Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Thoughts on 2019 Reading List

An extraordinary year for reading. Two of the best books, by any measure — one a novel, the other a memoir — were written by Kansans. 

The New York Times considered Ben Lerner’s The Topeka School one of the 10 best books of the year. Heartland, by Sarah Smarsh, was a finalist for the National Book Award.  

Both books resonated with me.  I worked in Topeka for years, and raised my family there. My daughter and Lerner attended the same high school. Lerner and my oldest son were competitors in debate. And, I am almost certain, I judged Lerner at least once at a Topeka forensics tournament.

I know the geography of The Topeka School — intimately. The World Famous Topeka Zoo. The Westridge Mall. The crumbling church at Stull with its gateway to hell. The Phelps family from Westboro Church with their crude signs denouncing gays. The Phelps family was guaranteed to raise your blood  pressure. I tried to avoid the intersections they frequented.

The Topeka School is Lerner’s most accessible novel, and most successful.   Kansas has had its writers — William Inge, William Stafford, Gordon Parks — but, until now, the Sunflower State could never boast of a writer with such range, insight and critical success.

Smarsh’s memoir is the story of growing up poor in rural Kansas. I see parallels in our lives, but the differences are stark.

She lived west of Wichita. I lived east. She was born when her mom was 17. My mom was married on her 15th birthday and I was born a week before she turned 16. Mom went on to have four children before she was 25, including a daughter stricken with cerebral palsy.

Both families had little education. My dad graduated high school. Mom, who grew up dirt poor, only went as far as the eighth grade. Sarah and I were both the first in our families to receive a college degree. 

But the differences in in economic opportunity and family stability were stark and help to explain why my family was a rung or two up the economic ladder.  

For generations Smarsh’s family was cursed with teen pregnancies, abusive men, divorce, alcoholism, and dead-end jobs.  

Neither of my parents smoked or drank, and dad was not a violent man, although he did not spare the belt when his three boys misbehaved. My folks were married more than 50 years.

The folks operated two cafes in our small town and Mom later ran a successful clothing store. Dad worked; first at a local refinery and, when that closed, he caught on with one of aircraft manufacturers in Wichita. I remember he found employment even in the midst of union strikes. The old man worked into his eighties.

We also benefitted from my paternal grandparents. Grandpa worked construction, yet still found time to grow a little alfalfa, raise cattle and a hog or two. He’d butcher a cow and a hog each year, assuring us a plentiful supply of beef and pork. Grandma raised chickens. She had layers and fryers (essentially if you weren’t a layer, you were a fryer, i.e. Sunday dinner), and nurtured an immense garden that fed three or four families.

Smarsh avoided her family’s curse of teen pregnancy. She attended the University of Kansas, received a degree in journalism and launched a successful career as a journalist covering socio-economic class, politics and public policy. 

Damn, these were good books.  Not unexpected in Lerner’s case, but Smarsh’s captivating memoir came out of left field.  My deepest appreciation to Rex Buchanan for telling me, “You’ve got to read this.”

(Rex had a new book published in 2019. I liked it a lot, but doubt that many of you have the same interest as I did in Petroglyphs of the Kansas Smoky Hills.)

Here are what I consider my best “reads” of 2019.  I think there’s something for everyone. Non-fiction was especially strong.

Lady In The Lake, Laura Lippman
The Overstory, Richard Powers
Big Sky, Kate Atkinson
The Nickel Boys, Colson Whitehead
Exhalation, Ted Chiang
Matterhorn, Karl Marlantes
The Institute, Stephen King
The Dutch House, Ann Patchett
The Topeka School, Ben Lerner
The Starless Sea, Erin Morgenstern
Agent Running in the Field, John le Carré
The Testaments, Margaret Atwood
The Night Watchman, Louise Erdrich

The Overstory by Richard Powers and The Starless Sea by Erin Morgenstern were flawed, but beautiful, powerful works of fiction. 

The most skillfully executed novel was The Dutch House by Ann Patchett. Her best in a long and distinguished career.

Don’t overlook Stephen King and The Institute. If you think shlock horror, you’re mistaken. He is a consummate storyteller who understands the source of true evil lives in the heart of our fellow man. 

I was extremely pleased to discover the writing of James L. Haley, who has launched a series of adventure novels featuring the “early American, tall ship sailing navy.” With three books published, and five more planned, Haley is poised to do for the nascent U.S. navy, what Patrick O’Brien did for the British. Haley is every bit as adept as Bernard Cornwell when it comes to historical fiction. The novels are an absolute delight and will be a welcome addition to my reading life for years to come. 

I re-read Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor. If you have not read this classic work of British literature it’s time.  There are echoes of Edith Wharton is this closely observed novel of an aging woman clinging to ever-diminishing resources and the unexpected social demands of her new residence.  It is utterly lovely. 

Dreyer’s English, Benjamin Dreyer
The Best Cook In The World, Rick Bragg
K, A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches, Tyler Kepner
Becoming Superman, J. Michael Straczynski
The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee, David Treuer
Madame Fourcade’s Secret War, Lynne Olson

I realize as I write this that Rex Buchanan also recommended Rick Bragg’s The Best Cook in the World. I loved this book, and have prepared a couple of the recipes found within.  

As for Dreyer’s English, a book about words is always welcome. Tyler Kepner’s K, A History of Baseball in Ten Pitches is the best baseball book I’ve come across in years. I suspect its a book I will read again, and again.

The Heartbeat of Wounded Knee by David Treuer is an unusual combination of history and memoir, in which Treuer catalogs how the Indian continues to thrive despite every effort by the American government and many of its citizens to eradicate the Indian and his culture. I strongly recommend reading this book in conjunction with Louise Erdrich’s The Night Watchman, which is scheduled for publication in March

Finally, I read all of 133 books in 2019. That’s a little low for me, but retirement seems to be keeping me occupied. I’ve been keeping a book list since 1996 and I’ve read (or re-read) 3,405 books in that time.

Currently reading a biography of Stevie Ray Vaughn and, of course, dipping into Dickens (Martin Chuzzlewit)  to launch the new year properly. 

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