Sunday, January 8, 2017

A Year in Reading (2016)

(photo (c) Steve McCurry)

2016 was a surprisingly productive year for reading books. I'm actually amazed I was able to read 27 books this year, since in addition to the following books I also read (almost always cover to cover) a year's worth of (weekly) New Yorkers and (monthly) Harpers. How I managed to do this is pretty straightforward: I did not watch much entertainment. I only watched 19 movies in 2017 (12 of them on planes and traveling-- also watched a couple seasons of TV). So basically in my down time, when I had it, I read.

Because of time constraints and end-of-the-day exhaustion I didn't manage to write a single post on any of the books I read, which is a shame because there were some real gems.

1) Mr. Bridge by Evan Connell (1969) *
2) Emerald City by Jennifer Egan (1993)
3) Howard Hughes: the Untold Story  by Peter Browne & Pat Broeske (1996)
4) Hiroshima  by John Hershey (1946)
5) Madame Bovary  by Gustave Flaubert (1856) *
6) Blindness by Jose Saramago (1995) *
7) Travels by Paul Bowles (2011)
8) Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell (1938)
9) White Gold by Giles Milton (2004) *
10) Hideous Kinky by Esther Freud (1992) *

11) Balthazar and Blimunda  by Jose Saramago (1982)
12) The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (2013)
13) Magnum: the First 50 Years by Russell Miller (1999)
14) Star: Warren Beatty by Peter Biskind (2010) *
15) The Ongoing Moment by Geoffrey Dyer (2005)
16)  I, Maus by Art Spiegelman (1991)
17) Dancing Girls by Margaret Atwood (1977)
18) The Harder they Come  by TC Boyle (2015)
19) A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers (2012)
20) Strangers on a Train by Patricia Highsmith (1950)

21) Eileen  by Otessa Moshfegh (2015)
22) The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (2013)
23) In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki (1933)
24) Down and Out in Paris and London  by George Orwell (1933)
25) Tenth of December by George Saunders (2013)
26) Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Vaye Watkins (2015)
27) Zeroville by Steve Ericksson (2007)

So that's fourteen novels (including one graphic novel), three short story collections, and ten nonfiction books variously focused on biography, history, essay, photography, travel and one movie star. I made it a point to read only books I'd never read before and I also really gave in to Kindle reading this past year, reading six books in all on my electronic device (marked by an *). Also I made it a point to read more female authors  and among the seventeen fiction books I read, eight were written by women.

So what was good, what was bad? First the bad: Dave Eggers Hologram for the King and Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch. It's really embarrassing that Dave Eggers has emerged as one of the primary voices of our generation. I find his prose grotesquely saccharine and his narrative prowess entirely bland. Because of his good works with mentoring creative writing to underprivileged kids I want to like him, I really do, but I just don't. At least Hologram was a brisk read at 300 pages. Tartt's Goldfinch is 750 pages of awfulness. It is one of the extraordinary markers of our cultural illiteracy that such an extremely bad book like Goldfinch should have received so many plaudits. The story is absurd and the writing is abominably bad. It's 500 pages too long. I cannot remember reading a novel with so many redundant passages.  It took enormous will power to finish that terrible book. Forgive me if you are a fan, but I will never take a book recommendation from a Goldfinch fan.

Books I loved: Evan Connell's Mr. Bridge was a revelation: such a simple, quiet story of a middle-class Republican Kansas City family in the 1930s, but I loved it. An obscure classic. It was terrific to get around to Jose Saramago's fiction. Blindness is a terrifying vision (pun intended) of the apocalypse. And I've rarely read any books that capture 17th century Europe so beautifully as his Balthazar and Blimunda. I'd like to read all his books. Rachel Kushner's Flamethrowers is a gorgeous novel about the Downtown New York arts scene in the mid/late 1970s. Strangers on a Train deserves its status as a classic. The character of Bruno is one of the most sharply drawn psychopaths I've yet read. Gold Fame Citrus by Claire Watkins was a bit overwritten at times, but is a very imaginative dystopian novel that posits a near future when California is a drought-ruined wasteland and its refugees are called Mojavs. There are terrific pieces in Paul Bowles Travels book; and George Orwell's Down and Out and Catalonia books are very funny, very sad, and always very sharp. I should have loved Steve Ericksson's Zeroville, a weird novel about 1970s New Hollywood and all the artist that came out of that scene, but I only really liked it. Everyone should read that biography on Howard Hughes. There have been very few stranger lives.

One of my goals for 2017 will be to get back into writing about the books read this year. Hope I can stick to it. Stay tuned.

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