As is my annual habit, I present to you the list of books I read in the year just ended (2007).
- The Best Travel Writing 2007 (Traveler’s Tales Books), edited by James & Sean O’Reilly and Larry Habegger
- The Man Who Turned Into Himself, by David Ambrose
- Night Train, by Martin Amis
- Heavy Water, by Martin Amis
- Articles of War, by Nick Arvin
- Rule of the Bone, by Russell Banks
- Heat, by Bill Buford
- In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
- Summer Crossing, by Truman Capote
- Abducted, by Susan A. Clancy
- Elizabeth Costello, by J.M. Coetzee
- Slow Man, by J.M. Coetzee
- A Fine Passage, by France Daigle (Translated by Robert Majzels)
- Fragile Night, by Stella Pope Duarte
- Get a Life, by Dupuy & Berberian
- Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant, edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler
- The Cold War: A New History, by John Lewis Gaddis
- Let’s Travel in the Soviet Union (edited by Darlene Geis)
- A Gun for Sale, by Graham Green
- A Gradual Ruin, by Robert Hilles
- Letters to a Young Contrarian, by Christopher Hitchens
- The Hungry Years, by William Leith
- The Terrible Hours, by Peter Maas
- The Cement Garden, by Ian MacEwan
- The Comfort of Strangers, by Ian McEwan
- Focus, by Arthur Miller
- Paul Has a Summer Job, by Michel Rabagliati
- Sister of the Road, by Ben Reitman
- Me Talk Pretty One Day, by David Sedaris
- It’s a Good Life, If You Don’t Weaken, by Seth (Gregory Gallant)
- Archetypes: Social Animals in Our Midst, by Mireille Silcoff
- The Finishing School, by Muriel Spark
- Eat the Document, by Dana Spiotta
- The Rum Diary, by Hunter S. Thompson
- Simple Recipes, by Madeleine Thien
- Close to the Machine, by Ellen Ullman
- The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls
- Tourists, by Richard B. Wright
That’s 38 titles, broken down as follows:
- 27 written or edited by men, 11 written or edited by women.
- Three “graphic” novels/story collections.
- 25 works of fiction, 13 works of non-fiction, and six items that can be considered “memoir.” These are tricky distinctions, however. For example, In Cold Blood is an account of a true story, but was written using the techniques – and license – of fiction writing. As such, I consider it fiction. Similarly, Sister of the Road is presented as a memoir, but long after publication it was revealed to have been entirely made up by a third party, so I considered it too as fiction, and not as memoir. The Rum Diary, on the other hand, is presented as fiction, but it draws so much on Thompson’s real life experiences that I consider it to be both fiction and memoir. (Tip to taxonomers everywhere: life is easier if you have a high tolerance for ambiguity.)
The five highlighted item are the ones that left the greatest impression on me. In general, there are various reasons why a book will have that effect; some tap into a deeply held interest, others push certain emotional buttons that I may be especially sensitive to. In all cases, they must be exceptionally well written in order to leave a lasting impression.
I don’t pretend to be a literary critic, so I’ll spare you the pretentious and haughty reviews. But in a nutshell (or a handful of nutshells, as it were) here’s why those five books stayed with me (listed in alphabetical order, by author):
Heat, by Bill Buford
Buford is an excellent writer and raconteur, and those traits come through superbly in this book. Part foodie journal, part memoir of an obsession, and all hairy-chested, red blooded brio, this book kept me wide-eyed from start to finish. It helps that I share similar views on food as the author and his mentor (Mario Batali); a fascination with, and love for, rustic, authentic Italian and Mediterranean cooking that is high on gusto and low on pretension. Early in the book, Buford recalls Batali explaining why he has little interest in French food; “All that boiling,” he complains. When I read that, something clicked and I felt like this was a party I had been personally invited to.
In Cold Blood, by Truman Capote
I will admit that some passages in this book seemed a bit long for my taste, but that is likely due to my inclusion in the collectively shortened attention spans of the world as brought about by Facebook and an excess of RSS feeds. Despite that, for which Capote can in no way be faulted as he published In Cold Blood in 1965, I was captivated by Capote’s writing style, which is composed and lyrical, and sometimes a bit melancholy. The somewhat dazzling and urbane sensibilities that are found in his other novels are reeled in for this one, which was a good choice for the material. Yet I couldn’t help but hear the text, in my head, being read in the distinctive voice and cadence of Truman Capote; sometimes that of the real thing, and sometimes as interpreted by Philip Seymour Hoffman (who played Capote in the 2005 film, Capote).
Focus, by Arthur Miller
It helps that I’ve had a long standing fascination with New York City and the era of the endless fedora, but what really blew me away about this short novel was the sheer precision and depth of the writing. Not a word or a thought misplaced, not a scene even remotely unnecessary. The events that take place are small from an outsider’s perspective, yet you feel, through the reading, their cataclysmic effect on the protagonist.
The Rum Diary, by Hunter S. Thompson
I half expected this to be an over the top roller coaster ride of excess and debauchery, sort of a “not ready for prime time” precursor to Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. After all, it was Thompson’s first full length manuscript, written in the early sixties but not published until 1998 after Thompson reworked it. I was only party right; while it is filled with an excess of booze and sleazy characters, it differs from the later iconic work in that the emphasis stays grounded in the protagonist’s sense of adventure and his search for freedom and authenticity as it conflicts with his fears of aging and of wasting his life. It’s a long time since I read a novel that rattled me as much as this one, and it boggles my mind that Thompson waited so long to publish it. Perhaps he feared it was, by comparison, too temperate after building a career based on rage and bombast. By comparison, The Rum Diary feels thoughtfully restrained and surprisingly mature, especially when you consider he was only 22 when he first wrote it.
The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls
I enjoy memoirs in which the author seems to be on as much of a journey of discovery as are we, the readers. That’s the case with The Glass Castle, which recounts the author’s childhood and adolescence, passed in the shadow of her needy and self-absorbed mother. The story reads more like a work of fiction than memoir. It brings To Kill A Mockingbird to mind, but rolled into a Grimm’s fairy tale (the original, creepy type) and sprinkled with a little Jack Kerouac.