2015 Booklist

My ten favorite books that I read this year, in alphabetical order by author:

i love you more than you know

Jonathan Ames, I Love You More Than You Know

Impulsively picking up a used copy of this essay collection at The Book Trader in Philly, I cracked it open while sitting across from the fountain at Logan Square, and instantly found a new favorite writer. Ames’ candidness isn’t for everyone (the blurb describing him as “an edgier David Sedaris” is an understatement), but along with a willingness to depict himself in the worst possible light, he comes across as utterly sincere and human (and also laugh-out-loud funny). I’ve since devoured two more similar books of his, but this is the best of them.

bad kid

David Crabb, Bad Kid

Crabb and I are the same age. While my own teenage years differ from his considerably (he did copious amounts of drugs, whereas I was more (perhaps unintentionally) straight edge), I spent much of his memoir nodding my head in recognition. With a self-deprecating wit that keeps in check any hint of self-importance, he recounts what it was really like to be a (mostly closeted) gay high school student in the early ‘90s: the music, the fashion, the tempestuous rush of surging emotions and anxieties, all of it an evocative backdrop for his gradual journey to self-acceptance.

clasp

Sloane Crosley, The Clasp

Crosley’s first novel builds on the promise of her two earlier essay collections. Initially straightforward but increasingly more convoluted, its story, while tautly constructed is just a receptacle for its three distinct, cliché-free primary characters, college friends who reunite about a decade after graduation at a wedding. While her prose is as darkly funny as ever (especially via an ancillary character responsible for the book’s title), her three leads are never less than likable, despite their considerable neuroses and quirks.

purity

Jonathan Franzen, Purity

Franzen gets a lot of flack for being an unpleasant shit in real life, and that’s too bad because his latest doorstop of a novel might be his best yet. It has a finely drawn female protagonist, an ever-expanding supporting ensemble, a big but effective narrative twist halfway through and such timely concerns as the notion of privacy and the consequences of exposing it (a la Julian Assange). And, unlike a few other lengthy tomes I read this year, none of its 500+ pages felt unnecessary.

First Bad Man

Miranda July, The First Bad Man

This might July’s best work since her wonderful debut feature, Me and You and Everyone We Know ten years ago. However, it wouldn’t necessarily make for a great film—the peculiar symbiosis it details seems better suited to thought than action, which is not a bad thing, especially when confronted with a lead character as vivid, enigmatic, winning and annoying as Cheryl Glickman. July also excels at fully committing to a wildly strange and challenging concept until it nearly seems conventional (though thankfully her writing never is).

my struggle book two

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book 2: A Man In Love

I should probably reserve a spot on these year-end lists for each volume of Knausgaard’s six-part magnum opus as I make my way through them. Volume 2 is much longer than its predecessor, and yet even more concentrated, mostly confined to the author’s relationship with his wife. I fear I can’t do justice in describing just what these books achieve in the length of a small blurb, because via his singular point-of-view, Knausgaard can often alter one’s perception of the entire world.

how to build a girl

Caitlin Moran, How To Build A Girl

Moran’s deservedly a national treasure in the UK. While her first novel is no less Anglo-centric than her nonfiction work, it’s still essential for American anglophiles and for teenage girls of all cultures. Covering roughly the same time period as Bad Kid (that’s all the two books share in common), it’s explicitly autobiographical but Moran proves she can adapt her own coming-of-age into a story anyone can relate to without dumbing it down or obscuring its powerful feminist leanings.

markandvoid

Paul Murray, The Mark and The Void

If Skippy Dies was the quintessential modern comic novel about Irish boarding schools, Murray’s long-awaited follow-up does the same for investment banking—admittedly an unlikely milieu for the author’s Oscar Wilde-like humor, but his attention to those specific idiosyncrasies that really flesh out a character suggests he could take any setting and make it funny (and also riveting and considerably emotional). He even manages to insert an author character named Paul into the story without taking the reader out of it.

visions and revisions

Dale Peck, Visions and Revisions

Ever since his early landmark experimental novels, Peck has suffused his fiction with autobiographical elements (and vice-versa). Even this slim but potent “memoir” concludes with an extended prose poem of sorts. Still, for someone who has built up a self-mythology that’s not always easily discernible, it’s refreshing to read this actual autobiographical account—even one made up of letters, essays, journal entries and other ephemeral remnants of a life lived.

Fosse-by-Sam-Wasson

Sam Wasson, Fosse

Given my love of All That Jazz, I’ve always wanted to find out more about Bob Fosse’s life, to see how “real” a representation Roy Scheider’s alter ego was. Even at 700 pages, Wasson’s biography doesn’t provide a clear answer to that question, in part because Fosse was such a complex character himself. While the subject’s obsessiveness and perfectionism both make for an entertaining read, Wasson’s greatest achievement is simply detailing and lending context to Fosse’s own historic accomplishments.

My complete 2015 Booklist, with titles in chronological order of when I finished reading them (starred entries are books I’ve re-read):

1. Jason Heller, Taft 2012
2. Andrea Martin, Lady Parts
3. Bob Odenkirk, A Load of Hooey
4. Patton Oswalt, Silver Screen Fiend
5. David Thomson, The Big Screen: The Story of The Movies
6. Sam Wasson, Fosse
7. Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice
8. Douglas Coupland, Generation A
9. Robert Hofler, Sexplosion!
10. Clifford Chase, Winkie*
11. Hilton Als, White Girls
12. Robert Christgau, Going Into The City
13. Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle, Book Two: A Man In Love
14. Miranda July, The First Bad Man
15. David Michaelis, Schulz and Peanuts*
16. Amanda Petrusich, Pink Moon (33 1/3 series)
17. Steve Toltz, A Fraction of the Whole
18. Jonathan Ames, I Love You More Than You Know
19. Nick Hornby, Funny Girl
20. David and Joe Henry, Furious Cool: Richard Pryor and the World That Made Him
21. Joshua Ferris, To Rise Again At A Decent Hour
22. Tracey Thorn, Naked At The Albert Hall: The Inside Story of Singing
23. Julia Glass, The Widower’s Tale
24. Dale Peck, Visions and Revisions
25. Jonathan Ames, My Less Than Secret Life
26. Gina Arnold, Exile in Guyville (33 1/3 series)
27. Kurt Vonnegut, Welcome to the Monkey House*
28. Maria Semple, This One Is Mine
29. Isaac Oliver, Intimacy Idiot
30. Caitlin Moran, How To Build A Girl
31. Barney Hoskyns, Hotel California
32. Jack Kerouac, On The Road*
33. William Hjortsberg, Jubilee Hitchhiker: The Life and Times of Richard Brautigan
34. David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster and other Essays
35. Jonathan Lethem, Lucky Alan and Other Stories
36. Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay*
37. Armistead Maupin, Tales of the City
38. Jonathan Ames, The Double Life Is Twice as Good
39. Jonathan Franzen, Purity
40. Hanya Yanagihara, The People In The Trees
41. Daniel Clowes, The Complete Eightball 1-18
42. Jim Gaffigan, Food: A Love Story
43. Tom Spanbauer, In the City of Shy Hunters*
44. Richard Brautigan, Trout Fishing In America, The Pill vs. the Springhill Mine Disaster and In Watermelon Sugar
45. Paul Murray, The Mark and The Void
46. Sloane Crosley, The Clasp
47. David Crabb, Bad Kid
48. Derek Jarman, Modern Nature*

Beyond the top ten, I also really liked the beautifully reprinted edition of Clowes’ indispensible alt-comic book (the original home of Ghost World), Yanagihara’s unique and unsettling debut novel (her follow-up, A Little Life is my most anticipated read of 2016), Andrea Martin’s memoir (a reminder as to why she should be a national treasure), the Toltz novel (a dollar bin find!) and Oliver’s promising debut essay collection. Since I spent nearly three months wading through it, I also have to mention Hjortsberg’s alternately dazzling and redundant Brautigan biography; it might’ve made my top ten if it was half its actual length.

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Halfway Through 2015: Books

tfbm

As I slowly make my way through an (admittedly riveting-enough-to-hold-my-attention) 800+ page literary memoir that I’ll be lucky to finish before Labor Day, let’s take stock of what I’ve read so far this year: my ten favorite titles in alphabetical order by author:

White Girls, Hilton Als
I Love You More Than You Know, Jonathan Ames
To Rise Again At A Decent Hour, Joshua Ferris
The First Bad Man, Miranda July
My Struggle, Book Two: A Man In Love, Karl Ove Knausgard
Lady Parts, Andrea Martin
Visions and Revisions, Dale Peck
Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon
A Fraction of The Whole, Steve Toltz
Fosse, Sam Wasson

2014 Booklist

My ten favorite books that I read this year, in alphabetical order by author:

tooth fairy

Clifford Chase, The Tooth Fairy 

One of two memoirs I read this year mostly written in succinct, one-sentence paragraphs, Chase’s tome gets the nod over Tamara Shopsin’s (admittedly interesting) Mumbai New York Scranton because Chase is a far more engaging wordsmith. Thematically he jumps around a lot, from the profound effect The B-52’s first album had on him in college to caring for his elderly parents, but his prose holds it together—some of it so deceptively simple that you want to re-read and thoughtfully consider each zen-like sentence.

all families are

Douglas Coupland, All Families Are Psychotic

I’ve admired Coupland’s caustic wit and unique worldview for years, but nothing could’ve prepared me for his sixth novel (which came out in 2001). Not to be hyperbolic, but this tale of a family reuniting in Florida for one member’s launch into space is completely and delightfully insane, even more so than his apocalyptic Girlfriend In A Coma. It reminds me a little of A.M. Homes’ (more on her below) Music For Torching in that it begins with a bang and just gets crazier from there, but without falling apart.

zona

Geoff Dyer, Zona

Best known for But Beautiful: A Book About Jazz, Dyer has written an entire book about his obsession with the Andrei Tarkovsky film Stalker and it’s one of the best books about film I’ve read in years. Wisely forgoing an academic approach, Zona is more like an idiosyncratic memoir and perhaps the most convincing argument ever made to check out a bewildering, enigmatic, occasionally sublime three-hour-long Russian movie.

may we be forgiven

A.M. Homes, May We Be Forgiven

My friend Michael suggested this one after I included Music For Torching in my top ten last year. If anything, this makes that book seem as normal as The Da Vinci Code—it begins with a horrific, outlandish event that is the catalyst for everything that follows and remains startling for nearly 500 pages. Hilarious and unsentimental like the best Vonnegut, it turns out to be both a pitch-black comedy and a sincere story of redemption.

king 112263

Stephen King, 11/22/63

I’d never read King before, but I almost instantly got why people love him so much: the man knows how to hold your attention. This mash-up of time travel, the Kennedy assassination and small town narrative is so potentially absurd that I can’t imagine a lesser writer (or possibly any other writer) being able to pull it off. Pray that the inevitable television adaptation gets it right.

my struggle

Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book One

I was intrigued from the moment I first heard about Knausgaard’s ridiculously ambitious Proust-like six volume autobiographical novel. Imagine if Sufjan Stevens had made good on his “50 albums for 50 states” project, and you’ll get a sense of what the author is trying to do here. With lengthy, bravura passages about things as gloriously mundane as a garage band performance or a home ravaged by years of hoarding, it’s not a light read but rewarding enough that I plan on devouring the next volume soon.

bone clocks

David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks

This is unquestionably a return to Cloud Atlas form for Mitchell. I’m not sure it surpasses that earlier book, and the final section is distractingly tonally different from the five that came before, but Holly Sykes might be Mitchell’s greatest character ever—her book-length evolution from bratty teen to weathered elder is the narrative’s stunning constant, the beating heart in a labyrinth of sci-fi convolutions and visionary imagination.

little failure

Gary Shteyngart, Little Failure

Shteyngart’s memoir leaves no doubt of the autobiographical nature of his novels. With a voice as comically distinct as Woody Allen or David Sedaris, he writes mostly and perceptively about his megalomaniacal parents (they gave him the title nickname) and emerges enlightened and amused rather than bitter or broken.

sisterland

Curtis Sittenfeld, Sisterland

Despite loving Prep and American Wife, I initially avoided Sittenfeld’s latest because of its chick-lit cover, and I should have known better. For a tale of two psychic sisters in suburban St. Louis, Sisterland is remarkably grounded and genuine, filled with memorable characters and a fascinating premise regarding a prediction no one wants to see come true. With her fourth book, Sittenfeld has become as seemingly effortlessly great an American fiction writer as Tom Perrotta or Jonathan Franzen.

i loved you more

Tom Spanbauer, I Loved You More

If I had to pick one favorite book of the year, it might be this long-awaited effort from one of my favorite authors. As usual, Spanbauer writes about Idaho, Manhattan in the 1980s, being gay (and an outsider in general) and unrequited love; also as usual, he writes like absolutely no one else. Of his five novels, this might be his most affecting and devastating one yet.

My complete 2014 Booklist, with titles in chronological order of when I finished reading them (starred entries are books I’ve re-read):

1. Marcello Carlin, The Blue In The Air
2. Matthew Zoller Seitz, The Wes Anderson Collection
3. Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Holiday
4. Donald Fagen, Eminent Hipsters
5. Gary Shteyngart, Little Failure
6. S. Alexander Reed and Philip Sandifer, Flood (33 1/3 series)
7. Douglas Coupland, All Families Are Psychotic
8. Stephen King, 11/22/63
9. Ruth Reichl, Garlic and Sapphires*
10. Howard Sounes, Fab: An Intimate Life of Paul McCartney
11. Nick Hornby, Juliet, Naked
12. Mark Harris, Five Came Back: A Story of Hollywood and the Second World War
13. Saul Austerlitz, Sitcom: A History in 24 Episodes
14. A.M. Homes, This Book Will Save Your Life
15. Tamara Shopsin, Mumbai New York Scranton
16. Peter Biskind (ed.), My Lunches With Orson
17. Douglas Coupland, Worst. Person. Ever.
18. Derek Jarman, Dancing Ledge*
19. Natalie Goldberg, The True Secret of Writing
20. James T. and Karla L. Murray, Store Front: The Disappearing Face of New York
21. Jim Gaffigan, Dad Is Fat
22. Matthew Kennedy, Roadshow!: The Fall of Film Musicals in the 1960s
23. Tony Fletcher, A Light That Never Goes Out: The Enduring Saga Of The Smiths
24. Kurt Vonnegut, God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater*
25. Derek Jarman, Sketchbooks
26. Stanley Elkin, A Bad Man
27. Dana Spiotta, Lightning Field
28. Tom Robbins, Tibetan Peach Pie: A True Account of An Imaginative Life
29. Ruth Reichl, Delicious!
30. Joshua Ferris, The Unnamed
31. John Waters, Carsick
32. Tom Spanbauer, I Loved You More
33. Geoff Dyer, Zona
34. Bill Bryson, A Walk In The Woods*
35. Curtis Sittenfeld, Sisterland
36. Tom Wolfe, The Pump House Gang
37. Haruki Murakami, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki & His Years of Pilgrimage
38. David Wroblewski, The Story of Edgar Sawtelle
39. Karl Ove Knausgaard, My Struggle: Book One
40. Carol Leifer, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Crying
41. Clifford Chase, The Tooth Fairy
42. David Mitchell, The Bone Clocks
43. Lena Dunham, Not That Kind Of Girl
44. Tom Perrotta, Nine Inches: Stories
45. Caitlin Moran, How To Be A Woman
46. Dale Peck, Martin and John*
47. Greg Kot, I’ll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers, and the March up Freedom’s Highway
48. Amy Poehler, Yes Please
49. A.M. Homes, May We Be Forgiven
50. Jennifer Finney Boylan, Stuck In The Middle With You
51. Samantha Bee, I Know I Am, But What Are You?*
52. Paul Harding, Tinkers
53. Tara Murtha, Ode To Billie Joe (33 1/3 series)

2013 Booklist

My ten favorite books that I read this year, in alphabetical order by author:

one summer

Bill Bryson – One Summer: America, 1927
After covering everywhere from the Appalachian Trail to Australia, Bryson developed a reputation as a travel writer; his latest, a riveting account of America in the Jazz age structured around a particularly eventful five months could establish him as a great historian should he choose to cover other notable periods of the recent past.

art of fielding

Chad Harbach – The Art of Fielding
My favorite novel of the year and one of the best debuts I’ve read. Even if you don’t care one whit about baseball, Harbach’s tale of a young shortstop prodigy at a small fictional Wisconsin college is compelling and worthy of prime John Irving, packed with richly drawn, cliché-free characters and multiple narrative strands that beautifully coalesce.

music for torching

A.M. Homes – Music For Torching
I’ve wanted to read this author for years, and a friend suggested this as a good starting point. I enjoy books where, after the first chapter I can’t even begin to predict where the story will go; here, a family’s impulsive decision to burn down their suburban home one evening sets off a chain of events, each one more outrageous than the last, and yet, all of them convincing.

difficult men

Brett Martin – Difficult Men
The most compulsively readable pop culture tome since Pictures At A Revolution, Martin’s overview of TV’s latest golden age parallels the anti-hero archetype (Tony Soprano, Don Draper, Walter White) with their at-times equally tyrannical creators (David Chase, Matthew Weiner) and in process, legitimizes the whole genre.

dear life

Alice Munro – Dear Life
All of this recent, deserved Nobel Prize winner’s short story collections are worth a read; if this one proves to be her last, so be it. Munro’s one of the rare authors who has continually honed and arguably improved her craft and these stories bespeak wisdom and an almost effortless agility, especially the reportedly autobiographical pieces she goes out on.

rin tin tin

Susan Orlean – Rin Tin Tin: The Life and The Legend
Orlean has always had a knack for inserting herself within a real-life narrative; her latest is her most affecting sustained attempt at this. As she delivers a definitive history of the titular canine celebrity, she eloquently depicts how its legend has fit into and informed her own life and it serves rather than distracts from the biography.

elsewhere

Richard Russo – Elsewhere: A Memoir
Russo’s first full-length work of nonfiction is as entertaining as any of his novels, which themselves are often influenced by where he has lived and worked; however, he arguably has yet to come up with a character as memorable (and irascible) as the real “star” of his memoir, his (now deceased) mother.

where'd you go b

Maria Semple – Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
Semple formerly wrote for the TV series Arrested Development, which should give you a keen sense of the zany, intelligent humor of her second novel. Creatively designed as a series of e-mails, diary entries, articles and other epistolary devices, Semple effectively satirizes middle-class family life as well as Homes, but with a far more affectionate slant.

yeah yeah yeah

Bob Stanley – Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop
Stanley, a co-founder of the band Saint Etienne has had a second career as a music journalist; this 750-page, chronological history of four decades of pop music reads like both the work of a serious critic and an unabashed music fan and could be the genre equivalent of Mark Cousins’ great The Story of Film: An Odyssey. A seemingly condensed American edition is scheduled to come out this July; go for the original British paperback version.

disco bedsit queen

Tracey Thorn – Bedsit Disco Queen
From reading her excellent Twitter feed, I eagerly anticipated Thorn’s memoir and it did not disappoint. Whether writing about being a young feminist punk, lead singer of the sophisti-pop duo Everything But The Girl (with husband Ben Watt) or eschewing the life of a pop star for motherhood and eventually returning as a solo artist, she’s full of insight, good humor and perspective on the unconventional path she and Watt took.

*****
My complete 2013 Booklist, with titles in chronological order of when I finished reading them (starred entries are books I’ve re-read):

1. Jane Lynch – Happy Accidents
2. Mark Haddon – The Red House
3. Alvin Buenaventura (ed.) – The Art of Daniel Clowes: Modern Cartoonist
4. Susan Orlean – Rin Tin Tin: The Life and The Legend
5. Julie Klausner – I Don’t Care About Your Band
6. Chad Harbach – The Art of Fielding
7. John Jeremiah Sullivan – Pulphead
8. Bob Mould with Michael Azerrad – See A Little Light: The Trail of Rage and Melody
9. Yael Kohen – We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy
10. Dave Eggers – A Hologram For The King
11. Alan Bennett – Writing Home
12. Jennifer Bass with Pat Kirkham – Saul Bass: A Life In Art and Design
13. Alice Munro – Dear Life
14. Rachel Dratch – Girl Walks Into A Bar
15. Bill Bryson – In A Sunburned Country*
16. Peter Heller – The Dog Stars
17. David Sedaris – Let’s Explore Diabetes With Owls
18. Tracey Thorn – Bedsit Disco Queen
19. Jon Breakfield – Key West
20. Don DeLillo – Underworld
21. Margaux Fragoso – Tiger, Tiger
22. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong – Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted
23. Eugene B. Bergmann – Excelsior, You Fathead!: The Art and Enigma of Jean Shepherd*
24. Maria Semple – Where’d You Go, Bernadette?
25. Ernest Cline – Ready Player One
26. Kurt Vonnegut – Cat’s Cradle*
27. Richard Russo – Elsewhere: A Memoir
28. Haruki Murakami – After The Quake
29. A.M. Homes – Music For Torching
30. Nathan Rabin – You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me
31. Bill Carter – The Late Shift
32. Ellen Forney – Marbles
33. Carson McCullers – The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter*
34. Rob Sheffield – Turn Around Bright Eyes
35. David Rakoff – Love, Dishonor, Marry, Die, Cherish, Perish: A Novel
36. Richard Brautigan – In Watermelon Sugar
37. Elisabeth Vincentelli – ABBA Gold (33 1/3 series)*
38. Junot Diaz – This Is How You Lose Her
39. Craig Thompson – Habibi
40. Chuck Klosterman – I Wear The Black Hat
41. Ingmar Bergman – Images: My Life in Film
42. Jonathan Lethem – Dissident Gardens
43. Joe Boyd – White Bicycles
44. David Byrne – How Music Works
45. Alyn Shipton – Nilsson: The Life of a Singer-Songwriter
46. Truman Capote – In Cold Blood
47. Brett Martin – Difficult Men
48. Bob Stanley – Yeah Yeah Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop
49. Bill Bryson – One Summer: America, 1927
50. Darran Anderson – Historie de Melody Nelson (33 1/3 series)
51. Paul Murray – An Evening Of Long Goodbyes
52. David Sedaris – Barrel Fever*
53. Rob Delaney – Mother. Wife. Sister. Human. Warrior. Falcon. Yardstick. Turban. Cabbage.
54. Jean Shepherd – Shep’s Army

2012 Booklist

garden lost found dangerous animals club telegraph ave  1q84i'm your man

Of all the books I read in 2012, here are a dozen I enjoyed the most (in alphabetical order by author):

Michael Chabon – Telegraph Avenue
In his most realistic and least high-concept novel since Wonder Boys, Chabon both celebrates and gently mocks the conundrum of holding on to youthful passions—in this case, a used record store—in an age that can no longer contain them, but that’s just a small part of the book’s rich tapestry of multiple cultures and generations residing near the Oakland-Berkeley border.

Mark Christensen and Cameron Stauth – The Sweeps
An article in The Onion A.V. Club informed me of this long out-of-print tome, a behind-the-scenes look at the 1983-84 NBC prime-time season. Although the television landscape has changed dramatically since then, it’s still a relevant read as it focuses on the one thing that hasn’t changed—the industry’s outsized personalities, from entrepreneur producers to struggling unknown actors to cocky, ambitious production assistants and beyond.

Mike Doughty – The Book of Drugs
The most problematic book I read this year, but also one of the most compelling. Doughty has nothing but contempt and bitterness regarding his time in the seminal, short-lived band Soul Coughing (especially towards his ex-bandmates), yet he writes about it (and in particular, his past drug abuse) so beautifully and incisively that I devoured it all in a few days and would gladly read another volume of it.

John Heilemann and John Halperin – Game Change
I wanted to read this before seeing the HBO film adaptation (which at this date I still haven’t seen) and was pretty much floored by all the stuff I didn’t know about the 2008 election, from Elizabeth Edwards’ rather repulsive personality to just how egregiously unprepared Sarah Palin was to run for office. The whole thing reads like a page-turner of a novel, even in hindsight of knowing its participants’ fates.

John Irving – In One Person
Following Last Night in Twisted River, Irving continues his late-career renaissance with this, his tightest and arguably most moving book since A Prayer For Owen Meany. In 2012, it’s not all that daring to write a novel with a bisexual protagonist, but Irving employs one not for shock value, but to examine and understand how such a character perceives a world that perceives him differently simply for who he is.

Dylan Jones – The Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music
A brash attempt to construct a pop music equivalent of David Thomson’s monumental The New Biographical Dictionary of Film, only it’s more idiosyncratic and personal, entirely leaving out luminaries from Bing Crosby to Kate Bush, yet including nearly 15 pages on Shirley MacLaine (whom no one would call a singer before an actress). Fortunately, Jones, British editor-in-chief for GQ, has an engaging, often self-deprecating persona. Rather than dip in and out of individual entries, you’ll want to read the entire 800+ page behemoth cover-to-cover, as I did.

Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum – I Want My MTV
Perhaps the best oral history since Live From New York, this is a massively entertaining collage of the influential cable network’s first ten years (a.k.a., back when they primarily played music videos); anyone wanting to learn about 1980s pop culture should start here.

Haruki Murakami – 1Q84
With most Murakami novels, the journey itself takes precedence over the eventual destination; this doorstop of a novel (which runs over 1,000 pages in its paperback edition) exemplifies this notion even more than The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle did. While he could have easily shaved off hundreds of pages, the fact remains that whenever I think of 1Q84, it’s with an immense fondness for the weeks I spent making my way through its two (and then three) interconnected narratives, a true passenger completely lost in its ever-expanding world.

Dale Peck – The Garden of Lost and Found
Finally self-released after sitting in publisher’s limbo for five years, I’ve actually been waiting for this book since 1999, when I first read the author’s masterful Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye, of which this is a very loose sequel to. Peck hasn’t made an easy career for himself (due to his infamously scathing literary reviews), but he’s at the very least an original, intermittently brilliant writer, and this perplexing, beguiling, pre-and-post 9/11 Manhattan-set fable could have come from no one else.

Sylvie Simmons – I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen
At over 500 pages, it seems a little weird to call this biography intimate as it covers an extraordinary life that has experienced so much: a Montreal Jew who started out a poet, stumbled onto songwriting at the ripe old age of 33, and survived depression, embezzlement from the keeper of his finances, a five-year stint as a Buddhist monk and even working with Phil Spector. Yet, Simmons remarkably captures Cohen’s very essence—the unusual voice that has endeared him to millions of fans—in this well-written and researched portrait.

Craig Thompson – Blankets
If you think it’s difficult to write a memoir, just try making one into a graphic novel. Thompson’s attempt at doing so was first published in 2003 when he was just 28, but it contains the skill and insight of someone you’d expect to have amassed a lifetime of work. Thompson takes an extremely specific narrative (being raised as a fundamentalist Christian in rural Wisconsin) and with his clean yet inventive style excels in rendering it relatable to anyone who encounters it.

Stephen Tobolowsky – The Dangerous Animals Club
This is basically a book version of the author’s (and famed character actor’s) podcast The Tobolowsky Files, but although you can’t literally hear Tobolowsky, it certainly doesn’t lack his distinctive voice. With stories ranging from wildly unusual (being held up at gunpoint in a grocery store as a young man) to universal (the dissolution of a long-term romantic relationship), he just has that rare ability to tell a captivating story about anything.

My complete 2012 Booklist, with titles in chronological order of when I finished reading them (starred entries are books I’ve re-read):

  1. Mindy Kaling – Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns)
  2. Craig Thompson – Blankets
  3. David Byrne – The Bicycle Diaries
  4. Tom Perrotta – Bad Haircut
  5. Lynda Barry – Blabber Blabber Blabber: Everything, Volume 1
  6. David Mitchell – The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet
  7. Leslie Knope – Pawnee: The Greatest Town In America
  8. Chuck Klosterman – The Visible Man
  9. Craig Marks and Rob Tannenbaum – I Want My MTV
  10. Jonathan Lethem – The Ecstasy of Influence: Nonfictions, Etc;
  11. Alison Bechdel – Fun Home*
  12. John Heilemann and John Halperin – Game Change
  13. Joan Didion – Blue Nights
  14. John Hodgman – More Information Than You Require
  15. Mike Doughty – The Book of Drugs
  16. John Dougan – The Who Sell Out (33 1/3)
  17. Diane Keaton – Then Again
  18. Philip Roth – American Pastoral
  19. Alison Bechdel – Are You My Mother?
  20. Dana Spiotta – Eat the Document
  21. Josh Wilker – The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training (Deep Focus)
  22. Merrill Markoe – Cool, Calm and Contentious
  23. Roger Ebert – Life Itself: A Memoir
  24. Ian MacDonald – Revolution In The Head*
  25. Rafael Alvarez – The Wire: Truth Be Told
  26. Jonathan Lethem – Fear of Music (33 1/3)
  27. Bill Bryson – Neither Here Nor There*
  28. Haruki Murakami – 1Q84
  29. Junot Diaz – Drown
  30. Garry Mulholland – Popcorn: Fifty Years of Rock ‘n’ Roll Movies
  31. John Irving – In One Person
  32. Alison Bechdel – The Essential Dykes To Watch Out For
  33. Jeffrey Eugenides – The Marriage Plot
  34. Mark Christensen and Cameron Stauth – The Sweeps
  35. Stanley Elkin – Boswell
  36. Paul Zweig – Departures
  37. Warren Littlefield – Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV
  38. David Sedaris – Naked*
  39. Julia Glass – The Whole World Over
  40. Don Lee – The Collective
  41. Kurt Vonnegut – Mother Night*
  42. Stephen Tobolowsky – The Dangerous Animals Club
  43. Dale Peck – The Garden of Lost and Found
  44. Zadie Smith – NW
  45. Tom Robbins – Wild Ducks Flying Backward*
  46. Michael Chabon – Telegraph Avenue
  47. Sylvie Simmons – I’m Your Man: The Life of Leonard Cohen
  48. Dylan Jones – The Biographical Dictionary of Popular Music

2011 Booklist

This year, I read the exact same number of books as I did in this year.

In chronological order of which I finished them:

1. David Rakoff – Half Empty
2. Zadie Smith – Changing My Mind
3. Bill Bryson – At Home
4. John Irving – Last Night In Twisted River
5. Stephen McCauley – Insignificant Others
6. Carolyn Parkhurst – The Nobodies Album
7. Dick Golembiewski – Milwaukee Television History
8. Michael Cunningham – By Nightfall
9. Gary Shteyngart – Super Sad True Love Story
10. Jessica Harper – The Crabby Cook Cookbook
11. Michael Davis – Street Gang: The Complete History of Sesame Street
12. Chuck Klosterman – Fargo Rock City*
13. Sam Staggs – All About All About Eve
14. Alice Echols – Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture
15. Sloane Crosley – How Did You Get This Number?
16. Amy Sedaris – Simple Times: Crafts for Poor People
17. Steve Martin – An Object of Beauty
18. Jean Shepherd – Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories (and Other Disasters)*
19. Tina Fey – Bossypants
20. Patti Smith – Just Kids
21. Ellen Willis – Out of the Vinyl Deeps
22. Vladimir Nabokov – Lolita*
23. David Thorne – The Internet is a Playground
24. Jennifer Egan – A Visit From the Goon Squad
25. Fran Lebowitz – Metropolitan Life
26. Stanley Elkin – Searches and Seizures
27. Roberto Bolano – 2666
28. Carolyn Parkhurst – Lost and Found*
29. Tom Rachman – The Imperfectionists
30. Simon Reynolds – Retromania
31. Kurt Vonnegut – The Sirens of Titan
32. Tom Spanbauer – Now is the Hour*
33. Paul Murray – Skippy Dies
34. Chuck Eddy – Rock and Roll Always Forgets
35. Robert Hofler – The Man Who Invented Rock Hudson
36. RJ Wheaton – Portishead’s Dummy (33 1/3 series)
37. Dana Spiotta – Stone Arabia
38. Diana Rico – Kovacsland
39. Per Petterson – Out Stealing Horses
40. Tom Perrotta – The Leftovers
41. Alice Munro – The View From Castle Rock
42. John Hodgman – The Areas of My Expertise
43. Francine Prose – My New American Life
44. Brian Kellow – Pauline Kael: A Life in the Dark
(* re-read)

Some Thoughts:

I spent the whole month of July reading 2666 and nothing else. A truly tremendous book, but one to endure rather than savor. The Savage Detectives is a better Bolano to start with.

I only re-read 5 books this year. This seems like less than usual, but in fact I’ve never re-read more than 5 in one year since I began collating booklists in 2007.

The Willis and Eddy collections = essential for any aspiring music critic.  The Kael biography = the same concerning movie critics.

After years of not reading him, I’m making my way through Vonnegut’s oeuvre chronologically, one book per year; expect to see Mother Night on the 2012 list.

I’ll likely never read 7, 10, 16, 23 and 35 cover-to-cover again; not to say I didn’t like them (I’ll surely browse through the first four at some point in time) but I just have too many other books to get to and so little time.

For those curious, my five favorite reads on this list are 11 (an engrossing account of an often taken-for-granted institution), 33 (a wonderfully humane Irish prep school epic), 37 (the year’s most conceptually stunning narrative), 40 (the author’s best yet) and 44 (a biography even its prickly subject might have admired), with 24 (already much praised) a most honorable mention.