RJ’s 2022 Draw-bag Booklist

It was Benjamin Franklin who gave us the axiom that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” He might have added tempus fugit, or that time flies. Here we are again, another New Year, launching a journey into the unknown, trusting it will end well. As I’ve done the last three years, I am posting my annotated draw-bag list of anticipated reads, fiction and non-fiction, drawn from the finest sources. Covering a wide range, they excel in delivering counsel, encouragement, enjoyment and, yes, sanctuary. Keeping a list has kept my reading disciplined and meaningful—the very best books, nothing less. Perhaps this list or one of your own will do the same for you. HAPPY NEW YEAR everyone! —rj


Akhtar, Aryad. Homeland Elegies A Novel. (Akhtar’s second novel, a probing critique of America’s embraced narratives.)

Beaty, Paul. The Sellout. (First American to win Man Booker Prize, Beaty’s satiric novel depicts an isolated Black protagonist, whose case ultimately goes before the Supreme Court.)

Boyd, William. Any Human Heart. (Boyd’s sprawling novel and popular BBC dramatization sure to draw you in, and a reread for me. It’s that good. )

Butler, Samuel. The Way of All Flesh. (V. S. Pritchett called this book “the bomb of Victorian literature.” A clergyman loses his faith.)

Byatt, A. S. Possession. (Exhilarating Man Booker Prize intellectual novel of love and mystery.)

Camus. The Plague. (The classic more relevant than ever.)

Chandler, Raymond. The Big Sleep. (I never tire of a good mystery, and Chandler, the great master, never disappoints.)

Chaudhuri, Amit. Odysseus Abroad (Along with Salmon Rushdie, Chaudhuri ranks among India’s most prominent writers in English. With seven novels, this work is a good place to begin your acquaintance).

Herbert, Frank. Dune. (Among the most widely read science fiction novels, an exploration of a future interstellar landscape.)

Kundera, Milan. The Unbearable Lightness of Being. (A cogent examination of the way we live our lives.)

Leilani, Raven. Luster. (The adultery novel, successor to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary, finds updated boldness in Leilani’s first novel. On Barak Obama’s reading list for 2020.)

Márquez, Gabriel García. One Hundred Years of Solitude. (The great master’s timeless novel.)

Pritchett, V. S. Short Stories. (Famed man of letters, especially known for his short stories, essays, and crafted sentences.)

Robinson, Marilynne. Gilead. (A Pulitzer Prize winner, first in series of four novels by America’s internationally acclaimed literary fiction writer.)

Tharoor, Shashi. The Great Indian Novel. (An amalgam of myth, legend, folklore and anecdote in a retelling of Indian history from its ancient beginnings to its present day.)

Trevor, William. The Stories of William Trevor. (Now an established literary presence, Trevor’s collected short stories will unceasingly delight.)

Yanagihara, Hanya. A Little Life. (National Book Award Finalist and NPR Best Book, 2015), four friends grapple with hopes, fears, and unspeakable losses.)


Arana, Marie. Bolivar: American Liberator. (Outstanding biography of Simon Bolivar, the South American revolutionary often compared to Washington.)

Benedict, Ruth. Patterns of Culture (Classic delineation of cultural patterns, drawing on Nietzsche’s Apollonian-Dionysian dichotomy).

Davis, Wade. Light at the Edge of the World: A Journey Through the Realm of Vanishing Cultures (Renowned anthropologist Davis explores unique indigenous versions of life and humanity’s loss consequent with tribal extinction.)

Diamond, Jared. Guns, Germs & Steel. (I have been aspiring for some time to read this best selling popular science book, translated into 33 languages and a Pulitzer winner. Diamond brings a wealth of knowledge from many disciplines, explaining historical European dominance.)

Ehrman, Bart D. Misquoting Jesus (Biblical scholar Ehrman chronicles his transition from belief in divine inspiration of the Bible to contradictory and falsified biblical texts.)

Frankl, Victor. Man’s Search for Meaning. (Holocaust survivor Frankl’s life-changing book on the aegis of human happiness.)

Gates, Bill. How to Avoid a Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have and the Breakthroughs We Need (An optimistic, sensible argument that we possess the wherewithal to mitigate climate change apocalypse.)

hooks, bell. All About Love: New visions (The late black feminist’s acclaimed book defining love as it should be.)

Levi, Primo. If This is a Man. (A classic, riveting holocaust story of survival replete with resonant insights engendered through duress.)

Mance, Henry. How to Love Animals: In a Human-Shaped World. (A beautifully written, candid appraisal of humanity’s relationship to the animal world.)

Mishra, Pankai. Bland Fanatics. (Sixteen essays offering a revised reading of Western history in the context of racial exclusion.)

Orwell, George. A Collection of Essays. (I have always appreciated Orwell as one of our supreme essayists, forthright, prescient insights, and style mastery.)

Shapiro, James. Shakespeare in a Divided America: What His Plays Tell Us About Our Past And Our Future. (A Shakespeare scholar offers timely Shakespearian nuance for a troubled nation.)

Solnit, Rebecca. Orwell’s Roses. (An exploration of both Orwell’s political rage and his consummate love for cultivating roses, revealing a fascinating inner dimension. Solnit never disappoints. Makes me want to visit his Hereford cottage.)

Steele, Andrew. Ageless: The New Science of Getting Older Without Getting Old. (Exploration of future expansion of longevity and well-being. This book will get you moving.)

Williams, Joy. Ill Nature: Rants and Reflections on Humanity and Other Animals. (Essays by a short-listed National Book Award and Pulitzer nominee.)

Wilson, E.O. Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life (The last in the eminent biologist’s trilogy, it offers bold strategies to save earth and ourselves.)

Wulf, Andrea. The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (Wulf’s illuminating biography of the father of modern environmentalism, selected as A Best Book of the Year (2016) by The New York Times, The Atlantic, The Economist, Nature, Jezebel, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, New Scientist, The Independent, The Telegraph, The Sunday Times, The Evening Standard, The Spectator.)

A Poet Reminisces: Essays After Eighty

ows_141652973541643I have always liked poetry and poets, in particular, because of their sensitivity to human experience.

One poet I like a lot is Donald Hall, a giant among contemporary American poets, although he’s given up the craft, or as he puts it, since “poetry abandoned him.”

Hall is now 85.

Let me assure you, while the tropes may not come as easily as before, his acuity remains vibrant in his newest book, Essays After Eighty, a slim volume of 120 pages, yet filled with reminiscence, keen observation, and sober wisdom.

I first got introduced to Hall by way of his textbook, Writing Well, which I used for a number of years in teaching college composition. The book lived up to its title, emphasizing sentence clarity and how to achieve it, with eloquence added in.

Hall has always been a diligent stylist, whether writing poetry or prose. He confesses that he’s written some individual essay drafts for Essays After Eighty upwards of eighty times to get things said right.

I used to tell my students that the name of the game in all good writing lay in revision, pointing out that scholars have come upon nearly fifty drafts of Yeat’s famed “Second Coming” poem.

I like how Hall says it: “The greatest pleasure in writing is rewriting. My early drafts are always wretched.”

I’ve always held that a good style is etched by its economy, the right words sufficing for empty fillers drowning readers in verbosity; a pleasing rhythm like waves, in and out, upon a sea shore.

Good prose, like poetry, runs lean.

And Hall is the great master.

Let me give you a sampling of Hall’s trademark writing acumen, simple, yet keen with observation, each detail chosen well, verbs especially, accumulating into a verbal, painting, reflecting the ethos of a skilled artisan:

In spring, when the feeder is down, stowed away in the toolshed until October, I watch the fat robins come back, bluejays that harass them, warblers, red-winged blackbirds, thrushes, orioles. Mourning doves crouch in the grass, nibbling seeds. A robin returns each year to refurbish her nest after the wintry ravage. She adds new straw, twigs and lint. Soon enough she lays eggs, sets on them with short excursions for food, then tends to three or four small beaks that open for her scavenging. Before long, the infants stand, spread and clench their wings, peer at their surroundings, and fly away. I cherish them….

Reminiscence weighs heavily upon these essays, not surprising for a writer in his mid-eighties. the ghosts, as it were, looming out of the past–grandparents, Mom and Dad, aunts and uncles, friends;  wife Jane Kenyon, the love of his life and fellow poet, succumbing unexpectedly to cancer at age 47.

Even the northern New Hampshire topography has yielded to change, farms giving way to rebirth of forest as the new generation migrates to the prosperous cities of southern New Hampshire.

As I read this moving collection of personal reflections on sundry topics, I made sure to highlight a number of striking passages, and some of them I’ll share with you.

On writing:

As I work on clauses and commas, I understand that rhythm and cadence have little to do with import, but they should carry the reader on a pleasurable journey.

If the essay doesn’t include contraries, however small they be, the essay fails.

Nine-tenths of the poets who win prizes and praises, who are applauded the most, who are treated everywhere like emperors–or like statues of emperors–will go unread in thirty years.

I count it an honor that in 1975 I gave up lifetime tenure, medical expenses, and a pension in exchange for forty joyous years of freelance writing.

I expect my immortality to expire five minutes after my funeral. Literature is a zero-sum game. One poet revives; another gets deader.

On aging:

When I limped into my eighties, my readings altered, as everything did.

In the past I was advised to live in the moment. Now what else can I do.?

On leisure:

Everyone who concentrates all day, in the evening needs to let the half-wit out for a walk.

On mortality:

It is sensible of me to realize that I will die one of these days. I will not pass away.

At some time in my seventies, death stopped being interesting. I no longer checked out ages in obituaries.

These days most old people die in profit-making dormitories. Their loving sons and daughters are busy and don’t want to forgo the routine of their lives.

Essays After Eighty has been a wonderful read for me with its acerbic wit, cogent wisdom, delivered in a simple, yet elegant, style, proving again that the best art conceals itself.

And yet there’s a melancholy that haunts these excursions into reminiscence, a sense that the best is over and, now, there’s just the waiting. As Hall confesses, “My problem isn’t death, but old age.”

Hall, of course, is addressing physical decline with its imposed limitations and dreaded dependency; but surely his words resonate still more–the sense of ephemerality that mocks our labors and brings to an end all that we love most dearly.

For Hall, “There are no happy endings, because if things are happy, they have not ended.”

Still, this work, perhaps his last, formulates a testimony to a life lived well.

And, very rarely, do you find such honest telling.


Reflections on Boyd’s Any Human Heart: Elegant Solemnity

51PW49A1GYL._BO2,204,203,200_PIsitb-sticker-arrow-click,TopRight,35,-76_AA278_PIkin4,BottomRight,-66,22_AA300_SH20_OU01_Have just finished William Boyd’s riveting novel, Any Human Heart, nearly 500 pages long.  You may remember it had appeared on PBS as an award-winning three part adaptation.  That’s what led me to the novel, the fictional playback of the posthumous journals of Logan Mountstuart, novelist and free lance journalist, whose life of eight and half decades virtually bookends the previous century.  Though a fictional work, Boyd ingeniously transmutes it into a rerun of much of that century’s principal happenings, replete with landmark political and cultural figures.  We almost believe Mountstuart is real.  Boyd even supplies copious endnotes!  Obviously, Boyd did his homework.

Most readers embrace this novel warmly, despite its weight of persistent melancholy.  Life for Mountstuart adds up to luck and unluck and, subtracting the difference, hoping your assets top your liabilities.  For Mountstuart, there’s an awful lot of bad luck, though you could argue much of it’s of his own doing rather than a conspiracy of fate.

There are readers who don’t like him.  I see things differently–Mountstuart an anti-hero in the sense we all are, living behind masks, or an assemblage of many selves, creatures often governed by inertia, self-absorption, insecurity, pettiness, obsessive evolutionary drives– and not infrequently, self-pity; in sum, a panoramic narrative of human finiteness foregrounded in the human condition that forestalls its amelioration.

I see a character refreshingly honest about his failings, indeed his saving grace, who by story end, arrives at a greater, more compassionate self, reaching beyond narcicissm to embracing others; distilling what good elements remain through sharpened awareness; at last accepting of mortality’s proximity in keeping with the tenor of his several journals underscoring the ephemerality of experience.

Any Human Heart just happens to be one of the wisest novels I’ve read in a long time with its plethora of acute observations, reminding me of Herzog’s insightful ruminations in Bellow’s eponymous work.  Accordingly, I’ve jotted some of them down, hoping you’ll like them as I do and perhaps want to try out this novel for yourself: 

On life:

Every life is both ordinary and extraordinary–it is the respective proportions of those two categories that make that life appear interesting or humdrum.

That’s all your life amounts to in the end: the aggregate of all the good luck and the bad luck you experience.  Everything is explained by that simple formula. 

You can’t make these unilateral pacts with life:  you can’t say that’s it, my emotions are securely locked away away, now I’m impregnable, safe from the world’s cruelties and disappointments.

On religion:

It was all a bit obscure to me and now I understand why I don’t give religion much thought.  The awful boredom of uncritical faith.  All great artists are doubters.

I’ve never understood how a person of real intelligence can believe in a god. Or gods.

Shelley was so right:  Atheism is an absolute necessity in this world of ours.  If we are to survive as individuals we can rely only on those resources provided by the human spirit–appeals to deity or deities are only a form of pretense.  We might as well howl at the moon.

On sexual initiation

I could only marvel at her nudity.  It seems to me that first time of mutual nakedness is almost a more lasting memory than the sex act.

On mortality:

We’re not ready for it–for people of our age to die.  We think we’re safe for a while, but it’s a dream.  No one’s safe.

That moment when you realize quite rationally, quite unemotionally–that the world in the-not-so-distant future will not contain you: that the trees you planted will continue growing but you will not be there to see them.

We all want a sudden death but we know we’re not all going to be provided with one.  So our end.  So our end will be our ultimate bit of good or bad luck–the final addition to the piles.


I miss New York more than I would have imagined.  I miss those perfect spring days.  Wraiths of steam rising from the manhole vents backlit by slanting early morning sun.  Cross streets thick with cherry trees in bloom.  The way time seems to slow to a crawl in diners and coffee shops.

On health:

Those of us who have the luck to enjoy good health forget about this vast parallel universe of the unwell–their daily miseries, their banal ordeals.  Only when you cross that frontier into the world of ill-health do you recognize its quiet, massive presence, its brooding permanence.

On pets:

He’s only an old dog, I tell myself, and he lived a full and happy dog’s life.  It may sound stupid, but I loved him and I know he loved me.  That meant there was an uncomplicated traffic of  mutual love in my life and I find it hard to admit it’s over.

On good writing:

The studied opulence, the ornament for the sake of ornament, grows wearing and one longs for a simple, elegant, discursive sentence.  This is the key difference:  in good prose precision must always triumph over decoration.





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