As with every annual list, I only include books I've read for the first time, but they can be from any year. It wasn't a bad year for reading but I feel like I read less and less every year since leaving NYC. I guess all that time reading on the subway actually made a bigger dent in my To Read list than I gave it credit for. But like I said, 2017 wasn't so bad. Here are some of my favorites. What were yours?
The River Is Everywhere by Amanda Oaks
This world take and takes, our time and our love, our refuse and our bodies, in ways symbolic and literal, this world takes. And in this taking, in the endless ebb and flow of the tide pulling streams down river valleys to the sea, there is also war. There is pain. There are those who suffer and those who instill. This is the territory Amanda Oaks explores in her new chapbook The River is Everywhere. Reading this book was a harrowing and refreshing burst of reality, the shocking and the pulsing truth, all filtered through incredible imagery and wordplay, and it was definitely one of the best poetry collections I've read all year. The River is Everywhere is available in a limited run from Red Flag Press, so get one while you can.
When Paris Went Dark: The City of Light Under German Occupation, 1940-1944 by Ronald Rosbottom
I enjoy reading books about World War II, but I prefer all the peripheral stories, and the story of Paris, city of lights, is an interesting one. While many European cities were leveled and witnessed intense street fighting, Paris escaped almost (but not quite) unscathed. Even Hitler considered the city a crown jewel worth protecting, but just because the city didn’t see the worst of the war, that doesn’t mean it didn't suffer. There were shortages just like anywhere, and suspicions were high, collaborators and resistance spies lurked in any dark alleyway and watched from any café, and many unfortunate souls were dragged away to death camps. The story of Paris during the war is rich and full and kept me turning the pages, and it might do the same for you.
Spain in Our Hearts: Americans in the Spanish Civil War, 1936–1939 by Adam Hochschild
Another nonfiction look at events that led up to World War II, but while Americans often point to WWII as a time when we all chipped in and put an end to an evil ideology, the Spanish Civil War really didn’t paint America in a great light, and exemplified a lot of our hypocrisies. This struggle between the two halves of Spain, and by extension the world, was violent, bloody, and tragic, with slaughter and atrocities committed by both sides. It featured the democratic forces supported by socialist and communist organizations, and the fascist military takeover supported by corporate and religions groups. Most nations wanted to avoid any show of support, while Nazi Germany, fascist Italy, and American corporations threw in behind Franco’s army, who won and became a dictator. The book gives harrowing accounts by Americans and British soldiers who fought, journalists who reported, and civilians who tried to survive. An excellent read if history and war nonfics are your thing.
Always Happy Hour by Mary Miller
Mary Miller, more than any other contemporary writer I’ve read lately, is able to peel away the veneer that hides our damage, that disguises our bad habits, that camouflages our heartbreak and depression among the ethos of our modern America, and shows us who we really are. Her ability to bring the fascinating details of a seemingly mundane life to the fore is on a level few others can attain. The women in her stories struggle through various levels of societal or personal dysfunction, yet somehow function enough to get through, day by day. Whether it’s a failing friendship or marriage, or a crossroads in a career or criminal lifestyle, Miller’s characters all face the tough choices while carrying enough baggage to fill a LaGuardia carousel and yet we know they’ll make it a lot further down the road than many of us might give them credit. Excellent writing and stories here.
The Crossing by Cormac McCarthy
It took a few days after finishing this book to really understand how good it is, and to fully grasp the meaning and intent behind the ending and the various crossings that take place. My complaints remain: there are very long passages of tedium interspersed with intensely moving, harrowing, and brilliant sections. There are moments where deus ex machina plays a heavier hand than it should, such as [SPOILER] when Billy and Boyd stumble across their father's missing horses again and again, needles in haystacks spread out across Mexico's vastness. Still, despite a few complaints, the writing is trademark McCarthy in excellent form, beautiful and arcane as ever, and this book is well worth the time for anyone who enjoyed All The Pretty Horses and Blood Meridian.
Inside Hitler’s Bunker by Joachim Fest
Of all the books I’ve read recently that explore a small slice of the vast landscape that surrounds the events of WWII, this one might be the best I’ve read in a long time. It’s accessible, flows right along, and has a ton of details and yet you never feel overwhelmed or lost. While the author admits that there are holes in the documentation of events in those last days and hours spent in Hitler’s bunker, in the heart of Berlin under violent siege by Stalin’s forces, Fest creates what may be the most accurate and insightful, not to mention compelling, narrative. To see such egos crushes and forced to reckon with their fates was incredibly fascinating. For history buffs, this one is a must.
Why I Write by George Orwell
This is an excellent and quick read by one of my favorites, and one of the greats. While only the first ten and last ten pages really deal with writing and language (especially in relation to politics), the rest focuses on the political state of Britain just before and during WWII (which, as I've said, is a period of time I find fascinating), as well as Orwell's thoughts on how the war could be a springboard for true democratic socialism in Britain. Having the fortune of evaluating his thoughts and predictions through the lens of history, the essays become even more insightful, and his writing is as accessible and energetic as ever. A great read for writers, those interested in democratic socialism, and any fan of Orwell's more well-known classics.
Petty: A Biography by Warren Zanes
I owned this book for a year before I read it, and sadly it took Tom dying to finally help me crack it open. I think reading it in that light made the story that much more important to me, being a fan of Tom since I was a kid. His music has been in the background of my life for decades now, and this book makes out his entire journey, warts and all, from childhood to playing in local bands to struggling to break through that first album or three to dealing with the expectations and pressures of the “album cycle” stardom. It kept me up late and made me that much more of a fan. He was one of the last greats we had of the rock-and-roll era, and this book is an excellent summation of his life.
Dust Bunny City by Bud Smith
I absolutely love this book and I cannot say enough about it. The poems and short clips of fiction detail a couple's simple existence in NYC, from wandering around buzzed on a weekend afternoon and encountering the strange and commonplace sights and characters of Manhattan to lonely little moments at night when the one you love is traveling far away and all you have left is waiting, waiting. Bud's wordplay is organic and original and so fluid that there isn't a single piece here that trips up over its own aspirations. They move from quiet and elegant to loose and carefree in a three drink minimum and a heart too big for this world kind of way. Each piece was a reminder of how happy I am that Bud and Rae are out there in the world existing and drinking and laughing at crazy random simple beautiful mundane lovely and mad shit the world throws their way. A book that makes you happy, that's worth a fistful of stars right there.
84, Charing Cross Road by Helene Hanff
This book is an absolute must for any book lover, especially any Anglophiles. This series of letters spanning twenty years between a writer in NYC and a bookseller in London is charming, insightful, and heartbreaking, and will put a fire in you to go out and explore your own local bookshop, or perhaps begin ordering must-own tomes from bookshops afar via letter. Who knows, perhaps you'll begin your own life-changing correspondence in the process? This is easily the best book I've read all year and I could say more, but instead I’ll simply urge you to please seek it out and give it a shot. Short and sweet, this one is a keeper.