“For everything there is a season” said wise Solomon in Ecclesiastes, “a time for every purpose under the sun.” In my world, that purpose is usually reading, because, really, what else matters? As Teddy Roosevelt so aptly put it “Reading with me is a disease.” One for which I am truly hopeful there is no cure.
Setting is an important element in literature, but I also find that my setting in place and time enriches the reading experience. For instance, I had the excellent luck of reading William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Cormac McCarthy’s The Road some years back during a powerful winter rainstorm in California. Rain and dark skies are almost a prerequisite for those books. I wouldn’t bother to read Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun anywhere but Rome. And since I’m in San Francisco right now, I should drop everything and download Jack London’s San Francisco Stories.
But first, the annual reading retrospective. We’ll start with January and February, the deepest months of winter, which, as Flaubert knew, are arguably the very best time of year to curl up with a book.
I love winter reading. The CE always starts an early evening fire when we are in California, a setting which basically demands that a book be opened. And when we are in NYC in February and the temperature is barely above zero and you can’t see out the window for the sleet and the snow, well, you’d better have a book to read. And I did:
Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter. Audiobook, narrated by Edoardo Ballerina. 337 pages, published 2012. If you judged a book by its cover, you might think, as I did, that this is a basically a beach read, but there’s more to it than that. Despite the fact that a boozy Richard Burton makes a rather surreal appearance among the fictional characters in a fictional Italian fishing village, the story goes beyond the shallows. Favorite quote: “The smaller the space between your desire and what is right, the happier you will be.” Recommended.
Seabiscuit by Laura Hillenbrand. Paperback. 399 ages, published 1999. Well, better late than never, right? You’ve probably already read it, or at least seen the movie, but if not, it’s worth the read. Hillenbrand, also the author of Unbroken, knows how to champion the underdog, and there are many in this story, both of the equine and human variety. Recommended.
Darkness at Noon by Arthur Koestler. Kindle. 272 pages. Published 1940. This book was at Number 8 on the Modern Library “100 best novel” list, and for good reason. It is simply brilliant and worth reading and re-reading. The setting is purposefully unstated but is assumed to be the Soviet Union during Stalin’s great purge. Highly recommended.
Why Did the Chicken Cross the World? The Epic Saga of the Bird that Powers Civilization by Andrew Lawler. Hardcover. 264 pages, published 2014. Well, I’ll bet you haven’t read this one! Thanks to my dear and thoughtful friend Nancy, this book is a prize addition to my chicken library. Everything you could possible want to or need to know about Gallus Gallus and so cogently written. Spoiler: the chicken does cross the road, as well as oceans and continents. Reviewed here.
Empire Falls by Richard Russo. Kindle. 496 pages, published 2001. Another party I was late to, and I also missed the mini-series. Fiction, not literature, but an enjoyable read. I intend to read Russo’s Nobody’s Fool and Everybody’s Fool at some point – he strikes me as a more hopeful Richard Ford, mining the frailties of his small-town characters, but with a folksy dash of optimism.
American Psycho by Bret Easton Ellis. Audiobook, narrated by Pablo Schreiber. 399 pages, published 1991. What was I thinking???? I was under the impression that this book is a modern classic, and I suppose, in a horrific way, it is. Schreiber, brother of actor Liev, does a terrific job with the narration, but I will never be able to un-see the things I heard while listening to this book. And I am not referring to the liberal sprinkling of (see what I did there?) references to Donald Trump. A classic, yes, but not for the faint of heart.
Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides by Adam Nicolson. Paperback. 375 pages, published 2001. Nicolson, the grandson of Vita Sackville-West and Sir Harold Nicolson, inherited a tiny, barren, inhospitable archipelago in the Outer Hebrides known as the Shiant Isles from his father, Nigel Nicolson. And then he wrote a lyrically beautiful book about them. Talk about setting. Wow. I was absolutely transported when I read this book. Hard to find a copy as I don’t believe it is currently in print, dog-eared paperback copies are available from various booksellers. Recommended. The photographs in the book are disappointingly small, but here is one I found on a blog called Footless Crow:
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. Audiobook, narrated by Dan Stevens. 166 pages, published 1818. I will never completely forgive Dan Stevens for leaving Downton Abbey and basically sacking his own career, but he partly redeems himself with a terrific narration of this classic novel. Best read in winter when the icy scenes on the Swiss glacier can be best appreciated. You think you already know everything about this book from popular culture, but you’re wrong.There is so much more. “You are my Creator but I am your master. Obey!” Read it. Highly recommended.
The Leopard by Giuseppe di Lampedusa. Kindle. 322 pages, published 1958. Widely considered to be one of the most important Italian novels ever written. Set in Sicily during the years of Italian Reunification. Old habits die hard, especially for the disenfranchised nobility. “The last Salina was himself. That fellow Garibaldi, that bearded Vulcan, had won after all.” Recommended.
The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Audiobook, narrated by Jonathan Davis and Staci Snell. 340 pages, published 2007. Winner of the 2008 Pulitzer Prize. There’s a just-out audio version of this terrific novel narrated by man-of-the-moment Lin-Manuel Miranda, but I had no complaints about the version I listened to, except for the fact that if you don’t have a pretty good grasp on the Spanish language and slang of the Dominican Republic, you’d be better off reading it in book form with a glossary at hand. Junot Diaz occupies a singular spot in the canon of Latin American literature. “It’s like abuela says: every snake always thinks it’s biting into a rat, until the day it bites into a mongoose.”Recommended.
H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald. Kindle. 300 pages, published 2014. This was a re-read for a book club. Good again the second time around although I found myself becoming a bit irritated with MacDonald’s self-absorption. The hawk may be a more stable character than the author. Recommended.
The Merchant of Venice by William Shakespeare. Kindle. Written between 1596-1598, published in first folio 1623. 224 pages. Let’s see. If I read one Shakespeare play every year I will finish in the year 2053. Guess I’d better step it up. This was a great place to begin. There’s more to Shylock than meets the pound of flesh. Highly recommended, of course.
This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff. Audiobook, narrated by Oliver Wyman. 304 pages, published 1989. Such a lovely read, and hauntingly auto-biographical. Recommended, as is his collection of short stories based on his Vietnam War experience, In Pharaoh’s Army.
Pax by Sarah Pennypacker. Hardcover. 276 pages, published 2016. There was so much buzz about this middle-grade children’s book that I decided to read it myself in hopes of passing it along to one of the grandkids. Such a great premise and so much promise, but ruined by the author’s heavy-handed intrusion into the story. The fox, Pax, is all good, but the apparently man-hating Pennypacker creates a generic war and a completely not-believable female “heroine” to school the young male protagonist on all the evil done by the adult males of the human species, who are (yawn) uniformly depicted as evil, weak and untrustworthy. Pennypacker needs to deal with some issues. I actually threw the book away after reading it, which was hard because Jon Klassen’s cover illustration was so lovely. Not recommended.
The Country of the Pointed Firs by Sarah Orne Jewett. Audiobook, narrated by Cindy Hardin Killavey. 96 pages, serialized in the Atlantic Monthly in 1896. I have never been to Maine, but this sweet little read took me to the fictional town of Dunnet Landing, which is thought to be based on the towns of Martinsville and Port Clyde. It is really more of a series of loosely connected stories than a novel, perhaps a wispy novella at best, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. It is set in summer, so if I had it to do over again I would schedule this read for June or July.
Winter 2016 was thoroughly warmed by all these good reads. Next up, March and April…