As we approach the end of 2016, it seemed fitting to follow the lead of New York Times Books (@nytimesbooks on Twitter) from December 20th and share my reading from the year. Five of my favorites for this year are included below. Maybe you found something that you can enjoy?
- “Travels with Charley: In Search of America” by John Steinbeck on 7/22/16 – 4/5 stars
Travels with Charley strikes me as a semi-fictional travelogue and stream-of-consciousness tale of a style not unlike that of Jack Kerouac. The book is definitely of the Kerouac canon, though the depth of the contemplation is of a more mature nature than that of Kerouac. The two men were definitely at a different point in life as they wrote. Besides this, the racial discussion and commentary in the last roughly twenty percent of this book leaves the depth that Kerouac offers well in the rear view. I mean this more as praise for Steinbeck than as critique of Kerouac, though both meanings are intended.
Steinbeck exposes things of himself and his times in this book, which it frames a narrative of sectional “American character through sightseeing in 1960.” You get a view of people in Maine and Texas, as two examples. You sense the immutability of border crossings and self-importance. Lodgings moving from a motel feel with something close to personal connection to hotels with less interaction comes through at times.
The book offers this from a 60-something in 1960 compared to his view of America as seen with the vision of someone with an insight into the America of the 1930s (dust bowl America) or 1910 (northern California). A comparison of the worlds of travel, at least in terms of how the highway system and the character of travel, held more through the first half of the narrative, yet it does reemerge again later.
I enjoyed this tale more from an aesthetic quality of how Steinbeck saw, felt, and described the places, feelings, and quality of traveling. It was an interesting experience to feel this drive like a bachelor with his poodle. That Steinbeck traveled without his wife, and that she allowed this, in a few different ways really surprised and shocked me. Thinking beyond the immediacy of his health (which apparently was not good when these travels occurred), I personally am not at a place where I want to travel without my wife. I cannot imagine what would prompt me to consider a prolonged trip of such a character.
All this is part of the mystery, I think. I give this four stars for the enjoyment of seeing an astute, dry, if not curmudgeonly older man share one last experience of our country from a time before the Beatles made their name in America.
- “Dandelion Wine” by Ray Bradbury on 8/04/16 – 5/5 stars.
As was said of Dandelion Wine and its writer, “[Ray] Bradbury is a lovely writer, and he pulls [the reader] into this mythical summer of 12 year old Douglas. Through his eyes the ordinary becomes extraordinary.”
The language is poetic and draws a picture few others I’ve read have. The story is sentimental, romantic, boyish. The thoughts and feelings and perceptions are those of a 12-year-old sensitive boy. The themes meander through technology not replacing the need for human interaction; fear and acceptance; old teaching young; experiencing fear and accepting it; contemplating the meaning of life, death, and mortality; and most certainly summer. The central metaphor for summer is masterfully executed.
While lacking the true social scope you’d get in Mark Twain, I would place this book right there in quality. The time period (the year 1928) gives a more naive waxing and poetry than Stephen King’s Stand By Me, for example; the language and imagery of Ray Bradbury is in a different class than King’s work.
I grant five stars for being sentimental though fantastically poetic and compelling; the painting of an engaging and nostalgic word picture for my imagination merits my recommendation.
- “The Given Day” by Dennis Lehane on 8/28/16 – 3.75/5 stars.
The Given Day proved to be an intriguingly written with realism to the facts that I had for the historical personalities fictionalized within this book. Dennis Lehane did a good job of offering tension with the typical central component of police subject matter. The political intrigue worked, though I didn’t walk away with a sense that the story told “was better than it had to be.” Overall, the tension and character definition were great. The characters had depth, and there was some growth within them…however, I found myself wanting more of that.
That the story didn’t “work out well” for some central, good characters saved the overall story for me. The interplay between stories speaks well to the planning.
Overall about 3.75-stars.
- “The Old Curiosity Shop” by Charles Dickens on 12/02/16 – 4.5/5 stars.
A tale of richly drawn character and characters, The Old Curiosity Shop tells a truly heart wrenching and sad story of a time and place of abject poverty for Nell, her grandfather, and a prodigious cast of characters that share in that poverty, those that try to help yet fail, or finally others that aim to make it worse by a downright despicable sense for abusing the downtrodden.
John Irving, the writer of The Cider House Rules, once said in a television interview that he writes characters that he loves, and then does the worst thing to them that he can think of. Charles Dickens showed us here, in “The Old Curiosity Shop,” that he could have invented this notion. Dickens certainly mastered this (at least from the perspective as reader feeling for characters). Dickens made me love his characters. You’ll smile in the face of the misery.
My one primary exception to the “love Dickens’ characters” concept comes into play with the central antagonist, Quilp. If you managed to love Quilp, you frankly have a better soul than do I. I am not ready to love this character. The self-loathing truth for me is that Quilp’s outcome is one of Dickens’ central masterpieces in the notion of go on “smiling in the face of misery.”
4.5-stars out of five.
- “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr on 12/12/16 – 3.5/5 stars.
I think I was more okay than others with the pace of the book, though I appreciate that folks wanted less background and more action from earlier in the book. The period where Marie and Werner interact was too spare, in my opinion. There is a good point to be raised that a book about Nazi Germany and the war without a compelling angle for doing so is strong.
Volkheimer was perhaps the one character that I found most relatable. 3.5 stars out of five.
Matt – Tuesday, December 20, 2016