This one is a yearly tradition as well: What book did you finally get around to reading in 2015?
I get teased quite a bit around the office for my enjoyment of 2012’s Stuck In Love, the better of writer-director Josh Boone’s work, but I think my detractors can at least appreciate that the film was the final nudge I needed to read Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. The collection of short stories from 1981 is referenced by film patriarch and famous novelist Bill Borgens (Greg Kinnear) when he quotes the titular story: “I could hear my heart beating. I could hear everyone’s heart. I could hear the human noise we sat there making, not one of us moving, not even when the room went dark.” The line is indicative of the rest of Carver’s prose, which manages to be direct without losing meaning. In fact, it’s often the sparseness of his words that allow a reader to understand their emotional affect. Sappy film aside, Carver is a renowned writer and, speaking from experience, someone you should get around to reading sooner rather than later.
I remembered the rave reviews given to David Carr’s The Night Of The Gun: A Reporter Investigates The Darkest Story Of His Life—His Own in 2008, and I resolved to check it out. It only took seven years and the unexpected death of its author for that to happen. The memoir’s unwieldy title explains its unconventional approach: Carr spent his 20s and 30s a degenerate addict, and as an ace reporter—which he was even during the throes of addiction—he knew his memory couldn’t be trusted. To get the closest version of the truth, and to avoid the junkie-memoir clichés Carr abhorred, he spent a couple years reporting on his own life: interviewing old friends, family, partners in crime, and other people who crossed his path. What emerges is a fascinating, and frequently damning, account of squandered potential until Carr finally got his act together. Not that things became easier for him: He’d be the single parent of twin girls, get cancer, and eventually relapse, but he’d also become a legendary New York Times journalist. Knowing about Carr’s untimely death lends a sadness to the hard-won redemption chronicled in The Night Of The Gun, but the book shows Carr squeezed a couple of lifetimes into his 58 years.
Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead has been gathering dust on my shelf since 2009, when silly college-aged Caitlin thought she could read all the Pulitzer Prize-winning fiction books in a few years. It won the highest literary honor in 2005, and I can see why: It delivers the softest, most indelible gut punch, with Robinson creating characters who cut to the heart of what it means to be human. The plot is unremarkable, universal, and achingly sad, told in the form of a letter written by an elderly, dying father to his young son. Set in the small town of Gilead, Iowa, in the 1950s, the narrator’s rumination on his own childhood, combined with stories of his father and grandfather, form a powerful portrait of rural life that advances yet seems to remain lost to time. The humanity of Gilead is overwhelming at times, and its reflections of childhood hit me especially hard. A slow start and lack of big plot points belie a moving, deeply felt story of growing older and looking back at life; Gilead gave me a shit-ton of feels that hovered somewhere between my heart and my gut, simultaneously joyful and deeply sad.
This was the year I finally carved out the time to read Richard Hofstadter’s great The Age Of Reform. His most famous work, The Paranoid Style In American Politics, has achieved a popular resurgence in recent years, thanks to its seemingly uncanny ability to explain the rise of the populist Right over the past decade, but Age Of Reform might be even better. Detailing the transformation of the American political landscape from the agrarian populism of the 1890s to the arrival of FDR’s New Deal, Hofstadter delves into the psychology and sociology of the changes in both rural and urban life that led to the profound shifts in political ideology on the part of the American elite and working class alike. Not exactly the most rigorous of social scientists, the lack of hard data actually contributes to the book’s robust sense of timeliness, as his psychology-inflected analysis makes for a more open-ended conception of political change—and makes the book infinitely more readable than your average academic text. That commitment to telling a story, one accessible to any reader, yet brilliant and insightful enough that no one else could’ve told it, makes it an easy candidate for my “you must read this!” list of recommendations.
One of the many used books I’ve bought and stockpiled over the years is a 2010 nonfiction work by Matthew Goodman called The Sun And The Moon: The Remarkable True Accounts Of Hoaxers, Showmen, Dueling Journalists, And Lunar Man Bats In Nineteenth-Century New York. With a title that dazzling, it’s a wonder it took my so long to get around to reading it. It was worth the wait; in rich, novelistic fashion, Goodman reconstructs the lives and events surrounding The Great Moon Hoax, a series of fictitious articles that appeared in the New York newspaper The Sun in 1835. In them, outrageous details about newly discovered life on the moon—including The Sun And The Moon’s subtitular “lunar man bats”—was revealed, all with the air of scientific verisimilitude. Everyone from Edgar Allan Poe to P.T. Barnum wind up in the story’s orbit. After finishing the book, I wondered why it wasn’t more widely known; not only is it a terrific read, it’s a fascinating snapshot of American journalism during its formative years, not to mention an insightful peek at the infancy of science fiction.
I’m embarrassed to admit how few books I read in 2015, mostly because I spent the year trying and failing to finish Anna Karenina. (Leo Tolstoy: Masterful writer, not very succinct.) Then I spent the rest of the year slogging through the much shorter but equally dense The Age Of Innocence, which I finally finished yesterday. Honestly, I’m not quite sure what to make of Edith Wharton’s detailed exploration of New York high society in the late 1870s. Though the prose is evocative and intelligent, I found the point-of-view character to be an insufferable asshat who spends the entire novel either belittling one woman or blindly idolizing another. While I enjoyed Newland Archer’s oafish selfishness when I thought the novel was satirizing it, by the final chapter I began to realize the book was actually expecting me to sympathize with its flawed protagonist. Which, ugh, this guy is the worst: He preemptively decides his fiancée is an idiot, refuses to talk to her about scholarly subjects, and then gets made at her when he can’t talk to her about worldly matters. Upon further research it seems House Of Mirth is the Wharton I should have turned to for my complex female protagonist and thoughtful social critique. Oh well, there’s always next year.
I’m typically so behind with reading books the year they came out that my answer to this would normally be almost anything I read in the previous year, which means that finally catching up with Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven should barely even count for me. But I’d heard so much great stuff about Station Eleven that it seems like it had been out forever, though it only came out in September 2014. Maybe I dragged my feet for almost a whole year because it’s “another” piece of post-apocalyptic fiction, but it’s a particularly beautiful one, hopping between characters, locations, and timelines too fluidly to revel in apocalypse porn or self-conscious world-building. I’m not sure if I should be daunted or inspired by the fact that the author is both about my age and on her fourth book, not her first. I guess that gives me some pre-2016 stuff to read next year.
One of my favorite books I caught up on this year was an A.V. Club recommendation, Saladin Ahmed’s Throne Of The Crescent Moon. Before the HBO series got me hooked on the Game Of Thrones books, I hadn’t really read any fantasy since finishing Lord Of The Rings in high school. After working through George R. R. Martin’s voluminous, often bleak series, Crescent Moon was the perfect change of pace: a fun, fast-moving story where good is good, evil is evil, but there’s still room for political turmoil and intrigue alongside spells, swordplay, and undead monsters. And while is seems like the entirety of the fantasy genre is set in a magical faux-Medieval Europe, Ahmed bases his magical world on the Medieval Arabic world, when the Middle East was a melting pot of high culture and scientific achievement, and that change in setting and culture makes fantasy’s well-worn tropes feel fresh.
I read better books in 2015 (Giovanni’s Room, Death In Venice), but the surprise of my reading year is John Horne Burns’ The Gallery. Burns’ ambition was to come back from World War II and write its All Quiet On The Western Front. This isn’t that exactly. The Gallery met with high praise on its 1947 publication, but it’s not a combat novel. It’s a blistering short story cycle set around a Naples mall during the war, like Night Gallery meets Paisan but bitchier, interspersed with a first-person account of Army life in north Africa and Italy drawn from Burns’ actual experience. The celebrated centerpiece, for good reason, is “Momma,” which channels all of Burns’ powers of sarcasm and rue into animating a low-key Allied gay bar replete with drag, short shorts, and lonely old men, same as it ever was I guess. The Gallery is a hilarious, transcendent book, but Momma earns its keep all on her own.
I really enjoyed Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, so I’m not entirely sure why I never bothered to read the second and third books in the trilogy, especially considering the open-ended conclusion of the first entry. When the trailer for the upcoming Syfy adaption was released, I was reminded of how much I liked reading about Quentin and Eliot and the rest of the Brakebills crew that I recommended it to my boyfriend as a vacation read. When I found myself trying to steal it from him throughout our vacation, I thought it was high time to purchase The Magician King, the second book in the series. I devoured it, and have The Magician’s Land in the queue. I love Grossman’s voice and ability to weave in the contemporary into this fantastical world he’s created, as in one scene where Quentin’s friend somberly talks about the anger of the gods that may put an end to magic on Earth that includes a perfect Friends punchline.
I don’t know why it took me so long to read it, especially since I’ve had a copy of it on my shelf for a couple of years now, but this year I finally dived into Peter Biskind’s Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, and it’s probably better that I waited, because now I’ve actually seen most of the films that are featured. I know it’s not exactly the most beloved tome among some of the individuals who were interviewed for or discussed within its pages—in particular, Robert Altman, Peter Bogdanovich, Francis Ford Coppola, and Steven Spielberg all had some nasty words for Biskind after its publication—but being on the outside looking in and taking it all with a grain of salt, it made for a great read. Now I just need to check out the documentary based on the book, which came out a few years later.
I’ve spent the last year plugging holes in my Saturday Night Live knowledge, tracking down autobiographies by anyone even tangentially connected to the show. (Some might disagree with my SNL reviews, but no one can claim I haven’t done the homework.) And while some of the books by SNL also-rans were predictably handicapped by the same uninspired thinking their authors exhibited on the show (looking at you, Jim Breuer), two-season featured player Jay Mohr’s slim 2004 memoir Gasping For Airtime: Two Years In The Trenches Of Saturday Night Live offered some anecdotes—and a fresh perspective—I hadn’t encountered in all my previous reading. Mohr, who never broke through on the show despite a few decent showcases (“Christopher Walken For Skittles” is a solid lost gem of a bit), speaks openly about both his own shortcomings in adjusting to the ever-competitive, unforgiving system at SNL, and the weaknesses of the system itself, without coming off like a bitter score-settler. The book is also surprisingly harrowing in Mohr’s depiction of the crippling anxiety disorder which, combined with the pressure cooker of the show’s weekly race to air, had him on the brink of genuine madness. Mohr’s bro-humor style can be a little offputting (it turns out he and writer Dave Attell were the ones who put Chris Farley up to defecating out a 30 Rock window), but his book is a fresh, clear-eyed take on what it means to get caught up in the barely controlled insanity that goes into making SNL work.
As I’ve mentioned once or twice before, I’m a big Stephen King fan, and I’ve been reading his work since I was a teenager. But in all those years, there’s one King novel I’d never read before this year: Roadwork, published in 1981 under King’s pseudonym, Richard Bachman. The first time I read the collected Bachman Books, I started Roadwork, but the plot—a slow burn drama about a guy going quietly crazy over the onrush of progress—didn’t click with me and I put it aside. Given how often I’d read and reread King’s writing, putting one book to the side, however mediocre, gave it a kind of talismanic quality, and it wasn’t till I saw a Gawker Review Of Books essay comparing it to Don DeLillo’s White Noise that I decided I had to finally give it another chance. Turns out, the essay was nonsense: I detest White Noise, but Roadwork is clumsy and ham-fisted, with King working so hard to try and say something comprehensive about American life that the whole thing borders on camp. And yet there’s a sincerity to the writing that I found hard to completely dismiss. As a novel, it’s not great, but as a way to contextualize King’s themes, and to get a clearer understanding of his strengths and weaknesses, it’s worth checking out, and I’m glad I finally got around to it.