Books read in 2010

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.

Reading List: Books I Read in 2009

As is my annual tradition since 2004, I present to you the list of books I read in the previous year (in this case, 2009). They are listed by author, in decending alphabetical order. The ones that really stuck with me are highlighted.

  • House of Meetings, by Martin Amis
  • The Wasted Vigil, by Nadeem Aslam
  • Giovanni’s Room, by James Baldwin
  • Let it Come Down, by Paul Bowles
  • The Postman Always Rings Twice, by James M. Cain
  • That Summer in Paris, by Morely Callaghan
  • The Loved and the Lost, by Morley Callaghan
  • A Month in the Country, by J. L. Carr
  • The Favorite Game, by Leonard Cohen
  • Coffee with Hemingway, by Kirk Curnutt
  • Burma Chronicles, by Guy Delisle
  • Shenzhen, by Guy Delisle
  • Ministry of Fear, by Graham Greene
  • The Tenth Man, by Graham Greene
  • A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway
  • The Fifth Column and Four Stories of the Spanish Civil War, by Ernest Hemingway
  • The Book of Negroes, by Lawrence Hill
  • Crow Lake, by Mary Lawson
  • Babbitt, by Sinclair Lewis
  • The Razor’s Edge, by W. Somerset Maugham
  • Breakable You, by Brian Morton
  • Coming Up for Air, by George Orwell
  • Down and Out in Paris and London, by George Orwell
  • Lush Life, by Richard Price
  • Paul in the Country, by Michel Rabagliati
  • Everyman, by Philip Roth
  • Gomorrah, by Roberto Saviano (translated by Virginia Jewiss)
  • My Dinner with Andre (screenplay), by Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory
  • Chef, by Jaspreet Singh
  • Night Train to Turkistan, by Stuart Stevens
  • Consider the Lobster, by David Foster Wallace
  • Young Hearts Crying, by Richard Yates

That’s 32 books, 23 of which are categorized as fiction, three memoirs, three “other” non-fiction, and three “graphic” novels (all of which are fiction/memoir hybrids). The alarming thing is that only one of them was written by a woman.

I don’t plan my reading with any particular agenda in mind, but I do like to keep things varied; to read authors I haven’t read before, to mix up fiction and non-fiction, and to get different perspectives. But this is my worst male to female ratio yet. I’m not alone in this; it’s been a bad decade for women writers, according to this recent editorial in the Washington Post and this follow-up analysis on Maisonneuve.org.

Another notable thing about my reading list — and this was not intentional — is the number of older books. It was something of a 20th century retrospective:

  • Three books from the 1920s.*
  • Four books from the 1930s.**
  • Three books from the 1940s.
  • Three books from the 1950s.
  • One book from the 1960s.*
  • Four books from the 1980s.
  • One book from the 1990s.**
  • 13 books from the 2000s.

* Morely Callaghan’s That Summer in Paris was published in 1963, but it’s a memoir of the 1920s and is entirely “of” the 1920s. The same can be said of Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, which was published posthumously in 1964. Interestingly, both books cover the same basic ground, with Callaghan’s memoir being, essentially, a memoir of knowing Hemingway in Paris in the 1920s.

** Hemingway’s The Fifth Column and Four Stories of the Spanish Civil War was published in 1998 but the stories were written in the 1930s and possibly the 1940s. Graham Greene’s The Tenth Man was written in 1942 and then forgotten about. It was found, and published, in 1985.

If you think that’s a lot of reading and you wish you could keep up, consider Julien Smith of In Over Your Head; he read more than a book a week in 2009, and managed to co-write and publish one too! He has thoughtfully written this blog post that explains how you too can read a book a week in 2010 (but he left out the part about writing one).

Reading List: Books Read in 2008

As is my annual tradition, I present here a list of the books I read in the just-ended calendar year (2008). Not included are the five titles I put down, unfinished for one reason or another. The list is sorted alphabetically, by author. Particularly noteworthy ones are highlighted in yellow.

  • The Prodigal Tongue, by Mark Abley
  • Alentejo Blue, by Monica Ali
  • Koba the Dread, by Martin Amis
  • If Beale Street Could Talk, by James Baldwin
  • Frederick Street, by Maude Barlow and Elizabeth May
  • Hotel Bemelmans, by Ludwid Bemelmans
  • Meat: A Love Story, by Susan Bourette
  • Talk Talk, by T.C. Boyle
  • The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutiérrez, by Jimmy Breslin
  • The City and the Stars, by Arthur C. Clarke
  • Age of Iron, by J.M. Coetzee
  • Boyhood, by J.M. Coetzee
  • Running in Place; Scenes from the South of France, by Nicholas Delbanco
  • Pyongyang: A Journey in North Korea, By Guy Delisle
  • Hello to All That; by John Falk
  • On Truth, by Harry G. Frankfurt
  • The Ancient Tea Horse Road, by Jeff Fuchs
  • 100 Myths About the Middle East, by Fred Halliday
  • The Nick Adams Stories, by Ernest Hemingway
  • Seven Openings of the Head, by Liane Keightley
  • Peanutbutter & Jeremy’s Best Book Ever, by James Kochalka
  • The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
  • Heroes, by Joe McGinness
  • Twenty Six, by Leo McKay Jr.
  • On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan
  • We Are Now Beginning Our Descent, by James Meek
  • Starting Out in the Evening, by Brian Morton
  • Paul Moves Out, by Michel Rabagliati
  • Paul Goes Fishing, by Michel Rabagliati
  • Clyde Fans, by Seth
  • Toast, by Nigel Slater
  • One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovitch, by Alexander Solzhenitsyn
  • A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, by David Foster Wallace
  • Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates
  • Rat, by Andrzej Zaniewski

That’s 35 books, down from last year’s all-time high of 38. Some, of course, were just silly (the Peanutbutter & Jeremy book is basically a collection of cartoons for kids, but at 276 pages, it qualifies as a “book”). I enjoyed them all, although some stood out more than the others.

The statistical breakdown is as follows:

  • 31 books written by men, four written by women. I’m not sure why so few women made my list this year.
  • Five books of a “graphical” nature (graphic novels, or “cartoons”).
  • 19 books categorized as fiction, and 16 as non-fiction. These are very slippery categories, as many works are a mixture of both. For example, Leo McKay’s Twenty Six is a fictionalized account of an actual mining disaster. Boyhood by J.M. Coetzee reads like fiction, but is categorized as memoir. The “Paul” graphic novels by Michel Rabagliati are taken very much from his own life experiences, but are considered fiction.
  • Nine “memoirs” (one of my favorite categories). This too is a slippery category. For example, I consider Martin Amis’s Koba the Dread a memoir because it is as much about Amis and his conversations about Stalin as it is about Stalin itself. (And ultimately, isn’t everything that Martin Amis writes really about Martin Amis?) Another way to categorize it would be “impressionistic biography” but I’m not sure Amazon has listings for that. Then there’s the already mentioned categorization problem with the excellent Boyhood by J.M. Coetzee, plus The Ancient Tea Horse Road, by Jeff Fuchs is as much a memoir as it is a travel and adventure book and a reference for tea lore.

The find of the year, however, goes to Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates. I already wrote about it here, but I think it deserves another shout-out. As you probably know, the film version is currently playing in the cinemas, although I wonder if the cinematic medium will succeed in capturing the tension and the feel of the slowly twisting knife in the gut that Yates brings out in his crisp and piercing writing style. This is one of those books that you read as much — or more — for the writing itself as for the story and characters.

Postscript: the archivist/knowledge manager in me feels compelled to link to my reading lists from previous years, so here they are for 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, and 2007.

Reading List: Books I Read in 2007

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.