Reading in gloriously-written books about the people, places, or activities that interest me has always been among my chief pleasures, and knowing that I’ll not being able to read more than a few thousand books in my lifetime is one of my chief regrets.
One of the unexpected ironies of being a retiree for the past few years is that even though I now have more time to devote to reading, my being a relatively older reader has resulted in my spending considerably less time reading during any single sitting! In my younger days years I could read for hours at a stretch; these days I generally find myself nodding off after a single hour.
Be that as it may, my enthusiasm for reading has never waned. And probably never will wane, judging from the length of the ever-growing list of books I hope to read.
Below are brief comments on the the 43 books I finished this past year. Not mentioned are a half-dozen other titles that I started but didn’t, for a variety of reasons, finish. Because I borrow most of the books I read from libraries, and because I’m usually reading several titles simultaneously, some books I never finish merely because I need to return them before I get around to finishing them.
Each title mentioned is listed in the order that roughly reflects how much I enjoyed it relative to the others listed within its category. Anyone who’s glanced at my earlier annual lists will note that there are no new categories: apparently I am obsessed with a very small number of intense interests, at least when it comes to book selecting!
Despite the relative narrowness of my reading (nonfiction) interests, and the decreased time I can spend reading at any single sitting, I regard myself as a very fortunate and contented reader. After decades of reading, I continue to stumble across a lot of really fascinating books (usually, via some footnote in a book I’ve previously read); I live only two miles from a nearby university library where (as an alumni) I have borrowing privileges; my local public libraries – often via Interlibrary Loan, one of the most amazing of the many services that U.S. public libraries provide – allows me to get hold of, free of charge, virtually any book I might want to read.
My only significant frustration in the Book Reading Department is my wishing that I had time, or would make time, to read more novels. I am mortified to report that this past year I only read two of them!
Body, Memory and Architecture (1977)
by Kent Bloomer and Charles Moore
Excellent, clear, concise review of how and why our houses and buildings and public spaces would be more beautiful if architects and developers would acknowledge that pleasure and inhabitability result from more complex -mostly psychological – factors than from merely visual or efficiency considerations.
Gardening & Gardeners
Farther Afield: A Gardener’s Excursions (1986) by Allen Lacy
In a Green Shade: Writings from ‘Homeground’ (2014) by Allen Lacy
These are the second and third collections of writings by Allen Lacy that I’ve read (the other is Home Ground: A Gardener’s Miscellany, which I read back in 2012). I had long thought that Henry Mitchell was my favorite garden writer, but I’ve decided Lacy now holds that title. I wholeheartedly agree with the sentiment of one of his reviewers: “Lacy’s a thoughtful, clever man, no doubt a man it would be a pleasure to know….I, for one, would be delighted to buy anything entitled Another Book by Allen Lacy.” He writes with humor and humility; his engaging prose is the opposite of stuffy or scholarly, even though Lacy is a professor of philosophy (and translator of Unamuno – something that will definitely lead to my eventually reading his introduction to that philosopher’s work). As I love garden writing even more than I love gardening, I hope Lacy never stops publishing his commentaries on our shared hobby.
In My Garden: The Garden Diaries of Great Dixter
(1994) by Christopher Lloyd
This book contains the unedited versions of a very small selection of hundreds of essays first published in the British magazine Country Life. Lloyd is a well-known gardener whose books (including either of his two previously-published collections) I somehow had never gotten around to reading; from now on I won’t hesitate to pick one up should I spot it in a book sale. Lloyd’s exquisitely-phrased sentences, his obviously deep (but humbly presented) knowledge of gardening, and his unflagging humility and sense of humor combine to make for almost effortless and extremely enjoyable reading. Ronan’s introduction is one of the best in any book on any subject I have ever read.
French Dirt: The Story of a Garden in the South of France (1991) by Richard Goodman
A very short book with very short sentences and whose 27 chapter titles are one word – usually one syllable – long. Despite the fact that I kept wondering if the author was trying to imitate Hemingway’s writing style, his enthusiasm for growing vegetables during the one precious year he and his wife spent in Provence was obvious and, considering his lack of experience, admirable. His tale certainly fed my perennial fantasy of spending a year in Provence – or, say, Tuscany or Greece.
Sissinghurst: Vita Sackville-West and the Creation of a Garden (2016) by Vita Sackville-West & Sarah Raven
Everything you ever might have wanted to know about this famous garden – not only how Vita and Harold came to own Sissinghurst and make its garden, but also Vita’s published commentary (from the gardening column she wrote for many years) about individual plants. Includes lots of photos. I am hoping to visit this garden one day, and having read this book (although skimming through the descriptions of individual plants) will certainly enhance the enjoyment I expect to find there.
Gardening for a Lifetime: How to Garden Wiser as You Grow Older (2010) by Sydney Eddison
It was wonderful to find that someone had written an entire book devoted to the obstinately unacknowledged fact that gardeners must change their ways (and their gardens) as they grow older. Each chapter tackles its subject area in a very personal, informal style, and is then followed by a bullet-pointed summary of the main practical points made. This deliberate redundancy was surprisingly useful.
The Writer in the Garden (1999)
edited by Jane Garmey
As I’ve confessed more than once, I’d rather read about gardening than do any actual garden chores, but it was being distracted by other books rather than gardening that prolonged the length of time it took me to finish this anthology. The best thing about it (besides its wonderful cover and the fact that I found it on sale at a thrift store) is that its entries are very brief, which allowed the book’s editor to include snippets from 57 different writers from different eras and countries, all of them excellent, some of them my favorite garden commentators, many of them not best known primarily for their comments on gardens, and some of them poets. The editor also includes a wide variety of subjects: practical and even about particular plants, as well as the expected – and welcome – philosophical comments on the joys of gardening.
History, Sociology, & Politics
From Dawn to Decadence:
1500 to the Present: 500 Years of
Western Cultural Life (2000)
by Jacques Barzun
If there were a single book one was allowed to take to a desert island for reading material, this one would be my choice. It took me almost a year to read this 800+-page masterpiece, but it’s certainly one of the very best books I’ve ever read. Barzun is an excellent writer, and his survey and analysis of the highlights (and byways) of Western culture puts far less emphasis than expected on wars and political figures and more emphasis on art (all of them) and on popular movements, especially those that have tended to repeat themselves. Soon I will begin reading this remarkable book again, this time with yellow highlighter in hand, hunting down the dozens and dozens of obscure-to-me authors and books Barzun mentions. And I will defintely continue my project of reading more of Barzun’s almost four dozen (!) books.
Lafayette in The Somewhat United States (2015) by Sarah Vowell
Vowell has one of the most distinctive writing styles I’ve come across, and she sustains her quirky voice throughout this fascinating tale of Lafayette’s journey to the colonies to help with their glorious revolt. This book was so entertaining and informative that I finished it in two or three days. Vowell’s research was extensive, and she uncovered a lot of fascinating tidbits about the behind-the-scenes personality conflicts that were going on among the leaders of the American Revolutionary period. I also enjoyed the way Vowell relates the conflicts and tensions of that era to today’s conflicts and tensions in the United States.
City Life: Urban Expectations in a New World (1995)
by Witold Rybczynski
Having read two previous books by W.R. (Home: A Short History of an Idea and The Most Beautiful House in the World), I reckoned this one would also be wonderful, and it was – just as chock-full of surprising historical and statistical facts as his other books, and just as down-to-earth, personal, and engaging too. The answers to the question this book addresses – why do U.S. cities and suburbs look and feel so different than the cities and suburbs of Europe? – are more complex – and more interesting, than you’d imagine. A great read, despite the fact that his analysis is now already twenty years old.
And Yet… Essays (2015)
by Christopher Hitchens
A collection of previously uncollected articles (mostly book reviews, mostly from Vanity Fair or The Atlantic), these writings reaffirmed my opinion of Hitchens as one of the most readable polemicists of our time – and one of the most erudite as well. His premature death in 2011 was a great loss for truth-loving literate people everywhere. Fortunately, Hitchens was prolific (there are five previous collections of his essays alone, and this one has forty-eight of them), so there are many reading pleasures ahead of me as I gradually work my way through all of Hitchens’ writings. Among the unexpected excellencies of this collection is an essay about Clive James (whose own essays I’ve recently read two collections of) and a masterful discussion of George Orwell and G.K. Chesterton, two other British-born essayists whose work I worship.
Junk: Digging Through America’s Love Affair with Stuff (2016)
by Alison Stewart
An unexpectedly lively book, especially since it covers so much ground: interrviews with people who capitalized on the U.S. craze for buying stuff and not knowing how (or being unwilling) to get rid of it. Stewart’s interviews reveal the fascinating experiences and reflections of junk haul-awayers, owners of storage facilities, thrift store operators, participants in “the 100-mile garage sale,” pawn brokers, container store establishers, etc. – all leavened with non-preachy but sobering statistics and the interesting commentary of psychologists.
Hidden Rhythms: Schedules and Calendars in Social Life (1981)
by Eviatar Zerubavel
The psychological aspects of time have long been a recurring topic in my reading choices, but this sociological analysis of the way time is used to regulate human activities and accessibility was very interesting. (Probably especially so from the viewpoint of a reader who has recently retired from The World of Rigid Schedules.) Especially informative: the author’s sections on the invention and ramifications (for Orthodox Jews and others) of the invention of the Sabbath, the role of Christian monasteries in spreading the advantages of clock time, the French Revolutionaries’ attempt to reform the Gregorian calendar, and the invention of the notion (in the West) of “private time.” Unfortunately – because perhaps the author’s native language may not be English? – the author’s writing style is maddeningly repetitive (wish I had a nickel for every “in other words” he uses, either explicity or otherwise), frequently marred by tautological logic, and full of cliches (more wished-for nickels for every annoying instance of the phrase “within this context”). Still, I will never think about time and the pros and cons of schedules the same way again after reading this book.
Psychology & Philosophy
Travels with Epicurus: A Journey to a Greek Island in Search of a Fulfilled Life (2012)
by Daniel Klein
A writer in his late seventies returns to the Greek island of Hydra to clarify his ideas of how best to grow old. Written in an almost diary-like format, the writing style is Informal, humble, courageous, and personal writing style. The book is a short one (only 150 pages); and it is studded with some never-seen-before quotations from some of my favorite philosophers and psychologists (Kierkegaard, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Sartre, Camus, Bertrand Russell, William James, Eric Erikson). A real pleasure to read, and it touches on many of my own preoccupations, including how we experience time and what the wise men and women of the past have to say about the nature and pursuit of happiness.
The Meaning of Human Existence (2014)
by Edward O. Wilson
I picked up this book because Wilson (winner of two Pulitzer Prizes) once wrote one of the most memorable sentences I’ve ever read. This book was interesting enough to finish, but I think I expected too much, given the title. I found Wilson’s chapter on religion the most interesting (although the least surprising), and his chapter on pheromones the next most interesting (and information totally new to me).
On Poetic Imagination and Reverie: Selections from Gaston Bachelard (1987) translated from the French (with a preface and introduction) by Colette Gaudin
Because I loved Bachelard’s Poetics of Space so much (enough to buy me and my friend Harvey copies to keep), I was really looking forward to this selection from his other writings. Alas, Monsieur Bachelard is rough going – too often so abstract (in that idiosyncratically French sort of way) – that I had to skip whole sections of this book. He was obviously a genius, but I found the translator’s introduction a lot easier to understand than Bachelard himself. But The Poetics of Space I will continue to treasure, and will re-read some day.
Practicing Death (2016) by Dennis Van Avery
Reflections on, among other things, the importance of finding community, of enjoying life’s minor ephiphanies and joys, and non-attachment. This 60-page book was self-published shortly before Dennis’s death this summer. Dennis was a recent acquaintance and his book reminds me of his gentle demeanor and wisdom.
How to Talk about Places You’ve Never Been (2016) by Pierre Bayard
I fought my way through this book, hoping that Bayard would eventually have something interesting to say, but that never happened – and I don’t think it was due to the book’s being translated from its original French version. I felt the same way about a previous book Bayard wrote about a similar theme (How to Talk About the Books You Haven’t Read). I won’t be reading any more of Bayard’s books.
A Calendar of Wisdom: Daily Thoughts …Written and Selected from the World’s Sacred Texts (3rd ed., 1910; 1997 ed. translated by Peter Sekirin) by Leo Tolstoy
Tolstoy’s final book, and the one he (in my opinion, mistakenly) considered his most important. I did glean a couple dozen quotations from the wrtitings of the sages of the past that Tolstoy includes in his collection, but Tolstoy’s commentary (and his own pearls of wisdom) are excessively Christianity-centered (so many Gospel verses!) and didactic. Disappointing.
Religion & Anti-Religion
How Jesus Became God:
The Exaltation of a Jewish Preacher from Galilee (2014)
by Bart D. Ehrman
Although the author’s tone is engaging instead of scholarly, this is not Ehrman’s most readable book – for one thing, his others are far less repetitious. Still, this one may be the most single most important/profound of the many books Ehrman’s published – and I’m pretty sure I’ve read them all. A necessary (if rather belabored) documentation of the (rocky) history of the basically incomprehensible Christian notion of the Trinity.
The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible (2013) annotated by Steve Wells
I wish this book had been published – and that I had been allowed to read it – back in the early 1960s, when I was a teenager forced to listen to Bible-quoting (and Bible-censoring) preachers until I left for college in 1966. I didn’t actually read the 1,600+-page Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, as that project would require reading every verse of the King James Bible plus Wells’ sidebar annotations – a project that would take years to accomplish, and more stamina for Biblical nonsense than I possess. What I think is probably more valuable for anyone who can’t bear the thought of plowing through the KJV again (or even for the first time) is reading Wells’ short introductions to each Bible book plus skimming his two appendices: a 31-page list of 471 Biblical contradictions and a 135-item list of citations of verses describing “God’s Killings in the Bible.” For me, the biggest irony in my getting hold of Wells’ book is realizing how much those Baptist preachers in my past left out of their weekly Bible-quoting. The descriptions of favorably-presented cruelty, misogeny, homophobia, logical absurdities and scientific blunders that those preachers left out of their somber readings or shrill rantings of Holy Scripture are more numerous and more damning than I had imagined. I wish a copy of Wells’ book were deposited alongside all those Gideon Bibles one still finds in hotel rooms, and was given to each church-going teenager before she is brow-beaten into A.C.A.H.P.S. (Accepting Christ As Her Personal Savior). A lot of confusing nonsense and harm-producing Bibliolatry might be averted thereby. In the meantime, every thinking human of any age would benefit from even a highly selective reading of the “revelations” Wells’ annotations provide. Incidentally (and astonishingly), the entire text of the $36 printed version The Skeptic’s Annotated Bible, is available for free on the Internet!
Literature, Literary Criticism & Other Bookish Delights
Alphabetical: How Every Letter Tells a Story (2015)
by Michael Rosen
Possibly the most all-around enjoyable book I’ve read this year. Definitely one of the most carefully researched – but buoyantly written – books I’ve read this year. This aside-filled romp through the history of the English alphabet is every calligrapher’s, Scrabble-player’s, and word-lover’s dream book. The fact that I discovered it while idly browsing the shelves of the newest bookstore in my city is a bit unnerving, but I am not complaining. I just wish Rosen had more than 26 symbols to write about in his diverting and informative way; I especially enjoyed the way he was able to tie so many stories about the history of letters to his personal reading experiences as a child. This book reinforces and to some extent explains how someone can actually come to love the alphabet and anything connected to it.
Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, & Living with Books (2015)
by Michael Dirda
Dirda’s collection of fifty columns originally published in The American Scholar is my favorite so far of Dirda’s many books. His enthusiasm for all things bookish is infectious, and his style is refreshingly non-scholarly and generous and hilariously self-deprecating. Dirda is also quite persuasive: I’ve garnered from Browsings seventeen (!) additional Dirda-recommended items for my list of Books Cal Wants to Read. Dirda’s musings on the life of a modern bibliophile were are a pure joy to read. (If Dirda wasn’t already married, I’d be tempted to propose that he marry me.)
The Year of Reading Dangerously: How Fifty Great Books (and Two Not-so-Great Ones) Saved My Life (2014)
by Andy Miller
Better in its way than the equally wonderful Browsings by Michael Dirda, which I finished shortly before obtaining this book-about-books. Why better? Well, the Britishness of the author automatically makes his prose funnier. But the autobiographical content wedged into the descriptions of the books under discussion made the experience of reading Dangerously even more fund to read than Broswings more serious, less autobiographical treatment. If I could write like Miller, I would write books instead of (well, in addition to) reading them!
As of This Writing: The Essential Essays, 1968-2002 (2003) by Clive James
Latest Readings(2015) by Clive James
These two collections of literary criticism and book and film reviews are some of the best, and best-written, I’ve ever read. James is an Australian who lives in Britain. His witty (but not over-clever) conversational writing style and his generosity toward authors or works he finds flawed or otherwise unappealing is unusual and refreshing. For the sheer enjoyment of his down-to-earth, often humorous commentary, I will seek out any further books by James, and intend to read his other previous collections.Meanwhile, I am learning a lot about about Australian poets – a subject that I have zero interest in, but love reading about when it’s James writing about them.
This Thing We Call Literature (2016)
by Arthur Krystal
After a lifetime of wondering myself about some of the questions addressed by Krystal, it was a revelation to read Krystal’s collection of essays, most of which originally appeared in either the Chronicle of Higher Education or the New Yorker, and most of which discuss (from various angles), the differences between good writing and great – i.e., enduring – writing. Krystal is an excellent stylist; his arguments are very persuasive to this reader, who hadn’t realized what a “traditionalist” reader I apparently am! Krystal’s essays make me unashamed of that fact. I learned so much from this book that I re-read much of it (including his excellent essay on good vs. great poetry) before returning my copy to the library.
The Battle of the Books: History and Literature
in the Augustan Age (1991)
by Joseph M. Levine
The “battle” had to do with the question of whether or not the ancient Greek and Roman writers could be surpassed – in excellence of style and/or in wisdom – by any subsequent generations of poets, historians and dramatists. The various factions weighing in on this question felt at lot was at stake – for one thing, the answer would determine the curriculum of a college education, and could have a bearing on how statesmen and others in the aristocracy are trained; for another thing, the answer had ramifications for the writing and evaluation of all post-classical history, poetry, and drama -even determine beliefs about the limits of human nature and potential. I loved this book, although I can’t imagine who else might love it – its subject is just too arcane, the nuances of the obscure story are gone into in way too much detail, and the level of meticulous scholarship is almost too much to endure – reading even half the authors’ hundreds of footnotes would take many, many, many hours of a reader’s precious time. But the writing is lively, and the pettiness and infighting among the uber-articulate, uber-privileged British scholarly elite that Levine recounts in his sprawling story – he takes in not only the British opinion on the main debate, but French and German opinion as well – is quite marvelous for a certain type of reader (like moi).
The Golden Thread: The Story of Writing (2013) by Ewan Clayton
Not a history for the faint of heart: there is so much detail, especially with regard to pre-modern eras, that I almost gave up on finishing it. Also, the author included far too few illustrations (only 64 of them throughout 358 pages of densely-written text and analysis of particular documents, and, too often, no illustrations when one would’ve really helped). But I’m glad I did finish this book, as the final fifth of it was so interesting and informative, and as the book’s last chapter (“The Material Artefact”) is – for this amateur calligrapher, anyway – so beautifully and so lyrically written. Clayton’s scholarship as reflected in his lengthy bibliography is astonishingly thorough, and the final section of his bibliography (“Current Practice in Handwriting, Calligraphy and Lettering”) would be very useful in an inventory of the library maintained by the local calligraphy I’m a member of.
Samuel Johnson and The Life of Reading (1997) by Robert DeMaria, Jr.
DeMaria calls his book an “extended essay,” but the level of detail given to expounding DeMaria’s underlying premise (that there are four kinds of reading, and that Johnson practiced all four of them) made reading the book feel like reading a dissertation. I had to force myself to finish it. This despite the author’s obvious insights, erudition, humility, and sense of humor. If the subject had been anyone’s reading other than Johnson’s, I wouldn’t have even started it. But DeMaria’s book has re-confirmed my awe at Johnson’s intelligence, and reignited my resolve to read more of what Johnson himself wrote.
Biography & Memoir
Meanwhile, There are Letters: The Correspondence of Eudora Welty and Ross Macdonald (2015)
edited by Suzanne Marrs &Tom Nolan
I continue to be enthralled with reading letters exchanged between writers, and this collection, which spans only a decade but contains hundreds of fascinating letters, is the saga of one of the most heartwarming literary friendships I’ve come across, as Welty and Macdonald were such amazing supports for each other’s writing. Based on what Macdonald has to say about it, I definitely now need to find some of Welty’s fiction – possibly starting with a re-reading of her story “Why I Live at the P.O.” but maybe trying out one of her novels as well.
The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (2015) by Andrea Wulf
An incredibly interesting guy, this Alexander Humboldt. So I’m glad to have read about him and glad the author wrote this book about him. However, the last third of the book, devoted to Humboldt’s “successors” (like John Muir), I lost interest in reading about, so I did not finish this book. I understand that many individuals followed in Humboldt’s footsteps as ecology pioneers, but when Humboldt disappeared from the story, I instantly – and rather surprisingly – lost interest in it.
Bettyville: A Memoir (2014) by George Hodgman
Forty-something gay man leaves his editing job in New York City to take care of his ailing (and communication-challenged) mom in the tiny town in Missouri where he grew up. A well-told tale of caregiving in the teeth of the mother’s progressive dementia and her lifetime of denial of her only child’s being gay. Heartbreaking, poignant, funny, sobering, and full of loving, moving descriptions of a way of life that has largely vanished, but that formed the perspectives of both mother and son.
Dreamthorp: A Book of Essays Written in the Country (1905) by Alexander Smith [1830-1867]
Seldom have I been more sorry to have finished a book – or been as glad that such a book exists! There are only twelve essays in this now-over-a-hundred-years-old book, but every one of the essays is as engagingly written as anything you’ll ever read. The titles of the essays are almost irrelevant; even the least interesting-sounding ones end up being glorious, as Smith – like his heroes Bacon and Montaigne – is likely to spend many pages meandering off his purported subject. The delight I found in this previously-unknown-to-me collection was great enough for me to resolve to buy myself a modern copy (my conscience won’t allow me to steal the library’s antique edition). And because it’s in the public domain, the text of Dreamthorp is available on the Internet, which made it much easier for me to copy-and-paste numerous passages into my Commonplace Book. Incidentally, Dreamthorp is Smith’s fictional name for the Scottish town of Linlithgow, which (along with Smith’s grave in a cemetery in nearby Edinburgh) is now on my list of Hoped-For Literary Pilgrimages.
Distant Neighbors: The Selected Letters of Wendell Berry and Gary Snyder (2014)
Most collections of letters I’ve read (and the letters of writers have long been one of my favorite types of books to read) are written by writers who’ve died (many of them British, rather than Americans). Not so with this collection, which spans a correspondence that began in 1973 and is doubtless still going on, with the latest letter reproduced here written in 2013. Each of these two articulate writers has lived an unusual and inspiring life; the topics they write to each other about (and sometimes disagree about) make me glad to be part of their generation. Now more than ever I am resolved to eventually track down and read every scrap of Berry’s nonfiction writing. It was a joy and privilege to read these letters: so much so that I started and finished this book in a matter of days. I hope there are many more letters between these two thoughtful, erudite, and humble homesteading writers, and that those letters will also one day be published. Snyder and Berry are national living treasures, each of them devoted to the very different regions of the planet they have cultivated through long and thoughtful lives.
A Heaven of Words: Last Journals, 1956-1984 (2013) by Glenway Wescott
Another intriguing installment of the trove of biographical material produced by a circle of Manhattan-based American gay artists, writers, photographers, playwrights, etc. (and their Continental friends and lovers) that rivals the scope and interested of the biographical materials that the “Bloomsberries” generated from and about their nearly-contemporaneous lives in England. I will next need to track down Wescott’s earlier journals (Continual Lessons: 1937-1955) and Wescott’s novels. A “heaven of words” indeed.
Time Enough (1974)
by Emily Kimbrough
I re-read this hilarious account of a group of friends’ boat trip down Ireland’s Shannon River in preparation for an almost identical trip I’m planning with several of my own friends for later this year. What a treat, re-reading this book! Kimbrough is skillful at vividly capturing the telling detail that make each of her characters (i.e., her friends and their respective foibles, as well as her own), as well as their harmless but charming adventures, come alive. You feel like you’re right there with them on their rented (and fully – and interestingly – staffed) boat, and happy to be there. Anyone reading Kimbrough’s account will risk feeling compelled to book a boat in Ireland. It was my first reading of this book that triggered my own subsequent quest to successfully enlist some of my own friends to float down the waterways of three different countries (England, France, and – finally – Ireland).
The Pursuit of Reason: The Life of Thomas Jefferson (1987)
by Noble Cunningham, Jr.
A competent, one-volume biography – and a perfect review of any other biographies one might have read before but (like I had) forgotten the details of. One of the most astonishing parts, especially during this rancorous election year, was rediscovering how early on the vicious factionalism in U.S. politics began.
Fifty Days of Solitude (1994) by Doris Grumbach
I wanted this to be better than it was. There are some lovely reflections (such as the one on the different varieties of silence), but this book seemed too often like a writing excercise or a set of miscellaneous remarks than a significant contribution to the literature of solitude.
A Year by the Sea:
Thoughts of an Unfinished Woman (1999)
by Joan Anderson
Having read Anderson’s second book several years ago without realizing she’d already written this one, I’m glad I ran across this copy in a thrift store yesterday. (Yes, dear reader, I read this book in a single day.) I think it’s better than her second book – another memoir mining the same period of her life on Cape Cod. Anderson compellingly sets down in non-self-congratulatory prose the emotional roller-coaster ride of her Year of Living Solo. Similar in its pur-pose to two books by Alice Koeller that I read years ago – An Unknown Woman: A Journey to Self-Discovery (1981) and The Stations of Solitude (1990), which Iiked better than either of Anderson’s books.
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1890) by Oscar Wilde
Despite all the books about Oscar Wilde I’ve read over the years, I’d never gotten around to reading his novel. Several years ago at OutWrite Bookstore’s closing sale, I bought Nicholas Frankel’s illustrated, annotated, uncensored (and coffee-table-size) edition, and this week I finally read it. Reading It took a while, as the numerous footnotes amount to an additional book themselves. Mostly, I am amazed at how absurdly repressed and class-conscious Wilde’s Victorian contemporaries were, which resulted in – among other things, including Wilde’s arrest, trial, and imprisonment – so much “coding” of sexual matters into the text of Dorian. I was also surprised at how many of Oscar’s famous maxims derive from (or were imported into) his novel. Frankel’s delineation through his footnotes of the underpinnings of the novel’s plot and characters to Wilde’s life and world (as well as his meticulous history of the novel’s career) was, for me, far more interesting than the novel’s rather florid story, characters, and writing style.
All the Light We Cannot See (2014) by Anthony Doerr
I became a fan of Doerr’s when, a few years ago, I read his memoir Four Seasons in Rome. Although I’ve not read his previous novels, All the Light is indisputably a memorable book, even a page turner. As I usually do with novels that jump back-and-forth between different time periods and alternate between different characters’ points of view, I found this structure to be somewhat annoying, but I can see why Doerr took this route to tell this particular story. The cruelties and violence and desolation of war (specifically, World War II) that Doerr describes were certainly vivid, and, as intended, very distressing. (This book could should earn a spot on anyone’s list of anti-war novels.) Doerr’s imagery is often arresting, which helped pull met through the author’s portrayals of his characters’ anxiety and deprivation and the backdrop of ubiquitous, arbitrary deaths that more than once tempted me to put aside this heartbreaking novel. I’m in a book club that’s discussing this novel soon, and look forward to how other readers responded to this absorbing book.
I would be remiss if I were not to insert here an enthusiastic recommendation of the two magazines whose every issue I’ve eagerly devoured for the zillionth consecutive year. 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:
If any of my reading-loving acquaintances out there have kept track of what you’ve read this past year, I would love to see your list! Feel free to email it to me at email@example.com