Friday, December 30, 2011

Our books for 2012

After a successful round of reading 12 books from our To Be Read (TBR) pile in 2011, we're back to do it again in 2012!

Jenny's Books
Here is a screen cap of the books Jenny has chosen:

(click to see that bigger)

In alphabetical order, they are:
  1. All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren (9.30)
  2. The Best and the Brightest by David Halberstam
  3. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (10.13)
  4. The Book of Night Women by Marlon James
  5. Bound by Sally Gunning (2.8)
  6. Charlie Wilson's War by George Crile (3.31)
  7. Country Driving: A Journey Through China from Farm to Factory by Peter Hessler (7.21)
  8. Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese (12.9)
  9. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II by John Dower (12.25)
  10. Matterhorn by Karl Marlantes (5.18)
  11. Private Life by Jane Smiley (7.6)
  12. Sin in the Second City: Madams, Ministers, Playboys and the Battle for America's Soul by Karen Abbott (1.12)
  13. The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson (11.18)
  14. We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will be Killed with our Families: Stories from Rwanda by Philip Gourevitch. (4.25)

    Kelly's Books
    Here is a screen cap of the books Kelly has chosen:

    (click to see that bigger)

    In alphabetical order, they are:
    1. The Art of Happiness by His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Howard C. Cutler (Completed 11.30.12)
    2. The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein (Completed 2.16.12)
    3. At Home by Bill Bryson (Completed 12.23.12)
    4. Don't Know Much About History by Kenneth C. Davis
    5. Double Fold by Nicholson Baker (Completed 10.16.12)
    6. Four Spirits by Sena Jeter Naslund (Completed 11.05.12)
    7. Historic San Francisco by Rand Richards (Completed 1.31.12)
    8. Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
    9. The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd (Completed 9.18.12)
    10. Nox by Anne Carson (Completed 12.29.12)
    11. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout (Completed 4.29.12)
    12. Starvation Lake by Bryan Gruley (Completed 3.26.12)
    13. The Venetian's Wife by Nick Bantock (Completed 9.22.12)
    14. Wonder Woman: The Complete History by Les Daniels (Completed 12.27.12)
    We each have 14 books on our shelves -- 12 months, plus two alternatives, just in case we cannot bear to get through a couple of them. We will then write about them on this blog, crossing 'em off on this list and linking to our reviews.

    This is part of the 2012 TBR Pile Challenge at Roof Beam Reader -- thanks for lighting a fire under our butts last year and keeping the fire burning this year as well!

    Thursday, December 29, 2011

    Completed: Freakonomics

    Dear Jenny,

    As I skid into the end of 2011, I am writing up my final book on my TBR pile. Not sure that I have much to say about this book -- it's pretty much exactly what everyone said it would be: a highly readable account of a variety of interesting statistical observations.

    From the Introduction, I expected it to be a little faster paced -- I would not have minded simply being bombarded with the cocktail-party facts that we've all heard: "The crime rate in the 90s can be correlated to the legalization of abortion in the 70s!" "Houses with swimming pools are more deadly than those with guns!" I didn't really need a whole chapter explaining why (One sentence would do: "There are far more drowning deaths each year relative to pool-owning homes than shooting deaths relative to gun-owning homes."Done!) but I understand that most people are probably more interested in the path taken to get to the information than I am. I'm pretty trusting about this sort of thing (You're an expert on this subject and this is what you've found? 'Nuff said.) but I think they did a really good job of explaining without getting into the nitty-gritty data.

    My Favorite Topics
    The information about parenting, which supports some things I've speculated on in the past, particularly when talking about daycare v. non-daycare and single parents v. "intact" homes. Someone I work with was recently spouting off about "our nation's problem" of "broken homes." It's hard not to get my hackles up when someone goes down this road with me... I come from a "broken home" and, well... I like to think I turned out okay. I really enjoyed the layout of this chapter, as well -- it had direct comparisons between factors that do affect a child's success and those that don't. For instance:
    Matters: The child's parents are involved in the PTA.
    Doesn't: The child frequently watches television.
    I thought that whole chapter was just fascinating.

    I also really loved the chapter on names and what a name does (or doesn't) mean for a child with that name -- I've always found the topic of name popularity interesting, so I really got into that. The Social Security website provides a ton of information on name popularity by year, region, etc. It's like a little Easter egg on a boring government website. Have you seen it? Check it out here. I spent an afternoon poking around there a few years back, so I was really interested to read the Freakonomics take on how it all breaks down.

    Obviously, house sales are on my mind right now, so all of the data about what sells a house (and what doesn't) was super interesting to me. Corian! Got it! (Referring to specifics in an ad generates more interest than general terms like "Charming," "Fantastic," etc.) However, our real estate agent is a dear friend of ours, so comparing her to the KKK was a bit tough to swallow. I get the stats, but still.

    Loved the Endnotes
    I might have enjoyed the endnotes in this book as much as the text itself. Lots of great little factoids back there -- expanded lists, interesting notes on the research, etc.

    What I particularly loved about this book is that the endnotes were not referenced within the text and I am so grateful to these authors for that that I could kiss them on the mouths. Whenever I see the little superscript number in text, I always feel compelled to race to the back of the book and read the endnote right away, thereby disrupting my reading. I hate that. So thanks, Steven and Stephen for leaving off the tiny numbers and letting me wait until the end to read the notes!

    Hated the Quote Pages
    As much as I loved their endnote treatment, there was another choice they made in the book that struck me as odd: Epic quotes about the greatness of one of the authors (the economist) throughout the book -- each chapter was proceeded by an excerpt from somewhere or other basically extolling the brilliance of Steven D. Levitt. Since he's a co-author on the book, it felt like he was there saying, "Look how great I am!" I would not have been bothered as much if the other author was listed as the single author, examining the research of the economist, but it was so weird to me that an author had pages in his own book extolling his own greatness.

    This review feels rushed and... it is! I gotta get going out the door right now and the end of the year looms large, so I'm sticking a fork into this one.


    Tuesday, December 27, 2011

    Completed: Ascending Peculiarity

    Dear Jenny,

    After last month's book, I was nervous about reading about someone who I had previously admired... what if Edward Gorey turned out to be an unlikable jerk?

    My worries were completely unfounded. I love Edward Gorey more now than I ever did before. Previously, my love was based only on his art. Now, my love extends to the quirkiness that was Edward Gorey himself. What a magnificent weirdo!

    This book is a collection of interviews with Gorey between 1973-1999. It was interesting to read about him through different lenses and with different "angles," but the man shone through as his very Self throughout every single interview.

    Some amazing and delicious facts about Edward Gorey:
    • His uniform: Ankle length fur coat + white sneakers + rings on every finger. Pretty much every day. YES.
      (That little drawing above is a common one of Gorey's -- turns out, it is Gorey himself. Meanwhile... notice all of the post-it flags on this book. These were put in every time I found something awesome.)
    • He was born in... Chicago!
    • His college roommate was Frank O'Hara. (Oh, the talent in that flat!)
    • He attended the New York City Ballet every single night for 23 seasons. Basically, he feared missing a performer's "best" performance, so, you know, why not just go see them all so that you can be assured you don't miss it? I cannot tell you how much I love this.
    • In his home, he had a row of stuffed birds that he had hand sewn himself. "'I was trying to make penguins, and this is what came out,' he explains regretfully. 'They look depressed, don't they? There's no way of making them look comfortable.' It's no wonder. All of them have broken necks." [110] Ha!
    • He collected books, art, spherical objects, and postcards of dead babies. Who knew there were enough postcards of dead babies that one could collect them?!
    • He watched The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. YES!
    This is not a great book review. It's just me gushing about how amazing Edward Gorey was. I will now continue with this interview excerpt that made me laugh out loud:
    You are a noted macabre, of sorts.
    Which I don't really believe in either so much. It sort of annoys me to be stuck with that. I don't think that's what I do exactly. I know I do it, but what I'm really doing is something else entirely. It just looks like I'm doing that.

    What are you doing?
    I don't know what it is I'm doing; but it's not that, despite all evidence to the contrary. [35]
    Edward Gorey, regarding having six cats:
    Between three and four, before I took in the fifth, didn't seem much difference. Between four and five didn't seem much difference. Strangely enough, between five and six I suddenly felt it's not just six cats, it's six cats making up a kind of phalanx. Not that the six banded together. To the contrary, there were all sorts of internecine relationships. But somehow six cats seem a lot more, disproportionately more, than five. I lost one this spring, so now I'm down to five, which once more is five individuals. [68]
    And on his own eccentricity:
    What's the dividing line? [Between being eccentric and not.]
    Well, frankly, living by yourself with six cats in eccentric.

    What about your reputation for wearing fur coats and sneakers?
    That part is genuinely eccentric. I wouldn't do it if it wasn't the way I wanted to dress. But I'm very much aware that I could be a little more or a little less eccentric. [96]
    Many interviewers asked him if he had a strange or unusual childhood and he says that he did not. As evidence of the "normalcy" of his childhood, he says, "I was out playing Kick-the-Can with everyone else." [77] I loved this reference -- at many times, he seems like a mythological creature, but this statement just brings him right back down to earth.

    And, finally... get what he said when referring to the Gashlycrumb Tinies: "I must say I did think at the time that 'N is for Neville who died of ennui' was rather fetching." [174] This is exactly the one that I referred to when I introduced this book!

    And that, my friend, just cemented my fangirl crush.

    In a nutshell: I love Edward Gorey and I loved this book.

    Interestingly, I began reading The Strange Case of Edward Gorey (a biography of him written by a close friend) immediately after finishing this and I did not get very far. Apparently, I do not enjoy someone else talking about Edward Gorey as much as I enjoy him talking about himself. I may go back to that one at another point, but right now, I'm going to hold onto the glow of the magic of this one.


    Monday, December 26, 2011

    Jenny's Year in Reading


    I guess this is where I should pick my best book of the year, and I will get to that...but first some other observations and reflections on the year.

    On the Magic Number...
    I'll start out with something funny. I'm pretty proud of the fact that I read 60 new books this year, and since you read a lot, too, it seems like a big, but not super impressive number. However, at dinner the other night I told my brother and uncle---these are readers, Kelly!---that I read that number and their mouths dropped open. My uncle said, "Did you say Six-Zero!?" and Erik said, "Jesus. That's over a book a week." Meanwhile, the actual number has creeped up to 62. And considering I'm off all week and have some time on the plane to Vegas, I'm hoping to squeeze in at least one or maybe two more!

    On Knowing What I Like...
    I'll read anything, but the older I get, the more pronounced my tastes. For example, I used to say that I enjoyed a good mystery. However, the past year and the ever helpful New York Times Book Review has helped me fine-tune that distinction. They have a writer who covers "crime" as a category, and in a recent end of the year list, she categorized the different types. After trying one classified as "noir" and not liking it, I realized that what I really enjoy are"procedurals." These are mysteries, usually starring detectives, that go through the steps of solving a crime. At least now I know what to look for! Of course, knowing what you like is good. But I'm always worried that I'll get into a rut, reading the same types of stories over and over again. Now that I have a bookclub, I'm happy to read other people's choices, if only because it pushes me out of my comfort zone.

    On Buying Books...
    As you know, I'm still a fan of the paper book. Of all my electronic reading devices, I enjoy reading on the actual Kindle the best, but it's been a little wonky and hard to charge as of late. I went to Amazon today to replace the power cord, but realized through the reviews that maybe it was a faulty cord. I called them, hoping to get a free replacement cord, and instead they offered to upgrade me to a similar Kindle for a reduced price. So I get the Kindle w/ wi-fi AND 3G for the bargain price of only $60. I'm kicking myself for not taking care of this earlier! And I'm hoping I get it before we leave for Vegas!

    On 2012...
    New Mercy Thompson comes out next week, new Alpha and Omega in the spring. New Stephanie Plum is already out. The 4th in the Dublin Detective series next summer. And, of course, I'm anxiously awaiting the Tournament of Books. In 2012, I'd like to read as many books next year as I did this year. Another goal is to read more non-fiction. I'm drawn to it, but I still read 5 novels to every 1 non-fiction title last year. I don't know how much I can do about that ratio, but I would like to try and read 12 non-fiction books next year. You'll see my TBR list this year is half non-fiction and half novels!

    Here's a suggestion, because we do both read on ereaders. Let's experiment with reading the same book using subtext. Check it out and let me know what you think. I'd be interested in trying something like that, and as they expand their titles, I'd like to try it with my classes!

    On the Best Book of the Year...
    It seems ridiculous to choose. A book that surprised me because my expectations were low, and I ended up loving it was Bloodroot. The Harry Potter books that were just as good--even better--after not having read them for several years. I bought 2 copies of In the Woods as Christmas gifts: one for my Dad and one for my cousin. And there's really no higher praise that that, right?

    However, the book I recommended over and over again to people this year was The Wave by Susan Casey. It's a great story, a great read, and I learned a lot, too. I think it was probably my favorite book of the year for hitting all the sweet spots and all the right places.


    Completed: The Post-Birthday World...and this year's TBR challenge!


    This morning, I completed The Post-Birthday World.  This was quite satisfying, because it also means I achieved my goal of reading 12 of my 14 TBR books. Yahoo!

    The plot of this book will be much easier to summarize if you've seen the movie Sliding Doors. Like the film (and I sort of want to watch it again now that I'm thinking about it), this book follows the main character's life down 2 divergent paths depending on the outcome of a particular night. Irina is a 40-something old expatriate American living in London with her long-time lover, Lawrence. One night, when Lawrence is away on a business trip, Irina takes one of their old friends, Ramsey, out for his birthday. Ramsey is a spectacularly attractive man and a famous snooker player. That night, Irina and Ramsey strike off electric sparks and her feelings of attraction are overwhelming. Should she betray Lawrence and kiss Ramsey, as she is dying to do? Or stave off the attraction and stay true to herself and her relationship?

    The Post-Birthday World Chapter Twos...
    The book diverges from this point with successive chapters, those where she kisses Ramsey and those where she doesn't. They did a nice job with the chapter numbers to help readers keep track of whether it's a "Ramsey" or "Lawrence" chapter. As you can see, each chapter number happens twice: the gray "Ramsey" chapters followed by the white "Lawrence" chapters. (As an aside, I don't know if this would make a good audiobook. I relied on these to keep track, and wonder how they'd get around this helpful visual cue.)

    I thought at first it would be hard to follow the divergent storylines, but Shriver does use similar events to ground the story and help the reader track changes in time, familial relationships, and friendships.

    I liked this book, but even after finishing it I continue to have some reservations. Let me get those out of the way first, and then I can end with the good stuff. The glaring problem with a book like this is the gimmick. And even though it's a good story, it never stopped feeling gimmicky. Even worse, there's the sense that the author doesn't fully trust her readers. This is a story about the importance of timing---either seizing the moment or letting it pass you by. Irina is an illustrator and children's author, and later in the "Ramsey" story she devises a book very much like this one, where a character follows 2 separate paths and ends up satisfied, in the end, with both choices. This was annoying. I've made it through 375 pages in the book. Why doesn't the author trust me to get her message?

    Despite my mild annoyance with the previous issue, I do like Shriver's exploration of the moment of crisis. In literature, those moments are usually monumental, like Oedipus at the crossroads. But for the entire book, it's not clear that one of Irina's choices was "better" than the others. By leaving Ramsey she is following her heart and although it isn't entirely happy, it's fulfilling in that she is living her life to the fullest. By staying with Lawrence, she's exhibiting loyalty but also fear. She chooses what is comfortable, but buries her head in the sand to both Lawrence's faults and to her own.

    Shriver is a great writer, and she deftly explores and explains the complexity at the heart of every person. I dog-eared page after page of the book, feeling that Shriver had nailed down some especially complicated feeling. Surprisingly, I found myself liking Ramsey-Irina better than Lawrence-Irina. Even thought she had acted horribly, she was more self-aware and willing to take a desperate grab at happiness, even if it meant facing up to some unpleasant facts about herself: Irina had liked to think of herself as a decent person. Yet in this most telling of spheres her behavior had grown disreputable overnight. While she might have prefered to regard her two-timing as "out of character," it is never persuasive to argue that you are not the kind of person who does what you are actually doing...Should what you get up to fail to comport with who you think you are, something is surely inaccurate (and likely optimistic) about who you think you are (105).

    The book is full of passages like this, where Irina contemplates who she is as compared to who she wants to be. Maybe it was interesting to me because I think about this stuff all the time? I guess it's a lot of navel-gazing, but it was compelling stuff. There's a particularly deft scene with a girlfriend who chastises Irina for her affair with Ramsey in one chapter, but then bashes the boring Lawrence in the other. The book essentially argues that so much of what we say and do is driven by circumstances rather than some immutable and perfect elements that are fixed in one's character. When she's with Ramsey, she's annoyed no one takes anything seriously; when she's with Lawrence, she wishes everyone would lighten up and have fun. Both "feelings" are true, but Irina's life lacks balance, and she's incapable of finding that for herself. She understands that her own most profound character flaw is that she uses her man to give her life direction.

    Another great pair of scenes is when Irina takes her man home to her mother's for Christmas. Irina's mother is awful, a real piece of work. She's mean and controlling. Irina realizes that her mother is dismissive of the things she herself is lacking, but Irina also thinks, In fact, because the unself-aware--which includes basically everybody--are impervious to uncharitable perceptions of their underlying motives, all those insights you have into people and what makes them tick are surprisingly useless (309). In other words, no matter what, our capacity to know others is limited. This hits home for Irina time and time again, regardless of which plot she's in. The book questions whether it's possibly to truly know yourself, or to truly know others. The best move is to follow your heart and hope for the best.

    The Last Chapter 
    Even the ending defies a regular storytelling ending. The last chapter could conclude either story, leaving the reader, in a very Lady or the Tiger like fashion, to decide for themselves which Irina story was the "real" one. Ultimately, I don't know if it really matters. Irina learns some hard things about herself and the world regardless of which turn she makes at the crossroads. No one event changes a life completely, instead it's the complex calculus of daily life that carries more meaning. Not a bad thing to keep in mind as we navigate the world, is it?


    Kelly's Book 12: Freakonomics

    Dear Jenny,

    Oh, yeah. I'm skidding into the end of the year here, but I am totally going to finish this puppy.

    This book was reeeeally popular a few years back, so I do feel pretty behind the times in reading it now, but better late than never, right?

    I'm already hooked by the teaser in the Introduction linking the decline in crime rates in the 1990s to the legalization of abortion in the early 70s. Mind-blowing.


    Tuesday, December 13, 2011

    Completed: The Book of Vice

    Dear Jenny,

    I struggled to finish this book, and I am struggling to write a review of it. I am loathe to write anything remotely negative about the author of this book, as he is also the host of a news quiz that is near and dear to our hearts.

    Hence, my struggle.

    The photo to the left is of a nice little illustration that appeared throughout the book -- one thing that you don't get in Kindle books is little dingbats like this one, which appeared at the top right of every recto page and the lower left of every verso page. Click through to see it in more detail -- it's a pretty little thing and I enjoyed it throughout the book.

    And that, my friend, is the most positive thing I can say about this book. Read on for less joy...

    The subtitle of this book is: "Naughty Things and How to Do Them," but should have been: "Naughty Things and How to Observe and Judge Them." Ooof. What could have been a fascinating read devolved into the author peering into the lives of a wide variety of people with his hand dramatically covering his mouth, which was arranged prissily into the shape of an O.

    For instance, he and his wife go to a swingers' club just to observe. That is, not swing. You know, hang out, maybe ask some questions, take a look around and just check the place out. He writes: "I looked at Beth; she at me. And we realized, as we gazed into each other's familiar faces, in this unfamiliar place, with its exotic promises of sexual excess being fulfilled in thin-walled rooms all around us, not only that were we the most boring people in the club, we were the most bored." [42] You know, he could have ended the sentence at "club." The last part just made me want to smack him -- ya know why you were bored at a swingers' club, dude? Cause, ah... you weren't swinging!

    And on and on it goes like this, through gambling, lying, gluttony, strippers, and porn. The stripper chapter takes an especially nasty turn when he tries to "educate" strippers at the end of it on how to make things work for the customers -- you know, advice on how to really improve their acts and make the fans go wild. It just smacked of condescension. I can't even type it here, because it just made me angry re-reading it.

    When I am reading books that I am going to review, I like to make notes -- either dog-ear the pages (sorry!) or use little Post-its. Early on in this book, I found myself marking a few particularly funny places (especially the foot-notes, some of which made me laugh out loud). Increasingly, I found myself marking all of the places where I thought, "Wow. What a douche." I am not actually going to share every one of those passages with you. I will let the photograph to the right speak for itself.

    I am glad I finished this book, although I really did want to hurl it against the wall several times. In the afterward, he almost admits to his judgmental douchery, which almost redeems some of the earlier BS. But, you know, it could have come in a lot sooner.

    I am going to choose to imagine that the author of this book is not the same person as the host of the much beloved news quiz because I don't want to have to stop listening to it.

    In fact, I really didn't hear much of his "voice" while reading this book at all, which I had expected. I have been actually listening to his voice for over a decade, so it's strange to me that it didn't come through here. Maybe he has an evil twin? Let's just go with that and be done with it.

    On to November's book! (Only a few weeks late, but... who's counting?)


    Sunday, December 11, 2011

    Jenny's Book 12: The Post-Birthday World


    I think I've decided to read The Post-Birthday World for my last selection. I picked up this book when Entertainment Weekly called it the best book of the year. This is strong praise from my guilty pleasure magazine. I bought it immediately. 4 years later, I'm finally going to get around to reading it. Hah.

    Of course, as I pick this up, the author, Lionel Shriver's been in the news because a new movie is coming out based on another one of her books. That book, We Need to Talk about Kevin, is told from the point of view of a woman who's son was the perpetrator of a school shooting. That just sounds harrowing (although it's another book that I own---maybe next year!). This novel sounds a bit like the film Sliding Doors. It follows the possible divergent paths a married woman's life takes based on a night out with a friend--what happens to her life when she kisses him, what happens if she doesn't. I've read the first 15 or so pages, and it seems highly readable.

    I also read something recently by this author, and I'm going to link to it here, in case you want to read it. She basically wrote a long essay in defense of unlikeable characters. I have a higher tolerance for unlikeable characters in books than I do in movies, but a truly unlikeable character can kill a book for me, no matter how much I agree with her basic premise.

    In other news, even though it's only the 11th, I've read a few good books already this month. I am definitely going to hit my goal of finishing 60 new books this year. Here's a brief round-up of other books I've finished so far in December...

    In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin by Erik Larson

    Have you read Devil in the White City? That seems to be one of those great books of narrative non-fiction that a lot of people have read. Of course, that book is also about Chicago....probably why everyone here has read it. Either way, this is his newest book. It got great reviews and I picked it up at the school book fair last month. In the Garden of Beasts was also of interest because I teach The Diary of Anne Frank every year, and we always grapple with the question of the German citizens who supported Hitler. Why did they do that? Did they know what was happening?

    This book tells about the life of William Dodd, a University of Chicago professor who is appointed as the American Ambassador to Germany in 1933. The timing of his arrival coincides almost exactly with Hitler's rise to power. In 1933, he was Chancellor, but there was still a President. The book covers a year, the time when Hitler consolidates his power and essentially makes himself dictator.

     The book is utterly disturbing. Dodd and his family find Berlin to be charming and cosmopolitan, and only as they begin to see disturbing incidents themselves to they see what is going on beneath the surface of Berlin. Dodd is a good man trapped in bad circumstances, and he doesn't even have the full support of the State Department. They consider him to be an outsider and interloper, a do-gooder who doesn't understand the art of diplomacy. The other major character is Dodd's daughter, Martha, a free-spirited divorcee who enjoys a multitude of affairs with the available men of Berlin.

    I was quite interested to see how the Roosevelt administration and the State Department encouraged Dodd to appease Hitler. Why would they do that? A variety of political reasons, of course. First of all, they were too busy dealing with the depression to worry about Hitler. Everyone was convinced that he would simply get thrown out of office eventually. There was also a feeling that Hitler was Europe's problem and that Europe should deal with Hitler. But another reason also came to light, written by the assistant secretary of state, R. Walton Moore. He said,  if America or Roosevelt were to point to German's antisemitism, it could cause Germany, in turn, to ask "why the negroes of [the US] do not fully enjoy the right of suffrage; why the lynching of not prevented or severely punished; and how the anti-Semitic feeling in the United not checked" (241). Ugh. That's pretty depressing, right? We didn't want to accuse Germany of racism since we (at least at that time, before the Holocaust) were really no better.

    All in all, an interesting, rewarding, and fast read.

    Angle of Repose by Wallace Stegner

    I really like the fact that I have to read books outside of my comfort zone for my book club. Hell, I really like that I have a book club! This novel won the Pulitzer Prize in 1972 and is considered to be a classic of the American West. The novel tells the story of retired professor and historian Lyman Ward. After a recent divorce, he has decided to retire to his grandparent's home and write a biography of his grandmother, Susan Ward. Susan was one of the East Coast elite when she decided to marry Oliver Ward, a mining engineer. At that time, the 1880s and 1890s, the only true mining work was in the Western territories. Susan follows Oliver through the West---California, Colorado, and Idaho---as he tries to be successful at his chose profession. The narrative jumps back and forth from Susan's story to Lyman's own as he struggles to understand his family and the unspoken tragedy that irrevocably  changed the lives of his father and his grandparents.

    Kelly, I bet this would be an amazing audiobook. The language is rich and lush, and the descriptions of the West are just gorgeous. Susan writes many letters to her best friend back home, and her heartbreak and disappointment are palpable. This is a beautifully written novel and a great story, and those seem to be the key ingredients to a good audiobook.

    I had only one qualm with the book, and it's because of my recent reading of Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. This is a story that essentially takes place at the *exact same time* as the Indian removal of the West. And, yet, there is barely a mention of Native Americans in the book. I know that it's a reflection of that time, and perhaps of that author, who himself was writing 40 years ago. But it didn't sit right with me. It's why I can't read Gone with the Wind and other novels that glorify the Confederate South. I know too much to enjoy it entirely.

    Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward

    Here's another award winner, this time the winner of the National Book Award. You may remember that I **hated** last year's winner, Lord of Misrule, so I was a bit wary of this one. But, boy, am I glad I read it.

    This novel is set in a rural and poverty stricken town, somewhere on the Louisiana / Mississippi border. The story is told be Esch, a 15 year old girl who has just discovered she's pregnant. Katrina is bearing down on them, and the entire story covers 12 days in her life.

    This book has a strong narrative voice. Poor Esch is the only girl with 3 brothers, and her father is a hapless drunk. Her Mother died giving birth to her brother, Junior, 8 years before. Esch and her brothers are basically raising themselves, and now she has to come to terms with the idea of becoming a mother. This was a difficult book to read. This family lives in miserable poverty, and the only money that really comes in is from her brother Skeetah, who fights dogs. His dog, China, has just given birth to puppies and if he can keep them alive, they might be worth as much as $200 each. Esch's sexual history is heartbreaking and sad. It's easier to say yes than to say no, and although she loves the father of her child, he is just using her. The novel reaches crisis point when Katrina roars on to land, forcing the family to face each other and try to salvage the only thing they have left to save: each other.

    Here's what the author had to say as she accepted her award: "“I understood that I wanted to write about the experiences of the poor, and the black and the rural people of the South so that the culture that marginalized us for so long would see that our stories were as universal, our lives as fraught and lovely and important, as theirs.”


    Sunday, December 4, 2011

    November Round Up


    It's been a while since I've actually read enough in a month to write one of these round up reviews. I also suspect that a few of these books will end up in the Tournament, and writing about them now will help me remember them in March. Of course, we've already discussed The Marriage Plot, Traffic, and the last Succubus book (I think I put that in a comment? or an email? I can't remember).

    The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes
    This short novel--novella?--won this year's Booker Prize. I don't know if you remember this, but one of the ways I started reading "serious" fiction again was maybe 2 years ago when I made a New Year's Resolution to read the major award winners every year. For my purposes, that's the Booker, Pulitzer, National Book, and National Book Critic's Circle awards along with the winner of The Tournament of Books. Last year was a weird one: A Visit From the Goon Squad won 3 of those, and I hated the other 2 winners. The Booker winner was The Finkler Question. I actually couldn't finish the National Book Award winner, Lord of Misrule. I'll finish anything, so this is saying a lot!

    The point, I guess, is that I picked this up because it was a winner. It's a good premise: a man relates some key moments with his teenaged friends. Then, 40 years later, that past comes back to haunt him when he receives a strange bequest from the estate of a woman he barely knew. Thematically, it has a lot in common with A Visit From the Goon Squad: what is the impact time has on our lives and on our memories? What is it like to go back and see yourself differently and to be faced with proof that your version of events might not be the truth?

    The book  is sparse---only 170 or so pages. But the sentences are quiet and I found myself reading carefully. Tony, the narrator, is a lonely character. He's in his 60s now and he looks back on his life and wonders if he's been playing it safe. The author does a great job with old Tony looking back to young Tony and realizing that he's not the person he thought he was. Tony discovers he didn't fully understand everything that happened to one friend, and he works on uncovering the mystery. But it ends up being more of a trick ending that feels forced rather than a natural extension of the plot or this inner conflict Tony faces. It's not a bad book, it's just got a weird ending for what it is.

    Personally, these books with the "time and memory" theme are a bit difficult. As we have previously discussed, my memory stinks. And, I just don't feel quite old enough to be *that* nostalgic about my youth. Don't get me wrong, I have moments of looking back and feelings of regret, but it's just not something that speaks that strongly to me at this stage in my life.

    The Leftovers by Tom Perotta
    Darrell and I were driving along one day when Tom Perotta appeared on some NPR show to talk about his latest book. It basically has the best premise ever for a novel: it's after the Rapture. One day, millions of people just disappeared all at once from the Earth without a trace. This is the book about the people that are still here...the people that are the leftovers. The cover's great---the whiff of smoke coming out of the shoes is brilliant.

    I liked this book. It centers on a few families in one small town: there's one woman who lost everyone in her immediate family and she's the only one left. Another family is completely intact. Either way, these are individuals who are left to search for meaning in the world when it's been made clear to them that they haven't made the cut. Some resort to new and strange cults while others try to soldier on as normally as possible.

    I don't know if I think the author successfully carried off the ending. The situations of the characters are sticking with me, but for the life of me, I can't remember a single character's name. But I think *the idea* of the book was quite powerful: no one can know the mind of God, no matter what your faith or affiliation. We're all just guessing and trying to make a good life of what remains. 

    El Narco: Inside Mexico's Criminal Insurgency by Ioan Grillo
    One of the reasons I picked up this book is because right now my students are reading a novel called House of the Scorpion. In this sci-fi novel set in a not so distant future, the entire country of Mexico is gone as a result of a series of drug wars. Even the US has not escaped unscathed as it has given up land along its Southern border for the creation of a new country called Opium, where drugs can be legally grown. This all sounds completely far-fetched right? Well, El Narco presents the terrifying reality of life in northern Mexico today---a place where 40,000 people have died since 2005 as a result of the drug trade. I've been pretty interested in knowing why that's going on, and this book addresses the whole issue. It was fascinating, despressing, and more than a little scary.

    The author is a reporter originally from the UK who now lives in Mexico City and reports on drug trafficking. He's a pretty good writer and he seems to know his stuff. Occasionally, I though he could use a good editor. The first time he compared a car destroyed by machine gun bullets as looking like a cheese grater, I though it was brilliant. When it happened again 20 pages later, I was surprised nobody caught it. There's a lot of cliches and hyperbolic descriptions, but ultimately, that didn't matter to me too much. It was interesting enough that I was able to get past my annoyance with the overblown writing style. It's hard to blame the guy for writing passionately---this is a book about  gangs of drug lords who are brutally sadistic. These are folks who once human heads across the floor of a disco to make point to a rival gang.

    And on that gruesome note, it's off to December!

    PS. I got my $100 gift certificate from my win in the mail yesterday. I'm going to try and resist spending it right away. I have LOTS of TBR books. It's a little distressing. Might be time to start working on next year's list of 14. That might make me feel better.