Friday, December 08, 2006

My completely arbitrary list of my favorite books that I read in 2006.

I figured since everybody else gets to make top 10 lists, I should too. I think I only bought about 3 records, and saw about 10 movies, so neither a music nor movie list would be adequate. However, what I did do was read a whole lot of books. All kinds of books, some for school, most for pleasure or for growth.

My following list does not encompass just books that were released in 2006, but just my favorite of what I read.

Drum roll please....

10. Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis - I can't help it: I'm a total sucker for everything this guy writes, no matter how awful or self-indulgent it is. His latest concerns an aging writer (himself; they even have the same names) trying to "settle down" and live right in suburbia, but there's only one problem: the violence, mayhem, chaos, and nihilism of his books are coming back to haunt him in physical form, taking the shape of a serial killer stalking the children of his neighborhood (including his own children), a drug habit he can't kick, a co-ed he's fucking, menacing neighbors, a bitter, ex-model wife, the ghost of a dead father who abandoned him, and a homicidal child's toy that will not die. Take it for what you will, it's either an exceptionally sincere reckoning of a middle-aged man trying to come to terms with what he's wrought on the world (most notably American Psycho), or it's just an uninspired, sensationalistic piece of nonsensical claptrap. I haven't really decided, but I reveled in every twisted moment of it.

9. Breakup by Catherine Texter - Out of the blue one day, Miss Texter's husband announced that he was having an affair and wanted to leave her. But...for some reason, he just refuses to move out the house they own and live in with their 2 daughters in Brooklyn. This heartwrenching memoir of a "perfect" marriage of two writers that was suddenly torn apart by buried resentments being revealed is hard to get through not only beacause it's extraordinarily painful, but because sometimes, I think maybe the writer reveals a bit too much. You have to give her props for laying her pain out on the page, but it just reads like an hysterical diary occasionally. Regardless, anyone who's ever continued to live with a lover for any amount of time after a breakup, or just had a particularly protracted breakup for whatever reason, will find much to relate to.

8. Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood by Karen Zailckas - At the age of only 24, Zailckas penned this very sad, often shocking memoir of becoming a secret alcoholic at age 15, engaging in binge drinking in college, and building a life for herself in NYC after college. The drinking continues, often to the point of blacking out (every weekend) and now incorporating many sexual encounters that she often doesn't remember that get progressively more dangerous. One morning after waking up alone and locked in a man's apartment she didn't even remember going home with, she decides she's had enough. An engaging walk inside what I'm afraid is a fairly typical young girl's psyche. Brave, honest, and terrifying.

7. Five Men Who Broke My Heart by Susan Shapiro - A bittersweet journey down memory lane by the married Shapiro who was inspired by a visit from an old boyfriend one day to track down all the men that had broken her heart and try to figure out what really went wrong in each relationship. Needless to say, she gets way more than she bargains for: old wounds were opened, old hurts revisited, but it also provided closure in several instances, and ultimately, of course, made her realize the real treasure she has in her husband, and that no matter how painful and devastating each breakup was, it happened for a real reason, and got her to where she is today. Not terribly profound, but touching and inspiring. Not to give anything away, but one of the last paragraphs of the book touched me immensely and immediately brought tears to my eyes. On her birthday, Susan's husband, father, and three brothers surprise her with a brand-new laptop (she'd always been terrified of and confounded by technology, and still wrote with an old typewriter, well into the 90's), fully loaded with her own email account, and all the writing and editing programs she needed, set up and ready to go for her. About it she writes: I sat at the new screen, touched by the conspiracy of my husband, father and three brothers, five men who never broke my heart. (Just kicked it around a bit.) Stuck on what wasn't there, I'd always missed what was. For everything important, I was late.

6. What Becomes of the Brokenhearted by E. Lynn Harris - I've written about this book before, oh Loyal Readers, but since it's on the list, I need to write a bit. Another staggering memoir, this one about growing up gay, poor and black in Arkansas in the 60's. The author takes a familiar and agonizing journey through his own shame and resentment, desperately searching for someone to heal him, never realizing he can only heal himself. Awesome and courageous, I was inspired to email the writer after reading it, just to tell him how much I loved it and meant to me. to my surprise, within only a few hours, he replied back, telling me how perfect my email was, and how happy he was to hear from me. He's sweet. Well worth checking out.

5. Portnoy's Complaint by Philip Roth - Finally a good old-fashioned novel about perverted sex, rampant misogyny and self-loathing Jews with overbearing mothers. Hilarious, I couldn't put it down. For anyone who's ever dealt an internal battle with their own salacious desires, and having to come to terms with the fact that people are real and have feelings. I totally meant to read more Roth after this, but never got around to it. A masturbatory nightmare. In the best possible way.

4. The Velvet Rage: Overcoming the Pain of Growing up Gay in a Straight Man's World by Alan Downs, M.D. - I almost think this book should be required reading for every parent who worries about why their gay children are so fucked up, and blames it on the gay, as opposed to where the blame really belongs. I won't even get started because it's not important right now, and anyone reading this already knows, but this is a heartbreaking book. There are few things more important in life than having your feelings validated (thank you, also, therapy!) and this book certainly does that. I hope to one day write books this intelligent and kind.

3. Nightswimmer by Joseph Olshan - A straightforward but highly complex novel set in NYC in the early 90's about gay men trying to make a go of love and relationships in the specter of the tail-end of the worst part of the AIDS crisis. A book about all relationships, though, and how past loves can haunt us, and unresolved relationships can take up precious space in our hearts and lives; how the inability to let go of the ones that hurt us can plague our futures in both predictable and unexpected ways. Depressing for its insight, wisdom and love, it's a book that anyone who's ever loved and lost can relate to, especially if that Loss still crosses our minds and we wonder what might have been.

2. Eighty-Sixed by David Feinberg - Somehow my literature teacher from last semester gets away with assigning this book, but I don't know how, especially at a Catholic institution. Divided into two parts, Eighty-Sixed is a book about gay sex. Beginning in the early 80's in NYC, the first half is a flip and giddy tour through all the debauchery and sexual perversion you can imagine. Not a deed goes unexplored or unexplained from fisting to cum-guzzling. It's essentially pornography, all told with a tongue-in-cheek and very funny, detached style. But then there's the second half of the book where everyone gets AIDS and dies. I'm not kidding. It's almost more shocking than the first half for very different reasons, obviously, as the narrator and his friends and lovers have to suddenly come to very harsh terms with their previous lifestyles of careless fucking and detached, callous heartbreaking. It's a terrifying book, and one that makes me want to praise God every day that I wasn't around in NYC in the 80's. It's moving in an entirely unsentimental way, and when the narrator finally allows his heart to open and feel something, he confesses that he's never cried before because he was afraid that if he started, he'd never stop.

1. Name All the Animals by Alison Smith - A memoir that reads as breathlessly as a novel, Name All the Animals tells the story of the aftermath for a very conservative, religious family when their prized 18-year-old son dies suddenly in a horrible car accident. Told from the little sister's point-of-view, who was only 13 when her brother and best friend is snatched from her, the book is a grown woman coming to terms with something she had absolutely no way to cope with as a child. She admires her parents' resilience and adherence to their faith, but the author explains how only days after her brother's death, she literally watches Jesus walk out the bathroom door and out of her life for good. She attends an all-girls Catholic school, and eventually, through a forbidden and all-consuming relationship, learns to transcend her pain, confusion and sense of abandonment. So wise, tense, thorough, and moving. This is one of those books that's so smart and so engaging, that you just want to buy copies for everyone you know, but realize how much it would break your heart that no one would ever actually read it. And it's too bad. There is much to be gained from this gem of a literary masterpiece.

And that's my list. Thanks for reading, and thank you to the writers for writing and sharing. I love you all.

(UPDATE: D'oh! I can't believe I forgot My Dark Places by James Ellroy. The famous, and infamous, crime writer traces back his interest in crime to the brutal, and currently unsolved, murder of his mother when he was 11. He turned to crime fiction as escapism, and met the Black Dahlia (in literature) and used her as a surrogate for his poor mother. It's a dark, as the title promises, and grievous coming to terms with some real fucking loss and heartache. As an adult, he goes back to L.A. and tries to hunt down his mother's killer himself. Fascinating, relentless and brutal, it's a book not only about Ellroy's personal obsessions, but a catalog of his stunning breadth of the city of Los Angeles' sordid history of gruesome and bloody crimes of passion. This would definitely be in the top 5 of my list somewhere.)


Hrasky said...

Hi Ryan,

Portnoy's Complaint is an amazing book. Roth is on of my favorite authors. Most of his other books aren't so hilarious, but they're pretty much all worth reading.

- Chris

Anonymous said...

Ryan, I love your writings on these books. You should post some of them on Austin 360. Glad to have seen you this morning. Kiss.