Thursday, December 31, 2015


I've been excited to post this ALL YEAR!: The complete list of every book I read in 2015, with brief commentary, plus my favorites at the end.

But first, some notes on the list and what is and isn't included:
  • I decided to try keeping track of all the books I read around March or April, which is why the books toward the beginning of the lists have sketchier notes; I wrote more extensive commentary for later books because I did it right after I read them. It's possible I forgot a couple of books from the beginning of the year. Books earlier in the two lists are probably not in the order I read them.
  • I only included books that I read in full, from beginning to end. I did read some (not a ton) poetry this year but generally skipped around and didn't finish the books, so those aren't included. I also start and abandon a lot of books; in 2016, I'm considering keeping a list of books that I abandon and why. The reasons are actually quite a bit more varied than just "I didn't like it." (I mentioned the possibility of doing this on Twitter and surprisingly got a lot of encouragement.) Maybe I'll also note articles (found online or in magazines) that I especially love; not sure, we'll see.
  • There were a few books that I originally had on this list, but through a bit of email/Twitter search sleuthing I was able to determine that I actually read them in late December of 2014. So I am excluding them from eligibility for my favorite reads of the year, but nonetheless, here are those books, all of which I really enjoyed:
    • Thunderstruck by Elizabeth McCracken - Just great. I rarely read short story collections in full, but read this front to back. I am famous for hating similes but this lady can write a dang simile. 
    • The Anthologist by Nicholson Baker - Funny, light, a one-afternoon read. Actually includes some good tips for writing poetry!
    • We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves by Karen Joy Fowler - Very good, one of those mainstream bestseller books that is completely successful as "literature" too (meaning, you can get sucked into the plotting without resenting the writing); my mother and John both read it immediately after me and loved it as well.
  • I also wanted to mention that John read two long short stories out loud to me on the drive through New Mexico last week: "Train Dreams" by Denis Johnson and "Bartleby, the Scrivener." The former is arguably a novella and would maybe count except I don't feel like I truly read it since I didn't look at any of the words on the page. IDK, feels like cheating. I loved both, though.
  • I really liked keeping this list and am going to keep doing it. It both encourages me to read more books and makes it very easy to respond when people ask me about what I've been reading. I can also see at a glance if what I'm reading slants too male (not a chance) or too white (yeah, probably).
OK. On to the list, starting with nonfiction:

1. How Not to Be Wrong by Jordan Ellenberg - I love this book! It's about math. The writing is terrific, I learned a lot, I sort of didn't want it to end.

2. 100 Essays I Don't Have Time to Write by Sarah Ruhl - Loved this too. Ruhl is a playwright. Lots of interesting thoughts about theater and art in general.

3. Dataclysm by Christian Rudder - This is the guy from OkCupid. Better than I thought it would be, has some really interesting data on race and gender. I recommend Jordan Ellenberg's review of it.

4. Selected Tweets by Mira Gonzalez - So good I didn't want it to end; luckily she's still tweeting.

5. The Unspeakable by Meghan Daum - Essays. I quite liked this, but the idea that she's writing about "unspeakable" controversial issues is oversold. I mean, there’s an essay about how she really likes dogs. Also one about Joni Mitchell. See what I mean?

6. Yonder by Siri Hustvedt - Essays. We are interested in many of the same things and I really like her writing, but she has a semi-anti-feminist bent that shows up in this book and bugs me. I know she recently wrote a popular feminist essay. Go figure.

7. No Man's Land by Eula Biss - Essays. Many on race/class. Very good. If you liked her recent piece in the NYT mag on "white guilt," you'll like this.

8. Being Mortal by Atul Gawande - A wise and useful book about end-of-life care (assisted living, nursing homes, multi-generational living, aggressive interventional therapies, hospice, etc.). I happened to finish this right before John's grandmother died, at 98. A few months later my own grandmother died, at 94. If you’re around my age, you probably have a grandparent that will die this book.

9. The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits - A diary-style memoir or collection of essays covering a few years. The entries are dated, sort of, but not arranged in order. I adored it. Neurotic and relentlessly self-examining. Contains many interesting thoughts on marriage, friendship, and female beauty.

10. I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son by Kent Russell - Essays. A total dude book, but I liked it anyway, quite a lot in fact. He alternates journalistic pieces on Weird Subcultures (Juggalos, Amish baseball players) and Singular Freaks (a guy who self-"vaccinates" himself against venomous snakes) with a long essay in parts about his dad and their relationship. More and more affecting as you go. He has a knack for descriptive image, like when he describes a snake's body and head as it leaps to bite like a rope trailing after a harpoon. Isn't that good?

11. Unmastered by Katherine Angel - A loose, or perhaps open, diaristic kind of long essay on the same subject Nothing Natural tackles in fiction (see below): the interactions and (supposed?) conflicts between desire and feminism.

12. The Kiss by Kathryn Harrison - Famously disturbing memoir about a writer's affair with her father in her early 20s; not as disturbing as I expected (hoped???) TBH, in that it's not depicted as a true "affair" (she's more under the spell of a manipulative narcissist).

13. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates - This is either a short book (~150 pages) or one long essay about what it means to be a black man (or, to a much lesser extent, a black woman) in America, framed as a letter to his son. You learn early on in the book that it was written (not just published) this year, and at first it seems kind of rambly and hastily edited, but about 50 pages in it starts to feel much more focused and therefore more powerful. Lots to think about, like the toll, specifically, on the body that a culture of fear takes; "the body" is the main theme here. Coates is an atheist, so he takes no comfort in an afterlife for the soul. The soul IS the body he says, and once you destroy someone's body he is gone.

14. How We Learn by Benedict Carey - Interesting pop-cog-sci book about what study and learning techniques are most effective for learning new disciplines or tasks (such as learning Spanish, memorizing poetry or lines, or improving your tennis serve) as well as solving problems and completing creative projects. The science here is really quite applicable to daily life. The major themes are basically: Distractions are good, take lots of breaks, don't think about the problem directly, play video games. Once you're motivated to complete a goal, you not only don't need to focus consciously on it all the time, your conscious mind actually gets in the way! It's better if some of the work happens "offline" when you don't realize you're thinking about it. To me, this is why, when I sit around trying to think of good lines of poetry, it comes out forced, but if I go on a walk and let my mind wander, brilliant lines just pop into my mind.

Some quotes: "Percolation is a matter of vigilance, of finding ways to tune the mind so that it collects a mix of external perceptions and internal thoughts that are relevant to the project at hand." "It suggests that we should start work on large projects as soon as possible and stop when we get stuck, with the confidence that we are initiating percolation, not quitting." "We spend a third of our life sleeping, which seem so maladaptive. Another way of looking at it is that unnecessary wakefulness is a bigger mistake."

15. The Odd Woman & the City by Vivian Gornick - Sweet little memoir about city life and friendship and human connection. Made me wish I had grown up in New York but then, what doesn't?

16. Garments Against Women by Anne Boyer - Prose pieces by a poet. For the most part not airy and lyrical but dense and theoretical. Illness as metaphor, capital as metaphor. Feels intense but resigned (like prison writing?). I feel that she's one of the most important working poets right now.

17. Blackout: Remembering the Things I Drank to Forget by Sarah Hepola - Addiction memoirs are the closest I come to “guilty pleasure” reading; it’s like reading about shameless debauchery feels a little shameless and debauched itself. The writing in this one is pretty good, but toward the end the realizations were laid on pretty thick. I got tired of all the blanket statements about what drinkers and ex-drinkers are like.

18. The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard - I saw this on a listicle where writers named “the book that changed their life” (no idea how I’d answer this question). Well, it didn’t change my life but it is very good. It’s billed as “autobiographical essays” which I thought was a weird distinction (why not personal essays?) but it’s more like a memoir in chapters, except the events aren’t sequential. It felt like reading fiction in that all the “action” is rendered in an interesting, forward-driving way and there is very little editorializing, the kinds of realizations and epiphanies that often litter up personal essays. My favorites were “The Fourth State of Matter” (especially relevant now that we have multiple mass shootings per day) and “The Family Hour.”

19. Intellectual Memoirs: New York 1936-1938 by Mary McCarthy - Can you tell I’ve been reading short books in December to pad my year-end count? I wanted to read about a writer in New York again, having enjoyed the Gornick memoir so much, however McCarthy comes off as incredibly status-conscious and a snob. She regularly disses women, including Dorothy Parker, for looking “dumpy.” The name-dropping is unremitting, it’s full of passages like this: “John and I had gone up to Rokeby, in the country, for Maddie Aldrich’s wedding to Christopher Rand, a Yale classics major and an Emmet on his mother’s side whom Maddie had met, hunting, on weekends. At the wedding, Maddie’s cousin Chanler Chapman (A Bad Boy at a Good School, son of John Jay Chapman and model, in due course, for Saul Bellow’s Henderson the Rain King) had spiked Mrs. Aldrich’s awful grape-juice 'libation' and got some of the ushers drunk.” Half the people she knows served as models for characters in modernist classics. It’s really something.

And now, fiction:

1. Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb - Beautiful. Wonderful. Full of fascinating ideas and good jokes. Highly, highly recommended. I stretched the reading of this out over a number of months; I'd keep putting it down, reading other things, and coming back to it, knowing it would continue to hold my interest. I wrote a little more about it here and here.

2. Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro - I think I read this after the McCracken, feeling uncharacteristically in the mood for short stories. I like Munro but I don't remember much about it, except for the extra-long, almost novella story at the end, about the mathematician Sofia Kovalevskaya, and the story that I wanted to re-read, which was originally in either Harper's or the New Yorker, about a woman remembering a friend from camp and the joint enemy they formed.

3. Lillian on Life by Alison Jean Lester - A very quick read, organized into short, essay-like chapters, but on the forgettable side.

4. How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti - This felt a bit like intellectual candy. I read it in a day or so; it's smart but undemanding. I wrote much more about it here.

5. Dept of Speculation by Jenny Offil - Meh. As far as fragmentary metafiction goes, I felt this one was a little overrated. It's not bad at all, but I had the distinct feeling that it could have been better if she'd worked on it longer. (Interesting tidbit -- J. Robert Lennon told me he read this book on his Kindle with the breaks between paragraphs removed, since he thought that was a formatting error. Seems like it would really change your experience of reading the book.)

6. The First Bad Man by Miranda July - Extremely funny and cute. The title is completely wrong for it. (I was expecting some kind of dark fable, ugh.) I felt like the book kept changing and subverting my expectations, but it didn’t feel like arbitrary nonsense, either. (Months later, I read an interesting interview with July in The Believer where she talks about why/how she works in very different artforms. It’s online.)

7. Dancing in the Dark by Janet Hobhouse - This was about straight and gay culture mixing at discos in the 80s. The prose took some getting used to, but all in all I liked it. Somewhat in the vein of Alan Hollinghurst. I believe this is one of the recommendations I received when looking for good “party fiction.”

8. Castle by J. Robert Lennon - Feels like a cross between Kafka and Stephen King. Has one strikingly essayistic chapter toward the end that I found quite moving and brilliant.

9. Here's to You, Rachel Robinson by Judy Blume - This was a waste of time. I got nostalgic about Judy Blume and tried to read a YA book from the 90s that I was too old for at the time. Guess what, I'm too old for it now, too, but I also think it sucks even by YA standards, meaning, I wouldn't have loved it at 13 either.

10. Pym by Mat Johnson - Very weird fantastical novel inspired by Poe. Very funny. I intend to read more by this dude.

11. Love Me Back by Merritt Tierce - I kept toying with abandoning this one, but pushed through. The protagonist has that Play It As It Lays zombie slut thing going on. I’m not into that in general, but this wasn't bad.

12. The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink - A little silly but quite funny; reminded me of a George Saunders story, but novel-length. Although I enjoyed it I don't feel especially compelled to read her second novel any time soon.

13. Nothing Natural by Jenny Diski - Interesting feminist novel about a woman who falls into an affair with a masochist. Constructed almost perfectly like a movie, I realized toward the end, and might even make a better movie than a book, in that Diski tends to let her protagonist think too much (or rather she shows us her thinking too much); it would be nice to just SEE/imagine this thinking. Jane Campion should do it. Has a fascinating ending.

14. Women by Chloe Caldwell - Read it on a plane to Seattle. I believe this is what Emily Keeler calls "reality fiction." Made me realize the novella is almost uniquely suited to the story of a love affair.

15. Find Me by Laura van den Berg - Really interesting to see Laura's work evolve into novel length (if you know her work, you'll recognize many of the same themes from her stories). I grew quite affectionate toward the protagonist (who, perhaps inevitably, I imagined as Laura....little more on this phenomenon here. Also, I interviewed her about the book here.).

16. Among the Ten Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont - Extremely readable family/"domestic" novel. Kind of in the vein of Nicole Krauss.

17. Familiar by J. Robert Lennon - Fascinating, creepy conceit: The protagonist (whose name is Elisa!!!) has either suddenly switched to a parallel universe where her son isn't dead, or she's had a psychopathic break. Like A Pale View of Hills, it's irresolvably ambiguous. Highly recommended.

18. Walks with Men by Ann Beattie - Another love affair novella. Had some nice moments but I wished for more of them.

19. The Dud Avocado by Elaine Dundy - Very like Jean Rhys (American in Paris behaves badly) but played as farce rather than tragedy. Extremely amusing but also cutting. I loved this bit: "I don't have the faintest idea why I do talk the way I do. I probably didn't do it in America. After all, I hardly ever read the funny papers as a child or anything like that. Maybe I just assumed it in Paris for whatever the opposite is of protective coloring: for war paint, I guess."

20. Paulina & Fran by Rachel B. Glaser - This starts off feeling like a YA novel and then gets weird (as in consciously not "realistic") at the end; it's obsessed with hair. I like unlikeable characters but I sometimes felt Glaser felt actual contempt for hers. By the end, you are rooting desperately for them and then are perversely denied satisfaction. (I talked about it with Zach Schomburg and we agreed it gave us reader’s blue balls.) Not really my thing (I read a short story of hers in Uncanny Valley once that I found more powerful), but there is some great writing in here. There's a bit about earplugs that I suspect I will remember for the rest of my life, every time I put in earplugs.

21. Sons and Other Flammable Objects by Porochista Khakpour - A 9/11 novel about Iranian Americans. This reminded me of the kind of big, ambitious, exuberant novels I used to read all the time in college -- flashes of Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie, Philip Roth. Lots of interrobangs, which I never stopped being slightly shocked by.

22. After the Circus by Patrick Modiano - Nobody had ever heard of this dude before he won the Nobel Prize, right? A nice, moody little noir/romance novella. (More on this here.)

23. The Door by Magda Szabo - Another Hungarian novel from NYRB, translated by the same guy who did Journey by Moonlight, which is why it caught my eye. A very sad (but not relentlessly sad) novel about the complex relationship between a busy writer and her housekeeper, which comes to a disturbing climax when the old woman, who has little family left, falls ill. I probably missed a lot by not knowing much about Hungarian history, but still got very into it. I just love these NYRB classics so much.

24. We Have Always Lived in the Castle by Shirley Jackson - Finally got around to reading this. It’s one of those books that I really should have read as a kid, as I did with Salinger and Vonnegut. Good, strange, creepy, interesting, just not at an adult reading level IMO.
25. You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman - This novel got me feeling very think-piecey. There is a lot of really good writing and fascinating ideas in here, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it was overly engineered. It’s TEEMING with “aboutness” -- the epigraphs, the blurbs, and something on just about every page are there to tell you THIS BOOK IS ABOUT CONSUMPTION. Like, does it have to be so obvious? I don’t know, I feel like my favorite novels don’t slam me over the head with their theme(s). It’s almost like she tried to control how critics would respond to it (which is how I felt about 10:04).

That said, I wouldn’t have kept reading if there wasn’t compelling stuff in there, great lines, blah blah. The last section is pretty obviously a send-up of Scientology; the main character joins a cult/”Church” whose members move up through ranks from “darkness” to “brightness” (a la going clear). I would say this belongs to the same micro-genre as Laura van den Berg’s novel, a kind of semi-dystopic pseudo-realism with unreliability. In sum, a writer to watch, but I don’t exactly recommend this particular book.

26. The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark - My friend Kathleen (Rooney) has been raving about Spark for a while and we have a lot of her books, but I just finally got around to reading one. This is really a novella and yes, it’s sort of about a love affair but more complicated than that. Amusing, sad, touching; has a poetic kind of refraining prose, full of its own mournful spoilers. Most memorable for the characters of Jean Brodie and her student Sandy who are sympathetic and detestable in surprisingly equal measures.

27. The Double Life of Liliane by Lily Tuck - This mostly excellent book is billed as “autofiction” (AKA reality fiction) but aside from being told in the third person, which I guess conveniently removes the authorial pressure to self-analyze, it really feels more like nonfiction/autobiography than a novel (unlike, say, The Door, which is supposedly highly autobiographical but still feels very much like a novel). In any case, very interesting, in large part because it’s as much about her family history as her own life, and her relatives are fascinating.

For those counting/adding, that makes 46 full books total. That doesn't sound like a lot to me (less than a book per week), but then, I'm not a super-fast reader, I read a lot of stuff that wasn't "books," and I traveled a lot this year, and I rarely have time to read much when I travel. I'll try to beat my count next year.

And now, at long last, my favorites!!!!!!!!!!!!! (To be crystal clear, these are my favorite books I read this year, not necessarily my favorite books that were published this year, though a couple of them were.)

My top three favorite nonfiction reads of the year: 
  1. How Not to Be Wrong
  2. The Folded Clock
  3. I Am Sorry to Think I Have Raised a Timid Son
My top three favorite fiction reads of the year:
  1. Journey by Moonlight
  2. Familiar
  3. The First Bad Man
(I realize now that my little collage at the top gave these away...but I didn't do that on purpose. I just grabbed images of the first six books I thought of, which on reflection turned out to be my favorites. Sorry guys.)

What were the best books you read this year?

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Livetweet Love, Actually; read my stuff

Hey guys, sorry I haven't posted anything since September, but who blogs?

Some news and recent links:

Sommer and I are finally doing another movie live-tweet, and this time it's your favorite awful holiday movie, Love, Actually. Next Thursday, December 17, watch and tweet along with us (it's streaming on Netflix and Amazon) and don't forget the hashtag: #liveactually (ha.ha.)

Over at the Smart Set, I wrote about how and why we visualize people and places when reading fiction:

My whole life, I have always imagined the houses in books as my own house or a house I’m familiar with. Rich families always get assigned to my childhood best friend’s house, since it’s the largest house I know well. As a kid most houses were my parents’ house, and now I automatically picture either my current apartment or an apartment from my recent past, even when it doesn’t fit the descriptions. Sometimes, I’ll try to “stretch” the apartment to house proportions, or modify the architecture — move a door, add a staircase. But when I’m not concentrating on it, I’ll go right back to picturing the real apartment.

I also have a couple of new Blunt Instrument columns up, one on how you know when your book is finished (covering both when to stop working on it and send it out, and when to abandon it completely), and one on the practicality of starting a blog to promote your writing.

I have a Judy poem at the Harvard Review.

At the Critical Flame, I interviewed Laura van den Berg about uncertainty, ambiguity and trauma in her novel Find Me.

I told The Collapsar about a couple of books I read lately.

And later this month I'm going to post a full list of all the books I read this year, with commentary and lists of my top favorites. EXCITING!