|The 2019 List
reverse chronological order
»Nothing to See Here
»The Shepherd's Hut
»The Topeka School
»The Cabin at the End of the World
»The British Are Coming
»The Flying Troutmans
»Fleishman is in Trouble
»A Boy of Good Breeding
»A Time to Be Born
»The Big Seven
»Slow Days, Fast Company
»Since We Fell
»The Dakota Winters
»One Hundred Years of Solitude
»The Nonexistent Knight
»The Patrick Melrose novels
»Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters / Seymour: An Introduction
»Franny and Zooey
»All My Puny Sorrows
»The Story of the Lost Child
»We Have Always Lived in the Castle
»Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay
»The Story of a New Name
»Tenements, Towers & Trash
»My Life in Middlemarch
»The Feral Detective
The 2018 List
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.
|The books of 2019|
Same as last year, I read 46 books, and this time fully half of them were by women (again, not by design). Until the last day of the year, one of those, Miriam Toews' "All My Puny Sorrows," was in my top 5, and it was not without misgivings that I bumped her to an honorable mention.
Two on this list were re-readings of books on my all-time favorites — "Delta Wedding" and "Franny & Zooey" — and both of them held up.
1. The Feral Detective, Jonathan Lethem
2. Sabrina, Nick Drnaso
3. Nothing to See Here, Kevin Wilson
4. Say Nothing, Patrick Radden Keefe
5. The Patrick Melrose novels, Edward St. Aubyn
Honorable mention: All My Puny Sorrows
All 46 books
Nothing to See Here (2019, Kevin Wilson)
Why I picked it: The review in the New York Times was so positive as to be controversial.
What it's about: A young woman with few prospects is hired by a wealthy long-ago schoolmate as the "governess" for 10-year-old twins who burst into flame when agitated.
What I thought: When I started reading this one, I had already picked out my Top 5 books of the year. I wasn't a chapter in when I realized I was going to have to revise my list. About my only quibble is it's short — I wanted to keep reading.
The narrator, Lillian, is a great character. I was going to say that she's a type that I rarely find in novels — an intelligent, complex woman living a life without ambition or personal relationships — but I realize I said the same thing about the characters in two other books I've really liked recently, "A History of Wolves" and "Liberty Street." Still, it's rare enough, and this one was well-done enough, that I was delighted by it. And it is different from the other two in that it was written by a man. Goes to show, I guess, that a good writer with a good character will find the truth without first-hand knowledge of gender roles.
The supporting characters are just as thoughtfully written. I imagine it helps that there are only a few: three kids, and five other adults.
You could take the catching-on-fire as a metaphor, but I'm glad that the book just runs with it as an inexplicable happening, and a rather comic one. And the book is funny, though it also has a strong undercurrent concerning class division and the expectations faced by women. When I was writing the "what it's about," I realized the summary could be that of an Austen novel (except for the combustion). There is a timeless quality to the story and the relationships.
I'm sure the movie rights to this one were snapped up immediately. Throughout, I kept visualizing the scenes and thinking that there wasn't much adaptation to be done — it's very cinematically written.
Finally, I highly recommend the audio version of this. I started it in print, using the audio during my commute, but I switched to only audio because I so liked the reading by Marin Ireland. She captures Lillian's mix of awkwardness and defiance and fake-it-till-you-make-it, and even her voices for the kids seem natural and unannoying.
What's next: Looking at Wilson's previous novels (I hadn't read any), the one that most interests me is "The Family Fang."
The Shepherd's Hut (2018, Tim Winton)
Why I picked it:Tim Winton has written a few of my favorites, including "The Riders," "Breath" and "Eyrie."
What it's about: A teenage boy flees after a calamitous event at his Western Australia home and ends up sharing a wilderness camp with a Catholic priest doing some sort of enforced penance.
What I thought: It's not in my top tier of Winton's books. It took me a long time to feel any connection to the protagonist, Jaxie. He's a really damaged kid, brutal and sullen, and he seems even more loutish because of the vernacular of the first-person narration. Of course, that's the whole story, his gradual transition to some sort of empathy and thoughtfulness. Winton pulls it off well, both the character and the narrative, but for me it was a tough sell.
As always with Winton, I really got into his setting, the Australian wilderness, and that kept me going even when I was not in a groove with Jaxie and Fintan.
The Topeka School (2019, Ben Lerner)
Why I picked it: Good reviews.
What it's about: A high school debate star in the 1990s in Topeka, and his parents, who work at a prominent psychiatric foundation.
What I thought: I wasn't wild about this book. The main character, Adam, is pretty unlikable, and I thought the writer was a little too insistent with the theme of spoken nonsense and garble and firehose verbiage. I did like the insight into the world of high school debate (Lerner was a champion debater, out of Topeka), particularly the use of rapid-fire delivery to "spread" your opponents by making it hard for them to rebut all of your points in the given time.
The Falconer (2019, Dana Czapnik)
Why I picked it: (I don't know why I even mention why I picked it. Eighty percent of the time it's a mention in some publication that made it sound like something I'd like.)
What it's about: Lucy, a standout high school basketball player growing up in Manhattan in the mid-1990s.
What I thought: I didn't realize until I started writing this how similar in topic this book is to "The Topeka School," which I was reading at the same time. Both are about high school students in the mid-90s, both of them only children and Jewish, both excelling at their chosen field (basketball, debate). I liked this one a lot more, and I'm wondering if it's because Lucy is a girl. It was hard for me to have much sympathy for Adam in "The Topeka School" — white upper-class young man who is constantly talking at people. With "The Falconer," though I can't claim any commonality with a standout athlete, I understood Lucy's grappling with societal expectations of girls, and the variations on that theme didn't seem overly didactic to me.
"The Falconer" isn't being marketed as a young-adult novel, but it fits in with the best of those. It reminded me of "The Basketball Diaries," though without the hard-core drugs -- set on the streets and in the private schools of Manhattan, the teens basically running their own lives without much parental supervision, and much reflection on class division among their cohort.
Middle England (2018, Jonathan Coe)
Why I picked it: It was an Editor's Choice selection a few months ago in the New York Times Book Review, and I liked the idea of reading a Brexit novel.
What it's about: Follows two middle-aged British siblings, and about eight people connected to them through blood or friendship, from 2010 to 2017, with a focus on the political division of the country.
What I thought: I felt like the intertwining stories, without being too didactic, gave me a good sense of what the political mood in Britain was like in the run-up to Brexit (which is not too different from the same years in the U.S., except for the principal ethnicity of the immigrants who are under fire) and how the referendum actually ended up before the public. At the start of one of the sections, there was a quote — versions of which have apparently been retweeted widely in the past few years, but I hadn't heard it before — and it immediately struck me as the perfect summing-up: "To the privileged, equality feels like a step down. Understand this and you understand a lot of populist politics today."
This book left me feeling a little grateful that even though the U.S. elected Trump it didn't do anything as stupid as commit to an ill-considered act that will have unhappy ramifications for generations to come.
Coe has been on my radar for a long time, and I was surprised to realize I've never read any of his novels before this. I liked this one well enough to look for something else of his. Apparently the main characters in this book are in two of his other novels.
The Cabin at the End of the World (2018, Paul Tremblay)
Why I picked it: Another NYT Book Review mention, in a horror roundup that led with Tremblay's more recent story collection. He was praised as someone who writes daring and vividly terrifying stories.
What it's about: A couple at a remote cabin with their 7-year-old daughter are taken captive by four people — until recently strangers to each other — who have a shared apocalyptic vision.
What I thought: This really wasn't what I was expecting. I thought it was going to have an overtly supernatural bent, but instead the whole story is shaped by the back and forth (among the characters, and in the reader's mind) over whether what is happening is explainable by logic and science or if the world really might be coming to an end. The terror is not the keep-you-awake-at-night type of creepiness but just like, shit, what a horrible thing to have happen to your family. (The other thing going on in the reader's head, besides "could this be real," is "what would I do in this situation?") I've mentioned before that I'm fine with ambiguous endings, but this book's ending is just really ... flat.
So, all in all, I wouldn't recommend this one. I'm interested enough in Tremblay, though, that I might try his "A Head Full of Ghosts," realizing that there may not be any ghosts in it.
The Interestings (2013, Meg Wolitzer)
Why I picked it: I ran across a recent mention of it, though I don't know what that would have been because this novel is several years old. (It may have been related to the recent movie version of Wolitzer's "The Wife.") Also, Wolitzer seems to be fairly respected for popular fiction, and I've never read anything of hers.
What it's about: The friends that a middle-class teen makes at an arts summer camp in the 1970s influence the course of her life.
What I thought: An easy, engaging read. I wouldn't say all the characters are really fleshed out, but then there are a lot of them. The narrative occasionally seemed a little like checking all the boxes of NYC life from the 1980s to 2001: AIDS, the preppie killer, anti-depression drugs, street crime, rent control and so on. I will say, though, that there was one particular incident that needed a really sure hand — when main character Jules unwittingly reveals a long-held secret — and Wolitzer pulled it off so well I didn't realize what was happening until I had the moment of revelation at the same time as Jules did.
Warlight (2018, Michael Ondaatje)
Why I picked it: Ondaatje has been hit-and-miss with me. A summary I read of this — one of the New York Times' "What We're Reading" listings — made it seem like it might work for me.
What it's about: A teenager who's supposed to be in boarding school in postwar London falls in rather haphazardly with his parents' sketchy boarder and discovers his mother has a secret life.
What I thought: The first part I liked a lot. I have an attraction for stories about teenage boys (and girls, but there are fewer of those books) who drift into the company of marginal people and end up in potentially dangerous situations — like Tim Winton's "Breath," and Ethan Canin's "America, America" and the memoirs "An Education" and "Hole in My Life." It took me a while to pin down which this one most reminded me of: Richard Ford's "Canada," one of my favorites. So that predisposed me to it, plus there are greyhounds.
The later chapters, when narrator Nathaniel is grown-up and relating what he learned of his mother's background, was less interesting to me, though I might read more about ordinary British civilians recruited into intelligence/espionage work during World War II.
Delta Wedding (1946, Eudora Welty)
Why I picked it: It's on my favorite books list, but I haven't read it for more than 20 years.
What it's about: On the Fairchild plantation in Mississippi, circa 1925, 16-year-old Dabney is getting married to the family's overseer.
What I thought: I still liked it. The first time through, I was caught up in all the characters — which, given there's not much of a plot, is understandable. This time I paid more attention to some of the subtext about outsiders and change. The Fairchilds' identity as a family is wrapped up in the stories they tell about themselves and the roles they put on each other, and this keeps them in a kind of bubble. But the world is changing around them, loath though they are to admit it, and from within there are disturbances by two new spouses — Dabney's new husband, and the strong-headed shopgirl who married George, the family's golden boy. I'm sure there are enough layers to warrant at least a couple more readings.
The British Are Coming: The War for America, Lexington to Princeton, 1775-1777 (2019, Rick Atkinson)
Why I picked it: I've read a fair amount of Revolutionary War history, but not military history, and Atkinson has a good reputation because of his World War II books.
What it's about: Military focus on the first years of the Revolutionary War. This apparently is intended to be a trilogy, like Atkinson's WWII series.
What I thought: I'm not going to continue with the trilogy. The battlefield scenes are really not that interesting to me. That's not to say I didn't get anything out of the book. It gave an interesting sense of the day-to-day lives of the soldiers and the citizens, rather than just the politicians I've read about before. I also learned about theaters of the war that I'd been only vaguely aware of before. When I thought about it at all, I pictured it being fought in fields near Boston or Philadelphia, not actually in the cities of Boston and New York, and amid the islands off South Carolina, and to a surprising (to me) degree in Canada.
Atkinson is a good writer, though I got a bit tired of his habit of giving a thumbnail physical sketch of every person he introduced. It took on a kind of drinking-game quality. Also, and I suppose this is to be expected in an 800-page book, he repeated phrases and anecdotes, causing me to occasionally wonder if I had accidentally repeated a track.
I had this one on audiobook, and at times I kind of let it wash over me. I might have been more engaged had I been reading a print version with maps and pictures, but I don't think I would have made it through the whole thing. I decided to take it as an immersion experience, like watching Spanish TV with no subtitles, and I figure enough of it stuck to make it worth my time.
The Flying Troutmans (2008, Miriam Toews)
Why I picked it: Miriam Toews.
What it's about: A distress call from her 11-year-old niece brings Hattie back to Canada. With her suicidal sister hospitalized, she decides to take her niece and nephew to find their father in the United States.
What I thought: Not as good as Toews' "All My Puny Sorrows" — which covers similar (and semi-autobiographical) subject matter. The characters are appealing but a little cartoony, and the road trip plot is a little thin on logic and detail. Feels kind of like a warmup for the later novel.
Annihilation, Authority and Acceptance (the Southern Reach trilogy, 2014, Jeff Vandermeer)
Why I picked it: Vandermeer's 2017 book "Borne." I'm not a huge science fiction fan, but I liked the characters in that one.
What they're about: Area X, a swath of the southern U.S. coast (Florida?) that was blocked to humans by the unexplained appearance of an invisible barrier. Scientific teams sent in by the government have found very weird phenomena.
What I thought: Early on, I thought it was probably a mistake for me to pick these as audiobooks rather than print. Especially when I'm running, I frequently zone out for a minute or so, making intricately plotted books hard to follow. But then even when I was paying close attention, there weren't a lot of dots to connect. There were theories, and common themes, but nobody was really figuring much out. So I decided just to enjoy the Borne-like elements: vivid episodes, well-drawn characters, odd little clues that may or may not mean something. It doesn't have Borne's humor, though.
Movie: "Annihilation" was made in 2018 by Alex Garland, his second film as a director after success as a novelist and a screenwriter. It stars Natalie Portman and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Well reviewed, not a commercial success. I'd like to see it. Update: I did watch this one. It's true to the spirit of the book, but it diverges quite a bit in the particulars.
Fleishman is in Trouble (2019, Taffy Brodesser-Akner)
Why I picked it:: I didn't have much initial interest in it. It sounded like another 1-percenter-in-crisis novel, like "Where'd You Go, Bernadette?" But then I saw several reviews that suggested it was more than that.
What it's about: Toby Fleishman, a 40ish hepatologist at a Manhattan hospital, has recently separated from his wife, a high-powered entertainment agent. Early one morning she sneaks their two kids into his apartment and disappears for weeks with no communication.
What I thought: It does start out conventionally. The first sign that it is something different: In what has been a third-person narrative, there's suddenly a mention of "I" by someone who is not Toby. The narrator, it turns out, is Toby's college friend Libby, a former magazine writer who is dissatisfied with her suburban New Jersey life. She starts inserting herself more and more — and then she switches to tell the story of what's going on with Toby's wife, Rachel. It turns into a pretty deep look at sexual politics at home and at work. It's not scolding or smirking at its own trickiness, but it flips the reader — who has been primed to sympathize with Toby — to see how different the narrative can be from another point of view.
Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Ireland (2018, Patrick Radden Keefe)
Why I picked it: I'm interested in modern Irish history.
What it's about: The Irish Republican Army from the 1970s on.
What I thought: I expected this one would be largely about the 1972 disappearance of Jean McConville, a Protestant civilian in Belfast and widowed mother of 10. Instead it uses her disappearance as a framing divorce for a history of the IRA of recent decades. I had a fair amount of knowledge going in, but this one goes deep and is also nuanced in terms of the personalities and motivations of the major players.
This is a topic that's easy to romanticize in favor of the republicans; "Say Nothing" manages to largely resist that urge. Coming off looking particularly bad is Gerry Adams, for his repeated denial that he was part of the IRA, even when it means throwing others under the bus, and for his alleged instruction that the Maze hunger strike continue despite a substantial concession from the British — a decision that, if it indeed happened, allowed six more strikers to die.
Much of the new information in the book is from oral histories recorded by a Boston College project. The British national police are currently in a court fight to use some of that material in criminal prosecutions. Nobody has been convicted of Jean McConville's death, though Keefe clearly states who he thinks is responsible.
Movie: I have been meaning for a while to rewatch "Bloody Sunday" and perhaps "Breakfast on Pluto." In the middle of reading this, I watched "Hunger," about Bobby Sands, which is a very personal view and has little background about the IRA.
A Boy of Good Breeding (1998, Miriam Toews)
Why I picked it: Miriam Toews. I really liked "All My Puny Sorrows." This one was way down on my list of her novels, but it was the only one I found at the library.
What it's about: The intersecting stories of two people in a small Manitoba town: the mayor, who, for a reason known only to him, wants to keep the population of said town exactly at 1,500 people, and a young woman who returns from Winnipeg with her 5-year-old daughter to live with her parents.
What I thought: It isn't as good as "Puny Sorrows," but it's whimsical in a bracing way — not too sweet — and it's short. I definitely didn't regret the time. I'm still looking to find "The Flying Troutmans" (which is in the library system) and "A Complicated Kindness" (which is not).
Dance Night and A Time to Be Born (1930/1942, Dawn Powell)
Why I picked it: Dawn Powell hadn't been on my radar until she got a big piece in the New Yorker's archival edition a few months back. Library of America has a two-volume collection of her novels; I went for the first of her major novels and her most commercially successful.
What they're about: Dance Night is set in an Ohio factory town before 1920 and follows a teenage girl from an orphanage; a young man whose big plans have little underpinning; and his mother, a hard-working milliner unhappily married to an abusive traveling salesman.
A Time to Be Born is set in New York just before the United States entered World War II. A young woman from Ohio goes to New York and is pulled into the social circle of a childhood friend who has become a celebrated writer.
What I thought: Both feel very much of their period, and both tend toward melodrama. Dance Night (though it's much shorter) reminded me of some of the less modern novels I've read from earlier in the 20th century — An American Tragedy, and The Magnificent Ambersons. The setting was more interesting to me than the characters, this gritty little town on the fringes. The time period is a little hard to pin down. The references to popular culture (songs, fashion, actresses) suggest it's around 1915, but there's no reference to World War I.
A Time to Be Born is pretty soap opera. I imagine it was considered sophisticated at the time, but there was not much that I found particularly witty. The famous-writer character Amanda (said to be based on Clare Boothe Luce) is very broadly drawn as a love-to-hate-her schemer, and there's not a whole lot of personality left over for heroine Vicky.
I don't regret reading these, but I think that's it for Powell's novels.
The Big Seven: A Faux Mystery (2015, Jim Harrison)
Why I picked it: Why I picked it: I really liked Harrison's Brown Dog novellas.
What it's about: A retired police detective gets a fishing cabin near Lake Superior's North Shore and becomes enmeshed with his neighbors there, an extended family of abusive, violent men and their beaten-down women.
What I thought: I gave this one up about halfway through. The writing is good. The story meandered, but intentionally. My main issue with it was the intense focus of the main character, Sunderson, on sex with young women. Again, that's not a thoughtless element. The book makes it clear that its theme is appetites — for food, for alcohol, for sex — and Sunderson is not lacking in self-awareness. I'm sure that at some point there's a big acknowledgement that Sunderson's behavior is somewhere on the more benign side of the spectrum of sins committed by the Ames men. I just found the constant lechery off-putting enough that I abandoned this.
Slow Days, Fast Company: The World, the Flesh, and L.A. (1974, Eve Babitz)
Why I picked it: I think I had run across Babitz's name before, maybe in Vanity Fair, but this book wasn't on my radar until the New York Times recently named it one of the 50 best memoirs of the past 50 years.
What it's about: Episodes from Babitz's life in Los Angeles (with side trips to Bakersfield and Palm Springs) when she was running with the fast Hollywood crowd in the '60s and '70s.
What I thought: I don't feel too clueless about not knowing of this — even given what Alex terms my L.A. obsession — because Babitz's work apparently went out of print for a few decades. It was widely "rediscovered" after the republication of this one in 2016. It's no big mystery why Babitz fell by the wayside while Joan Didion remained in print and on college syllabi all these years: Didion takes the step-back view, coming across as serious and thoughtful, while Babitz leaps in to the hedonism and dysfunction. It was a distinction that was quite obvious to Babitz, according to the introduction of this book. It quotes her as saying (paraphrasing here) thank god for the Didion/Dunnes, who took the moralistic view so she didn't have to.
If I had run across this as a teenager I probably would have been blown away by these unfiltered tales out of school. From a slightly more worldly perspective, I thought they were entertaining and had a great sense of place, but a little went a long way. I'm not going to run out and look for more of her writing. I suspect most readers wouldn't have this issue, but I became a little preoccupied with figuring out the real-life identities of some of her pseudonymous characters, and that detracted some from the stories and the writing.
Since We Fell (2017, Dennis Lehane)
Why I picked it: I liked Lehane's "Mystic River," "Gone, Baby, Gone" and "Moonlight Mile" — well-written mysteries, not too tricky, more reliant on good characters and setting. I really did not like "Shutter Island," but Lehane was redeemed to me somewhat by "The Drop."
What it's about: A former journalist with PTSD-like symptoms after some harrowing assignments starts having suspicions about her fairly new husband.
What I thought: I was a little disappointed early on because this one is not set in the blue-collar Boston neighborhoods that Lehane writes so well about. The main character, Rachel, is also a departure for him — an educated, upper-class professional woman. I started to have misgivings that Lehane was following the "Gone Girl"/"Girl on a Train" formula: Is relatable-but-unreliable narrator truly under threat, or is something else going on? I stuck with it. The writing is good (I found "Gone Girl" unreadably bad) and the narrative moved right along. (Though, in retrospect, I'm thinking it spent a long time on threads, one in particular, that didn't have much to do with the big escapade at the end. I guess it was supposed to speak to Rachel's lack of trust in men?) Anyway, it turned out to have much more substance than the girly books. The last few chapters I would describe not as a roller-coaster but as a Wild Mouse, that carnival ride that's all about the sudden jerks of 90-degree turns. And in a story that's very dependent on plot twists, Lehane keeps everything tight and fairly believable — none of those annoyingly convenient developments that have no underpinnings. Another good beach book in my beachless summer.
The Dakota Winters (2018, Tom Barbash)
Why I picked it: Impulse selection at the library. I thought I may have read about it, and it had a cover blurb from Michael Chabon.
What it's about: In 1979, 23-year-old Anton Winter comes home from the Peace Corps to his family's apartment in Manhattan's famous Dakota, and turns his energies toward helping his father rebuild the talk-show-host career that imploded with an on-the-air breakdown.
What I thought: It had a leg up with me because it's set in 1979 and 1980, years whose news and cultural events I remember well and nostalgically. (Not surprisingly, Barbash is my age.) Occasionally the real-life facts and research are shoehorned in there a little too tightly — I need to mention all the bands Anton might have liked; I need to talk about the geneses of many Beatles songs — but for the most part it's a smooth melding of a fictional story with a lot of real people and elements. Barbash is pretty bold in using real people as characters in his story, and it works well. (In fact, I was rather thrown when a fictional character was included in a lineup of real celebrity guests on a talk show. I figured that meant she was destined to become part of the personal story, but she never showed up again.) The main real person is Anton's Dakota neighbor John Lennon. So right there, given the time frame, you know what's coming, you just don't know the chronology vis-a-vis the story of Anton.
Furious Hours: Murder, Fraud and the Last Trial of Harper Lee (2019, Casey Cep)
Why I picked it: I like true crime stories, and this had the added element of Harper Lee.
What it's about: A string of suspicious Alabama deaths in the 1960s and 1970s drew the interest of Harper Lee, who apparently intended to write a book about the case.
What I thought: This is two stories: First, that of Willie Maxwell, who was fatally shot in 1977 after years of suspicion about the deaths of people close to him, and then a biography of Harper Lee. At the end, they're tied together, but loosely, as Lee never produced anything close to a book about the Maxwell case.
So it's pretty much a Harper Lee biography with an extra piece. I haven't read any other Lee biographies &mdash: the canonical one seems to be "Mockingbird," from 2006 — though I knew a lot of the lore about her Monroeville life and her involvement with "In Cold Blood." I'd be interested to know what access Cep had to letters and other archival material. There isn't a lot of extensive quotation, and Lee apparently was not interested in making things easy for biographers. It felt well-researched, though, and thoughtful, and Lee is an interesting subject.
The non-biography, the Maxwell part, was teetering on the edge of too much information, to the point where it seemed like padding. It had, for instance, a substantial section on the history of life insurance. (On the other end of the spectrum: Cep at one point says "Mockingbird" was originally to be called "The Long Goodbye," and, unless I missed it, never says why that title was scrapped. I assume the change had something to do with Raymond Chandler's 1953 novel, but wouldn't that have been on Lee's radar while she was writing?)
Working (2019, Robert Caro)
Why I picked it: Glenn read it, and sent me a copy.
What it’s about: The author of "The Power Broker" and the multivolume Lyndon Johnson biography writes about his research/writing process and how it has evolved since his days as a beginning reporter.
What I thought: I hadn't read any of Caro's books but I read a big excerpt of this one in the New Yorker and I liked his voice and his ideas. He comes across as a humble, straightforward guy who gives the credit for his success to certain bulldoggish traits of his own that he says he couldn't suppress if he tried. After all the years he spent on his books, and all the sacrifices he made, clinging to his idea of what he needed to do, it's encouraging to see that things seem to have turned out the way he wanted them to.
One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967, Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
Why I picked it: Garcia Marquez had been a gap in my reading. I warmed up with the short "Chronicle of a Death Foretold," then moved on to this.
What it's about: A somewhat fantastic account of seven generations of a family living in a fictitious Colombian town starting in the 19th century.
What I thought: I expected this to be more solidly magical realism, as I had heard that's what Garcia Marquez is known for. I liked those elements in this book, like the suitor who is accompanied by a cloud of yellow butterflies wherever he goes. I was fine, also, with the historical episodes paralleling those of real Latin America. Toward the end, though, I was getting a bit worn out of the repetitive tales of the generations. I know that's intentional, a thematic thing, with the duplicated names and all, but I found myself wanting more story. The writing style, though, I liked a lot, and overall I enjoyed this one enough that I will keep "Love in the Time of Cholera" on my list.
Normal People (2018, Sally Rooney)
Why I picked it: I first heard about it from a New Yorker profile of Rooney then started running across a lot of mentions of it. I figured I'd first read her debut novel ("Conversations With Friends") because there was a big waiting list for this one at the library, but I ran across a copy.
What it's about: The unlikely friendship of two Irish high school students — his mother works as her family's housekeeper — evolves as they both end up at Dublin's Trinity College.
What I thought: The characters — especially the girl — were a little hard for me to get a handle on, especially at the start. After a while I got into the episodic flow of the book, and I guess I eventually understood enough about Connell and Marianne that I got why they make some of the decisions they do.
In the end, I'd say it's a good book but I'm not sure why it's getting the buzz that it is, except that it's an easy read and so maybe appealing to people who don't get into a lot of literary novels.
The Nonexistent Knight (1959, Italo Calvino)
Why I picked it: I've read only essays by Calvino and I wanted to try some of his fiction. This is a short novel and an easy entry point.
What it's about: A satire or satirical allegory about an empty suit of armor that speaks and performs as one of Charlemagne's knights. He is among a motley bunch that sets out on a quest of redemption.
What I thought: There are a lot of layers and nuances here, and I imagine my read was not as deep as it could have been. I did appreciate some of the hints and intertwining involving the main story and its framing device, which presents it as a tale being written by a nun in a convent. It's also pretty funny. I'm not sure I'm up for Calvino's more challenging stuff at this point, but I'll keep "Invisible Cities" on my list.
The Patrick Melrose novels (1992-2012, Edward St. Aubyn)
Why I picked it: These had been on my radar for a while because of Vanity Fair, but I initially rejected it as the type of misery memoir that's too sensationalist and prurient for my taste. I read some complimentary coverage, though, with the completion of the fifth book and the release of last year's Showtime series, and I put it on my list.
What it's about: Semi-autobiographical account of five periods in the life of the son of a dissolute couple, a helpless American heiress and the cruel British aristocrat who lived off her money.
What I thought: This was an odd mix: sometimes harrowing, often bleak, with a not-terribly-likeable protagonist and some downright odious supporting characters — but written in a insouciant style with many laugh-out-loud funny lines. Breaking it down by the five books:
• Never Mind. Covers one day at the Melrose home in the south of France, where 5-year-old Patrick lives with his parents. This is the one with the really shocking act of abuse that shapes much of Patrick's life. Tightly written, vivid sense of a specific slice of society: wealthy British expatriates and social climbers in the mid-1960s.
• Bad News. The heroin-addicted Patrick, now 22, goes to New York to pick up his father's ashes, and spends most of his two days there shooting up and looking to score. If you've read "The Basketball Diaries," you have a good sense of how this one reads.
• Some Hope. Covers two days in which Patrick, 30 and sober, goes to a high-society house party attended by Princess Margaret (whose portrayal is hilariously mean). Apparently, the three pieces to this point were published in the U.S. under this title. I think the end of this one is a good stopping place, unless you're really crazy about the series. The last two were less fresh, to my mind. I liked the appearance in this one of people from the first two, particularly the unexpected Mr. Chilly Willy.
• Mother's Milk. Published 11 years after "Some Hope." Patrick, in his early 40s and working as a barrister, vacations with his wife and young sons over the course of three summers — two at the house in France where he grew up and the third in America. He is beset by middle-age problems, chiefly his invalid mother and the loss of his wife's attentions as she submerges herself in mothering. He turns to drinking and extramarital sex.
• At Last. Back to the single-day format, with the day being that of his mother's funeral. Patrick is divorced (separated?) and once again sober. It also returns to the themes of "Never Mind," looping back to Patrick's broken relationships with both of his parents.
Movie: After I read these, I watched the five-part miniseries. It was very good. The lead actors (Benedict Cumberbatch as Patrick, Hugo Weaving and Jennifer Jason Leigh as his parents) were excellent, and it had the same dark humor as the books. The scene where Patrick slithers out of a room after the Quaaludes kick in during cocktail hour is a masterpiece of physical comedy. I had no quibbles with what they left out or with the very few things they changed. The one big change worked really well: They flipped the order and started with "Bad News," with occasional flashbacks to childhood, and then put the bulk of "Never Mind" in the second part.
Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters / Seymour: An Introduction (1963, J.D. Salinger)
Why I picked it: Because I had just reread "Franny and Zooey," I continued with another reading of these stories.
What it's about: These two stories, which were first published in the New Yorker in the 1950s, are more tales of Salinger's Glass family. In "Raise High," Buddy is the only member of the family able to make it to brother Seymour's wartime wedding. "Seymour" is Buddy's profile of his late brother.
What I thought: If I were trying to sell someone on the whole Glass oeuvre, I would have them start with "Raise High," because it has an actual plot line. (Some people are put off that "Franny and Zooey" doesn't, really.) I might have them leave "Seymour" until last — after, even, the relevant chapters in "Nine Stories" — because the story works better if you love Seymour already. Still, these are both really short, so if you have any affinity at all for Salinger, go for it.
Franny and Zooey (1961, J.D. Salinger)
Why I picked it: This was my favorite book when I was in high school, and one of the few books I've read more than twice — maybe half a dozen times. I hadn't read it in the past 20 years, though, and I was a little worried that it might not hold up. Then Alex started reading it, and that encouraged me to reread it.
What it's about: First published as two separate magazine stories, these follow an episode that involves the two youngest Glass siblings: Franny, 20, comes back to her parents' Manhattan apartment after collapsing at college, and her brother Zooey, 25, has three conversations with her.
What I thought: To get it out of the way, this one did hold up, and that's more than I can say for "The Razor's Edge" and "Walden." I think much of the staying power of "F&Z" (for me) is because I loved it less for the religious/philosophical ideas than for the portrayal of the family relationships, particularly the dialogue. And I can completely understand why some people find Salinger's style just too clever, too precious, and I wouldn't try to argue against that view, but I like the way he writes. As for the ideas, they're fairly interesting, too, though maybe they would be more so for someone who had had a conventional Christian upbringing. I wasn't struck by any heavy enlightenment, but there were definitely some things that struck me differently now that I'm older than Seymour ever was. And it was the quintessential comfort read — a short book packed with all those lines and passages that delighted me the first time I read them.
Sabrina (2018, Nick Drnaso)
Why I picked it: Good reviews.
What it's about: A graphic novel about the disappearance of a young Chicago woman, and its effect on her boyfriend and the long-ago friend who gives him a place to hide out in the traumatic days that follow.
What I thought: Wow, this one was good. At this stage, almost 40 years after "Maus," nobody needs to argue that graphic novels can qualify as literature, but this one was more affecting than any other graphic novels I've read and all but a few prose novels. Let me see how I can phrase this without any spoilers. It is one of the most thoughtful portrayals I've seen about how the conspiracy mob, in conjunction with mass media and social media, has damaged society, has made the default view distrust — not just of authority or of strangers, but of the people who might be able to comfort us in hard times. There is some flicker of hope at the end, but this is really a wrenching story.
Though the drawing style took a little while for me to warm to — the way Sabrina is drawn, for instance, I couldn't really get a sense of her age or some of the other visual cues of occupation and education and status — the spareness really works with the narrative.
Kudos (2018, Rachel Cusk)
Why I picked it: Third book in the series.
What it's about: Narrator Faye spends a few days surrounded by literary types at a writers' festival.
What I thought: People refer to this one as the end of a trilogy. I wouldn't be surprised if Cusk continued it, but I don't know if I'd go on with it if she did. I've liked these three books. They're unusual and thought-provoking and cleanly written. But I feel like, given the limited reading time I have, I would move on to something else.
As with the first two, "Kudos" is a series of conversations Faye has with other writers, her agent, her translator, interviewers, a guy on the plane. My favorite is with a teenage tour guide who seems to be on the Asperger's spectrum. These encounters are actually more monologues than conversations, as Faye rarely interjects, and they're definitely not written in any sort of naturalistic idiom. A main theme here seems to be reality vs. personal presentation — how we want to be seen, how others see us, and the disconnect between the two. There's also a lot about power dynamics between men and women, particularly vis-a-vis separations and divorce. One could make a case that there's a link between that and recurring references to Brexit.
What there isn't is much specificity. As with the previous two, Faye's name is mentioned just once in the book. She never names the city where the book is set, though it's pretty much a character in itself; by the end, I'd decided it's Lisbon. Another character reveals that Faye has remarried, but there's no indication of who and when and why.
Swing Time (2016, Zadie Smith)
Why I picked it: Alex checked it out, and it was lying around when I needed a new book. I read the start and thought it would do.
What it's about: A young black woman who was raised in London public housing gets a job as a personal assistant to a Madonna-like pop star.
What I thought: Though I had liked Smith's "On Beauty," this one hadn't been on my list. From the reviews I'd seen, I thought it might be a little too deep in sociocultural issues of the intersectional sort for my current reading taste. The start won me over, though, promising an interesting relationship between the (unnamed) narrator and her childhood frenemy Tracey, a talented dancer being raised in a chaotic household. But though Tracey is a main thread, the story doesn't focus on the girls' relationship as I had hoped. It's mainly about the narrator's views of race and class and women's roles evolving through her relationships with — in addition to Tracey — her mother, her employer and the people she meets while helping the pop star establish a girls' school in West Africa. So, yeah, a lot of the stuff that I wasn't crazy about reading.
Tracey is kind of like Elena Ferrante's Lila — the what-might-have-been alter ego to a narrator who through education and some luck vaulted into a higher economic class. And she's like Lila in that, even though you probably would avoid her in real life, she brings a lot of drama to the story.
All My Puny Sorrows (2014, Miriam Toews)
Why I picked it: I read a New Yorker profile of Toews, whom I had never heard of. I picked this one of her seven novels because it was the first one I found in the library.
What it's about: Fortyish novelist Yolandi leaves her chaotic Toronto life for Winnipeg — where she was raised in a Mennonite community — to spend time with her sister who is in a psychiatric ward after a suicide attempt.
What I thought: This one is really funny. No, really. Which is even more amazing when you know it's based on Toews' life: Her father and her sister both killed themselves by stepping in front of trains.
So below I say I would have liked Elena Ferrante's Neapolitan novels more if they would have had any scrap of humor, and here is a great example of what I'm talking about. It grapples with major issues of despair and death, but just about every page there was some piece of dialogue or description that made me smile.
What's next: Toews' "A Complicated Kindness" and "The Flying Troutmans" are on my list.
The Story of the Lost Child (2006, Elena Ferrante)
Why I picked it: Last in the series of four.
What it's about: Elena and her children move back to Naples, where they live in the same building as Lila.
What I thought: Though I preferred it to No. 3 ("Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay"), with the gift of foresight I would have stopped after the first two. As I said in reference to "Those Who Leave," I like the stories better when Lila is around, but I still think I had better things to spend my reading time on. It occurred to me during this one that these are really the most humorless novels I've ever read, and that's about the most damning thing I can think of to say of any work of literature.
Transit (2016, Rachel Cusk)
Why I picked it: I liked "Outline" (see below).
What it's about: Novelist Faye is back in London, setting up her new life after divorce.
What I thought: The first one was a lot about being half of a couple; this one is a lot about being a parent. In fact, at a few points, I thought it was a little unsubtle about this theme — about certain difficulties in raising children, and the dangers that befall children. Or it could be that those were the stories just resonated most with me. There's also a lot about the chaos and the isolation that come with a life transition. Like "Outline," it's made up of interactions between the narrator and various people in her life, from a longtime friend to a long-ago boyfriend to the contractor on her house renovation.
Outline (2014, Rachel Cusk)
Why I picked it: I had heard good things about Cusk's Outline trilogy.
What it's about: A British novelist goes to Athens to teach a creative writing class.
What I thought: There's no real storyline but there are a lot of shorter stories, included in the 10 conversations that make up this book. The narrator doesn't explicitly say much about herself, but through her recounting of and reactions to the conversations the reader starts to see her story emerge. There is a lot on the themes of marriage and divorce, and women single and in couples.
I liked the way it kind of built up weightiness with the 10 episodes on this spare, clean structure, with a reserved prose style.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle (1962, Shirley Jackson)
Why I picked it: I put it on my list after I read "The Haunting of Hill House."
What it's about: Eighteen-year-old Merricat and her older sister Constance are living more or less contentedly with their ailing uncle, shunned by the townspeople, six years after the rest of their family died. The arrival of a cousin shakes up their isolated existence.
What I thought: I had assumed "Hill House" was considered Jackson's better book (because I had heard more about it) but I liked this one more. "Hill House" was, indeed, creepier, but I liked the Gothic strangeness of this one, and narrator Merricat is a great character.
All the way through I kept thinking what a great movie it would make — it's written very cinematically — but I couldn't remember ever seeing a mention of a film adaptation. Turns out there's one coming out in May, with Taissa Farmiga, Alexandra Daddario and, as weird Uncle Julian, weird Crispin Glover. If I were adapting it, I'd make Merricat a little younger, 15, maybe. I know she's supposed to be an odd girl, but it's hard to accept her as an 18-year-old unless we assume her to be completely mental.
Besides its cinematic nature, this one is notable as the most food-centric novel I've ever read.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (2013, Elena Ferrante)
Why I picked it: Third of the Neapolitan Novel series that starts with "My Brilliant Friend."
What it's about: In the early 1970s, Elena leaves Naples, marries, has children. Lila stays in Naples, and her life becomes even more chaotic.
What I thought: If I hadn't read the first two, I probably wouldn't have stuck with this one. From the start of the series, Elena isn't a really sympathetic character to me; it was the interplay/conflict between her and Lila that made for interesting reading, and in this one, there's a lot less of Lila. There's also a lot less of their Neapolitan neighborhood, which was one of my favorite things about the first two books.
The Story of a New Name (2012, Elena Ferrante)
Why I picked it: Second book in the series that started late last year with "My Brilliant Friend," which I liked.
What it's about: Neapolitan girls Elena and Lila from their mid-teens to early 20s, in the late 1960s.
What I thought: I liked this one about as well as "My Brilliant Friend." It continues the theme of the girls' struggles against the limits imposed against them as young women from the lower class, even as they break some barriers academically (Elena) and economically (Lila).
What's next: Two more.
Exit West (2017, Mohsin Hamid)
Why I picked it: I know I was aware of this when it came out, and I thought, I read a lot about refugees already and, sympathetic though I am to their plight, I think I can skip this novel. Then, recently, two times in two weeks I ran across favorable mentions, and one was from Jonathan Lethem raving about it, so I put it on my list.
What it's about: Two young people meet just as the Islamic insurgency in their unnamed city is ramping up from somewhat restrictive to dangerous. After a few months, they decide to flee together.
What I thought: The description of the pre-refugee lives of Nadia and Saeed made me think a lot about what it must be like to see your life gradually and then suddenly became something so unfamiliar. In that way, it was like some things I've read/seen about the early days of the Holocaust — "The Plot Against America," or "The Pianist."
The writing style is a little like that of that of a fairy tale or fable, which makes sense when the big plot twist is introduced. (I have a sense that my limited audience is not that concerned about spoilers, but here's the boilerplate warning. Stop, or be informed.) There are portals all over the world, geographic wormholes that can spit you out halfway around the world. Nadia and Saeed pay someone to direct them to one of these doors. From that point it becomes somewhat magic realism, or maybe science fiction, portraying an alternative present or near-future in which sometimes unlikely neighborhoods are all of a sudden flooded by people fleeing war or poverty or natural disaster. The experiences of people other than Nadia and Saeed are recounted in vignettes — for instance, a young Mexican woman who had gone through a portal comes back through it to retrieve the child she had left in an orphanage when she went to find work.
Once it became less a social/political story and more about the evolution of Nadia and Saeed as a couple, it wasn't quite as interesting to me, but I still liked the speculation about how certain areas (including one I know well) might be very different if they were at the end of a portal.
Tenements, Towers & Trash: An Unconventional Illustrated History of New York City (2017, Julia Wertz)
Why I picked it: Saw this in the library and recognized the drawings of an artist who does a lot of architectural/historical features for the New Yorker.
What it's about: Large-format book of mostly drawings of New York buildings, focusing on how specific buildings and blocks have changed over the decades.
What I thought: This is the kind of thing I really like, though I'm sure I would have liked it even more if I had more familiarity with New York. I like the way Wertz draws buildings and architectural elements. I'm less enamored of her cartooning and her prose. Many of the pages are paired drawings of a strip of three or four buildings in different decades. She sprinkles in essays on certain topics (punk rock, garbage collection, secret bars) that I found a little hard to read because 1) they were hand-lettered in all caps and 2) I was put off by her extremely colloquial description.
My Life in Middlemarch (2014, Rebecca Mead)
Why I picked it: I was rereading "Middlemarch."
What it's about: Mead, a big fan of "Middlemarch" since her teen years, writes about George Eliot's life and work and weaves in her own personal history and her evolving thinking about the novel.
What I thought: I'm glad I read this. It helped me come to grips with some of the elements of "Middlemarch" that kinda bugged me, and it has some enlightening passages about literature in general. It's much better than the only similar book I've read, "So We Read On," about "The Great Gatsby."
The Feral Detective (2018, Jonathan Lethem)
Why I picked it: I like Lethem's novels, particularly those that are a twist on the detective genre.
What it's about: New Yorker Phoebe comes to Southern California and teams up with a private detective to look for her friend's missing daughter among some strange encampments in the Mojave Desert.
What I thought: This is now my favorite of Lethem's novels except for "Chronic City." This one is a headlong tumble through a neonoir Southern California seen through the eyes of a New Yorker, bemused by things as quotidian as the In-N-Out secret menu and as far-out as the Integratron. (This follows. Lethem has been teaching since 2011 at Pomona College, in the endowed post once held (and declared a "lottery prize") by David Foster Wallace.) I kept thinking it was very cinematic in its imagery and its form, practically written as a screenplay. There's one scene in particular, in a raggy-ass collection of carnival rides out in the desert, that I could practically see unfolding. The novel starts right after the 2016 election and has as a subtheme the era of Trump, with its attendant alienation and tribalism.
Middlemarch (1871, George Eliot)
Why I picked it: I read this one about 12 years ago, and found it somewhat tough going. Now, having had more experience with 19th-century novels, I thought I'd try it again.
What it's about: Intertwining stories about families in an English Midlands town around 1830, focusing on marriage and inheritance and reputation.
What I thought: It was much easier reading this time, but it still seemed pretty humorless to me — Celia I found funny, but that's about it. Oh, and the little woman who "makes noises like a beaver." Not that all novels, or even all 19th-century British novels, have to have be funny, but this one I found way too sober and serious all the way through. It was enlightening on the subject of a woman's social and familial role during this time; that's about the best I can say about it in the way of a recommendation. Glad I gave it another shot, though.
What's next: I read Eliot's "Silas Marner" shortly after I read this one for the first time. None of her others are very high on my list. If I live a long time I might eventually try "The Mill on the Floss."