It’s taken time and two f/t freelance gigs, but here we are: 2017 reads. All of these were published in 2017 and, if not, early 2018. One of those freelance gigs required reading fiction (mostly in translation) & non-fiction still to be released in 2018. Sounds like a dream job, but, sadly, most weren’t worth a complete read. Those will appear in a future roundup.
The Gene – Siddhartha Mukherjee
Mammoth must-read for science book fans. SM leans on his family’s mental health history for a frame, but his history of genetics is fascinating and conveys the clear understanding that the current state of the field, especially in medicine, surpasses a level of innovation not even approached by physics’ recent proof of the Higgs Boson.
A Long Way from Home – Peter Carey (going by UK pub date here)
In January, I’d been reading mostly godawful prose (even when accounting for translation) when I’d simply had enough and turned to this — although worried, in my hour of need, that Carey had dashed one off, like Theft. He hadn’t. Ranking this one with Parrot & Olivier in America or Kelly Gang, those historical fictions where Carey is at his odd, off-kilter, kitchen-sink prose best: you latch in after a few sentences and your mind never wanders. Easily one of his best.
(Side note: been a bit haunted, lately by that Gerald Murnane profile in NY Times which mentions Murnane has a file in a cabinet labeled “Peter Carey: Finally Exposed.”)
Vacationland – John Hodgman
Build them up with humor before you hit ’em with the melodrama, and you’ll have audiences eating out of your hand. Hodgman follows up his previous books, some of the funniest published in the 21st Century, with a still-funny but far more personal account of his move from NYC to Maine. A swift read, brief as memoirs (and yes, that’s what it is) should be, and as memorable as the word root of ‘memoirs’ should more often truly promise.
The Golden House – Salman Rushdie
Good god the writing’s delicious and funny, as expected, but I don’t give a hoot about fictional, affluent New Yorkers, and I sneak daily amid the real ones. Maybe Rushdie can pull a Daniel Day Lewis and go be a cobbler for a year. Or get a flip phone and ride the C train.
The Dark Dark – Samantha Hunt
Hunt is one of the best writers working in the US today, certainly more imaginative than those receiving more publicity, and more destined for the long haul on bookstore fiction shelves than most of those fashionably writing essay-influenced-nothing-happens-but-deep-thought fiction. The stories collected here can only be described as blurring together if you compare them for their oddness – the surreal is central to most. The prose is gorgeous. A woman turns into a deer.
American Kingpin: The Epic Hunt for the Criminal Mastermind Behind the Silk Road – Nick Bilton
If this isn’t already in film production as I write, I’d be surprised, although so much of it occurs online: the story of the Silk Road, the dark web Ebay for guns & drugs, built by a 26-year-old posing as the Dread Pirate Roberts, pulling down weekly millions; pursued by a DEA agent about as corrupt as they come; first caught by an ignored IRS agent who dug into old comments sections.
Transit – Rachel Cusk
Following the same formula as Outline, Cusk is enough of a writer to dispel the nature-documentary-voice I hear in similar WG Sebald-influenced plotless fiction like Catton, Lerner, and Yanigihara. Cusk has been at it longer than the latter three, though, so the insights and self-loathing are scaffolded by a troublesome neighbor situation that’s just enough to keep things moving if her insights don’t float your boat on their own (as they do, mine).
Borne – Jeff VanderMeer
After finishing and truly digging Annihilation upon original release, I haven’t been able to get past more than the first 100 pages of any subsequent VanderMeer novel, to my dismay, despite his wild and vividly surreal and imaginative premises. Borne is no different.
What You Did Not Tell – Mark Mazower
A quiet, sad, and deeply researched family memoir by master historian Mazower, most interesting for insights on how political activism – history itself, in some cases – can tear a family to shreds and possibly inspire offspring to avoid daring to disturb the universe altogether.
Underground Airlines – Ben H. Winters
As prose goes, the density here is thriller level, but Winters’s ‘The Last Policeman” trilogy should be proof enough he’s worth your time thematically. The speculative fiction-alternate history level is high, imagining the Civil War ended with the southern states retaining legal slavery on the states-rights level; plantations are modernized, and escaped slaves are recaptured via a Fugitive Slave Act employing ex-slaves implanted with brain tracking technology. Spoiler: that’s your narrator.
Lightning Men (Darktown #2)- Thomas Mullen
If Mullen isn’t the first to set police procedurals amid the first black (albeit segregated) police unit in late 1940s Atlanta, he’s done it best. Soon to be a (Netflix?) series and, if they screw up the screen version, it’ll be a miracle; they’re that good.
Berlin 1936 – Oliver Hilmes
Reviewers fall upon the word ‘kaleidoscopic’ when they can, and they’re excused here, with this propulsive and swift portrait of the public and secret world surrounding the Olympic games Hitler sought to use as an international stage bait and switch for his imperialistic and genocidal goals. It’s a great sports book, too, and should have been positioned as such, at least in part. Would love to see Hilmes turn to doing the same for the Sochi Olympics, which spookily parallel Berlin 1936.
Garden State Gangland – Scott M. Deitche
Wanted to love this, as I grew up deep in mafia NJ suburbia (How deep? A schoolmate’s father appears in the book, and not tangentially) but it felt rushed and cramped, maybe by editors, maybe because of the enormity of the subject itself. Atlantic City might require its own book. A noble effort, nonetheless, and often fascinating, especially the movements of the earliest Newark immigrant communities.
A Little Life – Hanya Yanigihara
Like Eleanor Catton’s Luminaries, the purposely essayistic prose made me feel like word processing was reading itself to me; like a nature documentary taking to NYC millennials, and taking too long to get where it was going, which, with documentaries, produces one thing: sleep. Although I don’t think this novel is the achievement reviewers proclaimed it to be, there were enough interesting passages and ideas in here to make me interested enough to keep an eye out for whatever she does next.
The Back of Beyond – Peter Stamm
A Swiss husband ghosts on his family by simply walking off his patio and into the summer Alps. If Ian McEwan wrote in German, he’d be Stamm. Unfortunately for Stamm, his English translator for this novel is also on the Booker jury, disqualifying him for a nomination; if that was known before the translation was assigned, a woeful mistake and serious disservice to a deserving author.
Exit West – Moshin Hamid
I can’t bring myself to decide if Hamid’s shift to magical realism, after a career without it (I think), was a narrative cop-out or a ‘daring move’ as the critics gushed. I think he’s good enough without it; Getting Rich was far more gripping.
Once Upon a Time in Shaolin – Cyrus Bozorgmehr
The insider-told story of Wu Tang Clan’s conceptualization, creation, and sale of an album-as-single-piece-of-art-project, complete with details on the drama surrounding its purchase by ‘pharma bro’ Martin Shkreli (in full portrait here) who, if he didn’t exist, Brett Easton Ellis would have made him up. I’m a lazy Wu Tang appreciator, more Tribe than Clan, and while Bozmorgis is a fan, he isn’t a superfan, lending a laudable tag of impartiality, which also makes the book deserving of wider appeal. Here’s to hoping the paperback (already?) includes an appendix about the album’s fate, following Shkreli’s fall, and possible release now that it’s in the hands of the feds.
Infinite Tuesday – Mike Nesmith
Sure, he was a Monkee/First National Band-er, and his mother invented Liquid Paper (aka Whiteout) whose story is fascinating on its own, but Nesmith’s story pre- and post-Monkees still grips, with his childhood as a Christian Scientist, his somewhat singled-handed invention of MTV (no, really), and his friendship with Douglas Adams. As far as rock and roll tidbits? Ho hum, hanging out and listening to Captain Beefheart’s Safe as Milk with John Lennon.
My Damage – Keith Morris
Morris’s memoir of his Black Flag/Circle Jerks/Off trajectory covers his complex relationship with his father, his substance use and health issues, and his fascinating course through the record industry as an AOR man in the 90s (aka the last breaths of the Major Labels). Most importantly, he smartly includes a literal history-taste of the late 70s/early 80s Southern California punk/hardcore scene. It’s amazing he remembers as much as he does, given his substance use, all along sticking to a winning insistence on admitting he might have something wrong, or simply admitting he forgot, which rallies you to his side during Greg Ginn’s arc from odd friend to enemy. PSA: Off is better than anything Ginn’s done since 1986.
Meet Me In the Bathroom – Lizzy Goodman
Way too long a read for an oral history, even for someone like me, who lived through the 1998-2006 era in NYC bars and clubs spinning most of the records discussed within 24 hours of their release. There’s plenty of juicy drama, especially in LCD-ville and Strokes City. Some of the more insightful voices (like the Rapture’s Luke Jenner or the YYY’s Karen O) cut through the majority chorus of dicks-then-still-dicks-now, possibly because Jenner and O seem to have become (or have remained) human, despite rock stardom, which should help them live satisfying lives in its declining wake.
Giant of the Senate (and his other books) – Al Franken
There’s no discussing these books outside of Franken’s current fall and, interestingly, they addressed the issue, pre-fall, in the context of comedic risks. His bruising election win against Norm Coleman included Coleman making hay of Franken’s SNL writer-room comments, as well as a satirical piece about robo-sex that Franken wrote for Playboy years before. Franken writes insightfully about not wanting to publicly apologize for his career, especially what was satire, but does so anyway. Nevertheless, in early 2017, it wasn’t surprising to see Franken mock-chest grabbing in a USO photo (I don’t think he was literally grabbing; anyone who’s ever used photoshop for more than five minutes will notice that the shadows around Franken’s arm and head are tool-drawn; ie, fake). If, at the point of that photo (’06?), he already knew he would run for senate, huge mistake, full grab or not. But there’s nothing in the books to warn of the more recent, off-camera gropes he was accused of soon after that photo went public in a total, organized political hit, however guilty. It’s a shame, given how Franken’s books so wonderfully, factually, and completely destroy the political stance of the right, especially the entire career of Bill O’Reilly, to whom, in comparison, Franken seems like Gloria Steinem when it comes to sexual harassment.
Based on a True Story – Norm MacDonald
An odd, hallucinatory memoir that plays with fact vs. fiction, but then you always knew it would, given MacDonald’s comedic style, a form of storytelling that uses impeccable comedic timing to upend narrative expectations with surreal turns even nested in a surreal premise. The seemingly factual reminiscences focus on his road career and his SNL days, with less focus on his short-lived sitcom and few movies (like the underrated Dirty Work). MacDonald’s a softie, too, and so there’s real feeling in here, if you decide to trust certain passages, although I suspect something may have been lost in the translation from the original Canadian.
Hold the Dark – William Giraldi
A moody, satisfying thriller with lit pretensions set in an Alaska that seems more accurate than photos of mountains and forest would have you believe. More exciting than the books, the makers of the excellent movies Green Room and Blue Ruin release a film version on Netflix this June 1.