You’d think that an introvert like me would’ve capitalized on the extra time provided by the pandemic lockdown to do considerably more reading than usual, but that hasn’t happened, and I’m not sure why. I suspect that it’s because these days I get sleepier while reading than I did when I was younger. Perhaps my worsening eyesight also contributed to my appalling delinquency in the Reading Opportunity Department? I’m hoping that the recent cataract surgery – and my still-new-to-me reading glasses – will eventually result in less eyestrain, and therefore less reading-related sleepiness.
Meanwhile, the list of books I hope to read has gotten alarmingly longer this year, and I’d like to make a healthy dent in it in 2021! Ditto a hoped-for dent in the embarrassing backlogs of my unread issues of the New Yorker and The Sun!
The books I finished reading in 2020 are listed below by category, and, within each category, in the order I read them (rather than, say, how wonderful they were relative to the other titles in the category).
Perhaps you’ll spot a title or two that you might want to read yourself – although, as you will soon discover if you do check those reviews, my reading tastes remain rather eccentric.
The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek (2019) by Kim Michele Richardson
I read this book because it was selected by our book club. It’s a gripping tale set in the wilds of Kentucky during the 1930s. Richardson’s research into the WPA’s Pack Horse Librarians program and into the history of the blue-skinned people who settled in (among other places) the remotest parts of mining-area Kentucky is evident on almost every page. Her characters, including the minor ones, are vividly portrayed, and the sexism, racism, grinding poverty and illiteracy – and ignorance, prejudice, and violence they produce – that these characters are trapped in is delineated in harrowing detail. Richardson’s unforgettable story is full of incident and unexpected twists and turns – most of them either horrific or heartbreaking, or both). This book certainly ignited a few flashbacks to my own brief foray into Appalachia (back during my undergraduate years, in the 1960s).
The Eyre Affair (2001) by Jasper Fforde
Having been on my want-to-read list for many years, I finally read it after my book club agreed to select it for us all to read. It was quite a romp – cleverly written, unusually inventive, witty, etc. – but despite how enjoyable it was to read, I somehow doubt that it’ll stick with me any more than, say, some random episode of a mystery series I’ve watched on television. Perhaps I’m getting to the age where I’m wondering why I spend time reading non-classic fiction? One thing for sure: even though I applaud Fforde’s accomplishment, I am in no mood to read more about his heroine’s accomplishments in the sequels he’s written to this debut novel. This is not a comment on Fforde’s writing, but a comment on how I want to spend my quickly diminishing time for reading fiction. Readers who don’t feel this urgency would doubtlessly enjoy this book, as it’s more interesting than many, and full of unexpected twists and turns.
Paris in the Twentieth Century (1994) by Jules Verne (translated by Richard Howard)
Read this for my book club (which prefers short books to long ones). Verne’s fantasia, written when he was in his mid-30s, of life in 1960s Paris, wasn’t short enough for me. The cardboard characters, the incessant preaching, and the abrupt, ambiguous, and unsatisfying ending did not successfully offset Verne’s impressive predictions about the technology of the future (elevators, fax machines, the conversion of Paris into a port city, etc.) It’s no wonder Verne’s publisher declined to publish it in Verne’s lifetime.
The Little Paris Bookshop (2015) by Nina George
My partner Randy unearthed this from his bookshelves and told me I’d probably like it, and he was correct. With a setting in Paris and Provence, about a bookseller who vends his wares from a houseboat on the Seine, what’s not to like? The translation from the original German must be excellent, as the story is very moving. The ideas covered in the story are numerous, complex, and dealt with in an impressively nuanced manner. If Randy ever parts with his copy of this book, I hope he’ll consider giving it to me, so I can lend it to others.
The Man Who Was Thursday (1908) by G.K. Chesterton
I picked this book for the book club I’m a member of to read this month, and I’m glad I did. Over the years, I’d seen multiple recommendations of this novel in various “best novels” lists, and I’ve long been drawn to Chesterton’s writing style, based on in several of the nonfiction pieces of his that I’ve run across or tracked down, plus the knowledge that Chesterton wrote the books that the excellent PBS television series Father Brown was based on. This short novel is somewhat of a page-turner, and its plot twists and plot reversals, though clever, are not quite as unexpected as the book blurbs lead one to believe. Still, this much-celebrated detective novel, full of intriguing philosophical dialogue, is definitely worth reading, which is pretty remarkable considering that it was written over 100 years ago!
House & Garden
Happy Starts at Home: Change Your Space, Transform Your Life (2020) by Rebecca West
Browsing through recently-published interior design books at my local bookstore is a longstanding hobby of mine. Seldom do I buy one of these books – most of them are too expensive for my budget; the ones I like the best, I pick up years later, when they’ve made their way to bargain bookstores or to thrift shops. (I’ve assembled a collection of more than 250 such books, and enjoy periodically re-browsing through them to remind me of ideas I might try out in my own house.) Although I spend hours of time perusing these interior design books, few of them merit even a mini-review, especially since typically the texts (vs. the photos) in these types of books are often annoyingly hyperbolic, absurdly speculative, or otherwise forgettable – if not downright cringe-worthy. (The only cringe-worthy thing about West’s book is its title.) I’m recording my reading of this design book because its author approaches house do-vers from such a non-typical angle: exploring the reasons and ramifications of why someone might bother with the effort and/or expense of redesigning their domestic surroundings in the first place. West provides numerous down-to-earth, helpful exercises that acknowledge the profoundly psychological – rather than the aesthetic – motivations and consequences of certain design notions and decisions. For example, this is the only design book I’ve ever seen that mentions and explores Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs in the context of home decor. West’s philosophy of design, her advice, and her cautionary tales from her years of advising her clients are definitely more inspiring, thought-provoking, and useful than the book’s photos, and I have already added West’s blog to the “Domestic Bliss” section of my own blog’s blogroll.
Tools of the Earth: The Practice and Pleasure of Gardening (2018) by Jeff Taylor
It’s been a while since I read a gardening book (and only stumbled onto this one in a recent trip to a thrift store). And it’s been many years since Taylor wrote this book, but I’ve now got a new Favorite Garden Writer! Or, perhaps since it’s unlikely that Taylor will write another gardening book, I’ve found instead another Favorite Writer, period? Taylor’s unique organization of his material (using the names of various garden tools to write about all sorts of gardening (and non-gardening) topics, Taylor’s humility, conversational and anecdotal style, his self-deprecating wit, his capacity for wonder, and the range of his attention make for a superb, didn’t-want-to-put-it-down read. I’m tracking down Taylor’s earlier book, Tools of the Trade: The Art and Craft of Carpentry, despite the fact that I don’t know a thing about carpentry and couldn’t care less about reading about it . . . unless it’s Jeff Taylor writing about it, because I know I’ll love it.
Secrets of Monet’s Garden: Bringing the Beauty of Monet’s Style to Your Own Garden by Derk Fell
Despite having been to France several times, I’ve yet to make my pilgrimage to Giverny. Reading this book (which I first saw in a museum bookstore in London in late 2019) has doubled my resolve to eventually visit Monet’s house and its garden, and I’m glad to have tracked down this book in case I never get there myself. The author is an acclaimed gardener himself, and his research into the history of the garden and the astonishingly deliberate efforts of Monet to create an environment he could paint from many different viewpoints is informative and full of surprising details. I’m not as convinced as Derek Fell is that one can reproduce many of Monet’s effects in one’s own garden (at least, not without hiring a full-time staff!), but I did appreciate Fell’s providing such specific plant-related information and how Monet designed his plantings.
Life in the Garden (2017) by Penelope Lively
Although Lively is a Booker Prize-winning writer and popular writer (she’s published almost two dozen novels), I didn’t find her writing style very engaging. However, Lively does include a lot of interesting information and literary gossip in this survey of British gardening fashions, British and American garden-mentioning literary fiction, and gardener-targeted nonfiction. The book is, for my taste, a bit too autobiographical, but that’s probably because I haven’t read her novels and become curious about her life. I was also surprised that her homages to various British garden writers don’t include even a cursory mention of my own favorite British garden writer, the late Beverly Nichols (whose prolific output of over a dozen books I have read).
The Joys of Reading
I’d Rather Be Reading: The Delights and Dilemmas of the Reading Life (2018) by Anne Bogel
I discovered this book at a discount store and am glad I decided to buy a copy. With refreshing humility, Bogel captures in words a wide variety of habits, emotions, and anxieties of the avid booklover, and does so succinctly (the book is a mere 156 pages long – you could finish it in an afternoon or two). Her chapter on why readers shouldn’t skip a book’s acknowledgments section is, all by itself, worth its price (discounted or otherwise). Bogel also mentioned several books (including a novel) that I’ve added to my list of books I want to read, and I intend to check out her blog, “Modern Mrs. Darcy.”
The Pleasure of Reading: 41 Writers on the Discovery of Reading and the Books that Inspired Them (1992; revised edition 2015) edited by Antonia Fraser
This collection of recollections of mostly UK-based authors about how they came to value reading contains some remarkable stories. However, most of the authors Fraser chose to include dwell a bit too long (for my taste) on which books most influenced them as children. Still, it was instructive to read the titles these book-smitten writers recommend for other adult readers. Given the wildly different backgrounds of the book’s contributors, I was amazed to find that so many of their “top ten” recommendations overlap with each other. After reading this book, I reckon I might just need to read the Odyssey, Middlemarch, Proust, Dickens, and to revisit the poetry of William Wordsworth.
Living in Venice (2000) by Frederic Vitoux; photographs by Jermone Darblay
This was the ninth (!) book I’ve read about Venice, and the first I’ve read since my most recent visit there, year before last (and, alas, for only a day – but what a day!). The book’s large-format photos are stunning, and the text captures, better than any of the other books I’ve read, the dreamy, elusive, and somewhat paradoxical atmosphere of the place. When I started reading this book, I didn’t think I’d feel the need to re-visit this extraordinary town again, but reading this book rekindled my desire to go there again. Even though I’d still not be able to see the private residences and gardens the author was allowed to enter and describe, the book’s photographs, especially of the interiors of rich Venetians’ homes, is the next best thing.
Silence in the Age of Noise (2018) by Erling Kagge
I enjoyed this book of Kagge’s more than his later book Walking. Still, his reflections seemed a bit random and pedestrian rather than profound or memorable. Fortunately, Kagge did include in his notes citations to several books I hope to track down and read: Lars Svendsen’s The Philosophy of Boredom (1999), Oliver Sacks’s Gratitude (2015), and Yuval Lurie’s Tracking the Meaning of Life: A Philosophical Journey (2006).
Walking One Step at a Time (2019) by Erling Kagge
This is not my favorite book about walking (that distinction belongs to Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust: A History of Walking), and the general tone of the book reminded struck me as if they were based on random journal entries. But Kagge himself has a unique perspective: he walked to the South Pole (among other far-flung places). He main point seems to be that walking is a defining (rather than a superficial) feature of humankind as a species, and that the more sitting we end up doing, the less human we are likely to become. The best thing about this book for me was Kagge’s citation of walking commentators who I was unfamiliar with – I was able to add several items to my list of nonfiction books I want to read, including something called Montaigne and Melancholy. I am also reading Kagge’s book entitled Silence, so am hoping it might be a bit more inspiring than this one turned out to be (although I did glean from Walking two passages for the section of quotations about walking in my Commonplace Book.
England: An Elegy (2000) by Roger Scruton
One of my favorite bloggers had often recommended the works of this author, a British philosopher who died last year; my longstanding Anglophilia guided me to this particular book of Scruton’s. It is beautifully written. Scruton’s “elegy” is for a “lost” England that, for me, still exists – at least landscape-wise. Scruton’s melding of memoir, history, literary criticism, and attention to the unique cultural and legal traditions that formerly bound the English to their homeland is as unusual as it is brilliant…and is almost persuasive. To his credit, he doesn’t avoid mentioning the darker side of English history (its government’s and its royal monopolies’ imperial eras, for example). And his explanation of the function of the monarchy in the British psyche is the first argument I’ve ever heard that makes a kind of sense. On the other hand, Scruton’s swipes – which, admittedly are quite articulately phrased – at liberalism and his mourning of the erosion of the class system interfered a bit with my enjoyment of this amazing salute to what mattered most to Scruton as the defining character, and most important contributions to mankind, of the classic Englishman’s devotion to his once-enchanted landscape. Scruton’s book is certainly an enchantment itself, and I am very glad indeed that I chose to read it – his commentary on Shakespeare was particularly memorable. Any reader who loves All Things British would adore it.
ABC Et Cetera: The Life and Times of the Roman Alphabet (1985) by Alexander Humez and Nicholas Humez
I am a sucker for reading books about the history of writing in general and about the history of the English alphabet in particular, so this book caught my eye when I saw it on a shelf at a local used bookstore months and months ago. Other books interfered with my getting around to starting this one, but I’m so glad I eventually picked it up again and (eventually) finished reading it. What’s unusual about this book is its unique blend of the linguistic history of the Roman letter-forms via a carefully selected and examined group of Latin words (Latin being where so many English words are derived) with brief and fascinating digressions into various aspects of Roman political and cultural history. The way the book’s two authors seamlessly weave together such a variety of subjects in their often-humorous romp through the alphabet – and through Roman history – is the charm of the book. I learned dozens of fascinating things about dozens of subjects, plus the sometimes surprising derivations of dozens of familiar (and some not-so-familiar) Latin or English-from-Latin words. In fact, the only problem with my experience of reading this book is how densely filled with information it is! Still, it’s an impressive book that will be immensely enjoyed by anyone with fond or semi-fond memories of their high school Latin classes – and impressed with how often what they learned in those classes have come in handy in puzzling out the meaning of unfamiliar words encountered in their reading since high school.
To Think of Tea! (1932) by Agnes Repplier
To think I almost left this book on the shelf merely because of its odd title! But, knowing how much I loved Repplier’s writing, I brought it home from the library along with another one she published (in 1904). I enjoyed this book so much! Most books about tea-drinking that I’d read previously were about the history of tea cultivation; Repplier concentrates her collection of essays on the role of tea-drinking in the lives of several specific literary figures (Dickens, Hazlitt, Dr. Johnson, Charles Lamb, and others), although she does include information throughout her essays on the history of (and attitudes toward) tea-drinking. In fact, she devotes entire chapters to describing the rise of the tea cultures of China and Japan and, in the New World, to the incident known as the Boston Tea Party. The charm and understated irony of Repplier’s writing triggered, more than once while reading this delightful and idiosyncratic book, the urge to brew myself a cup of tea to drink whilst reading it. Needless to say, Repplier’s essays have confirmed my nearly-lifelong enthusiasm for this civilized ritual/addiction, and I was happy to learn about the role of tea-drinking in the lives of some of my favorite (mostly British) writers! On finishing To Think of Tea! I, without hesitation, plunged into the other Repplier collection I borrowed from Emory’s library the same day, Repplier’s earlier collection of essays entitled Compromises.
Evidence of Things Not Seen (1995) by James Baldwin
Baldwin’s book-length essay is ostensibly about the so-called Atlanta Child Murders of forty years ago – an episode that, as an Atlanta resident, I vividly remember. Baldwin’s fierce intelligence, his incisive wit, and his lyrical and allusive writing style is on full display here, and his commentary on systemic racism is, alas, as relevant and damning as they were when he first wrote this book. Nobody wrote social commentary quite like Baldwin, and I hope to get my hands on all his other non-fiction works after seeing what he did with this one.
Compromises (1904) by Agnes Repplier
Repllier’s Austenesque writing style, her erudition and meticulous research, and her often unexpected or eccentric perspectives always make for fascinating reading. My favorites in this particularly miscellaneous collection of her essays are about the art of conversation, her analysis of a Quaker woman’s diary of the Revolutionary War years, a brief history of royal executioners in Europe, and her account of the birth, life, and death of Lord Byron’s daughter Allegra. Repplier’s clear-eyed debunking of the often-exaggerated claims about the virtues of reading was also fun.
Narcissus Leaves the Pool: Familiar Essays (1999) by Joseph Epstein
Last year I read, with great pleasure, my first of Epstein’s numerous collections of personal (vs. academic) essays (Charm: The Elusive Enchantment, 2018), and I’m so very glad I tracked down this earlier collection. This is one of those books that swam into my ken at precisely the right time for maximum enjoyment. Epstein’s choice of subjects reflects his interest in exploring some of the major themes, surprises, and disappointments of his long, literary life, and some of those interests – his notions about sports, Americans’ obsession with youth culture, what becoming a mature adult means, the psychological changes wrought by getting older, the origins, extent, and persistence of his Anglophilia – have been very much on my own mind lately, and Epstein articulates his thoughts so much better than I’m usually able to. I’d love to own a copy of this book (as usual, I read a library copy), and, despite Epstein’s evident homophobia, I will certainly find and read Epstein’s other essay collections.
Points of View (1891) by Agnes Repplier
I’ve no idea how I heard of this 120-year-old book – was it one of many obscure writers quoted by one of my favorite writers, Patrick Kurp, at his blog Anecdotal Evidence? Was it via literary critic Michael Dirda, who once wrote a review of a book about Repplier? Perhaps it was via a notice I saw at NeglectedBooks.com? However I came to add Points of View to my “Nonfiction Books Cal Wants to Read,” I’m so glad I finally decided to track down a copy. What a writer, and what a surprising and important late-life reading discovery for Calvin! Despite the fact that Repplier was born in Philadelphia and lived there most of her long life (1855-1950), her writing style reminds me of the great British essayists of her era: Ruskin, Lamb, her fellow Catholic Chesterton, etc. – and that style includes a talent she shares with these contemporaries (or near-contemporaries) for quotable, chuckle-producing understatement. Since finishing this tiny, antique collection of Repplier’s, I’ve discovered the Internet is full of information about her and contains many nugget-sized as well as downloadable manuscript-sized examples of her work. Also, happily for me, her latest fan, Repplier wrote a lot of essays, and I shall certainly devote part of the remaining time allotted to me for reading The Best That Has Been Written to tracking down more of Repplier’s completely enchanting works, only a tiny fragment of which, incidentally, was fiction. For such intelligent and witty prose as this largely unknown woman wrote, the essay was invented. Ah, bliss!
A Place to Read: Life and Books (2014) by Michael Cohen
What a pleasure, to track down a book merely because of its title, and finding not only a wonderful title essay, but 21 others – each on completely different topics, most having zero to do with reading – and enjoying all but one of them (Cohen’s essay on golfing). The author is a retired professor who has homes in both rural Kentucky and suburban Arizona and is devoting his retirement to reading what he wants instead of what he needed to read to teach. The consistently non-academic, conversational tone of these essays, plus the unexpected and interestingly-treated topics he’s picked to write about, is what sets this set of essays apart from so many other essay collections. His musings on reading Proust and Montaigne and E.B. White, Cohen’s own essay heroes, are especially excellent.
A Different Person: A Memoir (1994) by James Merrill
Merrill’s still-living and lifelong friend (and one of my favorite authors) Frederick Buechner wrote that Merrill’s memoir filled him with sadness as he read it, and I felt the same way. Merrill’s story is a heartbreaking saga about the psychic damage that a homophobic society can wreak on even its most talented, most privileged citizens. Merril came of age in the late 1940s and inherited so much money from his fabulously rich and well-known and well-connected father that he never had to work, and could devote all his energy to writing and traveling – and to years of psychoanalysis. He died in 1995, the year after he published this memoir. Merrill, a celebrity-avoiding introvert who won many literary prizes, lived the sort of life I might have envied had he – and his many, many lovers – been born in less homophobic times. If you want proof that money can’t buy happiness, read this book! Which is not to say that it isn’t gorgeously written: every page is marked by beautiful, unexpected metaphors, descriptions of experiences in exotic places, and by zero arrogance or self-pity. Quite a journey he recounts here, but it is the sadness I felt as I read about his adventures – including the adventure of what his psychiatrist helped him realize – that I will remember.
The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) by Joan Didion
I read this book for the first time shortly after its celebrated publication; I read it again this year for the book club I’m a member of. All I remembered from my first reading was how unusual and how powerful it was – enough to merit my adding a copy of it to my home library. This time around, I was captivated a second time by Didion’s writing style. Her training as a journalist really shows up in her minutely-observed and completely absorbing chronicle of the disorienting, sudden death of a long-time spouse (like herself, a famous writer). Didion’s memoir is still the best account of grief that I’ve ever read. As with my first reading, I didn’t want to put it down until I finished it.
My Life in Middlemarch (2014) by Rebecca Mead
Mead has long been one of my favorite New Yorker writers, and I was thrilled to unexpectedly stumble upon her book in one of the Free Little Libraries that I happened to pass on one of my walks around my neighborhood. George Eliot’s novel Middlemarch has been a touchstone for Mead all her life, and she explains exactly how in an immediately and consistently engaging manner. Mead’s masterful combining of personal memoir, literary biography, and literary criticism would probably enchant anyone whose life has been enriched and informed by a lifelong habit of reading, or profoundly influenced by a particular book. A copy of Middlemarch has long been part of my personal library, waiting (along with Proust) to be read one day – not merely begun and then abandoned when I become distracted by less demanding material. Mead’s masterful book makes me want to read Middlemarch more than ever, all 900+ daunting pages of it. If I never manage that feat, I will forever be grateful to Mead for explaining why I should definitely try again someday – and for teaching me why Eliot is still considered one of the greatest authors an avid reader should turn his attention to.
Alive, Alive Oh! And Other Things That Matter (2016) by Diana Athill
When I learned that Athill died last year, I had assumed that I’d read all her books, fiction and nonfiction. Not so: this one surfaced to my attention recently, and I instantly obtained a copy, as Athill is one of the most unusual (and excellent) writers I’ve ever come across. The topics covered in this book (her last) are rather miscellaneous biographical sketches, but I was thrilled to have another 160+ pages of her astonishingly candid prose to read.
Sixty: A Diary of My Sixty-First Year (2015) by Ian Brown
Of all the books on getting older that I’ve read (and I’ve read a lot of them!), this is probably my favorite, and the book on this subject I’m most likely to recommend to others interested in this subject. Brown’s mixture of self-analysis, a survey of the relevant scientific/medical data, and his self-deprecating humor made this a book I was reluctant to put down. I might even track down his other books, just so I can enjoy his distinctive writing style. The fact that Brown is Canadian, and a journalist by trade, probably accounts for why this book was so much fun to read. I was a bit surprised at some of the more sober reflections Brown describes in this covers-all-bases tale: his anxieties sometimes seemed to me more likely to belong to someone turning seventy or eighty instead of (a mere) sixty!
Hold Still: A Memoir with Photographs (2015) by Sally Mann
I read this for my book club, and am so glad I did! The writing is beyond excellent, the author’s reflections about the ethical aspects of portrait photography – and the psychological aspects of memory – are fascinating, and the photo-enhanced narratives of Sally Mann’s and her forebears’ lives, entwined with her philosophical and historical observations and discoveries, make for interesting reading. The odd thing is how little I like Mann’s photographs, which is especially ironic considering the thoughtful, articulate way she describes them, and the taking of them. and her reasons for taking them. I don’t read many memoirs of still-living people (especially Americans), but this is surely one of the best-written; it certainly deserved its nomination as a finalist for a National Book Award.
§ § §
“I continue to think of myself as someone who is essentially a reader—a man who takes a deep pleasure in good books, who views reading as a fine mode of acquiring experience, and who still brings the highest expectations to what he reads. By the highest expectations I mean that I am perhaps a naïve person who has never ceased to believe that books can change his life, and decisively so.” – Joseph Epstein (from Partial Payments: Essays on Writers and Their Lives , quoted by Patrick Kurp at his blog Anecdotal Evidence)
§ § §
For my mini-reviews of books read in previous years, click here.