Wednesday, December 31, 2014

My Reading Rainbow

On the eve of the new year, here's my round-up of reading past, present, and future. Obviously future. I mean, have you seen my To-Be-Read pile?!?

Favourite Books Read in 2014

• Leonard S. Marcus, ed., Dear Genius: The Letters of Ursula Nordstrom: I wish I had known Ursula Nordstrom. Her letters are so witty, and this collection lets us inside the mind of the twentieth century's top book editor for children. A pivotal book for my academic work this year, and a captivating book for my professional interests. I can't believe I waited so long to read this book!

• Markus Zusak, The Book Thief: I wanted to read this book before the movie came out — or at least before I saw the movie. I've read other books by Zusak, but this one is definitely my favourite so far. I raced through it, fearful for the ending; I see myself re-reading this novel this year, so I can enjoy the word play, the narrative, the smartness of its construction. A Holocaust story, but also so much more. Published for children but written for anyone with a soul.

• Teresa Toten, The Unlikely Hero of Room 13B: I will be using this novel in my seminar that starts next week. It has not received the praise it deserves, in my opinion: it's a sensitive yet funny book — and much, much better than OCD, The Dude, and Me. It's a story of mental illness, love, and growing up, written with tremendous insight and compassion. I loved this book!

• Andrew Piper, Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times: Such a pleasure to read a book by a scholar roughly my age who "gets" the pleasure of the book. In the future, I might require this text for my print culture course; it's rich with observations, personal stories, and bright imagery, and I admire the fresh scholarship. A small but outstanding book.

• Gabrielle Zevin, The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry: If you love books — and you know I do — you cannot miss this story of a curmudgeonly bookseller and his relationship with books. This year books and reading have had the spotlight; as I've argued elsewhere, reading snobbery has been a big feature of 2014, with personal, aesthetic, sociological, economic, and moral significance being attached to the act of reading. Zevin's book is a fully human response to the culture of reading. I loved this book.

• Miriam Toews, All My Puny Sorrows: A tear-jerker, but never sentimental; as in most Toews novels, comedy is snuggled up tight with despair. This novel tells the story of a suicide and its aftermath, but it is also about resilience, family, and choice. There's a reason this book has showed up on so many critics' Best of 2014 lists. I'm glad I read it, though I don't know whether I'd have the strength to read it again.

• James Daschuk, Clearing the Plains: Disease, Politics of Starvation, and the Loss of Aboriginal Life: Probably not a book that would show up on most people's "favourite" lists, but I found this book deeply disturbing and profound in its accomplishments. Since my supervisor requested a new angle on my dissertation research, I've been making a point of trying to understand the history of the aboriginal peoples in western Canada. This book took me a giant step forward. But be warned: it implicates contemporary Canadian governments in an ongoing effort to destroy "the Indian". Powerful, chilling, thought-provoking.

• Charlotte Gill, Eating Dirt: Deep Forests, Big Timber, and Life with the Tree-Planting Tribe: Spending several weeks on the BC coast made this book much richer for me, but I'd been meaning to read it for years. I like memoir, and this one is well written; I also like sociology, and this book delivers that, too, plus some environmental observations. A thoroughly enjoyable read.

• Janice A Radway, A Feeling for Books: The Book-of-the-Month Club, Literary Taste, and Middle-Class Desire: I've been meaning to finish this book for years and am so glad I finally did. This book led directly to a conference paper and will likely influence my thinking about reading, books, and class for the next few years. The book is part ethnographic study of the Book of the Month Club and part critique of the social construction of professional-managerial–class readers. For anyone interested in print culture, this is a must read.

Books I'm Glad I Read

• Jacqueline Woodson, Brown Girl Dreaming: Memoir of the author as a child, cast in verse. I've read a couple of Woodson's YA novels in the past and since reading Brown Girl Dreaming, I've read some of her books for younger readers as well. This year, American publishing has realized it has a diversity problem: that is, there's very little diversity in who writes, edits, publishes, markets, and sells books. I hope readers who encounter Brown Girl Dreaming push for more books like this: it's a story of  resilience, of beauty in the ordinary, of life becoming.

• Michael Kutz, If, By Miracle: A Holocaust memoir written by a scrappy boy who survived. I have a life-long fascination with Holocaust writings, and I was very glad to read this book, which I probably would never have encountered had I not been reviewing it. It's intended for a teen audience but makes no compromises. Adult readers will learn something about how great adversity can produce great people.

• Neil Gaiman, The Sleeper and the Spindle: Not yet published in North America, this book arrived from the UK earlier this week, and I'm glad to have read it (although it's too short to count on my annual list). This smart, strong retelling of Sleeping Beauty has received a lot of publicity because of the kiss that awakens the sleeper, but that's not the most significant element of the story. The illustrations are glorious, and the writing is playful, clever, and powerful. Loved it!

Honourable Mention: Favourite New Author Discovered in 2014

Lemony Snicket. Well, this is a little unfair, because I first read a Lemony Snicket book about ten years ago, but it didn't take at that time. This year I received a new Lemony Snicket book to review (When Did You See Her Last?) and enjoyed it, so I read back through the Snicket catalogue (still haven't returned to the Unfortunate Events series, though). Snicket/Handler has been in some trouble for thoughtless remarks lately, but I think he's a good guy. I'm still a fan.

Books I Wanted to Like More Than I Actually Did

• Julie Schumacher, Dear Committee Members

• Jo Walton, My Real Children

• Louise Fitzhugh, Harriet the Spy

• Allie Brosh, Hyperbole and a Half

• Laura Moriarty, The Chaperone

All of these books are very good in their own way, but in my mind I'd built them into something greater before I'd read them. Dear Committee Members is an excellent takedown of contemporary academia — so identifiable! I'd hoped My Real Children would affect me the way Among Others had; still, I puzzled for days about the core of My Real Children. Maybe I can go back to it again when I've changed. Harriet the Spy bothered me as a socialist; perhaps it's a book I'll want to write about in a few years. I liked the Hyperbole and a Half blog, but found it didn't translate to book form very well. And The Chaperone was thoughtful and surprising, but my expectations were misplaced; that said, the novel is really worth reading, Louise Brooks or no.

Books Acquired in 2014 That I'm Most Looking Forward to Reading

• Ted Bishop, The Social Life of Ink

• Daniel J. Levitin, The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload

• Peter Mendelsund, What We See When We Read

• Al Silverman, The Time of Their Lives: The Golden Age of Great American Book Publishers, Their Editors and Authors

• Pamela Smith Hill, ed., Pioneer Girl: The Annotated Autobiography [of Laura Ingalls Wilder]

So that's it for 2014. Here's to great reading in the year to come.

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