Torea Frey

Editor, writer, photographer, observer on the street.

2012: A reading digest

Well, 2012 is drawing to a close, and while I'll probably read a few more books before I flip the page on my calendar, now is a good time to take a look at what I liked, what I didn't like, and what I was ambivalent about. (I did the same last year; my 2011 summation can be found here.)

The nuts and bolts, the nitty gritty

First, a rather unscientific roundup of some of my reading stats: of the 127 books I read, 77 were authored by women, a healthy 61 percent of my literary diet (up from last year's figure, 57 percent). I read more than I did last year, though only by a bit -- 118 books in 2011, as opposed to 127 in 2012. About 20 percent of the books I read were nonfiction; most of the rest were novels, though short-story collections accounted for a little less than 10 percent of my reading.

I explored several authors in more depth: I read 7 books by Maud Hart Lovelace (finishing my rereading of the Betsy-Tacy books), 3 by George Eliot (all such a delight!), 3 by MFK Fisher, 3 by Zona Gale, and 2 each by Gertrude Atherton, Lewis Carroll, Dorothy Canfield Fisher, Inez Haynes Gillmore, Wallace Stegner, Sarah Vowell, H. G. Wells, and Richard Yates. 

The whole truth and nothing but the truth

Although on the whole I read more fiction than nonfiction, some of my favorite books this year were memoirs, books of essays, what have you. To offer a quick sample of just a few:

  • The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal: This is the single book I read this year that I've thought about the most, and given away the most copies of. De Waal's telling of his family's history, set off by the inheritance of a collection of netsuke, is subtle, poignant, and wise.
  • Wild, Cheryl Strayed: A fitting read as my mother and I drove from the Sierra Nevada to Portland, edging along the Pacific Crest Trail.
  • The World Rushed In, J. S. Holliday: A masterful re-creation of the Gold Rush days, seen through the lens of one man's journals on the trail West.
  • Half Empty, David Rakoff: Heartbreaking little essays on the value of a bit of pessimism.
  • Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo: A focused, keen exploration of contemporary India, played out in miniature through the story of a young boy, a garbage picker, who lives in a Mumbai slum.
  • Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace: The piece on Garner's Modern American Usage, one of the style authorities I consult most frequently, is sublime.
  • My Ears are Bent, Joseph Mitchell: Mitchell's character studies are particularly winning. (Mitchell is one of my favorite writers; see more on him here.)
  • On Top of the World: Five Women Explorers in Tibet, Luree Miller: Fascinating vignettes about women taking on the world when much of the world told them to focus on their homes and nothing more.
  • A Cordiall Water, MFK Fisher: This exploration of folk remedies prompted me to bite into a raw onion to try and cure a lingering cold, despite MFK Fisher's warning that the remedy would have little effect; she was, indeed, correct.

The bonds of friendship

It's not uncommon for books to focus on antagonisms between women, pettiness and jealousy and fighting, but that, to me, isn't all that interesting. This year, I was lucky enough to happen upon several books that look at how female friendships survive those problems, even thrive.

Sheila Heti's How Should A Person Be? is the story of a lot of things (the dissolution of a marriage, a "bad painting contest"), but one of the most remarked-upon aspects of the "novel from life" are the e-mails between the narrator, Sheila, and her friend Margaux. They're revealing, and intense, glimpses at the way we push each other apart and find ways to come back together.

Serendipitously, I checked out Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty just after I finished Heti's book; it provided an interesting counterpoint. Truth and Beauty tells the story of Patchett's friendship with Lucy Grealy, a poet, and largely relies on letters the two women sent each other over the years. Patchett's memoir is more traditional and has greater emotional heft; I was drawn to the more contemplative approach, but it also (oddly) made me appreciate the messy bliss of Heti's book all the more.

Several other books I read also featured well-developed, full-bodied female friendships: Dorothy Canfield Fisher's The Deepening Stream (Matey and her French friends Mimi and Ziza forge bonds amid the backdrop of the horrors of World War I); the Maud Hart Lovelace Deep Valley books (where Betsy, Tacy, Tib, et al., grow and change together, from early childhood to the time they marry and start their own families); Elizabeth van Arnim's In the Mountains (a weary woman retreats to the mountains after the first World War, only to find herself playing host to sisters Dolly and Kitty); and Rona Jaffe's The Best of Everything (office women in Manhattan take on the wilds of NYC together). 

Classics and books that have fallen by the wayside

I again tried to read a few books that have long intimidated me: this year's big accomplishment was finishing Moby-Dick, which was surprising to me in many ways, not least of which was how funny the early chapters are. Additionally, I schooled myself in some of the foundations of science fiction in a class I took through Coursera; we read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, Frankenstein, Dracula, and more.

When I finished the Deep Valley books, and then happened upon (and loved) Dorothy Canfield Fisher's The Deepening Stream, I also started looking for (primarily women's) writing from the late 1800s/early 1900s that has fallen into semi-obscurity. Through the magic of Google Books and Project Gutenberg, I raced through a number of books that, if not absolute classics, certainly deserve more attention than they receive. Rebecca West's The Fountain Overflows is better known than most others; Sarah Orne Jewett's The Country of Pointed Firs is also well respected for its quiet lyricism.

I found a book that profiled women authors at the turn of the century, and from there dipped into Ellen Glasgow (Phases of an Inferior Planet, not one of her most critically lauded works, but one of the easiest to access online), Dorothy Richardson (Pointed Roofs, which some consider "the first complete stream-of-consciousness novel"), Kay Boyle (My Next Bride, about commune living -- interesting reading juxtaposed with Lauren Groff's recent Arcadia), and Gertrude Atherton (The Californians, which had hands down the most haunting, creepiest ending of any book I read this year). I also explored the work of May Sinclair (Mary Olivier: A Life), Zona Gale (Miss Lulu Bett, Friendship Village, and Light Woman), Inez Haynes Gillmore (Maida's Little Shop and Angel Island), and Barbara Newhall Follett (The House Without Windows).

All the rest

Not many of these fit into neat categories or larger themes, but they did stand out as particularly good:

  • What We Were Doing and Where We Were Going, Damion Searls: One short story, based in an editorial office, was an excellent evocation of the contemporary office that should stand alongside Then We Came to an End and Personal Days.
  • Treasure Island!!!, Sara Levine: A madcap tale about a girl behaving badly -- my favorite kind of literary antiheroine.
  • Hope: A Tragedy, Shalom Auslander: The best piece of speculative fiction on Anne Frank holing up in a New Yorker's attic in the past ten years (or, well, ever, I suppose).
  • The Easter Parade, Richard Yates: The achingly sad story of the Grimes sisters is every bit as good as Revolutionary Road,
  • As if a Bird Flew by Me, Sara Greenslit: A fantastic weaving together of poetry and prose that thoughtfully parses family, spanning centuries in a slim tome. (I read this after The Hare with Amber Eyes, to which it is an excellent companion if you're thinking about ancestry, heritage, art, what we pass down, &c.)
  • Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk, Ben Fountain: A muscular read about what happens to boys when they return from Afghanistan or Iraq, today's dubious heroes.
  • The Orphan Master's Son, Adam Johnson: A twisted tale from the shadowy depths of North Korea.
  • A Hologram for the King, Dave Eggers: I got a Waiting for Godot feeling from this book, about a man betting his professional life on getting a contract for videoconferencing equipment in the Middle East.
  • Beautiful Ruins, Jess Walter: To echo the sentiments of many others, save yourself the trouble of watching that Liz and Dick movie with Lindsay Lohan and read this lovely work, in which Liz and Dick are incidental players.
  • The Snow Child, Eowyn Ivey: A good read for a cold December day; curl up, watch snow drift by, and fall into this tale of a childless couple homesteading in 1920s Alaska.