Time for the annual backward glance on the reading year…
I read once, somewhere, that reading anything is good for you. I don’t know if I believe that. I used to draw the line at comic books, cereal boxes and appliance instruction manuals but life has conspired to toss some books my way this past year that actually make the booklet for my infernally complicated coffeemaker look like a candidate for a Pulitzer prize by comparison.
Looking back, I realize some of it is due to my burgeoning appetite for audiobooks. Since I apparently can’t walk and chew gum at the same time, the listened-to books have to come down a notch in seriousness. Driving (and in my case, walking, or, oh let’s just say – even breathing) under the influence of classic literature can be dangerous.
There are also the book club picks by friends who might actually have lives and don’t wish to spend them entirely on parsing Joyce or Herodotus. The light read is part and parcel of the sociability of a book club and if not particularly satisfying can almost always still be enjoyable.
Almost always. There was one absolutely dreadful read this year and I am here to save you from it. But first: eight worthy lightweights of 2019:
- The Shell Seekers by Rosamunde Pilcher, audiobook, narrated by Hayley Atwell. 656 pages. Published 1987.
A generational family saga set variously and most agreeably in London, Cornwall, the Cotswolds and Mallorca. Penelope Keeling is the family matriarch and the keeper of a suddenly quite valuable inherited painting, an event that brings out the best and worst in her various adult children. Recommended.
2. A Year in Provence by Peter Mayle, Kindle, 224 pages. Published 1989.
This was a re-read for book club and just as much fun the second time around. Of course you know the story; Mayle and his wife decide to move from England to full-time residency at their Provençal vacation home. Hilarity ensues as they encounter remodeling and cultural challenges.
3. The Paris Architect: A Novel by Charles Belfoure, audiobook, narrated by Mark Bramhall. 400 pages. Published 2013.
The subject is plenty serious – the grim fate of Jews in Paris under the Nazis during WWII and an architect who reluctantly and then passionately takes on the task of designing hiding places for them. Belfoure is himself an architect and has clearly researched the history and subject matter well. But his writing style is not (at least not yet – this is his first novel) of a caliber that would raise this novel to the level of literature. The characters come off as cardboard cut-outs. I’m lukewarm on this one.
4. Paris by the Book: A Novel by Liam Callanan, audiobook, read by Kim Bubbs. 365 pages. Published 2018.
Paris again, and what’s not to like? But this family drama that reads like a mystery is just a tad too pat and a tad implausible. As my college writing professor said, a story has to suspend the reader’s sense of disbelief and this one did not. Still, it’s Paris, so there’s that…
5. What She Gave Away (Santa Barbara Suspense #1) by Catharine Riggs. 337 pages. Paperback. Published 2018.
I love it when people give me books as gifts! A quick and surprisingly compelling read. Not my usual genre – I guess you could say Riggs is poised to become the next Sue Grafton given that this reads like a mystery and is set in Santa Barbara. Not sure I would have enjoyed it as much if it wasn’t for the fun of all the hometown landmarks, but Riggs is a smart writer and keeps things moving. Good character development of an unlikable protagonist and, in fact, there really isn’t anyone to like here, as the characters range from vapid to vicious, but almost everyone gets what they deserve in the end.
6. Grievance by Christine Bell. 284 pages. Audiobook, read by Shannon McManus. Published 2017.
Another “not my usual genre” book, which I would likely never have read except that we sat next to the very charming author at a local restaurant and struck up a conversation about books, only to find that she was the author of this one. It centers around a young widow in Nashville, Tennessee who is struggling to carry on with parenting her two young sons alone. And since when it rains it pours, she also discovers that she has acquired a murderous stalker. I guess you would call it a psychological thriller, one that is meticulously crafted, although creepily so.
7. The Thin Man by Dashiell Hammett. 190 pages. Paperback. Published 1933.
Well, it’s a classic, right? It seems I’ve somehow always known about detective Nick and Nora Charles and their dog, Asta, but somehow never read the book until it was assigned for a book club. Quick read, kinda smart and definitely smart alec-y, but honestly not all that interesting except for wondering why Nora is so content with Nick, who always has a cocktail in his hand and another woman clinging to his arm. I guess things were different in the ’30’s.
8. Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris. Audiobook narrated by the author. 288 pages. Published 2013.
And end-of-the-year listen with low expectations, which turned out to be a good thing. The best parts (truly excellent!) are lifted from previous publication in The New Yorker. The second best parts are riffs on Sedaris’ childhood, which isn’t an easy time for anyone, but apparently much more difficult if your father wears his underpants to the dinner table every night and your parents are in general somewhat benignly neglectful. Sedaris has a gift for finding humor, and sometimes poignancy, in the mundane and in the general feeling of alienation from the world that we know as the “human condition”. But it’s as if he ran out of material and gas about three-quarters of the way through and went for the easy laughs – “I know, I’ll spend 75 pages making fun of people for their political and religious views.” Maybe he was on deadline. I’d just like to have my $13 back.
And now, the biggest favor I can do for you is to warn you about the worst of the worst, the very worst book I read all year or possibly any year:
9. Erotic Stories for Punjabi Widows by Bali Kaur Jaswal. 314 pages. Kindle. Published 2017.
I think someone in a book club thought this would be a fun “summer read”. And then I suspect even she regretted it. The title is terrible and it just gets worse from there. It’s set in Southall, London, where second-generation Punjabis Nikki and Mindy navigate bi-cultural challenges with a murder thrown in for good measure. The thing is, the author is actually a pretty good writer, but the book is so, so dreadfully terrible. Maybe I’m being too harsh. Maybe you will love it, but it was most definitely not my cup of chai.