When writer Pat Conroy was in high school, his English teacher instructed him to read 200 pages daily. Conroy, now in his sixties, has tried to hit that mark ever since. That’s almost a book a day.
My first thought was, “Lucky bastard!”
One of the hardest things about my kids getting older is that they stay up later, which cuts into my reading time. When they were little, I’d crawl into bed when they did and read for an hour or so. I wasn’t reading a book a day like Conroy, but I was reading a lot. To me, reading is as essential as breathing and eating, but these days, I can usually only manage fifteen minutes of precious reading time before I succumb to sleep. I know that there will come a time in the not too distant future when I will be able to return to my book habit, but until then, I loathe wasting a single reading minute. For that reason, I have become pretty choosy about what titles I hold between my hands.
For those of you with limited reading time like mine (and for those of you who get in your 200 pages a day), I have compiled a list of the best titles I read during 2012. (I know it is a few months early, but I just couldn’t wait!) These are the stories that made me stay up past my bedtime because I had to read one more chapter. The books that made me want to run out into the street and stop the first person I saw and say, “Here, you HAVE to read this.”
A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg
This book sat on my shelf for several years after my mother gave it to me as a gift. Every so often she’d ask, “Haven’t you read Wizenberg’s memoir yet? Oh, it’s sooooooooo good.” But still, I resisted. I mean, how many food-memoirs-that-started-as-blogs can you read before they start to blur together? Obviously, I’m going to suggest you make an exception for A Homemade Life, because once I gave this title a chance, I fell in love with everything about it. Wizenberg isn’t a trained chef, she just loves food and cooking, and it shows. Her effortless prose reads like a conversation over a kitchen table, and she includes easy-to-follow recipes at the end of each chapter. (The several I tested were excellent.) She is working on her next book, tentatively titled Delancey. (Check out her popular blog Orangette from which her first book grew.)
Blue Nights by Joan Didion
Joan Didion wrote beautifully about the death of her husband in the book The Year of Magical Thinking, which received a National Book Award in nonfiction. When I heard that she’d written the book Blue Nights about her daughter who died less than two years after her husband, I wondered how she could match her previous excellence. After a few pages of Blue Night, I learned never to doubt Didion. Just when I’d think she’d lost me–wandered too far into her exclusive world of Hollywood name-dropping and New York elitism–she’d reel me back in. She has the remarkable ability to describe with razor-sharp accuracy our deepest worries and anxieties, and then renew our faith in the crushing joy that love brings.
Heft by Liz Moore
I saw this title on a few 2012 must-read lists, and then it kind of faded away. After picking up a copy at the library, I wondered why. Equal part heartbreak and hope, I fell hard for Heft, and declare it the best adult novel I read this year. I was intrigued by the interesting premise, and drawn to Moore’s beautiful characters. Heft was a book I didn’t want to end, and I eagerly await future titles by Moore.
Afterwards by Rosamund Lupton
It has been a long time since I dropped everything because I had to finish a book, but I confess to stealing an afternoon to finish the last forty pages of this well-executed psychological thriller/mystery. In theory, the setup for Afterwards shouldn’t have worked–the story is narrated by a character having an out-of-body experience after being severely burned in a fire–but the writing is sharp and the conclusion unpredictable. I look forward to reading Lupton’s first book, Sisters.
In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
In Defense of Food is Michael Pollan’s follow up to his best-selling title The Omnivore’s Dilemma. He sums up his years of research in the first sentence: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” In the highly readable chapters that follow, Pollan explains how we have gotten so far away from that simple healthy eating formula. He also offers a few guidelines about how to get back on track. I’ve read a number of books on the subject of health and diet over the years, but none have cut to the chase so effectively or made more sense than In Defense of Food.
The above-mentioned titles are great reads, but hands down the most outstanding books I read this year were written for 8 to 14 year olds or middle readers.
Getting Near Baby–Audrey Couloumbis
Kindred Souls–Patricia MacLachlan
Because of Mr. Terupt by Bob Buyea
Wonder by R.J. Palacio
Before you skip over these titles, hear me out. In my entire reading lifetime, I have cried only two or three times over a book, but this year, I was moved to tears by each of these stories. I can only hope someday to weave words as magically and lyrically as these four authors. Frankly, I was wildly envious of their skills. I thought about their characters long after returning books to the shelf, and held their stories and wisdom close to my heart.
To round out my list, I culled a few favorite titles from some other passionate readers I know:
My mom highly recommends Richard Ford’s newest book Canada. So much so that while she was reading Ford’s lengthy tome, she send me daily emails telling me how much she loved it. Although the reviews of Canada are mixed, everyone agrees that the opening sentences are brilliant. “First, I’ll tell about the robbery our parents committed. Then about the murders, which happened later.” Kind of makes you want to read more, doesn’t it?
This fall, a discerning reader I know told me about the beautiful book she was reading by Swedish writer Henning Mankell. Interestingly, it was the second recommendation I’d received for Mankell’s Italian Shoes. This summer, a fellow used-bookstore patron plucked a copy from the shelf and declared it his favorite book of all time. Mankell is known for his global best-selling Kurt Wallander mystery series, but occasionally, he dips his pen into literary fiction. Of course, I had to read Italian Shoes and agreed that Mankell is a powerful writer. His scenes of Sweden in winter had me shivering in ninety degree heat.
And finally, a recommendation from my friend Mary. She is the reader who delivered to my hands one of my most beloved books of 2011, To Be Sung Under Water by Tom McNeal. (This year I read one of his earlier works Goodnight, Nebraska. It was excellent and I encourage everyone to pick up McNeal’s work and fall in love with him as I have.) Recently, Mary showed up at my doorstep and praised the works of Robert Olmstead. She said his books Coal Black Horse and Far Bright Star were pitch-perfect from the first sentence to the last. A pretty glowing review. I immediately added both titles to my to-read list.
Even if you can’t quite manage 200 pages of reading a day, I encourage you to pick up some of these titles for those moments you can squeeze in a few precious paragraphs. You won’t regret it. And if you have a book recommendation of your own, please share it in the comment section below.
(For all you local readers, don’t forget to check for these titles at East Side Books, my favorite used book store. If a book you want isn’t on their shelves, they are happy to special order your request.)