Friday, January 17, 2014

My Year of Reading: 2013

My Year of Reading

Achievement of the Year:  I read 15 Inspector Montalbano novels by Andrea Camilleri, one after the other, in a glorious summer reading binge.  I had been stockpiling (without reading and without exactly knowing if I would like them) these books for years but this summer, faced with not having many books by Donald Westlake to read (having hit Peak Westlake a few years back), I took the plunge and read all of Camilleri's books.  These are all police procedurals and while I loved reading this series, most of the pleasure came from the setting (Sicily), the colorful characters, and Montalbano's culinary exploits. Not the plots, which is unusual for crime novels.  I'd be hard pressed to name my favorite book as I really did enjoy them all.

Archeological Find of the Year:  Last year it was Donald E. Westlake's Tucker Coe novels.  This year, Donald Westlake takes the award again with Brothers Keepers, published in 1975.  I haven't really thought out the criteria for this award, just that it is meant for a book that is not new and is hard to find or has been overlooked (by me).  I never thought I would want to read a novel about monks but being low on Westlakes and then reading this, I sought out a bargain copy and then fell in love with the book.  In Brothers Keepers, the monks learn they are to lose their monastery when their lease expires so then set out (which is inherently difficult as their order is cloistered and dedicated to thinking about travel and not traveling at all) to use the skills they had in their pre-monastic lives to save the monastery.  This is a very funny novel (not unusual for Westlake) but also much wittier and more erudite that his other books, revealing yet another layer of genius in Westlake.

Runner Up:  The two collections of Calder and Behrens stories by Michael Gilbert, Game without Rules and Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens.  These books didn't feel like a great discovery as they are well known and widely admired by those in the know about such things as English spy fiction.  But I knew nothing about them until last year and when I overcame my prejudice against short stories in the crime/mystery/spy genre, I fell hard for Michael Gilbert. (Note:  I do read short stories all the time in regular fiction.  Especially William Trevor, Haruki Murakami, Alice Munro, Mavis Gallant, and John McGahern.  As a kid I subscribed to Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine and read all sorts of similar short fiction but somehow by the time I became an adult I was of the opinion that any short work of crime or spy fiction was a malformed or stunted novel and should be ignored.  I had no evidence to support my beliefs.  And of course, I turned out to be wrong.)

Old Guys of the Year:  This arbitrary category exists because of two men.  The Italian crime writer Andera Camilleri is about 87 years old now and only started his series featuring Inspector Montalbano when he was 70 years old - which to me, is amazing.  Prior to that he had a long career as a TV and theatre director and as a historical novelist.  The other Old Guy of the Year is Elmore Leonard.  I have to make a confession here: I never read an Elmore Leonard novel before he died this summer.  I had listened to a few of his books on tape (but they were abridged) and had picked up and started several over the past 20 years but never finished one.  To make matters even stranger, I have heard him interviewed on Fresh Air several times and have read dozens of reviews of his work and profiles of him over the years and always considered myself a fan - even though I never technically finished a book he wrote.  I started Unknown Man No. 89 the day he died and also read The Swtich, City Primeval, and Gold Coast.

Country of the Year:  Italy.  Because of Andrea Camilleri.  And because I also got interested in Mario Vicchi, Leonard Sciascia, and Elena Ferrante this year.  And because I switched to using Sicilian Lemon hand sanitizer.  (I ordered a bunch of hand sanitizer for my wife and when she suggested I get some, I was reading about Sicily and thus Sicilian Lemon spoke to me.)

Book of the Year:  Last years book of the year was Maria Semple's Where'd You Go, Bernadette and there were two reasons I selected it.  One was because of how good it was and two because it became a running joke between my wife and I.  This year, the best book I read was Donna Tartt's The Goldfinch.  But Poppet by Mo Hayder ended up being the most fun (which is at odds with how disturbing and terrifying the book is).  My wife always felt that Poppet was staring at her and was creeped out by the cover.  When I would hide the book she would still swear Poppet was staring at her.  I made some Poppet xmas ornaments for our tree.  And I replaced the star on top of the tree with Poppet.  (This is how we amuse ourselves.)  In purely reading terms, The Goldfinch was my book of the year.   The Goldfinch was 11 years in the making and it is one of those books that people say is like something from Dickens.  By which they mean very long, having to do with an orphan who is mistreated/betrayed by adults, and surround by colorful characters.  But they mean it in a good way.  How to summarize a 700 page plus novel like this?  A 13 year old boy in New York steals/rescues a famous Dutch painting from a museum in the aftermath of a terrorist bombing and is left to fend for himself against others who may not have his best interests at heart.  And conflict ensues.  (Every review of The Goldfinch mentions Dickens.  While that is an accurate comparison, The Goldfinch is also a bit of a demented mashup of Tom Ripley and Gossip Girl.  Really, it contains multitudes.) This is a barebones description of a very long and very colorful book but I hate spoilers and had to keep it short.  For a 700 page novel, it flies by yet does not feel breezy or unsubstantial.  Sheer enjoyment.

My Top Ten List:

10. Alex by Pierre Lemaitre
 9.  Have Mercy on Us All by Fred Vargas
 8.  Poppet by Mo Hayder
 7.  Still Midnight by Denise Mina (but it could have been The End of the Wasp Season or Gods and Beasts)
 6.  Capital by John Lanchester
 5.  The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes
 4.  Game without Rules/Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens by Michael Gilbert
 3.  Brothers Keepers by Donald Westlake
 2.  Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
 1.  The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt

Closing Thoughts:

In many ways, 2013 was the year of the woman.  For a lot of reasons, male writers seem to get more attention than women.  And it has been this way for a long time, mostly for unjust reasons.  And just as obviously women have been churning out great books all along.  But at some point in 2013, for me, I realized that most of the books I was reading that I thought were really special turned out to be by women.  I think it is fair to say that in the US, The Goldfinch was the most anticipated novel of the year.  Life After Life was a big, bold book that got everyone's attention.  The Shining Girls came out of nowhere (not entirely true because Lauren Beukes first two novels received much critical attention but because they were more science fiction she was not yet a household name) and was one of the most interesting and chilling books of the year.  Denise Mina is now writing the best police procedurals in Scotland and therefore the world.  I was totally enthralled by the works of Fred Vargas - new to me this past year.  I read a bunch of other books that turned out to be by women that I really loved. Women won both the Nobel Prize and the Booker Prize this year.  I know I made a bold declaration that it was the year of the woman and I suppose I should have backed it up with lots of great evidence and a more compelling argument.  But for me the most compelling case to be made is that I was just reading the books that looked/sounded the most interesting and gradually noticed that they were mostly by women.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

The Only Way Is Wessex

I never paid much attention to Michael Gilbert until last year.  I had seen his name around and knew of a few of his books but for the most part, he was not on my radar.  Until I learned about the short stories Gilbert wrote about Mr. Calder and Mr. Behrens.  Once I read the two collections of stories I fell hard for Michael Gilbert.

I just started reading his 1984 novel The Black Seraphim.  It concerns a young pathologist suffering from exhaustion who leaves London and heads to the cathedral town of Melchester to spend a month recovering.  Dr. James Scotland's vacation does not go according to plan when there is a murder in the town and he is drawn into it.  I have become a compulsive Googler of things while I read and I was puzzled as to why I could not find Melchester on a map of England.  I knew I had heard of the place before.  It sounds like a real place.  After a bit of research, I figured out that it was from Thomas Hardy that I knew of Melchester, from Jude the Obscure.  Over his writing career Hardy created a fictionalized region of England called Wessex for his books and Gilbert had used the Wessex town of Melchester for The Black Seraphim. (Also, Hardy's wife had a dog named Wessex, a terrier.)

I love the idea of using someone else's fictional universe as a setting.  Gilbert's appropriation of a place from Wessex has had me thinking of other great fictional places.  Some of my all-time favorites:

Gotham City
Castle Rock
Stars Hollow
Grand Rapids