The 2017 List
reverse chronological order
»Sometimes a Great Notion
»Malachy McCourt's History of Ireland
»Lincoln in the Bardo
»All Things Cease to Appear
»Therese Raquin
»Bright, Precious Days
»White Trash
»In a Dark, Dark Wood
»The North Water
»Where'd You Go, Bernadette?
»Old School
»How Buildings Learn
»A Gambler's Anatomy
»The Marriage Plot
»The Undoing Project
»American Heiress
»Sweet Tooth
»Play It As It Lays
»The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
»The Oregon Trail



The 2016 List
The 2015 List
The 2014 List
The 2013 List
The 2012 List
The 2011 List
The 2010 List
The 2009 List
The 2008 List


All-time favorites
Theft,
 Peter Carey
JR,
 William Gaddis
Winter's Tale,
 Mark Helprin
Moby-Dick,
 Herman Melville
Martin Dressler,
 Steven Millhauser
Housekeeping,
 Marilynne Robinson
Franny & Zooey,
 J.D. Salinger
Infinite Jest,
 David Foster Wallace
Delta Wedding,
 Eudora Welty

Honorable mentions: Paul Auster, Rick Bass, Michael Chabon, Charles Dickens, Stephen Dobyns, Neil Gaiman, Thomas Hardy, Graham Swift, Tim Winton.
The books of 2017
Sometimes a Great Notion (1964, Ken Kesey)
Why I picked it: I read this when I was 12, and it was my first "favorite book" that wasn't written for kids. (Unless you count "To Kill a Mockingbird," which I'd say has become a teens' book through its position in the middle school canon.) I wanted to see if it held up.
What it's about: A family on the Oregon coast in 1961 keeps logging when the rest of the town has gone on strike.
What I thought: I really liked it, still/again. I had remembered the general arc of the story, plus a few of the more dramatic set pieces (Joe Ben in the river, Henry's arm), and as I went along I would suddenly remember other elements — oh my god, yeah, this is what's going to happen.
On my first reading, I liked the characters and the setting, and those still worked for me. This time around I thought more about the politics of the town-vs.-Stamper situation. I also was much more on Hank's side. As a kid, I didn't realize how damaged and vindictive younger brother Lee is, and I could sympathize as much with the prodigal Ivy League son as with the occasionally brutish former high school sports star.
Movie? I honestly don't remember if I ever saw the 1970 movie, also known as "Never Give An Inch." I recall the images of some scenes, but maybe I just saw them as stills. Casting seems right: Paul Newman, Michael Sarrazin, Henry Fonda, Richard Jaeckel.


Malachy McCourt's History of Ireland (2004)
Why I picked it: I want to know more about Irish history.
What it's about: History of Ireland from ancient to modern, told as chapters about specific people.
What I thought: The decision I always have to make when I'm starting to read about history is whether to go with something more popular and superficial as a toe-in-the-water step or jump right into heavy academic stuff. This time, I went superficial. Not far into the preface, I thought it might be a mistake. I really didn't like McCourt's voice. The error, of course, was mine: You don't pick a name-above-the-title work if you don't want it to be focused on the name. Once McCourt got into the actual chapters, it wasn't as much of an issue for me — until the later ones, about people he had actually met, and then he reinserted himself.
Focusing on personalities rather than issues, it didn't go as deep as I wanted into causes and effects and the development of the republican movement. McCourt has a distinct bias, to the point that he only begrudgingly discusses Cromwell.‚ÄčThe book also had a lot of errors of detail: misspellings, faulty punctuation, some factual errors that even with my little knowledge I could discern. (Example: It put James Joyce's birth in 1892 rather than 1882, so the resulting timeline had him entering college at age 6 and wooing his wife-to-be at age 12.)
Though this one was not the best pick, I stuck with it -- it's an easy read and I figured it would give me something of a basis in earlier history so I could pick something more weighty about 19th- and 20th-century Ireland.


Lincoln in the Bardo (2017, George Saunders)
Why I picked it: Huge buzz when it came out a few months ago. It's Saunders' first novel, but I've liked his short stories.
What it's about: Abraham Lincoln's son Willie, dead of typhoid fever at age 11, is taken to a tomb in a Washington, D.C., cemetery, where his ghost (for lack of a better word) meets a large collection of fellow spirits who for one reason or another have not moved on to their appointed afterworld. ('Bardo' is a Tibetan term for a transitional place.)
What I thought: This one warrants the praise. It's a great mix of storytelling and real history. In fact, it jumps off of a real and strange incident: Abraham Lincoln at least twice showed up alone at the cemetery and spent time in the crypt, apparently with Willie's casket open. Whole chapters of it are actually excerpts from a deep collection of historical writing. I didn't realize that -- I thought the citations were made up -- until I recognized a few of the authors' names. But the more compelling parts are the various spirits' interactions with each other and their recitation of their stories, prompted by the unusual presence of a living human. It's touching, sometimes heartbreaking, but also very funny at times.
I appreciated the imaginative logic of Saunders' rules of existence in the bardo, a key factor for me in any ghost story (or zombie story). Where can they go? Can they influence living people or the physical world? What are they afraid of? Before this, my favorite set of ghost rules was Audrey Niffenegger's in "Her Fearful Symmetry," but Saunders does even better.
I got the audiobook of this only because it was available at the library sooner than the print version, but now I'd actually recommend the audio. It has dozens of voice actors, many of them excellent. The main three parts are read by Saunders himself, David Sedaris and Nick Offerman. Bill Hader and Megan Mullally are hilarious as an exceedingly foul-mouthed couple of white-trash drunkards with hearts of gold.


All Things Cease to Appear (2015, Elizabeth Brundage)
Why I picked it: A professor's young wife is brutally murdered in their upstate New York farmhouse, whose previous owners had died in a suicide pact.
What I thought: I thought I knew at the opening scene how this would go: Murder is pinned on the husband, who looks very guilty, and he must track down the real killer to save himself and be reunited with his young daughter. It didn't go that way at all.
First it backs up a few years and tells of the previous owners, whose deaths had orphaned three sons. The professor and his wife become enmeshed with those boys -- now teenagers -- and with other of their new neighbors, all of whose stories are deeply explored.
As the book goes on, the professor is revealed to be every bit the odious man the townspeople think him to be. There's a ghost story element, too: Though the wife knows nothing of her house's tragic history, she's very attuned to the weird things going on there. So an unusually deep murder mystery.
It was also notable to me (but likely not for anyone else) because two of its threads concerned things that had not been on my radar at all and then suddenly are:
• The Swedenborgian religion. My only point of reference until a couple months ago was a really beautiful church in San Francisco that's like a ship, and then, boom, Swedenborg played a big part in "The North Water" and this one.
• Flashman. Character from a set of 1970s cult-favorite books that I'd never heard of until recently. I can't remember where it was I first saw a reference, but it was not long ago, and then right away came this and last week an opinion piece in the New York Times called "Why you should read books you hate."


Therese Raquin (1867, Emile Zola)
Why I picked it: Except for "Germinal," Zola is kind of a gap for me, and this was the first of his I ran across.
What it's about: Young Parisian lovers commit a crime to remove the impediment to their life together, and things go rapidly downhill.
What I thought: In a way, it reminded me a lot of "An American Tragedy" (though much, much shorter), and there was some Hardyesque stuff in there, too. So, kind of melodramatic and quite bleak, with some imaginative plot points and a cinematic way of telling the story.
What's next: Zola actually wrote a lot of novels I never heard of, plus two I know as Jean Renoir movies: "Nana" and "La Bete Humaine." I'll take a stab at one of those, probably, as well as "J'Accuse."


Bright, Precious Days (2016, Jay McInerney)
Why I picked it: Impulse library pick. I haven't read McInerney in years, but he's a good writer.
What it's about: A 50ish Manhattan couple with two kids tries to keep up appearances despite financial straits and marital infidelity. The story spans 2006-2008.
What I thought: I wouldn't have picked this up if I had realized it was the third book about these characters, but it worked fine as a stand-alone novel. McInerney, having the inside view, is very good at writing about the world of charity auctions and publishers' bidding wars and writers gone off the rails. It was enough of that for a while. I'm not tempted to go back and read the first two.


White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America (2016, Nancy Isenberg)
Why I picked it: When I finished "Hillbilly Elegy" last year I was hoping for a more scholarly history of the white lower class in America. This book got good reviews.
What it's about: The white underclass — principally, poor Southern whites — from the settling of America to the modern day.
What I thought: It does pack in a lot of history. The most interesting parts to me were those I actually remember, from the past 40 years. I actually might have liked a little more analysis mixed in with the recounting. The epilogue got into some of that: how politicians exploit of class division, for instance, and why Americans cling to the belief that ours is a classless society. I also would have liked more about Okies and other non-Southern poor whites. So, basically, I would have wanted a 700-page book, which I really don't want.


In a Dark, Dark Wood (2015, Ruth Ware)
Why I picked it: It was on the best seller list a long time, and I got the sense it was the sort of dark thriller that I like.
What it's about: A young London woman goes to the bachelorette party of a friend from her youth. The whole affair — six people at a remote house in the woods — is strained and uncomfortable, and finally someone is violently killed.
What I thought: Quick read, tightly written, good creepy foreshadowing, no annoying stylistic quirks. As for the resolution: The story had several plausible scenarios, which the reader flips through just as the protagonist does. There are a couple clues, but nothing that has to do heavy-duty work in driving the plot.


The North Water (2016, Ian McGuire)
Why I picked it: It got very good reviews. I've read quite a few books recently, fiction and non-fiction, about whaling and/or shipboard life and/or polar disasters, but they've all been different enough that I'm not tired of them.
What it's about: This one's fiction. A whaling ship heads from England to Greenland circa 1860, with several of the men aboard harboring deep secrets — of murder, military disgrace and criminal intention.
What I thought: Very good. It had the suspense and personal conflicts I expected, and beyond that a lot of the later half went into essential questions of faith and virtue and humanity. I wish it had a map, but perhaps a lot of the places were made up.


Where'd You Go, Bernadette? (2012, Maria Semple)
Why I picked it: I'd heard about it (it was on the best seller lists for a while) but it was Alex who picked it up at the library and later recommended it to me. When Bonnie endorsed Alex's endorsement, I gave it a shot.
What it's about: A mother who doesn't fit into her family's Seattle neighborhood descends into an agoraphobic crisis and then goes missing. Her teenage daughter pulls together emails and other documents to piece together the clues. (It's a satire, or at least humorous.)
What I thought: I thought it was pretty good at the start, though I didn't laugh nearly as much as Alex did. After Bernadette goes missing, it seemed kind of strained in the plotting. Quick read, but not very satisfying.


Old School (2003, Tobias Wolff)
Why I picked it: I liked Wolff's boyhood memoir, "This Boy's Life."
What it's about:I thought it was going to be a sequel, Part 2 of the memoir, because I didn't read the line on the cover that says it is a novel. The underpinnings are strongly autobiographical, though: A boy from a chaotic lower-class family tries to fit in at an Eastern prep school.
What I thought: Not nearly as good as "This Boy's Life." Not bad, though, especially if you like misfit-in-prep-school stories, which I do.


How Buildings Learn: What Happens After They're Built (1994, Stewart Brand)
Why I picked it: I can't remember what recent magazine article mentioned this, but as soon as I saw Brand's name, I put it on my list.
What it's about: The design and construction of buildings, and how their occupants change them — or fail to change them — over the years.
What I thought: I really liked this book. I don't think anyone but Brand could have written this. It's thoughtful, geeky, personal, kind of homemade. It has a ton of photos illustrating his examples, and it's in an unconventional wide format so the photos are displayed to best effect.
His thesis is that the best buildings are those whose design allows the most revision and adjustment rather than those that are purpose-built for one scenario. (He draws on the "scenario planning" practices he uses as a business strategy consultant.) He likes barracks, bungalows, houseboats and big dumb boxes rather than architectural masterpieces that confound and annoy their occupants.
What's next: Brand highly recommends a book that's been on my list for a few years, Christopher Alexander's "A Pattern Language." I also added from his bibliography Jane Jacobs' "The Death and Life of Great American Cities" and Joel Garreau's "Edge City."


A Gambler's Anatomy (2016, Jonathan Lethm)
Why I picked it: I really liked Lethem's "Chronic City" and "Gun, With Occasional Music."
What it's about: A backgammon shark who has traveled the world for years returns to Berkeley for a life-saving operation on a huge mass that's growing behind his face.
What I thought:This one starts with a kind of odd but believable main character — commune-raised and now cosmopolitan, a suave Roger Moore lookalike who makes his living beating rich men at backgammon — and then gets surreal, almost Pynchonesque, when he has to return to the Bay Area. I do like Lethem's weirder novels better than his more highly praised ones ("Fortress of Solitude," "Motherless Brooklyn.") It was interesting to read this one right after "The Marriage Plot," which was so quotidian even when it was in exotic locations. This one is set largely in a somewhat-recognizable Berkeley that's a little bit more fantastic and peopled with slightly spun archetypes.


The Marriage Plot (2011, Jeffrey Eugenides)
Why I picked it: I liked "The Virgin Suicides" and "Middlesex."
What it's about: Love triangle develops among three Brown undergraduates in the class of 1982 and continues in the months after they head out into the world.
What I thought: I don't know that I'd recommend this one, but at every point where I considered abandoning it, I thought, no, I want to find out what happens next. It's a very straightforward, realistic story. The only thing remotely gimmicky is that it is, loosely, a modern spin on the "marriage plot" stories of Jane Austen and her ilk.


The Undoing Project: A Friendship That Changed Our Minds (2016, Michael Lewis)
Why I picked it: Michael Lewis. I also read the book by one of its two main subjects.
What it's about: Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, two psychologists who specialize in how people make decisions.
What I thought: This book has two threads: the lives (singly and together) of Kahneman and Tversky, and their findings about decision-making. I knew some of the latter, having read Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow." Like that one, "Undoing" made me doubt my intuition on just about everything. The biographical part is really engaging. The two men were of notably different temperaments, and after decades of close work they ended up pulling away from each other, not without some animosity.


American Heiress: The Wild Saga of the Kidnapping, Crimes and Trial of Patty Hearst (2016, Jeffrey Toobin)
Why I picked it: The Patty Hearst episode is an intriguing piece of California history, and I know Toobin to be a meticulous reporter.
What it's about: Like the subtitle says. From February 1974 to September 1975, then the trial and the aftermath.
What I thought: If you had asked me before I read this how well I thought I knew the story, I would have said pretty well. But there's a lot I didn't remember or misremembered. I not only misplaced some of the incidents, but there were a lot of crucial links I didn't know of between the Hearst story and some of the other big counterculture events that made San Francisco in the mid-'70s the epicenter of stunning news: the Zebra killings, Jonestown, Your Muslim Bakery. Did you know Sara Jane Moore was a bookkeeper for the food giveaway operation requested by the SLA? And that she showed up at the Hearsts' mansion and spent a weird afternoon there?
Toobin, as I expected, has all the facts buttoned down. He bought from Bill Harris a huge cache of documents and research that had been destined for a university library. He also has opinions about the personalities and motivations of the players: Steven Weed, Randy and Catherine Hearst, Donald DeFreeze and of course Patricia. Was she really brainwashed or under duress? He doesn't think so, and he shows why. This book justified the good reviews it got last year.


Sweet Tooth (2012, Ian McEwan)
Why I picked it: I liked "Saturday" a lot and other McEwan novels well enough.
What it's about: A young woman hired by MI5 in the early 1970s is assigned to a Cold War cultural initiative that, without revealing the source, gives writers funding.
What I thought: Pretty good. I wasn't delighted by the twist at the ending, but neither did I think it too tricky. I liked the bureaucratic Cold War spy stuff. None of the characters was really likable. (Looking back at my recent reads, that seems to be a theme. Except for "Oregon Trail." I need to find some great characters.)


Play It As It Lays (1970, Joan Didion)
Why I picked it: I like Didion's writing.
What it's about: After some success as a model and actress, Maria is now at loose ends: out of work, in a faithless marriage, with her 4-year-old daughter institutionalized. She spends her days driving the Los Angeles freeways.
What I thought: Partly because of Didion's cool, spare style, it took me a while to develop any sympathy for Maria. But the writing pulled me along, and eventually I was on Maria's side, even if it was only because the people around her were even less likable. The book is very much a document of its time, and it was particularly interesting to read right after 'Man in the Gray Flannel Suit.'
Movie? 1972, with Tuesday Weld. Haven't seen it.


The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit (1955, Sloan Wilson)
Why I picked it: I knew the reference only as shorthand for 1950s conformity, and I was curious as to what the novel is actually about.
What it's about: A businessman struggles with providing for his family and finding fulfilling work while he is haunted by his World War II experience.
What I thought: More interesting to me for its place in the culture (and in "Mad Men") than for the actual story, which is pretty sentimental, or the writing. The forward was by Jonathan Franzen, which I took as a good sign, but I didn't find any literary brilliance. The war scenes are the best part. I didn't realize until I read the author's note that Wilson published a sequel (actually called "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit II") in 1984. It's not on my list.
Movie? 1956, with Gregory Peck. Haven't seen it.


The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey (2015, Rinker Buck)
Why I picked it: Western history, plus: mules! What it's about: In 2011, the author and his brother became the first people in decades to drive a mule team from Missouri to Oregon on the Oregon Trail. What I thought: I really liked this book. For one thing, it filled in a piece I hadn't realized was missing from my historical reading: I've read a lot about the settling of the West, particularly California, but I never gave much thought to the overland journey. Into the historical perspective, Buck weaves his personal tale of his relationship with his brother and the complex day-to-day details of driving and otherwise dealing with mules. He also gets into the modern Mormon rewriting of pioneer history, an issue I hadn't heard of. The book had good maps, as well as illustrations of the wagon and harnesses and such.
I realized while reading this that I've been to a few historic sites on the trail, notably Independence Rock in Wyoming. I'd like to someday visit South Pass (also in Wyoming), a landmark in the history of U.S. settlement.
What's next: At 15, Buck flew a plane coast to coast with another of his brothers. He later wrote about that in "Flight of Passage," which I'll keep an eye out for.