Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Year-End Book Wrapup '14

This year I read 55 books (including 10 "official" rereads). 19 were by men and 36 were by women. I've gotten pickier about reading dude books, I suppose! I read 16 of the books on my reading wishlist (posted in last year's wrapup), and gave up on another four. 

Top five books of the year:

1. Life After Life by Kate Atkinson
This was my first book of the year, and still my favorite. I just went back to check my original review because I had a feeling I'd said something along these lines, and I did: "It is only the first book I've read in 2014, but I wouldn't be surprised at all if it turned out to be the best." Indeed, it did; a wonderful novel.

2. The Vacationers by Emma Straub
Another wonderful novel, not as ambitious as Life After Life, but a superbly drawn character study and a very fresh shifting omniscient point of view. This one is on the longlist for next year's ToB, and deservedly so.

3. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood
Oh man, was this great--another one I keep recommending, particularly to people who like sci-fi and dystopia. There are two more books in the series that I should probably get to at some point, too.

4. If on a Winter's Night a Traveler by Italo Calvino
Stuffed with metatextual and postmodern goodness, humor and cleverness, insight and brilliance. Another one that's highly, highly recommended. See, I told you it was a good year!

5. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
This is one that I wasn't necessarily wowed by but that has stuck with me. It's one of those books that kind of sits in the back of your mind and you keep coming back to it over time, more so than some of my other favorites listed below. So it squeaks into the number five spot here.

Runners up: The Goldfinch, The Emperor's Children, We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves, Yes Please, Hyperbole and a Half. And this list is excluding the re-reads, which include some of my favorite books of all time: Cloud Atlas, Into Thin Air, Catch-22, The Wings of the Dove. Wonderful reading year!

Bottom four books:

1. Blink by Malcolm Gladwell
Has some memorable moments, but overall a little too gimmicky and Gladwelly for me.

 2. Being Nikki by Meg Cabot
A bit unfair to do this to a book that was the second in a trilogy, so maybe not the book's fault, but I didn't enjoy it.

3. Waiter Rant by Steve Dublanica
A frisson of misogyny and a bit of disposability lands this book at the fourth spot.

4. Lucy Sullivan Is Getting Married by Marian Keyes
Meh, a slightly unsatisfying outing from Keyes. Favorite "chicklit" of the year was definitely What Alice Forgot.

Again, no runners up, although the first chapter of Telegraph Avenue is so horrible that I immediately quit reading it. For sure the worst thing that I read this year, if fractions count.

I've been ruminating on what to read next year. I read The top 10 top 100 booklists and although I haven't picked a booklist to officially work my way through next, some ideas came from there; in perusing the lists, I realized there are some classics that I still need to read. (Macbeth is on the list. If it helps at all, I have the "Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow" speech memorized. But no, I've never read it in its entirety.) I also would like to read more African-American literature, and give short stories another chance. I included books recommended by Ian (The Magic Mountain, Vanity Fair) and by my friends Chris (Dog of the South) and Brad (Confederacy of Dunces). I also want to cover the ones I missed last year. I'm also including last year's ToB winner (which also is by an African-American author, so a two-for-one deal there) and some other recent lit fic that I've heard good things about. This leaves me with another list of 20 books, and I think a nice mix:

Don Quixote, A Thousand Years of Solitude, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Tale of Genji, The Magic Mountain, Vanity Fair, Macbeth, A Confederacy of Dunces, Blindness, Aint I A Woman?, The Good Lord Bird, Americanah, The Poisonwood Bible, Dog of the South, Best American Short Stories 2014, An Untamed State, Brown Girl Dreaming, All the Light We Cannot See. And leftover from last year, two rereads: All the King's Men and the river chapter of Finnegans Wake. As I did last year, I will add links in this post as I finish them. And like last year, I'm going to give myself permission to set books aside if it comes to that.

I'm excited for another great year of reading in 2015. (And for the ToB shortlist coming out in January sometime. Eeee can't wait.)


A Few More Agatha Christies

I read three more Christies over Christmas vacation: Peril at End House, Crooked House, and A Murder Is Announced. The first two are Poirot mysteries, the last is Miss Marple. They are all good, though I think my favorite (despite its somewhat convoluted denouement) is End House. A Murder Is Announced suffered a bit from the fact that one of the other Christies has a similar ending, and enough similarities that I saw the big reveal coming. Not all of it, though, and it was clever!

I pulled all of these titles off of some "best of Agatha Christie" list somewhere; I think next I'll re-read Orient Express and Ackroyd. Even though I know how they conclude, it's fun to see how Christie sets up the readers. 

These might be the last books I finish this year (Bone Clocks, Americanah, and Wise Blood are in progress but will extend into 2015, I'm guessing) so a wrap-up will follow shortly. I read a lot of excellent books this year.

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Monday, December 22, 2014

The ABC Murders (by Agatha Christie)

Yes, I continue to be susceptible to the wiles of Entertainment Weekly. They had a "binge" feature on Christie and mentioned this one, which I do not remember having read. Plus it was two bucks on Kindle, what am I, made of stone?

I think my first batch of Christie was on the advice of my friend Marianne, who loves her. I read all of Marianne's top picks (including the classics like Orient Express, And Then There Were None, and Roger Ackroyd). Again, I think you already know if this is your thing, but if you're like me and you just haven't gotten around to this one yet, it is a solid entry in the Christie canon.


Yes Please (by Amy Poehler)

Very enjoyable collection of stories and anecdotes from the incredible, rad, badass feminist Amy Poehler. Charming, delightful, smart, gossipy--you probably already know if this is your thing. Loved all the stories about Upright Citizens Brigade, SNL, Parks & Rec. and walks a fine line between being too confessional and being too detached. Better than Bossypants.


Monday, December 08, 2014

Vacation Reads Roundup II

I went on another vacation, which means it's time for another vacation reads roundup! This time it's kind of an eclectic group of novels. I finished two in November (Middlesex, Through the Narrow Gate) and three in December (The Talented Mr. Ripley, What Alice Forgot, The Vacationers).

Middlesex was one of the books on my reading list for the year. I really liked The Marriage Plot and loved The Virgin Suicides, so I figured I should read his most well known novel. I enjoyed it, though not as much as The Virgin Suicides. I probably would have enjoyed this more if it focused more on Cal's story and didn't have the extensive family saga backstory, which felt like it could have been chopped way down and still gotten the themes across. (I mentioned this to Ian and he brought up Desdemona working at the Temple as a great example.) When Cal hits adolescence, though, the novel starts firing on all cylinders: the story, the intensity of first love, the beautiful writing. Glad I stuck it out.

Through the Narrow Gate is a nun memoir so come on, you know I'm all over that.  An interesting counterpoint to my beloved In This House of Brede. I kept thinking she wouldn't have become disenchanted with the nun life if she'd been at Brede Abbey instead. But an interesting exploration of how religious life stifled her intellect, and how she ultimately resolved the conflict. Enjoyed this enough to keep it rather than leave it behind at a Costa Rican hotel, which was my original plan.

The Talented Mr. Ripley is another classic that I thought might make for a fun vacation read. It has an unreliable narrator although it's told in third person omniscient, which was a change of pace. Ripley is extremely sexually repressed and sociopathic, so his brain is an interesting place to visit.  Actually, he seems like a cousin of Charles Kinbote. (I wonder, especially given Highsmith's own bisexuality, if this novel is less problematic than Pale Fire from a Queer Criticism point of view. Gay = evil, or repressive society = evil? Maybe I need to delve into some academic journals.) (Tangent over.) A nice tense read, super creepy, with an excellent anti-hero.

What Alice Forgot had such a great conceit that I had to read it: a woman hits her head and loses 10 years of memory. She remembers being self-effacing, pregnant and madly in love with her husband, hits her head, and suddenly she's a power mom of three in the middle of an ugly divorce. The way it unfolds (with bits and pieces of memory coming back to her as she works things out, makes incorrect guesses, gets to know her kids, observes how much her loved ones have changed and tries to figure out why) works really well. And Alice is such a likeable character who is easy to root for. A classic airplane read, but far above average. Recommended if you like the genre!

Finally, I read The Vacationers by Emma Straub, which I'd originally downloaded for my last vacation where my phone broke. I think this was one of those buzzy novels that I heard about in EW and other places. This novel is great. It's about a wealthy New York family that travels to Mallorca: two parents, a grown son and college-age daughter, the son's girlfriend, and a gay couple who is friends of the family. They all have their own agendas and alliances and secrets, and the perspective moves smoothly in and out of the minds of each of the core characters. Yes, a great vacation read, and also an excellent piece of literary fiction. Highly recommended.

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