As I’ve done every January since 2004, I present here a list of the books I’ve read in the previous year, with commentary.
- Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe
- The Stranger, by Albert Camus (translated by Matthew Ward)
- My Antonia, by Willa Cather
- Await Your Reply, by Dan Chaon
- Utz, by Bruce Chatwin
- Enemy at the Gates, by William Craig
- The Story So Far…, by Sheldon Currie
- Slouching Towards Bethlehem, by Joan Didion
- Little Man, What Now, by Hans Fallada
- The Garden of Eden, by Ernest Hemingway
- Island, by Alistair MacLeod
- Broken Glass, by Arthur Miller
- Death of a Salesman, by Arthur Miller
- Homely Girl, A Life; and Other Stories, by Arthur Miller
- Murder over Dorval, by David Montrose
- Judith Hearne, by Brian Moore
- In the Lake of the Woods, by Tim O’Brien
- The Things They Carried, by Tim O’Brien
- A Day in Our Lives, by Seán O’Crohan
- The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, by Sloan Wilson *
- Brooklyn, by Colm Tóibín
- Slaughterhouse Five, by Kurt Vonnegut Jr. *
- Let’s Talk About Love: A Journey to the End of Taste, by Carl Wilson
* Read electronically.
That’s 23 books, significantly fewer than usual (my all-time high since I started logging was 38 books in 2007). That said, I do not feel that I read noticeably less last year. The difference is that I read more long form journalism than usual, and for that I thank my iPad and Instapaper, a combination that turns a slab of metal and glass into an amazing library of long articles curated by none other than yourself. While the same can be said of any Web-enabled device (such as a desktop computer or a laptop), the iPad/Instapaper combination puts the experience on a whole other level of portability, which I will talk more about in a future blog post.
In contrast with that very contemporary note, I seem to be continuing my fascination with mid-20th century prose. 12 of the titles (just under half) were published between the 1920s and the early 1960s. Six were published in the mid-60s to the mid-80s, and only five are “contemporary.” To my shame, only two were written by women.
Highlighted titles are the ones that really stood out for me. I’ll spare you the long reviews, largely because I’m an unreliable reviewer. A positive response does not always line up with a sober critical analysis, and that’s OK with me. Sometimes a book just bores into you and rubs up against something in your mind that triggers emotions and memories so strongly that almost make you feel high on chemicals. That’s purely subjective and has little to do with style or even story.
For example, The Garden of Eden is widely acknowledged to not be among Hemingway’s finest (it was incomplete upon his death and published posthumously) yet it had me reeling for balance and feeling knocked outside of myself for the couple weeks during which I read it. This kind of response is highly personal and has more to do with evocation and yearnings that with strict formal precision. In my case I have a real soft spot for the south of France (where most of the novel is set) and a hard-wired, knee-jerk romantic response to Hemingway’s time and the struggles of his characters.
And it doesn’t hurt that Hem was a master stylist.
The only book I put down unfinished in 2010 was The Liar’s Club, by Mary Karr. The book received a lot of attention when it came out in 1995, and was on the New York Times‘ Best Sellers list for over a year. That was 15 years ago, so I figured it was about time for me to give it a look. (If you haven’t noticed, I am completely unmoved by any sense of urgency when it comes to buying and reading books. They exist outside of time for me.) I can’t say for sure what made me put it down – that was more than six months ago and I took no notes – but I recall feeling bored and unmoved by the prose.
That’s surprising given the topic – a memoir of growing up in a small industrial town replete with various abuses of the mind and body. Gritty stuff, and something I can relate to. But it just didn’t seem very interesting. It felt like she was telling us instead of showing us, and I recall there being sweeping and expository comments about “society” that were written as if the author thought that everyone on Earth lives in the United States. To be fair, I didn’t get very far in, and perhaps it gets better further on. I should also note that I didn’t throw the book across the room, I just sort of put it down and never picked it up again.