I was going to be good this year. I resolved on New Year's to rise every morning at five and read for an hour before my kids got up. There's simply too much to read, too little time, and too many interruptions; I needed a strategy, a routine, to conquer the pile.
Alas, I can count only two dozen mornings in 1993 when I kept my vow - a batting average of .066. What's worse, there's no one to blame for all the strike outs, except sloth, the great conspirator.
And so the book list on my desk stares at me as it sprawls over four single-spaced computer sheets, lumped into categories from "Activism" to "U.S. Foreign Policy," and amounting to 295 worthy titles that I had compiled from perusing book catalogs and reviews. Of these, I managed to read perhaps two armloads full - some in a leisurely manner over the course of the year, some cramming for this assignment over the last few days.
Happily, I have several to recommend. And to recommend a book, or to buy a book for a friend, is one of the finer exercises in reciprocal pleasure, akin to baking a rhubarb or blueberry pie from scratch, and sharing it with company.
I began the year with fiction, relishing Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina (Dutton). This wonderful, devastating novel tells the harrowing story of a girl named Bone, who is abused by her stepfather until her mother leaves not him but Bone herself. I loved the book for its realism, the vivid characters in Bone's extended family, and Allison's magnificent capturing of regional diction - as well as for the crucial theme and redemptive ending.
I also read some poetry, the most urgent being The Man with Night Sweats, by Thom Gunn (Noonday). The formal verse put me off at first, but I grew to appreciate its power, especially in the latter section of the work, which conveys the pain and sorrow of love in the time of AIDS, the slow and agonizing deaths of the poet's friends, and the irredeemable loss they have created. "Now as I watch the progress of the plague/The friends surrounding me fall sick, grow thin/and drop away," he writes in "The Missing."
"Lament," the longest poem in the book, begins, "Your dying was a difficult enterprise." This tragic poem is about a friend who "lacked the necessary ruthlessness,/the soaring meanness that pinpoints success." In heartbreaking detail, Gunn recounts the painful hospital treatments and the final crushing moments of his friend's life, when "your lungs collapsed, and the machine, unstrained,/...