I read more than many people do. I always aspire to read more than I have. I was a little dismayed this year when I finished a book in early November and couldn’t quite get myself to start another. Looking over my list of what I’ve read though, this is consistent with a pattern. In 2015, I finished my last book of the year in early December and then finished the next book in February of 2016. For some reason, in the months of the year thought to be best disposed to reading, I fail to put eyes to page.
The first book I read in 2016 (finished in February) was a young adult novel Hoot by Carl Hiassen. I’d enjoyed several Carl Hiassen novels previously so, when a friend gave me a copy of the novel, I read it. It’s a fun story about a kid who discovers that a nearby development project will destroy the habitat of some birds. Further, the developers have fraudulently gotten the go ahead for the project by hiding the existence of the bird population. As with a lot of young adult novels, it’s a tale about how kids can get things done despite adult myopia and inaction. One of my favorite things about the book is that a familiar kids’ book trope gets turned on its head. That trope involves enemies finding common cause and working together. Hiassen trolls the trope in front of the reader but the outcome is unexpected. Good read for young and old.
Prodigal Summer by Babara Kingsolver was a good novel, deftly plotted and the writing is lovely. There are a lot of intertwined stories stories and they combine to develop a theme that nature will take care of itself. That mankind, despite his hostility to particular kinds of nature is within nature itself so the same sufficiency applies. There are a lot of interesting and entertaining characters.
The Whole Story and Other Stories by Ali Smith represents a new addition to my lists of what I’ve read. For whatever reason, I’ve only represented novels in my list. I’ve decided recently to read more short stories and, moreover, to read collections together (rather than a story here and a story there). So, this book of short stories is included. I’ve also decided to include the non-fiction books I read so this year’s list will include those as well.
One notable thing about The Whole Story and Other Stories is that there is no story within called “The Whole Story”. The other notable thing is that these are generally experimental fictions that read fluidly. I’m given to liking metafiction and other flavors of writing that play with forms and words but often the writing suffers from the writer’s efforts in that direction. This is a lovely collection.
The next book I finished was The Big Bamboo by Tim Dorsey. If you’ve enjoyed Carl Hiassen’s Florida based mysteries, there is a good chance you’ll enjoy Tim Dorsey. One might describe The Big Bamboo as a madcap mystery. The two primary characters are (somehow) both vicious and lovable. This book is far from a great novel but is wildly entertaining and, so, recommended.
The first non-fiction book (of my list): Secrets of the Soul: A Social and Cultural History of Psychoanalysis was written by Eli Zaretsky. Freud’s reputation has suffered over the last several decades (although there are still large numbers of adherents and offshoot schools of Freudian thought) but that’s largely because most people’s understanding is a caricature of what Freud developed. He did get a number of things wrong to be sure; and many of those things he that subsequently revised are those that still generate negative opinions respecting his reputation.
The most interesting thing about Secrets of the Soul though is that it traces the development of psychoanalytic thought through the cultural and social movements and phenomena of the 20th century. Since history, as it is taught in United States schools focuses largely on foreign policy and wars it’s quite revealing to get a glimpse of what comprised social thought in various phases of the 20th century. One particularly striking thing that stuck with me: prior to the Industrial Revolution there was basically no concept of a “private (individual) life.” People were inextricably defined by their families and their employment. While that may sound peculiar on the surface, Zaretsky spends a good deal of time explaining why and how that was so. As with a lot of non-fiction, this book isn’t for everyone but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Next is Jasper Fforde’s One of Our Thursdays Is Missing. I’ve read a number of Fforde’s books including several of the Thursday Next series and generally enjoy them. I may have missed one or two of the novels in the series which may be why I didn’t like this one as much as those I’ve read before. In the Thursday Next world, there is a Bookworld and a Real World. The Bookworld has its own special police Jurisfiction charged with making sure that plots go on as designed with every reading. However, characters in the Bookworld know that they are characters in books and so sometimes become bored and restless. Thursday Next is a literary detective who is called upon to investigate malfeasance and other problems when they develop. Whimsical but brilliantly written and a lot of fun.
The Very Persistent Gappers of Fripp is a sort of illustrated short story that sort of masquerades as a children’s book. Like most of George Saunders’ ouevre, it’s quite strange and unsettling.
If you’re a Carl Hiassen fan, A Death in China (which he wrote with Bill Montalbano) may not be your cup of tea. Rather than a Hiassen romp through strange characters and situations, this is much more a taut thriller. It’s not a great novel but it’s a good story and worth reading if you enjoy that sort of novel.
I had never read Lucky Jim by Kingsley Amis before even though I read a good deal of postwar British fiction at one time. The main character is a somewhat likable fellow with some rather self destructive tendencies. This goes a bit further than merely pushing against the exasperation borne of the expected pageant of academic life. Nonetheless, as the tile indicates, good fortune seems to find him.
Laura Lippman was chosen to edit Baltimore Noir — a collection of darkish short stories set in various neighborhoods and locales in Baltimore. Baltimore Noir is part of a series of books set in a number of cities but following the same pattern. As is common, the collection is uneven but there are a number of wonderful stories here. It’s particularly enjoyable if you’re quite familiar with Baltimore’s neighborhoods and quirky charms.
A Son of the Circus is rather a departure (I think) for John Irving — although I haven’t read an Irving novel for quite awhile. It’s the story of an Indian orthopedic surgeon who lives in Canada but spends a good deal of time in India volunteering his services at a children’s hospital. The main character is equally at home in both cultures which is to say: not entirely. There’s an exploration of racism and social mores in both countries. What makes it unique for Irving (to me) is that there’s a decades long sort of murder mystery that weaves through the plot. A quite good novel.
If you’ve never read a novel by Christopher Moore, remedy that right away. I think that after finishing The Serpent of Venice I have read every one of his books (except a graphic novel called Griff that I just saw on the author’s Amazon page). The Serpent of Venice is the continuing adventures of Pocket — hero of Moore’s prior novel Fool. Fool was a retelling of King Lear from the perspective of Lear’s jester Pocket. This novel is a mashup of “A Cask of Amontillado” and The Merchant of Venice. It’s quite a good novel and is both wildly entertaining and well written. It behooves me (“behooves” is a word that my son believes should come back in style so I’m trying to help that along) to mention Moore’s novel Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal which, the whimsical title notwithstanding, is one of the best novels I’ve ever read.
Karen Russell’s collection of stories Vampires In the Lemon Grove was my introduction to her writing. I think there are two Russell books on my “to read” list but this was my first. I enjoyed the stories which were strange to varying extents. The title story is about two vampires who, during their long (perhaps perpetual) lives have determined that much of what they believe about vampires (themselves) comes from popular mythology about them. For example, the blood isn’t necessary. In fact, it doesn’t help. I will continue to look for Karen Russell at the library and in bookstores.
The first reread on the list: Total Loss Farm: A Year in the Life was written by Raymond Mungo and published in 1970. Mungo’s first book Famous Long Ago chronicled the creation of the Liberation News Service in the 60s which aimed to be an Associated Press (if you will) for the alternative news magazines that were springing up around the nation as resistance to the Vietnam War and the grey flannel suit culture inherited from the 50s developed. As many such endeavors do, the effort resulted in divisions, hostilities, rivalries and, eventually, disillusionment for a number of the principals. Total Loss Farm chronicles Mungo’s and his friends’ lives after they move to a commune in Vermont — mostly city kids learning to live off the land and with each other. I was happy to read it again and would recommend it to anyone.
The Hatred of Poetry by Ben Lerner (poet and novelist) is a curious book. It begins with a line from poet Marianne Moore “I too dislike it” (poetry) and the goes on an extended meditation about poetry as an object of scorn and the impossibility of writing it. It’s a fairly short book and despite the fact that I’m glad I read it, I was glad it wasn’t any longer.
There has been a lot of literature coming out of Scandinavia recently — particularly crime novels. Jar City by Arnaldur Indridason is such a mystery set in Iceland. The protagonist is a jaded police detective, divorced and with a grown daughter that is always in trouble of some kind. As with a lot of crime/mystery novels, the focus is on the character and the plot is a way of exposing the nuances and quirks that shape that character. Still, the plot and intricate rape and murder story is engaging and satisfying.
I thought I had read The Invisible Man by H. G. Wells before but, unless I forgot it entirely, I was mistaken. I’m sorry to report that, although there were a lot of things I liked about the novel I didn’t enjoy it very much. Among the good aspects — there are disadvantages to being invisible as well as advantages; also, I liked the technical issues associated with being invisible. For example, after eating, the invisible man must hide because his meal is visible internally until such time as it is assimilated with his body. I may try another H. G. Wells book but this didn’t really move me.
To me, Richard Powers is perhaps the best English language novelist who is alive and still producing. Generosity: An Enhancement is a very good novel. The central character is an Algerian woman who, despite having grown up in civil war and having lost much of her family, is nonetheless preternaturally happy. The surrounding story has to do with high technology and its promises and perils. There is interest in doing a genomic study on Thassadit (the Algerian) to determine if there is a genetic basis for her disposition that could be used to enhance the lives of others. The mix of intelligence and superb prose makes for a fantastic read. I recommend this and any of Powers’ work to anyone.
I was happy to find a novel by Elizabeth Hand at the library. I read her novel Generation Loss a few years ago after buying it at a used bookstore. I enjoyed that and was surprised to find that she wasn’t represented at all in the local library system. A few months ago, I found Hard Light in the stacks and snatched it up. It features the same protagonist as Generation Loss: Cass Neary, once a photographer of the New York punk scene on her way up, now living and drinking hard. Although there is a plot, the novel reads more like a continuing saga of this tough, albeit broken, woman than a traditional novel. Neary is reminiscent of one of James Crumley’s characters — taking drugs and boozing through the curious things that keep happening while, almost by accident (seemingly), a story develops in the background. As for recommendation, I’m reminded of someone’s quip “you’ll probably like it if this is the sort of thing you like.”
That makes 19 books for the year — a total of 5,532 pages. I hope to read more in 2017 and I look forward to spending even more time describing the books this time next year. If you made it this far, thak you for reading. Please feel free to comment and/or make suggestions.