December 29th is my birthday. Here's me, at the first one, Christmas tree in the background. This one is the 58th, which seems impossible. Today I'm making a Harvey Wallbanger cake as a combined birthday cake for me and a friend with a New Years Day birthday. This isn't the best time for a birthday, with people all tired and overfed already, but there you go.
This is also the time of year when I look back over my year's reading. I read over eighty titles, and liked many of them. I've always been an avid reader, and I enjoy talking about books to friends and relatives. Recently I was startled by an offhand comment by a woman who reads primarily historical biographies. She said, "When I read I like to learn something." The implication was that reading literary fiction is merely escapism. This year my reading enlarged my mental world in many ways, taking me to places both far and familiar, challenging my ideas, tickling my imagination. I did "learn something." Here's a list of some of my favorites:
1. Feed, M.T. Anderson (genre fiction)
Before retiring I taught high school English, and liked to ask students what they were reading. One title intrigued me - Feed. I checked the audio book out of the library and was won over. The story is set in the future, where interplanetary travel is a reality, and where all children are fitted in infancy with a "feed" in their brains that keeps their minds bathed in a constant stream of music, videos, internet sites, texting, and most of all, advertising. The novel portrays a world that is a logical extension of today's trends - and it's frightening. People's ability to communicate face to face, their ability to think independently, their language and even their health are all eroded. The story centers on a young man and the girl he learns to care for, both of whom have their feeds compromised at a dance club by a hacker. I found this story to be fascinating, though some people may be offended my the teens' coarse language. The audio version was especially effective because all the advertisements were produced to sound realistic, and the young narrator sounded authentic.
1. March, Geraldine Brooks (literary fiction)
I had heard mixed reviews of March, but my curiosity about the imagined life of the father of Little Women's March family led me to listen to an audio version. I was caught up from the start, and fascinated throughout by the vivid historic detail of Civil War battles, hospitals, plantations, and personalities. This is not the idealized war of Little Women, and Mr. March isn't an idealized person. He thinks, worries, acts, suffers and is transformed in a very real way.
2. Drop City, T.C. Boyle (literary fiction)
TC Boyle has written a novel that recreates a 1960's commune filled with idealists, druggies, and drop outs from society, and then transplants the whole group to the wilds of Alaska, sort of Hair meets Into the Wild. The real appeal and suspense came for me in seeing how the unprepared and naive free-love crowd would manage to survive with both extreme weather and trappers and gold prospectors in Alaska.
3. The Circus in Winter, Cathy Day (literary fiction)
This quirky little Midwestern novel grabbed me right away. Each chapter is the story of a person connected to a fictional circus based in Lima, Indiana. There is the story of the founder and his wife, of the aerial artist, the elephant keeper killed by Caesar, his star attraction, and many more. The stories have a rather melancholy tone, but each one is a little masterpiece of circus information and character study. Each chapter can stand alone, but taken together they paint a picture of people bound together by the bonds of circus life.
4. The Grass is Singing: A Novel, Doris Lessing (literary fiction)
How did I miss this book until now? Lessing's novel, written about 1950, is set in Rhodesia. The subject is the murder of a white woman by a native, and what led up to that event. But stating the subject doesn't come close to what the novel is really about. It is a prose poem describing the harsh beauty of the land, and a character study of the white and black inhabitants in the late 1940s. In some ways the book reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird, both in its flashback structure and its look at racial injustice.
5. The Speed of Light: A Novel, Javier Cercas (literary fiction)
"Now I lead a false life, apocryphal, clandestine, invisible life, though truer than if it were real, but I was still me when I met Rodney Falk." Javier Cercas's novel is a fascinating look at how life changes a person, the events, the people, the choices we each make - or fail to make. The main character is a Spanish writer who comes to Urbana, IL, thinking that travel will broaden his horizons, give him something about which to write. In Illinois he shares an office with Rodney Falk, a strange man, a Vietnam vet, who eventually tells the writer about his past. The novel follow the ebbs and flows of their friendship, and of the writer's career and personal issues. I was caught up in the story, fascinated by the characters, and unsure to the very end how it would all turn out.
6. The Moor’s Last Sigh, Salman Rushdie (literary fiction)
"I have lost count of the days that have passed since I fled the horrors of Vasco Miranda's mad fortress in the Andalusian mountain-village of Benengeli; ran from death under cover of darkness and left a message nailed to the door." Exhausted and exhiliarated are words that describe me after finally finishing this sprawling novel, a book so convoluted, filled with love, death, art, politics, and religion that my head is still spinning. I love the way Rushdie tells his story (Stories?), spinning them out as the princess under threat of death did for her mad sultan. In fact Rushdie was under threat of death after his previous novel, The Satanic Verses, and that was in the back of my mind as I read the story of four generations and their loves and bids for power over each other and the rest of the world. Spicy, funny, twisted, this book is all of it - a book lover's book - a feast of words.
7. City of Thieves: A Novel, David Behioff (literary fiction)
I had not planned to read another book set in World War II Russia (I just finished Child 44), but this mystery thriller came highly recommended, and now I see why. Despite some very graphic and disturbing violence, the main characters are well developed and very charming young men. While it isn't exactly a "feel good" novel, the end is satisfying. Thumbs up.
8. So Brave, Young and Handsome: A Novel, Lief Engler (literary fiction)
I just finished listening to this novel in audio format, and I wasted some gas just to finish the story. Set in the 1920s, a young writer makes a splash with a first novel, only to find his muse departed for a second effort. He befriends an old boat builder, only to discover the rascal has a shady past. When the older man want to go to Mexico to find his deserted love, the writer decides to come along. Adventures follow.
9. Giants in the Earth: A Saga of the Prairie, Edvart Rolvaag (literary fiction)
"Bright, clear sky over a plain so wide that the rim of the heavens cut down on it around the entire horizon. . . . Bright, clear sky, to-day, to-morrow, and for all time to come" The opening lines of Ole Rolvaag's 1927 story of Norwegian settlers who start a difficult new life in South Dakota is deceptively optimistic, because the the book is full of the paradoxes of the time. While the new land was beautiful and fertile, it could also be deadly. On the one hand there were acres of land to settle, so rich that wheat sprang from the earth, but on the other hand there were plagues of locusts, killer snowstorms, and isolation that drove more than one person to madness. I enjoyed this story, written in clear lovely prose, and am glad I didn't read it when I was younger. Reading it now, after I have traveled to the area, after I have seen the grasslands and an example of a sod house, and know something of my own family's story, it was a revelation. Stark, beautiful, and inspiring are all words that describe this tribute to emigrant settlers.
10. Independence Day, Richard Ford (literary fiction)
"In Haddam, summer floats over tree-softened streets like a sweet lotion balm from a careless, languorous god, and the world falls in tune with its own mysterious anthems." So begins Richard Fords award-winning sequel to The Sportswriter. Frank Bascombe, a divorced real estate agent, is doing the best he can to come to grips with the realities of his life and find a little peace and happiness. He deals with difficult clients, his ex-wife, his son and daughter, and his lover like the mensch he is. The action of the novel covers a long 4th of July weekend, and while plenty happens in the outside world, Frank's interior world plays just as big a role. I found the writing to be thoughtful, and the characters to be nicely developed and was sorry to see the book end. It seems like this book might sit happily on the shelf next to some of Updike's Rabbit books.
1. Goodbye to All That, Robert Graves (nonfiction)
My husband had an old paperback edition of Goodbye to All That, and it had been on my TBR list for years. I had the incorrect notion that it would be dry, difficult or somehow depressing. Instead I was charmed by Graves' style, his descriptions of pre-WWI English society and school, his first hand experience of the trenches in France, and his chumming around with people like Wilfred Owen, A.E. Houseman, and T.E. Lawrence. I found the book to be interesting and informative, though I could have used a little less regimental history.
2. Waiting For Snow in Havana: Confessions of a Cuban Boy, Carlos Eire (nonfiction)
"The world changed while I slept, and much to my surprise, no one had consulted me." This is the opening line of Carlos Eire's memoir of his childhood in Cuba, up to and including the Revolution that deposed Batista and installed Castro in power. On one level the book reminded me of Bill Bryson's Thunderbolt Kid because of his descriptions of his family, school and young friends in Cuba in the 1950's. But these memories have a much sharper edge than Bryson's because of the political content. Eire is understandably bitter about the way Castro's regime took away people's houses and businesses, and most of all the way people were controlled through terror. The writing is alternately funny and poignant, and I learned some uncomfortable things about the United States' role in the Bay of Pigs invasion.
3. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life, Barbara Kingsolver (nonfiction)
"This story about good food begins in a quick-stop convenience market." Kingsolver's story of a year dedicated to eating locally begins in a quickie-mart, but it ends on a Virginia farm with a turkey hatching her chicks. In between in the diary of a year of planting, raising, harvesting, cooking and eating. I really enjoyed reading this book, even though I no longer live on a farm, and no longer cook much (lucky me has a husband who loves cooking). Reading this I actually wanted to cook. I was so inspired I actually joined the natural food co-op where I have shopped on and off for twenty years or so, actually went to a local farmers' market and bought a sack of heirloom tomatoes to eat for lunch. I enjoyed the book also because it was a family project. Her daughter Camille added essays on eating and cooking locally, and her husband added information about organic vs. industrial farming. I was entertained (the turkey sex part was a hoot), and informed. Thumbs up.
4. Atomic Farmgirl: Growing up Right in the Wrong Place, Teri Hein (nonfiction)
"Gypsy, our Welch mare, seemed as tall as a house and as wild as the stallion she wasn't when she remembered the clover on the north side of the house and took off." Remembering is something that Teri Hein does well. I picked up the memoir on a trip to Portland. The book caught me eye because my grandmother was a child in Washington. She crossed the Columbia River to go to school in Hanford, a place that no longer exists as a town because the US government took it over and constructed a plant to manufacture plutonium for the Manhattan Project. My great grandfather was raised in nearby Fairfield, the hometown of this writer. Teri Hein writes about the experience of growing up on a Fairfield farm in the 1950s, and of the strange cluster of illnesses that killed friends and family after the Hanford Nuclear Reservation began releasing radioactive material. I liked the book on two levels, for the humor and love with which she describes her girlhood experiences, and also for the way she shows the harm the nuclear poisons caused for the people unlucky enough to live nearby. And of course, I felt a personal connection.