|The 2016 List
reverse chronological order
»The Broken Road
»Designing Your Life
»I'm Thinking of Ending Things
»Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore
»It Happened in Boston?
»This Side of Paradise
»Two Years Before the Mast
»The Dog of the South
»Lives of the Presidents, Told in Words of One Syllable
»Before the Fall
»The Red and the Black
»How To Be a Tudor
»This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things
»Reading the Comments
»Within a Budding Grove
»The Enchanted Valley and Other Sketches
»City of Quartz
»Death Is a Lonely Business
»A Doubter's Almanac
»Dombey and Son
»West of Eden
»The Brothers Karamazov
»The Art of Forgery
»Alone on the Wall
»Let Me Be Frank With You
»Sewer, Gas & Electric
»The Lay of the Land
»The Road to Little Dribbling
»$2.00 a Day
»Masters of Atlantis
»Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink
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 2016|
1. The Canyon, Peter Viertel
2. The Dog of the South and Norwood, Charles Portis
3. The Lay of the Land, Richard Ford
4. The Broken Road, Patrick Leigh Fermor
5. Two Years Before the Mast, Richard Henry Dana
All 40 books
The Broken Road: From the Iron Gates to Mount Athos (2013, Patrick Leigh Fermor)
Why I picked it: It's the end of the trilogy.
What it's about: In 1933, having been expelled from school, 18-year-old Patrick Leigh Fermor decided to walk by himself from Rotterdam to Constantinople. This is the end of that trip, in Rumania and Bulgaria with a coda at Greece's Mount Athos. It was finished by Leigh Fermor's biographer and editor after his 2011 death.
What I thought: These are among the best books I've read in the past couple years. Leigh Fermor is a good writer, a good story teller, and his teenage self is a great character.
I was leery of this posthumous volume, but it retains the tone of the first two. All three books had admitted issues with source material: They were written well after the fact, and Leigh Fermor had lost some notebooks and the letters he had written during the trip. He (and in this case his collaborators) are upfront about at times piecing together a narrative with scanty recollection. In "The Broken Road," the most dismaying lacuna is at the end: Leigh Fermor had very few notes from his arrival in Constantinople.
This book seemed to me even more overshadowed than the German segment by the impending war. Leigh Fermor ended up fighting and living in Greece, and he can't help shading his recollections of this region with what he knew would happen to people he knew and a nation he loved. It was kind of sad to look at some of these towns in Streetview — they're now largely charmless in a Soviet bloc way.
But all in all it was another happy read. To mention one particularly memorable episode: Leigh Fermor is joined on his walk by a man who is so talkative that the author tries several times , more and more blatantly, to ditch him. That alone is a great tale, but the loquacious man turns up again in a surprising role. Despite the misery the man inflicts on him, Leigh Fermor, without thinking twice about it, does him a great and anonymous kindness. The author is an exceptionally gracious, curious and intrepid young man, and that makes these books more than just the account of an adventure.
Summer (1917, Edith Wharton)
Why I picked it: I really liked "The House of Mirth," and I've enjoyed well enough a few other of Wharton's novels.
What it's about: A teenager living with her benefactor falls in love with a young architect visiting her New England town. Being Wharton, it's not a storybook romance.
What I thought: I guess I should look for a Wharton novel with a heroine as sympathetic as Lily Bart in "House of Mirth." The last three of hers I've read, the protagonists aren't very pleasant people. This one is short enough, though, that I knew I was going to stick with it. And actually, I kind of like the darkness in Wharton's books — not only the mean and selfish characters and the always-present undercurrent of class conflict but in this case the destitute community the heroine can't escape. It put me in mind not only of "Hillbilly Elegy," which I had just finished, but also of Joyce Carol Oates' "Mudwoman," which has stuck with me more than I expected. Movie: I ran across a reference to a recent project with Hailee Steinfeld, but it doesn't seem to have been released yet.
Designing Your Life: How to Build a Well-Lived, Joyful Life (2016, Bill Burnett & Dave Evans)
Why I picked it: I read this one not as self-improvement advice but for better understanding of design thinking, which is an underlying philosophy at a couple of Alex's potential high schools.
What it's about: Burnett and Evans teach a very popular Stanford course called Designing Your Life, and this book walks the reader through their process and exercises.
What I thought: It was a pretty quick flip-through because I didn't stop and do the exercises, but I was engaged enough by their ideas that I kept the handouts for next time I have a big decision. And I might redesign my 2017 journal to note the things Burnett and Evans say are important indicators. The book also served my purpose as a quick dunk into design thinking the Hasso Plattner way.
I'm Thinking of Ending Things (2016, Iain Reid)
Why I picked it: It was a review of this book that sent me to "It Happened in Boston?," which I liked.
What it's about: A young woman has dinner for the first time with her boyfriend's parents, and things start getting creepy, then downright terrifying.
What I thought: First of all, it's not much at all like "It Happened in Boston?" I went back and looked at that review and realized that if I had read further I would have learned that, but I read just the first couple paragraphs and put both books on my list.
I'm not a huge fan of the trend toward unreliable-narrator mysteries, not least because it sometimes is an excuse for sloppy plotting and massive red herrings. This one, though, is no "Gone Girl" or "Girl on the Train" ripoff. It's deeply gothic, and the reader knows from the first pages that somebody is unbalanced. That said, it's much more about building up the disturbing atmosphere than it is about tight plotting. It's a short book, just over 200 pages, and when I was about 20 pages from the end and there still wasn't much of a path toward resolution, I was wondering if Reid could wrap it up in a way respectful of the reader. The answer is kind of. I wasn't ticked off by the ending, but when a mystery blatantly requires a second reading to connect the dots — like rewatching "The Sixth Sense" to see how people don't interact with Bruce Willis — that strikes me as a weakness. And even if you picked up on those things the first time through, it's unlikely you could say exactly what's going on. There are a few recurrences (headaches, the smell of varnish, skin lesions) that might be considered at least markers if not clues, but the main explanations are snips of dialogue among sane people talking about the bloody incident after the fact. Still, the layers of creepiness were really well done, and because of that I'm fine with this book's somewhat squishy underpinnings.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (2016, J.D. Vance)
Why I picked it: It has been on the bestseller list since shortly after it was published, and it sounded like an interesting first-hand story.
What it's about: Memoir of his young life (childhood through 20s) by a self-described hillbilly who is now a Yale-educated principal at a Silicon Valley venture capital firm.
What I thought: Right off the bat, there were a couple things I didn't expect. I figured (partly on the basis of the cover's rustic scene) that Vance was from rural Appalachia. He grew up in Middletown, Ohio. I also expected more of a sociological study. This is pretty much a straight-up memoir. At times, it veered a little too close to voyeurism for my taste (is self-voyeurism a thing?), but in general it avoided the ain't-it-awful sensationalism of some dysfunctional-family memoirs (Jeannette Walls, the odious David Pelzer).
Vance does have a take on the causes of poverty and downward mobility in this particular community. As you might expect from a Peter Thiel acolyte, it cites poor personal and family priorities and a lack of discipline. In a couple interviews I read with Vance, he does show an understanding of the socioeconomic and racial complexities beyond what comes through in this book. I was particularly struck by an exchange he had with one interviewer who pointed out that you frequently hear people say about lower-class blacks what Vance says about lower-class whites — that many of their problems are embedded in their culture. Yes, he said, but that idea is the starting point of the dialogue about whites, whereas with blacks, it shuts it down — "that's just the way they are," rather than "what can be done to change it?"
What's next: There were a couple more scholarly books this year on white lower class — Nancy Isenberg's acclaimed "White Trash" and one whose less memorable title escapes me.
Drop City (2003, T.C. Boyle)
Why I picked it: Boyle is always good for a well-told story.
What it's about: Beset by local health authorities and sheriff's deputies, a Northern California hippie commune in 1970 relocates to Alaska.
What I thought: It definitely has the Boyle vibe, serious to the point of black, with potentially lethal interpersonal conflicts at its core. The players in the most fraught conflict surprised me. At the book's start, when it was jumping between the hippies in California and a stoic trapper and his new bride in Alaska, I figured those would be the combatants — especially when it turned out that the commune was taking over the land adjacent to trapper Sess' homestead. But over the pages, some characters faded back and others stepped forward, and surprising alliances were made.
As usual, Boyle has a strong sense of place. He is now a Californian and most of his recent novels are set here, but at least to my un-Alaskan brain he did a good job as well with the action near the Arctic Circle. There is one standout scene near the end that I imagine sticks in the mind of everyone who reads this, and I spent 20 minutes with Google trying to figure out if it's a realistic scenario: If somebody takes a big swig of 151-proof rum that has been sitting in a metal flask in 45-below temperatures, will it kill him, and how? Apparently this was an Arctic legend even before the book, and the answer is it's really not a good idea.
Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore (2012, Robin Sloan)
Why I picked it: I had seen this in the library a few times and rejected it as another 'magical place run by delightful old man' story. This time I read the blurb, which played up the modern-day Silicon Valley setting and the mystery in the plot, and that was good enough.
What it's about: A laid-off web designer takes a job in a bookstore that sells few books but lends out many to strange and often overexcited borrowers. Bringing together the diverse talents of his friends, the new employee tries to discover what is going on.
What I thought: This isn't marketed as young adult, but it's pretty similar to a certain type of decent YA novel, with self-effacing narrator and close-knit friends tackling a puzzle. (Actually, not too far from "Paper Towns.") At one point in the middle, I was afraid it was going to go too deep into the lore and rules of the ancient secret society that's at its heart, but it pulled back up into more realistic terrain. I liked the Silicon Valley focus — a lot of Google worship going on here, as well as a very techie cast of characters (cranky hacker, accidental tycoon, teenage Belorussian prodigy, adorable genius Stanford alumna, typography geek). Of course, if its ongoing joke about climbing gyms is any indication, Sloan's take on the valley may be largely made up, but it has the whiff of authenticity.
It Happened in Boston? (1968, Russell H. Greenan)
Why I picked it: I was reading a review of the recently published "I'm Thinking of Ending Things," and it compared that one to this book, which it described as a "hypnotic cult-classic thriller."
What it's about: The narrator is an artist in Boston (1950s/60s — time frame not specific) who sees his fortunes rise while a talented friend has no such luck. A tragic event and a crushing realization launch him on an unhinged quest for justice.
What I thought: Of the novels I've read, it's closest to Paul Auster or Jonathan Lethem (who wrote the introduction to the edition I read). It is maybe on the spectrum of magical realism, a genre I've enjoyed, although perhaps that's not an accurate label given that the fantastic elements come from the mind of an increasingly unreliable narrator. And I actually liked the more realistic elements and the will-he-get-caught suspense more than the loopier excursions. A plus for me: the plot involves art forgery. I don't know if the reader is supposed to pick up on that way before the narrator does, but I assumed very early that was what was going on, and I was glad that the process was spelled out in detail toward the end of the book.
This Side of Paradise (1920, F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Why I picked it: Because of Gatsby.
What it's about: A young man from a modestly wealthy Midwest family assumes he's on the path to big things but ends up wandering.
What I thought: I started this one even though I suspected it would be like "The Beautiful and the Damned" — a story of rich people behaving badly, but without the more critical eye of "Gatsby." It was kind of like that, but protagonist Amory is, in the end, more self-aware and not nearly as unpleasant as B&D's Anthony and Gloria. In its themes it reminded me a lot of "The Razor's Edge," which was written 20 years later. Fitzgerald's writing is good, too — clean, not flashy, but with the occasional phrase that's so elegantly on point it makes you smile.
What's next: Even though I'm 2-1 against Fitzgerald at this point, I'll probably end up reading "Tender Is the Night" and "The Last Tycoon."
Two Years Before the Mast (1840, Richard Henry Dana Jr.)
Why I picked it: A canonical account of early California history that I had not read.
What it's about: The two years in the mid-1830s that Dana — a Harvard student seeking to restore his health — spent aboard merchant ships engaged in the hide trade with the California ranchos.
What I thought: I'm glad I read this one, but I would have liked more insight into the Alta California life. Dana spends most of the two years on a ship or in his company's isolated hide-processing house, and he doesn't really get to know the Californios. There's a short epilogue from his return to California in 1859, but he addresses only changes in places mentioned in the main book and not the new places he went in California's interior. His brief description of his return to San Francisco is pretty amazing. When he went in 1835, there was one homesteader, one little shack between the Presidio and Mission Dolores. Twenty-five years later it was a city of about 50,000 people, biggest on the West Coast.
So it's not a California travelogue, but the book is good at describing the life of merchant sailor. I've read a few memoirs about nautical voyages (whaling and exploring), but they were all told by an officer. Dana, though better educated than most of his colleagues, doesn't set himself above them. He writes thoughtfully and compassionately about their daily life, as well as about the Sandwich Islanders (Hawaiians) he works with. (The indigenous Californians don't get this sympathetic treatment.)
At the start of the book, Dana says he has confidence that the reader will be able to understand all the nautical language. I did not. I wish I'd had a diagram of his ships (the Pilgrim and the Alert) and a glossary. I got the sense of what was going on in the sailing portions but I certainly missed much of the detail.
There's a replica of the Pilgrim at Dana Point that I've intended to go to. When I go to Orange County next summer, I'm definitely going to make an effort to see it. I have visited the Monterey customs house that figures in the book, and that gave me a better understanding of the Pilgrim's retail trade with the Californios.
High-Rise (1975, J.G. Ballard)
Why I picked it: I had run across a few mentions of Ballard's novels — he was pretty prolific — but what finally pushed me to read him was a review of the 2015 movie of this one.
What it's about: Surrealist account of the descent of a London apartment building into primitive chaos.
What I thought: I'm glad this one is fairly short, because I might not have finished it if it were longer. It's quite ugly in its violence and brutality. Once the devolution becomes obvious, there's really nowhere to go plotwise except to continue the downward spiral, and the upward journey of the aptly named Wilder to the 40th-floor penthouse.
Movie? Haven't seen it, but it's on my list.
Vineland (1990, Thomas Pynchon)
Why I picked it: This was the first Pynchon novel I read, in 1992, and having read most of the rest I wanted to re-read it.
What it's about: Swayed by a federal agent, a radical filmmaker betrays a hippie revolution on a California campus in the 1960s. Fifteen years later, her disappearance sets off turmoil in the lives of the husband and daughter she abandoned. But, being Pynchon, it's weird and funny, full of twisted pop-culture references, ninjas and zombies.
What I thought: I'd rank it with "Inherent Vice" for readability and story; those two share my Pynchon podium with "Mason & Dixon." The story, even though much is told in flashback, is fairly easy to keep a handle on, and it seemed like there were fewer characters to keep track of than the most difficult Pynchons. And it gets points for its Northern California setting. The thing I remembered most from 25 years ago was the zombies — they weren't as ubiquitous then.
The Dog of the South (1979, Charles Portis)
Why I picked it: Why I picked it: I really liked Portis' "Norwood."
What it's about: Circa 1970, Ray Midge drives from Little Rock to British Honduras to reclaim the car in which his wife ran off with her ex-husband.
What I thought: After "Norwood" (1966), I floundered in Portis' "Masters of Atlantis" (1985). This one, though, was a lot more like "Norwood" — a meandering road trip, more about the characters than the action. I liked it maybe even more than "Norwood," though it isn't as funny. It's longer, more twists and turns and drama. The dogged and unimaginative Ray Midge becomes a little looser, a little more sympathetic — though whatever changes he goes through don't end up sticking once he's back in Little Rock. Movie? Reports from several years back had it optioned by Greg Mottola and Bill Hader, but no word since then.
Lives of the Presidents, Told in Words of One Syllable (1900, Jean S. Remy)
Why I picked it: How could I not?
What it's about: A grade-schooler's history book, 24 short chapters in short words.
What I thought: First of all, it's not truly in words of one syllable. I was wondering how they would get around people's names, and words like "president" ("the man who lived in the White House," perhaps), but it allows multisyllabic words when it would be jumping through hoops not to. So it avoids the conceptual challenge of that novel that doesn't have the letter e. And the "told in words of one syllable" was apparently a common format for kids' schoolbooks in the early 20th century. This is not the only one-syllable presidents, and I ran across mentions of similar histories of countries, a compilation of Bible stories and a version of "The Swiss Family Robinson" (Swiss Fam Rob?). But it was new to me when I ran across it on Librivox, and I couldn't resist.
This book is very much a document of its time. All the presidents are portrayed as honorable statesmen. The United States is the beacon of uprightness that all the world admires. The Indians are cruel and savage, and the trickery that led to Osceola's death is presented as necessary and perhaps admirably clever. (Surprising to me, African-Americans get much more sympathetic treatment.) I was also struck by how counter to design thinking the narrative runs: All the presidents are on a consistent path upward, with no mistakes or left turns into the bushes. Frequently it is stated that they knew immediately what "the right thing" was and how to accomplish it.
But I did learn some things. If I cannot rattle off the presidents Washington through McKinley, I at least made some historical connections that help me better place some of the lesser-knowns. Poor Martin Van Buren. He served four years, and he gets less coverage than his successor, William Henry Harrison, who died after 31 days in office.
Point Omega (2010, Don DeLillo)
Why I picked it: I was looking for downloadable audio of "Libra," and this was the only DeLillo available.
What it's about: An aging scholar who advised the Pentagon on shaping a conceptual framework for the Iraq War and the artist who wants to make a film about him drift through several weeks in an Anza Borrego hideout. The scholar's daughter shows up, and then disappears.
What I thought: I would have had a much different experience if I had seen this one in print. I would have then realized it's only 117 pages long. As it was, I was expecting a much longer novel, and when -- after a couple hours of spare narrative and abstract dialogue -- the young woman disappeared, I thought, "Ah, good, we're going to get some plot here." But no, the end was just around the corner.
Though I would have preferred a book with more plot, I don't regret the time. It's impressive how evocative DeLillo can be with such lean style. I particularly liked the start and end pieces (the two outside lines of the "haiku"), set in a gallery showing "24-Hour Psycho," which it turns out is a real thing. During the same few days I was listening to this, I was reading a New Yorker profile of the land-form sculptor Michael Heizer, and the double layer of desert, art and prickly old men made both the book and the magazine piece resonate more with me.
Before the Fall (2016, Noah Hawley)
Why I picked it: I was thinking this would be a good audiobook for the road trip, but it didn't show up soon enough.
What it's about: A private plane goes down off Long Island, and nine of the 11 people aboard are killed. The rest of the book is the investigations, both official and tabloid, into the cause, as the two survivors struggle to get back on track.
What I thought: This one is kind of this summer's "Girl On a Train," and I liked it better. It probably won't satisfy a die-hard fan of the mystery-thriller genre, because there aren't that many twists and turns, just a few red herrings. If it weren't for the extensive backstories on several of the characters, it would be about 50 pages long. And the conclusion was not very intriguing, definitely not as appealing as my favored theory. It's well-written, though, and it kept me engaged.
Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood (2016, Lisa Demour)
Why I picked it: Alison recommended it.
What it's about: A psychologist who specializes in teenage girls talks about the changes a parent can expect.
What I thought: I didn't pick this out of any concerns about my own daughter, but it's not a bad idea to be aware of how quickly things change in just a few years.
The Red and the Black (1830, Stendhal)
Why I picked it: I read this in my first quarter at college, but I didn't remember much of it. If I'm going to continue with Proust, or try Zola, I figure this is good background.
What it's about: An ambitious working-class teenager during the Bourbon Restoration advances as a seminarian and an aristocrat's secretary but is doomed by his romantic entanglements.
What I thought: Yeah, I really didn't remember much of this one at all. I'd say it's pretty good, though none of the main characters is very sympathetic. They are, however, realistic in their motivations (and their vacillations), rather than strictly archetypal. I liked that much of it takes place far from Paris, and I liked the historical/political elements. I was eager after a while to move on from the whole Julian-and-Mathilde back-and-forth — she loves him, he doesn't love her, she doesn't love him, he loves her — but I guess the whole point of that was the prolonged emotional tennis match. When there finally was some resolution there, it came so abruptly — and in such a casually mentioned development — that I had to reread it to be sure. Same with a big development at the end: A scene I thought would be lingered over was done in a flash. I'd say in a flash of a guillotine, but I don't think it went into even that much detail.
Lab Girl (2016, Hope Jahren)
Why I picked it: I was looking for an audiobook for my car trip with Alex, hoping without much hope to repeat the "Martian" magic. This one at least had the science.
What it's about: Memoir of a plant biologist, Actually, I think she calls herself a biogeochemist.
What I thought: This is an unusual one. I thought before I started that it might be of the humorous science memoir type ("Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman") but it isn't really, though it's told in a casual and personal way, with some funny anecdotes. Jahren's format is to alternate lectures on some scientific aspect of plants — reproduction, for instance, or the odds against a tree seed actually sprouting — with somewhat-related recollections of her life. I liked the science stuff. I really do think of trees differently now. Jahren herself I found less sympathetic than the trees. Well, maybe that's not fair, but she is by her own description a high-strung person, and more careless about her personal life than you'd expect of a research scientist — qualities that make it hard for me to admire her as a person. Plus it's kind of hard to get a handle on the main theme of the book: her decades-long friendship with her lab assistant. It's like she wrote this whole thing to thank him for sticking with her (though she says he told her he would never read it). It surprises me that it has been high on the best-seller lists for most of the year. I'm curious about why people are reading it. Maybe they're looking for "The Martian," too.
How To Be a Tudor: A Dawn-to-Dusk Guide to Tudor Life (2015, Ruth Goodman)
Why I picked it: I have an interest in European history, and I liked Goodman's earlier "How To Be a Victorian."
What it's about: Daily life in 16th-century England, including clothes, hygiene, food, beer, household layout, leisure, sex.
What I thought: I knew what to expect from the Victorian book. Goodman is a re-enactor, apparently pretty famous from British TV, and she has a practical, ground-view focus. I didn't like this quite as much as the Victorians -- they're more interesting, being on the brink of what we think of as modern life. Also, there's more documentation of the Victorians, so less guesswork. In this one, Goodman spends a lot of time sifting through wills and contracts to try to figure out how people lived.
This Is Why We Can't Have Nice Things: Mapping the Relationship between Online Trolling and Mainstream Culture (2015, Whitney Phillips)
Reading the Comments: Likers, Haters, and Manipulators at the Bottom of the Web (2015, Joseph M. Reagle Jr.)
Why I picked them: Part of my job is moderating the comments on our websites, and even after a couple years, I don't understand some of these people. Several times a day I run across behavior to which I can say only, "Seriously?" I was hoping for some insight into the thought processes that drive people to, say, post a photo of a rival commenter's wife with snotty comments, or try five times in a row to get the same vulgar phrase past the filter.
What they're about: Both are academic studies, probably the end products of dissertations, about interactions on the Internet.
What I thought: Neither gave me much enlightenment. The first is about hardcore trolls of the Anonymous variety, with whom, thank god, I don't have much dealings — the kind of people who descend on the Facebook pages of dead teenagers to post offensive comments for the family to find. The second hopped around among a rather random collection of topics, including online reviews and Gamergate. I think what I would really want is the result of a survey that talked to many people about how and why they engage with strangers on the web, and particularly to those who seem to get satisfaction from repeatedly posting comments they know will be offensive.
Within a Budding Grove (1919, Marcel Proust)
Why I picked it: Volume 2 of "In Search of Lost Time." I'm not completely sold on finishing the series, but I thought it was worth another step.
What it's about: The narrator, now an adolescent, is adolescently infatuated by the girls: Gilberte Swann, until their friendship fractures; her mother, Odette; and a gang of hoydens led by Albertine Simonet at the Normandy beach resort of Balbec (in real life, Cabourg).
What I thought: I liked it a little better than Volume 1, whose focus on the brutal courtship of the Swanns got a little tedious. My favorite parts of this one were when he (unnamed protagonist) was interacting with other people. When he's just going on with random musing, I tended to drift away. At one point, I didn't realize the tracks were loaded in reverse order in my playlist, and I listened for 20 minutes, eight tracks, before it seemed odd to me.
Norwood (1966, Charles Portis)
Why I picked it: I have lately been running across praise for Portis (now age 82) as an underappreciated American novelist, but most of those encomia mention "True Grit" as the one to read. I've seen the "True Grit" movies several times and, though I liked them, I would rather read a story I don't already know. Then I found out that Portis' first novel was "Norwood." I saw that movie, too, at a drive-in in 1970, but I don't remember much except that it was a favorite of my mom's. Good enough.
What it's about: Norwood Pratt, recently discharged from the Marines, makes a trip from Ralph, Texas, to New York City in an attempt to collect a debt.
What I thought: This is a really sweet and strange little novel. Nothing much happens during Norwood's journey, but he meets a series of unusual characters (a midget sold as a child to a circus, a beatnik travel writer, a prognosticating chicken). A lot of it is in dialogue, of the mannered style you'd recognize from the Coens' version of "True Grit." The whole thing is hilarious in the driest possible way, with surprising bits of throwaway brilliance.
Mrs. Reese said, "Do you have any new hens, Mama?"What's next: Happily, it seems that Portis' five other novels are all available in print and in downloadable audio from my library. I imagine I'll even read "True Grit."
Movie? I am not hopeful I'll be able to find this one, but maybe the Last Remaining Video Store has it. It reunited Glen Campbell and Kim Darby from the previous year's "True Grit," and shifted Norwood's conflict from Korea to Vietnam.
The Enchanted Valley and Other Sketches (1976, Guy Chaffee Earl)
Why I picked it: Looking through the California history stacks, I found this short memoir of a childhood in the Owens River Valley, a favorite place of mine. It wasn't the cover that won me over.
What it's about: Guy Chaffee Earl — later a San Francisco lawyer and longtime University of California regent — spent part of his youth (around 1865-75) on a farm near Fort Independence. He wrote down some of his recollections, and after his death his son had them published as a book.
What I thought: It was fairly pedestrian, both in the stories recounted and in the way they were told. Young Guy is not charming, coming across as rather a barbarian in his attitudes toward non-whites, animals and scholarship. In fairness, though, it was initially published just for the family. And it was an easy read, so it was worth the effort for the little it added to my California history knowledge. I liked putting together the geographical clues to try to figure out where the Earl farm was, which I think is right about here:
Steve Jobs (2011, Walter Isaacson)
Why I picked it: I got this one in a library giveaway a couple years ago and intended to read it eventually. Recently I saw the 2015 movie that credits this book as its source, and the screenplay was great. It made me wonder if the book was different from what I expected from an authorized biography.
What it's about: The authorized biography of the late Apple co-founder.
What I thought: The answer is, the book is more conventional than the movie. (It does not, however, hold back on portraying Jobs as a real jerk, so in that way it was different than I expected.) It's a long book, comprehensive to the point of being repetitive. Maybe three times would have been enough for Isaacson to discuss Jobs' preference for end-to-end control over open source. And some of the minutiae — a detailed breakdown of what's on Steve's iPod — seemed ridiculously minute. All in all, though, I'm not sorry I devoted the time to it. The major episodes of Jobs' life I already knew, but this book strung them together and filled in the gaps.
City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles (1990, Mike Davis)
Why I picked it: In my California history reading, this kept coming up as an insightful recent examination of Los Angeles. It has been on my list for more than 10 years, so it's time I got to it.
What it's about: The political and social forces that have shaped Los Angeles' growth.
What I thought: I had thought this was going to focus mostly on urban planning, but it's much broader than that. It goes deep into the city's power structure: City Hall, business and industry leaders, the police, the Catholic church. It also has a pronounced point of view, of class and ethnic conflict. And it's written in a very dense academic style. A sentence chosen at random:
For if Los Angeles has become the archetypal site of massive and unprotesting subordination of industrialized intelligentsias to the programs of capital, it has also been fertile soil for some of the most acute critiques of the culture of late capitalism, and, particularly, of the tendential degeneration of its middle strata (a persistent theme from Nathanael West to Robert Towne).
Davis starts right in on the city's myth-building. I was fine with that. I could use a little balance to Bradbury and Banham; even Kevin Starr qualifies as a booster. (Davis' last chapter is titled "Junkyard of Dreams," an overt jab at Starr's California history series.) It wasn't many pages before I understood that Davis swings way to the other side, with a bleak view of a Los Angeles run by scared, rich, white people determined to keep their neighborhoods rich and white. So I did a lot of mental trail-clearing as I was reading, separating the good research and journalism from Davis' Marxist political stance, and keeping a middle-of-the-road skepticism. I learned a lot from this book, but it was a slow read and a gloomy one.
Death Is a Lonely Business (1985, Ray Bradbury)
Why I picked it: Noir mystery set in Venice, California.
What it's about: A young writer in Venice Beach in 1949 pieces together clues about the deaths and disappearances of some friends and neighbors.
What I thought: I'm not a huge sci-fi fan, so though I appreciate Bradbury for his roles in genre fiction and in California culture, I haven't read much of his work. I am a noir fan, though, and when I read a mention of this novel I put it on my list. The mystery element really isn't that huge. It's more a collection of profiles of archetypal Southern California characters, starting with the endearing Bradbury-like narrator, tied together by a series of misfortunes that could be criminal. It's earnest and sentimental — a noir story with a distinctly soft-boiled narrator — and sometimes funny, with nice imagery.
What's next: There are two sequels. I'm slogging through some weightier stuff right now, but there will be time for fluffier reading later.
A Doubter's Almanac (2016, Ethan Canin)
Why I picked it: I liked Canin's previous novel, "America America."
What it's about: A self-centered alcoholic math genius makes a shambles of his life but doesn't completely alienate his son, who narrates this story.
What I thought: I didn't like it as much as "America America" — a journalist recalling his personal experience in a fictional 1968 presidential campaign — but the main character is memorable, and I liked that the math wasn't glossed over as too complicated for a general audience.
Dombey and Son (1848, Charles Dickens)
Why I picked it: This was the last on my Dickens list.
What it's about: Arrogant widower Paul Dombey so favors his young son that he is cold and neglectful toward his daughter. When he remarries, his new wife forms an alliance with the girl and stays in the loveless marriage for her sake, until her husband attempts to break up their friendship.
What I thought: I hadn't expected a whole lot from this, as it's not one of the better-known Dickenses, but I liked it. I'd definitely place it above the most recent I've read in approaching the tail end of the list (Pickwick Papers, Hard Times, Our Mutual Friend), though not in the top tier of Great Expectations and David Copperfield (which were written after it).
There was less humor than in the best Dickens, but there are good characters. I particularly appreciated that the two main female characters are not Dickens' standard gentle-and-loveable type, bordering on simpering. Well, perhaps daughter Florence tends that way, but she's not yet a woman for most of the book.
What's next: I do think I'm done for a while, but there are a few I haven't tried yet: Old Curiosity Shop, Nicholas Nickleby, Little Dorrit, Martin Chuzzlewit.
West of Eden: An American Place (2016, Jean Stein)
Why I picked it: I saw it in the New York Times Book Review's little blurbs of other notable books (missed the big review, I think), and the blurb made me think it was a Los Angeles history told through the stories of a few particular families.
What it's about: Five stories about 20th-century Los Angeles families, told in the Turkelesque oral-history style now enjoying a revival, transcripts of quotes from knowledgeable people without any connecting narrative.
What I thought: It started out really well. The first part was about the Dohenys, of whom I knew a little, and who are definitely a family that helped shape L.A. Second one was Jack Warner. OK, I can buy that. Third was a not a family, but a mentally ill young woman named Jane Garland whose constant care provided employment for a bunch of fledgling artists and gallerists in the 1960s. That's where I realized this was not the book I had hoped. For one thing, I was pretty put off by the pathetic portrait of this woman without even the defense that she's a public figure. At this point, I also realized this book might just be five stories with Los Angeles (and the author's own life and friends) their only connection. Stein wrote an oral-history book about Edie Sedgwick, so maybe the art and craziness was the appeal of the Garland episode. And except for the Dohenys, the others have substantial connections to Stein's own family -- the last chapter, in fact, is about her father, Jules Stein. Quite a few interviewees (including Dennis Hopper, Walter Hopps, David Geffen, Betty Warner Sheinbaum) show up in multiple chapters. Sometimes I had the sense that Stein just went around to her friends and asked them to dish, a feeling bolstered by the occasionally sketchy factual underpinnings. One episode has the Byrds playing "Mr. Tambourine Man" at a 1963 party — two years before it was recorded. And I'm still wondering why Dennis Hopper and Brooke Hayward's children seemed to think Norton Simon and Jennifer Jones (that's the fourth chapter) were their grandparents. In the tangle of Hollywood incestuousness, I haven't found that particular strand. So I'm still looking for the book I thought this one would be, because I would really like to read that.
Slade House (2015, David Mitchell)
Why I picked it: Another impulse pick from the new-books shelf. I liked Mitchell's "Cloud Atlas." Wasn't so fond of "Black Swan Green."
What it's about: Horror story about soul-sucking eternal beings that once every nine years lure a selected victim into their fantastic house.
What I thought: I didn't realize from the jacket blurb that this was a horror story. Despite having discovered a liking for some genre fiction — fantasy, mystery — I'm not a big horror fan.
The format is five chapters, one for each of five consecutive victims from 1979 to 2015. It seemed too repetitive, plus each chapter was longer than the previous. The dialogue between the soul-suckers was wooden, or maybe turgid is a better word. I also thought it was a little too involved in the mechanism, the rules, of the whole luring-and-sucking thing. By the end I was regretting starting this one, but I kept going to see how it ended. Which ending, by the way, did not redeem it.
The Brothers Karamazov (1880, Fyodor Dostoevsky)
Why I picked it: While I was reading "Crime and Punishment," the rabbi at my synagogue recommended this.
What it's about: The boorish father of three (or maybe four) young men in 19th-century Russia is found murdered, and one of his sons is tried for the crime.
What I thought: I didn't regret reading it, but I didn't like it as well as C&P, which was tighter and more suspenseful. 'Karamazov' is just bigger all around -- more characters, more social commentary. It also gets extra points because it has Plotnikovs in it.
It's kind of embarrassing that my descriptions of some of these big books are so terse, when I go on at length about fluffy things. I'd like to think that's because with a book like this, if you scratch the surface you have to go pretty deep, so I keep the blurbs superficial.
The Art of Forgery: The Minds, Motives and Methods of the Master Forgers (2015, Noah Charney)
Why I picked it: Impulse pick from the library's new-books shelf. Art forgery is a topic I'm interested in, and I've read some on it, but more fiction than non-fiction.
What it's about: Examinations of a few dozen forgers, clustered by their apparent motivations (fame, revenge, money, etc.). Mostly art forgeries, but it also addresses other types, including wine and scientific antiquities.
What I thought: Some of it wasn't new to me, but enough of it was. A few of the episodes I remembered all the hoopla about the big discovery of a new work but didn't remember they were later determined to be fakes. (Or forgeries. There is a difference, which is one thing I learned from this book.) I guess that's one reason people get away with this -- we want to believe. I think that having read this will make me a lot more skeptical of these stories. In fact, right after I finished, I found myself looking askance at the story of a newly found "non-traditional" Rembrandt being unveiled to the public, having been bought last year at a New Jersey auction with an opening price of $250.
The Canyon (1940, Peter Viertel)
Why I picked it: Reyner Banham mentions it in his Los Angeles book, and it sounded like something I should have run across long ago: a semi-autobiographical story written at age 18 about a boyhood in Santa Monica Canyon in the 1930s.
What it's about: A teenager in Santa Monica Canyon in the 1930s.
What I thought: I really liked this one. As literature, it's nothing outstanding, but it has such a sense of place and time. He doesn't name the canyon, and because of the way it's described as a rustic outpost I figured it was one of the more remote ones near Malibu. Then I went and looked it up and was surprised to find it was Santa Monica/Rustic, which these days is an urban neighborhood, although a funky/beachy one. But the pictures I found of it in the 1930s were right in line with what he describes. (Here is a great bunch of early Santa Monica, mostly farther south but a few of the canyon area. I particularly like the Toed Inn). Viertel was the son of Salka and Berthold Viertel, a couple of German expat writers and salon leaders I'd read about in Kevin Starr's books, but he apparently shared with his 'Canyon' alter ego George a very California outlook on life. The book has in common with other coming-of-age books the sex. petty crime, deception and some pretty brutal behavior among friends, but I'd say it's particularly Angeleno in its outdoor setting and its focus on the Mexican/mestizo community. The climactic flood that precipitates George's departure from California mirrors a real event that wiped out much of Santa Monica Canyon in 1938 (and, some say, swept the Toed Inn out to sea). If anybody sees this in a used-book store for under $50, I'll pay you for it. I had to order it interlibrary from University of Santa Clara — not available in the Peninsula or San Jose library systems — and the only Amazon copy is a $300 first edition.
Alone on the Wall (2015, Alex Honnold with David Roberts)
Why I picked it: Climbing.
What it's about: Early-career memoir of Honnold, who at 30 has become arguably the nation's most famous climber because of his free-soloing exploits.
What I thought: It turns out I actually knew a lot of the stories in this book, mostly from Reel Rock and magazine articles. Those profiles also said about all there is to say about the big questions -- why does he do it? doesn't he get scared? This book did add one piece of information: Why did Honnold start free-soloing? Because he was so awkward and introverted that he couldn't bring himself to ask strangers if he could climb with them. The book also gave a sense of the rough edges of his personality that have been burnished off in his more recent publicity. David Roberts and other people who knew him earlier recall behavior and statements that were at best tone-deaf, at worst arrogant and insulting. But, to give the guy a break, he was barely 20 when he came into the public eye, and these days he seems to be consciously maturing and becoming more self-aware.
Let Me Be Frank With You (2014, Richard Ford)
Why I picked it: The most recent of Ford's Bascombe series, which I have been rereading/reading.
What it's about: Frank Bascombe at age 68 at the end of 2012. He has retired from real estate and moved from the beach back to Haddam, N.J., with wife Sally.
What I thought: This is actually four stories, but they flow together well. Like the three Bascombe novels, it takes place around a holiday -- this time, Christmas. Glowering over the season is the shock and destruction of Hurricane Sandy. I liked "The Lay of the Land" better, partly because I like the heft of a novel, and probably partly because I identified more with the 56-year-old Frank. I do like Frank, though, and I'll keep reading these as long as Ford keeps writing them.
Sewer, Gas & Electric: The Public Works Trilogy (1997, Matt Ruff)
Why I picked it: I read it when it came out and really liked it. Wanted to see how it stood up.
What it's about: A cyberpunky futuristic mystery involving ecopirates, cyborgs and the resurrected personality of Ayn Rand living in a hurricane lamp.
What I thought: I might have saved myself some hit-and-miss in my reading choices if I had noted the authors of the book cover blurbs: Pynchon, Neal Stephenson, David Foster Wallace. I moved on to all of them, and enjoyed them maybe even more than I did this one. Ruff's book is like "Infinite Jest" and "Snowcrash" in its involved and multi-tangented plot, colorful cast and projection of life on earth in the early 21st century. I still liked it, and in a way it was more thought-provoking when read 15 years closer to the book's time frame, past some of the loopy milestones Ruff sets in the early 2000s. But of course it didn't have that sui-generis feeling of the first time.
The Lay of the Land (2006, Richard Ford)
Why I picked it: I reread Ford's first two Frank Bascombe novels so I could finish out the set.
What it's about: It's fall of 2000, 12 years since last we saw him, and Bascombe is 55, remarried, still selling real estate in New Jersey, and being treated for prostate cancer. As with the other two books, this one takes place on a holiday week: Thanksgiving, when Bascombe is hosting his two grown children in the absence of his wife, who has left him in a rather open-ended way.
What I thought: This was my favorite of the Bascombe books. It's looser and more surprising and funnier. And maybe I feel familiar with Frank, like I understand him pretty well. In my Rabbit/Bascombe matrix, this one is the cognate to "Rabbit at Rest," in which the mid-50s Rabbit deals with his unlikable grown son and survives a scary incident that puts him in the hospital.
What's next: I had thought that the recent "Let Me Be Frank With You" was a novella, but it turns out it's actually linked short stories about Bascombe.
The Riders (1994, Tim Winton)
Why I picked it: I really liked this when I read it 20 years ago, the first Winton novel I read.
What it's about: An Australian newly moved to Ireland goes to pick up his wife and daughter at the airport and finds only the little girl, and she isn't talking. He takes her on a search for his missing wife.
What I thought: Still liked it a lot. I don't know if it was because I remembered the outcome or just a different reading of it, but this time I saw less mystery concerning the wife's whereabouts and motives. Maybe for that reason I appreciated the characters more, wasn't in such a hurry for Scully to move on in his quest.
The Road to Little Dribbling: Adventures of an American in Britain (2016, Bill Bryson)
Why I picked it: Bryson is an entertaining writer, and I like the idea of walking across Britain.
What it's about: The initial conceit is walking a north-south route across Wales, England and Scotland. It's not one long hike, though, but more episodic excursions.
Why I gave it up: It was more fluffy than I was in the mood for. Bryson is amusing, but, to my taste, he falls a little too easily into his Funny/Cranky Old Guy mode. Figured if I was looking for a long walk, I should finish the Patrick Leigh Fermor trilogy.
Detroit: An American Autopsy (2014, Charlie Le Duff)
Why I picked it: After reading "Hillbilly Elegy," I was interested in a deeper study of the recent socioeconomic changes in the industrial Midwest.
What it's about / why I gave it up: I wanted some hard reporting. LeDuff — a former reporter for the Detroit News and the New York Times — says upfront that this is not going to be a deep look at economy. I gave it a few chapters, but it was pretty much just about LeDuff. As I've mentioned before, I don't have much patience for the unleashed writing of a certain type of crime reporter who is invaluable on a newspaper staff but rather tedious in monologue.
Oxford (1965, Jan Morris)
Why I picked it: After Morris' "Trieste and the Meaning of Nowhere," I put this one and "Manhattan '45" on my list.
What it's about: The city and university of Oxford.
Why I gave it up: I read quite a bit of it on our summer flying trip, but without the Google Maps and Streetview that added so much to "Trieste." When I got home, I moved on to other things. Might still go back.
$2.00 a Day: Living on Almost Nothing in America (2015, Kathryn J. Edin and H. Luke Shaefer)
Why I picked it: The most basic of reasons: I saw a mention of it somewhere and thought it was an interesting topic.
What it's about: Academic study of the most impoverished families in America — how they got that way, and why it's hard for them to get out.
Why I gave it up: I may still go back and finish it, but it expired off my audiobook app when I was on vacation, and I moved on to other reading. I had gotten a little less than halfway through. I did learn some stuff about the history and politics of government assistance, and the stories of how people live on virtually no money are gripping, in a bleak way.
Update: A few months later, I found a paperback copy on the free table at work. I got half a chapter past where I ended, then I took it to a climbing gym, and it wandered away from a cubby. That's OK, though. I'm glad if it ended up with somebody else who's interested in it.
Masters of Atlantis (1985, Charles Portis)
Why I picked it: Fresh off of "Norwood," I was primed for more Portis.
What it's about: The inside machinations of a secret society founded on Malta after World War I and carried to America by a true believer, a U.S. serviceman.
Why I gave it up: It had neither enough plot nor sufficiently pointed satire to keep me interested. "Norwood" didn't have much plot, either, but it was funny. I will still try "The Dog of the South," which sounds more like "Norwood" than this.
Unfaithful Music and Disappearing Ink (2015, Elvis Costello)
Why I picked it: I like Costello's music, and his considerable songwriting talent made me think his memoir might be a good read.
What it's about: Autobiography of the pop musician.
Why I gave it up: I made it more than a third of the way through but finally tired of its anecdotal nature. The narrative skips around, clustering memories around loose themes — the Beatles, for instance — and never going too deep into Costello's regrets or motivations or other thoughts. He spends as much time explaining the origin of certain of his songs as he does on his own life. At the point I gave it up, he still hadn't delved into his rise to fame in the late 1970s or even addressed any of his marriages beyond a name-check.