Way back in January – another life ago, it seems – I wrote that I’d hoped to read 30 books by year’s end. As it turns out, I made it to 35 – and I’m working on 36 at the moment. I gotta say – my new commute makes reading a hell of a lot more convenient, but it also helps when you’re really enjoying what you’re reading. I’d like to say I could make it to 40 next year (which would be neat, given that I’ll also be 40 years old), but one never knows how these things go.
Still and all, here’s what I read in 2015, in something approximating chronological order:
The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber A-
Technically I started this in late December, but the book is long. I found it rather beautiful, but also quite heartbreaking.
The Martian, Andy Weir B-
I still haven’t seen the movie, and my initial impulse was to leave it that way, since I found the book rather dry, overly technical, and surprisingly devoid of tension given the circumstances. But hey, people seem to love the movie, so maybe it’s worth checking out.
The Egyptologist, Arthur Phillips A
One of the best books that I read this year – at once funny, mysterious, and moving, and featuring one of the most dark, twisted and unexpected endings I’ve ever come across. The less said, the better.
Your Face Tomorrow (trilogy), Javier Marias B+ (combined)
I’d wanted to read these for a long time, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that Kindle versions were made available; I promptly devoured them, or at least attempted to devour them – as interesting as they are, they can be slow and tedious at times, and his endless sentences, while deliberately stylistic, can be exhausting. Of all the books I’ve read this year, these probably got under my skin the most – even if, during the reading, I found them slow-moving. Still, when I put up my Favorite Sentences post, a great many excerpts will appear from this series; even though the people and places of the book couldn’t be further removed from my own experience, there were whole sections that felt ripped out of my own life (for better and/or worse).
Silver Screen Fiend, Patton Oswalt B+
Patton is a tremendous writer – his best stand-up routines succeed in large part because of his ability to pick the perfect words – and I found this memoir of his early stand-up years to be rather affecting. That said, it didn’t get nearly as dark as he kept insisting it would, and the last third of the book is simply a list of all the movies he watched during the relevant time frame, without providing any additional insight beyond the specific few he talks about in the book proper.
Yes Please, Amy Poehler B+
I’ve been a Poehler fan for, what, nearly 20 years now, back when the UCB was a cancelled Comedy Central series and a free weekly improv show instead of the all-powerful comedian factory of today. I was going to enjoy this no matter what. I think certain sections are a little phoned in – her Parks & Rec chapter might as well be a multiple-choice quiz – but other sections are deeply powerful and resonant.
Orfeo, Richard Powers B
As with games, I keep a spreadsheet of the books I read; it helps tremendously for posts like this, but also just to better remind myself of what I read and what I was thinking about at the time. My comment this year’s spreadsheet, alongside this entry, simply says “remarkable prose, & remarkable grasp of the act of listening, but what did I actually read?” I suppose I expected more of a plot that was advertised as some sort of hybrid between a technological thriller and a study of avant-garde classical music of the 20th Century.
I Am Pilgrim, Terry Hayes B
One thing I need to do for these spreadsheets going forward is to figure out why I bought certain books; I have no memory of buying this (or the next two books on this list, for that matter), or what might have made me get it. It’s a solid thriller, very much the sort of thing you’d buy at an airport, and I seem to recall enjoying it because it wasn’t trying to be something that it wasn’t; it’s an espionage thriller and that’s all it wanted to be, and to that end it’s a fun read.
Submergence, J.M. Ledgard C
My spreadsheet comment: “Beautiful writing, but what is the point of this book?” Even now I have trouble remembering what happened here.
Skinner, Charlie Huston B-
“Fast-moving technobabble”, I wrote, though in retrospect I do seem to recall liking this more than the B- I gave it at the time.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell A
I’d bought this when it first came out, but was reluctant to start it given that I’m not really a big fan of historical fiction, especially during a time and place that I know literally nothing about. But I’m glad I finally got around to it, because it’s beautiful and absorbing and has one of the best and most satisfying endings I’ve ever read. I wrote a little more about it here.
The Disaster Artist, Greg Sistero and Tom Bissell B-
I’m a “fan” of the “movie”, and I’m also a huge fan of Tom Bissell, and so this seemed like a slam dunk – an insider’s account of not only being a part of one of the most legendarily terrible movies ever made, but as a close confidant of Tommy Wiseau, the film’s star, writer, director, bankroller, and all-around weirdo. Alas, it’s not as illuminating as one would hope; Wiseau remains as opaque as ever, and the behind-the-scenes stuff mostly ends up being depressing.
VALIS, The Divine Invasion, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, Philip K. Dick —?
I’m not sure how it happened, but I realized I’d never read any PKD before. I’ve seen a bunch of film adaptations, and one of my favorite books from the last few years is The Cardboard Universe (which is a fake encyclopedia about the fictitious Phoebus K. Dank), but I’d never gotten around to the genuine article. A good friend gave me a copy of Timothy Archer a few years back, and then Amazon apparently had some sort of PKD bonanza because I bought, like, a whole bunch of his stuff on the cheap. To that end, I decided – for some reason – to start with the Valis trilogy. Maybe not the best choice? It’s paranoid and angry and feverishly written – although I suppose it’s a better place to start than the Exegesis, which I must admit I did not finish, or even really start.) In 2016 I’m gonna try to read …Palmer Eldritch and Ubik, which I also picked up in that Amazon sale. (And if you have other recommendations, I’m all ears.)
The Song is You, Arthur Phillips B-
As noted above, I loved the hell out of The Egyptologist and felt compelled to check out Phillips’ back catalog, and when I read this book’s synopsis – an unrequited love story told through music – I felt like this book was literally made for me (especially as I was trying to write lyrics about the same subject matter). I suppose my expectations were too high, then, because I didn’t enjoy this nearly as much as I’d hoped – even if the writing is still excellent. There’s some unintentionally creepy bits to the story, and there’s also some very unnecessary and distracting side-plots that add the wrong sort of tension. I will get around to the rest of his stuff next year.
The Three-Body Problem, Cixin Liu B+
Having never read Chinese science fiction before, I didn’t really know what to expect from this highly acclaimed first volume of an award-winning trilogy. The prose is a bit dry – and it’s hard to tell if that’s the translation or just the source material – but it’s certainly very fascinating, and it’s quite a treat to read a familiar genre from a radically different socio-economic perspective. I learned a lot about Chinese history, too, which helped flesh out Susan Barker’s The Incarnations (which I’ll get to shortly).
The Rabbit Back Literature Society, Pasi Jaaskelainen C+
So one of my projects this year was to tackle my ever-increasing backlog, which is the sort of thing that happens when you own a Kindle and have poor impulse control; you buy stuff and then forget you have it, because you can’t physically see it. I don’t remember buying this, or why I might’ve bought it, but I felt obliged to read it for some reason; I don’t remember reading it. My Google notes say: “a ghost story with no ghost and very little story.” And yet I gave it a C+, so I guess it had something appealing in its atmosphere.
Going Clear…, Lawrence Wright A
This had already been on my to-do list even before the HBO documentary came out; the documentary was stunning, and the book is even more exhaustive in its story-telling. It’s riveting, meticulously researched, objective, and scary as hell.
Seveneves, Neal Stephenson A-
I’d worried a bit about Neal, frankly. His previous book, Reamde, was rather dull and disappointing – I recall hearing that he’d intended it to be the sort of thriller you’d pick up at an airport, but it was still dreary and unexciting – and his recent foray into videogame development ended on a sad note. I might’ve been hedging my bets heading into this one, but I came out feeling like he’s on top of his game yet again. It’s hard (and occasionally dry) sci-fi, but it’s also truly thought provoking and interesting, and the meticulous attention to detail in the first two thirds of the book results in a final third that is simply breathtaking.
The Ghost Network, Catie Disabato B-
This book had a bit of hype surrounding it, as well as an intriguing set up – a Lady Gaga-esque singer suddenly goes missing, and the quest to find her reveals a whole bunch of secret-society-ish stuff within a hidden underground train system – and as such this ought to have been in my wheelhouse. It’s an entertaining enough read but it doesn’t quite go anywhere, although the ending is pleasingly enigmatic.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz A
So glad I finally got around to this one. It’s magnificently written; Diaz is enormously talented and the prose nearly leaps off the page. Enthralling and intoxicating.
The Gone-Away World, Nick Harkaway A
And here began my obsession with Nick Harkaway; if I hadn’t read this book, I probably would’ve continued on my Arthur Phillips spree. A good friend had raved about him for years and I finally gave it a go, and I’m really glad I started here, because this one is the best of the bunch. Without question, the most fun I’ve had with a book in years; my Year In Sentences post could easily have been twice as long if I’d elected to quote everything I’d highlighted.
Angelmaker / Edie Investigates!, Nick Harkaway B, B-
Angelmaker is another fun romp, though reading it immediately on the heels of Gone-Away World probably did it a disservice; Edie Investigates is a very short side-story with one of Angelmaker’s characters which I finished in about 30 minutes. It’s fun, but didn’t feel necessary.
The Shining Girls, Lauren Beukes B
A fabulously intriguing premise (surviving victim hunts her time-travelling serial killer), not quite as well executed as I’d like.
My Struggle part 1, Karl Ove Knausgard B+
I’m not sure if I’m going to get around to the other volumes – there’s only so much navel-gazing I can take, and I already take quite a bit, and it’s not quite the earth-shatteringly brilliant thing I’d been expecting. But as far as memoirs go, it’s absorbing and his descriptive abilities are really quite stunning; I remember this book visually more than anything else.
A Head Full of Ghosts, Paul Tremblay B
A creepy little ghost story with a dark and horrific twist of a tableau at the end; it had been brought to my attention as something that a fan of Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves might enjoy, and that’s certainly true, though the book’s structure might get in its own way a little bit.
Tigerman, Nick Harkaway B+
As with Angelmaker, it’s fun and well-written and with a gut-punch of character reveal and a heartbreaking ending; also as with Angelmaker, it’s not quite as magical as Gone-Away World.
The Rook, Daniel O’Malley B-
As with most of the B-minuses on this list, The Rook is a really interesting premise (an amnesiac soon discovers she has supernatural abilities and is part of a secret organization that battles other supernatural monsters and such), which isn’t quite well-executed as it could be. I might stick around for the inevitable sequels, though; the world is pretty neat.
The Incarnations, Susan Barker B+
A Chinese taxi driver receives a series of anonymous letters documenting his previous lives and how they intersected with the letter-writer. It’s a bit more heavy and dark than I expected it to be – which is not a knock on it at all, I just wasn’t prepared for how fucked up it is, emotionally speaking. As noted in the entry for The Three-Body Problem, there’s a lot about China’s history that is also pretty fucked up. (I’m also learning a bit more about it at the present moment, as I’m reading David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten, which talks a bit more about 20th Century Chinese history and how deeply, deeply fucked up it was.)
Gilliamesque: A Pre-Posthumous Memoir, Terry Gilliam B-
Entertaining but also a bit scatterbrained – much like his films. Not nearly as detailed as I’d have liked it to be – for instance, I might’ve blinked and missed the part where he joined Monty Python.
Slade House, David Mitchell A-
This is a short novella, which I believe may have started as a Twitter experiment before turning into a rather haunting series of interconnected stories. Hard to say if it’s necessary to have read The Bone Clocks before starting this one, but I can’t imagine anyone reading this who hasn’t read Bone Clocks, so take that as you will. If nothing else, this also inspired me to start reading Mitchell’s complete works, in chronological order, because it’s become apparent that every single one of his books is connected to the other. And considering that almost all of his books contain interconnected stories inside of themselves, I feel compelled to see just how far the rabbit hole goes. (As noted above, I’m already 3 or 4 stories into Ghostwritten, and I’ve already seen brief glimpses of characters I know.)
City on Fire, Garth Risk Hallberg A-
THE GREAT AMERICAN NOVEL, screamed the advance hype, in addition to the gigantic advance the author received and the subsequent bidding war over the film rights. I’m happy to say that it does live up to the hype; this is a 900+ pager that never feels self-indulgent or overly clever. It’s vivid and memorable and extraordinarily well-paced (which I believe I’ve mentioned here several times over, but it’s worth mentioning again if only because making a 900+ page book move quickly is a rather impressive feat). Maybe it doesn’t quite stick the landing as well as it could, but I can’t hold that against it too much; the book itself is a wonder.