As the stack of books-to-be-read grows tall once again, swollen by holiday gifting, it’s time to look back and remember some of my favorite reads of 2016…
We begin with a caveat. Yes, confirmation bias probably played a part in my assessment of Bruce Springsteen’s Born To Run; how could it not? But this self-penned autobiography of New Jersey’s favorite musical son isn’t just engaging, insightful and fun—it’s powerful, in part because it’s both relentlessly honest and admirably graceful in its rendering of events and people. Painful divorces from managers (Mike Appel) and wives (Julianne Phillips) are handled with the same judicious balance of ego, humility, discretion and respect as arguments with bandmates over money. Springsteen is also remarkably candid about his family’s history of mental illness, his own struggles with depression, and his various shortcomings as a husband, father, and friend. There is no whitewashing here, but neither is there anything you could call dirty laundry aired; this is simply one very talented writer’s frank assessment of what’s been important in his life: family, music, and musical family.
Having more than passing familiarity with things like nostalgia and obsessive behavior, I was intrigued by Old Records Never Die by Eric Spitznagel. The premise is simple: years later, writer seeks to reassemble the long-since sold and dispersed record collection of his youth. But with a twist: he’s not after replacement copies; he’s attempting to track down the EXACT physical albums that used to sit on his shelf. This particular damaged hero’s journey winds through dusty record shops and childhood friends’ parents’ basements across the upper Midwest, delving deeply into pools of sadness, longing, trauma, joy, and the mysterious power of memory to capture and compel. As Spitznagel says, “Memory isn’t about reality, and neither is music. It’s about the comforting reflections we want to hold on to, even if they’re mostly bullshit.”
I’m Your Man: The Life Of Leonard Cohen is a few years old now, and an opportunity I might have passed by if author Sylvie Simmons hadn’t booked an appearance with our local Central Coast Writer’s Club. Lucky me; this terrifically entertaining and insightful biography made me ten times the fan of Cohen’s I was before reading it. It’s rich with fascinating stories, painstaking research, and a narrative voice that feels like a miraculous mind-meld of Simmons’ and Cohen’s own.
This year wasn’t all about music, though. Visiting Prague and the Terezin concentration camp in the Czech Republic in June led me to a pair of fascinating books. Madeline Albright’s Prague Winter: A Personal Story of Remembrance and War, 1937-1948 tells the story of her family’s life in, and escape from, Czechoslovakia in the era surrounding World War II. Albright’s tale takes themes from this era of recent history and scales them down from the sweep of history to the real and lasting effects that events had on the individual lives that made up one family at the center of it all. Terezin plays a significant role in both Prague Winter and The Lost Wife, Alyson Richman’s superbly rendered novel, whose fictionalized characters are at least as affecting as Albright’s real ones. Above and beyond that, The Lost Wife has the best narrative hook of any book I read this year; I defy you to read its opening prologue and not finish the book.
My reading year also included new entries in a couple of mystery-thriller series I can’t get enough of. Michael Connelly’s The Wrong Side of Goodbye again advances the story of Detective Harry Bosch in inventive ways, offering two fresh cases, a new partner, and another guest appearance by Lincoln Lawyer Mickey Haller. If you like mysteries with fully-formed characters who grow and age, rich atmospherics and narrative flair, Bosch is for you.
Back in Boston, Ace Atkins delivered another satisfying entry in the Spenser series, Slow Burn, once again expertly capturing the distinct cadence, code of honor, and smart-alecky camaraderie of the late Robert B. Parker’s memorable characters. As if that wasn’t enough, the double-dealing Atkins also delivered another excellent entry in his own distinctly Southern tale of Mississippi ex-Ranger and sometime Tibbehah County sheriff Quinn Colson, The Innocents.
Finally, my friend Alex Green’s The Heart Goes Boom is a total kick, a witty lark of a novel that could be summed up as The Odyssey reimagined by the team of Dave Barry and Henry Rollins, but sweeter and crazier than that.
Happy reading, and see you in 2017…