Category Archives: Reading

What I read in 2016

Today I am grateful that Goodreads is out there on the internet compiling images of and info about all of the books I read in 2016 so I don’t have to do it myself. My goal last year was to read 40 books, and I surpassed that. These graphics say I finished with 41 books, but I’d forgotten to add “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child,” so it was actually 42.

John Ehle’s “The Land Breakers” was published in 1964, but I’d never heard of it until this year when a local columnist wrote about it. I’ve often thought about what it must’ve been like to live in the Appalachian Mountains in the 17- and 1800s, and this fictionalized account of one settlement paints what I’m guessing is a pretty accurate portrait. I didn’t want to stop reading when I reached the end of the book, so I checked out the sequel. I didn’t love “The Journey of August King” as much, but I’d definitely recommend “The Land Breakers.”

I read a lot more nonfiction in 2016 than I normally do, and several of those titles ended up being in my list of favorites. Helen MacDonald’s grief-laced “H is for Hawk” isn’t a warm and cozy read, but it’s ultimately very moving. “Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania” by Erik Larson is also a tough one to read, but it’s very tense and well written.

I put Beryl Markham’s memoir, “West with the Night,” on my hold list at the library as soon as I finished reading Paula McLain’s fictionalized story about her. I enjoyed McLain’s “Circling the Sun,” but “West with the Night” was my favorite book of 2016. Markham was the first woman to fly non-stop from England to North America, and that isn’t even the most interesting story in the book. She’s a fascinating person and a great writer to boot.

My favorite fiction book of 2016 was Kristin Hannah’s “The Nightingale.” It’s about two sisters living in German-occupied France during World War II, which I guess is further proof that I was very into harrowing stories last year.

I’m aiming to read 45 books in 2017, and I’m hoping one of those will be the John Quincy Adams biography that I’ve been struggling to finish. I’d also like to read Bruce Springsteen’s autobiography, Colson Whitehead’s “The Underground Railroad” and Simon Sebag Montefiore’s “The Romanovs.”

Are we friends on Goodreads? Hop on over there and friend me if we aren’t! I’d love to know what you’re reading these days.

When in doubt, read poetry

Tonight I’m going to see one of my favorite poets do a reading, and I’m going to have him sign a couple of his books for me. Here’s a good (if slightly unsettling) one from Billy Collins.

“The First Night”
by Billy Collins

The worst thing about death must be
the first night.
—Juan Ramón Jiménez

Before I opened you, Jiménez,
it never occurred to me that day and night
would continue to circle each other in the ring of death,

but now you have me wondering
if there will also be a sun and a moon
and will the dead gather to watch them rise and set

then repair, each soul alone,
to some ghastly equivalent of a bed.
Or will the first night be the only night,

a darkness for which we have no other name?
How feeble our vocabulary in the face of death,
How impossible to write it down.

This is where language will stop,
the horse we have ridden all our lives
rearing up at the edge of a dizzying cliff.

The word that was in the beginning
and the word that was made flesh—
those and all the other words will cease.

Even now, reading you on this trellised porch,
how can I describe a sun that will shine after death?
But it is enough to frighten me

into paying more attention to the world’s day-moon,
to sunlight bright on water
or fragmented in a grove of trees,

and to look more closely here at these small leaves,
these sentinel thorns,
whose employment it is to guard the rose.

The chain letter that finally paid off

One of my neighbors posted something on Facebook a few weeks ago that caught my eye. It was, it said, a “social experiment” in which you send one of your favorite books to someone and then, eventually, you get a bunch of books in the mail from other folks. It was a good old-fashioned chain letter, but with books.

After being disappointed time and again as a youth, I finally grew wise to the chain letter and stopped sending them along. But I’m a sucker for a good book — and sometimes even for a bad book, as evidenced by the fact that I read a tome called “Saint Dale” in its entirety. So I signed on for my neighbor’s literary Facebook experiment, sent a Graham Greene paperback off to her friend and hoped for the best. Worst-case scenario, I figured, was someone would get to read “The Quiet American.”

And then a few days later Abraham Verghese’s “Cutting for Stone” arrived. And then “Supreme Courtship” by Christopher Buckley, and then “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” by Truman Capote. Then we went on vacation, and when we came home Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” Rob Sheffield’s “Love is a Mix Tape,” Lisel Mueller’s “Alive Together” and Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” were there waiting for me. I love a good book recommendation, and it’s been delightful getting things in the mail that aren’t bills.

The moral of the story? I don’t know. Take a chance on a chain letter now and again? Have a little faith in goofy Facebook things? Regardless, I’m loving having a stack of books waiting for me to read.