Books I Read in 2016

I had a different Year In Review post planned for today: an interview (fake, obviously) between myself and Chirp Magazine, a kids magazine to which Dawn and I bought a subscription for the girls. I've been joking with her about this fake-interview idea all year, and every so often over 2016 as I built some building-block / Star Wars thing with the kids, I'd take pictures and carry on like I was some kind of children's-crafts-savant.

"McMillan's work repurposes his own childhood via a neo-Bauhaus tradition that emphasizes structure and color interaction," etc.

As jokes go, it was okay. Made the missus laugh a few times, so that's always worthwhile. Somewhere along the way the idea changed to crafting a year-long series of purposefully designed cover photo/ profile pic combos and then doing a post about them. Over the course of 2016, I dutifully changed cover/profile pics pursuant to this idea. But enthusiasm waned after a few months. Seemed a bit much. 

Still, some of them came out okay. Like the above, or:
That's Al Rosen from Cheers for the profile pic, there. Basically, any cover photo you pair him with works out pretty well. ("Pretty weenie, 007!")
Some of the fun even extended to the comments section, such as this one from a stretch of 90210-related cover photos.

Man! If personal amusement was all that counted, this one-two punch of Dylan McKay reacting to his Dad's (faked) death would bring home Olympic gold.

Anyway, I decided for something maybe a little more traditional, so here's a Books I Read in 2016 post instead. I like to read these sorts of things from other people, and it was a fairly successful reading year for McMolo, Inc., so I figured I'd add my voice to the chorus. 

I read only one book (End of Watch) that was actually first published in 2016. I didn't plan it that way, I just seem to be one of those guys who gravitates towards filling in the blank spaces on my own map rather than keeping up with the new stuff. I prefer to keep current and explore/ revisit earlier works if I can. In the meantime, if I haven't seen or read or played it before, hey, it's new to me, regardless of when it came out.

To make this as easy for myself as possible, I sorted my Goodreads shelves by "Date Read" and took screencaps. This yielded the groupings you see below, and I decided just to stick with them rather than regroup them alphabetically or by which ones I liked least-to-most or anything like that. And no point going over any ground already covered in these pages. (You can find those remarks at any of the following posts: From Novel to Film (The Last Unicorn, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, The Falcon and the Snowman, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes), Elric, Richard Blade, Stephen King, and James Bond.)  

Let's do this, America.

Books of Blood - Clive Barker. I bought this years and years ago, but I never read it until 2016. My edition contains only the first three collections of the Books. There have been a few more come out since this was printed

I more or less liked all of the ones here, although some (like "In the Hills, the Cities" - the metaphor of the two towns becoming huge Croatian Shogun Warriors was a little strained) were a little harder to follow than others (like the truly excellent "Sex, Death, and Starshine" or "Rawhead Rex" - one of these days I'll finish watching the movie on YouTube - or "Scape-goats.") The prose is powerful, the imagery and insight in the best horror tradition as well as feeling very 80s-modern. Highly recommended to any fan of horror writing.

Angry Candy - Harlan Ellison. Not bad. With Ellison, you know what you're getting. "Paladin of the Lost Hour" works better as a short story than a teleplay. 

Zigzagging Down a Wild Trail - Bobbie Ann Mason. Mason is a treasure. I love her eye for detail and her subtlety. Every story brings me somewhere here. Interesting timing, too - when I read this, everyone was going on about Hillbilly Elegy. I haven't read it yet, but from what I've heard, it shares some terrain with Mason's fiction. Particularly this one.

Ancient Egyptian Magic - Bob Brier. Brier is my go-to for mainstream Egyptology. His lecture series for The Teaching Company is just about the perfect overview of Ancient Egypt the lay person like me can hope for. This Magic book is a fun addition for my Egypt shelf, but not the first thing I'd recommend to the aspiring reader of the Land of the Pharaohs. 

The Battle for the Falklands - Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins. The Falklands affair is one of the first military conflicts I remember hearing about, during those ten minutes of news that interrupted Saturday Morning Cartoons in the early 80s. It took me until this past year to actually read a proper account of the Falklands, though, and to my surprise, I was totally engrossed from start to finish. Maybe a little too much backroom politics for my taste, but the work was stronger for it. I'd like to read one from the Argentine side next, just not sure where to start. (Also an obstacle: I can't read Spanish, Argentine or any other variety.)

My Date with Satan - Stacey Richter. I didn't know anything about the author before reading this - an approach I always prefer if possible - but I thought most stories in here were fantastic. I definitely need to check out more of her stuff. 

What You Want Is in the Limo - John R. Walker. This book starts off with great promise ("An epic joyride through three history-making tours in 1973 that defined rock and roll superstardom") but by chapter three, the same anecdotes have been repeated two or three times. I hate that. Failed to truly justify its premise.

Civilization and Its Discontents - Sigmund Freud. Every so often I pull a book like this, which claims nothing less than to cast a light on the malaise of society itself, off the shelf to revisit with as critical an eye as possible. Does it still speak to me? I can't hope to summarize Freud in a capsule review like this, but 2016 verdict: Yep, still works. Disastrously so.

Louise Brooks - Barry Paris. An exhaustive overview. I love old Hollywood. It's crazy to think so many of America's earliest films simply don't exist anymore. Louise Brooks was easily as big in her time as, I don't know, Madonna was in the 80s - even if the media context of their respective eras was much different - yet of Lulu's dozen or so films, only two (Pandora's Box and Diary of a Lost Girl) are readily available. 

Oh, for some reason this one didn't show up in the picture up there, but I read it shortly after this Brooks one:

Windstaff was the pseudonym for an unnamed scion of an American manufacturing oligarch who flew for the Allies in World War One, bummed around Rome and Paris in the 20s as a male mistress and painter, then returned to America to try and drink it off. It's an interesting and not always pleasant glimpse of both the Jazz Age from a different angle (i.e. someone not named Hemingway or Fitzgerald) and of PTSD. I can't find anything on the identity of the author. I imagine an enterprising scholar could do so from the military records and flight books, but to my knowledge, no one's done so. 

The Song of Kali - Dan Simmons. Having heard of this novel for years and years, I finally arranged to read it this year. Common refrain for a lot of these books, I guess; I've been crossing off a lot of always-meant-tos the past couple of years. I didn't find it to be the most terrifying novel ever written, as Ellison and King both spoke of it years ago, but I liked it very much. A successful blend of classical horror tropes with realistic 70s/80s feels.

Because It Is Absurd / The Marvelous Palace / My Own River Kwai / Time Out of  Mind / A Noble Profession - Pierre Boulle. I went on a Boulle bender earlier this year. I'd read Planet of the Apes and still mean to blog that one up for the From Novel to Film series. He writes in a clear and provocative style, although some of his insights aged better than others. All of these are great reads, though, especially My Own River Kwai, his nonfiction account of his WW2 adventures and misadventures in Vichy Indochina. Of his short stories, "E=MC2" from Time Out of Mind is spectacular.

Tales of the South Pacific - James Michener. Another one crossed off the list. Exceptional stuff. I had to read Michener's Chesapeake in high school, but I'm not sure if he's still assigned. If not, he should be, particularly this one.      

I've never seen the musical or the movie-musical. It looks... different.

Command and Control - Eric Schlosser. This one, too. (Be assigned, that is.) A nonfiction account of a fuel leak and potential disaster situation at a nuclear missile silo in Damascus, Arkansas, the men who fixed it amidst the chaos, as well as an overview of some of the more Jack D. Ripper-esque aspects of the US Strategic Air Command. And hey, apparently they made a movie of it, too.

A Memoir of the Hollywood Ten - Edward Dmytryk. An essential slice of Hollywood and America in the 20th Century history. An oasis of reason amidst the swamp of self-serving and COMINTERN narratives about the Blacklist.

The Accidental Time Machine - Joe Haldeman. Brilliant, quick, and very entertaining. Can't recommend this one enough. 

Tai-Pan - James Clavell. Really quite an amazing achievement. My instant and sustained affection for this narrative as I was reading it accounts for the other two Clavells on this list. The author considered himself only a storyteller and not a novelist, but if he wrote a book that challenged that notion, it's this one.

The Celts - Gerhard Herm. Herm wrote a book on The Phoenicians that is just great - funny, inspiring, little-known-fact-y, and accessible. I'd hoped this would be its Celtic equivalent, but not so much. Still an informative and engaging enough read, to be sure, just a step down from The Phoenicians.

Voyages and Discoveries - Richard Hakluyt. If you have an Explorers section on your shelf, this primary source is a worthy addition. A resource, though, more than a traditional narrative.

The Killer Angels - Michael Shaara. I'd always heard this book set the standard for War Between the States fiction. I haven't read enough to answer to that, but I loved this. Begun the Great McExploration of Civil War Reading has. More to say in the next section.

The Rising Sun - John Toland. I got this two volume set way back in 1997 at Bonnett's Bookstore in Dayton, OH. This year I finally read it. Loved it - it'd difficult to imagine a better overview of Imperial Japan out there. In English anyway.

Wake of the Wahoo - Forest Stirling. Want to spend an intense few months in an American submarine sinking Japanese shipping in WW2? I don't blame you. Read this instead. (Preferably directly after the above.)

Story of My Life - Moshe Dayan and And Perhaps... - Ruth Dayan. I picked the former up in 2001 (do you sense a pattern here?) and the latter only after reading it this past summer. Ruth is Moshe's ex-wife, so I thought it'd be interesting to read her account of life with Israel's famous general. Moshe's has very little of their personal story, whereas Ruth's offers a fascinating and candid account of both their early days of romance and their later days of estrangement

She comes off a little dramatic, if I'm being honest. But I did appreciate the glimpse of interwar Jerusalem and kibbutz life. Moshe's is more statesmanlike, as can be expected from a memoir from one of the state of Israel's foundational personalities. 

Speaking of Israel: 

The Haj / Mitla Pass - Leon Uris. I set out to read Trinity by Leon Uris this year and ended up reading these two instead. These two can safely be labelled "outrageous pro-Israel propaganda fiction." But don't let that stop you. At least with the former. It stacks the deck shamelessly in some areas but punctures irritating misperceptions in others. Its broad strokes (Gideon Asch is clearly a highly romanticized version of Moshe Dayan, for example) are actually quite fun; this is like the Tombstone version of Israeli history, as seen, of course, from the POV of a Palestinian youth (as written by an American writer.) Crazy. But fun reading for sure.

Mitla Pass is the fictionalized account of the author's time as an embedded journalist with Unit 202 (Ariel Sharon's paratrooper brigade) during the Suez campaign in 1956. The first two chapters are Hubris City, the type of swaggering author-stand-in narrative that you just can't believe wasn't called out by someone close to him, or the publisher. In 20 pages, Uris establishes himself as a living legend, epic drunk, lothario, and the Boswell to the Israeli state and therefore eternal Judaism. It's okay, though, because he feels conflicted about it all. (!) Wow. All in this I'm-clearly-swigging-from-this-bottle-of-scotch-and-shadow-boxing-as-I'm-typing 70s-blockbuster style while weaving autobiographical asides in. Just not what I expected at all - entertaining for sure, but perhaps for the wrong reasons. 

The Sentinel - Jeffrey Konvitz. Wasn't a fan. I'd intended to do this as a From Novel to Film entry.

The movie is actually quite good.

Ghost Story - Peter Straub. Very well-written but overcomplicated. I think Straub is the authorly equivalent of Brian De Palma, with his staunch defenders, all of whom have valid points, but both are perhaps acquired tastes, or exclusive to certain palates or something. I say this as a De Palma apologist of longstanding and also as someone who enjoys what I've seen from Straub but always have to work at it. 

Space - James Michener. (Not pictured Rascals in Paradise, which I'm reading now.) What can you say about Michener? If you like his approach, you'll like Space. Even if you don't like his approach, you'll probably like Space, though the author's motive in creating the fictional US state of Fremont for a work of otherwise realistic fiction with real-life characters like Werner Von Braun and LBJ making appearances will not make any sense until the last hundred pages. (And and even then, not much.) I loved it, although I wish someone would publish annotated versions of Michener's work. I like to know who people are based on. John Pope in Space is clearly modeled on John Glenn, for example (which made his recent passing only a few days after I finished Space all the sadder) but who is the real world analog for Cynthia Rhee?

Dungeon Fire and Sword - John J. Robinson. A history of the Knights Templar. I try to read this again every few years just to re-enforce the info, which I find fascinating. So much of subsequent world history, East and West, resulted from the crazy shenanigans that rocked the Holy Land from 1095 to 1291. 

None So Blind - Joe Haldeman. I enjoyed Accidental Time Machine so much that I got this one out of the library without knowing anything about it except that it was a collection of short fiction. I enjoyed it, particularly "The Hemingway Hoax," which I think may have influenced King's "Ur." Not that one is derivative of the other by any means. (If anything, "THH" is slightly derivative of Hotchner's Papa Hemingway in spots. But who cares? More books should probably be derivative of Papa Hemingway.)

Odd Man Out - Matt McCarthey. A year in the life of a minor league pitcher for the Provo Angels, the Angels of Anaheim's lowly Pioneer League affiliate. Some fun anecdotes about future all-stars like Elvis Andrus and life in Utah, but otherwise, meh.

A Season with Verona - Tim Parks. An entry in the surprisingly abundant genre of English journalists who "go native" with a local football club in another country, in this case Hellas Verona FC and Italy/ Serie A. Plenty of "local color." I don't know how anything gets done in Italy, seriously.

By Way of Deception - Victor Ostrovsky. "The book the Mossad tried to ban!" This is one of those ex-secret-agent-spills-the-beans sort of books. I'm of the opinion that the "explosive contents" of any book on the activities of any intelligence community should be treated with skepticism. I mean, if I were running a spy agency, the first thing I'd do is pump out a dozen books like this; control the message, sow confusion, etc. So, take it all with a grain of salt, but still fun reading. 

The Krypton Companion - edited by Michael Eury. A real resource! Those TwoMorrows guys do God's work over there. This was immediately useful upon receipt, by the way, as Evelyn and Lauren had very specific questions about Bizarro Superman that I was able to answer. Not that knowing the answer has stopped them from asking over and over again.

HMS Ulysses - Alistair MacLean. A devastating read. For a war with no shortage of hellish theaters, the Murmansk convoy run sounds like it was the most hellish thing imaginable.

Shogun / Noble House - James Clavell. I liked these less than Tai-Pan, but these practically two thousand pages of text certainly cast their spell. I learned quite a bit of real-world history from reading the former, which closely follows the historical record of Englishman William Adams and the end of feudal Japan. The latter, which picks up the Tai-Pan story 100+ years later, is fun, but... it's a bit much. The mini-series with Pierce Brosnan updates the action from the 60s to the 80s, which jettisons most of the Cold War intrigue (con) but captures Hong Kong in the last full decade of British rule, which is historically very interesting, and of course extremely photogenic (pro).

Ward 41: Tales of a County Intern - John Raffensperger. The guy who wrote this used to be Head of Pediatric Surgery at the hospital I work for. My boss started relaying a whole slew of anecdotes about him at the tail end of one of our meetings that piqued my interest and mentioned he'd written a book. So I looked him up and found he's actually written several. (A nonfiction companion to this Ward 41 collection of stories, and some mystery books written under the name John Luck.) These really surprised me - great mix of autobiographical detail and dramatic effect.

The Passing of the Armies - Joshua Chamberlain. Reading The Killer Angels sent me googling in a dozen directions. I've been avoiding Civil War reading for years for fear of reading nothing-but for years. I still fear this is going to happen. (If so, I apologize for that Books I Read in 20-whatever post; that'll be awfully repetitive.) And while I do have several Civil War books lined up for 2017, the only other one I read this year was this one. Josh Chamberlain was the Maine Volunteer who led the famous bayonet charge from Little Big Top at Gettysburg. (Played unforgivably by Jeff Daniels in Gettysburg; I'm sorry, but no.) When I found out he wrote his own account of the closing days of the war, I had to read it.

It's written in that nineteenth century American style that will either repel or charm you. "Big" prose, as I call it. I found it very readable, although one aspect of this kind of style (and this is evident in Grant's writing as well) is a tendency to play down big events. So, you have to kind of keep another tab open while reading so as not to miss the significance of something on account of the author's modesty in reporting it.

After I finished, I wondered if perhaps his stature as a living legend in Maine put him on King's radar. I googled "Stephen King Chamberlain" and lo and behold, the events of his very first novel (Carrie, duh) take place in the town of Chamberlain. D'oh! Probably should've retained that info. 

"There is no friend as loyal as a book."
- Hemingway 


  1. I think I read, like, three books all year. I'm depressed now.

    This does indeed sound like a strong year's worth of books. Man, I'm really intrigued by "Space," and by that Louise Brooks book.

    By most of these, really. My jealousy is boundless!

    1. Be jealous only of my commute. Which allows me the enforced reading time to make lists like this! Take away the commute and this post becomes 2-3 books, for real.

      Louise Brooks was the bomb. She wrote her own memoir that is worth reading, as well as some fiction as well.

      Have you ever seen "Pandora's Box?" One of my favorite silent films.

      SPACE was great. I was just telling some friends last night about it and how one depressing (and prescient) passage of the last 100 pages talks about how NASA scientists, whose budget was already decimated after America walked back the Apollo program over the 70s, were then forced to shuttle round the country to talk down angry mobs of anti-teaching-evolution-in-schools crowds and dedicated opposition, etc.

      So... the guys programming the rockets and computers to travel to Saturn and Pluto and beyond suddenly had to work overtime to argue (in many cases, unsuccessfully) already-well-settled-basic-scientific-know-how rubes politically organized, then and now, against them.

      Ai yi yi.

      Hell of a way to end such a righteous few decades of science.

      Anyway it's a great read beyond that. I shied away from getting too in-depth on any of these books, just wanted to give a quick few words on each, but I would've dedicated an entire post to SPACE, but I'm wary of taking ona big Michener project. And I fear my OCD, here - if I did ONE blog on Michener for SPACE, I can see it slowly turning into a big 2017 project.

      Which, while fun and may even happen unofficially, I'm in no hurry.

      Anyway! Thank you, sir.

  2. Congratulations on another successful year of blogging.

    I hope you are able to undertake that book to movie series on Planet of the Apes. It was one of those movies that defined my tastes when I was a kid and I read the novel many years ago. Interestingly, the movie that most closely resembles Boulle's novel is the fourth one -- albeit with roles reversed.

    We both managed to get around to reading Ghost Story this year. I think I held it in a little higher regard than you did. But I do share your opinion that Straub is definitely an acquired taste and one must sometimes struggle to enjoy him.

    I hope to get at least one Dan Simmons novel in next year. I've read so much ABOUT him, but never read anything by him.

    1. Thanks, Brian, happy holidays!

      I tried one other Dan Simmons this year, Summer of Night, but I couldn't get into it. Song of Kali was fun, though.

      The original Planet of the Apes could be my gun-to-the-head favorite film, from when I first saw it in the 5th grade to when I watched it last maybe 3 years ago. I really do want to get to that one for the FNTF series, it's just one I want to clear the decks for and wipe out a couple other projects.

  3. I've read at least one book about Straub's work and am just getting started on another.

    The first is "At the Foot of the Story Tree" by Bill Sheehan, and the one I'm getting started with is "The Gothic Worlds of Peter Straub" by John C. Tibbetts.

    So far, I'm thinking the Sheehan text is a bit more helpful, though I still have to make my way through the latter.

    As a result, I think I can try to pin-point the deal with Straub as an author.

    His major weakness, based on what I've read, is that he does have an actual talent, and he is able to put it to good use in novel like "Shadowland" and novellas like "Pork-Pie Hat" and collections like "Houses without Doors".

    However, his major failing is that he's often too self-conscious, which means he is always trying out "new creative experiments in writing". In other words, he's always trying to "push himself" in terms of "form and presentation" in his stories.

    However, it always comes off sounding like his experimentation keeps getting in the way of his storytelling. It's almost like he's willing to jettison all plot once he gets interested in trying out different forms in which a story can be told.

    To be fair, this can be of help, however it almost seems like I'm reading rough drafts of ideas for novels in works like "Koko" or "In the Night Room". The result, to borrow from King, is that Straub sounds like he's always "writing with the New Yorker looking over his shoulder".

    Still, that's a pretty good achievement in a single year. I'm always more of a slow reader. It means there's always more to catch up with, yet the compensation is hopefully the ability to get more appreciation out of books (I hope).


    1. Keep me posted on your Straub impressions. I'll definitely be picking up more of his stuff in the months/ years ahead.

    2. I'm still more of a traveler than a resident when it comes to Straub's work, but in theory, I'm changing that. I highly recommend "If You Could See Me Now," an early novel that is a little more focused on being entertaining than on being deep. In some ways, I think it's an even better novel than "Ghost Story." "Floating Dragon" is also pretty good. "Shadowland" is ... well, I liked it a lot, but it might not be to everyone's tastes.

      Chris's thoughts about him seem fairly apt. So far, I've found that he requires a bit more effort than, say, King; but I've also found it to be worth the effort. King and Straub often get mentioned in the same breath, but they couldn't be more different. If I had to pick one, I'd pick King, but I don't live in that world, happily.