Wednesday, December 30, 2009

The Death of the Heart (by Elizabeth Bowen)

Book #50, and a really good one. Definitely adding it to at least the honorable mentions category of my favorite books of the year.

It's a modernist psychological novel about a 16-year-old orphan living with her half-brother and sister-in-law in London, and it reminds me (very oddly) of National Velvet in terms of feeling very specific and real and strange and un-formulaic. I don't know how to explain the mood or ambiguity of the novel... just that I liked it.

Probably the more relevant comparison is Henry James. It does feel like Washington Square in terms of its subtlety. It's a coming of age story, but an unorthodox one. I definitely recommend it.


Wednesday, December 23, 2009

In the Company of Cheerful Ladies (by Alexander McCall Smith)*

Book #49! And the sixth book in the charming No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency series. I'm totally committed to seeing this series through on audiobook; the narrator is wonderful.

I don't have much to say about the book itself. Feels like a series of sketches (as do many of these books) with not much actual detectiving at all, but it is pleasant to spend time with the characters. I love the new character Mr. Polopetsi who comes to work in the garage, and I wish we'd gotten to know Puti Radi-Puti a little better before the happy ending (I have no idea if I'm spelling these names right, since it's an audiobook).

But I'm already downloading the next one!

Monday, December 21, 2009

Year-End Book Wrapup '09

I'm doing the year-end wrapup post a little early this year, but I figure I can always do a postscript-type-post if I finish any of the books I'm currently reading. (I'm listening to In the Company of Cheerful Ladies, another No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency book, which I will almost certainly finish; I'm also reading The Death of the Heart, which I'll also probably finish, and I started War and Peace, which it is very unlikely that I will finish! I also have Netherland and The Savage Detectives on my reading pile. Yay, holidays!)

And now, onto the wrapup! Another year of books! Ah, books. How I love you.

This was a weird year, reading-wise. I finished 48 books [actually 50] this year, and the first 20 were all by women. I wanted to finish the Time 100 Booklist this year, but then I got laid off and hired by a second college and the last part of the year was just me commuting all the time and too busy to read, except audiobooks during my commute. (And on audio, you really can't listen to overly complex works, I've found.) And in between Vaginapalooza and the Audiobookathon was Infinite Summer. Like I said: a weird year.

Here is last year's list. I see that I read more books this year, which surprises the hell out of me! 33 by women, 15 by men, kind of the opposite of last year in terms of gender breakdown. [Actually 34 by women and 16 by men.] (Then again, 10 of them were the Princess Diaries books.) I read 10 booklist books, one of which was Infinite Jest. 33 more to go on the Time list, and I guess the last big hurdle is Gravity's Rainbow. I bet I can do it this year! At least, I hope it doesn't take me three more years to finish.

I already know before I start typing this that coming up with a top five is going to be difficult. I read a lot of great books this year. But that's what honorable mentions are for, right? Right! Onward!

Top five books of the year:

1. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
Every year there's the one book I read and then get excited about and evangelize about to everyone I know; this is the one this year, although White Teeth is a close second. I mean it was a close second in that I got very excited about it, but in hindsight, Never Let Me Go is the book of the year, hands down. Haunting, restrained, masterful, moving. An unbelievable book. GO READ IT IMMEDIATELY.

2. White Teeth by Zadie Smith
I hated On Beauty, which makes me doubt how much I loved White Teeth in retrospect, but I really did love it and relate to it. I enjoyed the characters, I enjoyed the unpredictability of the plot, and I think Smith is really an uber-talent with a unique voice.

3. The Princess Diariesseries by Meg Cabot
I read this as "research" for my own (bad) young adult novel, and really loved it, especially the final book. More sophisticated and nervy than I was expecting, more honest about sex, cleverly pop culturiffic, way better than the movie.

4. The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith and The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood (tie)
I read both of these fairly early in the year, so it's difficult for me to choose between them. I remember The Price of Salt just having a terrific moodiness, and The Blind Assassin having magical language and an intricate plot that I loved. I really enjoyed them both.

5. Infinite Jest by David Foster Wallace
I can't leave this off, even though parts of it were frustrating as hell. But I find myself talking about this book kind of a lot. "This reminds me of Infinite Jest"... I have said many a time, either in reference to depression or drug addiction or suicide or literary innovation or other novels. It left its mark on me, that's for sure.

Honorable mentions: The Death of the Heart by Elizabeth Bowen, Under the Net by Iris Murdoch, Columbine by Dave Cullen, the awesome graphic novel Watchmen, Lynda Barry's Cruddy... it was a good year.

Bottom five books of the year:

1. A House for Mr. Biswas by V.S. Naipaul
The only reason I finished this was because it was on the Time 100 list. Now, that list is pretty good (3.5 of my top 5 books of the year are on it, after all) but sometimes there's a book that I just hate hate hate, and this was the one. The main character was so awful that I had zero empathy for him, and the book was just painful. Blech. Stupid post-colonial literature.

2. It Sucked and Then I Cried by Heather B. Armstrong
Disappointing, because I think Armstrong is in general a better writer than this book demonstrates. I think I said "glib" in the original review and I'm sticking with it. It is glib, and a book about postpartum depression shouldn't be glib. It is also strangely histrionic in an unearned way, once it's done with the glib. Not bad, more like aggressively mediocre.

3. March by Geraldine Brooks (audiobook)
I hated the audiobook narrator, I hated what Brooks did to Alcott's characters, and the new characters I found to be largely unrealistic. Plus, the main character is really portrayed as a self-righteous moron most of the time. I have no idea how this book won a Pulitzer or whatever it was. No. BZZZZ. Pass.

4. The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larsson (audiobook)
I was going to put The Lost Symbol here (because make no mistake, it is a bad book) but then I had to admit it kept me more entertained than Dragon Tattoo and I would totally read Dan Brown's next insanely contrived, badly written book, but I have no desire to read the other books in the Larsson trilogy. So even though it's probably a better book, I liked it less. So here it is. I probably would have liked it more if I could have skimmed the boring crap at the beginning and the end, but on audio, you can't skim. More's the pity.

5. On Beauty by Zadie Smith
Totally disappointing after White Teeth, with main characters that make no sense and are irritating. If they are going to be irritating, they should at least be irritating in a way that feels real. These characters don't, and it torpedoed the book for me.

Honorable mentions: Shopaholic Ties the Knot and (especially) the dangerous rapey message in How to Ditch Your Fairy.