Why “15” and not the more customary unit of “10”? Simply a number born out of random. Of the total 65 books read in the year, that is how many grabbed us by the lapels (or other places), or tickled our fancy (or other places).
In no particular order of preference, and accompanied by a few lines of commentary for each, they are as follows:
1) Netherland – Joseph O’Neill (Novel)
Aside from winning many prestigious awards, it also won a high profile accolade from President Obama in Newsweek.
Set in a current day New York, and dealing with the complexity of love and life in general—“with echoes of The Great Gatsby,” (as one critic noted)—it was a “must read” for us. And it lived up to the hype.
2) It took us forty years to get around to reading Slaughterhouse Five – Kurt Vonnegaut (Novel).
We were not in the mood for “war books” in 1969. But here is Vonnegaut at his thought-provoking-alternative-reality best. It sent us to renting the movie, which we also had never seen, and which in following the book so closely, was also great.
3) Against Happiness – Eric G. Wilson (Psychology)
The premise: “Depression and melancholia—in limited degrees—are not only good for you, but artistic and genius and creative types all seem to be plagued with it.”
Amen. Finally! Now if we could only get rid of those smiling face stickers, once and for all.
4) A Freewheelin’ Time: A Memoir of Greenwich Village in the Sixties – Suze Rotolo (Memoir)
Suze was the girlfriend of Bob Dylan and appears with him, on that iconic cover from Dylan’s great album Freewheelin’.
While it offers insights into a Dylan emerging as a superstar, more importantly, it is a memoir of a very special time and place—the 60's in the village— as seen through the eyes of a girl coming of age.
5) Endpoint and other Poems – John Updike (Poetry)
Finished just before Updike died, it is a series of smaller poems that together make for a narrative of his life. As they are written right to the very end—the last coming just a month before his passing— it is like watching a guy recording his dying in real time. Though it deals with other themes as well.
We loved in particular this stanza from a poem Tucson Birthday 2004, in which he puts down the sun in much the same way we did in our poem, The California Sun.
And yet, the illusion lingers, light is good
as sent down by the sun, that nearby star
that flattens like a fist, and burns to kill.
As we’ve said on many occasions, the sun is way overrated.
6) On the Couch – Lorraine Bracco (Memoir)
Because we had loved her on The Sopranos (welcome to the club), we were given this book as a gift. Hollywood memoirs are not our usual cup of tea, but we found this one to be extremely well written. What we especially loved, is that she had a lot more to say regarding real life issues rather than the fake life issues of “celebrity-hood.” (Though we perversely enjoyed reading that Harvey Keitel is really an asshole).
7) Anne Frank: The Book, The Life, The Afterlife – Francine Prose (Non- fiction)
The premise here? That Anne Frank’s diary should be appreciated as literature in its own right. And that Anne did a couple of re-writes of the journal with the idea of having it published— she was an aspiring professional writer.
This flies in the face of the misconceptions, that Anne suddenly became enamored with writing upon receiving a journal as a gift while in confinement. And that serendipitously, out popped a classic. And at that, only because she died.
Further, Ms. Prose believes that the Anne Frank story has been “Americanized,” tempered, so that she is universal and almost incidentally, a Jew. And that the story has been made glossy for popular consumption, as personified by the 1959 Hollywood movie version of the play, The Diary of Anne Frank.
8) Me and Orson Welles – Robert Kaplow (Novel)
We virtually inhaled this fable-like, coming-of-age story, in one sitting. That it was the first adult novel written by a middle-age high school teacher, only adds to the improbability of it all.
Youth! Theater! Falling in love! What’s not to like? In the movie adaptation, unknown British actor — Christian McKay — gives a fabulous performance as the enfant terrible, Orson Welles, circa 1938, before Citizen Kane.
9) Poetry As Insurgent Art – Lawrence Ferlinghetti (Non-fiction)
A small book with big ideas on the art of poetry and that of life. Some lines that caused us to pause…
Make common words uncommon
See the rose through world-colored glasses
Climb the Statue of Liberty
Poetry is private solitude made public.
Poetry is the light at the end of the tunnel and the darkness within.
And our favorite, so ironic coming as it does from such a hall-of-fame hipster…
Don’t be so open minded that your brains fall out
That’s something our uncle Willie, a hall-of-fame bus driver, would have said.
10) Wishful Drinking – Carrie Fisher (Memoir)
She can write. And her humor hits you unexpectedly, producing some out loud laughs. Not many writers can make us do that. And yes, of course, there is the de rigueur depression and substance abuse issues of the celebrity memoir. But this is no “woe-is-me” lament. Rather, it is more of a “woe is Hollywood” assessment, which made it all the more appealing to us.
She is currently closing out a one woman show on Broadway based on this book, which has also gotten great reviews.
11) The Reason For God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism – Timothy Keller (Non-fiction)
Still another in what we have come to call: “The God Book Wars.” This whole genre at some point merits its own analysis. For every Richard Dawkins, there is a Timothy Keller, opening up avenues for discussion on whether God exists or not, and the questions that must be asked in arriving at some semblance of an answer.
Written by a charismatic pastor of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in Manhattan, the book obviously comes from a place of a fervent belief. But also, it is one of the more intelligent and compelling works we have read on what drives Christianity.
12) The Anthologist — Nicholson Baker (Novel)
After a few recent stumbles, Baker is back on his game. And when he is, there is no writer of more entertaining hair-splitting precision.
The protagonist here, is a poet suffering writer’s block. Not the stuff of great epics and sagas we realize, but a funny off-beat book that even a James Michner reader can like.
This blurb from the back of the book taken from The New York Times Book Review is so spot on:
Baker has made an astonishing specialty of showing, just how much is going on in life and in our heads, when it seems that nothing is. As with any good card trick, to see it once is to want to see it again immediately.
13) George, Being George — edited by Nelson W. Aldrich Jr. (Memoir)
This might best be called an “oral biography” as it is a compilation of remembrances taken from interviews with over 200 hundred people; those who knew George Plimpton to varying degrees, and at various stages throughout his life.
Perhaps you have to be a Plimpton fan, as we are, to fully appreciate this type of memoir. And having once met him at small lunch group of advertising people, we found him to be humorously self-depreciating and accessible, which only added to his charm. We remember especially his commiserating with us on how hard it is to get a poem published in The New Yorker.
14) Nothing To Be Frightened Of — Julian Barnes (Memoir)
Leave it to a Brit to find the droll side to aging and facing up to dying. And he looks at it from the both sides of the coin: atheist and believer.
Then in quoting a guy named Jules Renard, he offers a line that might have come from the mouth of Woody Allen:
Mine has been a happy life, tinged with despair.
And finally, a reflection, that must resonate with so many of us of a certain age:
And so it is with our lives; one damn thing after another — a gutter replaced, a washing machine fixed — rather than a story.
We have now come to understand, why separating items from the “regular garbage,” so as to properly place them in the assigned blue recycling bin, depresses us so much.
15) Miracle Ball: My Hunt for the Shot Heard Round the World — Brian Biegel (Memoir)
We suppose you really have to be a baseball fan when all is said and done, to fully appreciate this book. But it was so good we had to include it.
It deals with one man’s quest to find out what happened to the ball that Bobby Thomson hit for a home run (“the shot heard round the world”) to give the New York Giants the 1951 pennant. For the non-baseball fan, that ball is baseball’s Holy Grail.
An underlying theme of the book deals with a son making a father proud. If you loved the movie Field of Dreams you will love this book.