For the third year in a row, I’m publishing the lists of books that my husband Dan and I read this past year. Interestingly, we both started the year with Melville, he with Billy Budd and I with Moby-Dick. A good way to start a year of reading, methinks.
The only book we both read was Don’t Take Me the Long Way, a memoir by M. C. Mars, whose cab Dan and I had the good fortune to ride in after our 25th anniversary dinner at La Folie in San Francisco. He regaled us with stories both wonderful and harrowing about driving in the City, and I eventually said in my writerly and English-teacher-y way, “Have you thought about writing some of this down?”
“I have written it down,” he said, and held up a book. He had a small box of them next to him on the front seat. We added its price to the cab fare, he signed it for us, and it ended up being the only book that both Dan and I read this year. It’s pretty entertaining stuff.
And here are the rest of the books we read, roughly in the order in which we completed them:
The Books Dan Read in 2012:
- Herman Melville, Billy Budd (novel)
- Charles Darwin, The Origin of Species (non-fiction): Turns out he was a good writer in addition to revolutionizing how we think about biology.
- Frank Key, Impugned by a Peasant (Frank Key is the guy behind the quirky Hooting Yard website & podcasts. Dan is a huge fan. “How should I describe this book?” I ask him, and he says, “Collection of surreal vignettes.” There you have it.)
- David Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow (non-fiction)
- Nathan Englander, What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank (short stories): I loved the title story, which appeared in The New Yorker. Dan reports the entire collection is amazing.
- James Gleick, The Information: A History, A Theory, A Flood (non-fiction): Something of a mess, according to Dan.
- David Markson, This Is Not a Novel (actually, I think it is): Dan read this for the second time, so it must be good.
- Nassim Nicholas Taleb, The Black Swan (non-fiction): Apparently it’s not about ballet.
- George R. R. Martin, A Game of Thrones (novel): Our younger son and Dan tore through the whole series this year. To wit:
- George R. R. Martin, A Clash of Kings
- George R. R. Martin, A Storm of Swords
- George R. R. Martin, A Feast for Crows
- George R. R. Martin, A Dance with Dragons
- Bill Buford, Among the Thugs: The Experience, and the Seduction, of Crowd Violence (non-fiction): About soccer hooligans. Another book Dan and our younger son both read.
- China Miéville, Embassytown (novel): Dan’s a huge Miéville fan; The City and the City still his favorite, but this one’s good too.
- M. C. Mars, Don’t Take Me the Long Way (memoir): See above.
- Theodore Sturgeon, More Than Human (novel): Meh, though generally Dan likes Sturgeon.
- Knut Hamsun, Hunger (novel)
- Mark Juddery, Overrated! The 50 Most Overhyped Things in History (non-fiction)
- Rajesh Parameswaran, I Am an Executioner: Love Stories (short stories). They really are all love stories, though in utterly surprising ways.
The Books Naomi Read in 2012:
- Herman Melville, Moby-Dick (novel): Best. Book. Ever. If I read this every year, I’d be a better person and a better writer.
- Julian Barnes, Arthur and George (novel). The “Arthur” of the title is Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. .
- Yusef Komunyakaa, The Chameleon Couch (poems)
- Mark Doty, The Art of Description: World Into Word (non-fiction)
- Rae Gouirand, Open Winter (poems): The stunning debut collection from my friend Rae.
- Barthélemy de Lesseps, Travels in Kamchatka During the Years 1787 and 1788 (non-fiction; English-language translation of de Lesseps’ journal of his trip across Russia after disembarking from the La Pérouse expedition)
- Nathaniel Philbrick, Why Read Moby-Dick? (non-fiction): Answer: Because it is awesome.
- D. A. Powell, editor, Best New Poets 2011 (poems)
- Rahul Mehta, Quarantine (short stories)
- A. B. Yehoshua, Mr. Mani (novel): Recommended by my father-in-law. Really unusual point of view at work here—you read just one person’s half of a conversation throughout. Somehow it works.
- Adam Zamoyski, Moscow 1812: Napoleon’s Fatal March (non-fiction)
- David Grossman, To the End of the Land (novel)
- Billy Collins, Horoscopes for the Dead (poems)
- Austin Coates, City of Broken Promises (novel). About Europeans in Macao in the late 18th century.
- Homer, The Odyssey (epic): How had I gotten this far in my life without reading this?
- Adrienne Rich, Diving Into the Wreck (poems): Of course.
- Eleanor Wilner, Tourist in Hell (poems): Could neither understand nor appreciate.
- Luís Vaz de Camões, The Lusíads (epic): It’s not The Odyssey.
- Kazuo Ishiguro, Never Let Me Go (novel)
- Dana Gioia, Can Poetry Matter? (non-fiction): The answer is yes.
- William Shakespeare, Macbeth (drama): Taught it for the first time this fall and saw the Davis Shakespeare Ensemble production in October (yes, our little town has its own Shakespeare troupe!). Awesome to re-read, to discuss, and to watch.
- Robinson Jeffers, Selected Poems (poems)
- David Orr, Beautiful and Pointless: A Guide to Modern Poetry (non-fiction)
- Maxine Kumin, The Long Marriage (poems)
- Michael Lewis, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine (non-fiction): Reading for a summer composition class I taught for which students had to do a research paper on the economic collapse. Best writing assignment I’ve ever given.
- Karen Russell, Swamplandia! (novel)
Paul Krugman, End This Depression Now! (non-fiction): See above on Michael Lewis.
- Howard Nemerov, Inside the Onion (poems)
- Rachel Ingalls, Mrs. Caliban (novel): Lent to me by my friend Ginny. Loved it.
- M. C. Mars, Don’t Take Me the Long Way (memoir): The guy whose cab we rode in.
- Jane Hirshfield, Come, Thief (poems): Lovely. Felt compelled to copy several out by hand.
- Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall (novel)
- Sharon Olds, The Father (poems): Eerily timely.
- Jim Cohee, The Swan (novel): Luminous, lyrical first book by my friend Jim. Worth reading, then immediately re-reading.
- Justin Torres, We the Animals (novel): A gift from my friend Teresa. Deserves the hype.
- Geoffrey Eugenides, The Marriage Plot (novel): Honestly don’t know how I feel about this one.
- Stephen Dunn, Different Hours (poems)
- Patricia Hampl, Spillville (non-fiction/memoir): A gift from my friend Leah. Simply amazing.
- Michael Ondaatje, The Cat’s Table (novel)
- Pam Houston, Contents May Have Shifted (novel): By my former teacher and thesis advisor. Short, overlapping vignettes both moving and funny.
- Bill Henderson, ed. Pushcart Prize XXXVI: Best of the Small Presses (short stories, essays, poems)
- Nikky Finney, Head Off & Split (poems)
Hi Alan. Thanks so much for that validation. I completely agree that the first two thirds are great, showing Sturgeon’s deftness in writing and generosity of spirit, but that the thing falls apart in the last third — though I had never really thought about the book in terms of thirds before.
Hi Dan — Thanks for your response. The middle section, “Baby Is Three,” was published first as an independent novella in Galaxy SF, and that’s how I first read it. In a recent online poll by Locus magazine, it ranked as #16 among 20th century SF novellas. When “More than Human” was published as a Ballantine paperback novel, I was astonished by the brilliance of the first section (“The Fabulous Idiot”), was delighted to reread the second section, and was sadly disappointed by the third section. (Even so, “More than Human” ranked #39 among 20th century SF novels in that recent poll.)
On the whole, I think Sturgeon was much stronger in his shorter fiction than as a novelist. However, if you haven’t read his first novel, “The Dreaming Jewels,” I’d suggest you give it a try. It’s more fantasy than SF and it’s not as skilled as the first 2/3 of “More than Human,” but it packs quite an emotional wallop. (It’s also autobiographical in certain ways, so it was of particular interest to me in that regard.) I can loan you a copy via Naomi if you like.
Thanks for these lists, Naomi. I very much agree with you re “Moby Dick.” At first I intended to disagree with your husband’s “meh” re Sturgeon’s “More than Human” — I am a big Sturgeon fan — but then I remembered an anecdote with which I began a review of Vol. 1 of Sturgeon’s collected short stories, 15 or 16 years ago:
“At my first scholarly conference on science fiction and fantasy, I was reluctant to comment on the literary quality of the works being discussed. I was, after all, only a psychologist, while most everybody else there was a genuine scholar of literature. But after listening to a paper on ‘More than Human,’ I couldn’t resist. The presenter had compared Sturgeon’s novel to Moby Dick and Huckleberry Finn, then complained that mainstream critics refused to acknowledge it as Great Literature. During the discussion period, I hesitantly declared my admiration for Parts One and Two of More than Human, but said Part Three had always struck me as poorly conceived and hastily written. Maybe Sturgeon had thrown that part together, I suggested, simply to meet a publisher’s demands for a book-length manuscript. I acknowledged that Huckleberry Finn wasn’t perfect either, but if we wanted to be regarded as serious scholars by critics outside the genre, we shouldn’t make insupportable claims for a work that suffered from such obvious deficiencies as ‘More than Human.’
“I cringed a little when the paper’s author flatly rejected my comments. He continued to insist that ‘More than Human’ was a magnificent work of literature throughout its length. Then another man in the small audience turned to me and agreed that Part Three had obviously been cranked out with little regard for quality. The publisher had wanted the book right away, he added, and wouldn’t wait any longer. Relieved to find at least one ally but not seeing a name tag, I said, ‘Thank you, and would you mind telling us who you are?’ The man replied in a modest voice, ‘I’m the author.'”
Wonderful list, Naomi. I saw several titles I want to read now.