(I had another good reading year, but don’t be overwhelmed by this list. There’s a lot of graphic novels. I was drawn to literary biographies this year, and read a number of books for research purposes. The best books of the year, for me, were probably The Orphanmaster’s Son, My Brilliant Friend, My Friend Dahmer and Station Eleven. This is almost a complete record of my reading year; I also read a handful of monthly comics; movie reviews and the book sections in The New Yorker and the New York Times; The Chicago Reader every week; and an ever-dwindling set of blogs and websites. Of all of these, the best thing I read this year was Jill Lepore’s epilogue to Joe Gould’s Secret, where she attempts to track down the oral history of Joe Gould—the great Joseph Mitchell’s last biographical subject—and instead falls into a series of interlocking, and sinister, mysteries, missteps, and mis-directions. Astonishing.)
Fante—Dan Fante’s memoir of his father, the great writer (whose self-loathing failure is essential to his novels) John Fante, is really a memoir about Dan’s alcoholism, recklessness and years of hard living. A good book, but offers way too little about the elder Fante.
The United States of Paranoia—Jesse Walter’s overview of American paranoiac conspiracies attempts to classify and categorize the major strands of conspiratorial belief. He makes his arguments well; when you finish, you’ll believe that the notion of conspiracies is not unique to the lunatic fringe, but rather marbled into the very center of our body politic. Lots of good anecdotes, too.
The Good Soldiers—David Finkel’s story of the Surge—of the soldiers deployed in Iraq, who fought, killed, and died for a war that none of them really understood (who does?)—is an astonishing feat of reporting, writing and empathy. Heart-breaking, thrilling, harrowing.
Beware of Pity—Stefan Zweig’s only novel, a psychological study of moral weakness and how it is pity, the attempt at decency, at generosity, at charity, that causes much of the pain and hardship in human lives.
Stones for Ibarra—Harriet Doer’s first novel, published when she was in her seventies, about two Americans attempting to run a mine in Mexico. Elegant and subtle, well-crafted.
Dreams from R’Lyeh—Lin Carter’s cycle of sonnets, based on a character in the Lovecraftian mythos. Slight and short, but a bit better than it sounds. Fun? Yes, fun.
Westerns—Richard Dankleff’s collection of poems all fit in the theme of revisionist westerns. I thought his was going to be great, but it wasn’t. And it began my shift away from browsing the poetry section of the library.
The Grand Design—John Dos Passos’s third Washington novel, and perhaps the one that gets him most in trouble. He has dozens of characters in the backdrop of the waning New Deal and the beginning of militarization before the U.S. entry into World War II, and his handling of leftists is troubling. Still, there are some dynamite scenes.
The Republic of the Imagination—A personal history of Nafisi, a very fine reader, and her journey to America. She reads America through three books, Babbitt, Huckleberry Finn, and The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, with Go Tell It On the Mountain as an epigraph. Elegant and excellent, literary criticism as memoir as cultural critique.
Plainsong—Morris Wright’s lyrical study of Nebraska farm women and the hard lives they lead. A very fine novel, if a bit undramatic, considering the subject matter. And what are feel-good stories for? The effects don’t last. The euphoria is false. Only drudgery remains. Hard-bitten stories give us reasons to value our own, often shitty, lives.
Mad as Hell—My second Paddy Chayevsky biography in two years, and a very fine piece of inside the media reportage. Chayevsky was such a powerful, talented, self-sabotaging writer, it’s a blast to read about him.
The True History of the End of the World—Short essays about different belief systems and their view of the apocalypse. Diverting but only just.
Hellblazer—Garth Ennis’s run on the quintessential British comic was excellent, focusing on his shiftless drinking and haunted enduring, despite a myriad of magical foes after him.
Invisibles, vols. 1 and 2—Best comic book series of the 90s. I try to re-read it every few years. It holds up.
The Alienist—Nope, couldn’t do it. I made it about forty pages into this well-reviewed historical thriller, but it left me cold.
Armageddon in Retrospect—A collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s shorter pieces, as well as a speech, a letter, all revolving around his anti-war beliefs, and the experiences that shaped them. Dynamite.
Songs of Unreason—Jim Harrison’s astonishing book of poetry, detailing in ravishing language the same obsessions that drive his fiction: sex, booze, good food, horses, rivers, aging.
The Whites—Richard Price delivers a crime novel stripped of the larger social and cultural malaise that characterizes so much of Lush Life and Samaritan, instead giving us a straight-up piece of all-pistons genre writing. He’s better than this, but it’s still riveting stuff, following a group of cops, each of whom has a “white,” a murderer that got away, and an unseen presence that seems to be stalking them.
Where the Dead Voices Gather—Nick Tosches pursues a minstrel singer born in 1873, ruminating in his inimitable style on race, music, culture, sex, and, well, black-face minstrelsy. I liked it but didn’t love it. The Tosches’ train passed me by.
Cast a Cold Eye—Mary McCarthy’s urbane stories of men and women and the spaces in-between. She’s a fine writer.
Thousands of Broadways—Robert Pinsky’s poetic rumination on small towns across various media, and a seriously undercooked piece of writing in book-length form.
White Girls—Hilton Als’s critique of tortured souls vacillating on the razor’s edge of American culture—Richard Pryor, Eminem, Michael Jackson, Flannery O’Connor—is a very fine piece of writing and criticism, if a bit messy near the end. Got a ton of press, this book.
The Hannah Arendt Reader—Research, but a very fine book. Her Eichmann in Jerusalem remains an astonishing and powerful (and acerbic, good God) piece of writing.
I, Noah—Aronofksy’s screenplay turned into a comic and the artwork is beautiful. The story sounds cheesy, but somehow works, re-casting Noah as an oddball mage in a world gone mad. And there’s three-armed giants.
Marx—Corinne Maier’s witty biography of Marx filters through superb line dawings from Anne Simone; I loved this book.
The Gnostics—A work of scholarship that turns weird and prosletyzing, but it has some very fine middle sections about the early Christian church and the heretical strands of Gnostic thought.
The Masks of God: Primitive Mythology—Joseph Campbell’s idiosyncratic tour of various primitive mythological isomorphs, written in his intriguing style.
A Short History of Myth—A must-read, Karen Armstrong’s overview of the first belief systems. Wonderful reading.
World’s Fair—E.L. Doctorow’s coming of age novel is professional, well written, but a bit safe.
The Hero with a Thousand Faces—The book that made Joseph Campbell, and a great primer in the hidden architecture of stories. Campbell is an idiosyncratic writer, bouncing from one culture to another.
The River Swimmer—Two novellas from Jim Harrison, a middle-aged artist returns to Michigan to watch his ailing mother, and a teenager addicted to swimming in rivers finds water babies. Not Harrison’s best, but still rich, lush, funny, insightful.
The Golden Ass—Apuleius was an ancient Roman writer and this book, a kind of proto-novel, is the only book to survive in its entirety. Funny and a bit strange, with diffident pacing.
Sugar Skulls—The final installment to Charles Burns’s superb, and supremely creepy, story of a fucked up loser wandering in a nightmarish dreamscape of blood and other human effluvia. Ties up loose ends and will blister your eyeballs. Unexpectedly, it’s also a touching story.
Brother Lono—The creative team behind the overrated 100 Bullets returns to tell the story of the single Minuteman who escapes. And it is ghastly indeed. Feuding Mexican overlords, Catholicism, extreme violence. Azarello and Risso are not great writers or storytellers, but with their heads in the gutter they know how to keep the reader’s attention.
Victory over Japan—Ellen Gilchrist’s short stories, and they are absolute dynamite. Her characters feel both lived in and real, as well as wild and absurd. Her storytelling abilities are immense.
Counter-narratives—John Keen’s short stories come wrapped in blurbs galore, but they left me flat. They felt calculated, almost cutesy with their conceits. And
Invisibles, vol. 3—The end of the Invisibles, the wildest and most moving of the series.
A Fan’s Notes—Exley’s smashing autobiographical novel about a hard-drinking loser obsessed with football. One of the best of its kind.
The Timeless Myths—Not a book at all, but more a series of clever, well-written essays, mostly on artists and how they relate to the mythosphere.
Myths To Live By—Joseph Campbell’s lectures, wise, knowing, intriguing, and perhaps the best place to enter the eccentric world of Campbell’s comparative religion.
Great Book of Horrible Things—A very fine overview of historical atrocities by a statistician.
Coronado—Short stories from crime writer Dennis Lehane. They’re fine, but they two-act play at the end of the book is terrific. (I picked this up after watching The Drop, a very fine crime film he scripted.)
A Fire in the Mind: The Life of Joseph Campbell—An epic, detailed biography of Joseph Campbell, well-researched but even-handed and a bit worshipful.
Soil—Killer southern novel a la William Gay, about a cracked up farmer attempting to turn a discovered dead body into soil. Why would he do this? Go and read it.
Signs Preceding the End of the World—Yuri Herrera, called Mexico’s greatest young novelist, writes a lean, idiosyncratic border crossing novel. Good but not great.
My Friend, Dahmer—A marvelous, unnerving gem of a comic, equal parts sad and chilling, of a man remembering his odd friendship with a bizarre loner at his school. One of my favorite books I read this year.
Literature Lost: Social Agendas and the Corruption of the Humanities—John Ellis provides a sharp, incisive critique of the New Criticism, while embracing the grand tradition of Renaissance secular humanism. Hard-nosed criticism.
Hip Hop Family Tree, vol. 2—Ed Piskor continues his comic book history of early hip hop, and it is a wild ride. His thesis is simple: hip hop started in the Bronx, loosely affiliated with street gangs, and then grew out of these initial relationships in an observable manner. Great fun, with great art.
The Ivory Grin—Ross McDonald, baby. Solid, witty, fast and lean, another Lew Archer mystery with murder and molls.
Silver Screen Fiend—Patton Oswalt’s very fine, and inspiring, memoir of a brief period in his life when he was addicted to movies. I wish he had given more of his insights into the movies themselves; he’s a witty and refined critic.
Heidegger’s Children—Research, but a pretty intriguing exploration of the ideas of Hannah Arendt, Hans Jonas, Karl Lowith, and Herbert Marcuse.
Invisible Man—I’ve been trying, and failing, to read Ralph Ellison’s epic novel for twenty years. Finally made it. Excellent and prescient.
On the Craft of Poetry—An elegant distillation of so many of Borges’s major themes, this lecture in print form is marvelous. It’s a very fine primer for Borges’s stories.
“The Open Boat”—Stephen Crane’s bleak short story about shipwreck survivors facing indifferent nature and the limitations of their own survival machinery.
Wittgenstein’s Nephew—Thomas Bernhard’s slim, half-memoir novel is intriguing, if a minor effort. Two men in a hospital renew their friendship, but the form of the novel is a wide-ranging riff on Wittgenstein’s family.
Roth Unbound—Claudia Pierpont gives Roth’s biography with a focus on his novels as a way of reading his life. An intriguing book, if a bit laudatory.
The Landbreakers—John Ehle’s re-discovered novel of the frontier is a beautiful piece of writing, following three families in a valley right at the beginning of the United States.
The Big Seven—Jim Harrison’s sequel to The Great Leader has his retired detective run afoul a nasty family of rifle-toting neighbors. Plus lots of sex and fishing and butt reverie.
In Search of Small Gods—Harrison’s astonishing poetry, revolving around fishing, totems, dogs, sex, drinking and false memories is a wonderful book for non-poetry fans. For fans of poetry, it’s an even richer feast. He does it all.
Raymond Chandler: A Biography—A very fine piece of biographical writing, which manages to capture Chandler’s essence while also dealing with the many virtues, and faults, of his Marlowe detective novels.
A Game of Swallows—A graphic novel similar in tone and look to Persepolis. Pretty good.
Avengers: Infinite Avengers—Intriguing time travel take on the Avengers, with Captain America and the infinity gems, all of it better written—Hickman and Remender are good writers—than expected, but also convoluted.
Avengers Academy: Permanent Record—Better than average teenage superheroes in the marvel universe. Not sure why I read this.
Iron Man: Stark Wars—A nostalgic journey for me, following late 80s/early 90s Tony Stark and his vengeance against the supervillains who stole his technology.
Hawkeye: L.A. Woman—The comic shifts to Hawkeye’s nearly hopeless female protégé as she navigates hoodlums and crime syndicates in Los Angeles. Pretty damn good.
Light Years—James Salter’s elegiac, haunting and very beautiful novel about a marriage, crumbling, re-constituting, and its ups and downs is a very fine, if ultimately bleak and grim.
Live by Night—Denis Lehane’s epic crime novel follows an Irish hoodlum, the son of a police commissioner, as he moves his way up a criminal empire in Tampa during the 1920s. Very good stuff. (I later read the other two books in this trilogy.)
Chester Himes: A Life—Himes’s life is the stuff of great literature; he was a thief, carjacker and convicted felon who wrote literary stories from jail. Once out, he turned towards crime novels. James Sallis, himself a pretty nifty crime writer, tells the tale. Oddly, the book is just okay.
Borges: A Life—Borges is one of the most important writers of the 20th century, yet he was a shy, withdrawn, mercurial man. (These descriptors apply to his fiction, too.) Author Woodall attempts an old-school biography with Borges, and it mostly works. Yet I kept hoping he would critically discuss Borges’s tales.
You Remind Me of Me—Dan Chaon—both a fabulous writer and storyteller, which is rare—writes of ghostly characters on the margins of society, attempting to start over through radical re-invention. A haunting, very fine novel.
Thanos Imperative—Wow, Marvel has lost control of itself here. Convoluted, poorly conceived, accidentally parodic, derivative, and ultimately pointless, this is precisely the kind of storytelling that forced me into non-superhero comics as a teenager. (Luckily I have Daredevil to balance things out.) [I later read the Hickman run on Avengers and the lead up to Secret Wars and was blown away.]
The Warren Commission Report: A graphic Investigation—A comic version of the events leading up to JFK’s assassination, and the resulting investigation, and a pretty good book. Che was better (really excellent).
Kill Everything That Moves—An excellent, if heart-breaking, book of reportage on American military policy during the war in Vietnam. One that will blister your eyeballs. Should be mandatory reading.
The Razor’s Edge—Maugham’s Moveable Feast, less artful than Of Human Bondage, but still intriguing character study of American and British expatriates. Good, but perhaps not as good as its reputation. Maugham does Fitzgerald, only not as interesting as that sounds.
One More River To Cross: The Collected Works of John Beecher—Protest poet, and descendant of Harriet Beecher Stowe and Henry Ward Beecher, John Beecher’s poems hit at the core of the very issues of racism and poverty we’re dealing with today. Plus, he’s funny. Great.
Euphoria—Lily King’s spare, sharp novel of Margaret Mead and two rival lovers living among tribal peoples in New Guinea is sexy, lush and ultimately heart-breaking. A very fine novel.
Danse Macabre—Stephen King’s meditation on horror and why it works is a very fine—and weirdly important—book that came out some thirty years ago. I revisit it from time to time. King is a very cagey and careful reader/consumer, and he has exquisite theories as to why some stories succeed, while others fail. Also, he’s funny.
The Round House—Louise Erdrich’s masterful novel sits at the intersection of a thriller, a coming of age story, and a moving (and terrifying) deconstruction of a family. An American Indian woman is raped on a reservation, and her teenage son tries to solve the crime.
Colder—Oddly unsatisfying horror comic about a nightmare world where the insane go when they are having episodes, and a evil dandy who eats the sick.
St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves—Karen Russell’s story collection is lush, well-written fiction, lacking in the storytelling department.
The Bottom of the Harbor—When in doubt, go with Joseph Mitchell. A collection of his pieces concerning the harbors and wharfs around the Hudson. “Up in the old hotel” remains one of his finest pieces of writing.
Criminal: The Sinners—Ed Brubaker and Sean Philips best entry in their Boston Criminal series.
The Hair of Harold Roux—After a weak start, a fabulous novel—and recently re-discovered—of a selfish novelist coming to terms with his own misanthropy in an in-progress novel based on the writer’s school days.
Night of the Ripper—Robert Bloch’s take on Jack the Ripper. I wanted to read some semi-literate horror novels and started with this one. It’s fine; Bloch is a professional genre writer, and there’s little fat a more than a few intriguing scenes.
The Black Beetle—Francisco Francavilla, one of the premiere comic book artists, tries his hand at writing too with this homage to 1930s pulp radio heroes. It’s a mixed bag, fun to look at but in need of some writing work. (Lobster Johnson, a similar hero over in the Mignola universe, is much better.)
Fatima: The Blood Spinners—Comic legend Gilbert Hernandez returns to ghastly science fiction in his peculiar take on the zombie apocalypse. A drug is turning people into zombies. A cure has been found, but the self-appointed police out to eradicate the drug keep killing people close to a cure. A minor work, but kind of fun in a kooky way.
The Infinite Horizon—A stunning retelling of The Odyssey—perhaps the best adaptation I’ve come across—in comic book form, following a black ops soldier in Afghanistan making his way back to upstate New York. Excellent.
“The Goldbug”—Edgar Allen Poe’s bizarre little short story about buried treasure in post-colonial Virginia. Not very good.
“The Fall of the House of Usher”—I don’t know, I always return to it, and it always leaves me cold and a bit irritated. Not great, either.
Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (audio)—Stevenson’s seminal tale of a man and his dark side. Riveting, if familiar stuff.
The Consolations of Philosophy—De Botton’s wonderful introduction to six philosophers, and how their lives and works can help us through hard times. Excellent and elegant.
Nightfall—When in doubt, David Goodis. A man is wrongfully accused of murdering a bankrobber and stealing the loot. Only, he’s guilty of the crime. Sort of. A near-perfect crime novel without an inch of fat.
The Orphanmaster’s Son—So good I never wanted it to end. A North Korean soldier goes from kidnapper to something else in this epic novel of maintaining individuality in the face of oppression.
The Cuckoo’s Calling (audio)—J.K. Rowling’s detective procedural follows a war veteran and his new temp working to solve the apparent suicide of a young pop star. Very fine, if a bit schematic.
The Collected Stories of Eudora Welty—Understated, patient, humane but also well written stories about southerners of every stripe.
Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang—Pauline Kael’s best book, and for me one of the seminal works about movies. Funny, scathing, profound.
The Gospel Singer—Harry fucking Crews! A famous gospel singer returns to his hometown. One of his steady girls (a wretched sex addict) has been murdered, his family (disturbed farmers) want him to stay in town and a traveling troupe of circus freaks continue to haunt all of his revival appearances. Doomy, funny, and fucked up—Harry Crews’s first novel, and it’s a doozy.
On the Other Side of the Wind: The Making of Orson Welles’s Last Movie—A very strong introduction to Orson Welles and his methods, his legend, his self-propagating mystique, alongside his shortcomings and his bad luck.
The Third Policeman—Flann O’Brien’s short, strange, surreal little novel about a murderer who sees his victim a few months later, followed by all manner of cosmic hijinks. A word to the warning: Do not read any introduction or background material if you plan to read this; the spoilers in this case really do ruin a good book. (It happened to me.)
The Book of the Dun-cow—for the National Book Award winners series, and basically a children’s book with talking animals and that fable-magic feel. Not for me, but not terrible. (But it is a terrible title.)
Vermillion—The fabulous science fiction comic, written by intriguing author Lucius Shepard, that should have been a cult hit and run for years but only made it twelve issues. The entire universe has been changed into a single, endless city. One man remembers how things used to be, and the creatures responsible for it.
The Emperor—Kapuscinski’s oral history of the decline and fall of Haile Sellassie is more for people who already know the story of the Ethopian Emperor. I didn’t know the story, and felt a bit lost. Still love Kapuscinski though.
Nosferatu—Short story author Jim Shepard’s take on Murnau, and it seemed perfect for me, and I didn’t enjoy it, not at all.
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P.—A story we’ve seen so many times before, a self-centered writer in New York, a son of (some) privilege, grappling with relationships. Weirdly compelling, if also a bit dreary and predictable.
Life During Wartime—Lucius Shepard—author of comic series Vermillion—writes a science fiction novel of psychics traveling through huge swaths of central America, attempting to survive a forever war that no one seems to understand. Shepard is an astonishingly gifted writer when describing shanty towns, makeshift bridges, squalor as well as beauty. His storytelling powers are here still a bit shaky.
So Long, and See You Tomorrow—Laconic novel of memory and loss and heartbreak and betrayal. William Maxwell recreates a crime from his childhood, where infidelity between two married farmers leads to murder. An elegant paean to a lost time, that Maxwell artfully (and sneakily) implies might have never existed in the first place.
Voss—Australian novelist Patrick White tells a riveting story of a German explorer wandering through the newly discovered outback. Half Victorian-era comedy of manners, half Heart of Darkness adventure tale, White balances the chamber rooms and tea parties of high society with the jaw-dropping violence of the desert. An absolute stunner.
Deadly Class—Teenage assassins run amok in this new comic series by hit or miss Rick Remender. He hits it out of the park here.
Uri—Some 1970s biography of a man with supposedly psychic powers. Not sure how this got into my queue, I tried it and didn’t finish it. Nope. There’s a reason some books are forgotten.
Sinister Forces: The Nine—A terrible cover, but an intriguing—and probably dangerous—book. Levenda is a very fine writer, a very fine journalist, and a very disturbed human being. His premise is that European pagan culture is interwoven with early American societies, and that religious belief has shaped, altered, and at times dismembered American politics. The book is dangerous because Levenda’s agenda, similar to other conspiracy theorists, rests on a lot of conjecture that most writers can’t pull off. Levenda has plenty of skill and verve to spare, and thus makes his arguments alluring, to alluring.
Infinity—Jonathan Hickman’s epic, epoch-defining, cosmic re-arranging of the Marvel Universe has an ageless group of builders, who guide the evolution of life in the universe, attempting to destroy the earth. The Avengers, along with all the space races, band together to fight them. Meanwhile, Black Panther and Prince Namor are waging a war against each other and Thanos is invading earth while the Avengers are away. Complex, convoluted, yes, but also unforgettable. At least to nerds like me.
Old Filth—Jane Gardam, having an immense rediscovery in her dotage, wrote this novel of an aged barrister in England, flashing back and forth to times in his life. Truly superior stuff, thrilling, weirdly sinister, woven with immense skill. (I kept thinking, am I the only person on earth reading Infinity and Old Filth at the same time?)
The Hollow Land—Following up on Old Filth. A collection of stories about two boys from different backgrounds spending summers together in the country. Weirdly compelling.
The Age of Selfishness—Graphic novel following Ayn Rand’s life and thinking and then detailing how her ideas, through Greenspan, played a major role in the subprime mortgage crisis and subsequent economic meltdown. Excellent.
The Wars—Timothy Findley’s novel of the first World War, and it is brief, concise, horrifying, poetic and excellent. A Canadian officer ships off to the western front, where he finds a pointless existence of random violence to people and animals.
After Claude—Iris Owens very funny, raunchy little New York novel about a self-involved woman who is dumped by her French boyfriend, only she refuses to leave his apartment. At one point, it was banned.
Ghost Story—Ramsey Campbell, you’ve failed me again. A great set up: a shock jock radio host and a rising psychic star run afoul of each other. They have a past, and are interfering with each other’s present.
Fordlandia—Henry Ford attempted to build a utopian mixture of farming and industry in the middle of the Amazon. He failed. Part of Heart of Darkness, part history of industry, this intriguing book is very well written.
Soldiers of Salamis—I read this because Roberto Bolaño, one of my favorite authors, is one of the main characters. Kavier Cercas sets out to write a true novel, in the fashion of Capote and Mailer, and mostly succeeds. For Bolaño fans, it’s a major treat.
Any Given Day—Dennis Lehane returns to South Boston—as incubator of crime, cruelty, and sometimes redemption—only in the past, in the 1920s. He evokes the civil unrest and the nascent movement for workers to unionize in this very fine historical novel, only written in his signature lean style. Very fine, if a bit lengthy.
Year of Fear—Non-fiction about 1933, where gangsters and bank robbers began kidnapping wealthy scions, and J. Edgar Hoover used this crisis to beef up the F.B.I. I love this stuff, and this is a very fine introduction to the interlocking problems—the Depression, the Dust Bowl, the murder rate (close to a hundred thousand unsolved murders in 15 years!), bank robbers, organized crime, and widespread civil unrest—that beset the U.S.
Do What Thou Wilt: A life of Aleister Crowley—Lawrence Sutin’s biography of Philip K. Dick is one of the great biographies. Here he turns his immense skill and attentions to the Great Beast, the poet, occultist, novelist, mountaineer and mage. Crowley’s life is too full of events and high weirdness to believe, but Sutin delivers another very fine and entertaining biography. (The introduction, covering the alchemical tradition in Europe, is excellent.) Still, I couldn’t read it straight through. Had to break it into smaller doses.
Minor Characters: A Beat Memoir—Joyce Johnson’s stunning memoir of her life with the other Beat writers is an evocative, spare and beautiful piece of writing. Johnson situates herself, and other females, inside the aesthetic movement. Why did I never read this before?
.red doc—Anne Carson’s sequel to The Autobiography of Red—my favorite book from last year, a novel in verse—picks up with Hercules and Geryon and some of the others, now in different incarnations. It’s stirring writing, just wonderful and weird, but it’s not as good as Red. Of course, few books are.
Sherlock Holmes Was Wrong—An intriguing bit of detective criticism, where the reader attempts to uncover the truth in a novel, by looking at the credibility of the other characters. Here the author “proves” that Holmes gets it wrong in The Hound of the Baskervilles; the real murderer goes free.
Lightning Rods—Helen DeWitt’s funny, satirical, pornographic novel of business is a very fine piece of writing, even if it peters out a bit near the end. Reminiscent of Charles Portis, in places, which is very high praise.
Regeneration—Pat Barker’s first World War I novel follows Robert Graves, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owens and Robert Burns as they recuperate from wounds, both physical and psychic, while the war continues to turn men into meat into mud. A very fine and serious novel.
The Eye in the Door—Barker’s second novel is a major departure, and a much weaker novel, from the first. Here she follows some of the characters from the first novel, as they engage in subterfuge, surveillance and oppression over the issue of homosexuality and the pacifist movement. There’s something missing here, and I’m not sure what. Didn’t finish.
She-hulk: Law and Disorder—Beautiful art from Javier Pulido drives this funky, multicultural take on the cousin of Bruce Banner. Similar to Mark Waid’s Daredevil, this clever relaunch is excellent, until the artist changes.
Notable American Women—After being floored by Ben Marcus’s “Cold Little Birds,” I picked up this early novel. It’s . . . hard to describe, and a bit full of itself. Didn’t like it, didn’t finish it. Will try him again with The Flame Alphabet.
A Lesson Before Dying—Ernest Gaines’s very fine novel follows an African American teacher who has been guilt-tripped into tutoring a death row inmate, who is also a former pupil. Subtle and Superb.
Joyland—Stephen King’s coming of age novel is a very fine piece of fiction, if read the right way. (The ghost and the crime are the least important aspects of this novel.) A young man gets his heart broken and takes refuge in a summer job at a low-grade amusement park. The park is haunted.
My Brilliant Friend—Elena Ferrante’s magnificent novel of two friends coming of age in Naples struck me as gothic and even cosmic horror with a light smattering of social commentary. I loved it.
Portrait of a Killer: Jack the Ripper, Case Closed—Patricia Cornwell excavates the medical and police files around the White Chapel murders and solves, or so she claims, one of the mysteries of history. A good book, but I couldn’t stick with it.
The Rim of Morning—Two novels, actually, re-released by NRYB. Subtle, extremely disorienting horror from William Sloane, who wrote these two and then stopped writing. The first follows two men as they attempt to piece together why a third committed suicide. They bump against a menagerie of terrifying, cosmic implications.
Trumbo—A fantastic biography of Dalton Trumbo, an intriguing, funny, and acerbic man.
Station Eleven—Hot book of last year, and a very fine novel. A plague has eradicated most of mankind, and a traveling group of actors and musicians eke out a living in a traveling caravan. The flashbacks connect the characters from before the plague, in an intriguing, often exhilarating plots.
The Year of Reading Dangerously—A bullshit artist forgets the joy, pain, love and fear of reading great literature, so he sets out to read 50 great books for a year. Funny and wise and very, very good; author Andy Miller is a very fine companion.
Lookout, Cartridge—Eccentric novelist Joseph McElroy’s crime novel of Vietnam, at least that’s how the jacket copy situates it. I couldn’t make heads or tails of it, as the narrator is reliving various strands of memories that are happening simultaneously in his mind and on the page. I quit at the third chapter.
We Need To Talk About Kevin—Made it one-third of the way through, but will probably finish it. A mother writes her ex-husband letters about their psychopathic (and homicidal) son. Chilly, pitiless and very difficult to put down. (And, weirdly, very unsettling to read.)
Wolf in White Van—John Darnielle, lyricist extraordinaire of The Mountain Goats, writes his first novel, and it’s pretty fucking good. A disfigured young man makes a living with a mail-in Dungeons and Dragons type game. He narrates the ins and outs of his life through simple, direct and heartbreaking prose. Marked by a complete lack of irony.
Pale Fire—Nabokov’s opaque novel is beguiling, bewitching and difficult to describe. An academic has delivered an annotated version of his dead neighbor’s lengthy poem. Or has he? The novel requires concentration, but offers plenty in return. I loved it, but like many readers, was confounded by it.
Black Sun—Novelist of solitary men in nature extraordinaire, Edward Abbey, here with his first novel (yet published in the middle of his career), and it’s a doozie. A man tasked with watching fires in an immense forest has a brief love affair with a young woman. Simple, but profound, with gorgeous writing and superior dialogue.
Henry Miller by Brassai—A personal account of Henry Miller’s Paris years, by the famous photographer. Miller becomes more intriguing to me as I get older, and here he emerges as kinder, yet wilder. A good book for fans.
Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx Is Burning—Most likely the last book I’ll read in 2015. And it’s a good one. The author revisits 1977 in New York, with the Yankees struggling, the Son of Sam murders in full swing, terrifying gangs running amok, and all of it leading up to the blackout and crime spree.
Spirits—Bought this for a quarter. Richard Bausch’s short stories are haunting and masterful. Great stuff, if a strange and downer ending to my reading year.
Songs of a Dead Dreamer and Grimscribe—Thomas Ligotti, yowzers, is he bleak. Combining Lovecraft and Poe and Borges, Ligotti writes short horror that is astonishing when it works, and simply alienating and unsettling when it doesn’t. Unforgettable in its way.
Mystery Train—Greil Marcus, a fabulous critic, uses a number of artists (Sly Stone, Elvis Presley, Randy Newman, The Band, Robert Johnson) to express his belief that American art must grapple with the terror of America’s failures and the promise of America’s virtues at the same time. A great book. I was reading it on New Year’s Eve.