Each year for the past ten or so years (since I was inspired by my friend/book-pal Elizabeth), I’ve kept track of all the books I read and come up with a list of my favorites. In 2015, I read 83 books. Whew! And here they all are:
Special Harry Stephen Keeler Category for So-Bad-It’s-Good-ness
Sing Sing Nights (Harry Stephen Keeler), The Insidious Dr. Fu Manchu (Sax Rohmer), Here’s the Situation (Chris Millis)
Ah, good old Harry S. Keeler, the Ed Wood of books. He’s here joined by a mindlessly racist old adventure novel and the shameless ghostwritten memoir of Jersey Shore‘s Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, in which actual author Chris Millis takes every opportunity to mock his subject.
The Overton Window (Glenn Beck), Daughter of the Blood (Anne Bishop), The Art of the Deal (Donald Trump & Tony Schwartz), Interview with the Vampire (Anne Rice)
This was all for Hate Book Club. Daughter of the Blood was the worst. There were parts of The Overton Window that were actually kind of funny, and a couple were on purpose.
Just Kind of Okay (or So Forgettable I Forgot Them Already)
The People’s Platform (Astra Taylor), Twentysomething (Robin & Samantha Henig), The Mad Boy, Lord Berners, My Grandmother, & Me (Sofka Zinovieff), The House on Mango Street (Sandra Cisneros)
The first two books in this category had really interesting topics and ideas, but I forget the authors’ conclusions already. Oops.
Disappointing but with Some Merit
Jazz (Toni Morrison), The Bingo Long Traveling All-Stars and Motor Kings (William Brashler), The Empathy Exams (Leslie Jamison), Operation Nemesis (Eric Bogosian), The Summer Book (Tove Jansson), A House and Its Head (Ivy Compton-Burnett)
A lot of these share the problem of “incorrect expectations.” For instance, I foolishly thought Jazz would have jazz in it. The Summer Book actually has a lot in common with The House on Mango Street: it’s a series of short-story postcards from a little girl’s summer with her grandmother. It even includes little drawings.
Pretty Good Non-Fiction, if You’re Interested in the Subject
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen (Lucy Knisely), Where I Was From (Joan Didion), A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (David Foster Wallace), Adventures on the Wine Route (Kermit Lynch), Angst (Jeffrey Kahn), My Age of Anxiety (Scott Stossel), Darkness Visible (William Styron), A Kim Jong-il Production (Paul Fischer), Both Flesh and Not (David Foster Wallace), Kansas City Lightning (Stanley Crouch), Where Nobody Knows Your Name (John Feinstein), The Sun King (Nancy Mitford)
Relish was the year’s only graphic novel for me. A lot of the books in here are from a month where I decided to focus on books about, and portrayals of, mental illness.
Pretty Good Fiction
The Paying Guests (Sarah Waters), Telegraph Avenue (Michael Chabon), Happy Moscow (Andrey Platonov), A Visit from the Goon Squad (Jennifer Egan), Persuasion (Jane Austen), Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel), Bring up the Bodies (Hilary Mantel), The Architect’s Apprentice (Elif Shafak), My Brilliant Friend (Elena Ferrante), Rebecca (Daphne du Maurier)
Some folks will think the Wolf Hall series is ranked too low. It is fantastic, but there’s too much “I know I’m writing great literature” pretention in the prose for me (particularly the tic of only referring to the main character as “he”, even if there are multiple men in the scene).
Really, Really Good Non-Fiction
How to Be a Victorian (Ruth Goodman), It Was Me All Along (Andrea Mitchell), What We See When We Read (Peter Mendelsund), Fresh Off the Boat (Eddie Huang), The Answer to the Riddle Is Me (David MacLean), The Whites of Their Eyes (Jill Lepore), Amusing Ourselves to Death (Neil Postman), But Beautiful (Geoff Dyer), The Psychopath Test (Jon Ronson), The Disaster Artist (Greg Sestero & Tom Bissell), Alone Together (Sherry Turkle), The Bronx is Burning (Jonathan Mahler), Book of Ages (Jill Lepore), Smile When You’re Lying (Chuck Thompson), A Time of Gifts (Patrick Leigh Fermor), Stalin’s Daughter (Rosemary Sullivan), The Case of the Pope (Geoffrey Robertson), Ill Fares the Land (Tony Judt)
The Case of the Pope made my top 5 in 2010 [LINK], and the description I gave then is still true. Man, I really, really liked a lot of these books. How to Be a Victorian is a cool history book by a woman who really lived the life, using old-timey soap, wearing a corset, and learning the secrets of chamber pots. The Answer to the Riddle Is Me is a memoir by a guy whose medication side effect was the total loss of his memory and identity; he woke up on a train platform in India not knowing who he was. The Bronx is Burning weaves together ’70s baseball, race riots, and a New York mayor’s race in a way that never seems fake. Stalin’s Daughter is really freaking depressing, because it’s about Stalin’s daughter.
In the travel category, A Time of Gifts is an erudite walk across 1930s Europe, by an author who knows seemingly everything about literature, language, wine, and art. Smile When You’re Lying is more fun, because author Chuck Thompson is out to teach you all the dark-side stuff that regular travel writers try not to mention, like certain shady kinds of tourism, or what happens when your vacation goes wrong.
Really, Really Good Fiction
Great Expectations (Charles Dickens), The Good Lord Bird (James McBride), Trustee from the Toolroom (Nevil Shute), Dear Committee Members (Julie Schumacher), I Served the King of England (Bohumil Hrabal), The Long Ships (Frans G. Bengtsson), The Merchant of Venice (William Shakespeare)
These books are so good! How are they not in the top ten?! Just to single out the ones you’ve never heard of: Trustee from the Toolroom is a kindly novel about a good-hearted average Joe using his nerdy hobby to achieve an unlikely goal; Dear Committee Members is a hilarious satire of college English departments; and The Long Ships is a rollicking Viking adventure yarn that’s surprisingly witty about touchy subjects like religion and death.
Special Raymond Chandler Category
This year I read the complete novels of Raymond Chandler. They’re terrific.
The Top Ten
10. Tales from the City / More Tales from the City (Armistead Maupin). This is haut pulp fiction. It’s pure camp, a series of novels of trashy gossip, ludicrous adventures, and sexual conquests. But the city in question is San Francisco, the time is forty years ago, and the story throws down all sorts of cultural barriers. It’s like a big healthy dose of social progressivism combined with a trashy soap opera. And the books are so fun to read, and so devastatingly funny, that it all crazily works.
9. Where’d You Go, Bernadette (Maria Semple). The first half of this novel is a pretty ferocious satire of rich white people and “affluenza”. I cackled with glee at numerous comeuppances suffered by a group of extra-shallow soccer moms and tech gurus. But halfway through, the book takes a serious turn, and while I’m sad one of the most annoying social climbers found a bit of redemption by the end, the result is a deeper, more interesting book that works as both satire and family drama.
8. Searching for Whitopia (Rich Benjamin). Rich Benjamin, a black man, traveled to the whitest communities in America for this fun-but-scary work of sociology. Yes, he even attended a “white separatist” convention, where the attendees actually welcomed him, despite being totally freaked out that he was there. One of them, memorably, explained, “We don’t hate your people. We just want to live separately from you.” Which is, depressingly, kind of the whole point of “whitopias” in Utah, Idaho, and all across America. The book is alternately funny (Benjamin discovers a deep passion for golfing) and harrowing (as it dives deeply into some of our country’s biggest social and political problems).
7. You Know Me Al (Ring Lardner). This epistolary novel turns 100 in 2016, and it’s still as classic a bit of American humor as anything by Mark Twain. The narrator is a baseball player, and also a complete idiot, and his letters home to his friend Al recount a series of increasingly ridiculous adventures and entanglements. If you enjoy the all-American novel-style of an amiable fool failing to learn from his/her mistakes, they just don’t get any better than this little masterpiece.
6. Modern Romance (Aziz Ansari & Eric Klinenberg). This is the first of three non-fiction books published in 2015 to make my top 6. Not sure this many new releases have ever reached the top 10 before – and that’s with me deliberately excluding The Food Lab, an awesome cookbook which you should invest in if you like making mac’n’cheese.
Anyway, Modern Romance finds scholar Eric Klinenberg and stand-up comedian Aziz Ansari teaming up to investigate how romance has been changed by the internet and mobile phones. The result is a totally harmonious combo: you can tell that neither of these guys ghostwrote for the other. The book is pretty rigorous in its investigation, and full of thought-provoking conclusions. But it’s also silly. Okay, so far, all the books in my Top Ten have been pretty funny. But don’t worry. Once we hit #4, that will change fast.
5. The Three Musketeers (Alexandre Dumas). Pure adventure. What else is there to say?
4. Between the World and Me (Ta-Nehisi Coates). A 150-page punch in the gut, this masterpiece of finely calibrated, and angry, prose describes what it’s like to be black in 2015 America. Ta-Nehisi Coates grew up in a bad Baltimore neighborhood, where the prevailing rule of life was survival. You did whatever you had to do, to live. His is a memoir of bodily insecurity, since, as he says, black bodies can be taken at almost any time by bullets, by police officers, by George Zimmermans. The style is a triumph of the pen over the sword, too. Mandatory reading, especially for anyone ignorant enough to think that racism has been “solved”.
3. Middlemarch (George Eliot). Boy, is this book difficult to get into. The first few chapters are dreadfully dry and boring. I nearly gave up there. But at around the 25% mark Middlemarch sucked me in like quicksand, until I was reading not out of obligation, but enjoyment, and then not out of enjoyment, but need. Virginia Woolf said that “with all its imperfections, [it] is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”
Why? Partly for its exploration of women and their place in 19th-century society. (George Eliot being, of course, a woman’s pen name.) Partly for characters who are perfectly ordinary people but, as you get to know them over hundreds of pages, become fascinating and compassion-inducing. (Celia ranks alongside Razumikhin, runaway Jim, Horatio, and Sancho Panza in the pantheon of Coolest Best Friends in World Literature.) Middlemarch also does the Brothers Karamazov thing of having characters represent ideas and ways of living your life, but without a heavy-handed religious message.
There are 5-6 highly charged scenes of great emotion which make you think “wow, I had no idea a novel that started this boringly would ever get here.” There are very modern depictions of internal conflict. And I’ve read hundreds of books that, in all their thousands of pages, don’t amount to the value of the last two paragraphs of Middlemarch. The best work of fiction I read all year.
2. A Royal Experiment (Janice Hadlow). This was my biggest surprise of the year, certainly. A history book about the private life of King George III? How could that possibly be great?
Well, if it’s a major milestone in history writing, that would work. And it is. Janice Hadlow has the nearly-impossible job of taking some of the juiciest gossip in world history (husbands and wives sabotaging each other! truly insane amounts of infidelity! a king going insane! murder! mysterious disappearances!) and presenting it in a serious way. Not only does she pull this off, she shows, and creates in us, genuine empathy for the subjects. This book combines a stately, wise, careful writing style with totally fascinating history; it combines lurid insane gossip with unquestionable historian’s authority. Never once in over 600 pages does the book become dull, for a second. Nor does Hadlow let her guard down.
In other words, it’s an amazing achievement. If I had pursued my first-choice career and become a historian, I probably never would have written a book as good as this. Maybe that’s why I’m in such awe of A Royal Experiment. The more you know about writing history books, the more courageous and remarkable this book is.
1. In Cold Blood (Truman Capote). Harper Lee should get a co-author credit for this, shouldn’t she? One of the things that truly stands out is the brilliance of the interviews. How did they get people to say those things? How did they coax out all those incredible stories, anecdotes, quotes? And the answer is that Harper Lee was doing most of the interviews.
Regardless, In Cold Blood is a masterpiece of American writing. It has inspired a million imitators. None has ever even come close to its achievement. Truman Capote never finished another book, but nearly every writer out there would trade their whole career to claim credit for this one. Like Middlemarch, this book deserves every bit of the legend which surrounds it.