In addition to trying to keep up with the recent issues of the planet’s two best magazines, The Sun and the New Yorker), I read the following books this year. For inexplicable reasons, I read fewer books this past year than usual. I’m listing their titles here by type, and in the order (within each type) of how (roughly) wonderful I thought they were.
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry (2015)
by Fredrik Backman
My sister Gayle introduced me to Backman’s books, and this was her favorite. Possibly because I read it after first reading A Man Called Ove, I think Ove is my favorite of the two, but both were really good: great characters, hilarious dialog, wonderful stories, exceptionally sophisticated plotting with multiple layers of meaning and lots of serious handling of complicated issues. All this from the point of view of a main character only seven years old!
A Man Called Ove (2012) by Fredrik Backman
I don’t read many novels translated from non-English languages, but I am so glad my sister Gayle recommended this Swedish novel to me. Backman is a fantastic writer, and it was difficult to put this book down, and even more difficult when I realized it was about to end. The curmudgeon main character is totally believable, and the plot twists took me completely by surprise. I am looking forward to seeing the movie version (hoping it will not disappoint me), and to recommending to my book group that they read this or any (all?) of Backman’s other novels.
The Improbability of Love (2015) by Hannah Rothschild
Read this for a book club. Interesting concept (skullduggery involving a lost painting against the background of the contemporary art selling scene in Britain), but most of the non-major characters were unlikable and stereotypical. I learned a good deal about art history and about the business of buying and selling art, but this book was, otherwise, forgettable (or, more charitably, “optional”). The ending of the story especially seemed like a rushed job.
The Humans (2013) by Matt Haig
Alien impersonates Earthling to accomplish a specific (murderous) mission, ends up replacing his repugnance of humanity with empathy for it. Sounds corny, but the writing is so good, the plot line works. I will definitely read some of Haig’s other books, and I can’t imagine anyone reading this one would be disappointed.
The English Disease (2003) by Joseph Skibell
(Read this for a book club.) Excellent, articulate writer. In fact, some of the best, and funniest, passages of 21st-Century American Jewish angst, that I remember reading. On the other hand, despite the exciting fact that Skibell’s main character gives voice to lots of things I obsess about myself, I somehow never felt very sympathetic with the novel’s narrator. I also felt like I was reading a screenplay of a movie written and directed by Woody Allen. I did learn a lot about Carl Jung and Gustav Mahler (none of it very flattering), so I’m glad I read the book, and I might search out Skibell’s previous novel, A Blessing on the Moon.
Memoirs or Biography
When Breath Becomes Air (2016) by Paul Kalanithi
A gorgeously written, astoundingly sobering memoir of a neurosurgeon in his mid-30s who’s diagnosed with fatal cancer. I will be very surprised if this book doesn’t end up being the most memorable one I will read this year. Kalanithi loved literature before he trained as a surgeon, and that’s very evident in his allusive and reflective writing style. Haunted by his life-long search for the meaning of life even before his years of encounters with his patients and their families battling horrific brain injuries, the author’s unique perspective as a compassionate neurosurgeon who’s suddenly another doctor’s patient lends Kalanithi’s account of his final days a wisdom and poignancy that I will long remember. The book’s introduction (by a mentor) and its epilogue (by his wife) are also excellent and equally memorable. It would be difficult to recommend too highly this heartbreakingly brief book, and I shall always be grateful to my sister Gayle for recommending it to me.
Can’t We Talk about Something More PLEASANT? A Memoir (2015)
by Roz Chast
A graphic memoir – meaning that it’s told via cartoon drawings – by the justly famous and beloved New Yorker cartoonist. Chast recounts the complicated, demoralizing, and often hilarious decline of her elderly mother and father – a story made even more complicated by the fact that she needed to coordinate their care (at first at home, later in various hospitals and eldercare facilities) from a different state than the one her parents lived in. Anyone who is caring for an elderly parent would love this book. I read it in three sittings, and would gladly have read it in a single sitting had I not been visiting friends when they showed me their copy of it. Chast is a genius, and can find something humorous in even the grimmest situations. Highly recommended.
American Philosophy: A Love Story (2016) by John Kaag
Part memoir, part history of philosophy (especially the philosophies of American-born philosophers Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Thoreau, William James, Josiah Royce, Charles Sanders Pierce, William Ernest Hocking, and John Dewey). I loved every chapter, virtually every page and every paragraph – almost every well-crafted sentence – of this book! Instead of writing the author a fan letter, I went out and bought a copy to read again – plus I want to mine Kaag’s bibliography for some of the works he describes so intriguingly. This book reignited my usually dormant love of philosophy (along with psychology, one of my majors in college), completely transformed my obviously uninformed opinion of the contributions of philosophers born in the United States, and rekindled my respect for (and knowledge about) William James – already a longstanding hero of mine. Kaag’s willingness to discard the academic’s habit of aloofness and describe his personal foibles, doubts, and vulnerabilities is unusual. This book is an excellent (and short!) introduction to philosophy in general and to American philosophers in particular (their personalities as well as the major thrusts of their most important works), and it’s a beautifully rendered adventure story as well: in rural New England, Kaag stumbles upon the abandoned library of an important philosopher, and his discovery changes his life. This was one of those rare books I wish had been longer, I enjoyed it so much, and learned so much from it.
Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo (2013)
by Tim Parks
Basing a book about the Italian mindset on what one learns by using Italy’s trains doesn’t sound like a promising conceit, but Parks makes it work wonderfully. A combination memoir, travel guide, and history lesson, Parks’s weaving of the history of Italian railways with its political and cultural history is as entertaining as it is skillful. Parks is a Brit who’s made Italy his home for over 30 years; I have already read a few of his other nonfiction books and now will be sure to read them all.
Italian Pleasures (1996) by David Leavitt and Mark Mitchell
This slim (138-page) volume of reminiscences written by two gay men who for a time lived in Italy- and whose short reflections are augmented by snippets of writings penned by previous Italophiles (Edith Wharton, D.H. Lawrence, Marguerite Yourcenar, etc.) was easy to finish in a single sitting. I liked better Leavitt’s Florence: A Delicate Case (2002), but reading this earlier book was something I’m glad to have stumbled over before an upcoming return visit to Tuscany.
Lust & Wonder (2016) by Augusten Burroughs
This is the third of Burroughs’ memoirs that I’ve read. He is an outrageously talented writer – so good it was difficult to put this book away between readings. Every time I’d decided I wish I could marry this man, within five minutes I’d be horrified by yet another recounting of how neurotic and paranoid he can be. Burroughs certainly reels you in with his pyrotechnical wordsmanship, with his excruciatingly hilarious asides, and his amazing ability to recall in vivid detail his wildly fluctuating mental states. What a privilege to be brought along for the ride on the roller-coaster of the last decade or so of this amazingly articulate (if often exasperating) writer’s life.
One Man’s Garden (1992) by Henry Mitchell
I’ve been meaning to read this since finishing, nine years ago, the other two collections of Mitchell’s gardening columns for the Washington Post. How unfortunate for us amateur gardeners that Mitchell, who died in 1993, is not still alive and writing! And how lucky were the subscribers of the Post who got to enjoy his weekly gardening columns for twenty years! No other garden writer comes close to Mitchell’s unpretentious, slyly cantankerous attitudes toward the humble glories and sorrows of the urban gardener. As hilarious as he was opinionated, he never condescends. I will next read the only book of his I haven’t read already – Any Day – and in years to come will surely re-read portions of Mitchell’s other collections. Mitchell was a national treasure – and the only author who’ve I’ve not minded disparaging my hero Thomas Jefferson (albeit in Jefferson’s capacity as a gardener).
The Conversations of Dr. Johnson, Selected from the ‘Life’ by James Boswell (1930) edited by R.W. Postgate
Despairing of ever getting around to reading Boswell’s famous Life of Johnson, I was happy to have discovered, several years ago, the existence of this abridgment. What a wonderful reading experience! Despite my chagrin at finding out how politically conservative and somewhat misogynistic Johnson was, I, like countless others, found myself in thrall to Johnson’s conversations. I hadn’t realized that Johnson lived during the days of the American Revolution (of which he had some very caustic things to say). Until I could finish reading these Conversations, I put off reading more in the other books I am in the middle of – it was that compelling. As is so often the case with books published before World World II, the editor’s preface is also remarkable. (Pet theory: fans of Johnson’s end up being better writers themselves!) I especially loved Boswell’s (affectionate) remarks on Johnson’s character flaws, which are certainly obvious from some of Johnson’s remarks. What an unforgettable person, especially considering Johnson’s impoverished background.
Books about Books
Patience & Fortitude: Wherein a Colorful Cast of Determined Book Collectors, Dealers, and Librarians Go About the Quixotic Task of Preserving a Legacy (2001) by Nicholas A. Basbanes
A now-seventeen-year-old survey of the world of books based on dozens of interviews with writers, librarians, library administrators, booksellers, and book collectors. Full of fascinating information and chock-full of anecdotes, Basbanes succeeds in making this particular world interesting for people who may know nothing about the intricacies of book collecting in all the forms that activity takes. He covers lots of bases (all the world’s most famous libraries, for example), and his narrative style is conversational and rambling in the best way. I was particularly impressed by Brisbane’s ability to accurately describe the nuances of the controversies raging in Book World at the time (and that are still important almost 20 years later). This book made me proud to have become a librarian, and I will want to read all of Brisbane’s other book-related books, both past and future.
Everything Explained That Is Explainable: On the Creation of the ‘Encyclopaedia Britannica’s’ Celebrated Eleventh Edition, 1910-1911 (2016) by Denis Boyles
I read probably one-third of this book. Boyles’ obviously impressive research and his sometimes sardonic commentary, the level of detail Boyles goes into to describe the behind-the-scenes wranglings among the people who produced (and advertised) this famous reference work was too daunting for me. The dipping into the intervening chapters that I did do was full of surprises, the almost stand-alone essays that constitute Boyles’ Prologue and his final chapter (“Postscript”) are masterpieces of analysis as well as examples of sustained engaging writing.
Selected Works on the Pleasures of Reading (2008) by Robertson Davies
Davies’ always-modest, disarmingly sensible, and frequently witty writing on any subject is always a pleasure, and what he wrote about his reading is no exception – despite the fact that I don’t happen to share some of Davies’ particular enthusiasms (such as reading 18th Century plays). Davies’ daughter edited this anthology of articles and speeches, and her introductory notes were also interesting. Every time I read something by this under-rated Canadian author, I get a little closer to taking up one of Davies’ novels, one of which (Fifth Business) has been on my Books Cal Wants to Read list for years now.
Cherished Objects: Living with and Collecting Victoriana (1991)
by Allison Kyle Leopold
Although I own 170 books on home decorating, my browsings through them haven’t been recorded in “The Constant Reader.” Except this one. As with most of my decor books, I found this one on sale in a thrift store, but this one is more than a collection of delicious photos and minimal (and often absurdly breathless) prose. Instead, its author’s text gives a lot of interesting insights into why Victorians embellished their homes they way they did, and why some of us find at least some aspects of their domestic style so compelling. It’s nice to – finally – better understand why I am drawn to Victorian architecture and interior design, and what gave rise to them. This book explains these things more clearly and succinctly than any other book I’ve discovered.
Art & Architecture
In Ruins: A Journey Through History, Art, and Literature (2001)
by Christopher Woodward
One of my traveling companions on my trip to Italy this year was reading this during the trip, and he gave me his copy when he finished it. The author’s style is personal and engrossing, and the book is filled with fascinating anecdotes featuring archeologists, historians, novelists, and artists. A book I have added to my library and will enthusiastically lend to others who, like most people, find themselves drawn to the magic spell most ruins seem to radiate.
My mini-reviews of the books I read in 2016 are here.