Bookshelf — My Year in Reading, 2023

If you scan the list below, you will see a wide range of fiction (I only read four non-fiction works) that can be more or less divided into three parts – well-known literary-ish novels I’d never read (“The Lying Life of Adults,” “Rabbit, Run,” “The End of the Affair”); newer popular works (“Small Mercies,” “Crook Manifesto”); and audiobooks, which are exclusively crime, and mostly by Michael Connolly (background noise for the gym).
 
As I have since the pandemic (remember that?) when I told myself to take more reading risks, I reveled in the discovery of writers who fall outside my previously narrow comfort zone, among them: Elena Ferrante, (more) Rachel Cusk), Rabih Alameddine (amazing), and Eudora Welty). Their work widened my world view and heartened my belief that in reading we can find the humanity that is too often hidden amid the atrocity and hatred of our times.
 
I only dropped out of two books, of which the biggest disappointment was “Kairos” by Jenny Erpenbeck, which I’d looked forward to because I’d loved her previous work, “Go Went Gone.”
 
People ask about favorites, a list I find hard to delineate because my tastes vary so much. For me, reading is all all-you-can-eat buffet: who’s to say if the mountain of mashed potatoes is better than the thick slabs of sliced roast beef or the gurgling vat of mac and cheese? Still, one must choose, so in lieu of favorites, I offer some of the books that most delighted or surprised me: 

Non-fiction: “On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey” – Paul Theroux, a marvelously descriptive and insightful road trip by a septuagenarian explorer through our complex southern neighbor.
 
Fiction (in no order): “My Monticello” (a magnetic mirror on the world); “The Wrong End of the Telescope” (phenomenal); “Signs Preceding the End of the World” (the bizarre realities of the US-Mexico borderlands); “The Swimmers” (beautiful simplicity); “The Sentence” (I hope to read all of Erdrich); “Small Mercies” (powerful); “The Great Believers” (so real); “Train Dreams” (a tasty morsel); and “Ask the Dust” (more John Fante, please).

Finally, for me audiobooks are mostly filler, but one set of them made me realize I’ve been overlooking one of the world’s most popular authors: The “Mr. Mercedes” series by Stephen King. Good writing, great storytelling. (The trilogy also includes “Finders Keepers” and “End of Watch.”
 
The List, 2023:
 
1.     The Feral Detective – Jonathan Lethem
2.     Hell of a Book – Jason Mott
3.     The Black Echo – Michael Connelly *
4.     Ill Will – Dan Chaon
5.     The Black Ice — Michael Connelly *
6.     When the Killing’s Done – T.C. Boyle
7.     Northern Spy – Flynn Berry
8.     The Concrete Blonde – Michael Connelly *
9.     Nightmare Alley – William Lindsay Gresham
10.  The Last Coyote – Michael Connelly *
11.  The Survivors – Jane Harper
12.  Chances Are … – Richard Russo
13.  Trust the Plan, The Rise of QAnon and the Conspiracy That Unhinged America – Will Sommer
14.  My Monticello – Jocelyn Nicole Johnson
15.  The Searcher – Tana French *
16.  The Talented Mr. Ripley – Patricia Highsmith
17.  Trunk Music – Michael Connelly *
18.  On the Plain of Snakes: A Mexican Journey – Paul Theroux
19.  The Poet – Michael Connelly *
20.  The Wrong End of the Telescope – Rabih Alameddine
21.  Signs Preceding the End of the World – Yuri Herrera
22.  To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee *
23.  The Swimmers – Julie Otsuka
24.  Since We Fell – Dennis Lehane
25.  Angels Flight – Michael Connelly *
26.  Telephone – Percival Everett
27.  Ladydi (Spanish) – Jennifer Clement
28.  Dead Lions (Slough House #2) – Mick Herron
29.  A Darkness More than Night – Michael Connelly
30.  Kudos – Rachel Cusk
31.  The Children Act – Ian McEwan
32.  Kindred – Octavia Butler
33.  I Will Find You – Harlan Coben *
34.  The End of the Affair – Graham Greene
35.  City on Fire – Don Winslow *
36.  City of Bones – Michael Connelly *
37.  An Unnecessary Woman – Rabih Alameddine
38.  The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler *
39.  The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway
40.  Ask the Dust – John Fante
41.  This Dark Road to Mercy – Wiley Cash
42.  Lost Light – Michael Connelly *
43.  Real Tigers (Slough House #3) – Mick Herron *
44.  The Sentence – Louise Erdrich
45.  Giant – Edna Ferber
46.  Spook Street (Slough House #4) – Mick Herron *
47.  Murder on the Red River – Marcie R. Rendon
48.  The Narrows – Michael Connelly *
49.  Empire of Wild – Cherie Dimaline
50.  The Closers – Michael Connelly *
51.  Small Mercies – Dennis Lehane
52.  Crook Manifesto – Colson Whitehead
53.  London Rules – Mick Herron *
54.  Am I Alone Here – Peter Orner
55.  Kairos – Jenny Erpenbeck **
56.  The Optimist’s Daughter – Eudora Welty
57.  Parrot in the Oven – Victor Martinez
58.  Joe Country – Mick Herron *
59.  Mystic River – Dennis Lehane
60.  The Lost Daughter – Elena Farrante
61.  War Trash – Ha Jin
62.  Echo Park – Michael Connelly *
63.  No One Will See Me Cry – Cristina Rivera-Garza
64.  Train Dreams – Denis Johnson
65.  Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston
66.  Mr. Mercedes – Stephen King *
67.  The Lying Life of Adults – Elena Ferrante
68.  Killers of the Flower Moon – David Grann *
69.  The Dog of the South – Charles Portis
70.  If I Survive You – Jonathan Escoffery
71.  All the Sinners Bleed – S.A. Cosby
72.  Finders Keepers – Stephen King *
73.  Old God’s Time – Sebastian Barry
74.  Chain Gang All-Stars — Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
75.  End of Watch – Stephen King *
76.  Bluebird, Bluebird – Attica Locke
77.  Fear is Just a Word – Azam Ahmed **
78.  Among the Bros – Max Marshall
79.  The Lincoln Lawyer – Michael Connelly *
80.  A Line in the Sand – Kevin Power
81.  The Lost Americans – Christopher Bollen
82.  Rabbit, Run – John Updike
83.  Heaven, My Home – Attica Locke
84.  Slough House – Mick Herron *
85.  The Power of the Dog – Don Winslow
 * Audio
** Did not finish

Bookshelf –All the Sinners Bleed, S.A. Crosby

When I read S.A. Crosby’s breakout book, Blacktop Wasteland (2020), the wild ride with Beauregard “Bug” Montage thrilled me. Then came Razorblade Tears (2021) and the ride slowed to a slog. Was Crosby a one-hit wonder? Was he mired in a sophomore slump?

All the Sinners Bleed (2023) provides an emphatic answer: the slump is over!

As good as Blacktop Wasteland was – and it was a fun romp through the underbelly of backwoodsy Virginia, labeled by those who label such things as a prime slice of Southern Gothic — All the Sinners Bleed is better. It is darker, it is more violent and perverse, and it confronts head on the double helix of white supremacy and religious fundamentalism that forms the DNA of the American South. Cosby has hocked his funny in exchange for substance.

All the Sinners Bleed is a mature work, deep with ideas and populated with (mostly) fully realized characters. If Cosby can stay the course he could become to Virginia what Dennis Lehane is to Boston: an unflinching mirror.

The story is straightforward: Titus Crown, an ex-FBI agent, comes back home to rural Virginia, runs for sheriff and wins – the first Black man to wear the star in the county. His jurisdiction is a quiet one. Crime tends toward drunken brawls, trailer-park beatings, and dope-dealing, much different than the domestic terrorism cases Crown was involved in as a G-man.

A school shooting changes all that, and Crown’s keep runs red with blood. To stop the killing, Crown must dodge the crossfire between the demands of local Black leaders, the threats of entrenched white powerbrokers, and the fire and brimstone promised by fanatical ministers. It is within this vortex – good vs. all forms of evil – that Crosby excels and lifts All the Sinners Bleed above the ordinary.

Crosby, showing deftness, weaves history into the story – the lengthy shadow of slavery; the racial riots of 1919’s Red Summer; the Bible-thumping hypocrisy of Flannery O’Connor’s “Christ-haunted” South – and then flays the institutions formed from those values, to whom big, Black, by-the-book Sheriff Titus Crown is an affront to all they hold dear.

The book is not perfect. Toward the end, Crosby rather hastily knots up some loose plot lines, but that sort of finish-line rush seems common in thrillers and crime novels. However, once Crosby breaks the tape, he redeems himself with an ending that will be perfect in the movie that surely comes from the book.

So I forgive Crosby for his last-hour sprint – not that he needs nor has sought my pardon – for I, too, was reading with speed, caught up in the whirlwind of the story.

Bookshelf – A Promised Land, Barack Obama

There are many places to begin when thinking about Barack Obama’s personal, thoughtful, accessible and human recounting of his campaign for the presidency and his first term in office – the writing itself, which carries the same familiar cadence of his mesmerizing speaking voice; his relationship with Michelle, the rock that roots his dreams; the reality of being Black in America, of being, regardless of how high you rise, of how many versions of the American Dream you realize, “the other,” what W.E.B. Du Bois describes as the “two-ness” of being Black; the emergence of Donald Trump as a credible political figure, riding to prominence astride the racist pony of birtherism; Obama’s visceral belief in the transformational power of the most fundamental of American ideals – equality – and his sobering consideration of the long chain of compromises necessary to move this country, and others, closer to that promise; or the killing of Osama bin Laden in Pakistan,

Any of these is worth a long conversation, but I am going to start at the end, with something personal: the tears that rose in my eyes as I finished the book. What triggered the emotion were not Obama’s closing words, but the five pages that followed. Five pages of acknowledgement, thanks and gratitude – to editors, friends, and researchers, to office staff, ex-colleagues and first readers, dozens upon dozens of people.

The tears sprang from the realization of how far America has fallen in four years, from a collaborative, visionary, grateful president to a selfish, petty, wannabe tyrant; from a man who worked with others to make dreams happen to an aging adolescent whose self-interest works against the interests of others and of the country.

I will not sanctify Obama. He made his mistakes and he came up short plenty of times, but to his credit he owns up to the failings of his time in office. Still, reading Obama was like drinking the from the cool waters of a desert oasis after a long trek across the sand. He reminded me of our better selves and how even though our diverse society is bubbling with hotpots of baser instincts we do not have to allow their toxic vapors to poison our hopes.

In this context, A Promised Land is both inspiring and saddening, the former because of how well Obama articulates the possible and the latter for how clear-eyed he recognizes the reality. It is well worth reading now, while the stink of the Trump shitstorm still lingers in the air so that you can inhale Obama’s freshening language and ideas and recognize, despite the despair you might have fallen into these past four years, that we were not always as we are now nor do we have to be so in the future.

I’ll end with Obama’s words, written in reference to the 2011 killing of bin Laden by a team of Navy Seals after years of investigation, pursuit and planning by hundreds – if not more – of government employees, from military personnel to CIA spooks:

“I found myself imagining what America might look like if we could rally the country so that our government brought the same level of expertise and determination to educating our children or housing the homeless as it had to getting bin Laden; if we could apply the same persistence and resources to reducing poverty or curbing greenhouse gases or making sure every family had access to decent day care.”

Just imagine.

A Sense of Arrival

“We all end up belonging to the same category, that of the non-young.”

— Julian Barnes, A Sense of an Ending

I put off reading A Sense of an Ending for long time. It was hidden deep in the guilt pile, the stack of unread books that stares accusingly at me from the bedside table. I feared the book would be about death and aging and slipping away, another depressing pre-exit confessional. I have plenty of own darker demons and saw no reason to engage with those of others. I need no help to slink into my personal nether regions.

Then came Covid. Housebound and forced to choose between a lockdown of doom-scrolling on Twitter or reducing the number of titles on the guilt pile, I began reading. I started with the hesitancy of a toddler tiptoeing into the sea for the first time and chose books based on page count, the fewer the better. A Sense of an Ending made the list early on because Barnes told his tale in only 163 pages.

It is not an overstatement to say the book, coming as it did during a string of novels by Cormac McCarthy, Ann Patchett and Margaret Atwood, revived my fascination with good writing, which years of page-skimming, post-liking and tweet-commenting had blunted. Moreover, I found the lion-in-winter wonderings of the principal character to not be depressing, but rather inspirational, even heroic. They contained the elusive truthfulness we seek during our younger years, answers replies to those fundamental queries: Who am I? Why am I here? – and the big one – What is the meaning of life? These answers present themselves more easily in the later years, especially if we maintain our attention (easier said than done because truth is an unsparing mirror).

You may be panting for the answers – what IS the meaning of life? – but this is not a pop quiz. Your exam and mine are different. My answers are not yours. I can tell you this, though: I didn’t ask the right questions, so what I learned is not what I asked.

Were I Barnes – oh, to write with the satiny fluidity he does – I would change the title to this: A Sense of Arrival. Even Barnes hints at the logic of this change, saying through his principal character: “You get toward the end of life – no, not life itself, but of something else: the end of any likelihood of change in that life.” You arrive at something else.

Aging is like walking on scree. To gain firm footing requires effort, what is underfoot is unstable, and a fall is going to hurt. On days when I am well-grounded, upright and steady of gait, I am taken with this sensation, that of arriving, that I’ve gotten somewhere else – perhaps surprisingly, certainly unintentionally, maybe even inevitably (because each of us is the result of the circumstances of our lives, those we chose as well as those forced upon us by genetics, society or economics).

That is not to say I know my current location. I am like Alice, who in her wanderings through Wonderland encounters the Cheshire Cat, who, grinningly, responds to her request for directions by telling her that any road serves a traveler who has no destination, because eventually she will arrive somewhere. Without ever having passed through the looking glass, I meandered through life, guided as much by randomness as anything else. Like Alice, I eventually reached something else.

Were Dickens to author my biography, it would be titled Lesser Expectations. During my formative years – a phrase that makes me smile, as if I were putty in a factory of gnomish potters — I envisioned little for myself, and certainly nothing of imagined importance. I did not foresee great education, great wealth or great recognition. I can report with certainty from the future of that young man that I fulfilled all I foresaw: I left the university sans degree or intellectual discipline; I enter the later days of my life irreparably indebted; and a careful hand could scribble my roster of achievements on a Post-It. The beauty of low expectations is that they are easily met. By that standard, I am a success.

Neither huzzahs nor tears greet my arrival. I dock at an empty pier, pass through a vast immigration hall, hear the chunk of a metal stamp on my passport, and see on the thick paper inky evidence of my continued existence: I am here, I am free to wander about some more.

In this liberation, there is comfort. I travel in this “something else” unhampered by baggage – the striving to be more, the yearning for approbation, the flinch against opprobrium. Less fettered, I am lighter of foot and fuller of heart. I carry only the knowledge that to arrive is not necessarily to end.