I never leave the house without a book. Even if I’m in the car, on the way out of the driveway and realize I am book-less, I will go back to retrieve one. Yes, the reading sickness is that strong with me and probably with some of you. Reading is nurture, survival, communion. A good book can make all the difference in a bad day.
My favorite books of the fifty-three I read this year, if you’re looking to seed your to-read list, are as follows, alphabetical by author:
Watership Down by Richard Adams
The Inferno by Dante Alighieri
Out of Africa by Karen Blixen
How the Irish Saved Civilization by Thomas Cahill
Ghost Wars by Steve Coll
Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel
Isak Dineson: The Life of a Storyteller by Judith Thurman
Look Homeward, Angel by Thomas Wolfe
The Aeneid by Virgil
And here is the remainder of my 2013 reading list:
39. An Intriguing Life: A Memoir of War, Washington, and Marriage to an American Spymaster by Cynthia Helms
I’m not certain the world was waiting on edge to hear from the feisty Ms. Helms, the widow of Director of Central Intelligence Richard Helms, but her reminiscences of her experience as a WRN during WWII and life in 1970’s-era Washington, D.C. held my interest.
40.The Portrait of a Lady by Henry James
I want to love everything Henry James wrote because of his association with my beloved Edith Wharton. But I must confess to not absolutely loving this book. Isabel Archer is considered one of James’ – and literature’s – great characters, but I lost patience with her poor decisions early on. Isabel, you should have gone with the Caspar Goodwood choice and spared us your misery.
41. Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro
There is no disputing Munro’s ability. After all, she was recently rewarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature. But I cannot tell a lie: I did not love these stories. The bleakness of the landscape was not a problem, it was the bleakness of the souls therein. Maybe that was her point…
42. Othello by William Shakespeare
You have probably read all of Shakespeare’s plays, but I have not, so I am attempting to repair that gap by picking one off here and there. And where better to start than with Othello. Poor Othello! Poor Desdemona! And evil, evil Iago. “Villainy, villainy, villainy!” It’s what you get when you love “not wisely, but too well”. Highly recommended.
43. A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson
Bryson made me laugh out loud several times in this book, and I would happily have given it four stars, save for his tendency to use his prodigious wit a bit too sharply here and there, giving an impression that he is more arrogant than affable. But I learned so much! Along the way of his adventure, Bryson aptly describes our fumbling national Forest Service, details the sad fate of the American Chestnut tree and visits the abandoned, burning anthracite mines of Pennsylvania.
44. The Paris Wife: A Novel by Paula Mclain
I was wary of this book. As a fictionalized version of the courtship and doomed marriage of Ernest Hemingway and his first wife, Hadley Richardson, I feared sentimentality, hero-worship, melodrama or worse. But my fears were unfounded – this was a very satisfying – if sad – read.
45.Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
I know everyone else loved this collection of short stories. I did not. If you want to read about the poignant ups and downs of small-town life, skip this one set in Maine and go straight to Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio to see how it should be done. Not recommended.
46. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
A lovely and erudite novel about late 1930’s New York City. A bit of a morality tale, reversing Ayn Rand-ian celebration of capitalist ascendancy for redemption through rejection of all that glitters. Recommended.
47. The Inferno by Dante Alighieri (re-read)
I’ve already gone on and on about the genius of Dante. Let’s just say that The Divine Comedy is a continual astonishment to me and in my top five lifetime reads. VIB (Very Important Book) and highly recommended.
48. The Agony and the Ecstasy by Irving Stone 760 pages
I am hoping to finally visit Italy this year, and this biography of the great Michelangelo Buonarroti is a magnificent primer on Renaissance art and history in Rome and Florence. Highly recommended.
49. Nothing to Envy: Ordinary Lives in North Korea by Barbara Demick
Why, oh why, have we (and by we, I mean the world collectively) done nothing to rescue the people of North Korea? One of the lucky defectors interviewed for this book learns after her daring escape that “dogs in China ate better than doctors in North Korea.” The author states that 42% of North Korean children have been physically damaged by stunting due to malnutrition. As for the incalculable damage to their souls, the thorough and objective reporting in this book brilliantly reveals the horror that has been visited upon three generations of North Koreans. Highly recommended.
50. Fractures by Lamar Herrin
This novel about a dysfunctional family in the midst of a decision about hydro-fracking on their property may have been the worst book I read this year. I suspect it would never have been published if not for the controversy that currently rages over hydraulic fracturing. The members of my book club have various opinions about “fracking” but everyone agreed that the characters in this book were completely unsympathetic. Not recommended.
51. The Revenge of Geography by Robert D. Kaplan
An elegantly conceived and written overview of the ways in which geopolitics have and will continue to influence planet Earth. This was a challenging read for me, but well worth the effort. Kaplan romps from Thucydides to Hobbes to geography gurus Mackinder, Spykman and Bracken as he patiently leads the reader to understand what may be in store for our future. Highly recommended.
52. 1776 by David McCullough (re-read)
McCullough details one very significant year in the American Revolution and he does it so very well. The Siege of Boston, Henry Knox’s heroic retrieval of the cannon at Ticonderoga and the Battle of Long Island are among the highlights. Highly recommended.
53. The Greater Inclination by Edith Wharton
A slim collection of short stories written early in Wharton’s career and before she hit her masterful literary stride. I am one of Wharton’s biggest fans, but I suggest that if you are only going to read one or two or her works, this is not it.
Many people challenge themselves to read 75 books in a year. I don’t think I will ever be one of them. But I read a dozen more books in 2013 than in 2012 and more than 20,000 pages, which is a new record for me. Of the 53 books I completed, I liked 31 of them, was neutral about 6, and hated and absolutely loved an equal number of 8. Like the proverbial box of chocolates, you never know what you’ll get when you open a book. Onward to 2014 reading – I hope you’ll join me!