The Passage of Power, Robert Caro
Stands with Taylor Branch’s civil rights trilogy as the best of the popular histories I’ve read; consistently compelling and sometimes it goes way beyond that, the section dealing with the relationship between the Kennedys and Johnson is painful on all kinds of levels, and the triumph of Johnson’s post-assassination law-making is rendered in such a way that you get chills. The chapter on the assassination itself is worth the price of the book. One thing I didn’t expect was how fluid and lyrical a writer Caro is; this is the first Caro history I’ve read and really the first history of any sort wherein the beauty of the writing on the page carried it along.
Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter
A friend said about Argo that it’s not a great movie, but it’s a wonderfully made one and he wondered why popular entertainments can’t be more like that. I feel something of the same about Beautiful Ruins; it’s a propulsive read and Walter hits all the spots along the way and even wraps things up in a way that a lot of authors might shy away from (mistaking opaqueness for profundity). The depiction of Richard Burton, no more than a couple of pages total, feels spot on (which is what matters, I mean, how would I really know) and a sense of lives lived and choices made hangs over the book.
Canada, Richard Ford
Ford certainly has a spot at the round-table discussion of greatest living American writers and if this isn’t as compelling or stylistically over the top as his masterpiece, “Lay of the Land,” it has such a skillful, mature writing style, I was frequently in awe of his economy and the way he develops narrative tension through a word here or there. He captures the entire length of a character’s life and like Stoner, manages to balance the smallness on one person’s existence with the glory of a regular moral life lived.
Jerusalem; The Biography, Simon Sebag Montefiore
I admittedly spent a fair amount of my time reading this book in confusion, there are seemingly endless names and dates and atrocities, and considerable nuance to the various sects of what seems at first glance the same religion, yet there’s such an insane vibrancy to this place, as if the entire old world’s psychic energy was focused on this one dry spot in the landscape. You would think in a place as bloodstained as this, no single atrocity or incident would stand out, but the recounting of the first Crusade wherein the invading Europeans killed everything they came across – pregnant women, children, the crippled, animals – and draped themselves in the blood and viscera of their victims, marching through the streets with eyes shining through the blood, taken by a kind of insane moral self-righteousness (and completely freaking out anyone still alive to witness it) gets the ultimate prize, it made me (briefly) ashamed of being raised (however perfunctorily) a Christian.
Stoner, John Williams
It’s a book that manages to not only carry contradiction, it makes contradiction central to what’s great about the book. So it seems both a portrait of a small life — of a man who never traveled, had two friends, one of whom died young, was in love twice, the first time very briefly and with disastrous life-long consequences, a single implacable enemy, a retirement party that he’d prefer not to attend — and of a glorious life of a man who lived teaching what he loved to teach, who found genuine and passionate love, albeit for a short time, who managed to escape an 19th Century farming existence for a life of the mind. There’s something magnificent about his life, something profoundly admirable, while at the same time, the book is something of a tragedy. Williams’ language is always spare and concise, this would be an excellent book to show creative writing students because he gets so much meaning out of a spare style, it’s one of those books that expands well beyond the pages and manages to get across in a few words worlds of emotions. There’s a ruthlessness to Williams’ depictions in the book that he never shies from, never tries to ameliorate; the intensity with which another professor hates William Stoner never wanes and though his wife occasionally softens, we never forget that on some very basic level, she despises her husband. In so many ways, Stoner’s seems a dismal life yet somehow it is not.
Liked With Caveats
Who I am: A Memoir, Pete Townshend
Not as artfully done and controlled as Dylan’s “Chronicles” but there’s a similar attention to the idiosyncratic detail and you never forget that Townshend is a human being struggling with self-doubt, self-loathing, etc, etc, all the things we all deal with. Relentlessly honest about what he felt in the moment with an understanding of the ironies of his life. It feels like a real memoir, a book that just happens to be about a guy who was the central figure in an iconic rock band. I had to laugh watching what’s left of The Who perform “Bell Boy” at the Hurricane Sandy benefit; Townshend here and in a recent documentary on the making of Quadrophenia made it clear he has never liked Keith Moon’s vocals on the song, that Moon takes lyrics mean to be pathetic and more than a little sad and turns them into something broadly comic, but here they were in late 2012 performing the song with a tape of Moon doing his vocals. After reading this memoir, I’m confident Townshend would see the bitter and comic irony of this, of being trapped in an existence not wholly of his making and doing the best he can.
Fire Season: Field Notes from a Wilderness Lookout, Philip Connors
Stands with Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire as books that find consistently beautiful and evocative ways to describe nature as it plays out across a gorgeous landscape. It drags some towards the end, though it manages to make readers want to experience the part of New Mexico he’s writing about and at the same time, understand that we’re probably not emotionally equipped to do the job Connors did year in and year out.
Gone Girl, A Novel, Gillian Flynn
The problem with a book like this is that when you get to the ultimate reveal of the mystery, much of what has come before — and there’s a lot of fine material here around relationships and the cooling of a marriage — gets lost in the glare of the revelation of the presence of a psychopath. So while there’s genuine insight here about how people deal with other people, how young marrieds drift, and the various forms that can take, and she manages to make the mystery consistently compelling, the two halves actually add up to a less of a whole. People have lumped this book with Beautiful Ruins, the idea being both of them are compelling narratives artfully written, literary novels that are also page turners, and that seems apt to me, though Gone Girl is the lesser of the two books.
Wild, Cheryl Strayed
There’s nothing spectacular about this book. The writing style never ramps towards lyricism, what’s going on in her life is significant (her mother has died, her marriage is floundering) but has none of that lurid heft (sexual abuse, incest, murder, drug addiction, though there are some drug problems in her recent past) that accompanies even serious memoirs, yet the book is consistently readable and compelling from beginning to end. She gets an immense amount of forward momentum out of the concept of the Pacific Coast trail itself, tapping into that human desire to know what’s next on the trail. If Gone Girl manages to be less as a whole, Wild manages as a book to seem greater than its individual parts.
Finished and Enjoyed but More Caveats than Not
How a Person Should Be, Sheila Heti
An admirable book in so many ways, she’s doing what so many of us have dreamed of — writing a more or less plotless book — and managed to make it compelling and readable. At the same time, it’s really all over the place, full of filler and long dialogue sections that in format and content often seem here to pad out the book’s length, and long sections about her sexual obsession with some ill-defined dude that seems out of a different, crappier book. What she does do and wonderfully well, is chart the ups and downs of her friendship with a woman named Margaux (who remains the book’s most indelible invention), the complexity of which is exhilarating in its detailing of the nuances of the mutual clue reading and moment to moment navigation of a volatile connection. I’m still not convinced it’s really a book or at least a coherent one, but I’m happy I read it, which is no small thing.
The Last Werewolf, Glen Duncan
It’s impossible not to be impressed by Duncan’s writing chops and for the first 75 pages or so, the story of the last werewolf who is tired of living after 200 years and is arranging his own death (by a werewolf hunter who is avenging a death), is captivating and interesting and touches the edges of true originality. He’s very good with tweaking some of the werewolf conventions and it’s impressive, even if you aren’t interested in such things, and his descriptions of the force of being a werewolf are first-rate and really get across the sense of an unstoppable demon-esque life force that cannot be denied in any way (Duncan’s monster really has only about 14 days of peace each month — the rest of the time, he’s either coming down from having turned and eaten or building up to turning). It’s full of smart details and fine ideas, but at some point, I started turning on the book. Duncan’s characters’ take on life is pithy and witty and world-weary and eventually utterly tiresome in a way I don’t think he intends. I found myself thinking as the werewolf starts going on in erudite, articulate form about some aspect of life “Please, please shut up” and then “I can’t believe you’re not shutting up.” After awhile, the book feels like you’re trapped at a party with a guest who is much smarter and articulate than you, but over the course of the evening, you realize he is so in love with his own voice, he’s a crashing bore.
The Magician King, The Magicians, Lev Grossman
Consistently smart and inventive, it also manages to often feel arbitrary and not fully lived in as a created world, somewhere between elaborate sketch and fully realized reality, and because of that, it doesn’t as a world linger in one’s mind the way Middle Earth or Harry Potter’s world does. Still, it’s compelling, often exciting, frightening, and dauntingly intelligent in its invention of the parameters of this magical world.
Somewhere Between Liked and Disliked
The Sleepy Hollow Family Almanac, Kris D’Agostino
The writer mostly handles the small moments just right and at times, the book has a Hotel New Hampshire sort of feeling with its sprawling domestic drama, a whacky, troubled family whose members love each other finding a way to work through real problems. But the book falters in key moments with details that never rise to the level of believability. The father, possibly dying of cancer, carries a pistol with him wherever he goes and ends up accidentally shooting the narrator in the shoulder and I didn’t buy any of it for a second. The narrator borrows the gun and ends up killing a deer in the woods by accident; quite apart from the unlikeliness of someone accidentally hitting a deer in the woods with a snub-nosed .38, the author uses it as an ill-conceived jumping off point to riff on existential control. And the sister, while likeable enough, never really rises to the level of a real character and then she’s gone, a bit of drama that feels off and unearned besides. There’s a lot of fine stuff here; a sense of a young man adrift, of a mother who has decided to buck up and do whatever she has to to save her family, but the overall execution feels clunky, even obvious, and not as fully compelling as it should.
The Last Headbangers, Kevin Cook
Some excellent stories about that period in the NFL where it was becoming a multi-billion dollar industry and it does a fair job of making the case that the 70s (and not the 60s or even the 50s) was the time of freewheeling iconoclasts slowly being corralled by a bunch of egghead coaches intent on taking the fun out of the game. But pretty quickly this descends into a series of recaps of various seminal games of the period and as such, becomes monotonous and flirts with irrelevancy. The best scene is the opening in the Oakland Raiders locker room in 1972, the highlight being a Raider linebacker who discovered his helmet was loose, banged his bare head against a concrete wall three or four times, waited for it to swell, then put on the helmet, announcing it now fits and he’s ready to go.
Rabbit Redux, John Updike
My first Updike novel and I’m not sure there’s going to be another. On one hand, it’s a hugely impressive piece of work. His use of language is just beautiful (though at times it’s self-consciously so and jars the reader out of the moment) and there’s a probing, interesting intelligence displayed on every page. At the same time, there’s something deeply ugly about Updike’s world view, a kind of misogyny that grows more tiresome as the book progresses. DF Wallace, channeling unnamed feminist critics, labeled Updike “a penis with a thesaurus” and if I don’t think that’s fully fair (in that way that any generalization about a serious writer isn’t fair), that tendency is on full display here. At one point, after the tragic death of a young woman in a fire, a character tells Rabbit’s son who is bereft that he’ll come to understand that “there’s a ton of cunt in the world” (to find the exact quote, I entered that specific word in my Kindle search for the book and it returned 14 pages, multiple entries per page) and even though it’s not even Rabbit saying this and surely a writer has the right (and often the obligation) to have their characters say ugly things, when I was reading this, in the larger context of the book, I found it difficult not to believe this is what Updike thinks. That’s maybe not fair, but it is the feeling the book leaves you with.