Shelf Life: Living in a Made-Up World

Parents, take those books away from your children NOW! Else they might end up like me, fully convinced that Atticus Finch and Holly Golightly and Hepzibah Pyncheon are the real deal, and wondering why everyone else seems so one-dimensional. Stick to Candy Crush. You’ll thank me later.

For me, it’s too late. I am hopelessly addicted to the good read, or in some cases, the good re-read. Seven works of fiction astonished me this year:


George Eliot (image from The New Yorker Magazine, February 2011)

Drum roll: my favorite read of the year: 1. Middlemarch by George Eliot (published 1874, Blackwood). Don’t be alarmed by the fact that it’s 912 pages long – they fly by. Subtitled “A Study of Provincial Life”, the book’s themes of mistaking something else for love, unrequited love, settling for less than love, disillusionment in love and the attendant tensions of society, culture and, oh yes, money, make this a timeless tale. So distraught was I to bid adieu to Dorothea Brooke and company that I followed it up with a tonic of My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead (2014, Crown Publishers, 293 pages) a “bibliomemoir” of the life and work of Mary Ann Evans (aka George Eliot).


Can’t read TKAM without seeing Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch (image from The Hollywood Reporter)

Two re-reads made the favorites list. Harper Lee’s 2. To Kill a Mockingbird (published 1960,  J.B. Lippincott, 385 pages) is as tenderly luminous the second time as the first and since I have thus far resisted reading Go Set a Watchman, my devotion to Atticus Finch remains unquestioned.


And Audrey Hepburn will always be Holly Golightly in Breakfast At Tiffany’s

Fresh life was breathed into Truman Capote’s 3. Breakfast at Tiffany’s (published 1958, Random House, 150 pages) for me thanks to Michael C. Hall’s brilliant narration of the audiobook version. Great way to re-experience a classic.


Not an easy read, but a must-read.

Sometimes the best reads are no fun at all. Two of my “best books of the year” were fraught with pain and suffering:

4. The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan (audiobook, narrated by David Atlas, published 2014, Knopf, 352 pages, 2014 Man Booker prize,) was a searing travail through the hellish jungles of Thailand and Burma, where Australian POW Dorrigo Evans was held prisoner by the Japanese during WWII. Long after his release, Evans remains imprisoned by memories of a thwarted love. Flanagan’s writing is sorrowful, restrained and breathtaking. Ravishing quotes from Japanese poet Issa serve as a sort of Greek chorus in the work, including this one: “In this world we walk on the roof of hell, gazing at flowers“.


One of the best books you’ve never heard of.

Different war, no less suffering. In 5. Preparation for the Next Life (published 2014, Oneworld Publications, 424 pages) Atticus Lish unleashes a completely original literary voice. The briefly entwined paths of Iraq army vet Brad Skinner and illegal immigrant Zou Lei crackle with a staccato buzz of urgency and grief as they try to wrest the slightest tendril of hope for a better future against the gritty urban backdrop of Queens.


Trond Sander and his dog, Lyra make for an unforgettable read in “Out Stealing Horses” (NYT image)

The brisk, clear air of Norway was a blessed change of scenery but the blinding beauty of woods and rivers and the soothing pace of the narrative in Per Petterson’s 6. Out Stealing Horses (audiobook, narrated by Richard Poe, published 2007, Graywolf Press, 250 pages) belie darker things. Accompanied only by his dog, Lyra, protagonist Trond Sander grapples in self-imposed solitude with the small indignities of aging and the cavernous themes of loss and regret.


Try to resist it, but you can’t. A sweet, he artful read.

Leave it to a dog to wriggle into your heart. And so it was with 7. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein (published 2008, HarperCollins, audiobook narrated by Christopher Evan Welch, 338 pages). I initially chose this as a “throwaway listen” but was ultimately captivated by canine philosopher Enzo, who reminds us often “that which you manifest is before you“. Just make sure you have a tissue nearby at the end.

Also in my fiction reads for 2015:


Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy. Published 1874, Cornhill Magazine (serialized), 353 pages

The House of the Seven Gables by Nathaniel Hawthorne. Published 1851, Ticknor and Fields, 344 pages

South of Broad by Pat Conroy (audiobook, narrated by Mark Deakins). Published 2009 by Doubleday, 528 pages

Cry, the Beloved Country by Alan Paton. Published 1948 by Charles Scribner’s Sons, 316 pages

Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad. Published 1899, Blackwoods Magazine (serialized), 113 pages.

Cannery Row by John Steinbeck. Published 1945, Viking Press, 208 pages

Cold Sassy Tree by Olive Ann Burns. Published 1984 by Houghton Mifflin, 400 pages

The Headmaster’s Wager by Vincent Lam. Published 2012 by Hogarth Press, 450 pages

The Martian by Andy Weir (audiobook, narrated by R. C. Bray). Published 2011, Crown Publishing Group, 369 pages

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Published 2014, Alfred Knopf, 333 pages.

Shiloh: A Novel by Shelby Foote. Published 1952, Vintage, 240 pages

Stoner by John Williams (audiobook, narrated by Robin Field). Published 1965, Viking Press, 288 pages

Okay reads:

Plainsong by Kent Haruf. Published 1999, Alfred A. Knopf, 301 pages

We Are Not Ourselves by Matthew Thomas (audiobook, narrated by Mare Winningham). Published 2014, Simon & Schuster, 656 pages

The Golden Bowl by Henry James. Published 1904, Scribner, 612 pages

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki. Published 2013, Penguin Books, 432 pages, nominated for Man Booker Prize

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride. Published 2014, Penguin, 433 pages, winner 2013 National Book Award for Fiction

Paris: The Novel by Edward Rutherfurd. Published 2013, Ballantine Books, 830 pages

Galway Bay by Mary Pat Kelly. Published 2009, Hachette Book Group

Just didn’t love it:

Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Published 1981 by Jonathan Cape, 446 pages (Booker Prize, Booker of Bookers, Modern Library Top 100 Novels)

The Discreet Hero by Mario Vargas Llosa, translated by Edith Grossman. Published 2015, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 336 pages

The Children Act by Ian McEwan. Published 2014, Nan A. Talese, 240 pages

Mr. Mercedes: A Novel by Stephen King. Published 2014, Scribner. 448 pages

The Storied Life of A. J. Fikry: A Novel by Gabrielle Zevin. Published 2014, Algonquin Books, 272 pages

book quote

Next week: one last look at the book shelf. All Italia!


















About polloplayer

Empty nester searching for meaning of life through the occasional chicken epiphany.
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6 Responses to Shelf Life: Living in a Made-Up World

  1. Jean Gutsche says:

    Continued thanks for sharing these insights. Have they invented a USB port so I can download your knowledge? So many must reads out there….your yearly book lists always help and inspire me! 😄

  2. Katherine says:

    I’m with Jean and waiting for the USB port to your brain. I wish I could read this much!!! Mockingbird is also one of my favorites. The Tiffany’s novella is so fabulous and while I love anything Audrey, the novella is superior to the movie. (But I feel that way about Shawshank Redemption and people give me the rolled eye when I say that.) I loved A Tale for the Time Being though! I think sometimes books grab a person based on timing/mood. Thanks for sharing your readings – I have so much to add to my list now…

    • polloplayer says:

      I was on the fence with A Tale for the Time Being. I liked many things about it. Maybe it just seemed somehow too ambitious for me, and the dialogue didn’t quite ring true. But I will forever look at the sea and see gyres after reading that book…

  3. dizzyguy says:

    Good selections, all. Count me a fan of Go Set a Watchman as it features all of the Go Kill a Mockingbird characters later in life. Same great writing by Ms. Lee. Mr. Capote certainly distinguished himself with Breakfast at Tiffany’s and created a character that is forever locked with Miss Hepburn, to everyone’s credit. And I also found the second time through was just as satisfying as the first, which is not true of all one’s favorites, I have found.

  4. daveply says:

    I’d second dizzyguy, Go Set A Watchman is worth a read. Even if it puts a few smudgy fingerprints on Atticus’s perfect paragon of virtue medal, he comes out of it reasonably well, and maybe a bit more pragmatic. You’d just have to work through it with Scout.

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