Saturday, January 3, 2015

the wild reading yonder was kind of tame actually

This time of year tends to have a lot of expectations heaped upon it. We're to celebrate, enjoy the magic, love the togetherness, and eat the food - and that's just the secular bits. Once we're through with that, we're to take stock, set goals, reflect on the year that was, and ruminate on the future. Currently all I want to ruminate on is the leftover cheese and cookies and chocolate and whether or not it will make me desperately ill if I attempt further eating. My poor overfed brain is barely up to the task of celebrating, much less ruminating on the future. All it thinks is: cheese cheese cheese sleep cheese chocolate? cheese...

But let us attempt this anyway! First, the taking stock:

This has been an interesting reading year for me. It's hard not to feel that I have failed a little bit; I haven't managed to read as much as I wanted to, numbers-wise. (I will never read as much as I want to, numbers-wise. There are just not that many minutes in the day, or days in the week, or weeks in the year, or years left in my life.) But I have noticed a shift in my reading, something that hadn't really dawned on me until a couple of weeks ago. My reading, though quantitatively not stellar, has been qualitatively really interesting this year: I'm reading much more widely, and much more challenging stuff, than I have in years.

What many term "escapist reading" is great and I enjoy it - my easy and happy and predictable romance novels, my genre-conforming, conventional, not-too-gritty fantasies, my cosy, comfortable mysteries. I know what I like in those books and generally "challenging" is not it, and those books hold a very important, and fundamental, place in my reading. But what seems very strange to me is that lately I have enjoyed those books less, and actually found "challenging" to be more enjoyable.

Unpacking "challenging": I think what I mean by this is books that require a little bit more mental attention, books that maybe have dense language (I'm reading Proust, and loving it) or that have complicated, unpredictable, and not always snuggly-puppy-happy plots (there will, eventually, be a review of Kate Atkinson's Life After Life, and the plot-light but language-and-image-heavy Ru by Kim Thuy). I had been staying away from books of this type, that will require close attention or demand some sort of emotional toll of me, because those books have not made me a happy reader for a long time. I think that's changing. 

Some things are not changing. Language is important in a book for me - I want good writing. That's pretty key. But also incredibly important is characters. I need to like the characters. I need to be able to get behind them. I need to connect with them in some way. I can't get around this. I am not one of those people who can honestly say "I don't have to like the characters as long as..." because every time I've tried that, I've disliked the book. I also generally don't want my likeable characters to suffer horribly or die in some sort of unredeemable way. I recognize this makes me a bit of a chicken, but I'm prepared to live with that. I can read about a character going through something difficult, but there had better be some hope at the end of the tunnel; otherwise the book isn't for me.

Next: numbers, numbers, numbers!
(Feel free to skip this part. I record this for my own benefit. Numbers are fun for me; I am one of those people who likes data entry and pretty graphs. I also find it interesting to summarize my year in reading this way, because it helps me see the bigger picture.)

Books read in the past year: 40
Fiction: 36
Nonfiction: 4
Adult books: 27
Young adult books: 8
Middle grade books: 5
Graphic novels: 7
Audiobooks: 6
eBooks: 10
Series started: 12 (Oh man. Ouch.)
Series finished: 1 (WOOOO!)

Author's nationality: 
Canadian: 6 (incl. 1 French-Canadian novel)
American: 21
British: 9
Japanese: 3
French: 1

Decade of first publication:
2010: 22
2000: 10
1990: 3
1980: 1
1950: 1
1900: 2
1870: 1

One big change, though it doesn't show so much in the numbers, is that I'm not reading nearly as much middle grade fiction. In fact, all five of those books were read before March of this year. This has to do with some changes at work: I'm not currently running a middle grade book club. My ratio of eBooks to traditional formats is exactly the same, which is kind of an interesting trend to note too. Perhaps that's my threshold?

My favourites of the year (more reviews forthcoming):

  • The Age of Wonder by Richard Holmes is my clear top book of the year. It's hard to choose favourites, but this book really stood out. Marvellously well-written, fascinating, well-researched, and while it was long I enjoyed all of it. Science biography mixed with history and synthesis of culture and scientific discovery. Incredibly well done. Excellent as audio, too.
  • The Bird of the River by Kage Baker is for sure my top fiction. It's a perfect coming-of-age fantasy, without the epic trappings of many of these sorts of books. No giant world-shaking quests here, though the main character is an orphan, and she does have a role to play in connecting and stopping a series of bandit raids. I loved the world-building and I find Baker's writing goes down really smoothly.
  • The Governess Affair by Courtney Milan was excellent, even though I squished it into a review with two other not-as-great books. My favourite romance read of the year and maybe of the last several. Smart, funny, thoughtful, and exceedingly well-written.
  • Friends With Boys by Faith Erin Hicks was my top graphic novel of the year, which is saying something since I finished Cardcaptor Sakura finally. (Loved those too.) It was sweet and funny and interesting and I love Hicks' drawings. It made me laugh out loud without being too saccharine or trying too hard. Some of the solutions and resolutions seemed a bit too easy, but that didn't ruin the read for me.
  • Life After Life by Kate Atkinson was just spectacular. I listened to it, which I think helped; the repetition was rhythmic, not tedious, and Fenella Woolgar is a perfect narrator. The concept never got old for me, Atkinson's writing style agreed with me, and the historical detail was really interesting. I liked Ursula more and more as time went on and I kept listening even through the really emotionally difficult parts. Pitch perfect.
  • What If? by Randall Munroe is more popular science. The subtitle says it all: Serious scientific answers to absurd hypothetical questions. This is science writing at its absolute best and the only thing wrong with it, as far as I can tell, was that it ended.

Finally, here's what's up next. Last year's list got polished off with the exception of five... uh, I guess that's half of last year's list? But some of those I'm still working on, like the Virginia Woolf. I'll finish it one of these days. Let's put her first, anyway.

  • The Common Reader Volume 1 by Virginia Woolf
  • Swann's Way by Marcel Proust (the Lydia Davis translation)
  • Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell
  • The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
  • Sanaaq by Mitiarjuk Nappaaluk
  • Us Conductors by Sean Michaels
  • The Sea Among the Rocks by Harry Thurston
  • The Duchess War by Courtney Milan
  • The Anvil of the World by Kage Baker
  • The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

Lots there to look forward to. My book club is reading heavy on the WWII stuff this coming year, which will be interesting, I think. Even though I'm not actually attending the meetings currently I'm trying to keep up with the reading, and I've been really enjoying that exercise too.

So, as previously discussed... it's not likely to get a lot more rowdy over here any time soon, but I'll keep plugging away. Thanks everyone for reading and for dropping a line every once in a while. I think a common theme with my generation of book bloggers (we can call ourselves a generation, right?) is that many of us are slowing down a bit, finding it harder to keep up with both reading and with the blogging especially, as our lives and priorities change. I don't think this is a disaster, but I'm certainly glad people keep posting. I'll try to keep up my end too. Happy new year!


Jeanne said...

Glad you're still here when I make time to come by. Happy New Year!

Unknown said...

You too Jeanne! Thanks for the encouragement. :)

Aarti said...

I really enjoyed Friends with Boys, too. I agree that the art is lovely and the humor is great.

Interestingly, I did Life After Life on audiobook, too, and thought that maybe it was a negative for me. I really enjoyed it and was totally caught up but feel like sometimes I missed the switchbacks in time or the consistencies from one life to another.

Ana S. said...

I got my partner What If for Christmas and fully intend to borrow it. Also, I have The Age of Wonder on my TBR pile, so no excuse!

Courtney Milan really is wonderful. I read her A Kiss for Midwinter over the holidays and it was so satisfying.

Unknown said...

Aarti - Isn't that interesting, that we had such different views of Life After Life on audio! I didn't find myself confused by the audio at all, but I know I have good audio recall - at least for the short term. I'm not sure it's so good months after, now that I think about it.

Ana - Popular science FTW! They're very different books, but both really excellent examples of writing science well. Age of Wonder is not a small undertaking, but so worth it. And I'll have to put that Milan on my list! I love reading seasonally, so perhaps for next year.