Oh, I am a jaded reader. Even time-honored classics don’t make my top ten these days. But after the way I savaged some people’s favorite books and then summarily dismissed others, this should surprise no one. I’m a slow reader and time is moving faster, faster, faster. Frank Zappa’s dilemma hangs over me like a constant cloud: “So many books, so little time.” So yes, I get a bit cranky when I commit to a read and it behaves like a bad houseguest, overstaying its welcome or reveling in dullness, vapidity or hubris.
Luckily, such books are in the minority. I read so many good books this year that some of the greats fell shy of my Top Ten list. I don’t want to be the one to tell Ernest Hemingway he was only a runner-up, but that’s just the way the milk spilt this time around. Here are thirteen of my almost-best reads, in no particular order, some “keepers” from 2017:
A Passage to India by E. M. Forster (370 pages, Kindle, Edward Arnold, published 1924) One of my greatest reading fears is that I will come to the end of books to read by E. M. Forster. I guess I can always start re-reading them; they are that good. Even though his characters can be a bit cartoonish, this novel is compelling in its gentle but probing examination of the clash of British and Indian culture and the Christian and Muslim religions.
The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War by Michael Shaara (355 pages, paperback, McKay, published 1974) This was a re-read of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel that put Colonel Joshua Chamberlain and the 20th Maine on the map. I have described it as the gateway drug that will take you down the very deep rabbit hole of Civil War study, so you read it at your own risk! It inspired our visit to Gettysburg and an entire shelf of Civil War arcania on the CE’s bookshelf.
A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway (352 pages, Kindle, Charles Scribner’s Sons, published 1929) This WWI novel set in northern Italy might be my least favorite Hemingway but of course, at his worst, he is still better than almost anyone else. The submissive one-dimensionality of the Catherine Barkley character and the unwarranted deference of all to Hemingway’s self-referential Frederic Henry give me fits. But the all night rowing trip from Stresa to safety in Switzerland and the ensuing chapters are unforgettable. This book is the source of the great Hemingway quote “The world breaks every one and afterward many are strong at the broken places.” In this re-read, I happened to count, apropos of nothing, at least sixty-three references to alcohol. That’s a lot of grappa.
Some Luck: A Novel by Jane Smiley (416 pages, Kindle, Anchor Books, published 2014) Midwest Gothic is how I would describe Smiley’s work. It ambles along to the rhythm of corn growing in the fields and then out of nowhere, lightning strikes. Literally, as it happens, in this book. A sweeping multi-generational family saga, this novel reaches across time from the 1920’s to the Dust Bowl to the Cold War years. If you’re only going to read one book by Jane Smiley, it should be A Thousand Acres, but if, like me, you ache now and then for the cornfields, this one works, too.
Year of Wonders: A Novel of the Plague by Geraldine Brooks (323 pages, Kindle, Penguin Books, published 2002) I don’t know why I like this book. Anna is a peculiarly contemporary heroine set in 17th-century plague-ridden England. The story is somewhat unruly and almost literally gallops off at the end like Anteros, the horse on which Anna escapes to – Algeria? Didn’t see that one coming! But for some reason, this book stuck with me. Brooks stirs a very interesting cauldron of puritanical Christianity and of superstition and witchcraft as a village tries to come to terms with the ravages of the plague.
Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury (194 pages, Kindle, Ballantine Books, published 1953) When I finished the re-read of this classic, my first thought was that it didn’t hold up. Bradbury didn’t waste a lot of time developing characters or polishing dialogue and the book read for me like flat champagne, yellowed and a bit viscous. But then again, Bradbury was going for something bigger than character and dialogue. His prescient themes have stayed with me, along with his very apt quoting of Hugh Latimer, who was burned at the stake for heresy in 1555. Yesterday’s heresy is today’s political correctness. And since they are still banning books in 2018 maybe we all need to reread Fahrenheit 451 now and then. My favorite quote: “If you don’t want a man unhappy politically, don’t give him two sides to a question to worry him; give him one.”
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett (362 pages, Kindle, Harper, published 2011) Thank the Lord, I finally found an Ann Patchett book that I like! I was all meh about Bel Canto and like ummm about Commonwealth but this one, set in the Amazon jungle, pleased me. Patchett keeps the volume up high with the throbbing pulse of the river and the the bugs and the snakes and the fevers, and thus I found her quirky characters much less intrusive than usual. The gist of it is that a hapless research scientist heads into the jungle and sheds a lot of baggage – literally and figuratively – along the way. Bonuses include bullet ants, anacondas and one of the most beautiful dust jackets in recent memory.
Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright (448 pages, Kindle, Knopf, published 2013) Wright can take the most serpentine of subjects and tease out a thread for the reader to follow. He did it with The Looming Tower and he has done it here with this survey of L. Ron Hubbard and the “religion” of Scientology. Don’t let the page count daunt you – this National Book Award finalist reads like a thriller.
Machine Dreams by Jayne Anne Phillips (331 pages, Kindle, E.P. Dutton/Seymour Lawrence, published 1984) This novel is one of the loveliest books I’d never heard of. Came across it by chance; one of the best surprises of my reading year. Set mostly in West Virginia, it is a period piece, exquisitely paced, capturing and encapsulating middle-class American life from post-WWII to the Vietnam War.
News of the World by Paulette Jiles (224 pages, Audiobook, narrated by Grover Gardner; William Morrow, published 2016) This National Book Award finalist reads simply but there is some beautiful turning of phrase as grizzled war veteran and itinerant news reader Captain Jefferson Kidd is beset in the year 1870 with the task of shepherding a ten-year-old girl recently rescued from abduction by Kiowa Indians. Quotes like this one make this book sing: “…overhead, nightjars moved and sang their low and throaty songs. They swept low like owls, and carried the light of the stars on their backs.”
Since We Fell: A Novel by Dennis Lehane (432 pages, Audiobook, narrated by Julia Whelan; Ecco, published 2017) This is not my genre and these are not my people. But Dennis Lehane is a good storyteller and an excellent craftsman. I choose books to listen to differently than I choose books to “read”, and this book was a good “listen”. I guess you would call it a “crime novel” or a “thriller”. I looked forward to putting in the earbuds every time I set off on a walk and listened to it. A little scary and fun and I imagine the movie will be coming out soon.
Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott (290 pages, Anchor, published 2000) Anne Lamott probably bristles every time she is lumped in as a “Christian writer” because she will be the first to loudly tell you how little she has in common with many Christians. “Most Christians“, she notes, “seemed almost hostile in their belief that they were saved and you weren’t. But while she gives the side eye to Christianity in general, Lamott unabashedly loves Jesus. Here, she shares her journey out of alcoholism and into faith and motherhood. My favorite quote of hers is in this book: “In fact, not forgiving is like drinking rat poison and then waiting for the rat to die.”
An Odyssey: A Father, A Son, and an Epic by Daniel Mendelsohn (321 pages, Knopf, published 2017) What a sweet and brilliant read this was! A classics professor at Bard College, Mendelsohn interweaves the poignant history of his own relationship with his father against the backdrop of Odysseus and son Telemachus in Homer’s Odyssey. There are entertaining moments when Mendelsohn’s father decides to audit his class course on the Odyssey and then accompany him on a cruise that mimics Odysseus’ voyage. Along the way we gain so many insights into the epic that it gave at least this reader the courage to tackle it anew. But the most precious insights are about family and love and loss. Mendelsohn gives the reader a most generous gift in this book. Highly recommended.
Next week…finally...the Top Ten from my reading year.