Monday, December 29, 2014

The Year in Reading 2014

I read 50 fewer books than last year, which wasn't all that surprising to me.  I felt like my reading sputtered quite a bit this year, with many false starts. I picked up and threw down more books this year than I have in the past. 

I'm not going to count picture books in this "year of reading" even though I read quite a few.  This will just be fiction and nonfiction for adults that I gave either 4 or 5 stars to.

The first great book I read in 2014 was a re-read actually:  Neil Gaiman's Stardust.  In my quest to read and re-read the works of Gaiman in rough chronological order, Stardust would have been second, after Neverwhere which I read in 2013 (for some reason, I skipped Good Omens,  an omission in need to quickly fix; I don't think I've ever read it more than once, this being at least twenty five years ago,  and it's by two of my favorite authors).  Here is what I said about Stardust almost a year ago:

There is absolutely nothing wrong with this novel. In fact, this is certainly the most charming and sweet Neil Gaiman book I've ever read, and that's said with some pretty bloody scenes still fresh in my memory. The plot is pure Victorian fairy story (think Oscar Wilde or George MacDonald or The Little Lame Prince), but Stardust also exists one country over from Narnia as well (a very adult country), certainly in narrator (E. Nesbit, C.S. Lewis's fairy godmother, is also hiding in here too). The kind of fantasy reader who like long, drawn out, sexually charged bloody political thrillers disguised as fantasy, should probably stay away. But if your reading history is broad and you like fairy and folk tales, you are going to enjoy this romantic ride. There are several occasions, too, where the writing absolutely soars into beautiful territory.

In February 2014, I read Into the Beautiful North by Luis Alberto Urrea.  It was the first book I read last year that I couldn’t put down; it was also surprising to me that I liked it so much.  The gay character, Tacho, is what I primarily remember about the book.  He still a fictional crush of mine.  Here’s my review:

This is an incredible novel, with an animated plot and memorable characters that will stick with you long after you turn the last page. Urrea uses The Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai as a mold of sorts, but if anything it's an old-fashioned mid-century jello mold, where he mixes all sorts of strange fruits and meats into the lime green wonderfulness to create something unusual and beautiful. He flips gender on it head and pokes holes in stereotypical Mexican machismo (our heroes are a kick-ass girl and a hot, tough gay guy). He compares and contrasts American culture and Mexican culture and Mexican American culture. Nothing is simple here - the black hats aren't necessarily the bad guys - or maybe they just aren't the worst guys. And the good guys have sharp edges with shadows - their hats are really gray (but don't we all wear gray hats). Nayeli, our heroine, has two guys in her life who will do anything for her, and quite frankly both of them steal whatever scenes they are in. They are completely original characters. Tacho, a sassy, mature-before-his-time gay guy in a small village who has become tough - but underneath the bitchery lies love and heroics; and romantic, sloppy modern day ronin Atómico, who lives in a dump and wields a sword for love and freedom. I can't decide who I ended up being in love with more. I wept at the end of this book; which to me, is the ultimate sign of greatness - but I laughed too. This isn't a downer; it's clever and humorous and really fun.

In February, I also read Habits of the House by Fay Weldon.  I called it trash, but really, it’s costume jewelry.  The kind no one wears anymore, but you wish they would.  I still remember it being delicious; the first book anyway; the others weren’t nearly as good. 

Is this trash? Probably so. I can't think of much redeeming value here. It will most likely slip through my brain like water through a sieve, leaving not much behind. But it was an incredibly enjoyable few hours of reading, and that says something. Hurray for trash!Judith Krantz and John Jakes and Jackie Collins visit Downton Abbey; Habits of the House is injected with historical sex and scandal. As a novel, Habits of the House is simply written, with short, punchy sentences. The characters are like little prizes in the Christmas cake; as you eat your way through the deliciousness, you keep finding new characters to read about. No one is quite despicable enough to hate - or quite likable enough to sympathize with. Everyone is a hero, and everyone is sort of a douchebag. The descriptions of clothes and parties and food and the lives of servants are terrifically fun. The Prince of Wales is a bloated, lecherous pig who controls every bit of society - which is probably how it really was, both despised and courted (like all princes). Weldon adds historical touches and figures as sort of icing, to add some credibility to the story, as all good historical fiction writers do. I'm sure you've read historical fiction where the cardboard characters march out onto the page one after the other. Weldon, however, doesn't do this to us. Weldon adds enough flavor and verve, vim and vigor to make this a really rollicking romp!

In March, I read Below Stairs by Margaret Powell.  I had to think a little about this one and why I liked it so much.  But it all slowly seeped back into my brain, and I remember liking it very much:

Margaret Powell was a strong, sassy, independent woman, in a job that definitely didn't require that, and in a time period when strong women of a certain class were regarded with suspicion. Her story is more interesting, quite frankly, than the current exploits of the Downton servants to whom she is compared on the front cover. She's frank about many things in the book - the perils of sexually active women in the early twentieth century (a baby spelled doom for a kitchen maid), trying to find a boyfriend when you worked all the time, the odious class distinctions that kept Them permanently suspicious and afraid of Margaret and her fellow servants. But the book isn't some sort of Communist screed; Powell is quite funny describing her life. She's also really an admirable character, who apparently could talk her way into any job. She really set her own path, and some of the Downton servants could learn a play or two from her playbook. (less)

Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel – I came late to this party, but I’m sure glad I came.  So, so, so meaty.

This book was like being drowned in maple syrup; it oozes into every pore and opening, slowly but surely, and once you get over the initial shock you just sink into it.  This is not an easy read; it's dense and dark,and the point of view is quite odd.  Thomas Cromwell is the Third Person Limited, and is almost always referred to as simply He.  That makes sense if you think about the world of the Tudor court at this time; there were only two "He"s,and when you said "He" everyone knew you meant one of two people:  the King, or Thomas Cromwell.  You might have thought that the Tudor tree was all out of sap; after all writers have been writing about the Tudors for six hundred years, from Shakespeare to The Other Boleyn Girl.  But brilliant Hilary Mantel found a way to write a remarkable, interesting novel with fully realized characters.  The plot was lived out six centuries ago, but she injected new life into through the eyes and ears and brain of Cromwell, our flawed hero.  I'm almost afraid to move on to the second book in the trilogy, because I can't imagine it being any better than this one. 

A couple of months later, I listened to Bring Up the Bodies, and found the experience both completely different and utterly spell binding.

If reading Wolf Hall was an bewildering and extraordinary accomplishment, listening toBring Up the Bodies was akin to a sacred experience, literarily speaking. Intimate, incredible; Mantel's prose is electric, deep, rich; Simon Vance's narration was nigh on perfect, and made the (really, quite familiar) story riveting. Cromwell has been dead over 500 years; yet Mantel (and Vance channeling her) allows you to slip over him like some sort of ectoplasmic spirit from the future, a mouse in his pocket with ESP, hearing his thoughts, seeing through his eyes, yet also kenning the experience from above and beyond time. Mantel's historical fiction isn't that of the right armor, the right food, the right language (I don't remember a single thee or thou). Rather, Mantel's interest is aimed at historical accuracy regarding power and its corruptible force; women and their role in a male dominated society; politics in a time when making the wrong political choice didn't mean losing an election or the jaunt through the political wilderness, it meant losing your life. At its heart, always, this story, and its many interpretations and renditions, at this point almost a folk story, is about the power and powerlessness of women in Tudor society, a story that culminates with the story of Queen Elizabeth I herself. When you think the Tudor tale is told out, along comes Mantel to inject new life. The Tudor tale will probably always be this way; its a story that will never grow old.

In late March, I read A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki.  It came under recommendation from my boss; I often have trouble with books other people recommend because sometimes I don’t like the book at all, and then have to admit that to them (or lie).  There wasn’t anything to lie about here though – it was excellent, a book that stayed with me for many months to afterwards. 

Don't be lulled into thinking this is a lightweight book by how quickly you are pulled in and how easy and fun it is to read.  Ozeki plumbs the depths and breadth and width of the cultural and scientific concepts of time, with injections of the meaning of life and death and art along the way.  A chronologically complicated book like this is nothing without meaty, memorable characters, and Ozeki doesn't disappoint. Ruth and her teenage Japanese counterpoint Nao are strong, believable, intriguing and challenging; they are surrounded by equally solid and magnetic characters.  Jiko, the ancient Grandmother and Buddhist priest, is the lodestone of the story, the spiritual center, and she's one of the most interesting fictional characters I've discovered in a book in quite a while. Certainly one of the best books of 2013, and one of the best books I've read in quite some time.

I didn’t remember why I liked The Time Traveler’s Guide to Elizabethan England by Ian Mortimer so much.  I gave it four stars, and I really liked it in April 2014.  Maybe I gave it four stars for that well written piece at the end.

Overall, a strong, good piece of (pop) history framed as a travel guide, which in an interesting conceit. There were a couple of dragging sections (mostly when facts were listed) but those sections were few and far between. The Elizbethans were a fascinating bunch, but Mortimer made sure in his envoi at the end to remind us that "they are us;" that they "are not some distant, alien race but our families." I'd never thought about people in the past quite like that before. Interesting, fascinating characters, almost like actors in a play - but never family. But that's what they are, right? Our ancestors are our families, we are related across time and space. We time travel through this book and others like it to visit them; but they are with us always as well, through their works of art and literature, their architecture and laws and scientific discoveries, through their music and religious changes - and physically through their genes. They are us. Any nonfiction book that's enjoyable reading, includes some new tidbits of information (I learned about not one but two poxes), and some philosophical pondering - to paraphrase that great Elizabethan William Shakespeare - this is the stuff that dreamy books are made of!

In May 2014, I re-read a book from my distant reading past, The Forever Formula by Frank Bonham.  Science fiction read at a impressionable age (along with some fantasy and the works of Charles Schulz) helped develop my philosophy, personal creed, ideology.  The Forever Formula, with its lessons on aging gracefully and the welfare state, was part of that philosophy building.

Frank Bonham started writing this book 40 years ago, eventually publishing it in 1979.  The main character, Evan, is a teenage boy from 1984.  Yet the book doesn't feel dated at all.  Bonham was extremely prescient about the future; he's written a dystopia almost of a The Hunger Games variety, but more a thinker rather than full of action packed violence.  His ideas about a permanent older class living longer and longer, with a younger class working to keep them happy and healthy, and dropping birthrates adding to this problem, is something that's happening now in several countries throughout the world.  His changed climate crashing down upon the earth, devaluing the dollar and changing the politics and economies of the world, was also eerily farsighted; this is beginning to happen as well. All of this thought provocation in a 181 page book, with an actually riveting adventure little thriller as a backdrop. 25+ years ago, my 16 year old self enjoyed this book, enough that I remembered parts of it vividly all these years later.  With a new cover, I think this could come back into print and sell pretty well.  It's still very good!

The latter part of May 2014 belonged to American Gods, which I think many consider Neil Gaiman’s best novel.  I’m not sure if I agree with that, but it’s damn, damn good. 

This isn't my favorite book by Neil Gaiman, but that doesn't mean it isn't magnificently written. From the first page, reading it was like diving into a deep, dark pool - and having trouble coming up for air. The book still haunts me, and it's been a couple of days since I finished it. It's far more dark, gritty, and sexual than any other Neil Gaiman I'd previous read.

I went right from the dark, gritty world of American Gods to the dark, stylish world of The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith.  I called the writing “short and blunt” , as if it were a weapon.  It’s an amazing piece of fiction.

The arc of this book is the path of the sociopath to psychopath. Highsmith's sparse, short, blunt writing style lends itself to this, mirroring the sparse, blunt, cold calculating thoughts and actions of the - protagonist? he's no hero - Tom Ripley. Her genius use of the third person limited point of view allows us to see through Ripley's lamprey eyes, feel his lust and fear, and closely follow his various dodges, parries, feints and evasions of his murder victims' friends, family, and the Italian police. The point of view also lets us zoom out on occasion and see the whole scene, to gain some a bit of perspective on the whole messy business. The motives are always left unclear - was Ripley more in love with Dickie or Dickie's lifestyle (I mean, come ON - the murder victim is named DICK for god's sake, clearly a symbol of some sort for latent homosexuality of the 1950s variety at the very least). What is clear is this is a brilliant piece of noir. Somewhere in the first third, I thought to myself "I don't want to read anymore of this." Now I've added the whole series to my list of things to read - somehow, Highsmith made this crocodile of a man into a sympathetic character. That's some brilliant writing.

In June 2014, I read Ian Buruma’s Year Zero: A History of 1945; I think the idea that history stops and starts up again at certain points is a valid and interesting one, and Buruma wrote intelligently and poignantly about such a year.

There are certain years in which everything history-wise turns back to zero - 1815 is a good world wide example; 1865 is a good American example. 2001 was probably the latest Year Zero. Buruma's book is about 1945, the year World War II ended. This isn't a chronological study of the year though; and it's not a Greatest Generation romantic look a the time period either. Rather, it's a probing, analytical look at the history and sociology; Buruma peels back some layers of Europe, Asia, Russia and the United States, sometimes exposing some dark unpleasantness that mirrors the black horrors of the war itself. I've liked Buruma's writing style in the past (Murder in Amsterdam: The Death of Theo van Gogh and the Limits of Tolerance was a great look at the paths modern Europe is currently treading upon) and I thought this one was quite engrossing.

I then turned about and read Pioneer Women: Voices from the Kansas Frontier by Joanna L. Stratton. This was like going home, sitting on the front porch, and talking to neighbors.  As I said in my review: 

These are my people, and I like reading about them. Lovers of Willa Cather or Laura Ingalls Wilder should run out right now and find this book. For those who romanticize the good old days, or who have a Little House on the Prairie fetish, this will definitely open your eyes as to how utterly difficult those days actually were. Every single thing our prairie ancestors had to do was done by hand, from the land - and Nature was always waiting, waiting to take it back, and maybe take their lives along with it. Nothing was easy - but Stratton also details, cites and excerpts many, many examples of how wonderfully fun and invigorating that time was as well. Pioneer women did not know what the future held; they did not know how damaging their impact would be on the environment; their world views did not take into account the people who lived on the land when they came. If some of the things the pioneer women did were offensive to modern sensibilities, much of what they did was heroic. They left everything they knew to build a new land, in a country that was lonely, desolate, and far from hospitable. It's interesting and sad to think that ultimately though that they failed; the populations of those prairie states continues to decline, and the great homesteading experiment all came to naught. That does not discount their heroism either. If anything, we should all strive to find the pioneer woman (or man) inside of us today.

I am reading Agatha Christie’s works in chronological order, and in late June through early July 2014, I was reading The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  It’s one of THE Christies, the brilliant ones, like Murder on the Orient Express or And Then There Were None.  The woman was a genius; fuck you Edmund Wilson.  Who the hell even knows who you are now?

I bet murder mystery lovers in 1926 were gasping then giddy after finishing this - and haters were gnashing their teeth at the big trick Agatha Christie pulled off. This is my second time reading it; my first being in seventh grade long ago; so this time I was reading for clues rather than for whodunnit. I have to admit, if you're careful and thoughtful, Agatha Christie plunked down plenty of clues - and some doozies of red herrings as well. Her characters are not fresh (although they may have been in 1926) but are interesting (and stock; it's two other things stand out and make this great. The character of Caroline Spencer, the proto-Marple, is great and every time she disappeared from the narrative I waited impatiently for her to return. And the narrative voice is incredible. I would hazard a guess that no one had written anything quite like this before in the world of the murder mystery, and using that voice really shows Christie's brilliance in the genre. I think because of this, the story holds up remarkably well, and with a few changes (technology, drug paraphernalia) could be plucked from 1926 and plopped down in the 21st century. Most of Christie's works are probably throwaways; but this is one of those books that will never go away.

For most of July, I re-read The Winds of War by Herman Wouk.  Not quite a potboiler – more of a Le Creuset boiler perhaps. 

The Winds of War is definitely and gloriously and deliciously big (888 pages), and historical fact-driven (it even has a fake nonfiction book written from a German general's point of view between chapters). It's slightly lighter than a brick, but slightly bigger. I didn't like every single bit of this book. I thought the first half or so was really good, but the last half felt sort of half-assed and rushed, like he had HAD IT with writing the book and just couldn't wait to get to the end (the last page has the dates 1964-1971, which probably refer to length of time he spent writing the book - so who can blame him? That's a long time). In his forward, Wouk calls the book a romance, but if you think you're getting a steamy hack-written paperback with manly chests of stone on the cover, you probably ought to pick another book. If you want something that has hints of Arthurian romance though, grand quests with brave knights and courtly manners, then you may hit closer to the mark you are aiming for. This isn't an exact parallel of Camelot, but instead Pug Henry and his family are players in a game that includes soldiers (knights), much romantic love mixed with high morals and manners, and several quests of various sorts. Like all good historical epics, this one is a pepperpot full of cameos by the famous and infamous names of the Greatest Generation - the whole club from FDR to Uncle Joe Stalin make one appearance or more. There is some frothy writing and some heavy handed writing and some beautiful writing as well. If not exactly fun, it's a great read. 

I forgot how much I loved Coraline by Neil Gaiman until I re-read it.  Really, the man is amazing.

This book is frightening, but like all the best scary stories to tell in the dark, in such a good and satisfying way. The modern parent and modern child have many worries, but one of the biggest ones (besides getting shot and killed at school) would be stranger danger and being kidnapped. Gaiman has taken that modern fear and mixed it in with some Narniana, to create a delightfully and deliciously dark and scary horror story. I say Narnia because Coraline is a descendant of Lewis ( E. Nesbit is the literary Australopithecus here). Four children enter a nondescript wardrobe to find another world full of talking animals and a monstrous witch, and are asked to stay there indefinitely as kings and queens; Coraline enters a nondescript door into another world with talking animals (rats, a cat) and a witchly monster who wants her to stay indefinitely as a princess (of sorts, although ultimately as a princely snack). Gaiman has done it again; if Coraline is a pot thrown on a wheel, then Narnia is a glaze, as is Alice, and Stephen King, and Beowulf, and Tolkien, and the darkest corners of the Grimms. It's derivative in only the most pleasing sense; those bits and pieces of modern and ancient folklore that Gaiman glazes the pot don't detract from a solid, eerie, most original plot. This was published for children, but I guess I'm a big child, because I loved this book.

At the end of July, I read Richard Kramer’s These Things Happen, one of those books that both drove me crazy and made me crazily fall in love with it.  Good writing does that.

I'm really torn here, because I started out loving this book - so much so I shared a passage I found particularly humorous with my husband - but by the end, I was ready for it to be over (and it's a short book). It was really funny at the beginning but turned this dark, dark corner - not even really turned, but sort of wallowed around the corner in this bloated sort of way, that made for some almost unpleasant reading by the end. It's a New York Book for sure - genetically related to Edith Wharton and Judy Blume and The Catcher in the Rye and Seinfeld (although not a book) and From the Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler and every single musical ever written about New York City. Like the city, the book, particularly half way through and beyond, was crowded and noisy; the paragraphs tended to run together. A clown - yes, a clown - says at the beginning " This is New York, right? We're all so close. You have to breach boundaries and respect them at the same time." Which is basically the plot in a nutshell - nice of Kramer to do that for us. I make it sound like I hated this book,which I didn't - I would highly recommend it.

And then there was My Real Children  by Jo Walton.  It’s stuck in my head, still, after six months, sitting there percolating.  Thank, Ms. Walton. Keep ‘em coming.

Alternate history at its very best , and more than that. This isn't your typical science fiction time travel book (but then Jo Walton books are never, ever typically anything other than brilliant); rather, Walton uses two alternate timelines to tell the story of two women, who are the same woman, and how the answer "now" or "never" to a wedding proposal changes not only them but the world. She uses this woman, Pat/Tricia, to compare and contrast; she is the shadow puppet against the scene changes of vibrant and changing histories (that are different from our own). Because of the small incidents in this woman's life (lives), the bigger incidents taking place in the world around them (nuclear war, political upheaval, etc.) loom on the backdrop behind her. Walton is an incredible writer of real characters and intricate, beautiful plots; there is plenty of attention to detail (she always reminds me of a Connie Willis who writes shorter books). There is a delightful feminist maxim that runs through this book that I loved; I also thought she wrote strongly and honestly about sexuality.

The Churchills: In Love and War by Mary Lovell was essentially about the Churchills, who have enough screwball-ness and hijinks and drunken speeches and kicking the shit out of the Nazis verbally to write several hundred more books, and then Mary Lovell includes that absolutely fabulous family the Mitfords here and there like chocolate sprinkles on a cupcake. 

Lovell tackled a giant subject here - but she did it once before (quite successfully) in The Sisters: The Saga of the Mitford Family, and she mostly succeeds here too. She's drew from the extensive Churchill-Spencerian aquifer, effervescent with Marlboroughs and Vanderbilts and Mitfords and Guests and so on, a huge cast. She drew deeply, and by the end, there wasn't much water left. Interestingly, the most vivid parts of the book are during the late Victorian-Edwardian time period. You would think the Churchill heyday would be World War II, but the whole family was in the ascendant during the 1870s-1910s, certainly socially, but also economically and politically too. Lovell's genius here is dropping bits of information here and there into the book that. Like a great painter, she uses color and light to make characters stand out - Clementine's love of tennis, or where the boorish Randolph lost his virginity, or Consuelo's Palm Beach French house - which she has to do in this huge cast of cads, heroes, villains, and cavaliers.

Great Tales from English History by Robert Lacey was sort of pap.  I’m not sure why I gave it four stars.  My review was as short as my memory of the book.  I hesitate including it.

Very solid; short, entertaining bits about British history that pithily separates the wheat from the chaff; if the chaff is legend and the wheat is truth, Lacey lets you savor the sweet chaff a bit before discarding it, which is nice. Great fun.

I listened to Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd for over a month; and I thoroughly loved each and every minute of it.  Hail Rutherfurd, King of the Epic; you take up Michener’s crown. Keep writing these monsters.   We need them. 

I listened to the audio version of this very long book, and was (mostly) spellbound. Nadia May is a marvelous reader-aloud; I'd like her tucked inside my head from here one out reading everything for me; I'm definitely finding out audio books narrated by her. The subtitle is "the story of England;" perhaps another subtitle could be added: "including murders, attempted rapes, pedophilia, adulterous affairs, theft, burning, hanging, and at least one case of witchcraft, with various other human depravity thrown in for good measure." But admit it - it's those exact incidents that usually make a book delicious.
Towards the end, I did get a bit bored - to be perfectly honest, witchcraft and Cavaliers and even cathedral building are more interesting than changing farm practices. But Rutherfurd's writing style was quite interesting and kept me going anyway until the very end. Every chapter is like a novella, loosely connected by place, history and genealogy; every chapter covers an era, and often those chapters use different narrative techniques. Although he never uses first person, he does often use different conceits; for example, the chapter on the medieval building of Salisbury Cathedral uses the seven deadly sins committed by the master mason of the cathedral (very important in the middle ages) as a mechanism to move the story along.
I lament the passing of the Michener-esque novel. They are most definitely rara avis in these times. Sarum is coming on 30 years old pretty soon, and big sweeping historical epics like it are gone with the wind. Hopefully they will rise again!

I lamented in my review of The Anglo-Saxon World: An Anthology by Kevin Crossley-Holland that you can’t really give stars to thousand year old poetry.  I mean every book we have now, from Shakespeare to lowliest romance novel owes its debt to these anonymous Anglo-Saxon writers and poets.    Crossley-Holland’s translations are gorgeous. 

I'm not exactly sure you can give stars (or thumbs up or whatever rating mechanism you may want to use) to thousand year old poetry. It seems to me if it's been around and studied and memorized and written about and dissected and cherished for a thousand years, it must be pretty damn good. Crossley-Holland's translations and explanatory notes about the poems and prose were great. I don't think I would have made a very good Saxon, but I sure like their poetry. It is beautiful dark and heavy. Like George Washington, I can not tell a lie - I did not read every single page of this anthology. I skimmed some parts, skipped some parts, read ahead, went back and re-read, and fell madly in love with other parts. "The Wanderer" and "Deor" were two of my favorites. Made me want to run out and try to learn Old English.

In September, I listened to Howard’s End by E.M. Forster on audio.  It was a magical experience.

I'm almost (almost but not quite) obsessed with Howards End but I'm not exactly sure what it is about the book that obsesses me, engrosses me, haunts me about the novel. It's nothing in particular and everything about Forster's work - I think it's his greatest novel, and certainly one of my absolute favorites. The adroitly written characters, the surprising plot, the comedy of manners and errors. It's prescient too - Forster writing a century ago about Schlegels and Wilcoxes could have been writing about the 21st century. "We are reverting to the civilization of luggage, and historians of the future will note how the middle classes accreted possessions without taking root in the earth, and may find in this the secret of their imaginative poverty," he writes - and our need for more and more things to make us happy seems more true now than at any other tim e in our history; good prognostication, Mr. Forster. And in this time of horrible time of worry and strife, could "only connect" be any more important either? I search and search for a book as meaningful and moving as Howards End; I come close occasionally, but nothing seems to surpass this wonderful, wondrous novel. Nadia May's audio version is, to add a bit of Edwardian slang, too deevy!!! 

I spent the early part of autumn with Peter Ackroyd and Tudors.  My review starts with me not expecting very much, but I loved it.  Ackroyd has a great sense of writing style; something that worked well here (but I found later not in every book I read by him).

 I came into this book not expecting very much. For one thing, I wasn’t sure how four Tudors – and Jane Grey – could possibly be crammed into one book. Another thing, there are so many books about the Tudors, fiction and nonfiction, that I just wasn’t sure how I could learn anything new. I was happily mistaken. Tudors by Peter Ackroyd was wonderful! He is tremendously able to "cram" Henry VIII, Edward VI, Jane Grey, Mary I, and Elizabeth I in one delightfully readable volume. He skates back and forth over the lines between fun pop history (Elizabeth purchased Hungarian horses, and then had their manes and tails died orange) and social history and religious history (lots of Reformation history, which is sort of a "duh" statement) and political history (I guess he's skating a figure eight). Everyone who is anyone in Tudor times makes an appearance of some sort. Ackroyd’s tome felt deep for a book that, by its very nature, has to be somewhat shallow (or you’d end up with a 3,000 page book).

Later though, I read Foundation and enjoyed it even more.  Now I’m waiting for book 3.

Ackroyd is deep and easy; he says great things, tells great stories, draws you in to great historical adventures, but in a handy, easy to reach kind of way. If you are in want or need of some great history, then Ackroyd's your man. There isn't any better place to start than Foundation, which tells a story of English history from what he poetically and wonderfully calls the times that "lie in mist and twilight" up to the first Tudor (which is a logical place to end, as the medieval switches to the Renaissance). His history is strong and good, but its his writing style you should be reading him for; it's excellent. And this isn't simply a list of kings and battles and Magna Carta; they are of course there, but interspersed are all sorts of tidbits of interest, written beautifully, like this: "It is perhaps worth recording that in the years of 'the Anarchy'... (my note: the time of war between King Stephen and the marvelous Matilda)the umbrella was introduced into England. It has outlived cathedrals and palaces." It's writing like this that makes him such a pleasure. He's not just regurgitating facts either; the last chapter sums up nicely not only the themes of the book, but also some of his views on history in general. I highly recommend this (I liked Tudors as well).

The Invisibles: Vintage Portraits of Love and Pride, Gay Couples in the Early Twentieth Century by Sebastien Lifshitz was beautiful and fun.

I thought this book was quite amazing and beautiful, vintage photographs of gays and lesbians and various gender benders from the past, culled from antique stores and flea markets. Sometimes, modern GLBTQ folk think the past was a dungeon of repression and suicidal sadness; and for some it probably was. But these pictures - which, mind you, had to be sent away to be developed, thus publically exposing the relationships depicted in the pictures - prove that the queer past also contained rollicking good fun. Almost every picture made me want to crawl up into them and find out what's going on, befriend these people, ask them questions, share a drink with them, a cry with them, and especially a laugh with them. I really loved this book.

In October 2014, I finally did it.  After years, I broke down and read To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee.  “Ohhhh,” I said when I finished it.  “Now I get it.”

A big, fat, tear soaked YES to this magnificent piece of literature. This wasn't required reading in my junior high or high school, so I missed reading it in my formative years. I was enchanted as an adult, which makes me wonder how I would have reacted as a fourteen or seventeen year old. I can't add anything of worth to the discussion of this book; I would imagine that there are enough term papers written about the novel to stretch to the moon and back, and probably too many comments on the web and blog after blog. I bawled like a baby calf at the end; I cried so much my eyes hurt. That's a damngood book.

My childhood set of Thornton Burgess begs me to read them again all the time.  Old Granny Fox was calling loudly this fall, so I read about her on my phone via Gutenberg.

Some of my childhood favorites were the animal stories of Thornton W. Burgess. I remember that Granny Fox and Reddy Fox were two of my favorite characters (I also liked Billy Possum and Jimmy Skunk, and Old Mr. Toad). They are a big moralistic and pedantic; Old Granny Fox has morals about good living as well; she's full of homilies. But they are still strong, simple animal stories, a lighter version of Bambi or the child that grows into Watership Down. Burgess also has an ecological heart; he's very much of the Theodore Roosevelt school of hunting and wilderness ecology. Old Granny Fox is definitely not for every child, but I still think there is value is these old fashioned books.

Anne Lamott came when I needed her most.  I still do.  This will be a book I return to in the future, I guarantee it.  It’s lovely, moving, and really gives comfort and aid.

I borrowed this copy from the library, and ended up dog earing so many pages that I probably should go out and buy the book. Accessibly dense; It's like Communion. There are some beautiful passages here, and there is much going on here, but her style is simple and approachable. I blogged some of my favorite passages here ( but essentially the entire book is a continuum of favorite passages.

In November 2013, on a plane, I re-read one of the books that changed my life. 

I did some loose calculating, and I've probably read The Hobbit 35 times in my life; this makes number 36. I pick up something different every time I read it. Last time, I realized what a bad ass Smaug was. This time, I realized that Gollum may be the only original character in book. I was thinking that you could drop almost every single character in this book in th middle of a E.M. Forster book (or maybe a Nancy Mitford book, or even Agatha Christie) and after some initial adjustment they'd all become very English (or in the orcs case, German). The Shire reads like a suburb of London, in which the Honeychurches take tea with the Bagginses, and fall inappropriately in love. Gollum, though, he's definitely the outsider, the outlier of The Hobbit. Even badass Smaug, could be played by some beloved British actor on BBC (perhaps a Scot) but Gollum, like the cheese, stands alone. After 36 times, Gollum is no longer a mystery to me, but I imagine if you are a small child and you are reading The Hobbit for the first time, Gollum is both terrifying and sad. Gandalf, Bilbo, the dwarves, the elves, Beorn - they are almost stock characters in various genres (from folklore to English comedy of manners) but Gollum is unique. He becomes even more unique in The Lord of the Rings (when Bilbo becomes Frodo, and Frodo loses his Forster qualities and becomes a Catholic saint; Sam, though, remains English at his core, but I digress). Gollum is Tolkien's one great creation. I could go on, but I won't here.

My year of reading ended with a strong good book, and one of my favorite books of all time.

City of Thieves by David Benioff was powerful and memorable.  In it’s own way, The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis is too.  Two books could not be more different, however.

While not un-put-downable, I still found this book thoroughly enjoying. I loved the point of view of the old Russian grandfather telling his story of stories to his thoroughly modern American grandson. As the tale really digs in, the interplay between the young, crude teenager boys (or one a teenager and one a twenty something full of braggadocio) was very honest and made them really likable; you enjoy these boys' company and want to see them succeed. There are several crescendos here (the cymbals crash several times), it's the final crescendo that is both poignant and pointed. The ending comes as no surprise, but was nice without being syrupy. I almost wanted this book to be more and do more than it actually did; but quite frankly, it was entertaining, at times thrillingly so, and mostly believable and that was enough.


Narnia-philes and Narnia-phobes (and philes who turned into phobes) can argue about how good or not so good Naria is until they are blue in the face. I also could bitchily pick apart every book (I agree with Tolkien that the world building is sloppy). But this book made me love reading. I knew HOW to read before The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, but I went to Narnia first, and never looked back. I still have a crush on Edmund (which I imagine horrifies some people now, and certainly would have horrified C.S. Lewis). As a villainess, the White Witch is still badass, particularly Pauline Bayne's illustrations of her. She's super scary.

Honorable mention probably needs to go to The Best of Connie Willis: Award-Winning Stories.  I won’t finish it until 2015, but Connie Willis probably is my favorite living writer.  I haven’t really met a Connie Willis novel or short story I haven’t liked.  This book of short stories is filled with Willis’s quirk, her sense of humor, her Willisian style (which I don’t yet know how to pinpoint; Connie Willis just IS Connie Willis; something to do with the characters, the funny ways they interact and also the ways the world bumps into them; the descriptive lists; the love of Christmas, church music, World War II, Agatha Christie.  She’s brilliant. 

Near Misses  and On Second Thought

Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro.   It was better than I gave it credit for.  It's certainly stuck with me.  My Goodreads review was so dull for this book, so I'm not even going to include it here.  So maybe my instincts were right.

The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton.  Come on, what the hell was I thinking last year?  I gave this book a KICK ASS review, one of the best I wrote all year, and only three stars?  

The House of Mirth is soapy. Edith Wharton doesn't write Lifebuoy or Lava soap. Mirthis like a really expensive handmade bar of rosemary and green tea soap you'd buy from an upscale boutique, maybe while you are vacation and obviously spending more money on soap than you usually would. But it's still soap. Enjoyable, literary, melodramatic soap. SPOILER, Lily dies tragically at the end - that's the ultimate in soap, right (other than having an evil twin, or she comes back from the grave two books later). The House of Mirthis also full to the brim of bitchery, love lost, missed opportunities, greed, the repulsively rich, a dashing poor guy, heartache, sorrow, lost fortune, and more bitchery. Did I mention the bitches? Like any good soap opera, this has a great, great villainess, a classic queen of the bitches in the from of Bertha Dorset, and several small sharp shiv in the back variety of villainesses like all of those mean girl cousins of Lily Bart. Edith Wharton knew how to dress up a soap opera and make it classy (Downton Abbey, anyone?) and write some memorably wicked women (her male characters, though, leave much to be desired). Lily Bart never stood a chance against the shady ladies that spring, fully formed, from Wharton's pen. 

Then Again, Maybe I Won't by Judy Blume.  This book haunted me for years.  I only give it three stars? I must have been stoned.

Judy Blume is J.D. Salinger for the tween set. Like The Catcher in the RyeThen Again Maybe I Won't has the same elements, just a younger protagonist. Exhibit A: Angst and isolation; it's lonely being a 13 year old boy. Exhibit B: obsessed with sex; at least Holden Caulfield, as creepy as he was, wasn't a peeping tom. Exhibit C: Phoneys. Lots of phoneys. I always approach Judy Blume cautiously, because I know as a kid whenever I read her books, something happened that made me feel weird or gross or guilty about something. Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret had the word "period" (among many, many other things). Superfudge had the many realistic and cringeworthy scenes of crap Fudge torments Peter with. Otherwise Known as Sheila the Great had that damn slam book. Blubber is just one big story of feeling like shit and remembering every single person you ever bullied or didn't help who was being bullied. Then Again Maybe I Won't has boners, wet dreams,masturbation, embarrassing stuff for a fifth grade reader. As a grown up reader, what was far more interesting - and cringeworthy - was the commentary on class, and the need for Tony's mother to fit in with all her neighbors (the same thing her son was trying to figure out in junior high). That was too subtle for me way back in fifth grade; there was actually some depth here and not just pedantry or shock value. That was a fun discovery, and really made this re-read well worth my time.

The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker.  A lot of people didn't like this book.  A lot of people liked this book.  I fell somewhere in between.  Maybe that was the right decision.  But I still remember parts of the book vividly.  So Walker was definitely on to something here.

A white knuckle cross between science fiction and YA angst, with a touch of dystopia thrown in (although not, I think believe, published for a teen audience). These aren't Hunger Games type shenanigans though - rather, the main character is a normal everyday eleven year old pubescent girl, with lots of typical problems (popularity, parents, a boy), and one big problem - the world's rotation is slowing down for some unexplained reason, and all life on earth is essentially ending. The plot device of using the eleven year old's mostly self centered eyes to describe the endtimes is literarily innovative and interesting. Walker's slow drip, drip, dripping into this bildungsroman of at first mild dismay and discomfort followed by anxiety and finally horror (of the psychological variety, not the zombies eating brains variety) is what keeps you wide-eyed and horrified, unable to put the book down, wanting to know what happens next. It's the end of the world as we know it, but you the reader know that things are probably not going to be fine.


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