2021 Books Read

I lived at three addresses this year. I moved twice. In the middle of a pandemic. It’s been a year of upheaval, transition, as well as endurance. For most of this year, the majority of my stuff was in storage. Most of my books. My copious library. Before I packed everything up, I extracted books I knew I wanted to read over the year, my little ever-shifting TBR list. I am finally reunited with my library. I had so much transition this year – and it was so stressful – moving twice in one year – the finances alone for such an enterprise – it’s amazing I didn’t completely fall apart. But I didn’t. However, the stress was definitely working on me and it led me in some interesting directions in re: reading. LOTS of re-reading stuff. Some of that had to do with the couple of boxes of stray books that weren’t in storage. I re-read those when I needed a book. It was fun. I may not have planned on re-reading two Evelyn Waugh books, but I did, and it was so much fun. I also think that re-reading was calming. I needed it. The familiar. The other “trend” here is … war and fascism and totalitarianism and WWII ripping Europe apart. I read a lot of memoirs I had never read before – Stefan Zweig’s, Aleksandr Wat’s My Century – this is a trend that carried over from last year, although I guess fascism/WWII has been an enduring interest of mine for years. I read a GIGANTIC biography of Hitler – Volume 1!!! Which takes us up to 1939. The second volume is 1939 to 1945 and it JUST AS LONG as the first volume. I’ll read that this year. Stalin showed up a couple of times in this list. The twin monsters of the 20th century. I read Walter Benjamin for the first time and fell in love. I re-read all of Eve Babitz – a huge comfort. Anyway, its pretty eclectic and considering the year I had I actually was able to read quite a bit. I kept it going, even amidst the chaos. It was very soothing. I really only read in the early morning and just before bed, those are my quiet times, and it’s meditative and I like the ritual of it. So much to read, so little time.

1. Night Train: A Biography of Sonny Liston, by Nick Tosches
Despite my intense love of all things Nick Tosches, there were two of his I hadn’t read, both of which I read this year. Night Train is almost as terrifying as Hellfire, his biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, maybe even more so since Sonny Liston – the “star” of the book – is really just a big BLANK. Tosches doesn’t even pretend to get inside that blank, or explain him. But he does contextualize him, in that very Tosches-esque way. Nobody like him. I miss him. I tore through this one.

2. Portnoy’s Complaint, by Philip Roth
My reading history is made up of phases where I decide to address this or that “gap” in my self-directed literary education. (I didn’t take literature courses in college, and followed my own interests – which is awesome, but has its drawbacks. You “miss” stuff, because you avoid stuff you may have no interest in. Not that I don’t have interest in Philip Roth, but that whole period – mid-20th century literature – was (and in many ways still is) a gap. I pick up the thread in the 70s/80s, when I got into John Irving, on my own steam, and also because my dad loved him.) All of this is to say, at some point I said to myself, “Okay. Time to read Philip Roth.” He’s mentioned so often that I have absorbed much by osmosis, but I need first-hand experience. And so I began. I started in 2017 with American Pastoral, which I loved, and then moved on to Plot Against America, which … it was 2017. I needed to read it. I read I Married a Communist, while sitting in a capacious beach chair, staring out at the Adriatic, from my perch in Dubrovnik. I read Indignation shortly after that. Then I leapt back and read his first novel Goodbye Columbus. I’m starting to get the picture of Roth – although I realize these books are just a drop in the bucket. I can see why people say he basically wrote the same book over and over again (this isn’t a complaint, just an observation). I finally decided this year to read the notorious Portnoy’s Complaint, which is basically a long tortured ode to masturbation. It is hilarious. He captures the absolute madness of teenage-boy sexuality in the 1940s/50s. I mean, what the hell do I know, I’m not a man, and I wasn’t there, but the sexual frustration the book exudes is LUNACY. So I’m proud of myself for addressing this “gap”. I need to move on to Saul Bellow next. He’s another “gap”. I feel like I know what Bellow’s all about, again just by absorbing him through osmosis, but osmosis is not good enough. I’m sure it’ll be great fun, just like it’s been great fun to read all these Roths.

3. Diary of a Man in Despair, by Friedrich Reck
I can’t remember how this book came on my radar. Maybe Clive James? Not sure. But it’s an unbelievable document, you can’t even believe it exists, that it survived. Friedrich Reich was a German, a conservative, who had served in the Prussian army, a land-owner, a member of the establishment. Also a novelist, a theatre critic, etc. Many of his ilk hitched their wagon to Hitler, because it seemed like the winning side, it seemed the best way to fight the Communists. But Reck watched the rise of Hitler and his brown shirt goons with horror and terror and “despair”. He kept a journal of this progression, on average one entry a month, tracking the rise, each specific development, each institution falling into line, less and less hope that his nation – which he loved – could back its way out of this. The diary was so dangerous to even have that he would bury entries in boxes in the woods, and other hiding places. It’s a short horrible book. I read it in an afternoon. Reck was eventually arrested and sent to a concentration camp. He died in Dachau. This is an amazing document of a man who understood what was happening – in real time – who watched with anguish as his nation caved to tyranny. Many lessons for us now. Stay sharp. It’s happening. People who justify what’s happening have a vested interest in their “side” as opposed to the whole picture – which means they are ideologically driven and I do not trust people who are ideologically driven. History won’t be kind to them, because history is NEVER kind to such people. You can justify anything if you are so devoted to one particular ideology. Reck saw it all and cried out his despair in his hidden journal. Again, it’s amazing this journal even survived.

4. Howard Hawks: Interviews (Conversations with Filmmakers Series)
I re-read this collection of interviews with Hawks in preparation for writing my booklet essay for Criterion’s release of Bringing Up Baby.

5. Hitler: Ascent: 1889-1939, by Volker Ullrich
It took me a couple of months to read this gigantic TOME. My pal and fellow critic Glenn Kenny spoke of it favorably on Twitter, so I decided to give it a go. I’ve read so much about that period in German history, Weimar and beyond, but never an actual biography of the man himself. I’ve absorbed much through osmosis (as Eddie Izzard jokes in one of his stand-up specials, when he pretends to be Hitler painting: “I can’t get the trees right. I MUST KILL EVERYONE IN THE WORLD.”) So I read this book. It’s an incredible accomplishment. Hitler the man really does emerge from these pages. One of the impressions I got was what a loser he was. A lazy and PRISSY loser. A little fussbudget, judgey, like a teenage girl. I remember Dorothy Thompson’s impression of him – something like “I bet he crooks his little finger when he drinks tea.” Not important in the grand scheme of what he DID, but an interesting psychological observation. He was LAZY, that’s another thing – even when he was “in charge”. He was always late, he slept late, he kept people waiting … and his laziness also led to his impetuousness. He wanted things NOW, he didn’t want to have to WORK for things, and if someone said “No” to him once, he threw a fit. Like when he was rejected from the architecture school in Vienna, and his later rejection as an artist. Other people decide, “Okay this is what I really want to do, and the authorities find my work lacking, so I will work to get better at my work and then try again.” Not Adolf. He just lay around moaning about how unappreciated he was. He was such a BORE.

6. Eve’s Hollywood, by Eve Babitz
RIP to the great hedonist author Eve Babitz. I re-read her stuff in 2020-21, and it really helped me get through these extremely trying times. If you’re curious about her, start here.

7. King of the Jews: The Greatest Mob Story Never Told, by Nick Tosches
What a wild book. It’s the story of gangster Arnold Rothstein, but it’s really the story of the Jewish people, dating back to antiquity. Tosches flows back and forth, from 3,000 years ago to 1918 and back … If you’re not “into” Tosches (well, first of all, what is your problem) then this might be a tough one. You might want him to just get on with it. But I don’t care WHAT Tosches writes about. I am in it for the writing itself, his prose, the way he puts sentences together, the incredible impressions he creates with the words he chooses. Tosches is the boss, not me. If he wants to start his book on a 1920s gangster with a 30 page discussion of Biblical antiquity, then thats what Tosches wants to do, and I am here for it.

8. Lulu In Hollywood, by Louise Brooks
How had I never read this?? As an old woman, this silent film star-phenom wrote a book, giving us her impressions of her life, of all the people she knew and worked with. She’s a marvelous writer, a true free spirit – she could not be tamed – and it was the German director G.W. Pabst who really knew what to do with her. We are so lucky that Louise Brooks left this document, a first-hand document of the early years of film-making. Indelible portraits of many who are now considered legends. Great book.

9. Explaining Hitler: The Search for the Origins of His Evil, updated edition, by Ron Rosenbaum
This was a re-read. I read it for the first time in 2017, not that long ago! But I picked it up again after pushing my way through the gigantic Hitler biography. It’s such a good and interesting book and I recommend it to anyone. It’s not a biography, and the title is misleading – which Rosenbaum writes about in his Preface. He thinks the title might have been a mistake. Because the book DOESN’T “explain” Hitler. What it is is the author’s attempt to track down the “origins” of his evil, and this search takes him far and wide. He covers current-day controversies – the battle over who owns the Holocaust narrative (the Claude Lanzmann chapter is … something. Wow.) – and also the various interpretations of Hitler, Germany, anti-Semitism over the years. He interviews the authors of biographies of Hitler – each of whom have a different take. It’s a fascinating book and it’s a great example of “close reading”, which Rosenbaum excels at. He’s not about “theory” – Theory has decimated reading comprehension. It’s all so “it depends on what you definition of ‘is’ is” nonsense. Creating confusion as opposed to seeking clarity. Rosenbaum pays close attention to language. To words chosen. I love this book. My favorite of Rosenbaum’s is The Shakespeare Wars, similar in function and intent as the Hitler book, although of course a very different subject matter. But the quest is the same: over the years, so many people have fought about the legacy of Shakespeare – what is the best approach, who was he, how is he to be measured, what do we DO with this man?? Rosenbaum is less interested in coming up with a definitive answer as he is interested in asking as many questions as possible.

10. Films of Endearment: A Mother, a Son and the ’80s Films That Defined Us, by Michael Koresky
Michael is a friend of mine, and a former colleague at Film Comment, and this is his book about watching movies with his mother. It’s wonderful. I interviewed him about it for Ebert.

11. The World of Yesterday, by Stefan Zweig
I put off reading this book. I’ve owned it for years. I love Stefan Zweig, and his novel Beware of Pity is a towering intimidating masterpiece. (I wrote about Beware of Pity here.) Once Zweig is on your radar, it’s amazing how often he comes up. He strolls through history, visiting everyone’s memoirs, having an impact on literally generations of writers. Generations of people. He was so famous in his day that the train carrying him into whatever station would be mobbed by people who wanted his autograph, who wanted to get a glimpse of him. He wrote this, his memoir, under extreme duress. The Nazis were in his beloved Austria, his world had ended, the dream of a pan-European civilization, of borders falling away, of peoples being connected through their art and culture. It was dead. Every page of his memoir is a howl of pain for “the world of yesterday”. And of course, that world would never be re-built. Germany fell, but “the world of Yesterday” died. Upon completion of the book, he and his wife fled to Brazil (thank you, Clary, for the correction!), and they killed themselves soon after. Pretty sure the book came out posthumously. It’s a very difficult and tragic read.

12. Cultural Cohesion: The Essential Essays, by Clive James
His Cultural Amnesia was an extremely important book for me. Reading it was one of the steadying factors of the 2020 pandemic, for sure, but also it opened a gateway to all kinds of books and authors I had never even heard of. The discoveries I made! J.P. Stern’s book on Hitler: essential. Józef Czapski’s Lectures on Proust in a Soviet Prison Camp: essential. Montesquieu’s book on the Roman Empire. Heda Margolius’ harrowing memoir of her life trapped in between Hitler on the one hand, Stalin on the other. George Clare’s Last Waltz in Vienna, a good companion piece with Zweig’s World of Yesterday. Dubravka Ugrešić’s work – so glad to have discovered it! Tamara Karsavina’s memoir of being a ballerina in Russia, straddling the Tsarist period and the Revolution. She danced with Nijinsky. Eugenia Ginzburg’s harrowing Journey Into the Whirlwind, about getting trapped in the Soviet terror. Scott Shane’s wonderful Dismantling Utopia, a first-hand account of the breakup of the Soviet Union … all of these I picked up and read last year because Clive James mentioned them in Cultural Amnesia. It was like Cultural Amnesia was a little survey course I took during the pandemic, to help me get through it. Help me get through it by reading about some of the world’s greatest atrocities. So Cultural Cohesion is a companion volume. “Cohesion” and “Amnesia” are interesting concepts, when you consider these essays, and James’ vast frame of reference. What happens when an entire culture has amnesia? When they not just forget history, but never learn it in the first place? The lessons the past has to teach us are lost in the fog. James wrote these books to create an archive of remembrance, an archive of reference.

13. Conversations with Stalin, by Milovan Djilas
Ben gave this to me on the day we went to Concord. I had never even heard of this guy! A high-ranking member of the Yugoslav Communist Party, who was sent to Moscow I think three times, and wrote down his impressions of the Head Honcho. There are very few documents like this, in-the-moment real-time perceptions that all may not be well in the glorious Socialist Utopia. So many people were fooled. Some people are STILL fooled. I tore through this in a day. Very good.

14. Illuminations: Essays and Reflections, by Walter Benjamin
How have I lived without reading this man before. As with Philip Roth, I have absorbed much about Walter Benjamin through osmosis – through the essay Hannah Arendt (his friend) wrote about him – through a massive essay Camille Paglia wrote about him. So I absorbed a lot, Benamin’s “angel of history”, etc. But you have to go to the source! I am blown away by this man. To quote Casablanca – I think this will be the beginning of a very beautiful friendship.

15. History on Trial: My Day in Court with a Holocaust Denier, by Deborah Lipstadt
I had never read this. Great book. Very good movie too. Important.

16. Doctor Faustus: The Life of the German Composer Adrian Leverkuhn As Told by a Friend, by Thomas Mann
Reading this incredibly difficult book took up the first half of the year. It was so difficult that it absorbed a lot of my attention, I couldn’t just skip over shit I didn’t understand. I had to try to understand. This is one of the plus-sides of reading difficult books: they make you exercise your brain to such a degree that real life falls away. The book requires so much concentration! Also I could only absorb it in very small doses. I’ve read Magic Mountain and Death in Venice but had never tackled this one before. Coincidentally – or not – it was an eerie companion piece to all the Hitler-Nazi reading I was doing. This book is such a daunting masterpiece it’s hard to even talk about it, since clearly so many others have said it better. Very very glad I finally read it.

17. Top of the Heap, by Erle Stanley Garner
My friend Charlie gave me this little pulp-y crime novel, part of a larger series starring the same detective. I really dug it. Great terse writing, vivid, tough as nails.

18. Laughter in the Dark, by Vladimir Nabokov
I’d read this before. It’s insane. Horrifying but slapstick. Grotesque.

19. I Used to Be Charming: The Rest of Eve Babitz, by Eve Babitz
Very grateful that the New York Review Books brought out not only Eve Babitz’s 1970s novels/memoirs, but this indispensable collection of her essays, journalism, reporting, etc., on a vast array of topics: food, music, movies, art, surfboards, Los Angeles. It had to be an extreme challenge to even FIND much of this stuff, since some of it was published in glorified ‘zines, or tiny mags that only lasted 1 or 2 issues. But we have it all here now, and it’s really important.

20. Funny Weather: Art in an Emergency, by Olivia Laing
I devoured Olivia Laing’s latest, and she has yet another book out – two in the same year. What an important writer. This is the kind of artistic commentary so often missing in today’s ideologically-charged world, where art is judged on whether or not it “sends” the “correct” message. Like … when critics – people who consider themselves progressive – start to sound like finger-wagging church-ladies … look out. Something STINKS. Laing’s work, and its embrace of context, complexity, and mess, is a necessary corrective. It’s fun to read her essays on artists I know and love, but it’s even better when she’s writing about someone I have either never heard of or know nothing about. I have made many discoveries through her. She’s the best thing going right now, cultural-commentariwise.

21. The Last Tsar: The Life and Death of Nicholas II, by Edvard Radzinsky
This is probably my third time through this book. Radzinsky is a fave of mine, for his three books: this one, one on Rasputin, and one on Stalin. They make up a great Triptych spanning 50 years of time, all written with a sense of urgency, outrage, and intelligence. I recommend them all. What is it that is so haunting about images of this Royal family? Not to be rude to the dead, but the whole system was grotesque, and Nicholas was a passive baffled rather silly man, who was not at all “up to the task” of dealing with a nation as INSANE as Russia, let alone such a charged era as the late 1890s up to 1917. Then of course there was his WIFE, who was the real Ego in that marriage – her Ego was incandescent – Nicholas didn’t stand a chance against her strong will. She belittled him, emasculated him, whined, urged him to be harder, tougher – she may as well have said to him, “Be a man, pussy.” She was a nightmare. He should have told her multiple times to shut the fuck up and let him do his job. She’s the WIFE, not the TSAR. The Revolution was coming anyway, and not much could stop it, but Nicholas and Alexandra were criminally ignorant about what was really going on. And don’t even get me started on Rasputin and Alexandra’s addiction to him, her absolute inflexibility … her devotion to Rasputin helped spell her doom and the doom of her family. It was fatal. The photos of them are so eerie. Even in happier times, they look like they know what’s coming.

22. Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel
The final book in the trilogy came out, so I re-read in preparation. It’s such a galloping page-turner.

23. Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel
See above comments. The books aren’t delicacies to be lingered over. They are propulsive events, and the whole experience is intense since you know how it all ends. Even if you didn’t know the history, you could guess.

24. Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, The Flesh, and L.A., by Eve Babitz
Her novel with the great very California-ish very Babitz-esque title.

25. Billy Wilder on Assignment: Dispatches from Weimar Berlin and Interwar Vienna, edited by Noah Isenberg
A fascinating collection of Billy Wilder’s newspaper dispatches from both Vienna and Weimar Germany where he was – among other things – a hired dance partner for a swanky hotel. What an amazing look at Billy Wilder’s hustling beginnings, but also a glimpse of that long-lost pre-war (well, post-AND-pre war) world. There are not one but TWO pieces an all-girl dance troupe that descended on Berlin, causing a firestorm of interest. The Tiller Dancers! Wilder’s enthusiastic pieces on these girls will make anyone who loves Billy Wilder think of Some Like It Hot, not even a glint in his eye yet. I read in preparation for appearing on Nic Rapold’s podcast The Last Thing I Saw, where we all discussed Billy Wilder and the book.

26. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood: A Novel, by Quentin Tarantino
I had to. I loved the movie so much. The book is so interesting, particularly the fleshing out of the Cliff Booth character.

His movie-going habits were particularly fascinating and made so much sense. What’s so interesting is that the big show-down with the Manson girls shows up in just one throw-away paragraph. The rest of it is the surrounding world, which was one of Tarantino’s real interests: the B-actors and TV actors who made up the changing world of Hollywood at that time. Loved it.

27. The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-first Century, by Robert Kaplan
Robert Kaplan is one of my “forever” authors. I read Balkan Ghosts when it first came out, and I found it transporting. The whole book starts with his visit to the cathedral in Zagreb, I think in the 70s? Cold War, in other words. It is such a rich description of that cathedral – its exterior and dark interior – that I said to myself, “I must go there someday.” It only took me 20 years. Anyway, I’ve read every single one of his books since then, watched how he got so many things right, and so many things wrong, an inevitability if you’re going to write about contemporary issues and/or foreign policy. Kaplan admits when he is wrong, and when he is REALLY wrong, like catastrophically wrong, he also admits that, and continues to own up to his blind spots. Admirable. One of the things I really treasure about him is his realistic attitude, based on a familiarity with history going back to antiquity. This is a book of essays about foreign policy, but it’s really about the Silk Road, about Marco Polo’s travel route, about how those “routes” still exist, only in modern form. Marco Polo’s journey is still playing out, to this day. (Speaking of Croatia! I went to the island where Marco Polo was born!)

28. Insane Clown President: Dispatches from the 2016 Circus, by Matt Taibbi
This was a very unpleasant read, because it’s such recent history! The whole thing was a PTSD flashback.

29. The Mirror & the Light: A Novel, by Hilary Mantel
FINALLY. It did not disappoint. Hilary Mantel never does.

30. Sex and Rage: A Novel, by Eve Babitz
It’s not really a novel. It’s about this young Los Angeles-based woman who goes to parties, has adventures with men, women, drugs, famous people, before finding herself in the unlikely position of having written a book. She has to go to New York to meet up with her agent, with her editor, etc. She is a fish out of water. Everyone looks at her like she’s this weird exotic freak. Like … where did YOU come from? I can imagine that this was very much the case. I love that I spent this year – the year leading up to Babitz’s death – reading her work almost back to back.

31. Pull of the Stars, by Emma Donoghue
My brother-in-law Ben gave this to me for Christmas last year and I tore through it in a day and a half. I could not put it down. The book takes place over the course of a weekend – a very condensed time frame – and it is action-packed and therefore very hard to put down. It tells the story of a young nurse working in a maternity ward in a crowded Dublin hospital in 1918, as the “Spanish flu” was raging. The epidemic meant the maternity ward is short-staffed, so she is in charge of three very different women, all about to give birth, all of whom have been put into a glorified large closet, since there’s no more room at the hospital. Overworked, overwhelmed, faced with life or death decisions, this young nurse is put to the test. It’s an incredible read, and very timely, just in terms of our current epidemic (I think the book was written before Covid, though. Just a coincidence.) Wonderful novel.

32. Normal People: A Novel, by Sally Rooney
I have an irritating habit of refusing to read books that are praised far and wide across the land. I dig my heels in. Nope. Not gonna be bossed around. Then, when I eventually get around to reading whatever book it is, 9 times out of 10 I think, “Ohhh okay so that’s why everyone’s making such a fuss.” I went through this with Shipping News. I was just so OVER the FUROR around that book, and everyone telling me – specifically – that I had to read it. I refused. Then I read it and now it’s one of my favorite books ever, and it made me a lifelong fan of Annie Proulx. So I’m a contrarian for no reason! Anyway, that’s what happened here. Normal People got so much attention – and it’s a specific KIND of attention, the kind that turns me off – that I didn’t read it initially. Well, I finally read it. And – AS ALWAYS – I was like, “Holy shit, okay, so this is why everyone was talking about this book.” lol I will never learn. It’s as good as everyone said it was. I don’t know about capturing the zeitgeist, or whatever terminology critics were using to describe Normal People … but Rooney has done something very special here, and it does seem to be unique to … where we are at Right Now. But more than any of that, what she has done is told a story from two points of view – creating two memorable characters – whose lives intersect from childhood on – their connections to one another at first secret and tentative, until finally undeniable and profound. I was literally in tears during the final 3 pages. It takes a lot to make me cry. This is a truly wonderful book. OH and the Hulu series too – everyone wanted me to see it. Total strangers came up to me and said, “YOU of all PEOPLE need to watch Normal People.” So. Now that I’ve read it, now I can watch it. It’s one of those books where you can’t stop thinking about the title after you’ve finished. It’s a perfect title.

33. My Century, by Aleksander Wat (as told to Czeslaw Milosz)
What a book. Another one I can’t believe has never come across my radar. Still so much to learn! Aleksander Wat was an important poet and critic in 1920s Poland, identified with the “futurist” movement. Then the Nazis invaded Poland. And then began a series of such harrowing journeys and imprisonments – across what was then Poland, and into Russia, and then into Central Asia – where he and his wife were separated forcibly (and finally reunited, amazingly). He was basically a Socialist, as so many people were in the 20s and 30s, but being tracked down by NKVD and imprisoned in Soviet prison – shuttled around over vast distances – made him realize what was going on. After the war was over, and Poland settled down into its icily controlling Communist era … Wat found himself on the outs with the authorities. His work was suppressed. He couldn’t make a living. His health was completely ruined by the deprivations of prison. Eventually, he was brought to California by the Institute for Slavic Studies, who gave him financial stability, a place to live and work. But he found himself unable to work, definitely not in a sustained way. He was very ill. So it was decided that famous dissident poet Milosz would “interview” Wat about his life and all his experiences, in the hopes that it could become a book. It did become a book, this book. The chatty nature of it, since it is a transcription, is the main reason it’s so powerful. You’re hearing him speak. Unforgettable.

34. Horror Stories: A Memoir, by Liz Phair
I finally got to this one! Liz Phair, my generation’s avatar! Well, for me she is. She’d kind of gone away in the last bunch of years, and I’ve missed her. Now I know what she was working on. And! She just came out with a new album, Soberish. Makes me happy. I loved this book. I loved how it’s all about mistakes she’s made, times when she didn’t do her best, or lost it, or was all a mess … I miss people admitting that half the time in their lives they’re just a fucking mess. This whole “empowerment” cult has turned vulnerabilities/mistakes into weaknesses and it is completely toxic. Liz Phair, in the vanguard, once again.

35. Chaos: Charles Manson, the CIA, and the Secret History of the Sixties, by Tom O’Neill
So many people told me to read this. Charlie. Allison. Quentin Tarantino. I finally got around to it. It’s a wild book. Some tin hat-ty stuff. But some of it makes a lot of sense, makes way more sense than Vincent Bugliosi’s overly simplistic “Helter Skelter” explanation. (Although that explanation was crucial to getting Manson convicted, even though he didn’t kill anyone. He had others do it for him. So Bugliosi needed to show it all came from the lunatic mind of one man.) So okay. But O’Neill has made all kinds of other connections, and I was particularly interested in the whole Haight-Ashbury section, and that “medical clinic”, the comings and goings, and the CIA guy with the office on the next floor … You can drive yourself crazy with these kinds of connections, but still, it’s interesting to think about.

36. Cary Grant: A Brilliant Disguise, by Scott Eyman
Eyman is a very good writer and researcher. There is much here to admire. I’m disappointed in his dismissal of the rumors about Grant’s sexuality – what IS it with these people who get so irritated at the mere mention of it? Your homophobia is showing. It’s only a “smear” if you believe there’s something wrong about being gay. Either way, Cary Grant was pretty tormented, and he put women through hell, that’s for sure. Eyman also made one comment about Hedda Hopper – or maybe it was Louella Parisons – that almost made me put the book down forever. Throw it across the room, more like. Eyman’s John Wayne biography towers above this one (and most other actor biographies as well).

37. Sweet and Sour Milk, by Nuruddin Farah
Finally got around to reading this haunting eerie book by this Somali-born novelist, who’s probably been nominated for the Nobel Prize every year since the 1970s. It’s a vivid and terrible book evoking the terror of living in a totalitarian autocratic country (a poverty-struck country too), the feeling of being watched, listened to, followed, stifled … is everywhere. Brilliant writing. This is part of his trilogy called “Variations on the Theme of an African Dictatorship”. I’ll definitely go on to read more. Chilling.

38. Is It Still Good to Ya?: Fifty Years of Rock Criticism, 1967-2017, by Robert Christgau
I love his philosophy stated in the Introduction: too many people want art that is good FOR you. Nourishing. A balanced meal. He thinks the question should not be “Is it still good for you?” but “Is it good TO you?” Christgau, of course, is a giant, who still writes on a regular basis, on his website and elsewhere, whose interest and tastes are vast. This collection is made up of album reviews, personal pieces about attending this or that show at Roseland, or Woodstock ’94/Lollapalooza, etc. He wrote a great essay about Eminem, really important at the time because he was one of the few people who was really trying to figure out what was happening and what he was actually DOING. He’s not blindly accepting, but he does take Eminem seriously. It makes a difference. He’s written more about Eminem, all of which is worth while (here’s another piece on his website).

39. Vile Bodies, by Evelyn Waugh
So brilliant. He literally puts an entire culture/society/era on display, and SKEWERS it, but he does it so hilariously. You get caught up in the story, all these people racing around to parties and clubs and debauched gatherings, the Jazz Age run amok, the “bright young things” era. The thing about Waugh is that, of course, yes, he is skewering all of it … but he is also so FUNNY about it. And clever, too. The whole sequence when they all attend a roadster race, and have to keep climbing up and down the hill – to go get snacks, to come back and watch the race, to go back up again for snacks, and then back down … an entire generation pursuing meaningless pleasures, racing up and down a hill forever, until they all go mad.

40. The Loved One, by Evelyn Waugh
A book about funeral homes and Hollywood. Very few authors can make me laugh as hard as Evelyn Waugh makes me laugh. I’ve written before about my experience reading Scoop on the bus. I felt so out of control, and so afraid of letting one guffaw out – not because I was shy, but because I knew if I let one laugh out, I would not be able to hold back the CASCADING WATERFALL of uproarious laughter. The attempt to suppress my laughter froze my face into a comedy mask. I remember this vividly. Scoop is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read.

41. Sarajevo: A War Journal, by Zlatko Dizdarevic
A re-read. Why is this book of dispatches from Sarajevo during the years-long siege not better known? It’s a fucking classic. A howl of despair from a forgotten besieged city, the world looking the other way, the heroism of the regular people trying to survive, the daily horrors, the Olympian effort of the journalists to get out the news, the newspaper never shutting down. This should be read by everyone. I’m baffled at its lack of a reputation.

42. The Biographer’s Tale, by A.S. Byatt
You know what, I read this when it came out and barely retained it. In fact, I retained nothing. I really found it tough going. Considering Possession overtook my heart and soul, considering that Possession felt like a novel written expressly FOR ME, I was saddened by my inability to get into the book. I didn’t forgive it for not being Possession, I suppose. But very little is! Despite my apathy, I kept the book because I am a completist and it’s pleasing to look at a shelf and see an author’s entire body of work lined up. Thankful I didn’t toss it out! I re-read it and got totally into it! I think one of the problems I initially had is that an initial character is set up – the titular “biographer” – who is working on a biography of a biographer (Byatt loves her meta), and comes across a treasure trove of notes on his particular subjects. The majority of the book is made up of those notes, so you’re buried deep in the biographer’s research, so much so you lose your way (which is, of course, the point). The biographer’s subjects are Linneaus, Francis Galton, and Ibsen. So it’s a book made up of the biographer’s notes, as pored over by the biographer’s biographer. Ya got it? I loved it this time around. Well worth re-visiting.

43. Stalin and the Kirov Murder, by Robert Conquest
A re-read. Outrageous. Brazen.

44. Rules of Civility: A Novel, by Amor Towles
Oh my GOSH what an exhilarating discovery! My friend Ted told me about this book and got me very excited to read it. It’s a first novel. I wrote a piece about the effect the book had on me, which was catastrophic (relatively speaking), not to mention expensive. Now I can’t wait to read his second novel, Gentleman from Moscow, and he has yet another one out (or maybe one about to be published). A thrilling new author.

45. The Ritz on the Bayou: The New Orleans adventures of a young novelist covering the trials of the Governor of Louisiana, with digressions on smoldering nightclubs, jazz-crazed bars, and other aspects of life in the tropic zone, by Nancy Lemann
A re-read. Nancy Lemann is a long-time fave of mine, and she remains so, even though she hasn’t published a book in 15 years or something like that. I keep hoping she’ll return. As it stands, her four novels – Lives of the Saints: A Novel, Sportsman’s Paradise, The Fiery Pantheon : A Novel, and Malaise: A Novel hold such a special place in my heart. I’m not sure I can explain it, and it might be worth an essay, but “Claude Collier” – from Lives of the Saints – which I read right before arriving in Chicago – somehow helped me contextualize the wild attractions I felt for Window Boy, particularly the moment when I heard his heart beat that first night. I don’t know. I felt the profundity of my connection to that wild wild boy, and I felt it early, when it would have been very easy to discount it, or write it off as a fun one night stand. Something about Claude Collier – a dissipated charming disaster-ridden love object – reminded me of Window Boy, or maybe it was the other way around – I even called him “Claude Collier” in my journal. Making that literary connection romanticized the whole thing to some degree, and might have had something to do with the situation blossoming into what it eventually did. It wasn’t just a fling. It didn’t start out that way and it never was that. I don’t know. It’s weird. But Claude Collier – one of my favorite literary characters – had a lot to do with it. I’ve never said that out loud before. Back to Lemann: before her novels, she wrote for Vanity Fair, and she went to New Orleans to cover the corruption trial of the governor. The dispatches she sent back were long meandering discourses on jazz bars, and seersucker suits, and green tropics, and running into old flames on the street … it was also about the trial, she got all the information in there, but she kept floating off onto tangents. James Wolcott actually remembers all this, remembers being on the other end of these dispatches, back in the office. I was so excited when he told me he knew her. I don’t think Vanity Fair actually ended up publishing any of this, but it was turned into this delightful poetic weird little book. She does eventually report on the trial. She gets there, but she takes her own sweet Southern time. I love her.

46. Both Flesh And Not, by David Foster Wallace
I’ve had this one on the shelf for years, but never read it. Reading DFW is such a RIGOROUS experience. You canNOT relax. You have got to keep your shit together, clear the deck. This was published posthumously. There are a couple of tennis-heavy essays, one on Federer, and the other one – basically novella-length – about corporate sponsorships of the U.S. Open. Some of the pieces here are short, little book blurbs, essentially. A couple of full-length book reviews. A fun piece on Terminator 2.

47. The Kindness of Strangers, by Salka Viertel
How had I never read this?? Like Stefan Zweig, Salka Viertel strolls through history, showing up in everyone’s memoirs, showing up alongside Greta Garbo in photos, a hovering presence on the periphery. But Viertel wasn’t peripheral at all. She grew up in a small town in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, as the empire breathed its final gasps of oxygen. She therefore had a front row seat for the cataclysm to come. The multiple cataclysms. There is a tender portrait of her childhood, her formative years, her attraction to the theatre. Her brother became a famous composer, her sister a famous actress, and she also became an actress. She befriended everyone, and there are so many cameos. Karl Kraus. Eisenstein. Einstein. Sarah Bernhardt. And of course … Garbo. Once in Hollywood, Viertel became one of THE “experts” on the mercurial difficult to pin down talents of Garbo – and she developed many projects for the elusive star. She worked as a writer, and producer. Her family became a haven for Jewish refugees, many of whom became world famous themselves. They all gathered there at her house in Santa Monica. An incredible memoir by an incredible woman.

Greta Garbo and Salka Viertel

48. A Religious Orgy in Tennessee: A Reporter’s Account of the Scopes Monkey Trial, by H.L. Mencken
I’ve probably read this 8 or 9 times. It never gets old. And it’s never not refreshing to read Mencken’s vicious lampooning of irrational anti-science anti-intellectual tiki-torch-wielding book-burning forces in our culture … forces which need to be fought every generation. It’ll never be gotten rid of for good. You have to keep yourself sharp, ready.

49. The Barbizon: The Hotel That Set Women Free, by Paulina Bren
Allison leant me this. It’s so interesting! The history of one building – the Barbizon Hotel for women in New York City – as a way to tell the history of all the famous women who stayed there. From Grace Kelly to (most famously) Sylvia Plath. Amazing cultural history, architecture, New York, feminism, modeling, secretarial work, literature, it’s all there. Paulina Bren has done an incredible job weaving it all together.

50. Nightmare Alley, by William Gresham
A re-read in preparation for the re-make, directed by Guillermo del Toro (co-written by GDT and my pal Kim Morgan!) LOVED the remake by the way, which hews closer to the book than the 1947 original (as wonderful as it is). The book is some bleak white-knuckling alcoholic shit. A tough one. The new film captures the disturbing dark swoon of a man who knows his destiny, deep within him, no matter how hard he tries to deny it or fight it off … he knows what’s waiting for him.

51. The Lost Daughter: A Novel, by Elena Ferrante
I read this in preparation for seeing the film, which I was reviewing. I’d read Ferrante’s Neopolitan Quartet, of course, but the first one I read of hers is Days of Abandonment, a slim harrowing novel about a woman realizing her husband is cheating on her. I was hooked. That book is NUTS. The Lost Daughter, another stand-alone like Days of Abandonment, is equally as detailed in its emotional minutia: every little glance, pause, gesture … picked apart for meaning by the paranoid narrator (who probably misinterprets 80% of what she sees and hears). Incredible book, and incredible movie (here’s my review).

52. Lafayette in the Somewhat United States, by Sarah Vowell
I adore Sarah Vowell. This book is a pleasure, end to end. No matter that I already know all of this. Vowell comes at her subjects with such enthusiasm, such fangirl obsession, she makes things seem new, accessible. If you are an American and you DON’T know why so many towns/roads/buildings in America are called “Lafayette” … well, then, it’s never too late to learn your own history. Hamilton has made some inroads in terms of that ignorance (although I must nerdily point out: the line in that musical that brings the house down – “Immigrants: we get the job done” – is said by Hamilton and Lafayette, neither of whom were strictly immigrants. Well, Hamilton moved from one part of the British Empire to another. He was a British subject in both places. It’s not the same thing as moving from, say, Latvia to America. Although, okay, I’ll allow it if you like. But Lafayette isn’t an immigrant at all. He never was. He was VISITING. He came as a military volunteer. He was a citizen of France the whole entire time. It always bugged me. Lafayette is awesome but he is not an immigrant. Thank you for coming to my Ted Talk.)

53. The Johnstown Flood, by David McCullough
My God. I will have nightmares about the eyewitness accounts of that wall of water barreling down the mountain. My cousin Kerry has visited the Johnstown memorial multiple times and I want to go now too. Horrible horrible story. Unimaginable.

54. The Mass Psychology of Fascism, by Wilhelm Reich
Finally finally got around to this one. It’s referenced in almost every book about fascism you ever read, and finally I decided to just go to the source. There’s a lot of woo-woo stuff about “orgone” and “biopathic” energies, and stuff like that … some of which is pretty tough to get through, but the essential points he makes are crucial, and perhaps may seem self-evident, but it’s only because he got there first. It seems self-evident because HE opened the door, and he opened the door in the mid-30s, while all this shit was going down all around him. Amazing. There’s one chapter called “The Masses and the State”, and that’s really the one to read, if you can’t bear the rest. He gets into it from a psychological standpoint, and his insights are invaluable, particularly in terms of “why do the lower-middle-classes go for fuhrers, especially since in doing so they are voting against their own interests?” Yup. A question worth asking, then, now, always.

55. Return From the USSR, by André Gide
This book is extremely hard to find. It caused a FIRESTORM upon its first publication. Gide was brainwashed, essentially. He says it himself: there was a kneejerk desire to defend the Soviet Union, no matter what “she” did, because The Cause was so important. Breaking eggs for omelettes, ends justify the means, etc. Well, Gide went to the USSR, saw what was happening, and came home and wrote the truth. He was seen as a betrayer, a traitor, etc. Well, no. He just refused to be a “useful idiot.” Super important. I read it in like an hour. It’s not long at all. Great on the ground observations, the writers he met, the censorship they faced, the long long lines, the empty shops, etc.

56. Quicksand: What It Means to Be a Human Being, by Henning Mankell
Mum gave this to me for my birthday. She and Ben read it together and passed it on to us. Henning Mankell was a Swedish novelist, known mostly for his crime novels and a famous detective series. In 2014, he was diagnosed with cancer. He wrote the following short essays over the next year, as he faced treatment, as he faced his own mortality. He died in 2015. This book brought me to tears multiple times, but it’s a wonderful and meditative experience, Mankell talking about his life, plays he’s directed, art he loved, books he loved, things he’s concerned about, places he’s visited … each chapter is about 3 pages long. It’s not really a memoir, more of a stream-of-conscious memory book, written by a very articulate and curious man. I won’t soon forget this book.

57. Radical Chic and Mau-Mauing the Flak Catchers, by Tom Wolfe
A re-read. “Radical Chic” is one of the meanest things I’ve ever read. Has anyone ever nailed anything to the wall as specifically – as perfectly – as Tom Wolfe does here? “Radical Chic” is about a very specific moment in time … but it is relevant to every time. It will not date. Its observations stand. It’s BRUTAL.

58. Rachel to the Rescue, by Elinor Lipman
Finishing off the year with the new Elinor Lipman. I love Lipman so much! Her latest is about a young White House staffer, fired from the Trump administration for writing something snarky about the President, and hitting “reply all” instead of “reply”. After being ushered out of the building, she is hit by a car, driven by a glamorous optometrist. Was it an accident or something more sinister? Things get stranger from there. Rachel to the Rescue is rom-com and political satire, as well as “alternative history”, featuring Melania disappearing from the White House in the middle of the night, and racing back to New York, helicopters chasing her on the freeway, just like OJ in the Bronco. Meanwhile Rachel gets a crush on the guy who works at the nearby wine store, her roommates (a lesbian couple I absolutely fell in love with) work for the DOJ and pepper the often-hapless Rachel with a constant stream of advice (on her job prospects, her new boss, her budding romantic relationship, her various schemes), while at the same time she finds a new job as an assistant to a buffoonish sloppy sometimes-inappropriate-and-yet-lovable muckraking author. I am so grateful for Elinor Lipman. Her books have given me so much joy over the years – and I am also grateful that she’s so prolific!

Happy to have finished off this year of super HEAVY reading with a fizzy fast-paced political screwball.

2021 tally (I count it by books, not author. If the same author appears multiple times, I count the author each time)
20 books by women
37 books by men
20 fiction
38 non-fiction


2020 books read
2019 books read
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

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1 Response to 2021 Books Read

  1. Clary says:

    Hi Sheila
    What a big list of books! I wish I had read half of them! But I’ll get some of them, surely. Portnoy, I read it when I was 17 years old, of course I missed many things, lol.
    About Hitler, I read in another book about WWI that he was a dispatcher, meaning he had to run in between the bullets to give messages to the officers. Once and again and again. But he was considered not a real hero, but a weird guy, a loner
    About Stefan Zweig, he left for Brazil (not Argentina) where he died in Petropolis, a city not far from Rio de Janeiro. Petropolis is named after the last emperor of Brazil, Pedro II. I guess he chose to live in a place where the remnants of an empire reminded him of his own country.
    I wish you a good 2022, hoping the end of covid is near.

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