I read forty-nine books in the recently departed 2015. Here’s thirty-nine of them (in no particular order):
A UNIVERSAL HISTORY OF INFAMY by Jorge Luis Borges
THE MEANING OF NIGHT by Michael Cox
OPERATION SHYLOCK by Philip Roth
AMERICAN GODS by Neil Gaiman
THE SANDMAN OVERTURES by Neil Gaiman & co.
FREE COUNTRY: A TALE OF THE CHILDREN’S CRUSADE by Neil Gaiman & co.
STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND by Robert Heinlein
NINE HUNDRED GRANDMOTHERS by R.A. Lafferty
THE HABIT OF LOVING by Doris Lessing
VANITY FAIR by William Makepeace Thackeray
THE END OF ETERNITY by Isaac Asimov
SECOND FOUNDATION by Isaac Asimov
THE NEW TSAR: THE RISE AND REIGN OF VLADIMIR PUTIN by Steven Lee Myers
MEMOIRS OF AN ANTI-SEMITE by Gregor von Rezzori
THE SHAWL by Cynthia Ozick
DOWNWARD TO THE EARTH by Robert Silverberg
THE GOON LIBRARY, VOL. 1 by Eric Powell
THE GOON LIBRARY, VOL. 2 by Eric Powell
RAISE HIGH THE ROOFBEAM, CARPENTERS & SEYMOUR: AN INTRODUCTION by J.D. Salinger
LAFAYETTE IN THE SOMEWHAT UNITED STATES by Sarah Vowell
PERFIDIA by James Ellroy
MOON PALACE by Paul Auster
THE NEW DEAL by Jonathan Case
HARLOT’S GHOST by Norman Mailer
GHOST STORY by Jim Butcher
TEMPEST-TOST by Robertson Davies
LADY KILLER by Joelle Jones & Jamie Rich
CLAUDIUS THE GOD by Robert Graves
LUCKY JIM by Kingsley Amis
AMERICAN LION by Jon Meacham
FRANKENSTEIN UNDERGROUND by Mike Mignola
MY NAME IS RED by Orhan Pamuk
THE LEAGUE OF EXTRAORDINARY GENTLEMEN: CENTURY by Alan Moore & co.
NEONOMICON by Alan Moore & co.
THE BEAST THAT SHOUTED LOVE AT THE HEART OF THE WORLD by Harlan Ellison
THE JAPANESE LOVER by Isabel Allende
THE BAD-ASS LIBRARIANS OF TIMBUKTU by Joshua Hammer
ABSOLUTE MONARCHS by John Julius Norwich
THE RESTAURANT AT THE END OF THE UNIVERSE by Douglas Adams
THE GONE-AWAY WORLD by Nick Harkaway
That’s an accomplished list, but as wonderful as some of those books are they couldn’t make my top ten for the year. Those ten books will stay with me forever, each one deserving of far more attention and analysis than I’ve given them in this post. But I need to write about them, however briefly, and attempt to convey some fraction of my respect and love for them. Hopefully I inspire some of you to check them out.
10) THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE (Larry Niven & Jerry Pournelle, 1974)
It’s too recently published to count as Golden Age science fiction, but THE MOTE IN GOD’S EYE does what Golden Age sci-fi does at it’s best: masturbate your imagination while turning your head to the world that exists around you and making you cough. Read my original not-a-review here.
9) TRACKS (Louise Erdrich, 1988)
There’s a tragedy that seems tethered to even the most accomplished novel by a writer who writes about their minority: too many white people assume that the book is not for them. They tragically limit the writer’s audience, and they tragically deprive themselves of a marvelous reading experience. In TRACKS, Louise Erdrich does what any good writer should do. She uses specificity to speak to the entire world about all of us. The Anishinaabe at the heart of this multi-family, multi-generational saga could be anyone in America torn between the traditions of the past and a modernity of anonymity, their resentment of a hegemony that has destroyed their identity and the urge to accept it as their only way out of financial and spiritual destitution. Louise Erdrich writes with poetic empathy and gallows humor about a specific group of people with particular circumstances. But she recognizes the universality of their fears and desires. She brings out the dispossessed in every reader, broadening the fraternity of humankind. She doesn’t tell us to empathize with The Other. She shows us that we are The Other, that there is no other. There’s only Us.
8) NONSENSE NOVELS (Stephen Leacock, 1911)
Today’s culturally astute prize irony more than they even know. Beating the drums to postmodern originality, they are ignorant of how none of the culture they hold aloft is particularly original. Stephen Leacock was doing everything they value a century ago. In NONSENSE NOVELS the Canadian satirist skewers Sherlock Holmes, Gothic romance, the various pulp genres of Lovecraftian horror, Howardian fantasy, the nascent hardboiled fiction, and more. He emulates them with the stylistic perfection and thematic acuity of a keen-eared impressionist. He pulls the dangling threads that betray those stories’ disconnection from reality, and he fills the gaps with an inspired silliness that today’s absurdists wish they could conjure. Nothing is wholly original. Everything is built on a foundation. Modern satirists and comic writers would benefit from reading Stephen Leacock and learning how far they are from originality.
7) INVISIBLE MAN (Ralph Ellison, 1952)
You can say a lot about Ralph Ellison’s indelible novel about the black American experience. You can talk about its unflinching honesty in regards to black-white relations, class distinctions within black communities, self-image as informed by these relations, and so much more. The book is a deep vein of literary gold seemingly without end. But what I keep returning to is Eliison’s command of language, his note-perfect selection of words, the rhythmic punch of his sentences, how there seems to be no fat in a story of such deeply felt anguish that it dares the writer to run away with himself. In a story that is all about what we see and don’t see, INVISIBLE MAN’s writing is clear and sharp as honed crystal and simultaneously dreamlike and hallucinatory. It conjures an unreal world that is painfully, poisonously real. Ralph Ellison succeeds at one of the hardest things a writer can do. He takes the ephemeral symbolism of speech and crafts from it an edifice of tangible thought and emotion that only a blind man could miss.
6) WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN? (Budd Schulberg, 1941)
Budd Schulberg knew Hollywood. A career screenwriter who wrote, among other movies, ON THE WATERFRONT, he made the industry the focus of his first novel. WHAT MAKES SAMMY RUN? tears at the town’s scabs with as much force and fury as Nathanael West mustered in DAY OF THE LOCUST. Sammy Glick, the novel’s enfant terrible social climber, is as despicable a character as you’re likely to find in fiction. But Schulberg assumes the voice of Al Manheim, the journalist who Sammy passes, then seduces into following him to Hollywood. The dignity of truth can’t compete with the riches of fantasy. But the novel is not just about Hollywood. It’s about American avarice, about why the United States fell into its Great Depression. It’s about the men who destroy everyone in their path to make themselves Midas. But unlike the mythological king who turned his loved ones into gold at his touch, the modern Midas is only interested in touching himself.
5) THE HIGH WINDOW (Raymond Chandler, 1942)
THE HIGH WINDOW is dynamite. No, I’m not angling for a blurb on the cover. It’s entirely appropriate to call a story “dynamite” when it carries the force of an explosion. Raymond Chandler’s third Philip Marlowe novel always feels combustible. His prose is as strong as his protagonist and as volatile as the motley assortment of scumbags and ne’er-do-wells that surrounds our hero. Every new paragraph, every exchange of dialogue is weighted with the wages of fear and the spark of sin. You’re on a rollercoaster, never at ease but too excited to feel the tension. Chandler’s style was two-fisted fluidity, a ballet of pugilism witnessed through a blood-red third eye. You can feel the unstable elements jostling between the lines. You know that the whole thing could blow up any second, and you know you’ll get burned. But who cares? This is what great reading is all about.
4) EXIT GHOST (Philip Roth, 2007)
I love Philip Roth, but historically I’ve had a hard time tolerating Nathan Zuckerman. Roth’s surrogate has always struck me as being enamored with his own voice to the detriment of the story. Even in AMERICAN PASTORAL and THE HUMAN STAIN Zuckerman fills multiple pages with some of the richest, most provocative sentences you’ve ever read, none of which say anything that the first sentence doesn’t. But Zuckerman’s curtain call, EXIT GHOST, proved to be an exhilarating anomaly about an old man desperately fleeing his imminent mortality. Roth doesn’t allow his aging surrogate the satisfaction of lyrical bloviation. His sentences are as melodically rousing as ever, but they’re fewer and leaner, each laid like a single brick to form an awesome cathedral. As a result Zuckerman conveys a power and urgency he’s never previously managed. Death is on Zuckerman’s (and Roth’s) heels, and every struggle, whether preserving the legacy of the hero of his youth or clutching at an unattainable erotic fantasy, is charged with crucial immediacy. Philip Roth is the bravest writer America has ever produced. How brave of him to address the twilight without smoke and mirrors, without any obfuscation, and force himself to stand against a stark landscape as no one but himself?
3) THE MOTHER TONGUE (Bill Bryson, 1990)
Bryson can and does write about anything and everything, but he’s rarely brought out the thrill of discovery with as much palpable electricity as he does in his examination of the English language. He not only traces the history of the tongue from its Indo-European root to the present day (well, to the book’s publication in 1990). He analyzes its popularity and finds that its versatility, its evolution as a bastardized and bastardizing sponge, has made it uniquely qualified to assume the role of Common Tongue. The book is a high: intellectually dizzying and often laughter-inducing. Whether explaining the disparate pronunciations of everyday words by next-door neighbors or tracing the origins of obscenities, Bryson’s breezy but exhaustive scholarship regularly reduces you to giggles. The man has made a career of practicing an everyman’s intellectualism, precise and rigorous but infectiously fun. Bryson’s work breaks his subject free of the shackles of humorless pedantry and returns it to us as the language of the people, a language without rules, of boundless possibilities and endless opportunities.
2) BLEEDING EDGE (Thomas Pynchon, 2013)
Some people have relegated Pynchon to solitary confinement over the hill. You. Are. So. Off. The elder statesman has summoned forth a spell that reveals the lacunae at the heart of today’s national character as no younger writer could. A younger writer would lack the wisdom, the sight, and the sense of humor to show us what Pynchon sees. Read my not-a-review here.
1) AS I LAY DYING (William Faulkner, 1930)
AS I LAY DYING may be The Great American Novel. Read my not-a-review here.