This year I hit a string of bad luck, and ended up putting down most of the books I’d started. Over the years, I’ve really forced myself to finish anything I’d already gotten about 10 percent into, but now I have 2 kids, I was moving homes, and sometimes I just couldn’t take it any more. But there were a few that stuck with me... Cultural Amnesia: Necessary Memories from History and the Arts by Clive James This is often long-winded and obtuse, but he has assembled and pretty interesting collection of 20th-century personalities to create a narrative of cultural advancement. I’d never heard of most of these people, and it is interesting to meet them via his very subjective biographical snap shots. Outliers: The Story of Success by Malcolm Gladwell The further I get away from this book the more I suspect that very few of the arguments actually hold water. The primary reason The Beatles were great was because they had the opportunity to practice a lot? Really? But it’s the actual constructing of the arguments and narratives that’s pretty entertaining and makes it worth the read. The section on plane crashes is great. Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman This is from my series of self-help books last summer. Anyone looking at my list of recently-read books in August might've started wondering if I was about to swan dive off the George Washington Bridge. I wasn’t…I was just doing a little “house keeping” as Sam Harris (author of a lesser one I read, Waking Up, would say). Thinking, Fast and Slow does the satisfying (and wildly over-simplifying) work of categorizing the methods by which humans process information into 2 categories, “fast” and “slow” (“System 1" and “System 2." My “fast” reaction to this book was “wow that’s really simple…that’s really, really simple…yeah that’s too simple;” but my “slow” reaction was “it definitely rings right that my own well-considered, calculated, and contrived responses to problems have, not infrequently, set me way back in the wrong direction.” Trust your instincts!…or trust them sometimes. Our Final Invention: Artificial Intelligence and the End of the Human Era by James Barrat How many times can you repeat the same thing over and over in one book? Either James Barrat was toying with this in some kinda post-modern machine-esque tone, or James Barrat is himself some sort of artificial intelligence, still working out a few glitches. Either way, this has a classic doomsday forecast that you can’t help but linger on after reading…When are machines going to surpass human intelligence and thus find us not merely expendable, but too unpredictable to bother keeping around? It’s only logical. It’s also complete fantasy...but it’s kinda fun. (I stole this book from a band mate on tour…sorry, Greg.) More from A Year in Reading 2017 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2016, 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 [millions_ad]
My Struggle: Book Five by Karl Ove Knausgård I see that last year I recommended books one to four, so I won’t go too much into this again. Book Five is pretty much more of the same, but mostly focuses on young adulthood. I’m looking forward to Book Six...I still have absolutely no idea what the Mien Kampf connection is. But the book is great. Dream Boogie by Peter Guralnick Sam Cooke had a kind of funny problem early on in his career. As a teenager, he started singing in the Chicago Gospel circuit. Everywhere he went, people noticed. His voice was angelic, and he was charming and appealing. Within a short time, Sam was invited to be a member (then soon promoted to frontman) of The Soul Stirrers -- the band he’d emulated since childhood. But Sam was also uncontrollably sexy…he couldn’t turn it off if he wanted to (and he didn’t want to). So Sam starting packing these sleepy midwestern Sunday services with young women. The pastors were in kind of a pickle: Sam was great for business, but was this their business? He wasn't doing anything wrong…but it felt a little iffy. After a few years, Sam was at a crossroads: stick with the authentic Gospel music that had made him something of a star, or dive into pop music -- offending many of his, and his family’s, religious sensibilities. Sam chose pop. This is a good read for anyone who likes Sam. I also recommend Guralnick’s Last Train to Memphis for any Elvis Presley heads out there. 10% Happier by Dan Harris I recently became (slightly) interested in meditation. I discovered this guy’s podcast and found an interesting interview with Rivers Cuomo, who has been meditating his entire life. I actually started listening to Weezer for the first time after hearing this interview. Dan Harris came to meditation as a full-on skeptic, but found his own way of appreciating it. I can relate. The Complete Poems: 1927-1979 by Elizabeth Bishop Elizabeth Bishop is inspired. I read her when I feel uninspired. Check it out. City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg Full disclosure...the author is a friend/drinking companion. Unfortunately, since I have kids, I had to read this book in stops and starts. It seems like it should be done in marathon stretches, as there is a wide-ranging cast of characters, times, and places. Ultimately I pulled it together and came out with a pretty good understanding of what happened, and ultimately I found it a satisfying, cohesive novel…which is impressive, since it had like 1,000 pages to fall off the rails…it didn’t. More from A Year in Reading 2016 Do you love Year in Reading and the amazing books and arts content that The Millions produces year round? We are asking readers for support to ensure that The Millions can stay vibrant for years to come. Please click here to learn about several simple ways you can support The Millions now. Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2015, 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005
My Struggle, Books 1-4 by Karl Ove Knausgaard: Having two kids has really chopped my reading time up into odd sessions at odd hours -- always interrupted. I think that might be why My Struggle worked so well for me. You can pick this book up and read 10, 15, or 50 pages, put it down for an hour or a week, and when you pick it up again, you’ll come right into the same calm, funny, detail-driven narrative you remember...it sort of doesn’t matter whether or not you even remember what’s going on at that moment. Maybe a few lines in, you’ll see a name or place or something, and think “oh, right...teenage years, a band, a girlfriend...” and then you’ll just roll into some winding story. It’s amazing that something this self-analytical doesn’t ever strike me as narcissistic or unduly self-centered. I think that’s because it’s funny, and it strikes me as uncannily honest. Either he is remembering all of these details, and recounting some pretty embarrassing stuff, or he’s really good at faking it. A lot of the praise I’ve read for this talks about its grandiosity and ambition in terms of length and scope (rightfully so...it’s six books long and so far it’s all pretty fantastic) but what I like most about it is his willingness to be small...to focus and obsess on small details of events, or analyze his impulses and desires...not always painting the most likable picture of himself -- whether it’s his sex-crazed teenage/early adult years or his current obsessive and difficult self -- and somehow keeping it fun and, most impressively, interesting. He’s never been a saint, but he’s always charming in some way. For a 3,600-page Norwegian autobiography titled after Adolf Hitler’s own, it’s surprisingly light and fast-paced. I recommend it. More from A Year in Reading 2015 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Robert Moses and Robert Caro dominated the first four months of my year with The Power Broker. It’s a bear, but a must read for any New Yorker, or anyone with any interest in manipulation, corruption, sneakiness, and lying. I loved it. Caro is such a good writer...my brother in law is taking on the Lyndon Johnson series right now, but I might need to rest up for that one. New York City is an entirely different place for me now. Robert Moses had more influence over the entire tri-state region -- and arguably the entire United States -- than any other person in the 20th century. It’s incredible how he operated “legally” outside of the reach of any legal authorities. He could just basically write his own laws. Actually, sometimes he literally wrote his own laws. Check it out. The Circle by Dave Eggers. I recently got social on the Internet as a means of promoting my musical act. Coincidentally, within a week of signing up for all this stuff I read The Circle, and now I can’t sign into Facebook or Twitter without feeling like I’ve joined the Circle. I laughed many times through this, but honestly, for a guy who really didn’t know what was going on online before, I was dumbfounded more than anything else. I immediately tweeted about The Circle when I finished it. More from A Year in Reading 2014 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
My number one book this year was The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. I'd never read anything by her before and was just floored at how great this one was. It's a tragic story of poor black families in Ohio, and all sorts of awful things happen to them. The plot centers around a little girl named Pecola who thinks all her problems would disappear if she were white, with pale blue eyes. The plot's nothing but a downer, but not indulgent or wallowing, and never boring. I give it an A+. The Forsaken by Tim Tzouliadis was a surprising and interesting story of the (unknown number of) Americans who were lured to Stalin's Russia during the depression with the promise of work and prosperity in accordance with "The Five Year Plan." I remember one man saying something like "I should have known it was too good to be true when I stepped off the boat and a banner read '2 + 2 = 5'." Of course it didn't work out, and as their passports were immediately confiscated, the ex-pats were disowned by their own (former?) government, and ignored by a particularly naive and/or complacent American Ambassador (whom Tzouliadis just trashes). I've never known all that much about Soviet History...basically what I maybe remembered from high school history (nothing?), and Martin Amis's excellent Koba the Dread, so maybe it wouldn't be as enlightening to someone who already knows more, but this book does a great job of portraying the crazed but patient and systematic mass murder Stalin inflicted on Russia for well over a decade. Interesting details about Henry Ford, Paul Robeson, and many others are highlights. Definitely worth checking out. Morrissey's Autobiography was a quick and entertaining read all the way through...far past the point where I started losing interest in the records. It's funny how someone known for being so difficult can come across as so reasonable. Maybe there's another side to the stories, but I liked his. He's funny and charming throughout. I disagreed with so much of the praising and trashing of his own records, but it was fun to hear his take. I've always liked the Smiths, and a good amount of Morrissey's solo stuff, but I know there's an army of devotees who would consider me a peripheral fan. After this book I must say I'm all the more onboard. More from A Year in Reading 2013 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2012, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Hello and thanks to The Millions for having me back. The most engrossing book I read this year was Lords of Finance: The Bankers Who Broke the World by Liaquat Ahamed. It's the story of the financial collapse of the 1920's, which precipitated the Great Depression. It focuses on four central bankers whose collective efforts pretty much wrecked the global economy. These guys were incredibly smart, and incredibly powerful, and it's fascinating how things went wrong, and the ways in which their financial policies dictated all major global events from World War I to World War II. Also, it resonates pretty well with all of today's financial problems, and gave me a much better understanding of what these guys are capable of doing. The Recognitions by William Gaddis. I had heard for years that this was great, so I went into it expecting a lot, and it delivered. It's a huge undertaking...it's about 1,000 pages, but it requires such strict attention that often you find yourself reading a page several times. Somewhere about 500 pages in I realized I just had absolutely no idea what was going on, so I started consulting an online guide, which was very helpful in understanding the plot, but I guess may have disrupted the original rhythm, and messed up some important surprises. So I guess I'd advise reading without a guide...or at least trying... The Way We Live Now by Anthony Trollope. I was surprised how funny this book was. I only bought it because it was the single English-Language book in an entire store in Utrecht, and didn't really know what to expect. It's a sprawling 19th-century saga (a-la Charles Dickens) with a huge cast. Everyone owes everyone else money, and no one's paying up. There's a lot of cowering behind a mask of dignity. If you were to change a few details it really could all be happening right now. A Hologram for the King by Dave Eggers. I thought it was funny the whole time. It's a very quick read. I read it on tour with my band, where there is a lot of "hurry up and wait," which is a major theme. Cobb: A Biography by Al Stump. Wow what an asshole Ty Cobb was! A very entertaining read. Sharpening his spikes was nothing..."The Georgia Peach" was a violent and notorious racist and murderer, who once beat up a disabled heckler. More from A Year in Reading 2012 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, and follow The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
I, Claudius by Robert Graves: This was my favorite book of the year. I really couldn’t put it down. It’s just a classic injustice/revenge story, with a lot of poisonings and beheadings, following the life of Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, who unexpectedly (especially to himself) became Emperor of Rome in the 1st century A.D. Graves makes Claudius into a wholly sympathetic, pretty funny lead character, who basically watches on the sidelines while his family kills each other off. On something like the second page, Graves (as Claudius) is right on when he says something about how this won’t be another “he begat he who begat him who begat him...” bore. If you really dig it, I’d recommend continuing on to Claudius the God, which picks up right after I, Claudius ends. It’s another 900 pages or so. By the end of that one, you’ll have had your fill. (Although, later I did rent the BBC documentary too ... I loved it!) Frank: The Voice by James Kaplan: I’d never really known the chronology of Frank Sinatra’s career, especially the rough times. This book charts his early life in Hoboken and years as a rising star, but most interesting is his reinvention of himself in the late 1940s. He really fell out of favor with the public after being listed as unfit for duty in WWII, and over the next years, while his superstar wife, Ava Gardner, was sleeping with every man she could get her hands on, he sank deeper and deeper into a Jack Daniels-depression and plunged out of the spotlight. But even as rock 'n' roll was eclipsing his big-band standards as the music de jour, Frank somehow found a new voice (with help from his new string arranger Nelson Riddle) and climbed back to the top. Anyone with even a passing interest in Frank should check this one out. King Suckerman by George P. Pelecanos: I’m from D.C. originally, so I get a kick out of the hyper-local scene here, and all the little historical details. Not sure if that will resonate with anyone else. This is a thug and cop novel with shotguns and drugs. This is not the D.C. you will find if you go there today. The Forever War by Dexter Filkins: This guy is not afraid of diving into the serious shit. It’s a first-hand account of the fighting and aftermath in Iraq and Afghanistan. Over and over you just can’t believe what you’re reading. More from A Year in Reading 2011 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions, The Millions on Twitter, Facebook, Tumblr.
Life by Keith Richards: Any Stones fan will enjoy this. The only problem is you have to get through the drug-filled later 70’s and 80’s, which are kind of a rock-n-roll fantasy drag. I wish there’d been a little more talk about the records and a little less of the drogas, but what are you gonna do. He really warms up by the end though, and even has a recipe for bangers and mash. Most of the history is stuff you’ve heard before, but it’s fun to hear it from Keith’s mouth. It’s most interesting to hear him talk about the other dudes…I guess he does love Mick like a brother--although they’ve had their differences--he adores Charlie, hates Bill, and had an antagonistic, but mutually respectful relationship with Brian. Mick Taylor is aloof, and Ronnie is a hard-core Stone. I’m so surprised that Mick wrote the "Brown Sugar" riff. Stoner by John Williams: My favorite book I read this year. He has a plain-Jane, perfectly mild style that is so satisfying. It’s like a great roasted chicken. It’s the life story of a guy named Stoner, who comes to work in the academic world, and is basically screwed over from all sides time and time again. Between his wife and the dean of students, he’s just not catching any breaks. There is less humor here than, say the Coen brothers' A Serious Man, but the matter-of-fact storytelling hooked me like a fish. I didn’t know a thing about John Williams beforehand, but after reading Stoner, I picked up Augustus (which I also recommend) and Butcher’s Crossing (which I haven’t yet read). A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah: The author was lost in the wars of Sierra Leone and picked up by roving packs of guerilla warriors. At something like the age of 13 he was given an AK-47 and enough drugs to numb himself to the massacres he then unleashed. His reintroduction to society is actually the most interesting part. God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything by Christopher Hitchens: Hitchens is an atheist who is basically making the claim that religion—and thus God--are man-made inventions that are more excuses for violence, repression, and intolerance than anything else. Science and reason are his new dogma. It is a very interesting read because he is articulate and funny, and he has many things to say about discrediting the foundations of the Bible, the Koran, and the Torah (among others). The histories of all religions are so jam-packed with violence and abuse, the point is hammered home a little too hard at times…and I’d be left wondering “what about the people who didn’t kill or molest anyone?” He’s a really brilliant guy though and even if I wasn’t necessarily convinced, I think it’s worth the read. More from a Year in Reading 2010 Don't miss: A Year in Reading 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 The good stuff: The Millions' Notable articles The motherlode: The Millions' Books and Reviews Like what you see? Learn about 5 insanely easy ways to Support The Millions
Lincoln by Gore Vidal: He does a great job keeping all the historical characters lively and interesting. Mary Todd Lincoln actually ends up the most entertaining. He also illustrates the complex relationship between many historical events (battles, elections) and Lincoln's surprisingly shaky political standing, and uncanny political prowess. Bullet Park by John Cheever: I've gotten really into his writing this year. I recommend Falconer too. He also has a lot of short stories about waspy-ness that can be funny. Anyhow, Bullet Park was a very quick, very entertaining read about a family with some very complicated dynamics. The second half takes some very unexpected turns, but it all works. As I Walked Out One Evening by W.H. Auden: A large collection of long and short poems from one of my all-time favorites. One Fat Englishman by Kingsley Amis: I just cannot get enough of Kingsley Amis. I can't say that the British humor I'd previously come across was ever my thing, but he's flat-out one of the funniest people going. The great thing is that there are so many books. Without actually knowing the guy, once you read a handful of them, you really get familiar with their common voice, and you can just go from one to the next. In my favorite ones, like One Fat Englishman and The Green Man, the main character is just such a prick in such a funny way, you just know Amis is really enjoying writing about himself. I'm actually looking at Everyday Drinking, which I keep on my bedside table. What is the What by Dave Eggers: Incredible story about one of Sudan's "Lost Boys" and his journey from his tiny village in southern Sudan to his home in Atlanta, Ga. His problems are not over when he hits the states. I've really come to like Eggers writing. I also recommend A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius... I really liked the part about Mr. T. The Art Student's War by Brad Leithauser: I'm about to start reading it. I'm sure it's top-notch! More from A Year in Reading
Hamilton Leithauser is the lead singer for the rock band The Walkmen. They released their fourth record You & Me this fall. He lives in Manhattan.A few books that I really enjoyed this year were:Roger's Version by John Updike. The novel follows a weathered, sour divinity professor (Roger) who surprises even himself with some over-compensating good will toward two youngsters who energetically barge in on his life. He gets in pretty deep, and even stomachs an affair between the young squirt (Dale) and his own wife. Roger's monotonous social life (cocktail parties, fantasizing about neighbors' happiness) is funny the whole time. This was a fantastic book.The Transparent Man by Anthony Hecht. It's so hard to write about why I like these poems. It's just incredible how much he can cover in so little space, and how effortless it all seems when everything has such a formal structure. I would also recommend his Flight Among the Tombs and The Venetian Vespers.American Pastoral by Philip Roth. I was surprised at how much I didn't like Roth's Portnoy's Complaint, but I figured I should give him another shot so I picked up American Pastoral and enjoyed it. The main action centers around a guy named Swede - a high school sports superhero who eventually married Miss New Jersey and ran a very successful glove manufacturing business in Newark. The first half of the book paints them as an entirely boring family, but after Swede's daughter sets off a bomb in a nearby convenience store things take a nasty turn for the family. The narrator then dissects the family's history to uncover what may not have been such a boring story.The Comedians by Graham Greene. Three men meet aboard a ship to Haiti. They're all traveling for different reasons and you definitely begin to wonder immediately who's telling the truth about anything. After they arrive, they're all assaulted by Papa Doc's corrupt and violent regime, and each man's character and intentions reveal themselves. This was one hell of a story. I loved it.More from A Year in Reading 2008