A little while ago, I posted ten books I’ve most enjoyed this year. As promised, and again, in no particular order, here are more, twelve to be exact, and at the end a few thoughts on my reading year:
THE SECRET RIVER by Kate Grenville. “The Orange Prize-winning author Kate Grenville recalls her family’s history in an astounding novel about the pioneers of New South Wales. Already a best seller in Australia, The Secret River is the story of Grenville’s ancestors, who wrested a new life from the alien terrain of Australia and its native people. London, 1806. William Thornhill, a Thames bargeman, is deported to the New South Wales colony in what would become Australia. In this new world of convicts and charlatans, Thornhill tries to pull his family into a position of power and comfort. When he rounds a bend in the Hawkesbury River and sees a gentle slope of land, he becomes determined to make the place his own. But, as uninhabited as the island appears, Australia is full of native people, and they do not take kindly to Thornhill’s theft of their home.
The Secret River is the tale of Thornhill’s deep love for his small corner of the new world, and his slow realization that if he wants to settle there, he must ally himself with the most despicable of the white settlers, and to keep his family safe, he must permit terrifying cruelty to come to innocent people.”
CASTE by Isabel Wilkerson. “The Pulitzer Prize–winning, bestselling author of The Warmth of Other Suns examines the unspoken caste system that has shaped America and shows how our lives today are still defined by a hierarchy of human divisions. ‘As we go about our daily lives, caste is the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats for a performance. The hierarchy of caste is not about feelings or morality. It is about power—which groups have it and which do not.’
In this brilliant book, Isabel Wilkerson gives us a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human rankings.
Beyond race, class, or other factors, there is a powerful caste system that influences people’s lives and behavior and the nation’s fate. Linking the caste systems of America, India, and Nazi Germany, Wilkerson explores eight pillars that underlie caste systems across civilizations, including divine will, bloodlines, stigma, and more. Using riveting stories about people—including Martin Luther King, Jr., baseball’s Satchel Paige, a single father and his toddler son, Wilkerson herself, and many others—she shows the ways that the insidious undertow of caste is experienced every day. She documents how the Nazis studied the racial systems in America to plan their out-cast of the Jews; she discusses why the cruel logic of caste requires that there be a bottom rung for those in the middle to measure themselves against; she writes about the surprising health costs of caste, in depression and life expectancy, and the effects of this hierarchy on our culture and politics. Finally, she points forward to ways America can move beyond the artificial and destructive separations of human divisions, toward hope in our common humanity.
A BITE OF THE APPLE by Lenny Goodings. I have had the pleasure of getting to know Ms. Goodings slightly. She is a remarkable woman, of deep kindness and devotion to literature. I highly recommend this book to anyone who loves reading and literature (and feminism), and and anyone reading this blog fits that bill, I’m sure.
“‘The moment I got my job at Virago in 1978 I knew it would be a long time before I would leave. I certainly wouldn’t have had the brazen hope then-only twenty-five and very recently new to Britain-that I would ever become the Publisher, but I did know that I had found my home: where books, ideas, politics, imagination, feminism, and business was the air we breathed . . .’
A Bite of the Apple is part-memoir, part history of Virago, and part thoughts on over forty years of feminist publishing. This is the story of how the authors and staff who, driven by passion, conviction and excitement, have made Virago Press one of the most important and influential English-language publishers in the world. Lennie Goodings has been with the iconic press founded by Carmen Callil almost since the start. First a publicist and then for over twenty years, publisher and editor, she has worked with extraordinary authors: Margaret Atwood, Marilynne Robinson, Sarah Waters, Linda Grant, Natasha Walter, Naomi Wolf and Maya Angelou among many others.
Virago has been a life-changer for Lennie Goodings – but certainly not only for her. Following the chronology of the press and the enormous breadth of the Virago titles published over these years, she sets her story in the context of feminism, and segues into thoughts on editing, post-feminism, reading, breaking boundaries, and the Virago Modern Classics. Virago lives within the tension between idealism and pragmatism; between sisterhood and celebrity; between watching feminism wax and wane atthe same time as knowing so many of the battles are still to be won. This book is about how it felt to be there.
A Bite of the Apple is a celebration of writing, of publishing, and of reading.”
MINK RIVER by Brian Doyle. “Like Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood and Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio, Brian Doyle’s stunning fiction debut brings a town to life through the jumbled lives and braided stories of its people.
In a small town on the Oregon coast there are love affairs and almost-love-affairs, mystery and hilarity, bears and tears, brawls and boats, a garrulous logger and a silent doctor, rain and pain, Irish immigrants and Salish stories, mud and laughter. There’s a Department of Public Works that gives haircuts and counts insects, a policeman addicted to Puccini, a philosophizing crow, beer and berries. An expedition is mounted, a crime committed, and there’s an unbelievably huge picnic on the football field. Babies are born. A car is cut in half with a saw. A river confesses what it’s thinking…
It’s the tale of a town, written in a distinct and lyrical voice, and readers will close the book more than a little sad to leave the village of Neawanaka, on the wet coast of Oregon, beneath the hills that used to boast the biggest trees in the history of the world.”
THE LITTLE SNAKE by A.L. Kennedy. “‘Some time ago, perhaps before you were even born, a young girl was walking in her garden. She may have been called Mary – that’s what most of the stories say. Mary was a little bit taller than the other girls her age and had brownish crinkly hair. She was quite thin, because she didn’t always have exactly enough to eat. She liked honey and whistling and the colour blue and finding out.
This is the story of Mary, a young girl born in a beautiful city full of rose gardens and fluttering kites. When she is still very small, Mary meets Lanmo, a shining golden snake, who becomes her very best friend. The snake visits Mary many times, he sees her city change, become sadder as bombs drop and war creeps in. He sees Mary and her family leave their home, he sees her grow up and he sees her fall in love. But Lanmo knows that the day will come when he can no longer visit Mary, when his destiny will break them apart, and he wonders whether having a friend can possibly be worth the pain of knowing you will lose them.” Life, death, love, loss. This slim volume is remarkable.
THE BUDDHIST ON DEATH ROW by David Sheff. “The #1 New York Times bestselling author of Beautiful Boy explores the transformation of Jarvis Jay Masters who has become one of America’s most inspiring Buddhist practitioners while locked in a cell on death row.
Jarvis Jay Masters’s early life was a horror story whose outline we know too well. Born in Long Beach, California, his house was filled with crack, alcohol, physical abuse, and men who paid his mother for sex. He and his siblings were split up and sent to foster care when he was five, and he progressed quickly to juvenile detention, car theft, armed robbery, and ultimately San Quentin. While in prison, he was set up for the murder of a guard—a conviction which landed him on death row, where he’s been since 1990.
At the time of his murder trial, he was held in solitary confinement, torn by rage and anxiety, felled by headaches, seizures, and panic attacks. A criminal investigator repeatedly offered to teach him breathing exercises which he repeatedly refused. Until desperation moved him to ask her how to do “that meditation shit.” With uncanny clarity, David Sheff describes Masters’s gradual but profound transformation from a man dedicated to hurting others to one who has prevented violence on the prison yard, counseled high school kids by mail, and helped prisoners—and even guards—find meaning in their lives.
Along the way, Masters becomes drawn to the principles that Buddhism espouses—compassion, sacrifice, and living in the moment—and he gains the admiration of Buddhists worldwide, including many of the faith’s most renowned practitioners. And while he is still in San Quentin and still on death row, he is a renowned Buddhist thinker who shows us how to ease our everyday suffering, relish the light that surrounds us, and endure the tragedies that befall us all.”
THE LAST POLICEMAN by Ben H. Winters. This one surprised me.
What’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway? Detective Hank Palace has faced this question ever since asteroid 2011GV1 hovered into view. There’s no chance left. No hope. Just six precious months until impact.
The Last Policeman presents a fascinating portrait of a pre-apocalyptic United States. The economy spirals downward while crops rot in the fields. Churches and synagogues are packed. People all over the world are walking off the job—but not Hank Palace. He’s investigating a death by hanging in a city that sees a dozen suicides every week—except this one feels suspicious, and Palace is the only cop who cares.
The first in a trilogy, The Last Policeman offers a mystery set on the brink of an apocalypse. As Palace’s investigation plays out under the shadow of 2011GV1, we’re confronted by hard questions way beyond “whodunit.” What basis does civilization rest upon? What is life worth? What would any of us do, what would we really do, if our days were numbered?
MEASURE OF MY DAYS by Florida Scott-Walker. “At eighty-two, Florida Scott-Maxwell felt impelled to write about her strong reactions to being old, and to the time in which we live. Until almost the end this document was not intended for anyone to see, but the author finally decided that she wanted her thoughts and feelings to reach others. Mrs. Scott-Maxwell writes: ‘I was astonished to find how intensely one lives in one’s eighties. The last years seemed a culmination and by concentrating on them one became more truly oneself. Though old, I felt full of potential life. It pulsed in me even as I was conscious of shrinking into a final form which it was my task and stimulus to complete.’
The territory of the old is not Scott-Maxwell’s only concern. In taking the measure of the sum of her days as a woman of the twentieth century, she confronts some of the most disturbing conflicts of human nature—the need for differentiation as against equality, the recognition of the evil forces in our nature—and her insights are challenging and illuminating. The vision that emerges from her accumulated experience of life makes this a remarkable document that speaks to all ages.
WHEN ALL IS SAID by Anne Griffin. ” A tale of a single night. The story of a lifetime.
If you had to pick five people to sum up your life, who would they be? If you were to raise a glass to each of them, what would you say? And what would you learn about yourself, when all is said and done?
This is the story of Maurice Hannigan, who, over the course of a Saturday night in June, orders five different drinks at the Rainford House Hotel. With each he toasts a person vital to him: his doomed older brother, his troubled sister-in-law, his daughter of fifteen minutes, his son far off in America, and his late, lamented wife. And through these people, the ones who left him behind, he tells the story of his own life, with all its regrets and feuds, loves and triumphs.” Loved it. Just loved it.
DEAR GHOST by Bob Bickford “Love letters, born from high school dances and stereoscopic slides of toddlerhood, Ferris wheels and suntan oil, the streets of Hollywood and Toronto, 1980s music, driving too fast, Hershey bars and bottles of Molson Golden ale, first real kisses and broken hearts. Our eleventh birthday parties, our first cars, our true loves, and our monsters…Getting old. Falling in love. A dash of each, and all together…Letters to all of us, from all of us—the things we remember and the things we’ve lost.”
A strange, haunting and poignant book. Dear Ghost is difficult to describe and more difficult to review, since I can’t recall reading anything quite like it. Trust me, though, when I tell you how I relished every sentence, and how it made me feel both deeply sad and also full of wonder, how perfectly drawn every character was, even the one we never quite meet, and in short, what a beautiful little book this is.
MCMULLEN CIRCLE by Heather Newton “In 1969, as Karl Wallenda prepares to tight-rope walk across the gorge in the tiny town of Tonola Falls, Georgia, faculty families at the McMullen Boarding School learn about racism, war, and what makes a hero.”
Even after I finished MCMULLEN CIRCLE it zoomed around in my head. SUCH a good book. I love the linked story structure Newton’s chosen. It’s not easy to pull off without seeming contrived, but Newton does it with deceptive ease. These stories reveal so much about the characters, the place, and the period, so gracefully, with so much heart, and such mastery. I was deeply engaged with every character, turning pages quickly to find out what happens! I’m really in awe. Heather Newton is an incredibly talented writer. This is a work of both profound insight and far-reaching compassion, plus, it’s (dare I use the word?) a page-turner.
RED AT THE BONE by Jacqueline Woodson. “Moving forward and backward in time, Jacqueline Woodson’s taut and powerful new novel uncovers the role that history and community have played in the experiences, decisions, and relationships of these families, and in the life of the new child.
As the book opens in 2001, it is the evening of sixteen-year-old Melody’s coming of age ceremony in her grandparents’ Brooklyn brownstone. Watched lovingly by her relatives and friends, making her entrance to the music of Prince, she wears a special custom-made dress. But the event is not without poignancy. Sixteen years earlier, that very dress was measured and sewn for a different wearer: Melody’s mother, for her own ceremony– a celebration that ultimately never took place.
Unfurling the history of Melody’s parents and grandparents to show how they all arrived at this moment, Woodson considers not just their ambitions and successes but also the costs, the tolls they’ve paid for striving to overcome expectations and escape the pull of history. As it explores sexual desire and identity, ambition, gentrification, education, class and status, and the life-altering facts of parenthood, Red at the Bone most strikingly looks at the ways in which young people must so often make long-lasting decisions about their lives–even before they have begun to figure out who they are and what they want to be.”
Damn! Ms. Woodson is a beautiful writer. A universe in barely 200 pages.
A CHILDREN’S BIBLE by Lydia Millet
“An indelible novel of teenage alienation and adult complacency in an unraveling world.
Pulitzer Prize finalist Lydia Millet’s sublime new novel—her first since the National Book Award long-listed Sweet Lamb of Heaven—follows a group of twelve eerily mature children on a forced vacation with their families at a sprawling lakeside mansion.
Contemptuous of their parents, who pass their days in a stupor of liquor, drugs, and sex, the children feel neglected and suffocated at the same time. When a destructive storm descends on the summer estate, the group’s ringleaders—including Eve, who narrates the story—decide to run away, leading the younger ones on a dangerous foray into the apocalyptic chaos outside.
As the scenes of devastation begin to mimic events in the dog-eared picture Bible carried around by her beloved little brother, Eve devotes herself to keeping him safe from harm.
A Children’s Bible is a prophetic, heartbreaking story of generational divide—and a haunting vision of what awaits us on the far side of Revelation.”
So, that’s about it for 2022. Although there were other books I read and enjoyed, I think stopping at twenty-two is reasonable. I will admit I have been disappointed by many contemporary novels this year. Perhaps it is my age, but so much of what’s published these days — and certainly what’s given the lion’s share of marketing and publicity dollars — appeals primarily to the young. Now, of course, the young should be flooded with appealing books, but I wish there were more books for those of us who became adults some decades ago. Frankly, I am more interested in death, grief, age, loss, faith, acceptance, etc., than anything else, and it’s hard to find contemporary novels (ones I haven’t already read) that focus on these themes. Then there are the books written primarily in the hopes of being turned into films. While there is obviously nothing wrong with a novel being turned into a film, and many excellent books have been made into splendid films, providing all sorts of benefits for authors, the purist in me believes a novelist’s soul and art are best served by respecting the medium. In short, I prefer a book that strives to be the best BOOK it can be. Am I grumpy? Perhaps. I am old. Snort.
As a result of this crankiness, I am ending this year, and starting the next, by re-reading George Eliot’s MIDDLEMARCH. This distinctly not-contemporary novel contains all the best things a novel possibly can. I last read it in my 20s. My reactions to it, much like Rebbecca Mead’s, are markedly different now, in my 60s. My insights and focus are different, reading through the lens of age as I am. Eliot was 53 when she published MIDDLEMARCH. Her maturity shows and is of immense value, and perhaps this reader’s maturity also has value.
What will next year’s reading bring? Who knows? Always an adventure.
Do you have a favorite book of the year? Tell me.