by Hugh Gilmore
Yet another nomination for “Cutting for Stone” by Abraham Verghese has trickled in, making it the most nominated “most-enjoyed” book from our readership. And yet I still have not read it. I have no excuse. I’m convinced by the passionate responses this book has evoked that I’ll probably enjoy it, someday.
Nor have I read “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” “The Paris Wife” or “Room: A Novel,” all popular book club reading choices this year. They all sound like books I’d enjoy if they came on my radar, but I don’t belong to any reading clubs, forget to look at the best-seller lists, and don’t usually drink coffee, beer, or wine with people who like to talk about books. The usual topics wherever I go are movies and restaurants (and lately, what folks are calling “The Republican Show” on TV).
My wife, Janet, reads a lot, and fascinates me when she talks of what she’s reading (her favorite this year: Charles C. Mann’s “1493”), but we have quite different tastes and seldom read the same book. We once tried to form a pact based on the notion that each of us would promise to read one book a year that the other seriously, heart-rendingly pleaded with the other to read. But after a while that seemed like emotional bullying and we gradually let go of the notion. We’ve settled into a detente based on quiet mutual respect. What child psychologists call “parallel play.”
I sometimes wonder if the reason I offer “Reading Roundups” in this column is to apologize for not having anything useful to recommend that other people read. Like everyone else, when I read something beautiful, moving, or genuinely intriguing, I want to grab people by the arm and tell them they should read it.
But more often than not, I choose what I read for quirky reasons, and I don’t want to be responsible for someone else’s enjoyment. This applies to movies too: I often go to the movies alone, if something like “Tree of Life” (loved it) or “Melancholia” (did not) is playing.
In reviewing my reading list for 2011 I was surprised to see how focused I was on a few areas. Two major and several minor themes emerged this year
The first: I like large, challenging tasks, so I decided to finish reading the entire Europa Editions catalog of fiction by New Year’s Eve. (I’d read 15 of their titles in 2010.) Their complete catalog grew to 100 books last May. The Europa Editions books are all quality books meant to introduce “European” writers (in a very broad sense) to American readers, in translation where needed (about 80 percent of their books were not originally written in English).
By February I realized that I couldn’t read the entire catalog by year’s end and would have to be selective. I chose to read only translated works (mostly French, German, Greek or Italian) but omitted the thrillers because I found them worthless – the European noir books are too violent for my taste.
In total I read 22 Europa titles before my interest trailed off. Some of these books were quite moving and wise in ways you seldom find in American fiction. After a while, however, a certain European cuteness (found, for example, in Anna Gavalda’s “French Leave”) began annoying me. I lost my ardor. I’ll try again this year, but they’ve published more titles since last May. So much for being a “completist.”
Best of the Europa litter, liked enough to recommend them: “Broken Glass Park” by Alina Bronsky; “Between Two Seas” by Carmine Abate; “In a Strange Room” by Damon Galgut; “From the Land of the Moon” by Milena Agus and “The Hottest Dishes of the Tartar Cuisine,” also by Alina Bronsky (with a thoroughly annoying main character whom I have not stopped thinking about since July, so I guess I liked it more than I knew).
My second major reading trend last year evolved when I started writing a novel based on Escamillo, the “toreador” from Georges Bizet’s opera “Carmen.” I needed to know as much as I could learn about the mental and moral lives of matadors, so I started reading books on “tauromachy,” the science and art of bullfighting. I read every English-translated matador memoir I could find.
All told, I read 28 complete books about “la fiesta brava,” as it’s called. Reading highlights included Hemingway’s “Death in the Afternoon,” “Vicente Blasco Ibáñez’ classic novel, “Blood and Sand” and about a half-dozen books by Barnaby Conrad.
The best by far, however, was the matador Juan Belmonte’s autobiography, “Killer of Bulls.”
I was so moved by this confessional book I spent a month last summer rereading it slowly, taking notes. I wrote up what I learned for the international bullfighting journal, La Divisa, published by the Club Taurino of London, calling the piece, “The World-Weariness of Juan Belmonte as Expressed in his Autobiography, ‘Killer of Bulls.’”
In October I expanded that article and published “‘Killer of Bulls’ as an existential memoir” for the Taurine Bibliophiles of America journal, La Busca. I enjoyed going from being a know-nothing to being published in two respectable journals in the space of less than a year. (Fifty thousand monkeys on fifty thousand typewriters, etc.)
Those two areas, Europa editions and bullfighting, represented 50 of the items on my 2011 reading list. Of the other 39, six were crime-related, 10 were history, 17 were fiction and the rest – miscellaneous. I did read one best seller, Jennifer Egan’s “A Visit from the Goon Squad,” largely because I couldn’t resist the expression, “goon squad.” That book was my vacation read in Maine this summer.
I’m just doing poke-around reading this week. I’ll get to 90 books for the year, shy of my intended 100, but once again, I’ll blame my falling short on the Phillies. Pitchers and catchers report in mid-February.
Hugh’s newly published novel, “Malcolm’s Wine: A Noir Crime Novel of Vintage Wine, Rare Books and Sneaky People,” is now available at Amazon.com in both paperback and Kindle formats.