Top Picks of 2016

I read a lot of books last year. 286, to be exact, a 33% increase over last year. If my reading project was a startup looking for investors, this up and to the right chart would guarantee a unicorn horn’s worth of funding. In 2013 I ditched my office job and my consumption of books skyrocketed accordingly. Freelance work agrees very, very well with me.

My most gluttonous month was December, binging on 47 books, taking full advantage of the fact that work for clients dries up considerably the last few weeks of the year. I read over 25% of the entire year’s worth of books post-election as I retreated inward to absorb the shock.

Of the books consumed, 78% were by women writers, 22% by males. This skews slightly more than last year’s 77% women writers. I was surprised to find that 58% of the books were non-fiction, 42% fiction, especially as I am wallowing heavily in mid-20th century British fiction as the only solace I’ve found post-election. Since 11/8/16, this ratio has flipped and I’ve read 56% fiction.

Top Picks of 2016

It’s not easy to sift through almost 300 books to figure out which were the best. After several failed starts, I just closed my eyes and went down the list and tried to remember if the book sparked joy or not (note: Marie Kondo’s book will not be on this list although I did read it).

Newly discovered author: Dorothy Whipple has become a life raft for me as I read 13 of her largely forgotten books. If I had to pick favorites: Greenbanks, The Priory, They Knew Mr. Knight, and High Wages. There is something deeply comforting about the world of mid-20th century Britain that appeals to me when our world seems to be falling apart. These are distinctly middle-brow books and I make no apologies for this.

Epic work: Dorothy Richardson’s 13 book Pilgrimage is a delightful bog of female stream-of-consciousness to get lost in. I read the 13 books across four volumes last summer. My favorites of the bunch were The Tunnel, Oberland, Dawn’s Left Hand, and Clear Horizon.

Short story collections

  • Miss Grief and Other Stories by Constance Fenimore Woolson. “Strong writing, highly recommended.”
  • Tell it to a Stranger: Stories from the 1940s by Elizabeth Berridge- “upstanding British tales that lead you through strange twists and jerks and gaps.”
  • Like Life – Lorrie Moore’s 1990 collection of short stories does not disappoint.
  • American Salvage by Bonnie Jo Campbell from 2009. “Quiet, disturbing tales of life in Michigan, hard women and hard men, metal-workers, junkyard workers, meth-heads, marginal living.”

Longer fiction

  • The Sea, The Sea by Iris Murdoch… Beautiful, haunting, magical “love” story by an awesome writer.
  • Mrs. Stevens Hears the Mermaids Singing by May Sarton.
  • On the Shores of Darkness, There Is Light by Cordelia Strube. “Holy hell, another Canadian woman who can write the boots off a snake. “
  • So Big. “Holy fuck, Edna Ferber. Why is the entire English-speaking world not reading her books and worshiping her for the fantastic fiction she wrote? When I finished reading this minutes ago, I actually held it in the air and shook it.”
  • Inferno (A Poet’s Novel) by Eileen Myles. “Nearly ever page is filled with inspiration.”
  • The End of the Story by Lydia Davis. “Utterly graceful and mesmerizing writing, she weaves a tale of love, breakup, and loss while more importantly showing us how to put together the bones of a novel.”
  • I Love Dick by Chris Kraus. “I could write a book about reading this book.”
  • The Home-Maker by Dorothy Canfield; “Spectacular book from 1924 about a woman whose talents are concentrated on raising three children and housekeeping for a husband who barely makes enough money.”
  • The Old Man And Me by Elaine Dundy:  “wonderfully weird and compelling story.”

Biography

  • Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life by Ruth Franklin. I’m including this bio instead of listing every single thing by Shirley Jackson that I ended up reading because of this bio. (Hint: Jackson is terrific)
  • Katherine Mansfield: A Secret Life by Claire Tomalin. “A lovely biography of a writer on whom we’ve all more or less turned our backs on this century.”
  • Zelda by Nancy Milford. “Amazing and heartbreaking biography of Zelda (Sayre) Fitzgerald’s creative and unusual life, pub’d in 1970.”
  • The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme. “Engaging and delightful book about Jane and Thomas Carlyle based mostly on letters that witty Jane penned through her life. I never had much interest in Carlyle until reading this; perhaps great men are sometimes better reached via a more oblique angle.”

Memoir

  • Skating to Antarctica by Jenny Diski – Hermione Lee called this “a typically uncategorizable mixture of travel journal, childhood memoir, and Melvillean meditation on whiteness and oblivion.”
  • M Train by Patti Smith. Especially good for a re-read after seeing her at the Nourse Theater.
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. “As good as everyone says it is.”
  • I Blame Dennis Hopper by Illeana Douglas. “So much fun to read.”
  • An American Childhood. “I am firmly under the spell of Annie Dillard’s magical way with words.”
  • In Our Time: Memoir of a Revolution by Susan Brownmiller. “This is the best book I’ve read on the Second Wave.”

Travel

Other non-fiction

  • Fear of Falling: The Inner Life of the Middle Class . Barbara Ehrenreich’s book charting the shift in consciousness of the middle class is eerily spot-on reading for someone trying desperately to understand what went wrong in the 2016 election.
  • The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York. Robert Caro’s massive biography of Robert Moses was published in 1974 after seven years of research, interviewing over 500 people, and writing.
  • Ravens in Winter. I couldn’t wait to get back home to finish this real-life detective story by “sociobiologist” Bernd Heinrich, who seeks to discover why ravens share their finds of large meat carcasses instead of gorging on them by themselves.
  • We’ll Call You If We Need You: Experiences of Women Working Construction. I never imagined I’d love a book so much about women trying to break into the construction industry. Susan Eisenberg interviewed 30 women about their experiences as the first women in their union locals in the five trades: carpenters, electricians, ironworkers, painters, and plumbers.
  • The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert. An entertaining and informative look at diminishing species due to human involvement.

Classics rediscovered and appreciated:

Books to raise your blood pressure:
It’s true. I actually mention my blood pressure rising in these reviews.

Others of note

Worst Books of 2015

By specific request, a roundup of the books I loved to hate in 2015… loved enough to finish in order to tear apart here.
* Dispatches from Pluto: Lost and Found in the Mississippi Delta by Richard Grant
* That Summer in Paris by Morley Callaghan
* A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
* The Rosie Project by Graeme Simsion
* Last Night by James Salter
* Girl In a Band by Kim Gordon
* 10:04 by Ben Lerner
* Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offill

Top Picks of 2015

It is utterly insane that I’ve read 214 books this year, a 55% increase over last year. Reading has become more of an obsession than ever, my near_daily trips to the library to dump armloads of books off and load up armloads to devour. It’s almost impossible to pick out a top list from that many books. So instead, major highlights.
* Discovering Gertrude Stein _ lots of examples but Lectures in America blew me away… Gail Scott’s My Paris turned me towards GS, along with providing me with inspiration for a writing project.
* Charlotte Brontë’s Villette!
* Fanny Fern!
* Terrific forgotten gems written by women: The Dud Avocado (Elaine Dundy), Cousin to Human (Jane Mayhall), Who Are You? & Ice (both by Anna Kavan), Daughter of Earth (Agnes Smedley), Mothers and Daughters (Catherine Grace Frances Gore), The Moonflower Vine (Jetta Carleton), The Time of Man (Elizabeth Madox Roberts), Fortunes Of Richard Mahony (H.H. Richardson), Testament of Youth (Vera Brittain), Dangerous Ages (Rose Macaulay), Put Off Thy Shoes (Ethel Voynich), The Narrow House (Evelyn Scott), Picture Frames (Thyra Samter Winslow)
* Greatest hits from the Second Wave: Shulamith Firestone’s The Dialectic of Sex, Kate Millet’s Sexual Politics, a bunch of Andrea Dworkin, Tillie Olsen’s Silences
* Along the general theme of things moving too fast, inattention, etc.: Journal of Solitude by May Sarton, The Age of American Unreason by Susan Jacoby, An Unknown Woman by Alice Koller, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek by Annie Dillard
* Amazing new or newish: Citizen (Claudia Rankine), Gone Girl (Gillian Flynn), A Little Life (Hanya Yanagihara), Fifteen Dogs (Andre Alexis), The Visiting Privilege (Joy Williams), The Turner House (Angela Flournoy), Life After Life (Kate Atkinson)
* Great collections of essays: The Essential Ellen Willis, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion by Meghan Daum, Forty_One False Starts (Janet Malcolm)
* Since I’m reading fewer male authors (23% vs. 77% women authors), the ones that sneak in are usually worth it. The best dudes I read in 2015: Dear Theo: The Autobiography of Vincent Van Gogh, How I Read Gertrude Stein (Lew Welch), Flaubert’s Parrot (Julian Barnes), and The Odd Women (George Gissing)
* Ongoing series: I read all the Neapolitan Novels of Elena Ferrante (not worth it), and Book 4 of Karl Ove’s never ending struggle (better than book 3)
* Non-fiction: The Brothers: The Road to an American Tragedy by Masha Gessen

Top Picks of 2014

My reading pace became frenzied in the last months of the year as I read 35% of the 132 books in November and December (26 books this month so far!). But it’s not about quantity, it’s about immersing yourself in the work and coming away with deeper knowledge or appreciation of writing. The range of books consumed was wide this year, so I’ve broken the list into categories, limiting to top 3.
Biography
Virginia Woolf by Hermione Lee
Valerie Solanas: The Defiant Life of the Woman Who Wrote SCUM (and Shot Andy Warhol) by Breanne Fahs
Margaret Fuller: A New American Life by Megan Marshall
Art and Poetry
Daybook: The Journal of an Artist by Anne Truitt
Scrambled Eggs & Whiskey: Poems, 1991-1995 by Hayden Carruth
Short Stories
Beauty Talk & Monsters by Masha Tupisyn
Speedboat by Renata Adler
The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher: Stories by Hilary Mantel
Contemporary Lit
A Natural History of Dragons: A Memoir by Lady Trent by Marie Brennan
Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My Struggle: Book 2 by Karl Ove Knausgaard (translated by Don Bartlett) – Book 1 was also good, but Book 3 a disappointment.
Classics
Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, translated by Edith Grossman – no really, read it.
Jean Rhys: The Complete Novels
The Golden Notebook by Doris Lessing
Philosophy
The Journal of Henry David Thoreau, 1837-1861
The Wisdom of Life by Arthur Schopenhauer, translated by T. Bailey Saunders
A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros, translated by John Howe
Society and Culture
Masscult and Midcult: Essays Against the American Grain by Dwight Macdonald
The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-Events in America by Daniel J. Boorstin
The Violence of Organized Forgetting: Thinking Beyond America’s Disimagination Machine by Henry Giroux
Feminism
Three Guineas by Virginia Woolf
Woman in Sexist Society: Studies in Power and Powerlessness edited by: Vivian Gornick and Barbara Moran
SCUM Manifesto by Valerie Solanas
History
A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous 14th Century by Barbara Tuchman
Lawrence in Arabia: War, Deceit, Imperial Folly and the Making of the Modern Middle East by Scott Anderson

Top Picks of 2013

It seems like I barely read anything over the last year, and yet I have an oversized list of favorites.
1. Intimate History of Humanity by Theodore Zeldin
This one takes top place because I have recommended it to nearly everyone.
2. Master of the Senate by Robert Caro
Caro’s epic achievement of an in-depth profile of LBJ marches on.
3. Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Historical fiction at its finest
4. Pavilion of Women by Pearl Buck
A woman on her 40th birthday hires a concubine for her husband? Yes, please.
5. Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte
I’m dumb for never having read this before.
6. Meaning in Life: The Creation of Value by Irving Singer
Nibbled at this one for months, great great stuff.
7. The Gift: Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World by Lewis Hyde
8. Tenth of December by George Saunders
9. Women’s History of the World by Rosalind Miles
10. Eight Decades: Essays and Episodes by Agnes Replier
11. My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
12. Gentleman Overboard by Herbert Clyde Lewis
13. The Round House by Louise Erdrich
14. Art: Conversations with Paul Gsell by Auguste Rodin
15. Up in the Old Hotel by Joseph Mitchell
A perfect complement to living in NYC at the beginning of 2013.
Best in Kids’ Literature I read in 2013:
16. In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard
17. The Fault in our Stars by John Green

Top Picks of 2012

This year’s winners are a mixed bunch. A few re-reads from previous years (Naipaul, Kesey), a multi-read within the year (Seneca), a conversion to believer in the cult of DFW (Wallace), deep historical research (Caro), philosophy (Schopenhauer and Belloc), and great story telling (Mistry).
1. Letters from a Stoic by Seneca, translated by Robin Campbell
This one takes top prize because I read it twice in 2012 and have recommended it to nearly everyone.
2. The Path to Rome by Hillaire Belloc
3. A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again: Essays and Arguments by David Foster Wallace
4. The Passage of Power: The Years of Lyndon Johnson by Robert Caro
5. A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry
6. Sometimes a Great Notion by Ken Kesey
7. Essays and Aphorisms by Arthur Schopenhauer
8. A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul

Top Picks of 2011

Well into Spring of 2012, I’ve neglected my annual wrap-up. Here ’tis, in all its corroded memory glory. Lots of re-reads made the list, and I went deep into the classics this year.
Winners:
1. Ulysses by James Joyce
2. Moby Dick, or The Whale by Herman Melville
3. Remembrance of Things Past: Swann’s Way by Marcel Proust
4. The Notebook by Agota Kristoff
5. Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen
Honorable Mentions:
1. You Can’t Win by Jack Black
2. Moonwalking with Einstein by Joshua Foer
3. Cathedral by Raymond Carver
4. Pale Fire by Vladimir Nabokov
5. Status Anxiety by Alain de Botton
Worthy Contenders:
1. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender
2. My Uncle Oswald by Roald Dahl
3. The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
4. The Lotus Eaters by Tatjana Soli
5.1984 by George Orwell
6. The Lover’s Dictionary by David Levithan

Top Picks of 2010

Over the last year, I read sixty-two books, and want to mention twenty-four of them here. That means more than one out of every three books I read was worth telling you about. 2010 was a good year!
Winners:
1. Shadow Country by Peter Matthiessen
2. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese
3. The Best of Roald Dahl
4. The Big Short by Michael Lewis
5. Yarborough by B.H. Friedman
6. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño
7. Half of a Yellow Sun by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Honorable Mentions:
1. Why Did I Ever by Mary Robison
2. Anywhere But Here by Mona Simpson
3. So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
4. Stoner by John Williams
5. What We Talk About When We Talk About Love by Raymond Carver
6. Spooner by Pete Dexter
7. The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris
8. A Fraction of the Whole by Steve Toltz
9. Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell
10. Freedom by Jonathan Franzen
11. Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann
12. Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem
Worthy Contenders:
1. I am not Sidney Poitier by Percival Everett
2. All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
3. The Door into Summer by Robert A. Heinlein
4. Birds of America by Lorrie Moore
5. Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer

Top Picks of 2009

I forgot to do the annual wrap-up of favorites from the previous year. Halfway through 2010 already, and 2009 is a dimly-lit corridor with titles I barely remember. That said, here’s what I can conjure from the haze for books I enjoyed reading the most in 2009:
Definitely:
1. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
2. Sag Harbor by Colson Whitehead
3. The Tanners by Robert Walser
4. Nothing Right by Antonya Nelson
5. Art & Fear by David Bayles and Ted Orland
6. I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley
7. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments by Roland Barthes
8. The Tin Drum by Günter Grass
Runners-Up:
1. What to Eat by Marion Nestle
2. Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles
3. The Egg and I by Betty MacDonald
4. Awesome by Jack Pendarvis
5. The Love of a Good Woman by Alice Munro
6. Team of Rivals by Doris Kearns Goodwin

Top Picks of 2008

It’s that time of year again, when space heaters are on full blast, and I’m looking through the archive to remind myself of all the juicy reading I did in 2008. For your convenience (aw hell, and mine too), here’s my list of the best stuff I read this year.
The Winners
1. The Informant by Kurt Eichenwald
2. What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer
3. Night Train to Lisbon by Pascal Mercier
4. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss
5. Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
6. Bad Money by Kevin Phillips
7. Will You Please Be Quiet, Please? by Raymond Carver
8. The Writing Class by Jincy Willett
9. Slumberland by Paul Beatty
10. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
11. Resource Wars by Michael Klare
12. The Story of a Marriage by Andrew Sean Greer

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Top Picks of 2007

By request, for those extremely lazy folks out there who let me do their reading for them. Here are my top picks for last year (not that the books were published in 2007, but that I consumed them then). It’s all about me, you see.
The Winners
1. The Savage Detectives by Roberto Bolaño
2. In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick
3. Jenny and the Jaws of Life by Jincy Willett
4. Girl in the Flammable Skirt by Aimee Bender
5. The Raw Shark Texts by Steven Hall
The Honorable Mentions
1. Falling Man by Don DeLillo
2. Flash Fiction Forward by James Thomas
3. Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert
4.
Down & Out in Paris & London
by George Orwell
5. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
6. The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss

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Top Picks of 2006

Here are my top picks for 2006.
The Winners
1. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
2. The Woman Who Cut Off Her Leg at the Maidstone Club and other stories by Julia Slavin
3. River of Doubt by Candice Millard
4. To Feel Stuff by Andrea Seigel
5. The Wind-up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami
The Honorable Mentions
1. On Seeing and Noticing by Alain de Botton
2. Women by Charles Bukowski
3. Andes to the Amazon by Bruce Junek
4. Ask the Dust by John Fante
5. The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell
6. Legends by Robert Littell
7. Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth
8. Apex Hides the Hurt by Colson Whitehead
9. Benjamin Franklin by Walter Isaacson

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Top Picks of 2005

Here are my top picks for 2005.
The Winners
1. The Pacific by Mark Helprin
2. The Devil’s Teeth by Susan Casey
3. Swimming to Antarctica by Lynne Cox
4. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
5. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
6. Guns Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond
The Honorable Mentions
1. Poet of the Appetities by Joan Reardon
2. The Middle Mind by Curtis White
3. Obsessive Genius by Barbara Goldsmith
4. The Light of Day by Graham Swift

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LZ enjoys…

This is a list of my recent favorites; also check out the list of annual Best-ofs.
(Updated Aug 2014, just covering the best books I’ve read over last 8 months)
Dwight MacDonal’s collection of essays are stunning
Masha Tupisyn’s Beauty Talk & Monsters
Barbara Tuchman’s history of the 14th century
Renata Alder’s Speedboat
Really anything by Virginia Woolf, but Death of the Moth is a good place to start.
Thoreau’s Journals
Doris Lessing’s Golden Notebook
Megan Marshall’s bio of Margaret Fuller

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