Another Year and a Bunch of Books

Nothing says “Happy New Year,” looking out with hope and expectation towards a brand-spanking-new calendar of virgin reading territory than my end-of-the-year book wrap. It’s become a JBE blogging tradition.

In past years, I’ve summarized the previous 12 months and the books I’ve read. This year, I’m opting to hit the highlights rather than reviewing every single book simply, because in 2014, I ended up reading 65 66 books! (You can see the complete list, here.)

This year-end synopsis offers me a chance to reflect back over the previous 12 months of reading. I also get to take note of the books I enjoyed and found benefit in reading, and offer a few of the ones that were disappointing. Keep in mind that reading and what I like to read is highly subjective.

I don’t begin my reading year with any grand plan. However, I do set a goal to end the year on the plus side of 30 books. Having done this now for more than 15 years (with many of these coming pre-blogging), it’s not unreasonable to expect to read 3-4 books per month. In fact, that’s generally been my output at the end of the year when the numbers have been tallied.

More often than not, my selections often end up being ones that I “fall into,” depending on what I’m thinking about and contemplating. Yes, there are books I hear about, or read reviews of that I’ll jot down in a notebook and consider reading over the course of the next 12 months. And as often happens, come January 1, I’m usually reading my way through a new book I’ve begun around Christmas or just after. More often than not, my choices are nonfiction, with an orientation towards the sociological/historical.

Last January, I was writing two final pieces and working on getting out my own book of essays, finalizing the seven that were included and wrapping up the one about Lisbon Falls, “Goin’ Back.” I was thinking about Thomas Wolfe at the time, so I decided to read through You Can’t Go Home Again, which ended up framing the intro to that essay.

You Can't Go Home Again-TWolfe

You Can’t Go Home Again-TWolfe

Wolfe is the type of American writer—certainly worthy of inclusion in the pantheon of great American writers—but unfortunately, one who has become a member of an ever-growing cavalcade of those overlooked during the early decades of the 21st century, aka, “the age of Twitter.” The urge for immediacy and writers fitting the category of “the flavor of the month,” have rendered Wolfe as one writer who has fallen out of favor with most readers.

I’m glad I read his classic novel about the passage of time and returning to a place where roots run deep. It’s also interesting how my own essay ruffled the feathers of some of the locals, as happens with Wolfe’s protagonist, George Webber, upon returning to his hometown of Libya Hill, and writing about the place and its people.

I also invested time in Elizabeth Evans’ excellent book on Wolfe, offering background and a deeper understanding of what Wolfe was getting at in his novel and themes running through his other work.

So you can see, 2014 began as a reading year glancing back through time.

I picked up another classic read in January, this one being Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Had I read it in school? I don’t recall. My son was reading it (his reading list is more impressive than mine), so I decided to work my way through a fairly short tome that was a worthwhile one.

Last December, I was hired by one of Maine’s area agencies on aging to manage a grant focused on seniors and allowing them to remain in their homes. I decided to make grassroots organizing and community-building my focus in two rural Maine communities. While I have ample experience doing this kind of work, I’m always about improving and getting better at what I do.

The book by John Kretzmann and John L. McKnight, Building Communities From the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing A Community’s Assets, is considered “the Bible” when it comes to asset-based community development. It was a worthwhile read and I consider the success that followed partly attributable to investing time in reading and absorbing the wisdom of Kretzmann and McKnight.

Maureen Ogle's book about meat in America.

Maureen Ogle’s book about meat in America.

My interest in beer—especially understanding why there are so few lagers being brewed by craft brewers comparative to ales, led me to Maureen Ogle’s Ambitious Brew: The Story of American Beer. Ogle’s an excellent writer and I ended up reading her equally thorough work about meat in America, In Meat We Trust: An Unexpected History of Carnivore America. I read the latter one in March.

Ogle takes a subject and broadens our understanding. It pulls us away from simple treatments and myths, which often shroud what we know about a topic. I appreciated getting to know her through her writing.

Beer and booze were recurring themes for me in 2014. In addition to Ogle, Maine beer blogger/writer Josh Christie’s Maine Beer: Brewing in Vacationland, is a kick-ass book for anyone looking to boost their knowledge about Maine’s beers and brewing (I read it in April). Later in the year, I’d end up with copies of Crafty Bastards: Beer In New England from the Mayflower To Modern Day, with Lauren Clark bringing the history to brewing and beer in a regional setting. Then, Stephanie Schorow offered new twist on the Hub with Drinking Boston: A History of the City and Its Spirits.

The demise of the American Empire continues to fascinate (and haunt) me. The economic and social maladies of the present have their roots in the past. In fact, I’d argue that the period of the late 1960s and early 1970s is worth reflecting back upon if you want to understand where we are in America right now.

Charlie LeDuff’s thorough profile of Detroit, one of the great American cities, and the municipality’s fall from its grandeur as one of our great manufacturing hubs was one of the more intriguing reads of mine in 2014. Detroit—along with other manufacturing centers like Gary, Indiana and Youngstown, Ohio among others—have been hollowed out by neoliberal economics, and are examples of death spirals that few Americans understand. This lack of awareness results from allowing others to connect the dots for them, especially via mainstream news, and right-wing talk radio. What I appreciate the most about reading, and reading widely, is that books get me to consider issues in an entirely new light, with much greater depth. If books are selected wisely, it also allows readers to break free of the limits inherent in binary thinking—one of the scourges of a dumbed down America.

This spring, I made my return to the umpiring fraternity. Of course, I blogged about it. Bruce Weber’s book, As They See ‘Em: A Fan’s Travels in the Land of Umpires, offered understanding and his own experiences as an amateur umpire who spent time at one of the schools for professional umpires, served the purpose of being guidepost and tour guide for me.

In order to read 65 66 books, you can’t tolerate many months where you only read two. That was my May as a reader. I’m not sure why I read as lightly as I did. Maybe it was the busyness of umpiring, finishing my manuscript and readying it for the printer, while also being wrapped up in prepping for my first triathlon of the season in June. Whatever the reason, May was my low water mark for reading in 2014.

June was a great bounce-back month, however, as I banged out seven books over 30 days (a similar number of books read in March, June, and September). Several of my reading choices allowed me to turn my reading into cash and reviews that I pitched as a freelance

I wrote a review of Sally Lerman’s Lobster Rolls of New England: Seeking Sweet Summer Delight, for the Boston Globe. Lerman’s book was a great read for someone like me, who along with Mrs. B, thoroughly enjoy our lobster rolls. Lerman’s book is the best of a host of books highlighting the finest shacks and roadside stands that New England offers when it comes to one of summer’s highlights—lobster roll season.

Two more books I turned into reviews were Maine-based books by Maine outdoor writer, George Smith, and Portland-based writer/blogger, Kate McCarty. I wrote a review for the Portland Phoenix highlighting both for their Summer Guide issue in June.

As I noted in my review, Portland has been a “city in search of a food history.” McCarty’s book put an end to that. It’s a terrific read about the city and its evolution as a foodie Mecca. McCarty, who published it with the History Press, is an excellent researcher and she’s written a terrific book on the city. She also has an interesting blog, The Blueberry Files, which I recommend checking out if food, and writing about food, is your thing.

I wish I could say that every book I tackled last year linked to Maine and Maine writers was as rewarding as McCarty’s, or Christie’s book about local beer (read in April) were. They were not.

I didn’t enjoy Susan Conley’s memoir, The Foremost Good Fortune, at all. It was too “whiny” for my tastes and I’ll leave it at that. Another book by a writer from Portland’s literati that I decided to pick up and read was Lily King’s award-winning, Euphoria. I read it on my bus ride to the Boston Book Festival in October mainly because of the award and wanting to get a sense about the hype surrounding the book was all about. It was awful, at least that’s how it read for me. However, October was an amazing month of reading overall, as I read 9 books (that’s 2+ per week)! That’s a lot of reading, but when you cut your television watching, like Mary and I did during this two month stretch (beginning Labor Day weekend), it frees up even more time for books.

I read a little bit of fiction, too.

I read a little bit of fiction, too.

As I mentioned earlier and is clearly evident from my list of books for the year (and from previous reading seasons), most of my reading is nonfiction. However, I had some very positive fiction experiences over the past 12 months. Jennifer Egan’s A Visit form the Goon Squad (February), Mark LaFlamme’s Worumbo (March), and Ron Currie’s Everything Matters! (April) represented a fiction “binge” for me and were all novels I enjoyed and would recommend to others. King’s was cloying and one I wish I hadn’t invested the time it took to plow through it.

Zadie Smith’s name often shows up in discussions of the late David Foster Wallace. Like Wallace, she moves back and forth between fiction and nonfiction (mainly essays) with ease. For that reason, I decided to tackle Summer Teeth, her first novel, and the one that got her on everyone’s list of great writers.

The book was a slog for me and it wasn’t a short one, either. At just shy of 500 pages, it took discipline to make it to the final page.

Maybe I have an issue with women writers, or their voices, I don’t know. I followed Smith’s book with the classic, The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger.

I read Salinger in school. Like similar “required reading” and books like Animal Farm, Moby Dick, and a few others, coming back to these books with some life under my belt has been rewarding. Maybe at 16 or 17, there’s too much going on hormonally to comprehend, or we just lack the wisdom to grasp what the author was trying to get across to us.

After having lunch with my former boss from my LWIB days who was teaching the book at UMA’s Senior College, I decided to re-read the Salinger novel that ends up on every list of banned books. I loved Salinger’s anti-hero, Holden Caulfield. And yes Holden, there are a wealth of phonies littering our path through life.

Knowing that I didn’t know enough about Salinger, and intrigued by our discussion about Salinger, I picked up Salinger, co-authored by David Shields & Shane Salerno. I learned more than I wanted to know about the reclusive author during my December reading of the book.

Another book I reread was Howard Zinn’s, A People’s History of the United States (1492-Present). This came after reading David D. Joyce’s biography of Zinn, Howard Zinn, A Radical American Vision. If there’s one thing America needs is a radical vision. That vision believes that our current economic, political, and social structure is so irredeemably flawed that it has to be replaced with a more equitable system. The second pass through Zinn’s tour-de-force was even better than the first one. Joyce’s book helped me to have an even greater appreciation for what Zinn stood for throughout his life and work.

I know this year’s reading summary bounces around. For whatever reason, I didn’t feel like doing the linear book list in review kind of post. There are a couple of books I want to mention before I wrap this thing up and move on to my reading for 2015.

Steve Almond is a writer that I really dig. He writes with a voice that is all his own and he tackles topics that aren’t covered to death (like candy). When he does take on a popular subject—like football—he offers a viewpoint and a treatment that is at variance with the masses.

His Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto, is a shorter read than normal for me. It’s also one that I’d recommend for football fans. I recognize (and so does Almond) that it’s likely to piss off the football junkies out there. However, in the age of the concussion, it’s worth considering and keeping in the back of your mind when you’re watching football each and every Sunday.

2014 was the year I got back to bylining articles as a freelance writer. I began late in 2013 doing some wiritng for the financial website, The Motley Fool. I parlayed those clips into additional work for a host of publications. Some of that writing had a journalistic bent, like the stuff I published in the Phoenix, The Baffler, and the new alt-weekly in town, DigPortland. We’re also at the start of another horse race for The White House, so I thought it appropriate to close out 2014 with some reading about politics and some horse races from the past.

There are few writers/journalists these days like the late Hunter S. Thompson. His Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 makes almost every top 10 or 20 list of books about elections/politics worth their salt. They label what Thompson did, “gonzo journalism,” which diminishes it in my estimation.

Thompson’s gotten the Hollywood treatment and over the last few decades, his writing has been forgotten in the service of all the myth-building taking place relative to his name and legacy. Like I often do, I prefer to get back to the original words and ideas, rather than relying on the made-for-the-movie, Cliff Notes version.

The reason Thompson’s writing matters is because he was a damn good writer, had a nose for what mattered, and he worked his ass off (when he was still at the top of his game)—all qualities that make for great investigative journalism. And by the way—we’re woefully lacking in that capacity at the moment and I’m not sure why that is

As 2014 fades into twilight, my reading finds me looking back in order to understand the road ahead. After Thompson’s look back at 1972, I referenced another iconic America writer who dabbled in writing about politics—Norman Mailer. The year is 1968 and Mailer was in Miami and Chicago, looking at our two-party duopoly through his own journalistic sensibilities.

Much like Thomas Wolfe did for me at the start of 2014, Thompson, Mailer, and the book I just began by Rick Perlstein, Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America (which will end up on next year’s wrap), are helping me frame the present and near future by considering what was happening at the beginning of my own journey as an American.

A handful of other books, with a short blurb–these resonated with me in 2014:

Grace Lee Boggs – The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century

95-year-old activist reflects back on her experiences and efficacy of grassroots activism. An amazing woman who has flown under the radar and not gotten the attention she deserves for her work.

Michael Shuman – Local Dollars, Local Sense: How to Shift Your Money from Wall Street to Main Street and Achieve Real Prosperity

Shuman’s book offers a way forward for local economies and those who realize it’s time to build local economic models instead of dumping money down Wall Street’s rat hole.

John Taylor Gatto – The Underground History of American Education: A Schoolteacher’s Intimate Investigation Into The Problem of Modern Schooling

Do yourself a favor—before you listen to one more argument about “reforming schools,” invest a week with Gatto’s book and learn the rotten foundation that sits under public education. You’ll never see public schools the same way ever again.

Meg Wheatley Leadership and the New Science: Discovering Order in a Chaotic World

I appreciate those in my life that recommend books that matter. My friend Emily is one of those people. She recommended Edwin Friedman in 2013 when I needed it for dealing with a bunch of assholes at the time. This year, Meg Wheatley was another writer with a book that I connected with. We live in an uncertain and chaotic world. We need guides and seers to help us navigate the real estate of place—Wheatley is a writer worth reading and then adopting some of her tools for adapting.

Sasha Abramsky – American Furies: Crime, Punishment, and Vengeance in the Age of Mass Imprisonment

This one really surprised me. I say, “surprised,” because I expected another “wonky” argument against mass incarceration and the prison/industrial complex. Instead, I got one of the most evenly and forcefully argued treatise on prisons and why they don’t work. Another book that transcends the usual binary BS.

To more books and a deeper understanding in 2015.

Just a few of the 65 in 2014.

Just a few of the 65 in 2014.

5 thoughts on “Another Year and a Bunch of Books

  1. While I was preparing my end-of-the-year post on books read, I ran across an article from the NYTimes about reading and how it “changes us.”

    Reading matters. If I didn’t believe that, I wouldn’t invest the time—I’d just sit around and send 140-character tweets about nothing, which seems to be what many of Maine’s “chosen” literati types do. Some of them have tweet numbers well above 10,000, which means there’s a whole lotta’ tweetin’ goin’ on! Probably not much reading, though.

    This year was possibly my high-water mark, and in a year that was crazy busy with getting a new book out on my own, scrambling around as a free agent, umpiring, and even finding time to do a couple of triathlons, I read more than a book a week. I know you could, too (if you decided it was something important).

    Reading allows for reflection, stepping back from things, people, events—that space and distance is necessary to then have something to say and write about it. Twitter (and Facebook, for that matter) don’t allow that same “distance.”

    I’d love a few comments from lurkers, drivebys, and others who’ve stumbled upon this post. Do you read? If so, what are your plans for 2015? Mine are to keep reading (and writing, too). Seems like the thing to do at this point in time.

  2. I am a dedicated lurker of your blog Jim….I have been reading primarily YA Fantasy as I belong to a Book Review Librarian Group at the Portland Public Library. Publishers send thousands of books to the PPL each year and librarians who choose to read the books and do a book review, present their reviews at a meeting once per month (not all and we are given 3 minutes each and timed) to the other members of the review group.

    Last spring we had a carpenter come to our home to build another set of bookshelves in our “spare room” to match an existing built-in book shelf and I have most of my books I hope to read someday in there. I am too busy working and taking care of my family to do much more than to do that.

    I will say that three books I have close by that I have been reading a section/chapter of each day are entitled:

    Holy Bible King James Edition

    the life-changing magic of tidying up: the Japanese art of decluttering and organizing by Marie Kondo

    Stitches: a handbook of meaning, hope and repair by Anne Lamott

    I also read the Portland and Lewiston Sun and the New York Times cover to cover each week

    and 10-12 magazines in order to gather “incidental information” as I call it.

    I also like to go into “the spare room” once per day to look at a few of the books I would like to read someday.

    Keep on writing, Jim, reading and being who you are!!!!

  3. I love reading, yet since I started blogging, I’ve read less and less each year. Like Sally, my Bible is nearby (either an English Standard Version or the good old King Jimmie). I read a couple of those Mitford books by Jan Karon (like a sugar cookie) and finished the year with Elizabeth Strout’s “Olive Kitteridge.” Oh, and Monica Wood’s book, “When We Were the Kennedys.” I’m always hauling out one of Jane Austen’s books or short stories by P.G. Wodehouse, Dorothy Sayers, or Dorothy Parker. For a woman with no Tee Vee, why am I reading so little? Because even though I didn’t love Strout’s book, finishing a book fills me with a sense of accomplishment. And of course there is that feeling of being transported to a fictional place or a place in time past.

  4. Jim,

    I’m also a reader and writer. I keep a complete list of everything I read, from longform articles to novels to essays. On that same list, I track the progress of my own writing. As I look back, it’s no surprise that my most productive periods are those in which I turn off the TV and read like a madman. This year I managed to read more than ever. It’s never enough. I wish I’d read more.

    I’m always on the hunt for things to read. Do you know Bill Lundgren from Longfellow Books in Portland? He’s always recommending stuff and has never steered me wrong.

    I see some of my all-time favorites in your list from this year, especially Zinn’s A People’s History, Egan’s Goon Squad and Currie’s Everything Matters.

    Some highlights from my 2014 list:
    The Unwinding, George Packer
    Station Eleven, Emily St. John Mandel
    Brewster, Mark Slouka
    Wells Tower’s “The Old Man at Burning Man” (GQ)

    In 2015, I’d like to get back to reading more nonfiction. Maybe work my way through Conor Friedersdorf’s Best of Journalism.

    I’m curious about why you finish books that you don’t like. I tend to put them down if they don’t grab me in the first 50 to 100 pages.

    This was a great post, Jim. It’s good to hear there are other avid readers out there, and your long list will inspire me in the coming year.

  5. @Sally Always happy to have you dedicated and lurking around the JBE blogging set.

    You mention YA novels. Have you read any James Patterson’s? He’s a prolific YA author who also is a huge advocate for reading and why it’s important. I’m linking to some of what he’s about on that front and his support of booksellers and reading.

    One thing I didn’t touch on are news sources and longer-form print publications, like daily newspapers. That’s another area and posting terrain for the future. The common place where we used to gather for news and information, and how that’s also disappearing—what are the consequences relative to that loss of communal understanding?


    I think certain sources, like the Bible, are important to come back to. Zinn’s book, my Postman books, Mumford’s The City in History—these are tomes I come back to time and time again. Fonts of wisdom, perhaps. You reference others, like Austin, Wodehouse, Sayers, and Parker. They stand the test of time and remain relevant for us here in the 21st century.


    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. Much appreciated. Also glad to connect with another Maine writer.

    Nice to see that reading voraciously also is married to writing output for you. It almost seems counter-intuitive perhaps, but it’s not.

    Some books, as tough as they are to get going with, eventually begin to roll forward past the 50 or 100 page mark. I think of by David Foster Wallace, which required an investment of 200+ pages to begin reaping the rewards that carried me through more than 1,000 pages. I’m glad I made that commitment. There are books I bail on prior to the 50 page book, believe me.

    Packer’s book was one of my 2013 highlights.

    I’m anxious to read your books and have added them to the already longish to-read list for 2015.

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