Michael H. takes a look back at the books he read in 2016 and tries to pick his favorites.
Let’s finish this bad boy up with my nonfiction favs of the year. The rankings in this list are pretty arbitrary: I was blown away by each of them.
10. Anne Lamott – Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life (1994)
I love books on writing like Draymond Green likes kicking people in the nuts. My most favoritest is still On Writing by Stephen King. In Bird by Bird, Lamott lays out a basic guide for writing and living as a writer with humor – “Shitty First Drafts” is one of the chapter titles – and brutal honesty.
She dissects her jealousy of others’ work as well as her wavering belief in her own ability in a self-depreciating manner that allows the reader into her process. Lamott avoids coming off as the know-it-all that her career would allow her to be, but instead shares what has worked for her, and, maybe more importantly, what hasn’t.
9. Neil Gaiman – Don’t Panic: Douglas Adams & The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1987, updated 2005)
My love of Adams and Hitchhiker’s is deep and everlasting so I read Neil Gaiman’s deep dive in rapt elation. The beloved series started as a radio show before branching out to just about every other medium: the novels, TV series, movies, video games, website, merchandise.
Gaiman – who’s a wonderful writer in his own right; you should check out American Gods if you haven’t yet – covers all of it, including the genesis of the idea and Adams’s unfailing habit of missing deadlines, before moving onto his other works including the Dirk Gently books, Adams’s Doctor Who episodes, and The Meaning of Liff.
8. Hunter S. Thompson – Hell’s Angels: A Strange and Terrible Saga (1966)
Thompson is known for his “Gonzo” style of journalism, which basically means he participated in the craziness that he was covering. For Hell’s Angels, he spent a total of two years with the infamous biker gang during their rise to prominence. With precision, humor, and madness that only Thompson can provide, he details the dirty deeds, wild parties, and aversion to a “normal” life of the Angles. It’s wild and unbelievable and gripping.
7. David Simon – Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets (1991)
I wrote a longer response to this book here, but, suffice it to say, it knocked me on my ass. David Simon, the creator of The Wire, embedded with the homicide division of the Baltimore Police Department for a year. He saw a lot of awful shit – shit that you hope you will never see – and detailed it honestly.
It will give you a deeper appreciation for what police have to go through, but also reveals that they are only humans. And sometimes humans are bad and do bad things. Homicide is deeply affecting and eye-opening and you should read it.
6. D.T. Max – Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (2012)
I read this at the height of my DFW obsession so I guess you could say I enjoyed it. This is the first biography of Wallace (many more are certain to follow), and in it D.T. Max guides the reader through Wallace’s tumultuous life via letters (where I learned of the DFW-Don DeLillo connection), interviews, and analysis of his works. It’s insightful and heartbreaking and very well done. A must-read for any Wallace fan.
5. Mary Karr – The Liars’ Club (1995)
Mary Karr is the Queen of Memoir (her The Art of Memoir is fantastic). The Liars’ Club was her first one and it essentially brought the entire genre into the mainstream. The book’s title is a reference to the group of guys Karr’s father belonged to that would get together and shoot the shit. Her father was the best shit shooter.
Karr details her rough upbringing in East Texas with unflinching honesty and biting humor. Her dad was a drinker, her mother appeared in need of a visit to a mental institution at times, and her grandmother, well, the passages in which Karr describes her are probably my favorite parts of the whole book. Mary Karr is the reason that every person on earth has written or is currently writing a memoir. You may see this as a good or bad thing, but The Liars’ Club is a memoir you should read.
4. William Finnegan – Barbarian Days: A Surfing Life (2015)
So, yeah, I don’t know anything about surfing, unless you count the few times I’ve tried unsuccessfully to body board on one-foot waves. If you told me a book that centered around surfing would be one of my favorite books this year, or ever for that matter, I would have told you to walk into the ocean and never come back. Such is the power of William Finnegan’s writing in Barbarian Days.
He covers his chase for gnarly waves from California to Hawaii, back to California, and then all over the world. Amidst the surfing obsession is his life story: his family relationships, new and old friends, love found and lost, his love of literature and writing. His passion for the tough to master and little understood sport wavers on occasion, but he never manages to completely break the hold the call of the ocean has on him. He surfs on Long Island for crissakes. Finnegan took home the Pulitzer for this one.
3. Terry McDonell – The Accidental Life: An Editor’s Notes on Writing and Writers (2016)
I already wrote about this one, but it’s pretty much my catnip. Almost 400 pages on writing/editing, interactions with famous writers, the magazine business during a time when the magazine was king, and details about how great writing came about? Do I really have to sell you on this book? Nah, it’s either right up your alley or you couldn’t care less. Boy, bye to the latter.
2. Michael Herr – Dispatches (1977)
I also wrote about this one at length. It and Homicide crushed me this year. Dispatches is considered by many to be the best book about war – like all wars, not just Vietnam – that has ever been written. (I am currently reading Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and it is also superb.) I don’t think most of us could even begin to imagine what it’s like to be a solider in a war zone. Herr takes us inside this unknowable sphere with a deft hand and an immaculate eye. Surreal and devastating, Dispatches will open you up.
1. Joan Didion – Slouching Towards Bethlehem (1968)
If George Saunders is my current obsession then Joan Didion is my constant obsession. She is one of those writers that, after you read them, makes you certain you should never write another complete sentence again in your life. So instead of trying to do her talent any justice, I’ll just leave you with a quote, and an admonition to read whatever you can find by her.
“I think we are well-advised to keep on nodding terms with the people we used to be, whether we find them attractive company or not. Otherwise they turn up unannounced and surprise us, come hammering on the mind’s door at 4 a.m. of a bad night and demand to know who deserted them, who betrayed them, who is going to make amends. We forget all too soon the things we thought we could never forget. We forget the loves and the betrayals alike, forget what we whispered and what we screamed, forget who we were.” – Slouching Towards Bethlehem
Go forth and read.FOLLOW THE OPEN FIELD