2017 Books Read

I got into a good rhythm with reading this year. I did a lot of re-reading, going back to books I haven’t read in 20 years or whatever. It was fun, like a reunion with an old friend. Much of the list below came from obvious contemporary concerns. A refresher course of totalitarian literature – (if you’ve read me for longer than 5 minutes you know I have shelves of this stuff). Must keep my wits about me. I tackled a couple of major books I’ve had for a while, books it took me months to get through. I always have some kind of Reading Goal in mind, but I am willing to toss the goal aside if something else comes along.

2017 Books Read

1. Mary Astor’s Purple Diary: The Great American Sex Scandal of 1936, by Edward Sorel
One of THE reading experiences of the year for me. I reviewed for Rogerebert.com.

2. 1984, by George Orwell
Self-explanatory why I picked this one up again. I re-read it on average once every couple of years. Keeps my mind sharp. Always always be wary. Don’t trust anyone, least of all a politician. Be skeptical. Always.

3. Broken Harbor, by Tana French
I’ve fallen behind in the Tana French Dublin Homicide Squad series. I have a backlog to get through. My favorite remains The Likeness, but I love them all. Broken Harbor is a re-read, one of the great documentations of the downfall of the Celtic Tiger.

4. American Pastoral, by Philip Roth
I’ve got gaps in my “education” and the huge male writers who emerged in the mid-20th century is one such gap. I’m on a self-induced program to rectify this. I don’t feel I can participate fully in the culture without reading “those guys” (as I call them). Philip Roth – for whatever reason – for no reason – was in that gap. (This is similar to Evelyn Waugh. Why I never read him before I don’t know, I just never did. Once I figured out what everyone else knew – that he was amazing – I was HOOKED.) So hey there, I’m the last person on the planet to realize Philip Roth is the Bomb. I’m happy to join the party. And the fun is: there’s so much Roth to catch up on!

5. Bette & Joan: The Divine Feud, by Shaun Considine
I inhaled this in a 24-hour period once I got the gig re-capping Ryan Murphy’s series Feud for The New York Times . I read it before, of course, but that was years ago.

6. The Lonely Life : An Autobiography, by Bette Davis
Inhaled this as well, in preparation for Feud. You can HEAR her talking.

7. Female Brando: The Legend of Kim Stanley, by Jon Krampner
In the midst of all my Feud preparations, I also had to get ready for the essay I had pitched to Film Comment about the legendary Kim Stanley (here it is). The book gives great and necessary context for this nearly-forgotten (except in some circles, where her legend shines bright) star.

8. The Journalist and the Murderer, by Janet Malcolm
Malcolm’s sharp examination of the issues surrounding Joe McGinniss’ “tricking” of Green Beret murderer Jeffrey MacDonald (who – to this day – claims he is innocent). McGinniss pretended to be writing a book that would help exonerate MacDonald. Over the course of the writing of it, McGinniss changed his mind about MacDonald. MacDonald trusted him, MacDonald revealed his (narcissistic) soul to him, thinking it was safe. Malcolm finds the whole thing unsavory, though, and she makes a very strong case.

9. The Zookeeper’s Wife: A War Story, by Diane Ackerman
I read this fascinating book in preparation for reviewing the forgettable movie, starring Jessica Chastain. The book is much better. Also, you won’t have to suffer through Chastain’s bad Polish accent.

10. The Great Terror: A Reassessment, by Robert Conquest
One of the greatest and most important books of the 20th century. This is my 3rd or 4th time reading it. I wrote more about it here in 2015 when Conquest died.

11. This ‘N That, by Bette Davis
Bette Davis’ hastily written second autobiography, published as self-defense against her daughter’s poison-pen memoir. You can feel Bette’s anger and pain.

12. The Wicked Girls, by Alex Marwood
Someone recommended Marwood’s books to me on Facebook. I can’t remember now who it was, and this saddens me because I’d like to thank that person! This was a terrific and moody serial-killer crime novel.

13. Notebooks, by Tennessee Williams
I’ve dipped into this, made notes, absorbed some of it, but never sat down and read the whole thing. It’s daunting because the footnotes are as lengthy as the text. The layout of the book is beautiful: on one page is the text, and on the page facing are the extensive footnotes for that particular page. So you don’t have to keep turning to the back of the book. Essential reading for any Williams fan. One of the take-aways is a reminder that this was a man of great courage. The cards were stacked against him (genetically, sexually, mental-health-wise). The fact that he was able to do as much as he did – at such high quality – is not a miracle. It is because he WORKED. Even when the critics and audiences – shame on them forever – turned away.

14. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil, by Hannah Arendt
My third time reading it. Drawn to the examinations of tyranny, evil, autocracy, complicity, etc., especially this year. The Nazis were “innovators” in this tyranny, but only because of the industrialization of genocide. Arendt is a controversial figure, and her books must be read. You can’t absorb this – or her great Origins of Totalitarianism – by osmosis. You must experience her first-hand.

15. The Mind of the South, by W.J. Cash
I believe I first heard mention of this book in Peter Guralnick’s great two-volume biography of Elvis. I had never heard of it before. But, as so often happens, once it was on my radar, I started seeing mention of it everywhere. Finally I read it. It’s an extraordinary book and strangely apt for this year, although I didn’t go into it knowing it would be. He’s a Southerner speaking to other Southerners like himself – white, male – and going AFTER the assumptions and prejudices of his culture. An extraordinary book. Who knows what he would have accomplished if he had lived longer.

16. The Last Thing He Wanted, by Joan Didion
How had I missed this one? It’s one of her crazy paranoid novels, and with everything she has done – all her reportage and essays and travelogues – her crazy paranoid novels (this one, plus A Book of Common Prayer and Democracy) are my favorites. I love it all. Don’t get me wrong. But these novels in particular present a Didion I find fascinating, one who may surprise those who have only read The Year of Magical Thinking.

17. The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth
I knew this was one of the books I wanted to read in 2017. It’s chilling. Prescient. Standing on the shoulders of Jack London and Sinclair Lewis and Margaret Atwood, of course, but with its own “take.” Lindbergh, man.

18. Opening Wednesday at a Theater Or Drive-In Near You: The Shadow Cinema of the American ’70s, by Charles Taylor
My friend Charley! What a wonderful book! I interviewed him about it.

19. The Iron Heel, by Jack London
On the heels of Plot Against America, this is extremely grim reading. The Oligarchy. The Iron Heel. It is an act of hero-worship towards the Manly Manliness of its doomed hero … but it really lays it all out, and gets so much of it right, small twists and turns and public reactions to tyranny. People always compare The Handmaids Tale to Orwell. But this is the real inspiration, including the framing device, of a manuscript found generations later after the Empire fell.

20. Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil, by Ron Rosenbaum
I love him so much. I’ve been reading his contrarian columns for years (his essay on Billy Joel! Ouch!) and find his prose bracing, sometimes hilarious, and always thought-provoking. His The Shakespeare Wars: Clashing Scholars, Public Fiascoes, Palace Coups is a must-read. Explaining Hitler has a similar structure and intent: He is interested in how Hitler is interpreted, not just his genocidal legacy (although that too). It was gripping reading.

21. The Outsiders, by S.E. Hinton
A re-read, for the first time since I was 15. I was blown away by how much I remembered: not just of the plot (which remains in my memory) but actual sentences. I remembered the entire first page by heart.

22. The Familiar, Volume 4: Hades, by Mark Z. Danielewski
I’m obsessed with this series. I’m thrilled he is writing so many more volumes. I haven’t gotten to Volume 5 yet but it’s on the shelf. 2018 awaits.

23. The Stone Gods, by Jeanette Winterson
One of my favorite authors. This is a futuristic novel. There was one sequence early on which made me laugh out loud on the subway. Like, snorting with laughter. (It has to do with pink dishwashing gloves. I am laughing now typing this out.) She has no fear as a writer.

24. The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, by Masha Gessen
Read for obvious reasons.

25. Words Will Break Cement: The Passion of Pussy Riot, by Masha Gessen
Clearly, the Putin book hooked me.

26. The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy, by Masha Gessen
Ibid. And Siobhan gave me her latest for Christmas, which I am reading now. I’ve been studying Russia for years. After all, I grew up in the dying gasps of the Cold War. Where fears of a nuclear “exchange” with Russia still stalked our landscape. The Miracle on Ice. I am really looking forward to digging into this one.

27. It Can’t Happen Here, by Sinclair Lewis
I am sensing a theme in my 2017 reading list. My God, he gets it. Even with its grim predictions, there are so many hilarious sequences. The endlessly bickering Communists. An essential read. This is how it’s going. This is how it DOES “happen here.”

28. Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, by A.S. Byatt
Byatt hasn’t published anything in a while (my hopes are that she is working on something big). This, her re-telling of Ragnarok, mixed with autobiographical (although fictionalized) sequences of a little girl discovering the book of Norse myths during the bombardment of England in WWII, is the only one of hers I have not read.

29. Stories I Only Tell My Friends: An Autobiography, by Rob Lowe
Multiple people have recommended this book to me. One – a colleague of my father’s – felt so strongly I should read it he actually sent it to me. I read it in one long spurt, while sitting on the beach. IT IS FANTASTIC. I laughed out loud, I cried real tears, I adored every second of it and did not want it to end.

30. The Love of the Last Tycoon, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
Ah, the what-might-have-beens in this surviving fragment of an unfinished novel … The flood at the studio! Wonderful Hollywood insights. And so saddened that the Amazon series based on the novel – in which my gorgeously talented cousin Kerry O’Malley – and the gorgeously talented Annika Marks, who was in “my” film both had recurring roles – was canceled.

31. Ligeia, by Edgar Allan Poe
Was in a dark mood. Poe does the trick. Very creepy. Poe is so so good on obsession.

32. The Tell-Tale Heart, by Edgar Allan Poe
Once you start reading Poe, you can’t stop.

33. The Fall of the House of Usher, by Edgar Allan Poe
Moody nightmare!

34. Masque of the Red Death, by Edgar Allan Poe
I adore this story.

35. A Descent Into the Maelstrom, by Edgar Allan Poe
With all of the nightmares Poe created – this one haunts me the most.

36. The Pit and the Pendulum, by Edgar Allan Poe
I can SEE that dungeon.

37. The Piazza, by Herman Melville
Believe it or not, I don’t think I had read this haunting story before.

38. Bartleby the Scrivener, by Herman Melville
A favorite. As long as I live, as strong as I am, I will never ever have the confidence of Bartleby.

39. Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence from Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson, by Camille Paglia
It’s been YEARS since I read this cover to cover, although I use it as a reference all the time. It is such a wacko book, but also thought-provoking and in many cases a breath of cold fresh air. Also, there are two paragraphs where she describes why Elvis and Byron are doppelgangers. I adore it.

40. Another Country, by James Baldwin
I don’t think there’s one American “problem” he doesn’t cover here. It’s all there. One of the great American novels.

41. Pride and Prejudice, by Jane Austen
Sometimes I forget how hilarious this book is.

42. Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates
BRUTAL. I re-watched the film and am slightly shocked that Winslet got all the accolades. She’s fine, but it’s nothing she hasn’t done before, and her American accents never ring quite true for me. She’s good, I’m a huge fan, don’t get on me about this … but for me it is LEO’S performance that is the real stunner. One of his very best (and that’s saying something.)

43. Robert Altman: The Oral Biography, by Mitchell Zuckoff
An awesome book. Rich with voices and history and perspectives. I am so glad it exists.

44. The Colorist, by Susan Daitch
I don’t even think this novel is in print anymore. This saddens me. It’s lovely and I think there would be a whole new audience for it now, especially in our comics-book-culture, as well as an awareness of the bullshit sexism which makes up that world. With the counterpoint of Wonder Woman this year and all the rest. I bought the book on impulse in a little bookshop in … Oakland? I don’t know. Somewhere around there. It was a million years ago. My boyfriend and I had moved to San Francisco, after a disastrous months-long cross-country trip, after which I decamped to Los Angeles, quite suddenly, and shortly thereafter fled to Chicago. In the middle of this, I bought a couple of books which became all-time favorites, really fortuitous impulse purchases: Nancy Lemann’s comic Southern novel Lives of the Saints, Jeanette Winterson’s Sexing the Cherry (the first of hers I read), and The Colorist. I THRILLED to these books. I was having a nervous breakdown. I took all of these books personally. The Colorist, published in 1990, is the story of a “colorist” for comic books, one of only two women on staff. The comic she works on is called “Electra,” a low-rent Wonder Woman, and she and her best friend – the other woman on staff, who’s an inker – start to create an alternate version, where Electra lands in New York City, and tries to survive, becoming homeless, getting roped into sexually sketchy situations, in general used, abused, and confused. It’s a great New York novel too. I highly recommend it!

45. The Lottery and Other Stories, by Shirley Jackson
I never get sick of going back to these stories.

46. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson

47. Sexing the Cherry, by Jeanette Winterson
The Colorist launched memories of that California book-buying spree in the middle of a nervous breakdown, so I decided to re-read another one of the books I purchased that day. I haven’t re-read this in eons. It’s so great.

49. Don’t Cry, by Mary Gaitskill
A collection of stories, the only thing of hers I haven’t read yet. I wrote about it here.

50. The Trip to Echo Spring: On Writers and Drinking, by Olivia Laing
Wow, what a discovery. Also wrote about it here. Must-read.

51. Against Interpretation: And Other Essays, by Susan Sontag
Been meaning to go back and read this. God, she’s good.

52. The War Against the Jews: 1933-1945, by Lucy S. Dawidowicz
I had never read this. Ron Rosenbaum devotes a chapter of his book Explaining Hitler to it and it got me curious. Also wrote about it here.

53. Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power, by Robert Kaplan
I have been a Robert Kaplan fan for 20 years. I have written a lot about him. I will go where he goes, and I grapple with him, argue with him, agree with him, learn from him. I am grateful he is so prolific. I have a backlog of his stuff to read, this being one of them. The book is not just about the “future of American power”, it’s a sweeping book showing the history of the ancient empires and interconnected ports and cultures clustered along the Indian Ocean all the way to the Strait of Malacca, the horrible legacies of colonization, the devastating effects of climate change, and etc. Kaplan is not an optimistic man. But he is also not a hopeless man. Highly recommend (this book and all his books).

54. Jean Renoir: A Biography, by Pascal Merigeau, translated by Bruce Benderson
This took me about 5 months to finish. It’s an overwhelming accomplishment.

55. Salvador, by Joan Didion
Been awhile since I read this. It’s an interesting and strange book, unlike her others. She’s an American writer and America is her subject. Here, she is rendered practically mute by the horrors she witnesses, the horrors she reports on. I will spend the rest of my life trying to figure out how to describe the effects her writing has on me. In this I know I am not alone.

56. The Children of the Arbat, by Anatoli Naumovich Rybakov
My second time reading this massive and great novel about a group of people who grew up in the bohemian Arbat neighborhood of Moscow, and their various experiences in the late 20s, moving into the 30s. You can feel everything shifting precipitately into Terror, although none of them could know how bad it would get. It’s a multi-pronged approach, with many narrators: there’s the gung-ho Komsomol leader who gets sent into exile because of a satirical cartoon he pinned on a bulletin board, there’s the young girl who only wants to have a good time getting drawn into the life of the gangster-element in Moscow, there’s the humorless sexless by-the-book Communist girl (sister to the party-girl), there’s the “working-class” kid who eventually becomes a prosecutor for the State … The book was banned in Russia for decades, only published in 1988. It includes insightful character studies of real-life figures too: Stalin, Kirov, others.

57. South and West: From a Notebook, by Joan Didion
Didion’s latest. Fragmentary notes on a road trip along the Gulf Coast, as well as notes on a proposed piece about Patty Hearst and California. Fascinating.

58. Why Orwell Matters, by Christopher Hitchens
Oh, Hitchens. I miss you so. This is one of your very best.

59. Paradise Lost, by John Milton
I read a couple of pages every morning. It’s been my morning ritual for months now. Meditative. I’ve loved it. I haven’t read this since 2000-2001 (and then before that, I hadn’t read it since high school). The poem is filled with language gems (and misogyny). Both. I’m actually flattered that men through the ages think we women are so powerful that they blame EVERYTHING on us. They are so in our power that we must be able to end the WORLD if we want to. Let’s move on. The writing is sometimes so dauntingly beautiful I can’t get my mind around it and have to read whatever passage a couple times through just to try to absorb it. I get oversaturated with Milton very quickly, almost every line is a “keeper.” “What is dark in me illumine” is perhaps my favorite line in the whole thing. It has helped me get through some rough hours. And finally: Satan is super sexy. So is the Archangel Michael, in his purple vest, striding across the field, wielding a blazing sword. But Satan is the real Star. He’s the only one with a Personality in the whole thing.


2016 books read
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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4 Responses to 2017 Books Read

  1. Great list. Several I have read. Several I have added to my list. I know your dance card is probably so full that things in tiny print are written in the margins, but I think Jerusalem by Alan Moore is pretty dang amazing, especially for all Jim Joyce lovers. It came out last year. It is 1200 pages long. I have read it three times.

    • sheila says:

      Wow, thanks Steve for the rec! 1200 pages huh? Will need to gear up.

      Speaking of 1200 pages, I am finally going to read Infinite Jest this year. Never read it. Owned it since it came out. Enough putting it off!!

  2. Ted says:

    Great reading year! I loved the Rybakov! The Byatt and the Conquest are both on my short list. My re-reads included The Magicians (after I saw the television series, I wanted to compare it), The Razor’s Edge (really different to experience this Maugham novel 30 years after I first read it), and Noel Coward’s play The Vortex. In fiction, I really enjoyed Go, Went Gone, Exit West, Call Me by Your Name and the new Ali Smith – Autumn. Here’s to a great reading year. I just ordered the new Drabble and the new Hollinghurst for 2018.

    • sheila says:

      Hi, Ted! Let’s get together soon!!

      The Rybakov really is so good. The ending is so devastating because you know that basically everyone you just met is most probably going to be “liquidated.” Ugh. Great book – did you know it was made into a mini-series in Russia? I have always been curious to see it – even without subtitles – but so far no luck in tracking it down.

      and yeah, the Conquest … The Great Terror is the one to start with. I’d also recommend his book on the man-made famine in the Ukraine – Harvest of Sorrow.

      I love Byatt on myths – she incorporates them so much into her fiction – Possession! – I don’t know all that much about Norse mythology so it was very interesting.

      I need to read Call Me By Your Name! I assume you’ve seen the movie? I look forward to discussing it with you!

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