This year was particularly delightful in terms of the quality of the books I chose to read. Here are my comments on each of them. I’ve listed the titles in the rough order of how excellent they seemed to me within the categories displayed below. I hope you spot a few titles you decide you want to read yourself – and would love to hear from you any recommendations from your own past year’s worth of reading: type out a comment to this blogpost, or send an email to email@example.com, or message me on Facebook!
Lila (2014) by Marilynne Robinson
I was wrong to assume Robinson couldn’t possibly weave a second spell of storytelling as absorbing as she did with Gilead. Alas, trying to describe Robinson’s writing style – especially its bewitching rhythm, its characters’ language and thought patterns, the story’s breathtakingly well-constructed recursiveness – is a maddening prospect. How unflinchingly honest and far-ranging this novel is. How lucky I am to be one of Robinson’s readers, repeatedly astonished at her craft and her piercing, heartbreaking insights into human frailty and resilience. Novel writing does not get any better, any more unforgettable, than Robinson’s.
The Goldfinch (2013) by Donna Tartt
Compelling story and wonderfully realized, totally believable characters, even the unsavory ones, Not sure this book needed 700+ pages to tell its tale, but I certainly admire Tartt’s artistry and willingness to take on the task of plausibly articulating the complex, messy, and irrational aspects of human motivation, character, and behavior, and of the maddening role of chance (fateful?) events and circumstances in human affairs. I also like the way this book dramatizes the wrongheadedness of dividing the world – and our friends and families – into all-good or all-evil individuals.
The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry (2012) by Rachel Joyce
Most absorbing novel I’ve read in a long time. A brilliant concept for a story: I’m amazed that no modern author had thought of it before! Two things I especially admired: the unexpected twists of the plot and the imaginative way the author slowly reveals the events that formed the personalities (and demons) of the main characters. I cannot imagine anyone not loving this novel, and I am almost certain it will eventually be made into a riveting film.
The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy (2014) by Rachel Joyce
Less satisfying than its prequel The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. There are many lovely passages, but I found the plot oddly less interesting – a surprising reaction considering that the reader finds out a lot more about Queenie’s character and history in this book than he/she ever finds out about Harold in the other book.
Famous Last Words (1982) by Timothy Findley
This dark novel (given to me by DC-based fellow booklover and blogger Thomas Otto) is set during World War II. The plot centers on a conspiracy of Nazi sympathizers who hope to install oriented government officials in various democracies after the war. A page-turner, for sure, and the sort of espionage thriller I rarely read. One of those “what if” sorts of novels that send one to Wikipedia to find out what “really” happened to the famous real-life characters Findley includes in his almost plausible – and often gruesome – yarn.
Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman (1926) by Sylvia Townsend Warner
Having spent many happy hours in 2015 reading two collections of STW’s letters, I was curious about her fiction, so I was excited when a friend mailed this novel to me to read. I’m pleased to see that STW’s prose is as charming and offbeat as her letters are. The plot of this novel, however, takes a rather improbable turn, and I wasn’t happy in that respect. (On the other hand, now I understand better her affinity with T.H. White and his affinity with furry woodland creatures.) Still, as a proto-feminist tract, this was cleverly and artfully done. STW’s gift for nuanced portraits and her sometimes startling word choices are delightful.
Biography and Autobiography
Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011) by Jeanette Winterson
Seldom do I read an entire book in a single day, but this memoir is that riveting. Although the titles of Winterson’s prize-winning novels were familiar to me, I’ve not read them, but I am extremely glad my friend Blanche loaned me her copy of this. It’s not a happy tale, but Winterson tells it with excruciating honesty and, at times, with unexpected hilarity. Her prose contains many quotable sentences – and she captures beautifully the fact that access to a public library can save an otherwise hapless young person’s sanity, especially if you’re the unlucky adopted child of a fundamentalist Christian parent whose favorite reading is the Bible’s Book of Revelation.
Inside a Pearl: My Years in Paris (2014) by Edmund White
A relentlessly engaging, deliciously gossipy account of White’s many years of living in Paris. I hereby transfer my longstanding envy of celebrity writer Gore Vidal’s literary life to Edmund White’s.
What There Is to Say, We Have Said: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and William Maxwell (2011) edited by Suzanne Marrs
Of the many collections of letters exchanged between authors, this one is my favorite among the many such collections that I have read. Maxwell, an novelist himself, was Welty’s editor at the New Yorker, and they exchanged letters (and visits) for fifty years. The letters are so engaging, literate, and funny that reading them thirty years after both Welty and Maxwell died is a completely spellbinding experience. Now I must track down more of Maxwell’s novels (I’d already read and loved So Long, See You Tomorrow), Welty’s novels, and the essay collections of both these writers.
The Element of Lavishness: Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner and William Maxwell, 1938-1978 (2001) edited by Michael Steinman
Once I started this book of letters between my favorite British letter-writer (STW) and one of my favorite American novelists (Maxwell was also editor of STW’s 150 stories she submitted to The New Yorker), it was almost impossible to put it down. Now I’m on the hunt for yet more of STW’s letters and for all of Maxwell’s prose – plus I’ll need to buy myself a copy of this book so I can methodically track down all the books they recommended to each other over their forty years of corresponding with each other. These letters are very likely to be the highlight of my reading pleasures this year (as were, last year, the selected letters of STW that Maxwell edited). Witty, wide-ranging, moving.
Act One: An Autobiography (1959) by Moss Hart
Far and away the best autobiography I’ve ever read. It makes me happy just to know someone can write – about themselves, too! – so exquisitely. I’m not surprised that my friend Blanche, who first told me about this book back in the late 1960s (!), says she’s picked it up more than once to re-read portions of it. With unusual humility (and often hilariously), Hart tells an entertaining and heartwarming story, peppered with profound insights into the psychological aspects of a theater-besotten life. I so wish Hart had written a sequel, so I could read that too!
I’ll Stand by You: The Letters of Sylvia Townsend Warner & Valentine Ackland (1998) edited by Susanna Pinney
Warner and Ackland met in 1930 and lived together for almost 40 years before Ackland’s death from breast cancer; these letters chronicle their great love story. Warner assembled the letters after Ackland’s death, and wrote several lengthy and excellent connecting narratives to fill in the blanks between the letters. These letters are mostly love letters, and as such they shine a light on the relationship that any fan of Warner’s writing or enthusiastic readers (such as moi) of Warner’s other collections of letters would naturally be interested in reading. Warners’ other collections of letters are far more evocative of the couple’s daily routines, their relationships with other people in their interesting lives, and their wide-ranging interests, but this collection is a remarkable document – probably one of a handful of published accounts of a lifelong lesbian relationship between literate British literary figures of the 20th century.
Thomas Wolfe (1968) by Andrew Turnbull
A masterpiece. Wolfe’s famous first novel Look Homeward, Angel has been one of the touchstones of my internal life ever since I read it as a teenager. I don’t know why I never got around to reading a Wolfe biography (as there have been several), especially given the pilgrimages I’ve made to the house of Wolfe’s childhood and to his grave in Asheville. But I am very glad to have read this book, and am stunned by the sensitivity and diligent research of its author, and by his engaging writing style. Probably the best-written biography I’ve ever read, and one of the highlights of my reading this year.
How to Live: A Life of Montaigne (2010) by Sarah Bakewell
Delightful biography of the inventor of the personal essay (and a longtime philosophical/ psychological hero of mine). Bakewell organizes her book thematically instead of strictly chronologically, which is only occasionally disorienting or redundant and her approach successfully keeps the reader’s interest and emphasizes the multifaceted, contradictory nature of the man she’s writes so engagingly about. I particularly enjoyed Bakewell’s measured speculative digressions as well as her meticulous, fascinating account of the ways other authors in various places have regarded Montaigne and his famous book.
Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace (2014) by Anne Lamott
Yet another difficult-to-put-down account of various episodes in the life of my favorite epiphany-describer. Unflinching, hilarious, wise, compassionate – and too short. I will continue to read every word this woman writes, that’s for sure (well, her nonfiction anyway).
The Measure of My Days (1968) by Florida Scott-Maxwell
Unusually honest, interesting, and beautifully phrased reflections about aging, written by an American actress, playwright, and Jungian therapist when she was in her mid-80s. A short book, but full of quotable passages and uncommon insight.
The End of Your Life Book Club (2012) by Will Schwalbe
What an astonishing memoir – and a testament to the transformative power of books – and of individuals – to make a huge difference in the world. I wish I could give a copy of this book to everyone in my life who loves reading, or who knows someone who loves to read who is facing a terminal illness. A moving and interesting story very skillfully told, and difficult to put down.
William Morris (1989) by Christine Poulson
A straightforward, brief and wonderfully illustrated biography. Morris is someone whose work (and life) has long interested me. Morris turns out to have been even more remarkable than I’d thought. (If I’m not careful, reading more about Morris and his circle will become the sort of reading rabbit-hole that, years ago, reading multiple books about Oscar Wilde and then multiple books about the Bloomsberries – and, this year, multiple books about Sylvia Townsend Warner turned into for me: not the worst fate ever to befall a reader.) In any case, I definitely have to my Bucker List of Travel Destinations a pilgrimage to Morris’s homes, and to his work that’s on display at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum.
Bloomsbury at Home (1999) by Pamela Todd
How wonderful to fall upon yet another history of the Bloomsberries – and one so engagingly written and illustrated! It focuses on the details of daily life in the various houses inhabited by the Woolfs, the Bells, the Stracheys, etc., Most of the reproductions of Vanessa’s or Duncan’s paintings that accompany the text I’d never seen before, despite the number of Bloomsbury books I’ve devoured and/ collected. By dsuccinctly providing intriguing domestic details about their intertwined and psychologically complicated lives. Todd weaves the usual hypnotic spell cast by this influential and unconventional group of British writers, artists, and scholars. Delicious.
Hello, Gorgeous: Becoming Barbra Streisand (2012) by William J. Mann
Despite the author’s annoyingly breathless and sometimes ham-fisted and/or juvenile prose style (samples: “Barbra was fed up.” “Such were the dreams…of a twenty-four-year-old kid and his twenty-year-old girlfriend”), the author did keep me greedily reading until I finally finished his exhaustingly-researched 500+-page book. I’ve been a Streisand fan since her first record album appeared in the mid-Sixties, and it’s difficult for me to ignore anything written about this unusual and extraordinarily talented celebrity. Mann’s biography covers only the period from Streisand’s teenage years until she landed the lead role in the Broadway version of Funny Girl. When Streisand publishes her autobiography in 2017, I will be very interested to see in what respects she will contradict Mann’s not altogether flattering account of her early career. Although Mann’s biography is larded with huge globs of psycho-babbling speculation (not that Streisand’s account will be devoid of same), te story of Streisand’s meteoric rise to celebrity is riveting, and Mann’s scrupulous documentation makes me glad Mann’s is the one biography of Streisand’s I have thus far decided to read.
Islands of the Mind: How the Human Imagination Created the Atlantic World (2004) by John Gillis
Despite some annoying repetitions and redundancies, this book forever changed some of my notions of history and geography, not to mention the way I think about several famous literary utopias. The final chapters are the best, and the bibliography will send me on many a quest to track down and read certain titles Gillis relied on for this excellent synthesis of All Things Island-Related. Plus it was a pleasure to find that Gillis is married to the woman who wrote a touching memoir that I read a few years back about the island in Maine where she and her husband live.
Psychology and Social Commentary
The End of Absence: Reclaiming What We’ve Lost in a World of Constant Connection (2014) by Michael Harris
A well-written and non-elegaic essay on the implications of the fact that some of us are among the final (pre-1985) generation of people who can remember what life felt like before we allowed the Internet to infiltrate the rhythms, priorities, and habits of how we humans manage our attention, time, affection, desires, expectations, etc.
The News: A User’s Manual (2014) by Alain de Botton
This is de Botton’s twelfth book, and I’ve read all of them with pleasure and admiration. The News is as provocatively and elegantly written as the others (I’ve posted multiple excerpts to the “Commonplace Book” section of my blog). However, de Botton’s brilliant analysis of the problem(s) with modern media is much more persuasive than his suggested solution(s), most of which I found to be unexpectedly simplistic and/or naive. Also, most of de Botton’s prescriptions for reform betray a paternal, manipulative, moralistic attitude that I would’ve expected him to deplore. Still, this brief book (and all of de Botton’s books are short ones) was worth reading, and de Botton’s vivid prose is far more engaging and digestible than other, lengthier critiques of the mass media, whose output most of us spend inordinate amounts of time and energy unreflectively attending (and reacting) to.
Religion and Anti-Religion
Religion without Revelation (1957) by Julian Huxley
The all-around best anti-organized religion book I’ve ever read – and I’ve read a lot of them in the past 30 years. Why best? Because the writing is so excellent -it’s no wonder this book is considered a classic – because the author is so sincere in acknowledging the fact that human sentiments about non-empirical phenomena are universal, and because Huxley includes his relevant personal religious experiences along with his rational arguments. Huxley’s final chapter was a bit disappointing, but all the others were completely absorbing. I’m so glad I actually own this book – not only so I can read its gorgeous prose again, but so I can easily track down several intriguing-sounding works Huxley cites in his footnotes and his bibliography.
An Atheist’s History of Belief (2014) by Matthew Kneale
An excellent, short, and entertainingly writter debunking of religious fervor. It’s refreshingly devoid of resentment-laced polemics and disdain – and larded with humor to boot! Kneale’s treatment is also unusual in that he surveys religious movements other than the usual suspects (Christianity, Judaism, and Islam). Kneale’s thesis, which he persuasively hammers home repeatedly in his wide-ranging and fascinating historical (if highly selective) romp, is that religions are founded to cope with the anxiety of specific cultural uncertainties; he shows how, again and again, charismatic prophets emerge only in times of cultural crisis, and he shows how uncannily similar their “solutions” turn out to be. (For example, almost all of them feature reactions to profound uneasiness or revulsion toward the institutions or functionaries of the religious status quo, apocalyptic visions, and the simplistic division of people into elites vs. the doomed). Because of Kneale’s breezy, engaging style, his book is the first book I’d recommend to anyone newly interested in the idea of atheism.
Bricks and Mortals: Ten Great Buildings and the People They Made (2014) by Tom Wilkinson
A wild romp of a book – and a perfect example of why I’m constantly tempted to read nonfiction instead of fiction: there are such excellent nonfiction writers being published! And if I’d passed over reading this book, I’d’ve missed all I learned from its author’s asides about (among others) Henry Ford and Richard Wagner. I especially appreciated Wilkinson’s relentless Marxist (well, at least anti-capitalist) perspective on what gets built and why, and whose interests usually get served thereby. I hope Wilkinson writes more books, as I’ll want to read them all.
Why Buildings Stand Up: The Strength of Architecture (1980; reissued 1990 and 2002) by Mario Salvadori
Understandable-by-the-layperson explanations of the numerous inescapable forces and factors (physical, environmental, and human) that constrain architects and engineers of any era, fused with engaging storiesabout some of the most famous and/or common examples of what’s been accomplished in architecture over the past several thousand years. The best book about architecture I’ve ever read, and I’ve read lots of them!
The Divine Proportion: A Study in Mathematical Beauty (1970) by H.E. Huntley
I am so glad I finally got around to reading this short (187-page) classic, which I’d seen so many references to in such widely disparate sources over my many years of reading. Although most of the equations examined (and, considering the book’s subject, they were perhaps unavoidable) are beyond my understanding, Huntley’s prose explanations of the unexpected and astonishing mathematical properties of a wide range of natural phenomena – everything from the shell of the nautilus to the petals of flowers to the differences between the notes of a musical octave – are fascinating. Huntley’s style is free of jargon, succinct, elegant, and marked by the understatement and drollery so characteristic of the best British writers. Paradoxically, Huntley can also write with charming enthusiasm about the wonders and uses of mathematics. I will probably never gaze upon a sunflower again without thinking of Huntley’s book.
Home: A Short History of an Idea (1987) by Witold Rybczynski
Although I first read this back in 2005, I was mortified to find that I didn’t remember a single word of it – which is doubly mortifying as this book is so wonderful! Every chapter is full of fascinating, engagingly told stories about how (and where) various factors embedded in our modern notions of “home” – privacy and comfort, to take only two examples – first came to be. Now I will want to re-read The Most Beautiful House in the World, another book of Rybczynski’s that I also liked (but not as much, if my faulty memory serves – which it obviously cannot be relied upon to do!). This book is a keeper, and I am glad I found a copy I could afford to buy.
What Are Gardens For? (2012) by Rory Stuart
A primer on how to fully appreciate any garden – your own or, especially, other people’s. The Britain-based Stuart – who doesn’t limit the gardens he examines to those of England, or even to9 Europe – is especially good at explaining the non-obvious aspects of why it’s so delightful to wander through a garden (and why sometimes it’s less than delightful). The author’s opinions acknowledge (with wonderful quotations) the theories of numerous other garden experts, contemporary and otherwise.
Our Gardens Ourselves: Reflections on an Ancient Art (1994) by Jennifer Bennett
It took me over a year to finish reading this book, and I needed to re-read its earlier chapters as I’d forgotten what was in them. This is a puzzlingly unlyrical (and otherwise unengaging) set of reflections, despite the author’s survey of many garden-related garden myths and scientific factoids I’d never encountered before. I wish the author had injected more extended personal opinions, and that her numerous garden-related quotations embedded throughout the text had been more compelling.
Rome and a Villa (1952) by Eleanor Clark
This is the second best guidebook to Rome I’ve ever read. (The best is H.V. Morton’s A Traveller in Rome.) Clark’s meditations on a highly selective set of particular buildings, paintings, frescoes, fountains, etc. are eccentric – and lyrical to the point of being, at times, difficult to follow. Still, Clark’s style is arresting in its images and conceits. Her book makes me want to return to Rome with a copy of it – and to definitely make a repeat pilgrimage to Hadrian’s Villa, the subject of one of the book’s longer chapters.
Slipping into Paradise: Why I Live in New Zealand (2004) by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson
A prolific author and his wife visit New Zealand and decide to stay. His book explains why, and the reasons are interesting and engagingly recounted. I’ve long wanted to travel to this remote place (the last place on the planet settled by Westerners), and Masson’s book has just ramped up my enthusiasm at trying to get there some day. One of the best things about the book is a chapter devoted to a suggested itinerary for a first-time visitor with at least two weeks to spend traveling around both islands by car. I’ll be taking along this book when I finally get there someday!
Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen (2015) by Mary Norris
You might assume that a copy editor at The New Yorker would have some interesting stories to tell, and you would be right about that. I can’t think of a book more perfectly suited to my odd interest in the vagaries of English punctuation, usage, grammar, etc. (unless it’s one of the also-humorous style guides Norris describes as having been especially helpful to her in her career). Norris is clever, funny, a great story-teller, and sensible to boot! I gobbled up her delicious book in a mere two afternoons.
Literature and Literary Criticism
The Outermost Dream: Literary Sketches (1997) by William Maxwell
My reading this year of Maxwell’s letters to and from Sylvia Townsend Warner and to and from Eudora Welty sent me back to this book of Maxwell’s essays, which I had read for the first time three years ago. Although I have never forgotten the wonderfulness of Maxwell’s novel So Long, See You Tomorrow, I had forgotten what a wonderful prose writer Maxwell was, Prediction: Both the novel and this collection of essays will stay in my home library whenever I get around to purging my books so my home library will fit onto my living room shelves.
By the Book: Writers on Literature and the Literary Life from ‘The New York Times Book Review’ (2014) edited by Pamela Paul
What-do-you-read and how-do-you-read Q’s and A’s with five dozen famous authors, most of them American. Certainly a lot of fun to read, and I easily snagged ten titles of highly recommended books for my Books Cal Wants to Read list, half of which I’d never even heard of before.
The Shelf: Adventures in Extreme Reading (2014) by Phyllis Rose
I liked this much better than Rose’s account of an earlier “reading experiment,” The Year of Reading Proust. This time, Rose committed herself to reading a randomly-selected shelf of books from a membership library in New York – the shelf having to meet certain predetermined criteria. The results are more enchanting than you might imagine, because Rose is such a curious reader – and such an engaging (and honest) writer. Rose’s forays into the nature of reading, publishing, bestsellerdom, what makes a classic, etc. are wonderful, and she makes almost all of these mostly-no-longer-read books seem worth reading!
Once Again to Zelda: The Stories Behind Literature’s Most Intriguing Dedications (2008) by Marlene Wagman-Geller
Despite the hyperbole of the book’s title, the background stories to the dedications of this idiosyncratically selective group of books are, without exception, fascinating. However I wish an editor had expunged the final paragraphs the author appended to every one of her impressively researched and impressively condensed accounts: without exception, they are the most hackneyed, treacly, inexcusably sentimental – and totally unnecessary – bits of commentary I have read in a long time.
Yours, Ever: People and Their Letters (2009) by Thomas Fallon
Easily the best of the several books I’ve read over the years that celebrate the practice of letter-writing. Surprisingly, it is also the survey of letter-writing with the least number of excerpts (especially lengthier excerpts) from the letters scrutinized. Most of the book is the author’s very lively commentary on examples of letters written in several sets of common circumstances (absence, friendship, advice, war, prison, etc.). Because Mallon’s comments are so nuanced and/or clever, I will probably be seeking out his earlier book about diary-keeping.
Here I insert my annual enthusiastic mention of the two magazines whose every issue I eagerly devour for the zillionth consecutive year – because, after all, they are the world’s two best (although very, very different) magazines, deserving of a subscription of your own if you happen to be in the market for guaranteed excellence:
“When shall I be tired of reading? When the moon is tired of waxing and waning, when the sea is tired of ebbing and flowing, when the grass is weary of growing, when the planets are tired of going.”
– Ralph Waldo Emerson
(Journals – entry for July 31, 1835)