I’ve been reading so many good books lately and have been meaning to share them with you. (I’ve also read duds, and a mix of love and dislike, as you’ll see in my other list of 17 that didn’t make the “love cut” below.)
I hope you find the following useful for gifts to others or … yourself.* It’s really a windy and sundry path of books discovered through random podcasts, reviews, word(s)-of-mouth, and Wikipedia searches gone disturbingly deep and tangential.
Ten books (I loved) in 2015
I loved the following books. I’ve included my short book “reaction” and links to each should you want to buy them.
And now, in no particular order, my top 10 books of 2015. (Meaning, read/ingested in 2015, since many of them were written and published long ago.) (Also: I swear I did not mean to make this a clean “10” — but I had to since the other 12 I only liked or was slightly irritated with — only slightly — as you’ll see below.) #Clickbait?
A Manual for Cleaning Women (You can buy it here)
How much did I love this book? My poor Ma recently broke her ankle in three places and is couch bound. This is the book I bought her to keep her company.
Lucia Berlin was pretty much unknown until earlier this year when this collection was released and became a best seller. Berlin died a decade ago, but her work is timeless.
Having lived in Alaska, Texas, New Mexico, Chile, and Mexico, to name a few, it’s fascinating to hang out in these spaces which fill Berlin’s narratives. Her (very autobiographical) characters emerge then reappear in unexpected ways throughout the collection.
Berlin herself was married a number of times, raised four sons, overcame alcoholism, and worked and lived in a variety of capacities. Though these experiences bleed through the text, they do not define her work. Her compassion for her characters and kindness transcending the moment tempers the sad state of the lives she shares.
I know this book left a lasting impression because my life has become animated with it: looking around a new home, I recall Lucia’s cleaning women characters who peek into the lives who inhabit each home by their belongings. Going to a liquor store, I see a woman who, in a Berlin story, counted the hours until the store opened, then made her way in the dark cold of 6 am, body shaking, while her children slept. She rushed home, making it back just in time to fix them breakfast before school. Hearing a friend tell the tale of caring for a relative, I think of Lucia’s oft repeated character who lives with her dying sister in Mexico creating new stories from old and poignant moments only possible when days are numbered so finely.
At its best, a good book will color your world and bring it to life more vibrantly. This is that book. Buy it.
I am about half-way through this massive record of working in 1960s and 1970s America, and I am in love. Studs Terkel mostly highlights jobs of working-class Americans, and it’s fascinating from three angles.
First, to read what they do all day, and how a “Order Filler, Shoe Factory,” or “Hooker,” or “Gas Meter Reader” keeps occupied.
Second, to get each individual’s perspective on their work and by extension their lives; for instance a “Parking Attendant,” or “Copy Chief.” In these you’ll find truisms such as the following by the Copy Chief John Fortune — who comments on the invariable trajectory of his role and others in the advertising industry:
“Advertising’s a fashion business. There are five stages. ‘Who is this guy, John Fortune?” The second stage: “Gee, it would be great if we could get that guy, what’s his name? John Fortune. The third stage: “If we could only get John Fortune.” The fourth stage: “I’d like to get a young John Fortune.” The fifth stage: “Who’s John Fortune?”
Indeed, these stages are identifiable outside the advertising business and extend to our very place in the world as we, too, engage in the countdown of our careers and lives.
The third angle of interest is time travel: peek into the past when there were jobs like “Installment Dealer” and “Switchboard Operator.” One has the view of the future in mind as these workers struggle through a world that lacks the technology we now take for granted.
A telling line comes from a “Stewardess” discussing “stew school” which describes how to accept a light for your cigarette like a lady:
“…Smoking can be a part of your conversation. If you don’t know what to say, you can always pull out a cigarette.”
So true. Hello, smart genius phone. Do you have a smoking app?
I really did not need this book. I’d decided not to have kids more than a decade ago. Increasingly, though, I’d been feeling isolated in this choice that few seem to make with such determination.
So I was glad to come across this collection of essays from women (and a few men! bonus!) who made the decision not to have kids. Overall, I really enjoyed reading all of the perspectives, most of which had some elements of my view but, surprisingly, few that seemed as convinced as I am. Some were childless more by chance, while others did not want to rule parenthood out entirely. Not a decision, but a default.
Whereas, if you ask me, I would say, “No way, José.” (If your name is José, when you’re asking.)
See my more in-depth review here.
This book was easily one of my top three of the year. In fact, I wrote an entire review here.
I reserved a copy of Suki Kim’s latest book based on my interest and curiosity about a nation I knew little about beyond its secrecy and closed doors.
Like anything peripherally familiar, adding knowledge brings the realization of how little you *really* knew.
Suki Kim did not just write a book about her time “with the sons of North Korea’s elite.” She carried you along on her trip to the stark institutional prison-like setting, let you taste the “cloudy porridge” and “watery boiled rice,” made you fear (with her) rules such as “never hint that there is something wrong with their country,” or, when taking chaperoned trips “do not approach or start a conversation with anybody.” And, of course, the warning: “Everything you say and do will be watched.”
Why should you buy this book?
It might sound like a depressing read. Certainly, that’s kept me from delving into the world of North Korea. And make no mistake, you will feel sadness in many of these pages. The tragedy not only of history but the everyday lives of North Koreans, including these elite boys.
It is perhaps for these boys the you continue the story. Their often sweet and disarming behavior, even though sometimes deceptive, shine through the narrative and endear you to them as they have the author, who describes them as her “children” more than once. This might seem condescending, but Suki does not treat them with anything but respect throughout.
For me, Suki’s journey to North Korea has enlarged the world, including my own, enticing me to explore human nature and our heart’s chains in more detail. It’s also a fascinating study of an almost complete “control group.” What does it mean to be cut off from the world, in an age of hyper-connectivity?
If someone mentions cupcakes or cookie dough, I’m bound to head home and blend up a batch. Slightly addicted to sweets, and somewhat prone to suggestion, my careful non-decision process infiltrated book-choosing this year when Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude entered my orbit.
Kim Gordan (whose memoir Girl in a Band: A Memoiris on my list for 2016) happened to mention The Fortress of Solitude as being one of the books she’d bring to a deserted island (side note: just misspelled & corrected desert from “dessert,” creating urge to eat coconut ice cream) on a podcast interview. That, combined with an interest in New York/Brooklyn, and this book was added to my list.
My favorite thing I did with this book was recommend it to a highly conservative couple who grew up in 50’s Brooklyn, whom we met on our ship traveling with the band to the UK this year. They are going to *love* what’s going on between the characters here, whether it’s drugs, sex, or prostitution.
Having grown up in the 70s, I was also interested in this era. The book was beautiful, poetic, moving, interesting, and still sticks with me despite having read it almost a year ago. Recommended for anyone who wants an inside view to a motherless white kid growing up a minority in a poor, soon to be gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood. Sad and real characters.
I love Milan Kundera. I wrote a full review of this book here.
Calling it a book seems crude somehow, for in these pages Kundera no less than invites you to dive into the fundamental workings of society at large and humanity in the specific.
Kundera is one of about three or four authors that makes me feel less lonely. Once I told my cousin this, and he seemed alarmed. “You’re lonely?” he asked, surprised. Perhaps it’s the wrong word. I’m not lonely in the sense of feeling isolated or without social groups. This loneliness is one of ideas and calculations: sharing a way of evaluating life that makes me feel less alone in the world. Like when you’re arguing a point to someone who does not get it, then a third person says, “I agree with what she’s saying…” and goes on to explain why you’re not insane.
I heard several podcast interviews with Jacqueline Woodson after she won the National Book Award. I enjoyed one in particular where she and President Carter converse about social issues, and beyond. Though the book is written for young adults, and is poetry rather than prose, I recommend it for both adults and non-poetry lovers (which I count myself in both groups).
Her verse is moving, sad, triumphant — and a wonderful window into her unique life as she navigates the world held in both the South and North, being “different” from the majority. Even beyond the larger culture, within her own family, she was the odd one out as bookworm/writer.
The tales of Woodson’s childhood and accompanying photos bring her story within grasp. As the reader you also view the world through a somewhat blurry windshield of “adult” life events as they unfold: the birth and introduction of a mysterious brother while your Mom is away in New York and you are with your grandparents; family members disappearing suddenly and tragically; the unexpected kindness of a white fabric store owner of South Carolina. You feel as baffled as she must had been, piecing together the story as young Jacqueline did through the crumbs left behind.
It’s a quick read, but a lasting one.
I’ve never been a fan of Patti Smith’s vocal delivery or songs, but after reading her memoir am a huge fan of her. I intended to read this book as a fellow female musician and because I’m interested in New York City. So it was fortunate that a friend had just read Just Kids and loaned me her copy.
In the memoir, Smith chronicles her time in New York City as an artist living with her then inseparable partner, the to-be-famous photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, and their role in the burgeoning bohemian scene of East Village, including hangouts with Lou Reed at CBGB’s, drunken diner moments with Janice Joplin, and meeting Allen Ginsburg for the first time (he thought she was a he). But she’s not name-dropping: Smith is a humble, quiet, considerate listening soul.
The memoir is fascinating for anyone interested in the arts community/scene of early 1970s New York City. The term “starving artist” had literal resonance in Patti’s life, where she slept on park benches and barely scraped enough food to get through the day, her skinny frame a visible stamp of their poverty.
What strikes me about Patti is her strength. Not simply in the losses she’s endured — her best friend, husband, and brother, to name a few (outside the scope of this narrative) — but in how she navigates an often hostile reality of rejection in both art and love. When it becomes evident that she and Robert Mapplethorpe are not going to be the primary couple, as he slowly begins to explore his attraction to men, she’s sad but remains nearby and involved in his life, as he does hers; in fact, it is a beautiful love story of two artists keeping one another from drowning.
One day after our recent tour to Europe, I was processing our ship-trip over. The transatlantic “cruise” (I put it in quotes as I accepted it as a taxi ride, only) was something I’d never experienced. Based on my commentary, a friend told me about the essay David Foster Wallace had written about his own first (and only) cruise, also the title of this book A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. While I waited to read that particular essay until I finished my own version, I enjoyed most of the stories in this collection.
DFW’s writing is a witty companion, asking questions of its subjects you would not have thought to ask, but are grateful he did. Delving deeper than you thought possible, it’s both enjoyable and, in turn, trying, depending on the topic. My favorite essays were Getting Away from Already Being Pretty Much Away from It All, about the Illinois State Fair,1 David Lynch Keeps His Head, where DFW explores Lynch’s works and methods while on set for the film Lost Highway, and the title essay, about his Caribbean Cruise.
As with Infinite Jest, I just can’t get interested in the details surrounding tennis (or any sport) no matter how talented the writer, so only gave Derivative Sport in Tornado Alley a half-hearted swing.
1 I had to have a footnote, just because we’re talking about DFW here.
Known as the grandfather (godfather?) of the field of behavioral economics, Richard Thaler is a must-read for anyone interested in the field. I was first introduced to the concepts he helped develop through the works of authors (and brothers) Chip and Dan Heath, including Made to Stick, Switch, and Decisive. In the notes of one of the Heath books, I saw a reference to Thaler’s Nudge, and decided to read it. While the concept revolutionized how individuals, organizations, and governments can approach change-making — that is, by encouraging people through small interventions to make the changes they want to make but are hampered by poor design, decision paralysis, or other barriers — I abandoned the book toward the end having lost interest in the often over explained concepts.
I found Misbehaving to be much more engaging than Nudge, where passionate narrator Thaler guides the reader through his humble beginnings in the 1970s in helping found the field by bridging the disciplines of psychology and behavioral economics.
Not only was it interesting to learn how the various concepts in behavioral econ developed, but I was fascinated to discover the process of creating a field of study in academia, as well as the research and trial building; I was equally glad that is not my chosen profession.
Highly recommended for anyone interested in how people behave, and ways to encourage, whether through policy or outreach, positive outcomes in our health, financial lives, or just about any other change desired.
Books that did NOT make the “love list,” but I read and enjoyed to varying degrees
- Modern Romance: Let me just say: I *love* Aziz Ansari. I borderline binge-watched his sitcom, Master of None, and absolutely recommend that as well as his performance Live at Madison Square Garden which you can find (as of this writing) on Netflix. But I did not, not love his book. I did “LOL” several times, and you will too. Caveat: I’m married and well-aged beyond his target demographic (dating people in their 20s, 30s). But I also thought the research was a bit weak (and too clean: for instance, comparing the “old” way of romance vs. the new — though technology has changed, to some degree, people have not. Read: The Way We Never Were: American Families And The Nostalgia Trap). I also didn’t like the simplistic look at Japanese society, or naming the under-sexed men herbivores. Say wha? Herbivores are OVER sexed if anything. Take that how you might.
- Missing Person (Verba Mundi) (Verba Mundi Book): I picked up when I saw an old photo of the author, Patrick Modiano, and realized he looked just like my grandfather, who had been stationed in Germany (and France?) for WWII right around the time Patrick was born, and thought, hmm.
- Leaving Las Vegas: I was discussing my nephew’s favorite film, and this title came to mind (his was Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas). So I read Leaving Las Vegas, considered a “suicide note” by the author, by some. I really enjoyed it, though as can be surmised, it was sad to peek into the life of someone so immersed in booze.
- Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, Revised and Expanded EditionMy respected music friends *loved* this book and recommended it highly to me. I found Oliver Sack’s writing, which I loved in The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat, rambling and too full of random anecdotal reports. I didn’t finish it.
- The Night of the Gun: A reporter investigates the darkest story of his life. His own.Meh.
- Millionaire Teacher: The Nine Rules of Wealth You Should Have Learned in School. I followed his advice and am down $100 for the year. But I guess there was some sort of stock market crash in China, so that also could be the reason.
- The Magus: Recommended by a friend, this book takes place on a fictional Greek island. Good while the mystery lasted, but I was ready for it to be over way sooner than it was.
- The Stranger: I read this on the Cunard ship during our transatlantic voyage. It was enjoyable and worth a read — also known as “The Other.” More on this in a forthcoming essay on aforementioned journey.
- Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace: Terrible. See my reaction here.
- The Rainbow: Cambridge Lawrence Edition (Penguin Classics): Also picked this up on the Cunard’s Queen Mary II. A bit dated, though progressive in that it does include concept of lesbianism within narrative.
- The Liars’ Club: A Memoir: Kicking off the year’s David Foster Wallace wormhole, I read this after hearing an interview with Mary Karr and learning she dated DFW and he pushed her out of a car, allegedly. I found this way better than her 2nd memoir, and worth a read.
- Cherry: Karr’s 2nd memoir covering her teenage/young adult self was a bore. She switched from 1st to 2nd person (“You” this and that) which seemed pretentious and took me away from the story. Not recommended. I didn’t pick up the 3rd in the series just based on this experience – even though I still want to read about her time with DFW and learn if she somersaulted out of the car.
- The Selected Stories of Patricia Highsmith: Though there were a few good short stories toward the end, the author, most famously, of the excellent Strangers on a Train (adapted to movie by Hitchcock) and The Talented Mr. Ripley, fails to create a compelling narrative in most of these stories. Her characters fall flat, and are so under-developed that they’re not even cookie dough yet. And, there is always someone killed at the end (sigh). Time to make cookies!
- One minute stories: Pre-trip to Europe I attempted to read a book from each country we were to visit. This number was recommended by a band we played with in Hungary. Entertaining and full of humor – and, predictably, very short.
- My Struggle: Book 1 and …
- My Struggle: Book 2: A Man in Love: I honestly can’t recall if I read these early 2015 or late 2014, but I feel they are worth a mention. Each of the six volumes is as long as Infinite Jest, if not longer, and full of Proust-like meanderings that take you through coffee-making and kid-caring. Why, you might ask, did I move on to volume II? I was so happy the day I picked it up in the library. Though tedious in places, I really did enjoy reading Karl Ove K’s experiences to-date and his relation to his father and family. I appreciated his sensitive meanderings. By the middle of the second volume, though, I was ready to be out of his head, and also found him a touch arrogant (perhaps one must be to publish such a tome).
- Zeitoun— I almost forgot about Zeitoun! I read this when a guest left it at our former AirBnB. It’s a wonderful look at a family and the father’s compassion for helping others when Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005, as well as the discrimination faced by the Muslim population, and Zeitoun’s wrongful imprisonment. The book depicts a family staying together through the ol’ thick and thin, love winning all, etc. However, a recent search ala my Wiki-buddy shows a new narrative developed over the past decade. Either the ex-wife is nuts, or Zeitoun is abusive, or both. (I’m usually inclined to believe the abused woman, but her reports are extreme based on the evidence and not at all verifiable). Whatever the case, I was saddened by the news.
What were your favorite books last year?
Leave your comments below!
* I recently signed up as an “Amazon Affiliate” which basically means that should you decide to buy any of the linked items above (clicking yr lil’ mouse on the link provided) I’ll get a percentage of the sale.
I do NOT post anything that I don’t like because that would be … creepy. By sharing what I’m excited about, and by your enjoying the result (I hope!) it’s two wins. I’m not terrific at math, but that’s way more than zero or one.