Thus far in 2011 I’ve read three books. I finished Paul Auster’s Invisible, and read Girl Factory by Jim Krusoe on New Year’s Day. I read a few raves of the Auster book, and I’d put it in a very long list of his better books. Maybe not in the top five, but one not to miss if you like his writing. Girl Factory was excellent. After I finished it, I wrote to myself: “Highly entertaining, and the main character had a great voice. New favorite book of 2011, one day into it.” Two weeks later and I’ll stick to that opinion.
The book I just finished, while watching the Bears thrash the Seahawks, was Tana French’s Faithful Place. I can’t remember why I picked it up, but I probably should have known by the style of the dust jacket that it wouldn’t be quite my taste. It’s in the crime genre, and was a little too filled with the stock and trade of that category for me. Even so, the characters are spectacularly well fleshed out, and the sense of place was great. I don’t know anything about the lower class rowhouses of Dublin where the action takes place, but I had no trouble filling the blanks from her detailed descriptions.
Anyway, it wasn’t really my thing, but if you enjoy literate crime fiction, this is a book I can recommend.
It’s been a few years since I stopped discussing the books I’ve been reading, and I think I should get back to it again. I find it’s good to write a little (even if it’s just a sentence or two) about what I’ve read; when I don’t, I find that I don’t really think much about what I’ve read. I’m not a particularly critical reader, and I don’t expect that everything I read will need to mean something, but without consideration, many of the books I’ve read just fade into a blurry outline, and eventually disappear from memory altogether.
I’ll start by trying to recollect what I can about the books I read last year. Looking at the list on the right side of the page, it’s pretty easy to put the books into three categories: the best, the next, and the rest.
One comment before getting to the list. I like reading books on paper, rather than electronically, and I like owning the objects themselves. That some publishers (McSweeney’s, Two Dollar Radio, Tin House, for example) actually pay attention to the quality of their books means something to me, and I’m more inclined to buy a book that is typeset well, has a sewn binding, and has attractive cover art, than the crappy “Perfect” binding and shiny raised-print dust jacket that’s typical of most hardcover and paperback books these days. Maybe if companies focused on a quality product, consumers would be more likely to actually buy the thing instead of flocking to a digital version?
The Instructions, Adam Levin
This one is a clear number one for me. It probably isn’t the best book I’ve ever read or anything, but there was so much to like in this book that it’s flaws are easily forgiven. The story, characters, and the way Levin slowly introduces us to the language and mind of 10-year old, possible messiah, Gurion ben-Judah Maccabe was pure pleasure. For example, he’s always talking about “chinning the air” at someone. Whenever I’d come to that phrase in the book, I’d almost involuntarily nod my head the way you greet a friend (or smile at a cat). Gurion’s friendships and the way boys fight and make friends felt real; the love story between Gurion and Eliza June Watermark was touching and painful. And brief descriptions like this:
I chugged my coffee, leaving only one sip. I liked to drink the last sip while I stepped off the train, then victory-spike it into the garbage barrel at the station = I am finished with this part of the day!
Not only is that a great image, but I like how Levin uses the equals sign to relate the actual (left side) with it’s meaning (the right side of the equation). There are a lot of conventions like this that build up through the book.
For me, the primary weakness of the book was the ending. I had a hard time understanding exactly what it was supposed to mean, not just to me, but to the characters. It wasn’t clear why this is the path they’d chosen, or what they’d hoped to accomplish. It’s not unlikely that I missed the signs earlier in the book (it’s over 1,000 pages…); and a second reading would help. But, it’s a minor complaint. It’s hard to know what Levin should have done with all the magic he’d created in the first 900 pages of the book that precede the Gurionic War.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, David Mitchell
An odd story about an odd time and place: a man-made island in Nagasaki Harbor where the Dutch East India Company traded with Japan at the end of the 18th century, and the unusual mixture of modern and ancient culture. Part love story, part ninja adventure, part bureaucratic intrigue, I really enjoyed inhabiting the world of this book. Mitchell has become one of my favorite writers, and historical fiction really suits him (although it’s possible I’m saying that because I really enjoy historical fiction). I thought the last page of the book was stunning. Pure poetry.
Freedom, Jonathan Franzen
It was pretty hard to miss this book this year, and I felt like it lived up to the hype. From the very first page, the descriptions of the characters, their motivations, and the society we live in was spot on, and often hilarious. The book is the classic love triangle story between Patty, Walter and Richard, spanning their lives, hopes, dreams, and failures. I can’t recall much of a plot, but the story is the characters, and I didn’t find my mind wandering at all.
Skippy Dies, Paul Murray
Another story about a boy, but this one dies in the first few pages, and the rest of the novel recounts how and why he wound up on the floor of the doughnut shop with his friend. Like The Instructions it’s got a love story and conflict, but it deals much more with the pains of adolescence and the failed dreams of adulthood. Great book.
Half a Life, Darren Strauss
When Darren Strauss was 18 he hit and killed a classmate with his car. This book is about how that affected the rest of his life, and how he eventually came to terms with it. I thought it was amazing.
Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel
Did I mention that I like historical fiction? Wolf Hall treads over familiar ground, King Henry the Eighth and the English reformation, but told from the perspective of Thomas Cromwell. Mantel’s Cromwell is a compelling character; an intellectual in a court of fools, a common man among Lords and Royals, and someone dedicated to his family rather than what his children can bring him. It’s also very interesting to compare the story (and man) presented here with the more common variant (see The Tudors, for example) where Thomas More is the moral hero and Cromwell is the back room dealer working only for his own financial wealth.
My only complaint is that the story isn’t finished. I can’t wait for the next volume.
Norwegian Wood, Haruki Murakami
This is the book that made Murakami so popular in Japan. It’s a love story, but with the usual mystery and magic of Murakami, and is certainly the most erotic of the books of his that I’ve read. Like everything else I’ve read from him: fantastic.
Six Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl
The buzz about this book when it came out seemed to be focused primarily on how attractive the author is. Whatever. Great book, and an incredible character in Blue. Observers wonder whether her second novel, due out in August, could possibly be as good without Blue.
A group of books I enjoyed, but don’t remember well enough to make specific comments on them.
I’m running out of steam here, so for these, check out the listing on the right side of the page (assuming you’re actually at my blog). The only books I can’t recommend with reservations on that list are The Orange Eats Creeps, American Psycho, and Everything is Illuminated. They just didn’t do it for me, and in the case of American Psycho, I wound up skimming much of the second half of it. Once you’ve forced yourself to listen to Bateman’s banal conversations about clothes and watch him rape and murder someone, why would you want to subject yourself to any more of that? Not to mention an entire chapter on how great Phil Collins is. Yetch. I realize this is satire, but please!
I just finished a pair of books that take place around the time of the Civil War and the years following. Both stories are told from multiple points of view, but the similarities end there.
Peter Matthiessen’s masterwork of fiction Shadow Country is a reworking of a book he wrote decades earlier, and which was originally split into three separate books. It tells the story of “Bloody Watson,” a real person who was suspected of a multitude of murders in southern Florida and who was gunned down by his neighbors after the great hurricane of October 1910. The first “book” is composed of a series of short chapters written in the voices of the people who were present when Watson was murdered, the second is from the perspective of his son, and the third is a first person accounting by Edgar Watson himself. It’s a great way to tell a story, not only because each section comes from a different perspective, but because each “author” lived a very different part of the same history. The accounts overlap, of course, but in ways that draw you into the mystery of Watson’s life and his family rather than simply telling the same tale from different angles.
For such a long book, it held my attention throughout, and involved places and times I’m really not all that familiar with. And knowing what little I do know about the Everglades region of Florida, it’s likely that there’s nothing left of the world Watson lived in. Most of that is a good thing—the relationship between the races and sexes was harsh and brutal—but it would be great to see what the Everglades looked like before much of the wildlife was shot out and the structure of the region was changed.
The second book I read this month is Chris Adrian’s first novel, Gob’s Grief. I read The Children’s Hospital in 2007, and came away wanting to read more from Adrian. Gob’s Grief isn’t as spectacular as The Children’s Hospital, but it covers a lot of the same ground; angels, spirits, life and death. And just like The Children’s Hospital, he somehow manages to keep the story grounded in reality.
A couple asides: the dog in the photo is Deuce, who finally figured out (last month) that sleeping on dog beds was better than sleeping on the floor. I tried setting the books next to him laying on a dog bed, but he couldn’t handle that. So that’s the best photo I could get with him and the books in it. Nika is out in the dog yard and the other dogs are at the races with Andrea today.
After looking at the list of books I read in past years on the sidebar, I realized that they were in chronological order, but reverse chronological order makes a lot more sense in the context of a blog (where the most recent post is first) and for the sidebar. So I reversed them with a quick Python script. Here’s my reverse.py:
#! /usr/bin/env python import sys lines = sys.stdin.readlines() lines.reverse() for line in lines: line = line.strip() print(line)
To use it: cat file | ./reverse.py > reversed_file
> books_per_foot = c(14,11,17,11,10,18,12,12, 13,16,15,14,13,14,15,8,10,10,11,11) > summary(books_per_foot) Min. 1st Qu. Median Mean 3rd Qu. Max. 8.00 11.00 12.50 12.75 14.25 18.00 > mean(books_per_foot)  12.75 > sd(books_per_foot)  2.613225With that information (12.75 books per foot of shelf space with a standard deviation of 2.61 books) and the total length of each bookshelf, it ought to be relatively easy to extract a listing of what books to put on each bookshelf. Actually moving them will be more of a challenge!
I finished Gravity’s Rainbow last week. For me, it was a bit of a disappointment, not so much with the book itself, but with myself for not devoting the time to reading it more faithfully from start to finish. With the previous Pynchon I’ve read (Crying of Lot 49, Mason & Dixon, Against the Day) I started out reading very carefully, taking notes as I went along. After I got comfortable with the narrative and felt I was familiar enough with the gestalt, I blazed through the remainder of the book. This time around, I started the same way, but didn’t devote the time to reading it after the first part and I wasn’t able to keep the characters and situations in my head. So the novel wound up as a jumble. I can see the brilliance and magic at the margins of my comprehension, but that’s about it.
At this point, I’d have to place it below both Mason & Dixon and Against the Day in my list of favorite Pynchon books. Someday I’ll have to pick it up again and try to give it the time it deserves.
Since finishing it, I’ve been reading like crazy. First was Deb Olin Unferth’s Vacation, which was fantastic. It reminded me a bit of the way Paul Auster can keep you off balance and wondering what will come next as the characters start behaving more and more strangely. Then McSweeney’s 28, which was a series of entertaining short fables (my favorite was the one about the guy who kept meeting himself). Finally, Mary Roach’s Bonk. I enjoyed this one as well, even if the continual footnoted asides became tedious by the end. I was amused, and feel like I learned a lot about what science has to say about sex.
After my success at quickly completing three books, I’ve started working on 2666 by literary superstar Roberto Bolaño. I had to special order it because my local independent bookstore didn’t have any copies, and appeared to never have heard of Bolaño. They’re surprisingly out of touch with the world of literary fiction, which seems odd for a store trying to survive the big box, low price onslaught of Barnes and Noble. Maybe they make their hay selling Twilight or whatever other bestselling doorstop is popular today and forgotten tomorrow.
In any case, 63 pages into 2666 and I’m highly amused. Thus far, the story has revolved around four literary critics obsessed with a reclusive German author. If that sounds like an odd premise for a story, it is; odder still is that despite there being very little plot, I’m eager to get back to it.
More eager than chopping wood or cooking my Thanksgiving ham, stuffing, gravy and sweet potato pie, in fact.