Sunday, January 30, 2011

Red Harvest (by Dashiell Hammett)

An entry on the Time 100 booklist, probably more for what it represents (Hammett's first book featuring the unnammed "Continental Op" narrator) than for the book as itself, although I did read an interesting idea that the story of a corrupt town turning on itself can be seen as a Lord of the Flies-esque meditation on human nature.

The narrator seems to stay a few steps of the reader and withholds a lot in terms of motivation, which makes it (for me) not quite as much fun to read. (I like unreliable narrators, but not needlessly recalcitrant ones.) There's also a little bit of scaffolding showing throughout--at times, the narrator does things that would almost certainly get him killed, except that Hammett needs him to keep narrating the book.

That being said, it was a fun and quick read, a nice way to dive back into the list. I think I have 20 books left, if I'm counting correctly. Those 20 are:

The Adventures of Augie March
American Pastoral
The Assistant
At Swim-Two-Birds
Blood Meridian
Call It Sleep
The Confessions of Nat Turner
A Dance to the Music of Time
The Day of the Locust
Dog Soldiers
Gravity's Rainbow
The Power and the Glory
The Sheltering Sky
The Sot-Weed Factor


Friday, January 28, 2011

Graceland (by Chris Abani)

I'm just finishing up teaching this novel, so I figured I should write about it! It was recommended by Aych, and worked out really well for the class, which is a World Lit class that's focusing on the issues each novel raises about the region in which it's set. This one is set in Lagos, Nigeria, and deals with issues like Western influence and postcolonialism, as well as poverty and the economy, native traditions and women's rights issues... there was a lot to talk about, and we had some good class discussions (at least the percentage of the class that did the reading).

That sounds kind of dry maybe, but the story is also pretty compelling in and of itself: it's the coming of age story of a young boy named Elvis (after Elvis Presley) who is a very likeable, if flawed, protagonist. A lot of terrible things happen, but it's nonetheless a great novel! Next up, The Namesake.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

An Object of Beauty (by Steve Martin)

I do love me some Steve Martin. I was so sad that this wasn't on audiobook with Steve Martin as the narrator, since I loved listening to his two previous novellas. But then I found out there are reproductions of artworks throughout the book, and I realized I wouldn't have wanted to miss those. (I would just have read it twice, though.)

So, this is a book about the New York art scene and about art, told as the story of an anti-heroine named Lacey Yeager. I really enjoyed everything about this book--the quietness of the plot (which is I think a Steve Martin signature) and the discussions of art from various places and eras.

I honestly don't know how successful Lacey is as a character (there is some male fantasy in there about female sexuality, where I think it's pretty clear a guy wrote it) but she was convincing enough for me to really, really enjoy this book. Write another one, Steve Martin! And read it on audiobook! Pretty please?

Monday, January 03, 2011

Year-End Book Wrapup '10

The end of another year, time for another book wrapup!

I thought my tally of books would be very pitiful this year because I spent a lot of the year too nauseous to read, but I see that at 59 books, I read more than I did last year. 30 were by women, 29 were by men, a delightfully even gender split. [Edited to add: turns out I read 60 books, 31 by women, and forgot to write about one of them. Oops.]

The one sad thing is that I did not finish the Time 100 list. I read 9 books from the list, which I think means I have 24 to go. This was the reading project I really wanted to complete this year. Maybe next year! A girl can dream.

And now, the top and bottom books of the year. It's kind of fun to go through the list and see which books I've forgotten about and which have stayed with me, for better or worse. More hits than misses once again this year, I see!

Top five books of the year:

1. The Great Fire by Shirley Hazzard
The big caveat about this book is that it takes place near Hiroshima after World War II, but focuses almost entirely on white Europeans. If you can get past that and take the novel on its own terms, in which war and disaster is merely a backdrop, it's marvelous. The language is sumptuous, and I just adored it. I'm surprised it isn't more famous. It's just so incredibly... good.

2. War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy
This book alternately frustrated and fascinated me, and when I was done, I felt like I had gained some sort of greater understanding of Russian literature and history and culture and human nature. I don't know if this was the most enjoyable book of the year, which is why I almost put it lower down on the list. But I found myself relating all kinds of things in my life to War and Peace for weeks after I was done with it. And now I find myself wanting to read it again, in a different translation, just for fun. Ultimately, reading all 1300 pages was worth it, and it was definitely my must-read of the year.

3. Looking for Alaska by John Green
From a Russian masterpiece to a YA novel, why not? The thing is, this is a really, really terrific YA novel. It's got humor and honesty and heart, and the characters are compelling. I neither want to oversell it or give anything away, but if you're into YA at all, you should read this.

4. Berlin Stories by Christopher Isherwood
Oh, I just loved this series of loosely autobiographical stories, one of which was the basis for Cabaret, about Berlin in the 1930s. It's a world that I loved immersing myself in. After I finished it, we watched Cabaret (of course), Chris and Don: A Love Story (a documentary about Isherwood and his longtime partner), and A Single Man (the acclaimed Colin Firth movie also based on Isherwood's writing). One of my favorite tangents of the year: the Isherwood tangent! Highly recommended.

5. Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
After I read it I thought this book would surely be closer to number one, but then I taught it this year, along with my favorite book from last year, Never Let Me Go. While the Ishiguro really stood up to the test of the classroom (and my students loved it, across the board) the Bechdel worked less well, and I think it lessened my affection for it a little. I found that I didn't enjoy discussing it as much as I did Ishiguro. I almost kicked it off the list in favor of Joan Didion. That being said, I can't forget that it was this book I demanded everyone read this year, including my book club, and that I decided to teach it in the first place. So here it is at number five.

A few honorable mentions: Game Change (about the 2008 election), Netherland by Joseph O'Neill, The Help by Kathryn Stockett, Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles, Freedom by Jonathan Franzen, The Possessed by Elif Batuman, and the runner-up for this list, Play It As It Lays by Joan Didion.

Bottom five books of the year:

1. The Christmas Cookie Club by Ann Pearlman
Thought this would be a fun, fluffy audiobook, but it really is embarrassingly awful. My original review covers it pretty well.

2. Baby Proof by Emily Giffen
Most of the books on this list are less empirically terrible and more irritating or disappointing in some way. But in addition to being annoying, the writing itself here (very "tell, don't show") kinda sucks. On top of that, it has a promising premise and then blows it with a stupid ending. Approaching this book as a feminist just made me angry, and it's not very good anyway, hence it "wins" the dubious honor of being number two here.

3. A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore
Oops, I see that I never even wrote about this book or added it to my booklist! Well, I'm sorry to say that after hearing all my friends rave about Lorrie Moore and reading this novel, I ended up violently hating it. After the first, oh, I don't know, five pages, I started keeping a list of all the utterly implausible things that characters say and do in this book. Nobody in this book behaves even remotely like a real human being. So while the writing itself is good, in terms of plausibility, it's a disaster. I wouldn't have bothered to finish it if it hadn't been our book club selection. I possibly would have run it over with my car instead. It annoyed me that much. Sorry, Lorrie Moore fans.

4. The Painted Bird, by Jerzy Kosinski
I can see the value of this book as an allegory for the horrors of war. However, it sticks in my mind as basically a book about animal (and occasional young boy) torture. Just unrelentingly awful. Like The Tin Drum, it created a world that I never want to enter into again, and thinking about it even now gives me the squicks.

5. Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins
I think the Hunger Games series is done a disservice by this book, which has a good chunk of action happen off-screen and disappointed me on many levels (which may or may not be fair, I've heard arguments on both sides). I read the entire trilogy very quickly and once Mockingjay had a chance to sink in, I guess I decided I didn't like it so much. I think there are worse books I read this year as books (although all the weird offscreen action and strange pacing is not very good) but it was a notable disappointment for me in terms of the trilogy, so it ends up here.

Honorable mentions go to One Day, which is 3/4 of a good book, and the book that made me give up on the Beekeeper's Apprentice series, A Letter of Mary. Also, my biggest disappointment was The Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet, by David Mitchell, which is not by any means a bad book; it's good. I just have the highest, highest standards for Mitchell, and I wanted to love and adore this book the way I love and adore everything else he's ever written, not just mildly like it.

And now, on to 2011!


Sunday, January 02, 2011

The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America (by Michael Ruhlman)

I've been going Top Chef crazy this season, so I picked up this book for hopefully a good insidery look at cheffing. I was a little disappointed because the author didn't actually go through the full training at CIA; he went in as a reporter, and dipped in and out of various classes. So you do get some good day-by-day insight into some of the classes, but not all of them. There's quite a lot in there about the tension between his reporter role and his desire to be a cook, which is to me the least interesting thing about the book.

My other minor issue with the book is that he doesn't always explain terms. I had to look up the definition of, say, "confit." I did learn a lot doing that, but I would have preferred a few more quick or slightly clearer explanations along the way. I guess I'd say it was a pretty good book that didn't wow me as much as it could have. Having just done my year-end wrapup, I can guarantee I won't remember much about it this time next year!