|The 2017 List
reverse chronological order
»History of Wolves
»My Darling Detective
»My Life With Bob
»Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
»If We Were Villains
»A Sudden Light
»This Book Will Save Your Life
»Sometimes a Great Notion
»Malachy McCourt's History of Ireland
»Lincoln in the Bardo
»All Things Cease to Appear
»Bright, Precious Days
»In a Dark, Dark Wood
»The North Water
»Where'd You Go, Bernadette?
»How Buildings Learn
»A Gambler's Anatomy
»The Marriage Plot
»The Undoing Project
»Play It As It Lays
»The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit
»The Oregon Trail
»The Woman in Cabin 10
»The Nature Fix
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
Franny & Zooey,
David Foster Wallace
Honorable mentions: Paul Auster, Rick Bass, Michael Chabon, Charles Dickens, Stephen Dobyns, Neil Gaiman, Thomas Hardy, Graham Swift, Tim Winton.
|The books of 2017|
Fly Me (2017, Daniel Riley)
Why I picked it: Good reviews, and I like the setting: Los Angeles beach town in the early 1970s (like "Inherent Vice").
What it's about: A new Vassar grad with no real plan joins her sister working as a stewardess and living in a pseudonymous Manhattan Beach in 1972.
What I thought: This is an odd one. I've never read a character like Suzy — smart and tough and independent but at loose ends, her main driving force being her need for moving fast, on a skateboard, in a race car, in a plane. The narrative was kind of that way, too: a lot of threads, a lot of happenings but not really coalescing into a solid story, and then a very weird ending.
I guess the ending is the logical conclusion of the underlying extended metaphor about a woman who has no outlet for her particular talents, who is literally going nowhere fast. When I first closed the book, my reaction was "well, that was a sucky ending." With a little perspective on it, I'm warming to it. It does at least grab you.
Not that this book is meant to compete with "Inherent Vice" — although "Gravity's Rainbow" and "The Crying of Lot 49" do make cameo appearances — but that one was much better at giving a sense of Los Angeles in the early '70s. (The "Vice" setting, Gordita Beach, is also based on Manhattan Beach, where Pynchon lived for a few years around 1970.) Aside from a subplot involving the People's Temple, the main historic background is many mentions of hijackings and jetliner crashes.
Manhattan Transfer (1925, John Dos Passos)
Why I picked it: It was marked down in a bookstore when I was looking for a plane-trip book.
What it's about: Intertwined stories of people in New York for several years around World War I.
What I thought: I actually liked this one more than I thought I would. When I read Dos Passos' USA trilogy decades ago, my enthusiasm had definitely waned by the end of the third book. He has a somewhat Joycean style here, with neologisms and reliance on dialogue — pretty avant garde for the time. And I thought it gave a really good sense of what life in New York City was like, circa 1920.
Island Home: A Landscape Memoir (2015, Tim Winton)
Why I picked it: Tim Winton.
What it's about: Winton, a novelist, writes about Australia's wild lands.
What I thought: I like the way Winton writes about Australia in his fiction, and this memoir shows where that comes from in his life. The one insight that resonated most with me comes early on. He's talking about his first visit to Europe and his puzzlement that he's not impressed by these iconic scenic landscapes, the Alps and such. Then he realizes that in all these places, there's the sense of people, of towns, close by, so the visual grandeur lacks the sense of isolation and wildness that he loves in Western Australia. That contention — and the whole book, really — reinforced the sense I have from books and movies that parts of Australia are very similar to the American West.
History of Wolves (2016, Emily Fridlund)
Why I picked it: It's on the short list for the Booker Prize, and the description interested me.
What it's about:An isolated teenager living in northern Minnesota becomes a babysitter for a Chicago family staying in a vacation cabin. Their son dies, and a criminal investigation is launched.
What I thought: I liked this one, though it's dark all the way through. Madeline's life is lacking in intimacy, and for that reason she does some odd things, goes in a direction that resonates into her adult life. With this and "Liberty Street," I got two books in a row with this unusual main character, the teenage girl who kind of drifts through school without any friendships or strong interests, lacking a connection even to her own parents. (Madeline mentions with startling casualness the possibility that her "mother and father" may just be the adults who ended up with her when their commune broke up.) Much more often I read about isolated teens who have a drive to get the heck out of their little towns, so they immerse themselves in reading or studying or otherwise setting themselves apart from their peers. Madeline and Frances have no such drive; both have mothers who are disappointed in their apparent lack of ambition.
The other parallel to my recent media consumption: I've been watching the first season of "Fargo," which is set in the same area — Bemidji is the nearest big city to Madeline, and during a fateful couple days in the book she makes her first trip to Duluth. Both the TV show and this book put a lot of emphasis on brutal weather and the hazards of the outdoors.
If you're thinking of reading this one, skip the rest of this writeup. There was another element that engaged me, and any discussion of it will give too much away and will influence the reader's growing understanding of Madeline and of the boy's family. I'd say the average reader is about halfway through the book before this factor is apparent but I knew as soon as the boy is overheard saying, "There is no ... matter. All is ... mind," that his parents are Christian Scientists. I don't think I've ever read a novel in which the characters are Christian Scientist. I read a few interviews with Fridlund and she doesn't talk about her religion, but given the way she writes about the language and the practice I'd bet she was raised in the church. (Also, she has a rather cryptic mention in the acknowledgements of her time at Principia College, which is a Christian Science institution.) I went back and forth on whether it was a misstep to have the most ardent Christian Scientist in the book be an actual scientist, but more believable, I guess, that it's an astronomer rather than a biologist. Anyway, the whole religious angle was interesting to me personally, and from a literary standpoint it allowed for a second layer in an exploration of outsiderness.
What's next: Fridlund's acknowledgements include three books (of an apparently critical nature) about being raised in Christian Science, and I'm curious enough to try at least one of those.
Liberty Street (2015, Dianne Warren)
Why I picked it: It showed up more than once in the New York Times Book Review's end-of-the-year issue in which they asked writers what they had been reading.
What it's about: A middle-aged woman spontaneously and unthinkingly reveals to her longtime boyfriend that: a) She lost a baby as a teenager, and b) she had been married at the time (though her husband was not the baby's father). In the ensuing disruption of her life she returns to the small town where she grew up.
What I thought: This one was unusual and appealing to me both in its setting (Saskatchewan) and its main character, a watchful and solitary girl who grows into a self-contained woman. There's unhappiness in Frances' story, but in the end it's very hopeful.
My Darling Detective (2017, Howard Norman)
Why I picked it: Good review; described as a kind of skewed noir mystery. Bonus points for being set in Nova Scotia.
What it's about: At an art auction he's attending on behalf of his wealthy employer, a young man watches in horror as his mother runs up the aisle and flings ink at a famous Robert Capa photo (this one). The police investigator on the case is his fiancee, who tells him she has learned things he doesn't know about his parents.
What I thought: I liked the start but as it went on it got a little too clever for my taste, in the wry formalism and the intertwining of the narrative with the characters' favorite radio show.
My Life With Bob: Flawed Heroine Keeps Book of Books, Plot Ensues (2017, Pamela Paul)
Why I picked it: David got it for me, said it sounded like my kind of thing.
What it's about: The New York Times' book editor, who has since junior high school kept a list of every book she has read, writes about how her reading life has meshed with her real life.
What I thought: Not terribly deep, but it's elegant and graceful in the way Paul writes about milestones in her life, without forcing the parallels with her reading life.
Between Them: Remembering My Parents (2017, Richard Ford)
Why I picked it: Richard Ford.
What it's about: Two long essays, one about Ford's father and one about his mother.
What I thought: This is not the anecdote-heavy type of memoir one usually reads about a writer's parents. Ford is very thoughtful on the topic of the factors that limit how well we can really know our parents. In this book you can sense him trying to make connections and to better understand his parents, and if you've read his fiction you can make your own connections about the autobiographical elements in them.
Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry Into Values (1974, Robert M. Pirsig)
Why I picked it: I read this book in 1974, when racks of the candy-colored paperbacks were displayed in every supermarket in America. (We had the pink one.) When Pirsig died a few months ago, I started wondering how it had held up.
What it's about: A man's motorcycle trip with his son is overshadowed by his memories of a mental health crisis and his philosophical musings on how to reconcile technology and humanism.
What I thought: It holds up fairly well, I think. It doesn't seem fatally dated, and it's not annoying in the writing or the format or the ideas. That said, the central thesis wasn't of great interest to me. I was more interested in the personal (and largely autobiographical) story of a man who had major problems with mental health and is now seeing the same symptoms in his son.
Enrique's Journey: The Story of a Boy's Dangerous Odyssey to Reunite With His Mother (2006, Sonia Nazario)
Why I picked it: This is Alex's school-assigned summer reading. We ran across a copy at a bookstore in Atlanta, so I had it on the plane ride home.
What it's about: The story of a 17-year-old Honduran migrant who, on his eighth try, makes it to the United States is used to frame an investigation into the increasing numbers of unaccompanied children crossing the border to find parents — overwhelmingly mothers — who left them behind.
What I thought: I had been aware of the Los Angeles Times series that became this book, but I hadn't read it. It's the best of journalism: a great personal story and a look into an issue that is having major social and economic effects in the United States, Mexico and Central America. At the start of the book, Nazario spends a fair amount of space discussing her procedure and methods, so once she gets started on Enrique's story she can stick with that narrative instead of inserting herself. I appreciate that she doesn't turn Enrique and his family into angels, that she acknowledges that many illegal migrants, while hard-working, have brought to the United States problems related to their economic situation: lack of education, alcohol and drug dependency, fractured families, crime.
My favorite chapter was the one about Enrique's travel through the Mexican state of Veracruz. He had just come out of Chiapas, where Central American migrants are in constant danger of violent attack, so when townspeople in Veracruz ran out of their homes toward the passing train he thought they were throwing rocks at the migrants riding on top. They were throwing food and drinks and clothes. People who were achingly poor themselves had committed to helping — on their own, from their own meager resources.
If We Were Villains (2017, M.L. Rio)
Why I picked it: I read a review in which it sounded a lot like Donna Tartt's "The Secret History."
What it's about: Seven theater students at an elite Midwest arts conservatory become six. One of them goes to prison for the murder -- but was it the right one?
What I thought: You can't not mention "The Secret History" -- the similarities are striking. Tight-knit group of undergrads immersed in classical studies and their own interpersonal dramas; a bloody murder; disintegration of the survivors. What makes "Villains" more than just an imitation is Rio's deep knowledge of Shakespeare. Her characters -- their study is only Shakespeare -- constantly quote Shakespeare, but it seems organic and very rarely annoying. The underpinning concept is that there's nothing these kids experience that hasn't been covered by Shakespeare and, more specifically, that the play they are performing, "Julius Caesar," parallels their own story of striking out against a friend who has become a tyrant. The mystery angle is not terribly strong, but the personalities and the narrative carry the book.
Borne (2017, Jeff VanderMeer)
Why I picked it: It got good reviews, and it seemed like something beyond normal science fiction.
What it's about: Out scavenging in a very dystopian landscape, a young woman brings home an anemone-like thing that grows into a sentient creature that can talk.
What I thought: I liked this one. I'm not a big sci-fi fan, but I can get into sci-fi/fantasy that has particularly good characters (Neal Stephenson's "Snow Crash," Terry Pratchett, Neil Gaiman). The best part of this one is the early relationship between scavenger Rachel and the creature Borne, whom she comes to think of as a child that she's raising. It's a sweet, funny interlude in a world that is anything but. Halfway through, it takes a dark turn with some revelations about Borne's true nature. I didn't like the second half as much, but I can see it was the way the narrative had to go.
Huge flying bear. Smaller poisonous bears. (Apology to bears in the credits.) Marauding bands of mutant children. A lot of crazy biotech, like alcohol minnows and diagnostic worms.
A Sudden Light (2004, Garth Stein)
Why I picked it: I had seen Stein's "The Art of Racing in the Rain" on the best-seller list for months, and I was amused by the idea of reading a third novel in a row about the timber trade.
What it's about: A 14-year-old boy returns with his father to the family's ancestral home near Seattle and meets relatives living and dead.
What I thought: This was a mess. It's as if Stein took the two writers who are name-checked in the book — John Muir and Eugene O'Neill — and mashed them together, then added the Bobbsey Twins and Daphne du Maurier, and finished with "Jane Eyre."
It's a ghost story, but without the voice or logic of a good ghost story. I kept going with it because I thought there had to be a real-world explanation for all these happenings — the style is that of a breezy contemporary novel. In the end, Stein unsatisfyingly splits the difference: He gives an explanation for a couple of the apparently paranormal happenings but stipulates that the major plot-driving ghost is indeed a real ghost.
The writing wasn't bad. The first-person narrator — the teenager — is not annoying. I wouldn't recommend this to anybody, though.
Nana (1880, Emile Zola)
Why I picked it: I had been resisting Zola because of my freshman slog through "Germinal," but after "Therese Raquin" a few months ago I realized he had written some less bleak novels.
What it's about: A courtesan in 1860s Paris tramples over the lives of the men who want her.
What I thought: This one would have been less entertaining if Nana were scheming — if, as my dad would say, she had brains enough to be dangerous — but she's an airheaded girl, vain and greedy in an I-want-candy way but not evil. It was interesting, too, in its portrayal of the society and mores of the time. Surprising to me how much sex there was in it, and surprising as well that it wasn't considered particularly shocking at the time.
What's next: "Nana" is part of Zola's 20-part Rougon-Macquart series, about two families in the Second Empire. Apparently each stands alone, so you don't have to read them in any particular order. I might go next with another story whose movie I've seen, "La Bete Humaine."
Movie? I think I saw one of the earlier adaptations, in a Jean Renoir seminar in college, though I may be thinking of "La Chienne." Also, BBC radio recently did a nine-part drama ("Blood, Sex and Money") based on Rougon-Macquart that got really good reviews, though a quick search doesn't turn up a downloadable version.
Barkskins (2016, Annie Proulx)
Why I picked it: After finishing "Sometimes a Great Notion," I saw this one on my list and thought I might be in the mood for more lumberjacks. And I liked Proulx's "The Shipping News."
What it's about: Multigenerational tale of two families of lumbermen and timber tycoons, from 17th-century Quebec to the modern day.
What I thought: It's 725 pages, and I looked forward to every session with it. Each generation has its own feel, its own main subplot in the big story, and even the lesser characters have their intriguing elements. It also has a lot of U.S. history, mostly of a social/economic rather than political nature — the Revolutionary and Civil wars are mentioned only in passing.
The two main themes in the book are those of destruction: of the continent's forests and its native populations. Especially in the earlier chapters, it was particularly thought-provoking on the topic of the latter, without being too preachy. Before reading this, I would have said, sure, America's Indians got a raw deal, but I never thought much about how the colonists pretty much made it impossible for the people and the cultures to survive, let alone thrive.
The last part, the 20th-century chapters, I didn't like as much — less of the personal stories and more didactic on the tribulations of environmental activists.
This Book Will Save Your Life (2006, A.M. Homes)
Why I picked it: Why I picked it: I liked Homes' "Music for Torching" and her autobiographical "The Mistress's Daughter," and I made it through "The End of Alice" in a kind of appalled fascination. She writes in a dry tone about bizarre, even repellent happenings.
What it's about: Richard — 50ish, divorced, retired and living quite comfortably off investments — has fallen into a very insular life in Los Angeles. About the only person he interacts with more than occasionally is his housekeeper. The night he has chest pain and goes to the emergency room kicks off an increasingly surreal chain of events that puts him in close contact with quite a few strangers and finally his own teenage son.
What I thought: I liked this one a lot. It has been described as satire, but it's very kind toward its characters, especially Richard, and it's even kind toward Los Angeles while skewering the city's more laughable aspects. I think it must have been fun to write, coming up with the strange happenings and characters who are not what they first appear to be.
What's next: Homes has a nonfiction book about Los Angeles that I put on my list.
Samaritan (2003, Richard Price)
Why I picked it: Price is always good for an intelligent crime mystery.
What it's about: A local boy who made good as a Hollywood screenwriter returns to the New Jersey town where he grew up in public housing and is brutally beaten in his home. He survives but won't name his attacker. A police detective he grew up with tries to solve the case without his help.
What I thought: I didn't like it as much as "Lush Life," but it was a good story without the gimmicks that seem to be taking over mystery/thrillers these days.
What's next: I started "Freedomland" a couple summers ago but moved on to other things because it was too big to take on the plane. I think I still have that copy and might someday give it another shot.
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.The 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.
The Woman in Cabin 10 (2016, Ruth Ware)
Why I picked it: I liked "In a Dark, Dark Wood." What it's about: A B-string travel writer lucks into a press cruise aboard a boutique ship, where she believes she has heard and maybe seen somebody being killed.
Why I gave it up: I made it pretty far, but I got more and more annoyed that Ware took forever creeping up to the (alleged) murder, plodding through the sequence of events and introducing every damn person on the boat. I didn't much like the main character, either.
Eggshells (2014, Catriona Lally)
Why I picked it: A mention in a book review that made it sound charmingly whimsical. And I'm biased toward anything set in Dublin.
What it's about: The odd young woman Vivian, shaping a life in the house she inherited from her recently departed aunt, sets out to make a friend who needs to be named Penelope.
Why I gave it up: I had made it quite a ways, and Vivian was still just odd. Whimsical, yes, but not charmingly so. There was no hint of a plot beyond her daily activities.
The Nature Fix: Why Nature Makes Us Happier, Healthier, and More Creative (2017, Florence Williams)
Why I picked it: Being outside everyday is a major decider of how happy I am.
What it's about: Didn't get too far but the subtitle seems accurate. This book is not really scientific writing, but rather reporting (with a strong first-person component) on people who go outdoors.
Why I gave it up: After a couple chapters I was thinking, "Hm, there's nothing here that's enlightening or surprising to me," and then I wondered what I had thought I was going to get out of it. When I couldn't come up with anything, I gave it up.
The Keep (2006, Jennifer Egan)
Why I picked it: I liked Egan's "A Visit From the Goon Squad."
What it's about: A 30ish hipster who needs to leave New York fast goes to visit his once-geeky cousin, who has made a success of his life and is renovating a Czech castle.
Why I gave it up: Despite the obviously looming big drama, this one never hooked me.