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Season’s greetings

December 20, 2010

The impulse this time of year is to be in touch, to look back and forward, to share with friends and family. Holiday cards assume little. The sender wants the recipient to know that she or he is out there, wishing friends, clients, and acquaintances good things for the new year. While cards don’t excite me, they don’t annoy me much either.

Copied letters are another thing entirely. They intend to tell the news of the year, which, it seems, is always the news of accomplishment, success, and happiness. Even when difficult subjects are noted,they are noted with a positive spin: the cancer is being bravely fought; the second choice school turned out to be the best fit. Ever since I can remember, I found these letters annoying. In comparison, I, and my family, can only fall short. Even though I know that life can’t really be the way these letters present it, every single member of the sender’s family leaping from one pinnacle to the next, yodeling with joy and good cheer, I feel criticized, or affronted, and not at all engaged.

But every year, very briefly, the thought crosses my mind: perhaps I should write a letter, tell people our news, send pictures. There are so many people I’m not regularly in touch with. Then I think: I’ll write an honest letter, one in which I include the pain, the shame, the stories with sad endings. My reactive impulse has never developed into something interesting or authentic, and I haven’t followed through.

This morning when I was walking up 18th Street, out for exercise in the six thirty darkness, I went through all the reasons, again, why I didn’t want to, and in fact couldn’t, write such a letter. As I walked through the mud on Kite Hill to begin the downhill, I had an idea: why not write a blog post, a post on the year’s reading? Bests and worsts for each of the members of my family, with or without the whys.That I can do, and feel good about.

Here they are then, our top books of the 2010 reading year, in the order in which they were told to me.

My thirteen year-old son’s favorite was Into Thin Air, by Jon Krakauer. After he read Into the Wild for school, I passed along  Krakauer’s Everest adventure and my son read it in about three days (before breakfast, after school, on the way to soccer practice, whenever he had a free minute).

He liked it, he told me, because it was good. When I asked him to say more, he said that it was informative but it also had an awesome story line, and was scary and cool. I wondered how it fit with who he was, and he said (besides being interesting and awesome and cool), he was an outdoor kind of guy and adventurous.

He did not have a least favorite.

Without hesitation, my daughter said her favorite book of 2010 was The Mysterious Benedict Society, by Trenton Lee Stewart. A friend gave it to her last year when she turned eleven but she thought it was going to be horrible so she put off reading it. When she started her new middle school, a bunch of kids were reading it and said it was really good so she gave it a try.

She liked it because it has a cool plot and cool characters. Her favorites are Kate, because she has a “wonderful bucket, and I would have one too if people wouldn’t tease me,” and Constance, who is as stubborn as she is. She also liked learning new words from the book.

The book she liked least was The Higher Power of Lucky by Susan Patron. She said she didn’t understand all the things they were talking about and felt “it didn’t really have a ‘so what.'”

My nephew, on an extended, beginning of the winter break sleep-over, was on hand to talk about books. His favorite was definitely one of the Harry Potters, but he had to decide which one. The fourth, he said, because it was “fun, exciting and interesting and cool to read.” He liked Ron best because he’s funny and good at magic, too.

His least favorite book he read in Spanish. It’s called La Ciudad de Bestias, and he didn’t like it because “it’s really boring.”

Here’s looking at Euclid by Alex Bellos was my husband’s least favorite book, even though he tried very hard to like it–and make us like it, too. The book is about math, not my husband’s strongest subject. It turns out it was interesting but too challenging to finish.

His favorite book of 2010 was Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel. It brought an interesting period of history to life and gave him “new insight into our religions and why the world is so screwed up.” He also enjoyed The Man from Beijing, by Henning Mankell, because it was a page turner that brought three countries and two periods in history together in a novel way.

As for me, I loved The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell, and Room, by Emma Donoghue. Both brought me new, amazing stories set in foreign worlds. They are told through unusual prisms, with interesting language but not so far from the familiar to become alienating or estranging, or just plain too much work to get through. In the field of language learning, the optimal learning context is i + 1, where i is what the person already knows, and 1 is what she or he learning. If a context only supplies i, no learning occurs. If what is added is 3 or 4, learning cannot occur because the learner is overwhelmed. The best books I think fit into the i + 1 context. I’m getting more than what I know, in content and style, but not so much that I can’t process it.

I put down a bunch of books unfinished, but my least favorite that I read to the end is Ian McEwan’s The Comfort of Strangers. It was just too creepy for me. I kept wanting to pull the British couple out of their sleepy passivity, warn them away from what seemed to me to be the obvious, and not interesting, dangers they succumb to.

That’s it for everyone currently under our roof. If you want more personal book recommendations, I love reading The Millions Year in Reading.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Clara permalink
    December 31, 2010 1:37 pm

    Love the idea of picks and pans of books at the end of the year. I received both Room and the David Mitchell for Xmas gifts. I was already looking forward to them but now will do so even more. I really like reading your blog. Happy New Year!!!!

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