Top 5 Books I Read in 2019

I’ll be doing a few Top Fives to wrap up 2019, starting, obviously, with books.

Before the list proper, here’s everything I read in 2019:

J R by William Gaddis

Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson

2666 by Roberto Bolaño

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

Herzog by Saul Bellow

Fat City by Leonard Gardner

Tree of Smoke by Denis Johnson

Airships by Barry Hannah

Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson

The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa

The Road by Cormac McCarthy

100 Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez

Suldrun’s Garden by Jack Vance

The Stand by Stephen King

The Green Pearl by Jack Vance

The Shining by Stephen King

The Croning by Laird Barron

Morte D’Urban by J.F. Powers

How to Read Donald Duck by Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart

Cosmic Trigger by Robert Anton Wilson

I try to adhere to a 30 pages a day regimen in my reading. I settled on 30 pages because A) it’s a feasible fit-in with an obstructed modern life, and B) if observed, guarantees I’m able to finish nearly any book in about a month, which keeps things tidy on the mental calendar. I thought I fell short of that goal this year, but did better than expected. In total, I read 10,224 pages this year: about 28.01 pages/day.

Some observations about my readings:

Which two exceptions, everything I read this year was originally written in English.

With two exceptions, everything I read this year was fiction.

This is the first year in which I listened to audiobooks; three of them: The StandThe        Road, and A Game of Thrones (I read the first third, but switched to the audiobook).

Only two books this year were rereads.

I, and I cannot state this enough, do not like New Years’ Resolutions, but if I were to draw some possible guidelines for 2020’s reading based on what I did/didn’t do in 2019, they would be:

Read more literature in translation.

Keep audiobooks a key part of my regimen.

Read more nonfiction.

Keep the ratio between new reads and rereads approximately the same.

Oh and also: maintain a list of everything that I read somewhere because collating    between my blog and twitter account to make sure I found them all was a pain in the  ass.


  1. Morte D’Urban by J.F. Powers

A winter surprise. Not super happy with my review of Urban, which I wrote right after finishing it and which fails to address the strange, elegant presence this book has continued to maintain inside my head. Superficially so straightforward, Urban teems with strong characterization, clean prose, and (a particular catnip) Heavy Midwestern Vibes. There are other things that I like about it, but don’t want to talk about for fear of spoiling them for others. Still don’t know who I’d recommend this one to; guess I’ll say that if you liked Silence by Shusaku Endo or the movie First Reformed, give Morte d’Urban a try.


  1. Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon

It was so strange and rewarding to return, after ten years, to the book that ignited all the literary drypowder in my skull and has always been a personal emblem to me of what books can achieve. Its place as fourth on this list speaks to the simple, obvious inability of a Top 5 to be authoritative in any way, or even ‘correct’; from lots of angles GR should be higher, and from any angle its place in my life is singular. But from a pure “reading for pleasure” point of view, for all that I admire GR (and there aren’t many books I admire as much), it is a lot. It was a fatiguing reread, and gave me full-on Epstein Brain three months before he was killed; I became paranoid to the point of exasperation, nearly to a point of despair. Not that either feeling was/is unwarranted.


  1. J R by William Gaddis

J R is a powerful book, angry and funny and beautiful; whereas The Recognitions can be a little too unvarnishedly angry to the point of unpleasing obviousness at times, with J R Gaddis struck perfectly the balance between anger and art. I mean, the book is still very obvious; there’s nothing subtle in Gaddis’s satire (with the exception of J R himself); but the eloquent vehemence of the attacks and their particular accuracy channel much vivid power. The characters are stronger in J R, too, and the whole thing is grounded in a more direct, tangible realism that I like; this is our world, in all its hot and cold ugliness, indicted in words on the page.


  1. 2666 by Roberto Bolaño

2666 is dark, arcane, driven by death and thoughts of death, death-obsessed; but also bravely makes the key leap and shows that engagement with death means engagement with life; and life, to Bolaño, isn’t a cheesy positivity, or some facile reconciliation with finiteness; instead, for Bolaño, life comes down finally to those few stretches of time in which we are steeped in art. Divided into five obliquely-related parts, what should feel like a congeries comes together like a cathedral. Highly excited to reread this one.


  1. Herzog by Saul Bellow

No surprise here, except for the first, eternal surprise that against all odds Herzog, most novely of novels (even the page count – 341 pages – is so fucking novely), stormed my heart and became my favorite book of the year. It hit me right in the red marrow. Herzog is magnificent.

A Couple Miscellaneous Awards

Best Audiobook: The Stand by Stephen King, read by Grover Gardner

I like Stephen King but he’s exasperating for me to read; I much prefer to listen to his novels; it somehow mitigates his excesses. The audiobook for The Stand is, hands down, the best audiobook I’ve ever heard. Grover Gardner seems totally in sync with the text, allocating the perfect voices to each of the (many) characters. This is one case where I can say that not only did the audiobook help me finish the book, it also actively made it better.

Worst Book I Read in 2019: A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin

It sucked.

A Mid-Year Book Ranking

I like lists, rankings, reviews, organizations, schema and structures, anatomies; because of this, and since the year is halfway over now, and since I don’t want to forget what I’ve read as I often do (I’m basically a bad, sloppy reader), I wanted to make a ranked list of everything that I’ve read in 2019 so far.

Each book’s rank is derived from an admixture of 1) how much I enjoyed reading it, and 2) how it stands in my esteem now, today, June 19th, after having finished it and moved on for shorter or longer stretches of time.

God Tier

Herzog by Saul Bellow
A full piece is forthcoming on Herzog, easily the biggest and best surprise of the year. I expected to love 2666J R, Train Dreams, books that’re so clearly fashioned from the stuff I gravitate towards. But I thought, wrongly, that I had moved beyond Saul Bellow, who seems so normal, so achingly, boringly a “writer,” with his natty bow ties, stable of standard awards, the sheer noveliness of his novel’s names: The Dean’s December? Seize the Day? Get the fuck outta here.

But, I am a bad reader, and I was wrong. Rich, funny, sad, raw – pick your favorite blurb-word fallalerie, it applies to Herzog  – but applies truly: this is a work of deep erudition and deep heart, a character study that’s as richly drawn as any I’ve ever read, a book about a man thinking that, through the all-grabbing vitality of its prose, manages to make that process of thought a thrilling, page-turning experience.

(And out of anything I’ve ever read it’s the book I most wish you would read; I want to know what you would make of it).

2666 by Roberto Bolaño
I reviewed this book here. Amazing, looking forward to taking another pass at it next year. One thing that’s worth mentioning, I think, is the sheer readability of 2666; although it is long, and juggles some arcane subjects like evil, death, and our own human hearts, it reads so easily, so smoothly – without losing any artistic individuality.


J R by William Gaddis
I actually began J R last year, but read about half of it in January so I think it counts. A very great book, and by no means as difficult as its reputation would suggest – in many ways I found The Recognitions harder to get through, although that is also a powerful and most excellent novel.

Jesus’ Son by Denis Johnson
I reviewed Jesus’ Son here. Since reading it I’ve had to dig it out again, and I keep it on the stack on my nightstand to browse through on occasion, reading choice passages – and almost every passage in this slender little knife of a book is choice.

Train Dreams by Denis Johnson
Johnson did it again with Train Dreams, which I read in two delightful hours a couple weeks ago. I thought about reviewing it, but really, if you’re interested at all in Johnson’s work, just pick up a copy and read it yourself.

Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon
My first reread of GR since I read it in ’07 or ’08 was mostly positive. The sheer force of the art here is beyond reproach, but truth be told there was much in the book I didn’t enjoy, or didn’t quite ‘get.’ The near insanity of GR‘s constant, onrushing density of detail, its endless appurtenances of fantasy and fever dream and aside, do induce fatigue, even if the prose is uniformly capital-B Beautiful. I highly recommend it and love it, and it’ll always be a totem for me, but it does engender some readerly brennschluss.


The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa
At some point I have to write something articulating the concept of Perfection in fiction: what an author gains and loses by pursuing, and maybe even achieving, it. The Leopard is pretty damn perfect, a beautiful book, and if you ever need a guide of how to write historical fiction – what to include, what to show, etc. – this one’ll teach ya. Rich and invigorating.

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez
Found this one manifestly great, but also kind of…cold? It’s hard to explain in brief, but there’s a certain distance to the narration that made 100 Years easy to admire but hard to love. It does have an unbelievable, perfect first chapter though, and an ending that’ll rip your heart out (don’t worry, it’ll grow back).


Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
I took some notes on this one here. This cowboy epic went down easy, but didn’t stick with me. I can see why people like it, and I don’t think that it’s without artistic merit, unlike other popularly apotheosized doorstops (cough A Game of Thrones cough), but I think it fails to be the critique of Western myth it so clearly wants to be.

Reasons to Read Gravity’s Rainbow


Thomas Pynchon is my literary father. Without his example I’m not sure I would’ve wanted to become a writer. He set me my example, not so much with his style, nor even with his ambition, but with his actual achievement, with the living proof in the several thousand pages’ worth of art he has made over his career.

(And to be sure, a lot of it in those early days was also how the way that reviewers wrote about him pricked at my own blossoming ego, my own starving heart).

Gravity’s Rainbow was the second Pynchon novel I read, but the first that I was aware of, and I christened it a personal landmark before I ever sat down to read it. When I finally did read it, I got little more out of it than a few nightmares and lingering images (the banana breakfast, the Kenosha Kid sequence, the Adenoid, u.s.w.) – which I guess isn’t a bad haul from a first read of any book…but either way it was due for a reread.

I’m about 450 pages in. I would’ve liked to be finished already and have a review up today for Pynchon’s birthday, but unfortunately it wasn’t in the stars. Maybe next year. But I did want to write something about Gravity’s Rainbow, so in lieu of a full-fat review here are some reasons why I think you’d like this book.

You Don’t Like Other Pynchon Novels

Gravity’s Rainbow is the least Pynchon-like of Pynchon’s novels. The usual clutch of Pynchon qualities – you might call them tropes – are either absent or, if they are present, they’re subsumed or otherwise reconfigured into the particular aesthetic at work here. Yes, there are dumb songs – but they often seem scary or desparate or sad here. Yeah, the narrative voice has that knowing Pynchon chumminess on occasion, but more often it lapses into prophetic, apocalyptic, or achingly mournful modes, made all the more foreboding/sad set against those lighter moments. Even the names, though they’re outlandish as ever, seem less jokey and more ominous in their connotations, like someone is desperately trying to tell you something but is prevented from saying it outright.

Some very few books demand a style all to their own, a special, unrepeatable language keyed to the task at hand and nothing else. Gravity’s Rainbow is one such book. Even if other Pynchon novels didn’t sweeten your tea, this one might.

You Like Metal Gear Solid

Isn’t there video footage of a V-2 taking off in a Snake Eater cutscene, or am I dreaming? Pynchon references Metal Gear auteur Hideo Kojima by name in Bleeding Edge; did he ever play Snake Eater, or any other modern Metal Gear game? I know he’s a cool old dude but is he that kind of Cool Old Dude? Did Kojima ever read Gravity’s Rainbow?

Someday somebody, who will either be obnoxious or interesting, is going to write a paper or thesis examining the connections between Kojima & Konami’s Metal Gear games and Gravity’s Rainbow (And maybe you’ll wish that you wrote it…) All the themes of those games are present in Pynchon’s book: the paranoia, an attunement to the metaphysics of war and espionage, the cinephilia, a death-wish fascination with military technology. Pynchon explores these themes on a level that the Metal Gear games don’t reach, but they’re also trying to be a different thing, and if you like what Kojima does at his best, and in particular if you like the vibes of Snake Eater, Guns of the Patriots, or Peace Walker, there is a shocking amount of synchronicity to be found in Gravity’s Rainbow.

You Want a Different Kind of War Novel

Pynchon’s treatment of WWII, the Big Sappy Boy of 20th century wars, is singular. The excellent Pynchon in Public Podcast notes that Gravity’s Rainbow is less about war than it is about the bureaucracy of war – which, of course, means that it is indeed about war. It looks at war honestly, as the For Profit enterprise it actually is: a bloody excuse for cosmic levels of Buying and Selling. And thus in Gravity’s Rainbow, nations aren’t mentioned as often as companies are, institutions, organizations, divisions and subdivisions and sub-subdivisions. The cherubic smiling doughboy wobbling off to war with a crew cut and a fat ass is replaced with an accountant you never see. Romance drowns under a mountain of paper. People die.

So much of WWII is obscured behind genial self-satisfied smoke in wood-paneled VFW bars, or wet-eyed reverence towards Brotherhood or Sacrifice or Bravery or any of the other shoddy toys people’re given to distract them from the very real transaction of their death. Gravity’s Rainbow deconstructs these notions and replaces them with something much truer, and much scarier.

You are a Student of Architecture

You read enough books – you read enough great books – and you start to be less surprised by their greatness. Not less moved, necessarily (but that’s part of it too, rare are the reading experiences today that keep you flat against the couch as if pinned there by a spear of light, reading “The Try-Works” with absolute wonder), but less gratefully shocked at the capability of human genius.

But Gravity’s Rainbow manages to impress. Not by dint of its beauty – though it’s as gorgeous and surprising as a second moon would be – but by the faultless precision, the obsessive engineer’s agony that informs the placement of each individual word, comma, period, every ellipsis…The attention to detail here is such that a single word can become, through carefully planned repetition and recursion, a potent symbol all on its own, with the multiple manifestations, the different faces and attitudes, of the old gods.

Sure, you suspect that some of the more overt symbolism may not work as well – the tarot stuff isn’t always as interesting as you wish it were, nor as subtly interwoven as other elements – but you are sure that Gravity’s Rainbow is a triumph of organization and orchestration.

Image Credit: Landschaft mit Regenbogen 1810 by Caspar David Friedrich. This particular image of the painting comes from Otto Sell’s amazing online Pynchon resource. Make sure to check out the artwork he has there from Marca Mericawhich I wanted to include in this piece but were too small to really stick out.