Although I did not read as many books this year as I usually do (distracted by those pesky real world occupations), I did read a higher than average number of truly exceptional works. Looking through the list of a modest 70 choices, it was difficult to pluck out those that stood above the rest. Finally, I decided to run with the ones that touched me on a personal level as well as having technical merit. Fiona MacCarthy's excellent biography of William Morris stands at the top of that list of nine for a number of reasons but especially for the way that the art and politics of Morris are intertwined in such a skillful way, radical Romanticism astutely portrayed.
Mothering Sunday by Graham Swift is a gorgeously written subversive fairy tale. A small book about how the events of one day shape an entire life. I was skeptical going in but it took my breath away.
Some of my thoughts on Hill by Jean Giono are captured here, but my fellow readers in this shared experience outdid themselves in expressing their appreciation for this newly translated work. Check the bottom of that post for links to their thoughts.
Read it twice in the same day. Clever without being gimmicky. Grim but not accepting pity. When you get near the end, and you begin scratching your head thinking you may have missed something, you are right. Go back to the beginning to trace those fractures.
Cultural sensitivity are popular buzzwords in my field right now, but often just lend a shield to mask a lot of unintentional or undetected bias. We have so far to go as a country but if you are willing to look at that critically and laugh about it then The Sellout by Paul Beatty could be a great ride for you. As I've said before, just check your white (if applicable) liberal guilt at the door before opening.
I have Bellezza to thank for leading me to this one, my favorite book with a truly ugly cover this year. To what depths can two women descend to extract and define their true selves and desires? Jane Bowles wrote just one novel but it is a great one. If you yearn to shrug off the weight of meeting societal expectations right about now, this might be the cathartic read you need.
I was not thinking "funny" when I picked up The Magic Mountain this year, but funny it was in many parts. It took some time to read this not because it is inaccessible in any way but because I found my reading pace slowing to meet the languor of the protagonist, to immerse myself in the details of Mann's world. A few more thoughts here.
This book saved my spirit post-election. I posted briefly here. If you need something beautiful amid the ugliness, a reminder of how the natural world feeds the soul, of how art heals, then I urge you to read this soon.
Just poetry. Life and loss in simple terms but expressed with phrases bent just enough out of their regular shape to prompt you to reexamine the subject. And if you are thinking of re-reading books this year, consider this:
“I had read it some time ago but was so completely immersed that I retained nothing. This has been an intermittent, lifelong enigma. Through early adolescence I sat and read for hours in a small grove of weed trees near the railroad track in Germantown. Like Gumby I would enter a book wholeheartedly and sometimes venture so deeply it was as if I were living within it. I finished many books in such a manner there, closing the covers ecstatically yet having no memory of the content by the time I returned home. This disturbed me but I kept this strange affliction to myself. I look at the covers of such books and their contents remain a mystery that I cannot bring myself to solve. Certain books I loved and lived within yet cannot remember.”
How much of ourselves do we bring to our reading, looking to be understood, to heal a little? I think it is a good question in troubling times. As we all look to various forms of art to mend the rifts.
Happy 2017 reading!