Thursday, December 31, 2015

The Books I Finished Reading in 2015

Here is some information about the books I finished reading in 2015. First I'll present a chronological list of every book, in the order in which I finished each one. Then I'll conclude with a list of the top 10 in terms of quality.

1.) The first book I finished reading in 2015 was Dancing in the Dark by Janet Hobhouse. It came out in 1984, and I think the copy I read was printed then. It was old, anyway. I remember the sentences being very smooth and complex, operating at a level above and beyond most fiction writers. I wondered why this author isn't more famous. She died in the '90s. It's a book about some yuppie couples in New York in the '80s. Highly recommended. I plan to read her other books.

2.) The next book I finished was The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters. This one was extremely entertaining. It's a page-turner about a young lesbian and a hetero couple who comes to town and a ruined marriage and a crime and a cover-up of that crime. Also a trial and further romance and drama. I'm being vague because I don't want to give things away. Also, it's British, and it takes place in 1922. Highly recommended. I plan to seek out the author's other books.

3.) Next was yet another novel, The First Bad Man by Miranda July. This one was hilarious and unique. It's about a woman with a lot of frustrations in her life and the younger woman who comes into her life and changes it in profound ways. It's really funny. These are "comic novel" characters, not "serious" characters, but if you're like me and you like a good comic novel, then there you go, this book is for you.

4.) The next book I finished was the second volume of Shelby Foote's The Civil War: A Narrative—this volume being subtitled Fredericksburg to Meridian. I finished the first volume in 2014. Reading this trilogy was an immense project for me. It took me nine months, from September 2014 to May 2015. Shelby Foote's credentials as a history writer may have been somewhat suspect. But as a storyteller, there's no one better. So it's a great place to begin reading about the Civil War, but by absolutely no means should it be the end. It inspired me to read a lot of other Civil War books, many by more serious academic historians, some of which even point out things Shelby Foote got wrong. But still, as a detailed overview of the whole arc of the war from start to finish, Foote is definitely worth the time, if you have nine or so months to spare.

5.) Next was Friendship by Emily Gould.

6.) My next book was The Soul Thief by Charles Baxter. Kind of a thin story, with kind of a groaner ending. Will I read another Charles Baxter book? Hard to say.

Numbers 7 and 8 were by people I know, so it's too embarrassing to write about them.

9.) Next was a book of essays, This Is Running for Your Life by Michelle Orange. Very good essays on various topics. Highly recommended.

10.) Next was Under the Skin by Michel Faber, the author of one of my favorites from last year, The Book of Strange New Things. They made a movie of Under the Skin starring Scarlett Johansson, which I saw in the theater. The projection wasn't great, and I regret not seeing it in a better theater. Anyway, the movie was interesting, but I liked the book a lot better. It's a lot different from the movie. Read the book! And watch the movie, but don't expect the same story that's in the book. In fact, the book and movie are so different, it doesn't matter which one you experience first; one won't spoil the other. This year I plan to read a third Michel Faber book, The Crimson Petal and the White.

11.) Next was a poetry book called New Depths of Deadpan by Michael Gizzi. I've also been reading his Collected Poems, which just came out this year. Very good and exciting poetry.

12.) Another book of poetry.

13.) Next was Journey by Moonlight by Antal Szerb.

14.) On Memorial Day I finished the third and final volume of the above-mentioned Shelby Foote trilogy, this volume subtitled Red River to Appomattox. I finished it sitting on a rock in a cozy secluded area in the far upper reaches of Central Park.

15.) Next was the latest book by John Ashbery, Breezeway. I'm not sure these are the kind of poems I'd want to read over and over again, like with most of his other work, but there's some good stuff here. It's good to see he's still having fun at his age (88).

16.) After finishing up with Shelby Foote, I went looking for other Civil War books to read. Before I even finished Foote's trilogy, I started reading the Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant. I read the Penguin edition with an introduction and notes by James M. McPherson. Grant had no literary pretensions whatever and only wrote the book to provide money for his family after he died from the cancer he was suffering from as he wrote. His prose style is plain and simple and supposedly influenced Gertrude Stein. (One odd thing: An awful lot of passive voice is used by him, but it grew on me after a while.) The book only covers his life up through the end of the war; it doesn't cover his presidency (which he wouldn't have had time to write about anyway, since he died just days after completing the manuscript). I'm not sure if this should be the very first book you read about the Civil War, since it helps to have some basic contextual knowledge going in, but it's definitely one you'll want to read eventually.

17.) Up next was The Hunters by James Salter, inspired by his experience as a fighter pilot in the Korean War. It was his first novel, and the style is pretty much the same style he would use throughout his career. In life, it's important to be a great fighter pilot. And this book tells you why. Highly recommended.

18.) Another Grant-related book, U.S. Grant: American Hero, American Myth by Joan Waugh. This is an academic study of the ways Grant has been remembered in history and culture. It's part of a recent trend of books that reevaluate Grant and do something to rehabilitate his image, which many would say has been unjustly tarnished over the last century or so.

19.) Next was the highly engaging Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War by Tony Horwitz. This is a journalistic tour around the modern (as of the 1990s) South and explores people's attitudes about various aspects of the Civil War. Timely as ever, what with Confederate flags and memorials very much in the news this year. Highly recommended.

20.) Next up was Don DeLillo's 9/11 novel, Falling Man. Ordinarily I probably wouldn't read a novel about 9/11, but obviously I'll always make an exception for DeLillo, my favorite living (or all-time?) novelist. Being a native New Yorker, as well as a highly perceptive writer about politics in the broad sense, he's as reliable as anyone could be on this topic. Highly recommended.

21.) Next came Talk by Linda Rosenkrantz, a novel from the sixties in the form of transcribed and edited real-life dialogue. Two women and a gay man spend a summer in the Hamptons and talk about their lives. Very witty and frequently hilarious. Highly recommended.

22.) Next we have another Grant book, the iambically titled The Man Who Saved the Union: Ulysses Grant in War and Peace by H.W. Brands. I will need to read other Grant biographies to compare this to, but it seemed fine. I learned some things I didn't know before, which is always nice. I have another Grant biography on my shelf that I hear is supposed to be better.

23.) Next up was Vicksburg: The Campaign That Opened the Mississippi by Michael B. Ballard. This is the book to read if you want to know about the Vicksburg campaign and don't have enough lives in which to read every book published about every battle in every war. It's probably a bit of a slog for the general reader. Then again, the months-long campaign to take Vicksburg was a slog itself for everyone involved, so it's an appropriate narrative approach.

24.) Next was Mislaid by Nell Zink, which was highly entertaining. You can easily find a summary of the plot on various websites and such.

25.) Next was another Civil War book, The War That Forged a Nation by James McPherson, the preeminent Civil War scholar. It's a collection of essays on various topics. This year I plan to read his classic Battle Cry of Freedom, which is regarded by many as the place to start reading about the Civil War.

26.) Another poetry book!

27.) Last and far from least was Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow, the biography that inspired a Broadway musical. I had started it several years ago, but I got distracted and put it aside. I started it again this November and finished it yesterday. Highly recommended. It's the book to read about Alexander Hamilton if you don't have multiple lives in which to read every book ever published about Alexander Hamilton.

Okay, here's the Top 10 in terms of quality (but listed in alphabetical order by title, not in order of quality).

Alexander Hamilton
The Civil War (Foote)
Confederates in the Attic
Falling Man
The First Bad Man
The Paying Guests
Personal Memoirs (Grant)
This Is Running for Your Life