Annette Sanford: Eleanor and Abel: a Love Story This is delightful. Reading about a couple of 70-somethings falling in love is totally charming. It's possible that you have to be a 50-something or more to fully appreciate it, but I hope not.
Chris Bohjalian: Before You Know Kindness This has been a favorite author for awhile now, and his newest does not disappoint. I've been dragging this everywhere with me, and reading more than knitting in order to finish. Bohjalian has a deft hand with family dynamics. He clearly shows both sides of any argument. He creates characters who a reader can get fully involved with. Read this, read any of his books. Purely satisfying.
Kent Haruf: Eventide If you liked Plainsong, this will be equally satisfying. Haruf is good at exploring both the warmth and chill of human relationships. I like his characters, and he leaves the door open for a continuing saga about how these lives keep intersecting each other.
Lawrence Block: Tanner's Twelve Swingers My first ever audio book. I'm a Block fan from his books Hit Man and Hit List. This wasn't as good, but it was entertaining enough to finish...and I got a lot of knitting done as well.
Pearl Buck: The Good Earth This is considered a classic for a good reason. I first read it forty-plus years ago. Loved it then; loved it now. THe family life cycle in pre-Revolutionary China, and the family life cycle in 21st century America....not much difference in dynamics.
Philippa Gregory: The Queen's Fool I love historical fiction from the Tudor/Stuart reigns. This one does not disappoint. Try The Other Boleyn Girl by this author as well.
Terry Kay: The Kidnapping of Aaron Greene A bit slow to get into, and repetitious in parts, but eventually I got caught up in the plot and decided to finish it. Ending falls flat...the whole book was a bit flat. Kay is a good writer, but he needs a better story to tell. His previous book, To Dance With the White Dog," was far superior. Read that one instead.
Vivian Schilling: Quietus This is a can't-put-down book. I was willingly persuaded to suspend belief and go along with the overtones of the supernatural. Through the plot line of survivors of a plane crash being picked off one by one by spectres of Death, the book explores issues of mortality. Not exactly a cheery topic, but like a sore tooth, I am often drawn to probe around it anyway.
Several readers (I have readers?) have noted that I have not kept this blog current. At all. It's not like it hasn't been on my to-do list. Obviously, it must have a permanent location on that list...and it's not at the top. But along with cleaning out closets recently, I'm tidying up that to-do list, so here we are. I guess I'll just plunge in and list everything I've read so far in 2007. I'll only annotate if the book was extra special. Hold on...here it goes!
Intuition by Allegra Goodman Murder at the Ford Museum by Margaret Truman The Last Van Gogh by Alyson Richman The New Woman by Jon Hassler The Virgin of Small Plains by Nancy Pickard......EXCELLENT Memories of My Melancholy Whores by Gabriel Garcia Marquez (How could the man who wrote A Hundred Years of Solitude ever write this? Blah!!) Rise and Shine by Anna Quindlen Passage by Connie Willis
After by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor.....EXCELLENT A Three Dog Life by Abigail Thomas A Spot of Bother by Mark Haddon The Hummingbird's Daughter by Luis Urrea.....EXCELLENT There Will Never Be Another You by Carolyn See The Book of Names by Gregory & Tintorini The History of Love by Nicole Strauss.....I LOVED THIS The Good Children by Kate Wilhelm.....EXCELLENT
Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert....I enjoyed this; my two book clubs were strongly divided. Regardless, read her earlier work of fiction...Stern Men. An excellent novel. Innocent Traitor by Alison Weir Liars and Saints by Maile Meloy Skylight Confessions by Alice Hoffman Sylvia's Farm by Sylvia Jorrin.....read this if you are contemplating raising sheep. Otherwise, maybe not.
Tall Grass by Sandra Dallas The Devil and Miss Prym by Paulo Coelho The Knitting Circle by Ann Hood Everymans Rules for Scientific Living by Carrie Tiffany....a unique and interesting novel. Quirky. I liked it a lot. Cellophane by Marie Arana Hot Rocks by Lev Raphael The Man of My Dreams by Curtis Sittenfeld....Excellent
Walking on Eggshells by Jane Isay.....Must reading for parents of adult children...or for adult children. Lay That Trumpet in Our Hands by Susan McCarthy Dream When You're Feeling Blue by Elizabeth Berg Julie and Julia by Julie Powell Disobedience by Naomi Alderman.....good until a very weak ending The Birth House by Ami McKay.....FASCINATING The Monk Upstairs by Tim Farrington The Covenant by Naomi Regan The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue......this might be my FAVORITE of the year Little Children by Tom Perotta Three Junes by Julia Glass.....I read this 5 years ago and thought it had a very weak ending. I just reread it for book club, and the ending is just as weak.
Now if I can just stay caught up, maybe I can say something truly intelligent about what I'm reading. I'll try.
Readers may think I have given up reading! Never! Just writing about it. Rather than try to detail every book, I will just post this as a list of my September through December 2006 books read, with a short annotation on books that had a big impact...positive or negative. Then I can get a fresh start with 2007.
The Chili Queen by Sandra Dallas
The Memory Keeper's Daughter
Annie G Freeman's Fabulous Traveling Funeral by Kris Radish.
People in two book clubs loved this. Personally, I thought it was treacly and formulaic.
Triangle by Katharine Weber
Earlier this year I read a Weber book I didn't care for, and I stated that view openly in this blog. I am pleased to report that this particular book is outstanding. The quality of writing, the meticulous historical research, and the unique way in which the plot unfolds makes this story about the famous (or infamous) Triangle Factory fire a riveting read.
The Wonder Spot by Melissa Bank.
I enjoyed this one a great deal.
Desirable Daughters by Bharati Mukergee.
Not a particularly desirable read.
Blue Water by A. Manette Ansay.
Very good book.
The English Teacher by Lily King
Friendship Cake by Lynne Hinton.
Awful. Even more treacle than the Traveling Funeral. Ugh. My teeth hurt reading this book. In fairness, others in my book club enjoyed it. Maybe I'm just getting too cranky for this kind of sweetness. Fans of Jan Karon, and I know there are many, would enjoy it.
I Hate My Neck by Nora Ephron
Delightful treatment about the terrible truth of being an aging woman. You know that commercial about we're not getting older; we're getting better? So untrue.
Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
I loved her book, The Namesake. I'm sure I would have loved this one too if I liked reading short stories, but I don't.
True Evil by Greg Iles
Iles has written way better books than this. That said, it was still a gripping pageturner. Even a bad Iles is good.
I don't know why I haven't posted in so long. I hate it when bloggers apologize for not posting. No one is paying me to express my opinions...I do this entirely for myself, so I don't need to make excuses if it's not a top priority. However, I do like to keep on top of things in general, and my reading habits in particular.
So without apologies, I will detail the handful of books that I've managed to read over the summer, starting with the one I just this moment finished, because it's still filling my mind.
Anne Tyler's Digging To America will not disappoint Anne Tyler fans. I consider myself one of them. This is a novel about families, about the need to belong, about the need for a clear identity in a world where unique cultures are both revered and suspicious. It is a story that gives insights into the Iranian culture, and Americans certainly need all the insights they can open themselves up to. How does one retain a foreign identity, when assimilation is the expectation? Two couples....one Iranian-American, and one traditional American....adopt Korean children at the same moment in time. Their lives remain entwined from that point on, and two of the grandparents are drawn toward each other as well. There is much bittersweetness in the blossoming relationship, and the bitter and the sweet are rarely in balance. Tyler is particularly gifted at being able to create completely real, ordinary people fumbling their way through their lives. This was excellent reading.
Zorro, by Isabel Allende, is not her best work. She retells the legend in her usual engaging manner, and she creates new parts of the story to fill in the blanks. A lot of time is spent giving Zorro parents and a childhood, which all explains how he came to be the dashing masked crusader of justice.. Along the way, Allende creates new characters, or adds embellishments to the old ones. She throws in a lot of digs at the treatment of the indians...well-deserved, but a little heavy-handed at times. My biggest criticism of her writing in this book was her gimmick of using a first-person narrator for one page at the beginning of the book, and then switching to third-person for so long that it was an intrusion when the narrator eventually re-appeared. This happened throughout the story, and when the narrator's identity was revealed at the end, it was anti-climatic. The ending itself was contrived and unrealistic to me. I enjoyed the reading in spite of what I feel are flaws. I'm just not used to thinking anything Allende writes is flawed.
Mr. Emerson's Wife, by Amy Belding Brown, was a joy of book. This is historical fiction at its best, as Brown fleshes out the woman who was married to Ralph Waldo Emerson and creates a credible scenario of how their lives together worked. I simply loved reading this.
The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls was selected as a community book in nearby East Lansing, and it was required reading for all incoming freshmen. I'm not usually much for memoirs, particularly since it's always filtered through the author's memory and inner censor. Walls writes of a childhood that rivals any dysfunctional family Oprah novel. It was pretty horrific, but Walls and some of her siblings seem to make it through as intact and functional adults. In my book club discussion, some people flatly rejected her assertions of truth...they simply don't believe it all happened that way. I believe it mostly did, which goes to show that some children can get through all kinds of terrible parenting as long as there is a great deal of love to go along with it...and it does seem like the children in Wall's family were indeed loved. This book was worth reading, although I'm still not big on memoirs.
I enjoyed these books....Turning Angel by Greg Iles, Quentins by Maeve Binchy, How To Be Lost by Amanda Eyre Ward, and Labyrinth by Kate Mosse. Also Speak Softly, She Can Hear by Pam Lewis, but do be forewarned that the first two chapters are quite grisly and unpleasant. And The Binding Chair by Kathryn Harris.
I just finished Amsterdam by Ian McEwan. Originally I picked this up because I'm going to Amsterdam soon, and the jacket blurb indicated that some of the action took place there. It's always fun to read about a place I've really been to or will be going to. Also, I had read Atonement, and enjoyed that, so this one seemed a safe bet.
Indeed a few pages at the end really do have some vivid description of Amsterdam, and left me intrigued. But more importantly, the entire book was intriguing. In fact, I'll say that it was excellent. The plot....two men mourning a woman they both had loved ask an interesting favor of each other. That sets in motion a series of events that fall into place with perfect precision and irony. No more....can't say more. Just....read this book.
Winter's hold on me finally wanes. I feel ready to rejoin the world of thought and action. It's not that I haven't been reading for the last two months....I've done a lot of reading. But I just finished a book that makes me want to write again. O Frabjous Day.
I Am Charlotte Simmons, by Tom Wolfe. Let's get the bad stuff out of the way first. Wolfe is wordy. Sometimes I revel in his words and his wordplay, and sometimes I just want to say move it along, Tom. He's wordy, sometimes pretentiously wordy, and that's interesting given that he's so good at slaying pretentious dragons in his writing.
Potential readers should know that this book is loaded with F-words and S-words and AH-words, and MF-words. It's loaded with sex and drinking, and worst of all, it's loaded with college students who, like, can't speak real English, in spite of,like, really high SAT scores. This is not a flaw....it's part of the essential plot of the book to regale the reader with devastatingly accurate portrayals of how the elite youth of our society, the cream of our crop, really speak and think and act. Scary stuff! Consider yourself warned.
What I want to know is how Mr. Wolfe is so adept at getting inside the female mind? More than once, I squirmed in embarassed memory of a few times in my life when I felt just like Charlotte, or worse, acted just like Charlotte. How did any of us survive adolescence anyway? And how many of us, well along in middle age, still experience those pangs of early insecurities....the need to belong, to feel accepted, to fit in with the crowd? Get those hands up....yes, we've mostly evolved to a state of confidence in our opinions and our place in the world. But still....walking into a room full of strangers is daunting at any age.
Briefly, Charlotte Simmons is a freshman at fictional Dupont University, but given the recent scandals involving lacrosse players at Duke, I saw immediate parallels. Charlotte is a tiny town country girl, who was the star at her high school. At Dupont however, she's just a lowly loser freshman whose brilliant mind and firm morals make her an outcast. The twists and turns of her academic year, the ups and downs....Wolfe writes a fascinating story and by the middle of the book, I could not put it down. Which is a problem, given the 676 pages of the book. I even gave up knitting and sleeping for this book.
This is NOT an adolescent coming-of-age tale, although in some ways it is. It IS a commentary, sometimes humorous and sometimes sad, about the society we live in. Wolfe raises wonderful questions about the reverence we give athletes (Why?) and about the drinking habits of college students (Why?) and about how nice girls turn into sluts (Why?). He even makes a good stab at answering his own questions.
But how did he come to know the dynamics of the female mind so well? I am impressed.
ROLL CALL Here's a list of my other reads with just a terse comment to say yay or nay:
Waking Raphael by Leslie Forbes. Convoluted.
The Devil and the White City, Eric Larsen. I'm not a non-fiction fan. But this was quite interesting. Makes me determined to get to the next world's fair in Shanghai in 2010.
In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant. I recommend every Dunant book written.
Gentlemen and Players by Joann Harris. Riveting with a twist at the end that I didn't see coming.
I've had some ambivalence about continuing this book blog. In the past year, I've managed to offend one author to the point that she left a pointed comment, and I've managed to please one author to the point that she sent me an advance copy of her next book. So I'm one for one on the Offense Scale.
All of which proves that our words carry weight, no matter how insignificant it seems to us as we write. I started this blog mainly to force myself to keep a more useful record of my reading achievements than just the title and author. I've often wished I had a record of every book I've ever read....yes, starting way back in childhood. Or at least beginning at age 12, when I hit the adult shelves with a vengeance. Why do I need this list? What purpose would it serve? Beats me, but I still wish I had it. I have been list-keeping for a number of years now, and when I look back at some titles, I haven't a clue what they were about. I know instantly whether I loved or liked or felt so-so about a title, but I couldn't tell you why.
With access to instant book plots a la Amazon.com, the world hardly needs another annotated bibliography of My Favorite Books, or whatever. But something in me needs to keep records, so here I am to continue adding a dash of salt to my own book stew. I will continue to say whatever I think, and if some author is out there googling him or herself to see what the little people are saying, so be it.
Now on with the show! I've knocked off four books in the early times of 2006, with mixed results. Two were excellent, two left me cold.
The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason was a book I struggled to finish, only because it was a book club selection and I feel compelled to cooperate in a book club. The story centers around a naive English piano tuner who becomes a pawn in England's politics in the 1880's. He travels to Burma at the request of the military to tune a rare piano in the jungle. Most of the book club members raved about the story, which helped me appreciate it more once I finally slogged my through. The best part of the book for me was the discussion, so I guess I didn't completely waste my time.
The Drowning Tree by Carol Goodman was another book club pick, and none of us were very impressed. Do you like modern gothic mysteries with lots of mythological references and lots of repetition and characters that go nowhere? 'Nuff said.
Run, don't walk, to your library, bookstore, or Paypal account, and get a copy of Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See. This book had me from page one, and the author does an excellent job of developing the dynamics of family and friendship in 19th century China. She also deals with the dynamics of foot-binding...in spellbinding detail. If Memoirs of a Geisha attracted you at all, Snow Flower has far more to offer. Hollywood, take note.
Philippa Gregory's The Constant Princess is her newest addition to her repertoire of historical fiction dealing with kings and queens of England. She never disappoints me...I hang on her interpretations of court intrigues and Machiavellian manuverings. I read Forever Amber in my formative years, and Gregory takes me right back there. I guess if I were a serious student of history I would have to turn up my nose at Gregory. She is a novelist first, and if she takes liberties with her interpretations, I don't care. I spend quality enthralled time in the world she re-creates and I love it. That's all I really require of any author....transport me into another world, another time, another group of people. Entertain me. Make me think. Gregory does this.
I read surprisingly little in the last month of 2005. Of the three books I got through, only one was notable. The Last Days of Dogtown, by Anita Diamant, was a fascinating look into simple (and not so simple) human dynamics among the residents of a dying Massachusetts town. Diamant first came to fame with The Red Tent, which was a favorite of book groups. Her second book, Good Harbor, was about friendship and breast cancer. With her third novel, she demonstrates that she can't be categorized by type. Dogtown is just plain good writing, engaging characters, and a loose plot line that serves mainly to demonstrate the life cycle with all its ups and downs.
Brother and Sister, by Joanna Trollope had an interesting premise...an adopted brother and sister set out on a quest to find their respective birthmothers. However, it was a bit histrionic, and often repetitive, and mainly just plain dull.
Inheritance, by Lan Samantha Chang, was an interesting look into the intermingling of family dynamics and history in the China of the 1930s and beyond.
AWARDS OF 2005 My favorites, in no particular order.
I am pleased to report two worthwhile books to add to your reading list. The first is Forever, by Pete Hamill. It was originally recommended by a woman at the airport, and I'm glad she steered me that way. I do have to caution readers to be prepared to suspend reality for a while. Once you accept that the inconceivable is conceivable, the rest flows nicely.
Forever is about living forever. Cormac O'Connor doesn't wish for this; it is given to him as a gift. To make sure it isn't a curse, he is given a way out eventually, if he chooses to take it. This story is rich in Irish history and culture, and particularly rich in the history and culture of Manhattan. My only gripe is that sometimes there is too much repetition of past events as Cormac mulls over his lengthy history. But as someone who would very much like to have the choice to live as long as I choose to live, the book offers lots to think about.
In Tilt, by Elizabeth Burns, readers are taken inside the world of parenting an autistic child. The story is sometimes funny, often sad, and occasionally terrifying. Bridget Fox's own descent into life-threatening depression and mental illness is perfectly understandable. Sometimes madness is an acceptable way to cope when you just can't cope anymore, when you need a buffer of time to learn a new way to cope.
It seems like much of October was spent trying to find something really good to read. I won't even bother to name the books I started and discarded. I did finally end up with a couple of decent books, and one that I can highly recommend.
The Good Patient, by Kristen Duisberg, was quite intriguing. A young woman tries to outwit her psychotherapist, but in the end comes to finally understand herself.
Grace Notes, by Charlotte Vale Allen, features a battered wife who escapes her prison, and becomes a noted writer on the subject. She begins an email dialogue with one of her fans, who appears to be in danger. But who is really in danger? Enough said. This wasn't a great book, but it kept me entertained.
Readers of Sue Miller's novels know her to be very adept with family themes. Lost in the Forest has all of the depth and layering that we expect from this author. It is a sad book in many ways, but any parent, or anyone who has ever been a child (yes, that's all of us) will recognize the ways in which it is all too easy to get lost in the shuffle of life, even for a little while. Eva's second husband is killed suddenly, and in her grief she loses track of her children's lives. It doesn't hurt the oldest and the youngest, but Daisy in the middle takes a different path to get what she needs. This is one that stays with you.
Currently I am halfway though Forever, by Pete Hamill. So far, so good.
Finally I remembered the book I read at the beginning of the month. And now that I remember, I know why I forgot. It was The Miniaturist, by Kunal Basu. I never wrote it down, because I didn't actually finish it. Obviously I didn't enjoy it, and even though it was for my Fiber Arts Book Club, I couldn't bring myself to spend any more time that the 125 pages I had already read. It should be noted that others in the group LOVED this book, so don't take my word for it's worth.
I've just completed A Cup of Light, by Nicole Mones. This is also for the same book club, and this book is why I love being in a book club. It's not a story that would have attracted me if I'd seen it on the shelf, or read the blurb on the flap, or even read a good review of it. But I loved it. It's a story of a young woman in China to assess an astonishing collection of ancient porcelain. It's a story of art, of intrigue, and just a bit of romance. It's a story of China.
And as an aside, last month's book, The Music Lesson, also dealt with the issue of art forgeries. I questioned the credibility of the idea that a fake wouldn't be recognized by the museum experts. In A Cup of Light, I now understand how complex a task it is to determine forgeries, particularly when they are done by extremely skilled artists. I like the way we are reading so many novels around the general theme of art, because the knowledge I gain from each feeds into the background of another. And so the world goes round.