Friday, January 01, 2016

Thoughts on 2015 reading

I read 205 books in 2015.  Like the four-minute mile, it was such a preposterous and unattainable achievement that it was not a goal when the year began. My previous high was 175 books in 2014. Reading 160 to 170 books this past year seemed most likely.

But there it is. Bannister broke the four-minute mile barrier and I exceeded 200 books. Clearly, such elusive barriers are within reach.

On to the books . . .

This year I’m going to divide my reading recommendations into two categories: books issued in 2015 and books published prior to 2015.

Here’s the 2015 list:

A Little Life, Hanya Yanagihara
The Turner House, Angela Flournoy
The Gap of Time, Jeanette Winterson
The Girl on the Train, Paula Hawkins
Trigger Warning, Neil Gaiman
Seveneves, Neal Stephenson
A God In Ruins, Kate Atkinson
Even Dogs In The Wild, Ian Rankin
The Water Knife, Paolo Bacigalupi
March Book Two, John Lewis, Andrew Aydin & Nate Powell
DC: The New Frontier, Darwyn Cooke
Descender, Jeff Lemire/Dustin Nguyen
Our Souls at Night, Kent Haruf
What Pet Should I Get?, Dr. Seuss
The Wright Brothers, David McCullough
So Many Roads, The Life and Times of the Grateful Dead, David Browne
The Pine Tar Game, Filip Bondy

Seventeen books, and you will notice that genre fiction — notably, mystery and sci fi — is well represented. I am no longer making a distinction between literary fiction and genre fiction. If I like a book, I like it.

There’s one children’s book (the incomparable Dr. Seuss), three graphic novels (isn’t time you tried one?) and three works of non-fiction.

The best book? A Little Life. Yanagihara is a writer of great skill and intelligence. This book is almost painful to read, but incredibly rewarding. Second best, McCullough’s The Wright Brothers, which I found inspirational and exceptionally well-told.

Pre-2015 books:

Fun Home, Alison Bechdel
Hullabaloo at the Guava Orchard, Kiran Desai
Shelf Life, ed. Greg Ketter
The Billionaire’s Vinegar, Benjamin Wallace
Blondie, The Bumstead Family History, Dean Young & Melena Ryzik
A Smithsonian Book of Comic-Books Comics, ed. Michael Barrier and Martin Williams
Sundays with Walt and Skeezix, Frank King

My interest in what I call the graphic arts has grown exponentially in recent years. The list above includes three “histories” that are liberal in their presentation of early comic strips or comic books. I had forgotten just how funny Blondie could be and Frank King was an artistic genius. The Smithsonian collection ranges from selections of Little Lulu to the Spirit.

Shelf Life is the only story collection to make either list.  The initial story in the collection, by Gene Wolfe, is reason enough to read the entire book. Fun Home is a powerful graphic memoir and Hullabloo at the Guava Orchard is quirky and comic. 

One final book I want to call attention to is The Amazing Adventures of Selma Calderon by Rebecca Villarreal. I work with Villarreal. She is a talented and creative force. One of her photographs hangs in my home office.  Young readers will delight in the adventures of Selma Calderon. Selma is amazing. Villarreal is too..  

“Classic” Reading

At the beginning of each month, I try to read a book that I define as a “classic.” It may be a book that I have read before — Cather’s My Antonia, for example — or it may constitute a book that I think I should read — such as Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian. I always start the year with something by Charles Dickens. 

I have adopted this plan for three reasons. It ensures that each month I read something of quality. It allows me the pleasure of re-visiting books I hold dear, and it provides the impetus to broaden my reading and dip into those works of literature I might have missed while growing up on a diet of sci fi and comics.

While I can recommend — without hesitation — every book listed below, I want to single out two books. First, Laurie Colwin’s Goodbye Without Leaving.  Colwin is a delightful writer and I plan to read something she’s written once each year. If I were to recommend one book from my list of  “classics” it would be Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. Warm, insightful, closely observed and humorous, Mrs. Palfrey is superb.

January – The Old Curiosity Shop, Charles Dickens
February – Fifty-Two Pickup, Elmore Leonard
      Swag, Elmore Leonard
      Unknown Man No. 89, Elmore Leonard
                  The Switch, Elmore Leonard
March –  *One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ken Kesey
April – Deliverance, James Dickey
May – *My Antonia, Willa Cather
June – *Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, Anne Tyler
July – Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont, Elizabeth Taylor
August – *Sandy Koufax, Jane Leavy
September - The Quiet American, Graham Greene
October - (Missed this month due to family vacation. It happens.)
November - *Goodbye Without Leaving, Laurie Colwin
December - The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-time Indian, Sherman
        Alexie, illustrations by Ellen Forney

* Re-read

And a few authors who never seem to disappoint

Finally, here’s a list of authors whose books I can recommend without reservation. I seem to have cultivated a taste for a steady diet of historical fiction and mystery/thrillers. No apologies. First and foremost, one should read for pleasure.  Through the years these authors have produced books that have been a steady, reliable source of enjoyment.

Bernard Cornwell, Alan Bradley, T. Jefferson Parker, Laura Lippman, C.J. Box, Julia Keller, Craig Johnson, Patrick O’Brian, Louise Penny, Peter May, Michael Connelly, Robert Crais, Steve Hamilton, Neil Gaiman, Paul Auster.