Ten Things I Thought About Books I Read in 2016

During the 366 days or 2016 I saw some places I had never seen before, I forget myself for moments and sometimes even hours in the company of friends and family, I wrote words that sounded sweet to my ears at least, I was (perhaps once or twice, ever so slightly) brave, I drank more than I probably should have, I obsessed over trivial personal considerations and ignored the well-being of my fellows, I lamented my failings and my inability to overcome them. Also (according to Goodreads) I read 139 books, which is not 150 books, the round if arbitrary ambition which I had set myself. And some of those were omnibus editions so like, you could probably count Parade’s End 3 more times or whatever, and I read a few things I disliked too much to review, so maybe you could add 6 or 7 on top of that 139 but still, but still, but still, any way you look at it I did not read 150 books. Bad Daniel. That’s a bad, bad Daniel.

Anyhow, when I sat down to try and do a top 10 list it ended up being like a top 18, and then I got kind of bored with the idea of a top 10 list, and then I just wrote out the following.   

  1. Flat Out Nastiest Book I Read in 2016: Would have been Nightmare Alley in a walk, a prohibition era noir about the rise and fall of a circus con man which serves simultaneously to condemn religion, psychology, and love. Except that in 2016 I also read High Rise by J.G. Ballard, which makes Nightmare Alley look like a tween romance novel, complete with shiny vampires and dry humping. Can there be any real dispute at this point that Ballard was the most prescient writer of the second half of the twentieth century, both in his savage criticism of modernity and in his astonishingly far-sighted concern for environmental collapse?
  2. Two ‘A’ authors we all should stop reading: Paul Auster, because he’s just, I mean he’s just the worst, are we all even reading the same books? Do I have a congenital brain defect which somehow distorts my vision when I pick up one of novels, making genius look like limpid, pointless prose, Borges denuded of its wit and puffed out interminably? And Isabella Allende , who, again, I mean, really people, come on, this is the very apex of mediocrity. The plateau of mediocrity? Whatever, don’t waste your time. Bonus Overrated ‘A’ Author: Jane Austen.
  3. And two ‘A’ authors we all should start reading: Renata Adler, one of the best comics writers of the age, a writer’s writer, and J.R. Ackerley , strange and clever and funny and sad.
  4. Best work of genre fiction, fulfilling expectations category: Peter Straub’s Ghost Story is everything you could want in a horror novel – strange, frightening, well written and better paced, with the most singularly effective opening you’ll ever stumble across. Read it in a day, be kept awake for a week.
  5. Best work of genre fiction, superseding expectations category: John Crowley’s Little, Big tells a tail of lost love, fairies, changelings, sorcery, and the collapse of America that also speaks to essential experiences of human existence. Comparable in its scope (though arguably superior) to Hundred Years of Solitude, this is a book to be savored and returned to. Bonus: Peace by Gene Wolfe, which doesn’t win because I read it last year, but still always kind of wins, if you can dig it.
  6. Book Society Somehow Got it Right On: Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn is that rarest of things, a popular novel deserving its millions of sales. Weird and scary and mean and well written and etc, if you somehow avoided reading this you should rectify the situation.
  7. Best Book about Nazis I read in 2016: Diary of a Man in Despair, Friedrich Reck’s tragic, timely, ennobling journal which he kept while living through the rise and collapse of Nazi Germany. If you read one thing on this list, read that. Bonus Book about Nazis I read in 2016: While A Man Lies Dreaming Lavie Tidhar cannot be compared to Reck in terms of clarity of prose, profundity of thought, or the moral stature of the writers themselves, it does have way more scenes of Hitler being pissed on.
  8. My Least Favorite NYRB Classics Book that I Read in 2016: Just so you don’t get the idea that they’re paying me off, or whatever, I didn’t particularly care for Memed, My Hawk, which ends up being a not altogether fascinating adventure novel.  
  9. Best Book I picked up on a stoop in 2016:  A Tie (gasp!) between Donald Westlake’s hysterically frantic comic-crime novel Dancing Aztecs and Barbarians at the Gate by Bryan Burrough and John   Helyar, about late 80’s Wall Street shenanigans.
  10. Best Book to Explain the 2016 Election: Ride a Cockhorse by Raymond Kennedy, about a menopausal woman riding a sudden wave of testosterone to the head of the bank which she works, perhaps higher. Fabulously mean, fabulously clever. Bonus Book to Explain the 2016 Election: Diary of a Man in Despair a second time.