It was a rather unsatisfying year of reading. There were few books I loved. I read many books for my book group. The ladies tend to choose light, short novels. I also read some YA books for library work. Some of them can be well written, but they are generally about young people, young romance and problems that generally get resolved happily by the end of the book.
The books I enjoyed most over the year were ones I chose for their literary awards or because I had enjoyed the author's work previously. I also read more memoirs and diaries. I tend to get the most inspiration from women who, like me, struggle to find and distinguish themselves amidst the (in my case self-imposed) pressures to care for family.
The books I liked best this year are:
- People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
- Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon
- The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson
- Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan/Sis Neruda
People of the Book was not my favorite Geraldine Brooks novel, but it had a very interesting structure and wonderful writing. The main character was a selfish young woman who had very little appeal. Luckily her part was short. The real primary driver of the story was a book, an illustrated Passover Haggadah. The novel traced how the book was created. It followed the book back through time and told the story of the silversmith who made the clasps, the book binder, the calligrapher, and the illustrator of the remarkable codex. In each time period from the Middle Ages through modern history the book is a witness to prejudice between sexes, races and religions, primarily antisemitism. The book serves to make a bridge between the hostile parties.
I listened to Telegraph Avenue on CD, and the amazing voice of the actor who read the story may have swayed me to love it. I find reading and listening to books to be quite a difference experience. So while I here endorse the audio, I don't know how it would read on the page. The novel is a mess of complicated characters and family dynamics. There are 2 couples (or maybe 4) because the 2 husbands work together (at a failing record store), as do the 2 wives (in their own midwife practice). So there are relationships between the men, the women, the couples and their teenage children. The relationships are complicated and tender. There are a lot of plot twists, smart language and a satisfying conclusion.
The Orphan Master's Son was definitely the best book I read this past year. I picked it because it won the Pulitzer in 2012. I had never read a book like it before. It was a sweeping novel about a North Korean man who holds many jobs and plays many roles: kidnapper, signal operator, spy, prisoner, husband, father. Usually I would be turned off knowing I was going to read about prisons, torture, and hunger. But somehow, this novel came to the edge of horror and turned it into beauty. A man being tortured was able to sink deep inside himself and block pain with his memories and hopes. A man seemingly played with his children while, without their awareness, teaching them skills they would need to survive under the harshest conditions. A story of the severest deprivation and pain somehow was also a story of love, and sacrifice and hope. Read this book!
Finally on a lighter note, I'll recommend The Dreamer. It is meant for a young audience, perhaps for 4th to 6th graders. But like much of the best literature for the young, it is beautiful and inspirational for all ages. The text is by Pam Munoz Ryan, and the integral illustrations are by Peter Sis. The book is a small biographical novel about the poet, Pablo Neruda. Both the text and the illustrations are playful and charming. Like Neruda's book of questions, this book is full of questions like, "Which is sharper? the hatchet that cuts down dreams? or the scythe that clears a path for another?" The book is the journey of a young man escaping a fearful childhood and finding himself through his love of language. One fanciful vignette has the young poet taking slips of paper, on which he writes compelling words, out of his desk drawer and scattering them on the floor to make poetry. Some of the words are puma, liana, oregano, locomotive and chocolate.
The rest of my list:
1. Virginia Lee Burton, A Life in Art by Barbara Elleman (YA)
2. Life at home in the 21st Century by Jeanne Arnold
3. War Within and Without (1939-44) by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
4. Bring Me a Unicorn (1922-28) by Anne Morrow Lindbergh
5. Light Between the Oceans by M.L. Steadman
6. The language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
7. The Good House by Anne Leary
8. Anne Morrow Lindbergh, Her Life by Susan Hertog
9. The Empire of Illusion by Chris Hedges couldn’t finish, too grim, violent,depressing
10. The Girls from Ames by Jeffrey Zaslow
11. On a Farther Shore, Rachel Carson by William Souder
12. Pomegranate Soup by Marsha Mehran
13 Always, Rachel editor Freeman intimate letters of Rachel Carson
14. Lions of Little Rock (YA) by Kristin Levine
15. Gossip of the Starlings by Nina De Gramont (YA)
16. Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman
17. Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
18. The Outermost House by Henry Beston