I have these recurring moments of panic when I realize that “too many books, too little time” is not just a bumper sticker quote but a real conundrum. I will never read everything I should, let alone everything I want. Let alon everything on my nightstand, bookshelf or in my Kindle library.
Which makes re-reads a particularly painful undertaking. How do I force myself read a book again when all those unread ones are calling out to me? I instinctively resist every re-read, but truthfully, once I dive in, I always find something that passed me by the first time. My two re-reads in 2018 were time well spent:
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley (144 pages, audiobook narrated by Dan Stevens, published 1818)
A towering classic. I was even more impressed with it the second time around. The catastrophic outcome of unbridled ambition is the theme that entranced me the most in this reading. Victor Frankenstein laments “Like the archangel who aspired to omnipotence, I am chained to an eternal hell.” And the complexity of Frankenstein’s grotesque creation touched me more this time around, as well. Pitiable, yet truly monstrous. There is something of each of them in all of us. Highly recommended.
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith (512 pages, Kindle, published 1943)
A lighter classic, but a classic nonetheless. I first read this as a teenager, yet all these years later the magic was the same: I turned the first few pages and somehow inhabited once again the young Francie Nolan stealing time to read on her Brooklyn tenement fire escape. Francie wouldn’t believe the current rent prices in Williamsburg, but everything else in this heart-filled coming-of-age novel remains timely and timeless. There is Katie, and her mother, who loves Francie’s brother best “Francie went to the back of her mother’s heart.” And Johnny, her father, a drunk who “lived in a half-dream world”. Francie’s goal at age 11 is to “get out of that place” and some day go across the Williamsburg Bridge. Spoiler alert: she makes it! Highly recommended.
The only reads that make me cower more than re-reads are short story collections. How fiercely I resist them! I find something jarring about them, careening from one tale to the next, but sometimes they just demand to be read, like these two:
Everything that Rises Must Converge by Flannery O’Connor (320 pages, audiobook narrated by Bronson Pinchot, Karen White, Mark Bramhall and Lorna Raver, published 1965)
Peak Southern Gothic and family dysfunction on steroids, O’Connor’s characters are an every-deadly-sin parade of gargoyles. There are weak, resentful grown men tied sullenly to their mother’s apron strings, bitter and angry men and women, and children who solemnly bear the burden of suffering the sins of their fathers and mothers and grandfathers. The stench of the human condition is burned into every one of these stories like a cattle brand. I won’t say they are a fun read, but they are classic Flannery O’Connor and therefore recommended.
The Son of the Wolf: Tales of the Far North by Jack London (169 pages, audiobook, narrated by John Chatty and Jim Roberts, published 1900)
I mostly try to steer clear of Jack London’s stories simply because I cannot bear the casual cruelty to animals that haunts his works. And yes, one of these stories made me weep, but it’s the price one has to pay to experience this astonishing collection of London’s work. The backdrop is a permafrost white-out of the inhospitable 19th-century Yukon Territory and the characters are roughhewn, peculiar and sometimes contemptible. It is altogether spellbinding. Highly recommended.
Another genre I rarely read these days is children’s literature, but two good books literally dropped into my lap this year:
The Poet’s Dog by Patricia McLachlan (96 pages, hardcover, published 2016)
My stepdaughter, Tina, handed me this book and said she thought I might like it. If she had told me it featured a talking dog, I might have declined to read it and so would you. But Teddy, the Irish Wolfhound, only speaks to children and poets, and that’s a horse -or dog – of a different color. What a sweet story. Recommended.
The Case of the Disappearing Kisses by Rosanne Ullman (32 pages, paperback, published 2018)
A little girl can’t go to sleep because she is afraid her parent’s goodnight kisses disappear. This book is especially dear to me because its author is a longtime precious friend of mine. I’m so proud of you, Rosanne!
And lastly, a trio of novels:
Pachinko by Min Jin Lee (496 pages, Kindle, published 2017)
This National Book Award finalist is a family saga so sweeping it made my head spin. The central theme is the struggle of early 20th century North Koreans eking out a life in Japan where they are treated as perpetual outsiders. Each of the family’s four generations could have peopled a book of their own and sometimes this read felt to me like ten pounds of book stuffed into five pounds of pages. But it is very well written and deserving of the kudos it as received. Recommended.
Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen (256 pages, audiobook narrated by Emma Thompson, Douglas Booth, Eleanor Tomlinson, Ella Purnell, Jeremy Irvine and Lily Cole, published 1817)
This was an “Audible original” meaning that it sacrifices somewhat the unabridged book to an audio performance, so it is not technically pure Austen but it is sufficiently satisfying. Set in the social scene of 19th century Bath, England, it is sort of a comedy of manners and somewhat silly and frothy, but a pleasurable listen nonetheless.
The Optimist’s Daughter by Eudora Welty (192 pages, paperback, published 1972)
A book club friend gifted me this fine read, published first in 1969 as a story in The New Yorker magazine, then refined in book form where it went on to win the 1973 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. Part of Welty’s genius is her detached but generous sympathy for her characters, even the unsympathetic ones. Protagonist Laurel McKelva comes home to New Orleans and copes with two calamities: the death of her beloved father and the baggage from his recent marriage to a much younger woman who can best be described as a “piece of work”. Laurel struggles to take possession of her place in her childhood home and of her family memories while tussling with her appalling stepmother over the family bread board. Recommended.
Almost done with 2018! Next week I’ll wrap up the re-cap with the best of the best, my top ten reads. Stay tuned – and send me your recommendations for my 2019 list!