Wednesday, December 31, 2014

2014: My Year in Books

[A wall in my office]
I started keeping a reading list in 1997 when I began commuting by train to work. I've been keeping a list ever since.

Because I rarely remember what I've been reading once I've gone on to the next book, the list comes in handy whenever someone asks, "So, have you read any good books lately?"

Yes, of course. Here is a short list of my favorites from this year, in order from the ridiculous to the sublime:

What I read

Jeanne Ray, Calling Invisible Women, is a delightful comic novel in which a middle-aged woman becomes literally invisible, and her family doesn't notice. The author, a retired nurse, is author Ann Patchett's mother. She was in her 60s when she wrote her first novel, Julie and Romeo. I love Patchett's novels, but Ray's are more fun.

Gabrielle Zevin, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry (newly published in paperback) is a comic novel likely to appeal to my friends in the book business and other bibliophiles. It features a curmudgeonly bookstore owner, a publisher's sales rep, a book tour that goes hilariously wrong, and a precocious child who loves to read.

Laura Lippman has written a slew of detective stories based in Baltimore, my new home. I began reading her in Illinois in preparation for my move and kept on reading her once I got here. Lippman's detective, like Lippman herself, formerly wrote for the Baltimore Sun; her books might appeal to readers of Sue Grafton's alphabet series.

When a new Baltimore friend told me Lippman is married to David Simon, creator of The Wire, I ordered a copy of his nonfiction book Homicide: A Year on the Killing Streets. First published in 1991, Homicide reads like fast-paced detective fiction. This means I do a double-take whenever I hear the name of Jay Landsman, my local police captain, the real-life son and namesake of one of the book's main characters who was transmuted into a fictional character in The Wire.

If you are planning to visit me, however, and want to bone up on Baltimore, it might be more reassuring to skip Lippman and Simon and go directly to Anne Tyler. Before moving here, I reread my old favorite Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant. Once installed in Baltimore, I got a review copy of Tyler's forthcoming novel, A Spool of Blue Thread, which takes place in a Baltimore neighborhood only 10 minutes from my house. I love Tyler for her unsentimental yet kindly way of describing family life. And even though all her books are set in Baltimore, her characters do not generally get murdered.

Ellen Harmon White: American Prophet, edited by Terrie Dopp Aamodt, Gary Land, and Ronald L. Numbers, is a fascinating collection of articles about probably the most important female 19th-century religious leader and reformer you've barely heard of--unless, like me, you were raised Seventh-day Adventist. Here's my review in the September/October issue of Books and Culture.

Finally, here's the book I've recommended to more people this year than any other: Atul Gawande's Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Gawande, a surgeon, has written an impassioned plea for how end-of-life medicine and end-of-life care in general should be practiced. Gawande is also a regular contributor to New Yorker magazine, which tells you something about the quality of his writing.

Why I read

Like everyone else I read Marilynne Robinson's Lila, just as in earlier years I read Housekeeping and Gilead and Home. Robinson is brilliant at character portrayal, and she knows how to turn a phrase. She's also gifted at stuffing her books with Christian theology and still gathering accolades from the New York Times (by Diane Johnson, author of Le Divorce, no less). I recommend her to all my friends whose brows are higher than mine.

But I guess this year I was just more interested in invisible middle-aged women and the floundering publishing industry and my present life in Baltimore and my past life as a Seventh-day Adventist and my future life as it winds down. Which leads me to think about the books I've loved at any given time.

2014 was stressful: I sold a house I'd lived in for 26 years, moved into an apartment, bought a house, moved into it, and lived through renovations. In the midst of all that change, I preferred books that closely connected to some aspect of my life--past, present, or future.

In more humdrum years, I've chosen books that took me out of my environment and introduced me to new times, places, and ideas. Three years ago when recovering from open-heart surgery, I read dozens of completely mindless but diverting mysteries.

I thought I just liked to read, but apparently I also use books as therapy. (I'm sure there's a reason that no matter what kind of year I've had, I adore Harry Potter.) What books did you read this year? Do your selections say anything about the kind of year you had?