Best books of 2012

I’m pretty sure all 20 of my readers have been counting down till the moment I reveal my favorite books of 2012. Mind you, it doesn’t mean these books were published in 2012; I just discovered them this year, or felt moved to read them, or they wore me down. In any case, out of the 39 books I read this year, my top five are as follows:

Fiction

The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin is a gorgeous book not short on descriptions of nature—both wild and human. If you’ve enjoyed Plainsong or any novel by Kent Haruf, you might find a kindred story here about non-traditional families set in a familiar landscape.

The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes: tricky little thing.

Coral Glynn by Peter Cameron: beautifully wrought period novel. Cameron is a brilliant writer, despite an ever-present undertone of sadness, and this book made me revisit The Weekend, which I read in college when I was young and thought it was scandalous to read about lovers in a book who were both men.

A trio of novels by Tana French: In the Woods, The Likeness, and Faithful Place. This was my first venture into mysteries since the Agatha Christie novels of my youth, and let me tell you: I’d be a mystery whore if the writing in the genre were this literary. In the Woods provides two mysteries for the price of one (but be warned one may not get solved). Despite a preposterous coincidence in The Likeness that the narrative is built on, it was still a fave because of the writing, characters, and generous helping of Irishisms. I just finished her third novel, Faithful Place, and that’s up there too. I’m trying to hold off on reading her fourth book Broken Harbor lest I have to start a fan club.

Nonfiction

On Writing by Steven King: I’m not afraid to admit that I’ve turned up my nose at Mr. King’s tales of dogs, killers, and prom queens. But this man can write one inspirational memoir and a scene of joy so profound that it just might make you cry.

The End of Your Life Book Club by William Schwalbe: I suspected this might be a book along the lines of Tuesdays with Morrie (i.e., terrible). The author writes about the informal book club of sorts he has with his mother who is dying of pancreatic cancer. I didn’t think he could crack me. I was just in it for the books and conversation. I mean, I didn’t even know this woman, so I was pretty sure I wouldn’t get attached to her. Yeah. Tears.

Yup, I realize that was six books. Deal with it.

If none of these suggestions float your boat, 1) get a smaller boat or 2) check out this ridiculously exhaustive list of Best Of lists on largehearted boy. And then take three years’ of vacation to begin to tackle just 1% of the list.

And just for good measure, a couple of books I regret struggling through: Train Dreams by Denis Johnson, the much-heralded novella that did nothing for me, and an over-hyped book by a woman who called in to On Point on NPR titled Anastasia by Victor Megne, which reminds me why I don’t listen to that show.

I also started and quit five books: Wuthering Heights (seriously, two Catherines?), The House of Seven Gables (I live in Salem; I should like this. I decided instead to just to walk by the house), Dovekeepers (cut out 400 pages and you might have had me, Alice Hoffman), A History of the Senses (interesting but heavy on the details), and the lengthy memoir What to Look for in Winter (self-indulgent author, but one with an astounding vocabulary).

Happy reading.

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Spine poetry

How great is this idea? Select a few books from your shelf  and shuffle them up to “write” a poem. The idea, courtesy of artist Nina Kathadourian’s Sorted Books project I read about on Brain Pickings, is called spine poetry. Brilliant, right? Peruse your bookshelf—or as this artist does: the public library, private libraries, anywhere that houses books—culling those with interesting titles to arrange a poem.

Such an interesting way to discover lines of poetry that might never be discovered otherwise, while possibly even motivating you to dust the bookshelf; it’s also time well spent with your books and even better: a reason to acquire more books.

Here are some lines I discovered:

Love is walking hand in hand,

devotion.

Enduring love:

the mother garden.

Man and camel

walking into the night;

don’t tell me the truth about love.

Happiness is a warm puppy,

driving over lemons,

the northern lights,

burnt bread and chutney,

the journey home.

Mini book reviews

I’m in an overwhelmed-by-books phase. I started The Likeness when Wild came in at the library, and even though Oprah never personally invited me to be in her book club 2.0 and even though her picks tend to be about the same female protagonist who’s suffered hardship but will overcome, I end up enjoying most of the selections. Wild is one of them. It’s possible I took a day off to read it. In many ways, I suspect author Cheryl Strayed will see the fame Elizabeth Gilbert enjoyed after publishing Eat, Pray, Love. While her book lacks the pizza of Italy and the hunky Brazilian lover, Strayed does compel readers with her tale of hiking the grueling Pacific Coast Crest Trail* with ill-fitting hiking boots and a backpack named Monster.

Now it’s on to The Likeness, which, if you took my advice, you’d be reading too, because it’s by the stellar Tana French. I just saw the Irish actress-turned-writer at the Brookline Booksmith where she did a reading with fellow mystery writer Sophie Hannah, a Brit, who read from The Other Woman’s House. Great, another book to add to the list. The hook for Hannah’s book got me: a woman browsing online videos of homes for sale spots a dead body in the living room of one—but finds the body is gone when she shows her husband.

At the reading, a pug settled in to listen but became more enamored with a woman’s bag and feet that he sniffed, inching closer and closer to both as the woman kept inching them away. It’s a tribute to these two authors and their engaging storytelling that the pug was hardly a distraction. Turns out he was a book lover too. I saw him leave with signed copies tucked under his wrinkled chin.

 

 

* I read all 336 pages of Wild believing it was the Pacific Coast Trail and not the Pacific Crest Trail. To be fair, she referred to it mostly as the PCT, but still. At several points I did wonder why we didn’t hear more about the coast . . .

Salem’s secret garden

Is there anything more enchanting than a secret garden? Well, yes. Coming upon Mr. Darcy in said secret garden. But let’s be realistic. This patch of flowers and pebbled trail is tucked away behind a church and historic home in Salem, often overlooked by tourists. Sometimes, I have it all to myself. See that red brick mansion in the background? That’s where Darcy and I live in my fantasy. We restore it to its former glory and stand gazing down upon the garden where we married, reliving the moment again and again. And then his sister saunters in and wants to play a sonata on that damn piano. Always with the piano! When will she get her own place?

These grand English-style gardens always call to mind the characters of Austen and Bronte. Can’t you just picture Jane Eyre sitting on this bench when Rochester sneaks up behind her in his creepy, romantic way?

This is where I like to sit and read about the stern yet tenderhearted men of yore. The shaded bench is better suited to courting lovers, but whatever. All I have is a book and the sunflowers before they turn brown and droop their heavy heads.

When I tire of reading, I look to the koi pond, confident that at any moment, Darcy will emerge, sopping wet in a blousy white shirt plastered to his beefy arms that he will use to lift me off the bench and into the pond for a romp.

The desecration of a library

I’m all about the ports lately. Last week was Westport, CT for the birthday. This week was Freeport, ME to see Martin Sexton at LL Bean’s Discovery Park, a free outdoor concert series that would make me like the Bean, if I were on Facebook. Anyway, the “sex” in Martin’s name is no mistake; he’s one sexy folk singer. Just look at that swoop of hair and the way he sings, eyes closed in ecstasy. Lullaby, please.

Other than sexy Sexton and the campus that is LL Bean, complete with boot mobile, there’s not a lot to Freeport. A handful of outlets would disappointment me, if I were a tourist. But strolling down Main Street, my friend Kim and I, not tourists, just naive New Englanders, encountered this sweet brick library. She snapped a picture while I pointed out its quaintness—red and solid and stout amid the trees. A classic.

The chiseled bare-chested man peering at us from just inside the door did seem an incongruous entry to the little library, but who am I to judge Down Easters? Perhaps the image helps uh, circulation.

An art exhibit, I thought, puzzled. Until my friend pointed out the sign, in alarm, confirming the desecration of a most sacred space. Freeport, if it takes me 20 years, I will strike out your entry in all guide books from Fodor’s to Frommer’s.

Best books of 2011

I can’t say I was looking forward to reading Salvage the Bones, the 2011 National Book Award winner for fiction. The subject matter, Hurricane Katrina, was an ugly period in American history. But I was intrigued when Jesmyn Ward won the award over Tea Obreht’s The Tiger’s Wife, a fantastic book that critics felt was a shoe-in. Well.

The Tiger’s Wife was fantastic. Loved it. But it would have been the movie with the big studio behind it winning the Oscar. You can’t help but root for the little independent. I had heard Ward, the underdog, on NPR saying how she was thrilled just to be nominated for Salvage the Bones. She sounded so sincere that I wanted her to win. When she won, I committed to read it.

The writing is harsh in the most beautiful way, punched-up to a poetic level, and tight. You like the protagonist, her brothers, and even a pit bull so much that you’re worried from page one about the storm that’s coming. The tension builds like the winds that sweep across their Mississippi land.

I read 30-odd books this year and found it hard to choose a fop five from among the many contenders. And then I remembered that no one’s making me choose five. I just like to put five in my book widget, but that I can choose 10 if I want. And I want, so here’s a recap:

I finally got around to reading The Elegance of the Hedgehog, a fun flight through the philosophical that everyone read when it came out in 2008. I’m slow to the table, OK? Plus, I put it down twice when I tried reading it back then. This time it stuck and I was duly rewarded. If you’re not feeling pressured to read the most newly minted novels (The Marriage Plot, The Art of Fielding, enough already), read it.

I also brushed up on a classic or two, reading Jane Eyre at last (very slow to the table). Jane and I would have been fast friends had I lived in the English countryside way back when. We could have roamed the meadows bundled in our layers, arms linked, stopping to talk about books and our crush on the quirky Rochester.

Forging on with my resolution last year to read books I might not normally pick up, and failing by page two of The Hunger Games, I gave in to the critical acclaim for last year’s National Book Awards nonfiction winner and devoured Just Kids by Patti Smith a memoir of her years spent with Robert Mapplethorpe. Oh, to have such a supportive artist and quasi-lover who champions your growth and creativity, while coming of age in New York City. What a power duo.

Under the category of titles I’d rattle off while awaiting laughter, I read and loved two books. The first was The Sound of a Wild Snail Eating by Elisabeth Tova Bailey. Seriously, if you don’t go out searching for snails to love after reading this, you are not human. The second, while not as lyrical, was Wesley the Owl by Stacey O’Brien. If you don’t go out looking for your own owl to mother after reading this, you are definitely not human.

Dog Years: a Memoir by poet Mark Doty that interweaves the loss of his partner  and dogs, another not-so-new book, was phenomenal and heartbreaking. And I’m not even a dog owner.

And finally, the most entertaining read, judged by how much I have to suppress laughter on the train: This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper.

Go forth and read, people.

Stuff I did on winter vacation that you don’t care about

I baked some double chocolate chip pumpkin cookies for an amazing cookie swap and almost—almost—went home with more cookies than I could handle. I tried some strange and tasty cookies (cardamom, green tea, goat cheese), gave some away, and shared some at our unusual office Christmas swap.

My co-worker and I chair a fun committee at the office (we’re serious about fun) and this year instituted a white elephant Yankee swap. Gifts could be small, preferably lame, and must be derived from one’s office. I wrapped up a CD and a skull and bones eraser and unwrapped a plant that was whisked away in the swap. I ended up with a testy wireless mouse that I had unloaded months earlier on my co-worker. Ah, the circle of office life.

I read more issues of Rachael Ray’s Every Day magazine than I care to admit. She’s chipper that one, but she puts out a good magazine.

Every year I make my sister a calendar with photos I’ve taken, surreptitiously, of her dog, Molly, in various states of ridiculousness. This year’s theme was “What’s on Molly’s head?” What was on Molly’s head, you ask? A colander, apple, myriad stuffed animals, coffee filters, salad bowl, and a hat. Doesn’t it seem like she really, really enjoys it?

On yet another mild January day, I walked through the near-barren orchard and watched a hawk pluck a mouse from the field, the scent of sour apples lingering.

I read some good books over vacation but the best one by far, Salvage the Bones, took me through the last days of the year. More on that in my upcoming book wrap-up.

I pressed my face to the window watching for deer in my sister’s backyard. She and her husband spot deer posses traipsing through the yard, their hoof prints pricking the yard. I’ve yet to see one of these phantom deer.

My sister and her husband took me on a hike through the woods in the backyard where the famed deer live. Sometimes a hike can be a walk.

I Christmas shopped with my mom, a near-70 Energizer bunny, and had to sit, more than once, with the old people on the bench of the outdoor shopping center while she forged on.

I rented a million movies and finally saw The Muppets and appreciated the numerous nods to the 70s and 80s and the fact that there are enough lovers and dreamers who welcome back the Muppets with a big furry hug.

Facing fear

What are you so scared of?

Baby.

I just finished an entertaining memoir by a woman who dedicates a year of her life to facing her fears, one at a time, for 365 days. My Year with Eleanor by Noelle Hancock interweaves tidbits of Eleanor Roosevelt’s life (which makes you want to read every biography of this firecracker) with humorous accounts of Hancock’s staring down her biggest obstacles: skydiving, flying, and climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro, along with some of her smaller fears that were no less terrifying.

Frankly, it left me wanting not only to devour every biography of Eleanor Roosevelt but also to face down the everyday fears that stand in the way of truly experiencing life. Except skydiving. And climbing a mountain where the lack of oxygen could kill you. And performing live on stage. Nope. I’m all set.

However, I have been meaning to face the rock wall at my gym for nearly a year and suddenly, I’m ready to attack it. I wouldn’t say I’m afraid of it, but I’m prepared for a challenge. Two good-natured impossibly young men thrill to the sight of fresh bait. I ask a lot of questions, partly out of curiosity, partly to deflect the fact that one is tightening straps around my hips and legs.

“Is it scary?” I ask.

“If you can climb a ladder, you can climb the rock wall,” the older one tells me.

I think about how I don’t much like ladders.

“Sure, the rope frays and there’s lice in the helmet, but it’s usually fine,” the jokester says.

Heh heh.

The older one shows me the easy path up the wall, which I admit does not look easy or like a path. It looks, instead, like a hodgepodge of mushroom-like footholds that seem too small for even my petite feet.

“Those only fall off occasionally,” the other one chimes in.

He’s a funny kid. I tell him so.

“Climbing,” I say, because that’s what you do when you start climbing, which seems kind of obvious, but I don’t want to piss the guy off who’s holding my safety rope, so I say it.

The first two steps are fine, easy to grip, and low to the ground. After that it gets hairy.

“Don’t look down,” the nice one says.

I make it halfway and wonder why facing fear is necessary. Isn’t it healthier to keep one’s blood pressure low and the heart in good working order rather than stressing it unnecessarily?

“I think I’m good,” I say, ready to descend.

“Come on,” says the nice one.

“Look down,” the other one tells me.

I do and freak out.

“Now look up,” he says. “The shorter distance is up.”

I take a few more tentative steps, less because I want to and more to get it over with. Great, great, great; I’m at the top.

“Ring the bell,” they say.

I tap the bell.

“Ring it like you mean it,” the nice one says.

And now I want to kill him too.

“How do I get down? How do I get down?”

This is something that should be covered at the beginning, I realize.

“Sit down and bounce off the wall with your feet.”

I recall an image of climbers on TV doing this smoothly, gliding down a cliff, and I feel the distance lessening.

Until I’m in freefall.

The good guy lets the rope out and I realize he’s playing with me. He saves me at the last second.

Bastard.

So, fear faced. I can’t say I felt triumphant as much as relieved. But I can say I don’t need to climb another rock wall anytime soon. Or a ladder. Ladders scare the hell out of me.

The Great Book Anticipation of 2011

I had just read about this new book coming out and immediately ordered it from the library. An email a few days later told me that The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore was already waiting for me at the circulation desk. The librarian handed over the 575-page tome, and without a hint or irony, said, “Due back in two weeks.” Right.

The novel is narrated in first-person by Bruno, a chimp who acquires language and explores what it means to be human. Also, there is chimp-human sex. I just thought you should know.

I discovered this hefty little gem by Benjamin Hale on this drool-worthy list of the most anticipated book preview of 2011. If there’s anything bibliophiles love more than reading, it’s squirreling away a stack of books like acorns for the coming year. And if you live in New England where it continues to snow, you need some meaty books for the winter.

Karen Russell’s writing is beautiful and I’ve been hoping she’d come out with a novel since her short story collection St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves. Her novel, Swamplandia!, grew from one of those short stories and is about a family that runs an alligator wrestling attraction. Uh-huh.

The New York Times reviewed both books today. Clearly, its reviewers take their cues from my blog.

Oddly, I’m looking forward to a memoir called Fire Season by Philip Connors who served as a fire lookout in New Mexico for years. With all that time to sit there scanning the sky, and presumably having to shout “Fire!” only once in awhile, he’s gotta have some interesting thoughts to share.

A new book by Ann Patchett (Bel Canto, Truth & Beauty) is always something to celebrate, except maybe that last novel, Run, that wasn’t so hot. But if State of Wonder is classic Ann Patchett, all will be forgiven. June, however, is a long time to wait. Fortunately, I have the tale of Bruno the chimp to keep me company.

2010 reading wrap-up

Reading in the sun. Second only to the beach.

This has been a rough reading year. One of my resolutions was to revisit the classics (or hell, just visit the classics, since I never had a membership to that old library in the first place) and to read things out of my comfort zone. But I can’t blame my bad year on classics or odd literature. The books I read just didn’t seduce me. And I’ve read a lot this year considering a big chunk of my life was taken up by the homebuying process where the only thing I was reading were inspection reports and bank statements.

Just as I was giving up hope on a happy ending, the last book of the year did what all books should do: grabbed me by the first paragraph and kept on grabbing me (no, not like that), so 2010 went out on a high note. I had just finished The Widower’s Tale by Julia Glass (eh) when I spotted The Widower by Liesel Litzenburger on the used book store shelf, so you can imagine that I was not like, Awesome! Another book about a grieving guy. But then I read this opener:

Grace Blackwater is downstairs, saving his life one small gesture at a time. He can hear her straight through the worn wood floors beneath his bed, going about her business as if she owns the place. She doesn’t own the place. He hadn’t called her, but she has come—up the long dirt driveway on her motorcycle at dawn and in through an open kitchen window, using her jackknife to slit the screen that has been repaired again and again with duct tape. Upstairs, in his bed, he has heard even this, the silver blade parting the length of fine mesh with the whir of a hummingbird. Every house in the door is unlocked. Grace likes to do things the hard way. He was glad she hadn’t shot off the locks. She has some talents. He does, too. What are they? He doesn’t know anymore. He sure can’t dance, would make a lousy poker player, doesn’t know any magic tricks, isn’t much for meaningful conversation. He is a champion of deep sleep. He excels at the long rest.

See? You want to keep reading. When I finished the book—this author’s debut—I wondered if she’d written anything since, and in one of those tiny moments of joy, I discovered there was already a new one waiting for me called Now You Love Me. Can’t wait.

Other bright spots on the shelf this year were Mink River by Brian Doyle that contains the most beautiful passage I’ve read all year—and it was uttered by a talking crow; Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert, This Must be the Place by Kate Racculia (a friend and great writer), and the memoir Orange is the New Black.

Worst book last year? Tinkers by Paul Harding. Yeah, the one that nabbed the Pulitzer, but I stand my ground. Dullsville.

One Day

“To acquire the habit of reading is to construct for yourself a refuge from almost all of the miseries of life.” ~ W. Somerset Maugham

Ah, books. You are the aloe to my sunburn. Ow. Too much sun.

Incidentally, I’m reading a great book called One Day that chronicles a couple that’s not a couple by giving us a glimpse of them over a 20-year timespan. Each chapter describes their life every July 15 from the 80s to the whatever-we’re-calling-this decade and each chapter brings that devilish Will they? Won’t they? tension. David Nicholls’ style is a bit Nick Hornby-ish, and I’m a sucker for reading about blokes on the telly and swimming costumes.

Oh, and it’s gonna be a movie. So listen up, Zac Efron, if they offer you the role, please decline. Anne Hathaway and Patricia Clarkson are already on board, and I would like to enjoy one quality romantic comedy next summer.

Resolutions check in

One of my New Year’s resolutions was to eat more salads. Exciting, right? But here’s the thing about salads: they’re a pain to make. When you’re cooking for one, buying lettuce, a tomato, cucumber, carrot, and croutons is a lot to ask for something that’s not the main meal. And you’ve got to rinse and spin that lettuce, which means one more gadget to wash. And lettuce loves to wilt at superhuman speed. Fun additions like radishes and walnuts keep me going for a couple of days, but who can eat a salad every day? I heard this tip once: always get a salad when you go out to eat; all the work is done for you, and it’s probably a more interesting salad than you’d whip up at home. So, I’ve taken to getting my greens when eating out. And to keep that salad resolution going, I guess I’ll just have to eat out more.

My second resolution was to read more books outside my comfort zone: mysteries, postmodern fiction, or just plain old weird stuff. Part of the intent was to wean myself from contemporary novels and revisit the classics—an area in which I am woefully under-read. But, thanks to my ability to walk out of my office and ask 15 other writers and readers about their favorite classics, I’ve amassed quite a reading list. So, it’s classics month here at the Picnic. I discovered that the rumor about Henry James is true: great writer. I enjoyed two of his novellas: Daisy Miller and The Turn of the Screw. I’ve since started the epic East of Eden by Steinbeck and am seeing if I can break my usual 10-page block of To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf. Also on the list, a little Oscar Wilde and maybe even Moby Dick, just because.

Elizabeth Strout and Billy Collins

Last week was a literary smorgasbord, which is the best kind of smorgasbord short of cornucopias of food. If not food, then books, I say. Elizabeth Strout, author of the Pulitzer-prize winning Olive Kitteridge, was in town doing a reading preceded by an intimate, entertaining Q & A. You don’t meet a lot of writers who used to study law while secretly reading Nabokov concealed in a textbook. You also don’t meet a lot of writers who know small towns and can write about them so effectively despite living in New York City. And you definitely don’t meet a lot of writers who, when answering a question, say, “I don’t know. But that’s not an interesting answer, is it? Let me make something up.”

Strout was chatty and affable and talked in depth about Olive Kitteridge, the ornery main character and the linked stories that revolve around her. It was like having a book club with the author.

I love to hear writers talk about their writing schedule and discipline and while Strout didn’t lay on the guilt trip I sometimes need to hear (as in, I rise at 5 a.m. and write until noon, eat some nuts, and then write for another 17 hours), she did say, “Writing is serious stuff” and that it should be treated with gravitas. Yes, approaching one’s writing half-heartedly rarely earns one a Pulitzer, which she was too humble to say, and that reminder is a good one. She also writes anywhere—the kitchen table, the subway, the library—and is constantly revising, quite a trick for a writer who writes by hand.

That same night, I caught poet Billy Collins at the MFA reading some new poems and some old favorites. He’s always delightful to listen to. One minute he’s stabbing you in the heart with a sad poem and then he’s making you laugh like a school girl. When he does both, he’s at his best. He said he likes to write poems that start funny and get serious or poems that start serious and get funny—a brilliant concept and one I wish I had employed in this post. Pretend it happened.

Mini book reviews

I closed out the year with three novels:

Americans in Space by Mary Mitchell, is a fun, satisfying read that traffics in my favorite thing: poignancy. The protagonist is a widow with a sense of humor about her difficult teenager and toddler who insists on toting around a ketchup bottle and their eventual return to their lives post-grief.

The Bright Forever by Lee Martin centers on a missing girl in a small town in Indiana during the Vietnam War-era and is told from the perspective of multiple characters. The writing is strong, and Martin makes you want to go out and search for this little girl to ease the pain of her family.

Then We Came to the End is a cleverly told office drama with a splash of British humor—even though the author, Joshua Ferris, is apparently from Brooklyn. Well, the British comment is a compliment, Joshua. This book was a finalist for a National Book Award in 2007, and even better, it has a cool website where you can tour the office—the setting for the book. Check out these stellar opening lines told in the “we” voice of the novel, which makes you feel like you’re hanging out with the characters around the water cooler:

“We were fractious and overpaid. Our mornings lacked promise.”

Come on, that’s better than “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” which isn’t even punctuated correctly, no?

My year in reading

Every year, I keep a list of books I’ve read, noting each one in a journal as I finish them. Yeah, it’s nerdy, but it’s also terribly satisfying. Looking back over the list is like reviewing a photo album of memories where I can pause on one or another to say, Ah, yes. I remember you well. I really liked you.

And, at the end of the year, I whittle the list down and star my top five, like it’s the Academy Award of books. They don’t win anything, except my affection and a mention in the Best Books I Read Last Year widget on the side of my blog. This year, however, was tough, maybe because I read fewer books than usual. Two books got the coveted star right away: Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout and Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris. The other three nods went to Netherland by Joseph O’Neill, The Bright Forever by Lee Martin, and one nonfiction selection: Sex, Sleep, Eat, Drink, Dream by Jennifer Ackerman.

The full ’09 list included 21 books  (15 novels and 6 nonfiction titles noted in red):

  1. Goldengrove by Francine Prose
  2. The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry by Kathleen Flinn (gave up on this one)
  3. The Thing Itself by Richard Todd
  4. The Almond Blossom Appreciation Society by Chris Stewart
  5. The Wasted Vigil by Nadeem Aslam
  6. Blindness by Jose Saramago
  7. Cruciverbalism by Stanley Newman
  8. All the Living by C.E. Morgan
  9. Netherland by Joseph O’Neill
  10. Sex, Sleep, Eat, Drink, Dream by Jennifer Ackerman
  11. Olive Kitteredge by Elizabeth Strout
  12. I See You Everywhere by Julia Glass
  13. Strength in What Remains by Tracy Kidder
  14. April & Oliver by Tess Callahan
  15. Abide with Me by Elizabeth Strout
  16. What the World Will Look Like When All the Water Leaves Us by Laura van den Berg
  17. Koula by Menis Koumandareas
  18. Americans in Space by Mary Mitchell
  19. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
  20. The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa
  21. The Bright Forever by Lee Martin

What were your top picks last year?

Book crisis

What is it about not having a book to read that makes a reader feel as jittery as a crack addict waiting for her dealer in the alley by the Stop & Shop?

When I don’t have a book or a prospect of a book, I feel lost. I’m at peace when there has been a book buying extravaganza (rare) or a fruitful day at the library, leaving me with a stack of books by my bedside and giddy with choices: should I read the novel first or the nonfiction essay collection? The novella or the how-to book for my latest project?

When I need a fix, I head to my dealer: Brookline Booksmith. It offers a pleasing array of new arrivals and a solid collection of discounted recent hits. When a cover intrigues me, I  skim the flap because it invariably tells you too much, and instead read the first couple of pages to get a sense if I can stick it out for 200 or 300 pages. And then, when I’ve satisfied myself with a few potential titles, I walk out empty-handed, like a junkie trying to quit.

Lately, I’ve been trying to get my books at the library. But the selection has been limited, so I end up back at home, bookless. Silly really, because I even have a credit at the Booksmith from selling back a bunch of books. I have no idea what I’m saving this for. I mean, I’m in a true book crisis here. This is the time to play my Get Out of Jail Free card, but for some reason I can’t fork it over.

Instead, I make do reading magazines and cereal boxes and bank statements, which only occasionally offer the drama of a novel. And I wait for my requests to come in at the library or pretend I’m content reading that classic tome on my shelf that I’ve resisted for years, which we all know I’ll abandon once the flashier contemporary novel arrives. 

Well, Christmas is coming, and while I may be asking for fewer books, opting to borrow them instead, I’m hoping Santa might just take the hint and bring me a library.

Movies that should just come out already

I’ve been anticipating three movies for eons now. All three are based on books: Where the Wild Things Are, an adaptation of the Maurice Sendak classic, which opens in October ; Disgrace based on the unsunshiney J.M. Coetzee novel, which, according to imdb, opened last year but that has yet to grace a theater (I did, however see a bill posted for this while in NYC this week) and which, frankly, should just come out already as my reward for getting through that book; and The Road, based on Cormac McCarthy’s stellar downer, that was suppose to open last Christmas but that producers must think is too damn depressing for recession-era fare. It’s supposed to open in October too. Sure. I suppose, in retrospect though, none of those screams summer fare.

All the Living

I just finished a lovely little book called All the Living written by C.E. Morgan. And while it’s true I picked it up initially because of the cover—it features a black and white landscape with a barn; I’m a sucker stories set on farms—I found the writing superb and the story satisfying. 

All the Living

A young woman moves to Kentucky to be with her bereaved lover who is left to manage his family’s tobacco farm. While he retreats into monosyllabic communication, Aloma dreams of returning to the piano; their days are fraught with friction: she’s waiting for a proposal while he exhausts himself trying to save the farm. Aloma’s friendship with a preacher makes things…interesting.

Plus, as The New Yorker review points out, the author uses rare words like “letheless” (forgetfulness) and “mortise” (cavity in a piece of wood) that require me to get the hefty dictionary. No lazy words here.

Red line riders are so smaht

I love my fellow Red Line passengers. The academic line (it runs through Tufts, MIT and Harvard) is like a library in the morning, full of smartypants reading in such an orderly fashion that I feel like I’m in a school with corporal punishment. At one point, I glance down the row of seats to see every last passenger’s head in a book. We’re a lucubratory bunch—or just averse to boredom. Without reading material, I feel desperate; being bookless on the Red Line makes it worse, those other passengers just rubbing it in with their hefty reading material; I’d even read the free Metro when pressed. But on the Red Line, it’s best to have a book. But not just any book. These are elite readers, after all. Something like Proust’s Remembrances of Things Past will do nicely.

Reading on the subway. Everybody's doing it.

Reading on the subway. Everybody's doing it.

Kiriyama Prize

Do you love poring over the “best of” book lists when the finalists or winners are announced? I do. I love the National Book Awards, am always curious about who won the Pulitzer, like to check out the Booker Prize and have discovered some good local authors through the Massachusetts Book Awards. I’m a book list junkie, even if the winners probably have enough hype and what we really need is a Best Truly Undiscovered Book award or Best Book by an Obscure Publishing House.

One award whose books I particularly like every year is the Kiriyama Prize, given to an author on the Pacific Rim. Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Journey through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnaman excellent memoir by Andrew X. Pham, was the  1999 nonfiction winner.  In 2006, I was transported to Siberia with The Reindeer People by Piers Vitebsky, an anthropological study of nomads living in the coldest environment possible. In 2005, I was excited to discover a new author who’s become one of my favorites. Nadeem Aslam won the award for his book  Maps for Lost Lovers that read like poetry. He has a new book out now, The Wasted Vigil, a story about post-911 Afghanistan told in the lyrical style that made Maps for Lost Lovers and his earlier book, Season of the Rainbirds such rich, enjoyable reads.

I’m only a third of the way through the new book, but as always, Aslam’s similes and descriptions are memorable, like the description of “the sudden startling bats that appear out of nowhere like flickering ink blots” or butterflies that have “green underwings so that—visible invisible visible invisible—they seem to blink in and out of existence as they fly amid the leaves.” Good stuff worthy of another award.