A Year in Books: 2017
This year I read 83 books: 40 by men, 40 by women and three co-authored by men and women. A fell short of my goal of 100 books but who gives a shit?
I read on boats. I read on airplanes. I read ebooks on my phone while riding in hired cars and I listened to audio books while driving between San Diego and Los Angeles. Books are machines. I’m not too particular about the hardware.
This year I read fewer books by musicians and more collections of poetry, which is as it should be (though I expect that will change in 2018). I read hardly any historical fiction but a lot of post-apocalyptic scenarios. (Gee, I can’t fathom why…) The books I was most excited about weren’t written in 2017. When I look back on the reading I did this year I will remember it as the year I discovered Kevin Barry and Elizabeth Hand.
I have a soft spot for Irish writers but it seems as though every year I read fewer books by them. This year I reversed that trend. I’ve had Kevin Barry’s The City of Bohane on my shelf since it was published and for some reason I thought it was a quaint book about life in a fictional Irish village in the west of Ireland. It is that, but it’s also a bloodthirsty dystopian horror that’s like Elric of Melnibone meets Gangs of New York. I owe it to John Leary, curator of Casa de los Perros, for setting me straight. Since then I’ve read two other books by the great Kevin Barry, but more on him in a bit.
I picked up a copy of Hard Light by Elizabeth Hand after reading Steph Cha’s review in the Los Angeles Times. The next time I saw her she chastised me for not reading Hand sooner as Hard Light’s protagonist, Cass Neary, is a kelptomaniac punk rock photographer with a drug problem. Hard Light, however, is the third book in the Cass Neary series and it picks up immediately after Available Dark. So I ordered Generation Loss and was absolutely blown away by the prose. Since then I’ve read all three Cass Neary novels, a short story collection, and a novella by Hand. I also penned a fan letter and did something I never thought I’d do…
So here are the books. If there’s a link it will take you to a review I wrote for my column The Floating Library in San Diego CityBeat, which runs every two weeks. There are a couple of reviews that appeared in the Los Angeles Times mixed in with the rest. Enjoy. Or don’t. It’s the end of 2017. No one cares.
Books That Made Me Questions the Worthiness of the Human Project
The Sarah Book by Scott McClanahan
Coyote by Colin Winnette
It was a terrible year for the United States of America and the people subject to its laws, but any year with a new Scott McClanahan book is a good year.
Books That Reaffirmed It
That Hidden Road: A Memoir by Rocco Versaci
I’ve read all of Joshua Mohr’s books and Sirens is Mohr at its best: heartfelt, humorous and deeply weird. The only thing better than reading Jade Chang’s The Wangs Vs. the World was getting to see her read from it. If 2017 was as hopeful and hilarious as her debut, we’d all be singing a different tune right now.
Books about Sailors
Fourteen: A Daughter’s Memoir of Adventure, Sailing and Survival by Leslie Johansen Back
I love a good nautical adventure and both of these books deliver though they are occasionally harrowing. You’ve been warned.
Books about Music & Musicians
The Evolution of a Cro-Magnon by John Joseph
Spoke: Anecdotes and Images from the Film Salad Days: A Decade of Punk in Washington D.C. 1980–1990 by Scott Crawford
I read a lot more books by musicians when I was collaborating on one. While I’m at not at liberty to discuss what may or may not be coming down the pike in 2018, I’m currently seeking recommendations for your favorite music memoirs.
Books by Goldbergs
The Job by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg
The Scam by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg
The Pursuit by Janet Evanovich and Lee Goldberg
Gangsterland by Tod Goldberg
Gangster Nation by Tod Goldberg
What can I say? I love me some Goldberg. Lee’s series with Evanovich is everything you want from a pop thriller: smart, funny, a frenetic pace and characters you care about. As for Tod, if you haven’t experienced Sal Cupertine, you need to change that immediately. But don’t listen to me. I grew up in the suburbs of Washington D.C. and never saw Minor Threat. I’m comfortable with me regret.
Books That Zapped Me into the Past
We’ll Always Have Paris by Jennifer Coburn
From the Glittering World: A Navajo Story by Irvin Morris
Why so few books about the past? Maybe it had something to do with the roller coaster of hell that Trump and the RNC put us through in 2017. Just a guess...
Books That Anticipate the Future
A Scanner Darkly by Philip K. Dick
California Bones by Greg Van Eekhout
Void Star by Zachary Mason
Amatka by Karin Tidbeck
Philip K. Dick is one of those writers who are more fun to think and talk about than to actually read. Bloodchild was my first time reading Butler and I can’t wait to read one of her novels. (Where should I start?) We read sci-fi to escape but The Wanderers was so vividly realized, at the end I’d learned a great deal about the stakes of space flight and I know I’m definitely not astronaut material.
Books I Read for Research
Swerve by Vicki Pettersson
Damaged by Lisa Scottoline
Books That Don’t Rhyme
The Yellow House by Chiwan Choi
Nature Poem by Tommy Pico
Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankin
Taken together this might be my favorite category of 2017. Nothing but five star reads.
Books That Make Me Wanna Commit Some Crimes
Queenpin by Megan Abbot
City of Bohane by Kevin Barry
The Ghosts of Galway by Ken Bruen
Available Dark by Elizabeth Hand
Hard Light by Elizabeth Hand
The Neon Lights Are Veins by Nolan Knight
Another stellar line-up. Abbott, Barry and Hand are all prose stylists of the highest order. As for originality, Nolan Knight took me somewhere completely new and unexpected and I hope to read more from him in the future.
Books That Go Bump in the Night
Haunt by Laura Lee Bahr
Meddling Kids by Edgar Cantero
Wylding Hall by Elizabeth Hand
Là-Bas may be the strangest book I read all year, but not for the reasons I expected. It contains what many regard as the best account of a black mass ever written. That proved not to be true. Or at least it wasn’t helpful for my purposes, but it was a charming book all the same. Vampira was fascinating and I learned quite a bit while reading about the strange saga of Marla Nurmi, with whom I once shared a ride to a movie premiere.
Books Bursting with Sex
Cake Time by Siel Ju
Trysting by Emmanuelle Pagano
Siel’s novel in stories Cake Time takes the reader through a number of erotic situations and puts her characters through the meat grinder. Riveting tales of lust gone awry that anticipate the viral sensation “Cat Person.”
Books That Were Stranger than I Thought They’d Be
Down Below by Leonora Carrington
Fish in Exile by Vi Khi Noa
A Working Woman by Elvira Navarro
If I could go back in time I would hang out in Mexico with Leonora Carrington and Remedios Varo and drink too much coffee and listen to their astonishing tales. I suppose I would need to speak Spanish. Dammit…
Books with Pictures in Them
The Unstrung Harp by Edward Gorey, which I reread every year
Rick and Morty, Vol. 1 by Zac Gorman
The Coldest City by Anthony Johnston
Snow White: A Graphic Novel by Matt Phelan
Imagine Wanting Only This by Kristin Radtke
Tree of Life: Turkish Home Cooking for the American Table by Joy Stocke and Angie Brenner
Looking at this list I see all the utterly memserizing art books I didn’t finish by Raymond Petition, Edward Cover, Charles Glaubitz, etc. Any list that doesn’t acknowledge regret is a lie.
Books That Are Difficult to Classify
The Red Parts: Autobiography of a Trial by Maggie Nelson
Alphabet of Love Serial by Lou Rowan
Dust Bunny City by Bud Smith
Occupy Pynchon may be the most important book I read this year. Nelson’s blend of family history and memoir in The Red Parts was essential to the development of a project I’ve been working on for a few years. Dust Bunny City is impossible to classify because Bud Smith is a genre unto himself, a skilled and slippery writer who eludes easy cateogrization. For example, he works heavy construction, but the label blue collar doesn’t stick nor is it even part of the conversation. Dust Bunny City has stories, poems, illustrations by Rae Buleri, and every line feels like the truth.
Books With Short Stories in Them
Dark Lies the Island: Stories by Kevin Barry
Saul Stories by Elizabeth Ellen
The Cuban Club by Barry Gifford
Homesick for Another World by Otessa Moshfegh
Spent Saints & Other Stories by Brian Jabas Smith
Dog Years by Melissa Yancy
Whoa I read a lot of story collections in 2017. I guess trying (and failing) to sell a short story collection will have that effect. I liked most of these collections a great deal, some more than others, and with collections they each have their shining star, a story that stands out more clearly in my memories. Aside from Barry Gifford’s The Cuban Club, which I blurbed, the collection I keep coming back to, the one that’s taken up permanent residence under my skin is June Caldwell’s Room Little Darker. It feels so personal, so specific, that reading feels like voyeurism. Caldwell goes to some very dark places. Like Vantablack dark. I wish I could put a copy of this book in your hot little hands and watch you squirm while you read it.
Books I Recommend without Reservation
300 Arguments: Essays by Sarah Manguso
I loved all three of these books and what’s remarkable about them is they’re all rule breakers, every single one. Kevin Barry’s counterfactual imagining of John Lennon in Ireland breaks the fourth wall and includes 2/3 of the way through the book the author’s account of researching the book. Fiona Maazel’s A Little More Human is bonkers from start to finish with multiple points of view, none of them reliable. And Sarah Manguso’s “essays” are like aphorism but are too specific to be even that. The lessons here, for me, are that when I’m alone at my desk or sitting in bed with my laptop and a bottle of Nyquil and a box of tissues, like I am now, to write whatever the fuck I want to write, compromise nothing, and never put limitations on my own imgination. That’s someone else’s job.
Book That Had the Biggest Impact
Generation Loss by Elizabeth Hand
I think the reason I am sick right now is because of the grueling schedule I kept the last two months to finish the rough draft of a new novel before the end of the year. I’m a morning writer but for this project I stayed up late. I’d fall asleep in my chair at my desk, wake up, and keep going until 2am. Maybe I didn’t get enough sleep. Maybe I didn’t drink enough water or get enough exercise or read enough books, but whatever. I finished. I wrote the first draft of a detective novel, yes, a detective novel. No one asked me to write this book. The world, in all likelihood, doesn’t want this book. It’s a fucking detective novel. Do we really need another one?
Well thanks to me there’s now one more in the universe and the book that planted the seed is Elizabeth Hand’s Generation Loss. When Hand wrote Generation Loss, she didn’t know she was writing a series, just like when I read Generation Loss, I didn’t know it was going to inspire me to start one. Generation Loss is a smart story full of sharp dialog and lush descriptions. It’s not hardboiled, but its protagonist is. (That either makes sense or it doesn’t.) When I finished, I ordered the second book in the series, and when I finished that one I saved book three for the perfect occasion: a trip to Mexico where I had no obligations. Then, when I finished Hard Light, I was devastated that there wasn’t more to read.
That’s when I wrote Elizabeth Hand to thank her for bringing Cass Neary into the world and inquire if there would be more. For Cass Neary fans I’m happy to report there will be a book #4. (For more information about the breadth and depth of Hand’s genius, you really ought to read this stellar profile by Adrian Van Young.)
I don’t believe in superlatives when it comes to books because the best books are the one’s that speak to you, the parts you keep secret from the rest of the world, as well as the parts you keep secret from yourself. The best books are those that inspire and when they have something to say to you, you listen. You listen carefully and you listen well. You listen as if your life depends on it.
I hope your 2018 is full of inspiring reading.