Five Books You Might Have Missed in 2015

One of the unfortunate realities of literary marketing is that so many books, once they pass their initial window of newness, get swept offstage and forgotten. Even with music this is unfair, and it takes what, 45 minutes to listen to an album? Am I betraying something significant about my worldview by thinking in terms of albums rather than songs? The point is, it takes time to read a book. With the sheer volume of new releases out each week, no reader makes it through more than a handful before another batch is acclaimed as must reads. This isn’t even me saying the diagnosis of must read is necessarily wrong, just that there’s necessarily something lost in the churn from one batch of new books to the next. So, here are five books worth buying and reading from 2015 that I either didn’t get a chance to read or write about when they were brand new.

JD by Mark Merlis


  • Image via University of Wisconsin Press

The thing about Mark Merlis is, he’s a really good writer. Once upon a time, Walter Kirn wrote an essay in praise of the good novel (as opposed to great, if I remember right, if the essay ever really existed – can’t seem to prove it did). JD is a good novel, every bit good enough that you’ll look forward to getting back to it when you have time each day. What we have is this: a novelist-cum-scholar, Jonathan Ascher has died, and years later, a scholar writes to his widow, asking to work with his papers. His widow, Martha, is uneasy with the request, and finally digs into her late husband’s papers, his journals in particular, to see if she’s being unreasonable.

It all sounds like a sort of low-stakes matter, but Merlis has complete command of the voices here. The whole thing unfolds across Martha’s weeks/months of sizing up and remembering her life with Jonathan, and the pseudo-private entries Jonathan made in his journals. Pseudo-private because she suspects he’d always wanted them to be read and studied. What’s betrayal, what’s honesty – it’s all in play here, and it’s to his credit that there’s never a moment when it feels like the conclusion that emerges really belongs to Merlis rather than someone in the novel. There’s a touching moment, to me at least, when the scholar who got in touch with Martha talks about “coming out as second rate.” Merlis won the Los Angeles Times Book Prize Art Seidenbaum Award for First Fiction in 1995, among other prizes, and also managed a career working on health care policy, including the creation of the Ryan White Act. If I had to narrow this list down to one book, JD would be the one, and the other four are very good.

Something for the Pain: A Memoir of the Turf by Gerald Murnane


  • Image via Text Publishing

Bob Dylan won the Nobel Prize for Literature. I’m good with that, actually, but it’s nice to see Gerald Murnane’s name mentioned once a year in American publications handicapping who might get the prize. Its abiding concern is Murnane’s lifelong devotion to horse racing, but from the outset it’s clear that he’s long since accepted that what happens on the track means as much to him personally, as part of his mythos, as it does on an emerging, day-to-day basis. His car’s radio no longer picks up all the races, and the newspaper coverage is condensed. He doesn’t mention it – the event occurred after his memoir’s publication – but Michelle Payne became the first female jockey to win the Melbourne Cup in November of 2015. Murnane doesn’t seem likely to lament the change. It’s the horses that capture his imagination, the silks they and their riders wear and the drama of the uncertainty as they head into the final turn. Well, that and the exaggerated tales from trainers, punters and the like. If there’s a reason I’m let down that Dylan got the Nobel, it’s that Murnane would’ve suddenly had a much larger readership if he’d won.

Immaculate Blue by Paul Russell


  • Image via Paul Russell/Cleis Press

Paul Russell wrote a pair of novels centered on the same four friends, twenty-five years apart. That in itself is enough to justify your interest. It also sort of means I’m recommending the first book, The Salt Point, as well, even though he does an admirable job of filling in the blanks in Immaculate Blue, without making it awkwardly apparent that he’s doing so. In fact, three of the four – Anatole, Lydia and the estranged Chris – are back together for Anatole’s wedding. They’re much different after twenty-five years, naturally – both more and less serious, which is to say their ideas of what matters now correspond to the larger number of people they’re committed to and responsible for. Lydia has a husband and son. Anatole is set to marry Rafa and they’ve discussed kids by various channels. Chris, well, he’s dealt with matters of life and death up close, in Iraq and more recently Nigeria. Leigh, “Our Boy of the Mall” as they refer to him in The Salt Point, is forty-four now and also in a committed relationship. Their inevitable changes are no less notable than those Russell himself has undergone, to judge by the two books. The Salt Point is brooding and poetic, truly gorgeous line by line, and the ending is almost hermetic in its darkness. Immaculate Blue refutes a lot of that brooding. It’s not without its introspective, reflective moments, but it also acknowledges that there’s life after what seem to be signal moments, big decisions that later aren’t so big for the immediate break as much as the options they afford us afterward.

Rare Books Uncovered by Rebecca Barry Rego


  • Image via Rebecca Barry Rego/Voyageur Press

I don’t collect books as seriously as I’d like. It’s an expensive hobby and I lack the expertise to avoid pissing away large sums of money. What I do appreciate, admire, choose the word you like, is the romance of that pursuit. In truth I’d own a bookstore, in another time, place, life. Rebecca Barry Rego writes here about people bold and knowing enough to own bookstores in the here and now, and how they came by some of their most prized quarry. I should add she’s one of my most favorite editors. Without her Fine Books & Collections wouldn’t be nearly the magazine it is.

In Rare Books Uncovered, she writes, “For better or worse, serendipity plays a significant role in antiquarian book collecting and bookselling.” Absolutely, and I won’t spoil a single one of the serendipitous moments she writes about in the book. I’d say we should all be so lucky, but if we were, stories like these wouldn’t mean nearly as much. Highly recommended.

I Think You’re Totally Wrong: A Quarrel by David Shields and Caleb Powell


  • Image via Vintage Books

Know how many writers like David Shields we have in America? One, I’m going to say, just the one. He’s intelligent and endlessly curious, but if you can’t say that about a writer, that writer’s just painting by numbers. What takes Shields a step beyond, or many steps at times, is that he turns that curiosity on himself, his own thought processes, and he seemingly refuses to offer himself the comfortable way forward in those moments. About a dozen years ago, I sent him some emails about his book Black Planet, which deals with race and a season with the NBA’s then Seattle Supersonics. Leaving aside the fact that allowing the Sonics to move was a gross miscarriage of justice, I disagreed with him completely on a number of things. I said so (I was younger and more likely to bother with these disagreements then), and what happened? He wrote back, granted that I might be right but he had his reasons for the conclusions he reached, and then we discussed the Sonics summer league games. We both watch a lot of basketball, is the other takeaway there.

This is the kind of writer who should get the Macarthur Genius Grant. Can you imagine how he’d torment himself, with 600 or so grand and a bunch of time to write and think? Sign me up to read the results. I Think You’re Totally Wrong is unlike anything else in recent American letters. He goes off for a weekend with a former student, Caleb Powell, who’s also a writer, and they go back and forth on a  variety of topics. The resulting book is funny and irritating as hell and really smart. I went away feeling really fond of them both but also glad they didn’t invite me on their weekend trip. James Franco’s made a movie of it, a metafictional extension of the premise that apparently includes James Franco, who should not ever get the Macarthur Genius Grant under any circumstances. And you know what? Powell holds his own, at least in the book. We should hear a lot more from him in the future. Just give him all the access and exposure James Franco gets. The world will be a more exciting place.

– John McIntyre

What I’m Reading: Photographer JA Mortram

For the 100th Good Reading Copy post, it’s time to look in a new direction. For three years now, the site has dealt with what I’m reading and why I’m reading it. That’s been rewarding, but it’s only half of the conversation I’d like to have. A few years back, Anita Brookner mentioned in an interview that Piers Paul Read’s novel The Misognyist was the book that had most impressed her in recent years. A couple of weeks ago, Helen Garner told me that Joan London’s novel The Golden Age was something special, and that she hoped people didn’t overlook it. So, I’m adding regular entries devoted to what certain makers, as Robert Phelps would’ve called them, ones I admire, are reading and why. That will include writers, but also photographers, musicians, people in publishing, chefs – anyone whose work has caught my eye and who has the time and inclination to share. Up first: the photographer JA Mortram.


At the start of his very short story, “Harbor Town,” Yasunari Kawabata writes, “This harbor town is an interesting one.” He then offers a brief sketch of a man’s loneliness and a fleeting connection to geisha he finds there. Somehow he hasn’t taken hold in the world, hasn’t made the connections he’d have liked. What’s missing for him doesn’t trouble the world at large, though, and so there’s an added tang to his isolation. What Kawabata includes is striking, but what’s left off the page has an even more lasting pull. There’s no subsequent expansion on “Harbor Town.” It’s not part of a series of stories or a sketch for a novel, as we might read “Gleanings from Snow Country.” Great as he was, there’s a nagging question of what Kawabata knew of men like the one in “Harbor Town,” beyond their loneliness and poignant moments like the one in the story, what else he might’ve revealed by allowing a few more lines of dialogue, another turn or two onstage.

This is not a complaint that applies to the photographer JA Mortram. He’s said in the past that he’s committed to photographing people who don’t have a voice. More often than not, that means he makes an ongoing commitment to the people he photographs, not only engaging with them over the course of multiple sessions, but at times offering help with everyday matters as well. If that seems to suggest an investment beyond the visual aspects of his work, it’s because he does.


  • Photo by JA Mortram

He told Darlene Hildebrandt of Digital Photography School that a significant part of what he’s doing is to “be nice, be attentive, give a damn, listen.” Indeed, the people Mortram is working with are his neighbors, and his work affords them the same dignity they’ve offered him by inviting him into their homes, into their lives.

When I asked what he’d been reading, he told me, “Lately it’s pretty much all been photography books,” and I knew that meant he’d been working madly – he’s as curious and engaged as anyone I know. He’s got good taste, too – ask him about Harry Crews. The upshot here is that a list of photography books that hold JA Mortram’s attention is a list of photography books that should be on your shelves. And so, from the man himself:

“Cool, a list of books, here we go, these are VITAL…

Is Anyone Taking Any Notice? by Don McCullin


Family Love by Darcy Padilla


Written in the West by Wim Wenders


Living with the by Enemy Donna Ferrato


  • Photo by Donna Ferrato,

One Second of Light by Giles Duley


The Fat Baby Eugene Richards


  • Photo by Eugene Richards,

…these are all go to books for truth, morality, empathy and life. Wim Wenders I go to when I want to fill my heart with joy.”

Later this year, Bluecoat Press is publishing Small Town Inertia, a collection of photos from JA Mortram’s work. You can find much more of his work – photos, video and the stories of the people whose stories he’s telling, at the links below.

– John McIntyre

More by JA Mortram:

At Vimeo


Small Town Intertia Tumblr

JA Mortram on Instagram

Books about food, books about wine

I’ve almost certainly made it clear that I don’t like internet lists, on balance. They’re lazy and reductive in most cases, and that’s only made worse by clicking through a dozen pages to realize how lazy and reductive a given list is. There are, of course, exceptions, and I was lucky to come across two this very week.

The first is courtesy of Robert Parker’s wonderful wine site. Neal Martin offers a list he calls, “Some of the Finest Wine Books Ever Written (…But Not by Jancis or Hugh).” These aren’t, it bears mentioning, altogether practical choices Martin makes. He readily acknowledges this. Of J.A. Garde’s Histoire de Pomerol, he writes, “It’s a book that seems to relish its tangents, narrative cul-de-sacs and ellipses, which meant that I had to read/translate it 50 or 60 times to eke out nuggets of precious information. Because they are here. You just have to search hard for it.” At times, André Simon’s Vintage-Wise “reads like the midnight shipping forecast on BBC Radio 4 and though its subject matter is just as irrelevant, insofar that the paucity of 1887 Saint Julien’s impacts your daily life as much as a squall on the Dogger Bank, you feel comforted by the information that seems better to know, than not.” These descriptions make me think of an unusual and almost totally impractical book I picked up a couple of years ago called Herbs and the Earth by Henry Beston. There’s something oddly reassuring and at times genuinely engaging about a writer’s devotion to a subject of intense personal interest. Just the kind of thing to relax into as the cool months descend.

The second list appeared on the Saveur site. Russ Parsons writes about “3 Classic (and Vastly Underappreciated) Books That Changed the Way We Cook.” He includes Helen Brown’s West Coast Cookbook, which is just a fantastic choice. She was indeed a James Beard protégée of sorts, though Beard’s letters to her, collected in Love and Kisses and A Halo of Truffles, seem to regard her more as a peer/equal. That quibble aside, the list is worth a look.

– John McIntyre

Charles McGrath on John O’Hara

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Image courtesy of Library of America

Charles McGrath has been, at various times, editor of the New York Times Book Review and deputy editor at the New Yorker. More recently, he’s edited the Library of America’s edition of John O’Hara’s short fiction. McGrath is a fitting choice, given how many of O’Hara’s stories the New Yorker published, albeit before his tenure there, unless I’m mistaken. For one reason or another, O’Hara hasn’t yet enjoyed the renewed interest John Cheever did. Then again, unless I’m mistaken, the Cheever renaissance tracked pretty closely with LOA reissues of his novels, and a biography by Blake Bailey, which is always an event. Geoffrey Woolf already wrote a good biography of O’Hara, The Art of Burning Bridges, way back in 2003. McGrath called the booksatisfying and pleasingly unconventional, and one that O’Hara would probably have hated.” There’s also a mid-’70s bio by Matthew J. Bruccoli, and while I can’t vouch for it firsthand, Bruccoli did so much exemplary work on F. Scott Fitzgerald that it’s unlikely to be a complete dud. 

Now we’ve got an interview with McGrath on the LOA site in which he calls O’Hara, “an important American writer who has been unjustly neglected.” He does acknowledge that the writer was his own worst enemy in some regards, saying of O’Hara, “his public persona was prickly and blustery, even a little obnoxious at times. He made it easy to dislike him.” Indeed, James Salter has noted that, “His publisher referred to him as the master of the perceived slight.” So, will this be a rebirth for the writer McGrath calls, “a crucial figure in the development of the American short story, with links to Hemingway and Fitzgerald, on the one hand, and on the other, to a generation of writers he influenced: Salinger, Updike, Cheever, Raymond Carver”? If nothing else, that characterization should get a few readers interested. What they find once they look closer won’t disappoint them.

– John McIntyre

John Casey on James Salter and Breece Pancake

Earlier this year, University of Virginia Press released The Art of Fiction, a bound version of three lectures James Salter gave while serving as Kapnick Foundation Distinguished Writer-in-Residence for 2014. It’s an unfinished book – Salter meant to flesh out what he’d written, probably expand on some of the ideas and perhaps look in other direction, in other essays, to offer a more complete set of thoughts on the subject. It was a treat for me all the same; it explores some of Salter’s ideas and enthusiasms in depth, and I’ve never yet gotten my fill of that. The additional pleasure: a lengthy introductory essay by John Casey. In the essay, Casey is forthright and knowing. He calls Salter “a generous man, but precise in his generosity,” and later notes, of the difficulty of becoming a writer, “It takes a lot of miles to run a race.”

Casey would know. He’s put in the miles, and he’s still running. Spartina earned him the National Book Award in 1989. He revisited Dick Pierce 21 years later, for 2010’s Compass Rose. But if you’re unfamiliar with Casey and still skeptical, an ideal place to start is his essay on Breece D’J Pancake. It’s naturally a sort of tribute and a sort of appraisal, but more meaningfully, it’s a talented writer at the height of his powers, attempting to make sense of the loss of an immensely gifted protege. Casey acknowledges that theirs was an unconventional relationship in this regard:

He was about to turn twenty-seven when he died; I was forty. But half the time he treated me (and I treated him) as if I were his kid brother. The other half of the time he treated me like a senior officer in some ancient army of his imagination. I knew a few things, had some rank, but he felt surely that I needed some looking after. There was more to it than that of course. More than these cartoon panels can show, he was a powerful, restless friend.

The essay in full is here, on Casey’s site. Pancake’s lone book of stories is here. Read it, then read the others, then pick up some books.

– John McIntyre

Some Small, Good Things

There’s a great Raymond Carver story called “A Small, Good Thing.” The stakes in it feel a lot higher than the small, good things I’m about to mention, but these made it a good week on some level all the same.

1) John Andrew Fredrick has a website. This goes firmly in the Long Overdue column. Hard to believe there wasn’t more of a web presence for a man with several novels and nearly two dozen albums to his credit. You can check out his artwork as well. And if that’s not enough, I interviewed him for the LA Review of Books earlier this year.

2) Dwight Garner writes about Charles Wright in the Times, once again. This is the second time in recent months, and I’m thrilled he’s using his platform to nudge readers toward a disgracefully overlooked writer. Of course, I wrote about Wright for Brick once upon a time.

And it’s time for a long weekend. Believe me when I say, you could do worse for company than John Andrew Fredrick and Charles Wright.

– John

“True Bones” at The Poetry Foundation, on Jim Harrison

Jim Harrison died in March. I’ve written an essay called “True Bones: The Many Appetites of Jim Harrison,” about his work as a poet for The Poetry Foundation.

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It contains a chunk of the poem “Counting Birds,” which is a poem I particularly love. There are also ten of Harrison’s poems on the Poetry Foundation site.

– John

Some of Us Press at Beltway Poetry Quarterly

The surprise of the week for me is Beltway Poetry Quarterly’s Winter 2016 issue on Some of Us Press. As nice (reassuring? comforting?) as it is to believe that absolutely everything is now catalogued online, you won’t find much on Some of Us Press. There’s a list of the titles it published here, but there’s no Wikipedia entry. And really, if there’s no Wikipedia entry, did something even exist?

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The answer in this case at least is yes. Yes, it did, and it was glorious. I’m not a wholly unbiased source, since Some of Us published work by Tim Dlugos, who I regard as one of the major poets of the late 20th century. In any event, Michael Lally, the first editor for the press, covers everything from the Mass Transit poets to the history of Some of Us Press in his introductory essay. He remembers having come out as an act of solidarity with his gay friends, and through that act of solidarity, winning Dlugos’s admiration and friendship.

Lolly published a book called The South Orange Sonnets, which I’m immediately inclined to like, and not just because I bought groceries in South Orange on Tuesday. This is the type of literary history I’m heartened to see someone preserving.

Beltway Poetry Quarterly is doing good, important work. There’s the journal, but they go above and beyond to present opportunities to writers. I can’t sum up their efforts better than they do:

In addition to the journal, we are pleased to provide information and extensive links.

The Poetry News section is updated monthly. This section lists new book publications and new issue releases by DC-area presses and journals, calls for entries, poetry readings, workshops, and other events.

The Resource Bank offers extensive links for poets and their audiences in the Mid-Atlantic. Links include reading series, literary presses, grant-making organizations, workshops, libraries, and other relevant information.  Our only non-regional listing is the massive international list of Artist Residency Programs, and we believe ours in the most complete listing of this kind to be found anywhere in the world. With programs across the US and in other countries, these links can help artists of all disciplines find a place away from home to create new work.

Without publications like BPQ and the people behind it, we stand to lose a great deal. Go to their site, click, enjoy.

– John McIntyre

Impact has fused us, made us mutual: On The Iceberg by Marion Coutts

The fortunate among us are friends with at least one couple who are wonderful to talk with individually and even better as a pair. Those of us more fortunate still are part of such a couple. All indications suggest Tom Lubbock and Marion Coutts were in the more fortunate camp.

Lubbock was the art critic for the UK Independent for thirteen years. After his death, his fond and admiring cohort at the Independent noted that he was, “admired by his peers and his subjects for his vast knowledge and unaffected insight into artists from Francis Bacon to Pieter Bruegel.” Coutts is first and foremost an artist. When Lubbock was diagnosed with a rare type brain tumor in 2008, they had been married seven years and were parents to a young son. Lubbock set out to record the course of his illness in a journal that was published in 2014 as Until Further Notice, I Am Alive.


Lubbock’s journal is spare and knotty, all digressions, worries and questing for certainty. He tracks his condition physically and, more compelling, mentally. Coutts’s memoir, The Iceberg,  is a perfect companion piece. She’s a maximalist by comparison, exploring the particulars of each event, the facets of her reaction to it and where it may lead in the future.


On the occasion of Lubbock’s initial diagnosis, Coutts writes, “Impact has fused us, made us mutual.” In many respects, she is the ideal partner in this mutual arrangement, despite the recriminations she levels at herself in weak moments. Lubbock turned fifty the year of his diagnosis. The writer Roger Grenier observes that whatever our pursuits, “Death and frivolity condemn us to never finish.” The great Stoic Seneca also notes and disdains the frivolity Grenier mentions, but ultimately he’s convinced we’re each given given sufficient, perhaps even ample time to accomplish what we need to in life. A man of fifty, his wife and small child might understandably chafe at Seneca’s certainty when informed of his impending death. Neither Lubbock nor Coutts seem to dwell on the injustice of his losing out on a third of the average life span, though. They make serious preparations, and Coutts, feeling overwhelmed initially, writes, “I have many friends skilled in sympathy. Strategy is what I need.”

But first, there are idyllic days – unexpected, rude health for Tom,  afternoons out and trips abroad for the three of them. These are all part of a welcome reprieve. In time, though, his speech and language memory inevitably slip. As his struggles with vocabulary and speech intensify, Coutts writes, “He is estranged from himself,” and later, “What else is there apart from language? Let me list: touch, the great inter-cosmos of the eyes, running and jumping, sex, cooking, friendship, eating. There must be other things but I have come to a stop. It’s a short list. We will devise another language, and in it we will talk.” They try, if not to create a language apart, at least to manipulate the language he has remaining, to make it serve their needs. This proves challenging and often futile as well. “In a marriage of near ten years and a friendship of longer,” Coutts writes, “all visual experience is for two…Soon, sometime soon I will have no one to tell this to. What will experience be then?” This seems all the more distressing, given their shared love of art and engagement with it professionally, the central place it’s held in their life together.

The Iceberg is no cliffhanger. Coutts knows husband’s fate is proscribed. Despite encouraging test results and stretches of normalcy, she never forgets this fact. None of that’s to say the book lacks moments of drama or intense emotion. There’s the shock of the diagnosis, which is sudden and severe. Tom’s unreliable language control and sense of place make for tense moments when he’s out alone. She sends him out with an address card in his wallet and “a note saying he is having a focal fit the finder of him might helpfully contact me.” On a notable occasion, when he’s late arriving home, it turns out, “He doesn’t think of any of this and doesn’t use the card.” They fight in strained moments, and the inclusion of those scenes is a bit of candor the reader by then realizes is characteristic of Coutts, who never spares herself in apportioning blame. And the most crushing moment comes near the end, when she overhears Tom repeating her name to himself as if trying to memorize it, at a time when he’s permanently lost much of his vocabulary and facility with language.

“Tom never cared much about travel,” Coutts writes, but by the time he passes away, it’s hard to refuse the metaphor of traveling on at life’s end. The poet Gordon Osing, confronting age and the aftermath of throat cancer, writes,

How will it be, at the last moment?

It will smell of sunlight and other codes in the air

Arriving in somebody else’s land.

Whether that or some other fate awaited Lubbock, The Iceberg is a loving coda.

Sharing loss is a complicated matter, even among family members or dear friends. Somehow Marion Coutts shares her loss with the world at large in The Iceberg. I don’t know her personally, didn’t know Tom Lubbock, but the sense of loss feels shared in some small way. She takes us to the graveside service, where there are sombre, homely rites and a sense of her husband’s lasting presence in the lives of she and her child in the years to come. “And so are the living comforted,” Coutts concludes, but there are other sources of comfort, too. Surely for those among us dealing with loss, her book is destined to be one of them.

  • John McIntyre

My interview with John Andrew Fredrick at LA Review of Books

John Andrew Fredrick is a novelist and musician, and I dare say grossly underappreciated on both counts. Consider “Meg” as exhibit A, and there’s plenty more where that came from:

On the occasion of his new novel, The King of Good Intentions II, I interviewed him for the LA Review of Books.

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He shares thoughts on everything from life in a touring band (The King II also has some brilliant portraits of this) to his motivations as a writer and his hopes for his music and fiction. One of the great lines from his new novel is the observation that, “Every band, at any level, believes they should be one level up.” The same is true for writers in many cases. Not every band is right about that, nor is every writer. Fredrick is, I think. Start with the interview, and see if you agree.

– John