Monday, December 31, 2012

Year-End Book Wrapup '12

I do so love a good year-end book wrapup! So let's get to it, shall we?

This year, I read 44 books, 12 of which were by women. (I would feel more imbalanced about this, except that 24 of them were for the Time 100 list, and all 24 were by men, because books by men are all I have left. Eight of those 24 were part of the 12-novel cycle A Dance to the Music of Time.)

I really really wanted to finish the Time 100 list this year, and really worked hard at it, but I started teaching again in the fall, and it became quite difficult to balance all my responsibilities toward the end of the year. At this moment I am 75% of the way through The Recognitions and after that, I think I have four more books to go. If the fates allow, I should be able to declare triumph on this project (and start my next project) before the year is through!

Top five books of the year:

1. The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenedies
I debated among my current top three, but ultimately it was the beauty of Eugenedies's prose that put this over the top. I love novels that create a quietly melancholy mood, and this one is just perfection.

2. Ragtime by E.L. Doctorow
I decided to teach this novel next semester, which should be more fun than Frankenstein this semester. (The students claimed to enjoy it, but it was kind of a snore, and there was a lot of plagiarism since it's such well-trod territory.) This is such a vibrant, all-American book. I'm excited to re-read it. 

3. Money by Martin Amis
Man, what an awesome book this was. Dark and weird and fucked up and meta and cool. I would have loved to read more Martin Amis this year to see if he's always this good.

4. Call It Sleep by Henry Roth
An end-of-the-year read that I admired more than flat-out enjoyed, but I admired it a lot, so here it is. Incidentally, the top four of this list is all Time 100 novels. Whoever put together that list did a terrific job. It's such an amazing list.

5. The Fault in Our Stars by John Green
I've actually seen this book show up on quite a number of year-end best-of lists. I think most people already know if John Green is their jam, and if so, have already read this. It is really good.

Honorable mentions: The Confessions of Nat Turner, Deliverance, Ready Player One, Beautiful Ruins, The Sheltering Sky, Wolf Hall, and parts of A Dance to the Music of Time.

Bottom five books of the year:

1. The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow
Not here because it's a poorly written book (far from it) but here because it is the one book this year that truly bored me to sobs.

2. The Charm Bracelet by Melissa Hill
And now I'm realizing that I really didn't read anything all that bad this year, at least not compared to years past. This is not in the least offensively bad, it's just kind of blah. Hooray?

3. The Truth About Forever by Sarah Dessen
Sorry, but those dialogue tags alone qualify it for a spot on the list. I think it was basically okay though. Just didn't really do it for me.

4. Top of the Rock by Warren Littlefield
Again, not terrible, and I'm overall glad I read it, since several of the oral histories were fascinating. But it could have been so much more.

5. The boring parts of A Dance to the Music of Time by Anthony Powell
I finished one book and went straight into the next, and I read twelve of these in a row, so it's difficult for me to keep these straight. The ending went a little off the rails and there were a couple of very boring wartime volumes. But overall I have a lot of affection for this series, as I spent many months with one or the other of its volumes in my pocket at all times. 

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Beautiful Ruins (by Jess Walter)

Came very highly recommended, both by friends and by end-of-the-year booklists. I was about 75% done with it and was thinking, wow, it's kind of amazing that this book is being treated as literary fiction. You would think it would be dismissed as "chicklit" since it is so easy to read and written by a woman and centers around a female character and her romantic life.

Except then I found out Jess Walter is a dude. Well, that explains that.

Setting aside the question of whether the book would have gotten the same reception if Walter was a woman, which I doubt, it is an engrossing and relatively quick read. It begins with the arrival of a dying American actress in a remote Italian town in the 60s, and moves back and forth through time to the present day, when we see how the characters' lives have been affected by the events of decades ago. The characters are great, the story is interesting, the incorporation of real Old Hollywood is clever, the prose is smooth and assured, and the ending is satisfying. What more can you ask for?

I think it's probably a little overpraised (I feel like I've seen it praised everywhere), but that doesn't mean it didn't get a big thumbs up from me.

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The Charm Bracelet (by Melissa Hill)

My penultimate book of the year was this throwaway romantic comedy fluff. As readable as it is, it is sadly not very good fluff.

It's about a (very likeable) single mom named Holly who finds a charm bracelet in the vintage store she manages and is trying to get it back to its owner. In the meantime, it's about a guy named Greg who quits his Wall Street job to try and make it as a photographer and follow his dreams, and his girlfriend is clearly money-obsessed and unhappy about his career change. It's obvious where this is going from the get-go (but then, romantic comedies so often are). However, here were some of my issues.

1. Characters don't use contractions in dialogue half the time. They all talk like Data from Star Trek: TNG.  This is incredibly distracting.

2. Melissa Hill must be British, because even though her novel is set in New York and all her characters are from New York, they say things like "throw a spanner in the works" and "this thing is different to that other thing."

3. Speaking of New York, the New York Times is a big plot point, but all the characters who work there call it the "NYT" (in spoken dialogue) instead of the "Times." I doubt it.   (Also, she doesn't know how the crossword works, as the clues aren't worded correctly. As someone who does the crossword every week, this annoyed me.)

4. Greg isn't very sympathetic. He doesn't do any work on his "photography career" before quitting his job, but somehow gets handed assignments by the "NYT" almost immediately. I sympathized with his bitch girlfriend, and agreed with her that he should have mentioned that she'd be paying the mortgage for a while before he quit his job.

5. The ending is a totally ridiculous cheat. I will spoiler it: Greg's mom, who throughout the book thanks to flashbacks we believe has died of cancer, turns out at the very end to somehow be miraculously alive and the "treatment is working" so it's implied that she's not going to die after all. Earlier in the book she was in hospice care! In hospice! Plus, all these major things are happening and Greg sees his father to discuss his proposal to Bitch Girlfriend, and his mother's jewelry, and in every single conversation they discuss Greg's mother as if she's dead and they can't possibly discuss any of this with her.  In hindsight, this makes absolutely no sense.

Anyway, my list of issues notwithstanding, this book isn't terrible. Holly is likeable and the premise is cute (even if there are a ton of red herrings that go nowhere. Apart from the contractions and the Britishisms, the writing is totally fine. I just wouldn't actually recommend it.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Every Day (by David Levithan)

Read this on the plane on the flight back from Singapore with Ian reading over my shoulder. The premise is that the narrator is a 16-year-old person named A. who wakes up each day in a different body. (Rather Quantum Leap-esque.) S/he then falls in love with Rhiannon, the girlfriend of one of the people whose bodies s/he inhabits.

This was a neat premise and a fun read, though I had some criticisms. A lot of the individual "leaps" got a little mini-PSA (transgender kids deserve understanding! depression is a sickness! gay kids are just the same!) and the love story/attraction seemed a little sudden. The love story also starts at the very beginning of the novel, and I kind of wish we'd had a little more establishing of the "rules" of A's world before diving into the love story. Also, I feel obligated to mention a hint of fat-phobia in one of the vignettes.


But ultimately the book was very enjoyable. I liked the ending, though it did remove some agency from Rhiannon, which I did not like. Basically don't think about this one too hard, and you'll enjoy the read. Sounds like I'm damning with faint praise, but it's definitely enjoyable YA. Maybe not worthy of all of Entertainment Weekly's gushing, but enjoyable nonetheless.

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Call It Sleep (by Henry Roth)

Maybe not the Great American Novel, but certainly a great American novel. It's about the Jewish immigrant experience, which definitely qualifies as a great American theme. And it's just beautifully written.

Roth does amazing things with language. He makes the English spoken by the multiingual immigrants very broken and Brooklynese, but the at-home tongue of the protagonist's family, which is Yiddish, lyrical and fluid. It's the story of a young boy's coming of age. It's a very Oedipal family triangle, which is to say, he's very close to his mother and his father is tyrannical and unsympathetic.

(The preface suggests the novel is just like James Joyce because the main character is clearly destined to be an artist. I see zero textual evidence for this reading, but that doesn't mean Joyce isn't evoked in other ways, such as the use of stream-of-consciousness and the polyglot language.)

I actually haven't loved many of the Jewish-American writers on the Time 100 list; I don't love Phillip Roth, and Saul Bellow bores me to tears. But this novel--which is the only one Roth ever wrote, drawn from his own experience--I loved. 

Definitely a classic, definitely holds up, and very glad I read it.


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Sunday, December 02, 2012

Top of the Rock (by Warren Littlefield)

It's told in an oral history style, like the awesome SNL book Live from New York, which I really wish they'd re-release with an update on the years since the book came out. This would have been awesome if it had focused on a more in-depth oral history of each of the shows that was part of Must-See TV.  But instead it focuses more on the behind-the-scenes of Littlefield himself, and why he is awesome, and why his firing was unjust, which, nobody really cares, Warren Littlefield.

Plus, there are all these slams on post-Littlefield NBC which, certainly Jeff Zucker was a disaster and the whole Jay Leno thing, but the idea that NBC has stopped producing quality comedy when they have Parks and Rec and Community, and the first few seasons of The Office, is just silly.  There's also some off-putting slams against Big Bang Theory, referring to it as "nerds trying to bang a slut" or something. I don't even watch the show, but that description is just misogynist and gross. (I don't think it was Littlefield who said it, but he definitely agreed with the supposed "low quality" of ABC sitcoms.)

Really, this should have been a book entirely about Friends or Seinfeld or ER. That book would have been awesome.

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The Confessions of Nat Turner (by William Styron)

This one was a little complicated for me. First off, it is a really really good book. Well written, gripping, a fascinating story, interestingly structured, and definitely not what I was expecting, which was an unrelenting and grim look at the abuses of slavery. I mean, Styron doesn't gloss over anything, but his take is fresh and different, and not without humor or complexity. He does give Nat, a slave, a very elevated and formal diction throughout, but I interpreted it as capturing the complexity of his thoughts, rather than a literal representation of his education. And it feels well-researched and authentic. 
 
However, as Styron's afterword discusses, it does seem fairly presumptuous that this book was written at all--that Styron is assuming the voice of Nat Turner, an important figure in African-American history, and inventing his motives. Styron is very defensive in the afterword as well, and name dropping his friend "Jimmy Baldwin" left and right, which is very "but one of my best friends is black!" of him. I really think he had good intentions and maybe he's right that the initial wave of African-American criticism about the book isn't or wasn't entirely fair. But I'd like to read current African-American criticism on the book. I trust black voices on the black experience more than Styron's, fair or not.

But it is a really good book anyway.

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