CASCADE OBSERVATIONS: Give us your reading list

I succumbed to indulgence this morning. No, I didn’t consume a plate full of fudge, buy a designer pair of shoes or sip a glass of expensive cognac. I turned off my alarm clock, turned on my light, pulled up my bed quilt, and opened a book.

I love to read, and have ever since I first cracked the code and came to understand that a combination of straight and curved lines on a page could be segmented into phonemes, then linked together to tell a story.

When you think about it, this is a truly remarkable, miraculous act. I don’t remember when or how I came to be a reader. Years later, it seems like one day I was Illiterate, and the next day a Reader; though I know there were months of effort in between.

I’ve successfully deciphered the codes for reading English and Spanish, but thousands of other languages, from Arabic to Russian, are still just a series of indecipherable lines on a page. I admire these mysterious languages for their visual beauty, but the stories locked inside those alphabets remain mysteries to me.

Many of my students aren’t so lucky. Day after day, they struggle to pull words off a page, pronounce them, and form pictures in their minds, thus making meaning. I want them to learn to read quickly; not to pass a test, but so they, too, can join me in the miracle of turning abstract symbols into rich and meaningful stories.


The book I savored and finished this morning is a novel, Wally Lamb’s “Wishin’ and Hopin’,” a delightful, irreverent Christmas story told from the point of view of 10-year old Felix Funicello. It’s not the most profound or moving book I’ve read this year, but it transported me nonetheless, and consuming it was as delicious as eating a freshly baked Christmas cookie.

So what was the best book I read this year? Steve Duin, a columnist for The Oregonian newspaper, asks his readers to determine this each year. It’s part of his annual reading contest, wherein he asks readers to keep track of the number of pages they read, and to write essays about the best books they encounter. Kevin Brown, last year’s winner, read 130,000 pages.

I’ve never entered the contest, and would never win because I read too slowly, but last January I decided to keep a list of every book read in 2012. As I added “Wishin’ and Hopin’” to the list this morning, I reviewed my literary chronicle.

I read 12 works of non-fiction (NF) and nine works of fiction (F), plus a myriad of magazines. In evaluating my selections, one might call my reading list “eclectic” — or that of a schizophrenic. In many cases, I selected new books by favorite authors. Other writers were new to me. Some of these will be added to my ever-expanding list of writers to visit again.

T.C. Boyle: “When the Killing’s Done” (F) — Boyle is one of my favorite writers. He is always irreverent, and likes to skewer anyone or anything — conservatives, liberals, talk show radio hosts, nutritionists, hippies and architects. This time his targets include wildlife conservationists.

Susan Orleans — I try to read everything Orleans writes, from essays on Saturday night to profiles of orchid hunters in Florida. The subject of her newest book is the famous German shepherd and movie star “Rin Tin Tin” (NF).

A.J. Jacobs: “Drop Dead Healthy” (NF) — I loved his book on reading the Encyclopedia Britannica, “The Know-It-All.” In his new book, he exposes himself to all kinds of “wellness” programs. A very entertaining read.

William Alexander — I read two books by Alexander this year: “52 Loaves” and “The $64 Tomato.” One follows his quest to bake the perfect loaf of bread; the other looks at his sometimes illogical obsession with gardening.

I read lots of other fascinating nonfiction this year, including “Midnight Rising”; “John Brown and the Raid That Sparked the Civil War,” by Tony Horwitz; Oregon writer Rebecca Skloot’s compelling “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lack”; the fabulous biography of Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson; “Ghostly Men,” about the famous New York hoarders the Collyer brothers; “Inside Scientology” (I was curious, aren’t you?) by Janet Reitman; “The Fish That Ate the Whale,” about Sam Zemurray and the beginnings of the Central American banana trade; and “A Bunch of Amateurs: A Search for the American Character,” by Jack Hitt.

In the realm of fiction, three books stand out: “Olive Kitteridge,” by Elizabeth Strout, is a lovely yet powerful novel about a retired schoolteacher in small town Maine. “Sarah’s Key,” by Tatiana de Rosnay, and “The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society,” by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows, are both wrenching, compelling novels about life — and death — under the Nazis.


Finally, thanks to a gift from my sister, I have discovered an author who is equally versed in fiction and nonfiction. My first read this year by Luis Alberto Urrea was “The Hummingbird’s Daughter,” a novel that literally transported me to another time and place. It follows the life of a young girl in revolutionary Mexico whose talents as a healer bring opportunity and danger to her, and those she loves.

I followed this up by reading his novel “Into the Beautiful North,” a delightful story of a group of young Mexicans who set off on a quest to find seven people who can save their small Mexican town from the “banditos” and “narcos” who threaten it.

Finally, I just completed “The Devil’s Highway,” Urrea’s haunting nonfiction chronicle about a group of Mexican men who crossed the border illegally — and died hideous deaths in the deserts of Arizona. It’s a “must read” if you want to begin to understand (and find solutions to) illegal immigration in the U.S.A.


Share your favorite books of the year with your friends and family, or by entering Duin’s contest in The Oregonian.You can also send me your list, in care of the Hood River News or via email:

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