2015: A Year in Books

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

Haints Stay by Colin Winnette

The Invaders by Karolina Waclawiak

Green on Blue by Elliot Ackerman

The Third Reich by Roberto Bolaño

Books That Reaffirmed It

All This Life by Joshua Mohr

Oh! You Pretty Things by Shanna Mahin

The Miracle Girl by Andrew Roe

The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

Loving Day by Mat Johnson

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

Girl in a Band by Kim Gordon

Sunblind Almost Motorcrash by Daniel Mahoney

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

Black Hole: A Novel by Bucky Sinister

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

The Lottery, and Other Stories by Shirley Jackson

The State We’re In: Maine Stories by Anne Beattie

In a Dark, Dark Wood by Ruth Ware

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

Yesterday’s Echo (Rick Cahill #1) by Matt Coyle

Night Tremors (Rick Cahill #2) by Matt Coyle

Down Solo by Earl Javorsky

Gun Needle Spoon by Patrick O’Neil

Junkie Love by Joe Clifford

Junkie Love by Phil Schoenfelt

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

Bad Sex by Clancy Martin

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

What is Punk by Eric Morse and Anny Yi

The Unstrung Harp by Edward Gorey

The Strange Library by Haruki Murakami

Dorothy Iannone: You Who Read Me with Passion Now Must Forever Be My Friends by Lisa Pearson

The Baseball Player and the Walrus by Ben Loory

Books That Are Difficult to Classify

The Up-Down by Barry Gifford

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

Everything I Never Told You by Celeste Ng

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

Binary Stay by Sarah Gerard

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

Music for Wartime: Stories by Rebecca Makkai

American Innovations: Stories by Galchen Rivka

The Man Who Noticed Everything by Adrian Van Young

The Law of Evening: Stories by Mary Yukari Waters

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

Gutshot: Stories by Amelia Gray

Undermajordomo Minor by Patrick deWitt

The Department of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Cult of Loretta by Kevin Maloney

Dragonfish by Vu Tran

The Pledge by Friedrich Durrenmatt

Voices from Chernobyl: An Oral History of a Nuclear Disaster by Svetlana Alexievich

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.

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