2018 Booklist

My ten favorite books I read in 2018; interestingly, only one of them is fiction.

10. Gary Shteyngart, “Lake Success”
Shteyngart’s fourth novel is his best since his first, The Russian Debutante’s Handbook; if it feels like the product of an entirely different world, it is. Using the 2016 election as a timeline, he crafts (what is eventually) a redemption tale graced by his trademark satire and self-deprecating humor.

9. Sloane Crosley, “Look Alive Out There”
As much as I liked The Clasp, her stab at a novel, Crosley is first and foremost one of the best humorous essayists this side of the writer who wrote my favorite book of the year (see below). Detailing such hyperspecific concerns as an obnoxious teenaged neighbor or her porn star uncle, her perspective always remains both relatable and uniquely her own.

8. Parker Posey, “You’re On An Airplane”
Exactly the type of quirky and scattered memoir you’d expect and hope iconic actress Posey to write—like spending an afternoon with her in her Manhattan apartment, she’s your guide and confidante, occasionally irritating but so genuine and insightful you’ll follow her wherever she takes you.

7. Nell Scovell, “Just the Funny Parts”
Veteran TV writer Scovell’s book is part memoir, part industry tell-all and part manual for aspirants; it’s also a frank, funny read along a career path where Scovell points out how her profession has changed and all the regrettable ways in which it hasn’t, without seeming bitter or, on the other hand, sentimental.

6. Jon Ronson, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”
Starts out as Schadenfreude: The Book!, develops into something far more unsettling and labyrinthine. Years from now, we’ll probably see a ton of tomes on the psychology and consequences of the golden age of social media and cyberbullying, and they’ll owe a debt to Ronson’s in-the-thick-of-it examination, published almost four years ago already.

5. Tamara Shopsin, “Arbitrary Stupid Goal”
Retaining the short paragraph/stream-of-consciousness structure of her earlier memoir Mumbai New York Scranton, Shopsin centers on her beloved father Kenny, an irascible, magnificent chef whose namesake restaurant was a Greenwich Village institution for decades; I read this six months before his passing, and in retrospect, it’s an elegy fit for a genuine New Yorker.

4. Michael Powell, “A Life In Movies”
Long out-of-print, I finally procured a copy of this British filmmaker’s first memoir, which covers his life until 1948 when he made his greatest hit, The Red Shoes. For someone who lived through so many cultural changes, partially defining them with his enviable run of 1940s classics co-directed with Emeric Pressburger, his conversational style and amiable wit are always welcome.

3. Hanif Abdurraqib, “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us”
Maybe the most original music critic I’ve read in years—often from his home base in Columbus, Ohio, Abdurraqib defies categorization, an omnivore writing passionately and eloquently on Future and Nina Simone, but also Fall Out Boy and Carly Rae Jepsen. Using both a Marvin Gaye tale and a trip to Ferguson, Missouri as framing devices, he cements his status as a chronicler of the here and now.

2. Joe Hagan, “Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine”
Perhaps this is really Schadenfreude: The Book, only with the comeuppance forever hanging in the air like a dangling, loosened noose. Those who already despise boomer narcissism will only feel further incensed by this portrait of Wenner, whom Hagan early on accurately describes as the Trump of the Left; still, his often jaw-dropping exploits make for such blisteringly funny copy that if you’re at all a fan of late 20thCentury pop culture, you will be no less than entertained.

1. David Sedaris, “Calypso”
When a writer so initially focused on his own obscurity and shortcomings like Sedaris becomes so immensely popular, it threatens to derail the very essence of his humor and sensibility (you can parse it in the books immediately following Me Talk Pretty One Day). Fortunately, his latest suggests he’s grown into this new skin by, of all things, challenging the notion of what readers want from his essays. That’s a roundabout way of saying Calypso is darker and more melancholy than anything he’s previously done, with the suicide of his youngest sister and his 92-year-old father’s mortality both primary threads running through the entire set. Rest assured, he’s still funny and sharp and acutely observational, but with a newfound depth suggesting his best work may be yet to come.

Also, even though it didn’t make my top ten, I have to mention Infinite Jest, which I spent a little over three months slowly combing my way through. To say I loved or hated it doesn’t seem like enough—at the end, I felt as if I endured it more than anything. It is like nothing else I’ve read, for sure, and I’m glad I consumed it, footnotes and all. Be forewarned, though: it requires patience, determination and openness.

Here’s my complete 2018 Booklist, with titles in chronological order of when I finished reading them (starred entries are books I’ve re-read–only four this year!):

  1. Joe Hagan, “Sticky Fingers: The Life and Times of Jann Wenner and Rolling Stone Magazine”
  2. Tom Spanbauer, “Faraway Places”*
  3. Steve Toltz, “Quicksand”
  4. James Mackay (ed.), “Derek Jarman Super 8”
  5. Jenny Lawson, “Furiously Happy”
  6. Julia Phillips, “You’ll Never Eat Lunch In This Town Again”
  7. Patty Yumi, “Sorry To Disrupt The Peace”
  8. Tamara Shopsin, “Arbitrary Stupid Goal”
  9. Tom Perrotta, “Mrs. Fletcher”
  10. Douglas Coupland, “Bit Rot”
  11. Joy Press, “Stealing The Show”
  12. Jon Ronson, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed”
  13. Dale Peck, “The Law of Enclosures”*
  14. Penny Marshall, “My Mother Was Nuts”
  15. Jomny Sun, “Everyone’s An Aliebn When You’re An Aliebn Too”
  16. Sam Wasson, “Improv Nation”
  17. Hanif Abdurraqib, “They Can’t Kill Us Until They Kill Us”
  18. Samantha Irby, “Meaty”
  19. David Foster Wallace, “Infinite Jest”
  20. Steven Hyden, “Twilight of the Gods”
  21. David Sedaris, “Calypso”
  22. Jennifer Egan, “Manhattan Beach”
  23. Charles Taylor, “Opening Wednesday at a Theater or Drive-In Near You”
  24. Ruth Reichl, “My Kitchen Year: 136 Recipes That Saved My Life”
  25. Chuck Klosterman, “Chuck Klosterman X”
  26. Jim Meehan, “Meehan’s Bartender Manual”
  27. Margaret Atwood, “Alias Grace”
  28. Chuck Eddy, “Terminated For Reasons of Taste”
  29. Caitlin Moran, “How To Be Famous”
  30. Geoff Dyer, “White Sands”
  31. Richard Brautigan, “The Abortion: An Historical Romance 1966”
  32. Tig Notaro, “I’m Just A Person”
  33. Nell Scovell, “Just the Funny Parts”
  34. Parker Posey, “You’re On An Airplane”
  35. Dale Peck, “Night Soil”
  36. Kurt Vonnegut, “Wampeters, Foma and Granfalloons”*
  37. Rob Sheffield, “On Bowie”
  38. Ezra Furman, “Transformer (33 1/3 series)”
  39. Kevin Allison (ed.), “Risk!”
  40. A.M. Homes, “Things You Should Know”
  41. Gary Shteyngart, “Lake Success”
  42. Richard Russo, “The Destiny Thief”
  43. Karl Ove Knausgard, “My Struggle, Book Five”
  44. Celeste Ng, “Everything I Never Told You”
  45. Sloane Crosley, “Look Alive Out There”
  46. Amy Gentry, “Boys For Pele (33 1/3 series)”
  47. Michael Powell, “A Life In Movies”
  48. Tim Kreider, “I Wrote This Book Because I Love You”
  49. Jean Shepherd, “In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash”*
  50. John Darnielle, “Universal Harvester”

2017 Booklist

In the past, I’ve singled out my ten favorite reads of the year, either in alphabetical order by author, or in the order I finished reading them. This year, I’m actually ranking them by preference.

10 – David Sedaris, Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002
You’d expect selections from a personal essayist’s diaries to be worth reading and Sedaris doesn’t disappoint—particularly from the mid-80s on, as he attends the Art Institute of Chicago and develops his true voice as an observer of exceptionally absurd conversations, many of them overheard at his local IHOP.

9 – Samantha Irby, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life
I’ve rarely laughed so ravenously as I have at Irby’s oft-raunchy but bracingly real writing, whether she’s cataloging a love/hate relationship with a rescue-cat named Helen Keller, or constructing a play-by-play account of a suburban Chicago wedding.

8 – Jason Zinoman, Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night
If it feels a little too concise for a biography of so iconic a humorist of his time, note that Zinoman’s less interested in the enigma that is Letterman’s personality and more on the man’s contributions to television and comedy and how he completely reshaped and forever altered both.

7 – George Saunders, Lincoln In The Bardo
A searing, ambitious novel with so many intricate moving parts, I’m sure I missed a few along the way. Still, what matters most is the shimmering whole, which utilizes the tragic death of Abraham Lincoln’s young son as stage for a phantasmagoric chorus teetering between our world and the beyond. Looking forward to eventually hearing the audiobook of this.

6 – Francine Prose, Mister Monkey
Prose’s best novel in over a decade transforms an unlikely premise—a kiddie musical, performed off-off-off-Broadway unto perpetuity—into a multi-faceted circular narrative that depicts worlds within worlds while remaining within a tight, ordered frame. It’s almost Waiting For Guffman crossed with Pulp Fiction.

5 – John Hodgman, Vacationland
Having found Hodgman’s previous books of deliberately fake “facts” much easier to admire than love, it was delightful to discover what talent he has for memoir, not to mention a knack for detailing the peculiarities of Western Massachusetts and coastal Maine, particularly in relation to his own encroaching middle age.

4 – Michael Ausiello, Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies
Longtime TV industry journalist Ausiello’s account of losing his husband to cancer is wrenching, for sure—and also remarkably candid in how it depicts the ins and outs of a loving, long-term relationship. It’s also self-deprecating and often funny as hell, without at all obscuring the real hell life occasionally throws at you.

3 – Nathan Hill, The Nix
This epic, John Irving-esque debut novel surfaced on a lot of best-of lists in 2016; unlike a few other doorstoppers I’ve picked up recently, it earns all of its pages. At its center are a struggling author/professor and the radical activist mother who walked out on his family two decades earlier. From there, narrative threads effortlessly expand into a tapestry that feels both inclusive and singular.

2 – Robert Forster, Grant and I
Forster’s memoir is simply an account of The Go-Betweens, the seminal Australian cult band he formed in the late ’70s with friend Grant McLennan up until the latter’s death at age 48 in 2006. And yet, The Go-Betweens were like no other band, and this book, brimming with complex emotions and eloquent, vibrant prose, is far from your average rock and roll memoir.

1 – Rob Sheffield, Dreaming The Beatles
Music journalist Sheffield put out his own great debut memoir about losing a spouse to an early death a decade ago—so good, in fact, that everything else he’s written since pales in comparison, until now. The world didn’t really need another book about The Beatles (Sheffield recognizes as much), but it did need this compulsively readable rethink of an outfit too often lazily taken for granted. By exploring how much the band remains part of the collective unconscious fifty years after their heyday, Sheffield conveys, with his usual warm, clever wit, how such totems of pop culture endure, even as the culture itself shifts and evolves.

My complete 2017 Booklist, with titles in chronological order of when I finished reading them (starred entries are books I’ve re-read):

1 – Peter Heller, The Painter
2 – Grace Jones and Paul Morley, I’ll Never Write My Memoirs
3 – Jonathan Ames, The Extra Man
4 – David Nicholls, Us
5 – John Irving, Avenue of Mysteries
6 – Michael Chabon, Moonglow
7 – Kliph Nesteroff, The Comedians
8 – Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid’s Tale
9 – Chris Smith, The Daily Show: The Book
10 – Stanley Elkin, The Dick Gibson Show*
11 – David Bianculli, The Platinum Age of Television
12 – Caitlin Moran, Moranifesto
13 – George Saunders, Lincoln In The Bardo
14 – Jon Savage, 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded
15 – Don Breithaupt, Aja (33 1/3 series)
16 – Mark Harris, Pictures At A Revolution*
17 – Francine Prose, Mister Monkey
18 – Rob Sheffield, Dreaming The Beatles
19 – Sean L. Maloney, Modern Lovers (33 1/3 series)
20 – Jason Zinoman, Letterman: The Last Giant of Late Night
21 – Lauren Graham, Talking As Fast As I Can
22 – John Semley, This is a Book About The Kids In The Hall
23 – David Sedaris, Theft By Finding: Diaries 1977-2002
24 – Karl Ove Knausgard, My Struggle, Book Four
25 – Geoff Dyer, Zona*
26 – Nathan Hill, The Nix
27 – Jeffrey Tambor, Are You Anybody?
28 – David Rakoff, Fraud*
29 – Jonathan Bernstein and Lori Majewski, Mad World
30 – Jeremiah Moss, Vanishing New York
31 – Samantha Irby, We Are Never Meeting in Real Life
32 – Derek Jarman, Smiling In Slow Motion
33 – Robert Forster, Grant and I
34 – Michael Ausiello, Spoiler Alert: The Hero Dies
35 – Norman Lear, Even This I Get To Remember
36 – Kurt Vonnegut, Breakfast of Champions*
37 – Alice Munro, Family Furnishings: Selected Stories, 1995-2014
38 – Curtis Sittenfeld, Eligible
39 – Robert Hofler, Party Animals*
40 – John Hodgman, Vacationland
41 – Amy Schumer, The Girl With the Lower Back Tattoo
42 – Judd Apatow, Sick In The Head
43 – Peter Heller, Celine
44 – David Yaffe, Reckless Daughter: A Portrait of Joni Mitchell
45 – Gore Vidal, Lincoln
46 – Jenny Lawson, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened
47 – Zadie Smith, Swing Time

2016 Booklist

My ten favorite books that I read this year, in chronological order of finishing them:

mad-men-carousel

Matthew Zoller Seitz, Mad Men Carousel

One of the most meticulously crafted and complex TV series of all time warrants a similarly comprehensive episode guide; Seitz, who recapped the series for Vulture.com in its later seasons, provides exactly that. As befitting the show itself, it nearly reads like the proverbial Great American Novel. I am so looking forward to re-watching the show while concurrently reading this again (perhaps in 2018? 2019?).

a-little-life

Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life

The problem with 500+ page novels is that almost always, they would greatly benefit from not exceeding that page count (see Hallberg’s City On Fire, which might’ve made my top ten had it been 300 pages shorter). At just over 800 pages, Yanagihara’s widely acclaimed second novel is the rare long book I could read forever; it’s also one of the more brutal narratives I’ve ever read, with a protagonist whom repeatedly suffers abuse from others and, most disconcertingly, at his own hand. But Yanagihara’s prose is so assured in its openness, honesty and lyricism that this is easily my favorite book of the year.

innocents-and-others

Dana Spiotta, Innocents and Others

While not as sharp as her great last book Stone Arabia, Spiotta’s fourth novel wraps an ambitious, ingenuous, multi-decade spanning narrative in an almost impossibly succinct frame. It will appeal to art-film aesthetes (particularly Orson Welles buffs) as much as those fascinated by voyeurism, or the idea of trying on a false identity and seeing how far one can keep it up.

jimhenson-biographycover

Brian Jay Jones, Jim Henson: The Biography

I’ve been waiting two years for this biography to come out in paperback so I could easily carry it with me on my commute everyday and lose myself in Henson’s extraordinary story. No one else apart from Charles Schulz was so influential in shaping my early childhood, particularly in the way pop culture informs how a child learns and comes to see the world. That Jones never obscures Henson’s all-too-human qualities provides essential depth to the book’s celebration of all his accomplishments.

party-of-one

Dave Holmes, Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs

Of the memoirs read this year, I’m not surprised that this one ended up one of my favorites. Former MTV-VJ Holmes has carved out a neat second act as an essayist/columnist in the past few years; in this book, his affable voice immediately draws you into his world, and you relate, even if you’re not a male, gay Gen-X-er who grew up closeted in the Midwest.

john-cleese

John Cleese, So, Anyway…

The other great memoir I read in 2016. Monty Python stalwart Cleese, as hilarious and self-deprecating as one would expect, tells his life story up until that troupe formed and changed television sketch comedy forever; fortunately, he has enough anecdotes and insights to sustain this sizable tome (hope he tackles the Python years in a sequel).

jessie_klein_grow_out_of_it

Jessi Klein, You’ll Grow Out of It

I suppose I’ll eventually read Amy Schumer’s essay collection, but I’m betting it won’t be as good as this one from the head writer on her Comedy Central show. Klein, like David Sedaris, is unflashy and fairly deadpan in her wit. Her conversational essays just seem to naturally unfold and are often riotously funny without straining for easy laffs, whether she’s describing something so lofty as attending the Academy Awards or commonplace as epidurals or internet porn.

shock-and-awe

Simon Reynolds, Shock and Awe

Years in the making, Reynolds’ epic study of 1970s glam rock could not have come out in a more timely manner, eight months after David Bowie’s death. However, for someone who has written great books about rave culture and post-punk/new wave, this could be his magnum opus, exploring every facet of this very particular music subgenre and somehow making it all sound equally interesting.

emma-cline

Emma Cline, The Girls

On the surface, this debut novel would seem to have a gimmick—it follows a 14-year-old girl who in 1969 joins a Charles Manson-like cult—but for all the obvious parallels it draws to real-life events, it feels like a compelling, original work. Cline focuses less on the lewd, sensational aspects lurking around the edges of this tale and more on her protagonist’s mindset with perceptiveness most impressive for a first novel. After finishing it, my first thought was that I would read anything this author will write.

harmony

Carolyn Parkhurst, Harmony

I’ve loved Parkhurst’s writing since The Dogs of Babel; after the slightly disappointing The Nobodies Album, she’s back in fine form on her fourth novel. From multiple points of view and shifts back and forth in time, she constructs an intriguing narrative about family, cult of personality, autism and what it means to really change a life—and what you both give up and gain in the process.

My complete 2016 Booklist, with titles in chronological order of when I finished reading them (starred entries are books I’ve re-read):

  1. Ben Watt, Patient
  2. Laline Paull, The Bees
  3. Matthew Zoller Seitz, Mad Men Carousel
  4. Jonathan Ames, I Pass Like Night
  5. Bill Bryson, The Road to Little Dribbling
  6. Michaelangelo Matos, The Underground is Massive
  7. Hanya Yanagihara, A Little Life
  8. Karen Russell, Swamplandia!
  9. Dana Spiotta, Innocents and Others
  10. Andy Partridge, Complicated Game: Inside the Songs of XTC
  11. Owen Gleiberman, Movie Freak
  12. Kathryn Reed Altman and Giulia D’Agnolo Vallan, Altman
  13. Daniel Clowes, Patience
  14. Karl Ove Knausgard, My Struggle, Book Three: Boyhood
  15. Carrie Brownstein, Hunger Makes Me A Modern Girl
  16. Augusten Burroughs, Lust and Wonder
  17. Robert K. Elder (ed.), The Best Film You’ve Never Seen
  18. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead*
  19. Brian Jay Jones, Jim Henson: The Biography
  20. Daniel Clowes, Wilson
  21. Alan Sepinwall, The Revolution Was Televised
  22. Jonathan Ames, Wake Up, Sir!
  23. David Rakoff, The Uncollected David Rakoff
  24. Steven Hyden, Your Favorite Band is Killing Me
  25. Dave Holmes, Party of One: A Memoir in 21 Songs
  26. Rachel Kushner, The Flame Throwers
  27. Robert Forster, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll
  28. Chuck Klosterman, What If We’re Wrong?: Thinking About The Future As If It Were The Past
  29. Courtney J. Sullivan, Commencement
  30. David Mitchell, Slade House
  31. Caitlin Moran, Moranthology
  32. John Cleese, So, Anyway…
  33. Jessi Klein, You’ll Grow Out of It
  34. Frank Conniff, Twenty Five MST3K Films That Changed My Life In No Way Whatsoever
  35. Joel Kriofske, And Good Night To All The Beautiful Young Women
  36. Alan Sepinwall and Matthew Zoller Seitz, TV: The Book
  37. Patti Smith, M Train
  38. Jennifer Keishin Armstrong, Seinfeldia
  39. Garth Risk Hallberg, City On Fire
  40. Jennifer Saunders: Bonkers: My Life in Laughs
  41. Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse Five*
  42. Richard Brautigan, Revenge of the Lawn
  43. Simon Reynolds, Shock and Awe
  44. Jen Trynin, Everything I’m Cracked Up to Be*
  45. Emma Cline, The Girls
  46. Jonathan Lethem, A Gambler’s Anatomy
  47. Maria Semple, Today Will Be Different
  48. Lisa Hanawalt, Hot Dog Taste Test
  49. Carolyn Parkhurst, Harmony
  50. Alan Bennett, The Uncommon Reader
  51. David Sedaris, Holidays On Ice*
  52. John Gregory Dunne, The Studio

I also really enjoyed the compilation of Partridge interviews, Clowes’ latest graphic novel (nearly as good as Ghost World), Burroughs’ new memoir (easily his best since Dry), various-but-still-vital essays from the late, great Rakoff, Kushner’s enigmatic story about artists in 1970s New York, Smith’s peripatetic essays, Semple’s nearly-as-terrific follow-up to Where’d You Go, Bernadette? and finally, a memoir written by my cousin Joel about my great uncle Joe, a former FBI agent stricken with Alzheimer’s in his old age. I’m proud to see a Kriofske has published a book, for it gives me a little more hope that I can do the same one day.