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Sunday, January 03, 2016

Books of 2015

Library of historic photo books
Flickr photo by Simon Booth-Lucking. Some rights reserved.

As I have annually since 2005, I am posting a nearly complete list of books I read in the preceding year.

Please allow me to repeat the ground rules: First, I generally do not list academic books that I reviewed unless the review was published. In my academic job, for instance, I reviewed a number of books competing for a $100,000 award exhibiting the best "ideas for improving world order." However, only the winning entry is listed here. I read it as a member of the Final Selection Committee.

Of course, since I'm an academic, I read multiple chapters and large sections of many books pertinent to my research and teaching. However, I'm not going to list those here unless I read them cover-to-cover. Save for the books I use in class or read for review, I often skim over some portions even of outstanding books. It's a time/efficiency issue.

So, what did I read this year, mostly for pleasure? (Some of the recommended books may include a link to Powell's books; the blog receives a 7.5% commission on sales that begin via these links). I posted short reviews of most of these books at Shelfari. 


Killing Yourself to Live by Chuck Klosterman

Otherworldly Politics by Stephen Benedict Dyson

Housekeeping vs. the Dirt by Nick Hornby

DiMaggio: A Hero’s Life by Richard Ben Cramer

Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton

Gold Mine 2010 by Bill James

I also read just about every word in Baseball Prospectus 2015, but not in cover-to-cover fashion. It was again edited by Sam Miller and Jason Wojciechowski.

Of these non-fiction books, most were worth reading. The Haugen and Boutros book won the 2016 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order.

I found Klosterman's book entertaining despite the somewhat morbid subject -- the writer drove around the US visiting famous sites where musicians died. Nick Hornby is reliably witty. Cramer's book about DiMaggio was not as good as I had hoped -- the section on Marilyn Monroe was far too long and the book had very little content after her death. 


As I have in most years, I place the best works of literature at the top of the list, then the genre fiction (though there are some books that could be placed in either category). The least interesting or entertaining books are listed last in each section.

All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter

Angels by Denis Johnson

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

Frankly, I should have read Warren's classic book about a dubious southern politician years ago. The Walter book is funny, entertaining, and kind of sad. I thought it was heading to Breaking Bad territory for awhile, though the main character was motivated by systemic economic distress, not personal health. I was not altogether taken by this Waugh novel, despite the academic satire. 

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Kahawa by Donald Westlake

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton

The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins

They Eat People Don’t They? by Christopher Buckley

The Wycherly Woman by Ross Macdonald

Looking for Rachel Wallace by Robert Parker

The Score by Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark)

E is for Evidence by Sue Grafton

The Turquoise Lament by John D. MacDonald

Time to Murder and Create by Lawrence Block

Doctor No by Ian Fleming

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

Prospect by Bill Littlefield

The Ballad of Dingus McGee by David Markson

I read quite a bit of science fiction this year, mostly classic books that true fans read years ago (at least when they are anywhere near my age). Though Haldeman and Heinlein both penned military science fiction novels, I enjoyed the former much more than the latter. However, neither was as entertaining a book as was Redshirts, a postmodern story reminiscent of the Will Ferrell film Stranger than Fiction.

I originally read The Andromeda Strain as a kid back in the 1970s, when I also saw the movie. It seemed like a good time to read it again.

Thanks mostly to Bookmooch and PaperBack Swap, I continue to read books by a diverse array of (mostly) hard-boiled crime story authors. These writers typically develop a single main character across a long series of books: Parker's Spencer, Stark's Parker, Block's Matthew Scudder, John MacDonald's Travis McGee, Grafton's Kinsey Millhone, and Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer.

Neither Millhone nor Scudder nor McGee performed very well in this set of books. I saw some immediate detection errors they made when leaping to conclusions. The premise of the Block book was interesting, but the plot holes undermined the effort. McGee apparently confronted a serial killer, which is not a story genre that I find appealing.

The best hard-boiled stories I read all year involved criminals as main characters. The tale of Eddie Coyle was made into a pretty good movie starring Robert Mitchum. Kawaha involved a complicated heist by thieves intent upon ripping off Idi Amin. 

David Markson's satirical anti-western didn't work for me, though I typically love good satire. Buckley's satire was much more effective, though Washington flacks make for easy targets.

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