Between the Lines: Books: My picks and pans of 2012

There are few things as boring as a dinner party where the dominant subject of discussion is what movies we’ve all seen. We’re all just casual moviegoers offering up pablum about how great Meryl Streep is and wasn’t the scenery pretty.

But a dinner gathering where the discussion turns to books? That’s my kind of party.

A conversation like that forces us to actually use our brains. To offer an informed view of why the novel we just finished was so remarkable, or what was lacking in the memoir that preceded it.

Hell, for some of us, it stretches our brains just to remember the name of the book we’re reading.

Start a discussion about whether Hemingway is laughable or still relevant today, whether LeCarre was literature or airplane fodder — and we’re all stretched a bit, the way we were as trainees in the early months of our first real jobs.

For today’s column, for those of us who read more than just email, here’s a recap of books that caught my eye this year.

I should note that I offer these observations without any intellectual pretensions. I am a slow, even plodding reader with decidedly middlebrow tastes. But it’s better than knowing the plot of the latest James Bond movie, should it actually have one.

Several books got me through the dismal winter months of early 2012.

Gretchen Rubin’s “The Happiness Project” proved to be an informative ramble about her attempts to put into practice various techniques to be happier. The book’s subtitle sums it up: “Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun.” I learned some new techniques to brighten a gray day, and admired Rubin’s pluck.

Another early-year find was “How Long Till My Soul Gets It Right,” a mixture of reflections and personal stories from psychotherapist Robert M. Alter. In a similar vein, I drew sustenance from “Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow,” Elizabeth Lesser’s distillation of her 20-plus years of co-founding and leading workshops at the amazing Omega Institute. I’ll be rereading this one for years to come. So, too, with “Falling Into Grace,” one of the best and most accessible books of Buddhist insights.

Another philosophical classic I’m now in the middle of rereading is “Iron John,” the mythology-fueled — and still worthy — treatise from Robert Bly about how our culture has come to neglect boys and devalue men.

In a lighter vein, I got plenty of laughs from Nora Ephron’s “I Remember Nothing (and Other Reflections).” Ephron, who died this year, is equally funny discussing divorce, the shortcomings of egg-white omelets, and the fake orgasm scene she created for “When Harry Met Sally.”

I wrote earlier this year about Vermont naturalist Bernd Heinirich’s latest, “Life Everlasting: The Animal Way of Death.” Several months after finishing it, I’m still telling its stories — one mark of a good book.

I was one of many readers whose hearts were stolen by Cheryl Strayed’s “Wild,” the story of her adventures hiking the Pacific Coast Trail alone and with no previous experience. The tale takes her from a being a recovering heroin user to a keen and trail-hardened raconteur. It’s the book every hiker wishes he had written.

As winter turned to spring this year, I turned to fiction.

Critics have been arguing for decades over whether the novel is still relevant. I found one answer to that unanswerable question in new novels this year from Jim Harrison and Mark Helprin, two of my literary heroes.

Harrison and Helprin’s latest suggest that yes, the novel is still relevant — if only because it has the power to disappoint.

Few writers have reached the heights that Helprin did with “A Soldier of the Great War.” But his latest, “In Sunlight and in Shadow” — for all its gracious depiction of post-war New York — sometimes reads like self-parody.

Jim Harrison has consistently produced many novels that are in equal parts amusing, thought-provoking, and breathtaking in their descriptions of the often gentle, sometimes brutal world of nature. But his latest, “The Great Leader,” read like a mediocre second draft from a lesser writer.

I did, however, stumble across a couple of delightful surprises this year.

I was prepared to hate “The Marriage Plot,” by Jeffrey Eugenides, after I had labored through his previous outing, “Middlesex.” I found it to be one of those books I wanted to throw across the room, except that my parents raised me to mind my manners.

“The Marriage Plot,” however, proved to be a clever reworking of a common 19th-century literary theme, and its quirky and sometimes desperate young characters rang true.

The biggest book surprise for me this year was a Ken Follett novel, “Fall of Giants.”

Even middlebrow readers need authors to look down on, and I had spent decades looking down on Follett as a purveyor of pulp. But his story of five American and European families in the first 20 years of the 20th century was hard to put down.

Novel of the year for me? I’m partway through Michael Chabon’s dazzling return to form, “Telegraph Avenue.” So the jury is still out.

But for now, my personal Book of the Year would have to be “The Art of Fielding.” This first novel from Chad Harbach tells the story of a promising young college shortstop, the catcher buddy who mentors him, and the woman with whom he eventually falls in love.

Rising above the usual clichés about coming-of-age and baseball novels — a double curse worse than Whitney Houston’s having both a drug habit and Bobby Brown for a husband — Harbach manages to weave a story that is both touching and gripping, with a dose of magical realism for good measure.

As I was reading “The Art of Fielding,” though, I realized I wasn’t as enchanted as I felt I should be. It was as if I’d had three glasses of tasty wine and wasn’t really buzzed.

The book had all the elements of a good read — vivid characters, humor, and a freight train of a plot — but I found myself just drifting through it.

At last, I identified the culprit.

I realized the shortfall was not in the novel but in the medium: I was reading “The Art of Fielding” on my iPad.

The medium may not be the message — but it matters. There’s no comparison between an electronic reader and three-dimensional volume that smells vaguely of dead trees and ink, with pages that make a gentle swoosh when turned, with a front and back, and a thick, juicy middle.

I’ll reserve the iPad for all the electronic magic. I like my books as books, thank you.

If you made it this far, you must be a reader, too. Happy New Year, and Happy Reading.

Gregory Dennis’s column appears here every other Thursday and is archived on his blog at www.gregdennis.wordpress.com. Email him at [email protected], especially if you have suggestions for what to read next.

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