Best and Worst Things I Read in 2017
A sad fate not to start the New Year by my bookshelves! I’ll do my best to remember. Apologies to posterity for the ones I’ve forgotten.
The Good Ones
Simon Winchester, The Professor and the Madman
This is about to become a major motion picture, starring [ludicrous asshat] Mel Gibson. Published in 1998, the book tells the improbable tale of OED Editor James Murray. Although he appears to be of no relation to Yours Truly, I am proud of the coincidence. This dude loved words, language. So did another man, the erudite Dr. W.C. Minor, who contributed ten thousand entries to the OED. He was also an inmate at a nearby insane asylum.
Elena Ferrante, My Brilliant Friend
Everyone has an opinion about the Neapolitan books. I’m on the fourth and final one right now. My Brilliant Friend was a masterpiece. Books two and three were not. I feel like, for at least a few hours, I lived in post-WWII Naples with two extraordinary girls.
Andrea Jurjević, Small Crimes
Deservedly took the Levine Prize in 2015 and was finally published this year. It’s brave and gritty and elegant. It will punch you squarely in the pants.
Matthew Desmond, Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City
Desmond’s book is what elevated journalism can do, create room in the human heart. Through obviously painstaking and attentive field-work, Evicted helps you understand why eight Milwaukee families face eviction. It also indirectly smashes reductive, fault-based explanations of poverty. The writing is elegant and effortless—which means writing it was far from effortless.
David Shields, Other People, Takes & Mistakes
This came out this year and was really good. It had some repeats from other collections, which is classic Shields. Since Reality Hunger, in which he’s intentionally casual about citation, he’s made it a point to break rules of this sort.
S. Foster Damon, The History of Square Dancing
I’m not going to pretend that anyone else has, or will, read this book. So, here is what I learned from it. Puritans really liked square dancing. Actually, lots of American used to enjoy square dancing, especially in the early 20th century. This book came out in 1957, and Damon was already lamenting the demise of swinging one’s partner round and round. Also—and I’m going to give S. Foster a pass because this ain’t 1957—but can we cut it out with the initials-in-lieu-of-first-names? Write under the name people call you. That’s who you are, or it ought to be.
Amy Kurzweil, Flying Couch
Kurzweil’s graphic memoir from Catapult is moving and necessary. Her characters come to life, most of all Amy and her grandmother Bubbe.
Oliver Sacks, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat
Sacks died in 2015 and the Times recently ran a review of his recent book of essays. While I wait for that to trickle down into my local Goodwill, I went back to this gem. RIP to the big-hearted neurologist with the golden prose.
Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness
W.E.B. Du Bois famously wrote that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line.” No other work of research so clearly demonstrates that the problem of the 21st century is the same problem.
Barry Hannah, Some of His Stories
Hannah is inventive and has a big heart and some of his stories are not too offensive, overall.
Han Kang, The Vegetarian
This book actually came out last year, winning the Man Booker and being named to most Best Of lists. That’s because it’s really, really good. The prose is pure lyric. Trigger warnings for rape and physical abuse.
Terry Kupers, Solitary: The Inside Story of Supermax Isolation and How We Can Abolish It
Just came out in September of 2017. I wish this were better, but it’s mostly full of obvious and readily available info.
J.K. Rowling, The Harry Potter Books
Read these this year, after procrastination, at behest of my adorable wife. These books are alright, overall. It’s more fun to take the Pottermore quiz and see which house you’re in &c than to actually read them. Like everything, it’s more enjoyable if you worship it beforehand.
Barry Hannah, Some of His Stories
Sure, some of these stories are pretty darn good, but most are just bizarre and mean. Oh, look, Hannah is a “master” of depicting the South because he shows how it really is. Sort of. This is how it is if you just hate everybody in the universe. Enough praise for this fad. He ain’t Voltaire, and some of his uniqueness stems from not enough people slapping him upside the head.
Elena Ferrante, The Story of a New Name (Book Two)
The beach scenes are really compelling, but the series loses momentum for me when our narrator becomes a famous author and everybody starts trying to figure out whether socialism or communism is better.
Robert H. Frank, Success and Luck: Good Fortune and the Myth of Meritocracy
Frank published this book last year and takes on the important thesis that one’s success is largely the product of chance. Its subtle target is self-congratulatory jerk stores like our current president. The thesis is somewhat tainted by Frank’s rather lazy and uninspired reflections on his own luck.
Paul Johnson, Mozart: A Life
In 2013 Paul Johnson wrote a really thin biography of Mozart, mostly on the laurels of his previous writings, such as Modern Times. It was okay.
Elena Ferrante, Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay (Book Three)
Don’t get me wrong, I’m still hooked enough to keep reading the series, but it’s hard seeing Lenu turn into Lila, and I’m sick of seeing Nino all the time.
Barry Hannah, Most of His Stories
This dude straight up hates women and is super racist. Bye, Barry Hannah.
Jane Glover, Mozart’s Women: His Family, His Friends, His Music
Just look at this title. Stop it.
J.D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis
Vance’s very, very poorly written book on Appalachia would have been a better book if I’d lit on fire the second it arrived. The author is a self-congratulatory “Look guys, I made it out” type of horn blower. Interesting, since he doesn’t appear to have ever set foot there.
Don Sartell, Who’s Who in Baton Twirling (1999 Edition)
This book was probably a pretty limited print run, but still. It has the physical address and phone numbers of hundreds of middle school girls in sequined leotards and that strikes me as problematic. Yeah, hindsight is always 20/20, but we go to literature for some degree of foresight as well. And let’s be honest, the author’s central thesis—that baton twirling would become a nationally prominent sport—turned out to be patently incorrect.
Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, The Letters of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart
The 2016 compilation of Hans Mersmann is the one I picked up, but what we’re really talking about, regardless of who translated or compiled them, is the content of the letters. All the Mozart literature makes it very clear that what you’re buying is a glimpse into the mind of a genius. Worship what you want, this stuff is unreadable. In more than one letter, Mozart himself declares that his ridiculous writings—especially his fart jokes &c—are nothing but excræsis and that he had no writing talent. Believe him.