Author's Note:

The Long Habit of Living is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

What I read in 2016

What I read in 2016.

Friends, following is my reading list for 2016. Numbers after the entries refer to the sources of the quotation.  


Submission by Michel Houllebecq. I'm a big fan of Houllebecq.  He gets four stars from me.  "...imagines a situation in which a Muslim party upholding traditionalist and patriarchal values is able to win the 2022 presidential election in France, with the support of France's Socialist Party."(1) 

Midnight in Europe by Alan Furst.  "...Cristián Ferrar is a Spanish émigré living in Paris. And unlike a lot of Mr. Furst’s other leading men, he is an influential person in his own right. He works for a powerful international law firm, and at the start of the book, the firm is deluged with the business of Spanish clients whose problems can no longer be solved by the legal process. With the Spanish Civil War now in its 17th month (mid-December 1937), people and corporations are cut off from their money, and records of ownership no longer exist. “We regret your misfortune, Monsieur, but the oil tanker has apparently vanished.”"(2)  As readers of my blog might already know, Furst, is one of my favorites.  pre-war and during WW2 is cataclysmic interest to me.












John Le Carre  The Biography by Adam Sisman.  le Carre is one of my literary heroes and I loved this book.  “Written with exclusive access to David Cornwell himself, to his private archive and to the most important people in his life...and featuring a wealth of previously unseen photographic material, Sisman's insightful and constantly revealing biography brings in from the cold a man whose own life has been as complex and confounding and filled with treachery as any of his novels."(17)

The Death of Achilles by Boris Akunin.  It is Moscow, 1882.  Akunin's version (Czarist Russia's version) of Sherlock Holmes "returns from Japan with his manservant Masa, he enters the service of Moscow governor Prince Dolgorukoi. Later that day, the White General Mikhail Sobolev, nicknamed the Russian Achilles and an old friend of Fandorin's, is found dead in the same hotel. Officially, he died of a heart attack, but Fandorin becomes suspicious when he talks with the body guards of the general."  And so the game is afoot. This is an excellent read and mystery readers, which I am not one of, would love Akunin.











Falling Slowly by Anita Brookner.  As usual, I can't get enough of Anita Brookner, "...the origins, nature, and consequences of human isolation...played out in the lives of two bright but troubled sisters, Miriam and Beatrice. ...narrative deftly shuttles back and forth over several decades, tracing the sisters' conflicted yearnings for love and independence."(3)

Death By Water by Kenzaburo Oe.  "...the built environment imitating nature, as a steel train bridge forms a “canopy” over a canal. ...the urban is replaced by the rural, and the narrator is “walking along under a canopied row of cherry trees so heavily overgrown that hardly any light fell on the road”. Forests and floods rise up. This is a novel about a drowning in a river a long time ago, and about overwhelming waves of memory in old age. It is also explicitly about the late style of a Nobel-winning writer."(4)  Three stars.

Men and Brethren by James Gould Cozzens.  "...The Reverend Ernest Cudlipp, almost 45, urbane and intelligent, is vicar of a prominent 5th Avenue church in New York. Men and Brethren follows him through a singularly eventful summer weekend, his dealings with parishioners and friends, his professional and personal relationships. His solutions to the problems he confronts are characteristically forthright, often unorthodox, a product of the struggle between his beliefs and his experience."(5) This is very funny, at times, but  mostly sentimental, in a good way.  I'm a fan of Cozzens, and am still on my journey with him.



The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson. “...sets out to rediscover his adopted country ...he follows a straight line from Bognor Regis to Cape Wrath and shows us every pub, stone village, and human foible along the way... with vivid detail and laugh-out-loud humor. Irreverent, endearing, and always hilarious."(18) Bill Bryson cracks me up.

Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris “...separated into two parts...consists of essays about Sedaris’s life before his move to Normandy, France, ...his time working odd jobs in New York City, and a visit to New York from a childhood friend. The second section tells of Sedaris’s move to Normandy with his partner Hugh...drawing humor from his efforts to live in France without speaking the French language and his frustrated attempts to learn it."  Sedaris, Bryson, I mean really, you will hurt in the gut from laughter.

The Doris Lessing Reader.  "...from the workings of the mind and heart of the workings of the cosmos....  [Here] we are given the best possible way to encounter this extraordinary writer across the great range of her work.  ...a wide and deep representation of the work of this unique writer who continues to surprise us - and convince us - with the ever-increasing power of her imagination and her intelligence."(6)  As you may well know I love Doris Lessing.












A Friend from England by Anita Brookner.  Yes, again.  "...the narrator is part-owner of a Notting Hill bookshop and a reader of Stendhal; Rachel unusual in feeling a strong attraction towards people for whom comfort is more important than culture. In her case, the soothing solidity of the bourgeois is embodied in the mutually devoted [family] Livingstones and their unnervingly contented daughter Heather."(7)


Territorial Rights by Muriel Spark.  "Art history student Robert Leaver has fled from his lover...to Venice to study the Santa Maria Formosa. ...he meets up with his new love Lina, a Social-realist artist and Bulgarian defector [who] is searching for the grave of her father Victor, suspected of being involved in the poisoning of King Boris and who was killed by Bulgarian Royalists. [Leaver's lover] follows Robert to Venice and warns him that Lina is being followed by the Bulgarian secret service. Robert also meets his father Arnold a retired headmaster, ...on holiday with his mistress." And we're off. (1)
Love In a Dark Time: Gay Lives from Wilde to Almodóvar by Colm Toibin “...collection of essays...devoted to individual artists [who] 'helped me to come to terms with things - with my own interest in secret, erotic energy, my pure admiration for figures who, unlike myself, weren’t afraid, my abiding fascination with sadness  and, indeed, tragedy.”(1)

Proust Was a Neuroscientist by Jonah Lehrer.  “...argues that many 20th and 21st-century discoveries of neuroscience are actually re-discoveries of insights made earlier by various artists, including Stein, Whitman, Cézanne, Stravinsky, and Proust.”(1)  A fascinating and well-written book.

Robinson by Muriel Spark.  "Three passengers survive from the plane that crashed on Robinson's eponymous island: January Marlow, a youngish widow, Tom Wells, an unpleasant salesman/charlatan specializing in lucky charms, and Jimmie Waterford, a Dutchman despite his name. [There's a] boy Miguel who is the son of one of the pomegranate planters who worked on the island before Robinson purchased it, and now cared for by Robinson. At first life is idyllic."(8) This is a great read, and even though you might figure out what's what, it's still good examination of human behavior, which of course, continues to ASTOUND us.

A Shooting Star by Wallace Stegner.  "Sabrina Castro, rich, tantalizing rather than beautiful, at the end of her tether in a marriage that holds seemingly no love and little affection. In a slow spiral of disintegration she goes down through various stages of infidelity and dissipation, always battling with her own New England conscience and her agonized need to be wanted and loved. The story is set against the isolation of great wealth in the Peninsula section below San Francisco...and against Sabrina's vacuity of heritage and background is highlighted the content and satisfaction of a childhood friend, serene in her middle-class suburban home." (3)




On the Move by Oliver Sacks is “...an impassioned, tender, and joyous memoir ...with unbridled honesty and humor [showing] us that the same energy that drives his physical passions also drives his cerebral passions. He writes about his love affairs, both romantic and intellectual; his guilt over leaving his family to come to America; his bond with his schizophrenic brother; and the writers and scientists Thom Gunn, A.R. Luria, W.H. Auden, Francis Crick.”(19).  Sacks's books are the best.  I love Oliver Sacks.  

Red Harvest by Dashiell Hammett.  "...narrated by The Continental Op, a frequent character in Hammett's fiction, much of which is drawn from his own experiences as an operative of the Pinkerton Detective Agency.  The labor dispute in the novel was inspired by Butte's Anaconda Road Massacre. André Gide called the book "a remarkable achievement, the last word in atrocity, cynicism, and horror."(1)

Public Image by Muriel Spark.  "...set in Rome and concerns Annabel Christopher, an up-and-coming film actress. [who] carefully cultivates her image to keep her career on course, managing to mask her lack of talent. But she reckons without her husband Frederick's loathing of his wife's manipulations and inexplicable success for which he plans his final revenge."(1)

Montana 1948 by Larry Watson. "...a lean, gaunt narrative rich with implication about a 12-year-old boy who witnesses the anguish of his sheriff father, who is forced to arrest his own brother for rape."(3) This is a wonderful book.  Please, if you value your reading life, read this.

The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes.  "A fictional treatment of the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) and his long history of humiliation and persecution under Soviet rule."(3)



American Boy by Larry Watson. "A literary tale chronicling the painful struggle required of a boy to birth himself as a man."(3) Another excellent book.
 

The Glass Key by Dashiell Hammett .  "...features Ned Beaumont, ...tubercular, a gambler...like his creator....not a detective, but a political fixer for a construction magnate. The toughest of Hammett's heroes, he is the ten-minute egg of the genre. This quality springs partly from his lack of "luck," a Depression-era belief that the novel probes, and partly from his defense of his minimal idealism from political corruption."(9)


Let's Explore Diabetes with Owls by David Sedaris. “The best Sedaris essays... crack you up with their wacky observations about bizarre things:  taxidermied owls and Pygmies, the bliss of colonoscopy sedation, before working their way around to moving conclusions about the nature of love.”(10)

Simenon by Pierre Assouline.  “Georges Simenon (1903-1989), one of the most widely read novelists in the world. A flamboyant personality, controversial. A turbulent life. Exceptional fecundity. A talent that impressed his "master", André Gide.   ... warm and lively biography. Surprising revelations. A suspense worthy of Simenon."(20)

Bark Skins by Annie Proulx.  "...spans more than 300 years and 700 pages, is a multigenerational epic following the descendents of two men. [One] founds a logging empire; [the other] marries a Mi'kmaw woman. By giving the two dynasties the same starting point — small men among big trees — Proulx demonstrates the long-flowering fruits of character, but also the ways that heritage is destiny. "How big is this forest?" "It is the forest of the world."(10)  This book is so relevant to today's environmental crises.  The history of the forest in North America, the history of the greed of the Europeans who came here...  Truly, I loved this book.

A Hero of France by Alan Furst.  "...follows five months in the life of a Resistance cell, begins in March 1941, nine months into the German occupation. The hero...is escorting a downed R.A.F. airman from the countryside to Paris so that he can be smuggled back to England."(11)
The Double by Jose Saramago.  "...story of the awkwardly named professor Tertuliano Máximo Afonso who one day, while viewing a banal video..., discovers that one of the minor actors in it is his identical, if younger, twin. Tertuliano becomes obsessed with...meeting the person he takes to be his double and...manages to discover the actor's name, and track him down."  Anything more and I'd spoil it for you.  It is a weird, sometimes comical, modern tale. (4)

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil by John Berendt.  “...is atmospherically Deep South coastal (Savannah, Ga., Beaufort, S.C.) and Southern Gothic in tone, depicting a wide range of eccentric personalities in and around the city of Savannah: man walking an invisible dog; voice of the drag queen; a high-society man in its elite community. Virtually seeming like a novel and reading like a tale.”(1) Skip the movie, please, it's nothing like the book.  This is charming, hilarious, far reaching in its microsocial consciousness.  There, I said it. 











Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran.  “This revealing account of the postwar administration of Iraq, by a former Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post, focusses on life in the Green Zone, the American enclave in central Baghdad.” (21)

Love and Sleep by John Crowley.  I realized too late that this is a sequel to Crowley's 1987 novel The Solitudes. "...the protagonist...continues his book project begun in The Solitudes, exploring especially the relevance of systems of thought, even those magical and supposedly obsolete in writing a non-fiction book about the Renaissance and Hermeticism."(1) This was a disappointment, especially after having read Crowley's Little, Big.










The Rains Came by Louis Bromfield.  "...story revolves primarily around Ransome, a dissipated, disillusioned man; a worldly woman who had been his mistress, briefly, many years before she became Lady Esketh; a missionary's daughter, who found herself in loving Ransome and in escaping the unrealities her ambitious mother imposed upon her; and others."
You have in this book "... earthquake, flood, death, plague, and [it brings] rebirth to almost everyone who survived it... A book for those who like a dramatic and well-told story, with a certain phase of social consciousness as underlying motive, and a vivid picture of modern India."(3)  This is one of the most beautiful books I have ever read.  Early critics of this book found the language art-y.  It's like saying the Pieta is sad.  Oh, really?  But keep in mind, I had so many post-its for clips from this book, it was like an index.  The movie of this book was not so bad; you simply lose 3/4 of the narrative, that's all.


The Confusion by Neal Stephenson.  "The beginning of [this book] finds [our hero from the prior volume] Jack Shaftoe awakened from a syphilitic blackout of nearly three years. During this time he was a pirate galley slave."  You have no idea what's going to happen next.  I liked Quicksilver, the first volume of Stephenson's Baroque Cycle, of which The Confusion is the second.  But by far Quicksilver has been the most innovative, funny, brilliant, and historically deep of his work that I've read so far. (1)

Palace of Desire by Naguib Mahfouz.  Picks up five years after Palace Walk ends.  "...largely focused on two of the sons, Yasin, the eldest, who is decadent, foolish, and very kind; and his much younger brother Kamal, a serious young student."(12)

Drop City by T.C. Boyle.  "...a California hippie enclave in 1970, we observe through the eyes of its newest members: “Star,” a restless dropout from her parents’ straight life, and Mario, a hardier type who drifts into the City because he knows he wants to build things. Boyle then shifts to Boynton, Alaska (near Fairbanks), where homesteader Cecil Harder and his new wife Pamela begin their life together in [his] well-stocked cabin in the deep woods."(3)  Didn't like much about these character because they reminded me of the real thing.  Not because I'm a redneck but because I despise hipocracy.

Measuring Time by Helon Habila.  "Twin brothers Mamo and LaMamo grow up in the comfortable home of their widowed father Lamang, a prosperous cattle merchant bent on carving out for himself a prestigious political career. But he’s an unloving father, and vigorous, energetic LaMamo runs off to join the army, while frail, introspective Mamo (the protagonist), weakened by congenital sickle-cell anemia, must [remain] home. Throughout the 1970s, infrequent letters from his adventurous brother give Mamo an imaginative connection to the complexities and perils of African nationalism, as he grows to manhood...."(3)  A lovely book.



The Wandering Falcon by Jamil Ahmad. "...sketches of life in the tribal lands between Pakistan and Afghanistan."(3)












The Hungry Tide by Amitav Ghosh. "In between the sea and the plains of Bengal, on the easternmost coast of India, lies an immense archipelago of islands. Some of these islands are vast and some no larger than sandbars; some have lasted through recorded history while others have just washed into being.
These are the Sundarbans - the beautiful lands. Here there are no borders to divide fresh water from salt, river from sea, even land from water. The tides reach more than two hundred miles inland, and every day thousands of acres of mangrove forest disappear only to re-emerge hours later. For hundreds of years, only the truly dispossessed and the hopeless dreamers of the world have braved the man eaters and the crocodiles who rule there, to eke a precarious existence from the unyielding mud." (from the book)  This book is beautiful.  I found the narrative at times crystaline.



Blood, Bone and Marrow: A Biography of Harry Crews by Ted Geltner.  “...brilliantly renders the life of the late writer Harry Crews in this well-researched and vivid biography. It captures the wild spirit of an unflinching American writer from his early years in impoverished Bacon County, Ga., to his years as an esteemed but volatile faculty member in the University of Florida’s creative writing program."(16)  I love Harry Crews, and will ring the bell for him anytime.

In the Company of Soldiers by Rick Atkinson. “...the road to Baghdad began with a midnight flight out of Fort Campbell, Kentucky, in late February 2003. Atkinson...would spend nearly two months covering the division for The Washington Post.  the war in Iraq provided a unique opportunity to observe today’s U.S. Army in combat...”(22)









Run by Ann Patchett.  "...an unexpected incident connecting and affecting a seemingly disparate cast of characters, isolating them within their own microcosm."(3)



The Mountain Lion by Jean Stafford.  "8-year-old Molly and her 10-year-old brother Ralph are inseparable, in league with each other against the stodgy and stupid routines of school and daily life; against their prim mother and prissy older sisters; against the world of authority and perhaps the world itself. One summer they are sent from the genteel Los Angeles suburb that is their home to back-country Colorado, where their uncle Claude has a ranch."(13)  Let me tell you, you will laugh out loud during the early childhood sections of this wonderful work; she is a brilliant writer.  I never knew, I'm sorry, I never knew. 





The Blind Man's Garden by Nadeem Aslam.  "The book is set in the first few months following 9/11. Its action moves back and forth between the small town of Heer in Pakistan and the mountains of Afghanistan, where American soldiers have begun the fight against the Taliban and the hunt for alQaeda terrorists. ...an intricately knotted group of characters based around a school in Heer, whose devoutly Muslim founder, Rohan, still lives in its lovingly tended grounds, though the school itself has been taken over by hardline Islamists."(4)  At times Aslam's prose is so ethereal, flawless, that it becomes inspiring.


The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud and The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal are two books my people and I received from our friend Lee Ann Swanekamp.  The de Waal book, let me tell you, one of the best books I read all year. Beautifully written, heart-rending at times.  Thank you Lee Ann!  This book is an extraordinary moment of your time.  It will never be forgotten.

 “For nearly 100 years the Ephrussi family was a major force in European grain, shipping and banking....
Their wealth and urbanity rivaled that of the Rothschilds.  Proust modeled Charles Swann in part after the Parisian connoisseur Charles Ephrussi, patron of Manet, Degas and Renoir and owner and editor of the Gazette des Beaux Arts. His poetical daughter corresponded with Rilke. The monumental Palais Ephrussi, employing 17 servants, was located on the Ringstrasse, not far from the offices of Sigmund Freud.  ...tells the astonishing story of the Ephrussis' fortunes.”(2)





October 1964 David Halberstam.  “...recounts the end of the New York Yankee dynasty that began in 1949, an era that included 14 pennants and 9 world championships. After their loss in seven games to the St. Louis Cardinals in 1964, the Yankees would not return to the World Series until 1976. Halberstam's narrative [is] engaging, his anecdotes, his anecdotes amusing, his insights into the game and its players often shrewd."(11)  I had many discussions about managers and general managers and owners during my reading of this book with my friend Joe Savino.  It was an amazing eye-opener about the struggle of baseball players and the ugly nature of managers and general managers and owners.  Like that's a surprise, I know.  

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett.  "...story of pharmacologist Marina Singh, who journeys to Brazil to bring back information about seemingly miraculous drug research being conducted there by her former teacher...."(1)  This is a very good book.  I don't care what the New York Times said.

The Circle of Reason by Amitav Ghosh.  "A saga of flight and pursuit, this novel chronicles the adventures of Alu, a young master weaver who is wrongly suspected of being a terrorist. Chased from Bengal to Bombay and on through the Persian Gulf to North Africa by a bird-watching police inspector, Alu encounters along the way a cast of characters as various and as colorful as the epithets with which the author adorns them."(14)  Sometimes good writers disappoint.












The Final Opus of Leon Solomon by Jerome Badanes.  Kirkus Reviews said it all for me:  "The puerile, famous memoirs of a Holocaust survivor written in the few days before his suicide, focusing upon his sexual fantasies, fetishes, and humiliations. Skillfully enough written, but always raising the question of why written at all."







The Pigeon Tunnel by John le Carre.  “Once upon a time, le Carré was a literary enigma wrapped in the kind of mystery appropriate to his genre, the spy thriller. In the footsteps of Graham Greene, he kept himself in the shadows, rarely if ever gave interviews, and cultivated a persona that offered a teasing mix of riddle and conundrum. ...despite an admitted “childish aversion” towards the press, and a declared love for “the privacy of writing”, here he comes again, backing into the limelight, with “Stories from My Life.”(4)  My fascination with le Carre is well documented in this blog.  Such a great book of stories about life, his life, and it will make you cringe as much as exult.
Irwin Shaw A Biography by Michael Shnayerson.  “This sympathetic, objective biography... convincingly shows how Shaw's career, character and fiction, influenced more by Hemingway's lifestyle than by his writing, were marked by incongruities. ...his romantic and alcoholic appetites overwhelmed him. ...high living in Europe, surrounded by adoring friends, softened his self-judgment, and he took to writing ``fluffy essays for swells.''(16) I don't care what those higher-brow New York savants say, in spite of everything, Irwin Shaw is someone, was someone, you would pray to have as your friend.


Homeland and Other Stories by Barbara Kingsolver.  "In settings ranging from eastern Kentucky to northern California and the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, [she] uses her distinctive voice and vast knowledge of human nature to address some of her favorite themes: the importance of personal and cultural heritage; how the past effects the present and the enduring power of love. Kingsolver’s characters, many single mothers, struggle to make sense of their lives and find meaning in a difficult world." (15) She's the best.

Three Brothers by Peter Ackroyd.  "The three Hanway brothers, blessed or cursed by being born in London "at the same time on the same day of the same month" in successive years in "the middle of the last century", find themselves quickly absorbed into the torrent of change that pours through the 1950s and 60s."(4)














Big Bad Love by Larry Brown.  "...parades a club of backwoods loners--men who swill too much beer, want too many women and write too many short stories. ...by dint of his integrity and wit, his heroes are savants of the down-and-out set, harrowingly aware of their own limitations without abandoning hope of salvation. Brown's people are disempowered but canny."(16)













Under My Skin Vol.1 of My Autobiography to 1949 by Doris Lessing.  “...first volume of Doris Lessing's autobiography, covering the period of her life from birth in 1919 to leaving Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) in 1949. Although Lessing describes her fiction as not autobiographical, in this volume she makes explicit comparisons between herself and the leading characters [of some of her books].”(1)  I love Doris Lessing and I loved this book, have quoted numerous passages of it to my friends.  






Reference Notes
1.  Wikipedia
2.  Washington Post
3.  Kirkus Reviews
4.  The Guardian
5.  Rowman/Littlefield
6.  Doris Lessing dot org
7.  London Review of Books
8.  White Threshold: A Cult Fiction Blog by Matthew Francis
9.  Detnovel dot com, William Marling
10. NPR
11. New York Times
12. Africa Book Club
13. New York Review of Books
14. Amitav Ghosh dot com
15. HarperCollins
16. Publishers Weekly
17. Bloomsbury Publishing
18. Penguin/Random House
19. Oliver Sacks, MD dot com
20. Babelio dot com
21. New Yorker magazine
22. Liberationtrilogy dot com