Reading books is fun. Talking about books is almost as much fun as reading them. And if you can talk about the books you've read with someone else who loves books, too -- well, that's about as good as it gets. What follows is a conversation between two book lovers as they compare notes on their favorite reads of 2004....
Ann: If I could recommend only one book to my literature-loving friends, it would be A Bit on the Side, a new collection of short stories by Irish writer William Trevor. Each of Trevor's stories is like a tiny delicate dessert, intricately layered and always revealing some surprising flavor at the center, like finding something savory at the heart of a chocolate. He starts so simply, just one character doing something profoundly ordinary, then builds a story from there. The thing I love about his writing is that he treats all of his characters gently, so even the scoundrels become sympathetic. These aren't necessarily happy stories, but there's hope for everyone.
Sheri: Hmm. The book I would recommend most right now would also be the one I'd feel guiltiest about. At 800 pages, Jonathan Strange and Mister Norrell (by Susanna Clarke) is by no means a light read and therefore should not be pushed on one's friends lightly. But Ann, I think you'd really enjoy it! Some critics are calling it "Harry Potter for grownups," but I think that summation really comes up short when you're talking about a book that encompasses not only the central story -- that of a reclusive magician who meets a flamboyant pupil/nemesis in 1808 England -- but also interwoven strands of history, politics and myth. Comparisons are being made to Dickens, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Jane Austen, but what I enjoyed most is Clarke's ability to convey a haunting, lovely sense of the supernatural. Her debut is an impressive one indeed.
Ann: I think I have to add that to my reading list, despite the 800 pages. My favorite novel this year isn't nearly that long -- just a respectable 368 pages -- and it's also the author's debut. Broken for You, set in the heart of contemporary Seattle, is about daring to reach beyond self-imposed emotional exile toward relationship. The supportive community that author Stephanie Kallos cobbles together here evokes the feeling of being among a group of really fun and quirky friends. They come together in their own brokenness and somehow create a nurturing family for themselves, making something new and beautiful out of the pieces of their lives.
Sheri: This is reminding me of the book I discovered and couldn't put down all summer -- Davy Rothbart's Found. Basically, all we've got here is a collection of stuff that Rothbart and others have found: Post-it notes, junior high love letters, photographs, even bossy laundry room signs. It's voyeuristic to be looking at this stuff, sure, but taken as a whole Found is so funny, painful and real that it somehow comes off like a short story full of hope and pathos. The note that got him started -- one of those "I hate you, please call me" kind of notes mistakenly left on his windshield -- leads off the book and sets the tone for all the weird, wonderful flotsam that follows.
Ann: I LOVE bossy laundry room signs! We have a great one in our basement from our former landlady who died four years ago ... OK, where was I? Oh, yeah, back in Holt, Colorado, with Kent Haruf. He made a splash with Plainsong about five years ago and he's returned to High Plains this year with Eventide, which picks up the threads of community life in and around the small community of Holt. Haruf's gift is the way he captures both the heart-warming and the heartbreaking aspects of life in a remote rural town. This is a story to savor slowly on a cold and snowy night.
Sheri: So is A Great and Terrible Beauty, by Libba Bray. It reminds me of one of my favorite books from when I was young, A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett. The plot is similar -- young girl is sent to boarding school hell on the heels of a mostly idyllic childhood. Even some of the motifs -- for instance, that the heroine grows up in India -- are reminiscent of Burnett's book, but this is sooo much more adult. Spence creates a really spooky Victorian Gothic mood here, and she paints an often chilling vision of girl power vis a vis boarding school politics. I couldn't put it down, even though sometimes I wanted to!
Ann: That's the way I felt while reading The Devil's Highway by Luis Urrea, a book that sears with the reality of life and death along the Mexican-U.S. border. Back in 2001, 26 Mexican men each paid a pile of money to a smuggling outfit to be delivered to gainful employment across the border in El Norte. Two weeks later, more than half of them were dead, their bodies left to bake in the desert of southern Arizona. Urrea -- a novelist, essayist and poet who grew up on both sides of the border -- weaves lyrical language, gallows humor -- and the magical realism of Mexican storytelling with flawless investigative journalism to produce a grim yet dazzlingly compelling work.
Sheri: Ted wanted us to put a word in for his favorite book of the year, which was Shadow Divers by Esquire contributing editor Robert Kurson. Kurson follows two of the world's best deep-wreck divers, John Chatterton and Richie Kohler, as they investigate the remains of a previously unknown German U-Boat sunk 60 miles off the coast of New Jersey. Deep-sea diving is both highly technical and highly deadly -- three divers perish at the U-Boat site before the book is over -- and Kurson's muscular, Hemingway-esque prose puts this one on top of the Jon Krakauer-Sebastian Junger heap.
Ann: The book that most affected me this year was The Pine Island Paradox by OSU philosopher Kathleen Dean Moore. Now angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin speculations tend to leave me weary and unsettled, but Moore's graceful essays of natural wonders and family relationships lifted my spirits and left me feeling connected with all of creation. While the most basic assumptions of Western philosophical tradition set out to separate humans from the natural world, Moore writes of a philosophy of connection and relationship and speculates on how we might choose to live in the world if we truly understood that separate islands are really just the continuous skin of the planet.
Sheri: I'm finishing my list with a personal favorite: The Bronte Myth by Lucasta Miller. This was a birthday gift from some dear friends who saw it in The New York Times Book Review, and I have to say, it's a great book whether you're a big fan of the sisters Bronte or not. The reason I say this is that Miller spends as much time on the "myth" of the sisters (in film, theater and literature) as on what is known of their actual lives. At times quite funny and always thought-provoking, Miller raises some interesting questions about biography and how each generation reinvents its icons.
Ann: I don't know about you, but I'm suddenly feeling like I've got a lot more reading to do. I've got a glass of wine here -- you wanna pass me that last book?
Sheri: Trade ya!
Publication date: 12/30/04