2016: A Year in Books

Jim Ruland
Jan 1, 2017 · 10 min read
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Here comes 2017

It was a distracting year. It was a disappointing year. Franz Kafka wrote “Evil is whatever distracts.” By those standards, it was an evil year.

I can (and do) blame the election for making me more distractible than usual but there were other culprits, namely pro sports and excessive travel. I’m a bit too earnest about both but I get lots of writing done when I’m on the road, and both the L.A. Dodgers and the N.Y. Giants had good years.

I didn’t reach my Goodreads goal of 100 books. I fell way short at 77, which is 13 fewer books than I read in 2015. Only 31 of those books were written (or edited) by women (approx. 40%), and of the 28 books I reviewed this year only 12 were written (or edited) by women (approx. 42%). I strive for equity and this isn’t cutting it. I have to do better.

Assembling this list teaches me things about my reading and reviewing habits. I read a great deal more genre fiction this year. In fact, I created a new category for all of the horror I read in 2016. I also read a number of rock memoirs. Basically I have the reading habits of a teenager.

Between all the genre fiction and the books I listened to while driving or walking, I didn’t spend a whole lot of time with a big book in my hands that challenged my thinking. And if you’d asked me how many poetry collections I read in 2016 I would have guessed a dozen. I read five.

I read more short story collections this year and I reviewed nearly all of them, which I feel good about since it’s hard out there for short story writers. However, I amassed a small collection of art books and books by visual artists and read none of them. Why? I have no idea.

My disappointment mainly comes not from the books I read, but from the books I didn’t get to, namely books by friends and acquaintances in the lit community. My “to-be-read pile” is a metaphor. I have stacks of books by my desk, more on the big blue chair behind me, and still more double-parked on my bookshelves. My nightstand is a jenga game made out of books. I could stay locked up in my house for several years and not get to all the books waiting to be read.

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Nevertheless, I read some wonderful books this year. This is the year I fell in love with Clarice Lispector’s writing. I read her debut, bought a half-dozen more of her works, and started her massive Complete Stories. But I got bogged down with deadlines in the spring and haven’t returned to her since. That’s the kind of year it’s been: I find something that stirs my passion for literature and put it aside for what? Hundreds of thousands of words about the fucking election. I would have been better off if I’d spent that time watching rain dissolve into the ocean.

The great thing about literature, however, is that it’s timeless. Lispector is still waiting for me. So are David Mitchell, Terese Svoboda, Louis Armand and the Siegfried Sassoon biography I’ve been threatening to read for a decade. There’s always next year. It’s as true in literature as it in sport, unless you live in Philadelphia.

A few notes: If I reviewed the book in The Floating Library, the Los Angeles Times or elsewhere, I included the link. I also try to say something about every book I read on my Goodreads page. Here we go…

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Weird new worlds

Books That Made Me Questions the Worthiness of the Human Project

The Warren by Brian Evenson

All Involved by Ryan Gattis

The Fugitives by Christopher Sorrentino

Books That Reaffirmed It

Every Kind of Wanting by Gina Frangello

Eleven Hours by Pamela Erens

Near to the Wild Heart by Clarice Lispector

Roberto Bolaño: The Last Interview and Other Conversations with an introduction by Marcela Valdes

Casualties by Elizabeth Marro

Bolaño: A Biography in Conversations by Monica Maristain

I read two books by Brian Evenson this year and while they were hard to categorize in terms of how the narratives cohered to a particular genre, their impact was very strong. Kafkaesque is overused as an adjective but it applies to Evenson in that his characters have a tendency to get locked into a way of thinking that may or may not be in sync with their reality. When a writer can do that as well as Evenson does, it really doesn’t matter where the book gets shelved in the library or bookstore.

Books about Sailors

Phantom by Ted Bell (audio)

Books about Music & Musicians

Cured: The Tale of Two Imaginary Boys by Lol Tolhurst

The Prodigal Rogerson by J. Hunter Bennett

My Damage: The Story of a Punk Rock Survivor by Keith Morris (and yours truly)

The Hepatitis Bathtub and Other Stories by NOFX with Jeff Allulis

Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk by John Doe

The Spitboy Rule: Tales of Xicana in a Female Punk Band by Michelle Cruz Gonzales

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, the NOFX book is the gnarliest rock and roll memoir I’ve ever read. It’s hilarious, except when it’s horrifying, and it nearly moved me to tears. Seriously, forget what you think you know about the band or their music and check it out.

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Greco-Roman Stabbing

Books That Zapped Me into the Past

The Ballad of Black Tom by Victor LaValle

Books That Anticipate the Future

The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

Speak by Louisa Hall (audio)

Speak was astonishingly good. Cloud Atlas good. I didn’t care for the Dick, but I loved the cover of this Penguin edition by Cleon Peterson. One of the highlights of the year was receiving an artist’s proof of a Cleon Peterson and Shepard Fairey collaboration on my birthday.

Books I Read with My Ears

The Chase by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

The Big Sleep by Raymond Chandler

The Heist by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg

House of Secrets by Brad Meltzer and Tod Goldberg

Patriot by Ted Bell

Warriors by Ted Bell

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad

I almost created a new category this year: “Books Written by a Goldberg” and if I read four more books by Tod and Lee Goldberg in 2017 I will. I’m a huge fan of Lee’s Fox and O’Hare series with Janet Evanovich. The relationship between the two is every bit as fun as Elmore Leonard’s Out of Sight. And I loved Tod’s collaboration with Brad Meltzer in House of Secrets: a true adventure that kept me guessing until the end.

Books I Read for Research or Reviews

The Intern’s Handbook by Shane Kuhn

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Cutting edge poems

Books That Don’t Rhyme

Meat Heart by Melissa Broder

Witch Hunt by Juliet Escoria

The Big Smoke by Adrian Matejka

Bone Light by Orlando White

Our Obsidian Tongues by David Shook

Last year’s note read, “Read more poetry.” Apparently, I didn’t get the message. I read a lot of poetry, but I generally don’t read poetry collections the same way I read narrative so I’ve got quite a few laying around that I haven’t finished.

Books That Make Me Wanna Commit Some Crimes

The Approach by Chris Holm

Savages by Don Winslow

Go-Between by Lisa Brackmann

The Second Life of Nick Mason by Steve Hamilton

Cold Barrel Zero by Matthew Quirk

Lost Canyon by Nina Revoyr

Visitation Street by Ivy Pochoda

Perfect Days by Raphael Montes

I’ve got some top-shelf literary crime sitting on my shelf just waiting for me in 2017: Don Winslow’s The Cartel and Viet Thanh Nguyen’s The Sympathizer. After that it’s back to Bolaño.

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May all your houses be haunted

Books That Go Bump in the Night

Black Candies: Gross and Unlikable edited by Natanya Ann Pulley

Mongrels by Stephen Graham Jones

The Haunted Looking Glass edited by Edward Gorey

The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson

Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay

The Last Horror Novel in the History of the World by Brian Allen Carr

Really looking forward to reading Shadows in Summerland by Adrian Van Young, Paul Tremblay’s Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, and the States of Terror series, which I’m woefully behind on.

Books Bursting with Sex

Heartbreaker, Maryse Meijer

Books That Were Stranger than I Thought They’d Be

Atlantic Hotel by João Gilberto Noll

The Vegetarian by Kang Han

Mathias Buchinger: The Greatest German Living by Ricky Jay

New Jersey Me by Rich Ferguson

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My next 13 tattoos

Books with Pictures in Them

The One Marvelous Thing by Rikki Ducornet

The Unstrung Harp by Edward Gorey

The Incantations of Daniel Johnston by Scott McClanahan and Ricardo Cavolo

Scott McClanahan’s reimagining of Daniel Johnston’s life is absolutely mind-blowing. If you care about art more than is healthy, this book is for you. Unless it scares the piss out of you, in which case, sorry.

Books That Are Difficult to Classify

The Throwback Special by Chris Bachelder

Novi Sad by Jeff Jackson

Brightfellow by Rikki Ducornet

Antwerp by Roberto Bolaño

The Deep Zoo by Rikki Ducornet

The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit

I would empty my bank account to go see Rebecca Solnit and Rikki Ducornet in conversation.

Books With Short Stories in Them

Sing the Song by Meredith Alling

The Babysitter at Rest by Jen George

Transitory by Tobias Carroll

The Metaphysical Ukulele by Sean Carswell

The Other One by Sirisena Hasanthika

Cities I’ve Never Lived In by Sara Majka

Making Nice by Matt Sumell

Age of Blight by Kristine Ong Muslim

Knockout by John Jodzio

A Collapse of Horses by Brian Evenson

Men on the Moon: Collected Stories by Simon J. Ortiz

I loved every one of these brave beautiful books, but the story I keep coming back to is one I didn’t write about in a review. It appears in The Other One by Sirisena Hasanthika and is set in the world of cricket. A wonderful story about love, sport and discovering that things aren’t quite as out of reach as one might have thought.

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Into the rilly real

Books I Recommend without Reservation

The Mercy of the Tide by Keith Rosson

IRL by Tommy Pico

A Field Guide to Getting Lost by Rebecca Solnit (audio)

Faces in the Crowd by Luiselli Valeria (audio)

It’s weird that two of my favorite reading experiences of 2016 were listening experiences. I listened to both while walking in Los Angeles, which Solnit’s book is perfect for. It’s a book that makes you want to move around, see new things or look at the old things in a new way.

Faces in the Crowd bowled me over. It’s a small book but does so many things so well seemingly all at once. A few days after I finished it, I picked up the paperback and I’m looking forward to revisiting it soon.

It’s difficult for me to be objective about Tommy Pico’s IRL. When I was employed by the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, Tommy’s father was the chairman. That doesn’t give me any special insight into the book or its author, but Pico opens his heart in the pages of IRL and goes to places most contemporary writers are afraid to venture. Perhaps the most audacious book I read all year.

The Mercy of the Tide is a debut novel that Keith Rosson asked me to blurb last autumn. I’ll spare you the hyperbole and simply say I hope to write a book this good some day. Go read it.

Book That Had the Biggest Impact

Ways to Disappear by Idra Novey

Idra Novey’s genre-bending debut was my introduction to Clarice Lispector and she serves as a guiding spirit for the book’s narrative. It starts as a shaggy dog story about a translator who goes to Brazil on a whim to rescue her writer. With one foot in magic realism and another in noir, the book spins off into romance and experimental fiction. It’s a wonderful story, utterly unique, but it’s Lispector’s absent presence that makes it truly special.

And then there’s this: In an interview Novey posed the following question: “What writing is worth doing if it doesn’t involve risking a totally new kind of failure?” I’d gotten stuck on a project that I was slowly starting to believe was doomed. I wrote the quote on an index card and left it where I would see it every day. Novey’s question was the antidote to all of the poisonous doubts that were slithering around my mind, and I completed the first draft late in 2016.

At its heart Ways to Disappear is a story about someone who would do anything for a writer she loved. I may not read as many books as I hope to in my lifetime or write about them as well as I would like, but I would do anything for the authors of the books I truly love. And so would you.

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Pack your portmanteaus

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