My 2015 in Reading
I keep a marble notebook of all the books I read and assign them letter grades. This is a habit I’ve had since college. Literally no one has asked me to make this public, and it’s pretty self-aggrandizing to remind people that you are into reading “serious” books all of the time, but I also like discussing books, as a few people who know me in real life and on social media can attest to. The bulk of my reading is done on subways. Growing up — and still living in — the outer reaches of Brooklyn allows me ample, uninterrupted time with a good book.
I mostly read fiction when not consuming news for my day job. That’s where my passion for reading lies, and where I find the best prose. At the same time, I ended the year with a great nonfiction book, KL. I’ll have more to say on that.
Below, here are the 28 books I’ve finished this year with their letter grade and a brief explanation behind my grading*. I rarely gave straight A’s, but I also can’t recall in my life ever giving a book a failing grade. I try to self-select for enjoyment and edification.
*I interviewed the authors of the two of the books I read this year. I didn’t feel it was right to grade in these cases because I conducted the interviews for my job.
Preparation for the Next Life by Atticus Lish: (B+/A-) Lish is one of the better prose stylists writing today and this is definitely one of the very best novels, at the minimum, written about the borough of Queens. A melodramatic ending ruined it for me, but this unlikely love story of an Iraq War veteran and an ethnic Uighur from China wonderfully encapsulates our uncertain city and century.
The Pious Ones by Joseph Berger: (B-) Berger, a longtime reporter for the New York Times, provides a breezy, eye-opening history of the Hasidic Jews. I learned plenty, though I recall the book left me wanting. For those with many misconceptions about Hasidim (count me among those), this book is worth your time.
Eyes on City Hall: A Young Man’s Education in New York City Political Warfare by Evan Mandery: (B+) Despite my profession, I’ve read very few political books or campaign memoirs. Mandery, who was a top aide on Ruth Messinger’s doomed 1997 mayoral campaign, gives a riveting behind-the-scenes look of what it’s like to exist in the cauldron of New York City politics. The ’97 race was utterly forgettable — Rudy romped Ruth — but Mandery wonderfully exposes the foibles and hypocrisies of campaign operatives and political reporters alike. As a reporter covering campaigns, I realized how little I understood about what it’s like to live inside this 24/7 machine for months (or years) at a time.
The Secret History by Donna Tartt: (A) For me, this was a near perfect novel. Tartt’s debut, set at a Vermont college very similar to Bennington, her alma mater, traces the dissolution of a circle of friends after they decide to murder one of their own. Tartt’s descriptive powers are remarkable, and there are very few writers who can craft a better sentence. When I read a great book, it comes to define the slice of time I’ve read it in. I will always associate The Secret History with a brutal January in my old apartment, freezing like Richard Papen before Henry rescued him, all the while enchanted by Tartt.
The Hours by Michael Cunningham: (B-) This Pulitzer Prize-winner disappointed me. Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway, which this novel pays homage to, is one of my favorite books, and I understood what Cunningham was trying to do here in revisiting Woolf’s obsessions with transience, the movement of time, and our obsolescence. At the same time, the prose seemed wooden and the story flimsy. I haven’t seen the movie.
Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates: (A) Yates never got his due, though the movie based on this novel at least brought him a burst of posthumous recognition. Revolutionary Road is our monument to postwar ennui and suburban desolation, and a terrible reminder of how our best laid plans don’t (and usually can’t) come to fruition. Yates was Updike without the window dressing. He wrote a hell of a sentence too.
The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P by Adelle Waldman: (B-/C+) Not my cup of tea, but enough people talked about this book for me to read it. If you travel in certain Brooklyn social circles and know a genus of navel gazing young men, this book is for you. As a journalist and writer who mostly rubs elbows with the same schmucks he knew from college, along with a few new friends plucked from wherever, I couldn’t really relate. I never went in for the social novel so maybe it’s my fault. I could see what Waldman was trying to accomplish.
10:04 by Ben Lerner: (B+) This is another novel of the 21st century landed gentry of Brooklyn, but Lerner is a brainy writer and a serious poet who had me dazzled at times. It’s an unorthodox and difficult novel to summarize — a protagonist writer also named Ben “survives” Hurricane Irene, goes on a writer’s retreat, and visits the Met. Ben Lerner is like the rich man’s Tao Lin, or Tao Lin is the poor man’s Ben Lerner. Take your pick.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara: (B-/C+) Ho boy. This New York Review of Books takedown sums up my views well enough. A lugubrious, bloated novel that nevertheless had me tearing up at the very end, A Little Life became one of the most heralded books to come out this year, much to my amazement. Slice a few hundred pages off this story about a crew of four male friends including one, an attorney named Jude abused to almost comical proportions, and you’d have a pointed dive into human grief. Instead you get a cacophony of sad violins.
All Who Go Do Not Return by Shulem Deen: (B+) The memoir of a Hasidic Jew who breaks away from his or her sect to enter the secular world has become something of a cottage industry. Deen, who left the Skver (perhaps the most conservative of all the dynasties in the New York area), is unique because he is both a fluid and disarmingly honest writer. This is not a Disney tale — young man flees oppression, finds opportunity, all is eventually peachy. Deen is doing quite fine today, but he recounts his crisis of faith (from an unquestioning reverence of Hashem to athiesim) and the pain its causes him to be shunned from his wife and children.
Steelwork by Gilbert Sorrentino: (B+) Sorrentino was the bard of Bay Ridge, the neighborhood I grew up in, and a writer who never tired of tinkering with the English language. A dirty realist mixed with Joyce and Flann O’Brien, Sorrentino was much overlooked in his lifetime. My favorite Sorrentino is still Aberration of Starlight, but I devoured Steelwork, which is a good entry point for anyone who wants to read him. Like several other Sorrentino works, Steelwork is a collection of scenes and vignettes from 1930s to 1950s Brooklyn — like his grade school chum, Hubert Selby Jr., Sorrentino was a brilliant cataloger of urban misery, and Steelwork, with its mosaic of drunkards, disaffected vets, and sexually frustrated spouses is short on redemption for mankind.
V by Thomas Pynchon: (A) Let me begin by saying I read The Crying of Lot 49 twice, once as a curious undergraduate and later, because I had to, for a class on American literature. I also spent a winter in college reading Gravity’s Rainbow on my own. Lot never resonated with me and Gravity’s Rainbow deserves a reread, especially because little sticks with me beyond Wernher Von Braun’s epigraph, the word smegma (which Pynchon taught me), and sexual intercourse presaging a barrage of V-2’s. On a lark, I picked up V, Pynchon’s debut novel, at a Barnes & Noble and jumped in. I may have graded on a bit of a curve because Pynchon wrote this mindbender of a book in his early 20s, but the sheer inventiveness of his language — the hilarity, the miraculous ear this wizard from Long Island was blessed with — captivated me like little else. I can’t think of a succinct way of describing why I loved it so much, or what it’s even about. V is a bit like a miraculous, lucid dream that makes less sense in the waking world, but leaves you with a pinch of awe and wonder that all the jammed subway cars in the world can never erase.
Look Who’s Back by Timur Vermes: (C+) The premise is simple: Adolf Hitler awakens, completely alive for reasons we never find out, in 2011 Germany. People mistake him for a Borat-like character actor — no, no he’s the real thing! — and wackiness ensues. Written in German and translated this year, Look Who’s Back was a sensation in Germany, and understandably so. The problem, though, is that this book is basically a work of slapstick comedy (adequate comedy, to be fair) with a premise that wears thin because Vermes doesn’t really do the hard work growing the story beyond its Chaplinesque frame. Vermes’ Hitler, befuddled that Jews, asocials, and leftists have not been wiped off the face of the Earth (there’s even a female president!), comes off as far too harebrained and harmless to be the real thing.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides: (A-) Why do the Lisbon girls all kill themselves? Why do these nameless kids care? Eugenides’ debut, the only novel of his I’ve read, is daring — taking on suicide in the first person plural — and plenty funny, despite the dark undercurrent. Eugenides, who was taught by Sorrentino at Stanford, is a nimble stylist (a hunky teen’s nipples are “like two pink cherries embedded in brown sugar”) with a sharp eye for detail.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel: (B) A soft-sci fi page-turner, there’s little for me to either extol or knock about this book. A plague quickly kills almost everyone on Earth, and we pick up a few decades later, with the remnants of humanity performing Shakespeare to keep the culture alive. The post-Apocalypse isn’t quite as savage as it probably should be, as pointed out here, and the threads are tied together too neatly. At the same time, this was one of those books that compelled me to read it nonstop, so Mandel deserves credit for knowing how to keep a reader hooked.
You Too Can Have a Body Like Mine by Alexandra Kleeman: (B-) A galley copy of Kleeman’s much anticipated debut novel was lying around the New York Observer’s offices this summer, so I happily took it home with me. Let me say that Kleeman is clearly a talented writer with a bright future. On body image and the absurdity of consumerism, she can be mordantly funny. But the novel, which to me seemed like too much of a thinly-sketched allegory, never roped me in, and I found myself counting pages until I was done.
Operation Shylock by Philip Roth: (B-) As a Jewish son of a man who adores Roth more than any other writer, I long played the contrarian and avoided him. Then I read Portnoy’s Complaint and understood why my father always said this guy could’ve been a great stand-up comedian. The best Roth, for me, was Sabbath’s Theater, along with The Counterlife, which are two of the great American novels. But Shylock, another Dad Barkan favorite, was a tremendous letdown. The novel amounts to little more than a series of overheated monologues and Roth’s metafictive mirror games, inventive in the Counterlife, feel gratuitous and tiresome here. I didn’t care about either Philip Roth (fictional characters in Shylock) or the other characters who are simply stand-ins for Roth’s geopolitical talking points.
The Zone of Interest by Martin Amis: (A) This 2014 novel was a return to form for Amis, and the rare Holocaust fiction that never descended into kitsch. A love story among Nazis stationed in Auschwitz, the book can be darkly funny, even if this capital of the Holocaust, famously referred to as anus mundi or the “anus of the world” by a Nazi physician, represented the nadir of humanity. Amis is a surgical writer, and renders this world of inverted morality and endless death in haunting detail. The bare chapters told from the perspective of a Sonderkommando, a Jew forced to empty corpses from the gas chambers, are chilling.
Vigilance: My Life Serving America and Protecting Its Empire City by Ray Kelly: No grade. I interviewed Kelly here.
Street Smart: The Rise of Cities and the Fall of Cars by “Gridlock” Sam Schwartz: No grade. I interviewed Schwartz here.
Book of Numbers by Joshua Cohen: (B+/A-) Cohen is an enormously talented writer, as many critics have noted already. Book of Numbers is his best offering yet, and maybe the best novel to wrestle with the Internet and what it’s done to our language, let alone social interactions and information consumption. Cohen is funny in the vein of Roth, and there’s plenty to suggest this novel is what would have happened if Pynchon and Roth sat down in some hidden cabin to co-write a book. As Dwight Garner pointed out, Cohen can misfire, and the extended section about a tech billionaire also named Joshua Cohen drags because the character drowns in abstraction — and never quite seems alive.
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? by Philip K. Dick: (B) I’m a fan of Jonathan Lethem, who worshiped Dick, and I’ve always had an interest in science fiction, though I’ve barely read any sci-fi beyond Ray Bradbury, whose Martian Chronicles haunted me in middle school. I finally decided to read a Dick novel, starting at random here. Set in a post-apocalyptic Earth where most people have fled for Mars, leaving behind a diseased world of people unfit for space travel and bounty hunters chasing illegal androids, the novel is a good introduction to Dick, though I imagine it’s not one of his best. It’s a little campy, though as machines move ever closer to replicating what humans can do, the eerie androids of that world become more resonant.
Eileen by Ottessa Moshfegh: (B) Moshfegh, a Paris Review regular, writes a mean, tight sentence, and there isn’t a superfluous word or phrase in this nimble novel about an angry young woman trying to escape her 1960s Massachusetts town. I recommend Moshfegh for her prose, though the ending of this novel felt like an editor had yelled into her ear to make it exciting or something and she complied. Sometimes, anti-climax is best.
The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick: (B+/A-) I was amused reporting on the controversy the advertising campaign for the Amazon miniseries based on this fine novel generated because I had just completed the book, which seems to me to be several grades above the show (I have only seen one episode.) Set in an alternate 1962 where the Axis Powers have won World War II — Germany occupies the East Coast, Japan the West, with a neutral zone around the Rockies — the novel is not as action-packed as you would think, and this is for the best. We see here, even in an occupied San Francisco, that life goes on, even under a totalitarian regime. Evil here is more mundane, and arguably more sinister. The Nazis, having conquered the world and now exploring Mars, are set on eliminating their old ally, Japan. A twist in the novel comes when (spoiler alert) Germany decides to end their Cold War by dropping atomic bombs on Japan. In the real world, of course, the Nazis weren’t the nation to do that.
Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates: (B+) There isn’t much I can say here that hasn’t been said already about Coates and his award-winning book. I will simply offer my belief, explained well by Michelle Alexander, that Coates’ work is unfinished. We know of the degradations of slavery, Jim Crow, and institutional racism that grips America to this day, and how an entire race of people suffer in a world stained with this legacy, and how — thanks to Coates — crippling this can be for African-Americans. What I was hoping to find from Coates was more of a vision, a honed Weltanschauung pointing the way forward.
Purity by Jonathan Franzen: (B) I am not a Franzen hater. I’ve seen him several times in person and he’s a surprisingly funny, self-effacing guy who has a real dry wit that gets lost in all the online fulminating about the latest “controversial” thing he’s said. He supports and promotes women writers — he just rightly thinks Jennifer Weiner isn’t very good — and his critiques of social media are not off base. I thought Freedom was a great novel and I want to give The Corrections another go because I read it in the depths of an economic downturn, when I just could’t relate to the hijinks of the riding high 90s. That all being said, Purity is a page-turner that, for me at least, was his weakest offering in a while. I felt the strains of Franzen trying to be too contemporary — here’s his take on WikiLeaks and Facebook; here’s a hero’s eye view of journalism — and the characters, including his Assange stand-in, are just not people you want to spend extended time with.
City on Fire by Garth Risk Hallberg: (B/B-) This is a book I wanted to like a lot. When novels get real press attention, I get excited, and when someone writes an immense novel of 1970s New York, an era (along with 1960s New York) I am fascinated by, I get more excited. And Hallberg received a whopping $2 million advance, which rather than stirring envy in my aspiring writer’s bones, just got me more excited. This had to be good. Well…it was a nice stab. Clocking in at 900 or so pages, City on Fire is Dickensenian at its core, and a little naive. We see how interconnected seemingly disparate lives are, with the wannabe novelist and trust fund baby punk rocker and evil mogul and Patti Smith acolyte and murderous anarchists all neatly weaved together with the aplomb of an HBO miniseries, which the novel seems destined to become (movie rights were sold already). Hallberg gets points for his chops and painstaking, and mostly accurate, recreation of 1976–1977 New York City, as well as his ability to drive a narrative. City on Fire has been compared to The Bonfire of the Vanities and Hallberg, it’s safe to say, is a better builder of sentences than Tom Wolfe. But — and this is big one — it’s not a better book. Like David Mitchell, Hallberg is an innate conjurer of make believe worlds that feel real, even at their most alien. And like Mitchell, you find yourself asking what this all really amounts to. What’s the point? A book nearly a thousand pages long can still leaving you wanting.
KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann: (A-) As I read this book over vacation last week, I had to remind those who glanced at the cover that this was not a history of the Holocaust. As Wachsmann, a European history professor at Birkbeck College in London, ably taught me, the concentration camps long predated the Final Solution. The concentration camp, known in German as Konzentrationslager and abbreviated as KL, took on myriad forms and evolved in unpredictable ways. At its peak in the years following the invasion of Poland, the KL system held more than 700,000 prisoners in more than 500 camps, from the most infamous, Auschwitz, to the satellite camps lost to history, like Dora, a hellhole dug into the mountains where slave laborers toiled underground on the V-2 rockets delusional Nazis believed could turn the tide of the war. But, as Waschsmann argues, none of this was preordained. The first camps sprung up in 1933, shortly after Adolf Hitler rose to power, and were initially set up in haphazard fashion to punish political opponents. This meant that socialists and communists — as much as Jews — were the targets of Nazi wrath, as well as so-called asocials and gays. One of the great lessons of Wachsmann’s meticulous and riveting account is that the KL system did not unfurl in a straight line: there were expansions, contractions, an ebb and flow in terror. Before the outbreak of World War II, deaths in camps were relatively rare. Remarkably, there was a moment in the Third Reich, around the mid 1930s, when it appeared the camps would disappear altogether, as some in the Nazi regime argued a draconian criminal justice system and a totalitarian state were enough to keep order, considering how the left-wing was so quickly snuffed out. In this book, Hitler is more a peripheral figure, a God of death who leaves the slaughter to his apocalyptic henchmen. The heinous villains here are equally familiar — Heinrich Himmler, the architect of the KL system and leader of the SS — and forgotten in popular accounts, like the charismatic Theodore Eicke, the godfather of Dachau, and Oswald Pohl, the SS number-cruncher who vied with Eicke for scalps. We never truly understand what drove the Nazi mania for slaughter, other than extreme paranoia and a belief that Jews, along with other undesirables, had undermined the World War I war effort and therefore needed to be exterminated for the Third Reich to thrive. Their fanaticism, to the outsider, is both revolting and paradoxical: how could Himmler believe that his KL system of slave laborers could meaningfully contribute to the war economy when they were being beaten and starved in the most miserable, diseased-ridden environs fathomable? Why would IG Farben, one of several corporations who gladly exploited free KL labor, believe these emaciated, broken people could produce rubber and synthetic fuel to power an Axis victory? There are many horrific factoids I walked away with: Zyklon B was first used on Soviet POW’s, not Jews, and Auschwitz was originally set up to smash the Poles before evolving into a Jewish factory of death. Some camps were for slave labor and others were hardly camps at all: they were pure slaughterhouses with no survivors, not even for pointless toil. Nazi gas, gallows, and bullets killed uncountable numbers of prisoners, but so did Typhus, overcrowding, and hunger. Gypsies suffered as much as any victim class, and this is mostly forgotten, and there was a clear victim hierarchy in the camps, with most of the coveted Kapo positions going to veteran political prisoners and Germans. The Nazis saw Jews as one repugnant mass, though in actuality, there was a staggering diversity, from athiests like Primo Levi to the Orthodox who took comfort in God, even as they were led to the gas chambers. Nationality typically meant as much for solidarity as faith, if not much more. Surviving the camps boiled down mostly to luck. If you were forced into manual labor, carrying rocks in a quarry, you were probably going to die. A desk job — assisting a Nazi physician in mutilating a victim — or a role in the production of armaments, and your chances improved. Not knowing German was a death sentence. But so was almost anything, with SS soldiers as accustomed to killing as blowing farts. In the end, there was only more chaos and misery, as Allied invasions from the east and west forced camps to rapidly close in 1944 and 1945, and others to double or triple in size as masses of near dead — many of them living corpses nicknamed Musselmanner — piled in after weeks of suffering in fetid railway cars or marching, through murderous winter, on foot. After finishing KL, there probably isn’t any need to read anything else about the camps, because it’s all here in 600 or so pages plus a few hundred in footnotes. However, as Wachsmann shows, our understanding of the past is always in flux, and it’s possible there’s still more to learn about this dark chapter of human history.