2016 Books Read

I’ve enjoyed myself this year with reading. I have finally bounced back from 2009 and 2010, when I was so out of my mind that I could barely read anymore. (Larry McMurtry describes a similar thing happening to him post-heart surgery.) When I finally got diagnosed, I mentioned this to the Mood Disorder specialist who got me under control, and he said that trauma like that – grief + mental illness + wildly spiking mood cycles – can “present” as an actual concussion. The damage can actually be seen on brain scans. The brain has been injured and is protecting itself. There is no room for anything else to get in there. I felt relieved when I heard this because I thought I would never be able to read again. I said, “Is the damage permanent?” In his Italian accent, “Darling, the brain can heal itself.” It took me a couple of years to find my sea-legs again with reading. I read a wide variety of stuff this year: classics, contemporary novels, history, biographies. I was engaged with what I read, and because I was unable to read for a year – I appreciate the act of reading that much more!

2016 Books Read

1. The 5th Wave, by Rick Yancey
I was assigned to review the film for Rogerebert.com. I knew that this YA franchise was hugely popular so I figured I’d just familiarize myself with it before I saw the film, so that at least going into it I’d have some idea of what the story was on the page. (I got into a small disagreement with a critic at a screening once who said she never read or re-read the books for any film adaptation. I don’t think it’s required, but my point to her was: When something goes wrong with a film adaptation, it is usually the ADAPTATION that is the issue. In any case, it can’t HURT to know the source material.) I picked it up, I admit, with a small eyeroll, thinking I would read a couple chapters just to get the lay of the land, and then put it down. 36 hours later, I had read the entire book. Practically in one sitting. I COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN. It tapped into my 13-year-old self, that’s for sure. I would have devoured the book THEN and I devoured the book NOW. And so I was so glad that I read it because the movie – which was not good – failed because it somehow missed the spirit of Yancey’s creation. I LOVED the book. Case in point …

2. The Infinite Sea, by Rick Yancey
I immediately bought the second book in the series and devoured THAT one too. It’s not as strong as The 5th Wave, but still: un-put-down-able.

3. Glittering Images: A Journey Through Art from Egypt to Star Wars, by Camille Paglia
I love her, warts and all. Been a fan from the start, and agree with many of her most controversial opinions. Although not the Trump one, because … really, Camille? Part of being a fan of Camille Paglia is allowing for moments where you’re like, Really, Camille?? But hers is an important voice, increasingly so now. The cultural/social trends she criticized in the 90s have intensified into an even more rigid form – any more rigid and people will be dragged out to meet firing squads. We need her. But I also love her artistic commentary, and this book is a sort of companion piece to Break, Blow, Burn: Camille Paglia Reads Forty-three of the World’s Best Poems, only this time a survey course in Art History, curated by Paglia, the selections reflecting her eclectic taste. Many familiar works of art here but many that were new to me.

4. For Keeps: 30 Years at the Movies, by Pauline Kael
I started a re-read of Pauline Kael this year, starting here. Like Camille Paglia, there are sometimes when I go, “Really, Pauline??” But that response is part of what makes her so great. She demands engagement. Also, the writing itself is aces. I learn so much from reading her.

5. I Lost it at the Movies, by Pauline Kael
Her first collection of reviews. Her excellent essay on Hud is included.

6. Joyland, by Stephen King
My friend Ted gave this to me for my birthday a couple of years ago and I just picked it up this year. This is King as hard-boiled noir detective author, and he’s superb. The atmosphere of that beach town and that run-down amusement park is palpable. King is so so good at nostalgia – although the nostalgia here is not the nostalgia of a golden-hued beautiful past. The nostalgia here is darker, involving a loss of innocence. King is a master.

7. From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, by Molly Haskell
I assigned it to my students in Hawaii. Anyone who writes about movies, who cares about movies, has to read this book. No excuse.

8. The Guns of August, by Barbara Tuchman
Have been on a mild WWI-themed reading project over the last couple of years. I read this back in college and remember loving it but have not revisited since. There’s a reason why this book has never gone out of print, and why any book about WWI has to reference it. Because Tuchman – not even what was seen as an official historian – or an academic – not to mention a WOMAN – covered it all, and covered it in readable prose filled with the dread and urgency of what happened during that horrible month of August in 1914. It’s all there. Authors who have followed in her footsteps can only build upon what she already expressed.

9. Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín.
The story of my great-grandmother basically, and many others in my family going far back into the 19th century. To those annoyed at the book because Brooklyn was populated by all colors/creeds, not just Irish (and I’ve encountered one or two of those people, whenever the book comes up): this book is the story of the Irish in Brooklyn. It’s not meant to be the story of everyone. I can’t believe I have to say this, but apparently I do. I’ve said it when it comes up in person, too, which leads to an awkward silence. Oh well. If you think there are other stories to be told about Brooklyn – and of course there ARE other stories to be told about Brooklyn – then write one. Do the hard work and write the story you think should be written. Don’t bitch from the sidelines about an IRISH writer writing about Irish people. Tóibín did the hard work telling the story HE wanted to tell. Tóibín was interested in telling the story of HIS people. (And mine. And so many others.) The book is extremely poignant, and extremely well-observed. His description of homesickness – as an actual sickness – is heart-rending. The movie is wonderful (speaking of good adaptations!! Only a couple of changes have been made, and they all serve the film’s story: the brothers she had in the book have vanished, and that seems to me to be a smart choice, because then the film zooms in on that sister relationship solely. But much of the book has been transferred word for word to the screen.) I love Tóibín. Wrote more about Brooklyn here.

10. The Familiar, Volume 1: One Rainy Day in May, by Mark Danielewski.
Words cannot express how much I have loved reading these books (three so far, a fourth is being released on February 7, 2017. Yes, I have pre-ordered. Yes, I am counting the days). I’ve been obsessed with Danielewski every since I read his House of Leaves many years ago. Only two books have given me legit nightmares, waking up screaming nightmares. One is Stephen King’s The Mist, and the other is House of Leaves. House of Leaves is so deeply unnerving that I actually struggle to compare it to anything else. It is its own thing. I had a hard time getting through his Only Revolutions: A Novel: the format (and he is all about the format) was actually too rigorous and intimidating for me to enter. When you first see his books, they may seem like a gimmick. All those different fonts and illustrations. There are sections of House of Leaves that you have to hold up to a mirror. I don’t find them gimmick-y at all. (And I find a lot of his imitators basically un-readable. There’s no THERE there. But Danielewski has enormous heart. That heart pulses and rages through his books, and you realize that the devices he uses – the fonts and numbering and diagrams and all that – is the most appropriate “form” for his particular sensibility. There’s nobody else like him. Harriet Monroe said of e.e. cummings, “Beware his imitators!” The same can be said for Danielewski’s imitators.) The Familiar is entirely different from House of Leaves, but I have found it compulsively readable. I blabbed about it a bit here. He’s one of my favorite writers working today.

11. Agee on Film: Criticism and Comment on the Movies, by James Agee
Another classic in film criticism. Just over Christmas, Barry and I had a big conversation about James Agee: he had been talking about Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, and he had also come to see me in the award-winning production of A Death in the Family in Chicago, so I brought up his film criticism, and Barry (my dad’s best friend, and a rare book dealer) had never read any of it. I told him about his most famous essay “Comedy’s Greatest Era”. Now I need to send my copy to Barry so he can read it. I’ve been dragging around my second-hand copy of this book since the early 90s.

12. Burning the Days: Recollection, by James Salter.
Salter, who just died, doesn’t have the name-recognition that, say, Philip Roth does, or Mailer, or any of the other 20th century male giants, but he is in the Pantheon, and (in my opinion) his writing often leaves theirs in the dust. Perhaps it was because he wasn’t as prolific as the other Gents. His novels have been few and far between. But WHAT novels. Read A Sport and a Pastime and Light Years back to back and prepare to have your mind BLOWN. Burning the Days is his celebrated memoir and I had never read it before. It’s a masterpiece of the form. I have a hard time articulating what exactly it IS that Salter does with prose that is so remarkable, so unique. It has to do with his devotion to the 5 senses, but it’s more than that. It’s the sheer simplicity of it, how he can put together a couple of different images: sunlight, a cup of coffee, a river … in a way that makes you SEE it, and FEEL it. It becomes your own memory. Salter went to West Point, became a fighter pilot, saw combat in Korea in the 1950s. An outsider, a rebel, a sensitive womanizer, a man who loved sex and drinking and revelry, and a man attuned to loss. “To write of someone thoroughly is to destroy them, use them up … Things are captured and at the same time drained of life, never to shimmer or give back light again.” He tries to capture “things”, landscapes and hotel rooms and mornings and girls, hold them in place, with an urgency and specificity that is entirely his.

13. A Way of Life, Like Any Other, by Darcy O’Brien.
This book was the Discovery of the Year for me, and I have my mother to thank for that. She sent me a copy after raving about it to me. So good. Read it! I wrote about it a little bit here.

14. Kiss Kiss Bang Bang, by Pauline Kael.
Kael’s second collection of reviews. This one includes her vicious pan of The Sound of Music, which elicited screams of outrage familiar to any critic who dares to go against the grain, especially with a feel-good movie. I experienced that this year with my Captain Fantastic review. Boy, people loved that movie, and BOY those hippies are pissed off at me. I’m still getting emails. It reminds me of the piece I wrote criticizing Richard Bach. I’ve always said: If you want to get hate mail, seething seething hate mail, for 10 years straight, write a post criticizing Richard Bach. It will unfold like clockwork. Back to Kael: I wish more people understood – and accepted, even LOVED – that 100% agreement is impossible. Or: the only place where 100% agreement is possible is in a top-down totalitarian society, where agreement is enforced. With a billy club. And so there’s people who say stuff like “I don’t like Christopher Hitchens because he wrote that horrible column about how women aren’t funny”. Because, yes, one bad column (and that was a horrendous column) means he should be ignored forevermore. Who are these people? Do they honestly agree 100% with anyone? How sad and limiting! SELF-limiting. I don’t agree 100% with anyone on ANYthing. So now: 100% agreement or we will run you off the Internet with pitchforks, we will report you to your boss for a failed joke on Twitter, we will hound you until you capitulate and apologize. It’s awful. I prefer the chaos of a Public Square where all opinions are shouted at equal volume to the super quiet and polite “we all agree” Utopia that others seem to envision. Scary times. Stay strong and tough. Speak your mind. Don’t be intimidated. Dare to disagree. What are they gonna do, kill you? Assuming 100% agreement, and being outraged when you don’t find it, is evidence of weakness. Not strength. This is why I call it totalitarian. I have strayed far from my topic. One of the reasons I love Kael is not because I agree with her. It’s because her prose is fun to read. And I can count the film critics today whom I can say that about on one hand.

15. Get Shorty: A Novel, by Elmore Leonard.
A perfect book.

16. Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning: 1977, Baseball, Politics, and the Battle for the Soul of a City, Jonathan Mahler.
A powerful recounting of the terrible summer of 1977, with Reggie Jackson and the blackout, and Son of Sam, and the riots/looting, and you can’t even believe New York was ever this bad.

17. Going Steady, by Pauline Kael
Kael’s third collection of reviews. This collection includes one of her most famous essays, “Trash, Art and the Movies.” That essay alone is essential reading.

18. All the President’s Men, by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein
Strange that I would decide to re-read this this year. Or perhaps not so strange. I first read it in 8th grade, believe it or not. Because I had seen the movie, and was swept away by it. One of my earliest memories is seeing Richard Nixon on TV and thinking he looked mad. It has to be a memory. I saw the movie at age 12. Watergate was in the immediate rear-view mirror of American life at that point. So I read the book. I had no idea that it was too “old” for me and that was the case with all the books I read when I was a kid. I remember being in my civics class (which CLEARLY should be put back into the curriculum STAT. Yeah, let’s NOT teach the CITIZENS of our nation how the government works. Yeah. Let’s just let generations grow up being ignorant and taking our system for granted. Really good plan.) But anyway, I was 12 years old. A child. In my civics class, huddled over a pop quiz. I had All the President’s Men lying on my desk, because I would read it on the school bus. I am not making this up. I was Tracey Flick, perhaps? No, just a curious child, who watched movies that inspired her so much she did the research necessary to learn more. And my civics teacher, strolling up and down the aisles as we took the quiz, stopped when he got to my desk, when he saw the book. I can’t even imagine what he thought. Maybe there are hordes of children out there deciding to pick up All the President’s Men all on their own and reading it in the cafeteria at lunch time, but I fucking doubt it. He picked it up and said, “You’re reading this?” I said, “Yes.” He said, “Can I look at it?” I remember feeling a thrill of pride. And while we took the quiz, he sat up at the front of the class reading the book. And every class, for weeks afterwards, he would ask me my progress in the book. (He had read it, of course.) I did not realize that it was out of the ordinary for a child to CHOOSE to read that book. I remember asking my dad, “So … can you explain to me about Howard Hunt? I don’t understand.” Bless his soul, he did.

19. “Have You Seen . . . ?”: A Personal Introduction to 1,000 Films, by David Thomson
Not the kind of book you read cover to cover. I had been making my way through it for about a year, picking it up, putting it down, seeing a film and reading the entry on it, etc. It’s a great way to get introduced to new films too. There’s a bunch here I haven’t seen. Like most people, there are gaps in my cinema knowledge. It’s really fun to fill those gaps.

20. The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-1945, by Ian Kershaw
A culture/country devoted to pure INSANITY. Absolute delusion leading to unimaginable senseless carnage. Fantasy. Terrifying. Brainwashing. The power of it. How strong a hold it can take. We can see that in operation now. Stop calling it “fake news.” Use its proper name: Political propaganda. Calling it “fake news” is part of the problem: democracies being unable to deal with or comprehend strong-arm tactics. Kershaw is interested in the WHYS of it – WHY Germany behaved in such an insane manner in the final year of the war (well, throughout, clearly, but the pure insanity of the final year is something else altogether). Kershaw is great. I haven’t read much, but I will be reading more.

21. Doctors & Nurses, by Lucy Ellmann.
Ellmann’s Mimi was one of my favorite books that year. It was that rarity: a book that made me laugh so loud I had to put it down, laughter so intense tears were streaming down my face, laughter so prolonged it took up the better part of an afternoon. READ IT. Ellmann is angry, man, angry as HELL, and you can feel it in Mimi, but the filter for her anger – screwball comedies of the 1930s placed into a 21st century environment – was so entertaining that her Treatise – and it is indeed a treatise (the whole book ends with an actual Manifesto) is heard even more clearly. Doctors & Nurses, an earlier book, is brutal in the extreme. Also hilarious. But so grotesque you can’t believe you’re laughing. Ellmann often screams IN ALL CAPS. Doctors & Nurses tells the story of a morbidly obese and rampantly promiscuous nurse who should never ever EVER be allowed near a patient. EVER.

22. Tennessee Williams: Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh, by John Lahr
The long-awaited second volume of the biography of Tennessee Williams (the first volume written by Lyle Leverich). Leverich died before he could complete Volume II and he tapped John Lahr to carry on his work. Leverich was an “outsider” and the publishing world does not take to “outsiders” and Leverich’s book was so phenomenally successful (one of the best biographies I’ve ever read. Up there with McCullough on John Adams, Ron Chernow on Alexander Hamilton, and Nancy Milford on Zelda Fitzgerald. Oh, and A. Scott Berg on Lindbergh) that the publishing world was forced to acknowledge it. At any rate, finally John Lahr’s book arrived. I’m not a big John Lahr fan and his writing has never impressed me all that much (and Leverich was a superb writer in his own right), but the best thing he did in Mad Pilgrimage of the Flesh was to incorporate enough quotes from contemporaries and from Williams that the text is basically a hook-line for all of the quotes. So there’s not a lot of “Lahr” in there. It’s all quotes. This was hugely pleasing. I take HUGE issue with Lahr’s INSISTENCE on reading biographical one-to-one correlations into every single thing Williams wrote. “This character was based on this, and this play came out of this …” I know Williams was a personal writer. I know that he was working out his own biography through his work, and it was his writing that helped keep him sane (and even that failed him in the 60s). But to continuously point it out shows a pretty serious lack of imagination on Lahr’s part. Or, at least, a lack of faith in the imagination itself. That the works are MORE than Williams’ diary entries, for God’s sake. You see? John Lahr drives me slightly insane. However: I am glad the volume exists now. I still wish Lyle Leverich had lived to complete it himself.

23. Truck, by Katherine Dunn
2016 has been crowded with celebrity deaths, many of which affected me personally. But the death that affected me most strongly was the death of novelist Katherine Dunn. Here’s my tribute. I expressed there what her work has meant to me (in particular Geek Love: A Novel), and it couldn’t be more important. In the wake of her death, I decided to re-read Truck. (I still can’t bring myself to pick up Geek Love again. That book continues to be radio-active to me, my memory of the first reading of it still so strong that I’m not sure I can put myself through it again.) Truck is also mind-blowing. I read it in a 36-hour period, practically in one sitting. (That’s the only way to read it.) Katherine Dunn was one of my favorite people. You didn’t hear from her all that much. That was maybe the best part about it.

24. The Girls, by Emma Cline.
I succumbed to the hype, which is rare for me. I usually wait until hype has died down to check out what everybody else is raving about. I don’t trust hype. Hype turns me off. But for this book – especially with its Manson connection – I caved. There were some very good observations about group dynamics, especially among girls, but I thought that the end copped out on the implications it had unleashed. I wrote about the book here.

25. The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald.
A re-read in preparation for the essay I wrote about Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation: Riotous Excursions: Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby.

26. Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, by Tennessee Williams
I re-read the play after seeing a wonderful production of it in The Berkshires.

27. Hog Pilots, Blue Water Grunts: The American Military in the Air, at Sea, and on the Ground, by Robert Kaplan
I’ve been reading Robert Kaplan for years, ever since I read Balkan Ghosts: A Journey Through History. He’s prolific, and can be a Doomsday Soothsayer, but there’s a toughness to his work, an on-the-ground perspective that is sometimes completely lost in the abstractions that populate news feeds now. Like Christopher Hitchens, like his idol Rebecca West, like Orwell, he cannot be easily pinned down to one “side.” The “right” seems to have more appreciation for him – or even awareness of him – because of his interest in the American military and how it operates, but even there, he is extremely critical of much of it, especially the war in Iraq. Hog Pilots is the second part of what he started in Imperial Grunts: On the Ground with the American Military, from Mongolia to the Philippines to Iraq and Beyond, a pair of books that examine every branch of America’s military, the different cultures, how those cultures are changing (or not) when faced with new threats and a new global situation, as the power starts to shift East. Often it’s career military who see shit coming down the pike that civilians back home – and the government back home – don’t want to hear. I asked my friend, who is career military – in a Special-Ops-kind-of-unofficial way (like, there’s shit he won’t tell me, even though I’ve begged, and wheedled, and pleaded), what he thought of Kaplan’s work and he was hesitantly positive. “He’s good. He’s a little too credulous and rah-rah about the American military,” was my friend’s comment, a comment I take very seriously since he’s spent the majority of his life in the military. His father was a POW in Vietnam who never returned. So his opinion about Kaplan carries a lot of weight for me. I come from a family where almost all of my uncles served (and those who didn’t – like my dad – were barred because of physical issues, like eyesight), where a bunch of my cousins served and are serving, and so it’s not this weird unheard-of thing. Anyway, these two books from Kaplan – keeping my friend’s comment in mind (and he’s someone I trust) – are super interesting, and revelatory (I would imagine) to those who don’t know how things work. Any time we can try to figure out “how things work”, we should jump on it. Our lives depend on it. Kaplan traveled the world, embedding himself on submarines, in small Special Ops outfits, in training exercises, on gigantic ships, seeing how the different branches worked, who the people were, how the cultures differed, etc. They’re really interesting books.

28. The Familiar, Volume 2: Into the Forest, by Mark Danielewski
Devoured it. They are challenging to read. Some of the narrators are almost incomprehensible, they speak in dialects, one is a drug addict and his voice reflects that. But Danielewski is working towards something. Something to do with synchronicity, maybe. Not sure yet. The multiple narrators hail from around the world. Singapore, Mexico, a cluster in California. None of them are connected, although cats – somehow – are a running theme. And each person “hears” things, a tone, a cry of pain, that emanates from some unknown place, of mysterious origin (and it’s symbolized by three horizontal pink dots … this is Danielewski: things must look right. I can only imagine the meetings he has with his publishers, and the jobs of editors and artists putting together these books, with their color-coding – each page has a color coded border, and font differences, and margin differences: everything means something). All of this could be seen as Christopher-Nolan-ish (in my world, not a compliment), but to me it’s not. It has in it Danielewski’s urgent questioning, his care about people (always present), his vast power of mimicry (which was on display in House of Leaves, which took the form of an academic paper, interspersed with “footnotes” written by a tormented tattoo artist who had “found” the manuscript). There’s really nobody else like Danielewski. Reading The Familiar – all three volumes (so far) – was one of the funnest experiences of this horrible horrible year.

29. The Familiar, Volume 3: Honeysuckle & Pain, by Mark Danielewski.
See above.

30. The Immortal Irishman: The Irish Revolutionary Who Became an American Hero, by Timothy Egan
Cousin Kerry sent me this biography of Thomas Francis Meagher, an incredible Irish (and then American) patriot, with a story that you can’t even believe is real. As Cary Grant shouts in Bringing Up Baby, how can so much happen to one person?? Meagher had a Hamilton-style of attack: it was through his pen, and his pen was feared, and it was his pen that got him into trouble. But his journey spans the globe. Starts in Ireland, sent off on prison ship to Tasmania, some time there before his daring escape – involving a pirate ship and a secret rendezvous (again, you can’t believe it really happened that way, but it did!) – and then making his way to America, where he was already famous to all of the Irishmen/women who had washed up on the shores of America post-famine. He arrived just in time for the Civil War, in which he fought (he created the legendary – and feared – Irish Brigade.) I highly recommend this book, not just to Irish-Americans (although it’s a wonderful book showing the trajectory of the Irish in America post-Black-47). A wonderful immigrant story: and we need all of those we can get right now.

31. The Selected Letters of Elia Kazan
I have been waiting for this book for the majority of my life. It’s finally here. Reading this collection was THE reading experience of 2016 for me. I know Kazan’s life like the back of my own hand. And his letters are quoted often in so many biographies that I’m familiar with the texts already. But so far there had never been a collection of his correspondence (for shame). He was an amazing writer (anyone who’s read his stupendous autobiography knows that), and a voluminous correspondent. You can’t believe how many balls he kept in the air at one time. I love him. His work matters so much to me. It helped FORM me. I was un-formed, and then I saw East of Eden at 12, and began to actually FORM into the person I am now. Because of him. So when I finally met Elia Kazan … one snowy night on 44th Street … in the actual Actors Studio, which he had helped create – it was all I could do to keep myself together. This is a wonderful and long-anticipated volume.

32. The Burning Tigris: The Armenian Genocide and America’s Response, by Peter Balakian.
I had read, and loved, Black Dog of Fate: A Memoir, Peter Balakian’s memoir about growing up Armenian-American, haunted by the ghost of the mostly-unmentioned 1915 genocide of Armenians by the Turks. It was a silent presence in his house growing up and he didn’t know what it was, and he didn’t know why he didn’t have any relatives, or why all of his relatives/ancestors appeared to have died in 1915, and he didn’t know what exactly had happened. When he learned about the genocide, he devoted his life to learning more about this forgotten moment in history, the 20th century’s first genocide. (Hitler’s famous comment to his generals: “Who remembers the Armenians?” and etc.) Balakian was a poet and a Beat (he shares some really funny stories about bringing his old-fashioned mother to poetry readings, and bringing Allen Ginsberg home with him). So because I loved the memoir, I bought The Burning Tigris, Balakian’s follow-up, a straight history book sans memoir, immediately upon publication. It sat on my shelves, lo these many years, until I finally picked it up. This is why one has a library. It’s a fascinating look – mainly – at America’s humanitarian response, one of the first times that the American people were galvanized to help an afflicted people. The organization of that response! The Red Cross – which had only operated in America at that point – driven by the stories coming out of Armenia to send its very first group out internationally. I highly recommend the book. Even more important now, when the dehumanizing language of the President-Elect, all throughout his campaign, consigned entire groups of people into non-human status. If they’re “losers,” then who cares what happens to them? They are non-people, not worthy of respect. This must be fought. This cannot be allowed. The book moves into the present day, and Turkey’s continual denial that a genocide even took place: they were acting in self-defense. The “event” has been so buried because it’s not taught in schools, and generations have grown up not even knowing about it. My father, in his role as librarian at a university, was in charge of the work-study students, giving them assignments and working with them. (Many of them, decades later, traveled long distances to attend my father’s wake. It was so touching.) One exchange student from Turkey, whom Dad really liked, she was a “go-getter” (his highest praise), came into his office one day in tears. She had just learned about the genocide. She had never heard of it before. She was devastated that her country had done this, and she wanted to know if it was true. She trusted Dad to tell her the truth. He said, “Yes, it is true.” They sat and talked a long time about collective guilt, and whether or not she should feel guilty (he told her she shouldn’t.)

33. Mary Ann, by Alex Karmel
The searing and brief novel, opening with a violent rape, that was then adapted into Something Wild, a 1961 film, mostly forgotten, that will be released by Criterion on January 17, 2017. I wrote the booklet essay, so I needed to re-read the source material.

34. My Brilliant Friend: Neapolitan Novels, Book One, by Elena Ferrante
I read her The Days of Abandonment in 2015, and it blew the top of my head off. I started it at the beach one morning, got so into it, that I stayed at the beach hours longer than I had planned so that I could finish it. Ferrante (a pseudonym) has been much in the news this year (her cover blown by a jackass journalist, who seemed unable to cope with the Unknown, and seemed to have a sense of glee that perhaps Ferrante – a brilliant psychologist of what it’s like for women – was a man. I ignored the entire thing. Nope. Not participating. Nope nope nope. As always with me: the work is paramount. I refuse to get distracted.) So then this year I began her Neapolitan quartet. Words cannot describe how good this woman is. Believe the hype.

35. Dead Elvis: A Chronicle of a Cultural Obsession, by Greil Marcus
A re-read. Essential reading for any serious Elvis fan. But I imagine it would be fascinating for anyone interested in celebrity, iconography, and obsession.

36. Long Shadows: Memoirs of Shane Leslie, by Shane Leslie
I bought this book in January of 2009. The month my father died. I will always regret that I did not read it while he was alive. My father was an expert in Shane Leslie (and gave many talks and lectures on the man throughout his life), along with being an expert in Francis Stuart (he published a bibliography of the works of Francis Stuart) and James Joyce. And many other things. Shane Leslie was a fascinating individual – cousin to Winston Churchill – who intersected with – seriously – every single important person in the early-and-mid years of the 20th century. A memoir filled with gossip, great anecdotes, and what my dad called the “puff-puff” (meaning “hot air”) of his personality. A beautiful reading experience, pierced with personal regret.

37. Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story, by Nick Tosches.
It’s hard not to write “the great Nick Tosches,” “the legendary Nick Tosches”, and etc. His Dino: Living High in the Dirty Business of Dreams (biography of Dean Martin) is not just a high watermark of the form, but practically its own genre. Sui generis. It cannot be imitated because Tosches is unique. The same is true of his fast and furious biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, which has to be read to be believed. Greil Marcus, who wrote the intro, said that the ending of the book was harrowing, especially for a biography about a man still living. I love Jerry Lee Lewis, but went through a pretty serious Phase this year. I’d read the book years ago, but had to pick it up again.

38. Picture Perfect: The Jodi Arias Story: A Beautiful Photographer, Her Mormon Lover, and a Brutal Murder, by Shanna Hogan.
I’ve said it before although maybe not here: If I had nothing else to do with my life, no writing projects or obligations, I could conceivably spend the majority of my time watching and re-watching the trials/interrogations of Jodi Arias and Casey Anthony. So I saw this book and figured, “What the hell.” Jodi Arias is a pure sociopath, but I think Casey Anthony is on a whole “nother” level. Regardless. A good read.

39. In the Woods, by Tana French
A re-read. I actually haven’t read the two latest in the series, and I want to, so I figured I would re-read the ones I read so far. I’ve written quite a bit about her work, saying nothing that hasn’t been said better by other people, but one of the things that distinguishes this series – outside of the crime aspect, outside of the Irish aspect, outside of the Celtic Tiger aspect (all of which are extremely observant) – is French’s writing itself, which is startlingly good. And consistently good. She seems to just crank these out, but each one is different, each one with a distinctive voice. I’ve been having fun re-reading them. In the Woods is haunting. I’ve also said before somewhere that as much as I love John Banville (I prefer his Benjamin Black persona), I think Tana French kicks his ass in terms of her portrayal of the economic upheaval – the insane Celtic Tiger boom and then the devastating crash – in Ireland. In many ways, that’s what her series is all about, not murder investigations.

40. The Story of a New Name: Neapolitan Novels, Book Two, by Elena Ferrante
Much longer than Part One, but these books are compulsively read-able. The narrator is driving me CRAZY. Lila breaks my heart. I was so immersed in this book and in their relationship that I needed to take a break before picking up the third volume. I’ll continue on with them in 2017, because I’m too invested now to stop. Ferrante’s devotion to the intricacies of human relationships is astonishing: the things she sees, perceives. There’s also her observations about life on the ground in one neighborhood in Naples, post-WWII. It’s extremely local. The friendship, though … that’s the hook. Wow.

41. Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert
A re-read just for the hell of it. I had forgotten how hilarious much of it was, in a vicious lampooning sort of way. His descriptions of people! So incredibly mean! He side-swipes them with a sentence only, and there they are, right in front of you. Flaubert is vicious about the middle class. Vicious. The book is devastating. I find it hard to believe that I was once fluent enough in French that I read it in French. I could never do that now, it’s been too long and it’s all forgotten. I’m sorry about it.

42. The Likeness, by Tana French.
So far my favorite one in the series. I love how French is unafraid of melodrama, the frankly unbelievable “device” of Cassie having an identical out there, a Doppelgänger who stole her identity. Her FAKE identity. The mirroring effects are dizzying. The book is truly unnerving. That house and its occupants are unnerving. I put this one on my Recommended Fiction list.

43. East of Eden, by John Steinbeck
I’m not sure, but I think it’s my 4th time reading this book. My first was when I was in 8th or 9th grade. I had seen the movie, which was a life-altering experience. I hadn’t realized that the movie only included the third section of the book, the final generation. But I still got into the sweep of the story, and loved the parts that many people (I learned later) really didn’t care for, or wanted to skip over, the Hamilton family sections, which have “nothing” (sort of) to do with the Cain/Abel story as played out through the Trask family. But I LOVED the Hamiltons. Those characters lived for me, especially Dessie. I didn’t understand then what it meant that that fun-loving woman who had created such a sanctuary for women in her dressmaker’s shop somehow lost the gift of laughter after a failed love affair. That something was lost forever to Dessie when she lost that. I didn’t understand it but it made a huge impression. Well, I would learn later in life what that meant. I lived it. And I would think of Dessie, and think, “Somehow she made an impression on me, even though she only appears in the book for 10 pages, maybe, total, because I knew somewhere that her destiny would be mine.” Shivering thoughts to this day. You just wish it had gone another way. But it didn’t. Did I know, at 13, or sense … the dangers? That I would lose my own joy/hope/quickness-of-laughter at some point along the way? I don’t know. I’m inclined to think yes. Cathy also made a great impression. I have written about her almost as much as I have written about anyone. People still resist Cathy. They shouldn’t. I re-read the book because I’m working on a giant project. The research has been really fun.

44. Journal of a Novel: The East of Eden Letters, by John Steinbeck
Research continued. Now this I had not read. The writing of East of Eden took a year, and during that time, Steinbeck wrote almost a letter a day to his editor, mainly as a journal, although the letters were passed on (the editor’s wife saved them, which is why we have them today). A fascinating record of an artist at work. And inspirational in that Steinbeck reports procrastination, and insecurity, and despair at what he has set out to do … things any writer would recognize. If a giant like Steinbeck went through all of that, then maybe this is just the writer’s lot, and not a personal failing. It’s part of the gig.

45. Tomorrow, short story by William Faulkner, included in the 1949 collection Knight’s Gambit
Research for another project I’m working on. I am sure I have read this before (I’ve had Knight’s Gambit in my library for decades), but I had very little memory of it, outside of the 1972 film starring Robert Duvall.

46. Faithful Place, by Tana French
My least favorite of the series thus far. It’s my aunt Regina’s favorite of the series thus far so we have had many interesting discussions about it. I feel that the Irish family stuff is forced and cliched, and the romance with Rosie Daly never quite lifts off the page. The family never seemed quite bad enough for him to exit the scene for good. Maybe that’s unfair. And, of course, there’s a monster in his family, so maybe he was right all along. I also felt the last paragraph was forced, too much of a nod to “The Dead”‘s final paragraph, and you best be really really careful with imitating something that great. Her implicit (and extremely effective) critique of Ireland’s mass-frenzy of consumption during the boom goes explicit in that last paragraph and it just didn’t work for me. Nevertheless: Frank Mackey plays such a large part in the other two books (even as a peripheral character), so it is a lot of fun to see him take center stage. That’s one of the best parts of French’s approach. The series takes place in the same Murder Squad, but it’s all different narrators so people who play cameos in one book (like “Scorcher” Kennedy, an obnoxious presence in Faithful Place, is the narrator in the next book, Broken Harbor: A Novel (Dublin Murder Squad), which I am currently re-reading and won’t finish in time to make it to this list. Broken Harbor is one of the strongest in the series. Maybe the strongest. The images of the housing communities all over Ireland, abandoned and running to rot, is haunting, and French’s strongest observation yet of what happens in a boom and then a crash.

47. Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, by David Yellin and Marie Connors
Brought out by the wonderful University of Mississippi Press, this book tells the story of William Faulkner’s short story “Tomorrow,” and how it was first made into a teleplay, then a script for the stage, until finally a screenplay. I had never read this. There’s some great stuff in it. The late great Horton Foote is the one who adapted the Faulkner original, drawn to the mysterious character of the pregnant woman, who is only mentioned once or twice, but she was the thing that Horton found himself drawn to. His “way in” to his adaptation. Who was she? What was she running from?

2015 books read
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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19 Responses to 2016 Books Read

  1. mutecypher says:

    I’m nearly finished with The Familiar, Volume 2: Into the Forest. What an exhilarating writer! At the beginning of one chapter, he quotes a line from Rihanna, “All I see is signs” – which seems like a way of life for him. The books are just an amazing performance.

    East of Eden – I went through a big Steinbeck phase my junior year in college, but haven’t re-read him since – except for the description of the Salinas Valley in the beginning of EoE – where California poppies are “not orange, not gold, but if pure gold were a liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of the poppies.” – that particular paragraph I love so much. How did it hold up for you? Fourth time through, I’m assuming it still spoke.

    • sheila says:

      The Familiar really is a “performance” – perfect term!

      and “but if pure gold were a liquid and could raise a cream, that golden cream might be like the color of the poppies.” – a line I cherish, too!! It made a huge impression on me at 13 – I had never read anything like that.

      Since this is my 4th time through (maybe even 5th, I’m not sure) – I would say that not only it holds up but it’s one of those books that just grows and deepens as you the reader get more experienced.

      The long long sections of philosophy – with Lee and Samuel Hamilton and Adam Trask sitting around talking … these sections I found somewhat tiresome in my youth – and Steinbeck himself was criticized for them in a “Get ON with it” way – but now, I just eat them up. I wish they were longer!

  2. Anne Mania says:

    Love this list! Thanks. I’m sure your to read list is long, but just in case there is room, the book that got me this year was A Brief History of Seven Killings by Marlon James, about Jamaica 70s-90s. Dense, amazing writing and story. A good view on CIA operations outside the country during the Watergate era.

    • sheila says:

      Anne – that book sounds incredible and right up my alley! Murder. Watergate. CIA. I’m in. (No disrespect meant to the victims of these killings.)

      Thanks for the recommendation. I will check it out!

      • sheila says:

        and who was our civics teacher in 7th/8th grade? I can see his face in my head – but his name escapes me. Do you remember?

        • sheila says:

          and I still remember feeling very proud and grown-up that HE – the grownup – was impressed with what I – the child – was reading – and asked to borrow it.

          • Anne Mania says:

            Mr. Gannon? Mr. Randall was history? Mr. Forbes was consumer Ed I think. Mr. Gomes was environmental ed. The golden age of public education…

          • sheila says:

            You are awesome with these names, Anne!!

            It was either Mr. Gannon or Mr. Randall. I’m leaning towards Randall.

  3. Dg says:

    Agree with you about Banville. Every time I read him one thought occurs to me.. this is good but the writing is as thick as molasses. The Black books are refreshing in comparison and I also agree Tana French is better at it. And also thanks for write up on The Immortal Irishman. My father has just about hit me over the head with it to get me to read it.
    I just finished the David Duchovney (yes him) novel titled Bucky F###ing Dent. Light and enjoyable I think you would read it in about two days and enjoy it.

    • sheila says:

      Dg – Immortal Irishman is really good! I can’t believe this man hasn’t been given a really good biography before now – even just his actions in Ireland is enough to put him in the history books forever, but the story just keeps going from there!

      Oh, and he also had a youthful love affair with “Speranza,” a writer, poet, and political activist, ferocious Irish nationalist, who would eventually go on to be the mother of Oscar Wilde.

      I MUST read the David Duchovny – I mean, just from the title alone … !!

  4. Brooke A L says:

    Sheila, I don’t comment enough on here! Lots of interesting books and ideas here.

    I LOVE Camille Paglia, also, although it wasn’t always that way. At first I was obviously not intelligent or mature to really “get” her, but when I gradually did she really opened up a lot of new ideas for me. And she gave voice to a lot of things that were nagging me about these weird lefties (I don’t see the world from right or left or any other particular lens, so there’s no snark attached to that) and the current and even second wave feminism. When I think of her now, I can’t help but be thankful that she exists. A lot of people love her, but the others I find don’t get her at all. She loves to be controversial, she loves and understands PERSONA. Recognizing her sense of humour and rapid-fire delivery and extraordinary mind as part of the whole Crazy Camille package is essential. She is sooo funny and people just don’t get that! I used to think she would be intimidating until I watched interviews with her and completely changed my mind. She is tough and brutal, but with a sweetness, humility, and vulnerability there as well. And god, she never shuts up! Her mind is extraordinarily full and her delivery is pure passion. But yes, there are those, “oh, Camille” moments, but that’s part of her charm. Even when I disagree with her I can usually see where she’s coming from. I was actually going to say that I read Sexual Personae this year during my long commutes (big mistake, obviously), but got carried away here. It is a brilliant and extraordinary book and one I will have to explore again.

    I like your comments under Brooklyn (I don’t know anything about the book): “this book is the story of the Irish in Brooklyn. It’s not meant to be the story of everyone. I can’t believe I have to say this, but apparently I do.” Indeed! What an extreme and miserable response: the book doesn’t address everything I want it to, including the history of space and time, so boo hoo let’s just get rid of it. What a petty, small, self-centered world people must live in!

    I have to read more Kael. I think she pissed me off when I first read her in film school (big surprise), but like Paglia, that is part of her persona. I absolutely loved what she wrote about Last Tango in Paris, which I read immediately after watching the film. I also found out later that her favourite film was Ménilmontant, one of my very favourite, and one that stunned me when I saw it many years ago.

    Re: the Nazi rise to power, I can’t recommend Defying Hitler by Sebastian Haffner enough. It is astonishing in its observations. Haffner being a German born in 1908 is key, and the story around the publishing of the book is quite something. So valuable.

    • sheila says:

      Brooke – thanks for this great comment! I am so glad to hear your words on Camille Paglia. I agree about her persona in person – she’s almost … bubbly? And yes: a motormouth. I’ve always wanted to sit in on one of her classes. They must be insanely entertaining. The fact that Gloria Steinem would refer to Paglia as a “reactionary” pretty much says it all about the “movement” and how it self-selects the voices it thinks are “appropriate” – oh, those middle-class feminists so concerned with what is “appropriate”. Paglia is so necessary – I read some younger feminist sniffing that Paglia “doesn’t get our generation at all” – mainly because Paglia thinks there is some use in Freud. I wanted to throttle this young woman. Yes, let’s just NOT listen to Paglia because of her opinions on Freud. The fact that there’s a group of people who felt it necessary to call themselves “sex-positive feminists” is so indicative of the HUGE problem – and, I don’t know, I was either not born or too little to be a part of the first wave of feminism – but in my view, there’s a lot of sex-phobia STILL in younger feminists and it seems even worse to me now. And as long as those voices are dominating – I’m sorry, they are not going to get anywhere, outside of their small core group.

      and so true, that she understands Persona. AND, she loves art. Throwing in a Peter Frampton reference in the middle of a chapter on Roman statuary or whatever … I love her.

      // What a petty, small, self-centered world people must live in! //


      Kael is so fun to read – and I’m loving these collections because you really get into her rhythm as a weekly reviewer, not just a person who wrote big think-pieces that end up anthologized. One of my discoveries this year was this ridiculous 1980 movie called Used Cars – directed by Robert Zemeckis – starring Kurt Russell. Kael gave it a rave review so I immediately found it on Netflix and watched. It’s a movie about rival used car salesmen, and she flipped over it. So did I. I totally fell in love with it. So it’s great to read her famous reviews (and I always go and check out what she said after seeing something new), but it’s also so fun to trip over something like her review of Used Cars – and she really gives this silly movie a very serious treatment, looking at its slapstick qualities, and how well it all works.

      Thanks for the rec on Defying Hitler. I will put it on my list for 2017.

  5. Dan Heaton says:

    I read The 5th Wave a few years ago and blitzed through it. I was excited to see the movie, but the trailer just looked BAD. It felt off, and after reading a lot of bad reviews, I never even saw the adaptation. It’s too bad.

    Pauline Kael was one of the first critics that I read closely beyond our local reviewers. I picked up For Keeps at a book fair when I was in high school and had read nothing like it. She does have some odd views on some films, but it’s never boring.

    • sheila says:

      Dan – it really was too bad in re: 5th Wave. Chloe Moretz was awful. The girl in the book is so specific, and ALL of that was lost. Some of the “apocalypse” scenes – empty highways, etc. – were effective … I don’t know, Rick Yancey is an excellent writer and storyteller … The movie felt lazy.

      For Keeps is great! It also helps that she was writing in an era when all of this crazy exciting stuff was going on in film. She never “got” Cassavetes – at ALL. Those reviews drive me crazy, and I’m like, “Really, Pauline??” Cassavetes joked once that if she ever gave a film of his a good review he wouldn’t know what to do with himself.

  6. Tom says:

    I always love these long list posts. We had a little overlap in our reading in 2016:

    1) All the President’s Men — I’d never read it, but I read some of the great campaign books about 1968 and 1972, and this felt like a logical extension. I loved it, but I loved The Final Days, Woodward and Bernstein’s follow-up, even more. Have you read that? I’m falling into a Nixon rabbit hole, and while his *presence* was certainly all over ATPM, he’s at the center of The Final Days, and their characterization of him is fascinating and haunting.

    2) Dead Elvis — Re-read it for the first time in maybe 15 years. I loved that piece about the Walker Evans photos, how he imagines an alternate universe in which Elvis is a nameless face in an Evans photograph. I’m sure you’ve read Marcus’s Double Trouble, but if not, it’s a sequel of sorts, which I guess isn’t surprising since all of his books are pretty interconnected.

    3) Hellfire — I didn’t re-read Hellfire last year, although I was tempted to, and might in 2017, because HOLY SHIT what a book! I did, however, read Where Dead Voices Gather, Tosches’s book about Emmett Miller, which I highly recommend. People who are obsessed with complaining about seeing “cultural appropriation” everywhere would probably hate it. ;)

    • sheila says:

      Tom – Thanks!

      I too love The Final Days. Most memorable for me is how Alexander Haig and Pat Buchanan basically emerge as the only realistic and self-aware people in that building. Politically savvy but also somewhat separated from the craziness of that administration. At least that’s how I remember it. Everybody else was racing around trying to protect themselves – those two saw the writing on the wall. I may be mis-remembering – but Haig in particular stands out. (My friends and I call him Alexander “I’m in charge now!!” Haig.)

      Have you read Mary McCarthy’s book on the Watergate hearings? Highly recommended!!

      Dead Elvis is such a nutty book – sui generis. I loved that Walker Evans bit too – and I discovered a lot of stuff new to me – in particular some of the weird punk-rock-ish covers of Elvis tunes that happened directly in the wake of his death. It’s been fun to go down that rabbit hole!

      I haven’t read Where Dead Voices Gather. Don’t get me started on “cultural appropriation.” I read a great piece on this – having to do with Amy Winehouse. I’ll see if I can track it down.

      Hellfire is so great. I love how short it is- it feels like he wrote it in a long amphetamine-fueled weekend – although it’s clearly backed up by years of research and interviews. But it reads like a bat out of hell!

      • sheila says:

        I love the Internet: here’s the Amy Winehouse cultural appropriation piece.


      • Tom says:

        Your memory re: Haig is correct. He definitely seemed more level to me than basically anyone else in the room. I can hardly imagine what it must’ve been like to be in his position, or anyone’s, really, sensing what they did and eventually learning what they did about Nixon. Psychologically, it’s such a fascinating story. I finished The Final Days about two weeks before the election, and of course the election was on my mind the whole time, and when I finished the book I was feeling relieved that at least THAT wasn’t likely to happen again. Those days sure seem distant now.

        You’re the second person to recommend the Mary McCarthy book, and now I’m kicking myself for not buying the copy I was holding in my hands a couple weeks ago.

        Just read the Joyce Millman piece on Amy Winehouse — thanks for that! Her description of “Mouth to Mouth” — good grief. (And then the comment from the artist after the piece.) Now I’m scrolling back through her other posts. I’m glad it’s Saturday.

        • sheila says:

          I was planning to re-read The Final Days right after All the President’s Men but moved onto something else. I will re-read it this year. I think psychologically it is fascinating – and the insider nature of that story is gripping. A glimpse we rarely get.

          Yeah, Millman is terrific!!

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