2015 Books Read

Even I am impressed with how much I read this year. Along the course of the year, occasionally I’d think to myself, “Good job, Sheila, with your Self-Imposed Reading Plan!” I’ve read a lot of new novels (not really my thing normally, but I’ve enjoyed it), plus lots of non-fiction (I’ve always read more non-fiction than fiction). I have my “hour-before-bedtime” book (usually something non-fiction, something historical and complex – I can’t do fiction before bed.) I have my “commute” book (something light, and – if possible – episodic. A book of essays, usually. Nothing requiring too much concentration. My commute is super quick.) I have my “early morning” book, usually something huge that I tackle a tiny bit at a time. No pressure. Currently, I’m making my way through the complete published work (what’s available anyway) of Pauline Kael. A couple of pieces a morning. And this year I almost finished up my Chronological Shakespeare project this year – one more play to go, Two Noble Kinsmen, which I won’t finish by midnight tonight, that’s for sure. It took me two years to get through each play in chronological order, and I’d read an Act of whatever play every morning. Sometimes two acts. It’s a nice ritual. It takes as long as it takes. And then, for vacations or beach days or weekends, I bust out the Big Guns: “challenging” stuff, super-long 19th century novels, gigantic philosophical works, whatever. I got into a rhythm with juggling all of these different ongoing book projects this year and it felt really nice.

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Side note: I cannot believe how long I have been doing this site. It’s amazing I ever got anything else done.

2015 Books Read

1. Stoner, by John Williams.
I had never heard of this novel before. Somewhere around December 2014, no less than three people I trusted (my brother and my mother among them) were saying things to me, in hushed voices, practically holding back tears (literally): “You have GOT to read Stoner.” I was like, “What is this book, how have I never heard of it, and why is everyone telling me to read it SIMULTANEOUSLY?” Well, it’s because the New York Review of Books re-issued it in their fabulous series, and there was a huge piece in the New York Times about it, and suddenly it became a best-seller years after it was published. But the WAY people spoke about it. Honestly, I haven’t heard people talk like that about a book since The Shipping News. It was different than “Oh, it’s a great book,” or “Oh, he’s such a good writer.” It was something else. It went deeper. I think my mother even gave it to me for Christmas (or maybe my brother), basically insisting that I read it. It was my first book of 2015. It is a novel. All I can say is, now I will join the chorus of the others, and tell you in a hushed voice, holding back tears, “You have GOT to read this book.”

2. Station Island, by Seamus Heaney.
A collection of his poems. I’ve been missing my father. We talked about Seamus Heaney all the time.

3. Seeing Things, by Seamus Heaney.
Another collection of his poems. My father gave me two collections of Heaney’s prose, as well as one of the “collected poems” volumes, but I also went out and bought, over the years, each individual volume. They each have their own story to tell.

4. Amy Falls Down: A Novel, by Jincy Willett.
Over the past five years, Jincy Willett has written three hilarious, touching, totally unique novels. Winner of the National Book Award: A Novel of Fame, Honor, and Really Bad Weather, The Writing Class, and now Amy Falls Down (a sort of sequel to The Writing Class). I love her novels so much. Each one made me laugh out loud, and I treasure the books that can do that FAR more than the books that can make me cry (although I love those too). They aren’t just larky-larks though. They are also suddenly, piercingly, touching as well. All of it feels earned and right, not sentimental or manipulative. Each of the novels are about writing, to some degree (as the titles would suggest). There is a scene in Amy Falls Down, involving a train crash, that was so absurd and so howlingly funny that I actually had to stop reading for a while. Just so I could absorb the image. I think I’m still absorbing it. And it’s STILL hilarious. Jincy Willett is a writer I treasure, and I’m embarrassed because she’s also a regular reader here, but I figured: what the hell, she might as well know how I feel about her stuff. How often do you get to say to someone’s “face,” “I really dig what you’re doing.”?? I recommend her so highly (plus her collection of short fiction called Jenny and the Jaws of Life: Short Stories.

5. The Redress of Poetry, by Seamus Heaney.
A re-read. One of those collections of prose, I mentioned above. Although they’re really the texts of lectures he gave when he was a guest professor at … the name escapes me. Each lecture focuses on a different author. A feast for the mind. I wrote a bunch of posts about some of the lectures.

6. The Testament of Mary: A Novel, by Colm Tóibín.
I love him so much. I love that the film adaptation of his gorgeous Brooklyn was what it was: faithful to that beautiful work, but cinematic, visual, powerful in its silences and suggestions. His Testament of Mary is a very small and emotionally brutal book. It is what the title says. Mary, the mother of Jesus, talks about the years after her son’s death and what they are like. She talks about her son’s final years, and what she sensed, what she feared. It’s not what you think it is. The section on Lazarus is haunting. He’s an amazing writer.

7. The Tent, by Margaret Atwood.
I am so sorry to say this because her work meant the world to me in college and my 20s, but I’ve outgrown her. It doesn’t wipe away the impact of The Handmaid’s Tale, Lady Oracle, Bodily Harm, and most of all Cat’s Eye, but The Robber Bride was the last novel of hers I could make it through. And I tried. I found The Tent a chore (and it’s only 100 pages. I had to force myself to finish it.) 11 months later, I don’t remember a word. I’m sorry.

8. Field Work: Poems, by Seamus Heaney.
Poems. The poems that helped make him famous. Even now, after so many re-readings, over so many years, the poems still blow me away.

9. Finders Keepers: Selected Prose 1971-2001, by Seamus Heaney.
Another gift from my father, for my birthday or for Christmas. I cherish the volume. A collection of prose (book reviews, essays, lectures) over many years. Another goldmine. He makes you want to read more, read more deeply, pay attention to language. I wrote a series of posts about some of these pieces as well. I miss my father.

10. Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain
I love his writing so much, it’s so chilly and spare and sociopathic.

11. The Merry Wives of Windsor, by William Shakespeare.
What a ridiculous play. Even more ridiculous: the nerdy Shakespeare scholars who seem somehow … offended … or even in denial … that Falstaff should show up in this play, a play completely anachronistic with the “Henry” plays where Falstaff first appeared. The fact that Queen Elizabeth apparently said to Shakespeare, “I would love to see Falstaff in a romance” (she loved Falstaff. I mean, who doesn’t?), and that Shakespeare, as a good citizen, promptly wrote one … isn’t “enough” for the nerds. They argue about whether or not it “counts,” it’s almost like they wish Merry Wives didn’t exist. This is the difference between scholars and show-trash. A person of show-trash origins, like Shakespeare, would get a direct request from his own QUEEN and of course immediately shove everything else aside in order to oblige her. And he would make it as entertaining as possible. None of this important historical armies clashing by night business. Let’s put Falstaff in a sexual farce, where he has to hide in baskets and dress up as a woman, and be an apolitical buffoon. The academics, though, just don’t want to admit that this play exists because it would mean that Falstaff had jumped forward two hundred years in time from when he REALLY existed. (When he’s a fictional character in the first place.) Get a life.

12. The Red and the Black, by Stendhal.
I had never read any Stendhal and had always meant to rectify it. I have Red and the Black and The Charterhouse of Parma on my bookshelves, and have had so for years. You know, for when I felt like picking one up. Finally, I did so. I had no idea how funny Stendhal is! And he’s funny in very modern ways. The book is filled with epigraphs: each chapter has one. And he made most of them up. He gives some ponderous quote, attributes it to some real-life author, when said author never said/wrote anything like that in the first place. Stendhal has sent the scholars jittering through reference books trying to find the source of these epigraphs, to no avail. This is so so funny to me. The epigraphs give the book a “serious” feel, but they are not serious at all. They’re one big lying joke. And the HYSTERIA of the characters! They are all out of their minds! It’s extremely entertaining. I’ll read Charterhouse in 2016.

13. People Who Eat Darkness: The True Story of a Young Woman Who Vanished from the Streets of Tokyo–and the Evil That Swallowed Her Up, by Richard Lloyd Parry.
Look at that title! Cousin Mike randomly sent this to me. (He sends me books randomly.) I love that he looked at a book called PEOPLE WHO EAT DARKNESS and thought, “Cousin Sheila will love this.” It’s a true crime book about a woman who – for reasons that are still unclear – decided to move to Tokyo and work as a “hostess”. She thought she could make money … but … surely there are easier ways? Anyway, she vanishes off the face of the earth. It’s a terrible story. Thanks, cuz.

14. Henry V, by William Shakespeare.
Speaking of Falstaff … You know, it’s funny, this is clearly a great play, with some great speeches. St. Crispian, etc. But if you looked at that speech, you would think that England had been invaded or something, that her very existence was threatened. No. The war in Henry V is basically a skirmish over Henry V’s rapacious land-grab. The campaign itself is nothing noble at all. England isn’t threatened by a foreign occupation. They’ve decided: “Hey. Let’s go get that piece of land back. And a wife for our King in the meantime.” So that speech, with its ringing sense of patriotism, is rather ridiculous seen in context. Like, you brought this on yourself, boys. It was your choice to invade. If you want that land, go get it, but don’t make it seem like this is the most momentous day in English history. (I realize it’s a bit more complex than this, and it was an important battle, but the play itself shows the rapacious and impulsive choices that led up to it.)

15. Julius Caesar, by William Shakespeare.
The play is so ceremonial. The language is extremely formal. As though it is a translation from another language. It’s interesting: no other play sounds like this.

16. The Rasputin File, by Edvard Radzinsky.
I’ve read this fantastic book a couple of times. (I’ve read all of his books a couple of times. Or, at least the ones I own, which are: The Rasputin File, Stalin: The First In-depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents from Russia’s Secret Archives, and The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II.) Radzinsky is a playwright. His writing is living and energetic, obsessive and questioning. He’s not an academic. After glasnost/perestroika, when the Kremlin archives opened up, Radzinsky went to work. So much was missing, so much had been destroyed and altered, that it takes a true detective to try to put the pieces together (especially with Stalin). Each one of these books reads like an unfolding mystery, told from Radzinsky’s experience as a researcher. “I needed to find the file that had such and such in it … but where was it … who had it … I needed to know …” When you read The Rasputin File, you are not at all surprised that the Czar and his wife would have such a spectacular downfall. It’s horrible, their deaths, and the Bolsheviks showed their true colors immediately with how that went down … but in terms of their “administration”? They both seem like extremely stupid people. Like: literally DULL in their brains. I don’t think he ever had one thought in his head. And she was superstitious and takes the word “bossy” to another level. Rasputin was God to her. If her husband ever disobeyed Rasputin, God would punish Russia. And Rasputin was just a nasty smelly con-artist, with intense powers of suggestion. You just can’t believe some of this shit when you read it. I babbled about this book here after I first read it. As much as I hate the Bolsheviks, and Stalinists and all the rest of those criminals, you read something like this and know that the entire culture STANK to HIGH HEAVEN and NEEDED to go down. And of course it would take something violent. Autocrats like Nicholas II don’t just “step down.” In other words: Rasputin was a douche.

17. Bark: Stories, by Lorrie Moore.
One of my favorite contemporary writers. And she’s not all that prolific so her fans are really made to wait for her next book. She’s written a couple of novels, and while they are filled with Moore’s excellent and unmistakable style (there’s nobody else like her), it’s the short story where Moore is the true master. If you haven’t read Lorrie Moore, I would suggest starting with Birds of America: Stories, the short story collection that put her on the map. Bark is excellent too. I’m always happy to read her stuff. She is able to make me laugh out loud … and yet there is such despair in some of her stories, too. It’s a crazy hat-trick and I don’t know how she does it.

18. As You Like It, by William Shakespeare.
One of my favorite Shakespeare plays. I would like to live in this play.

19. Hamlet, by William Shakespeare.
When you read the damn thing you realize yet again just how long it is, what a huge huge piece of text it is. Shakespeare’s longest play. And that, in itself, is fascinating, since the majority of it features Hamlet procrastinating. So we have 1. Shakespeare’s longest play. and 2. Not much “action,” mostly procrastination. Those two things put together make for this enormous tension: and Hamlet’s procrastination becomes even more striking because it goes on for so long. He is unable to act. Books have been written about why. There are many great theories. Much of it is in the language of those five major soliloquies that he has. But still: there’s a mystery in the character. The theories don’t answer that mystery. The character will not be boiled down, or even explained. It just sits there, its mystery intact.

20. Saving Agnes: A Novel, by Rachel Cusk.
I’ve had this novel for a while, but hadn’t ever read it. Cusk has written a lot more, and she tends to be controversial because she’s honest. You’ll see her name around and think, “Oh God, what did Rachel Cusk say now.” I remember once – in an essay? in a public statement? – she admitted that although she loved her child, of course she did, she was bored by the actual “mothering” part of it. She yawned through play dates. She didn’t find coloring with her children a rapturous activity. She yearned for adult conversation and time by herself. Hanging out with the 2-year-old set was not her idea of a good time. And of course the Shrieking Sisterhood rose up in Outrage to Denounce Her. Women who express alternative perspectives are often shunned or screamed down or ignored – “Oh don’t listen to her, she’s internalized patriarchy”. It seems these critics protest just a wee bit too much? Or she’s dismissed as “male-identified.” (Some woman emailed me – a couple years back – that she thought I was “male-identified” because of something I had written. Only women say such shit to other women. It was not a compliment, I realized that, but I pretended it was and emailed back, “Thank you so much!!” What does that even mean? I’m human-identified, bitch. Plus, I love the boys. So … sorry? I don’t know what else to tell you.) There’s been a couple of recent pieces about how there are so few female film critics these days and that it’s a problem. I agree that diverse voices are needed. 100%. If there is a film site with a biggish roster and there’s only one woman writer on staff, that’s a problem. And when women’s voices are sidelined, the entire culture suffers. (I am proud to write for Rogerebert.com because of its diversity of voices. Such a great mix.) However, where this conversation annoys me is when it moves into “Women have a different perspective” kind of thing. Well, yeah. I guess. (Not necessarily, though.) It’s one step away from that to “Well, let’s hire a female film critic to review ‘chick flicks’ because those are more ‘for’ her and she’ll understand them more because she has a different perspective”. How about you hire women writers and minority writers because it’s better for your site to be more representative of the population it serves? Also it’s the right thing to do, don’t be a dick. But to assume that women will LIKE and RESPOND to the same things is marginalizing the diversity of OUR voices. I’ll say this and then I’ll go back to Rachel Cusk: there are some critics where I can predict (men and women), with 100% accuracy (I’ve tested it) what they will like and what they will not like. It’s predictable and (usually) ideologically-based. Now this is their thing, and of course they are free to go for it, just as I am free to not want to read it. I love the Wild Women out there where you have no idea where they will come down on anything. I’ve got my list of women out there where I always want to know what they think about EVERYTHING, because I know it will be a surprise, and whether or not we agree/disagree, I love to hear the perspective of someone who is independent. The male critics I love have this same quality: it’s an individual perspective, based on individual taste … not clustering around predictable ideological faultlines. The human mind is a gorgeous thing, and everyone is different. BRING IT ON. (Just in case it’s not clear: Sidelining women/minorities professionally is evil and retro. People need to stop doing it and they deserve to be called out on it loudly.) ANYWAY. Back to Rachel Cusk: she tells the truth, as she sees it. If some women find it off-putting, that’s partially evidence of cultural brainwashing (i.e. “Every NORMAL woman loves EVERY SINGLE SECOND of being a mother and to say otherwise means you are a BAD MOTHER. blah blah blah”. It’s WOMEN who say that shit to each other, not men. Go to any Mommy online forum and find the “breastfeeding vs. formula” message board. You would think the war in the Middle East was at stake. It’s insane.) I like Rachel Cusk because she is not intimidated. I’ll be reading more of her work.

21. Twelfth Night, by William Shakespeare.
Magical story. Poor Malvolio. Although he deserved it. I probably say “What country friends is this?” once a week. It’s applicable to so many different situations.

22. Mildred Pierce, by James M. Cain.
I love his stuff so much. The Joan Crawford film is a classic, for very good reasons, but I also really loved Todd Haynes’ adaptation which stuck, almost word for word, with Cain’s original, including that crazy final line from Mildred. Wonderful book. A noir about a woman who makes pies. Brill.

23. Troilus and Cressida, by William Shakespeare.
The play is extremely and explicitly homoerotic. Blatant. Fun. The romance between the men far overshadows the romance between Troilus and Cressida, who seem pretty cipher-ish.

24. Measure for Measure, by William Shakespeare.
For a comedy, there’s some pretty messed-up shit that goes down here. Out of wedlock pregnancy. A city of brothels. A woman in a cloister being tricked into going to bed with someone (in the darkness – so she THINKS it’s one man, when it actually is another man. The Tumblr police would have a field day with this one.)

25. Othello, by William Shakespeare.
Shakespeare’s great examination of jealousy. Othello, already plagued by insecurity, cannot resist Iago’s sinister whispers of insinuation. For all his warrior laurels, Othello is a highly susceptible man. A perfect “mark” for Iago. The play is tragic in the classical sense because as you watch (or read), you think helplessly, “All of this could have been avoided.” Desdemona is a powerhouse. Mainly remembered for being strangled by her husband, before that she is his political ally, a wheeler-dealer in a realm seen as only for men. She’s not some cringing wifey in the background. She’s involved.

26. Black Earth: A Journey Through Russia After the Fall, by Andrew Meier.
I’m not a fan of Meier’s stuff (I did not like his Chechnya: To the Heart of a Conflict: he was trying too hard and he didn’t get “to the heart” of anything. He tries to imitate Robert Kaplan or Ryzsard Kapusinski or Colin Thubron’s travelogue/historical style, and while I realize the draw of these writers, he’s just not up to snuff as a narrator of his own journeys.) But still, I read this book because I was curious about Russia’s experience of Putin, and the upheaval that has gone on since the fall of the Empire. And it’s a fascinating and sweeping book, and although I am relatively well-informed there was a lot here that was new to me. I recommend it.

27. The Motel Life: A Novel, by Willy Vlautin.
So good. I re-read this in preparation for Ebertfest, where the movie adaptation would be playing, and I was going to interview one of the directors onstage after the screening. I had reviewed Motel Life for Ebert, and absolutely loved it. It was a lot of fun interviewing the director, and I had just wanted to ground myself again in the original source material.

28. Passions of the Mind, by A.S. Byatt.
I read this collection of essays on literature (by one of my favorite authors) years ago, and during my ongoing Book Excerpt project (where I go systematically through my vast library and share excerpts, a project I’ve been doing since 2006, hard as it is for me to believe), Passions of the Mind was the next book on the shelf. I ended up re-reading it as I went through the process of excerpting and discussing some of the essays. Great thought-provoking stuff.

29. Art Objects: Essays on Ecstasy and Effrontery, by Jeanette Winterson.
Another collection of essays on art (literature and otherwise) by another of my favorite authors, Jeanette Winterson. I read the collection when it first came out, and it was the next book on the shelf in my Book Excerpt project, after the Byatt. And so I re-read that one, too, as I prepared and posted the excerpts and my thoughts on each essay.

30. All’s Well That Ends Well, by William Shakespeare.
The title is a dare. It’s almost sarcastic, considering the play. The script references the title multiple times, contributing to the feeling that Shakespeare doesn’t actually agree with the sentiment in his own title. Funny.

31. Silas Marner, by George Eliot.
I mentioned on FB I was reading it, and my pal Larry joked, “What, are you working on your overdue book report from 10th grade?” It made me laugh. I’m going to be making my way through George Eliot again (I’ve read most, but there are some I haven’t), and of course I read Silas Marner, and yes, in 10th grade, but I don’t think I’ve read it since then. It made me cry.

32. The Young Rebecca: Writings of Rebecca West, 1911-17, by Rebecca West.
Rebecca West, another favorite writer. A resourceful editor tracked down many of the op-ed columns and reports written by Rebecca West when she was just starting out (age 18, 19 or so). She emerges fully-developed as a writer. She needed no learning curve. She was breathlessly confident as a teenager, and her style is instantly recognizable although I mainly know her writing from when she was 40 and beyond. She was a PHENOM. Again, this was the next up in my Book Excerpt project (one of the best byproducts of that self-imposed project is that I re-read a lot of stuff that I haven’t read in years). I posted a lot of excerpts and it was super-fun.

33. The Prince, by Nicolo Machiavelli.
When things get crazy politically, as they always do, I take out The Prince again. It helps. The more things change, the more they and etc. Re-realizing that is soothing.

34. Christopher Marlowe: Poet & Spy, by Park Honan.
An interesting biography of Marlowe: his writing and his espionage. I’ve been fascinated by him for decades now. The plays alone would be enough. Anyone who equates him with Shakespeare hasn’t read or understood either. The fact that they were contemporaries is evidence of the sheer vital alive-ness of that period in British culture. Two geniuses emerge at the same time. Amazing. And I love the spy stuff, too. Who knows what he would have accomplished had he not squabbled over the bill at that dirty tavern.

35. Timon of Athens, by William Shakespeare.
What a bore.

36. King Lear, by William Shakespeare.
Maybe Shakespeare was gathering his strength for Lear as he slogged through Timon of Athens. (There are a lot of similarities between the two plays.) King Lear is such a great play that it’s difficult to even perceive it as a whole. It may be the most powerful expression of human despair ever put on paper. I was in tears at the end, but the real revelation this past time reading was in the scene of the storm out on the heath, and Lear – descending into madness (which is a kind of clarity) – realizes, suddenly, that the majority of people in the world live in hovels, poor shelter against storms. In the middle of a monologue, he exclaims, “O, I have taken too little care of this!” I have tears in my eyes typing those words. What madness brings is awareness and compassion. If the whole world could look around and say, “O, I have taken too little care of this” and then acted upon that feeling, we would live in a better place. King Lear is one of the Monuments of world culture. We would not be the same if it didn’t exist.

37. The Good Soldier, by Ford Madox Ford.
Ford Madox Ford was a big “blank” in my self-directed education. I was not an English major. I grew up with bookish parents who had read everything, but my education was theatre and acting. Any reading I’ve done since I graduated from high school was on my own. And Ford Madox Ford was one of those people I skipped, inadvertently. Like Evelyn Waugh and Nabokov, he was a later discovery for me. This was the first year I read anything by him, and it was one of those moments where you go, “Oh. So THIS is why everyone talks about this book all the time.” I read it in one sitting at the beach this summer. Amazing, and one of the best examples of an unreliable narrator in literature.

38. The Perfect Storm: A True Story of Men Against the Sea, by Sebastian Junger.
Of course I read it already. This is maybe my 4th time. I remember that storm. I grew up in a fishing town, not as well-known as Gloucester, but with a similar vibe. That was a crazy crazy storm. My favorite part is the “rescue swimmers.” Sebastian Junger actually goes off on a tangent about those incredible guys and their insane training. You can tell it’s a real draw for Junger, whose persona is pretty self-consciously macho. It’s one of the best sections of the book. Unforgettable image: Rescue swimmer dropped out of helicopter into an ocean where the waves are peaking at 80, 90 feet. #1: Imagine that. Rescue swimmer swims to the flailing sailboat, and he recalls later that he had to swim VERTICALLY at one point (shivers.) He arrives at the two women in the water, holding onto a life raft, and the women remember his arrival: he shouted about the roar of the storm, “Hi, my name is So-and-So and I’ll be your rescue swimmer today.” hahaha Like he’s a waiter at TGIF’s. That’s who these guys are. Cool as cukes. Very good book.

39. Macbeth, by William Shakespeare.
I always forget how short Macbeth is. It plays like a bat out of hell. The action is compressed and feverish. Everyone dies in what feels like a two-day period. Macbeth rises to the top, and then falls immediately. Very disturbing bloody play. There’s a reason “Macbeth” is a forbidden word to actors.

40. The Daylight Gate, by Jeanette Winterson.
I haven’t been into her fiction lately, as she has started to mess around with children’s books and fantasy books. I find them didactic. It’s all a clumsy obvious metaphor for climate change, one of her main topics. So they’re boring. I read them all, but they bore me. This, though, this brings Winterson back to the form I prefer, the form that made her name in the first place, with phenomenal books like Sexing the Cherry and The Passion (one of my favorite books of all time.) The Daylight Gate takes place during the first years of King James’ reign, when fear of witches was starting to reach a peak. It’s a beautiful book. I love her writing so much. And Shakespeare makes a cameo!

41. Harry and Hortense at Hormone High, by Paul Zindel.
I read Paul Zindel’s The Pigman when I was in 8th grade, and it has remained a favorite forever since then. It holds up even to Adult Sheila. “The Marshmallow Kid” still makes me howl. I’ve read all of his stuff except for this one. Zindel really gets the nerd-outcast thing that happens in high school. He creates unforgettable characters, and situations that are at times hilarious, and at times tragic. Harry and Hortense is quite disturbing (in ways that Zindel fans will recognize). Harry and Hortense, a high school couple who have been together forever, meet a new kid in school who is convinced that his real father was Icarus. The boy is clearly mentally ill but maybe … maybe … he’s onto something? They’re not sure. They’re drawn into his life, his dreams, and he seeks them out to get the work out about his “message” to all of humanity. The book is really good.

42. My Darling, My Hamburger, by Paul Zindel.
A serious book about a couple of high school couples and their struggles/issues with sex. Written in an earlier time, when girls resisted “putting out,” when people broke up over these issues, it has a lot of similarity with William Inge’s Splendor in the Grass, an indictment of what that double-standard does to girls. I had forgotten how sad this book was. Oh, and parents in Paul Zindel’s book range from ineffective to downright sinister and cruel. Not surprising, considering the mother in his famous play The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds, based on his own mother. Zindel does not relate to good caring parents. I think he’s written a couple of them in his books, and they don’t ring true. It’s not his experience. His characters are pretty much orphans, raising themselves, finding comfort with their own peer group.

43. A Train of Powder, by Rebecca West.
I’ve read this one before. It’s Rebecca West reporting on 4 separate trials, starting with the Nuremberg Trials. Invaluable, but then her stuff always is.

44. Antony and Cleopatra, by William Shakespeare.
I had forgotten how “out there” this play was. Cleopatra, the embodiment of music and nature and luxury: she is barely human. The love affair is a man sinking into luxury, but it’s almost as though he’s drawn into her magnetic vortex and literally cannot extricate himself. It’s not quite a romance on the level of Romeo and Juliet because neither character really emerges as an individual. They are their roles in society, they are submerged into one totally, and Cleopatra herself is practically supernatural in her connection to deeper earthier forces. It’s a great great play. W.H. Auden said, in one of his lectures on Shakespeare, that if he had to choose one play out of all of them – if Shakespeare had only written one play, which one would Auden prefer it to have been, which play could he personally not live without – and he said Antony and Cleopatra.

45. Seymour: An Introduction, by J.D. Salinger.
A re-read. I think I last read it in 1994, 1995, when things were getting distinctively spooky in my life. It’s such a painful piece of writing. Brilliant. J.D. Salinger gets lost in his own parentheticals. He gets distracted into tangents, and he has to keep interjecting commentary about how he is not capturing what he means, he is not capturing Seymour, something is eluding him. And the novella just stops. Not in mid-sentence, but Salinger puts down his pen (or stops typing), “giving up.” I see this as deliberate, a stylistic thing, as opposed to an author actually unraveling. But again: poignantly painful to read. Almost like Emily’s famous monologue at the end of Our Town: can we ever really BE with one another? Can we ever really SEE one another. In Seymour: An Introduction, J.D. Salinger tries. I got through this one as quick as I could.

46. John Wayne: The Life and Legend, by Scott Eyman.
What a phenomenal biography of one of my favorite actors. Long overdue. It’s fair and it’s detailed. And Scott Eyman understands acting, like so few writers on film do. He can describe what is good, and WHY. With someone like John Wayne, who is continuously under-rated by people who don’t know what they’re talking about, it is so so important to examine the nuts-and-bolts of his acting, to understand WHY he was so effective, and WHY he was a #1 box office star for 40 years. Hats off, Eyman.

47. Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream, by Hunter S. Thompson.
God, I love this book. It takes my breath away. The section where the lawyer, out of his mind on some hallucinogen, gets stuck on the carousel, and is terrified, makes me howl with laughter. I posted some favorite excerpts here.

48. Pericles, by William Shakespeare.
I love the Wikipedia entry about the authorship controversy: “Modern editors generally agree that Shakespeare is responsible for almost exactly half the play—827 lines.” God bless people who spend their lives figuring such shit out. It’s not my thing, but I love them nonetheless. Freakin’ John Gower appears throughout as a narrator, a very bizarre device, but interesting.

49. Vengeance: A Novel, by Benjamin Black.
The next in line of the “Quirke” novels, written by John Banville under his pseudonym. Banville, as the Irish “Booker Prize” guy, writes serious novels that I find rather dreary, although gorgeously written. At some point, he himself got sick of John Banville. He wanted to write crime novels, noir detective novels. So he created Benjamin Black (being very open that it was him), and started a series about an off-and-on alcoholic pathologist in 1950s Dublin who gets sucked into these enormous conspiracies and crimes. They’re fabulous.

50. Subtle Bodies, by Norman Rush.
I’ve written a shit-load about my love of Norman Rush, in particular his sweeping epic novel Mating: A Novel. I know a lot of women hate this novel. I love it more than I can even express. It helped explain my own life to me, it helped me put into words who I was, what I was looking for, it even helped contextualize a certain apocalyptically passionate love affair I was trying to recover from. This book HELPED me. Norman Rush has not written a lot. A collection of short stories, and three novels. He is in his 80s. It’s been years since his follow-up to Mating, a sort-of sequel called Mortals, which I didn’t care for. I heard he had come out with a new one, I read all the interviews with him, I learned that Subtle Bodies does not take place in Africa (as all his other books do). And it was described as a sort of Big Chill type thing, a bunch of Baby Boomers gathering for the death of a friend. (Rush is excellent on the whole Baby Boomer THING. He gets the delusion, but he also understands it from the inside.) He is a very funny writer. His voice is funny. His observations are funny. Subtle Bodies is hilarious. And much shorter than his other two novels. It ZIPS.

51. Consider the Lobster and Other Essays, by David Foster Wallace.
I went through a huge David Foster Wallace resurgence this year, mainly to counteract the effect of The End of the Tour. I wanted to go back and get to the source. No way did Jason Segel as David Foster Wallace write like this. It just didn’t compute. Sorry. I know a lot of people loved it. I love David Foster Wallace almost desperately. I yearn for his writing.

52. The Varieties of Religious Experience, by William James.
I finally read this gigantic tome! It comes up so often in other peoples’ writing, it’s used as a reference point so constantly, that I almost felt like I could talk about the book without having read a word. It’s like Das Capital or something. But I finally decided, “Sheila. Stop assuming you know this book when you haven’t read it. Read it.” I read it on vacation. It was, at times, a slog (especially the long excerpts from people describing their religious epiphanies), but all along I could feel that beautiful sensation I’ve described before: “Okay. I get why everybody references this book so much.” Not that I doubted their sincerity. It’s just that I need to discover things for myself.

53. The Origins of Totalitarianism, by Hannah Arendt.
I’ve only read Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil , but I’ve had this book for years, and like Varieties of Religious Experience it’s referenced so often (and I read so much about totalitarian governments) that I felt like I knew what the book encompassed even without reading it. And I was right. But there’s nothing like discovering it for yourself. It’s a rich reading experience and her analysis … well, you can see why she is controversial. But I like her clear-headed and independent iconoclastic perspective. It’s an enormous book.

52. White Nights, by Fyodor Dostoevsky.
Another re-read. I read it in one sitting on a windy day at the beach. I love it so much. It’s got that typical craziness of Dostoevsky, the heightened mania, the passion so intense it makes people insane. It’s also so funny (as Dostoevsky often is. Notes from the Underground!!) I particularly love the moment when the lead character describes his daily walk and how he says hello to the houses as though they are people, and is startled when things change: they get painted, trees get cut down. He wants to ask the houses how that happened and how they feel about it.

53. Betrayal: The Life and Lies of Bernie Madoff, by Andrew Kirtzman.
Unbelievable. The whole thing is so unbelievable.

54. Coriolanus, by William Shakespeare.
One of Shakespeare’s most ceremonial grand-opera plays. It’s all gigantic speeches and processions. Coriolanus is hard to get a handle on: he speaks SO MUCH and tells us SO LITTLE. He’s not like Hamlet, or Lear, or Othello, telling us their innermost feelings. He remains ceremonial, a public figure. And kind of a douche.

55. The Days of Abandonment, by Elena Ferrante.
My friend Dan talked to me about this book in a way that made me order it 5 minutes after I talked to him. “Okay, so the book opens when this woman’s husband leaves her. And then … oh my God … oh my God …” “Wait, what happens?” “She just … goes out of her … MIND.” Elena Ferrante is a pseudonym, for an author who has remained anonymous. (Fascinating!) I read Days of Abandonment, again, in one sitting at the beach. It is all that everyone says it is. I read it in one sitting because I could not BEAR to put it down. It remains beyond my powers of description, so all I can say is: Run, don’t walk, and read this extraordinary novel. The less you know about it the better.

56. Thomas Paine’s Rights of Man (Books That Changed the World), by Christopher Hitchens.
A slim volume about Thomas Paine’s classic, the spark that ignited a revolution. I miss you, Hitchens.

57. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments, by David Foster Wallace.
A great collection with some of my favorite pieces, especially the piece on David Lynch, one of the best pieces of in-depth criticism ever written. It’s my kind of criticism.

58. A Little Life: A Novel, by Hanya Yanagihara
Oh my God, this book. It was so unrelentingly brutal that I had to force myself to finish it. But I had heard from my friend Ted how much he loved it, but also the look on his face told me that it was a trial for him as well. Yanagihara said that she had wanted to write a novel where “someone DOESN’T get better.” In a way, it’s a welcome corrective to the American love of the redemption tale. I have no love for the redemption tale, at least not as it is currently presented. People act like redemption is a FACT, as opposed to a glorified wish-fulfillment. Some people do the best they can with the hand they’ve been dealt (as the lead character does here), but he is the Walking Wounded, and nothing, nothing can alleviate that. Somerset Maugham wrote, “It is not true that suffering ennobles the character; happiness does that sometimes, but suffering for the most part makes men petty and vindictive.” I agree with this. I am a realist. The lead character in A Little Life is not petty and vindictive, but his childhood, and its torments, ruined him. It’s an enormous novel and the first 150 pages are pretty difficult (Ted had warned me about that), but then the real book kicks in. I read it in about 5 days, because, again, like, Days of Abandonment, I couldn’t bear to put it down. I knew nothing about the plot of A Little Life. I went into it cold, with only Ted’s vague words of recommendation. He didn’t tell me much else. As it unfolded, I felt dread and horror start to build, and I couldn’t leave it. I wanted to put it down many times and it was a book I explicitly avoided reading near bedtime.

59. Both Flesh and Not: Essays, by David Foster Wallace.
Again, I had to re-read it all. Well, not Infinite Jest. But these essays. These journalistic essays and personal essays … He’s just the best.

60. John Tyler: The American Presidents Series: The 10th President, 1841-1845, by Gary May.
Along with the ongoing Shakespeare project, I picked up my Chronological U.S. Presidents project, after a short break. The New York Times edits a series of small books, by different authors, about each President. Each one is about 140 pages long, and cover only the Presidency. (Well, maybe a brief biographical backstory chapter). I really enjoy this series and am learning a lot about Presidents I knew almost nothing about. (My father used to make us memorize the Presidents, in order, for part of our allowance. We would chant the names out in our living room, and then put our hands out for the money.) John Tyler was Vice President to President William Henry Harrison, who became President after WHH died only a month into office for making a long long speech on a cold cold day. Put on a scarf, WHH! He was the first Vice President to assume the office of the Presidency in such a manner, and there was quite a crisis at first about what to do. Tyler’s main thing was the annexation of Texas.

61. The Great Crash 1929, by John Kenneth Galbraith.
A re-read. It’s a slim little volume, and compulsively read-able. I took a class on the Great Depression (the 1930s, in general) in college, taught by the same professor who taught another class I took on the Industrial Revolution that was, hands down, the best class I ever took. Including acting classes. I signed up for the 1930s Class because I had loved the Industrial Revolution class so much. At the beginning of the semester, he had us pick out a company from the 1920s, and over the course of the semester – through microfiche files, remember – chart its progress from 1920 to 1929. We had to draw it on a graph, and we had to spread it out over however many weeks of the semester. It was such a fabulous exercise, because you could SEE it happen on your own individual graph. Great class. Anyway, I enjoy this book and enjoyed re-reading it. I enjoy reading about economic disasters (see Madoff book.)

62. Cymbeline, by William Shakespeare.
Lots of similarities to Othello, in its interest in jealousy. Unlike Othello, however, who was pushed into jealousy by Iago, King Cymbeline – a mild-mannered loving husband in the first page of the play – suddenly descends into murderous jealousy about his wife’s relationship with his kindred spirit childhood friend. Her relationship is entirely innocent, but he turns into a madman in about one stanza. Mayhem ensues.

63. James K. Polk (The American Presidents Series), by John Seigenthaler.
“Young Hickory.” A Jacksonian. He did lots of good things (set up the Smithsonian, for example), but the main thing I remember about him is the harrowing operation he went through for urinary stones when he was a kid (no anesthesia, remember), and it probably left him sterile. It’s too painful to even read about (people had to hold his legs up in the air throughout) … but one thing it reminds us of: We are made of strong stuff. We can endure so much. Look at what our ancestors endured. Childbirth without drugs. Mastectomies without drugs. Etc. Yes, many people died, but look, the human race is still here, so we are able to withstand such things. But still: shivers for poor Polk …

64. Alexander Hamilton, by Ron Chernow.
I decided to re-read this magnificent biography (I’ve already read it twice) in preparation for going to see Hamilton on Broadway. I finished up just before we went to see it, and I’m so glad. It was all so fresh. And yes: Lin Manuel-Miranda got it all in there. Insane. That production was one of the highlights of my year.

65. Democracy, by Joan Didion.
I wrote a long semi-rant about Joan Didion on Facebook, the gist of which was: Because The Year of Magical Thinking was such a huge hit, and because her second memoir Blue Nights, came on the heels of it and also was a success – and because these books were how a lot of people were introduced to Joan Didion, I think there’s a huge misunderstanding about what kind of writer she actually is. Some of the things I wrote on FB: She has been cast in the popular imagination as a tremblingly sensitive personal-essayist….The rest of her work is NOT ingratiating. Go back and read her 1972 piece on the women’s movement (it’s a scorcher), or her reportage of the Patty Hearst thing (one of my favorites) – or her most famous pieces on the Summer of Love/creepy-hippie thing going on in San Fran in 1968-69…I just wonder if those who only know her as a sensitive personal writer – through those last two books … feel startled by the earlier stuff. Or put off by it.” This goes for her novels, too, which are the opposite of “sensitive.” Democracy is SUCH a bizarre book, and political, and angry, and often extremely funny, as only Didion can be funny. She is often a MEAN writer, which would certainly be an affront to those who think of her as an Oprah-Book-Club candidate (no disrespect. I’m not Jonathan Franzen. But, you know: there’s a love of the redemption personal narrative on that Book Club. Didion is not that.) Democracy is pretty mean about liberals and do-gooders and rich silly people. It’s a great novel about the Vietnam period (written at around the same time it was all going down. It feels like reportage). The most sympathetic character is a guy who profits off of war in mysterious ways, unconnected to any one country, although he is an American citizen. The book takes place right before and right after Saigon falls. I really encourage those of you who loved Year of Magical Thinking, but haven’t read anything else, to branch out. Read her journalism, her political pieces, and definitely read her novels. I don’t mean to be mean. I love Year of Magical Thinking too. But I dislike how her reputation has been somehow softened, pasteurized, and self-help-ified. It is not who she is. She’s tough and a little bit mean turning a gimlet eye towards things a lot of people hold dear.

66. Zachary Taylor: The American Presidents Series: The 12th President, 1849-1850, John S. D. Eisenhower.
Zachary Taylor was a war hero. He had no political ambitions and spent 30 years stationed in various rough forts out on the frontier. But his national profile rose, because of the war triumphs (many that weren’t as triumphant as reported), and so he became President. And died a year after he took office. America had a couple of dying Presidents almost in a row. Fascinating guy. (And the good thing about chronological reading is that you can feel the approach of the cataclysm, and everyone was aware of it, and trying to stave it off through various compromises.)

67. Play It As It Lays: A Novel, by Joan Didion.
To beat a dead horse, Joan Didion is not a cuddly soft sensitive writer. The narrator’s voice in this is so cold it’s practically from outer space. Didion has her detractors. Obviously, I’m not one of them. She’s one of my favorite writers and I love this novel.

68. The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith.
Written in 1949 and published under a pseudonym, The Price of Salt is a frank story about two women who fall in love. I had already read it, because Highsmith is such a favorite, but re-read it in preparation for my Ebert review of Todd Haynes’ Carol. Those who love Highsmith’s Ripley novels, or Strangers on a Train, or all the rest, should definitely check out The Price of Salt. The ending is breathtaking … Literally: I gasped, the first time around reading it. Beautiful book.

69. The Winter’s Tale, by William Shakespeare.
My God, what a strange and magical play. He was moving into such interesting areas with his art at the end. Not easily classifiable. And really “out there.” Love this play.

70. Lectures on Shakespeare, by W.H. Auden.
This was my reading-guide for the Shakespeare project (along with another beautiful book that will come later). In 1946, Auden gave a series of lectures about Shakespeare at the New School (my alma mater! Or one of them.) He talked about each play in something close to chronological order. There are no texts of his lectures, but a guy in the audience wrote down everything he remembered from each lecture. So they’re chatty and jokey and filled with tangents and long quotes from other things, and they are no less than riveting. You actually feel like you are there in that auditorium. It was a great study-guide. I read a lecture at a time, before starting each new play. No wonder it’s taken me two years to get through the complete works. I’m such a nerd.

71. William Henry Harrison: The American Presidents Series: The 9th President,1841, by Gail Collins.
I probably won’t be believed but I’ll float this out there anyway: I laughed out loud reading this book. Poor William Henry Harrison, famously, was only in office for a month. Known for making excruciatingly long speeches, he spoke for two hours on a freezing cold day, and promptly came down with pneumonia. He was “treated” by a bunch of panicked doctors, who probably hastened his death, what with laxatives, and leeches, and “bleeding” him. So there’s not much of a Presidency to discuss anyway. He wasn’t in office long enough to DO anything. While that is mainly what he is remembered for, the really historical importance of William Henry Harrison is that his campaign for President (not run by him, but those of his party, in the custom of the day) was the first modern Presidential campaign. No different than what we experience now: the lies, the exaggerations, the political jostling for position, trying to make the candidate something he is not. An “everyman,” a “regular guy,” a “Christian,” whatever works. The story of William Henry Harrison’s campaign is so entertainingly told by Gail Collins that it made me laugh out loud. It was 100% Theater of the Absurd and it helped create the modern political system. All for naught. Dude died a month after being sworn in.

72. A Book of Common Prayer, by Joan Didion.
See above rant. I don’t mean to hurt people’s feelings: I know her book on grief was so helpful and VERY helpful to me because I hadn’t realized how disorienting grief was until it happened to me. Like, your mind is actually altered. And that’s what her whole book was about. But as someone who has been reading Didion since college, you know … there’s more out there. A Book of Common Prayer is another novel and I think of it as a companion piece to Democracy, even though they are not about the same things. A Book of Common Prayer takes place in a Latin American dictatorship. There are American wandering around, one in particular. CIA operatives. A coup is imminent. But coups are so rote at this point that everyone just sits around wondering who will win. It’s a pretty bleak book, written in that classic Didion style, cold, remote, slightly scary, with lots of repetition … a stylistic “tic” that maybe she overdoes a little bit here … but I love this book. Not as much as Democracy, but it’s up there.

73. The Tempest, by William Shakespeare.
Magical again. It was also perfect timing, because I re-watched Paul Mazurky’s Tempest in preparation for my Gena Rowlands pieces (for the Oscars, as well as for Ebert.) I love the movie and I love the play and it was so fun to see the adaptation/re-imagining.

74. Shakespeare After All, by Marjorie Garber.
What a great and invaluable book! I’ve been mean to scholars in this thread, although I appreciate the work they’ve done. But I don’t and I won’t clog my brain with academic-speak. Garber is a scholar and historian, but her style isn’t academic at all. She does point out similarities in language and prosody and rhyme scheme that I would never pick up on, and also provides background on the history of each play. Also: it goes in chronological order, each play getting a chapter. Each chapter is about the same length: 30 pages or so, so easily digestible in small portions. Before starting each new play, I would read the Auden lecture as well as the Garber chapter. A perfect launching point. If anyone is even vaguely interested in reading the Shakespeare plays in chronological order, I recommend this approach. It’s fun. Trust me.

75. Baseball: A Literary Anthology
I didn’t read this cover to cover. I spread it out, an essay here, a poem there. I’ve been doing excerpts, and so I got swept away by it. A lot of it I hadn’t read. It’s a huge book, but you can whip through it because some of the essays are only two pages long.

76. The Disappearing Spoon: And Other True Tales of Madness, Love, and the History of the World from the Periodic Table of the Elements, by Sam Kean.
Sam Kean is not a scientist. He is interested in a wide variety of topics, philosophy and interesting people from history. As a kid, he loved to break open thermometers, pour the mercury out on the ground and watch it burble and race away from its own self. It began a lifelong fascination with the periodic table. My sister Siobhan had given this to me for Christmas last year, she loved it, and it took me this long to get to it. It is so entertaining. You actually laugh out loud sometimes. Or I did. Imagine the nerdiness. But I knew almost none of this and it was a lot of fun to get more perspective on this familiar thing called the periodic table.

77. The Female Thing: Dirt, envy, sex, vulnerability, by Laura Kipnis.
Apparently college-campus women’s-group organizations hate Laura Kipnis and ban her from speaking. Lovely. What a lovely way to deal with disagreement. Stalin would be so proud! I don’t even want to get into those groups and how awful I think they are, with their requesting trigger warnings on Ovid and other such nonsensical time-wasters. Maybe higher education actually isn’t for you, girls, if you find intellectual inquiry so “triggering,” if you only want to learn what you already know/agree with. No seriously: college isn’t for everyone. Another thing that drives me insane (and that has also been a so-called issue with Kipnis’ work) is the brand-new thought that women talking about their health issues is “transphobic.” I am in full support of my transgender friends and could not be happier about what has happened in the last year, in terms of awareness and visibility. It is important and ground-breaking. But women’s health issues – those born with vaginas, I mean – are still critically important around the world (like: women are in danger because of their genitals in most places on the planet) and we need to be able to discuss these things freely without being called transphobic. To put the vulnerable vagina and ovaries at the bottom of the heap AGAIN … this MUST NOT HAPPEN. We’re already in a dire enough situation as it is. Laura Kipnis gets similar criticisms. But her voice is important. She’s interested in things nobody wants to hear. I love hearing how she thinks about things. Often I disagree with her, and vehemently! I’ll think, “Don’t speak for me, Kipnis!!” And she does leave out sections of the demographic, but she’s frank about that, she admits it. You may not like what she has to say, but to try to silence her is totalitarian.

78. American Movie Critics: From Silents Until Now
An important volume? Yes.
Great pieces of writing included? Yes.
Interesting? Oh my God yes.
Typos and errors and incorrect words not catch-able by spellcheck on almost every single page, no exaggeration: almost every page? Yes.
BOO to the editors.

79. Sam Phillips: The Man Who Invented Rock ‘n’ Roll, by Peter Guralnick.
I have been waiting for this biography for years. It did not disappoint. It was everything I had hoped.

80. Elvis, by Dave Marsh.
One of the best books about Elvis ever written, and sadly it’s out of print. I was interviewed recently about Elvis (I’ll put up the link when it goes live), and I babbled on and on … and on? … about this great book. Indispensable if you want to understand Elvis and cut through the bullshit.

81. Millard Fillmore: The American Presidents Series: The 13th President, 1850-1853, by Paul Finkelman.
I did not know much about him. Approaching the Civil War now, day by day. Millard Fillmore, xenophobic, not well-educated compared to others and insecure about it, anti-Catholic, anti-immigration, anti-abolitionist, comes off as an incredible jerk and really ruinous towards any hope of compromise. His entire Presidency was taken up with enforcing the draconian Fugitive Slave Act. In a way, the Fugitive Slave Act ignited the North in solidarity on the abolitionist side. It made people who were on the fence get off the fence. Some of the stories are unbelievable: freed slaves being tried in the court, and then hustled off to escape out the back door, and it WORKED. Literally right under the noses of all of the officials and judges and security lined up around the courthouse. There are multiple such stories. Fillmore devoted his whole Presidency to watching over the Fugitive Slave Act and making sure it was utilized. A pretty terrible legacy. A very interesting book!

81. The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine, by Michael Lewis.
I love Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, have read it a couple of times, but hadn’t checked out The Big Short. I thought Adam McKay’s movie was FANTASTIC, so I went out and bought a second-hand copy at The Strand and read it in about two days. It’s superb. The fact that I actually understood (sort of) what was happening in both is a testament to their effectiveness.

82. Voices from Chernobyl: The Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster, by Svetlana Alexievich
So upsetting and haunting I had to force myself to finish it. Finishing it became an act of bearing witness to what these people went through and are still going through. I felt helpless reading it. I read it over the Christmas holiday. I sat in front of the lit-up Christmas tree reading it. Siobhan’s husband Ben came into the room, got one look at me, and burst into laughter. “This is the most incongruous thing I’ve ever seen.” The book is all “voices.” No editorial interjections from Nobel Prize winner Alexievich. The voices come to us unedited. Important important book.

83. To Rise Again at a Decent Hour: A Novel, by Joshua Ferris.
This writer amazes me. His first novel, Then We Came to the End: A Novel, was so good that I couldn’t believe it was his first. I’m not a first-novel person, but Siobhan recommended it to me so highly I had to pick it up. It’s unbelievable. I read his second, The Unnamed, and found it viscerally upsetting. A man can’t stop walking. His whole life is destroyed because he can’t stop walking. He doesn’t know why he has to walk. But he must. It’s one of the best descriptions of “unnamed” mental illness I’ve ever read and it hit a bit too close to home. It is so so so sad. I read it in the year I got diagnosed, so maybe it was too soon. I picked up his latest recently. It’s about a dentist. Who is a Red Sox fan. Who falls in love so immediately with various women that they are put off by it. It’s outrageously funny at times (out-loud laughter), and then really really bizarre too, with a kind of “double” thing going on, an alter ego appearing, trying to co-opt his identity. I enjoyed it.

84. Henry VIII, by William Shakespeare.
A fun companion piece to Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies (Wolf Hall, Book 2), third part of the trilogy still pending.) Cromwell is only a small part in Shakespeare’s play but because of Mantel you wonder, always, what the hell he is up to. What an amazing story and what an amazing start to a religion. I mean, you can’t even believe it.

85. Darkness Visible: A Memoir of Madness, by William Styron.
I’ve read this multiple times. It’s only 80 pages long. I’ve written a lot about it before. It’s an incredible articulation of depression, although he admits that one of the worst parts about the disease is how it escapes language. Interesting though: I have some additional thoughts about it. This is the first time I’ve read it since I got diagnosed. So I saw some other things in it. Maybe I’ll do it someday. It’s a hot topic, I realize. Everyone’s experience is different. We owe Styron a great debt for this little book.

86. The Flick, by Annie Baker.
Pulitzer Prize winning play. Currently running in New York. The play generated the kind of buzz that you don’t hear all that often. Buzz about the script itself. People say stuff like, “It’s not like anything else.” And you wonder: how can that be? I went to go see it, and yes. It is not like anything else. And yes, it is as good as the buzz promised. BETTER. The first act is an hour and forty minutes long, to give you an idea. The second act is that long as well. Lots of people walk out. They’re missing out. It is a profound piece of work that pushes theatre forward into new and strange areas. I hadn’t read the script, though, and wondered how it would read on the page. Well, there it is: there it all is. The script is ON the page. Maybe that isn’t clear, but actors and writers will get it. Many scripts need to be theatricalized to be realized. Well, that’s the point of a script. But some scripts feel … thin … not finished … when you just read it (in other words: on the page.) But some scripts: you read and there it is, the final production, already there in the words. Elia Kazan said Tennessee Williams’ scripts were like that. He read them for the first time and saw the entire production in his head. Annie Baker’s script reads like that.

2014 books read
2013 books read
2012 books read
2011 books read
2010 books read
2009 books read
2008 books read
2007 books read
2006 books read
2005 books read

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22 Responses to 2015 Books Read

  1. Maureen says:

    I love reading your book lists, Sheila! I ordered The Writing Class and Amy Falls Down for my Kindle-I just read the first few pages of The Writing Class, and that already had me laughing out loud. Looking forward to these.

    Wanted to thank you again for your recommendation of the John Wayne biography by Eyman. I talk this book up to anyone I think might be interested! Also got me started on his other books, I’ve read Print the Legend about John Ford, and the ones with Robert Wagner.

    I must re-read the Paul Zindel books, I loved them when I was young-nice to know they hold up for you.

    Also put Shakespeare After All in my shopping basket, nothing like a little book splurge to cap off the year!

    A very Happy New Year to you!

    • sheila says:

      Oh I’m excited for you with the Jincy Willett books! The Writing Class is hysterical.

      And that John Wayne bio was definitely one of my top reading experiences this year.

      and yeah, Zindel!! I think maybe my favorite of his is Pardon Me, You’re Stepping On my Eyeball, which is kind of a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for kids. A wacko book. But I love them all!

      Shakespeare After All is a great guide, i think – and really well-organized so you can easily find whatever play you want. And her writing is very accessible!

      Happy new year to you too, Maureen!

  2. Myrtle says:

    Happy New Year Sheila!! It’s such a pleasure to digest your writing. I’m so glad these opportunities you’ve been having will introduce more people to it. some of your usual phrases have definitely entered my personal lexicon.

    Heh, I spent half the list above wondering if you’d put the description of Winter’s Tale under Cymbeline – ” a mild-mannered loving husband in the first page of the play – suddenly descends into murderous jealousy about his wife’s relationship with his kindred spirit childhood friend”. Then eventually you listed Winter’s Tale & I was like, oh right its a perfect description of both of them. Innnteresting Shakespeare. I saw the Public Theatre’s production this summer on vacation in NYC, on the last night, and it was about as perfect a version of the play as I could imagined. They doubled Posthumous & Cloten and it worked so perfectly (including the timing of exits/entrances) that you half to owner if they did that in his era. The guy next to me in the morning lineup was going for the 3rd time, b/c it was his favourite Shakespeare play. It was a magical evening- I ended up at the bar where the cast met up post-show (long story), got to tell several people how much I admire their work. At 2 am I walked down the street to my YMCA singing Another Hundred People because it had been SUCH a New York night (I had just met Raul Esparza!) and why not.

    • sheila says:

      Myrtle – Oh that Winter’s Tale night sounds so wonderful!! “Another Hundred People” sung out in the streets – that’s so beautiful! I am very sorry I missed that production, I heard great things. I love that play so much.

      // They doubled Posthumous & Cloten and it worked so perfectly (including the timing of exits/entrances) //

      Amazing choice!

      Thanks, as always, for reading – and I hope you have a very happy new year, Myrtle!

    • sheila says:

      oh and “unusual phrases” … hahahahaha I am wondering which ones!

  3. I’ve got a little list (of books to read this year), to quote the Gilbert and Sullivan Mikado, but you just forced me to make it a lot longer.

    • sheila says:

      What’ll you be reading this year, Steve?

      • Sheila, here’s some of my list so far before adding stuff (Rasputin and Chernobyl for sure) from your 2015 Read List:
        Have started the Annotated Little Women (a treasure featuring photos of actual dolls and artwork and such owned or created by the Alcott sisters)
        A Tree Grows In Brooklyn (love the movie, never read the book)
        In The Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (bet the book is way better than the movie)
        The Burden of Truth (never read a Scott Turow)
        Herself Surprised and To Be A Pilgrim (the first two of Joyce Cary’s trilogy. The 3rd is A Horse’s Mouth, high on the list of greatest novels I’ve ever read and featuring my all time favorite fictional character, the mad artist Gulley Jimson)
        A Dangerous Fortune (A Ken Follett. I’ve read and enjoyed his massive tomes. This one’s a puny 568 pages.)
        Finnegans Wake (I read one page aloud each and every day of my life)

        • sheila says:

          Steve – oh wow, Annotated Little Women?? I need to check that out immediately, it sounds amazing!

          Heart of the Sea is an excellent book!! (I have not seen the movie.) Have you ever been to the whaling museum in Nantucket? I’m not sure where you’re located. I went there once back when I was in college and I never forgot it. I grew up in a sea-faring town, but Nantucket … I mean, that was the only industry. And the place was a damn near matriarchy because the men were gone for years at a time. A really fascinating community and the museum is excellent.

          and I’m ashamed to say I don’t know Joyce Cary. Your comments about those books intrigue me.

          and bless you for Finnegans Wake. Reading it out loud a tiny bit at a time is the way to go!!

          (Do you follow the Finnegans Wake Twitter feed? One line per Tweet. It’s very entertaining.)

          Happy new year!

          • I’m a resident of South Lake Tahoe, Sheila. I’m afraid the closest I’ll get to Nantucket is a bawdy limerick. The first person narrative voice of Gulley Jimson is to die for in The Horse’s Mouth. Alec Guiness played the part in a movie of it way back when. Yes, reading Finnegans Wake, a dreamscape of wordmusic, is ever a pleasure.

          • sheila says:

            // I’m a resident of South Lake Tahoe, Sheila. I’m afraid the closest I’ll get to Nantucket is a bawdy limerick. //


      • sheila says:

        Steve: in terms of the Cary trilogy you mentioned: I should start at the beginning, yes? The first one?

  4. Patrick says:

    Happy New Year – And I suppose someone needs to say this, and it might as well be me, although we are all thinking the same thing – What a great blog! Looking forward to another year here.

    (you are a sort of human dynamo to read all of this and then find the time to write about it)

    • sheila says:

      Patrick – so so nice, thank you so much for saying that. It means a lot.

      I would be writing this way even if nobody showed up – because I’ve been writing every day since I first learned how to put letters together – but it certainly feels much better to write FOR people – to ignite discussion, to share my own thoughts, but also to try to put my thoughts into words.

      Thank you so much for reading!! and happy new year!

  5. ilyka says:

    I love these lists, not just because they provide me with recommendations but because your tangents are a riot (“male-identified,” what even IS that? And where does that leave really butch-presenting women, and aren’t we so progressive for sounding like Betty Friedan in 1969, fretting about the lavender menace? Miss me with all that.).

    I read To Rise Again at a Decent Hour on vacation shortly after finishing (I think at your recommendation) Then We Came to the End. (I’m a little frightened to read The Unnamed, but I’ll get to it.) I can’t say I loved To Rise Again… the way I loved Then We Came to the End–it’s deeper, there’s that whole authenticity-of-identity thing that sometimes felt shoehorned in and that I think I would have preferred to read as an essay, a nice long one–but the dentist’s dialogues with Betsy! I had to read the Thunderbox one out loud to Mark and could barely get through it for the laughter. Plus I loved “me-machine” (and that you immediately know what he’s referring to). Ferris is definitely on my stick-with-em list now because I need to see what he does next.

    My favorite thing I read in 2015, and I got it in under the wire so it’s still haunting me, was A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. I immediately bought it for Mark and my mother with the whole hushed-voice thing: “You have to read this.” There’s a fine line with that subject matter (the Russian-Chechen wars) where a novelist risks crossing it into suffering porn, or maybe redemption porn? but this was not that. I’m on a new book now but I feel like part of me is not getting into it because it’s still in A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. Or maybe this new book isn’t that great, but I do not feel qualified to judge it just yet because of that lingering effect.

    • sheila says:

      // “male-identified,” what even IS that? And where does that leave really butch-presenting women, and aren’t we so progressive for sounding like Betty Friedan in 1969, fretting about the lavender menace? Miss me with all that. //

      That’s exactly right! It’s such a messed-up retro position to take. And NOT helpful. What, I want to get along with men, and for the most part I do get along with men, therefore I betray the Sisterhood? The fact that some women have had to clarify that they are “sex-positive feminists” shows what a problem there is, IMHO.

      If I recall correctly, I think her “male-identified” comment was in the conversation we had here about DOGFIGHT – and how I really saw where the guy was coming from, and also that I saw that Rose needed to grow up a bit and realize she wasn’t a kid anymore. I think the lady was mad that I wasn’t outraged at the whole premise. Oh whatever, people are silly.

      I’m excited you read the Joshua Ferris – I haven’t had anyone to talk about it with. I definitely think Then We Came to the End is his best so far (and to have your first novel be your best??) I mean that plural-narrator … Isn’t that just so what office work feels like? So so good.

      In re: the latest book: the conversations with Betsy were genius. I’m not sure that the whole Jewish/anti-Semitic/lost tribe thing really came across – there seemed to be some attempt to say some things about faith – but honestly, that didn’t really hit for me. But Betsy’s Catholic concern for her boss’ soul was so funny. And I loved the ex-girlfriend employee who kept showing up at the door with new dispatches from the online chaos.

      The Unnamed is brutal from beginning to end, with not one humorous moment. Quite a shock after Then We Came to the End – and I really appreciated that that was his follow-up. Bold!! Thank goodness it was short.

    • sheila says:

      and wow, A Constellation … I have not read it and it sounds incredible. “the hushed-voice thing” – hahaha

      It sounds right up my alley.

  6. ilyka says:

    and to have your first novel be your best??

    I know! I always worry about guys like that because in the back of my mind I’m going, “don’t be another McInerney, please don’t pull a McInerney . . . .” Which is stupid–like, no pressure, dude, but can you please be great all the time? Well, no one is (or few enough are that it becomes statistically irrelevant). A Constellation… is another first novel. He followed it up with a short story collection that I haven’t read yet, so with Anthony Marra I’m going “please don’t pull a Junot Diaz.” DUMB. I have to stop thinking like that.

    And I loved the ex-girlfriend employee who kept showing up at the door with new dispatches from the online chaos.

    Oh yes. She is so fed up with his nonsense, but she can’t look away. Ferris “gets” workplaces. No, you’re not supposed to date your boss, but it happens. No, you’re not supposed to proselytize at work, but it happens. You definitely aren’t supposed to dress up as a clown and shoot paintballs at your former coworkers, but I can easily believe it might happen. (I loved Benny, I loved “us,” but I really loved Tom Mota.) All the things that aren’t supposed to happen at work because it’s unprofessional, happen, so if you’re telling the truth about the modern workplace, you let them. Bless him for that.

    • sheila says:

      Oh God, Benny. I love that character so much.

      // All the things that aren’t supposed to happen at work because it’s unprofessional, happen, so if you’re telling the truth about the modern workplace, you let them. Bless him for that. //

      Right?? There are very few books that are actually honest about the kind of work that many many Americans do: boring office-work. It’s not a CAREER. It’s a JOB. And it’s boring, and the commitment to the job rests at around 50% – and then the rest? You just want time to check your Facebook page, and not do a hell of a lot. It’s depressing. Movies have tackled it more than books have – office-work, the anonymity of it, people lined up in desks …

      But maybe authors just don’t think it’s a topic worthy of their time. So their characters are dusty professors, or fashion designers, or international spies.

      Joseph Heller wrote this huge sometimes-tedious but sometimes-brilliant novel called “Something Happened” – I think it was the next book he wrote about Catch 22 and the reaction to it was disappointed because everyone just wanted him to write another Catch 22. Instead: he wrote this giant book about a guy in a boring office job. Who commutes home to his wife. It is tremendously depressing but also sometimes hilariously funny – I bet Joshua Ferris read that at some point.

      I need to read Then We Came to the End again. It was so funny, so so funny – but then poignant too. Almost desperately sad. Just a miracle he pulled it off. And so young! Damn him!

  7. Thanks so much for People Who Eat Darkness–I bought it on audio (Simon Vance narrates) and marathon-listened in a couple of days. So good. I love how seriously he takes these characters–these real people–how multi-dimensional they are. I especially appreciate the culture clash investigation, the thoughtful and informative discussion of Japanese ways and laws. What a writer.

    • sheila says:

      // I especially appreciate the culture clash investigation, the thoughtful and informative discussion of Japanese ways and laws. //

      Yes, that was so fascinating – something I really didn’t know about at all. It was a very in-depth analysis for what could have been just a salacious page-turner.

  8. KathyB says:

    Wonderful list, a lot of new galaxies to learn about. Will likely return when something starts nibbling at me.

    Your Shakespeare adventures -wonderful. I loved Dr. Bob Collier who taught both my Shakespeare survey classes in early 80’s. I was a nontrad returning to school. His favorite statement which he probably picked up somewhere – “There are only three great sequels, The New Testament, Huckleberry Finn, and Antony and Cleopatra.”

    He was also the keeper of the illicit videotapes (homemade versions of BBC productions) and would show part of a scene to introduce a new play. Brilliant tactic. Helped students tap into the cadence, for these were lit classes, often taken for general education credit as well as majors.

    Love your blog. Keep writing, we’ll keep reading. Hit a few of the Elvis birthday pieces earlier in the week.

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