The NYT’s Book Review two Sundays ago included a list of books that famous authors read this past year, and the ones they recommended for the rest of us.
As I was reading it, I wondered what my friends read last year, and what they’d recommend to me. Why should we listen only to famous authors, whose tastes often run a little too much toward the experimental and post-modern for me, anyway? I decided to start a New Year’s tradition of wrapping up each year’s reading by sharing it on my blog. It’s a kind of a weak version of Nick Hornby’s Polysyllabic Spree column, which I get a big kick out of.
As I start the New Year’s reading with a book that won critical acclaim last year, The Existential Café, I realize that even though I write fiction, I mostly read non-fiction. Last year was somewhat of an exception, and I read a great deal more fiction than usual. Among the novels that I read (or partly read) were:
- My friend Lynne Spreen’s new novel, Key West Blues, which I enjoyed as a sequel to Dakota Blues; and my friend Rose Baldwin’s delightful collection of short stories, The Claire Stories.
- Geraldine Brooks’ A Secret Chord, which I loved for both its insights into a period of time we really know little about, even if we’ve read the Old Testament all the way through.
- Jane Smiley’s Early Warning, which I’ll have to admit I never finished. I found trying to keep track of all those protagonists with all their problems and neuroses neurosis-inducing, and quit.
- Elaine Ferrante’s My Brilliant Friend, which left me wondering what all the hoopla was about. I won’t be reading any more of the series.
- All Our Names, by Dinaw Mengestu, which I didn’t like nearly as much as the critics did, as it read to me like a male fantasy about how easy it is to get a white woman in bed. That’s not to say I didn’t appreciate the parts of the narrative that described the violence in his native Uganda, which were evocative and eye-opening.
- The Revenge of the Radioactive Lady, by Elizabeth Stuckey-French. I read it because she was the instructor in Iowa City for the Iowa Writer’s Workshop summer two-week seminar on fiction writing. The novel was great, by the way, and provided a great example, as well, of how to construct a novel.
- Let Him Go, by Larry Watson, which was assigned by the aforementioned instructor for our seminar. It was well-written; almost as if by formula, though. I didn’t like it as much as I respected it.
- A Spool of Blue Thread, by Anne Tyler, which was the first of hers that disappointed me. I just didn’t care in the end.
- Unbecoming, by Rebecca Scherm, which I found powerful in the way that I found Roxanna Slade, Reynolds Price’s novel about a very unlikable woman that tested our tolerance of women who don’t fit into the mold our society expects us all to morph into.
- I also read Truly Madly Guilty, Losing the Light, Home (the Harlan Coben one, not the Marilynne Robinson one that I tried to read in 2015 but gave up on), and The Girl from the Savoy, all of which were fine and entertaining, but that I don’t need to pontificate about.
I also tried to read Avenue of Mysteries by John Irving, but couldn’t. It was too male-centric to me. I couldn’t relate to the protagonist. Same went for Purity by Jonathan Franzen, which I tolerated for about three chapters before bailing. Oddly, I quit reading that one because I didn’t like any of the characters, not just the first female protagonist. Perhaps this proves that in every book of fiction, I need to find someone I like and care about or I can’t keep reading. That’s a good lesson for me to remember as I write fiction, as well.
As usual, most of my reading last year was of the non-fiction kind. Reading non-fiction gives me ideas about themes to explore in my novels without tempting me to copy someone else’s fiction writing style. In general, I’d say I found more to like about the non-fiction I read than I did about the fiction, and I thought I’d mention some of my favorites.
At the top of the list has to be The Swerve: How the World Became Modern by Stephen Greenblatt. Not only did he give credit for intellectual progress to libraries and librarians, two of my favorite “things,” but the writing was so addictive that I couldn’t put it down.
Next, I’d have to say, was Deep South, by Paul Theroux. I have a tendency to not think or read much literature or non-fiction about the South, as it’s a place I neither like nor care to visit. But Theroux opened my eyes to the tough reality that lives on 150 years after the Emancipation Proclamation, even though I don’t think he helped me understand why the Southern states all voted for Trump. It seems like that was voting against their interests. I read Hillbilly Elegy to get to that conundrum, and I thought it served a good purpose, but I also didn’t think it told me much that I didn’t already know (having grown up in a rural area), whereas Theroux’s book did.
Also among my favorites was a little volume, The Neanderthals Rediscovered: How Modern Science is Rewriting Their Story. I’ve always been fascinated with human evolution and our species’ natural history, and have considered writing a novel about the interaction between the Neanderthal and the Sapiens who moved into their European homelands back some dozens of millennia ago. (But not in the Jean Auel way.) The Neanderthal book led me to buy and read Sapiens, by Yuval Noah Harari, which disappointed me because I thought it did a less impressive job of explaining our distant and recent past than three other books I have read: Guns Germs and Steel, The Better Angels of Our Nature, and The Tangled Wing (the book that probably had the greatest impact on how I view the world as an adult). I felt the same way about Too Much of a Good Thing by Lee Goldman. I thought it didn’t add anything that The Paleolithic Prescription hadn’t already covered back in the early-90s.
Under the heading of Catching Up with the Rest of the World, I finally read Mother Tongue by Bill Bryson, and thought it was too bad I hadn’t read it years ago. It was written in the ‘90s, long before A Short History of Nearly Everything, which I also loved, but I had missed Mother Tongue. Perhaps that’s because I was busy in that decade with “my career.” (Yeah, so much for that.) Also in the catching up category, I finally read the only dog book I picked up this year (a rarity—I usually read a lot of dog books): Dogs by Coppinger and Coppinger, which was written way back in 2001 but which I didn’t discover until it was mentioned in an article in the NYT’s Science Times one Tuesday. I didn’t like it much. I think the authors have too little respect for the human-canine bond and its contribution to our both humans’ and dogs’ lives, and they stuck to the position that the only good dog is one that’s out working in the field.
I also finally finished Nick Hornby’s Ten Years in the Tub, which is a collection of ten years’ worth of his Polysyllabic Spree columns. I found it hard to read all the way through it in consecutive sittings, as each column gives birth to too many ideas for other books to read, and I get a little distracted by it all. But I enjoyed it immensely, and if you’re not familiar with his “book reviews”—they’re really something beyond that—I’d recommend checking it out. I laughed out loud a lot.
I was enjoying American Amnesia, a book about how government investments and spending put America on its path to prosperity, but unfortunately, I was in the middle of it when the election results came in, and from that point on, I lost all interest in reading about politics, and I quit. I’m still having great difficulty reading the news sections of the New York Times.
I hope I can get over that severe reaction to politics, as I have a number of books that I do want to read this year that I can’t jump into until I do. Meanwhile, there are plenty of books on the end table by my comfy chair that I intend to start on after the existentialists are done with me: Evicted, White Trash, Thank You for Being Late, Men Without Work, and Thinking Fast and Slow. And to assuage my science-hungry inner-nerd, I have lined up Black Hole Blues and Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity.
I’m still collecting ideas, so now it’s your turn. Share with me and my readers what you read this past year, and what’s on your reading list for 2017, besides Gracie’s Revolution, of course. Post your comments on my Facebook Author page or find this blog on my website (www.marjcharlier.com) and post your comment there.
I wish you a pleasant and thought-provoking reading year in 2017.