I never talk about this, but I keep track of everything I read and at the end of each calendar year, I would nominate THE BOOK OF THE YEAR. An imaginary award given to whatever book had the most impract on me.
Here’s the thing — any book ever written could be nominated. (But I had to read it that year.)
From there it’s like any award, there’s politics and in-fighting (did I mention I am the only one on the committee, but I will debate myself from time to time.)
If I were to give an actual award, it would be a sticker made to look like the big foam hand with the extended finger to convey “this is #1”! The same way books get an “Oprah’s book club” sticker, I’d have a BOOK OF THE YEAR sticker with that hand.
Now let’s get to the actual list. These are the best books I read between the years of 1996 – 2009. (Read the whole thing, or skip ahead to the end for a surprise.) Lastly, please keep in mind this is not necessarily a list of recommended reading, it’s just that the timing was right — these books spoke to me, because they connected with my then-current situation and where my head was at. I don’t know that “The Best of Temp Slave” would mean as much to me today as it did 11 years ago.
1996: THE DAY OF THE LOCUST by Nathanael West
The best required reading from my junior year of college. I was totally swept up in this unflinching story of Hollywood in the 1930’s. West is a lean, mean writer and he gets at the loneliness of desperate people. There’s one scene that describes a sad sack sitting naked on the toilet, crying his eyes out waiting for the bathtub to fill-up. It’s a brutal story that doesn’t pull any punches and I couldn’t put it down. The John Schlessinger movie is visionary, but I prefer the book’s intimacy. (Does that make sense? Sorry, I rarely write about literature.)
1997: IN THE LAKE OF THE WOODS by Tim O’Brien
I got this book for Christmas in ’97, at the time I was temping at a handbag company, during my lunch break I’d sit in my Mom’s car and read this fragmented novel about a failed politician whose career is ruined when his military history comes to surface. Also, he may or may not murdered his wife. The structure is unlike anything I’d read before, and it dealt with big ideas about history, memory and alcoholism. I can’t do the book justice, but it’s Tim O’Brien’s best character-driven novel.
1998: MOTHER NIGHT by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.
I made a mis-step with my first Vonnegut book, reading God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater. I just thought he wasn’t for me. But I ended up reading Mother Night and loving it as a beautiful study in phenomenology and the simple lesson: be careful what you pretend to be.
Other nominees: Texas Summer by Terry Southern, The Anatomy Lesson by Philip Roth.
1999: PERMANENT MIDNIGHT by Jerry Stahl
Yes, I saw the Ben Stiller movie first, but thankfully that got me to read his memoir. I’m a sucker for “Hollywood is evil” morality tales, but this is really a book about Jerry Stahl’s deep self-loathing. He introduces me to some big ideas, like the way we deal with trauma: the mind buries the pain, it buries it in the body. There are some excellent moments where Stahl brings his baby with him to score some heroin, and he feels himself being judged by the other junkies.
Other nominees: The Long Goodbye by Raymond Chandler, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and The Best of Temp Slave!
2000: THE BUDDHA IN MALIBU by William Harrison
This guy wrote the movie Rollerball, which was based on one of his short stories. Turns out his stories are fantastic. Each one of his stories could’ve been adapted into a movie of its own.
Other nominees: Barrell Fever by David Sedaris, Alone Against Tomorrow by Harlan Ellison. I was reading a lot of short content that year.
2001: SOUTH OF HEAVEN by Jim Thompson
Thompson will always be remembered for his hard-boiled, pulp novels, typically first-person stories by sociopaths. But guess what — the guy had a soft side. This nostalgic look back at his days as a laborer and hobo working on the Texas gasline in the 1920’s. Please note: it’s not a great novel, but after reading Thompson’s grittier books like A Hell of a Woman, Savage Night and The Killer Inside Me, this came as a complete surprise. I’m also a sucker for romantic stories about hoboes and Wobblies.
Other nominees: Nine Stories by J.D. Salinger, After Dark My Sweet by Jim Thompson.
2002: SHOOT THE PIANO PLAYER by David Goodis
David Goodis was an exceptional novelist, who like many authors of his generation, was drawn to Hollywood to write for the pictures. Things didn’t work out, and the guy moved back home to Philadelphia where he squeaked by writing crime-novels. But here’s the thing: those novels were invariably about himself. In one book, we follow a once-great airline pilot whose life is in shambles and now he’s driving a bus. Another story follows a chart-topping pop-singer who is living on skid row. There are great outbursts of lyrical violence, self-destructive explosions, bad decisions involving women and booze. Shoot the Piano Player is as Goodis as it gets (pardon the phrase), with a former concert pianist playing in a dive-bar and getting sucked into the petty schemes of his criminal brothers. I love this guy’s ability to keep a small flicker of hope amid the overwhelming sense of doom.
Other nominees: The Man Who Was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton, Fierce People by Dirk Wittenborn, Heed The Thunder by Jim Thompson.
2003: SNAKE N’ BACON’S CARTOON CABARET by Michael Kupperman
In 2003 I was doing my one-man show (“Lone Drifter”) and each night I’d fake-out the audience by starting the show with a horrible Mark Twain impression, leading some audience members to believe the entire show would be me (in a white wig and mustache) doing Twain quotes for 3 hours. When the run ended my friend Karen Sneider gave me a crazy book of cartoons, featuring some hilarious adventures of Mark Twain and Albert Einstein. The guy had a perfectly warped sense of humor that made me laugh out loud. I know people throw around the term “LOL” but how often do they really laugh aloud? I rarely do, but this guy kills me.
That year he beat out some tough competition including Th eAmazing Adventures of Kavilier & Clay, Rod Serling’s spartan adaptation of “Requiem for a Heavyweight”, and another laugh-out-loud book Wigfield.
2004: THEY SHOOT HORSES DON’T THEY? by Horace McCoy
It’s pretty clear by now I’ve got a soft spot for Depression-era tragedy with a dark sense of humor. Guys like Horace McCoy really stay with me, because they seem to articulate some of my thoughts and feelings about working-class struggle and what a con the whole thing is. If you don’t know the story: this one’s about a guy and girl who enter a spectacular dance contest in the 1930’s, since the dancers will be fed. Audiences show up to see the free entertainment: dancers push themselves to the limits of human endurance, trying to be the last couple standing. A spiritual soul-mate to Nathanael West.
Note: this same year, my wife had me read her favorite book of the year, Bel Canto by Anne Patchet. It was great, but not as good as the existential dance-contest book. Besides Bel Canto the other nominees were I, Fatty by Jerry Stahl and The Moon in the Gutter by David Goodis.
2005: THE HARDER THEY FALL by Budd Schulberg
Today it would be hard for a novelist to get away with writing a book that romanticizes hoboes, boxers, carnies and the like. Fortunately we still have novels from yesteryear, where it was acceptable. Schulberg’s book is about the making of a Heavyweight contender. The story involves organized crime, a delusional playwright and a poor giant named “Toro Molina” who unwittingly goes into the ring with over-the-hill fighters who agree to take a dive. A beautiful example of the ways tough guys struggle to keep their dignity — my favorite chapter is the one about the Native American fighter who has too much pride to throw the fight, so he stuffs a piece of barbed wire into his mouth, ensuring that he’ll bleed enough that he’ll be disqualified. Jesus. Also: the B.O.T.Y. committee was reluctant to give the award to a writer who named names during the Communist witch-hunt, but we have to separate the art from the artist.
Other nominees: Nightmare Alley by William Lindsay Gresham — whenever I see someone reading Geek Love on the subway, I tell them they should read Nightmare Alley instead. Richard Matheson: Collected Stories volume I, and the obligatory best-seller nominee The Life of Pi.
2006: THE BEARDLESS WARRIORS by Richard Matheson
I’d read a of the guy’s short stories and I loved how deceptively simple his writing could be. But this World War II story is better than any of his vampire, killer truck, monster on the wing of the plane stories combined. I can’t explain why it had such an impact on me. I guess it was the naive narrator who took himself too seriously and grew up with an Alcoholic. Filmmakers say that you don’t need amazing special effects if the actors are grounded and can do a scene convincingly with cheap effects. I think there’s something similar to Matheson’s prose, that everything feels grounded, like it’s all playing out in front of you the way it really would. That goes for his fantasy short stories as well as his semi-autobiographical war novel.
Other nominees: Moral Disorder
by Margaret Atwood and Early Bird
by Rodney Rothman.
2007: CLOUD ATLAS: A NOVEL by David Mitchell
A few different friends recommended this to me over the years. You’d think it wouldn’t live up to the hype. It eclipsed my expectations. To that end, I don’t want to tell you too much, except this: buy it, don’t read the back cover or anything, just read it. I gave this book to my friend Eric, and he shared it with his sister and she passed it onto their parents. This book has something for everyone. It’s like those Russian “nesting dolls” with a story within a story and so on. It’s also a great book club book, if you need one for your book club.
Other nominees: No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book that made Vaudeville Famous by Trav S.D., The Shrinking Man by Richard Matheson, Flash Gordon: Volume 1 by Alex Raymond.
2008: THE ROAD by Corman McCarthy
Another example of a book that amazingly lives up to the huge expectations. McCarthy is the best example of a lean, mean writer. It’s a nice bit of form and content, we are struggling through the rubble of a dying world with no luxuries and no extra words. Again, this is an example of where a book touched me because of where my head was at. I couldn’t help but read the book and imagine my own son as the boy. I’m glad I didn’t read this before I had kids.
Other nominees: Love Without by Jerry Stahl, The Gum Thief by Douglas Coupland, Night Has a Thousand Eyes by Cornell Woolrich
2009: THE MOTEL LIFE by Willy Vlautin
I was working two jobs in 2008, by early 2009 both jobs ended and my prospects looked bad. I picked up this book simply because I liked the title. The story did not disappoint. Two brothers are on the run after one of them kills a kid in a hit and run accident. Plenty of bad luck and bad choices against a Reno backdrop. My God, just thinking about it brings back the feelings of dread that fill the pages. But here’s the funny thing: Vlautin keeps the tiniest shred of hope alive, and he keeps his characters going. That kept me going through a tough time and I’m grateful for this book. And boy does he care about his characters, it’s just heartbreaking but in a beautiful way.
Other nominees: Northline by Willy Vlautin, “Death and the Maiden” by Ariel Dorfman,
The year is far from over. Maybe tomorrow I’ll pick up a mind-blowing piece of fiction that’ll change my life. But it would have to be pretty fucking amazing to be better than I’ll Become the Sea. I know first-hand about the love and tears that went into writing this book — because my wife wrote it. It’s different from the trash I normally read. There’s no alcoholic boxers, seedy carnys, smart-mouthed hoboes or any of the anti-heroes I usually go for. But it’s a genuine love story that’s truly moving. It’s being sold as a Romance novel, but it features family violence, urban school decay, Jungian psychology and heavy metal. I love this writer.
The competition is rough: John Dies at the End by David Wong, Wilson by Daniel Clowes and Any Rough Times Are Behind You Now by Dave Alvin.
The Book Of The Year Committee takes the awards very seriously, some people might think my wife has an advantage by being married to me, but instead it’s a disadvantage because we can’t sacrifice the honor of the award just because the author is sleeping with me. But guess what? It’s as good as the rest of them. Maybe even better.