Whenever we reach year’s end, my husband Dan bemoans how short his book list is. Actually, he reads a ton for someone who works as hard as he does at a regular day job (which often requires his evenings as well) and is as involved as he is in the running of our household.
He also does this thing I really admire but don’t tend to do with my own reading, which is find a writer he likes, then read several books by the same person. This year he read two books each by George Orwell and sci-fi writer Joe Haldeman, and three by British novelist Edward St. Aubyn.
As usual, Dan and I have few overlaps in our lists. This year we have just two: Our friend Erica Lorraine Scheidt’s lovely and critically acclaimed debut YA novel, Uses for Boys, and Alex Shakar’s Luminarium, which I found myself wanting to call, perhaps unfairly, Nothing is Illuminated.
As for me, I realized looking at my list that I really do enjoy reading the sort of fiction I also write—namely, literary historical fiction. I read some terrific examples this year. I’m also thrilled to be able to say that, in addition to Erica’s book, I read with great pleasure several books by literary acquaintances, friends, and mentors (noted by linking to their websites). I’m grateful to be part of a large and supportive—and productive!—writing community.
Dan’s list is given in as-he-finished-them order. It’s all fiction except for the ones marked “nf” for non-fiction. The short annotations are his. My list is split into categories for no particularly good reason other than that I want to see for myself how I distribute my reading. (The books appear in each category in the order in which I finished them.) My annotations are, unsurprisingly, less brief.
- George Orwell, A Collection of Essays (nf). Deservedly classic.
- Nikolai Gogol, Dead Souls
- Erica Lorraine Scheidt, Uses for Boys
- Joe Haldeman, The Forever War (a classic) and Forever Peace (terrible)
- Daniel Pinkwater, Fish Whistle: Little Short Essays (nf)
- J. K. Rowling, The Casual Vacany. Better than given credit for.
- Thomas Marcinko, Astronauts & Heretics
- Stephen Macknik & Susana Martínez-Conde, Sleights of Mind (nf)
- Saladin Ahmed, Throne of the Crescent Moon
- P. G. Wodehouse, Carry On, Jeeves
- D. T. Max, Every Love Story is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace (nf)
- Edward St. Aubyn, Some Hope (a trilogy of short novels), Mother’s Milk, and At Last. Bitterly funny, ultimately kind of depressing.
- George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia
- Alex Shakar, Luminarium. Not a big fan.
- Gilbert Sorrentino, The Abyss of Human Illusion. Really liked while reading; can’t remember anything about it now.
- Sherwood Anderson, Winesburg, Ohio
- David Foster Wallace, This Is Water
- Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman. Finally finished after several years. Huzzah!
- Russell Banks, Lost Memory of Skin. Gorgeous prose about not-very-pretty characters.
- Erica Lorraine Scheidt, Uses for Boys. Sparkling and true.
- David Leavitt, The Indian Clerk. Loved this fictionalization of the relationship between mathematicians G. H. Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan.
- Pat Barker, Life Class. Another excellent First World War book from one of my favorite contemporary writers.
- P. D. James, Death Comes to Pemberley. “Disappointing” is the nicest thing I can think to say about this.
- Melinda Moustakis, Bear Down, Bear North (stories). Terrific stories set in Alaska.
- Nathan Englander, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (stories). So good I wondered why I even bother writing myself.
- Honoré de Balzac, Old Goriot. What a dark little tale. Provided some details I needed about Paris in the 1820s.
- Andrew Miller, Pure. Recommended to me by my friend, poet Susan Wolbarst. Paris in the 1780s. Why is this writer not more famous in the U.S.?
- Geraldine Brooks, March. Inventive and engaging re-imagining of the Civil War experiences of the absent father in Little Women.
- Robert Louis Stevenson, Kidnapped. Part of my regular diet of nautical fiction. Yum.
- Roddy Doyle, Mad Weekend. Odd little book with one of the funniest laugh-out-loud lines I’ve ever read.
- Alexander Pushkin, The Captain’s Daughter & Other Great Stories (stories). I can only remember the title story.
- Jodi Angel, You Only Get Letters from Jail (stories). Let me just add to the accolades. This book is awesome.
- C. S. Forester, Hornblower and the ‘Hotspur’. See above, re: Kidnapped.
- Wells Tower, Everything Ravaged, Everything Burned (stories). The much-anthologized title story is extraordinary, of course, but the others are also excellent.
- Alex Shakar, Luminarium. Ambitious and complex, but ultimately failed to justify its own length, IMO.
- Edwidge Danticat, The Dew Breaker. Tough and beautiful.
- Lucy Corin, One Hundred Apocalypses and Other Apocalypses. Weird and wonderful. Most remarkable physical book object I read and handled this year.
- John Lescroart, The Hunter. A page-turner with lots of great history and terrific sense of place.
- Julie Otsuka, The Buddha in the Attic. Love the way first-person plural is used in this compact novel.
- Josh Weil, The New Valley. Three novellas that reward reading and rereading. Long live the novella!
- Isabelle Wilkerson, The Warmth of Other Suns. Long. Too long. But worth the effort.
- Annie Dillard, An American Childhood. A great book for generating writing. I had to stop every few paragraphs to follow a new idea that popped into my head.
- Eula Biss, Notes from No Man’s Land. An often amazing stew of research, reflection, and memoir.
- Michelle Dicinoski, Ghost Wife. Also combines personal history and research to moving and lyrical effect.
- Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Unexpectedly funny in places.
- John D’Agata, Halls of Fame. Challenging. Mind-expanding. Sometimes exasperating.
- Susan Tive and Cami Ostman, eds., Beyond Belief: The Secret Lives of Women in Extreme Religions. The first essay in this anthology is by me! Includes other first-person accounts by women who belonged to, then left, strict religious communities.
- A. Kawabata, A Hermit Turned Loose. I’ll write a blog post about this book in 2014, but it’s an English-language travelogue written by my great-grandfather, Tokkyo (“A.”) Kawabata, who went to England in 1913.
- Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes. My mother lent me this book. What a great read—traces the history of a family & its art collection from Odessa to Vienna to Paris to Tokyo.
- Kate Cambor, Gilded Youth: Three Lives in France’s Belle Epoque. Another terrific read. Got me interested in reading more about the Dreyfus Affair.
- Gerard Manley Hopkins, Poems of Gerard Manley Hopkins. Challenging but worth every minute.
- Candace Ward, ed., World War One British Poets. Heartbreaking as always.
- Kay Boyle, The Collected Poems of Kay Boyle. Sometimes luminous & sometimes opaque.
- A. E. Housman, A Shropshire Lad. Some pretty lines. But felt—well, dated.
- May Sarton, The Silence Now. Having trouble remembering this book, but I know I copied out some lines from it.
- Margaret Atwood, Selected Poems. I copied out a lot of lines from this one.
- Anne Sexton, Love Poems. Raw and sometimes a little scary.
- Derek Walcott, The Prodigal: A Poem. Not always easy, but always gorgeous.
- Mary Oliver, A Thousand Mornings. More pleasant than stirring.
- Anne Carson, Red Doc >. A gift from my friend, writer Leah Lax (who’s also in the Beyond Belief anthology above). I already need to reread it.
- Robert Frost, Robert Frost’s Poems. Turns out some of the less-famous poems are also wonderful.
- Bowen, Temple, Albery & Wienrich, eds., Poem a Day, Volume 3. Received as a thank-you gift for being the pronouncer at a local spelling bee. Faithfully read a poem a day all year. Introduced me to poets I’d never heard of before.
- William Shakespeare, As You Like It. I liked it.
- Shakespeare, The Merchant of Venice. Still can’t figure out whether this is just an anti-Semitic play or a play about anti-Semitism. I want to believe it’s the latter, but I suspect it’s really just the former. Now watching some film adaptations.