For several years I’ve been keeping a running list of books I read per year. During 2012, I averaged not quite a book a week and hope to increase that number in 2013. I also hope to read a few more that have been on my TBR list for a LONG time.
This year I finally got around to reading Robert Louis Stevenson’s “Treasure Island,” a classic that I somehow missed as a child. I keep seeing references to it as one of the best examples of storytelling—the Scottish crime writer Val McDermid, for example, said in a podcast that she rereads it periodically to try to figure out how Stevenson did it. It is unquestionably a fine story and I enjoyed it, but it held no deeper resonance for me.
Some maintain “The best reading is rereading.” I’m not sure about that – there are so many books I haven’t read that rereading just isn’t generally feasible – but I did spend some time this year rereading some classics and I’m glad I did. I discovered that I enjoyed Jane Austen’s “Pride and Prejudice,” “Northanger Abbey,” and “Persuasion” more than ever now that I’m reading far more critically than ever before, and William Deresiewicz’s “A Jane Austen Education” was a delightful companion read. (Disappointingly, P.D. James’s “Death Comes to Pemberley” didn’t come close to doing Jane justice and mainly underscored the rule against settling for substitutes. It did, however, raise some really interesting legal issues and fascinating comparisons of substantive and procedural law in early 19th-century England and early 21st-century U.S.) I also reread some plays by Ibsen and a short work of Henry James, “Daisy Miller,” and enjoyed thinking about how they spoke to me differently today than they did when I read them as an adolescent.
In addition to getting “Treasure Island” under my belt, I finally read a short Dutch novel, “The Following Story,” by Cees Nooteboom, that had been sitting on my shelf for a number of months. It’s magical and surreal; I didn’t love it, but I’m glad I read this curious little book with the Brueghel (?) gargoyle on the cover.
I read a number of books in John Mortimer’s “Rumpole of the Bailey” series—given to me by an extremely thoughtful area lawyer who had very kind words about my articles in the Illinois Bar Journal—and thoroughly enjoyed these well-crafted, thoughtful, fun stories about English barristers. The marvelous Nigerian writer Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie’s “Purple Hibiscus” had also been sitting on my shelf for a while; not only did I read it at last, but I also loaned my (already extremely used) copy to two friends along with exhortations of its excellence.
I love reading international fiction, and in 2012 I read THIRTEEN books published by Europa Editions. (Woo hoo! That’s one over the Caffe Luongo level!!) I haven’t been able to review all of them in my spare time, but you can read what I have posted over on the Europa Challenge Blog. I’m re-upping for 2013, which includes a commitment to write and post more reviews of specific books in the coming months.
I didn’t love everything I read, and that included some of the Europa Editions books. The last one I read in 2012, Edwin Yoder’s “Lions At Lamb House,” seemed to have everything going for it when I checked it out of the library—it’s the story of an imaginary encounter between Henry James and Sigmund Freud—but I struggled throughout with whether to bag it or finish it. The narrative style, which seemed to be an attempt to imitate the period style of a century ago, just didn’t ring true to me, and the author seemed to feel compelled to spell everything out in the narrative instead of leaving a few things up to the reader, which made me feel written down to.
I also didn’t love Daniel Clowes’s graphic novel “Ghost World,” which was incredibly well rendered. That’s not because it wasn’t good – to the contrary, it was very good, and I believe it’s generally considered part of the graphic canon – but because it, like John Updike’s “Rabbit Redux,” was so absolutely spot on at depicting two incredibly unpleasant characters going nowhere fast.
Deciding on a personal “best book” of the year is something I like to do, but none was as memorable for me as Alan Moore’s and Dave Gibbons’s graphic novel “Watchmen” last year, or Azar Nafisi’s “Reading Lolita In Tehran” the year before that. Instead, a few candidates that stand out slightly from the rest for me are Russell Hoban’s magical and beautifully written “The Mouse And His Child,” graphic novelist Vera Brosgol’s “Anya’s Ghost,” and two Italian novels published in translation by Europa Editions, Elena Ferrante’s “Days of Abandonment” and Amara Lakhous’s “Divorce, Islamic Style.” (I’m not allowing my rereads of classics to enter this competition that exists only in my mind. It just seems pointless to me to set even the best contemporary writers up against Austen and Ibsen. Apples and oranges can’t compete.) A book of graphic essays, “The Beats,” by Harvey Pekar and others, was also memorable—particularly the beautifully written and illustrated piece by Pekar’s widow, Joyce Brabner, and artist Summer McClinton, “Beatnik Chicks”–and inspired me to reread Joyce Johnson’s beautifully written memoir, “Minor Characters,” an essential read for any young person visiting New York for the first time.
Two neat literary events happened to me this year. First, on a business trip to Boston, I got to meet Marie from Boston Bibliophile, who runs the Europa Challenge Blog, in person. She patiently waited for me at the Porter Square T station even though I was almost half an hour late (I’d never been to Boston) and took me to the indie bookseller Porter Square Books where I bought Andrew Miller’s “Pure” on her recommendation (I really enjoyed it, thanks, Marie!) as well as the latest Granta. We had a tasty vegetarian lunch at Grendel’s Den and bopped around the area a bit, including the grounds of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s home!
The other cool literary event for me was LauraPalooza 2012, a semi-scholarly conference on Laura Ingalls Wilder and the “Little House” books, at Minnesota State University in Mankato in July, where I presented a paper on the personal and business relationship of Rose Wilder Lane, the only surviving child of Laura Ingalls Wilder, and Roger Lea MacBride, her lawyer, literary agent, best friend during the last dozen years of her life, and sole heir. A New Year’s Resolution for my leisure time is to get my presentation into publishable shape, either in a journal or, less formally, as a blog post. The conference was a lot of fun, I met some wonderful people, and I got to spend a lot of time catching up with one of my oldest and dearest friends (we go back to 5th grade!) who presented her own paper at the first LauraPalooza conference and moderated the session at which I spoke this time.
Looking forward to 2013, I hope I’ll be able to stay on track to read an inevitably hefty Dickens novel, most likely “Little Dorrit,” as well as his equally hefty biography by the amazing Claire Tomalin, both of which I’d planned to read during 2012. Having seen Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln” recently, I’m also planning on the highly praised and recommended Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals.” I also have a number of classics loaded for e-reading, including George Gissing’s “New Grub Street” and Elizabeth von Arnim’s “Enchanted April.” But before I pick up any of those, I’ll be finishing my current reading in progress: Hilary Mantel’s (first) Man Booker Prize-winning “Wolf Hall,” Joyce Carol Oates’s memoir, “A Widow’s Story,” and a graphic novel, Harvey Pekar’s “Cleveland.”
Also in 2013, I’ll continue to enjoy reading critically and relating what I read to my profession, the law, whether it’s legal history, current legal issues, or simply noting that the writer happened to have studied law. I hope to post more often this year, too–among other things, it helps me draw conclusions about works that had eluded me and to remember what I read.
What are your reading plans for this year?