A Year in Reading: Robert Birnbaum

December 23, 2012 | 2 min read

From the gaggle of books I have read over this past year Beautiful Ruins, Gods Without Men, and The News from Spain stand out as especially special.

covercoverJess Walters’s novel Beautiful Ruins is a lovely story in which a handful of likable characters wend their disparate ways across nearly a half of the last century, from an obscure Italian coastal town to an array of locales on the shores of America, to resolve an unlikely but plausible narrative. Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor make appearances.

Gods without Men is a sprawling high-powered multi-threaded story that diverges into some rarified and elevated subjects — parents flailing at the near impossible task of raising a seriously autistic child, a stock trader searching for and believing he has found an algorithmic formula for trading that in its Kabbalistic form is the Holy Grail, recondite anthropologists studying southwestern Native American culture, hippy cults, and more, spark a steady forward fugal motion. Reading this story sometimes feels like a breathtaking roller coaster ride as it shoots from one dissimilar point of view to another. It’s an exciting read with some brainy and amusing digressions.

coverAndre Gregory’s blurbs on Joan Wickersham’s collection of stories The News from Spain asserted that the stories were sufficiently weighty that they could be read twice in succession — an unusual notion, methinks. And yet I found that the stories were so engrossing and rich with thoughtful characters that I easily followed Gregory’s suggestion. And was indeed rewarded with another pleasurable read. Not linked stories, but bound by the author’s conceit of having the phrase The News from Spain appearing in each — without, I must say, an appearance of contrivance or showiness.

I volunteered to participate in this exercise because it required me to focus my attention on my own reading habits — which I otherwise wouldn’t do, as I am not usually interested in the meta-gesture of thinking about or reading about reading (though I do recommend Andrew Piper’s Book Was There: Reading in Electronic Times).

What did I learn? Looking over what I read in the past 12 months, the list confirmed what I already knew — that I am a literary omnivore and any litany of books tells more about the reader than individual the books listed. No big surprise there.

More from A Year in Reading 2012

Don’t miss: A Year in Reading 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005

The good stuff: The Millions’ Notable articles

The motherlode: The Millions’ Books and Reviews

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is OurManinBoston, editor-at-large at IDENTITYTHEORY.COM, and contributing writer at TheMorningNews.org. He lives in West Newton, MA with his black dog, Beny. Every year he begins reading countless books and finishes 150, more or less. Not a bad life, eh?