As 2015 draws to a close, it's time for the annual Cassandra Pages book list. It's shorter than it has been in many years, partly because (I sheepishly admit) after days of working on Phoenicia and design projects and art, we've gotten in a habit of watching an episode or two of TV mini-series in the evenings, and that cuts into my reading time. But the other reason is that several of the books were big reads, and took a long time to finish - and turned out to be highlights of my reading year. So here's the list, with some comments following:
My 2015 Book List (*indicates books read as e-books, ** were audiobooks)
The Japanese Lover, Isabel Allende (in progress)*
Thirteen Ways of Looking, Colum McCann (in progress)*
Wind/Pinball, Haruki Murakami*
New and Collected Poems, Wislawa Szymborska
Beauty and Sadness, Yasunari Kawabata
1Q84, Haruki Murakami
I Curse the River of Time, Per Petterson*
Complete Poems of George Sefaris
Place of the Heart, Sigrun Sigursdottir*
On the Cold Coasts, Vilborg Davidsdottir*
Beneath the Ice: an Anthology of Contemporary Icelandic Poetry
Half a Life, V.S. Naipaul*
In a Free State, V.S. Naipaul*
A House for Mr. Biswas, V.S. Naipaul*
Man, Kim Thuy*
Hausfrau, Jill Alexander Essbaum*
The Naive and the Sentimental Novelist, Orhan Pamuk*
What I Think About When I Think About Running, Haruki Murakami**
Living with a Wild God, Barbara Ehrenrich**
Glimmerglass, Marly Youmans
Night Fishing at Antibes, B. Anderson, T. Gilman, E. McNeal, and M. Sickler
Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage, Haruki Murakami*
Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver
Bell of the Desert, Alan Gold
So, it was a year of reading Japanese novels, and contemporary Icelandic literature, with a big chunk of V.S. Naipaul thrown in. My fascination with the work of Haruki Murakami continues: the year began with his great recent novel, Colorless Tsukuru Tazaki and His Years of Pilgrimage; I listened to his memoir about writing and running while working out last winter on the elliptical in our building's basement, and finally tackled "the big one": IQ84 this fall - and loved every minute of it; I could barely put it down. In December I read the recently-released English translations of his two earliest novellas. Murakami had been reluctant to have them translated and published, because he considers them to be warm-ups, written as he was finding his voice and before he developed his mature style. I agreed that they weren't up to the later standard, not at all, but they gave a fascinating glimpse into his own youth and some of the themes that he's returned to again and again, as well as test vehicles for the particular voice and style that characterizes his later novels, of which IQ84 is the masterpiece, a surrealistic tour-de-force that had me captivated and amazed from beginning to end.
I enjoyed reading books by friends, in particular the scary and beautifully-written Glimmerglass by Marly Youmans (Clive Hicks-Jenkins, illustrator and cover designer) vividly set in Cooperstown, a place I know quite well, and Night Fishing at Antibes, an experimental poetry collaboration and response to the Picasso painting, by Teresa Gilman and three other poets.
Knowing I was interested in Nordic writing and culture, my friend Ed recommended Per Petterson's I Curse the River of Time. He told me he had picked it up mostly because he liked the title and said it wasn't a book he'd have normally liked, but he did - and so did I. It's a rather grim, dark story of a man who should be more adult than he is, his relationship with his mother, and the way he keeps making a hash of things; very well written and compelling, even though it makes you cringe.
Continuing the Nordic theme, I liked all three of the Icelandic books I read: an anthology of contemporary poetry, an historical novel, and a recent novel about a mother from Reykjavik, her delinquent daughter, her best friend (a flautist), and the trip the three of them take around the southern coast of Iceland - nearly the same route we were to follow a month later. This one, Places of the Heart, by Sigrun Sigursdottir, is a terrific book and deserving winner of recent Icelandic fiction awards. It gave me a look, beyond tourism and the lives of my own friends, into the seamier side of Icelandic culture, what it means for young people to be stuck on an island in the north Atlantic, and also the relationship they have with their astounding and dangerous landscape. The passages describing the land were lyrical, raw, loving, and real, and added immeasurably to my own experience when I stood in the same places myself - for instance, the book contains a harrowing trip across these same black glacial sands during a sandstorm.
The other big book of the year was V.S. Naipaul's A House for Mr. Biswas, which I read with my friend Teju as he was preparing to write the introduction to a new edition published by Picador Classics. This is Naipaul's early masterpiece, a sweeping family saga, drawn from his own experiences as a young man growing up in post-colonial Trinidad. I was swept into the world of the novel - so unfamiliar to me - and it remains embedded in my consciousness. Best of all, the book contains little of the rage that mars so many of Naipaul's later works, so that his magnificent prose can simple be read and appreciated.
My most memorable book of the year, though, was 1968 Nobel prize winner Yasunari Kawabata's Beauty and Sadness. Because of Murakami, I had been looking for other Japanese novels to read, and after trying and putting aside a couple of books by Kenzaburo Oe (either because I didn't feel caught up in the story or because the books were set elsewhere than Japan) began this one by Kawabata, who I had never read. It's a quiet book that contains a chilling story about human nature, desire, and jealousy, and I was gripped by it, aware that I was reading the work of an absolute master. I'd recommend this book to any lover of literature, and what I am looking forward to the most in 2016 is reading more of Kawabata's work.
Finally, I wanted to mention that I read or listened to a lot of books in 2015 through a relatively new library service called OverDrive. You sign up for an account through a participating library where you have a membership (I use the Bibliotheque nationale de Quebec) and this gives you access to a large and ever-expanding collection of English-language e-books and audio books, available for free download for a period of 21 days. It works beautifully; I tend to download the books to my phone and read them there, wherever I happen to be. It's great!
So...happy reading, and, as always, I'd love to hear about your own book list and favorites of the past year in the comments!