Best of 2015: Ben

Article by ben

Typically I prefer to settle work-related feuds in private, but in this instance, I feel compelled to use a more public platform. I always enjoy reading the annual “best of” lists that my coworkers write, but I’ve noticed a troubling trend: some of my colleagues don’t actually seem to read many books. Consider Brooke’s list, where she fesses up to not finishing several of her “favorite” titles of the year; or Mark’s list, in which he confesses that his nightstand is piled skyscraper-high with unread volumes. Hell, in 2014, Jeremy kicked off this dubious tradition with a list of books he hadn’t read yet—and that I still don’t think he has!

I, on the other hand, read every single book that comes into this store; and as the smartest person and most voracious reader on the Brazos Bookstore staff, I can remember each of these books perfectly.

So consider my list a polemic—a corrective to the scourge of indifferent reading. Here’s my list of the ten best books—fiction, nonfiction, and poetry—of 2015. And believe me: each of the below books I have read, and definitely, really, for sure have recalled with precision. I never misremember a plot!

My Feelings: Poems Cover Image
ISBN: 9781555977108
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: Graywolf Press - June 2nd, 2015


America’s favorite blind poet returns with his newest, most personal work yet. Ever since he lost his sight in a terrible zoo accident, Flynn has seen the world through his verse, turning his poetic eye on the ills of our era (the financial collapse of 2008, the 2000 presidential election, the career of Jonah Hill). Now, with MY FEELINGS, he looks inward, creating a crushing portrait of what it’s like to be unable to see. In this book-length poem, Flynn takes inventory of everything he has ever touched: stray Pepsi can tabs, peacock feathers, variously-textured walls. In so doing, the book becomes a kaleidoscopic treatise on the power of feeling things. Flynn removes these objects from their usual visual context, and by raising the actual text off the page (the design of this book is magnificent!), he asks those who can see to instead feel their way through his life, as he has. A truly brave and groundbreaking work.

Hausfrau Cover Image
ISBN: 9780812997538
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: Random House - March 17th, 2015


When elderly Gertrude Braun leaves her small Bavarian village for New York, she doesn’t know what to expect. The mission: to make money and send some across the Atlantic to her impoverished grandson, afflicted by a rare form of Klein’s Disease. But this is the late 1980s, and Manhattan’s club scene is booming. Through a series of chance encounters—most notably with vain, privileged party kid Adrian Sinclair (nicknamed by his friends and enemies “The Hopper”)—Granny Gertrude ends up knickers-deep in a scene full of drugs, lights, and beats. Essbaum’s novel deftly weaves this personal story with the house music (or haus music?) culture of New York in the 80s (look for cameos from Andy Warhol and Michael Alig), imagining the unlikely but wholly believable tale of an old German woman who, by mixing the Bavarian folk music of her hometown with the tempos of a modern era in flux, becomes the hottest DJ in town. And what does she call herself? The Hausfrau.

The Art of Memoir Cover Image
ISBN: 9780062223067
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: Harper - September 15th, 2015


The small town of Memoir, Georgia, may not have much going for it—the opening of the a new Olive Garden grabs front-page headlines!—but thanks to the eccentric interests of millionaire art lover Virginia Tully, Memoir has one prized possession: a sizable collection of original Joan Miró paintings, housed in a quaint farmhouse for everyone to enjoy. But then, a visitor comes to town: Paulette Strayhorn, arts editor for a prestigious Chicago magazine, who has distant ties to the town of Memoir—and who also has a decades-old feud to settle with Tully. Strayhorn makes an offer to buy up the collection of rare paintings, and the townsfolk begin scheming about what to do with all that money. But Tully sees through the lure of wealth; she knows Strayhorn wants the paintings to pad her own society-page cred, not to preserve the past and give great art to the people. Karr’s fun, uplifting novel succeeds on how it marries its archetypal conflicts—big cities vs. small cities; altruism vs. selfishness; wealth vs. poverty—with a convincing portrait of the rhythms of smalltown life; after the book’s slim 200 pages, you’ll feel like you grew up in Memoir too. At the center of this novel is Virginia Tully, who narrates the book in a colloquial, folksy way—but don’t let that fool you. She’s no rube; instead, she’s a flawed but quietly heroic woman who believes in the power of the close connections only a small town can provide, and who won’t let any big city snob come into her town and steal the art of Memoir.

The Witches: Salem, 1692 Cover Image
ISBN: 9780316200608
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Little, Brown and Company - October 27th, 2015


Nicolas Roeg is one of world cinema’s most esoteric filmmakers. Born in London, he rose to prominence through a series of experimental films: Performance, Walkabout, Don’t Look Now, and The Man Who Fell to Earth are all classics of 70s cinema, and he captured the unease of an era perfectly through his inventive techniques of montage and his mingling of fact and fiction. But what happened to him? Why did his career seem to go sideways? And is his 1990 adaptation of Roald Dahl’s THE WITCHES a film worth your time? Stacy Schiff seems to think so, and in THE WITCHES, she edits together an oral history of what’s often considered an insignificant film by a great director. Through a series of intimate interviews with the cast and crew (Roeg himself declined to be interviewed for this project, lending an intriguing absence to the proceedings), Schiff deconstructs this “minor” film, showing that sometimes one doesn’t unlock a career as enigmatic as Roeg’s by looking at his masterpieces—one does so by looking at his failures.

Staff Pick Badge
Multiply/Divide: On the American Real and Surreal Cover Image
ISBN: 9781941411049
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Sarabande Books - August 11th, 2015


Finally, a smart spy novel with a female protagonist! Walters’ MULTIPLY/DIVIDE is a taut thriller about world-class secret agent Sara Bond (or, as she introduces herself, “Bond, Sara Bond”—remind you of anyone?), snatched away from a much-needed vacation when an international crisis strikes. In this case, the villain is Dr. Jurgen Radtke, a crazed nuclear physicist, obsessed with multiplying and dividing atoms. As step one of his nefarious plan, he hijacks the Large Hadron Collider and threatens to do some multiplying and dividing that may bring on the nuclear apocalypse if his demands aren’t met. Walters has a great deal of fun with the conventions of the spy novel: yes, her hero makes numerous quips (“Divide this,” she says before dispatching a henchman), but this version of Bond is in a monogamous relationship, never drinks, and detests using violence. Yet she’s no pushover: this is a smart, feminist reinvention of a genre many people have given up on, considering it as old-fashioned as the Cold War dinosaurs who started the whole thing.

Delicious Foods: A Novel Cover Image
ISBN: 9780316284943
Availability: UNAVAILABLE
Published: Little, Brown and Company - March 17th, 2015


French fries, chicken parmesan, nachos: everyone knows these foods are delicious—but what happens when you smash them between the pages of a book? This is the question conceptual artist Hannaham seeks to answer in his innovative coffee table tome, DELICIOUS FOODS. Hannaham started simply: with 1,000 books full of blank pages. Then between each of those pages, he smashed (by hand, mind you, into every single book—no phony reproductions here!) some of America’s favorite foods—in some instances (like with various hamburgers) even going so far as to sit on the book for hours to make sure the food was perfectly smashed. The result is an anarchic and beautiful look at what we put into our body from the analytic perspective of everything being smashed real good. Buy the book early, and some of the foods might still be edible; but if you wait, the book becomes a survey of smells, as time takes over and begins to rot the various meats. (Each book also comes with a complimentary can of ant spray so you can keep those feisty buggers away from your bookshelf.) And make sure you check out the accompanying YouTube videos of Hannaham actually making each book. My favorite clip? The one in which he sets scoops of ice cream between the open pages, then looks saucily into the camera before saying, “Bet you wanna see me smash this, huh?”

Staff Pick Badge
The Story of My Teeth Cover Image
ISBN: 9781566894098
Availability: On Our Shelves Now
Published: Coffee House Press - September 15th, 2015


Each day, we see so many teeth—the teeth of friends, the teeth of a significant other, the teeth of the mailman smiling as he drops that battered Amazon package on your front stoop. But with all of these teeth around us, do we ever really notice them anymore, or do we just take them for granted? In her probing work of nonfiction, Luiselli takes a closer look, profiling ten of her own teeth over the course of a decade (she began this work when she was twenty-two). In the tradition of the Up documentaries and Linklater’s Boyhood, THE STORY OF MY TEETH checks in with the same set of teeth each year, thus surveying the puzzling movements of time. Consider Jeff, one of her incisors, who in 2004 was young and ambitious, wanting to chew into the world’s toughest meats, but who, by 2014, is defeated by a life of vegetarianism, unable to realize his dreams. And then there’s Abby, the dainty molar who’s the life of the tooth party, until one fateful day in 2010 when she gets some spinach stuck on her that Luiselli fails to notice during an important work meeting, thus forever ruining Abby’s reputation. In this way, Luiselli’s profound story of her own teeth is actually the story of all of us—the story of our hopes and dreams, and how time, in all its briskness and brutality, often makes for us other plans. (Luiselli plans to continue this project, releasing a new volume about her teeth each decade.)

The New and Improved Romie Futch Cover Image
ISBN: 9781941040157
Availability: NOT ON OUR SHELVES. Usually Arrives in 4-7 Business Days
Published: Tin House Books - October 1st, 2015


Things aren’t going so hot for Southern boy Romie Futch: the love of his life has left him for an art snob; his taxidermy business is struggling; and the only people he surrounds himself with are dimwits who drink, smoke, and shoot. Facing bankruptcy, he signs up for an experimental procedure in which he has the entirety of the humanities uploaded into his brain. Back home in his trailer, what can he do with all this knowledge of Derrida, Foucault, and centuries of great art? Well, step one: win back his love by building the most elaborate and imaginative taxidermy-based dioramas the art world has scene. And step two? Hunt down the wild boar, “Hogzilla,” currently terrorizing the area. What to do with a plot so wild, characters so imaginative? You play it straight, as Elliott does here, drawing surprising emotional depth from such insane struggles. When Futch, at one point, decides to adorn himself with the skin of a boar for a Halloween costume, calling himself Lord Tusky, most readers will have three options: laugh at man’s boldness, cry at the man’s loneliness, or cheer at the man’s determination. Elliott isn’t happy until you have all three reactions at once to her novel, the strangest of the year.

Don't Suck, Don't Die: Giving Up Vic Chesnutt (American Music) Cover Image
By Kristin Hersh, Amanda Petrusich (Foreword by)
Unavailable from Brazos Bookstore
ISBN: 9780292759473
Availability: OUT OF PRINT - Not Available for Order
Published: University of Texas Press - October 1st, 2015


Who says vampire stories are only for teenagers? In Hersh’s lyrical novel, she considers a love different from the love between Bella and Edward, but no less strong: the love between business partners. Sensing that public opinion of the vampire way of life is on decline, Harold and Jasmine, who grew up together in Transylvania, decide to do something about it. Their solution? To form Transylvania’s first vampire support group, with one motto: “Don’t suck, and don’t die.” After all, what happens when vampires try to do the unthinkable—to stop sucking the blood of humans? Will they, in fact, die, or will they find ways to stay alive? Enter Cornelius, a rakish Dracula-descendent with a penchant for fast cars and faster women. He believes that sucking is the, ahem, blood right of vampires everywhere. Will he derail the good efforts of the support group with his charm and joie de vivre? Like all great genre fiction, Hersh’s novel works as allegory: in telling the story of vampires changing their ways, she also tells the story of addiction, and what it takes to overcome one’s internal demons. Plus, Harold and Jasmine—from different sides of the Transylvania tracks, though both quick-witted and full of compassion—make a sassy, well-matched pair (one scene where they flirtatiously bicker over whether or not to return lost blood to the Red Cross is particularly charged); and yes, for you romantics out there, a love starts to form, though maybe not the love you’re expecting. This is an empathetic work that, in addition to telling a great story, tries to bring the reader closer to understanding a subculture so frequently observed in fiction, yet so infrequently portrayed realistically.

Staff Pick Badge
Fortune Smiles: Stories Cover Image
ISBN: 9780812997477
Availability: Unlikely to Be Available
Published: Random House - August 18th, 2015


For a list so heavy with fiction, literary nonfiction, and poetry, it might surprise you to learn that my number one pick of the year is a biography—but one that provides a much-needed boost of optimism to our troubled political and financial times. In his astonishingly comprehensive work, Adam Johnson studies the life of Toby Elgin, affectionately called “The Happy Billionaire.” Even if you’re not familiar with the name, you’ve certainly heard about his good deeds: repainting the entirety of the Empire State Building in rainbow hues after the legalization of gay marriage; installing thousands of high-powered electric fans across America to help facilitate wind turbines; spending untold millions to resuscitate Matthew McConaughey’s career. But author Johnson, through countless interviews with Elgin’s friends and a deep look into primary sources, reveals the many smaller accomplishments of this great man, including sending hundreds of smiling “donation bots” into the streets of America’s biggest cities to drop fifty-dollar bills into the hands of homeless people everywhere. In his efforts to make people happy, Elgin has earned many enemies (Donald Trump recently called him “a danger to American capitalism”), but in this inspiring book, we understand what truly motivates a man with fantastic wealth toward altruism—to help others by wielding his fortune for good, always with a smile on his face.

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