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January 4, 2010

The beginning of a new year is a time for anticipation, for looking ahead, but I can’t resist a backward look. Since books play an important role in my life, I turn to my reading journal. Yes, I keep a journal of the books I read, partly to avoid getting halfway into a book, only to realize I’ve already read it. But, even more important to me is the pleasure I get from going through the list, book by book, and recapturing the emotions and insights engendered by each. I count a total of 49 titles. Some were better than others, but I can honestly say there’s not one I’m sorry to have read.

I began the year with Geraldine Brooks’ People of the Book. The last book that I completed in 2009 was Dai Sijie’s Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress. I didn’t plan it but there are striking parallels between these two seemingly different books. Both have at their heart an awareness of the importance of books in the lives of those who love them.

Brooks traces the journey of a single manuscript from its beginnings in medieval Spain to a museum in twenty-first century Jerusalem and tells a story depicting the extraordinary lengths to which people will go to preserve a book and, with it, their heritage. At the end, one character sums it up saying: “. . . to be a human being matters more than to be a Jew or a Muslim, Catholic or Orthodox.”

Sijie tells the story of two young men deprived of books when they are sent to the country to be re-educated during China’s Cultural Revolution. One character describes the reaction of a young girl who is exposed to the words of a great writer for the first time: “He touched the head of this mountain girl with an invisible finger and she was carried away in a dream.” What reader does not identify with that?

Some of the books between those two were: Willa Cather’s My Antonia, a classic that holds up over time and multiple readings, as does Dicken’s A Tale of Two Cities. Both of these were selections by one of my book groups. That same group decided (for a reason none of us can remember) to read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. I somehow missed this classic as a child so my impression of Alice was more Walt Disney than Lewis Carroll. Of all the books read in 2009, this was my least favorite, a surprise since I usually enjoy children’s books and had looked forward to reading this one. There was one delightful section where Carroll was obviously having a grand time playing with words but, over all, I found I had no patience for a world with no rules. Maybe if I’d read it as a child I would have felt differently–or maybe if I’d read it with a child snuggled against my side and giggling. Still, I’m glad I read it; the time spent was not wasted. No one else in the group enjoyed the book either, but we had a lively discussion and laughed a lot that evening. Who could ask for more?

As great as the pleasures of reading (or re-reading) old favorites is the fun of discovering new writers. Blog sister Sharen introduced me to Naseem Rakha’s The Crying Tree, a stunning book, at times painful to read as it chronicles the debilitating effects of anger and the redemption that occurs when you let it go. Another sister of sorts (a Sister in Crime), Elizabeth Zelvin, wrote Death Will Get You Sober. Liz is a psychotherapist who used her knowledge of addiction and recovery to create characters who are flawed, funny, vulnerable–and totally believable. And, for pure fun, there was Salsa with Me, by fellow Avalon author, Roni Denholtz. The minute I saw that title I knew I had to read the book. A new writing friend, Penelope Przekop, allowed me to read her about-to-be-published Centerpieces. This was probably the most original book I read all year. Imagine brothers Vincent and Theo Van Gogh reincarnated as vampires and participating in modern-day Corporate America. Don’t be fooled by the premise. Centerpieces is a serious book, a thoughtful and intelligent look at two disparate value systems. Another book I thoroughly enjoyed was Mary Pat Kelly’s Galway Bay. In telling the story of the Great Hunger and one family’s journey to “Amerikay” Kelly evokes the journey of all emigrants and makes us see the commonality in diversity that created the dream we call America. And I can’t leave out my own 2009 release, By Whose Hand. It’s vanity, I know, but such a thrill to read the story that began as a tangle of ideas in my head as a “real” book.

The book I started in the old year and finished in the new one was Jacqueline Winspear’s Among the Mad, a worthy bridge to a new decade. I always enjoy the Maisie Dobbs novels, but found this one particularly engaging. As always, Winspear deals with the lingering and sometimes invisible effects of war–any war.

All in all, 2009 was a good year, full of surprises, laughter and tears, and, judging by the look of my TBR stack, 2010 will be another.

What am I reading now? I just started Colors of the Mountain by Da Chen. I’ve only read the first chapter and, already, I’m hooked–and wouldn’t have it any other way.

Happy reading.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2010 4:15 PM

    Hi Sandy,

    I enjoyed reading as much as I do writing, but my TBR pile is growing taller. Do you find it difficult to read for pleasure? These days, no matter which book I pick up, I find myself reading as a writer. Currently, I’m reading Alice Sebold’s-The Lovely Bones. I find myself skipping pages. Maybe the movie will be better.

  2. January 5, 2010 3:27 PM

    I identify completely, Loretta. Though most of my reading is done for pleasure, I can’t seem to stop mentally editing. As much as I love being a writer, I miss my old ability to sink into a story and not think about how to improve it. I don’t think this lessens my enjoyment of reading, but it does change it.

    Thanks for your comment.

  3. January 7, 2010 8:55 PM

    Hey Sandy, I loved reading about your 2009 bookshelf. Tell me, though, if you had to pick one as a must read, which would it be?


  4. January 8, 2010 1:17 AM

    Interesting question, Claudine – almost impossible to answer though. It’s kind of like being asked which one of my kids I love most. However, not to evade the issue, if I had to pick one, it would be Galway Bay. Maybe because of my own Irish roots, I felt hunger pangs right along with those people (or maybe I just really love to eat). Anyway, I lived that experience and loved those characters.

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