I did not read as many books as I would have liked this year, but I still read 70. That’s a dip from last year’s total of 100, but in my defense, I did midwife a number of books of other authors through developmental editing and publishing. I also finished editing my own novel, which I’m currently shopping to agents.
I read pretty widely, as you will see from the partial list below, but I’d say that my biggest group of books is international fiction, both in English and translated. I read sixteen international books this year, and I love reading outside of the borders and encountering cultures and worlds far removed from my own. Look at the graphic at the bottom of this post to see some specific titles.
Without further ado, here are my 7 favorite books of the year.
I feel like Bernard Malamud might get overshadowed by other post-war Jewish novelists like Philip Roth and Saul Bellow, but for my money, I dig him. You probably know him because he wrote “The Natural,” made into the eponymous movie with Robert Redford. This year I explored his range with “The Fixer,” “The Assistant,” and “The Tenants,” all of which I enjoyed (and which were wildly different from each other.). Easy-to-read prose with stories wrestling with moral issues.
Michael Faber is the Danish guy who wrote the missionary-to-aliens novel, “The Book of Strange New Things” (the one that’s not “The Sparrow.”). This year I dipped into his most famous work, “Under the Skin,” which got made into the movie with Scarlett Johansson. Haven’t watched the movie, but I loved the book. It feels like literary sci-fi, in the mold of Kazuo Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go,” gently easing you into a story of an alien woman picking up hitchhikers and doing unmentionable things to them.
“Kristin Lavransdatter,” by the Norwegian writer Sigrid Undset, was a novel I’ve been meaning to read for a few years. Written in the 1920s, it’s set in the 14th century, and it’s one of the greatest love stories ever written, up there with Shakespeare and Austen. It’s a trilogy and I’m excited to read the next two books.
I’m depressed that Bo Caldwell has only written two books, because I would gladly consume anything she writes. Last year I loved “The City of Tranquil Light” and this year I had the pleasure of “The Distant Land of my Father,” a wonderful portrait of an expat family in China during World War II, which explores a daughter’s complicated relationship with her father.
As far as fave memoirs for the year, last year I loved the surfing memoir “Barbarian Days,” which I still recommend to anyone who will listen. This year my favorite was … drum roll please … “H is for Hawk,” a British memoir of dealing with a father’s death by training a wild hawk. Helen Macdonald writes beautifully and muses thoughtfully.
After reading a book, some decay under time’s pressure and others ripen. “The Great Passion” by James Runcie is the latter. It’s the story of Bach composing St. Matthew’s Passion, but it’s a rich meditation on art and grief. We read it inside my book club, and though the rest of the guys enjoyed it, I think I enjoyed it the most.
Lastly, I have to mention “Stoner” by John Williams, recommended to me at a writer’s gathering in Anaheim. No, it’s not about marijuana—Stoner is the protagonist’s name. It’s described as an academic novel, but it’s really a portrait of an unremarkable man, his scholarly career and his love for his wife. It’s quiet greatness.
I also left Goodreads, after a long affair that was not love, merely convenience. It seems Amazon has spiked Goodreads out of spite – buying it and then never allocating any resources to it – so Goodreads is stuck with design and technology from 2013.
So I decided to leave the Amazon ecosystem and try out StoryGraph, which has fun data points for your life in reading:
- 8% of my books this year were over 500 pages
- I give 5 stars more than any other ranking
- 22% of my reading is Nonfiction, while 73% is Fiction, and sorry Poetry, you’re only about 5%.
I miss the community aspect of Goodreads, but StoryGraph is better in every other way.
So this isn’t from StoryGraph, but I did make a map of some of my international reading this year. These aren’t necessarily my favorite books, fyi.
Here are the books, listed from left to right:
- Canada: “The Peculiar Life of a Lonely Postman” by Denis Theriault
- Iceland: “Independent People” by Halldor Laxness
- Nigeria: “Chronicles from the Land of the Happiest People on Earth” by Wole Soyinka
- Norway: “Kristin Lavransdattar” by Sigrid Undset
- Poland: “Solaris” by Stanisław Lem
- China: “The Three-Body Problem” by Cixin Liu
- Australia: “True History of the Kelly Gang” by Peter Carey
- Japan: “Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids” by Kenzaburo Oe
- Russia: “We” by Yevgeny Zamyatin
Sorry, South/Central America! In previous years I’d dipped pretty heavily into South/Central American fiction, because I love it so much, but apparently no books this year in Spanish.
Two of these are sci-fi — other than literary fiction, sci-fi is probably my favorite genre (see Michael Faber above). I like the sheer possibilities of it, unlike more formulaic genres like crime or romance, where the books all tend to resemble one another after you’ve read a few hundred.
My favorite book by Kenzaburo Oe remains “A Personal Matter”, but I did enjoy “Nip the Buds.”
Denis Theriault is a quick read, and I thoroughly enjoyed it, although the twist at the ending is probably more appropriate for literary readers (you’ve been warned).
I did not enjoy Wole Soyinka’s novel — I just couldn’t get into it.
I did enjoy Halldor Laxness’s “Independent People” which I read on a recommendation by Ann Patchett at Parnassus books‘ social media. It’s a sprawling epic with a strong streak of independence, but it doesn’t just champion independence, it also shows the limitations of it.
I hope all of your reading has been pleasurable this year, and you’ve found wonderful books that enlarged your world! In the comments, please name your favorite novel of the year.