This year I read more books than any other year before it by a wide margin: 46 by men, 44 by women and one multi-gender collaboration. 91 books. In terms of gender equity it’s an improvement over last year. I added one new category this year: Books I Read with My Ears, to account for all of the audio books I listened to this year on my drives back and forth between San Diego and L.A. Lastly, please keep in mind that this isn’t a ranking but a record of my reading. If I reviewed the book in my column, The Floating Library, or in the Los Angeles Times, I included the link. I try to say something about every book I read on my Goodreads page, so check it out. Ready? Here we go…
Books That Made Me Question the Worthiness of the Human Project
Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman
The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño
Books That Reaffirmed It
All This Life by Joshua Mohr
Out of Dublin by Ethel Rohan
I’m drawn to dark fiction, but I didn’t read as much of it as in recent years, and some of the darker books were surprisingly so, like Karolina Waclawiak’s The Invaders or Colin Winnette’s Haints Stay, which is ferociously dark. Many books were a blend of darkness and light, none more so than Joshua Mohr’s All This Life: a story both familiar and strange, shocking and sad. Mohr skillfully weaves the narratives of broken lives together in a way that doesn’t quite make them whole but offers hope for an end to the all-consuming emptiness.
Books About Sailors
This Must Be the Place by Sean H. Doyle
Hungry Darkness by Gabino Iglesias
I shouldn’t talk too much about This Must Be the Place since I blurbed it but there’s two things you should know: 1) it’s a book that I didn’t realize needed to exist in the world and now that it does it feels like it’s always existed and 2) my mom didn’t like it.
Books About Music & Musicians
Live at the Masque: Nightmare in Punk Alley by Brendan Mullen
Punk Elegies: True Tales of Death Trip Kids, Wrongful Sex and Trial by Angel Dust by Allan MacDonell
Violence Girl: East L.A. Rage to Hollywood Stage, a Chicana Punk Story by Alice Bag
I could read about L.A. punk all day, every day (and after spending a ton of time working on a book about L.A. punk this year it kind of feels like I have). If you want to read a book about music written in a way that’s never been written about before, check out Daniel Mahoney’s Sunblind Almost Motorcrash. Kim Gordon’s Girl in a Band got all the attention that should have gone to Alice Bag’s Violence Girl, a book that tells it like is, warts and all. Allan MacDonell’s Punk Elegies was a revelation: this is what happens when you write about the version of yourself who provided you with some of your best/worst memories through a lens of scorn. Fucking brilliant.
Books That Zapped Me Into the Past
Closely Observed Trains by Hrabel Bohumil
I have no idea why I read so little historical fiction this year.
Books That Anticipate the Future
The Immune System by Nathan Larson
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Bucky Sinister is a national treasure. I’ve done two interviews in my life that made me realize the person I was talking to is really fucking smart. The first is Jello Biafra. The second, Nathan Larson.
Books I Read with My Ears
Ablutions, Notes for Novel by Patrick deWitt
Revenge: Eleven Dark Tales by Yoko Ogawa
The Beautiful Bureaucrat by Helen Phillips
For the most part, I preferred listening to books that I’ve already read. Listening to Patrick deWitt’s Ablutions made me realize how much that book informed Pemberton, from my novel Forest of Fortune. The other, Revenge, made me realize how much I love Yoko Ogawa. As for Speak, I need to read this book again and this time I mean really read. It just might be this decade’s Cloud Atlas.
Books I Read for Research
Too Fat to Fish by Artie Lange
Crash & Burn by Artie Lange
The Survivor (Mitch Rapp #14) Vince Flynn & Miles
Books That Don’t Rhyme
I Have to Go Back to 1994 and Kill a Girl: Poems by Karyna McGlynn
The Mystery of the Hidden Driveway by Jennifer L. Knox
the meatgirl whatever by Kristen Hatch
a/O by Laura Bylenok
Note to self: read more poetry.
Books That Make Me Wanna Commit Some Crimes
Follow Her Home by Steph Cha
Dead Soon Enough by Steph Cha
Night Tremors (Rick Cahill #2) by Matt Coyle
Gun Needle Spoon by Patrick O’Neil
Lots of doubles. Two books by Steph Cha, two by Matt Coyle and two books by different authors with the same title. Weird.
Books Bursting with Sex
The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink
The Ravishing of Los Stein by Marguerite Duras
I Swiped Right (And Other Naughty Tales) by Damen Alexis
The Juliette Society by Sasha Grey
Mandy, Charlie and Mary-Jane: A Novel by Steward Home
I also read Sasha Grey’s novel for research (but not that kind of research).
Books That Were Stranger Than I Thought They’d Be
By the Bog of Cats by Marina Carr
The Paper Man by Gallagher Lawson
The Shepherd’s Journals by Drew Andrews
Playdate by Mark Katzman
Eileen by Otessa Moshfegh
Geek Love by Katherine Dunn
Geek Love is one of those books that I’ve been carrying around with me for decades. My late aunt gave it to me after I graduated from college in the early ’90s, even though she passed away not long afterwards, I was reluctant to read it for reasons I can’t explain. My aunt was very clever but she could be cruel, too, and I didn’t know quite what to expect from the book. She acquired it at a sale at her local library in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, and the book is stained and worn by people who thumbed its pages over 20 years ago. I knew Geek Love was strange — it’s about a family of freaks in a traveling circus — but I wasn’t prepared for how delightfully, wickedly perverse this little monster of a book is.
Books with Beautiful/Ugly Pictures in Them
The Baseball Player and the Walrus by Ben Loory
Books That Are Difficult to Classify
Ongoingness: The End of a Diary by Sarah Manguso
The Guest Cat by Hiraide Takashi
Pity the Animal by Chelsea Hodson
Legs Get Led Astray by Chloe Caldwell
The Argonauts by Maggie Nelson
Billie the Bull by xTx
Hollywood Notebook by Wendy C. Ortiz
Reconsolidation: Or it’s the ghosts who will answer you by Janice Lee
The Story of My Teeth by Valeria Luiselli
Valeria Luiselli’s second book of fiction may have been the most surprising book I read all year. Ostensibly, it’s about an auctioneer named Gustavo “Highway” Sanchez with an incredible gift for persuasion and can sell absolutely anything, including his teeth. Luiselli’s Highway enters the great tradition of unreliable narrators in a book that is itself unreliable. With each chapter my sense of what I was reading changed and kept changing all the way through the end. If The Story of My Teeth were a movie, the trailer would ruin it, so the less said about the book’s mechanics the better, but it can safely be said that with this wildly inventive tale Valeria Luiselli has achieved something that no novelist has done before, which in itself is an achievement. Beautifully illustrated and laid out in lavish style, The Story of My Teeth is a feast for the imagination.
Books With Short Stories in Them
The Man Who Noticed Everything by Adrian Van Young
The Let Go by Jerry Gabriel
Vertigo by Joanna Walsh
Inside Madeleine by Paula Bomer
Requiems for the Departed by Gerard Brennan
Tables without Chairs by Brian Alan Ellis and Bud Smith
Books I Recommend Without Reservation
Down & Delirious in Mexico City: The Aztec Metropolis in the Twenty-First Century by Daniel Hernandez
Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt
The Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill
Cult of Loretta by Kevin Maloney
The Pledge by Friedrich Durrenmatt
Friedrich Dürrenmatt’s The Pledge was published in Switzerland in 1958 but has had a lasting impact. The story concerns an obsessed police detective who is assigned a case — the murder of a young girl — shortly before he is set to retire and finds he cannot let it go. This scenario can be found in hundreds of crime stories, each more reductive than the next, but there is something about Dürrenmatt’s story that sets it head and shoulders above the rest, and he seemed to know it, too. (Its subtitle is Requiem for the Detective Novel.) Sean Penn adapted it for his directorial debut and it was a huge influence on True Detective (Season 1). (We won’t talk about Season 2. Ever.)
Book That Had the Biggest Impact
Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J Ryan Stradal (2015)
To be perfectly honest with you, I didn’t think I was going to like this book. I’m familiar with the author and his work and know him to be a sharp, funny, and genuinely likable person, but I didn’t think Kitchens of the Great Midwest was for me. The book tells the story of a remarkable chef’s rise to fame told through the point-of-view of several different characters that interact with the chef at various stages in her life. I didn’t have a problem with the structure; it was the words “Kitchen” and “Midwest,” that I struggled with. It might as well have been called Sappy and Sentimental as far as I was concerned. The book has recipes in it for crying out loud — a strong indicator that his book simply wasn’t for me. I couldn’t have been more wrong. I loved this book. It reminded me of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad in its power to make me feel a wide range of emotions. It’s funny, it’s sad, and it’s very, very smart. What it is not is sappy or sentimental. That for me was the biggest takeaway: that an artist can mine the most nostalgic material of his youth and transform it into high art. I did cry reading Kitchens of the Great Midwest — while reading a fucking menu. I don’t know how he did it, but J Ryan Stradal can set his next novel in a nursery or nursing home or a farm with talking animals and I will read it.