This is it: the last instalment of #AYearInBooks (in which I’ve been tracking the non-academic reading I do). Here’s why I decided to do this. After I report on my year’s last few books, I’ll wrap up with a few comments on the experience.
The Chrysalids (John Wyndham, 1955). There’s a certain feeling of dread when you pick up a book you loved 30 years ago and haven’t opened since. Will it hold up, or will you lose that happy memory? (Rewatching the first few seasons of M*A*S*H had this problem; as much as I loved the show, the early episodes, at least, didn’t age well.) I’m happy to say that The Chrysalids really is that good. It’s post-apocalyptic building-new-society science fiction, with a strong message of tolerance for the different – a message that hasn’t lost any importance in the 65 years since The Chrysalids was written.. I’m encouraged now to re-read Chocky, which was always my favourite of Wyndham’s books. One more thing. Usually I use the current book covers to illustrate – but check out the lurid cover of my Penguin edition! Remember when science-fiction book design boiled down to “paint me something alien, and if it’s totally unrelated to the book, that’s a bonus”? My Penguin edition does.
Hitching Rides with Buddha (Will Ferguson, 1998, also published as Hokkaido Highway Blues). The amusing travel book is a difficult genre to get just right; the line between poking gentle fun at the place you’re visiting and being cruelly sardonic or culturally insensitive is a thin one. Bill Bryson is probably the most famous practitioner of the genre, but even he occasionally failed. (My favourite of Bryson’s books is In a Sunburned Country because in that one, he failed in the other direction: he kept trying to make fun of Australia, but you could tell he just loved the place too much to succeed). In Hitching Rides with Buddha, Ferguson hitchhikes the length of Japan, following the cherry blossoms from south to north. He flirts with that thin line, and I thought for a while he would fall across it, but there are enough touching passages to balance out the more acerbic ones – most notably, a long conversation with an elderly gentleman who was taken prisoner by US forces during the Second World War. It also helps that like Bryson, Ferguson is often amusingly self-deprecating. This is a fun one.
A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles, 2016). I guess I’m late to discovering this book, but if you are too, it’s just fantastic. It’s improbably fantastic, too: the story of a man in house arrest in a Moscow hotel, from not long after the Russian revolution through the 1950s. Thirty years in a hotel seems to offer rather limited scope, but Towles is a genius in finding sparkle in very small things – while world events go on outside, the eponymous gentleman deals with buttons and soup and two absolutely scene-stealing children, and it’s all just completely captivating. I did not expect to like this book, and I am so very happy to have been utterly, totally wrong.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane (Neil Gaiman, 2013; illustrated edition, Elise Hurst, 2019). Oh, this is wonderful: the story of something fantastical, something creepy and scary and sad and also heartwarming, that happens to a 7-year-old boy in rural England. (No further spoilers here.) It’s atmospheric but also gripping, and the illustrations I think intensify both of those. I couldn’t decide if this was a children’s book or an adult book and the answer, I think, is that it’s both; but the way the adult narrator remembers (and doesn’t) the events of the story rings true in a way that I would have missed, had I read this (had it been written!) when I was young.
Pilgrimage (Zenna Henderson, 1961). I don’t think Zenna Henderson’s books are read much any more (although there are a pair of recent compilations I’m coveting). Pilgrimage is one of her books of stories (thinly stitched together in this novelization) about “the People”, aliens with special abilities stranded somewhere the southwestern US. You can argue that Henderson’s work is a bit dated, especially in gender roles (but then, you can argue the same about the Brontës’). But the themes of exclusion and belonging, and of how those who are different relate to a wider society, are timeless. If my heart is warmed a little each time Twyla looks at the Francher kid, maybe I’m just sappy, or maybe these books have some universal truths. Let’s say the latter, which makes me feel better about coming back to them over and over.
The Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafón, 2001; translation Lucia Graves, 2004). This is the story of a young boy in 1940s Barcelona who becomes obsessed by an obscure novel by a forgotten novelist – and who realizes that a mysterious someone is hunting down and destroying every copy of the book. You can imagine how much I’d be into a book about books, and about the first third of this novel was completely fascinating, with rich detail and a plot with twist after twist. But eventually, it bogged down a little in its own complexity and I found myself wondering whether I really needed another belated realization that obscure character X wasn’t really what they seemed. It’s a bit odd to enjoy a book and still be a bit relieved when it’s over, but that’s about where I settled on this one.
The Library Book (Susan Orlean, 2018). Like me, you probably don’t realize that the Los Angeles Public Library burned on April 29, 1986. Not a tiny fire – 400,000 books were destroyed and another 700,000 damaged; but Chernobyl also burned that day and pushed the LA Library fire out of the news. In The Library Book Orlean intended to tell the story of the fire and the man who was charged with setting it. She failed: there just wasn’t, apparently, enough to be said. So you’d think The Library Book would be a dud, as Orlean was left to assemble a rather ragtag bunch of library-related anecdotes to pad out the fire-and-arsonist story. And by all the rules of trade nonfiction (which is supposed to have a single ‘through line’, a question asked and answered), it is a dud – but I don’t care. I love libraries, and I love books, and I loved this book. Library trivial, colourful librarians (Charles Lummis, for example, who walked from Ohio to LA in 1885 to take up the job of head librarian) – what’s not to love?
The Found and the Lost (Ursula Le Guin, 2017). This is a bit of an oddity: a collection of (all) Le Guin’s novella-length fiction. Grouping a writer’s output by length rather than by subject or date is a little arbitrary, unless perhaps you’re studying the particular construction or accomplishment of the novella form. So this collection suffered a little from not hanging together. The first three novellas did little for me (Le Guin is at her strongest when experimenting with social constructs in the worlds she creates, not when experimenting with storytelling techniques). I’m glad I stuck with it, though, because the book’s centre is a series of six related novellas, part of her Hainish Cycle, that are just fantastic. There are also three Earthsea novellas (which I skipped, as they’re in Tales from Earthsea and I’ll revisit them when I, inevitably and regularly, re-read that wonderful series), and a standalone set on a generation starship. Together, these novellas show just how amazingly well Le Guin could invent different human societies – all strange, but at the same time all oddly familiar.
And that’s it: that’s my Year of Books. Looks like in 2020, I read 60 books. (I also published one. I figured I should sneak that in somehow, despite its utter irrelevancy to this post.) Some were old friends, and some were new discoveries. Some were terrific and some were terrible – and in each category, some came as surprises.
I know that 60 books sounds like a lot of reading to some folks – actually, it sounds like a lot to me. But nontechnical reading has always been my most important diversion, and my default activity when I’m not otherwise busy. (Five minutes waiting for the rice to be done cooking? Read!) Now, 2020 turned out to be a year of completely, ludicrously, overwhelming workload, for me as for a lot of other folks. That definitely cut into my reading time, but it also made what remained even more important to me. As per the title of this series’ sixth installment, reading can be a refuge.
I’ll be reading in 2021 too, of course, but I won’t be documenting it as I did with this series. It’s been interesting sharing all this with you, but I was a bit surprised to discover that it changed my relationship with the books – and not for the better. Knowing I was tweeting and posting the books led me to occasionally wonder whether I was reading too fast, or reading too slow. Those are really stupid things to wonder; but it turns out that when you’re doing anything publicly, there’s the temptation to do it performatively:* to read at the “right” rate, to read the “right” books. And yes, I found myself wondering what people would think if they knew I read that particular book. I think I resisted the temptation to read performatively (there’s some absolute dreck on my list!), but I didn’t enjoy wondering if I was, or if I should. In 2021, my reading will mostly be between me and the authors and the characters – as it’s been all my life.
So that’s a wrap. I hope you’ve found a book on my list that you can enjoy.
© Stephen Heard January 7, 2020
Did you miss the first seven instalments? Need some books to read (and a few to avoid)? Here’s the first, and here’s the second, here’s the third, here’s the fourth, here’s the fifth, here’s the sixth, and here’s the seventh. Wow, that’s a lot of links.