|The 2018 List
reverse chronological order
»The Scarlet Letter
»Ripley Under Ground
»The Talented Mr. Ripley
»City on Fire
»My Absolute Darling
The 2017 List
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
Sometimes a Great Notion,
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.
Gringos (1991, Charles Portis)|
Why I picked it: Charles Portis. This is the fourth I've read of his five novels.
What it's about: An expatriate American in southern Mexico takes a meandering trip into the jungle looking for some missing people.
What I thought: I didn't like it as well as "The Dog of the South," his other American-meandering-in-Mexico novel, but it's still really good. Without seeming fussy, Portis' sentences are crafted, and crafty. On every page you can find at least one little gem, and there are some laugh-out-loud phrases. The protagonist of this — as of "Dog," and "Norwood" — is a shambling but good-hearted dude, and the depiction of Mexican village life has a nuance and richness that kind of sneaks up on you.
The Scarlet Letter (1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne)
Why I picked it: I tried this one 10 years ago and gave it up, finding it tedious. Two things put it back on my list: 1) Hawthorne was a favorite of Melville, and "Moby Dick" is a favorite of mine. And 2) I want to read Updike's "Scarlet Letter" trilogy.
What it's about: A woman in 17th-century Massachusetts is shamed for having a child out of wedlock.
What I thought: The reading went better this time. I plowed headlong through that customs-house preface that annoyed me before. In fact, I pretty much plowed through the whole thing, and I don't think my comprehension suffered much from not lingering over the nuance. I wouldn't say I'm a convert, but I do appreciate the characterization.
Ripley's Game (1974, Patricia Highsmith)
Why I picked it: I read the previous two Ripley novels, and I wanted to continue to this one before seeing Wim Wenders' movie adaptation of it.
What it's about: Asked if he can recommend someone to pull off a murder for hire, Tom Ripley comes up with a scheme to snare a neighbor who insulted him.
What I thought: It's interesting how dissimilar these three Ripley books are. I expected them to have the same format and the same tone, and they definitely don't. For long stretches of this one, Ripley is absent as the action follows his unwitting sort-of victim. It's not as good as the first one, but I liked it better than "Ripley Under Ground." It's also the most cinematic of the three, to my mind, and I'm looking forward to seeing "The American Friend" and maybe the eponymous 2002 version.
Mrs. Fletcher (2017, Tom Perrotta)
Why I picked it:I've liked the other Perrotta novels I've read — Little Children, The Abstinence Teacher, The Leftovers.
What it's about: A 46-year-old divorced mother and some of the friends, relatives and co-workers in her sphere grapple with issues of sexual desire and gender roles.
What I thought: I had heard just enough about this book that I went in with the mistaken impression that the main character starts performing for an online amateur porn site, so I figured it would be at the satirical end of Perrotta's spectrum. But, as I said, that was incorrect — this is actually one of his less out-there stories. It's still sort of comic, though, not as weighty as my description probably makes it sound.
It wasn't until near the end that I got enough of a grip on the main character, Eve. There was an episode involving a haircut in which I suddenly realized, oh, I know who this woman is, and I like her. I wish that had come sooner — though then my problem was I didn't understand how she could have raised such an unlikable son, but at least he gets his comeuppance.
Pick-Up (1955, Charles Willeford)
Why I picked it: I was about to turn in the noir anthology that included Ripley and Jim Thompson, and then I read a New Yorker short story that mentioned this novel, which I'd never heard of, and said it had vivid San Francisco settings.
What it's about: A hard-drinking nihilistic man in 1950s San Francisco meets a like-minded young woman, and it of course ends badly.
What I thought: It was interesting as a relic of its time, but it didn't seem like much more than the pulp novel it was originally sold as. The setting could have been in any city — except for a couple mentions of cable cars, there was nothing specifically San Francisco in it.
Ripley Under Ground (1970, Patricia Highsmith)
Why I picked it: Second in the Ripley series, see below.
What it's about: Six years after the events of "Talented," Tom Ripley is married and living comfortably near Paris. His attempt to protect his investment in an art scam turns lethal.
What I thought: This one was less desperate, I'd even say blander, than "The Talented Mr. Ripley." The main character is less obviously unhinged, though that could be seen as a function of his maturing and his well-funded living situation.
There's a lot of playing around with the theme of fakes — forgery, disguise, effigy, specters. The plot kind of drifts, a lot of traveling around Europe, people dropping in on other people, Ripley trying to control what is known by whom. A surprisingly large part of the narrative is Ripley looking for a particular acquaintance in Greece and then in Salzburg. (The Salzburg part in particular was pretty unbelievable to me. Without any clues, Ripley goes to a city that I'm guessing must have been at least 100,000 people in the 1960s, then wanders the streets to find this guy. Which he does, and not just once.)
In the end, the book seemed to me like a transitional episode, a narrative to set Ripley on the run again, as by the end he has roused the suspicion of the police and of his wife. I'll have to read the next one, "Ripley's Game," to see if I'm right about that.
Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History (2017, Kurt Andersen)
Why I picked it: I like Kurt Andersen and might have eventually picked this up, but it went up my list because of an exchange on Andersen's radio show in which Taylor Mac complimented him on the book and then said, "Of course, I was raised a Christian Scientist," and they both laughed.
What it's about: Andersen's thesis is that America since its founding has been fertile for irrationality and fantastical thinking and that the tendency has become even more pronounced in the past few decades.
What I thought: A thoughtful and extensively researched book, connecting the dots between elements as disparate as Scientology, Oprah Winfrey, Disneyfication, anti-vaxers, the gun lobby and the McMartin Pre-School prosecution. The spectre hanging over it is Donald Trump, who gets his own chapter at the end — the book was already in progress when Andersen and his publishers realized, holy shit, this is actually going to happen.
I did this one on audiobook, and it was for a while a little disconsonant to hear in Andersen's cheerful Omaha voice some harsh criticisms of what might seem like harmless components of American culture, particularly religion. He might have categorized me as "a squishy," someone who is disinclined to criticize others' beliefs, no matter how irrational. That, he says, is perhaps defensible as long as those beliefs don't "pick my pocket or break my leg" (Thomas Jefferson) -- but he contends that people are being harmed physically and financially by America's descent toward a status quo in which everyone feels "entitled to their own facts."
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955, Patricia Highsmith)
Why I picked it: I've always intended to read it, but my urgency was diminished by the fact that I had seen two movie versions of it. Then it was in the anthology with Jim Thompson's "The Killer Inside Me" (see the 2017 list), so I went ahead.
What it's about: A young man wangles a trip to Europe, ostensibly to persuade a rich couple's son to return to America. When his relationship with the son falls apart, he makes a rash move that he must then hide with a desperate spiral of deception.
What I thought: I liked this one a lot. Ripley is pretty obviously a sociopath, or at least deeply screwed up, from the start, but his disturbing inner monologue doesn't make the story any less gripping — is he going to slip up, get caught? He's also a more nuanced, fleshed-out character than, say, Lou Ford in "The Killer Inside Me."
Having seen the movies did not diminish this book for me. In fact, I suppose most people who start reading it these days already know (or can guess) what Ripley's first crime is. I was surprised that the indelible final scene from "Purple Noon" is not in the book. Thinking about it, though, it makes sense — the movie is much more moralistic and is looking for a way to bring Ripley to justice.
Movie? I have seen Rene Clement's "Purple Noon" (1960) three times, the first on TV when I was in junior high, the last in its 1996 re-release, at the cinema that is now Alex's climbing gym. I also saw "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (1999), the Anthony Minghella adaptation with Matt Damon. I'd like to see both of them again, to compare them to each other and to the book.
I'm waiting until I read further into the series to see Wim Wenders' "The American Friend," based on the third Ripley novel. Much farther down my list are the eponymous adaptations of "Ripley Under Ground" (No. 2) and "Ripley's Game" (another version of No. 3).
What's next: There are four more Ripley novels. I'm aiming to read at least the next two.
Six Four (2016, Hideo Yokoyama)
Why I picked it: Good review in New York Times.
What it's about: Police administrator gets drawn into intradepartmental intrigue involving a kidnapping/murder case he had worked on as a detective 14 years earlier.
What I thought: The description that drew me in sounded like straight crime thriller: Shortly after hero Mikami's teenage daughter goes missing, he finds out something that his higher-ups have kept secret about the murder of a child in their city. But the disappearance of the daughter, though pivotal in the opening scene, becomes background hum for the rest of the book, and the whodunnit of the other child's murder is addressed only at the very end. The rest of the 577 (!) pages is about Mikami, the police department's director of media relations, trying to figure out why some other administrators are acting strange about the visit of a high-ranking official from Tokyo. It's very internal and very Japanese. Or at least I suspect that some of its oddness is because of its Japaneseness, from the major role played by protocol, to the reverence for people who work themselves to exhaustion, to the frequent references to other characters' ages in relation to that of Mikami. Even the title is something only Japanese would pick up on: It refers to the year in which the child's murder occurred — a year that lasted only one week. 1989 started out as Showa 64, the 64th year of the reign of Hirohito, but the emperor died on January 7, and the remainder of the year was Heisei 1.
I don't think I would have started this if I knew it was going to be about office politics, but once I was in it, its was this oddity, the Japaneseness, that kept me there.
City on Fire (2015, Garth Risk Hallberg)
Why I picked it: I was aware of the buzz this one got for its $2 million advance to a first-time novelist, but I hadn't run across it in the library until now.
What it's about: The shooting of a punk-scene kid in New York's Central Park on the last night of 1976 ties together a web of characters, including a downtown artist and the rich family he has shunned.
What I thought: At more than 900 pages, it was too long. It got comparisons to Dickens when it came out, and I guess "Bleak House" would come close to its length, but toward the end this one seemed to be running out of steam. Also, for a novel so strongly rooted in a specific period, I found it oddly lacking in historical detail. There was an attempt at the atmosphere of the club scene, but the only real events that figured in the plot were the series of fires in the Bronx and the blackout of July 1977. Gerald "Drop Dead" Ford and Abe Beame are ignored, and you'd think that a random shooting in 1976 would immediately evoke talk of that summer's Son of Sam panic, but he gets only a mention in passing. I started to think the only reason it was set in that period was because Hallberg needed the blackout for the plotting of the climax.
In terms of highly touted debut novels, I'd be much more likely to recommend the 2011 entry, "The Art of Fielding."
My Absolute Darling (2017, Gabriel Tallent)
Why I picked it: I think it was the little New Yorker blurb that caught my attention.
What it's about: A 14-year-old girl lives on the Mendocino coast with her father, a charismatic survivalist who abuses her.
What I thought: This one is unyieldingly dark, bordering on voyeuristic, maybe even pornographic. I don't go into fiction with a default feminist bent, but I can understand why some people are uncomfortable with the idea it was written by a man. I pretty quickly reached the point of "OK, he's really going in this direction — do you want to stick with it?" And it was gripping enough that I went ahead. The main character — Julia officially, Turtle to herself, "kibble" to her father — is hard to identify with, even as you're hoping she gets out of her situation. For one thing, she's understandably damaged; for another, the first-person narration is not very introspective — which I suppose is actually kind of the same thing as the first factor, being the logical function of the damage she's enduring. That realistic take on this bizarre situation is part of what I liked about this story: It embraces its darkness, doesn't take any easy paths in the narrative. And the imagery and description of the setting is good. The climactic confrontation between Turtle and her father is particularly vividly drawn — I almost feel like I had seen a movie of it.
Now I've got a Mendocino coast trilogy, dark and strange and gothic: this, T.C. Boyle's "The Harder They Come" and (definitely the best) Denis Johnson's "Already Dead." Could throw in Pynchon's "Vineland" for the setting, but it's a very different animal stylistically.
What's next: Tallent lives in Utah and is apparently an avid climber — he did a bookstore reading recently with Tommy Caldwell — and his second novel is reportedly going to be about dirtbag climbers.