2013 Books Read

It’s been a hell of a year. Devastating as well as redemptive. I started it out in Memphis, and end it here in New Jersey. And now my new niece Pearl has arrived! It’s been both a busy year as well as a year of healing and trying to take it easy (doctor’s orders). With everything going on, I have re-committed myself (without meaning to) to reading for pleasure. That probably sounds like a weird statement, because obviously I read a lot, but my reading has really fallen off in the last 5 or 6 years, since the Great Crack-Up of 2009, but it was going down the tubes even before that. I just didn’t have the mental space or energy to deal with fiction, that’s for sure – I have been pretty strictly non-fiction, maybe since 9/11 although I’d have to do some investigating on that one. I couldn’t get into novels. Nothing stuck. This was probably illness and exhaustion-related. Who the hell knows. But I’ve had a great year of reading, and a whole new routine surrounding bedtime (I’m like an infant, having to be put into a routine), and cutting down on Internet/phone time, all of that, and so I just started picking up books, books I own but haven’t read yet. I read before bed now, for an hour, sometimes two, and it’s become a cherished part of my routine. I’ve had a lot of fun reading this year.

Here are the books I have read this year, in order.

1. Elvis: Images and Fancies. This one came out a long time ago, and is out of print. It’s a collection of essays about Elvis, and some of them are quite scholarly, analyzing his musicianship, his Southern-ness, the world from which he sprung. Indispensable reading for any Elvis fan. I read this one in Memphis, sitting on a park bench, stopping to talk to that nice pimp.

2. Life, by Keith Richards. One of my favorite reading experiences of the year. Also read this while I was in Memphis, and everyone would stop and talk to me about it. From diner waitresses to old bluesmen in electric blue suits. People would glance at my book and stop to talk. I recommend reading it in public, because I am sure the same thing will happen to you. Awesome conversations will be the result. Great book.

3. Bossypants, by Tina Fey. I had unexpectedly finished the Keith Richards book, and found myself facing a flight back to New York from Memphis without a book. Unthinkable. I bought this in the gift shop at the Memphis airport and read it as I flew back home. It’s a quick read, and totally entertaining. I love her.

4. Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. One of the most thrilling novels I’ve read. This was the beginning of re-gaining my taste for fiction. I could not put it down. The sequel is equally awesome and now I am waiting impatiently for the third installment of the trilogy.

5. No Easy Day: The Autobiography of a Navy Seal: The Firsthand Account of the Mission That Killed Osama Bin Laden, by Mark Owen. Or I should say “Mark Owen”. I had read Mark Bowden’s book about the killing of Osama Bin Laden and although I love Bowden it felt like a rush job. I talked about that a little bit in my 2012 books read piece, which my cousin Kerry read, and then promptly sent me No Easy Day, which she had read and liked better. It’s pretty terrific. And it’s funny, I remember watching Zero Dark Thirty and tensing up when she broke down in tears in the last scene. She had been so tough and so together and I just didn’t want to see her go a girlie route after all she had been through. Chastain was amazing in that moment, but it was the first time I felt protective of her as a fellow woman, wanted her to maybe save the tears till she was alone. But then I read No Easy Day and that anecdote is taken directly from the book. Highly recommended, all around. “Mark Owen” (his identity has since been revealed) made the decision to publish without running it by the DoD first and I am sure we all remember the controversy.

6. Creating Hysteria: Women and Multiple Personality Disorder, by Joan Acocella, a writer I adore. I keep my eyes peeled for her stuff. She’s primarily a dance critic for The New Yorker, and her book Twenty-eight Artists and Two Saints is a must-read (a bunch of excerpts from it here). So imagine my delight when I learned that Acocella had written a book about “hysteria”, the primarily Victorian female malady which seemed to vanish overnight, and its connection with the MPD mania, brought about in the aftermath of Sybil and also its connection to the “false memory” theory (FASCINATING), and how suddenly all of these people in the 80s and 90s were coming forward with huge “recovered memories” of childhood Satanic worship, ritual killing, and sexual abuse on a gigantic conspiratorial scale. All of it buncombe. Tough stuff and extremely trigger-y but IMPORTANT. The latest issue of the new Spolia magazine is devoted to the phenomenon of “Hysteria”.

7. The Unnamed, by Joshua Ferris. I wrote a little bit about my experience reading that novel here. Ferris’ first novel, Then We Came to the End, is one of the best “first novels” I’ve ever read (and I normally stay away from them until the writer has proved himself and then go back to check it out). But Then We Came to the End was absolutely dazzling. His second novel, The Unnamed, is about a man who cannot stop walking. It is an affliction. It ruins his marriage, it ruins his whole life. His wife chains him to the bed. Then finally has to let him go. He walks and walks and walks. That’s the book. It is a meditation on depression and mental illness, although nothing is ever named or classified. He wonders what it is that compels him to walk. What IS it?? Is he running from something? But WHAT?? It’s a devastating novel and I read it very quickly and I was still very sick and found this novel extremely upsetting. I couldn’t wait for it to be over. This young guy is a hell of a writer.

8. The Secret Speech, by Tom Rob Smith. A sequel to his Stalinist-era serial killer drama (two of my favorite things, put together in one novel??). When I heard that the sequel was called The Secret Speech, I knew immediately what speech the title was referring to (phone call for Kruschev), and it was thrilling. What was he going to do with that speech, how would he handle it? The sequel is just as good as the first novel, just as gripping. It’s a page-turner. But it’s an interesting question: to have your Leader suddenly come out and say, “We have been going down the wrong path, and what we just experienced was a personality cult, people, and it has to stop” … what would the reaction be? You would feel betrayed, probably. It would make you look like a gullible asshole. Anyone who has “snapped” out of a cult’s clutches would relate to that mix of shame and relief. Good book – I haven’t read the next installment. It was a good break in tone after Joshua Ferris’ devastating novel.

9. Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, by Philip K. Dick. One of my favorite novels. I read this in February when I needed the comfort of the familiar.

10. The Dearly Departed, by Elinor Lipman. More comfort. She is such a terrific novelist, I adore her stuff, but there are still so many books I haven’t read. I decided to rectify that this year, and she is a wonderful tonic for depression and disorientation. Don’t let the “chick lit” covers fool you. This woman is a great social commentator. Her books also often make me laugh out loud. I love her slightly spectrum-y heroines. I relate to them. I’ve written a lot about her in the past.

11. Darkness at Noon, by Arthur Koestler. While this is one of the more brutal books I have read, it is also well-known and beloved to me, and part of the comfort of the familiar, which is why I picked it up again. If you haven’t read it, you should be ashamed of yourself. It’s one of the most important novels of the 20th century. But don’t wallow in the shame (or the outrage that I would say such a rude thing): just pick it up and read it immediately.

12. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, by Jeanette Winterson. Definitely in my Top 5 Reading Experiences of the year. I wrote about it here.

13. The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye, by A.S. Byatt. Drawn to that which I loved in the past. I adore this short collection of fairy stories, especially the title tale, so I re-read it this past year. More posts/excerpts on this book here.

14. The Birth of Love: A Novel, by Joanne Kavenna. Her first novel, Inglorious is a searing truthful book which knocked me on my ass. I couldn’t recommend it more strongly if I tried. I wasn’t as crazy about this one. As a matter of fact, I can now remember little of it.

15. Why Am I Still Depressed? , by Jim Phelps. First book post-diagnosis, recommended to me by my doctor. It helped save my life.

16. Tulipomania : The Story of the World’s Most Coveted Flower & the Extraordinary Passions It Aroused, by Mike Dash. Speculative financial bubbles are a pet obsession of mine, particularly because of the psychological component. I’ve owned Tulipomania for years but never read it. Finally just picked it up off the shelf and tore through it in two days. Wonderful, crazy! Dash did a great job making it all explicable.

17. Loving Someone with Bipolar Disorder: Understanding and Helping Your Partner, by Julie Fast. This book isn’t meant for me, but it was recommended to me so I read it. I imagine it would be extremely helpful for those on the outside.

18. The Godwulf Manuscript, by Robert Parker. The very first Spencer mystery and I am in love with it. I hadn’t read any Robert Parker before, which was just an error on my part. My mum and dad love him because of the Boston aspect. What a fascinating character. My cousin Liam had said to me, “It’s fine to read about gulags and genocides but make sure you read fun and light stuff too.” This was part of me following his advice. I will be reading more!

19. Run River, by Joan Didion. Her first novel and it’s a doozy. A great California novel. It’s all about water and old Sacramento families.

20. Why Love Hurts: A Sociological Explanation, by Eva Illouz. Not my kind of book at all, but Jessa Crispin (aka Book Slut) wrote about it so much and so enthusiastically that I had to pick it up. Well worth it. Upsetting, but very accurate. Jessa interviews the author here.

21. Mimi, by Lucy Ellmann. One of my favorite novels of the year. A great discovery. A screwball romance set in the modern day with a feminist slant. Fantastic. It made me ROAR with laughter. Like, I had to put the book down and howl to the ceiling for 5 minutes before I could continue.

22. The Family Man, by Elinor Lipman. Another one I’ve owned for a long time and never read. I read this one during my trip to Chicago and Champagne-Urbana. Lovely, funny and touching.

23. What Maisie Knew, by Henry James. This was a re-read in preparation for the film, which I reviewed for Roger Ebert.

24. The Secret Scripture: A Novel, by Sebastian Barry. Devastating Irish novel. Beautifully written.

25. The Redemption of George Baxter Henry, by Conor Bowman. The author himself was kind enough to send this to me, due to the Elvis Presley sub-plot. What a TREAT. This was another hilarious book with a couple of scenes where I had to put the book down and ROAR with laughter, frightening my cat and my neighbors. Glorious. Super funny.

26. The Mill on the Floss, by George Eliot. Wow. Never read this one. Middlemarch is one of my favorite novels of all time, but for whatever dumb reason I had never read this one and decided to rectify that situation. I read it during the height of my spring crush, before I got myself in hand realizing I had no business crushing on anyone while I was recovering. But the whole crush started because of a conversation at a party about Mill on the Floss. Danger, Will Robinson. The last two pages are so tragic that I sobbed spontaneously when I finished the book.

27. Hard News: Twenty-one Brutal Months at The New York Times and How They Changed the American Media, by Seth Mnookin. A re-read. It’s about the Jayson Blair scandal and the tumultuous and terrible reign of Howell Raines. Great stuff. Lots of re-reads on the list this year, it’s been fun to re-visit some of these books.

28. The Fall of Yugoslavia: The Third Balkan War, Third Revised Edition, by Misha Glenny. Essential reading.

29. Chain of Fools – Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to YouTube, by Trav S.D., my old old friend. I met him when I was 14. And here we are today. The book is fantastic. I posted an excerpt here.

30. Reinventing Your Life: The Breakthrough Program to End Negative Behavior and Feel Great Again, by Jeffrey E. Young and Janet S. Klosko. Recommended to me by my second doctor. This was another life saver, perhaps even more profound than the first. I am not a self-help book person but I have had to let go of some of my contempt for them, in order to get well. Cognitive therapy has helped enormously, and this book is part of that process. I’ve been working on it with my doctor.

31. Broken Harbor: A Novel, by the great Tana French. This is the fourth in her series about the fictional Dublin Murder Squad. Her books are about so much more than crime, although they are great crime books too. In many ways, she is THE author of the “Celtic Tiger” era, its hopes and disappointments. Talk about a speculative bubble.

32. Mask Of State: Watergate Portrait, by Mary McCarthy. A re-read. Her essays on attending the Watergate trials. Excellent stuff.

33. Stalin: The First In-depth Biography Based on Explosive New Documents from Russia’s Secret Archives, by Edvard Radzinsky. I’ve probably read this book four times total, maybe more. Stalin is a tough one because the biography will only go as far as it can go. You can talk about his childhood all you want (and even there the details are sketchy, due to his dogged erasure of his own past) – it still won’t EXPLAIN him. How do you EXPLAIN a monster? Radzinsky doesn’t try. He pores through the newly available documents, basically searching for Stalin’s fingerprints on them (not literally, of course). He’s a thrilling writer and his other books (on Rasputin, and Nicholas and Alexandra) are great too – but this one is a damn near masterpiece. If you had to read one book on Stalin (outside of Robert Conquest’s books, that is), I would say you should read this one.

34. Bring Up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. Second in the Cromwell trilogy, following directly on the heels of Wolf Hall. If anything, she topped herself. I am lost in admiration for her talent as a writer.

35. A Gate at the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore. God, she’s good. This is her first book in a long long time, and it was heralded upon its arrival with trumpet blares: you rarely see this for writers. Everyone has been waiting for her to get cracking again (myself included). She is so unique. I enjoyed the novel, but I wonder if the short story is really “her” form. Her short stories are beyond compare.

36. Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters, by J.D. Salinger. Another re-read. I love all of his stuff, and this piece of writing in particular – the details of it, that apartment, that random group of people – and starting it up again is like settling into a comfy well-worn blanket.

37. Something Happened, by Joseph Heller. Wow. I had never read this. It’s so big that starting it was a daunting experience, and rightly so. There were times I struggled to keep going. But I have total trust in him as a writer, and so I finally just had to surrender to what he was doing. It’s a book about nothing. It’s a book about boredom and inconsistency and what it looks like if you lie to yourself every other sentence. It is BRUTAL. It is UNPLEASANT. It is often HILARIOUS. Very very challenging but well worth it. Catch-22 is in my Top 5 Books of All Time, but somehow I had never read this one.

38. Much Ado About Nothing , by William Shakespeare. I re-read this in preparation for the Joss Whedon film, which I reviewed for Ebert. The film is in my Top 10 for the year (those lists are supposed to go up tomorrow). Re-reading this made me want to start up a project which I’ve done once before in my life, years ago: read the works of Shakespeare in chronological order (or, at least as close to chronological order as can be determined). If you have never done so, I highly recommend it. It’s very illuminating to watch him develop. I got pretty far into the project this year (and I actually started out just reading some comedies, because things were getting pretty dark for me, and I needed to laugh), but then went back and started out chronologically. I’ll finish it up in 2014.

39. Ragnarok: The End of the Gods, by A.S. Byatt. Byatt obviously has a fondness for myth and story, and the Ragnarok myth is an important thematic element in Possession, but here it takes center stage. I loved it.

40. Love’s Labor’s Lost, by William Shakespeare. An arch and symmetrical comedy, unlike anything else he ever did. The play-within-a-play makes me laugh out loud. Men swear off women, and then of course break that vow literally 5 minutes later. That’s how long they can stand it.

41. A Midsummer Night’s Dream, by William Shakespeare. A story I love about my dad is him reading this in the library while he was in college and he started laughing so loud that he was asked to leave the library because he was disturbing the other patrons. I myself roar every time I read it (especially when Titania wakes up saying: “What angel wakes me from my flowery bed?” Cannot. Stand. It.)

42. Titus Andronicus, by Shakespeare. Forgot how gross it was. Stage direction: “Enter Messenger, carrying two heads and a hand.” Nice.

43. Henry VI Part I , by Shakespeare. Into the histories now. I eat this shit up, especially because these are early Shakespeare. You can see how much he grew as a playwright.

44. Henry VI Part 2 , by Shakespeare. There is no less than half a page of a geneological monarchical chart spoken in blank verse, and my head nearly fizzled into a non-working state with trying to keep it all on track. But then, in Act IV, the play EXPLODES with the Jack Cade rebellion. By that point, I know which Duke is which, I understand whose Dad was married to which Duchess, and that Act IV is just a thrilling cliffhanger of violence, with lines like, “LET US BURN THE TOWER OF LONDON. AVAUNT!” It’s cinematic and episodic. Violent, the scenes are short, heads are lopped off, people run down the streets, it’s awesome. Jack Cade is a great character, but a nitwit politically. That whole “first, let us kill all the lawyers” line is quoted all the time – probably people are not even aware of what play they are quoting – also, it occurred to me, as it often does with Shakespeare: context is important: The person who shouts that line is a moronic dim-bulb criminal who despises learning because it makes him feel bad about himself. He’s a rabble-rouser seething with resentment at the “elite”. A William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes trial. So yeah, “kill all the lawyers” is a funny and memorable line but Shakespeare didn’t give that line to someone we are supposed to admire and take seriously. I love it when he does that. It’s similar to the oft-quoted Polonius monologue in HAMLET. i.e.: “To thine own self be true”, etc. Yes! Lovely! But Polonious is a pompous ass who is literally unable to speak in anything other than easily digestible platitudes. Thinking Polonius is smart and insightful is like thinking Joel Osteen is a giant intellect. I think Shakespeare did that quite deliberately: made idiots say lines that are truthful and memorable, so that you have to think twice about quoting them favorably. But I love Jack Cade – great character. I have never seen a production of this. I imagine a good one would be quite thrilling!

45. Henry VI Part 3 , by Shakespeare. Great play, and what struck me is that Richard III (or the Duke of Gloucester) starts to emerge as a whole other kind of character here and it’s almost like you can feel Shakespeare himself being born, even though he had already written a bunch of plays by this point. But Richard’s speech is a different kind of speech from the rest of the characters in the play (as well as the characters in the plays Shakespeare wrote previous to this one). The rest of the speeches in the play, and there are many, are mostly oratorical in nature. Even the grief-struck speeches are done for the audience of fellow soldiers and court members, and so there is a performative aspect to the speeches. Richard’s two magnificent soliloquies, though, are interior-driven, they have a confessorial tone, bringing the audience in not only to his plans, but to his pain/suffering/hatred, whatever it is he is FEELING. Of course, in the next play in the cycle, Richard III takes center stage. I don’t think it’s just that Shakespeare was getting ready to write Richard III AS he was writing Henvry VI Part 3. I think Richard’s “voice” in Henry VI Part 3 represents a gigantic leap-forward in his technique as a playwright. There’s something in Richard in the King Henry play that feels a little bit out of the playwright’s control: like the character is telling Shakespeare who he is and how he speaks. You almost feel like Shakespeare is turned on himself by what he is doing. Those soliloquies are LONG. Brilliant. There is no oratory in them: Richard’s soliloquies are private. Psychological. Richard III (the play) is obviously a major break-through for Shakespeare, but you can already feel it happening in this earlier play. And the use of the soliloquies as private musings deep in psychology is new. The “voice” of Richard is unique and very much his own. Sometimes the court speeches, as well written as they are, are in voices that are somewhat interchangeable; this is usually true with “public” speech. But suddenly – with Richard in this Henry play – it’s the first time, in reading Shakespeare’s plays chronologically, that I can feel that “To be or not to be” is coming down the pike.

46. That Old Ace in the Hole: A Novel, by Annie Proulx. One of the best writers writing today. Gotta say, though, this book actually gave me nightmares. It made me nervous, it got me worked up. It was a deeply unpleasant experience. Gorgeous evocation of the Texas panhandle and the culture there. Beautifully done. A brilliant excavation of political and financial concerns as well, with the hog farm controversy. The descriptions were so real, so in my face, that I was actually JUMPY as I read this book. (Side note: I think it’s so adorable that morons continue to insist that women focus on domestic life and romance in their novels. Annie Proulx almost never does. Hilary Mantel sure as hell doesn’t. And their books SELL. To BOTH sexes. So stop saying shit that isn’t true.)

47. Old Filth, by Jane Gardam. Magnificent novel. I beg of you. Read it.

48.Richard III, by Shakespeare. Breakthrough for the playwright, a giant leap forward. No turning back now.

49. Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street, by Herman Melville. Brilliant. Prescient.

50. The Comedy of Errors, by Shakespeare. Broad vaudeville slapstick.

51. The Taming of the Shrew, by Shakespeare. I think the best version I’ve ever seen of this was the Moonlighting episode. It got the broad comedy of it, the sizzle of anger mixed with lust, and the power plays which are essential to the entire thing working. Any production that tries to make this a feminist manifesto is bound to fail because the script flat out does not support it. But it’s still sexy as hell.

52. The Two Gentlemen of Verona, by Shakespeare. What a ridiculous play. Proteus is such a jagoff. I saw it done in Central Park and it treated it as the buffoonish piece of work that it is, which is really the only way to go. I love how the treachery from one of the two gents is so beyond the pale, so … psychopathic … and then at the last minute, the other gent says, “No worries, bro. It’s all forgiven.” It is?? But why?? I wrote about Two Gents here.

53. Romeo and Juliet, by Shakespeare. Cashel just played Mercutio in his school play. I said to him, “Well, you know that Mercutio is the best part in the whole play.” He said, “Yes, he is.” The play never really recovers from Mercutio’s absence, so vital an energy is he. What a great character.

54. King John , by Shakespeare. The Bastard of Faulconbridge is another one of those great characters, put in the middle of a bunch of oratory (no less beautifully written for all that), who seems to have a voice, a life, of his own.

55. Richard II, by Shakespeare. Reading all of this together it makes you realize how bloody this whole thing really was. There was a production of all of the history plays, run in repertory, done here in New York a while back and it was called “ROSE RAGE”, which I think is awesome.

56. A Place of Greater Safety: A Novel, by Hilary Mantel. Her magnificent French Revolution novel, which I read on vacation. Could not put it down. In other words: OMG. This book then led me into a whole French Revolution thing which threw me off the Shakespeare a bit. What a book, Ms. Mantel!! Wrote about it here.

57. The Anatomy of Melancholy, by Robert Burton. I started this one in February and finished it in August. It’s gigantic. It’s exhausting. It’s totally entertaining despite its sad subject. Written in the early 1600s, it is still relevant today. Funny, too: Shakespeare obviously hadn’t filtered down to a universal consciousness level, it was too early. With all of the references in the book, there are only one or two to Shakespeare. I started this when I started getting serious about my own illness and it kept coming up in all the literature as a groundbreaking work. It is that. So glad I stuck it out. Wrote about it here.

58. The Merchant of Venice, by Shakespeare. Quite a hallucinatory ugly play. Brutal. And with all of the great lines in Shakespeare, my favorite comes from Act 5, Sc. 1 of Merchant. I use it all the time, reference it all the time.

How far that little candle throws his beams!
So shines a good deed in a naughty world.

59. Dream Boogie: The Triumph of Sam Cooke, by Peter Guralnick. A fascinating look at an icon, written with Guralnick’s typical blend of analysis and empathy. He doesn’t shy away from the unsavory aspect of the man, although he does downplay it in favor of celebrating his accomplishments. I shared some more thoughts about it, and Cooke, here.

60. Henry IV, Part I , by Shakespeare. This is not an original observation (nothing is, I know) but: reading the plays in order (as close to the order as can be determined) it really is as though Sir John Falstaff comes out of nowhere. We’ve already seen the breakthrough in voice/soliloquy with Richard III and there have been a couple of characters which seem to take on lives of their own (I am partial to the Bastard of Faulconbridge, but there has also been Mercutio, who is a major breakthrough in terms of character). There are others here and there. But Falstaff is on another level. You don’t sense that Shakespeare was “working up to him”, either, with these other characters. He emerges full-blown. Maybe you can see shades of him in the rebel Jack Cade (although Cade is without humor or humanity). But Falstaff is suddenly THERE and he is alive, and he is in the world, and you wonder: “Where the hell have you BEEN all this time?”

61. The Devil Finds Work, by James Baldwin. So wonderful: Baldwin’s small book of film criticism. A must-read. I wrote more about it here.

62. The French Revolution: A History, by Thomas Carlyle. A re-read, thanks to Hilary Mantel. If you haven’t read it, I get it. The language is tough. But it’s so exciting and awful. A hell of a book.

63. The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James Cain. A perfect novel. Spare and terrifying. All the salaciously detailed sex scenes in the world can’t hold a candle to the hotness of this:

I had to have her, if I hung for it.
I had her.

Yowza. The deadened first-person narration just makes it.

64. Out of Sight: A Novel, by Elmore Leonard. Picked this up immediately following the news that Leonard had passed away. God, it’s so damn good.

65. Bluets, by Maggie Nelson. My spring crush had mentioned that this was his favorite book that came out recently, so I picked it up. If I explained it, it would sound pretentious, or writerly, an extended and self-indulgent writing exercise. It is not any of that. It is profound.

66. A Death in Summer: A Novel, by Benjamin Black (aka John Banville). Ahhh, another Quirke novel! Rich!!

67. Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink, edited by David Remnick. I actually re-read this over the course of the month or so that I was doing excerpts from it here on my site. Lovely collection.

68. Ripley Under Water, by Patricia Highsmith. Chilling. How I wish there were 10, 20 more Ripley books. Tom Ripley makes my skin crawl. What is really chilling in this particular installment is that his buddy from England, who comes over to France to help him out, has to deal with Ripley on close terms and really comes close to understanding his monstrous nature. Ripley’s wife is oblivious. Most people are, Ripley has a great front, and people probably ignore their spidey-sense that something is not right with this guy. But Ripley’s buddy, who is tied up with him financially, feels an obligation to go help out but then realizes just how far Ripley will go and also just how lacking in conscience Ripley really is. The book is still from Ripley’s point of view, but you get enough glimpses of this friend balking at what he is sensing to really drive the point home. Highsmith is so brilliant with sociopaths.

69. The Only Game in Town: Sportswriting from The New Yorker, edited by David Remnick. Another re-read, also while I was going through the book to do excerpts on my site. I love a good essay.

70. The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner. Another re-read. Boy, that book is such a hoot. Really feel-good stuff.

71. Henry IV, Part II , by Shakespeare. Closer, closer, to the end of the Rose Rage. “I know thee not, old man.” – Prince Hal to Falstaff, final scene of the play. Heartbreaking.

72. Portrait of a Monster: Joran van der Sloot, a Murder in Peru, and the Natalee Holloway Mystery, by Lisa Pulitzer and Cole Thompson. Exhaustively researched, great character development and atmosphere development, the issues in Aruba, Peru, etc., this book was clearly not just tossed off. It’s very scary.

73. Sarajevo: A War Journal, by Zlatko Dizdarevic. It is outrageous that this important book is out of print. Essential reading, again. Devastating. I posted an excerpt here.

74. The Case of Comrade Tulayev, by Victor Serge. How on earth have I never read this before. I have commenter John Vail to thank. HUGE “missing” in my reading, completely inexcusable. Unbelievable novel. Up there with Darkness at Noon in its breakdown of How It Worked.

75. Rereadings: Seventeen writers revisit books they love, edited by Anne Fadiman. Again, I had the great pleasure of re-reading this one while I was doing excerpts on my site. Books you read when you were young that swept you away … what is it like to re-visit them as adults? Wonderful.

76. Touching the Void: The True Story of One Man’s Miraculous Survival, by Joe Simpson. This book is up there with Endurance in the survivalist genre, and I don’t put much on the level with Endurance. It took me days to shake the effects of the book. Brief thoughts on the book and film here.

77. Just Kids, by Patti Smith. It took me a while to get around to this one. Everyone I know read it when it first came out and raved about it. I love her, and I love him, so it just took me a while. What a book. What a voice she has. It’s funny and brave and smart and evocative of a whole time and place. Her love for him is palpable.

78. Big Sur, by Jack Kerouac. A re-read in preparation for the film which I reviewed for Roger Ebert.

79. A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writing, by H.L. Mencken. A re-read, as I put up excerpts on my site. It’s been years since I read the thing and it was a complete delight to dive into it again. He’s a writer I hold dear. Excerpts here.

80. Psychotic Reactions and Carburetor Dung: The Work of a Legendary Critic: Rock’N’Roll as Literature and Literature as Rock ‘N’Roll, by Lester Bangs. Re-read that as I started putting up excerpts here. I love him.

81. Memoirs of a Revolutionary, by Victor Serge. The following chapbook post should say it all in terms of my response to this book. There’s more to say about him, and I will, but suffice it to say I am so glad I filled in that enormous gap in my reading. It’s amazing I haven’t picked him up before considering my passion for all things Soviet/Stalinesque/gulag-ish/totalitarian/Russian Revolution-esque. But there you have it. Great great book.

82. The Secret History, by Donna Tartt. I am about 20 years behind the times when it comes to current fiction. It’s just not my thing. Especially if everybody raves about it. I put my contrarian shoes on then, dig my heels in, wait out the hype, and then come to it in my own damn time. This has not always been true, and some of the books here (the Tom Rob Smith books, for example) are popular bestsellers currently and I read them in hardback (super rare for me), but that’s only because the books take place in Stalinist Russia. Any other topic can wait for me to get around to it! Anyway, wow, The Secret History is so freakin’ creepy, especially because I do not trust the narrator, and also he is as much in the dark as we are out there reading. He only tells us the glimpses of what he sees, and then when he finds out what is going on it is relayed to him in a long monologue. He is outside the main thrust of the action which, overall, gives you a very worrisome feeling as you read the book. Excellent on the guru nature of the teacher, and also the hypnotic power of language to lull your critical mind to sleep. Not sure the final third really works. For me, it’s the first two-thirds of the book that were masterful. I could not put the damn thing down. I haven’t read any of her other stuff, but I will! I was very interested reading my friend Ted’s review of her latest.

83. Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste: A Lester Bangs Reader, edited by John Morthland. Definitely not as good a collection as Psychotic Reactions and I think some of the pieces should never have seen the light of day. The Jamaica/Bob Marley essay is about 10 pages too long, and some of them feel like drunken insomniac jottings (which I’m sure they were). But there are gems here. The piece on Captain Beefheart is amazing. The obituary for Sid Vicious. The awesome piece on Black Sabbath. The piece on Anne Murray’s sexuality, of all things – fascinating. Lots of great stuff. If nothing else, he is ALWAYS interesting.

84. Killings, by Calvin Trillin. Trillin is known mainly as a humor writer, and a food writer. He talked about his family in a humorous and fond way, reminiscent of Jean Kerr’s stuff. He wrote a book about his wife, when she passed, someone he had made famous in column after column after column. But here he is, in this nearly forgotten book, traveling around the United States in the 1970s, reporting on all these different murders for The New Yorker. He’s not interested in the crime so much as he is in the atmosphere from which said crime sprung, how different communities work, the faultlines underneath us all (different for each) that can crack open. Great stuff. True crime fans, you won’t want to miss this.

85. A Religious Orgy in Tennessee: A Reporter’s Account of the Scopes Monkey Trial, by H.L. Mencken. Brilliant. Vicious. Disturbing. Disturbing because honestly nothing has changed. Mencken is hateful, but he hates things I hate too, like being proud of your own ignorance, like being un-interested and un-curious in learning new things. His description of the circus of the monkey trial is eloquent, and the book ends with the questioning of Bryan by Darrow which is so embarrassing to read, but not at all a throwback. We’ve got the same kind of shit going on now. The book is prescient, and Mencken seems to know that the war over this particular topic is only just beginning.

86. A Prayer Journal, by Flannery O’Connor. My sister Siobhan gave this to me for Christmas and I read it yesterday morning as the rain pounded against my windows. It is so beautiful. I hadn’t even heard of it and I love Flannery O’Connor! She wrote a small journal of prayers to God, while she was at the University of Iowa. Pleas to God that He would give her grace, that her work and writing would be filled with God, that she would be pleasing to God, that she would not be mediocre. It’s a very small volume, it looks like she kept the journal for only a period of months. Beautifully, there’s a facsimile of the entire journal included, so you can see her writing, and the doodles on the pages (a musical score and some notes, for example). These were private moments of pleading to God for help, her desire being that she would walk about knowing the intensity of His love at all times. She wanted that direct communication, that direct feeling. It was devastating to her that she couldn’t hold onto it. There is so much here about being an artist, of trying to find your own voice as an artist, and being true to it, but also being true to your core beliefs. I love her so much and this was a perfect gift for me right now, something I will dip into again and again.

And that’s it. It was a good and diverse year of reading. Reading for pleasure, reading widely not narrowly, and making time for light things, entertaining things, things that made me laugh.

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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33 Responses to 2013 Books Read

  1. tracey says:

    Have you seen Orson Welles’ “Chimes at midnight”? John Gielgud is PERFECT as Henry IV.

  2. rae says:

    Tana French! I remember In the Woods leaving me uncomfortable, maybe due to the unresolved nature of things, although that’s not my normal response to unresolved-ness. (Then again, maybe it was Rosalind.) Still, I picked up The Likeness right away when it came out, and enjoyed it very much. I enjoyed Faithful Place, too, but perhaps not as much, or in a different way. You’re right — great crime stories, and so much more than that, too. What did you think of Broken Harbor, compared to the others?

    • sheila says:

      Yes, In the Woods was incredible – it was so eerie, how it was left un-explained. And her WRITING. I loved The Likeness (almost more than In the Woods) – I wasn’t as crazy about Faithful Place – I thought the whole “crazy Irish family” thing was a little bit stock. But my aunt Regina disagrees with me – we had a big discussion about it and Faithful Place was her favorite – so I could be wrong. Broken Harbor is terrific. The crime takes place in a brand new housing settlement north of Dublin – houses that remain empty because after the financial crash nobody would buy them anymore. So it’s all of these luxurious homes, rotting away – with only one family left, living in this spooky abandoned neighborhood. Great lead character (I also love how Tana French keeps giving us new characters – it’s not just one protagonist). It’s really good!

      • rae says:

        I look forward to reading it! It’s one of the books I got for Christmas. And I see she has another one that will be published in 2014 — The Secret Place — which again switches main characters (I love the chain of main characters!). I started thinking, “2014? That’s so far away!” when it hit me: that year starts tomorrow… and I’ve been reading you since 2005. Thanks, again, for the illumination and the joy! It’s always a delight to see you have a new post.

        • sheila says:

          Wow, 2005!! Unbelievable.

          I’ve always loved your comments – thank you for stopping by all this time!

          • rae says:

            To paraphrase one of my earliest comments: Is this site, my favourite site? Yeth.

            And to quote part of your spitball valentine: You’re a good storywriter.

            I hope you keep writing (and posting!) for a very, very long time!

          • Maureen says:

            Ha! This is such a sweet exchange, I had to comment-I know I have been reading Sheila for a long time, honestly don’t remember how I got started. For years, I was kind of nervous to comment though, because I am not a writer, and I always felt like my comments would never do justice to the post. I finally got over that fear! Plus, one of the benefits of this site, the comments are amazing-and I want to second how much I enjoy Rae’s comments!

          • sheila says:

            Maureen – I am very glad you got over your fear of commenting! Your participation here is invaluable too – you always add something great to the discussion.

            Happy new year!!

  3. mutecypher says:

    I finished “The Secret History” about a week ago, based on your recommendation. Very Good. I think the narrator is at least as manipulative as Henry, and that Julian must have had a sixth sense for finding students without moral cores.

    I’m wowed that you finished “The Anatomy of Melancholy.” That’s one I think will take me another decade or so to get through.

    Have you read any Iain M. Banks? His Culture novels are just amazing works of imagination (if you want to get out of the genocide/regicide/insecticide corner).

    • sheila says:

      The Anatomy of Melancholy – yeah. The only way I could get through it was just realize it would take me forever and read a couple of pages a day. There are these small sub-sections in each section – and I’d read one of the “subs” a day. Slow and steady.

      He’s such an entertaining writer – even with the bleakness of the topic – it does go pretty quickly!

      In re: Secret History: Yes, the narrator was super unreliable. I got this feeling that he was as “off” as the others, morally – it’s just that we are inside his head and maybe don’t pick up on it early enough. Like, dude, these people are CREEPS, run for the hills. The twins were absolutely fascinating to me. They all were. Such a great evocation of life in a small liberal arts college, right?

      and yes: Julian basically recruited him, he could sense his need to belong, to get into that inner circle. It was his weakness.

      I have not read Iain Banks – where should I start??

      • mutecypher says:

        I would recommend “The Player of Games” since the main character is a citizen of The Culture. In many of the other novels, the main character is outside The Culture, so I think it’s good to begin with the perspective of someone on the inside. I haven’t read any of Bank’s non-scifi work, but “The Quarry” is in my to be read soon queue.

        I thought you read Helprin’s “In Sunlight and In Shadow” this year, or is it coming up?

      • mutecypher says:

        And I definitely wanted more about The Twins in Secret History, until I got it. Ugh.

  4. Dg says:

    So an impressive 86 books in 365 days. I’d say you’re rolling again after a couple of off years. Just so you know I strarted both the Tana French and Benjamin Black series based upon your previous recommendations and have loved them. So many great books so little time right? My problem(problem?) now is Stephen King. I had shied away from him for a long time and then I think I mentioned I listened to 11//22/63 on a long road trip and it was so good. Then I read Under the Dome. Then Hearts in Atlantis. Next will be The Shining because someone bought me the recently released sequel Dr. Sleep.
    Anyway thanks again for the recommendations.

    • sheila says:

      Dg – Yeah, Stephen King!! Have you read It? In my humble opinion, it is a great American novel. Everyone talks about The Stand being his masterpiece (well, that was, before 11/22/63 came out) but I think It is better. Both are great novels though.

  5. Dg says:

    There has been a feature I think in the NYT book review where they ask a current writer what’s a book that everyone seemed go love but you thought was over rated. Sort of the way you thought about the movie American Hustle. Or the way we both feel about Diana Krall. So what book or author would you put in that category ? Just for fun.

    • sheila says:

      Hmmm. Good question. I think maybe Don DeLillo. I don’t think he has nothing to offer – but I think he is treated as far more “important” than he really is – and that his “great book” – Underworld – has a ton of problems that everyone was ignoring. It seemed like that book was so over-praised to me. He strains for importance – for huge themes – whereas, with Stephen King, you rarely feel the strain. And nothing Don DeLillo has written even comes CLOSE to what King achieved in 11/22/63 – and I can feel DeLillo going for those same effects.

      He’s not a BAD writer – but he’s STRAINING to be important.


      • Dg says:

        I’m with you on DeLillo. I read The House of Sand and Fog (Andre Dubos)earlier this year just because it happened to be on my bookshelf and I ‘d heard good things about it. It was even an Oprah book of the month haha. Well written but three unlikeable main characters and it was easy to predict where the plot was headed early on.
        I was also with you on the third Tana French. A good portrait of a working class Dublin family in eighties but as far as the mystery went it was predictable as well. I thought Broken Harbor was a great bounce back though.

        • sheila says:

          Yeah, Broken Harbor was great! That abandoned housing complex was just so creepy and it’s also such an accurate depiction of what it is like all over Ireland at this time. Literally empty neighborhoods, with brand-new luxury homes falling to waste, because no one’s buying.

  6. Maureen says:

    There is nothing I love so much as an end of the year reading list! Thank you, Sheila-and Happy New Year!

    I wish there was a study done about people who can’t read when they are grieving-I know it sounds callous of me, but I do find this so compelling. I love the author Ann Hood, and when her young daughter died of a virulent form of strep, she could no longer read for pleasure nor write. Your comments in your posts of how you couldn’t read during a rough period-what happens in the brain to make that happen? Since reading has always been such an escape for me, when it all hits the fan this is the one thing I can do to get me out of my own head. I can’t tell you how badly I feel for readers who are unable to read-it is so unbelievably sad.

    I love your inclusion of Elinor Lipman in your list-I feel she is such an underrated writer. I have read all her novels-and she is just wonderful. How I wish this whole “chick lit” designation would just go away.

    One more thing (can you tell I have gotten over my fear of commenting?)-I am very excited to read Bring Up the Bodies-I had a problem reading Wolf Hall with the pronouns-but another blogger said this one is much more readable for her.

    • sheila says:

      Maureen – I wonder if there have been studies about not being able to read. It certainly blind-sided me and nobody had warned me that that might happen. I am just now starting to recover. The psychiatrist I talked to earlier this year said to me that after some kind of emotional trauma – a death, whatever – the brain in brain scans looks like it’s been in an accident, it looks like there has been a concussion. You can SEE the damage. Amazing. He said that that was probably why I could not read.

      I did now know that about Ann Hood. So sad! Did she get the reading for pleasure thing back?

      Bring Up the Bodies is thrilling! You can tell that Anne Boleyn is on her way out – and you wonder how Cromwell is gonna survive it all. Can’t wait for the next one!!

      and yes, Elinor Lipman. She’s just so good. I also love that she’s prolific! So there’s so much to read and still so much to look forward to from her. It’s not like Lorrie Moore where you have to wait a decade after each book.

      • Maureen says:

        Sheila, I had some angst about my comment, and I am so glad you didn’t feel I was being flip about this. What you said about the emotional trauma-that makes so much sense when you think of how grief affects people.

        I feel like Ann Hood did get the reading pleasure back-it has been several years, and she has written a novel, and edited a book of short stories. She found knitting incredibly therapeutic-it was something she could do when she couldn’t read nor write. I love her so much, and when I found out about her daughter, it was like a blow.

        I am one of those Tudor era maniacs, so I know how it all ends for Cromwell-but that doesn’t dim my enjoyment of these books!

        • sheila says:

          I am studiously avoiding Googling Cromwell – I can’t imagine it ends well for him, but DON’T TELL ME. :)

          Thanks for the good news about Ann Hood. I have a friend who had a similar thing with knitting and crocheting – found it extremely therapeutic and soothing. Mainly because she had actually created something that she could point to, and say “that exists”. She loved that part of it.

  7. ted says:

    THAT is a banner reading year! Glad you shared so much of it with us. Happy New Year, friend.

  8. Helena says:

    Jumping threads now, if not themes. Loved Wolf Hall and A Place of Greater Safety. Mantel is the master. (They’re making a TV series of WH. Would love to imagine each episode starting ‘Previously on Wolf Hall …’ and then a little montage.)

    If you get a moment to read Beyond Black by Mantel then I’d heartily recommend it. So funny (she makes me laugh out loud), very astute, melancholic, and as it revolves around bodily and spiritual possession, this might be an interesting complement to Supernatural ;-)

    • sheila says:

      Helena – Oooh Wolf Hall would make a perfect TV series, if done right!!

      I have not read Beyond Black – I will get right to that!! Especially with the Supernatural dovetail! :)

      So far the only books of hers I have read are WH, Bring up the Bodies and Place of Greater Safety. I was going to read her book about the giant O’Brien next.

  9. Helena says:

    She did, indeed. Also highly recommended – and in my mind at least, strongly connects to Beyond Black.

  10. Desirae says:

    Oh, I hope you write about that Acocella book here. I’ve been dying to get my hands on it but my search of local bookstores hasn’t turned up anything yet. I read Sybil Exposed this year and I highly recommend it. It’s a cracking read, and an amazing study of the ways people will overlook clear evidence of fraud if it conflicts with their beliefs, or stands in the way of their ambition.

    • sheila says:

      I really should read Sybil Exposed – I think you and I somehow have discussed this before? I’m having a memory of it …

      Acocella’s book is pretty slim – and I’m pretty sure it was brought out by a really small academic publisher. I bought it because she wrote it – and couldn’t believe that this dance writer had written a book about this topic I find so fascinating.

      And trigger-y, too. I feel like I could have been susceptible to all that shit if I had been in the wrong therapist’s hands – and that is a terrifying thought.

      Amazing. I will check out Sybil Exposed!

      Happy new year, Desirae!

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