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According to the elves at Goodreads, I’ve read 70 books so far this year, a feat made possible by the fact that I finally figured out how to get New York Public Library audiobooks onto my iPhone. Many were…just fine. Others had me pushing the fast forward button like a post-operative patient with a morphine drip. A few, like Helene Wecker’s The Golem and the Jinni, were serendipitous discoveries. I was underwhelmed by one series of novels that writer friends have been urging me to read for years, but I was also forced to rethink my Hands-Off-Classic-Literature! position by Jo Baker’s Longbourn, which was just wonderful. (Also by the recently televised Death Comes to Pemberley, but I don’t suppose that counts…). Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall lived up to its ecstatic reputation (though I’m not sure I’d have been able to follow the action if I hadn’t recently watched The Tudors on television…). I decided to read Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton biography in anticipation of The Public Theater’s coming tour de force, Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton (which I was lucky enough to see in workshop), so when I go back to see it another 10 times I’ll know more about the man’s life and times. My all-around picks for the year? Lawrence Wright’s Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood and the Prison of Belief, a scrupulously researched dissection of the cult. (Yes, cult. What, you thought I was going to call it a “religion”?) And John Searles’s Help for the Haunted, a beautiful novel about the natural — rather than the supernatural — kind of haunting. Finally: praise for Elizabeth Alexander’s memoir, The Light of the World, a meditation on grief and life, which will be published in April 2015.
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Elif Batuman’s writing has appeared in The New Yorker, The Nation, and n+1. She recently completed a Ph.D. in comparative literature at Stanford, and is the recipient of a 2007 Rona Jaffe Writers’ Foundation award. You can learn more about Elif by visiting her blog or her website.I spent the first 9 months of 2007 finishing a dissertation in comparative literature, which really cut into my reading. By the end of the dissertation, you’re not really reading anymore, just re-reading and watching TV (or at least this was my experience). The notable exception for me was the Autobiography of St. Ignatius of Loyola, which I read for the first time in February. I was amazed to discover that, as a young man, Ignatius dreamed of imitating Amadís of Gaul – the same knight errant later imitated by Don Quijote. Ignatius’s conversion then takes the form of switching exemplars, from Amadis to Jesus. What a rich and well-executed premise!While researching the dissertation, I also came across an enormously entertaining diet book: What Would Jesus Eat?: The Ultimate Program for Eating Well, Feeling Great, and Living Longer, by Don Colbert. Colbert instructs the modern-day reader how to eat like Christ, basing his advice now on textual evidence (“I believe that fish and bread were two of the main foods in His diet”), now on historical data (“In the time of Jesus, the Sea of Galilee, the Mediterranean Sea, and the Jordan river were major sources of fish”), and sometimes on what appears to be intuition (“Jesus very likely consumed extra virgin olive oil on a daily basis”). A companion volume, The What Would Jesus Eat Cookbook, includes recipes ranging from “frozen banana salad” and “Asian coleslaw,” to “milk and honey bread” and “matzoh balls with olive sauce.”From my 2007 extracurricular reading, the stand-outs are, for surprisingness, Roberto Bolano’s Savage Detectives, and, for enjoyableness, two “graphic novels”: Alison Bechdel’s exciting and formally inventive memoir, Fun Home (“fun” is short for “funeral”), and Rutu Modan’s Exit Wounds (a missing-person/love-story hybrid – one of my favorite genres – set in modern day Israel).More from A Year in Reading 2007
Josh Bazell has a BA in writing from Brown University and a MD from Columbia University. He is currently a medical resident at the University of California, San Francisco, and is working on his second novel. Read more about Beat the Reaper at www.beatthereaper.com.My favorite books are always crime books, and the best I read this year were The Cigarette Century – Alan Brandt’s awesomely readable true account of how a handful of advertising geniuses created the worst epidemic the world has ever seen – and Peter Lovesy’s The Reaper. Although I’ve always liked Lovesy, part of the reason I read The Reaper was because its title is sort of like the title of my own forthcoming book. So it was nice to discover that it’s something of a mainstream masterpiece. If you suspect you could love a dark comedy about a sociopathic priest who has to kill more and more people to cover up his previous crimes, you will love this one.More from A Year in Reading 2008