Tuesday, December 23, 2008

A Year in Reading

Over at the Millions, one of my favorite book blogs, they've been running a series called A Year in Reading, in which various writers post about what they've read this year. Since they haven't contacted me yet, I'll go ahead and assume they won't be doing so, and I'll do my post here at good ol' Corresponding Fractions.

I made a kind of New Year's resolution to read non-fiction this year, maybe as a counterbalance to my job teaching fiction, and I mostly followed through on it. Some highlights included a couple of books by my hero, sociologist Douglas Massey, Categorically Unequal: The American Stratification System and Strangers in a Strange Land: Humans in an Urbanizing World. No one synthesizes like Massey, and these two books blew my mind with their insights about America and the evolution of human society. I also did a Jeffrey Toobin two-fer, reading his most recent book The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court and his decade-old The Run of His Life: The People v. O. J. Simpson. Both of these books were totally engrossing. They read like John Grisham books yet actually teach you something about the world. It's no wonder Toobin was always the most insightful panelist on CNN during their election coverage.

The other type of nonfiction I read quite a bit of was memoirs. The best, without a doubt, was Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic. Bechdel's panels are beautifully drawn and cunningly laid out, and I love the way she understands her experience through literature. Assisted by a librarian at the Kingshighway branch, I also read a number of other comics this year. Michel Rabagliati's trilogy about his alter-ego Paul—Paul Has a Summer Job, Paul Moves Out, and Paul Goes Fishing—was lovely, and Joe Sacco's Palestine gave a vivid perspective on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one that we don't hear much in the U.S.A.

I did end up reading a fair amount of fiction, too, including a major Cormac McCarthy jag—beginning with The Road, which had me bawling like a baby at the end, and then the Border Trilogy, which I'm still thinking about. In 2009, I'd like to read Blood Meridian, which a lot of people seem to consider his best work.

My reading year is coming to a close with a book that I don't think I'll finish before January 1, Common Ground: A Turbulent Decade in the Lives of Three American Families, by J. Anthony Lukas. It's an overwhelming, brilliant piece of nonfiction that follows three Boston families from 1968-1978, through the tumultuous attempts to desgregate the public schools there. The Twymons are black and poor, the McGoffs white and working class, and the Divers yuppies, but so far the book has taken all kinds of fascinating detours from these families' stories, giving mini-histories of the Methodist church, public housing in Boston, the gentrification of the South End, struggles against authority in Charlestown, and much else, including genealogical histories of many of the main characters. Whereas Douglas Massey's books give one an aerial view of sociopolitical realities, Lukas drops you down into a teeming forest of detail. The book is around 650 pages long, with big pages crammed with type, but I really can't put it down.

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