My Year in Books



history of the rain







Allthosewastedhours has become such a sporadic enterprise for me–Jon has become Blogger emeritus, ret.–that I sometimes think I should dub it Allthosewastedweeksandmonths. But the idea of its existence in the blogcosmos reminds me that I have to do more than put metaphoric pen to metaphoric paper periodically or my head will bust wide open. So for the sake of my bald pate, here goes.

I have always envied those people who note every book they read. Our family friend, Gertrude Shorrock  (who lived to be almost 102), kept track of everything, including all the books she had read. I’ve made half-hearted attempts at lists, but I run out of gas, forget for too long, or become too embarrassed at the quality of books I’m reading–too heavy on mediocre mysteries and rock and roll memoirs–and I walk away. This year I determined to change that in my 64th year. My books called out to me “Will you still read me, will you still need me…” So I have kept a list this year. My goal was to reach 100, and by early fall I had revised that down to 75, and as the Times Square ball was descending to to 2015, I settled for my age 64.
I have listed the books read below listed by genre. If I loved the book I gave it three ***. No * means you should probably avoid it, although you won’t die if you don’t. You will notice that my list is bottom heavy with mystery/thrillers. Interestingly, the last time I kept track of my reading was the year Carol and I spent in Snowmass Village, Colorado; she had a fellowship at Anderson Ranch Art Center and I had a year off from responsibility (I did substitute in the Aspen school and worked for Westec Security, and oh the stories I accumulated). I became hooked on mysteries, specifically the works of Elmore Leonard. My goal was a book a week and at least ten of those books were Leonard’s. Since then I have become hooked on the genre, although if the formula is transparent and/or the characters too card-boardy I will walk away (or feel guilty for having finished).
For every mystery indulgence, I tried to work my way through a novel, and for the most part I was successful. I would recommend every novel I read this year, although with caveats. Some start bleak and finisher bleaker (Joe and The Free, for sure). Other than that, dive in.
It was also a memorable year for young adult fiction. In my young adult days, there were few great novels on the shelves. It seems as if I made the leap from Charlotte’s Web to A Clockwork Orange or W.A. Swanberg’s Citizen Hearst or Irving Stone’s Clarence Darrow for the Defense. There seemed to be no in between. Today, there is. Young teens have wonderful array of great authors from which to choose. Try any of the books I read this year, well there a couple of duds, and I think you may be surprised.

Here are some of the highlights from my year in bookland.

Gilead had found a dusty home in my bookshelf and I can’t recall why I pulled it out and started reading. I had admired Marilynne Robinson’s writing more than I actually liked it. I had labored through Housekeeping after seeing Bill Forsyth’s movie starring Christine Lahti (Where is she, by the way. I miss her. Hell, I miss Bill Forsyth. Local Hero is my favorite movie of all time). Gilead is an amazing meditation on death and life; An elderly minister writes his life story for his young son and in the process comes to terms with his father and the wayward son of his best friend. The sequel Lila, tells the story from his younger wife’s point of view. I can hardly wait.
Mink River by Larry Doyle was recommended to me by Candace McKenna. Rather, she dropped it on my lap and said I had to read it and that I would love it, almost always the kiss of death for me. But she was right. Such ebullient writing, fanciful and playful as the people who inhabit the small town on the wet coast of Oregon–Irish and Native American story tellers.
I have already gushed all over Bill Roorbach’s 3rd novel, The Remedy For Love. It was as good a novel as I have read in the last five years (an arbitrary number, maybe forever).
The History of the Rain by Niall Williams was a suggestion from my cousin Nathan–impeccable taste–and his mother Aunt Jean, who gave me a wonderful list her favorites. It is the story of an Irish family told by a bedbound young woman. It took me a while to figure out her voice, but once I realized that this was going to be a whimsical tale with plenty of odd detours and asides, I was in! She is searching for her father, an ethereal dreamer, searching for the why of him and I think she finally finds that in a powerful last act.
The Long Lankin and The Coast of Good Intentions are short story collections, first-time efforts. I had tried John Banville’s Booker Prize winning The Sea and had failed to bring it to its knees, so I was dubious when I picked up his short stories, but they are a fine introduction to his writing and I am determined to return to The Sea. The Coast of Good Intentions was my introduction to a northwest writer, Michael Byers–a serendipitous selection from the bargain bin at Half-Price Books. Poignant, well-drawn characters carving out livings in our soggy corner of the world.
If you are curious about young adult fiction, I would start with David Almond and Skellig. He is as good a writer as there is, and young people are blessed to have his books. I was introduced to him while reading the collection of columns that Nick Hornby wrote for The Believer, and still does (I just discovered that, yippee!). It is called “Stuff I’m Reading,” and it is the perfect place to discover new books. He was enamored of Almond, so I gave him a try, and it was my entry back into young adult fiction and I haven’t left. Almond’s novels are British magical-realism. The rich imaginary lives of children colliding with the harsh world. He is kind and poetic. I am also in love with Clare Vanderpool, Sally Gardiner, Janet Taylor Lisle, Tom McNeal, and Kimberly Willis Holt.
I didn’t read as much non-fiction as I would have liked, but it was all good. Steven Johnson’s The Invention of Air tells the story of the truly extraordinary British cleric Joseph Priestly, who discovered air, or what it was made of, and so much more and as is the case in today, he paid a price for his love of science. I also loved Todd Snider’s loopy memoir about life in the rock-n-roll fast lane,I Never Met A Story I didn’t Like. He has a great dead-pan story-telling style, is mostly unapologetic but doesn’t seek in any way to romanticize himself. I also need to mention a book I may never finish, but not for lack of trying. My old buddy Steve Cahill (In high school, he, Leon Anderson and I immersed ourselves in all things musical and I am forever grateful to have had (have) them as friends) sent me the heaviest book I have ever held in my hands, 1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die. It starts in the ’50s and takes you up to the new milennium. I take it in a song or two a night. And I will hear them all before I die.
Zealot was a fascinatinghistorical glimpse into the life of the man who was Jesus; To the River</em> by Olivia Laing follows the Oise from its beginnings to the see; it was the river Virginia Woolf jumped into and never emerged. As much as I liked it, I prefer Bill Roorbach’s Temple Stream. And man, The Boys in the Boat was so much fun on so many levels. You don’t need to know a damn thing about crew to enjoy this movie. Whoops, I meant book, but it will be a movie. In breaking up the list I realized that I had not given much attention to poetry. I would recommend Suzanne Edison’s The Moth-eaten World for parents who have ever had to watch your kids suffer and struggle. But also for it’s playfulness and love of sound and music of language.
And finally, we come to Mystery/Thriller. I do seem to be drawn to the dark, existential loners beating against the tide. More importantly, I have to be able to imagine them walking down the street in a world I recognize. The best of the bunch were the three Benjamin Black novels. Black is the pen-name for John Banville. I am pleasantly surprised at the number of great novelists drawn to the mystery genre. David Wagoner and Richard Hugo tried their hand at it. So did Jim Harrison, Robert Olen Butler, Joyce Carol Oates, Julian Barnes (I really loved his series written under the name Dan Kavanaugh; they’re hard to find). I also really enjoyed Susan Hill’s The Betrayal of Trust. If you are looking for suggestions, I have plenty.
One resolution I have made is to continue this list and report back to you all next January!

1. Restless—William Boyd**
2. Gilead—Marilynne Robinson***
3. Live By Night—Dennis LeHane**
4. All That Is—James Salter**
5. The Great Leader—Jim Harrison**
6. Instructions for a Heatwave—Maggie O’Farrell**
7. Little Children—Tom Perotta**
8. The Kept—James Scott**
9. Rules for Old Men Waiting—Peter Pouncy***
10. Mink River—Brian Doyle***
11. The Art of Fielding—Chad Harbach**
12. Joe—Larry Brown**
13. Remedy for Love—Bill Roorbach***
14. The Free—Willy Vautin**
15. The Coast of Good Intentions—Michael Byers***
16. History of the Rain—Niall Williams***
17. Paying Guests—Sarah Waters**
18. Long Lankin–John Banville***
Young Adult
1. The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp—Kathy Appelt**
2. My Louisiana Sky—Kimberly Willis Holt**
3. Parts of Me—Kimberly Willis Holt***
4. Navigating Early—Claire Vanderpool***
5. Dreamer—Pam Munoz Ryan***
6. The Silver Blade—Sally Gardiner*
7. The Box Children—Sharon Wyse*
8. Ninth Ward—Jewell Parker Rhodes*
9. Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe—Benjamin Alire Saenz**
10. Skellig—David Almond***
11. Mockingjay—Suzanne Collins
12. Sirens and Spies—Janet Taylor Lisle*
1. The Invention of Air—Steven Johnson***
2. To The River—Olivia Laing**
3. Zealot—Resa Aslan***
4. Boys in the Boat—Daniel James Brown***
5. The Moth Eaten World—Suzanne Edison***
6. I Never Met A Story I didn’t Like—Todd Snider***
7. The Story of Charlotte’s Web—Michael Sims**
8. The Coldest Winter—Paula Fox*
1. The Guilty One—Lisa Ballantyne*
2. Bad Things Happen—Harry Dolan*
3. The Last Dead Girl—Harry Dolan*
4. The Tourist Olen Steinhauer*
5. Holy Orders—Benjamin Black**
6. The Black-eyed Blonde—Benjamin Black***
7. End of the Wasp Season—Denise Mina***
8. The Way Home—George Pelecanos*
9. California Fire and Life—Don Winslow*
10. The Red Breast—Jo Nesbo*
11. The Farm—Tom Robb Smith
12. The Snow Man—Jo Nesbo*
13. Blacklands—Belinda Bauer*
14. Very Bad Men—Harry Dolan*
15. The Treatment—Mo Hayder**
16. The Cruel Night of the Stars—Kjell Eriksson*
17. The Betrayal of Trust—Susan Hill***
18. I Remember You: A Ghost Story—Yrsa Sigurdardottir
19. North of Boston—Elizabeth Elo*
20. Mortal Causes—Ian Rankin*
21. Christine Falls—Benjamin Black**
22. The Priest—Gerard O’Donovan*
23. The Ridge—Michael Koryta*


One thought on “My Year in Books

  1. Nathan Smith

    Wonderful list, Mac. Your readers will be pleased to learn that all of Julian Barnes’ Kavanaugh/Duffy novels have been made available digitally for Kindle or Nook. Pretty cheap too. Even better news: the University of Chicago Press and some outfit called Open Road Media have released digital editions of a dozen or so long-out-of-print novels by the great Peter De Vries, who’s due for a revival. Start with Blood Of The Lamb, or Reuben Reuben, or Slouching Towards Kalamazoo. Or just start anywhere.


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