As I was glancing through the archives, I noticed a few patterns I hadn't been aware of when I was deep in the murky bowels of 2006:
- I read three books by Douglas Coupland, which isn't something I actively intended to do. I was meh about his new novel, JPod, but I liked Polaroids from the Dead quite a bit, and Hey Nostradamus! was one of the best books I read last year. (See below for my top ten books of 2006.)
- Similarly, I returned to a few other writers more than once: Bill Bryson, Jincy Willett, Matt Cohen, and Alexander McCall Smith. (I'll say this as many times as bears repeating: you simply can't go wrong with the No. 1 Ladies' Detective Angency series.)
- I can't stay away from kids' literature. Awesome writers like Elizabeth Enright and E. Nesbit kept me coming back for more.
- I went a bit nutty for short story collections. They comprised a full one-fifth of the books I read last year. This isn't such a big surprise. My time felt really fractured and fragmented, so short stories were often the only things I felt I could do justice to.
Coming up with this list was a tough exercise. I had some incredible luck with my reading selections last year, which is lucky for me because I find slogging through a bad pick demoralizing. And we all know how a run of poor books can completely throw you off your game and headfirst into a book slump. You lose confidence in your ability to choose good material and next thing you know you're scratching your ass and watching Married with Children re-runs. We've all been there, friends.
And so, in no apparent order (or IS THERE?), I give you my favourite non-rereads of the year:
The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby
The true sign of a book freak is that you'll spend valuable reading time on books written by other book freaks about books THEY'VE read. If that's not a sign of a sick mind, I don't know what is. And yet here we all are. Anyway. Hornby does a great job of demonstrating the ongoing vagaries of a classic book-lover's buying and reading habits over the course of twelve months. This book is a funny, charming, inspiring read -- which reminds me that I need to review it again because I forgot to write down all the titles he recommends that I meant to pick up for myself.
Black Swan Green by David Mitchell
One of the best, most honest novels about being a kid I've ever encountered. I shouldn't admit this (again) but I liked this better than Mitchell's earlier work, Cloud Atlas.
Hey Nostradamus! by Douglas Coupland
The first section of this book gave me cold chills. The novel tells the story of a Columbine-style school shooting and its aftermath from the pespective of three different characters. Amazingly, it manages to be quite moving without being exploitive. JPod may have disappointed, but Hey Nostradamus! has me convinced that Coupland has a truly great novel still waiting inside him.
Jenny and the Jaws of Life by Jincy Willett
I loved these stories, even if they may drive me to therapy. As I mentioned when I talked about this collection last week, imagine Dorothy Parker by way of Kurt Vonnegut and David Sedaris. Why don't more people know about this book? Why did it take me so long to hear about it? What else is the world withholding from me? ENOUGH WITH THE SECRETS.
A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon
A middle-class English family slowly comes apart at the seams. You want to laugh, you want to cry, but you never want this story to end. I was worried that Haddon wouldn't be able to follow up his runaway first novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, but not to worry. I think this guy's going to go places.
The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid by Bill Bryson
This is my favourite of all Bryson's books. He deviates from his usual travelogue format to write instead about his childhood in Des Moines, Iowa, and the results are hilarious. I can picture myself reading this one again and again.
The Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon
If, like me, you enjoyed Jane Eyre and Moulin Rouge (the movie, not the book -- is there a book?), you will really like this novel. If I'm wrong, I can't refund your money or anything like that, but you'll at least have the satisfaction of wiping that smug look off my face.
On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Masterfully written AND based on Howard's End, one of my all-time favourite novels? You can't lose with this combination. This is probably the third time I've mentioned this, but popular wisdom tells me that Smith's other books (which I haven't read) are kind of underwhelming. Skip them and jump straight to this one. Or if you've already read them, wipe them from your memory and start fresh with this one.
The Emperor's Children by Claire Messud
I finished this novel a week ago, and it's still troubling me (in a good way). It's a deceptively simple set of plotlines involving a handful of characters in a relatively contemporary New York setting, but there's a moral ambiguity that permeates the entire book that has me still wondering what I'm supposed to think about it.
Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
In this quietly heartbreaking story, Ishiguro reminds me of why the novel exists and the standard to which we should hold all storytelling. Though if we did, probably a lot fewer novels would get published every year. But would that be so bad? I can only manage to read fifty a year, anyway.
Books I Started but Didn't Finish
I hate calling it quits on a book, but for various reasons, these defeated me:
A Reading Diary by Alberto Manguel
An incredible anthologist he may be, but Manguel's purple, pompous prose drove me loopy. This is one editor who needs an editor.
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Don't attempt this book during a difficult tax season, is all I can say.
The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
Don't attempt this book during your first high-stress real-estate transaction, is all I can say.
The Copper Beech by Maeve Binchy
Ms. Binchy, do you have to explain EVERYTHING? Characters, motivations, metaphors -- you lay it all out on the table, which is accommodating of you, but it doesn't leave me with much to do. There's this thing called "subtext." Look into it.
Final Arrangements by Miles Keaton Andrew
Publishers Weekly loved this comic novel about the funeral industry, and the jacket copy claimed that its "offbeat irreverence" was reminiscent of Six Feet Under, one of my favourite shows in recent years. And yet... and yet... was I the only one who noticed that the author uses the word "impacted" within the first dozen or so pages -- and not within dialogue, either? Come on, now. If he's not even going to try to get along, why should I?
Books I Meant to Read but Was Too Chickenshit to Even Pick Up
I won't go into the individual reasons why I was unable to even consider reading these no-doubt fine tomes last year. Death, despair, desolation. I'm a fragile desert blossom these days. Maybe next year.
- A Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
- In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
- The Darling by Russell Banks
I don't normally make resolutions, but it strikes me that my reading habits definitely have room for improvement. I should try to read more fiction, and I should at least TRY to read books that scare me (see above). It strikes me that, even if one is escaping into excellent fiction, it's still escapism.
Don't get me wrong: escapism has its merits. I'll be the first person to get escapism's back when the going gets tough. But part of the reason I read is to (I hope) understand more about this crazy spaceship we call earth, as well as my fellow spacemen, and I'm not going to get very far if I persist in reading about boring, angsty, middle-class people who are, well, a lot like me.
What are your reading resolutions? And tell me, tell me do, what were your favourite books of the past year?