Tuesday, January 02, 2007

BOOKS: Another Year, Another 50 Books

One of the benefits of keeping this site -- aside from the dazzling exchange of ideas, of course -- is getting to go back and revisit books that I've read months ago, books that I would surely have forgotten if I hadn't recorded them here. (Did you remember that I read Lipstick Jungle way back last spring? Me neither!)

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.
My Top Ten (New) Reads of 2006
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
Reading Resolutions for 2007
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?


Anonymous said...

I have to say, Joan Didion's "A Year of Magical Thinking," was my favorite book last year. Don't be scared. It will leave you in pain and agony, but it is an amazing story about grief and love and life and really quite riveting.

Anonymous said...

My reading resolution is to read anything that doesn't have to do with school. The last few years of college have really stifled my love of curling up with any book.

Alice said...

My last year's resolution was to read more non-fiction, which I did really well at for the beginning of the year and then it kind of fizzled out. So, I'm re-resolutioning. More non-fiction in 2007!

Anonymous said...

I really enjoyed Zadie Smith's White Teeth. It is definitely worth a try.

Corey said...

Kevin Brockmeir's A Brief History of the Dead was my favourite novel published last year. The only one that made me go "Wow" when I was finished.

For novels previously published, Susanna Clarke's Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell certainly blew me away.

Anonymous said...

I read 56 books in 2006, and dude, I don't know how you do it. The last month I was stuck in India with my grandmother (woot! Fun!), and was up to #35...by December 31st I'd read another 21. Anyway, my reading resolution this year is to read for quality, not quantity; I can only vaguely remember most of the books I've read this year, whereas I can remember practically everything from the other books I've read in the past ten years.

Also, you're not alone in starting, but never finishing, the Grapes of Wrath. I have this incredible love for John Steinbeck, but I can never get past page 20 of that book no matter how much of an effort I make.

Tamara: I agree that the Year of Magical Thinking is incredible. It's one of those books that keeps you enthralled the whole time, wanting to read more, and not noticing anything else.

Nichole said...

"Peace Like a River" just blew me away, and "Gilead" left me feeling warm and fuzzy. My 2006 book list is over here.

Marissa said...

My NY resolution is to blog about the books I read -- consider yourself an inspiration!! I don't know if I'll get to 50, but I think it'll be good for me to see my own habits laid out in minute detail.

Have you thought about reading any poetry collections? I guess some people would consider that cheating, but they're part of my everyday reading lineup, and they're something else you can pick up and put down (like short story collections).

liz said...

I'd love to claim my reading resolution is to focus on the great books. By the end of 2007, I shall be brilliant, brilliant, I say!

Instead, it's simply to focus my energies more selectively instead of picking up whatever the library has on the shelves (often, not much).

That being said, I loved 'Evidence of Love' by Melissa McConnell and it was a completely random, off the shelf, library read.

Anonymous said...

Never Let Me Go was one of my favorites from last year, too, (or late 2005), along with the Amy Hempel collection that was mentioned a few months back, Fun Home by Alison Blechdel, the new one from Stephen Elliott, and probably dozens more that I can't think of at the moment.

I'm a big non-finisher, also. Probably half the books I start, I won't finish, so that will be my reading challenge this year.

Dave said...

I'm just happy to know that you bailed on a couple of books last year. I was just defeated by "The Fortress of Solitude" last week. Got to page 50 and then just literally dropped it. I know people who ate it up, but for my tastes Jonathan Lethem is just way too in love with his powers of description.

Anonymous said...

Long time lurker, first time commenter.

First off, thanks for the inspiration to blog about reading. I started doing it regularly this year, and while they are not my most popular posts, I feel better for it.

My book of the year is Ian McEwan's "Saturday", with the oft-mentioned "Never Let Me Go" ever so slightly behind. Non-fiction goes to Jeanette Walls' memoir "The Glass Castle."

My 2007 reading resolution / challenge is 10,000 pages (up from approx 8200 pgs this past year). I eked out 25 books last year, so 50 is out of the question for me (and besides I would be too tempted to "cheat" and only read short books!)

Anonymous said...

Best book I read in 2006 was Carter Beats the Devil, by Glen David Gold. Completely charming and with amazing imagery.

My resolution for the new year is to read more books that remind me of what is true and important in the world. I just started The Search for a Nonviolent Future by a Berkeley professor of Peace & Conflict Studies; after that, Ghandi's autobiography; after that, A Year of Magical Thinking.

My other resolution is to read more Aimee Bender because I looooved her second book of short stories (yes, in fact I did marry it).

Claudia said...

My resolution is to read more. My total dropped by half from last year, which is very bad.

"A Year of Magical Thinking" is amazing. Painful at times, but amazing. "A Brief History of the Dead" was also incredible.

I could barely get through "On Beauty". Bored me entirely, but I was determined to finish.

Anonymous said...

In terms of escapism, I'm hoping to read more science fiction and fantasy this year.

Also, I'd like to get at least one or two biographies read.

Just in general, I'd like to read more new books rather than re-reading so many of my favourites.

I've signed up for several reading challenges, so we'll see if I get as many classics (and others) read as I'd like.

Dinah said...

Absolutely pick up "In Cold Blood." It's amazing.

My goal is to read, well, 50 Books this year.

Anonymous said...

I second (third? I'm going blind.) the White Teeth recomendation. And one of the few books I remember blowing me away last year was Mama Day by Gloria Naylor, which I thought was going to be crap, and seriously, was AMAZING. Read it!

And I had to read Middlemarch in college (it doesn't even get italics) and I wrote this amazing paper on it, based on the movie. Which had that hot guy from Cold Comfort Farm in it. So...I hear you.

Anonymous said...

My resolution is also to write about the books I read! I started off last year and stopped at about five. I know I'm not very good at writing about STUFF so this would be a good way to start.

My favourite books this year were...

A Complicated Kindness
Pride and Prejudice
Fly By Night (Frances Hardinge)
The four Mortal Engines books (Philip Reeve)
The Partly-Cloudy Patriot (Sarah Vowell)
Polysyllabic Spree

I also resolve not to have such a depressing run as I did this summer. In the space of two weeks (I was on holiday!) I read four books that really depressed me (although in a good way, if you can have such a thing...) I was sad for ages!

I also vow to go to the library more.

Anyway! I also wanted to say thanks, doppelganger, because some of my favourite books this year I read because I read about them here. Hurrah!

Anonymous said...

My 2006 book resolution was to keep a list of the books I read (which your site inspired me to do). I read 70 books in 2006 (go, me) and my book resultion for next year is to read at least 60 again. (I read fast, I also have no kids and few competing hobbies).

My top 5 of 2006:

Black Swan Green (Mitchell - Cloud Atlas is still on my top 5 ever, however)
Eveyman (Roth)
Virgin Suicides (Eugenides)
Pale Fire (Nabokov - also inspired by the site)
Veronica (Gaitskill)

I was underwhelmed by White Teeth. Maybe I'll give On Beauty a try.

Donna said...

I enjoyed Polysyllabic Spree (though it didn't make my "best of" list.) Didnt like Shadow of the Wind (I seem to be the only person on the planet who didn't like this book.)
Some of my favorites for the year: (in no particular order) Apollo:Race to the Moon by Murray & Cox
To Conquer the Air by Tobin
Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner
Lolita by Nabokov
Raid on the Sun by Claire
Omnivore's Dilemma by Pollan
Angela's Ashes

kristen said...

the year of magical thinking and in cold blood were both on my top books of 06 list! i read them both this year and ate them up! didion in particular pays attention to such lovely details that i felt like i was breathing the same air as she was...her pain was that real.

Anonymous said...

"The Road" by Cormac McCarthy!

I resolve to start a blog that skims off a good quote from what I read illustrating how I'd like to be influenced by that writer if I could write a great novel, and then try a passage of my own to see could it be done and how it would come out.

Anonymous said...

Your blog inspired me to keep track of my reading as well. I read 63 books in 2006, though many were young adult books and graphic novels.

My resolution of 2007 is to diversify my reading. I'm currently working on my Masters in Library Science (with a emphasis on school libraries), so I sometimes need to force myself to read 'adult' books.

It's hard to choose, but my favorite non rereads were The Time Travelers Wife, Speak by Anderson and Maus.

Bybee said...

I think I read an Elizabeth Enright book when I was a little girl, but am not sure. It was called "The Saturdays" and there were 4 children in the family 2 were a set of twins, a boy and a girl called Rush and Randy (Miranda). I really loved that book! 5th grade. I loved it so much that when it was my turn to give a book report, I rushed up to the front of the room with none of my usual dread.

Anonymous said...

My reolution is the same as last year: to read 50 books. I started out great last year reading 40 before September but I became overwhelmed with university life in general and pleasure reading went on the backburner. I made it to 45 but this year will be 50.

Anonymous said...

When I first read your critique of my use of the word, "impacted," some time ago, well, it made an impact on me. Hey, sometimes these things slip unexpectedly through the brain. Okay, so since I own the e-rights to my novel, Final Arrangements, I published it on Kindle, but before I did, I changed the word, "impacted," to "affected." Lord knows, I had probably been listening to some politician speaking just before I wrote that sentence, and you were, of course, right to offer a correction. One that winced me out. Never forgot it. Hope this clears everything up.

Miles Keaton Andrew

Tammy said...

Well, gosh. I'm flabbergasted, Miles Keaton Andrew. I never expect actual authors to read what I write here... probably because most of the authors I read are dead, so the issue doesn't come up.

I'm very sorry for any wincing I may have been responsible for. God knows, as a writer myself, I've done my own share of wincing. (In my ignorance, I recently – and unironically – used the phrase "Down Under" in an article and was sternly corrected as to the uncouthness of the expression by a few Australians.)

But is it wrong of me to admit that it makes me happy that you de-impacted your novel and that the world has one less usage of that awful word? At any rate, it's big of you to come here. I mean that.