Happy New Year!
A blue 3″x5″ notebook sits on my nightstand. It contains a list of every new book I’ve read since January 1st, 2003 – Junior year of high school. Books I’m re-reading, skimming, or reading only in part don’t count. At the end of each year I write a “Books in Review” summary listing a few reading highlights and disappointments from the last twelve months. The list reflects real life and the amount of free time I can pull together. Some years I plow through 80 books. Some years a measly 26. Regardless, I want to remember a few and think a bit about the overall scheme of each year’s reading. It’s time for the 2010 Books in Review essay. Unfortunately, I’m here in the Midwest, and the little blue notebook is still on the nightstand 900 miles away. I can’t write my usual New Year’s book post today. Instead, I’m posting 2009 notes I wrote but never published. At this time last year I wasn’t blogging, so I scribbled down a 2009 review for my own records but never revised or published it. In a week or two I’ll follow up with the 2010 notes.
2009 Books in Review – Unedited, forgive the writing
After getting married in January 2009, we gradually settled into a new routine. Life calmed down (relatively speaking) and we took a few vacations and long weekends with time to just sit quietly and dive into good books. I read a lot more books recommended by friends than usual, with mixed results. Another thing that shaped the year’s reading was sharing old favorites with my new husband. Books I only partially read or re-read do not make it onto this “new books” list, but it was a blast rediscovering them and sharing them together. This year’s tally: an even 40 new books complete.
The best 2009 reading came from an unexpected source – my parents’ shoe repairman. While dropping off some old shoes in need of a little TLC, Mom mentioned that her daughter was getting married. The repairman dug under his shop counter and handed her two books as a gift to us: For Men Only and For Women Only by the Feldhahns. We both read both books on our honeymoon, and they contained page after page of some of the most valuable advice we’ve received on marriage. We highly recommend them to any couple, whether planning for marriage, newlyweds, or married 20 years. Just ask my parents. They’re coming up on 30 years in a great, loving marriage, but even they are reading the books and learning one new thing after another. These books are head and shoulders above any other books we read on marriage in preparation or pre-marital counseling for practical advice. I’d look elsewhere for in-depth books on the theology of marriage, but these books are full of valuable advice, new ideas, and good reminders for anybody in a relationship or thinking about them, no matter the age. We both re-skim them yearly.
The rest of the books can be divided into “You must read this”, “Pretty good – I’m glad I read it once”, “Okay”, and “Awful”.
First, a handful of “You must read this” favorites from the year.
- The Pickwick Papers by Charles Dickens. I rarely enjoy Dickens’ works. But one, A Tale of Two Cities has been my favorite since I read it years ago, and The Pickwick Papers just joined that class. It carries you along on the journeys of a few gentlemen crisscrossing England with humor, gentleness, apt portraits, and great characters.
- My husband read John Milton’s great classic Paradise Lost on our honeymoon and looked up every so often to read me favorite passages. On his prompting I finally picked it up and finished it after 6 years of false starts. Gorgeous, moving, expansive, intimate, laced with awe at the works of God.
- Moving from Paradise and poetry to calculations, facts, and the market, Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner was a fast and thoroughly satisfying read. It’s engaging and clever, light enough for a lazy weekend and readers who’ve never taken econ, but extra fun if you have.
- Rosemary Sutcliffes’ novels on early Britain and the Roman occupation were beloved by our family growing up – my mother read them out loud to us, and we read them over and over again on our own. This year I introduced my husband to Sutcliffes books, and in the process discovered that there are dozens I’ve never read. A new favorite is Frontier Wolf. Set toward the very end of Rome’s occupation in Britain, it follows the adventures of a disgraced Army officer sent to work on the frontier. Sutcliffe can write like few others you’ll ever seen. What happens to her characters, you can feel, from the heat of a stove to the taste of their hot oatcakes dipped in honey to a stinging snowstorm filled with the shadowy forms of wolves. My mom read her books out loud with good reason – when I read Sutcliffe I find my lips moving.
- I’d always assumed that The Life of Pi by Yan Martel was based on a fictional world of geometry like Flatland. Instead it was rip-roaring good read for Christmas vacation – the preposterous but gripping story of Pi who grows up in his family’s zoo in India, attempts to immigrate to Canada, is ship-wrecked, and spends most of the year adrift in a lifeboat uncomfortably shared with a full-grown Bengal tiger. The religious bits were a bit smarmy, but overall I loved it.
- The “You must read” list is rounded out by a book from another author I usually despise – Joseph Conrad. Typhoon is about exactly what it sounds like – a boat caught for a few days in a typhoon. Short. Well-written. Good.
There are always a few books I did not enjoy. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re terrible, just not my style.
- Lord Jim by Joseph Conrad. One of the Conrads I don’t particularly like (see above). Oh well.
- The Stranger by Albert Camus falls solidly into the well-written, depressing modern literature school. If you like that genre, you’ll love it. If you’re me, you won’t.
- I’d seen City of Thieves by David Benioff lying around bookstores and finally picked it up this spring. The plot is interesting and creative. However, set during the Nazi siege of Leningrad, it also contained numerous brutal details that literally made me nauseous when I read the book. I suppose that would argue for vivid writing, but I cannot in good faith direct you to a book that made me want to puke.
- A Room with a View by E.M. Forster is, of course, famous. It just didn’t interest me.
- The only book on this list that I would strongly argue against is The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. The topic is a harsh one, but my argument is not with that. I just feel that Morrison is overrated as an author – one of the type who does some creative literary thing just so she can point at it and say “see, look! how creative I’ve been. And so literary!” I very much dislike being prodded into my chair by an author and then being forced to watch them strut back and forth on stage in front of me. I want to see the story, and forget about the author/actor.
A few from the “Books I enjoyed” class:
- The Kite Runner (you’ve probably seen reviews, so no commentary).
- Persuasion by Jane Austen (there are several great movie versions as well).
- T.H. White’s five book retelling of the legends of King Arthur (I’ve finished the first three so far – short and lots of fun).
- Treason’s Harbour by Patrick O’Brien (from The Master and Commander series)
- Out of Africa by Isak Dinesen (wordy but poetic, and since visiting there I love books based in Kenya/Africa).
- We Took to the Woods by Louise Dickinson Rich – a fun rambling look at life in backwoods Maine. Rich wrote one of my favorite childhood novels about, surprise, a guide in backwoods Maine pulled in bits and pieces from her real life.
- Rock Crystal by Adalbert Stifter (Stifter isn’t that well known in the U.S. – I learned of him from my Stifter-addict husband and his father).
- Nectar in a Sieve by Kamala Markandaya.
- The Small House at Allington by Anthony Trollope isn’t as good as some of the other chronicles of Barsetshire, but how can you not enjoy Trollope?
And finally, from the category of good books I should/could have enjoyed more, but didn’t.
- Don Quixote and The Brothers Karamazov. Both classics with good reason. Both books I enjoyed parts of enormously. Both depth-charged by unending wordiness that made me wonder when this chapter would ever be over. Extreme wordiness annoys me, probably because it’s the number one fault I struggle with in writing. So, personally, I have a hard time enjoying an author that spews hordes of words out on a page. Probably more my fault than the authors, but there you have it.
- Wind, Sand, and Stars by Antoine de Saint Exupery – same issue.
- Embers by Sandor Marai – same issue.
- When I picked up Shusaku Endo’s book The Samurai, I had no idea what to expect. Once I started, I expected it to be a bitter anti-western rant. In fact, it was a beautiful, spare story, the unexpected journey of a samurai from Japan, through Mexico, to Europe and back, that follows a halting an unexpected spiritual journey toward Christ along the way. What sabotaged it, unfortunately, was the translation – just awkward and and stilted enough to not read smoothly in English.
- The Secret Life of Bees…meh. Some very nice bits, but I have trouble getting overwhelmingly into the story of a girl discovering female power through a group of women who worship a Mary statue figure that they smear with honey….
- The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne.From the way it started I expected something more exciting. Frankly? It’s boring.
- The Pilgrims Regress by C.S. Lewis introduced me to a shocking new concept – a C.S. Lewis book I don’t really like. It was written when he was younger, and self-absorbed. It certainly has some good stuff, because with a mind like his it’d be hard to produce anything else, but it’s way below his later work. The great thing is, he grew out of it, and every other one of his books is worth reading, and re-reading, and re-re-reading.
A final note on a touchy one. Twilight. One half of America will demand to know why I read it. The other half will demand to know why I didn’t love it. Multiple coworkers raved to me about how it was the best book they’d ever read and their new favorite, and then one loaned me her copy and I tried it. For the record, I don’t have much of an issue with a book about vampires. The story is fast-paced and cinematic, written with sharp short scenes. Our newer generations of writers learned their pacing from the standard 90 minute action movie fodder of our age. It pulls you along, it’s engaging. However, and here’s the big point 1) it’s not that well written, 2) the main character is a self-obsessed, whiney, rude teenager and listening to her gets really old. It was a pretty fun fast read, but I have yet to figure out why people adore it and Edward the hunky vampire and his endlessly smoldering eyes. *smolder* *smolder* *smooollldeeerrr*. Interesting fact – while vacationing in Washington State in Spring 2009 my husband and I drove through Forks, the town where the book is set, on our way to Olympic National Park. The strangest thing is that nowhere in Bellas completely endless whining about having to live in Forks does she mention what kind of a setting it is – the white-capped Olympic mountain range rearing out of the town’s backyard, with pine-covered forest, surrounded by National Park, and ten miles up the road from incredible cliff-backed pacific beaches. . Stop whining and open your eyes please Bella. On the bright side, Twilight has done great things for a tiny, struggling little town with no remaining industries.
That’s it for my old Books 2009 post. 2010 coming up soon.