New(ish) fiction: Cloud Atlas David Mitchell
Classic fiction: Gringo Carlos Fuentes
Non-fiction: Wilderness Essays John Muir
Short Stories: Florida Lauren Goff
Poetry: Here, Bullett Brian Turner
New (to me) writer: Alan Lightman
Two Kinds of Faith Michael Connelly: Started the year with a cheese read. Captured my attention in 1996 and contributive to my reading nature. Escapist, indulgent…that’s reading on a couch in the air-conditioning on a Midwestern summer day.
Black Rock White City A.S. Patric: A macrabraic story from a first-time Australian novelist. Amazing language, stripped-down but metaphoric. A subtly emotional tale of war-ravages and loss and the pain of renewal. The emotion really comes back to me thinking about it…even if I made up that 2nd word.
Cloud Atlas* David Mitchell: Another celestial effort using four different narrative voices and styles with amazing distinction and nuance. The underlying themes are a bit murky until the final pages but still entertaining throughout. Another read that I followed with its cinematic production: Well-done as far as plot but you have got to be a BIG Tom Hanks (and Halle Berry) fan.
Testimony Robbie Robertson: A definitive account of his life up to The Last Waltz. Encompasses some seminal moments in music history…as the band that backed Bob Dylan on his 1st (and much-maligned) electric tour, meeting a guitarist for Little Richard then going by Jimmie James aka Jimi Hendrix, Woodstock, the Malibu Canyon scene…and sadly ending with the dissolution of one of my favorite musical groups of any genre.
Einstein’s Dreams Alan Lightman: First-time novelist (at the time, pun intended ;) and accomplished physicist provides us with an amazing look at time. Took me a few chapters to grasp the relevant metaphors for our standard view of time but then it was like “bang!” that’s me and how time should be viewed and that’s them and how they view time. Pretty cool. Plus the writing creates images much more poetic than scientific.
Native American Wisdom ed. Louise Mengelkoch and Kent Nerburn: A New World Library edition so it appears bland at first glance but some valuable adages from such prominent representatives as Black Hawk, Sitting Bull, Chief Seattle, among others. Divided into descriptive (and helpful) chapters such as ‘The Ways of the White Man’ and ‘The Ways of the Land’.
The Largesse of the Sea Maiden Denis Johnson: Unlike most reviews, I thought the collection started slowly with the title story and built to a crescendo with ‘Triumph Over the Grave’ and ended beautifully with ‘Poltergeist Doppleganger’.
Tree of Smoke Denis Johnson: Reminiscent of Robert Stone’s war stories that become so convoluted you lose all sense of reality…not in a fun literary way. Maybe I just missed it. Even had direct references to Hall of Mirrors and “Rhinehardt”. I think that great short story writers sometimes get lost in longer plots and though there are vibrant vignettes throughout, I felt lost at the end.
Empire of Sin: A Story of Sex, Jazz, Murder and the Battle for Modern New Orleans Gary Krist: Like the title, an over-informative account of NOLA from 1890-1920. Interesting tidbits about the history of jazz and parts of town including Storyville and the French Quarter.
Inez Carlos Fuentes: Rhymes with “regress”. A haunting love story between a conductor and a developing opera star. Their stories are intertwined with a story of prehistoric love. An absolute wonder. Gimme more from this author!
Crete 1941: The Battle and the Resistance Anthony Beevor: A great factual account of the withdrawal from Greece only to land on Crete which became the target of a large and costly paratrooper invasion by the Nazis. Includes literary luminaries Lawrence Durrell and Evelyn Waugh. One thing I love about non-fiction is how it can inspire fiction. I can see writing a novel that begins with the vibrating of champagne glasses as the invasion of Greece commences with bombings and mortar fire. Involves a doomed love affair between a woman in the King of Greece’s entourage and a romantic hero for the resistance. Ending with her being whisked away from the island to safety on the king’s hydroplane while her lover is left to the fates as German parachutes bloom across the sky.
The Paper Men William Golding: A somewhat dated look at the relationship between the artist and critic by the author of ‘Lord of the Flies’. Clear and hyper-literate writing style will lead me to eventually read his sea trilogy…at least the first one.
We Are Taking Only What We Need Stephanie Powell Watts: Stories of growing up black and transient in the South. Nice narrative voice but surprisingly without the edge you’d expect considering the content matter.
The Old Gringo* Carlos Fuentes: Fictional account of the demise of Ambrose Bierce at the hands of Pancho Villa. Introduced to two other strong characters in Tomas Arroyo and Harriet Winslow set in the stark landscape of northern Mexico. Reviewing the history of these times also led me to the journalist John Reed and a re-watching of Reds with Warren Beatty and Diane Keaton.
South of the Border, West of the Sun Haruki Murakami: Well-written as usual with a dreamy quality all his own. About another quasi-dysfunctional male trying to come to terms with loves both failed and successful.
Driving on the Rim Thomas McGuane: Can’t believe it took me this long to read something by him. Somewhat depressing tale about a small-town Montana doctor struggling with his family history and local histrionics. Look forward to more of his with more compelling plots…any recs?
The Gift of the Magi and Other Stories O. Henry: A comprehensive collection of perfect examples of how to execute the short story. Somewhat simplistic but completely classic tales that remind us of how much fun it is to play with words.
The Cuban Affair Nelson DeMille: Perfect setting for a cheese read.
RFK: His Words for Our Times Edwin Guthman and C. Richard Allen, ed: An impressive annotation of speeches, essays and talks, covering the most pressing issues of the 60’s including why wasn’t I born yet 😉, social (in)justice, civil liberties, his brother’s assassination and the Vietnam War.
Wilderness Essays* John Muir: Another why-haven’t-I-read-him-before moment. An amazing collection that “no joke” changed how I think of nature travel and writing. The descriptions and adventures of Alaska in ‘Discovery of Glacier Bay’ and ‘Alaska Trip’ are almost incomprehensible in scope and raw observation. Of course, his Sierra accounts smacked of familiarity and accuracy.
To lovers of the wild, these mountains are not a hundred miles away. Their spiritual power and the goodness of the sky make them near, as a circle of friends. They rise as a portion of the hilled walls of the Hollow. You cannot feel yourself out of doors; plain, sky, and mountains ray beauty which you feel. You bathe in these spirit-beams, turning round and round, as if warming at a camp-fire. Presently you lose consciousness of your own separate existence: you blend with the landscape, and become part and parcel of nature – “Twenty Hill Hollow [WOW! Quote of the year!]
Jim Thompson: The Legendary American of Thailand William Warren: Focuses primarily on his mysterious disappearance and his contribution to the development of the Thai silk industry. No major revelations other than you can still buy silk from his company on-line and tour his house and grounds in Bangkok which sounds like a destination worth further exploration.
I’m Dying Up Here: Heartbreak and High Times in Stand-up Comedy’s Golden Era William Knoedelseder: Book not near as funny as the Showtime show that’s named after it. But way more insightful into the personal narratives of the various characters including Mitzy Shore, Letterman, Leno, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams, Andy Kaufman, Elayne Boosler, Richard Lewis, Freddy Prinze and tragically Steve Lubetkin. Also, get a larger sense of the socioeconomic trials that lead to the comedy strike which serves as the book’s climax.
Rules of Civility Amor Towles: I’d hate to label it Fitzgeraldian since it stands alone and apart from any other work but does cover some of the same themes. The biggest difference is in the confidence you have in the narrative voice…haven’t been this comfortable with a narrator since a certain gentleman in Moscow.
Going for a Beer: Selected Short Fiction Robert Coover: Really wanted to get Pricksongs and Descants just to have it on the bookshelf but went with this more comprehensive collection after being reminded of him when reading on TC Boyle’s website that he was an early mentor. This edition has a preface by Boyle but don’t expect the stories to be the same. They both challenge established norms but Coover trends more towards meta-fiction. “The Babysitter” is an all-time classic which was also turned into a movie with Alicia Silverstone…haven’t seen it.
Caravans James Michener: The namesake of my grad school’s library…one of his good, early works that describes an Afghanistan very different but eerily familiar. Themes like the role of women in Afghan society and East meets West, progress vs. tradition; still very relevant. The narrative plot follows the progress of a WWII vet tasked with finding a missing American woman who had married an Afghan out of college only to leave him to travel with a band of gypsy-like nomads. The description of the final journey to the annual meeting of all the nomadic tribes of Asia resonates succinctly.
Thirteen Ways of Looking Colum McCann: A novella and short stories concerning losses both potential and realized. More dark humor from one of my “go-to” authors.
The Spider’s House Paul Bowles: A look at Morocco as it struggles for independence from France. Also, an unlikely love story between two Americans who are forced to consider the conundrum of progress vs. tradition.
The day was important and glorious; he felt that much with a conviction which increased every moment. Whether it presaged joy or misery was unimportant; it was different from all other days, and by virtue of that fact alone, it served to be lived differently. Even the smallest measure of time is greater than the greatest measure of space.
Particularly a head-scratcher!
I Am the Clay Chaim Potok: Sad, grimy tale following the adventures of three refugees of the Korean War. A story of an old man, his wife and a strange boy, who brings them the magic to find their way home even as he loses his forever.
Munich Robert Harris: Ended up being kind of a cheese read but since it was set during WWII and had political intrigue involving real historical figures of the time, I stuck with it.
The Accidental Universe* Alan Lightman: A little physics-ey for me considering it’s always been one of my least favorite subjects. However, one of my favorite subjects is science and spirituality and Lightman takes it head-on in these essays with a frank and conclusive narrative voice.
How it Happened Michael Koryta: Best cheese reads going…
Train Dreams Denis Johnson: A poignant account of one man’s way of dealing with loss. I was consumed by the story from the 1st page unlike with some of his more celebrated works.
Little Fires Everywhere Celeste Ng: Superbly written story about suburban dystopia and its alternatives. The characters and setting will resonate due to the strength of the narrative voice and clarity of metaphoric meanings. Has the making of a John Hughes film.
The Dreamblood Duology: The Killing Moon and The Shadowed Sun N.K. Jemison: The 1st sci-fi/fantasy I’ve read in many years but the author came highly recommended and well-awarded. Well-written and intriguing storylines but I guess my problem with the genre in general is identifying with characters that aren’t necessarily human in a world that doesn’t exist beyond the parameters of the page. My conclusion is similar to the one after reading the 1st Harry Potter book, kinda fun but if I’m gonna dedicate that much time to a story I should get something more out of it than a fleeting lark.
Florida* Lauren Groff: A surprising collection of short stories that seem narrow in scope but somehow branch out into all of existences with sometimes breathless clarity. Left me with a complex combination of dread and beauty-read more!
Such a tragedy, to follow up the greatness of Madame Bovary with melodramatic historical fiction about ancient Carthage, as if a maker of an uncannily humanoid robot decided next to turn his attention to cuckoo clocks – “Yport”
The Cloud Forest: A Chronicle of South American Wilderness* To be honest, a little disappointed at the dry objectivity of the earlier chapters but Part II, ‘Beyond Black Drunken River’, was worth the price of admission…which is a figure of speech since I got this one at the Live Oak library. Incredible journeys that harkened back to Che in Motorcycle Diaries or the diaries of Alexander von Humboldt. Captures the non-fictional essence of At Play in the Fields of the Lord.
The Whistler John Grisham: um, yeah, cheese read.
The Remains of the Day* Kazuo Ishiguro: Possibly my favorite from one of my favorite authors. Details the life of an old-school English butler and his quasi-relationships around Darlington Hall, which is a character in itself. Towles’ ‘Gentleman’ from a different cultural perspective.
By the very nature of a witticism, one is given very little time to assess it various possible repercussions before one is called to give voice to it, and one gravely risks uttering all manner of unsuitable things if one has not first acquired the necessary skill and experience.
Here, Bullet* Brian Turner: Compelling collection of war poetry by a veteran of Iraq and Bosnia-Herzegovina. Not gimmicky and highly literate with enough metaphor and harsh reality to give you a sense of the surreality of war. Need to check out his other books!
If a body is what you want, then here is bone and gristle and flesh. Here is the clavicle-snapped wish, the aorta’s opened valves, the leap thought makes at the synaptic gap -- From the title poem
Warlight Michael Ondaatje: Such a good story but didn’t feel comfortable with the narrative voice until the last section. It starts in post-war Britain and how it changed everyone and their relationships to one another. Told from the viewpoint of a child orphaned by his parents with his sister under mysterious circumstances but everything is tied up nicely by the end.
Avid Reader Robert Gottlieb: Name-dropping autobio by a long-time editor at the ‘New Yorker’, Simon and Schuster and Knopf. He has clients varying from Toni Morrison to Bill Clinton to Miss Piggy. Was looking forward to this one and a total disappointment.
Better than Fiction: True Travel Tales from Great Fiction Writers ed Don George (Lonely Planet): Despite the unfortunate title it was a great intermittent read. The actual text is somewhat spotty, some good essays and some that fell flat, but the exposure to 32 writers is so valuable…lots lesser-known Brits and Aussies. Some recognizable names like Matthiessen, Joyce Carol Oates, Keri Hulme to some a little less familiar like Tea Obrecht, Alexander McCall Smith, Isabel Allende; to completely new names who will start appearing on this list: Peter Ho Davies, Nikki Gemmell, Bryce Courtenay.
Good travel is returning home a slightly bigger part of everyone and not quite the same person as when you set out. Bryce Courtenay “Getting Travel Dirt Under Your Fingernails”
The Fortunes* Peter Ho Davies: Pleasantly surprised by a writer I’d never heard of until the above. A tale of four lives…2 historical (Anna May Wong, Vincent Chin), 1 autobiographical, 1 fictional (which might be the most convincing voice)…exploring the Chinese-American experience. Such an enriching novel written with style and articulation. Ironically, the last (autobiographical) chapter was the least convincing point of view which would be interesting to explore in a literary biographical critical essay.
Astral Weeks: A Secret History of 1968 Ryan Walsh: There are some insights on how Van the Man composed the title album during a year in Boston. A majority of the book is spent talking about the rest of the underground music scene and the counter-culture not always associated with what was going on in the Haight at the same time. Full of interesting tidbits…who knew that Dr. Andrew Weil wrote the article in the Harvard Crimson that got Timothy Leary and Herb Alpert, aka Ram Dass, fired?
New Poets of Native Nations ed. Heid E. Erdich: A wide-ranging collection of poets addressing their Native American-ness…sometimes to the detriment of exploring their art.
Brown Dog* Jim Harrison: A collection of novellas centering around the infamous, fatuous and lovable, backwoods Native American with a libido and sense of transient happiness too big for the Upper Peninsula. Harrison has never been known for his tight prose but with these novellas (published individually every 5 years or so since 1990) the reader does experience him at his best.
Sitting there in the aura of Fred’s bad breath he studied how the first rain pasted the blossoms against the car windows and was thankful that he was in the right place at the right time which was similar to good fishing or getting laid.
Riprap and Cold Mountain Poems Gary Snyder: Got this for a gift and ended up keeping for myself. Classic Snyder doing his thing covering nature and the spirit in traditions from both the East and West.
*these are the books of the year I found especially life-changing