Last week I covered my favourite books released in 2009. And I don’t know how it works for most critics, but those books—great as they may be—are hardly representative of my reading year. I won’t lie to you, dear reader: there are tons, and tons, and tons of great, essential books that I’ve never read. Tons of authors, even. So whenever I’m not reading for review, I’m frantically trying to make up for some of that lost ground and time.
You never get there, sure, but it’s important to keep the delusion alive.
So here’s a list of everything I read over the past 12 months. Call it full disclosure on my part. Hopefully it’ll give you some insight into where my tastes and expertise lie, or at least the kind of headspace I’ve been in lately. You’re more than welcome to call me on my blind spots; I recognize that they are embarrassing, and they are legion.
And unless otherwise specified, I read everything listed here for the first time.
Chris Bachelder, U.S.! (2006): I’ve had my eye on this since its premise first made me genuinely laugh out loud—it’s the story of muckraker Upton Sinclair’s continuous resurrections, assassinations, and various antics therein. Bought off Amazon, fall 2008.
Ben Karlin [ed.], Things I’ve Learned from Women Who’ve Dumped Me (2008): Way, way uneven, especially given the all-star lineup. Bought with a Chapters gift card, the same month I read it. (As you’ll see, this is a rarity for me.)
Kevin Chong, Baroque-A-Nova (2001): The debut novel of a friend of a friend. Bought from the Book Outlet remainder store below the SEE offices, late 2008. The store has since gone out of business—apparently they owed nearly $40,000 in unpaid rent.
George Orwell, Down and Out in Paris and London (1933): For the book club I belong to. Bought used off Amazon.
Nicholson Baker, U and I (1991): When John Updike died this past January, I went straight to Alhambra Books in Old Strathcona and picked up used copies of this quirky tribute and Updike’s own Pigeon Feathers. This one began life as a review copy, complete with arcanely personalized addressee stickers. If you’re reading this, Lynn Van Luven, thanks!
Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007): Another book club pick. Bought new from, I think, Greenwoods’.
Hugh Johnston, Radical Campus: Making Simon Fraser University (2005): The inside scoop on my alma mater. Stolen plaques, scheming bureaucrats, and one much-ballyhooed story of actual radical-ness. Bought via a friend from the SFU Bookstore in late 2008.
[nothing finished—see first item in May]
David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest (1996): Oh, so this is what genius looks like. One thousand pages of pure genius, strewn wildly in every direction. I read this in six beautiful weeks, and I look forward to doing so again soon. Bought off Amazon immediately following Wallace’s suicide in September 2008. (Note: The day I bought it, the book had jumped to number 51 on the bestsellers list. 51!)
Joan Didion, The White Album (1979): It took me nearly a year, off and on, to finish this. That’s not a shot at the writing—it really is excellent. My first Didion book, and not the last. Bought from Book Outlet in mid-2008.
Nicholson Baker, The Mezzanine (1988): U and I was so much fun that I sought out Baker’s debut novel with the remainder of a Chapters gift card a few weeks later. It didn’t disappoint.
Donna Tartt, The Secret History (1992): For the past little while I’ve been trying to catch up on as many campus novels as I can, as research for an ongoing project. (If you have any recommendations, please let me know in the comments below.) This is probably as serious an entry as they come. Pulpy, but totally satisfying. Bought from Old Strathcona Books sometime in 2008.
Graham Greene, The Captain and the Enemy (1988): One of Greene’s last novels, a slim treatise about fantasy and war. A Christmas present from a few years back.
Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire (1962): This is a Chinese finger-trap novel—there’s no way to come out of it looking smart. Every little mystery or riddle that you feel so clever for solving along the way turns out to have been Vladdy N.’s plan all along. A novel that begs for hours of e-research as soon as you finish. Bought from Albion Books in Vancouver in 2006, for an abandoned directed studies on postmodern lit.
Thomas Pynchon, Slow Learner: Early Stories (1984): I couldn’t get into the Libyan desert story, but the others were fairly entertaining. And the introduction is superb—that’s the only part of it I’d read until now. Bought from Canterbury Tales in Vancouver in, maybe, 2006?
Jonathan Lethem, As She Climbed Across the Table (1997): Until this point, I had no idea Lethem had such strong sci-fi roots. Whoops. This one doesn’t get talked about much, but it’s dynamite. Bought from Value Village, and read in a fever over the next three days.
Aravind Adiga, The White Tiger (2008): Book club. It won the Booker Prize last year, and reminded me that I ought to pay at least some of these winners a little more attention. Bought from Wee Book Inn on Whyte.
David Foster Wallace, Consider the Lobster (2005): It was about here that I began to realize the depths of Wallace’s virtuosity, and how deeply I’ll regret never being able to follow his work when he was still out there, creating new stuff. He sounds nearly every note on the Piano of Truth. Bought new off Amazon earlier in the month.
Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word (1975): My first Wolfe book, and a lot of fun. I keep meaning to run his ideas about visual art up against an actual practitioner, because he seems to land at least a few clean hits. Bought from the Vancouver Public Library’s annual book sale back in 2006.
Lorrie Moore, Birds of America (1998): My pick for the book club. These stories are linked by the spectre of absent parents, and some were so pummelling I had to take a break midway through. (The Wolfe book above was a much-needed two-day distraction.) Bought off Amazon—along with Consider the Lobster and a Franklin treasury for my daughter—in August.
Chester Brown, Louis Riel (2003): The drawings in this graphic novel are truly stunning, but Brown has a real show-don’t-tell problem. Borrowed from my former downstairs neighbour, summer 2009.
Philip Hoare, Leviathan; Or, The Whale (2008): A must for fans of Moby-Dick, whales, or life in general. This is the British edition, which I got for Christmas in 2008, but it’s finally going to be published here in February as The Whale. Don’t pass it up.
John Hersey, Hiroshima (1985): Book club. I challenge anyone to read this and not have the gloves-of-skin-sliding-off-hands image haunt your dreams.
Tao Lin, Shoplifting from American Apparel (again)
Chris Bachelder, Bear v. Shark: The Novel (2001): Bachelder’s first novel. Less emotionally resonant than the third act of U.S.!, but every bit as clever. Bought on special order from Greenwoods’ in summer 2009.
David Foster Wallace, Oblivion (2004): I’d read the story “Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature” twice before, in different places. Wyatt Mason is right about this book; James Wood is wrong. (That Wallace leaves the keys to his stories “on high shelves” is such a great way to put it.) Bought in hardcover from the Chapters remainder bin, also not long after his suicide. An ultra-bargain for $5.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Diamond as Big as the Ritz (1922): Every time I make an Amazon order, I tack on whichever of the beautiful Penguin 70s is currently in stock. This set of stories, released in 2005 to commemorate Penguin’s 70th anniversary, is uniformly beautiful, and I haven’t been disappointed by any of the entries yet. Bought November 2008.
Fiction: 35/53 (66%)
Non-fiction: 16/53 (30%)
Male Authors: 48/53 (91%)
Female Authors: 5/53 (9%)
Books in Translation: 2/53 (4%)
Most-read Author: Nicholson Baker; David Foster Wallace (3 each)
Favourite Book: U.S.!
Obvious, Five-star Classics: Infinite Jest; Pale Fire
NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION
Simple: to read more women writers. Get the ratio up to at least 30:70. There really is no excuse for this.
Oh, and hopefully to crack Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel. Revisit some old Russians. More Melville. After DFW and Infinite Jest, anything seems possible.