Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Ms. Manitoba: Books Read in 2008

Keeping a list like this started a couple of years ago. My dear dear friend, PolCat, suggested that, at the beginning of the year, I make a list of all the books I’d like to read in that year. The list I make at the beginning is a guide and I shouldn’t be rigid about it. Read with freedom -- read anything I like ... but there’s the list to guide me when I want that. Then, at the end of the year, make a list of the books I actually have read. So this is the list of books I read in 2008. In this list I give a short critique but I rarely tell what the book is about. I figure you can look it up on But sometimes I do because I want to say something about the story or plot.

I am NOT including my list BOOKS TO READ IN 2008 that I sent out in January 2008. It’s just too humiliating. Yes, I know, that list is just a guide. But ... I only read four ... count them ... four measly books from the list!!!! My goal is to make my January 2009 list much more reasonable. [If you really do want to check my list from last January, go here.]

One thing that I’m happy with is that I read more satisfying books this year ... especially in the last six months.

My biggest failure: The Fate of Elephants by Doug Chadwick. Why? I’ve been trying to finish this book for four years now. Folks, it is just too sad. I just can’t take it. And my biggest fear is that this book is at least 15 years old ... and I fear that the fate of elephants has gone from bad to worse. I think of it as a failure because it’s an interesting book on the behavior of elephants. But the sad stuff outweighs the interesting stuff in my mind.

Note: Do not judge me harshly ... I am a slow reader. It's like I'm making a movie of the book in my head ... it's *that* slow!

Prep: A Novel - Curtis Sittenfeld
Didn’t finish
Not sure what to say. The writing was good. I think the main character just got on my nerves too much. Her insecurities really bugged me. Funny thing is that the way she dealt with her insecurities was the way I dealt with mine when I was an older teenager and in my early 20’s. I guess the main character just hit too many nerves attached to things in myself that I despised.

Nickel and Dimed - Barbara Ehrenreich
I loved it. It was a page turner. It was a nice balance of serious ... serious stuff about work lives of the full-time, barely-making-it workers ... mixed with Ehrenreich’s biting sense of humor. Oh, and it brought back memories of all those jobs (I’ve had a million of ‘em!) that paid shit and humiliated you at least 8 times a day. Highly recommended.

At Large and At Small: Familiar Essays - Anne Fadiman
I love Fadiman. I loved her Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader -- an excellent book about reading. At Large and At Small was very good too. But Ex Libris was the better book. Still: Recommended without hesitation.

Granny Torrelli Makes Soup - Sharon Creech
Creech is a good writer. This one was so-so. Pleasant. Not that interesting or well-written or funny, though. Do I recommend it? No. Don’t waste your time. Okay, if you’re 10 go ahead ... you probably have plenty of time to waste. But me, no.

Midnight’s Children - Salman Rushdie
Oh, my god. What do I say about this? It’s just a rich, excellently written story with lots of interesting action and characters. Bonus: Rushdie has a wicked wicked WICKED sense of humor. And, did I say that the writing is to die for? Envy the size of an elephant inhabited my body as I was reading this ... however, it didn’t take any pleasure away from the reading of it. Okay, I’m gonna get bossy now: Put it on your to-do list.

A Bird in the House - Margaret Laurence
Interesting inter-related stories. Set in Manitoba. However, this is a tricky one to recommend ... would someone NOT from Manitoba think it was as interesting? Dunno. I would guess not. Although Laurence did get a lot of acclaim by folks in the U.S. for her books. I wish the NY Times reviewers would say that to us when they review books: “Would somone NOT from Manitoba think it was interesting?” They never say that. They always assume that we will be as interested in a book as they are. [Okay, I’m guilty of that too. See my entry for Midnight’s Children.]

Esperanza Rising - Pam Munoz Ryan
Oh, this was good. Very good. Recommended. It was really successful in placing the reader right there in the midst of a labor camp.

Mortal Stakes - Robert B. Parker
Plot thin and, therefore, unmemorable. I’ll probably be able to read it again in 6 months and not remember what happened in the plot. He’s good at dialog though and that’s why I kept reading it.

Bronx Primitive: Portraits in a Childhood - Kate Simon
Part of my New York City research for my story ... that I haven’t written a word of this year, by the way. But, I’m still doing the “research” ... which means reading books about NYCity, Ireland, and Canada (especially about French Canadians) ... things I’d want to read anyway.

Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards) of ARTMAKING - David Bayles and Ted Orland
Another so-so one. PolCat was reading it so, of course, I wanted to read it too ... because I follow her around like a puppy dog. I heard her praise it and now I wonder if she really liked it all the way through? It’s a thin book and I did get something from it. It’s very encouraging to artists of various stripes and plaids and dots: just do it. So, I did take away this message in my brain to keep working at it -- my photography, videography, writing. But, I guess I wanted more.

The Carniverous Carnival - Lemony Snicket [audio cd]
Wonderful. So good. Highly Recommended. See next one.

The Grim Grotto- Lemony Snicket [audio cd]
Wonderful. So good. Highly Recommended. See next one.

The Penultimate Peril - Lemony Snicket [audio cd]
I think the writer Lemony Snicket is very very good. He makes allusions to other stories or parts of stories in literature that fit so nicely in the story he is creating. So it adds this rich layer. I am a champion of children’s literature. An ex of mine is the person who really showed me how wonderful children’s literature can be. I often enjoy children’s books better than mainstream “adult” novels. On top of the author’s creativity, this audio cd series is read by Tim Curry. Tim Curry is so talented! He is such a good reader for this series. The voices he invents are interesting and often hilarious. PolCat, break through this prejudice you have! Listening to a book on tape/cd can be even richer than moving your eyeballs across a page. Come on, Babe, shake up those 100 billion neurons and come over to the dark side.

Map of Ireland: A Novel - Stephanie Grant
Complex story of a 16 year old Irish American working class girl in South Boston. Very well written. Complex story about race and class ... and being a lesbian. The characters were finely defined. Highly recommended.

Riding in Cars with Boys - Beverly D’Onofrio
This book -- like many books these days -- could have used a few more drafts. I expected more from Beverly D'Onofrio ... and I really wanted to like this book. I grew up near D'Onofrio around the same time. So, I enjoyed reading about that time and place. But Ms. D'Onofrio could have gone deeper. She wrote about all her wildness, drinking, drug abuse. But what got her out of all that? Just going to college? Just growing up? I wanted more. Plus, I didn't think the writing was very good. I think part of the problem with a lot of books these days is that publishing houses don't have the staff they used to. So, writers really do not get edited like they used to. Books are being released when really they could use two or three (or more) drafts.

Sammy Keyes and the Skeleton Man - Wendelin Van Draanen
It was fun but not more than that.

The Great Gilly Hopkins - Katherine Paterson
My daughter recommended this book. And, we listened to it in the car to and fro. We loved it! The story is fascinating and the characters are wonderful. It’s the story of an 11 or 12 year-old girl who has become hardened and deceitful because of her experiences as a foster child that is moved around to different families. She’s white and has grown up racist ... but this changes ... not in a sudden epiphany (how rare those are!) ... slowly ... organically. I highly recommend this book. Yes, yes, PolCat, we didn’t read it with our eyes ... we listened to it on cd from the library. It’s a great story to listen to on a trip. [Berkeley to Oakland and back again is not what I would really call a “trip” ... but if I were going on a trip, it would be perfect.]

A Freewheelin’ Time - Suze Rotolo
This book is for the most part, but not entirely, about the time that Rotolo was lovers with Bob Dylan. She's an interesting person so I was also interested in the stories about her time in Italy, her life as an artist, her upbringing as a working class red diaper baby, her experiences in Greenwich Village, the people she knew in the folksinging world there in the Village. Then, of course, there's Dylan. Interesting stuff. However, her writing was often flat and the ending was disappointing. She skips chunks of time. I would have liked to know more about her evolution as an artist and the ways she may have struggled to keep being a creative person. I do recommend it to those of you who are interested in that period of time and Greenwich Village.
28 Feb 2011 - Update: The New York Times ArtBeat blog is reporting that Suze Rotolo has died. May she rest in peace. Our sincere condolences to her loved ones. To read more, go here.

Proof a play - David Auburn
A really interesting play. I wish I’d seen it in the theater; nonetheless, it was a pleasure to read. Not great super quote-filled writing, in my humble opinion. But a very interesting plot. And, with the right cast, it could have made good theater.

Lush Life - Richard Price
I thought it was very good at plunking you down in this particular group of settings. He’s good at characterization. Very good at dialog. It’s set in NYCity so I love that. I”m not recommending though ... the ending is a bit of a let down. I’m not sure why I say that because in many ways the end was satisfying. In a novel, dénouement is tricky ... it’s a very tricky part of the book. Maybe my letdown was just a natural letdown due to the dénouement ... after you read a story that absorbed you. Here’s another thing: I didn’t like any of the characters. That bothers me when I read.

Is it a sign of true maturity when you can really like a book even though you don’t like any of the characters? Dunno. I think it’s a sign of maturity when you can recognize that a writer is really good at writing even though you dislike the characters. For example, I thought the plotting and writing in Ship of Fools by Katherine Anne Porter was really good. Really good. But I intensely disliked everyone. And, ultimately, that means I wouldn’t recommend a book I felt that way about. Maybe I’m being unfair ... because what if that was Porter’s intention all along ... to portray these characters so that we wouldn’t like them? Back to Lush Life: I’m not recommending it because the further away from reading the book I am, I’ve been thinking: yeah, so what was so great? There was something large that was missing for me.

All is Well - John McGahern
This was a painful book to read. Extremely painful. But so very well-written. I feel that I’ve really lucked out this year -- I’ve really read a lot of good books. And, I must say, I’ve needed them. What’s so painful in this book? The father is so cruel. Unbearably cruel at times. I had a very hard time getting through those parts. Cruel fathers. They get to me. Too close to me own experience. But this book is so good and there is so much love in it too. And the protagonist is such a strong human being -- flawed, yes, but strong. I have a lot of admiration for McGahern. Highly recommended.

The Burglar on the Prowl - Lawrence Block
Very good as usual. Block is one of my favorite mystery writers. There was one line in it that I didn’t like about date rape -- it was too flip. Other than that, I enjoyed it very much.

In the Midst of Death - Lawrence Block
Another good one by Block. This one is in the Matt Scudder series. Recommended.

Housekeeping vs. The Dirt - Nick Hornby
Nick Hornby is a national treasure. However, he’s not *our* national treasure. He’s from the UK. I haven’t read any of his novels so I don’t know about those. But I’ve read The Polysyllabic Spree last year which has the same form and setup as Housekeeping vs. The Dirt. These are all essays that have been published in Believer ... the magazine published by those strongly opinionated young folk in the City by the Fey -- Hornby calls them “The Polysyllabic Spree”. Each chapter is a month’s essay. The chapter starts with a list of Books Bought on the left side of the page. On the right side of the page is a list called Books Read. And they never match up. Then Hornby goes off and describes books he’s read or heard about and wants to read .... and anything else that is related to those two things that he wants to talk about. He’s funny too. This is like a perfect book for me. Highly recommended. Now I want to read his novels.

Wounded - Percival Everett
I recommend it. First, the writing is so very very good. The writing is so good you are there in the action, living and breathing and walking with the characters. Plus, the characters are so interesting and well-formed -- so much so, that you don't even feel that they are characters -- they're real people. At least I wished they were and I wished I could go visit them. Right now. Mr. Everett is also tackling some tough subjects: an anti-gay hate crime and a prickly gay man; racism in Wyoming and the rest of America; disappointment and betrayal in marriage; cruelty towards animals. Big topics. And he treats them with sensitivity, respect, and intelligence.

Garbo Laughs - Elizabeth Hay
Elizabeth Hay is my new discovery. I recommend her highly. I fear saying that because people then have such high expectations. (Oh, look at me, thinkin’ that my opinion matters!!) What Hay does so well is take ordinary people and make them so interesting. She finds their quirks and writes about them really well. And, as a bonus, she’s Canadian -- woohoo!

Late Nights on Air - Elizabeth Hay
This one is set in the small town of Yellowknife in the Northwest Territories -- a province in Canada. Most of the characters work late at night for a government-sponsored radio station where they can play about anything they like. It’s set in the 70’s. Well written. Characters are very interesting -- real people with interesting problems. I really liked this book. Hay is very good at characterization.

To Kill a Mockingbird - Harper Lee
This is as close to a perfect book as can be. Do I need to say more?

Pegasus Descending - James Lee Burke
James Lee Burke is so good. I love how he makes me feel like I’m right there in New Iberia, Louisiana. Recommended. He’s a very good writer.

A Thanksgiving Memory - Truman Capote
I love to read this around Thanksgiving. What really turned me on to this was an unabridged recording that I had years ago narrated by Celeste Holm. Her narration transformed you into the world. It’s one of the best narrations I’ve ever listened to. I’ve searched for it on the web and it’s out of print. Dang!! I’d love to have it again. I remember there was a Thanksgiving or two in my life years ago when I felt so alone in the world and listening to this story just eased that pain. It connected me to something greater. Don’t ask what that was. This story reminds me of what a great writer Capote could be. Too bad his addictions got to him.

Ghosting: A Double Life - Jennie Erdal
This is a nonfiction story about Erdal’s experiences being a ghostwriter for an extremely demanding and flamboyant London-based Palestinian-born publisher (Naim Attallah) whom she calls “Tiger.” Her description of Tiger’s attire: "The plumage is a wonder to behold, a large sapphire in the lapel of a bold striped suit, a vivid silk tie so bright that it dazzles, and when he flaps his wings the lining of his jacket glints and glistens like a prism." She wrote blurbs, articles, press releases, love letters, newspaper columns, and two highly acclaimed literary novels -- for him, under his name. Love letters!!!! I found the first half very entertaining, funny, and interesting. However, after a while I just felt tense while reading it. Her complaints and descriptions about his demands grew tiresome. I just kept muttering to myself: Quit, for god’s sake, quit!!!! Here’s an example of how he ruled her life: He had a “hotline” installed in her home. It was a phone that she used only in communicating with him. When it rang, everything stopped in her household -- no matter the time -- so that she could talk to Tiger and satisfy his needs. Luckily, none of these needs were sexual. Amazingly, she worked for him for 20 years. To defend him just a little: He was very very generous to her and helped her save her home when her first husband deserted her early on in her career. If you’re like me though, you’ll just get exhausted with the story in the last half. So, here’s what I’ll do: I’ll recommend it for the first half of the book. But no further. Her writing is very good. I hope she goes on to be a successful writer on her own projects.

Seen It All and Done the Rest - Pearl Cleage
I got this one out of the library and, at first, was put off by the cover art -- it made the book look fluffy to me. But this story is a damn good read. I love the characters. And the characters are actually doing interesting things in their lives and connecting. Connecting is a big thing with me. If you don’t connect with other people, what good is life? The writing is smooth and engaging. I want to read more from Pearl Cleage. This was the first book of hers that I’ve read even though I’ve read about her for years.

The Cater Street Hangman - Anne Perry
Friends of mine have recommended Anne Perry for years. She has a couple of series. This is the first in Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series. I am so very lucky that my friend, P., sent me a stack of them to read as I recover from my knee surgery. I thought this novel was soooooooooo good! Definitely recommended. Perry builds up tension very artfully. The rapport between Charlotte and Thomas is great -- they first meet in this story. It’s a great look at what happens to a community when they realize that there’s a serial killer in their midst. Plus, lots of good stuff about class: Charlotte comes from an upper middle class family while Thomas is “common.”

Callendar Square - Anne Perry
Continuation in the Charlotte and Thomas Pitt series. Very good. Class differences come out even more. Of course, recommended.

Th ... th ... th ... that's all folks!!!

No comments: