For as long as I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve kept track of the books I’ve read. I’m not sure why, other than the fact that it’s my blog and I enjoy keeping track of those books and remembering them here. It’s as good a reason as any.
This year often felt a bit out of sync, as the collapse of the American republic under the assault of right-wing extremism draws ever closer, and that often made it hard to focus on reading for pleasure. But you need something in this world just for your own – preferably a few somethings – and so we press on.
This is the list for 2017. Enjoy!
A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare: 1599 (James Shapiro)
One of the things that has long driven me buggy about English literature scholarship is the insistence that texts stand on their own, outside of their historical context, and can be analyzed purely as words on the page. This nonsense reached its peak with the literary theorists of the 1990s, a bizarre tribe of jargon-spewing obscurantists whose work infected even the discipline of history while I was in graduate school. James Shapiro is not one of those. He firmly situates Shakespeare in the context of his times, and by keeping a tight focus on one pivotal year he brings to the surface the connections between Shakespeare’s life, his plays, and the larger events of English history. Queen Elizabeth I, the Earl of Essex, and Ben Johnson all loom large here, for example, and Shapiro does a masterful job of presenting Shakespeare as a working writer of his time, shaped by and shaping the events that surrounded him, trying to make a living in an age of high uncertainty. As Shapiro notes, “Shakespeare didn’t write ‘as if from another planet,’ as Coleridge put it: he wrote for the Globe.”
F in Exams: The Very Best Totally Wrong Test Answers (Richard Benson)
This is a fairly slim collection of the sorts of things that simultaneously make teachers laugh out loud and bang their heads against the wall in frustration, most of which I had not seen before though there were a few golden oldies. They’re organized by subject, and if you’re looking for a quick and cheerful book, this is a good one to zip through.
Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania (Erik Larson)
When I was a kid I would go to the reading room at my local library – a tiny little place – and read whatever interested me. One book that I must have read a dozen times or more was a thin collection of stories of shipwrecks, mostly modern. I knew more about the sad fate of the Andrea Doria than any 10-year-old boy really ought to have known. So when a friend gave me this book as a birthday present, I was eager to read it. Larson is a captivating writer – it’s amazing how much good history these days is being written by people who aren’t professional historians – who has done a vast amount of research and produced a book that is both well documented and compellingly readable. It follows the standard 1970s disaster movie arc – you meet the various characters who will feature in the story and get to know them a bit, you follow the events until the disaster hits, the disaster is described in some detail, and then you follow the characters through to the aftermath. But Larson does such a good job with the cast of characters – a wide assortment ranging from the passengers and crew of the Lusitania to the captain of the U20 that sank her to British intelligence to the White House and beyond – and such a good job of building suspense that you get swept along in the story and find yourself genuinely fascinated with the people he writes about and the things that happen to them. Whenever I read about historical tragedies I always find myself hoping that things will turn out differently this time, but they don’t and that’s why it’s history, I suppose. If you don’t know how it ends already, it’s really not history yet.
Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis (JD Vance)
Much has been made of late of the working class white male, particularly those in the broad areas of Appalachia and the Rust Belt. He is credited with the victory of the current lawless regime in Washington, the revival of a peculiar sort of right-wing petit-Fascist populism, and the popularity of a distinctive sort of low-brow entertainment best exemplified by reality television, particularly involving Confederate flags and/or dimwitted half-clothed 20-somethings. He has also been vilified as unemployable, drug-addicted, close-minded, and generally unsavory. And while all of these things are true in some measure, they don’t tell the whole story. JD Vance’s book doesn’t tell the whole story either, but it does provide a window into the values and troubles of such people – “hillbillies” in Vance’s own word. Vance comes from this subculture – he was born poor in Middletown, Ohio, to parents who fled the poverty of rural Kentucky but never really escaped it or the culture that came with it. That Vance would ultimately go to Yale Law School and become part of the elite he envied and hated as a child is a complicated story, and it makes him somewhat bilingual in the sense of being able to translate hillbilly culture for a wider audience. He tells his own story with sympathy and a critical eye, explaining the values of his people, justifying them where he thinks it appropriate (loyalty is a key virtue, after all) and criticizing them as well (he never uses the phrase “crab bucket,” but he might as well have). If you want to understand the political and cultural dysfunctionality of the 21st-century US, this is a decent place to start, though it was not without its flaws. I can’t say that I liked this book, on balance – having much sympathy for people whose actions often seem deliberately calculated to make my own children’s lives poorer doesn't come easily, so sue me – but it was useful.
All the Light We Cannot See (Anthony Doerr)
Marie-Laure lives in Paris in 1940. Her father is the locksmith for a museum there. She has been blind since she was a child. Werner lives with his sister Jutta in a German orphanage, where he becomes fascinated by radio, particularly a recorded French voice that gives science lessons late at night. Soon they will be swept into the war – Marie-Laure and her father to Saint-Malo on the Breton coast, Werner into the Wehrmacht. Eventually their stories will collide at the Allied destruction of Saint-Malo in August 1944. This is a crystalline novel, at once sad and lovely, in which terrible things happen. Doerr does not save his characters from the world around them but lets those that live through it emerge scarred at the other end. The story is told in the present tense, though it bounces around in time – it begins with the bombing, and then flashes back to the childhoods of the main characters, back and forth, back and forth as the stories converge (it’s not much of a spoiler to note that the French scientist was Marie-Laure’s grandfather, who died in WWI), and then concludes with two short epilogues – one set in 1974 and another in 2014. It’s a haunting story that will stay with you, though I admit that reading a book about the Fascist takeover of a once-proud democracy was probably not the best thing for my mental health immediately after the inauguration of der Sturmtrumper. I was, however, happy to recognize an anecdote that Doerr lifted wholesale from Richard Feynman’s autobiography and gave to Werner, and even happier when he gave Feynman credit for it in the Acknowledgements.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid: A Memoir (Bill Bryson)
I first heard this as an audiobook, but those are never quite real to me and I’ve long wanted to read it in print. When a local bookstore had an “Everything In The Store Costs $1” sale and this was there, I picked it up. And I was richly rewarded for doing so. Bryson grew up in Iowa in the 1950s and early 1960s – the height of the American Century, and a time now hallowed by many Americans as the greatest time to be an American. Bryson occasionally points out that this was mostly true for straight white men, but he’s usually content to focus on his own small life. His family was uneventfully happy – both parents worked for the Des Moines Register and were loving if somewhat odd – and his childhood was both sheltered and mischievous. Bryson manages to combine a curmudgeonly grouchiness and a genuine appreciation for what he had in prose that spans from laugh-out-loud funny to heartwarming, often at his own expense though sometimes at that of his friends. It’s a pleasant and undemanding book, which in early 2017 made for a very nice break from reality.
I’ve Been Gone Far Too Long: Field Trip Fiascos and Expedition Disasters (Monique Borgerhoff Mulder and Wendy Logsdon, eds)
This book could well have been subtitled “White People Uncomfortable in Third World Countries.” It is, as advertised, a collection of stories from researchers doing biological or anthropological field work in poor, remote, and often hostile areas, most of which are centered on the things that go wrong on such expeditions though occasionally you do get stories of things going unexpectedly well. It was an interesting book rather than a humorous one – there are very few things in here that are actually funny, despite the claims of the reviewers, but the stories are good at holding your attention and at reminding me why I am not likely to go adventure touring anytime soon.
C’est la Vie: An American Conquers the City of Light, Begins a New Life, and Becomes – Zut Alors! – Almost French (Suzy Gershman)
On the one hand, you have to feel a bit for Suzy Gershman. Her beloved husband dies at the very beginning of the book, leaving her to achieve their dream of moving to Paris on her own. She faces all of the usual indignities of the expat – finding a place to live, settling into a new culture, and so on – and in the end she seems to find happiness there. On the other hand, to judge from her writing, she is so cluelessly privileged that most of the time you’re reading this you just want to slap her with a wet fish and tell her to stop being so insufferable. She lives to shop, and in fact writes a series of books entitled Born to Shop, so you know going in that she’s going to be fairly shallow and materialistic. She is the sort of person who will reject a perfect apartment, large, secure, airy, light, and one that most people could never get within hailing distance of affording, because the neighborhood is insufficiently cute. She spends most of the book having an affair with a married man, which she regards as a very French thing to do and perhaps it is, though it involves more information than was probably necessary even if she does give the poor man a pseudonym. She attends all the best parties, hobnobs with the in crowd, is forever calling limos or flying back and forth to the US, and devotes immense space to things like dishes, furniture, and restaurant meals. She’s a good writer and can be very engaging when she wants to be, but at bottom this is the story of an extraordinarily privileged person who really doesn’t seem to be aware of just how privileged she is – a relic of an era when you could air a television show called Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous without irony – and that does wear thin after a while.
One More Time: The Best of Mike Royko (Mike Royko)
Mike Royko wrote a 5x/week column for various Chicago newspapers for more than thirty years, from the early 1960s through his death in the mid-1990s. By the 1980s he was syndicated, which is how I found him in the Philadelphia Inquirer. He was always a must-read – biting, funny, bittersweet, often angry at the injustices of the world visited on the powerless, and always well written. This is basically a “greatest hits” collection, as determined by his wife and a few colleagues not long after his death, and they’re all good ones – especially if you remember the history going on around them. He loved Chicago and lived and died by the Cubs. He hated bureaucrats, mindless attempts to legislate morality or politeness, and flying. This was an era when a newspaper column was a powerful thing, and he used it well. There is no real equivalent in the digital age, and that’s a shame.
Empire Falls (Richard Russo)
Richard Russo writes big, warm-hearted books that can often be very funny (such as Straight Man) but are more often gently sad (Bridge of Sighs). This one has flashes of humor but is mostly a story of a dying small town in central Maine and the lives of some of the people caught there, and so tends toward the latter more than the former. The Whiting family ran the textile mills that made Empire Falls prosperous, but those mills closed long ago and left Francine Whiting as the matriarch of the town, pulling the strings and making those in her service jump according to her wishes. Miles Roby runs the Empire Grill, having left college to be with his dying mother and never quite escaping again. He has a teenaged daughter named Christina whom everyone calls Tick, a soon-to-be-ex wife named Janine, a reprobate father named Max, and a small but well-realized group of friends. The story follows Miles’ personal life, Tick’s disastrous high school experiences, the ups and downs of the Empire Grill, and the small, often unrealized dreams and victories of everyday life in a declining town. Other than the ending, which felt both abrupt and a bit out of place, it’s a compelling and well written story of people living their lives and trying to do the best they can, whether that’s actually good enough or not.
The Witch’s Vacuum Cleaner, and Other Stories (Terry Pratchett)
Of the ongoing struggle to cash in on the papers and early works of famous and recently deceased authors there is no end. On the one hand, it is a bit exploitative. On the other hand, it gives those of us who would like one more visit with the author a chance to have it. This is a sequel of sorts to the earlier Dragons at Crumbling Castle and like that volume it is a collection of early stories that Pratchett wrote as a newspaper columnist. They’re whimsical, entertaining, and clearly aimed at tweens – a term Pratchett probably would have hated, even if it was a demographic he seems to have adored. They’ve been lightly edited by Pratchett himself, which suggests that he was planning to publish these collections anyway before he died, and they are full of the kind of typographical tricks that keep kids entertained. Lightweight, but fun.
The Madwoman in the Volvo: My Year of Raging Hormones (Sandra Tsing Loh)
Sandra Tsing Loh does a fine job of screwing up her own life and then writing an interesting book about it, and if there are times when you want to grab her by the collar and tell her to stop being such an idiot, there are also times when you want to give her a hug and tell her it will all be okay. She starts the book in her late 40s, simultaneously about to go into menopause and embark on a disastrous affair with her manager. It’s hard to tell which one is more destructive, as she ends up divorced and hormonally scattered throughout the book. Her daughters suffer, her career suffers, she suffers, her new boyfriend suffers. One imagines her ex-husband suffers too, though he is shunted safely offstage for much of the book. She is an engaging writer and most of the time this is enough to make up for the things she writes about – she is both incredibly self-indulgent and often self-deprecating – but not always and not quite enough to make me want to spend any more time with her. But then, I am not the target audience of this book.
That’s Not English: Britishisms, Americanisms, and What Our English Says About Us (Erin Moore)
I’ve always loved learning about the cultural and linguistic differences between the US and Britain, and this book is right up that alley. It’s a short, breezy take on the old saw that the US and Britain are separated by a common language (something she explicitly references, even if it is to downplay how common that language really is). It’s organized by word, with each chapter devoted to a single word (“Quite” or “Scrappy” or somesuch) in which both the various meanings of that word and the cultural assumptions and practices behind those meanings are examined. In American English, for example, “quite” means “very” – when an American says, “That’s quite good” she means that it is a bit better than good. In British English, however, “quite” means “not really” or “kind of” – when an Englishman says “That’s quite good” he means that it’s not really up to par. From there Moore spins out the general enthusiasm and optimism of American culture versus the restraint and sarcasm of British culture. An American expat living in London, Moore has a good feel for these differences and a certain sympathy for both sides, and the book manages to be both entertaining and educational.
The Ralph Glasser Omnibus (Ralph Glasser)
Growing Up In the Gorbals
Ralph Glasser was an economist and a psychologist who became an advisor to a number of developing countries in his later life, notably as a defender of traditional communities under threat from “progress,” but he grew up in the Gorbals – the notoriously poor slums of Glasgow. This is the first volume of his autobiography (collected in the Omnibus), and it covers his childhood and young adulthood, ending just as he sets off for a bizarrely improbable undergraduate career at Oxford University. Glasser and most of his neighbors were either the descendants of East European Jews or were themselves the immigrants who came to the UK in the early 20th century, and the life he led was one of desperate poverty within a functioning if rather sharp-edged community. His mother died when he was young, his father was a gambling addict, and his sisters were sufficiently older than he as to provide very little company, so he relied on his friends, schoolmates, and – when he was forced to leave school at 14 – his workmates at a textile factory, where he worked as a presser. He describes the impact of poverty on both himself and his community, drawing portraits of those who struggled against it and those who fell. The lot of women in the Gorbals was particularly grim. As the book moves on it gets more reflective and less action-oriented, and you lose track of the forward motion of time as he skims back and forth across events. But he was always a reader, and when an essay sent off without much hope of success wins him a place at Oxford it changes both his future and his entire relationship with his own community. It’s an elegantly written life, hazy on some details and sharp on others. His descriptions of union life, Communist agitations, sexual relations, and the scrabble to find food and the basics of life are captivating.
Gorbals Boy at Oxford
Picking up pretty much exactly where the previous volume left off, Glasser now finds himself at Oxford in the waning days of the Depression as WWII steams ever closer. Much of the book concerns three themes. First, there is the fish out of water story, as the poor Scottish slum-dweller tries to fit himself into the elite English society of Oxford, with often mixed results. He is patronized. He wrong-foots himself continually. He makes a few friends and eventually learns the code, though he agonizes over whether he should conform to it. This is especially true with his relationships, all of which go wrong in grimly predictable ways. He does try to visit his family and friends in the Gorbals at one point, but finds himself a stranger, so perhaps his transformation succeeds. Second, there is the political story of a man flirting around the edges of Communism at a time when that was a respectable thing to do. He meets with Party mandarins, recruiters, and workers. He dwells forever on the plight of the worker and more so on the condescending and often uninformed sentiment of the Oxford elites toward those workers, even when that sentiment is ostensibly sympathetic. His Gorbals friend Bernard figures heavily into this, as a mentor and a protector in some ways. Third, there is the wartime story, as WWII intrudes into the bubble of Oxford and spirits Glasser away for an indeterminate amount of time before dropping him back there, older and sadder but not all that much wiser. By the end of the book Glasser is acclimated to his new surroundings – he doesn’t worry so much about money, he has a new job with the “boss class” in an office, and his anxiety, while ever present, is less obsessive. Few people end up happy in this book, least of all Glasser, and it is a curiously vague book when it comes to things like dates and context, though very specific about emotions and inner turmoil.
Gorbals Voice, Siren Songs
There is a certain timeless quality to Glasser’s memoirs, even beyond the fact that he never, to my recollection, mentions a single date anywhere in this collection (it is only from the back cover blurb that I could get any real handle on when he arrived at Oxford in the previous volume, for example). This timelessness is more to do with the fact that this isn’t a memoir of a life so much as it is the memory of a shaping childhood transferred to a new adult life in much different surroundings, both personal and global. This volume is set after WWII in the bleak and puzzled days following what should have been a glorious victory, and the poor boy from the Gorbals now has an Oxford degree and a government job and runs with a more affluent crowd than ever he thought he would. This concluding volume is more bittersweet, a story of betwixt and between. Glasser chews over his failed marriage and another failed relationship, harkening back to similar failures at Oxford and the Gorbals. He meticulously dissects his Jewishness, casting back to the days of comfortable religious surroundings in the Gorbals and ahead to the spiritually bleached world of British society in a post-Holocaust world. The old Communist crusades are long gone, and Glasser doesn’t really find anything to replace them with until almost literally the last paragraph of the book. If you seek action, go elsewhere. This is a profound meditation of an unexpected life thoroughly scrutinized, one whose victories never seem to make him happier and whose travels from his origins seem to leave him both curiously anchored and somewhat adrift.