We read and watched a lot of stuff this year. We didn’t have sports for a while, and it was, and still is, dangerous to see friends. But it’s okay, because a lot of that stuff was really good. So let’s talk about them! That’s the point of consuming great stuff, right?
This is going to be a personal list. It’s not about what was released this year, but what we watched and read (for the first time) this year. Palm Springs dropped over the summer and I watched it, so that counts. The Big Sleep dropped in 1939, but I read it this year, so it also counts. But the The Name of the Wind and Dazed and Confused don’t count, even though they’re the best, because I’d consumed them before this year.
Let’s do books first. We’ll alternate our picks, counting down from our #5s. You’ll notice a lot of overlap in authors, but that’s what happens when book friends try to write about books together.
John #5: The Dog of the South — Charles Portis (1979)
Brian makes a great point about the utility of libraries, and if you click the tweet to get a full view of this version of the cover, you’ll get a full plot summary of The Dog of the South. Or, as the opening line establishes:
“My wife Norma had run off with Guy Dupree and I was waiting around for the credit card billings to come in so I could see where they had gone.”
The credit card bills do some in, and our hero sets off on journey from Arkansas to Central America to get his wife and his car back. Our hero is a goofball with slight literary delusions of grandeur. He’s not quite Ignatius J. Riley, but he’s close. Elizabeth Nelson’s incredible discussion for The Ringer describes it all much better than I ever could. But the point is, it’s funny as hell. A pointless odyssey across a continent where delusional characters pontificate about the meaning of life and don’t really learn anything. It’s part A Confederacy of Dunces, and part filmography of the Coen Brothers. Read it.
Sam’s #5: The Sun Also Rises – Ernest Hemingway (1926)
I dove into The Sun Also Rises reluctantly, and after considerable prodding on the part of John. And, frankly, the first few chapters passed slowly. Beverages are imbibed, gossip is mongered, clubs are danced in.. basically, the socialites socialize. There is plenty being said here, about these people and about this time, but I wasn’t fully engrossed.
Once we arrive on the fishing trip, however, and particularly once our characters all make it to Pamplona, everything starts to coalesce. Hemingway’s description of the bullfights is riveting for sure, but it is nothing next to the verbal jousting we experience outside of the arena. Seemingly innocent jests quickly turn vitriolic and even violent after a few drinks. The way alcohol tends to do with friends who don’t actually like each other all that much.
Oh, the sentences are perfect, of course. Hemingway’s sparse style of writing is much imitated, but rarely matched. Often, an attempt at being this direct, this spartan, in the language leads to a lack of depth in the writing. Never with Hemingway. He manages to imbue even the least of phrases with depth and meaning.
It’s also worth noting that this one closes perfectly, with a line that is perfect for the characters but also so perfectly Hemingway. An honest lament for a relationship that could never work between two irreparably broken people. Wishful thinking met and exposed by the harsh light of reality. We don’t live in a perfect world, but wouldn’t it be pretty to think we could?
I read this a few years ago so technically it’s against the rules for me to write about here, but since I made the rules, I can break them.
This is the plot of The Sun Also Rises, as told by a Tostitos salsa lid:
It’s remarkable Hemingway was able to write a whole novel about people just hanging out. It’s a little like Kicking and Screaming (the 1995 Noah Baumbach movie) in that regard. Just a group of friends hanging out with no purpose, getting over their disappointment with the world, trying to have a good time while searching for some meaning. Nothing happens, but everything happens.
And there’s some universality in the experiences of Jake Barnes. Even if we’re not all impotent from injuries sustained in The Great War, we’ve all had a Brett, a girl we’re crazy about but have to settle for just friends. Even if we can’t all go party in Paris and watch bull fights in Spain, most of the people reading this have been seniors in college, unsure about what’s next in life, going for party to party until you’re just kind of sick of it by the end.
Sam already talked about the depth of the writing, but it’s so important here. You can take it wherever you want to go, interpret it however you want. This is the crown jewel of Iceberg Theory, right? Sometimes it’s a little frustrating when you feel like you’re not picking up on everything, but mostly it’s really fun trying to figure out what’s under the surface.
John #4: The Long Goodbye — Raymond Chandler (1953)
Sam ranked this higher, so see my comments down below with his.
Sam’s #4: Call for the Dead – John le Carre (1961)
John le Carre is known as the master of the spy novel, but don’t pick up any of his books expecting a Bond-like figure to burst off of the page with guns blazing. Le Carre’s strength (and his interest) lies much more often in the quiet moments. A package left under a chair. A stolen stack of papers. A foreign bank account. His heroes are learned men. Often of Oxford education, they are intelligent and gentlemanly, though rarely dashing. Out of all of his leading, characters, though, George Smiley is preeminent.
Smiley seems to exist, in fact, as a direct counterpoint to Bond. Not handsome nor particularly charming, I imagine George Smiley would look as out of place in a Tom Ford Suit as Daniel Craig would in glasses and suspenders. Oh, we tried that and it worked perfectly? Well, you get the point anyway.
Call for the Dead is not the best le Carre book (it’s The Spy Who Came in From the Cold in my experience, though I’m far from a completionist at this moment), but it does seem to be unique in his work. It plays as a fairly straight forward murder mystery, albeit one with international implications. Someone has been stealing files from British intelligence and giving that information to the East Germans. And then that someone ends up dead, an apparent suicide with no signs pointing to why. Le Carre works well within the whodunnit framework, and Smiley serves as an able stand-in for the Sherlock or Poirot types of the world.
In Call for the Dead, as in every novel Le Carre ever wrote, the question of morality is a constant. This isn’t the lazy moral quandary that you see so often in so-called “dark” or “prestige” television nowadays — Le Carre characters don’t spend half the novel staring into a mirror and asking, “Am I a good man?” But their convictions are often challenged, whether by the outcomes of their own actions or those of their compatriots. As a former spook himself, Le Carre knew that the good guys are not always good, and that the means aren’t always justified by their ends. That just because you’re facing off against bad people who have done and are doing bad things, it doesn’t make what you’re doing right.
John will talk more about Le Carre later in this post, so I’ll cut my rant off here, but it’s important to note that in December we lost not only a great author but a storyteller that was incredibly insightful about world events both past and present. He was the rare genre author who was able to evolve his subject matter with the progression of time without losing perspective. He was a man who was cynical about many things — about governments and ideologies and all the things that we’re told to believe in — and still somehow a bit romantic about people. He became old, but his point of view and powers of perception were evergreen. The world will miss him.
John’s #3: A Farewell to Arms — Ernest Hemingway (1929)
Breaking News: A Farewell to Arms is good. I read it back in January, so it might as well have been 5 years ago. I’m having a hard time remembering the things I loved about it, but I gave it 5 stars on Goodreads, so I must have loved it, right? I had tried once before and hadn’t been able to get into it, but after spending last Christmas reading all of Hemingway’s short stories, I felt in tune with the writing style and the author.
I guess that’s probably the angle — the writing style is amazing. Obviously I’m not treading new ground here, but it’s remarkable what he can accomplish with such sparse writing. Other authors need paragraphs to bring out emotions Hemingway can convey in a sentence. And there it is. I remember the feeling.
The writing style isn’t just brevity for brevity’s sake. The style works with the subject matter to create a distinct mood that steers the reading experience and evolves with each act. You feel the highs and lows with Frederic. The camaraderie of Rinaldi and the Priest; falling in love with Catherine Barkley; the daze of the hospital; returning to the front, feeling decay amidst the absurdity of war; the disillusioned desertion from the Italian forces; finding solace in Catherine; losing it all and walking out into the cold rain. It’s a vibe, man. You’re not reading it, you’re feeling it.
It’s a special feeling. When reading Pat Rothfuss, you revel in the beauty of the language. When reading Amor Towles, you laugh with the wit of the writing. When reading Hemingway, the writing fades away, leaving an almost cinematic feeling.
A Farewell to Arms is great. Everyone already knows that. But it leaves one burning question: how would modern sabermetrics affect Hemingway’s baseball metaphors?
Sam’s #3: A Gentleman in Moscow – Amor Towles (2016)
This one pops up later on John’s list, so I’ll let him have the first word…
John’s #2: The Constant Gardener — John le Carre (2001)
I started writing this before John le Carre passed away. Now I’m revisiting it the day after his death. I read four of his novels this year. They were instrumental in getting me through the early days of quarantine. Four years ago, his work helped spark my renewed love for reading. My grandma gave me The Spy Who Came in from the Cold for Christmas circa 2016, and I loved it. In the years since, my grandma has picked up old copies of le Carre books every chance she gets, and I’ve bought some myself. These days I have 12 of his books on my shelf, including 7 I haven’t gotten around to yet, and there’s another 13 or so novels I still need to track down. I’m so sad to lose my favorite author, but I’m thankful that John le Carre’s words are going to be with me for a long, long time to come.
So what about The Constant Gardener, his 2001 thriller about corruption in the pharmaceutical industry? There are two angles I want to use to talk about how great this book is. One is the character development and emotional weight to the protagonist that elevates it beyond le Carre’s other work. The other angle is the development of le Carre as a writer paralleled with the changing world around him. Let’s start there.
John le Carre wrote novels for 60 years, from Call for the Dead in 1961, to Agent Running in the Field in 2019. I’ve read five of those: Call for the Dead (1961), The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (1974), The Night Manager (1993), and The Constant Gardener (2001). That’s five books over five decades. These are spy thrillers, so naturally, the western sociopolitical anxieties as reflected in the works change over time. We start in the heart of the Cold War, examining ideological enemies abroad alongside decay and moral confusion at home. The Berlin Wall falls, and we turn to arms dealers and a government willing to look the other way as long as it gets its cut. By the time of The Constant Gardener, corporate conspiracy, unchecked capitalism, and neglect of the developing world take center stage. I read le Carre, and I see the world change for 50 years through his eyes.
At the same time, I get to watch le Carre evolve as a writer. It’s incredibly rewarding to see how damn good he gets by The Constant Gardener. Call For the Dead is a simple murder mystery set in the trappings of the spy genre. I think The Spy Who Came in from the Cold is just as good as The Constant Gardener, but it’s different. It’s a simple story, albeit one with a great twist, finishing up in 200 pages. It’s the importance of what le Carre had to say in 1963 combined with the power of an efficient story that make the novel great. Tinker Tailor is fascinating and ambitious, yet dense and convoluted. The idea of the story is perfect, but it can be frustrating to follow, even if that’s the point of the project. By The Night Manager, le Carre is playing with perspective and aiming at emotional depths to characters that formerly weren’t central to the story.
When we get to The Constant Gardener, the style, prose, and emotional core come together to make something perfect. The writing is distinctly his style, yet without the density and jargon that can plague Tinker Tailor. There’s the shifting perspective of The Night Manager, yet the story remains intimately focused on the development of our protagonist. There’s the examination of a disillusioned man’s guilt that’s key to Spy, but now it’s explored in depth through flashbacks and well-rounded supporting characters.
The characters! le Carre’s the Spy Guy. Of course the Spy Stuff is going to be great. But it’s the relationship between Justin and Tessa Quayle that makes this book special. le Carre does something really cool to introduce these protagonists. The novel begins through the perspective of Sandy, Justin’s coworker at the British Foreign Office in Nairobi, Kenya. Through Sandy’s eyes, Justin is a boring man who turns a blind eye to his wife’s affair with the meddling Kenyan doctor, Arnold Bluhm. Justin was the titular constant gardener, too focused on caring for the plants in his yard to see that his marriage is a sham.
But sooner or later we realize Sandy is an unreliable narrator whose own aspirations of infidelity and general jackassery color his perception of Justin and Tessa. When the perspective shifts to Justin himself, we see inside the remains of a loving and loyal marriage. It’s thrilling and emotional as we learn what these characters were really like. Tessa was devoted to Justin, but she was more devoted to justice. Along side Dr. Bluhm, Tessa was an outspoken advocate for the people of Nairobi who had been abused by the drug companies testing experimental medicines on them.
“Was.” At the start of the novel, Tessa and Dr. Bluhm are dead, presumably murdered. It’s up to Justin to retrace his wife’s research and her contacts to figure out what she knew that got her killed. Through flashbacks we see the development of Justin and Tessa’s relationship from meeting to marriage in all of its love and trust, but also in its faults. As Justin learns more about his wife’s dedicated work, he’s forced to confront his own complacency. While his wife worked tirelessly in service of others, Justin focused on his desk job, not wanting know more. As Justin picks up Tessa’s fight, he faces the weight and the guilt of not having taken action sooner. Justin’s inner monologue is filled with a nostalgic melancholy, counterbalanced with fiery determination to finish his wife’s mission. No longer just the constant gardener, Justin learns to see the problems outside of his perfectly-manicured yard.
This is a globe-trotting thriller about a former desk-spy putting it all on the line to take on corporate corruption. But the emotional weight behind every step of the journey makes it special. At its core, this is a story about a man trying to better understand the woman he loved, all while confronting his own role in the harm done to innocents. This is a story about a man learning to stand up to injustice. That’s important in any year.
Sam’s #2: Out of Sight — Elmore Leonard (1996)
Leonard might have been the most consistently excellent dialogue writer of the last fifty years, and you’ve probably seen at least one or two things based off his work, even if you didn’t know it at the time. Get Shorty, Jackie Brown, 3:10 to Yuma, Be Cool, Justified? Yep, all based off of Elmore Leonard novels or short stories. The adaptation of Out of Sight, though, starring George Clooney and Jennifer Lopez, might just be the best of the bunch. I love that movie, so it took me a while to pick this book up. I wondered if there was any point in reading the book when the movie was so excellently made. To answer my question: yep. Although the movie is pretty faithful to the best parts of the book – the characters, the dialogue, the general vibe – the story plays out differently. Leonard is able to tell the story without the flashbacks used in the movie, and he gives more depth to some of the characters and relationships. We get a lot more detail on Karen Sisco, particularly the (really great) relationship between her and her father. The point is: this is a great book, and that was a great movie. I highly recommend both.
Even considering the company he keeps among the rogues gallery of the Elmore Leonard extended universe, Jack Foley is one of the author’s most charming and charismatic creations. Since we have Clooney in mind already, just picture a blue collar Danny Ocean: all of the personality without much of the sophistication. The compulsive bank robber busts out of jail with help of his partner in crime Buddy, only to run right into a U.S. Marshall named Karen Sisco. In a pinch, Foley and Buddy do the only thing they can think of. A bit of light kidnapping later, marshall and convict find themselves stuck together in the trunk of a car discussing rap sheets, career choices, and Robert Redford films.
Our characters’ paths cross and diverge repeatedly, but they all manage to make their way up to snowy Detroit. For Foley and Buddy, it’s (you guessed it!) one last job, and for Karen it’s about a career case and maybe also about something or someone she can’t quite get out of her head.
The novel both evokes and invokes Three Days of the Condor, as Foley mentions the movie in his first conversation with Karen. It’s a sleek, smart, and flat out cool crime novel. And if you’re new to the world of Elmore Leonard, there’s plenty more where this one came from.
John’s #1: A Gentleman in Moscow — Amor Towles (2016)
What an incredibly charming, thoughtful, and fun book. Amor Towles’ story is about a Russian Count who, in the aftermath of the Revolution, is confined to house arrest. Lucky for the Count (and us), his residence happens to be the grand Hotel Metropol Moscow.
With the exception of memories and flashbacks, the novel takes place entirely inside the hotel. Over the course of 30 years, the Count reckons with his lost world of imperial Russia, develops deep friendships with the denizens of the hotel, finds unlikely love, and watches the political and cultural tides of Moscow rise and fall. But more importantly, the Count does it all with a constant wit and soul that maintains a humor and sentimentality throughout the story.
In its setting, whimsicality, and longing for a romanticized lost world, A Gentleman in Moscow resembles The Grand Budapest Hotel. In its reverence for storytelling and its quiet moments of friendship, it resembles The Name of Wind. But in the way it builds relationships over time and pays off in small moments of friendship, A Gentleman in Moscow is entirely its own.
This novel is the only place you’ll find somber dwellings about the lasting impact of literature you love, invoking The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury, alongside passionate debates about the filmography of Humphrey Bogart (speaking of Philip Marlowe below!). It’s funny, sweet, and captivating. Read it as soon as you possibly can.
John uses the best descriptor I can imagine here: charming. Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is one of the most charming characters I have encountered on the page or the screen, and for the most part, his supporting cast keeps pace. The Grand Metropol Moscow is filled with capital-C characters who are utterly unique without slipping into caricature. Everyone, from the hotel manager to the maitre d’ to foreign journalists fraternizing at the bar, is fully and lovingly drawn.
Towles is clearly a master of language, and he has an incredible ability to captivate the reader with a conversation, the description of a room, the creation or presentation of a meal. Man, the food in this book. I don’t know that reading has ever made me hungrier. Towles and his characters are constantly finding something fascinating in the mundane. Even the shortest of walks down the corridors of a hotel or the simplest of cocktail orders has the potential to transform into a grand adventure through the culture and history of Russia.
The depiction of the Russian Communist Party’s suppression of beauty and individuality is heart wrenching, and the story becomes one man’s fight to master his own circumstances in spite of his country’s best efforts to shun all of the things that he values. I can’t recommend this book highly enough.
Sam’s #1: The Long Goodbye – Raymond Chandler (1953)
Similar to me showing up in the year of our Lord two-thousand-and-twenty to tell you all that Alfred Hitchcock made good movies (just wait for the movies list, it’s coming), I understand that my enjoyment of Raymond Chandler novels is something less than a revelation. Chandler is among the greatest and most celebrated American crime novelists of all time, and he is particularly revered among fans of the noir. But this is a list of the books I enjoyed the most this year, and the Long Goodbye is the book I enjoyed the most.
Every Marlowe novel is great in its own way, just like (just about) every Chandler character is crooked in their own way. The Long Goodbye stands out among Chandler’s other work because of the relationship between Marlowe and Terry Lennox. Marlowe is a bit of a loner. He doesn’t have a significant other or a partner like Sam Spade. There is no Watson to his Holmes. And so the relational aspect of these books tends to be… less of a focus. There are cops, there are clients, there are criminals, there are clients who are criminals. Sometimes there’s a damsel in distress or a femme fatale or a romantic interest — and I say romantic in the shallowest of possible inflections with air quotes attached.
But Terry is different. Terry is a friend, someone who breaks through to Marlowe and affects him in real ways. They connect, partly because Marlowe has a soft spot for down on their luck losers and partly because Marlowe is one himself, and in Terry he recognizes, if only subconsciously, someone as lost and as lonely as he is. So they connect, and they share (or at least Terry does). Opinions on cocktails, stories about battle scars, complaints about current relationships. Terry, in his actual physical presence, might be considered a minor actor in this story (the movie adaptation certainly treated him like one, but that’s neither here nor there). He is not as prominent, for instance, as the alcoholic author and fellow Chandler stand-in Roger Wade. But the Terry-Marlowe relationship overshadows the rest of the book, and colors the way the detective thinks and acts all the way up until the final pages.
Like most great detective stories, the plot of the Long Goodbye is… a bit convoluted. There are twists and turns, and some threads we work to untangle that may not ever pay off completely — but that doesn’t matter. Because like all great detective stories, the plot is secondary. It is there to keep you interested, to keep you eager to see what might happen next. But it is just the road map for the trip we take. And the ride itself is what we’re here for, not the list of stops and landmarks on the route. So sure, we often come to find out who killed the maid in the observatory and what led them to do it. But we stay to hear Chandler’s dialogue in our heads, to live in this world of grifters and goons, drunks and delinquents that Chandler created. To have a gimlet with Marlowe and Terry at an empty bar in the middle of the day. And if someone manages to solve the puzzle behind a mysterious death along the way? Then all the better.
Spencer Hall also had some wisdom to share about Raymond Chandler’s work a while back:
I’ll just say this: The Long Goodbye does indeed slap. While not as raw and efficient as The Big Sleep, Chandler’s prose improved a lot by his sixth book. In addition to the clearer writing, there’s more character work than in The Big Sleep and Farewell, My Lovely. Here, Philip Marlowe is more than just a cynical lens for exploring the corruption of depression-era Los Angeles. There’s a melancholy hanging over our prototypical hard-boiled detective as he reflects on his friendship with Terry Lennox, and it adds a depth to The Long Goodbye that was sometimes missing in Chandler’s earlier work. Also, the focus on police brutality in the first hundred pages added some unexpected relevance to a 1953 genre novel.
Finally, shouts to Elliott Gould’s ridiculous portrayal of Marlowe in the 1973 movie adaptation.
John: The Big Sleep (Chandler), Call for the Dead (le Carre), The Night Manager (le Carre), Leviathan Wakes (James S.A. Corey), Pillars of the Earth (Ken Follett), Farewell My Lovely (Chandler), Streets of Laredo (Larry McMurtry).
Sam: Fragile Things (Neil Gaiman), Glitz (Elmore Leonard), Death Rites (Jim Butcher), and everything I re-read this year, especially The Name of the Wind (Patrick Rothfuss), American Gods (Gaiman), and The Spy Who Came in From the Cold (le Carre)