It’s been such a busy year for me as a writer. The busiest. I’ve had to “make time” for reading stuff that has nothing to do with anything writing-wise. I need to read for pleasure. Many of the books I read this year took me months to complete, I’d chip away at them a couple pages at a time (the Plath correspondence, Infinite Jest, the Gerard Manley Hopkins collection). All in all, a pretty good and diverse showing.
1. Sounder, by William H. Armstrong
I read this book as a child, after my parents let us stay up and see Sounder on television. I remember vividly during the “reunion scene,” turning around to look at my parents, and seeing my mother in tears. I was probably 7 or 8 years old. It made a huge impression on me: how art can move people. My mother was an adult. She was moved to tears. I hadn’t read the book in a long time, so decided to re-read it. Then I wrote about the film for Film Comment.
2. Among the Living and the Dead: A Tale of Exile and Homecoming, by Inara Verzemnieks
This book is about the experience of the Latvian diaspora, anchored by the author’s own piecing together of the past of her grandmother and other family members, in the home country, basically a freeway for marauding armies and conquerors. It’s gorgeously written, poignant, evocative. I highly recommend it.
3. Generation of Swine: Tales of Shame and Degradation in the ’80’s, by Hunter S. Thompson
I was on a Hunter tear late last year and early this year. I couldn’t stop. Once you pick him up, you can’t put him down. Reading his stuff from the 80s gave me queasy flashbacks. I was like, oh Jesus, Oliver North. And that asshole is STILL in the news. I miss you, Hunter, damn you.
4. Gonzo Papers, Volume 3: Songs of the Doomed, by Hunter S. Thompson
Reagan era Hunter. In rare form. But then, he was always in rare form.
5. Hollywood Jim Crow, by Maryann Erigha
I wrote about this fascinating and very well-researched book for Film Comment. It should be required reading.
6. Movie Love: Complete Reviews, 1988-1991, by Pauline Kael
I’ve read this before. Read it again just for the hell of it.
7. White Fang, by Jack London
Another re-read, although it’s been a very long time. The opening sequences, with the poor guys carrying a dead man in a box across the Yukon, pursued by a pack of wolves – and how the wolves come in closer … closer … closer … is thrilling and terrifying. Brilliant writing. Suspenseful, poetic, with his peculiar blend of empathy and practicality. He doesn’t anthropomorphize, but he does understand that animals have a wide range of emotions. They form attachments. They feel sorrow. They feel fear. London is so good at getting inside their experience without condescension.
8. Milkman: A Novel, by Anna Burns
Holy shit, this novel. It’s as good as everyone said. My favorite new novel I’ve read in years. Maybe since Wolf Hall. Best part is: Milkman isn’t like anything else. Anna Burns has found a completely unique way to tell her story. You’ll know what I mean when you read it. The VOICE … it’s the paranoid cagey voice of someone who’s been in a police interrogation room for 48 hours straight, with no sleep. And the word “Ireland” is never spoken. It doesn’t need to be. Quite brilliant.
9. The Art of American Screen Acting 1960 to Today, by Dan Callahan
Volume two! My friend Dan Callahan amazes me. I interviewed him about this book on my site. (I interviewed him about Volume 1 for Slant.)
10. Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup, by John Carreyrou
My God, I got so sucked into this shitshow. I watched the documentary. I went down Youtube rabbit holes. I read all the articles. Her voice makes me GUFFAW. She honestly thought it sounded good. The whole thing is a nightmare. This is a very good book.
11. Nine Stories, by J.D. Salinger
I’ve read these many many times over the course of my life. As you’ll see, I kind of got into re-reading short story collections this year.
12. Free Women, Free Men: Sex, Gender, Feminism, by Camille Paglia
Ah, Camille, ever the crowd-pleaser.
13. The Matisse Stories, by A.S. Byatt
Each of these three stories was inspired by a Matisse painting or sketch. It’s kind of like a “writing exercise” and Byatt is so inventive the stories are wildly diverse. It’s fun to see how she jumps off creatively, “using” art of one medium to create her own art (always a big thing with her. I don’t sense much “anxiety of influence” with her. She uses it.) I’m a fan for life of Byatt. I’ve read it all. Thank you, Possession. The gateway drug.
14. Picture, by Lillian Ross
Re-released by the New York Review of Books publisher, Lillian Ross’ story of following John Huston around as he shot Red Badge of Courage is a classic!
15. Elementals: Stories of Fire and Ice, by A.S. Byatt
Another short story collection by Byatt. Similar to the Matisse stories, these stories are also inspired by works of art, somehow invoking either heat or cold. I look forward to the “times in-between” in Byatt’s career – she comes out with a gigantic novel, which obviously took years of time, and then in between these huge novels comes a spate of smaller things, critical essays, short stories. She’s such a favorite of mine, I dread her passing. I am grateful she is prolific. Her stories are very moving to me.
16. On Photography, by Susan Sontag
The Sontag classic. She’s kind of intimidating. I like reading writers who intimidate me. Helps me sharpen my own critical skills.
17. The Letters of Sylvia Plath Volume 1: 1940-1956
Extraordinary. A publishing EVENT. As a Plath fan since I was 16, I kind of can’t believe I’ve lived to see the day that Plath’s full correspondence would be published. I immediately noticed, with awe, how often Plath babbles about movies in her letters. This was news to me. I wrote a column about it.
18. Dreyer’s English: An Utterly Correct Guide to Clarity and Style, by Benjamin Dreyer
I mean, come on. A new modern classic. Benjamin Dreyer’s book is so good, so funny, so smart: he’s “good company”, as a writer. His “voice” is also fun, as well as his advice (I love grammar books), but his style of writing is what has made this a bestseller. You can’t put it down.
19. Tales of the Jazz Age, by F. Scott Fitzgerald
It’s been a long time since I’ve read these. I went through a big “Jazz Age” phase in high school, which, naturally, led me to Fitzgerald. Maybe it was reading The Great Gatsby that brought it on, although, honestly, I think Bugsy Malone had more to do with it than anything else. At any rate, these are fun. The story about the “diamond as big as the Ritz” is pretty tough-going, though. Snooze-ville.
20. Sharp: The Women Who Made an Art of Having an Opinion, by Michelle Dean
Michelle Dean is so awesome. I was looking forward to reading this book long before it was published. Her “profiles” of people like Mary McCarthy and Susan Sontag and Pauline Kael and Rebecca West (!!!) just made my heart sing. Many of these writers – like West and Didion and Kael – I know like the back of my hand. I have all their works. But others – like (shamefully) Nora Ephron – I am not as familiar with (outside her film work, that is). 2020 is the year I rectify that. I’ve got a couple of Nora Ephron essay collections on the shelf, which I look forward to reading. This is a fantastic book. Congratulations, Michelle!
21. The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes, by Janet Malcolm
I re-read this basically because of the Janet Malcolm chapter in Sharp. I’m a huge Malcolm fan as well (a new collection of essays is coming out in February – can’t wait!). I’ve read this book maybe 5 or 6 times, who’s counting. There’s really nothing else like it. And only Malcolm could pull off what she does here.
22. Provocations: Collected Essays on Art, Feminism, Politics, Sex, and Education, by Camille Paglia
Speaking of essay collections … There’s lotsa flotsam and jetsam here – she includes everything, even silly QAs she does for rando web sites that no longer exist. She’s always done that in her other collections, and I know it’s part of her “brand.” But a little culling would be in order. On the flipside, there’s also, like, a 30-page essay about Theodore Roethke in here too. Who else is writing 30-page essays about Roethke? I mean, scholars here and there, but someone with her platform? I value this part of Camille very much. As well as her “art survey course” type pieces. There’s a bunch of HUGE articles in here about statues and relics and Greco Roman blah blah blah and I really get into that aspect of her. I know people despise her. So it’s lucky this is MY book list, not yours, right? Phew!
23. Then We Came to the End: A Novel, by Joshua Ferris
This is one of my favorite first novels. I can’t even believe it’s a first novel. I read it when it first came out, on my sister Siobhan’s recommendation. The first couple of pages made me laugh so hard tears literally streamed down my face. I couldn’t believe he got away with the plural narrator. It’s so BOLD and so RIGHT. I haven’t read it since that first reading and was almost afraid to pick it up again. What if it didn’t live up to the joyful and intense memory of the first time? But it did. It’s a classic. One of the few books that really GETS white-collar office-drone work. The Office Space of literature. But with an elegiac whiff to it … the approach of 9/11 … shadowing the book. I’m just so admiring of what Ferris pulled off here.
24. Little Black Book of Stories, by A.S. Byatt
Another re-read. These stories are haunting and strange. Byatt is so inventive. Dazzling, really.
25. The Journalist and the Murderer, by Janet Malcolm
Another re-read. Just as much of a classic as The Silent Women, but even more controversial. She really goes AFTER McGuinness – and (it seems) rightly so. I had read Fatal Vision, of course. I’m a true crime buff. It’s a hell of a read. Janet Malcolm’s book snapped me into awareness of what was wrong with it.
26. Better Than Sex: Confessions of a Political Junkie (Gonzo Papers, vol. 4), by Hunter S. Thompson
A wild collection. Drawings. Hand-drawn Faxes. Things getting kind of spooky, although things are always a little bit spooky with Hunter.
27. Elvis Presley Calls His Mother After The Ed Sullivan Show, by Samuel Charters
A re-read. What a haunting little book. And very insightful.
28. The Portable Dorothy Parker
This was another one that took me months to finish. A huge volume of her poetry, book/theatre reviews, humor pieces, short stories. I had started it before I read Michelle Dean’s Sharp, so it was fun to follow along. I know Dorothy Parker, at the end, felt she had wasted much of her talent on writing these humorous pieces and being known for her wit. But when you read her work in its entire, the accomplishment of the short stories seems rather staggering to me. The majority of them are not in the least funny. The majority of them are as bleak as an Edward Hopper. All the lonely people, where do they all come from? She’s also, of course, very funny, particularly about men and women. There are a couple of stories told only in dialogue, with what is basically stage directions. And the dialogue is so strong you hear the subtext. Not easy to do.
29. Tomboys: A Literary and Cultural History, by Michelle Ann Abate
I will admit this was tough, at times. I’m not an academic person, and the “theory” talk is really impenetrable to me. HOWEVER: her research into the topic is exhaustive, and I learned so much about the tomboy archetype through American history. I really needed all this context for the piece I was working on about tomboy films. As a lady who loves teh menz, my “way in” to these characters as a kid was not about queer subtext, although I can of course perceive said subtext. But these figures are freeing to straight girls like myself, those of us who didn’t fit in, who found accepted womanhood not just difficult but impossible. This is what I’m interested in, tomboy as liberation figures. Anyway, I am very grateful for Abate’s work here!
30. In Defense of Women, by H.L. Mencken
To go from the tomboys book to this is hilarious. I didn’t do it deliberately. I just had this little book lying around and decided to read it for the first time on a whim. Mencken is such a crank, and sexist, of course, but honestly he’s way harder on men. He thinks men are AWFUL. Irredeemable, really. He feels sorry for us women having to put up with them. He’s so much fun to read. Just the writing ITSELF is fun to read, aside from any subject matter.
32. The Trespasser: A Novel, by Tana French
I’ve fallen behind in keeping up with Tana French’s output. How is she so consistently excellent? How is she so damn good?? I fluctuate on which one is my favorite. I still think it might be The Likeness, although Secret Place is also superb. But they’re ALL good.
33. Franny and Zooey, by J.D. Salinger
I approach this book with something like awe, and more than a little hesitation. After reading it on a cold Chicago day years ago, I decided to move to New York. It was that clear. I had a life-altering experience reading the book. Half a year later, I moved. And I regret it. I regret moving here. It was an impulsive choice, coming out of a restless kind of heartbreak. Cooler heads should have prevailed. I blame Franny and Zooey and “the sands are running out on the hourglass” speech. What if I read the book and decided to uproot myself again? What kind of dreadful power did this book hold?? It still holds power, to be honest. But I’ve been wondering if my time in this neck of the woods is coming to a close for a couple of years now. So no surprises there.
34. It’s Too Late to Stop Now: A Rock and Roll Journal, by Jon Landau
I had to buy this one second-hand. I have been racking up in-real-time commentary on 1970s Elvis. It’s not that easy to come by. “Rock critics” weren’t paying attention. Nobody was writing about him anymore. And they never really wrote about him with care. They took him for granted. Lester Bangs’ obituary was a game-changer, and still is. Ellen Willis wrote a couple of great things about seeing Elvis live in the 70s – once at Madison Square Garden and once in Vegas – and Jon Landau did as well. They’re great pieces. Interestingly enough, I finally read Springsteen’s memoir this year, and Landau – of course – is a huge character in it.
35. Betrayal: The Life and Lies of Bernie Madoff, by Andrew Kirtzman
I re-read this one. I think I was feeling stressed out and over-tapped. I mean, the book came out recently so it’s not like a lot of time has gone by. Sometimes fiction is too much for me to absorb. I get over-stimulated. The Madoff story has a dark fascination, and the book is a reliable escape. Also, if you ever feel like you’re overwhelmed, or fucking up, just think of Madoff and realize you’re probably doing just fine.
36. The Letters of Sylvia Plath Vol 2: 1956-1963
Blown away that this exists now. So grateful and happy. Had a profoundly upsetting time, though, particularly with the ending of this second volume. As I’ve said, Plath and me … we go way WAY back. I know everything about her. Or … I thought I did. There was always this sense that a fuller picture was there, but I just couldn’t GET to it, because of the ham-fisted estate. (This is what Janet Malcolm’s book is about, essentially.) So now I know more. And it was like I re-discovered Plath all over again. Only this time, in her own words, in this correspondence. The fall and winter of 1962 – so legendary in her mythos – now seem very different. It seems like it could have been avoided. I remember thinking, as I lost myself in these letters, “I think she might make it…” and then remembered. It was devastating all over again. If only the winter hadn’t been so brutal … if only her friend came to visit in early February as opposed to the planned March … if only … if only … It was a brutal read.
37. Slouching Towards Bethlehem: Essays, by Joan Didion
Thank you Michelle Dean, for inspiring a full-on Didion re-read! I’m a huge Didion person and sometimes I feel like I’ve read her too much, too often. Like, I might get “tapped out.” Or like I might become immune to Didion through over-exposure. Re-reading this in full was such a pleasure. It was nice to see that she still packs the same punch, even with some of her most famous pieces, here, some of which I know practically by heart.
38. The White Album: Essays, by Joan Didion
39. Infinite Jest, by David Foster Wallace
This took me half a year to finish and it was worth every damn second. I love this book so much.
40. After Henry, by Joan Didion
See above. I was on a roll.
41. Earning the Rockies: How Geography Shapes America’s Role in the World, by Robert Kaplan
Robert Kaplan is one of my favorite writers. I’ve been reading him for 20+ years now, even through some of his stranger phases. Listen, if you can write like Robert Kaplan, I’ll follow you anywhere. To “the ends of the earth.” I brought his Balkan Ghosts to Croatia with me. It starts in the cathedral in Zagreb. His description of it … really resonated with me during my very intense visit to the place. More to come. I must go back. Anyway, Kaplan’s only written a couple of times about the United States (Empire Wilderness, and then his books about the different branches of the military) … and this has a memoir aspect to it which I found fascinating. Robert Kaplan is a journalist, although he’s really more like a travel writer – Rebecca West is his idol and guiding star. But still, I don’t know much about him personally. I know he’s married. I know he has lots of thoughts/feelings about the “elite” but I wasn’t sure where that all came from, since he seems pretty damn elite now, perched in think tanks, etc. Earning the Rockies starts with a memoir of his father, a truck driver, unreliable, on the road always. It’s a somewhat pained portrait, but Kaplan – an older man now – struggles to understand this man, this man who gave him a love of maps, the maps that would take Kaplan round the world many times over. I love his writing so much. And he’s honest about his mistakes in judgment over his career, which I appreciate.
42. Country Soul: Making Music and Making Race in the American South, by Charles L. Hughes
What a fantastic and important book! About the musicians who work the “country-soul triangle” – Nashville to Memphis to Muscle Shoals – white and black musicians, and all of the cross-pollination that results. It’s fantastic.
43. The Collected Poems of Frank O’Hara, by Frank O’Hara
I started off my column on Film Comment with an article about Frank O’Hara’s “movie poems”, which launched me into a re-read of his complete works. I like reading poetry in the morning. It’s a tradition now. I find it meditative. It’s slow-going. I only read a couple of poems a day. I don’t want to get over-saturated. Frank O’Hara is a wonder. I’ve loved his work since high school and re-reading it feels like hanging out with an old friend.
44. Shining Glory: Theological Reflections on Terrence Malick’s Tree of Life, by Peter J. Leithart
What an interesting book about all of the Christian themes in Tree of Life. He’s a lovely writer.
45. Birthday Letters: Poems, by Ted Hughes
Inspired by all the Plath stuff going on. A re-read. Of course I read this when it came out. Maria and I read it together, cross-referencing it with Plath’s poetry and journals. Because what ELSE are ya gonna do. It’s such a painful book. He sounds 100% haunted. Addressing her throughout: “You.” It brought me to tears multiple times.
46. The Paris Review Interviews, I: 16 Celebrated Interviews
My cousin Mike, years ago, sent me this box set of Paris Review Interviews. I dip into them all the time, for inspiration, for quotes, to use in my own research in my own writing. A gold mine. I decided to read each one cover to cover, a little bit each day. So. That’s what I did. From Dorothy Parker to Chinua Achebe … these interviews are a must-have.
49. The Paris Review Interviews, IV
50. The Best of Everything, by Rona Jaffe
What a page-turner. I had never read it before, although I have seen and love the movie. It’s fantastic. Matthew Weiner knew this book like the back of his hand. Rich source material.
51. The Men in My Life: A Memoir of Love and Art in 1950s Manhattan, by Patricia Bosworth
I had been meaning to read this. I love Bosworth’s biographies (her little book on Marlon Brando is indispensable), and I am, of course, familiar with her through the Actors Studio. This was an interesting companion piece to Rona Jaffe’s novel. The in-the-moment experiences of women and love and sex in 1950s New York City. It sounds great, it sounds awful.
52. Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky
One of my favorite novels of all time. It’s been some years since I’ve read it. It always works. It’s so upsetting. Raskolnikov’s delirium is so well-done, so deeply inhabited you yourself feel like you’re going crazy reading the book. And his best friend Razmuhin! What a funny and lovable character. When I think of the book, I only think of Raskolnikov. He LOOMS in my head. Then I read the book, and it’s filled with so many characters, so many memorable characters, all of them kooks to a certain degree … it’s like I don’t remember the book right. It’s not just the Raskolnikov show. He’s surrounded at all times by a jostling jabbering CROWD of characters. Masterpiece.
53. The Revolt of the Masses, by José Ortega y Gasset
This was a gift from Ben. It’s a slim volume, but so dense it took me a while to get through it. Published in the late 1920s – in between the wars – it’s a harbinger of things to come, not just in the rise of fascism in the 30s, with Hitler and Mussolini – but now. I thought of Bill Buford’s book Among the Thugs. Written so many years ago. But it predicts Brexit. There are always “signs.” Gasset was horrified at the rise of the “mass man,” as embodied in dictatorial figures like Mussolini. 45 is a “mass man.” I’m sure this book still ruffles feathers! He was NOT having ANY of it. I’m glad I read it. It’s always good to read things that remind you there is nothing new, not really, under the sun. We humans just keep making the same mistakes over and over again.
54. Gerard Manley Hopkins: Poems and Prose, by Gerard Manley Hopkins
He is very difficult. I love him so much. “God’s Grandeur” is one of my favorite poems of all time. But you can’t just plow through his stuff. It’s too dense. And you really have to read it out loud because of the complicated rhythm. I must admit I can’t get a grasp on his theories of “sprung rhythm” – and I’ve read all of his descriptions of it. He had a very mathematical brain. Very very structured. He knew how his poems should sound. Rhythm was paramount. His stuff is extremely emotional. Like I said, best taken in small doses. His “dark sonnets” or “sonnets of desolation” are almost frightening in their accuracy. To put those wordless emotions into stark words … he has given us a huge gift. He had so much agony in his life. I can’t even imagine. And yet he was like an Aeolian harp, too … so sensitive to nature he basically vibrated with pleasure. Such an interesting man and such a beautiful writer. This volume took me months to get through, a little bit every day, and it was a beautiful and enriching experience.
55. The Real Lolita: The Kidnapping of Sally Horner and the Novel That Scandalized the World, by Sarah Weinman
I had been meaning to read this. I was somewhat hesitant, because I’m not (to put it mildly) into the current commentary on Lolita, much of it coming from people who haven’t read the book and probably wouldn’t on principle. “If I wanted to read about a pedophile I’d just open today’s newspapers.” Okay, fine. DON’T read a masterpiece. Suit yourself. But you won’t mind if I don’t listen to what you have to say about art, then, of course. And all the confusion about representation being endorsement. Where has this nonsense COME from? These people consider themselves progressive and yet they sound like Victorian-era Sunday School teachers. “Unless there is a clear moral of what is Good and what is Bad, then this is a Bad story, and Dangerous for the General Public.” I mean … I do my best not to listen to these people, but it’s hard because they are very LOUD. Lolita is so extreme because of Humbert Humbert’s unreliability. It’s a belljar. If you YEARN for a moral compass in Lolita, an outside eye to come in and say this is all WRONG … then that means, congratulations, you’re not a psycho pedophile like Humbert. But in the meantime, we’re “stuck with” Humbert’s POV. Sarah Weinman has done some amazing original reporting here, into the kidnapping case which (partially) inspired Nabokov. Poor Sally Horner. Ugh. It’s a tragedy.
56. Guests of the Ayatollah: The Iran Hostage Crisis, by Mark Bowden
I had been meaning to read this for a while! I picked it up, not even realizing that this year is the 40th anniversary of the hostage crisis! Mark Bowden’s Black Hawk Down made me a fan forever. He has done an extraordinary job here of interviewing, both hostages and hostage takers, and placing us inside that compound as the days stretched into months into years. It’s a fantastic book.
57. Dubliners, by James Joyce
A re-read. It’s so brilliant it emits a blinding light. He was in his early 20s when he wrote these stories. I just don’t know how that is possible (particularly “The Dead”). He imagined himself into everyone: a little “old maid,” a stuffy office worker, a lonely housewife, children, a snooty mother, an Irish nationalist-bore, everyone. His empathy was titanic. He could “be” anyone.
58. Born to Run, by Bruce Springsteen
This has been on my must-read list ever since it came out. It’s extraordinary. He’s such an incredible writer. The brief chapter on his first child being born … you can’t even believe he gets away with it, the high-flung prose, the ecstasy and transcendence of his writing – but it’s so real, so truthful, so HIM. (Side note: he devotes an entire chapter to Elvis, and I don’t think he even says Elvis’ name. At least not for a good long while. You don’t need to know his name. You know exactly who he is talking about.) I was also very moved by his descriptions of despair (one particularly unnerving moment he had in a random Texas town during a drove cross-country) and agitated depression – what I would call a “mixed state” – which I would not wish on my worst enemy, and I mean that. It’s a wonderful wonderful book.
59. The True Story of the Great Escape: Stalag Luft III, March 1944, by Jonathan F. Vance
This isn’t particularly well-written – “He was a happy lad” or “A carefree lighthearted chap” or “like most boys, he loved airplanes” – a bit corny – but the story carries you along. It’s mind-blowing what these guys did. I read it in like 3 days.
60. Conversations at the American Film Institute with the Great Moviemakers: The Next Generation, by George Stevens, Jr.
A marvelous archive of interviews given at the AFI. This is the second volume, with more current directors like James Mangold – Spielberg – Truffaut – plus actors, too – Streep and Poitier and Heston. The first volume is Golden Age-focused.
61. Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges, by Glenn Lovell
I’ve been watching all of John Sturges’ films (hence The Great Escape book), and it was fun to get to know him a little bit. There’s much I hadn’t seen. I’ve seen The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, of course, but wasn’t aware of the trajectory of his career. A new discovery is his film Last Train from Gun Hill, which I thought was fantastic. It stars Kirk Douglas, Anthony Quinn, and Carolyn Jones. It’s really really good.
25 books by women
32 books by men
17 fiction books
2018 books read
2017 books read
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