A Year of Books

Two years ago I had a painful revelation: I no longer read books.  It had been months since I last finished a book and the ritual of falling asleep always involved Youtube cooking videos, SNL sketches, or recent episodes of Portlandia.  In the spirit of an over-achieving, academic professor, who likes big projects, I wrote down a lofty goal of reading 35-books in 2015.  I exceeded that goal and enjoyed a rich and constant diet of good books.  For 2016 I picked a bigger goal and again have surpassed that number.  I am happy to report it was a great year of reading and my life is richer for this simple and inexpensive pleasure.  The list includes books read aloud as a family, books read aloud to my wife as we go to bed, audiobooks listened to on long drives or while doing dishes, and numerous books read by myself.  This was all facilitated with a new kindle and a great digital local library.  Wherever I went, I always had a host of books with me.

Here are some thoughts on the highlights of my year of books:

Steinbeck and California

     Our family camped throughout California for three-weeks in June.  We visited San Francisco, Santa Cruz, Big Sur, Hearst Castle, Yosemite Valley, and Sonoma & Nappa Counties.  John Steinbeck, arguably the greatest California author, uses the unique setting of California for many of his stories.  He captures the essence of the magical combination of the pacific ocean, hills/mountains, sun, and dry vegetation.  He lived near Montery and a good portion of our trip was spent in this area.  I read several of the short novels placed in this region including Of Mice and Men, Tortilla Flats, Cannery Row, and The Red Pony.  The breadth and style of storytelling is wonderful.  He moves from tragedy to comedy effortlessly and his characters are richly realized.  The biggest surprise was Cannery Row.  I was unprepared for the incredible mix of misfits and the ingenuity of humorous episodes.  When the book suddenly drew to a close, I was overcome with a beautiful, poetic sadness.  I felt a deep nostalgia and distant peace for these fabricated characters who lived difficult but charmed lives.

The Big Sleep and The Maltese Falcon

     In the spirit of our California adventure I wanted to read some Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, who had collectively captured another part of California history and established a whole genre of storytelling.  I’d seen the movies, and enjoyed the Prarie Home Companion spoofs with Guy Noir; but I had never read the source material.  The writing is rich, sticky, and delicious.  All of the genre cliches are glaringly present.  But of course these authors are the source for those expressions of double entendre, over-the-top dialogue, and mysogionistic expression.  This is a dated time period to be sure, so this is guilty pleasure reading.  The Big Sleep was read aloud to Hsing-ay and that experience offered a new appreciation for the rhythm of the grim description and fast-paced dialogue.

Lord of the Rings: Fellowship of the Ring

     I’ve read Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings a handful of times over the years.  The epic struggle of good verses evil coupled with the complex and complete world of Middle Earth appeal to me.  When I was in college I spent time with my cousins outside of Philadelphia and was impressed that Uncle Phil read the entire book out loud to his family.  That must be near a 60-hour investment, and I was amazed that they so happily spent that much time together as a family reading books.  The seed was planted and ever since I started reading out loud to Hsing-ay and Kaela, I’ve dreamed that someday we would tackle this series.  In 2016 we completed The Fellowship of the Ring and it was wonderful to read those words aloud.  Tolkien is a masterful storyteller and I remain captivated by the long-form narrative that lays out this monumental journey.  The weight of the struggle is carefully woven and communicates with authentic urgency.  My one complaint: reading whole poems in the elven tongue out loud is a tedious task for someone without proper training!

The Last Unicorn

     The search for books to read aloud to Hsing-ay is a unique challenge.  She does not like most stories of violence, tragedy, and drama.  These stories stir things up in her related to the darkest parts of recent Chinese history.  Neither of us like silly romance, fluffy comedy, adolescent angst (whether real or in a world of werwolves), or generally cheap storytelling.  If I am going to read the words out lout, I want the writing to be at least good, and preferably excellent.  In my quest to find books we will both savor, I discovered The Last Unicorn by Peter S. Beagly.  It is sad, beautiful, fun, magical, poetic, and brilliantly sardonic all at the same time.  This quasi-mythic story reads with great originality and we’re still contemplating the meaning almost a year later.  Reading that book felt like traveling through a fantastical mist.  And watching the 1980s animated movie (screenplay written by Beagly) was also lovely.

All the Light We Cannot See

     This story by Anthony Doerr won the Pulitzer Prize in 2015 and I read it entirely because I loved the title and the book cover.  At first I thought it would simply be a quirky story about how a French girl and a German boy miraculously survived World War II.  As the story unfolded it built up layers of magical charm and unexpected delights.  The story is completely enchanting by the end and reading it was a beautiful journey.  Perhaps the greatest pleasure came from the richly developed French characters.

The Sense of an Ending

     This was my first time reading Julian Barnes and it was a great pleasure.  He has a wonderful ability to spin a tale with a gripping sense of mystery and foreboding.  The characters are complex and their actions are layered with difficult intentions.  I never truly knew what to think of them.  Perhaps my best summary is that certain actions in adaloscence set some things in motion that took an entire lifetime to resolve (without great satisfaction), and in the end, it is all terribly sad.  Humans are flawed and broken and we complicate each others lives in ways we will never fully grasp.  But the writing is amazing and every time I talk with someone who has also read this book, there is a sense of delight that we have this shared experience and can discuss.

The Comes a Wind

     This powerful and raw story was written by my friend Ron Stewart.  I was honored when he told me about his first novel and asked if I would read it.  What a pleasure to read a friend's first novel only a couple of years after it is finished!!  This is a dark story that digs into the era of homesteading on the plains.  Ron’s writing is lean and unassuming.  The dark plot twists grabbed me in the gut.  It is difficult and convincing and I especially enjoyed chatting with Ron about the story after I read it.  I recommend this title to friends who want to support Boulder authors.  And he’s working on a sequel...

The Sun Also Rises

     I have a list of “masterpieces” that I plan to read within the next few years.  It is good to sprinkle this list into my diet of reading since the canon so essentially informs contemporary writers.  Like him or not, Ernest Hemingway is a giant with a distinctive voice who has wide influence.  For the first time I read The Sun Also Rises.  It is fast, raucous, disturbing, and dark.  It is also entertaining, seductive, and perplexing.  I learned the expression “I’m feeling a bit tight” means I’m drunk enough that I need to let others know so that my words and behavior might be excused.  The characters are “tight” most of the time.  I’ve been told that Hemingway perfectly captures this lost and indulgent era between the two world wars.  It is mind boggling how these people torture themselves in the name of fun, but with the ultimate purpose of numbness.  I’m embarrassed that my good friend english Prof. Elissa Guralnick had to gently point out a major detail that I had missed about one of the main characters.  It redefined the major relationship of the book and gave me 30-minutes of revelatory bliss as I reconsidered the entire novel.  She kindly told me not to feel bad as others have also missed this simple fact (I still felt bad, but thank you Elissa).  At the end I was also left wondering if Hemingway hates women?  And if he hates women, how could he write the main female character with such completeness?  It is a great read and I will have to read it again soon.

To Kill a Mockingbird

     My daughter Kaela is an avid reader and I’m half in charge of giving her a steady diet of good books.  She is in charge of the other half.  I’m constantly processing when she is ready to read certain books and in that spirit I reread To Kill a Mockingbird for the first time since high school.  My interest was also sparked with the recent publication of another harper Lee novel (which I may never read).  This book is as good as I remember and as good as everyone says.  It is powerful and elegant and Lee’s characters are some of the most striking I have ever come across.  It is with profound joy and sadness that I worked through the story, and I held my breath at all the tense moments even though I’ve read the book before and seen the movie many times.  And this is that rare occurrence where the movie is just as good as the book.  The exquisite opening notes of the film score combine with the simple black and white images to perfectly capture the innocence of a hot southern summer and a childhood that will soon be interrupted by one of the most broken parts of human existence.  And I concluded that Kaela is not yet old enough to read To Kill a Mockingbird, but I look forward to the time when we can read this powerful story together.

Farenheit 451

     This was the year Kaela read Ray Bradburry for the first time.  I started her with Dandelion Wine and then we both read Farenheit 451.  Bradburry is another author I have not touched in years.  Wow!!  What a treat to rediscover this brilliant storytelling imagination.  The style is edgy, fast, and unapologetic.  I feel like the characters, though true enough, are strapped into a roller coaster without consent.  They and us readers are along for the ride and we just hope there will be a collective sigh of relief at the end.  Something Wicked This Way Comes and The Illustrated Man are already on my list for 2017!

Norwegian Wood

     I came across Haruki Murakami’s writing when I read What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.  I will review that brilliant memoir for another blogpost.  I had never heard of this living Japanese author and was instantly surprised that everything he seems to have published has been translated to English with many Amazon reviews.  Lots of Americans are reading this author.  I randomly started with Norwegian Wood.  This is a beautifully sad tale that begins and ends in ambiguity.  Sadness and despair are played out for several years across a handful of characters.  Each character embodies what feels like a predetermined fate while the writing convincingly portrays a struggle to accept or not accept that fate.  The story is set in contemporary Japan and has an other-worldly flavor (read: distinctly non-western) which is appealing and seductive.  There were very few books this year that kept me up hours past my intended lights-out: this was the winner for that category.  And while I went online to try to determine what the opening pages said about the ambiguous ending, I still am flummoxed!

In Cold Blood

     I wanted to read something by Truman Capote and this seemed like the obvious place to start.  A little background reading helped me to understand how shatteringly new this book was when it was first read.  The story is chilling but the description and larger narrative are told with stunning detail, warmth (not sure of that is the right word), and profound psychological observation.  The writing is superb and it is hard to reconcile the sensitive artist required for such a masterpiece and the public persona passed down as pop myth.  While I enjoyed this book, I do not need to spend much more time with the genre of true crime.

My Name is Asher Lev

     I like Chaim Patok’s style of storytelling and the subjects he chooses to write about.  I’ve always loved this novel about the unexpected prodigy artist that emerges in a religious community that does not have the capacity to accept the existence of a prodigy artist.  This is a painful story that weaves two streams of necessary existence towards a painful climax.  I wanted to read this aloud to my family and they came along for the journey.  While I took delight in the sheer power of combining two remarkably separate worlds in one story, the rest of my family cried at the ending.  I’m still not sure if this was a beautiful moment of family reading or a “Dad failed” moment that might come up in counseling years from now.  On a fundamental level, I believe crying over a piece of literature is usually a good thing.

Girl with a Pearl Earring

     Some lovely friends gave Kaela a magical wooden puzzle featuring Rembrandt’s Girl with a Pearl Earring a year ago.  We instantly decided we should read the fictional Tracy Chevalier book that creates a possible backstory to this masterpiece painting.  The premise suggests that the exquisite girl featured in the painting is not of such wealth to own a pearl earring and some complex circumstances are necessary for this painting to even exist.  This was by far the slowest yet most tense novels I read all year.  The climactic scene is a supreme violation while also representing independence in early forms of feminism, and it is all over an earring.  There are also themes of “one must sacrifice everything for great art”, and "religious 17th century Dutch culture is as scandalous as modern Hollywood when depicting sexual tension and sexual transgression”.  We enjoyed reading this great story but were glad when it was over.