Posted by: Brad Nixon | January 4, 2018

My 2017 Book Report

2017 was an active year of reading for me. I’ll share some high points and a few disappointments. I hope you’ll comment with your opinions. This is a selection; the point isn’t how many books one reads ─ it’s what you derive from them.

You can click on the following links for blog posts about two books I greatly enjoyed: Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein and Bridge on the Drina by Ivo Andric.

Catching Up with the Times

My reading life’s been heavily weighted toward “classic” literature, but I’m determined to read more books published since 1990 or so. Here are a few of 2017’s discoveries.

Despite being a lifelong sci-fi fan, I’d missed a big one: William Gibson’s 1984 Neuromancer. Not simply a compelling story with inventive language, it’s a remarkable imagining of cyberspace (a word he coined), describing an Internet- and web-connected world that essentially did not exist at the time.

I’d never read anything by Michael Chabon, and enjoyed both his first novel, Mysteries of Pittsburgh and the popular, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Recommended.

I have a lot of catching up to do with a now-established American writer I’ve missed, Jhumpa Lahiri, and started with her debut collection of stories, Interpreter of Maladies. On to her novels.

Also in this category, books by 2 well-regarded British writers and one from Japan: Brick Lane by Monica Ali, There But for the by Ali Smith and Kafka on the Shore by Haruki Murakami. I’ll pursue more by all of them.

Tried and True

Reading fulfills many purposes, and one is pure enjoyment. Mysteries? I returned to some favorite writers, including Donna Leon’s Venetian homicide detective, Commissario Brunetti. In the American Southwest, The Song of the Lion by Anne Hillerman, continuing her father, Tony’s, legacy, with attention not on Leaphorn and Chee, but on Officer Bernie (Bernadette) Manuelito, long a regular player, now taking center stage.

Sci-fi, of course. I reread Maze of Death by Philip K. Dick. 40 years after I read it initially, it’s less compelling now than his best work. A far better experience was reading I Am Alive and You Are Dead, a biography of Dick by Emmanuel Carrere, a prominent French writer worth knowing.

Reliables

I’m an inveterate rereader, a tendency I’ve tried to restrain so that I can try more new books. Along with the P.K. Dick novel, above, I repeated a couple of others, including 1984, by George Orwell, which I must have first read 50 years ago. It stands the test of time.

Thomas Pynchon appeared as a major literary force while I was in college, and I may have read (and reread) his work more than any other writer’s. 2017’s revisit was Mason & Dixon, which I think in some ways is his most “human” book, with the bittersweet friendship between the astronomer, Charles Mason, and the younger surveyor, Jeremiah Dixon.

Other authors I consider among the best I know include the American, Richard Ford, whose The Sportswriter is actually the start of a trilogy that I’ve been reading in reverse order. My 2016 reading included a number of books by Graham Greene, and I continued with The Comedians and a 1954 collection of shorter work, 21 Stories. I hope Mr. Greene never fades from the attention of the reading public.

I could, probably, read a book by Mark Twain each year of however many years remain to me without repeating one. 2017’s was A Tramp Abroad, the first of his travelogues I’ve read. It’s an uneven book, ranging from high hilarity to some rather mundane grinding through observances about travel that fail to shine. In the best moments, it’s Twain at his best.

Previously Omitted

I have a (long) list of “major” works yet to read, and tackled a few of them. One welcome discovery was O Pioneers! by Willa Cather. I enjoyed reading but was not entranced by two Russian novels I’d never opened: Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons and Doctor Zhivago, by Boris Pasternak. My grasp of Russian culture and history is limited, perhaps explaining their failure to catch fire for me.

The most dazzling omission had been on my list for many years: Under the Volcano by Malcolm Lowry. I recommend it, but prepare yourself to pay attention throughout a dense and compelling flow of story, character, language and themes. Masterful, showing the promise of a writer gone too soon.

Failures

Two classics wore me down, twisted me to the edge of tolerance and, in one case, beat me. Regarded as a pioneering psychological novel, Stendahl’s The Red and the Black (1830) never engaged me, although I labored to its tragic conclusion.

Worse, though, was my attempt to read The Wings of the Dove, by Henry James. Written in a prose style so densely packed with compound-complex sentences, apposites, asides, parenthenses and dependent clauses, it constantly made me pine for the master of sentence complexity, Proust, who could pull the same tricks without causing me to lose track of who was being referred to, who was speaking or what was being described. Halfway through, I was done, and couldn’t continue.

Unreservedly Recommended

Briefly below, I recommend the very best of the books I discovered, by authors past and present. They’re good enough that each merits a separate blog post. I encourage you try them if they’re unknown to you.

The Portrait of a Lady (1881). THAT is what people are talking about when they say “Henry James.”

Strangers on a Bridge (1964), James B. Donovan. A fascinating memoir about the cold war-era legal defense of a Russian spy in the U.S., and subsequent exchange for the downed U.S. airman, Francis Gary Powers.

John’s Wife (1996) and Huck Out West (2017), John Coover. A principal American author I regret overlooking ‘til now. Madcap metafiction and brilliant storytelling.

The Autograph Man (2002) and NW (2012), Zadie Smith. One of the most skilled and insightful tellers of human stories now writing, in vivid language that sings.

Your turn. Agree? Disagree? What should be on my 2018 list? Please leave a comment.

© Brad Nixon 2018


Responses

  1. My reading this past year has only been a few novels, the rest research (of course), but I consider every book an adventure and we should all go on as many adventures in our lives as we can!!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hear hear!

      Liked by 1 person

    • And, let me just say that those of us who follow Pacific Paratrooper are the beneficiaries of your thorough research. I’m always impressed. A good year of reading to you.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you very much, Brad, I really appreciate that!

        Like

  2. Thanks for your highly valued reviews. I will get some of these on my list. Occasionally you hit on a book I have read and your insights often help me realize what it was I liked about the book/author, such as Under The Volcano and Zadie Smith’s books. Currently enjoying Michael Chabon’s Moonglow which so far reads maybe even better than Kavalier and Clay.

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    • Thanks for that. Your enthusiasm for the book was one of the prime motivators that got me to read Kavalier in the first place … and it took several months before I could get it from the library … always checked out. And I still thank you for Wolf Hall!

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  3. try Chabon’s “the yiddish policeman’s union”. i found it to be a bit of uphill work, but ultimately very rewarding, whereas “telegraph avenue” i just found uphill work.
    glad one of the coffee scented books made the list!

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    • Thanks. The list keeps growing!

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    • Son of a gun, I did maybe 50 pages of Telegraph Avenue and just returned it to the library. Chabon has otherwise been good for me.

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  4. Peter Mayle’s A Year in Provence and Toujours Provence, two short autobiographical novels about a Brit trying to adjust to a new life in rural southern France. Enlightening and hilarious!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes. I do need to get to them. On the list!

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    • I read A Year in Provence some time ago and enjoyed the humor and insight too. I’ll put the other one on my list.

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  5. That’s an impressive scope of reading; chronologically, geographically, and all sorts of other -icallys as well. I remember reading about Huck Out West and thinking I ought to check it out.

    I finished up two books I’d actually started in 2016; the first volume of The Gulag Archipelago, and the Bruce Springsteen autobiography Born to Run. One of these things is not like the other. Kind of daunting to think I’ve still got two volumes of Gulag to go, but it’s hard to stop now. Fascinating, and terrible. Born to Run is good if you’re a fan, but my goodness the Boss is a wordy fellow.

    I also tackled some new-to-me authors: Henderson the Rain King by Saul Bellow – good, probably won’t revisit, though I can imagine giving his other books a shot. The Hunchback of Notre Dame by that Hugo dude. Entertaining, informative and impressive on numerous levels. The one will kill the other indeed. And I got about halfway through Dubliners, and lost interest. Maybe that’s not the best intro to Joyce? Thoughts?

    Conrad for 2017 was Heart of Darkness. Not sure about this year’s yet.

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    • I should read Solzenitzen’s big book. A massive event when it was published, I well remember. Okay, that’s one for the list. It’s been decades since I read anything by our ’76 Nobel winner, although I had several under my belt before he won the prize. Okay, that’s another. I think your biorhythms must’ve been off for Dubliners. Well, the simple solution is “Portrait of the Artist.” Man, I loved Notre Dame de Paris. Perhaps one to revisit. Thanks!

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    • Conrad is tough. Have you tried Nostromo? It was a tough read and I about died getting through it. That was the library book I had left behind on an airplane at about the half-way point and was starting to feel actual relief about losing it despite what I would have to tell the library, but the airline (SW) found the book and returned it to me at no charge. So I had to finish it. I had renewed it twice while it was lost, buying time. Tough read.

      Like


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