I was going to entitle this the Top Ten, but I must have been at tens and elevenses that day. Because it turns out that it is actually ten plus one that crowd the tippy-top of my list. One so far above the rest that it probably deserves its own post, but I can see you rolling your eyes and saying enough already with last year’s reading.
So here they are, in ascending order, up the staircase to the empyrean:
10. Main Street by Sinclair Lewis (496 pages, audiobook, narrated by Barbara Caruso. Published 1920, Harcourt, Brace and Howe.)
I struggled with this book. It does not sing with the poetic cadence of Winesburg, Ohio. It is as dull and plodding as its characters from Gopher Prairie, Minnesota. But long after I finished it, I found myself still contemplating Carol Milford Kenicott of the quince-blossom skin, and the invidious town gossips with their “fangs and sneering eyes” whose life purpose is to keep her and others like her in check. And yet, it is not all as simple as that. Carol, a bit vain and self-absorbed, is not exactly the heroine we might have hoped for. Things happen as we expect and then not as we, or at least I, expected. This is far from my favorite classic but still, it is a worthy classic. An e.e. cummings quote that perfectly fits this book: A world that is “doing its best, night and day, to make you everybody else.”
9. A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles (468 pages, audiobook, narrated by Nicholas Guy Smith. Published 2016, Viking)
This was a joyous re-read. Towles’ Count is truly the perfect gentleman, his literary pedigree is impeccable thanks to the surname of Rostov (not to mention the hotel cat’s moniker of Marshal Kutuzov!) and I found myself thinking that a lifetime of house arrest at the Hotel Metropol in Moscow would not be the worst fate imaginable.
Sometimes my thoughts drift to the roof there where he communes with the hotel handyman and the bees whose honey tastes of the apple blossoms from Nizhny Novgorod. The reader is also given some gentle history lessons along the way; he manages to slip in a reminder that Walter Duranty of the New York Times won a Pulitzer Prize in journalism for whitewashing Josef Stalin’s systematic starvation of Ukrainians in the early 1930’s.
8. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen (480 pages, audiobook, narrated by Rosamund Pike. Published 1813, T. Egerton, Whitehall)
Another re-read. I have to say that I might not have been quite as enchanted with Elizabeth Bennet this time around and most certainly not with her fatuous mother, Mrs. Bennet. But Mr. Darcy comes off well, if only because I had the image of Colin Firth at hand throughout Rosamund Pike’s fine narration of this classic. On some levels this book can seem simplistic, but it is so finely knit and so tantalizingly paced and so sharply observant of human character that I willingly fell once again under Ms. Austen’s captivating spell.
7.Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere by Here by Angela Palm (273 pages, audiobook, narrated by Jorjeana Marie. Published 2016, Graywolf Press)
This book. Wow. Let me just say that I agree with this author about almost nothing but I am in awe of her writing. This is a memoir created from a series of essays threaded together to make a book. It works. Angela Palm could write about putting on her socks and it would shine. I was initially drawn to her book because she writes about growing up in nowhere, Indiana, a plight to which I could relate. In spades. And on a river, as did I, although she has makes the homely Kankakee River shimmer as if it is the center of the universe. Her story is immensely personal but she has the gift of standing outside herself to convey it. Can’t wait to see what she writes next.
6.Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry (964 pages, audiobook, narrated by Lee Horsley Published 1985, Simon and Schuster)
Not my century. And most certainly not my genre. A 19th century Western? Are you kidding? And yet, listening to this book was one of the happiest months (it’s a long book!!) of my year. I forced it upon the CE and he loved it, too. Just dive in – I promise you will like it! This 1986 Pulitzer prize-winner is fiction, but the character of Captain Woodrow Call is based on real-life Texas Ranger Charles Goodnight and Augustus “Gus” McCrae on Oliver Loving.
Newt and Jake and Pea Eye and Lorena – they will all become the best friends you wish you’d had, and the cattle drive from Texas to Montana is an odyssey that verges on an epic. Adventure, humor and pathos. This is a great, great read.
5.Silence by Shusaku Endo (256 pages, audiobook, narrated by David Holt. Published 1966, Peter Owen Publishers)
There was a bit of fuss over a film adapted from this book a year or so ago. I didn’t see it, but I remembered hearing that director Martin Scorsese had read and re-read the book a dozen or so times over the years and was long dead set on making a film of it. That piqued my curiosity so off I went on the true-life 17th-century misbegotten journey of Brazilian Catholic priest missionaries to Japan. You probably don’t want to know what the Japanese did to these visitors or to their Christian converts. But the conundrum of faith and how it is best expressed and served, is brilliantly explored in this slim volume. I can see why Scorsese has read it again and again, because as often as one revisits the subject as presented by the Japanese Roman Catholic author, the answers continue to elude.
4. Member of the Wedding by Carson McCullers ( 179 pages, audiobook, narrated by Susan Sarandon. Published 1946, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
Long ago I read and was dazzled by McCullers’ The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. But somehow I never got around to this one. I’m glad I waited, because Susan Sarandon’s narration of this classic was truly a gift. Sarandon is McCullers’ partner in brilliance in this sweet coming-of-age tale set in small-town “the noon air was thick and sticky as hot syrup” Alabama. The black cook Berenice is a study in race relations from a simpler time but one filled with great wisdom. She longs for a world with “no killed Jews and no hurt colored people.” McCullers, a contemporary of Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, reportedly irritated and alienated others with her sense of self-importance, but there is no denying her gift. This book is a treasure.
3. Brideshead Revisited by Evelyn Waugh (418 pages, audiobook, narrated by Jeremy Irons. Published 1945, Chapman and Hall)
It is difficult to separate the personality of author Evelyn Waugh from his books, but I am going to go out on a limb and claim that Brideshead Revisited stands on its own merit. Yes, I suppose it is in a some ways a memoir masquerading as a novel, but it is also so much more. Waugh’s stand-in character Charles Ryder becomes entwined first with his Oxford classmate Sebastian Flyte and later with Sebastian’s sister, Julia. I wonder if they are two sides of the same character in Waugh’s remembrance. Roman Catholicism and the ravages of World War II figure prominently in this complex and exquisitely constructed novel. Et in Arcadia ego.
2. Suite Françaiseby Irène Némirovsky (448 pages, Kindle. Published 2004, Denoel)
There are scores of novels written about World War II and The Holocaust. I don’t think I have read one more compelling than this. Partly because it is a good story. It is a descriptive tale of the various ways in which Parisians dealt with the 1940 Nazi occupation and its aftermath. But it is when the novel abruptly ends that the real story begins. Author Némirovsky, a well-known novelist of Jewish-Ukranian origin who had converted to Roman Catholicism, was arrested in Vichy France as she was writing this book and sent to Auschwitz where she perished shortly thereafter. Heartbreaking. This is an important book.
1. The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (313 pages, audiobook, narrated by Jennifer Connelly. Published 1949, John Lehmann)
What an extraordinary book this is. And it is another one that is greatly enhanced by an impeccable narrator – Jennifer Connelly’s narrative performance here is superb. In a post WWII funk, Kit and Port Moresby attempt to heal their troubled marriage by traveling to the Algerian desert. So much sand. And heat. And struggle. “Reach out – pierce the fine fabric of the sheltering sky. Take repose.” This book is dreamlike, yet hauntingly real. We join Kit in her uneasy journey toward awareness: “Someone once had said to her, that the sky hides the night behind it, shelters the person beneath from the horror that lies above.”
And the plus one? The book that towered effortlessly above the other ten? It was no contest. Best book of my reading year, by a long way:
War and Peaceby Leo Tolstoy (1399 pages, Kindle. Serialized, 1865-1867, The Russian Messenger)
I first tried to read this book back in the 1970’s. Set it aside after a few chapters. Picked it up again when son Taylor was assigned it as a summer requirement for AP high school English. (What were they thinking????) He managed to read it, or pretended to. I couldn’t. Too many horses and soldiers and generals. Fun fact: there are 500 characters in this novel!
I don’t know what clicked for me this time around. Sheer determination? Probably not. I am sadly lacking in such qualities. Perhaps enough accumulation of historical knowledge to gain a bit of a grasp of the Napoleonic Wars, which furnish the backdrop for this great novel. But there is so, so much more. I took pages and pages of notes on this book as I plowed through it this time, so let that be a warning to you. Mention War and Peace to me at your peril! Just take my word for it that this novel is one of the greatest literary accomplishments EVER and that every one of its nearly 1400 pages was a gift. So what if it’s a month or (in my case) six weeks out of your life. Time well spent.
Here’s the thing about reading. Whatever odious thing may be lurking about on a given day, a book gives you a trap door, a detour, a free pass out. I may be stuck in bumper to bumper traffic on the freeway but I have a secret exit. I can think back to Lonesome Dove where Peach drawls to Roscoe “You aint got the sense that God gave a turkey” and have a good laugh. Or maybe I’m transported to Carson McCullers’ Alabama where “it was the end of an afternoon in late November and in the east the sky was the color of a winter geranium.” Life seems to throw things at us almost daily that make no sense, but even then there is the comfort of Tolstoy, reminding us sagely that “The only thing we can know is that we don’t know anything.”
In other words, books make life bearable. And as regretful as I am to let go of these eleven, remnants of them will stay with me always. And there are easily eleven more out there awaiting me – and you! – this year and next year and beyond. Happy reading!
“There is no friend as loyal as a book.” – Ernest Hemingway