previous years: 2009, 2008, 2007
The annual list -- with links to blog posts I've written about these books (fewer this year than in years past) and/or brief commentary.
1. The Play That Changed My Life, by various American playwrights (essays). Recommended, but it's a lightweight read. As I said at the time, "Very pleasant and inspirational, but also working overtime to give the impression that everything is fine with the American theater, and that American playwrights are like one big happy family. It tries to stanch the bleeding, whereas Outrageous Fortune does the opposite--it tears away the bandages and the blindfolds."
2. Outrageous Fortune: The Life and Times of the New American Play, by Todd London, Ben Pesner, and Zannie Giraud Voss (hard data and shrewd analysis about being a playwright today). Highly recommended. I seriously think that this book has changed my life -- made me less likely to play into the "system" or go to grad school in playwriting, more likely to focus on making good theater with people I respect. Written about here and here.
3. Angels & Insects, by A.S. Byatt (two novellas). I recommend the first novella and have mixed feelings about the second.
4. Plays of Anton Chekhov, by Anton Chekhov, translated by Paul Schmidt (plays). Oh how I love Chekhov. Why did I wait so long to experience Three Sisters?
5. Quills and Other Plays, by Doug Wright (plays). Wright has such a vivid theatrical imagination! Anyone know what he's up to these days? It seems like we haven't heard from him since Grey Gardens, and that's a shame.
6. Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon, by Chuck Palahniuk (offbeat travel guide). Keep Portland Weird! A portrait of my hometown before the hipsters discovered it. I gave my copy to my parents after I was done and tried to persuade them to put it in our guest bedroom -- though it might upset guests of more delicate sensibilities.
7. Rock ‘n’ Roll, by Tom Stoppard (play). Reading it, my opinion is the same as when I saw it on Broadway: it doesn't work as a play. The first act is particularly undramatic.
8. The Secret History, by Donna Tartt (novel). Highly recommended.
9. Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh (novel). Recommended: it really has everything you want from a "classic" novel, with its mood of rueful nostalgia and loss, moving from schoolboy high jinks to hard-won wisdom.
10. The Garden Party and Other Plays, by Vaclav Havel and various translators (plays). I first read this when I was in high school, full of admiration for this playwright-turned-president, but at the time I didn't really get Havel's absurdist writing style. Now, I do. I found the "Vanek" plays (Audience, Unveiling, and Protest) particularly rewarding this time around.
11. The Fountain Overflows, by Rebecca West (novel). Mixed feelings: it's charming, but unstructured and not particularly deep. I'd have loved this book if I read it at the age of 12 or 14, but as an adult, it's not my favorite.
12. The Virgin in the Garden, by A.S. Byatt (novel). Written about here (in 2007). The perfect example of a book that I will love unto death, even if no one else does. Frederica Potter reminds me so uncomfortably of myself at age 17 or so...
13. Five Plays, by Jean Cocteau and various translators (plays). Recommended: a good overview of the many different styles of plays that Cocteau wrote at different points in his career. I also prefer the translation of Orphée in this volume to the one that's in Book #16 on this list. (But I still want to do my own translation of Orphée in 2011).
14. A Passage to India, by E.M. Forster (novel). Recommended: there are many contemporary novels written from a postcolonial perspective about the evils of imperialism, but it is amazing to have a novel from the height of the imperialist epoch, written by an Englishman, about this topic. Also, Forster has written two of my favorite concluding paragraphs of all time (here and in A Room with a View).
15. R.U.R., by Karel Capek, translated by Claudia Novack (play). The play that invented the word "robot" (in 1920) and bears an amazing resemblance to a modern alien-invasion or zombie movie -- a small group of humans hide out and hope that the robots (aliens, zombies) won't kill them.
16. The Infernal Machine and Other Plays, by Jean Cocteau and various translators (plays). Mixed feelings: I like the selection of Cocteau plays in Five Plays better as an introduction to his work, but was still happy to read all of these.
17. The Magicians, by Lev Grossman (novel). Mixed feelings: as someone who was obsessed with fantasy novels in my youth, I really wanted to love this deconstruction of the Narnia/Harry Potter books. The plot was gripping enough, but somehow the writing felt skimpy; it didn't suck me into the worlds of Brakebills and Fillory, the way I got sucked into Hogwarts or Narnia. I wanted more detail, more enchantment. Nonetheless, when the sequel comes out, I'll probably read it.
18. The House of Mirth, by Edith Wharton (novel). Recommended: The Age of Innocence is still my favorite, but this comes close. Poor, doomed Lily Bart! Wharton writes so well about what it feels like to be intelligent, beautiful, moneyed, and still be powerless to make anything happen the way you want it to.
19. Collected Shorter Plays, by Samuel Beckett (plays). Recommended: I appreciate Beckett more and more, the older I get.
20. Maps & Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands, by Michael Chabon (essays). Recommended: I bought it because I really wanted to read Chabon's essay on Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials (one of my favorite authors writing about another), and some of the other pieces in this collection are really valuable as well, though others are lightweight.
21. Memoirs of Montparnasse, by John Glassco (memoir). Oh, Paris in the twenties! Somehow, Glassco (a 19-year-old Canadian kid) got to meet just about all the important figures of this era, and have sex with half of them. Gossipy, dishy, and a great deal of fun.
22. Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik (essays). Recommended. Gopnik can occasionally get a bit cutesy or sentimental, because he loves his subjects (his family, Paris, art) so much. But hey, I'm prone to nostalgia for Paris too, and at least this book is a portrait of the city that I know, with its contemporary flaws and quirks, not the mythologized Paris of the twenties.
23. Cariboo Magi, by Lucia Frangione (play). Recommended.
24. Furious Improvisation: How the WPA and a Cast of Thousands Made High Art out of Desperate Times, by Susan Quinn (theater history). Recommended.
25. The Children’s Book, by A.S. Byatt (novel). Very mixed feelings. You know, sometimes I use the phrase "mixed feelings" to indicate "I felt pretty 'meh' about it, but maybe other people will like it." Here, my feelings are truly mixed, from highs to lows. There were parts of this book I found very dry, and then I cried three times in the last fifty pages.
26. Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Geoffrey Wall (novel). Highly recommended. This is one of my favorite books, for its pointed observations that make me laugh out loud or else pierce me through the heart (sometimes both at the same time, in their dark and cynical truths).
27. Sentimental Education, by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Robert Baldick and Geoffrey Wall (novel). Mixed feelings: while Madame Bovary is so tight and pointed and snarky, I felt like this was a whole lot of blather about nothing. I know the point is that Flaubert considered the men of his generation a bunch of aimless wafflers, but it is not very fun to read about for 400 pages. The characters of Madame Bovary are just as flawed as those of Sentimental Education, but they come alive in a way that the others don't.
28. The Clean House & Other Plays, by Sarah Ruhl (plays). Recommended: I go back and forth on what I think of Sarah Ruhl, but if you're involved in theater this decade, you've got to know her work and form opinions about it... and this volume, containing two of Ruhl's most acclaimed plays (Eurydice, The Clean House) and two lesser-known ones (Melancholy Play, Late: a cowboy song) is an excellent introduction to her voice as a writer.
29. We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson (novella). Highly recommended.
30. Kissing in Manhattan, by David Schickler (short stories). To be avoided.
31. No Place Like Home: A Memoir in 39 Apartments, by Brooke Berman (memoir). Mixed feelings.
32. The Best of H.P. Lovecraft: Bloodcurdling Tales of Horror and the Macabre, by H. P. Lovecraft (stories). This dense volume may be a little too much Lovecraft for one time, but, thanks to the Theater Pubbers, I enjoyed the encouragement to check out his work. While his tales didn't really curdle my blood (the language is too verbose and hysterical for that), I've developed a taste for this true American weirdo. Also, if my experience is any indication, men love women who read Lovecraft on public transit. Two different guys struck up conversations with me when they saw what I was reading -- that doesn't usually happen to me.
33. Light Fantastic: Adventures in Theatre, by John Lahr (theater criticism and profiles). Recommended: New Yorker criticism of productions of the 1990s of plays from a variety of eras (including some that I have never heard of before and would love to see or read). Very interesting to read at the same time I was reading Book #35 on this list, because Lahr thinks Sondheim ruined musical theater.
34. Homebody/Kabul, by Tony Kushner (play). Mixed feelings: the Homebody's monologue is amazing, and taught me at least a dozen new vocabulary words, but I don't know how well the rest of the play will come off as drama. I'd like to see this one, though, to make up my own mind.
35. Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) with Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes, by Stephen Sondheim (Exactly what it says on the tin). Highly, highly, highly recommended. I can't even describe how fortunate I feel that this book even exists -- when was the last time a bona fide artistic genius decided to write a book on his craft, and produced one that was this honest and engaging? Absolutely studded with items of interest from a great man of the theater. Can't wait for Volume Two -- I predict it might be the best thing I will read in 2011.
Of these books, about five of them were rereads (The Virgin in the Garden, Madame Bovary, and the majority of Chekhov's, Havel's, and Ruhl's plays) -- the rest were new to me. 35 books (plus innumerable issues of The New Yorker) is about par for the course for me -- last year I read 42, but I wasn't going to the theater nearly so often in 2009!
Most of the books (18) were by Americans, though the British (7 books) and French (4 books) made a respectable showing, and the Russians, Czechs, Irish, and Canadians also showed up. Eleven of the books were by women and 22 by men (two had multiple authors). There was a pretty even split of 10 non-fiction, 14 fiction, and 11 drama. (I count Sondheim's book as "non-fiction" even though it also could fall in the "drama" category. Also, many of these non-fiction books are books about the theater, so my reading tastes do have a certain narrowness to them.)