The last time I made a book report (which, it occurs to me, would be a much better name for this enterprise than blog), I had just finished reading Jane Gardam’s Old Filth, a book I loved so much I’m already wondering if it isn’t time to read it again. Imagine then my enormous joy upon discovering that Old Filth had a sequel — The Man in the Wooden Hat — and that it was full of more stories about Betty and Filth and Veneering. People so often ask me if I’m ever going to write a sequel to some book I’ve already written, and I’ve never really taken the question seriously. A sequel? Of course not. I have no interest in sequels. But reading The Man in the Wooden Hat, I could see what a gift a sequel can be to the reader. I was so moved to be with these people again. Now I’ve found out these are the first two books in a trilogy, and that the third book, Last Friends, will be out in April. If you haven’t read the first two, I suggest you get to work immediately. If you know someone who loves great novels, give the two together as a present. That someone will be very impressed.
I just finished reading the new collection of Alice Munro short stories, the beautifully titled Dear Life. I wonder if Alice Munro has ever written a substandard book. If so, I can’t remember it. Every time I’ve read a book of hers, I’ve thought, well, this is it. This is her best work ever, no topping this. But here she is at 81 still clearing whatever high bar she set for herself the last time. Her stories are so subtle and perilous and unexpected, they never cease to amaze. I think she must be the most generous writer I’ve ever read because every single one of her stories has a novel’s worth of content. She is our Chekhov, our Cheever, and she’s out there writing right this minute. There are books that might be fine to read electronically, but an Alice Munro book is to have and to hold. Especially this one, because, let’s be honest, it’s her best.
Now I’m going to break my cardinal rule of book recommending and add to this list a book I haven’t finished yet, Far From the Tree, by Andrew Solomon. It’s well over 900 pages, and even though the last 200 pages are references and an index, it’s still a very big book and I had no intention of reading it. I’ve met the author and found him to be dazzling, but still the book was too long, and it wasn’t a topic I was naturally inclined towards — the host of things that can go terribly wrong when you have a child, and how some people discover those things not only weren’t so terrible but gave a sense of community and identity to both the children and the parents. I kept reading the reviews, and hearing Solomon’s interviews, and it was hard not to be swayed. This is the book that everyone is raving about. Then I read Dwight Garner’s review in the New York Times in which he says of the book’s first chapter, “It is required reading.” Those are strong words for a reviewer, and so I thought, okay, I can read the first chapter. I suggest you follow Dwight’s directive as well. The first chapter is worth the price of the book, and now that I am several chapters in, I can tell you that Far from the Tree lives up to all the hype and expectations. It took Andrew Solomon more than 10 years to write this book. I think those years will be remembered as time well spent.
While I was reading that first chapter, I thought a lot about my friend Lucy Grealy, who will be ten years dead on the 18th of December. Lucy should have read this book, not only because it deals with stories of children who didn’t turn out perfectly (Lucy had a Ewing sarcoma of the jaw at age 10 and then went on to have 38 reconstructive surgeries over the course of her life), but because the writing is beautiful and Andrew Solomon clearly has an extraordinary mind. There was nothing Lucy loved more than someone who knew how to think past our expectations. I even found myself wishing that Lucy could have written this book, thinking that had she lived she might have done something as ambitious as this. And then I turned another page and there she was — Andrew Solomon was talking about Lucy, her life and her book. In honor of that connection, and her anniversary, let me add one more book to this list — Autobiography of a Face, by Lucy Grealy.
About six years ago I started to keep a record of all the books I read. It is a great sadness to me that I didn’t think to do this 46 years ago. Now it’s December, the season of reflection and book recommendations, and I’m looking over the books I’ve read this year and I want to make a list of my own. Every book I’ve mentioned in this blog, which from here forward will be known as this book report, is a book I’ve loved, but these are the ones that have really stayed with me.
BOOKS PUBLISHED THIS YEAR (ALPHABETICAL BY AUTHOR WITH NO DISCERNIBLE FAVORITISM)
This Is How You Lose Her, by Junot Diaz
What We Talk About When We Talk About Anne Frank, by Nathan Englander
The Round House, by Louise Erdrich
Dear Life, Alice Munro
The Yellow Birds, by Kevin Powers
The Casual Vacancy, by J.K. Rowling
At Last, by Edward St. Aubyn (assuming you have already read the Patrick Melrose Novels of Edward St. Aubyn, which you must)
BOOKS PUBLISHED IN OTHER YEARS THAT I READ THIS YEAR
Old Filth and The Man in the Wooden Hat, by Jane Gardam
The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt
The Patrick Melrose Novels of Edward St. Aubyn (I had to say it twice)
Lean on Pete, by Willie Vlautin
THE BOOK I’M REALLY LOOKING FORWARD TO AFTER I FINISH FAR FROM THE TREE
Thomas Jefferson – The Art of Power, by Nashville’s own Jon Meacham. It is the current number one bestseller on the New York Times list, and Jon will be the last author in this year’s incredibly successful Salon at 615 series at the downtown public library.
Please come in and tell us what you’re reading and what we should be reading. The bookstore is all about the exchange of ideas. It’s also about visiting my dog Sparky, who is now job-sharing the store dog position with Lexington the Dachshund. Ever since Lexington had her picture in the Atlantic (December issue), she gotten too famous to hang out with us all the time.
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Availability: Usually Ships in 1-5 days
Published: Scribner, 11/2012