Inspired by Hal—a friend, not the human-hating computer—I decided to try and remember all the books I read in 2013. I read about two books a week, excepting massive tomes that take a bit longer. (Gravity’s Rainbow, when I read it years ago, took me two months.) I’m always half-underwater with the NY Times, the New Yorker (books and movies first and always), the Chicago Reader, weekly comics (I still collect), graphic novels, and little bits of books here and there. The pattern for this past year was mostly American (visitors already know I’m making my way through all the former National Book Award winners) and mostly fiction (this is where and how I live). So here’s my annotated list. Enjoy.
The Man with the Golden Arm, Nelson Algren—Superb story of America’s losers, and boy are they losers, drug addicts, homeless, hustlers, gamblers, convicts, derelicts, drunks all at the end of America’s tether. Poetic and crushing and beautiful.
Collected Stories of William Faulkner—Never my favorite, but Faulkner’s stories shine.
From Here To Eternity, James Jones—Vicious, poorly written tale of soldiers in Hawaii pre-World War II. A heaping pile of excrement.
The Adventures of Auggie March, Saul Bellow—Meandering anti-novel of a person’s life; well written but goes nowhere.
A Fable, William Faulkner—A very bad Faulkner novel; his late period is nothing to write home about.
Ten North Frederick, O’Hara—Entertaining but misanthropic and in poor taste. O’Hara tracks the petty lives of a small town through the death of one of its “upstanding” citizens.
Field of Vision, Morris—An excellent story of tourists in Mexico. Starts out normal and turns surreal and strange.
The Wapshot Chronicle, John Cheever—I wish I had devoted a month to re-reading it instead of just skimming it for a second time. Cheever’s saga of a not so rich New England family through their sexual misadventures. A desert-island novel.
A great story collection by a master.
The Magic Barrel, Bernard Malamud—All men are Jews in Malamud’s stunning collection of stories that veer from horrifying to heartbreaking. One of the great American writers.
Goodbye, Columbus, Philip Roth—Roth’s first, and one of his finest, books. A young man and a young woman sabotage their first love, each in a different way for different reasons.
The Waters of Chronos, Conrad Ricther—Thin conceit about a man traveling through time to see his grandparents and parents in a small mill town in the northeast. A thin parable that feels like part of a series, and a novel swiftly moving to total oblivion. In twenty years Richter will be out of print and forgotten.
The Moviegoer, Walker Percy—Ennui in New Orleans. A passive narrator ruminates on things and goes to very few movies. Not a bad novel by any means but no great shakes either. Not sure what all the hooplah is about. Goodbye, Mr. Percy.
Morte d’Urban, J.F. Powers—Droll, at times very funny, story of a priest who has aspirations to greatness. Sent to a hamlet parish beneath a provincial headmaster he struggles to maintain his urbane identity. A very good novel for 150 pages, then it all sort of falls apart and amounts to nothing.
The Eighth Day, Thornton Wilder—Superb, wonderful novel about a family in ruins over a murder their father did not commit. Described as Little Women as conceived by Dostoyevsky. Big-hearted yet cruel; I loved it.
The Green Ripper, John McDonald—McDonald takes his detective and turns him dark and moody with murder, betrayal in south Florida. Very good genre writing.
Jem, Frederick Pohl—A very strange science fiction tale of different trans-national interests bringing their geopolitical madness to a new planet, infecting the different races their with our thanatos syndrome. Strangely written, good at times, terrible at others.
Rabbit Is Rich, John Updike—Updike’s third novel about Rabbit Angstrom, as he thrives in the late 70s American economy as a car salesman; his sexual appetites have diminished, and he’s attained something akin to wisdom. Feels like Updike wants to rehabilitate Updike’s terrifying egocentricity, and he almost succeeds.
Licks of Love, John Updike—A very fine collection of short stories. Updike wrote too much but he was a rare talent. The final novella is very fine indeed, managing to transfer much of Rabbit’s Angstrom’s problems to his insecure and troubled close-to-middle-age son.
The Autobiography of Ms. Jane Pittman, Ernest Gaines—Big-hearted, honest, earnest, funny, touching, devastating. Gaines’s fake autobiography of a child freed from slavery at the end of the Civil War follows her through almost the entire 20th century. Ambitious and great.
Await Your Reply, Dan Chaon—Perhaps my favorite novel from last year, elegant and creepy, a literary thriller about identity written with supreme style.
Stay Awake: Stories, Dan Chaon—Uneven, but the good stories pack a wallop.
Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolaño—I re-read this on a whim, was pulled back into one of the great works of contemporary literature. Poetry plus crime plus Mexico plus drugs plus sex plus more poetry equals Bolaño. One of my heroes.
Nazi Literature in Americas, Roberto Bolaño—One of the great re-reading experiences, richer, more intriguing, more beguiling the second time around. Led me back to Distant Star, which is the last chapter of this novel expanded into its own book.
Distant Star, Roberto Bolaño—Pitch perfect novella about Chile before and after Pinochet, with a murderous poet who writes poems in the sky. Unbelievably good and deeply unsettling.
The Insufferable Gaucho, Roberto Bolaño—A very fine collection of short stories, with the title story somewhere in my all-time favorites. I re-read this after Detectives.
Last Evenings on Earth, Roberto Bolaño—So fucking good. I dip into this every year.
The Great Leader, Jim Harrison—A very fine, lusty, bawdy, earthy novel from one or our great wild men of letters. A middle-aged ex-cop hunts for a cult leader by way of booze, long walks, ruminations on history, and plenty of butts. I absolutely loved it.
A Woman Lit Only by Fireflies, Jim Harrison—Three novellas by Harrison, and each is quite fine, but Brown Dog is wonderful.
The Good Lord Bird, James McBride—Cross-dressing pre-Civil War picaresque involving a freed slave who accidentally joins up with John Brown. A homage to Little Big Man.
The Emperor’s Tomb, Joseph Roth—The Radetsky March is one of the great novels of the 20th century; this is Roth’s final statement on the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and it follows a group of aging dandies as they drink, woo, talk, all in the decadent twilight of the dying empire. Moody, small and unforgettable.
The Day of the Triffids, John Wyndham—Giant man-eating plants stalk remaining Londoners through a post-apocalyptic England after most of humanity’s gone blind. A bit better than it sounds.
Prose beautiful and sharp like cut glass.
Nightmare Town, Dashiell Hammett—One of the kings of American crime writing, Hammett here delivers hard-boiled stories in his inimitable staccato fashion.
Southern Cross the Dog, Bill Chang—Big build up, big disappointment. Various southern types—huckster preachers, hard-living bluesmen—collide in this pastiche southern gothic that somehow made the cover of the New York Times. Not bad but terribly overrated.
The Sojourn, Andrew Krivak—Snipers in World War I somewhere on the eastern front; not bad at all but hardly memorable.
You Can Call Me Al, Ring Lardner—Lardner’s epistolary novella about an under-educated palooka who hits the big leagues but can’t quite keep it together. A light but ripping good read.
Little Big Man, Thomas Berger—Epic, fantastic revisionist western following a white boy who ping pongs back and forth between white and Amerindian civilizations, finding violence and horror in both. An American classic.
The Wettest County in the World, Matt Bondurant—The semi-true story of Bonderant’s family of moonshiners during prohibition, and their squabbles with the law and other criminals. Not half as good as it sounds, and strangely formless.
City of Bohane, Kevin Barry—Highly stylized science fiction bowery boy cum western following rival gangs and lost loves amidst an ultra-violent Ireland. A good novel that focuses just a touch too much on slang and not enough on the story.
Wonderful revisionist western.
The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt—Simply fantastic. Two gunslinging brothers are hired to assassinate a gold prospector who has invented a new way to dig for gold. Wonderful, spare, funny, thrilling, and profoundly moving western written with discipline and aplomb. There’s more than a touch of True Grit here, which is high praise indeed.
Satantango, Lazlo Krasznahorkal—Societal breakdown amidst rain and ruins in an isolated Hungarian town; I wanted so badly to love this, but I did not.
Middle Passage, Charles Johnson—Superior maritime adventure about a New Orleans black hustler who is tricked onto sailing aboard a slaveship. Elements of fantasy and science fiction and nautical adventure handled with wit and style. I loved this.
An Empire of Their Own, Neal Gabler—Gabler’s history of the first studio heads. His thesis is simple: their Jewishness defined the movie studios, and we still live with the values and points of view of those original moviemakers. A fantastic history of the early movies.
Scenes for a Revolution, Mark Harris—The 1967 Oscar race, in Harris’s hands, becomes the proving ground between the old Hollywood (Dr. Doolittle) and the new (Bonnie and Clyde); Excellent film history. l I loved this book, save for Harris’s dismissal of In Cold Blood and Cool Hand Luke.
The Great Movies I and II, Roger Ebert—Ebert’s major contribution to the world of film is his Great Movies books; they are fabulous, fun to read and filled with wisdom; he wrote best about movies he loved.
My Life, Roger Ebert—Ebert’s brisk, funny, pithy, warm and wise autobiography details the newsrooms of the sixties and his run-ins with writers, directors and stars.
The Scenes that Mattered, Daivd Thomsen—Thomsen’s first dud, a movie book with great photographs but thin writing which Thomsen was never guilty of, until now.
The Big Screen, David Thomsen—Thomsen’s excellent history of movies, which begins as a discursive study of screens but devolves into Thomsen ruminating on the movies he loves and knows so well. A great book.
Cassada, James Salter—Salter is a careful, patient writer and a superb craftsman. Cassasda follows a young pilot as he makes his way through pilot school. Not as good as The Hunters, but still worth reading.
All That Is, James Salter—An entire life passes through these pages, the sex and love and drinks and food and books and fighting and children and heartbreak and old age decline. Salter’s most ambitious book and a hell of a read.
Pastoralia, George Saunders—Saunders is the great short story writer of our new century, wise, sardonic, brutal, funny, big-hearted and unsentimental; he gets us, how and where we live, what our internal lives are like in this era of corporate-speak and digital self-replication. The title story is my favorite of all of Saunders’s work.
Tenth of December, George Saunders—Saunders had a big year with me, and this collection is stunning; “Semplica Girl Diaries” is perhaps his greatest story, and with a talent as impressive as Saunders, that’s saying a lot. Just a fabulous book.
The Twenty-Year Death, Ariel Winter—Winter’s first novel is an astonishing narrative trick, three sections each aping the voice of a different crime writer. The first section mimics Georges Simenon, the second channels Raymond Chandler, and the third copies Jim Thompson. The chapters aren’t gimmicky or thin, and each captures the distinctive voice of a great writer; I loved it.
The Psycopath Test, Jon Ronson—Ronson is one of my favorite journalists, and Them is one of my favorite non-fiction books. Here he explores the fringe of the medical world, exploring the notion and reality of psychopaths, and if there’s a way to identify and perhaps help them. A very fine book.
Augustus, John Williams—Williams is one of my favorite lesser known writers and I reread his epistolary novel of ancient Rome on a lark. I adore it; Williams manages to imbue small things with a thrilling gravity, and he captures the otherworldly dignity, and cruelty, of Augustus.
The Ides of March, Thornton Wilder—After The Eighth Day, I read two other Wilder novels and “Our Town.” Ides is his epistolary novel of ancient Rome; it is a very fine piece of writing and historicity, but it disappears from your mind as you are reading it.
The Bridge at San Luis Ray, Thornton Wilder—Wilder’s taut, lean novella of a monk investigating the lives of five people who died on a collapsing bridge; the monk is looking for evidence of God’s purpose, what he finds is . . . I won’t give it away.
Provinces of Night, William Gay —The best novel by a fantastic writer who appeared on the scene as an old man and then pushed out a few more books before dying. Night—I might have read it last year, the books at the beginning of the year sort of jumble together—is the story of a dissolute, violent family of southerners. Their story is dour, gothic, disturbing and borderline grotesque. But Gay accomplishes a great coup in this novel, adding into it a bad luck klutz with a decent heart who drives much of the plot and provides all the levity. A superb, absolutely wonderful novel.
Artfully pornographic literature from Brazil.
House of the fortunate Buddhas, Joao Riberio—Brazilian novelist Riberio takes a crack at the perverse of the seven deadly sins in this diabolical little novel about lust, told in a pornographic monologue by an aging libertine near the end of her sexual adventures.
Tarzan, Edgar Rice Burroughs—Had to try it. The prose is overcooked, the characters thin, the whole endeavor is unsubtle and blunt. Having said that, there’s something remarkable about the story of a little boy raised by apes.
The Lost Weekend, Charles Jackson—Astonishing. The story of a alcoholic writer on a five-day bender, and the horrifying degradation—both internal and external—his binging brings. A nearly forgotten classic, and a breathtaking thriller of the deranged mind.
The Gallery, John Hope Burns—A panoramic view of Naples at the end of World War II, this is a fascinating, well-written novel bursting with misanthropy and (self) disgust. Burns was such a vapid and disagreeable man he burned every bridge in his personal and professional lives. A bitter pill.
Ready Player One, Ernest Cline—A blast of nostalgic nerdiness that had me rooting around online for the old arcade classics. The creator of the program everyone plays online, instead of living their lives in the burned out, corporate-controlled world of the present, dies. He leaves clues to his inheritance, and control of the game, in eighties’ movies, games and music. A near-perfect genre read.
Secret Lives of Great Filmmakers, Robert Schnakenberg—A trifle, but lots of fun to read. Schnakenberg details the shortcomings, neuroses, and infidelities of the great filmmakers. A gossipy tell-all series of anecdotes.
Life in Year One: What the World Was Like in First-Century Palestine, Scott Korb—A very fine history of Palestine when Jesus was supposedly born. Korb is a good writer; he has a way of unpacking complex ideas with gentle humor.
Like being drunk and hungover at the same time.
Knockemstiff, Donald Ray Pollock—A two-fisted, cracked out riff on Winesberg, Ohio, and boy is it a great read. Pollock is a major talent, bent towards the gothic and the grotesque. He writes like a man possessed, and his big shortcoming is his lack of subtlety. Taken as a whole, the book is a grim tour of a depraved world.
Fatale, Jean-Patrick Machette—A tidy little murder novel where the fatale sweeps all the characters into the trashbin; Machette uses the noir devices to drive home his points about the perils of unchecked capitalism. Interesting, but nothing to revisit.
Butcher Boy, Patrick McCabe—An Irish outsider narrates this tale all out of order, and he might be a murderer, or just a criminal, or perhaps something worse. I wanted to love it, but I didn’t.
The Ginger Man, J.P. Donleavy—Holy shit, I loved it. The story of a drunken rake in Ireland who abandons his child, beats up his girlfriend, and steals from his friends. Written in astonishing prose, and funny as hell. Squalid, tormented, yet also full of love. One of the great novels of the 20th century (I know I say this a lot).
Song of the Viking: Snorri and the Making of the Norse Myths, Nancy Marie Brown—Brown investigates the life of Snorri, the Icelandic poet who recorded—and perhaps created—almost everything we know of the Norse myths. I’m glad I read it, but I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone who wasn’t already interested in the people and the region.
Far Side of the Dollar, Ross McDonald—If Chandler inherited the crown from Hammett, McDonald is the successor of Chandler. He writes in Chandler’s vein, funny, descriptive, punchy. He plots in a similar way too; the twists come loose and fast.
The Duel, Anton Chekhov—Amazing and unforgettable. Chekhov is a lucid, lean, elegant writer and here he details a growing feud between a hedonist and a leftist on the outskirts of the Russian Empire. Insults boil over into a duel.
The Executioner’s Song, Norman Mailer—Over a thousand pages following a murderer before, during and after his crimes. The first 200 pages are unparalleled in their intensity and skill; near the end I wanted to tear my hair out. But I’m glad I read it. It’s a monumental piece of literature.
Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Reader, Charles Portis—Delightful. Portis is one of my favorite authors, and this is a real treat; a collection of his short stories, travel pieces and a play. The stories are good; the play is funny; but the travel essays are superb. If you haven’t read Portis, go out and read Norwood or Masters of Atlantis immediately.
The Skies Belong to Us: Love and Terror in the Golden Age of Hijacking, Brendan Koerner—A fascinating history of hijacking in the late 1960s, focusing on an unlikely biracial couple who steal a plane and end up holed up in Algeria with Eldridge Cleaver and other Black Panthers.
The Unwinding, George Packer—Inspired by the U.S.A. Trilogy—one of the great novels of the 20th century—Packer follows three real people through the ups and downs of three decades in American life. The portraits form a tapestry of a great unwinding, of how downsizing, political corruption and gridlock, and a loss of a national narrative are unraveling the fabric of the U.S. Sobering, yes, but also thrilling in a way.