Time for another giant writeup about all the books I read last year! (You can find writeups for previous years over here.)
A few of the books I read were on my Kindle, so they’re not in The Big Stack picture. Otherwise, that’s every book that I read in 2016. (re) means it’s a re-read.
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The Friends of Eddie Coyle: A Novel – George V. Higgins – A crime novel from the early ’70s (and also a movie with Robert Mitchum & Peter Boyle), this was just electrifying. Coyle, a low-level criminal in Boston, is facing sentencing in a few weeks for a three-year stint, and his “friends” are concerned that he’s going to cut a deal with the feds and rat on them. It’s mostly told in dialogue, but never feels like “info-dump”. The characters are vivid and venal, and the story (under 200 pages) stays taut throughout.
Dept. of Speculation – Jenny Offill – Weirdly compelling short novel about, well, a married couple that has problems. The first half is narrated by the wife to her husband, and covers their courtship and the first years of parenthood, which drive her batty. The second half is done in the 3rd person when their marriage ruptures (he cheats). The narrative manages to be personal without being esoteric, and the wife’s meltdown, as well as her career malaise after becoming a mom, are uncomfortably real. Its aphoristic style may mislead you into thinking it’s breezy, when in fact it’s a tempest.
The Leopard: A Novel – Giuseppe Di Lampedusa (re) – Must be the third or fourth time I’ve read this in the last 5 years. It’s one of my all-time faves, telling the story of a prince and his family in 1860s Palermo, at the time of the Risorgimento. You don’t need to know anything about Italian history beyond what’s in the one-page Translator’s Note at the beginning. Described as “the best 19th century novel written in the 20th century”, The Leopard is about time’s decay, the passing of a way of life, Sicilian national character, middle age, and more. It’s a beautiful novel, and I foist it off on people all the time. Consider this your foisting.
Willful Disregard: A Novel About Love – Lena Andersson – This is a strange little novel about a writer in Sweden who thinks she lives in a profoundly rational world, but flat-out loses her mind when she meets a video-artist she’s assigned to lecture on. In a simplistic way, it’s about learning “he’s just not that into you,” but the writer’s obsessional contortions don’t have any rom-com cuteness and or erotic thriller terror. Instead, you get a portrait of someone who’s self-image is radically different than who she really is. It probably also says something profound about Swedish intellectual culture, but I’ve got no background in that.
Talking To The Dead – Rachel Hadas – Lovely and graceful collection of essays about poetry, translation, aging and loss. Oh, and finding your true love. A couple of them are “round-table discussions” by writers, in which Hadas skilfully mines quotes and other passages from the authors to work them into a dialogue, using her own interjections to steer the “conversation.” Overall, this book is like listening to a smart pal talk about poetry and its effect on her life, which is right up my alley. • Listen to our podcast
Miss Lonelyhearts – Nathanael West (re) – It’s a brief novel about Depression-era NYC and a disillusioned man who writes the Miss Lonelyhearts advice column for a newspaper. It’s a comedy, albeit a mighty black one, about someone with no values trying to give solace to shattered people. His desperate search for something to believe in is continually undercut by the annihilation of tradition that came in the wake of WWI. I’m fond of quoting Orwell’s great essay, Inside the Whale, when he discusses this topic:
Patriotism, religion, the Empire, the family, the sanctity of marriage, the Old School Tie, birth, breeding, honour, discipline — anyone of ordinary education could turn the whole lot of them inside out in three minutes. But what do you achieve, after all, by getting rid of such primal things as patriotism and religion? You have not necessarily got rid of the need for something to believe in.
West’s novel captures the American version of that sentiment.
Almost Everything Very Fast: A Novel – Christopher Kloeble – It’s about a 19-year-old raised in an orphanage. He comes from a small town in Bavaria where historical circumstance led to a lot of in-breeding and associated mental deficiency. Of age, he returns to take care of his (mentally deficient) father and try to find out who his mother is. It becomes a sort of road novel, and the orphan’s story is intertwined with another narrator’s family history. The relationship between the “two-thirds” orphan and his father are powerfully frustrating, as the son just can’t find the right words to evoke real answers from his old man. It’s a compelling story about the multiple meanings of family, the process in which we become parents to our parents, and (of course) the problems that arise when Germans look back into their collective past. • Listen to our podcast
The Day of the Locust – Nathanael West – The other major/short novel from Nathanael West, this one about Hollywood. It’s apocalyptic, as I guess every Hollywood novel tends. It has a beautiful passage about how a multi-acre pile of sets and props is like a Sargasso of the imagination:
Just as that imaginary body of water was a history of civilization in the form of a marine junkyard, the studio lot was one in the form of a dream dump. A Sargasso of the imagination! And the dump grew continually, for there wasn’t a dream afloat somewhere which wouldn’t sooner or later turn up on it, having first been made photographic by plaster, canvas, lath and paint. Many boast sink and never reach the Sargasso, but no dream ever entirely disappears. Somewhere it troubles some unfortunate person and some day, when that person has been sufficiently troubled, it will be reproduced on the lot.
Delicious Foods: A Novel – James Hannaham – Amazing, harrowing novel mostly taking place in the ’80s and ’90s on a southern produce farm, where the workers are indentured to the point of slavery. One of the narrators is literally the voice of crack cocaine (the laborers are mostly addicts). It’s a remarkable portrayal of race issues in America, along with the despair of poverty and addiction, the bonds of family, and the awful, unseen price of what most of us take for granted. Knocked my socks off.
At the Existentialist Café: Freedom, Being, and Apricot Cocktails with Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Others – Sarah Bakewell – I enjoyed Bakewell’s previous book, How to Live: Or A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, and like that one, this uses biographical elements of both her subjects and (to a lesser extent) herself to explore a philosophical movement. In this case, she has a vast array of sometimes infuriating characters and the backdrop of the 1930s to 1960s to work with. She does a great job of bringing the figures and the time to life, and exploring how existentialism developed out of phenomenology, how it played out in real-world situations, and where the whole black turtleneck look began. It’s a fascinating read, and avoids the heavy jargon that makes most philosophy books inaccessible. We were supposed to record a podcast, but she cancelled on me.
Dark Territory: The Secret History of Cyber War – Fred Kaplan – Kaplan, a Pulitzer-winning reporter, chronicles the history of the US government’s attempts at attacking, defending, and exploiting computer systems. His story starts with Ronald Reagan’s viewing of the movie WarGames, and lays out the ways that computer and networking technology have radically outpaced security concerns. Numerous branches of the military and the government experience the great epiphany that they could penetrate virtually any other party’s computer network (and this starts in the pre-Internet era), and then experience the crushing realization that his means that virtually any other party could penetrate their networks. Kaplan does a great job exploring the bureaucratic infighting that hindered the development of a security initiative for cyberspace, while demonstrating that all roads lead back to Fort Meade, where the NSA angled to become the go-to agency for this post-Cold War, asymmetric world. Highly worth reading, esp. after the semi-revelations of Russian hacking as a weapon in the 2016 presidential election. • Listen to our podcast
The Diary of a Teenage Girl: An Account in Words and Pictures – Phoebe Gloeckner – It’s an amazing, heartbreaking and harrowing piece of semi-autobiography. Gloeckner draws on her experience as a 15-year-old living in mid-’70s San Francisco and having a relationship with her mother’s boyfriend. It’s not as salacious as it sounds, or at least it transcends its salaciousness. I’m still not sure how Gloeckner does it, because she manages not to compose a morality tale, condescend to her teenage narrator or portray her solely as a victim, while also celebrating the process by which all this experience would someday become a work of art. It’s mainly prose, with illustrations and a few pages of comics, and I have no idea whether to recommend it to anyone who has children. • Listen to our podcast
Shadow Ops: Control Point – Myke Cole – First of a series of military fantasy novels, which I’ll just describe as “Magic X-Men Marines,” although one of the cover blurbs calls it “X-Men meets Black Hawk Down,” which also sounds awesome. It’s in a contemporary or near-future world where people begin manifesting magic powers, governments try to control the situation, and the US ends up with a secret military force of super-powered beings. Oh, and magic comes from another plane of existence, and there’s a Forward Operating Base there. This isn’t what I’d pick up off the shelf in a bookstore, because of my snobbish affectations, but I grew up on the classic Claremont and Byrne run of the X-Men, so this series was actually right up my alley. Cole does a great job of conveying super-powered action, and his world-building is top-notch, including the Watchmen-like passages of documents that head up each chapter. • Listen to our podcast
Nitro Mountain: A novel – Lee Clay Johnson – It’s an Appalachian Noir novel, with a time-worn plot: down-on-his-luck guy reconnects with old girlfriend, who recruits him to bump off her abusive boyfriend. The magic comes in Johnson’s tight prose, his fantastic ear for dialogue, and the fully-formed characters he evokes. It’s a funny, thrilling, heart-rending piece of work, and I couldn’t put it down. Nitro Mountain is a page-turner of the highest order.
The Hirschfeld Century: Portrait of an Artist and His Age – David Leopold – It’s a semi-coffee-table book about the great artist/caricaturist Al Hirschfeld. The author, who was Hirschfeld’s archivist from the ages of 86 to 99 (!), provides essays about the artist’s evolution, decade by decade. But the real draw is the art: the book includes more than 300 of Hirschfeld’s drawings, paintings, collages, and caricatures. As someone who grew up with Hirschfeld’s work in the New York Times, I enjoyed the heck out of this book (and learned a bunch about Al’s life and career in the process). • Listen to our podcast
The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels and the History of American Comedy – Kliph Nesteroff – This book covers a century of comedy in America, beginning at its roots in vaudeville and rolling through the days of comedy podcasts. The author has been writing articles about forgotten stories of comedy on WFMU’s Beware of the Blog for years, and here he manages to synthesize that reporting with an overarching historical framework. It’s fascinating stuff, revealing a ton of dirt about entertainment in America, beginning with the awful working conditions of vaudevillians, the post-Prohibition mob-controlled nightclub scene (and the problems that insult comics had when they picked on the wrong audience member), TV network censorship, as well as comedians’ role in the civil rights struggle. The author does a great job of not trying to explain why certain comics were in favor, because you just can’t explain funny. Instead, he focuses on what happens off-stage, and also tells the story the media that were invented over the 20th century and how comedy kept expanding to fill them. Highly recommended. • Listen to our podcast
Bellow’s People: How Saul Bellow Made Life Into Art – David Mikics – I haven’t read Saul Bellow’s novels in many years (although I do have the complete collection of his Library of America editions reminding me of that shortcoming), but this book is a compulsively readable exploration of how Bellow’s novels and characters sprung from his intense relationships. Mikics centers each chapter around figures from Bellow’s life and how they each inspired figures in his major works. Trust me: even if you’re unfamiliar with Bellow’s novels (and he’s a towering figure in 20th century American fiction), it’s still an intriguing exploration of the process by which artists take from life and, in some cases, try to correct What Went Wrong (or at least explore alternatives to the chosen roads). The author does a good job conveying the substance of each novel, so you can also treat this as a sort of cheat sheet for Saul Bellow’s novels, if you ever find yourself caught in a time-warp and having to make conversation at a literary cocktail party in 1978 Manhattan. • Listen to our podcast
Sewer, Gas and Electric: The Public Works Trilogy – Matt Ruff – It’s a deliriously entertaining novel. It’s set mainly in 2023 and was written in the early ’90s, so while it’s a science fiction novel of sorts, it doesn’t make much pretense at predicting the future, so much as extrapolating/exaggerating the present. (And there’s a whole tangent I could go on about how no SF writer could come remotely close to predicting the iPhone.) It’s a world of commercialism gone rampant, where New York’s sewers are beginning to spawn mutant life forms because of all the stuff we flush away, an Ayn Rand AI continues to argue the tenets of Objectivism, and ecoterrorists develop massive pie-throwing cannons to stage non-violent takeovers of whaling ships. There are a lot of Pynchon elements to it, but it reminds me more of Infinite Jest, if David Foster Wallace hadn’t spent so many pages trying to prove how smart he is. SGE is a fun novel (with a murder mystery at its core) and an intriguing time capsule of those weird years as the Cold War wound down.
Galaxies – Barry Malzberg – This was a weird, metafictional science fiction novel from the mid-70s. Malzberg writes it as notes for a novel that he’s not capable of writing, so it’s really a commentary on what science fiction is, rather than a work of science fiction. I read it back in college but that’s a quarter-century ago, and I’m far more tuned in now to what Malzberg is saying about the expectations of the readership, as well as the struggles that genre writers have when trying to supersede the constraints of their material. All along, the book does bring you through the story of the unwritten novel, about the captain of a single-crew spaceship that’s carrying a cargo of the reanimatable dead, and how she tries to deal with escaping a neutron-star-collapsed galaxy. It’s a weirdly satisfying read, even with the author literally telling the reader about the behind-the-curtains aspects of building the characters and plot.
Anna Karenina – Tolstoy (tr. Pevear & Volokhonsky) (re) – I haven’t read this since 1998, and Gil at 45 is a lot different than Gil at 27. The biggest change is that I’m married, and as Tolstoy’s book centers on that notion of how two people manage to live as one (or not), I find it an even subtler book than I did on previous readings. I expected my “loyalties” to change this time around; where I once sided with Levin’s quests for meaning — even when they involved digressions into the nature of landowner-peasant relations — I found myself much more gripped by Anna’s husband Karenin. He does some terrible things as a result of Anna’s infidelity, but Tolstoy manages to present him sympathetically while framing him as a man of limited imaginative capacity. That is, Karenin can’t truly sympathize with Anna, and he spends too much time worried about his social standing and career, but he seems to suffer truly over the course of the novel. The other characters also live, but Karenin’s frustrations and the limits of his spirit moved me in ways I wasn’t expecting. All of which is to say, this book is a classic for a reason. It’s not exactly beach reading, but it’s a wonderful novel about the nature of love and family, and the limits of forgiveness.
Beyond Apollo – Barry Malzberg – Another metafictional SF novel by Malzberg, but one I found a lot less satisfying and difficult to get into. Perhaps it’s just a function of reading it so soon after Galaxies, but I just felt as though “I get it already; it’s a self-aware genre!”
Living with a Dead Language: My Romance with Latin – Ann Patty – Maybe it’s too “written just for Gil” but I enjoyed this memoir of a logomaniacal former book publisher who retires from NYC for a wooded enclave and decides to learn Latin in her 60s. The author uses the four-year process of studying Latin (at Vassar and Bard) to reassess her relationship with her mother, who struggled to find her own identity outside of being a wife and mother. Ms. Patty intercuts this with anecdotes of her rise in the publishing world (she discovered Flowers in the Attic and unleashed the V.C. Andrews blockbuster franchise on an unsuspecting public). It’s an unsentimental book, and Ms. Patty is unsparing in depicting herself as a senex in classes full of 18- to 21-year-old students. Beyond the process of learning Latin as a language, she also delves into key pieces of Roman literature and uses them to spur her self-examination. It’s a quick read and you don’t need to know Latin to enjoy it. (I don’t, although I did study Attic Greek in the summer of 1992.) • Listen to our podcast
The Plot Against America – Philip Roth – This is the only novel of Philip Roth’s from 1979 until his recent retirement that I hadn’t read. It’s an alternate history in which Charles Lindbergh beats FDR in the 1940 election on a platform of keeping the US out of WWII. The novel’s narrated by the adult “Philip Roth,” recounting the history from his 8-year-old perspective. It’s an atypical Roth novel, since it doesn’t focus on the desires of heroically broken men, but it was awfully fitting for this election season. (It was either this or Sinclair Lewis’ It Can’t Happen Here.) The resolution is too weirdly clean, but I think that’s because the reality of our own descent into Trumpism is a lot messier.
Diane Arbus: Portrait of a Photographer – Arthur Lubow – It’s a fascinating portrayal of the life of an artist whose arc took her far from her wealthy upbringing and into a weird American midcentury demimonde. Her focus on portraits of “freaks” could easily have been condescending kitsch, but she managed to convey something more human in her subjects, and the book explores her own sense of alienation and how it drove her to forge connections. The only downside is that the book doesn’t include any of Arbus’ photos, so I frequently find myself reaching for my laptop to check out the images the author’s referring to. It’s a fantastic bio of a groundbreaking but really troubled artist, while also getting into the evolution of photography as art, rather than documentary tool. • Listen to our podcast
Engines of the Night: Science Fiction in the Eighties – Barry Malzberg – This one’s a collection of essays by a long-time SF writer, dating around 1979-80, and they make for an interesting perspective on where the SF genre was at that moment, how it looked at itself historically, and how the golden age wasn’t as golden a some thought. I find this sort of genre-history to be fascinating; The Getaway Car: A Donald Westlake Nonfiction Miscellany has a section that examines the historical trends of the detective novel. “Literary fiction” rarely gets the same treatment, probably because of its self-important stance and denial that it’s also a genre, but I bet it’s just as susceptible to certain market forces as the more ghettoized genres are. Anyway, it’s also interesting to read these Malzberg essays because they don’t predict the emergence of the cyberpunk movement, kicked off by William Gibson’s Neuromancer. That’s not a knock — if Barry could predict the future, he’d probably have eschewed SF for a career as a stock trader — but it is fascinating to see how a static view of a literary form can get upended in short order.
Breakfast in the Ruins: Science Fiction in the Last Millennium – Barry Malzberg – This collects the more pessimistic later essays by Malzberg. They’re good, but not as illuminating as the earlier ones.
Senior Moments: Looking Back, Looking Ahead – Willard Spiegelman – I like prepping for being an old man, and Willard Spiegelman’s essays do a bang-up job of demonstrating the rewards and challenges of being a cultured older person in this benighted age. This book collects several of his previously published essays, but they’re adapted to feed into each other. Willard’s a graceful writer and the essays cover topics that are right up my alley: walking all over New York City, going to his 50th high school reunion, prioritizing his reading now that the days aren’t without end, the experience of listening to Janet Cardiff’s 40-part motet, and more. The section on his out-of-placeness as a professor in Dallas is worth the price of admission. Having Willard as a pal is one of the great perks of doing my podcast. • Listen to our podcast
Magic and Loss: The Internet as Art – Virginia Heffernan – This brief (like 250 pages) book explores the idea of the Internet being a massive piece of performance art, in which more than half of the world’s population is participating. Heffernan explores the roots of the internet, not in terms of the communication technology behind it, but it sensory aspects, from the early days when it was just green text on a black screen, to the visual disaster of Ebay and Craigslist, to the walled gardens of apps. She avoids the easy triggers of “the internet is warping our children’s minds!” and instead focuses on how we craft ourselves for our online personae, what it says about ourselves when we contrast our online presence with our “real” ones, how a YouTube video of a Korean shred-guitarist changed her life, and more. It’s a very worthwhile read, and even if you disagree with some of her premises, you’ll find yourself thinking more about what it is you’re doing every time you share an update on Facebook. • Listen to our podcast
Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook – Clive James – One of my favorite writers (his Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts is one of my desert island books) has been laid low for years by leukemia and emphysema, and has spent his evenings binge-watching TV with his family. This brief book (200 smallish pages) chronicles what they’re watching, explores the fun of long-form TV series, and is loaded with opinions that’ll leave you nodding in appreciation or furious with disagreement. Which is to say, it’s just like a pal telling you what they’ve been watching lately, if the pal was one of the smartest people you’ve ever met. It’ll likely turn you on to series that you hadn’t checked out previously, but also sharpen your opinions on the ones you’ve already seen, or send you back to them to figure out what you were missing. I don’t think James & I will agree about Breaking Bad, but I also think that there’s something specifically American about that series that the Cambridge-by-way-of-Kogarah writer just isn’t going to get (not just because the NHS would’ve invalidated most of the show’s premise about Walt not being able to afford adequate treatment for his lung cancer). It’s a quick read, and I recommend the heck out of it. (But all of you should also read Cultural Amnesia.) • Listen to our podcast
Holy Resilience: The Bible’s Traumatic Origins – David M. Carr – It’s a fascinating book about the nature of communal trauma, and how it may have shaped both the Hebrew and Christian Bibles. After suffering a near-death experience (bicycle disintegration), Professor Carr revisits his lifelong studies of scripture with the thesis that the experiences of communal trauma (Babylonian exile, the crucifixion) were huge influences on the texts of both of these religions. He also shows that this response to trauma is what enabled these books to reverberate over millennia, where more triumphant cultures and religions were ultimately washed away. I enjoyed the heck out of this; it helped that it’s not a scholarly work, but it does require a bit of an open mind about the Bible and its origins. It also taught me a ton about Biblical history, which I probably should have known, but I’ve been a little too busy for my entire life, y’know? • Listen to our podcast
Peter Arno: The Mad, Mad World of The New Yorker’s Greatest Cartoonist – Michael Maslin – A really fun book about a cartoonist who helped create the New Yorker‘s identity, almost from day one. Arno had an insane life, getting into high-society adventures and otherwise leading a life that just about every contemporary cartoonist I know would envy. The author’s a first-time biographer (he’s a New Yorker cartoonist himself), and he pursued angles and resources that an experienced biographer might have overlooked. I enjoyed the heck out of it, and learned a ton about the early days of one of the most stories magazines in America. • Listen to our podcast
Changing the Subject: Art and Attention in the Internet Age – Sven Birkerts – For more than 20 years, Sven Birkerts has been writing about the ways that digital/electronic technology changes human experience, particularly the ways we encounter literature and art. It’s almost quaint to read his early work on the subject, because the current state far outstrips his 1990s projections/nightmares. Some of his new essays explore how smartphones and social media are accelerating our transformation into a hive-mind, with all the implications that carries for the social, civic and aesthetic spheres. He’s a beautiful writer, and he’s fully aware of the contradictions of railing against technological innovation in a book available in Kindle format. (There’s an essay entitled, “It’s not because I’m a cranky Luddite, I swear”.) I think his best segments are those that challenge us to slow down and temporarily disconnect, to look at the off-screen world. It’s clear that the more we stare into the black mirror of our phones, the less we see unmediated life, and I appreciate Birkerts’ graceful method of reminding (not hectoring) us of this fact.
In Love – Alfred Hayes – The great essayist Phillip Lopate turned me on to another Hayes book, My Face for the World to See, a few years ago. I enjoyed that one (another Hollywood story that tends to the apocalyptic, albeit on a small scale), so I picked up this one. It’s a hardboiled non-crime novel, if that makes sense, almost a noir tough-guy story about love. A middle-aged guy meets a girl (it’s NYC in ’50s), they date, don’t really go anywhere, but when a wealthy guy takes a shine to her, the guy realizes how in love he’s in and tries to stop her leaving. It’s filed with great lines, and maybe adds up to less than the sum of its parts, but I enjoyed it. Here’s a bit:
I really didn’t have a good vice. Liquor in moderate quantities. Love on the installment plan. Wouldn’t it be nice if I could really cultivate some impressive vice? Some excessive cruelty or some astonishing sacrifice. But not even that. Instead, we complain in small voices. Complain we’ve married the wrong girl, taken the wrong job, lived the wrong lives.
The Good Soldier – Ford Madox Ford (re) – Here’s what I wrote in 2012: “Michael Dirda praised the living heck out of this Ford Madox Ford novel from 1915, so I gave it a read soon after our conversation. The narrator, a man who was seemingly unaware of the affair going on between his wife and a British captain, tells the story of passion and suicide in a very disjointed manner. It’s not right to say he’s an unreliable narrator, but his elliptical way of getting to the heart of the story and his willful blindness to what’s going on around him never seem like cheap plot devices; rather, they’re both essential to his character and indicative of a certain sense of propriety in that era. The narrator’s casualness and disjointedness are actually intensely worked out by Ford, so that mere asides turn into harbingers of what the narrator calls ‘the saddest story I have ever heard.’ It’s a wonderful novel, which I’ll likely return to in a year or two to catch the significance in all the seemingly insignificant details.” So it took me a few extra years. Knowing the general shape and effect this time didn’t impair my enjoyment of the structure and the curious elisions of the narrator. It makes me think a little of the first time I heard The Violent Femmes “Blister in the Sun”, because I hadn’t previously experienced deliberately crafted looseness.
Solaris – Stanislaw Lem (re) – I’m not sure why, but every year or so, I return to this book. It’s on my Kindle, so it’s a night-time, “I’m between major books but don’t want to go downstairs to my library to find something else” decision to start re-reading it. It’s narrated by a psychologist who arrives at a station on a strange world and discovers that inscrutable things are afoot. The world is a massive ocean that mankind discovered decades earlier and can’t make heads or tails of. The ocean appears to be sentient, but all attempts to communicate with it have been for naught. Scientists study the intricate and weird phenomena, theorize about the nature of Solaris, and try to apply some sort of human parallel to it. Over the years, interest peters out, and the station is manned only by a skeleton crew. When our narrator shows up, he discovers that the remaining staff are being visited by “guests” from their pasts; in his case, it’s his ex-wife, who committed suicide a decade earlier. The crew can’t understand how the ocean does this, or more importantly, why. Their inability to communicate with this being below them is paralleled by the way they fail to communicate with each other and their “guests”. It’s all beautifully strange, and there are Moby Dick-like passages about the history of “Solaristics”, the study of the beautiful and bizarre phenomena of this world. Is Solaris maliciously creating these ghosts from the crew’s pasts, or is it a blind reflex by a mind so alien from that mankind that it may as well be God? The narrator struggles to balance that question with the opportunity he has to reconcile himself with the memory of his wife, and it all makes for an arresting novel. Which is probably why I come back to it every few years. (I haven’t seen the Tarkovsky film, but I’ve seen the Soderbergh version; it’s fine, but doesn’t capture the immensity of the world beneath the station.)
Footnotes from the World’s Greatest Bookstores: True Tales and Lost Moments from Book Buyers, Booksellers, and Book Lovers – Bob Eckstein – When I travel for work, I tend to look for three things in my off time: museums, bookstores and menswear shops. (I rarely buy anything at the latter, but I like to look.) Bob Eckstein has put together a book about 75 legendary bookstores, with brief histories and anecdotes about them. The great attraction of this gorgeous book is the stores themselves; Eckstein paints a beautifully composed portrait of each store (and traveled to many of them). I find myself opening it and just reveling in the paintings and the stories of these wonderful, semi-Quixotic shops. It’s an absolute no-brainer holiday gift for book-lovers and if you’re the sort who reads this part of the e-mail every week, this will be right up your alley. • Listen to our podcast
Avid Reader: A Life – Robert Gottlieb – Mr. Gottlieb is a renowned editor, spending most of his career at Knopf. He edited a ton of legendary authors and books, including Joseph Heller, Toni Morrison, Robert Caro, John Cheever, John Le Carre, Michael Crichton, and others. In his mid-80s, he penned a pretty enjoyable memoir, which involves some score-settling, as any document of New York publishing is bound to do. There are aspects of Gottlieb’s life and character that mirror mine — micro-managing, compulsive reading, generalized anxiety — but he managed to blaze his own trail in the world of publishing and find audiences for books that other editors would likely have rejected because of “unsaleability”. He also edited The New Yorker for a few years (1987-1992), and his descriptions of that time also put me in mind of my B2B magazine-editing days, although I didn’t have any scene as exciting as the time Gottlieb had to shield outgoing editor William Shawn from the paparazzi when they were leaving the Algonquin Club. It’s a delightful read, and while it doesn’t romanticize the publishing world, it does remind you that it’s a different business than selling widgets. I doubt we’ll see the likes of Mr. Gottlieb again, because the industry has changed too much over the course of his life, but he’s made a huge contribution to literature over his career, and this book lets him celebrate that without tooting his horn too much.
The Hard Problem: A Play – Tom Stoppard – I brought a little outside baggage into this new (2014) play by Tom Stoppard: 1) He’d been quoted in some articles about having to dumb down this play, because preview audiences weren’t getting some of his cultural references, and 2) I measure everything of his against my favorite Stoppard play, Arcadia. For a play trying to deal with the issue of where consciousness resides/emerges, it seemed weirdly … simple in structure. I’m still not sure what to make of it, and I probably need to see it on stage to get a better idea of how it works. Sorry I don’t have something more substantive to say, but them’s the breaks.
Based on a True Story: A Memoir – Norm Macdonald – Standup comic and former SNL Weekend Update host Norm Macdonald is a sneakily fascinating guy. He had a Twitter feed where he talked about his autodidactic literary education, and wasn’t afraid of making strong critical judgments of contemporary novels, building on his experiences with classic fiction. Between that and his “strip humor down to the bare essence of language” approach to comedy, I was curious as to what he could do in prose. As it turns out, he’s written a really entertaining and thoughtful novel. I know it says “A Memoir,” but that’s part of the joke. Norm uses pieces of his life to spin a fantastic tale, but continues to come back to his own experiences, at times inverting them and undercutting the notion that one can ever get to the bottom of another person’s life (or even one’s own). There are (good) Faulknerian passages (as in, not 6-page-long paragraphs, but evocative first-person prose a la As I Lay Dying), especially early on in the pieces about his rural childhood, and the metafictional plot that arises midway through doesn’t descend into cheap irony, which is the sign of an author who actually cares about his reader. I managed to read the whole book (240 pages) on the flight from Newark to Denver; I laughed so much during the flight that my neighbor asked me for the title of the book so she could buy a copy when she got home.
Shadow Ops: Fortress Frontier – Myke Cole – Second novel in a series (see the first Shadow Ops comments above). This one was a little more enjoyable than the launch novel, partly because the world was already in place and didn’t need further setup, and partly because the protagonist is an admin/bookkeeper, and I’m a sucker for stories about how the paper-pushers are actually the guys who make everything happen. • Listen to our podcast
When Memory Comes & Where Memory Leads: My Life – Saul Friedlander – These are two memoirs written in 1977 and 2015 by a Holocaust scholar who lost his parent in Auschwitz. They were my Thanksgiving weekend reading (along with the FDA’s new guidance), which gives you an idea of why I never get invited to parties. Friedlander was born in 1932 Prague to well-to-do, assimilated, non-practicing Jews, and thus was unable to understand the family’s repeated flights in advance of the Gestapo. His parents hid him in a Catholic seminary in France, and he so took to the place that he prepared to enter the priesthood. It was only the postwar intervention of a kindly Jesuit that led him to understand what being a Jew meant. He then adopted Marxism, then Zionism, and lied about his age to join a militia in the newly formed nation of Israel. He’d go on to become a liaison for Israel’s nuclear program, a professor of intentional relations, and a Holocaust scholar. But those are “just” the facts. The memoirs, especially the first volume, evoke the fragmented consciousness of a totally uprooted mind. Friedlander often describes landscapes — the hills outside Jerusalem, Basel, Paris — as though he’s trying to find some degree of certainty and fixedness in the world, even though he’s living proof that nowhere is home. Both books address the shifting nationalist tone in Israel, but the second volume benefits from an additional 40 years of hindsight. They’re both remarkable books about an utterly singular life, and while I enjoyed the first one for its more impressionist tone, the second satisfies my need to clear up the details and set the world to right. I was hoping to record a podcast with the author, but the publisher cancelled on me about 16 hours before the recording session, which led me to blow up at the publisher and get myself taken off their PR list. (It was the third author of theirs who got pulled after I did the research/reading to prepare.)
The Speed of Sound: Breaking the Barriers Between Music and Technology: A Memoir – Thomas Dolby – Yeah, the “She Blinded Me With Science Guy”. He’s had an amazing and varied series of careers, beginning with synth-pop, segueing into pre-dot-com-bust tech CEO, and now a film professor at Johns Hopkins (despite never having been to university). The memoir splits 50/50 between the musician and tech-executive phases of his life. The first half is filled with anecdotes of his pop life, including stories of his encounters with Michael Jackson, David Bowie, Eddie Van Halen, George Clinton, and a host of others, as well as the inside stories to some of his songs and the awful tales of the music industry’s venality. As big a fan as I am of that work, it must say something weird about me that I actually found his tales of Silicon Valley to be more interesting. Dolby’s prose is clear and his anecdotes don’t come off as self-aggrandizing; he chronicles his mistakes and freely admits the luck involved in his success. He also captures specific periods in time perfectly, giving enough backstory to explain why the music industry worked the way it did (until it didn’t), and how the early days of the World Wide Web had a very different set of priorities than what we have today. (This includes him having to fight to get audio onto the first web-browsers, because tech people didn’t want to have music coming out of people’s computers, believing that co-workers would get mad if their cubicle-mates were making noise.) So, come for the pop-star gossip, stay for the inner workings of the tech economy! • Listen to our podcast
The History of Rock & Roll, Volume 1: 1920-1963 – Ed Ward – The author marshals his lifelong experience as a rock & roll journalist — he was also co-founder of the SXSW Festival in Austin, TX — to chronicle the origins of this most American of art forms. The book has a breathless pace, working chronologically to explain the myriad musical and cultural threads that wove together (and sometimes frayed) to become the rock & roll tapestry. The book covers artists like Elvis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Little Richard (credited with the first true rock & roll song), Carl Perkins and others, but it also tells the stories of the label owners, DJs, talent scouts, and other people without whom rock never would have taken off. The degree of chance and sheer luck also comes to the fore; numerous times, Ward tells stories of right place/right time without which our musical history would have been far different (and probably much diminished). I suppose one of my only complaints is that it’s too compressed, using only 370 pages to cover that history through 1963. In his introduction, the author admits that the book could have been far longer, but he was writing for an audience that isn’t as devoted to doorstopper works of history as he is. That said, it’s a wonderful history and it’ll send you repeatedly to YouTube or other sources to look up a bazillion artists and songs. • Listen to our podcast
Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White – Michael Tisserand – George Herriman was the creator of the comic strip Krazy Kat, one of the greatest strips ever (usually ranked alongside Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo, although they’re utterly different). The fact that Herriman, who died in 1944, never had a full biography before now is insane, albeit understandable. Tisserand’s book starts out with a story from 1971, where a professor wrote about his attempt at writing an entry in the Dictionary or American Biography on Herriman. He knew George was born in 1880 in New Orleans, but his research came to a halt when the only New Orleans birth certificate for a George Herriman in that time was marked “col”, for colored. Herriman, of course, was white. Except he wasn’t. He a creole of color, but he lived his life as a white man after his family left New Orleans for Los Angeles. His racial identity never came out in his lifetime (he bought homes that had racial covenants written into the mortgages; that birth certificate could have given his bank the option to foreclose on him), and that 1971 discovery led to a whole new perspective on Herriman’s great achievement, the world of Krazy Kat. Tisserand does a fantastic job of research in this book, going back into the records of Herriman’s ancestors, chronicling the evolution of his art, exploring his relationships and working life (the newsroom sections are great). He also manages to evoke the magic of the Krazy Kat strips, without using more than single panels here and there throughout the book. It’s an amazing book about the shape of a man’s life, the evolution of comic strips, and race in America. • Listen to our podcast
Sword of Honor trilogy: Men At Arms, Officers and Gentlemen, Unconditional Surrender – Evelyn Waugh – This came highly recommended highly by Elizabeth Samet, a humanities professor at West Point (podcast), as it’s the gift she gives her favorite students when they graduate and start their commissions. It’s a novel about World War II, centering on an observant (but divorced) British Catholic in his mid-30s who wants to do his part for the war effort. It’s a fantastic work, capturing the drudgery of training, the accidents of heroism, the chaos of retreat, the humor and camaraderie of the armed services, the deteriorations of age, and a lot more. I’ll note that British novels about the War usually put me in mind of my mom and her family (she was born in London in ’40), but this one also came around near its end to touch on my dad’s experience as an Eastern European Jewish refugee. Above and beyond those personal resonances, I enjoyed Sword of Honor immensely. The set piece about the evacuation of Cyprus alone is enough to put it among the best war literature. Your mileage may vary: keep in mind that my favorite books in Anthony Powell’s A Dance to the Music of Time were books 7-9, which took place during the war. (It’s because Jenkins, the narrator, has to take on a more active and revealing role.)
Everyman – Philip Roth (re) – Okay, I read it every year, just about. You can just go back to the earlier editions of this feature to read my thoughts on it. It’s a brief novel about an old Jew with a creaky heart. It was my New Year’s Eve reading. I gave a copy to Hayley Campbell when we met for a podcast last summer, because I’m an incurable thanatic.