Friday, January 3, 2014

A Bookworm's Year In Review

Last month I posted on Facebook how insulted I felt when Goodreads sent me a jubilant email informing me that I'd read six books in 2013.

Six books!!


 Goodreads is a website that's sort of like a combination Facebook/Netflix for readers. I started using it this past year to help me expand my reading list, as well as keep track of all the children's books I want to own someday. I'm supposed to "update my reading status" with the books I'm currently reading, but I preferred to skip the constant updating and read more books instead.

Last January I started a document on my laptop that's a long list of every book I read in 2013. There are over 50 titles, which doesn't count all the children's books I squeeze in on the side; not to mention the fact that C.S. Lewis's Space Trilogy is really three separate books. So really, when Goodreads claims that I read six whole books last year, I can smile smugly and think, "More like ten times that!" Because, as we all know, the ability to feel smug is a very important part of having a reading list.

Vanity aside, however, the list helped me be far more intentional about what I read last year. I'm fond of the familiar, which means that before I started this list I was more likely to pull a tried-and-true book off my own bookshelf than to read a new one. Keeping track made it easier for me to mix new books in with the old (especially since I made a note, with each title I added to the list, of whether the book was new to me, or whether I'd read it before).

I also joined Since I now live in a town with a very small library, Paperback Swap has been a fantastic way for me to find new books (to read at my leisure) while also passing on books that I knew I didn't really need to own any longer. (And believe me, arriving at the point where I could admit I didn't need to own a book any longer shows significant growth in my book-hoarder soul!)

People use the new year to take stock of their past year in a number of ways– places travelled, goals accomplished, big events. But I would rather talk about books. I have read too many to discuss in a single post, so I'm going to divide and conquer- this first list is the fiction I read with my blurbs about select books.  I'll write another post with the list children's books and nonfiction. So without further preface, here is part one of my recap of 2013 as a bookworm.

Meredith's 2013 in Books


Jane Austen- Northanger Abbey, Sense and Sensibility
I am one of those Austen fans who actually reads all her books regularly (as opposed to the fans who just watch the movies) so the fact that I only read two this year is a Big Fat Deal. I have a dear friend who loves books and has her master's and h.a.t.e.s. Austen, so I hope she will be very proud of me that I tried Toni Morrison instead of reading Pride and Prejudice for the thirty-eighth (or somewhere thereabouts) time.
F. Scott Fitzgerald- The Great Gatsby
I majored in English, but I managed to get out of reading most American literature. My favorite authors are all British; I've been reading British books my whole life, and I think if my bookworm soul was to be personified it would have a Cockney accent. However, as a writer I understand the value of reading authors outside one's comfort zone, so I made myself read The Great Gatsby. It was interesting, but it didn't change my mind about loving British books the best.
Rumer Godden- In This House of Brede
I picked this up off the shelf at the library on base here in Sumter– rather astonished to find anything by Rumer Godden, who is a kind of obscure British author. The novel is about an English convent in the 1950s– an order of nuns who are "cloistered", which means they don't ever leave the convent. Godden's portrayal of the cloistered life is the exact opposite of the escape which Americans tend to imagine is the primary purpose of the monastic life. The nuns in the book have vivid personalities, strengths, vulnerabilities, and sins, and their life in the convent forces them into constant community– with God but also with each other. I left the novel feeling like the typical American life is downright secluded compared to the hard work of living up close and personal with everyone in a cloistered community.
Elizabeth Goudge- Gentian Hill, The Dean's Watch, A City of Bells, Island Magic
Elizabeth Goudge was another obscure (in America anyway) British author, and I've been collecting her books for years now. She is the first author I discovered who could make very long descriptions of scenery poetic, unclich├ęd, and thoroughly absorbing. Most of her books are historical fiction; she has a particular affection for setting her stories on the Channel Islands (which is the location of Island Magic) and for subtly weaving images of the Christian faith into her plots. 
Kenneth Grahame- The Wind in the Willows
If you think that Wind in the Willows is only for children then you are very wrong, and you should buy a copy immediately and read it once a year for the next five years. I don't know much about Kenneth Grahame (other than that he was, of course, British) but I suspect he was really a poet who decided to write a novel. Wind in the Willows is another book where reading the descriptive paragraphs is pure pleasure– a sort of ice cream shop for sentence lovers, except you will never get brain freeze from savoring Grahame's treats over and over again.

Toni Morrison- Tar Baby
My other American Lit. book for the year. I think there is just something I don't understand about American literature... like why it has to be so weird, and so full of descriptions that are obviously symbolic of something because otherwise there's no point to them. Someone needs to write a book called American Lit. explained to Brit. Lit. lovers.
Richard Pratt- As One Devil to Another
I was very excited to read this book because I love C.S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters, and I had read a review of this novel as being the most brilliant sequel (out of many attempts) to be written. Walter Hooper, the world's expert on C.S. Lewis, says in the foreward, "As One Devil To Another is a stunning achievement, the finest example of the genre of diabolical correspondence to appear since this genre was popularized by C. S. Lewis. While the tone is sharper than anything from Lewis' pen, it is surely the tone he would have used had he lived to see the abyss of moral relativism we endure today." Among the demon Slashreap's letters to his nephew Scardagger (Slashreap is the older brother of Screwtape) is a scathing, brilliant, and entertaining criticism of the modern study of English Literature in western universities. Unfortunately I was sitting on a plane while reading that part, so I couldn't jump up and down shouting, "Yes! Yes! Thank you!"
Barbara Pym- An Unsuitable Attachment, Some Tame Gazelle, Jane and Prudence, A Few Green 
Leaves, Excellent Women
Some people call Barbara Pym the Jane Austen of the 1950s. I wouldn't go that far, but if you like Austen, you might like Pym. Her books are delightfully dull– and by dull I mean nothing happens in them that might not happen in real life, and yet she has a wry sense of humor and a matter-of-fact way of observing ordinary human absurdity. I recommend reading her while drinking tea and eating scones. 
Betty Smith- A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Probably my favorite new discovery of this year. I debated about whether to put this book in the fiction list or under memoir, since it is simply a fictionalized account of Betty Smith's own childhood in Brooklyn at the beginning of the twentieth century, but since it's marketed as fiction I kept it here. Once I started reading it, I just kept reading and reading, annoyed by things like eating and sleeping which got in the way of reading. I have all the typical book reviewer clich├ęs running through my head, such as "a fascinating glimpse into the world of Smith's childhood..." But it wasn't a glimpse. It was like Betty Smith set a chair down in the middle of the stage and voila, I was in the story too! Little details of their everyday lives are still in my memory, like how Francie's mother would brew a cup of coffee for each person and they could do whatever they liked with it, and Francie, who didn't like coffee, dumped hers down the drain every day because it made her feel rich to waste food just like the rich people did.

The Rest of the Fiction

Nick Hornby- About a Boy
Irene Hunt- Up A Road Slowly
Kazuo Ishiguro- The Remains of the Day
Barbara Kingsolver- The Poisonwood Bible
C. S. Lewis- Space Trilogy, The Screwtape Letters
Penelope Lively- Family Album
Yoko Ogawa- The Housekeeper and the Professor
R.J. Palacio- Wonder
Chaim Potok- The Chosen
Dorothy Sayers- Murder Must Advertise
Robin Sloan- Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore 
Evelyn Waugh- Brideshead Revisited

To be continued...


  1. I love this! Thanks for sharing!! I used to read "A Tree Grows..." every year, I loved it so much. I was very disappointed by the sequel, though--did you read it? What did you think about "Brideshead Revisited"? It's been on my shelf for a few years after asking for it for Christmas and never getting around to reading it. And I can't believe you made it through high school and college without reading "The Great Gatsby" or Toni Morrison!! I would suggest "The Bluest Eye" or "Beloved" by TM to get a better taste of what she's about as a writer. I LOVE her! I used to do this very thing when I was in my 20s. I would keep a list of what I'd read and then every year I'd made a list of what I wanted to read that year. I had a professor I did some research for, and before I graduated I asked her for a list of books every BA in English should read, so I tried for a few years to get that list done, but I never finished. Some of the books I simply wasn't interested in, and some I couldn't get my hands on! But I am thinking I'll do like we talked about and try to read the books on my shelf this year...One of the books I have never finished is Flannery O'Connor's collected works, including "Wise Blood", which I've never read. I can't wait for the next installment of this topic! :)

  2. I didn't read the sequel to "Tree Grows"– thanks for the warning!

    I had read Brideshead a couple of times before and liked it, so to me it felt more like a "fun" read rather than literature I was making myself read. I read in an essay that the key to Evelyn Waugh is to remember that in most of his novels, the invisible character is the Church. The only other book of his I've read is "A Handful of Dust" though I want to read "Vile Bodies." Brideshead is easy for me to get sucked into, and fascinating to see how redemption comes so sneakily.

    I know it's ridiculous that I'd never read Gatsby or any TM. I just skipped taking advanced American Lit classes (and I tested out of basic American Lit.) What can I say? I just love Brit lit SO much! Remember Dr. Susan Taylor at UCCS? I took Romantic and Victorian Lit from her... my classmates were mostly lame but she was so sweet, so I enjoyed the class. I even enjoyed reading Great Expectations with her though I don't like Dickens...

    I read some of O'Connor's short stories last year and I got Wise Blood from the library but ended up not reading it. Her stories are so dark that I have a hard time reading them– maybe we should read Wise Blood at the same time so that I can process the reading to someone else who gets it!