Happy day-after-Christmas, everyone! Hard to believe we’re here again, glancing over our shoulders at another year of living, loving, eating — and reading. Though 2012 proved to be a slower reading year for me, completing 71 books to last year’s 82, I found myself really enjoying what I was reading — and focused on branching out.
That meant I discovered some narrative non-fiction for the first time in my adult reading life, and I challenged myself to step out of my chick lit box. That’s not to say I don’t still love women’s fic — trust me, I do — but I also enjoyed the change of pace that biographies offered me.
Audio books were my good buddies this year, too. Since discovering the joys of being read to (you know, elementary-school style), I’m rarely without an audio book on my drives around town. Since my music is all stale and boring and blah, it’s great having something to keep my attention when I’m running errands. And now I feel less annoyed about having to go get diet soda from the grocery store again.
Last year’s reading honors celebrated literary fiction, young adult and more — and at the end of my post, I hoped 2012 would find me continuing “all the things I hold dear: excellent literature; prose that stops me dead in my well-worn tracks; journeys to new places, continents and cultures. I hope to read more non-fiction in the coming months, especially about American history, and to get excited about women’s fiction again. On the personal writing front, I hope to finish another novel by the spring and to continue making creative writing a priority in my own life.”
With the exception of that last bit (I’m severely slacking on the novel-writing front), I’m going to stamp a big ol’ mission accomplished. Feels good.
In the coming year, I’m going to be realistic: as Spencer and I get rolling on our wedding plans and my sister prepares for her nuptials, too, much of my free time will be consumed with bridal-related excitement. And that’s okay. Reading (and blogging!) are meant to be fun; I just can’t stress over my reading pace. I’m never without a book, so that won’t change — but I have to figure I won’t get through as many novels as before. I’ll likely have to be choosier with what I pick up and review, so that should be an interesting challenge.
But on to the best of the year! What makes a book end-of-the-year-recap worthy? How do I whittle 71 books down to the cream of the bookish crop? I ask myself a few important questions: months after finishing, am I still thinking about it? Can I recall details, characters, settings? Did it spoil me for other books? Am I grateful — maybe changed — for having read it?
If the answer is yes, you’ll find it below. And what a fun reflection it’s been.
Meg’s Top Five Reads of 2012
1. Girl Unmoored by Jennifer Gooch Hummer
My foray into young adult literature was limited this year, but I’m so incredibly glad I didn’t miss out in this one. You’re probably sick of me talking about it, but hopefully my constant chatter has convinced you to pick it up. I’m serious: it’s moving and funny and unforgettable. Hummer is a true talent, and this book was a life-changer for me. If I’ve talked you into picking up one book from write meg!, I hope it’s this one. You won’t regret it — and that’s why it’s in my No. 1 spot.
2. Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter
Read in the summer, Beautiful Ruins is just the sort of book that lodges in your brain and refuses to leave. Though I always picture a scene while reading, this book inspired full-blown movies in my mind — which works well, considering it’s partially about movies. It’s gorgeous, lush, vivid — and filled with incredibly memorable, endearing characters. Plus, it’s set in Italy — and Elizabeth Taylor is a quasi-character. I described it as “spellbinding” back in June, and you know what? I’m a smart lady. Spellbinding only begins to cover it.
3. The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce
Surprising, heart-wrenching and utterly lovely, I didn’t go into Harold expecting to come out a tearful, washed-up mess — but Joyce’s unforgettable language rendered me speechless. The tale of a middle-aged man who traverses the whole of England on foot in his own way of reconciling the past “took me by surprise,” if I may quote myself, and it was literary without being dull. For a book with a simple premise, it was incredible.
4. Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson
February and March were spent with Isaacson’s epic tome on the life and death of Steve Jobs, an iconic American visionary. Though I went into the book with little knowledge of Jobs’ life, I now consider myself well-versed in Jobs-ology. Accessible, detailed and compelling, Steve Jobs packs a mighty punch. And if I got a little mired down in the details at points, I’d expect nothing less from a book on such an influential, exacting man.
5. The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Never have I loved and hated a character so completely and simultaneously. Young heroine Victoria’s story was engrossing, though difficult at many points — but I was completely addicted to this book. As we teetered toward the story’s conclusion, I didn’t want it to end. Plus? I feel quite comfortable with the Victorian language of flowers now. Sometimes a rose isn’t just a rose.
• Paris, My Sweet by Amy Thomas
Macarons, pies, cupcakes — and more! Thomas’ sweet, frothy recollections of her year in Paris working for Louis Vuitton is a treat for armchair travelers and foodies alike. Though the narrative itself could have used a little more meat, Thomas’ memoir was a fun and delicious read — and one that has me desperate to book a flight to France tomorrow.
• Heaven Is Here by Stephanie Nielson
To know Stephanie Nielson is to love her. After surviving a small plane crash that left she and her beloved husband badly burned and broken, Stephanie works tirelessly to keep her family together — and to find a way to be happy again. Told with endless faith, her memoir is raw and realistic. Though Stephanie herself seems perennially upbeat, she doesn’t hesitate to discuss the depression, fear and emptiness that threatened to overtake her after waking from a coma. I’ve followed her blog for a while, and her story is incredible.
Packing the Sultriest Punch
• History of a Pleasure Seeker by Richard Mason
Um . . . is it hot in here, or is it just History of a Pleasure Seeker? Mason’s tale of a social-climber in belle époque Amsterdam is sexy, literary, lovely. The author’s language captured me from page one and refused to let go. In January, I wrote the novel is “lush, sensuous and finely-wrought story of how, through charisma and seduction, one man is able to change an entire family and free them from their stuffy, well-made cages.” And it’s definitely one that stays on the brain.
Most Inspiring of Hepburn Nostalgia
• Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. by Sam Wasson
Wasson’s ode to the power of “Breakfast At Tiffany’s” made me want to don pearls and parade through New York City. Not that, you know, I wouldn’t do that on a normal day. But choosing to read Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M. on my way back from a sisters trip to the big city in May elevated the story to magical status. It was informational, entertaining and fun.
Harold Fry didn’t plan to traverse the whole of England. After a letter from an old friend drops unexpectedly into his hands, he’s stricken with the knowledge that Queenie Hennessy — former coworker, one-time ally — is dying of cancer in Berwick-upon-Tweed. . . and that he never got to thank her for doing him a great favor two decades earlier. Convinced a mere letter is insufficient and his walking — and faith in her — will somehow spare her life, Harold leaves home with no more than the yacht shoes on his feet.
His wife is at home, receiving periodic calls from Harold on his progress within the silent confines of their Kingsbridge home. Maureen is unconvinced any man could walk 467 miles to arrive at a friend’s side — let alone her retired husband, an unathletic man in his 60s. But Harold cannot be stopped. As the miles slide beneath his sore feet and the English countryside gives way to scenic villages, Harold tightens his belt loops — and meets plenty of characters that aid him in his journey. But can he make it to Queenie in time? And what will he say when he gets there?
Rachel Joyce’s The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry took me completely by surprise. It’s a quiet novel, at times slow-going, but the pace seems to mimic Harold’s progress. I was in Harold’s corner from the beginning, championing this unusual hero, and I wanted nothing more than for him to overcome every obstacle and find his friend at last. Though it often seemed impossible, I couldn’t help but believe in Harold’s strange quest.
The evolution of Maureen and Harold’s relationship amazed me the most. After forty years of marriage, the pair seem to have stopped seeing one another. They drift past like ghosts, like roommates, and Maureen seems as icy-cold as they come. As the details of their shared past emerge, it’s obvious why the silence and tension have sustained them for so long — and my heart broke for both, standing so close together but so far apart. While I initially disliked Maureen and wanted to scold her for not believing in her husband’s journey, I couldn’t fault her for the pain they’d both endured. The pieces eventually came together.
Harold, the unlikely pilgrim, is such a bold and sympathetic character — a man of integrity who has survived so much. Beneath his placid exterior beats the heart of a man with much left to experience. Despite feeling old, washed-up and broken, Harold realizes he’s been lying in wait to do something for far too long. His walk opens him up to other people — their faults, their dreams. He looks outward instead of inward, realizing the capacity friendship and compassion have to fill up our lives:
“He had learned it was the smallness of people that filled him with wonder and tenderness, and the loneliness of that too. The world was made up of people putting one foot in front of the other; and a life might appear ordinary simply because the person living it had been doing so for a long time. Harold could no longer pass a stranger without acknowledging the truth that everyone was the same, and also unique; and that this was the dilemma of being human.”
My heart broke for Harold during passages like this one, moments when we realize how long he’s lived with the loneliness and guilt that have come to define his life:
“He watched the squares of buttery light inside the houses, and people going about their business. He thought of how they would settle in their beds and try to sleep through their dreams. It struck him again how much he cared, and how relieved he was that they were somehow safe and warm, while he was free to keep walking. After all, it had always been this way; that he was a little apart.”
(Also, “squares of buttery light”? What a perfect, evocative phrase. I could see Harold standing outside a rustic English cottage, watching a family settle into dinner with their laughter and mugs of tea — this family with everything he does not.)
By the novel’s close, I was cheering for Harold like I’ve never cheered before — and as the past unravels, revealing what Queenie did to inspire one man to walk across a country to thank her, I actually gasped. Middle-class Harold could have easily hopped in a car to reach his old friend, we know, but he didn’t. A journey that would have taken a day’s worth of driving took Harold several months, but it was the walking that saved him. The walking was his salvation.
Author Helen Simonson (Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand) blurbs Harold Fry, and I could detect similarities between her work and Joyce’s. Not so much in subject, but in feeling — this idea that age is just a number. Both Joyce and Simonson are British authors with older men as their subjects, and both have plenty yet to experience — and impart. I loved that Harold’s journey reminded me of the best part of Major Pettigrew’s story, and I think fans of Simonson’s popular novel will find an ally in Harold.
At the end, the text was blurring beneath an ocean of tears — ones I didn’t really expect, ones that stopped me completely. My head was so full of Harold’s journey that I had a hard time falling asleep after finishing (at 1 a.m.), and I had to pick up one of the more light-hearted books on my shelves to settle my pounding heart. Harold isn’t a character you can soon forget — and his journey of loyalty, redemption, friendship and love will stay with me for a long time.
4.5 out of 5!