Thursday, December 31, 2009

New Year's Reading

I was asked what I would be reading over the New Year holiday and the question gave me pause. Should I begin a new book on New Year's Day to inaugurate a new year of reading, or should I continue a book I am currently enjoying, linking the old year with the new? Midwinter calls for stories, I find, especially at night, and the novel I have begun, Ken Follett's World Without End is just the thing. This is a sequel to Pillars of the Earth, about the building of a Gothic cathedral in England in the 11th century, and centers on the same fictional town, Kingsbridge, and the community surrounding the town, the cathedral, and the monastery. The structure of both novels is an assemblage of intertwined stories about the different people who live, work, love, and fight as time passes. World Without End takes place two hundred years later, allowing Follett to link descendants of the original story to events happening in the 13th century. It is very satisfying and I think I will read this tonight and perhaps start some new book tomorrow. Happy New Year everyone!

Wednesday, December 30, 2009


The BBOTY that we sent to D&B last year (2008):

The Zookeeper's Wife: A War Story, Diane Ackerman

BBOTY from D&B to us (2008)

The Given Day, Dennis Lehane
inspired by reading, Savage Peace: Hope and Fear in America, 1919, Ann Hagedorn
(included in the BBOTY package)

BBOTY sent to D&B 2009:

Proust Was a Neuroscientist, Jonah Lehrer
also included in the package, a strong contender: Thames, the Biography, Peter Ackroyd

BBOTY from D&B to us 2009:

Stone's Fall, Ian Pears

Also included in the package:

BBOTY (non-fiction) (note:unofficial category) The River of Doubt: Theodore Roosevelt's Darkest Journey, Candice Millard


BBOTY (Special Award) "The writing was just too good to leave out." The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie

Note: Part-Time Indian was on my list of top 3 and for some reason I did not include it in the BBOTY package as a third award. If I had, it would have been a first duplicate exchange!

Note: Last year's book from D&B was probably the best fiction I read in 2009 but was of course disqualified for my own selection for the year. It is a novel about the police strike in Boston in 1919 and succeeds as a compelling story, is elegantly crafted, and ranks with the best historical fiction. It is a story about America and I am surprised more people aren't talking about this book. I hope history teachers use this book in their teaching. Also note that my selection this year was non-fiction (essays) and a history of the Thames was a close contender.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Best Book of the Year


Our friends David and Bonnie and we have enjoyed a Christmas tradition of nearly twenty years now, one that has origins in the college friendship that David and I shared nearly forty years ago when we enjoyed discussing, comparing, and exchanging books.

D & B initiated the tradition by sending us, one Christmas, the “Best Book of the Year” for that year and inviting us to respond in similar fashion. We did and have been doing so ever since, right in time for the Christmas and New Year festivities.

Like the British constitution, the rules for BBOTY have not ever been recorded or even completely articulated. Over the years, each couple has struggled with new challenges to the concept. Over time, we have agreed that it is easier to understand what the BBOTY is not more easily than what it is. It is not, for example, the book one thinks the recipient will enjoy most. It is not necessarily the best-written book, or best plotted, or one with the best character development although all of these can help determine a book’s worthiness for consideration. It is certainly not the best reviewed or most popular book read. It is not restricted to fiction or non-fiction. It does not have to be recent, or old, or published in the given year. It simply has to be, upon consideration, the best book read by someone on the donating side. (A couple will of course have disagreements on BBOTY but each couple has worked out a way of agreeing on which book is chosen. It seems best to leave unexplored exactly how these decisions are reached.)

David has a PhD in biology and has worked in computer technology for international publishing. He is a scientist who reads broadly and is as likely to enjoy a work of fiction, biography, or history, as he is to enjoy books of a scientific nature. Bonnie is among many things a passionate fan of Jane Austen, movies, and gardening. I tend to read more fiction than non-fiction but in the course of a year will have read histories, biographies, essays, poetry, and even an occasional science book. I enjoy the young adult genre (while insisting that the marketing category is not exactly respectful to the books that it describes.) Patricia also reads and enjoys a range of genres and has an uncanny ability to identify astounding writing and surprising books.

One of the satisfactions of this exchange has been the expansion of my own reading tastes. In some years, the BBOTY is a book that I would not have chosen to read myself, sometimes a book I did not even know. My appreciation for books on anthropology, archaeology, genetics, and other science fields has been strengthened by some of D&B’s selections for us over the years. My own selection oft BBOTY has often surprised even me, a book that has caught me unaware, sneaking up on me as I read, or even months after I have read it, claiming its position as a contender demanding consideration. Sometimes the BBOTY that we receive has been for me, exactly the kind of book I enjoy but one that for whatever reason I had never picked up. Sometimes it has been a surprise or a puzzle. It says something about our friendship that BBOTY has never been a chore, a disappointment, or unremarkable. Every selection, every year has given pleasure and has provided content for conversation and reflection.

Over the years of raising families, working at careers, moving around and living overseas, we have spent some intervals, some too long, not seeing each other. At other times, we have visited with each other, enjoyed our families together, and have even travelled together, most enjoyably! (Traveling together successfully is a testament to the friendship and compatibility we share.) When we have been separated, BBOTY has provided a tangible bond and when we are together, we have discussed and shared books of all kinds.

When we are together, or talking on the phone, we find ourselves reluctant to say anything about a book that appears to be a candidate for BBOTY, keeping the process private until the year-end exchange. We have each been tempted to talk about a wonderful book that needs to be discussed, only to pull back because it might well be that year’s BBOTY. There has even been consideration of changing this tradition so that we are free to talk about any book we like when we get together. I don’t know how we will resolve this.

In recent years, after so many years of our own sharing with Gena the BBOTY selections, Gena has joined in the tradition herself and has added another dimension to the exchange.

Come October, my mind starts to anticipate the holiday exchange. When others are starting to purchase gifts or prepare decorations, I start to recall my year’s reading. If I haven’t been good about recording my reading, I may have forgotten what books I have read since last December. I can check my shelves, and bookwagon, but other books are out on loan or have been returned to the library or another lender. Then I start the internal conversation about what have been the best books read, and of these, which ones are serious contenders for the honor. This provides much enjoyment as I struggle with my own understanding of “best” and my own complicated appreciation for reading. By Thanksgiving, I have consulted with PYZ and depending on whether we have read and enjoyed a book together, or have competing ideas about “best”, we usually can refine the list to three or four books. By mid-December the books should be purchased and mailed.

This process is not always neat. The packages sent and received often have two or three volumes enclosed, some with interesting awards attached: “Most notable book of the Year”, “Best Fiction of the Year”, “Best Young Adult Novel of the Year.” Only one book, however, can be selected as BBOTY. As the old year makes way for the new, The Best Book of the Year provides a precious and tantalizing elixir distilled from an entire year of reading, just in time to toast a New Year of books!


On Monday, November 30, 2009, this is what the wagon carried:

No Less than Victory Jeff Shaara

A Long Toime Ago and Essentially True, Brigid Pasulka

11 Days in December:Christmas at the Bulge, Stanley Weintraub

Art and Physics, Leonard Schlain

Brooklyn:A novel, Colm Toibin

A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson

Selected Short Stories of Lu Xun, compiled by D.C. Lau

Love That Dog, Sharon Creech

Home to Roost: A Backyard Farmer Chases Chickens Through the Ages

Fool on the Hill, Matt Ruff

Germany 1945:From War to Peace, Richard Bessel

The Girl of His Dreams, Donna Leon

Mark of the Lion, Suzanne Arruda

Imperium: A Novel of Ancient Rome, Robert Harris

Lincoln at Gettysburg: The Words That Remade America, Garry Wills

Jin Ping Mei, Lanling Xiaoxiao Sheng

The View From the Seventh Layer, Kevin Brockmeier

I Am David, Anne Holm

The Hudson, Carl Carmer

Letters to Father: Suor Maria Celeste to Galileo 1623-1633

The Places in Between, Rory Stewart

This Thing of Darkness, Harry Thompson

A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens

The Dud Avocado, Elaine Dundy

The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller, Carlo Ginzburg

Pilgrim of the Clouds, Poems and Essays from Ming China, Yuan Hung-tao

Wang in Love and Bondage, Wang Xiaobo

Leave Me Alone, I’m Reading: Finding and Losing Myself in Books, Maureen Corrigan

The Dog of the South, Charles Portis

Until Proven Guilty, J.A. Jance

The Spa Decameron, Fay Weldon

Clean Like a Man: Housekeeping for Men, Tom McNulty

Extra Credit, Andrew Clements

The Stone Boudoir: Travels through the Hidden Villages of Sicily

The Watcher in the Pine, Rebecca Pawel,

The Mother Tongue: English and How it Got That Way, Bill Bryson

Mendel’s Daughter: A Memoir, Martin Lemelman

March of Death: An American Soldier’s 1,2316 Days as a P.O.W. of the Japanese, edited by Tarlton E. Woods

The Devil in the White City, Erik Larson

Du Fu: A Life in Poetry, translated by David Young

The Little Jester, Helena Olofsson

The Flying Bed, Nancy Willard, paintings by John Thompson

The Fire Next Time, James Baldwin

Now and Zen, Linda Gerber

Wine and War: The French, the Nazis, & the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure

Gentlemen of the Road, Michael Chabon

The New York Trilogy, Paul Auster

The Planets, Dava Sobel

La Bella Figura: A Field Guide to the Italian Mind, Beppe Severgnini

City of Thieves, David Benioff

Ai Yori Aoshi, Kou Fumizuku

Severance Package, Duane Swierczynski

Stolen Figs, Mark Rotella

I took the opportunity that this inventory afforded to shelve and box most of the contents. Not to worry, there are still a few left. I think of it as trimming the rosebush down for future growth in the upcoming seasons.


Next to our bed, on my side, the right, sits a small bright red Radio Flyer wagon, about two feet in length and about nine inches wide. This wagon has been my bedside companion for many years and has, in fact, accompanied me on several moves. It has been a daily, and nightly, source of comfort, pleasure, and satisfaction. For this wagon is piled high, to overflowing, with stacks of books.

The wagon was a gift from PYZ many Christmases ago, expressly identified as a “wagon for your books.” As intended, it would keep my bedside piles of books in one place, easily transportable, easy to move for cleaning and dusting, and off the floor and night tables. As it turns out, there continue to be books piled in other places but the bookwagon has become a very personal space, one that has accumulated books that are important to me, ones which I choose to be next to every night It has also turned out that the wheeled horizontal “shelf” does allow cleaning and straightening to take place more easily.

What books are eligible for the bookwagon? I have been thinking about this and I cannot say. It may be that these are books that command or demand my attention, now or later, and that through some mysterious process of selection, have made their way to this honored place. There are books I intend to read soon. There are books I want to read but have not for months and might never get to. Certainly the wagon contains books that are very much the kind of books I can envision myself reading late into the night but not all of them fit this description. There are also books I have read, and enjoyed. Why do they keep their place in this pile? I am unlikely to re-read them soon. Perhaps they provide satisfaction, reminding me of how much I enjoyed them, and suggesting stories, characters and information that I enjoy spinning in my head. Not every book makes it to the wagon, or stays in the wagon. Some wonderful books are on shelves, in the living room, in my backpack, or in suitcases to accompany me on trips.

My bookwagon has books of all types. There is fiction, contemporary and classic. Historical fiction, contemporary thrillers, graphic novels are all represented. Nonfiction lives in the wagon as well and includes histories, essays, and poetry. The wagon has hardcovers and paperbacks, brand new books and used books, some many decades old. There is no recognizable system, no defined discipline to this collection.

The books change, over time. Some are shelved, some are shared or given away. Some are eventually boxed up. The wagon is like a pond – it seems the same from day-to-day but the water is never exactly the same.

All of this writing, and reading, come together in my wagon and mean something. Perhaps this wagon of books provides me with a kind of personal literary map to help me locate, measure, and navigate my reading journey. Perhaps it is an album of books considered, books read, and even books forgotten. Perhaps it is daily reminder that the tangibility of books – ink on paper, bound, with covers to suggest what awaits the reader – provides a sensory pleasure that is important to me. I can say that I cannot always remember what is in the wagon but that once I see a book I can almost always clearly recall its purchase or acquisition. I have recorded the provenance in my head.

For these and many other reasons, I have chosen this wagon to provide the title for a blog that will share my reading travels with you, the reader. My selection of books, authors, and ideas will be at least as eclectic as the volumes in my bookwagon, certainly as disorganized, perhaps as interesting. I hope my random observations will provide an opportunity to share my interests with others, and engage you in conversation.

I am, in a way, taking my bookwagon on the road.