Since it’s getting close to the end of the year, I thought I’d try my hand at one of those click-bait end of the year round-up articles that everyone loves so much. Really, I just want people to pay attention to me and also give a minuscule little bit of notice to some really great books that I’ve had the pleasure to read recently – not that they need it. So here are my favorite books of 2015. Unfortunately, I haven’t read many full books this year, but of the few I’ve read, these were the best.
Lagoon is the story of an alien invasion like no other alien invasion story I’ve read before. The aliens seem to take pleasure in just diving in and transforming everything they touch just to see what happens and revel in the ensuing chaos. In that sense, they are neither malignant nor benign – they will fulfill your dreams as well as those of everyone else, which can lead to a really big mess. Navigating this are a group of people who have been touched by the aliens in some way as they attempt to keep things from falling apart completely. There is a wonderfully non-human (as in humans are decentered in many ways) element, and also non-western aspect (the aliens first make contact off the coast of Nigeria rather than the usual Washington DC or New York or other bastion of global Western dominance). It’s not a perfect story – at times it runs a little too fast and loose with the details and character development – but overall it leaves the reader with something new to contemplate, a world transformed.
Runner up: Although not published in 2015, I’m counting it because I read it in 2015 and it’s my blog so I can make the rules. Station Eleven is a unique post-apocalyptic novel that tacks back and forth between the last days of civilization and a time 15 years later when much of that world has been forgotten. All of the people remaining are products of the world that existed before the plague, and the story is an exploration of the way that much of that world persists – both good and bad elements – long after its demise.
With The Mushroom at the End of the World, Anna Tsing is back with more brilliant ethnographic theory (the way ethnographic theory ought to be). Her previous book, Friction: An Ethnography of Global Connection, has been an inspiration for my dissertation research, and this book extends the concepts formulated in Friction and grounds them in an ethnographic study of the global matsutake trade. Mushroom leads the reader through a mycelial journey from the Pacific Northwest where Laotian, Hmong, Latino, Euro-American and other pickers wander woodland landscapes in search of the precious matsutake through the elaborate processes whereby these fungi are translated and transformed into commodities and then back into Non-Capitalist values. On the way we learn not only about the process of salvage accumulation upon which contemporary Capitalism thrives, but also about the lives of these people, working to survive in the ruins. Despite the heavy theory embedded in this book, it is extremely readable – helped by the brevity of each chapter which are meant to reflect the sporadicity of the fruiting bodies Tsing describes. Tsing’s work has transformed my way of thinking and given me a new framework for my own research as well as a new outlook on the world. I have no doubt it will do the same for others as well.
Runner Up: Those of you who follow this blog and know me closely know that I also loved Molecular Red – I could not stop talking about it for the period during which I was reading it and immediately after. It was a hard choice between Mushroom and Red, but Mushroom won out in the end in part because it is exactly the kind of “molecular theory” that McKenzie Wark describes. Ethnography is perfectly situated to do this kind of on-the-ground, emergent theoretical work, and it’s not done nearly enough despite the fact that we have a journal explicitly formed around the idea. Nevertheless, I think Molecular Red is worthwhile reading for everyone to get a general sense of some of the theoretical approaches necessary for dealing with the problems we face in the Anthropocene.