A few years ago I started to keep track of the books I read because I noticed that I wasn’t reading as much as I wanted to, and perhaps if I kept track then I wouldn’t spend so much time watching dogs eating tacos on YouTube. I still don’t read as much as I could, and this year I had a few false starts (I don’t count books I’ve only half-read). But here is what I read this year, in order of completion.
1. “Hardheaded Weather” by Cornelius Eady
I started 2016 by taking a weeklong trip–beginning January 1st at about 3:00 AM–and I needed a few books for the trip. Because I wasn’t sure of what to expect in terms of free time, I decided to go with poetry, because I could then have the option of immersing myself if I had lots of time or dipping my toes if I only had a few minutes. (I did bring along a few novels, just in case.) I don’t remember at all why I picked Cornelius Eady; perhaps the cover just appealed to me.
Anyway, it was a fantastic start to the year. Once I finally had a chance to read it, I read it cover-to-cover twice. Then I came back to it several times since then. What begin as small, almost trite, observations about daily gather in emotional force rather quickly. “My Mother, If She Won Free Dance Lessons” immediately inspired me to write a story (which I don’t think was any good, or I didn’t finish it, or something). “Song” devastated me so much I had to find somebody to read it out loud to. I’m not sure if my audience was appreciative or just humored me. It didn’t matter to me in the end anyway. I just needed to share it.
If you have twenty minutes to spare, watch Cornelius Eady read some of his work here.
2. “The Tempest” by William Shakespeare
I tend to revisit Shakespeare’s histories often, and then some of his bloodier works. I read many of the comedies as assignments in school (which doesn’t mean I didn’t like them). For no particular reason, The Tempest never floated onto my reading list. I brought it and the Sonnets with me on my trip, but my copy of Sonnets didn’t fit so easily into my pocket, so I read The Tempest instead.
3. “Kingdom Animalia” by Aracelis Garay
I didn’t enjoy this one; reading it was a chore. One verse in particular stood out at me, and indictment of an ignorant man standing in for society. I felt she was being unfair, and ranted about that to the people close enough to hear me at breakfast. Though I couldn’t remember it exactly, that line and the feeling of annoyance are pretty much all that stayed with me, and the disappointment at having spent sixteen dollars on this unpleasant afternoon of reading.
Just now, in order to write this review (? is that the right word ?), I decided to go back and try to find that line. I was unable to, but I did find other lines that pleased me, and should have pleased me when I read it in January. “This earth/ of the dagger-toothed & hawks,/ whose names we know,/ taking bones for diamonds,/ full of hair & snakes,/ earth eating you, slowly,/ below the sound of gold horns.” Or this one: “What words, anyway, can/be used to warn the children/ who sing so beautifully/ the names of their favorite friends,/ of the heart & the moon,/ to the roosters in the yard?” That one certainly should have brought back memories of the small monument I saw in Sarajevo, dedicated to the children killed in the war. It did now, anyway.
So fine, I’ll withhold judgment on Ms. Garay’s verses and reread her book sometime. It has intrigued me now in a way that it did not back in January. I must have just not been in the mood. Shakespeare is a tough act to follow, I suppose.
(Addendum: while flipping through the pages just now, I found the offending poem. It’s called “Ode to the Little ‘r’,” and I still think it’s obnoxious, though not so bad that it has soured my day the way it did the first time.)
4. “The Empire of Blue Water” by Stephen Talty
a. Being a pirate was a bad idea–you were guaranteed and short life, violent death, and not much in the way of money for all your efforts.
b. Unless you were Henry Morgan. In which case it worked out okay.
c. We don’t talk enough about the buccaneers built a gay utopia in the Caribbean.
d. Books about pirates are best read while drinking, preferably during the day.
5. “Before the Storm” by Rick Perlstein
The opening volume of Perlstein’s acclaimed history of the conservative movement documents the rise of Barry Goldwater. I was dismayed by how quickly misinformation became a hallmark of American conservatism, and how mean-spirited so many of its adherents were, even at the outset. It was interesting to read about civil rights from the perspective of those opposed–the people who looked at the March on Washington not as a triumph and revelation but as an annoyance or worse, but I didn’t walk away with an appreciation or even understanding the modern contemporary movement. It was, however, a fantastic story, compellingly told.
6. “The Bright Continent” by Dayo Olapade
I learned in December that I was moving to Uganda the following summer. Except for a brief foray to Senegal in college (from which I received a mysterious disease that I’ve always credited to a cursed necklace I bought on a beach) and a slightly longer but much more touristy jaunt to Morocco, I have never been to Africa and knew little of its history beyond the sensational bits that occasionally pop up in the news. I decided to start with Dayo Olapade’s celebration of Africa’s remarkable resilience and beauty, and was thoroughly pleased and excited about my new adventures.
Arriving in Uganda in August, the truth of Olapade’s main argument immediately struck me: Africa has problems, many of them deeply entrenched and difficult to dislodge, but there is so much more happening here that we don’t even imagine. Although so many Westerners come here to ‘do good,’ they don’t seem to come back ever with pictures or stories of, say, Kampala’s elegant streets, sophisticated restaurants, thriving intellectual community, and cosmopolitan citizens. Yes, there are slums, and poverty is often dire. But imagine if all of North America were represented by the picture of a single burning building in the Bronx in the 1970s.
7. “Nixonland” by Rick Perlstein
Had to read the sequel. I tried reading Conrad Black’s hagiography of Nixon a few years ago; amazingly, even a writer trying to present Nixon as an unsung hero makes him look like a monster. In Nixonland we get a long trip through one of America’s darkest minds. The story is gripping, and Perlstein’s writing is a thrill. Nixon introduced a strain of poison into the American soul that may someday prove fatal; what’s most upsetting is that he didn’t seem to care.
8. “Long Walk to Freedom” by Nelson Mandela
Knew nothing about Mandela beyond what I learned watching “Invictus.” Figured I should correct that before I moved to Africa. Inspirational book, warm and even funny at times. Somewhat painful to read that the US Government was directly involved in the arrest that let to Mandela’s long imprisonment.
9. “Samarkand” by Amin Maalouf
I found this at a bookstore in Istanbul and brought it with me to Uzbekistan. Disappointingly, it did little to illuminate the world of medieval Samarkand, but at least I was in Samarkand while I read part of it so I could fill in the blanks. (Actually, modern Samarkand is a fairly workaday Soviet city with a bizarre number of medieval monuments sprouting up like mushrooms; the medieval flavor is better felt in Bukhara, so in my imagination the characters walked through there.)
Maalouf does, however, paint an interesting history of the the Ismailis, Assassins, and great Persian poet Omar Khayyam.
10. “After Dark” by Haruki Murakami
I wanted to read a long novel, and at the bookstore “1Q84” attracted my attention. However, the reviews weren’t ecstatic, and I’d never read Murakami before, so committing thirty dollars and nearly twelve hundred pages didn’t seem right, so I settled on “The Chronicle of the Wind-Up Bird,” which I devoured over a few days in Charleston. Cut to a few months later, I’m back in a bricks-and-mortar bookstore and I decide I want to read more Murakami. “1Q84” is still too long, so I go for the short and sweet “After Dark.” It gives me what I want, and I’m certain I will work my way through at least a big portion of Murakami’s catalog in the next few years. However, this author’s attitude and depictions of sex does nothing to dispel any stereotypes that may exist about weird Japanese sexual hang-ups.
11. “My Brilliant Friend” by Elena Ferrante
Reviews were such that I had to give it a shot. “My Brilliant Friend” is shot through with vivid images that stayed with me throughout the whole series. As I continued on, my mind kept dragging up the image of the opening of the shoe store, and a little tableau that I framed–if anybody were to film this (which I hope they don’t) the cinematographer would face a great challenge equalling Ferrante’s cinematic prose. In this volume the girls–and the books about them–burn bright with promise.
12. “The Story of a New Name” by Elena Ferrante
In my teen years I was fascinated by the culture of the 1960s, but as I’ve aged it’s become clear that the people who lived through it are never going to stop talking about, so at this point I mostly get annoyed when the sixties comes up, and Ferrante is no exception. Luckily for everyone I was already in love with the characters, and could read about them doing anything.
13. “Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay” by Elena Ferrante
If the series starts to disappoint, it is perhaps in large part because for these women that we follow from girlhood to old age, life is disappointing. This third volume was the hardest slog, but perhaps rightly so. Set in the seventies, with cheap polyester and a “Free Love” hangover pervading seemingly everything, this volume is tough and raw, not always in a good way.
14. “The Story of the Lost Child” by Elena Ferrante
For the final volume Ferrante builds us back up only to give the devastating ending that she promised in the first volume. I don’t typically like reading books in a series back-to-back; knowing the limits of my attention span, I try to change authors and even genres after each last page. But with the Neapolitan novels I just couldn’t stop until was over.
15. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” by Oscar Wilde
During my summer in Brooklyn I scoured used book stores to buy as many inexpensive books as possible, and I walked away with quite an armload. I’d never read Dorian Gray, so I gave it a shot. Now I get all those references.
16. “Alive” by Elizabeth Willis
I won’t pretend to ‘get’ everything in this volume of poetry. It is dense and demanding, and I read it in bursts on hot afternoons on my porch, happily drifting in and out of awareness and sobriety. There is a compelling musicality to her verses, though, that I return to from time to time.
17. “Washington Square” by Henry James
Another book from the bargain bin. More of a premise than a novel, but easy enough to get through in a day or two.
18. “The Invisible Bridge” by Rick Perlstein
By this point in Perlstein’s series the cynicism in the Republican party has become its own form of sincerity, and the book is fast-paced and even funny, though it still isn’t clear if it’s funny “ha-ha” or funny “I’m laughing so I don’t cry.”
19. “Born to Run” by Bruce Springsteen
In 1995 Bruce Springsteen released a greatest hits album that featured a handful of hits, a few new tunes, and some other more-or-less random stuff, too. It was astounding that an artist with such a deep and satisfying catalogue should have such a miserable greatest hits collection. Maybe the problem was that almost all of his actual “hits” came, basically, from the same album; still Greatest Hits was a disaster that took one of the giants of popular music and diminished him.
A few years later a new collection, The Essential Bruce Springsteen, provided a much-needed improvement, with a solid selection of tracks that invited reflection and friendly debate.
Hopefully in a few years Springsteen does something similar with his autobiography.
20. “1Q84” by Haruki Murakami
I knew it would come to this. Expensive and long or not, I just had to. A hundred pages in, I lamented that I had already come so far. Twenty pages from the end, I told myself that I could stop here and stay in this world. I finished it, though, because I had to.
And I wonder if it wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, to wander off a highway and slip into an alternate reality, with two moons and infinite mystery.