It’s 2017! Where has 2016 gone? It was a great year for reading, and I met my reading challenge (notice I’m not saying “goal.” I have a tricky relationship with goals and reading, as I’ve addressed in this specific context before). Here’s how the year went:
There was A LOT of poetry. Poetry holds a special place in my heart, and this year I sort of rediscovered it. Here were some of my favorites:
- Dream by Mary Oliver (Oliver is so, so good. The more I read, the more I love her!)
- American Primitive by Mary Oliver (Her nature works are the best, in my opinion. She sees things so clearly and beautifully. You feel like you are there with her).
- After by Jane Hirshfield (Hirshfield is my latest poetic love affair, and After is not just one of my favorite books read this year, but one of my favorite books of all time. I may read it every year. I will definitely read it again this year, hopefully twice. Poetry should be read every day. It’s good for the soul).
- The Beauty by Jane Hirshfield (This one did not speak to me quite so intimately as After but it was still exceptional. This year I am already reading and loving Given Sugar, Given Salt. I’m pretty much going to read every other Hirshfield book I can find this year. Her Come, Thief is also one of my favorite books ever).
- Erotic Poems by e.e. cummings [Blush]
- Howl by Allen Ginsberg [little blush] (This one had been on my to-be-read list for a long time, and I’m a little bit embarrassed I hadn’t read it yet. It was good, very powerful, and gets talked about a lot, so I’m glad I finally did it).
- In the Home of the Famous Dead by Jo McDougall (a large collection from a local poet. Very good and moving and clearly drawn from the influences of the region).
- Anyone by Nate Klug (short, but compelling and meaningful, this one spoke to my heart and specifically reminded me that life is good but poetry can always make it better).
Not exactly poetry, but about poetry so fitting in this section:
- Upstream by Mary Oliver (poet adoringly mentioned above)(this was a collection of essays that talk about her process some, but also contain some prose but still very artistic observations of nature and her surroundings and writing. Comparing prose and poetry is kind of like apples and oranges, but I adored some of these essays at least as much as some of my favorite poems from her).
- The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner (this was a very fascinating non-fiction piece, especially for a poetry lover. Lerner loves poetry too, but also understands why people hate it. And how, in a strange way, that’s as it should be. You’d have to read it to fully get it, but it’s compelling. And doesn’t make me love poetry even a little bit less).
In case you’re just tuning in, I love, love, love short stories. Poetry is my first love, but a short story, done well, can be the most beautiful thing in the world. While 2016 was long on poetry, it was short on short stories, which I will need to remedy. But the ones I read were excellent, and I want to read more and more. Some of the best were as follows:
- Delicate, Edible Birds by Lauren Groff (one of the best short story collections I have ever read. I read her much longer piece, Fates and Furies, first, and thought I loved it. But this short story collection blew me away).
- Pond by Claire-Louis Bennett (Oh my gosh! Adored this! So breathtakingly good, so alive, so raw, so gorgeous. Loved it!!!!)
- Bad Behavior by Mary Gaitskill (this was so dark but so good. Not for everyone given the subject matter, but lovely and moving).
- Dear Mr. You by Mary-Louise Parker (unconventional to place in this sub-category, as it was written as a series of letters to all the men in her life, but it’s my list, so I’ll do what I want! I don’t know what artistic liberties were taken. The “men” were all given nicknames. It felt unbelievably real and artistic at once. Moved me more than, maybe, any other book I read this year).
- When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris (The short story is where Sedaris lives, and I love him for it. So hilarious, and effortlessly so, I read at least one Sedaris a year just to remind me not to take life too seriously).
- Bark by Lorrie Moore (yes, yes, YES!!!)
Excellent, Excellent Novels
The other works that really moved me this year were some exceptional novels, some new, some old, all beautiful and moving. In no particular order, some highlights were as follows:
- The Course of Love by Alain de Botton (this was a sort of continuation from the first de Botton novel I fell in love with, On Love, and I had been looking forward to reading this one since before it even existed. While On Love addresses the exciting, giddy, falling-in-love stages, The Course of Love speaks more to what goes on after. It might feel sad, even depressing, but probably not completely unfamiliar to anyone who has been in a committed relationship for many years, The beginning is fun, but it is what comes next that fulfills and defines. de Botton remains a perpetual favorite).
- So Much for That Winter by Dorthe Nors (a strange, experimental concept in the form of two novellas. Left me feeling…unsettled, but I’m glad I took the journey).
- Imagine Me Gone by Adam Haslett (Haslett’s short story collection You Are Not a Stranger Here left his readers desperate for more, myself included. Many, many, many years later, we got this novel. It was good, but hard. A dark look at mental illness and how it impacts everyone around it, especially in families. Not an easy read, but so exceptionally written, you’re truly missing out if you don’t try it. One of the best books I read last year).
- The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris (you have to be ready to go dark to read Ferris, and this is perhaps nowhere more true than with this one. A compelling, unique story, but you you will find neither sunshine nor rainbows).
- The Flamethrowers by Rachel Kushner (an award winner, and deservedly so, this book quite literally kicked ass. I don’t know if I’m more in love with the motorcycle stuff or the Italy stuff, but I left this book certain that I need a lot more of both in my life).
- Purity by Jonathan Franzen (say what you will, but I adored this book. The length alone made it not for the faint of heart. I actually saw Franzen read a portion of this book here in Kansas City, and I was anxious for more. It did not disappoint. For me, Franzen is one of the great writers of our time, and this book only further proves that).
- After Alice by Gregory Maguire (ever since Wicked, I’ve been chasing that high. After Alice didn’t quite get me there, but it got me closer than anything else by Maguire has yet).
- The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth Mckenzie (a front-runner for my favorite book of the year, and maybe of all time. I’ve never read anything like it. Truly unique, gorgeous, amazing!).
- Fates and Furies by Lauren Groff (one of the most profound, challenging, deeply literary books I’ve ever read. I think a good 25% went directly over my head, but I still loved it. Intensely moving and real).
- The Monsters of Templeton by Lauren Groff (also good, but hard to believe it was written by the same author, it was so different in style and content).
- The Whistler by John Grisham (Grisham is back. I don’t care what you say, it was highly entertaining and easy to read. Fun times!)
- The Rogue Lawyer by John Grisham (same).
- The Assistants by Camille Perri (very entertaining, very “millennial”).
- Loner by Teddy Wayne (an entertaining story that will make you feel kind of disgusted with yourself at the end. Don’t let the advertisements fool you; a perfect hybrid of The Catcher in the Rye and The Secret History it was NOT!)
- The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney (so, so good. A compelling tale of complex family dynamics. Also New York. Loved it!)
- A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman (so good I found myself reading it slowly, or putting off reading it altogether, I was so desperate for it not to end. I fell in love with all the characters. Exquisite! One of the best books I’ve read in a long, long time!).
- The End of the Story by Lydia Davis (I love Davis. Love, love, love. She usually writes shorter stuff, but this strange novel about writing a novel about a tumultuous relationship that you find yourself wondering whether the author is truly over or not was just my cup of tea. More please!)
- The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry by Gabrielle Zevin (this “heartwarming” story about a lovable bookstore and its owner had me at hello, but then ended up losing me by going too dark which, for me, is saying something. Not what I wanted. Still kind of heartbroken).
- The Children Act by Ian McEwan (McEwan is a reliably good author. This was reliable).
- The Forgotten Girls by Sara Blaedel (a very entertaining Scandinavian crime novel).
- The Quiet Girl by Peter Hoeg (also entertaining, also crime, also Scandinavian).
- All the Birds, Singing by Evie Wild (good, suspenseful novel).
- Hippo Surrender by Josh Hippogarne (if you don’t know, now you know. Good luck finding a copy, but if you do, you better recognize).
Not old, old, but not brand new. Yet very, very good, and long on my “list”:
- The Talented Mr. Ripley by Patricia Highsmith (this was GOOD. Really, really good. This is another one of those I almost can’t believe I hadn’t read. She is an excellent writer, and this book was so dark and spooky and captivating. Read it!)
- Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk (I know, right? How had I not read this before? I’ve even read a handful of other Palahniuk’s, but not this one. Tragic! It was great! This movie was sort of the theme movie for my late teens, early twenties. I’m not quite as bitter and angry and in love with violence as I was then, but this still scratched at some primal part of my soul. And it felt good).
- Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro (another classic I’d never quite made it around to. I even pretty much knew the story, but it was still very moving. So sad. Sci fi in a way, but also something you could truly imagine happening).
- 1984 by George Orwell (I know, I’m so ashamed. But now I’ve read it, so please don’t judge. And in a way, this is the best year I can imagine for reading this book. Very profound and startlingly familiar. Detailed review to follow).
- The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman (not my usual genre, but what the heck).
- Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack (loved the title and the premise. But it pretty much went downhill from there).
Ferrante (because I love her so much that she gets her own category)
- Troubling Love by Elena Ferrante (yes, please)
- The Lost Daughter by Elena Ferrante (oh yeah!)
Cormac McCarthy (because I love him so much, he definitely gets his own category)
- Outer Dark by Cormac McCarthy (dark and twisted, and in my mind, one of his best. Kind of Child of God meets The Road, with a few shakes of Blood Meridian thrown in, just for fun. Some of the most memorable passages I’ve ever read).
- Suttree (this one can be kind of polarizing, even for McCarthy fans. The characters are despicable, and there is very little redemption. But it is very McCarthy, and a true admirer should include this one in his reading).
- The Counselor (not a novel, but a screenplay. At first it might not seem very McCarthy-esque, until it is. A modern setting, on pace with some of his darkest stuff, but it definitely has some inspiring moments. A quick read, and a must-read, I think. If you’ve liked any of his works, I don’t know how you could not read them all).
Fun, Memoir-y Stuff
It seems like everyone’s writing these kind of semi-autobiographical works these days. For the most part, seems like a snooze, that’s apparently why I only read them when written by comics, like:
- Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari (this dude is seriously funny, and I enjoyed his take on modern dating)
- Yes Please by Amy Poehler (solidly funny, but also good writing)
- Adulting by Kelly Williams Brown (not really a comedian, but I didn’t know where else to put this one. Not funny. Too millennial).
Fun and/or Interesting Non-Fiction
- In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri (her account, written in Italian by her, and then translated back into English, but with both versions included in the book, made my heart sing. I read it in both languages, and adored both in their own special way. I could relate to the joys and struggles of learning and writing in a foreign language, Italian specifically. Such a “me” book, I almost couldn’t stand it).
- Future Sex by Emily Witt [Blush, blush, BLUSH] (this was intensely good and informative and fascinating. But it was aptly titled, thus making it so I can’t really recommend it to anyone with a straight face. Kind of in a similar theme to Aziz Ansari’s Modern Romance, but with some of the darkness of Gaitskill’s Bad Behavior. Can’t read it in public without something to cover up the title and/or to hide your crimson face behind. Oh my!)
- But What if We’re Wrong by Chuck Klosterman (Klosterman always makes me laugh and think, two important qualities in any book. This one had more questions than answers, and was kind of philosophy-lite. But I enjoyed it. It would be fun to read with someone else and talk about).
- Very Good Lives by J.K. Rowling (I proceed to read everything by her but the Harry Potter series. I admire her as a person and as a writer, even if I never make it around to her most famous works).
I read so much Vowell, she should probably get her own subcategory, but she would logically fall in this category. It will be a sad day when I no longer have any new Vowell to read, which will be coming soon if I don’t stop reading her books so avidly. Then again, she’s pretty prolific, so we’ll see who wins. Good problems to have.
- Unfamiliar Fishes (all you could ever want to know about the history of the Hawaiian islands, and maybe then some, but worth it)
- The Wordy Shipmates (American History made fun)
- Assassination Vacation (maybe the best book title I’ve ever encountered. One of my favorites by Vowell).
Books that Defy Categorization But Still Deserve a Shout Out
- Pharos Gate by Nick Bantock (if you’ve never read Griffin and Sabine, you’re missing out on one of the best literary love stories ever written. These books are as visually gorgeous as they are beautifully written. This was a surprise fourth part to the original three-part series, and I loved it like the others. Exceptional!)
- Moving Still by Lois Greenfield (Gorgeous photos! Gorgeous bodies in motion).
Book Review Books
Publishers occasionally reach out to the Dunce Academy to offer an ARC copy of a book in exchange for an honest review. The demands far exceed the time and energy I have to devote to these requests, but I did sneak in two this year:
- Power & Control in Relationships by Mary Rose (an informative, detailed book that delivers just what the title promises. Kind of like a psychology textbook, with lots of interesting real-life examples thrown in).
- Upping Your Ziggy by Oliver James (an interesting read about David Bowie, his alter egos, and the potential psychological conditions at play in him and his family).
It was a great year of reading, and I’m looking forward to another one. I read 65 books last year, and I’ve cut it way back, to 52, for 2017. This will hopefully give me a chance to take on some longer and more challenging works, and not feel as overwhelmed. But I’ll still be reading every chance I get, and checking in here when I can with all the juicy details.