A Book a Week for a Year 2020
53 books, 18,000 pages.
COVID entered the world, and suddenly there were lockdowns, protests, social distancing, Black Lives Matter, the election and worrying friends were radioactive. So I read. Mostly fiction. A book a week for a year. This year, bigger books, 550, 858 and 944 pages, the longest one yet, almost 5 books in one. I calculate to watch where my time is going. I calculate to see how I spend time, I calculate to see if it’s worth it, and how I will come out in the end. Surprised? Better educated? In awe and wonder in the writing - which is my reason to read in the first place - not for plot, but for the weaving of the story, for the brick-by-brick laying of sentences into walls that are paragraphs, into the house of the story.
This year I’ve read poetry, essays, interviews and a gaggle of fiction because it takes me into other worlds, other people’s lives, and away from the never ending news cycle. Through fiction I’ve entered so many unique worlds: the bayou in WHERE THE CRAWDADS SING, the biographies of 21 WOMEN IN BRITISH HISTORY, caves and tunnels all over the world in UNDERLAND. I've wondered right along with author Susan Orlean who was it that set fire to LA’s central library in THE LIBRARY BOOK, and took a left hand turn into THE WEST when COVID hit and I found myself permanently living in Montana. I came up with a list of 35 of the best western novels of all time and made it through 7 beginning with Cormac McCarthy’s BLOOD MERIDIAN (which is brutal), LEGENDS OF THE FALL, LONESOME DOVE, Michael Ondaej’s remarkable imagining of Bill the Kid’s memoir, and Mildred Walker’s WINTER WHEAT, the tale of a young girl growing up in the stark country of northern Montana’s hay ranches. The language in RIDERS OF THE PURPLE SAFE drew my breath away….all these books of the west painted the portrait of this landscape I am now living in, the ranches, the mountains, rivers, spring creeks and the national park.
All these books take me away from COVID and the fear at the supermarket, fear at the post office, fear someone near me is infected with the virus. Books take me far far away.
My Livingston book club came up with great titles I wouldn’t have chosen myself:
The Girl with 7 Names, The Flight Portfolio, The Dutch House; good books, interesting books that kept me turning the page - (EM Forster’s measure of the success of a novel.)
Then came THE WARMTH OF OTHER SUNS, Isabel Wilkerson’s story of the migration of African Americans from the south to the north of the United States over a 70 year period, Zora Neale Hurston’s BARACOON, the story of Cudjo Lewis, enslaved fifty years after the slave trade was outlawed and the only known person alive who could recount this part of America’s history, and Isabel Wilkerson’s CASTE, the hierarchy of human rankings. My LA writing group ran right along side these titles with short stories by Alice Monroe and Richard Ford, and poetry by Rumi, Ocean Vuong, Louise Gluck, Wallace Stevens, and Hilda Doolittle, aka H.D. Rich reading.
A character in my short story THE TRANSPLANT is a painter, so I turned to Victoria Findlay’s COLOUR - The History of the Palette, and found out where ochre came from - Australia - and black and brown, white, red, orange, blue, indigo, violet, yellow and green.
I read Paris Review Interviews on the Art of Fiction, The Art of Poetry, The Art of Theatre, books just for the pleasure of it like Jamie Harrison’s splendid novel THE WIDOW NASH about a woman in 1900 who is repelled by the family drama and runs away, makes up an identity for herself -- THE WIDOW NASH - and ends up in Livingston, Montana. Then there was Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, the story of a dumb woman who’s very smart - that was a laugh - and books on food from MFK Fisher and Jacque Pepin.
All those books over months of social distancing this year were fascinating, interesting, but after 53 books the BEST BOOK of the year - came down to three:
Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
Ninth Street Women by Mary Gabriel
Deacon King Kong by James McBride
for so many reasons. BEST BOOK because of the language, because of the place and it’s history, for the story of driving 3,000 cattle from Texas to Montana, for the struggle of women in art, breaking through the wall of Abstract expressionism, and for the creation of a story told with depth of heart.
My best book of the year is:
James McBride’s DEACON KING KONG
for the description of the Causes Project in south Brooklyn and the characters who lived there, the drug dealers, the church women, the children, the musicians, friends and families, the police who patrolled, and the Deacon of the Five Ends Baptist Church whose favorite pastime was drinking rot gut liquor called King Kong…and for the sentences, dialogue, action and commentary and all woven together to create a story with expressive language, with kindness, surprise, joy and love.
Literature - fiction - what an addictive non-stop pleasure. If it doesn’t hold me, I stop. Why should I read something I don’t like when there are 80,000 pages of Balzac I haven’t read yet? In the words of Salman Rushdie: “Through literature we can capture truth and beauty and joy in art.” My 2020 list, all 53 of them.
A Book a Week for A Year 2020
Kathleen Matson Blurock
BC = book club
W = best western novels
Jack = books for writing class
MOP = my own pleasure
GFT = Gift
1. Come Rain or Come Shine -MOP Kazuo Ishiguro
Short book, easy read. a love triangle in college.
2. British History in 21 Women - MOP Jenni Murr
This book so interesting and inspirational I rushed to the nearest bookstore - Topping’s new one in Edinburgh - to research what is there and spend some of my 1000 hours a year reading about Elizabeth I.
3. Where the Crawdads Sing BC Delia Owens
Excellent story teller. Keeps it moving by switching the chapters back and forth in time. Owens is deft at her scientific descriptions which ease the story onto a soft fragrant cloud. However, I couldn’t get past the fact that the “marsh girl” would be left out all alone from the age of 7 to fend for herself in that isolated climate. She lived alone there for years. It took me out of the story but I read it to the end and - SPOILER ALERT - she actually did kill him. Sigh. She - Delia Owens - skunked me on this. I kept thinking Kya didn’t do it, but who did? And she deftly made her the killer because she knew how to hide, how to disguise, what the tides were, how full the moon was and when, and how to make a solid alibi. Wild.
4. The Overstory - BC Richard Powers
This book starts off great, interesting, creative, pure poetry . And the first few stories well told and how they relate to trees, and then, at page 90 the thing dropped like a stone and I just couldn’t go any farther…..no further at all. Am I wrong?
5. Underland - BC Robert McFarlane
In UNDERLAND we go from the tunnels under the north sea, to the caves in Lofoten Norway, to the glaciers in Greenland to the under city cities in France, the burial tomes of spent nuclear rods in Finland….an exit into territory I have scarcely thought about…and he makes it human, picks the hand as the thing that unites us, leaves us with an image of him and his young son walking hand in hand in the forest. Taken in small bites, this book reflects the depth - the underneath - of the earth, the beauty and the danger. Tremendous work.
6. On Love - MOP Charles Bukowski
Bukowski always invigorates. These chapters are compilations from many other books, from many other years. He is true and direct, a man who was not only a drunk, but a treasure of American letters. If he hadn’t written, he would have died.
7. Cutting for Stone - MOP Abraham Verghese
A saga that shoots off like a bullet with a breathtaking beginning.
A doctor and a nun collide on a ship from India to Ethiopia? And what happens between them. I will say no more. This book is a must.
8. THE LIBRARY BOOK - Gift - Thanks, Lorraine. Susan Orlean
History, mystery and so very much more. The tracing of the person that was thought to have begun Los Angeles’ central library fire in 1986. What libraries and all the people that help them operate mean to humanity.
9. THE GIRL WITH SEVEN NAMES - BC Hyeon-seo Lee
Hyeon-seo Lee’s memoir of her defection from North Korea and her families escape from North Korea through China and Laos. The “Great Leader’s” photo was on the wall of every home and at any time authorities could come to the home to be sure if it were clean. If not, they could be put in the gulag, beaten, killed. Total authority. A report from the edge, and I felt so much was left out, so much brutality and torture not really said.
10. BLOOD MERIDIAN - W - Cormac McCarthy
The great Yale Professor Harold Bloom calls it “the ultimate Western not to be surpassed, a “canonical imaginative achievement, with language deliberately archaic and baroque.” Set on the Mexico/Texas borderlands in 1849 this is the story of the murderous Glanton Gang sent by Texas and United States authorities to murder and scalp as many indians as possible. Judge Holden is the spiritual leader of Glanton’s filibusters. The kid, although murdered in the end is there to tell the Judge “you aint nothin.” McCarthy’s language is Shakespearian, constellations of sentences and paragraphs so dense one must read over and over to grasp their meaning.
“Here beyond men’s judgements all covenants were brittle. The black looked up from his pipe bowl. About that fire were men whose eyes gave back the light like coals socketed hot in their skulls and men whose eyes did not, but the black man’s eyes stood as corridors for the ferrying through of naked and unrectified night from what of it lay behind to what was yet to come.”
Various words linked together are a created language.
- oafish demons routed from a fen
- houses loopholed & parapeted
- brimstone land of Christian reckoning
- men who tilted and clasped their shadows on the ground
- a howl of such outrage as to stitch a caesura in the pulse beat of the world
- trammeled to chords of rawest destiny
- scatter reuma
- like some pale and bloated manatee surfaced in a bog
- strange priapic leer
- a din seething rabble had coagulated within
Sentences pop out like something I need to remember.
- the old ones are gone like phantoms and the savages wander these canyons to the sound of an ancient laughter.
- - and in the night bats came from some nether part of the world to stand on leather wings like dark satanic hummingbirds and feed at the mouths of these flowers
- under a gibbons moon horse and rider spangled to the shadows on the snow blue ground.
Not an easy book. A masterpiece of language and story and a sense of reality in northern Mexico in an attempt to control the border.
11. Legends of the Fall - W - Jim Harrison
Wonderful west. Wonderful characters made into a wonderful movie.
12. THE SPLENDID AND THE VILE -BC Erik Larson
Churchill fighting Hitler in 1940. Compelling read and not only historical, but person insights into the Churchill family.
13. THE FLIGHT PORTFOLIO - BC Julie Orringer
1940 during the war in the South of France. Varian Fry is the head of America’s ERC - Emergency Rescue Committee - to help great artists and writers out of France and immigrant into America. The backdrop for a love story between two east coast Harvard men.
14. THE RAINBOW COMES AND GOES -MOP Anderson Cooper & Gloria Vanderbilt
Interesting dialogue in emails between the heiress mother and her son.
15. & 16. LONESOME DOVE - W - Larry McMurtry
858 pages of this wondrous journey. I feel like I have been on the cattle drive with the Hat Creek Outfit. This beautifully written story got under my skin. It’s difficult to let go. So many great characters: Gus & Call, Lorena, Dish Bloggett, Newt and Clara, each one well developed and rich with insight on who they are and why they do what they do.
It takes months to drive 3,000 head of cattle north from Texas to Montana.
The women mostly being whores, or “sports” as the men called them, are balanced out by the Clara, a wife, mother, horsewoman and writer who didn’t get to write. McMurtry has given the reader a woman who isn’t a whore, with power and stamina, a whole woman that breaks the box of the myth of silent women, women as slaves and sports. Poignant. Deep. Rich. Human.
This story made me open the map constantly to see where they were on the drive. It made me appreciate the plains and the mountains of the west I haven’t much considered. It’s like reading three books, and has me wanting more of the old west.
17. The Collected Works of Billy the Kid -W- Michael Ondaetji
Poetry, prose, photographs and the imaginings of the writing of a real life person who was boxed into a myth. Very surreal like, rather topsy turvy, and a great way to chase Lonesome Dove…with a whiplash, a straight talk, a poem. Great imagination.
18. The Dutch House - BC Ann Patchett
Each sentence like a line of bricks, building into a paragraph, building into a narrative that just won’t stop and hooks from the very beginning. I can’t stop reading and yet I don’t want it to end.
Appreciated the brother’s love of his sister, the descriptions of the house, the characters and their steadfastness through the years. An A-1 read.
19. Winter in the Blood - W - James Welch
Bleak. Stark. Haunting. The story of a native American boy/man in the northern plains of Montana. Compelling.
20. Winter Wheat - W Mildred Walker
It’s about love. It’s about Ellen Webb growing up on a dry land hay ranch in Montana with her American father and Russian mother. Where is my Strunk & White? I can never remember when mother or father is capitalized. This is a masterful portrait of a young girl who goes off to college, falls in love, and how she makes sense of all that. Her hardships are blistering, but I can’t stop thinking about the portrait Mildred Walker created and the authenticity of the land she gave me.
21. Creating a Character -Jack Constantine Stanislavski
The truth of the character from the outside in.
22. Riders of the Purple Sage - W - Zane Grey
Zane Grey, a language star. A wonderful ride from beginning to the last two words. The entire book is worth reading if only for the chase in the last third.
“So, with his passion to kill still keen and unabated, Venters lived out that ride, and drank a rider’s sage-sweet cup of wildness to the dregs.” THAT sentence after the chase is remarkable.
And when he remarks on the wind:
“Venters….and faced the wind from out of the west. Always it brought softly to him strange, sweet tidings of far-off things. It blew from a place that was old and whispered of youth. It blew down the grooves of time. It brought a story of the passing hours. It breathed low of fighting men and praying women. It sang clearly the song of love. That ever was the burden of it’s tidings - youth in the shady woods, waders through the wet meadows, boy and girl at the hedgerow stile, bathers in the booming surf, sweet, idle hours on grassy, windy hills, long strolls down moonlit lanes - everywhere in far-off lands, fingers locked and bursting hearts and longing lips - from all the world tidings of unquenchable love.”
What the wind brings, fantastic. Read this and read it fast.
23. BARRACOON - MOP - Zora Neale Hurston
The story of 86 year old Cudjo Lewis, survivor of the Clotilda, the last slaver known to have made the transatlantic journey, illegally brought to the US. Zora Neale Hurston went to Plateau, Alabama in 1927 to interview Cudjo - Kossola, his African name - and get his story in his words.
24. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes - MOP - Anita Loos
Well, sometimes a girl like I has to take a right hand turn and read something zany just to keep a balance with all the high brow stuff. So I read GPB and it is a kick. LOVE Anita Loos. A smart woman writing a dumb woman who’s smart. Wow. Lots of undercurrent here. “So he said that he had gone to Cartiers and he had looked over all the engagement rings in Cartiers and after he had looked them all over he had decided that they were not half good enough for me. So then he took a box out of his pocket and I really became intreeged.” Right, she spelled it that way. Quite a change from Barracoon.
25 Ernest Hemingway - JACK - The University of Minnesota Pamphlets on American Writers
26. Rock Springs - Jack - Richard Ford
Short stories mostly set in small Montana towns. I feel the uncertainty of these places, the underbelly of these places. Ford speaks to the fears, the grief, the relentlessness of life. Superb story telling.
27. The Gastronomical Me MOP - M.F.K. Fisher
Delicious writing about her adventures with food.
28. & 29. The Warmth of Other Suns - BC - Isabel Wilkerson
The GREAT MIGRATION - from 1915 to 1970 - of almost six million African American citizens of who fled the South for a better life in northern and western cities. An important read for anyone. I wish I had this book when I was 18 to read and understand truly how African Americans were betrayed.
30. Breaking Down the Surface of the World - Poetry- Part 1 Jack Grapes
Breathtaking surrealist poem, real and true, ancient and modern words that build, swing over, ride through. Fabulous.
31. CANADA - Jack - Richard Ford
Wrenching. A lament. The devastating effect people’s choices have on their children. Very difficult to read. Beautiful language and mystical commentary. Richard Ford is a word magician, a language star.
32. Afterlife - BC Julia Alvarez
Hard to adjust to this after CANADA. The aftermath of a women’s life after her husband dies. Asks questions about what our responsibilities are to things that just happen in life, and our responsibility to the invisible people. A sisterhood and all that that entails.
33. Night & Sleep -Poetry - Rumi
Poetry. Love. The interior life. Lovely.
34. Wide Spot - MOP - Thomas McGuane
New Yorker short story. VERY Montana. The brilliant Thomas McGuane.
35. The Rock - Jack - Poetry Wallace Stevens
The best American poetry.
36. 37. 38. 39. 40. NINTH STREET WOMEN - MOP Mary Gabriel
944 pages, and the longest book I read all year. I am making this 5 books in 1 because it is really biographies of five women painters: Lee Krasner, Elaine de Kooning, Grace Hartigan, Joan Mitchell, and Helen Frankenthaler all rolled into one, set against the nascent of the abstract expressionist movement. A monument of a book to the painters, to their milieu, to the times, to Art. A revelation and history of all. LOVED THIS. Took me 26 days to read it.
41. NIGHT SKY WITH EXIT WOUNDS - Poetry - Ocean Vuong
Sharp, cutting, the edge of the rose. Intense and brilliant. The line breaks create more rhythm.
42. TWENTY LOVE POEMS AND A SONG OF DESPAIR - Poetry - Pablo Neruda
Nature, the stars and love.
43. THE WIDOW NASH - MOP Jamie Harrison
In 1900 New York, a daughter travels the world with her eccentric father who goes to the silver mines and the diamond mines and exotic places, contracts syphillis, gets crazy, commits suicide and dies. She has jilted his partner, who won’t take no for an answer, is repelled by the drama, and runs away inventing an identity for herself as THE WIDOW NASH, ending up in Livingston, Montana.
I felt as if I were in a sepia colored movie with men in bowler hats and ladies in long skirts. Wonderful. Inventive. Poetry, prose, newspaper articles. Rich reading.
44. HD. Collected Poems - Jack H.D. Hilda Doolittle
Lovely divine poetry referencing the Gods, Goddesses and nature.
45. Colour - the history of the palette - MOP - Victoria Findlay
Ochre, black and brown, white, red, orange, blue, indigo, lilac, violet, yellow green.
The history and places in the world where they originate. Fascinating.
46. Dear Life - Jack - Alice Munro
More short stories. Wonderful. Alice Munro is a noble prize winner in literature.
47. Sorry for your Troubles - Jack - Richard Ford
Short stories, with an economy of language and deep commentary. Eclectic and wonderfully wrought. I love this writer.
48. The Garden of Evening Mists -BC - Tan Twan Eng
1951 Malaya. Graceful prose unfolds in this heartbreaking story of one woman’s survival from a Japanese slave camp, and how dreams of creating a garden kept her sane. Beautifully written. Man Asian Literary prize.
49. Brokeback Mountain - W - Annie Proulx
Short short story. 55 pages. Told with lyrical beauty. Her sentences are masterful. Understands the west deeply and how to describe it.
50. Caste - MOP Isabel Wilkerson
Read all 388 pages in 3 days. Fascinating. Hierarchy of caste.
51. Moments of Livvy - MOP Regitze Ladekarl
A fellow writer in Jack Grape’s method writing group, this is Danish born Regitze Ladekarl’s first novel. Fresh, alive and a page turner. She has created an empathetic character in Olivia who makes the pages turn.
52. Jacques Pepin - THE APPRENTICE - My Life in the Kitchen
Delightful story of the boy from rural France who went from his mother’s kitchen and restaurants after the war, to Paris and Plaza Athene’s kitchen, then to New York, Julia Child, marriage and fatherhood. Totally a sweet fun read.
53. DEACON KING KONG - MOP - ***** James McBride
Like reading Jazz. A book to study. Lyrical prose that takes us to the depth of the heart and makes the characters human. This year’s National Book Award. My BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR.
Paris Review The Art of Fiction Interviewß
Joan Didion No. 71
Kazuo Ishiguro No. 196
Toni Morrison No. 134
James Baldwin No. 78
Jim Harrison No. 104
Richard Ford No. 147
The Art of Poetry
Kay Ryan No. 94
The Art of Theatre
David Mamet No. 11
“We work in the dark
we do what we can
We give what we have
Our doubt is our passion
and our passion is our task.
The rest is the madness of art.” - Henry James
Writer and photographer Kathleen Matson Blurock is a member of the Los Angeles Poets and Writers Collective based in Livingston, Montana. Kathleen grew up in Urbana, Ohio, and attended the University of Cincinnati and George Washington University studying great American writers. Her poetry has been published in ON THE BUS literary journal and she has written numerous short stories and two novels. Kathleen produced the collective’s booth at the LOS ANGELES TIMES FESTIVAL OF BOOKS for 3 years with Jack Grapes.