Shelf Life: Reading Retrospective, Finale.

That sound? Sometimes it ticks and tocks, sometimes it whooshes. It was another year, flown by, and me no closer to my goal of reading EVERYTHING. I am as guilty as anyone of reading fluff, ephemera, and the National Enquirer that my husband faithfully brings home from the grocery. But in my (highly delusional) mind’s eye, I am on a quest to read All The Important Stuff. The grim reality: if I continue at my pace of reading one Shakespeare play a year, I am on par to finish around my 98th birthday. We’ll see.

I squeezed in just over 70 books in 2016; an average of just under 6 each month. I was reaching up to pat myself on the back for this when the CE mumbled a little humblebrag: “Oh, seventy-one? That’s nice. I read a hundred and ten.”


Sigh. Maybe I’ll do better this year. Maybe I’ll spend less time scrolling through my Twitter feed and playing Words With Friends. And maybe pigs will fly.

Anyway, here are my reads for the waning months of 2016:


The Tiger’s Wife: A Novel by Tea Obreht. Kindle. 352 pages, published 2011. (National Book Award Finalist for Fiction) Sometimes there is such a flurry of buzz around a book that I download it to read later. In this case several years later. It sat gathering dust in my Kindle library, and even once I started it, it failed to grab me for a hundred pages or so. But it was worth the wait – this is a haunting and beautiful story. The essence of the novel can be gleaned from the author’s personal history. Born in then-Yugoslavia, the Serbian-American Obreht was raised by a single mother and was very close to her maternal grandparents. Her grandfather was a Roman Catholic; her grandmother was a Muslim and this gives the very talented Obreht a singular perspective for her novel, which is set against the backdrop of the Yugoslav Wars in the 1990’s. Yes, there is an actual tiger. It takes awhile to tease out all the threads of this novel, part fable, part magic realism, part family history, but in the end, highly recommended.

Image from The New Yorker review, which is inestimably better than mine:


Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. Audiobook, narrated by Peter Francis James. 181 pages, published 1958. On many “must read” lists, this novel set in an unnamed country that is  almost certainly the author’s native Nigeria. The proud Okonkwo must grapple with the shift from pre to post-colonial life and, indeed, things do fall apart. This book is considered the preeminent novel in African literature and is a staple of African Studies courses around the world. The audio version is magnificently narrated but maybe I should have read it in book form; I never truly sank into this story. Neutral on recommending it.


The False Inspector Dew by Peter Lovesey. Kindle. 353 pages, published 1982. Everyone has their genre, and a book club friend’s is British crime fiction. Set in the 1920’s this murder mystery features Charlie Chaplin, the Lusitania, a cast of broadly drawn characters and various plot twists. Not my cup of English Breakfast so I cannot recommend.


A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles. Audiobook, narrated by Nicholas Guy Smith. 480 pages, published 2016. I logged many extra miles of walking just so I could keep listening to this wonderfully entertaining and poignant book. Towles, who is also the author of the excellent Rules of Civility: A Novel, covers thirty-some tempestuous years of Russian history from an attic room in Moscow’s Hotel Metropol. The story begins in 1922, when Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov,  whose family’s fortune was lost in the Russian Revolution, narrowly escapes a death sentence for his crime of being an aristocrat and is placed under house arrest. His charm, impeccable manners and deep friendships carry him through the ensuing decades. A joy to read. Highly recommended.


A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman. Kindle. 353 pages, published 2014. A wry take on a  Swedish widower and curmudgeon bent on committing suicide. Everyone loves this book, except me. Yes, the writing is clever, maybe too clever. There is one excellent chapter about a cat that survives a snowdrift, but otherwise, meh. Not recommended.

Ordinary Grace by William Kent Krueger. Audiobook, narrated by Rich Orlow. 497 pages, published 2013. Set during a single summer in a small town in Southwestern Minnesota, this is a gently told story woven around themes of family and faith and fragility. And death. Recommended.


A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin. Kindle. 880 pages, published 1991. I had a hate/love relationship with this book. Three hundred pages in, I thought of abandoning it. Four hundred pages in, I realized that Helprin is a genius and that I should probably start re-reading the book as soon as I finish it. I haven’t, but I will, because it is that good. Set in Italy, 1964, the elderly Alessandro Giuliani sifts through the events of his life, many of which center on his experience as a soldier in World War I. His assignments to the River Guard on the Isonzo and later to the mountains between Italy and Austria could not be more different in their setting or more alike in their futility. These are contrasted with an idyllic boyhood in his beloved Rome, the “city itself… like a family, like girlfriends, lovers, children. I can’t tell you exactly why, but it unfolds before you with the grace of water streaming from a fountain. I think that of Rome because for so many years I was either a child, a lover, a father, or a friend, in Rome, and it echoes and echoes, and I’ll hear it until I die.” Very highly recommended. I developed a great affection for The Tempest, a painting by 16th century Italian master Giorgione, which features prominently in the book:


They say you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you meet your prince, and that goes for reading, too. Many of the books I read in 2016 were good, a few were terrible, but at the end of the day – or year – here, in order, are my Top Ten:

East of Eden by John Steinbeck

Frankenstein by Mary Shelley

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway

Just Kids by Patti Smith

A Soldier of the Great War by Mark Helprin

The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

The Sunset Limited by Cormac McCarthy

Sea Room: An Island Life in the Hebrides by Adam Nicolson





About polloplayer

Empty nester searching for meaning of life through the occasional chicken epiphany.
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4 Responses to Shelf Life: Reading Retrospective, Finale.

  1. Cherrie says:

    I, too, read many wonderful books this year, and I compiled a list of my 16 best for ’16 to share with my friends and my children. My nonfiction favorites included Steven Lee Myer’s biography of Putin, Matthew Desmond’s EVICTED, and a tragic description of the Dadaab refugee camp in the Horn of Africa. I included memoirs, books of essays, a few biographies, some humor, and fiction. A biography of Churchill’s wife, Clementine, was especially enlightening. So many books to read, and life is so short!

  2. Jean Gutsche says:

    So, so interesting and entertaining! Thank you for these insights!!!

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