2012 Bookshelf, Part I
Where did you go in 2012?
I was all over the place. Russia, England, France and Burundi- and that was all before the end of February!
There were no heavy suitcases, and no Google mapping or TSA manhandling, because this was all book travel. And before you get all uppity with me about the lack of frequent flyer miles, let me remind you that they pale next to the time travel benefits of book transport. I bounced back and forth between several centuries; kind of like Bruce Willis in Twelve Monkeys but without the shaved head and the mental hospital restraints.
The only disappointment of the year was that I missed my goal of reading more pages than I did in 2011. In 2012 I only read 15,000+ pages compared to 2011′s 17,000+. Looks like I need to spend less time tending chickens and more time reading in 2013.
I completed 40 books last year, which divvies out to 3+ books per month. Since I am in two book clubs, at least half the books I read are not chosen by me. And that is how we arrive at my two least favorite books of the year. Somehow I doubt that the now very wealthy E.L. James cares a whit that I was deeply underwhelmed by her black-leather-in-the-boudoir Fifty Shades of Grey. No doubt she will survive without my vote of confidence.
But even Fifty Shades was preferable to the political screed posing as scholarly work entitled The Healing of America by the smug T.R. Reid. Perhaps Mr. Reid, so infatuated as he is with nationalized health care, would like to pay the 25% percent Obamacare-driven increase on my health insurance this year. In his sycophantic devotion to the nationalized health care systems of other countries, he only reluctantly mentions toward the end of the book that most of the systems he celebrates are virtually bankrupt.
The one redeeming grace of this book is that Mr. Reid aptly draws our attention to the plight of the working poor in our country. Unfortunately, I’ve been advised that Obamacare does little or nothing to amend access to medical care for those who work but live near the poverty line. A bitter pill, indeed.
Glad to get that bad news off the bookshelf so we can move on to the good. And there was so much good! For pure delicious reading, I think I have to rate How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn as my favorite read of the year.
Set in the coal country of Wales in the late 18th century, this book shines with love of the land and of family and despair at the loss of both.
In second place was Tess of the D’urbervilles. I should have read this book long ago, but it somehow eluded me. It was worth the wait. In the hands of anyone other than Thomas Hardy, Tess would be a caricature, but he masterfully and compassionately draws her as a victim of her time. An added pleasure was reading the Penguin Classics edition. I’m as big a Kindle fan as you will find, but it is undeniable that there is something very special about reading a beautifully-bound book. I ordered mine from Amazon, but recently discovered that Tecolote Books in Montecito carries the full line of Penguin Classics editions.
I could go on and on about the books I enjoyed, but will just give you the list, in chronological reading order with one to five stars awarded and you can go from there:
1.****Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman by Robert Massie
Everything you could want to know about Catherine, her country,her time and her lovers. I found her enthusiasm with Voltaire but her reluctance to actually put his theories into practice to be of particular interest.
2. ****World Without End by Ken Follett
Thank you, Julia, for introducing me to all this medieval pleasure! The lusty sequel to Pillars of the Earth, this is an equally engrossing epic of love, life and architecture in 14th century England. Downton Abbey it ain’t!
3. **The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
This was awarded a Man Booker Prize but it does not win any Polloplayer prizes. I know there was more to this book than my hen brain grasped, but I found the protagonist whiny, sniveling and entirely unsympathetic.
4. ***Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.
Daniel Kahneman is a psychologist who won the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics. If that is not accomplishment enough, he also wrote this book, which sometimes hurt my head to read (I confess that I still don’t quite understand prospect theory) but, when comprehensible, shed interesting light on humans and the choices they make.
5. ***Explorers of the Nile: the Triumph and Tragedy of a Great Victorian Adventure by Tim Jeal
Fascinating to learn about the risks Speke, Livingston and the like took to search for the origin of the Nile. Would have rated four stars had the narrative not fallen apart toward the end with the author’s polemical views on the geopolitics of Africa.
6.****The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris by David McCullough
I have so much love for David McCullough. I read this book in a hurry since I wanted to finish it before we heard him speak at the Met last spring. He states by way of introduction that “not all pioneers went West” and then lovingly traces the paths of artists, writers, architects and statesmen whose experiences in mid-19th century Paris effected vast cultural advances on both sides of the Pond.
7.*** The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde. I read the title play, as well as Lady Windemere’s Fan, Salome and A Woman of No Importance.The author is of more interest than the plays themselves, which cannot help but be dated, but they are worth reading for Wilde’s wicked and still apt quotes, including “Two tragedies – not getting what you want…or getting it” and “Life is far too important to talk seriously about it”.
8.*****Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese.
This was one of my top favorite reads of 2012. For the glimpse of post-colonial life in Ethiopia. For its heartfulness and heartbreak. Will someone please make a film of this book? My favorite line: We are all fixing what is broken. It is the task of a lifetime.
9. *****How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn
As mentioned above. How’s this for a heartugging line: “Sometimes a light will go from your life, Huw, and your life becomes a prayer,
till you are strong enough to stand under the weight of your own thought again.”
10. *Fifty Shades of Grey by E.L. James
As mentioned above. Housewife porn. Seriously, if that girl “bites her lip” one more time I’m going to smack her so hard she won’t need Christian Grey and his dungeon. Dear God, what a twit!
372 tedious, desultory pages
11. *****Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
As mentioned above. Chickens get a walk-on role, by the way, on p. 98. Tess is victimized by the scoundrel Alex D’Urberville and seeks a happy ending with Angel Clare. You’ll get no spoilers from me. Not only does Tess suffer throughout the book, but is further humiliated in our century by repeated references to her by the twit in Fifty Shades of Grey.
12.**Candide (or Optimism)by Voltaire
Considering that it was written late in the 18th century, Voltaire’s satire holds up reasonably well. Worth the read, although Voltaire may have been too clever for his own good.
13. ***The Road by Cormac McCarthy
I read this post-apocalyptic novel in one sitting on a rainy winter afternoon. Suggest you keep no razor blades nearby if you choose to do the same because this is a numbingly bleak read. That said, it is very well written. I have deep sympathy for the women who have married Cormac (All the Pretty Horses, No Country for Old Men) McCarthy because I suspect that he is as dark and twisted and tortured as his plots.
14. ***Mayflower by Nathaniel Philbrick
I really enjoyed this book, although I think it was slightly mis-titled. It does begin with the Mayflower journey, but much of the book focuses on the lives of later generations of pilgrims and Puritans and the wars they ultimately fought with the Indians. Philbrick sees his subjects with a clear eye. These Indians are not necessarily the noble savages you want them to be, but shrewd, manipulative and often bloodthirsty. Of special interest to me was a passage dealing with the Pilgrim’s failed experiment of communal farming. It was only when each family became responsible for their own crops in 1623 that the harvest improved. As Philbrick puts it, The Pilgrims had stumbled upon the power of Capitalism.
15. ** Sipping from the Nile: My Exodus from Egypt by Jean Nagar
This is a memoir and comes off as a vanity project, but the subject of life for Egyptian Jews before and after the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 is an interesting one.
16.****A Long Retreat by Andrew Krivak
The author is better known for his National Book Award-nominated novel The Sojourn which I read and enjoyed in 2011. Curious to see what else he had written, I discovered that Krivak had spent several years as a Jesuit novitiate before ultimately deciding that he was not meant for the priesthood. He wrote this book about his very personal experience and yet there is something for the reader in each page. Krivak seeks something deeper than what the material world offers, and it is a relief to let go of those things while accompanying him on his pilgrimage.
17. **** In Pharaoh’s Army: Memories of the Lost War by Tobias Wolff
I love the daisy-chain way in which one book can lead to another.. Early in Krivak’s book, he describes encountering author Tobias Wolff in New Mexico and speaks so admiringly of him that I had to see for myself. This book of short stories about Wolff’s experience in Vietnam is both irreverent and revelatory. There is far more humor than you would expect given the circumstances and yet Wolff is unflinchingly honest: When you’re afraid you will kill anything that might kill you.
18.** The Emotional Life of Your Brain:How Its Unique Patterns Affect the Way You Think, Feel and Live – and How You Can Change Them by Richard J. Davidson, Ph.D with Sharon Begley
A little bit of science and a fair amount of what I would call “pop psychology. The author describes six emotional styles and their corresponding impact upon and by brain activity.
19. ***** The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
Wow! What an epic! If you have never read this book, you must treat yourself to the wild ride on which it will take you.
20. *The Healing of America: a Global Quest for Better, Cheaper and Fairer Health Care by T.R. Reid
As mentioned, disparagingly, above
21.**The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Gets an extra star for the creative title. The author is a philosophy professor and inserts her compendium of knowledge upon the backdrop of the lives of families in a Paris apartment building. I found it pretentious and unsatisfying. Maybe that was the point…
Part Two to come…
Entry filed under: Music/Art/Literature/Culture. Tags: A Long Retreat, Andrew Krivak, Book List 2012, Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese, Fifty Shades of Grey, How Green Was My Valley, Life, literature, Oscar Wilde quote, Penguin Classics editions, reading recommendations, Tecolote Books Montecito, Tess of the D'urbervilles, The Count of Monte Cristo, The Healing of America.