Last night, at a literary salon I listened as members of a large reading club announced the names of the books they had recently completed. Being a guest, I did not participate but wondered to myself what book(s) I would talk about if given a chance.
I have mentioned quite a few books on this blog, some that I never finished, others than intrigued me or raised interesting questions. I tend toward non-fiction, but I have over the past year encountered several novels worth mentioning:
Michael Cunningham's By Nightfall --a consistently absorbing story by a master stylist and major American writer
T. C. Boyle's The Women--entertaining not only because of the women in the life of Frank Lloyd Wright but because of the author's lively, hilarious writing
And Deaf Sentence by David Lodge, a comic master from Britain.
I tend to stay with novels with interesting prose style. I copy sentences I admire and share them with my students. I remind them (ad nauseam, I'm sure) that they can't possibly write if they don't read, read, read good stuff.
The other books I have enjoyed include A Brief History of the Smile by the art historian Angus Trumble (fascinating microhistory of painting, done with brio)
Christopher Jamison's Finding Sanctuary--a monastic guide to everyday living (for those who are spiritual and prayerful)
Two books on the Dissolution of the monasteries in 16th cent. England under Henry VIII--one by Geoffrey Moorhouse, The Last Divine Office, the other The King's Reformation by Bernard (more information than most readers need).
I would strongly recommend Happiness: A History by McMahon as an important, clear study of the way our Western ideas of happiness have changed over the centuries.
Tim Parks has a fine book on the origins of modern banking, Medici Money, which reminds me of the arguable truism (by Carlyle?) that history is essentially biography. He handles the topic with the flair that Brits pull off well.
I see Descartes' Bones on my shelf, but since I didn't finish it and can't remember anything about it, I won't mention it--except to say it has a great title. (The philosopher's bones did get carted around Europe a bit, but that's not the point of the book; still,it gives me a great idea for another book on the way famous artists' and authors' remains have been dug up, fought over, moved, and re-buried.)
I did a review for America of the remarkable memoir by Stephanie Saldana, The Bread of Angels--her story of going alone to Syria in 2004 to learn Arabic and all that she discovered about herself.
As I was last night, I am impressed by how many avid readers there are in my community and an equal number of writers, busy people who find it essential to make time for that silent, solitary act of encountering words (and themselves) on a page, an act that is both private and public, spiritual and pleasurable. It's the work of the soul.