year — and that are worth digging into once you finish Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.

Step Aside, Pops by Kate Beaton (Drawn and Quarterly, 160 pages)

Kate Beaton has mastered the subtle send-up through her wildly popular web comic series that breaks down history, literature, and pop culture with a wink: Hark! A Vagrant. In her second book — Step Aside, Pops — Beaton slices right through your old history lessons with clever misdirection (see: Egomaniac Liszt penning Chopin’s biography). Beaton’s illustrations flaunt such expressive (and jaunty) characters that it’s a treat to return to these pages again and again to see a jaded, sassy Wonder Woman or a bodybuilding Cinderella. Beaton’s paneled comics have once again proved savagely funny, showing just how far a little wit, history, and an unexpected punchline can go towards busting your guts. (Tatiana Craine)

Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg by Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik (Dey Street Books, 240 pages)

In this slim biography, journalist Irin Carmon and lawyer Shana Knizhnik neatly explain why Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg became a national icon; though she’s risen to media prominence only recently, with her strong dissents on such ridiculous Roberts court decisions as Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, Ginsburg has devoted her life to making the country more equal for everyone. She also believes strongly in maintaining a collegial relationship with her fellow justices, even as she lambasts their legal decisions. Ginsburg — a tireless worker, pushup fiend, night owl, and opera lover — is a champion of human rights and a national treasure. (Meave Gallagher)

The Clasp by Sloan Crosley (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pages)

Inspired by Guy de Maupassant’s 1884 story “The Necklace,” Sloan Crosley’s The Clasp deftly examines themes of pride and regret through the tale of three old college friends’ interwoven lives. Victor, a hapless 30-something without a job or romantic possibility, leaves New York City for Paris in search of a necklace rumored to have been stolen by Nazis. Meanwhile, Nathanial and Kezia embark on more metaphorical journeys, each in search of love and self-identity. Told with sharp wit and tenderness, The Clasp is funny, emotionally honest, and smartly intuitive about why we keep secrets from those who know us best. (Amy Brady)

Welcome to Night Vale by Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor (Harper Perennial, 416 pages)

In 2012, Joseph Fink and Jeffrey Cranor quietly captured the hearts (and ears) of thousands of podcast listeners with Welcome to Night Vale. Now, three years and several live podcast tours later, Fink and Cranor invite people into Night Vale through a new avenue: a novel. You don’t need to know anything about the fictitious desert town in order to pick up the violet-bound pages of this fantastic mystery. This book introduces readers to the best of the podcast’s deadpan humor and its deeply unsettling environment where conspiracy theories are true and librarians are horrible creatures. Take Twin Peaks nightmares mixed with Twilight Zone dreams, and you’re on your way to understanding (and reveling) in this smart, sci-fi take on Americana and fitting in. (Tatiana Craine)

Asking for It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture and What We Can Do About It by Kate Harding (Da Capo Lifelong Books, 272 pages)

Asking for It is hard to read. Kate Harding does exactly what her title promises, and her unflinching look at rape culture—which is to say, culture—can make you want to stop reading, curl up in a ball under a blanket, and never emerge. In 2015, rape culture boils down to “blame the victim,” and Harding shows this over and over again; she backs up her arguments with tons of research, but delivers it conversationally, making her case with facts and cracking just enough dark jokes to let the reader breathe. We are all part of the problem; with Asking for It, Harding offers us some solutions, too, tiny rays of hope in a very bleak, necessary book. (Meave Gallagher)

The Empire Ascendent: The Worldbreaker Saga Two by Kameron Hurley

Yes, the title of this epic fantasy sequel suggests the second original Star Wars movies, and structurally The Empire Ascendent holds to that film’s darker, desperate tone: The good guys get stomped all through this. But that statement demands some qualifying. Hurley, something of a genre revolutionist, doesn’t actually truck much with “goody guys,” and as her story of parallel worlds invading each other grows wider and wilder, she dashes to the rocks simple dialectics of good and evil. She also dashes all expectations – and the lives of POV characters. Hurley’s tricky, fascinating trilogy is one of the best things going in fantasy fiction, a work of moral seriousness but also rip-snorting adventure, an interrogation of genre tropes but also a laboratory for the invention of new ones. (Alan Scherstuhl)

The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson (Graywolf Press,160 pages)

Theory doesn’t get much play outside the halls of academia, among masses unpretentious or benighted. And yet The Argonauts, a work very much founded in the language and ideas of a high-level scholarship – its title is an allusion to Roland Barthes — found itself this spring vaulted to ubiquity, debated and praised at dinner parties across the country. It may be that Nelson, a poet and critic, approaches everything with uncertainty, taking nothing for granted. This slim volume questions so many assumptions both social and personal that reading it is almost the opposite of educational: You don’t so much learn more about the world as leave sure that you know less. (Calum Marsh)

Talk by Linda Rosenkrantz (NYRB Classics, 241 pages)

Eve’s Hollywood by Eve Babitz (NYRB Classics, 352 pages)

Sixteen years years running, NYRB Classics, the publishing arm of The New York Review of Books, has been the most exciting house in the book game, returning to print a stream of vital, eclectic works, many great and many close to it. This year’s gush offered two works of dazzling bi-coastal talk: First Talk, by Linda Rosenkrantz, a docu-novel, all in dialogue, boiled down from transcripts of two young Manhattanite art-world women and their gay male best friend on a 1965 beach vacation. The chatter is scabrous, hilarious, moving, and revelatory – especially if you think Portnoy’s Complaint invented the comic treatment of masturbation in American lit. (Talk beat it by a year.) Eve Babitz’s novel/memoir Eve’s Hollywood, meanwhile, only feels like talk. In vivid bursts of confessional memory, Babitz surveys/defends the “wasteland” of her native Los Angeles, her sentences at first bubbling up and over like shook-up champagne. But read on and marvel at her control of that effervescence, at the wit and radiance of her prose – and her golden, long-gone L.A. (Alan Scherstuhl)

Quicksand by Steve Toltz (Simon & Schuster, 368 pages)

Australian novelist Steve Toltz was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize in 2009 for his debut novel, the sprawling 700-page comedy A Fraction of the Whole. Six years later he returns with Quicksand, its successor—a more modest undertaking at half the length, it would seem, but a rare accomplishment at twice the authorial skill. Toltz has greatly refined his technique over the half-decade he spent writing, and Quicksand, the story of the “poor, sad-lucked, kind-hearted fuck up” Aldo Benjamin, is altogether an exquisite farce, at once whip-smart and painfully uproarious. One only hopes his literary brilliance is brought to bear on novel number three more swiftly. (Calum Marsh)

We All Looked Up Tommy Wallach (Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, 384 pages)

Remember, for a moment, the questions you likely asked yourself as a teen: Who am I? What do I want to do with my life? In Tommy Wallach’s YA novel We All Looked Up, the teenage protagonists must face those questions and others in the midst of a fearful society turning lawless and cruel. A meteor is barreling towards Earth with a 66.6% chance of colliding in seven weeks. Should that happen, all life will be destroyed. At once affecting and philosophical, We All Looked Up offers a hopeful view of America’s youth even as it strips them of their own hopeful future. (Amy Brady)

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