Without further ado, here are the books I read during the past year, in reverse chronological order. Commentary begins below the list.
* indicates books read as e-books
"The Golden Bough," an oil by Joseph Mallord William Turner, shows the scene from The Aeneid that began Frazer's exploration in The Golden Bough.
The Golden Bough, James George Frazer (in progress)*
Beethoven: His Spiritual Development, J. W. N. Sullivan (in progress)
The Hour of the Star, Clarice Lispector*
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Ferrante*
A Most Wanted Man, John le Carre
The Days of Abandonment, Elena Ferrante*
The Story of a New Name, Elena Ferrante*
The Whole Field Still Moving Inside It, Molly Bashaw
Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami
Conversations with a Dead Man, Mark Abley
My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante*
Outline, Rachel Cusk
The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit*
The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, Haruki Murakami (re-read)
Known and Strange Things, Teju Cole
Ice Mountain, Dave Bonta
Lunch with a Bigot, Amitava Kumar*
The Inugami Mochi, Jessamyn Smyth*
Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber*
Traveling Mercies, Anne LaMott
A Whole Life, Robert Seethaler*
Monster, Jeneva Burroughs Stone
A Strangeness in My Mind, Orhan Pamuk** (dnf)
Poems, Michael Ondaatje
M Train, Patti Smith
Just Kids, Patti Smith*
Harry Potter and the Chamber of Horrors, J. K. Rowling
Thesaurus of Separation, Tim Mayo
Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, Cesar Aira*
The Sound of the Mountain, Yasunari Kawabata*
Leaving Berlin, Joseph Kanon*
The Savage Detectives, Roberto Bolano
The Japanese Lover, Isabel Allende*
First, the stats: 33 titles, of which 17 were e-books, either from Kindle or downloaded on OverDrive from the Bibliotheque nationale. I'm pleased to see an almost-perfect split between books by female and male authors, too.
There were so many outstanding books this year, that I might be better off to say which ones I don't recommend -- but I'd rather be positive. My vote for best-book/should-last-forever would have to be Roberto Bolano's The Savage Detectives, but I also particularly liked the beautifully written M Train, by Patti Smith, the quirky and detailed Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter by Cesar Aira, Murakami's brilliant Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, and the Elena Ferrante Neapolitan Quartet, of which I've read three and am anxiously awaiting #4, on hold from the library.
Most of you know that I'm a Murakami fan and have read most of his books; I also know he's not to everyone's taste. Wind-Up Bird held up very well the second time around. Kafka on the Shore, which I also read this year, is a fine novel too but not (for me anyway) on the same level as Bird or IQ84, probably my favorite so far of his novels.
Then, what can I say objectively about books by friends, or books I read in manuscript and then published? Of the former, I greatly enjoyed Jessamyn Smyth's The Inugami Mochi, the story of her dog Gilgamesh and their remarkable relationship. I was privileged to take a long walk with the two of them, some years ago, so I felt like I had already had a small window into the material she wrote about after his passing; it's a beautiful book that challenges many people's assumptions about communication and relationship between humans and animals, but for me it was not a big leap. I've already written about Dave Bonta's Ice Mountain: An Elegy, which I liked enough to want to illustrate and publish. And while many illustrious readers and critics have chosen Teju Cole's Known and Strange Things for their own top-ten-of 2016 book lists, and I totally concur, I'm also quietly proud that a couple of the included essays had their origins here on this blog. Jeneva Burroughs Stone's Monster and Tim Mayo's Thesaurus of Separation round out this paragraph, the first by a poet and essayist I met, like Jessamyn, through qarrtsiluni, and the second by a Vermont poet I had never met, but whose work and friendship I now value very much.
The very best book of poetry I read this year was Molly Bashaw’s The Whole Field Still Moving Inside It (The Word Works, 2014.) I recommended this for Dave's crowd-sourced compendium of favorite poetry books of the year, writing, "The poems, ostensibly about farming and farm life, are of course — as Heaney showed us so convincingly — about life itself, in all its beauty, bewilderment, and violence. I was impressed by Bashaw’s use of language, and deeply moved by her ability to describe but not over-explain, because so much of what she talks about defies explanation or even analysis. She leaves things as they are, but also leaves a great deal of room for the reader. Barhaw grew up on small farms in New England and upstate New York, but graduated from the Eastman School of Music and worked for 12 years in Germany as a professional bass-trombonist — so it’s probably no surprise that her poems resonated with me. She’s young and her work has won a bunch of prizes but that doesn’t matter to me; I certainly wish I had published this first book of hers myself and hope to meet the poet someday so I can tell her."
But it's the Ferrante books that have a real hold on me. She manages that rare feat of writing a gripping story that seems absolutely true to life, and writing extremely well. There's a conversation between the elusive Ferrante and author Sheila Heti in the latest issue of Brick, in which Heti remarks that these books make her lament the number of unwritten or unknown books by women, about women, throughout the centuries - what a loss this is for literature, and also for our knowledge of ourselves. I have found them absolutely riveting for the same reasons I love Virginia Woolf: her ability and desire to enter into the heads of her characters and bring their thought processes, and therefore themselves, to life.
So, let me know what you think, and also what you've been reading - I always look forward to the annual lists that some of you share with us here, too! And I hope everyone is having some extra time this week to curl up with a book.