|The 2018 List
reverse chronological order
»Word by Word
»A Month of Sundays
»The Plot Against America
»The Scarlet Letter
»Ripley Under Ground
»The Talented Mr. Ripley
»City on Fire
»My Absolute Darling
»The Church of Dead Girls; Boy in the Water
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.
Macbeth (2018, Jo Nesbo)|
Why I picked it: I wanted to read one of the Shakespeare retellings of the Hogarth Press project, and I thought Nesbo — best-selling author of dark Scandinavian thrillers — would be the most fun.
What it's about: A Macbeth-inspired story of cops and drug kingpins in a beaten-down Scottish city during the 1970s.
What I thought: When I started this, I didn't know if I'd be able to make the connections, as I didn't think I knew much of "Macbeth." The one with witches and the prophecy — that was my one-sentence synopsis. Fairly quickly I realized I knew more than I had thought. It helped that most of Nesbo's characters have their Shakespearean cognates' names. Still, I think that to truly appreciate Nesbo's writing, I'd need to know more of the source material, so I could tease that apart from the retelling.
I liked the setting and the updated character roles — Macbeth is head of a police SWAT unit, and "Lady" runs a high-end casino. For the first half of the book, I was pretty engaged by the story. But it's a long book — 500 pages — and by the end I was getting tired of all the machinations and treachery. Macbeth is turned by ambition too soon; I would have liked a more gradual and nuanced descent into brutality.
What's next: Maybe I should have gone for Edward St. Aubyn's King Lear retelling. I've had him on my list for a while, but given my aversion to bad-childhood memoirs (see "Educated," below) his Patrick Melrose series may not be for me. Update: I picked up Tracy Chevalier's Othello retelling ("The New Boy") at the library. Alex was with me, and she appropriated it. If she likes it, maybe I'll read it.
Movie? A couple of modern retellings that sound interesting: "Scotland, Pa." (2001), with Christopher Walken, and "Macbeth" (2006), set in gangland Melbourne.
Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries (2017, Kory Stamper)
Why I picked it: I like words and dictionaries.
What it's about: A Merriam-Webster lexicographer explains various aspects of writing a dictionary.
What I thought: I really liked this book. It's funny and informative and also really thoughtful on issues of how language affects society and vice versa. I had a basic understanding of some of the issues of dictionary making thanks to some essays by David Foster Wallace, who was a usage fanatic, but I learned a lot more from Stamper. Each of her chapters is titled with a word whose dictionary entry illustrates a key facet of lexicography — defining, pronunciation, dating, example phrases, etc.
Educated (2018, Tara Westover)
Why I picked it: It's this year's hot memoir — like the "Tiger Mom" of 2018 — so I figured when I saw it in the library I'd give it a shot.
What it's about: A fundamentalist Mormon's daughter, raised without any schooling, escapes to the outside world by managing to get into college.
What I thought: I like the idea of someone educating herself and thus making a transition to a radically different life. That's a story I'd like to read. But I suspected going into this, because of interviews I had heard with the author, that it tended toward what I think of as horrible-childhood porn — the ain't-it-awful self-exploiting memoir type of "The Glass Castle" and "A Child Called 'It.'" And that's pretty much how it is. I don't doubt the veracity of Westover's story, but it's a trope that I feel voyeuristically dirty to be reading.
Golden Hill (2016, Francis Spufford)
Why I picked it: Good NYT review, and it's set in pre-Revolution New York.
What it's about: The misadventures of a young Londoner who shows up in New York City in 1746 with a bank order for the equivalent of $250,000 in today's money.
What I thought: I figured even if the story wasn't great, I would like this one if there was a decent amount of historic detail, and it did have that. Of course, all that could be made up and I would have no way of knowing, but it has the ring of truth, and a lot of it is pretty fascinating — daily life in New York when it was a city of 7,000 people. I would have liked a full map (the one on the cover is partly obscured) but it's not too hard to find a 1750 New York City map online, and the narrative lined up with it.
But beyond that, the story was good. The protagonist, Richard Smith, is a compelling character: The reader knows he has a secret but doesn't know what it is until the end. He's not written as a cypher -- we know a lot of his internal life, including his awareness of how others perceive him -- but there's this one blank spot, the mystery of what he's doing in New York and how he got all that money. He has an engaging arc, or more accurately a pendulum, going from happy-go-lucky to bitter about the way people have turned on him, and ending up in a middle ground of hopefulness tempered by experience.
Pops: Fatherhood in Pieces (2018, Michael Chabon)
Why I picked it: I like Chabon, and I liked what I thought was the subject matter (which turned out to be not as I thought).
What it's about: A short collection of Chabon's writing — all of them magazine pieces, I think — on the topic of fatherhood.
What I thought: I glanced at the jacket copy and I thought this was going to be completely about Chabon's trip to Paris fashion week with his fashion-obsessed 13-year-old son. That is actually just the first of half a dozen stories. (I guess I should have realized that from the title.) That first part was my favorite (it's this story). The others were fine, but there was a certain sameness of theme to them. Maybe Chabon figured he ought to write something about his other children, too, so we get extra servings of "my quirky Berkeley family and the crazy things my kids would be ridiculed for anywhere else in America." A very quick read, just a few hours.
American Pastoral (1997, Philip Roth)
Why I picked it: "The Plot Against America" went well, so I thought I'd try some more Roth. This is the most acclaimed work of his later career.
What it's about: A former star athlete, now a successful manufacturer, sees his comfortable New Jersey life rocked when his teenage daughter becomes a violent anti-Vietnam War protester.
What I thought: I didn't like it quite as well as "The Plot," but I'd still recommend it. It has a lot of interesting examination on the themes of assimilation, outsiderness, "passing," tied into the overarching Roth theme of being Jewish in America.
It's not a real tidy book in its formatting. There's a long lead-in written in Roth's Nathan Zuckerman voice, and then Zuckerman goes away and doesn't return. The end is abrupt, leaving, in particular, one of the main threads unresolved. I don't require an unambiguous ending, but I did feel a little disappointment in not knowing what happened to one of the main characters.
This one I consumed on audiobook, and I highly recommend Ron Silver's narration. I can't imagine there are many people who could do that well with Roth's headlong dialogue. I particularly liked Silver's reading of protagonist Seymour's anguished phone call with his brother, Jerry ("You wanted Miss America? Well, you got her!"). Actually, I wished there was more Jerry. I would read a whole novel about Jerry, which there will not be, because Roth died when I was halfway through this one.
What's next: I haven't ruled out more Roth. Top of the list is "The Human Stain."
Movie? This one was not on my radar, but in 2016 Ewan McGregor directed and starred in a movie version. Jennifer Connelly is his wife, Dakota Fanning his daughter.
A Month of Sundays (1975, John Updike)
Why I picked it: I only recently ran across a mention of Updike's "Scarlet Letter" series — three novels from different viewpoints about faith and infidelity. I really liked Updike's Rabbit novels, and I'm always interested in modern retellings of old stories.
What it's about: Sent to a spiritual retreat with other disgraced clergymen, a minister muses about his affairs with the church organist and a parishioner.
What I thought: I finally read "The Scarlet Letter" just so I could read this, so I guess that's worth something. This is the Arthur Dimmesdale view, but it doesn't hew really close to Hawthorne's story, and the two other parts look even more distant. It's very different from Rabbit in its loose, irreverent tone, with a lot of wordplay. It also feels very much like a document of its time (and only partly because of the Korinna Bold on the cover).
What's next: I don't feel compelled to finish this trilogy (the other two are "Roger's Version" and "S"). Before I did that, I would read Updike's Bech books.
The Plot Against America (2004, Philip Roth)
Why I picked it: This got good reviews when it came out, but the thing that put it in front of me now is the renewed interest since Trump's election.
What it's about: An alternative history in which the isolationist, anti-semitic Charles Lindbergh is elected U.S. president in 1940 and makes an alliance with Hitler. The story is told from the view of the grade-school son of a middle-class Jewish family in Newark. What I thought: I didn't leap for this one when it came out, largely because (even though I like reading about U.S. history) it didn't sound like a really interesting human story. When it comes to storytelling, though, don't put anything past Roth. The narrative from the kid's point of view is really engaging. Besides the story itself, there are three particular threads I found interesting:
• 1940s U.S. history. Though it's a fictional history, it makes use of a lot of real people, putting them on a path from what really happened to what role they might have played under this scenario. I learned some interesting stuff about historic figures, particularly Fiorello LaGuardia, Walter Winchell and Longy Zwilman.
• Understanding human behavior in 1930s Europe. This novel gives good insight into some of the personal issues: When did people decide to leave Nazi Germany? Why did some Jews stay? What did non-Jewish Germans think was going on? The ways in which pressures big and small fracture the family in this book are heartbreaking.
•Trump. The part that seems very familiar is the presidential campaign, in which the "ha, that could never happen" suddenly becomes "shit, this really happened." Apart from his seizing on the "America First" rhetoric, Trump has a much different style from the real and the fictional Lindbergh. The novelistic machinations against American Jews are much more subtle and devious than anything the bombastic current president could come up with. Still, it's thought-provoking in the presentation of the rise of isolationism and the nascent demonization of a particular segment of the population.
My one quibble with it was the revelation near the end about Lindbergh's motivation for his political action and his dealings with the Nazis. It seemed just a couple notches too fantastic, especially given that the rest of the novel seemed like something that could really happen. All in all, though, I thought Roth wrapped this one up very masterfully, a tricky piece of work pulled off elegantly.
For anyone who likes this one, I'd recommend Michael Chabon's "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," a detective story set in an Alaska which was populated by Jewish refugees in a scenario under which Israel collapsed in 1948. It's not nearly as historically involved as Roth's, but it's a great story.
What's next: This is, I think, the fifth Roth novel I've read, and I'm sure there will be more. American Pastoral and The Human Stain are top of that list.
Movie: David Simon is reportedly making a six-episode miniseries, network not yet disclosed.
Frankenstein (1818, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley)
Why I picked it: I read an interesting New Yorker essay by Adam Gopnik tied to the Frankenstein bicentennial. Also, Alex is reading it.
What it's about: A student animates a collection of corpse parts he has assembled, and thereby sets his life on a ruinous course.
What I thought: This book has some puzzling facets — the epistolary prelude, for instance — as well as some 18th-century quirks, but it's an interesting read and, if all you know about Frankenstein is from pop culture, a surprising one. The monster is not only sympathetic but intelligent and articulate, and the narrative has very little in common with the 1931 movie.
Movie? I never saw Kenneth Branagh's 1994 version, which sounds like it sticks much closer to the novel — I think I'll look for that one.
Gringos (1991, Charles Portis)
Why I picked it: Charles Portis. This is the fourth I've read of his five novels.
What it's about: An expatriate American in southern Mexico takes a meandering trip into the jungle looking for some missing people.
What I thought: I didn't like it as well as "The Dog of the South," his other American-meandering-in-Mexico novel, but it's still really good. Without seeming fussy, Portis' sentences are crafted, and crafty. On every page you can find at least one little gem, and there are some laugh-out-loud phrases. The protagonist of this — as of "Dog," and "Norwood" — is a shambling but good-hearted dude, and the depiction of Mexican village life has a nuance and richness that kind of sneaks up on you.
The Scarlet Letter (1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne)
Why I picked it: I tried this one 10 years ago and gave it up, finding it tedious. Two things put it back on my list: 1) Hawthorne was a favorite of Melville, and "Moby Dick" is a favorite of mine. And 2) I want to read Updike's "Scarlet Letter" trilogy.
What it's about: A woman in 17th-century Massachusetts is shamed for having a child out of wedlock.
What I thought: The reading went better this time. I plowed headlong through that customs-house preface that annoyed me before. In fact, I pretty much plowed through the whole thing, and I don't think my comprehension suffered much from not lingering over the nuance. I wouldn't say I'm a convert, but I do appreciate the characterization.
Ripley's Game (1974, Patricia Highsmith)
Why I picked it: I read the previous two Ripley novels, and I wanted to continue to this one before seeing Wim Wenders' movie adaptation of it.
What it's about: Asked if he can recommend someone to pull off a murder for hire, Tom Ripley comes up with a scheme to snare a neighbor who insulted him.
What I thought: It's interesting how dissimilar these three Ripley books are. I expected them to have the same format and the same tone, and they definitely don't. For long stretches of this one, Ripley is absent as the action follows his unwitting sort-of victim. It's not as good as the first one, but I liked it better than "Ripley Under Ground." It's also the most cinematic of the three, to my mind, and I'm looking forward to seeing "The American Friend" and maybe the eponymous 2002 version.
Mrs. Fletcher (2017, Tom Perrotta)
Why I picked it:I've liked the other Perrotta novels I've read — Little Children, The Abstinence Teacher, The Leftovers.
What it's about: A 46-year-old divorced mother and some of the friends, relatives and co-workers in her sphere grapple with issues of sexual desire and gender roles.
What I thought: I had heard just enough about this book that I went in with the mistaken impression that the main character starts performing for an online amateur porn site, so I figured it would be at the satirical end of Perrotta's spectrum. But, as I said, that was incorrect — this is actually one of his less out-there stories. It's still sort of comic, though, not as weighty as my description probably makes it sound.
It wasn't until near the end that I got enough of a grip on the main character, Eve. There was an episode involving a haircut in which I suddenly realized, oh, I know who this woman is, and I like her. I wish that had come sooner — though then my problem was I didn't understand how she could have raised such an unlikable son, but at least he gets his comeuppance.
Pick-Up (1955, Charles Willeford)
Why I picked it: I was about to turn in the noir anthology that included Ripley and Jim Thompson, and then I read a New Yorker short story that mentioned this novel, which I'd never heard of, and said it had vivid San Francisco settings.
What it's about: A hard-drinking nihilistic man in 1950s San Francisco meets a like-minded young woman, and it of course ends badly.
What I thought: It was interesting as a relic of its time, but it didn't seem like much more than the pulp novel it was originally sold as. The setting could have been in any city — except for a couple mentions of cable cars, there was nothing specifically San Francisco in it.
Ripley Under Ground (1970, Patricia Highsmith)
Why I picked it: Second in the Ripley series, see below.
What it's about: Six years after the events of "Talented," Tom Ripley is married and living comfortably near Paris. His attempt to protect his investment in an art scam turns lethal.
What I thought: This one was less desperate, I'd even say blander, than "The Talented Mr. Ripley." The main character is less obviously unhinged, though that could be seen as a function of his maturing and his well-funded living situation.
There's a lot of playing around with the theme of fakes — forgery, disguise, effigy, specters. The plot kind of drifts, a lot of traveling around Europe, people dropping in on other people, Ripley trying to control what is known by whom. A surprisingly large part of the narrative is Ripley looking for a particular acquaintance in Greece and then in Salzburg. (The Salzburg part in particular was pretty unbelievable to me. Without any clues, Ripley goes to a city that I'm guessing must have been at least 100,000 people in the 1960s, then wanders the streets to find this guy. Which he does, and not just once.)
In the end, the book seemed to me like a transitional episode, a narrative to set Ripley on the run again, as by the end he has roused the suspicion of the police and of his wife. I'll have to read the next one, "Ripley's Game," to see if I'm right about that.
Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History (2017, Kurt Andersen)
Why I picked it: I like Kurt Andersen and might have eventually picked this up, but it went up my list because of an exchange on Andersen's radio show in which Taylor Mac complimented him on the book and then said, "Of course, I was raised a Christian Scientist," and they both laughed.
What it's about: Andersen's thesis is that America since its founding has been fertile for irrationality and fantastical thinking and that the tendency has become even more pronounced in the past few decades.
What I thought: A thoughtful and extensively researched book, connecting the dots between elements as disparate as Scientology, Oprah Winfrey, Disneyfication, anti-vaxers, the gun lobby and the McMartin Pre-School prosecution. The spectre hanging over it is Donald Trump, who gets his own chapter at the end — the book was already in progress when Andersen and his publishers realized, holy shit, this is actually going to happen.
I did this one on audiobook, and it was for a while a little disconsonant to hear in Andersen's cheerful Omaha voice some harsh criticisms of what might seem like harmless components of American culture, particularly religion. He might have categorized me as "a squishy," someone who is disinclined to criticize others' beliefs, no matter how irrational. That, he says, is perhaps defensible as long as those beliefs don't "pick my pocket or break my leg" (Thomas Jefferson) -- but he contends that people are being harmed physically and financially by America's descent toward a status quo in which everyone feels "entitled to their own facts."
The Talented Mr. Ripley (1955, Patricia Highsmith)
Why I picked it: I've always intended to read it, but my urgency was diminished by the fact that I had seen two movie versions of it. Then it was in the anthology with Jim Thompson's "The Killer Inside Me" (see the 2017 list), so I went ahead.
What it's about: A young man wangles a trip to Europe, ostensibly to persuade a rich couple's son to return to America. When his relationship with the son falls apart, he makes a rash move that he must then hide with a desperate spiral of deception.
What I thought: I liked this one a lot. Ripley is pretty obviously a sociopath, or at least deeply screwed up, from the start, but his disturbing inner monologue doesn't make the story any less gripping — is he going to slip up, get caught? He's also a more nuanced, fleshed-out character than, say, Lou Ford in "The Killer Inside Me."
Having seen the movies did not diminish this book for me. In fact, I suppose most people who start reading it these days already know (or can guess) what Ripley's first crime is. I was surprised that the indelible final scene from "Purple Noon" is not in the book. Thinking about it, though, it makes sense — the movie is much more moralistic and is looking for a way to bring Ripley to justice.
Movie? I have seen Rene Clement's "Purple Noon" (1960) three times, the first on TV when I was in junior high, the last in its 1996 re-release, at the cinema that is now Alex's climbing gym. I also saw "The Talented Mr. Ripley" (1999), the Anthony Minghella adaptation with Matt Damon. I'd like to see both of them again, to compare them to each other and to the book.
I'm waiting until I read further into the series to see Wim Wenders' "The American Friend," based on the third Ripley novel. Much farther down my list are the eponymous adaptations of "Ripley Under Ground" (No. 2) and "Ripley's Game" (another version of No. 3).
What's next: There are four more Ripley novels. I'm aiming to read at least the next two.
Six Four (2016, Hideo Yokoyama)
Why I picked it: Good review in New York Times.
What it's about: Police administrator gets drawn into intradepartmental intrigue involving a kidnapping/murder case he had worked on as a detective 14 years earlier.
What I thought: The description that drew me in sounded like straight crime thriller: Shortly after hero Mikami's teenage daughter goes missing, he finds out something that his higher-ups have kept secret about the murder of a child in their city. But the disappearance of the daughter, though pivotal in the opening scene, becomes background hum for the rest of the book, and the whodunnit of the other child's murder is addressed only at the very end. The rest of the 577 (!) pages is about Mikami, the police department's director of media relations, trying to figure out why some other administrators are acting strange about the visit of a high-ranking official from Tokyo. It's very internal and very Japanese. Or at least I suspect that some of its oddness is because of its Japaneseness, from the major role played by protocol, to the reverence for people who work themselves to exhaustion, to the frequent references to other characters' ages in relation to that of Mikami. Even the title is something only Japanese would pick up on: It refers to the year in which the child's murder occurred — a year that lasted only one week. 1989 started out as Showa 64, the 64th year of the reign of Hirohito, but the emperor died on January 7, and the remainder of the year was Heisei 1.
I don't think I would have started this if I knew it was going to be about office politics, but once I was in it, its was this oddity, the Japaneseness, that kept me there.
City on Fire (2015, Garth Risk Hallberg)
Why I picked it: I was aware of the buzz this one got for its $2 million advance to a first-time novelist, but I hadn't run across it in the library until now.
What it's about: The shooting of a punk-scene kid in New York's Central Park on the last night of 1976 ties together a web of characters, including a downtown artist and the rich family he has shunned.
What I thought: At more than 900 pages, it was too long. It got comparisons to Dickens when it came out, and I guess "Bleak House" would come close to its length, but toward the end this one seemed to be running out of steam. Also, for a novel so strongly rooted in a specific period, I found it oddly lacking in historical detail. There was an attempt at the atmosphere of the club scene, but the only real events that figured in the plot were the series of fires in the Bronx and the blackout of July 1977. Gerald "Drop Dead" Ford and Abe Beame are ignored, and you'd think that a random shooting in 1976 would immediately evoke talk of that summer's Son of Sam panic, but he gets only a mention in passing. I started to think the only reason it was set in that period was because Hallberg needed the blackout for the plotting of the climax.
In terms of highly touted debut novels, I'd be much more likely to recommend the 2011 entry, "The Art of Fielding."
My Absolute Darling (2017, Gabriel Tallent)
Why I picked it: I think it was the little New Yorker blurb that caught my attention.
What it's about: A 14-year-old girl lives on the Mendocino coast with her father, a charismatic survivalist who abuses her.
What I thought: This one is unyieldingly dark, bordering on voyeuristic, maybe even pornographic. I don't go into fiction with a default feminist bent, but I can understand why some people are uncomfortable with the idea it was written by a man. I pretty quickly reached the point of "OK, he's really going in this direction — do you want to stick with it?" And it was gripping enough that I went ahead. The main character — Julia officially, Turtle to herself, "kibble" to her father — is hard to identify with, even as you're hoping she gets out of her situation. For one thing, she's understandably damaged; for another, the first-person narration is not very introspective — which I suppose is actually kind of the same thing as the first factor, being the logical function of the damage she's enduring. That realistic take on this bizarre situation is part of what I liked about this story: It embraces its darkness, doesn't take any easy paths in the narrative. And the imagery and description of the setting is good. The climactic confrontation between Turtle and her father is particularly vividly drawn — I almost feel like I had seen a movie of it.
Now I've got a Mendocino coast trilogy, dark and strange and gothic: this, T.C. Boyle's "The Harder They Come" and (definitely the best) Denis Johnson's "Already Dead." Could throw in Pynchon's "Vineland" for the setting, but it's a very different animal stylistically.
What's next: Tallent lives in Utah and is apparently an avid climber — he did a bookstore reading recently with Tommy Caldwell — and his second novel is reportedly going to be about dirtbag climbers.
The Church of Dead Girls (1997, Stephen Dobyns) and Boy in the Water (1999, Stephen Dobyns)
Why I picked them: "Dead Girls" was one of several Dobyns novels I read many years ago that put him on my favorite-authors list. After I read "Is Fat Bob Dead?" I wanted to reread a couple of them and also read for the first time "Boy in the Water," which I had missed.
What they're about: Murder mysteries, the first about three girls killed in a small New York town, the second about a student found dead in the swimming pool of a New Hampshire prep school.
Why I gave them up: These are straightforward murder mysteries. They have similar structures: They start with a revelation of the crime, and then go back in time to introduce the story threads of many parties to the events. With both of them, it just took too long to get back to the actual crime and (one assumes) investigation. I understand that the focus is broader than a whodunnit, that these books are examining the interactions of people before and during the crimes. Still, the story turned out to be too conventional for my taste, and (oddly, because Dobyns can be a really good writer) they border on the plodding, especially in the long pieces of explicative dialogue. Probably I should have known this, because I got almost 300 pages into Dobyns' more recent "The Burn Palace" before I gave it up for the same reason.
What's next: The two Dobynses I liked best were his most idiosyncratic and unconventional, "The Wrestler's Cruel Study" and "Cold Dog Soup." I still have "Cruel Study" on my reread list.