It’s time once again to tally up the books I read over the last year and see which ones held up. As usual, I only include books I read for the first time in 2015, but they can have been published anytime. Oddly, it seems I read fewer books in 2015 than in most recent years, by almost double digits, probably because I moved away from NYC and lost all that subway reading time. Oh well, so it goes. Here’s my top 10. Enjoy!
10. NOS4A2 by Joe Hill
Stephen King’s son picks up where his father still hasn’t left off, and he’s just as good at infusing bizarre and horrific beings into the everyday, and sprinkling the stories with pop culture references that give the stories a strong sense of time and place. This unique take on vampires and serial killers has enough new twists to set the story apart from the pack, although there are a few moments where the character development seems to drag, as well as a few spots where I thought, “Wait, how did this character forget they did this/that?” In other words, motivations felt off here and there, but overall this is a nice horror/supernatural adventure where the more horrific moments were actually committed by humans instead of the undead.
9. Ike’s Bluff by Evan Thomas
I always liked Ike without knowing too much about his presidency, and after reading this book, I still mostly like him but I have a much better picture of his pros and cons, and there’s plenty of each. Ike definitely had his faults. He was a walking temper tantrum who refused to directly confront or admonish a lot of reckless spy-game addicts and war-hungry bureaucrats in his administration, and he should have. But all in all, I’m just as intrigued by Ike’s two terms as I was when I started reading, and I feel much more informed. He remains a fascinating figure. It’s an interesting and informative book that I recommend for anyone looking to find out more about the presidency and/or the Cold War.
8. The Insomniac Circus by Amorak Huey
I have always had a strong affinity for anything carnival related. Never the reality of the situation so much as the possibility of what could be: that transient outsider encampment where natural oddities and games of chance intersect with exotic animals and feats of human entertainment, allowing us to leave the mundane behind for one night under the strings of flashing lights and striped tents. Real-life carnivals rarely live up to the imagined hype, but they remain a place of wonderment and awe in my imagination. This book captures both that imaginary place and the reality of their inhabitants. Definitely one of the best poetry collections I’ve read.
7. The Martian by Andy Weir
I know some people really trashed this one, but I liked it. The Martian is part Apollo 13 and part Robinson Crusoe, and for its faults (and it does has a few) it became the kind of book I couldn’t wait to pick up and couldn’t stand to put down, keeping me up until 2 or 3 in the morning at times. It’s a very technical book (well, to a non-science guy like me) but it wasn’t so technical that I couldn’t follow along. For good or ill, I sensed a formula early on: tragic accident, recovery, brilliant thinking, calm progress, tragic accident, recovery, brilliant thinking, calm progress, tragic accident, and so on. And even though it sort of bugged me that I was aware of the formula rather than being so deep into the story that I didn’t notice, it still works because I found myself growing tense even during the periods where everything was going right and nearly gripping the book with white knuckles when things went wrong. Overall I liked it a lot more than I expected.
6. Harry Potter 1-3 by J.K. Rowling
I never read the Harry Potter books or bought into the hype until this summer/fall, when after a weekend spent sick on the couch where I watched a few of the films on TV I finally decided to give the books a shot. They were a great companion while the leaves began to change, especially the third one, which has a nice spooky vibe to it with the whole werewolf/soul-sucking ghost thing going on. I know I’m way behind the ball on these, but they do live up to the hype, and I’m looking forward to eventually reading the rest.
5. Mortality by Christopher Hitchens
I’m a big fan of Hitch, even if I don’t always agree with him, and this book, written just before and as he died, is pretty heavy and technically “unfinished,” but it still speaks volumes about his wit, his observational brilliance, and the depth in which he lived and tackled life. A nice bookend to a storied and colorful career, and life. Worth the read.
4. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace
Another first for me, as I’d avoided DFW until the bio-pic The End of the Tour came out over the summer, a film I enjoyed very much, more so because I was able to finally read DFW before I went into the theater. While some of the essays here (and most of his books, from what I’ve later found) have a style that I don’t find too appealing (sooooo many footnotes), there were some real gems here, especially the ones on David Lynch, tennis, the state fair, and the cruise. Great observations, details, humor, and human moments captured with stunning wordplay. I may not read much more of his work, maybe bits and pieces, but this was a great collection that really drew me in.
3. F250 by Bud Smith
Bud is a friend, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is, without bias, a fantastic novel about life and death and love and sex in New Jersey, and how we’re all a little screwed up and a little genius in wonderful and terrible ways all at the same time. Bud’s protagonist seems like a typical blue-collar guy, but there’s a magic in his honesty and humor that stands out from everyone else around him, who all seems broken in different ways. It’s almost Odyssey/Homer-esque in how many strange situations he finds himself in, and all the crazy chaotic wonderful people he meets. It’s poignant and honest and funny and tragic and you should read this damn book.
2. The Last Days of California by Mary Miller
Similar to F250, Mary’s novel is an almost epic journey taken by your everyday group of messed-up Americans trying to find where they fit in this world, although in this story, the family is operating under the faith-inspired idea that the world is ending and this is their final trek across the states, although they all seem to know, or are ignoring the fact that they know, that the idea is a lie. The teenage girls in the story are wonderfully realistic without drifting into cliché, a feat when writing about teens. The whole tale has a sadness to it—not only is it hard enough to try to get through the teen years and first loves and the awkward ascension into adulthood, but now you have to do it with the idea of the end of the world hanging over you? Or at least your parents insist that’s what’s happening? Intense stuff, and funny, and true.
1. Old Mr. Flood by Joseph Mitchell
I had long wanted to read anything my Mitchell, as he’s a New York legend who primarily wrote about the people and places around NYC in gloriously detailed, personal, and quirky ways. In this short book, he gives us an in-depth look at Mr. Flood, an elderly man obsessed with eating good seafood to prolong his life. He wanders the markets and wharfs of lower Manhattan scouring the finest and most flavorful delights from the sea. The writing is crystal clear and smooth, making the simplicity of Hemingway’s work look like James Joyce, and to be honest, Mitchell has none of Hemingway’s egoisms or his choppy style (I like most of Hemingway, but admit it, the guy writes dialogue like a film script that has seen the underside of a lawn mower). There’s no “plot” to this 120-page story, the author simply discusses life, death, religion, food, whiskey, and the various characters in Mr. Flood’s life over several encounters, and every stitch of it is amusing, charming, and honest. Best book I read in 2015, hands down.