A Year in Books

Why stop at 52?Another post that Phil suggested, whether he realized it or not. After this, I’ll stop writing about books for a bit. Okay. A day, at least. Here’s my top fifty-two books. I picked 52 of them since you could read one a week and have a year’s worth of good books. The reviews, if you want to call them that, are by no means comprehensive; they’re meant more to give you a small taste (like those tiny little spoons you get at ice cream shops) of what the book’s about. Hopefully you’ll get a good enough idea to want to score a pint copy. Here (in no particular order) goes nothing…

1. Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys, by Dave Barry. One of those books that you should probably be careful of reading in public; you’ll laugh out loud, getting all sorts of funny, or dirty, looks from those around you.
2. High Fidelity, by Nick Hornby. The author’s first book, and still my favorite of the buch. The film, which featured John Cusack and Jack Black, is one of the few that wasn’t a disappointment after reading the novel.
3. Things My Girlfriend and I Have Argued About by Mil Millington: mines some of the same territory that Hornby did in High Fidelity, but will also be familiar to anyone who’s seen “The Office,” or that’s worked in a terribly dysfunctional work environment.
4. Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole: The author committed suicide some time before the book was published; in the years since, there’s been speculation that it was finished by his mother. Whatever the case may be, by the time the book’s over, you’ll wish that one or the other of them had written another. Ignatius Reilly is literally an unforgettable character.
5. A Crack at the Edge of the World, by Simon Winchester. Winchester first gained acclaim for The Professor and the Madman, a page-turner about the writing of the Oxford English Dictionary (I shit you not). In this work, he turns his attention to the 1906 San Francisco earthquake and fire. As with his other works, he examines the history of the event, along with a fascinating explanation of the geology that caused the disaster.
6. The Benchley Roundup by Robert Benchley. Benchley is, sadly, a largely forgotten figure. From the 1920’s ‘til his death in 1945, though, he was a star, writing witty short pieces for his newspaper column, contributing to the New Yorker in its early days, reviewing theater, appearing in vaudeville, and acting in countless short subjects and feature films. This anthologizes the best of his writing over the course of his career.
7. The Thurber Carnival: I’ve always thought of Thurber as Benchley’s darker doppelganger. Where Benchley’s humor fumbles sweetly through everyday life, Thurber’s take on the world stops just short of being jaundiced. This collection pulls together much of Thurber’s best work, including the entirety of his hilarious autobiography, My Life and Hard Times.
8. A Samba for Sherlock by Jo Soares. Whether or not you’re a fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories (as it happens, I am), this is a delightfully warped take on the English detective and his doctor sidekick. Soares puts them in pre-Abolition Rio de Janeiro, in search of a stolen violin. After the chaos and culture clashes that ensue, you won’t think of Holmes quite the same way ever again.
9. The Complete Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams: By now, you’ve probably read Adams’s five-book trilogy. If you haven’t, now’s as good a time as any to see what you’ve been missing all these years, and if you have, re-reading it (even if for the second, or fifth, time) is still rewarding.
10. Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett: If Adams had decided to do a book on the Apocalypse, it might’ve read like this. Pratchett (writer of the funny, and seemingly never-ending, Discworld series) and Gaiman (Sandman, American Gods, Anansi Boys) are each other’s ideal foils, with Gaiman’s gallows humor nicely offset by Pratchett’s irrepressible silliness.
11. Five Decades, by Irwin Shaw: You don’t hear much about Irwin Shaw these days, which is a shame; this collection shows him to be a writer on par with Nabokov, sometimes scathingly political (“Sailor off the Bremen”), and sometimes incredibly funny (“The Green Nude”)
12. Blue Highways, by William Least Heat Moon: Not one of those books that lends itself to dust jacket hyperbole. It’s one man’s story of crossing the country in a converted van, and the people he meets along the way. And if the narrative really is about that simple, that ends up being no small part of its charm. That it isn’t trying to be that charming doesn’t hurt, either.
13. Jenny and the Jaws of Life, by Jincy Willett: To say that this book and its denizens are quirky would be one hell of an understatement. Memorably bent, endearingly damaged people populate Willett’s stories, some of which are very funny, some moving, and some a combination of the two.
14. The Book of Fred, by Abby Bardi: A simple story well told. Bardi writes about a child adjusting to life after a cult, trying to strike a balance between the beliefs she can’t shake and what she’s now told is “normal” life.
15. The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid, by Bill Bryson: If you’ve read a fair amount of Bryson’s writing, at some point you almost take for granted how funny he is. Here, he bucks the trend by writing about a childhood that was very normal, but no less funny for that.
16. Midnight’s Children, by Salman Rushdie. Not the author’s first book, but the first one that mattered. After the false start that was Grimus, Midnight’s Children wiped the slate clean. Thematically, and to a degree stylistically, it established the template for much of the fiction Rushdie would go on to write. While he’s written some very good books over the years, not least of them The Satanic Verses and The Ground Beneath Her Feet, this is not just a good book, but a great one.
17. The Elephant Vanishes, by Haruki Murakami: Reading Murakami is like looking at a Chuck Close picture. The stories work because, in so many instances, they’re like real life, only more so, even when he’s dealing with all-too-human apes, or wayward little green men.
18. Love in the Time of Cholera, by Gabriel Garcia Marquez: Anyone who’s seen the film and wondered why the book was such a big deal probably hadn’t read it. The film lacked the imagination and emotional heft of what is one of the author’s two best books (the other being One Hundred Years of Solitude). Should be read as a companion piece to Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being.
19-21. The Memory of Fire Trilogy, by Eduardo Galeano: This is the history that bubbles beneath the surface of the one we’ve all been taught, told from the point of view of the powerless, the voiceless, and the forgotten.
22. Louis Armstrong in His Own Words, in which the legendary trumpet player and vocalist does for the English language what he did for jazz. Anyone who’s squeamish about the musician, jazz, race relations, music, pot, laxatives, or some combination of the above (and a lot more) should avoid this book. Anyone who appreciates any of the above (pot and laxatives optional) should give it a try.
23. Tropical Truth, by Caetano Veloso. A memoir of the Brazilian legend’s early life, up to the early ‘70’s. Recommended for Tropicalia buffs, music lovers, and anyone who enjoys a good memoir.
24. The Unbearable Lightness of Being, by Milan Kundera. The best thing about this book, I think, is that Kundera writes about love without sanitizing it. All the messy bits are there. The protagonist is no saint, but neither is he an irredeemable sinner, in the traditional sense. And the author’s side trips, such as an extended meditation on kitsch, add to the story rather than seeming like distractions.
25. Claire Marvel, by John Burnham Schwartz: A love story for people who don’t normally like that sort of thing. A romance novel that takes a different tack toward romance than the usual steady diet of Scottish highlanders, strapping cowboys, and scantily-clad, vaguely distressed maidens. And, best of all, a novel that explores love without resorting to tired clichés, happy endings, or maudlin pseudo-tragedy. In short, what’s not to like?
26. Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie. What do you do when you’re in hiding, with a death sentence hanging over your head? If you’re Salman Rushdie, you follow The Satanic Verses and all its attendant controversy, with what could easily be mistaken for a children’s book, but which reveals itself to be a funny, ultimately joyous, meditation on the power of storytelling, language, and freedom of expression.
27/28. Postcards/The Shipping News by Annie Proulx: Proulx is the anti-Hemingway. While there’s sometimes a certain economy about her writing, you may find yourself lingering over these books. She has a gift for sentences that you find yourself savoring, sometimes for their descriptive power, and others for their understated musicality. That said, she’s not in love with writing for its own sake; plot and characterization, fortunately, aren’t sacrificed at the altar of pretty sentences.
29. A People’s History of the United States, by Howard Zinn: Labor organizers and laborers, Socialists and Wobblies, activists and common people all have their moment in the sun here. Their stories illuminate what reads like an alternate history, a sort of “What If”, until you realize that this is all the stuff, and all the people, your high school and college history textbooks left out.
30. The Devil in the White City, by Erik Larson: The 1893 World’s Fair runs along parallel tracks with a serial killer in this bestseller. Nonfiction that reads like a thriller.
31. Just Enough Liebling: You have to have a certain respect for anyone that can write about boxing so well that you enjoy it even if you think boxing is barbaric. His food writing will leave you salivating (and perhaps also give you heartburn), and his war reportage has pitifully few equals.
32-33. Up in the Old Hotel/My Ears Are Bent by Joseph Mitchell: Along with Liebling, Mitchell is generally regarded as one of the fathers of the New Journalism. On the strength of these collections, you’ll likely forgive him. Mitchell had a knack for finding some pretty odd people, and giving them the same journalistic treatment previously reserved only for those considered newsworthy. Besides being a good writer, the joy here is in finding a true journalistic omnivore.
34. Work and Other Sins by Charlie LeDuff: The closest candidate I can think of to be “the next Joseph Mitchell.” He deserves it because he covers the same beat, but has his own voice rather than trying to co-opt someone else’s.
35. United States, 1952-1992 by Gore Vidal: While his fiction chronicled the history of America from its founding to the recent past (with digressions into antiquity and transvestitism from time to time), Vidal’s essays generally concern themselves with the present. He’s cranky, opinionated, gossipy, and pissy. And, very often, right.
36. The Vintage Book of Amnesia, edited by Jonathan Lethem: The collection is pretty much what its title suggests. Aside from the overarching theme, though, the pieces don’t have much in common, aside from being memorable and well-written. I know that doesn’t sound like much of an endorsement, but once you’ve read this, you’ll see what I mean.
37/38. Sudden Fiction/Sudden Fiction, Continued, edited by Shapiro and Thomas: Good reading for bedtime, drive time (as long as someone else is driving), or any other time you want something that can be read in a single, brief, sitting. Luckily, their brevity isn’t all there is to recommend these stories. Some of these amount more to snapshots than stories, while others have a heft that you’d normally associate with much longer works.
39. Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All: Alan Gurganus’s fictional account of a southern belle spinning her life’s story in her twilight years is a sprawling, shambolic mess. On purpose. And it works, its twists and turns providing plenty of humor leavened by a bit of tragedy.
40. Stuffed, by Patricia Volk: Only tangentally a book about food. It’s more of a life told in food.
41. The Shock of the New, by Robert Hughes: A bit like touring the MoMA with an opinionated, but highly knowledgeable, tour guide. This is easily the best survey of modern art I’ve read. That’s due, in no small part, that Hughes is willing to call bullshit when he sees it.
42. Feeding a Yen, by Calvin Trillin: Before there was Andrew Zimmern, there was (and thankfully, there still is) Calvin Trillin. He’s a humorist, political writer, and a Jew with a catholic palate. This book tracks some of his culinary adventures, including procuring good bagels, and tracking down the best barbecue to be found. Trillin isn’t a food snob. Sure, he knows from good food; but he doesn’t shy away from seconds (or thirds), and writes with warmth and humor.
43. A Box of Matches, by Nicholson Baker: When your two most famous books deal with phone sex, and time travel as a sexual aid (Vox and The Fermata, respectively), people could be forgiven for wondering what you’ll do next. This book unfolds at the same leisurely pace as Kozinski’s Being There, anchored by an improbably engaging narrator’s low-key life, and his author’s loving attention to detail.
44. The Aspirin Age, edited by Isobel Leighton. A series of essays covering the years 1919-1941, and subjects ranging from the Dionne quintuplets and the Lindbergh kidnapping to Prohibition and the Morro Castle.
45. My American Century, by Studs Terkel. Terkel’s name has become synonymous with revealing interviews and oral histories. This volume cherry-picks the oral histories that preceded it, including such bestsellers as The “Good” War and Race.
46. The Poetry of Pablo Neruda: Neruda was maddeningly uneven. Among some true gems are scattered some poems that could only be called crap (such as his poetry praising the Soviet Union in general, and Stalin in particular). Luckily, this volume collects the good stuff, avoiding the filler. Some of the poems are presented both in their Spanish versions and in translation.
47. The Essential Rumi: Love poetry, drunken divinity, divine drunkenness… Rumi is completely, ecstatically engaged in and in love with life, and sometimes with love itself.
48. Selected Poems, by W.H. Auden: Personal, political, historical, with a biting humor and a gift for just the right turn of phrase. If you only read one volume of Auden, you’d be doing yourself a disservice. But if you must read just one, this should be it.
49. Selected Poems, 1947-1995, by Allen Ginsberg. All of the poems that made Ginsberg’s name are here—“Howl,” “Kaddish,” “America”—along with several others published throughout his career. Whether you’re a fan of the Beats, or never quite got what all the fuss was about, it’d be hard to overestimate Ginsberg’s place in poetry.
50. Tales of the City, by Armistead Maupin. You might start with this book, but don’t be surprised if you find yourself sampling the other five that followed as part of the series, as well as the recent Michael Tolliver Lives. Even though the series starts in 1976 and continues into the 1980’s—that is, the tail end of the Disco era, the first flush of gay liberation, and the beginnings of the AIDS crisis—it’s aged well. The themes Maupin explores, and the skill with which he creates characters that aren’t just sympathetic, but loveable, elevate this beyond the “Gay Fiction” ghetto into which it’s often, and unfortunately, relegated.
51. Motherless Brooklyn, by Jonathan Lethem: Detective with Tourette’s Syndrome tracks the killers of his mentor. And did I mention that the book is written from the protagonist’s point of view? Thankfully, Lethem doesn’t take the easy way out by simply playing the Tourette’s for laughs—which isn’t saying there’s any shortage of them—but gives us a character that would be totally out of place in the world of, say, Raymond Chandler, and then places him in a world that Chandler himself probably would’ve recognized.
52. If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler, by Italo Calvino: The novelty of a book being told entirely in the second person would ordinarily wear thin pretty quickly. The fact that the story is so engaging, and takes so many twists and turns, prevents that from happening. Calvino’s writing is proof that postmodern fiction need not be either pretentious or boring.

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