Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Hooray for Neil Gaiman!

Neil Gaiman won the Newbery Medal for The Graveyard Book! I haven't read it yet, but I love his writing.

In other Neil Gaiman news, I need to re-read Coraline in preparation for the release of the film version, but I was pretty creeped out by the book the first time through.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

And another top in 2008!

Here's my list of some of the favorite books I read in '08. And I like the addition of runners-up this year, it takes a little of the pressure off! So, in no particular order:

Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky
Suite Francaise is a compelling look at the occupation of France by the Germans during WWII. Nemirovsky's first two installments of what would have been a five book set are beautifully written (and translated). But even more touching is Nemirovsky's true backstory and the appendices that show some of her real papers and notes on what could have been a wonderful, finished novel. Nemirovsky was sent to Auschwitz in '42, where she perished at the young age of 39. Her daughters unknowingly kept these papers safe for years, not knowing they were a novel.

The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by MaryAnn Shaffer, Annie Barrows
Following the war, Juliet Ashton is searching for something to write about. What she finds on thie little Channel Island are the makings of a wonderful story for us and for her. The epistolary style makes the story fly, as Juliet connects with various islanders and their stories of their lives under German Occupation.

The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins
What can I say? Collins has created a post apocalyptic world that is intriguing and peopled with characters you won't soon forget. North America has become a place called Panem and is divided into 12 districts, with the wealthy Capitol in the Rockies. Every year, each district must send a male and female player, between the ages of 12 and 18, to the televised Hunger Games. When her younger sister in drawn by lottery, Katniss Everdeen jumps up to replace her as the female District 12 "contestant". Along with Peeta, District 12's other pick, they travel to the Capitol, where they begin their journey in the ultimate survival game.

So Brave, Young and Handsome by Leif Enger
I was swept away by Monte Becket's tale, from the Cannon River in Northfield, MN to the orange groves of California. It's 1915 and the old West has become but a shadow of it's former self. Monte and former desperado Glendon Hale head first to Mexico, then to the orchards of California, chased all the while by an old Pinkerton man, Charlie Siringo. Along the way, this duo meets up with some lively characters, tragic circumstances and beautiful settings. This was the real deal, and not a word is wasted as we follow the characters across the country to Blue, Hale's lost love.

The Moneypenny Diaries by Kate Westbrook
Working as the book editor, Kate Westbrook is supposedly going through her aunt's papers after her death and only now, can the truth be told. Miss Moneypenny, M's loyal secretary, was much more than a well-turned out desk girl. The Secret Intelligence Services that employs Bond, also utilized this very bright woman to help rescue that same man from Cuba. (these diaries only cover 1962, there may be more information uncovered in subsequent volumes) Jane is well-connected in her job and is also trying to find out what happened to her father, back in the day when they lived in Africa. It's written as well as a Fleming tale, with all the right characters making appearances.

Garden Spells, by Sarah Addison
The Waverlys are have lived in Bascom for years, and are the eccentric ones, just like the Clark women are sexpots, and the Hopkins men always marry older women. Older sister Claire has made her home in the family house, maintaining a mysterious garden, using her grandmother's recipes for flower foods and a catering business has bloomed. Younger sister Sydeny returns to Bascom with her young daughter, fleeing a bad relationship. There is a bit of that Southern magic flowing throughout as both the sisters come to terms with new relationships with each other and some local men.

Finding Nouf, by Zoe Ferraris
An interesting peek into the inner workings of a Saudi Arabian family. When daughter Nouf goes missing, the family hires Palestinian desert guide Nayir to look for their daughter. When she is found dead in the desert, Nayir investigates further, hoping to discover what really happened to what was one of the freer spirits of the Shrawis family. He is aided by Katya Hijazi, Nouf's brother Othman's intended and lab worker at the coroner's office. Nayir is able to piece together Nouf's last hours. I was drawn to a lot of the minutae in this story, such as Katya's inexpensive sandals melting on the hot concrete sidewalk or how her driver/escort uses a silicone hot pad to open the metal handles of the car door.

The World to Come, by Dara Horn
What a great, complex tale. It all begins with a singles cocktail party, in which recently divorced Ben discovers an old family Chagall painting on display and takes it back. Horn takes us on a engaging family journey, from the early days of Ben's grandfather Boris in a boys home in Russia to the days of his soon to be born nephew, awaiting the world to come. Throughout it all, the narrative is tied together by various Yiddish and family tales of love and loss, which add an interesting perspective to the present day lives of Ben, his sister Sara and her husband Lenoid. It's hard to do it justice, it really needs to be read, but I thank Jenny for telling us about it! I don't think I would have found it on my own and I think I would have unknowingly missed it.

Out Stealing Horses, by Per Petterson
A really elegant story about an old man going to live alone in a more distant area of Norway. A late evening encounter with a neighbor reawakens Trond's memories of his fifteenth summer, spent in an area not unlike where he is living now. Memories flow between his daily tasks, as we discover the painful realities of his past and are left without all of the answers, much like real life.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski
Growing up in Northern Wisconsin, we find third generation dog-breeder Edgar Sawtelle. He is mute, and communicates with his parents and fellow students at school in his own version of ASL. Even the dogs understand Edgar, making even more remarkable this breed they raise on their farm. Edgar's father, Gar, was raised on the same farm with his brother Claude. Claude's return to the farm sets into motion many events that create most of the tragedy in the story. Similarities to Hamlet abound, and I was drawn in to this story and tragic events with Wroblewski's wonderful storytelling.

Honorable Mentions
Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Steig Larsson
Hattie Big Sky, by Kirby Larson
Becky, the life and loves of Becky Thatcher, by Lenore Hart
Gregor the Overlander, by Suzanne Collins
The True Meaning of Smekday, by Adam Rex
Songs for the Missing, by Stewart O'Nan
The Thirteenth Tale, by Diane Setterfield

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Another top 10 list

I'm adopting Jenny's strategy of including two #10s as well as a list of extras that didn't quite make the list. These are my favorites of the books I read in 2008. Discuss.

Lady of the Snakes, Rachel Pastan
We follow Jane Levitsky during her first year as an assistant professor as she suffers the insecurities of a woman trying to have it all: she wants to spend more time on her research, but she feels guilty about the time away from her daughter, Maisie. Meanwhile, the subject of her research, the wife of a 19th century Russian writer, becomes more than the breakthrough that might make her academic career. As Jane’s tenuous hold on her career and family starts to slip, we feel her anguish and desperation as she keeps looking to her Russian alter ego for answers.

The Hunger Games, Suzanne Collins
Each year each district must send a boy and a girl to compete in the Hunger Games, a brutal contest for survival that only one can win. When her younger sister is chosen for the Games, Katniss volunteers to take her place. She finds that her hardscrabble lifestyle has prepared her for the hardships of the Games, though perhaps not for the gamesmanship. Her struggles to survive, and her evolving understanding of the unfairness of the government, make this a gripping story.

The World to Come, Dara Horn
This book starts with an awkward singles cocktail party at the Jewish Museum and Ben Ziskind’s unlikely theft of a small Chagall painting. The narrative spins out forward and backwards in time from there, both detailing the consequences of his action and slowly filling in the pieces to explain how it became a family heirloom. Horn repeatedly returns to the themes of memory, beliefs, and trust in relationships.

The Good Thief, Hannah Tinti
Ren expects that he will never be adopted because he is missing his left hand. However, when he is twelve, Benjamin Nab appears and claims him as his long-lost brother. Ren immediately starts to suspect Benjamin’s claims: he is a small-time crook who uses Ren’s disability to disarm his intended marks. Ren and Benjamin’s unconventional little family stretches to include a number of other quirky and beautifully-written characters that pull together against the threats of the local factory owner. Along the way, Ren learns more about his past and also about what constitutes a family.

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, Sherman Alexie
This is Alexie’s autobiographically-inspired account of Junior, a Native American. Written in very spare language and illustrated with Junior’s cartoons, his diary chronicles his life on the reservation and his experiences at the white high school 20-some miles (and a huge cultural gap) away. His matter-of-fact recognition of the hopelessness and alcoholism that surrounds him is heartbreaking, but nevertheless there is a lot of humor and affection in his depiction.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, Barbara Kingsolver
This is Kingsolver’s account of her family’s attempt to live a year as true locavores, growing much of their own food and finding local producers of anything they couldn’t grow themselves. I especially enjoyed her anecdotal sections about her daughter Lily, who was 9 at the time, and her budding chicken farm; trying to figure out how to encourage her turkeys to have sex; and her trip to Italy.

The Commoner, John Burnham Schwartz
This is a fictionalized story of Empress Michiko, the first commoner to marry into the rigid hierarchy of the Japanese Imperial family. It is not a Cinderella story, however; the princess – here called Haruko – finds herself so constrained by her new position that she cannot even see her parents anymore. The ending breaks from what is otherwise a pretty factual telling of Empress Michiko’s life, but it does a wonderful job evoking the relationship between the Japanese people and the Imperial Family.

Away, Amy Bloom
Lillian Leyb leaves Russia after her family is killed in the pogroms and settles in New York in the 1920s. As she says early in the novel, “Az me muz, ken men” (When one must, one can), which describes Lillian’s approach to her new life. On her cross-country quest to find her lost daughter, Sophie, she moves through the vividly imagined worlds of other marginal people, adapting to their rules.

Life As We Knew It, Susan Beth Pfeffer
What would you do if life as we knew it was ending? That is the question posed by this thought-provoking young adult novel. When an asteroid knocks the moon out of its orbit, the resulting gravitational shift causes tsunamis that destroy coastal areas. Written as the diary of a typical 16-year-old, the book chronicles her family’s survival through a series of crises, and yet there are times of celebration and family; it is reminiscent of Anne Frank in that way. Pfeffer also wrote a companion book, The Dead and the Gone, about the same catastrophe, set in NYC.

Tied for #10:
A Person of Interest, Susan Choi
The story starts with a mail-bomb. Professor Lee, a retirement-aged math professor, becomes a Person of Interest in the investigation of the bombing; his personal awkwardness and lifelong habits of reticence make him seem suspicious. We go back through Lee’s life to see the choices that have left him living in a dirty, empty home with no social life. This is not a cheerful story, but Choi creates a compelling portrait of a man who finds himself alone, uncertain how he got there.

Dairy Queen, Catherine Gilbert Murdock
DJ Schwenk does not question the silence between her family members or the ridiculous sacrifices being asked of her, running her family’s Wisconsin dairy farm, until the coach of her school’s rival football team sends his QB to help out on the farm. Murdock gives DJ a distinctive voice and places her in an authentic world peopled with interesting and idiosyncratic individuals, making her coming-of-age drama into a touching but not maudlin story.

Didn’t quite make the cut:
The Thirteenth Tale, Diane Setterfield
Elsewhere, Gabrielle Zevin
Before I Die, Jenny Downham
The Monsters of Templeton, Lauren Groff
The Madonnas of Leningrad, Debra Dean

Monday, January 12, 2009

Two articles

There were two articles in the NYTimes that I thought might be of interest.

The first, yesterday, was about the publication of the latest Diary of a Wimpy Kid book. I'm somewhat torn about these books: they have little in the way of redeeming characters or good lessons, but they are hilarious and Tim loves them enough to read them, and re-read them, on his own.

The second, this morning, reports that fiction-reading is up among adults. The statistics are still terribly depressing, especially considering that reading on-line fanfic counts as reading fiction, at least for the purposes of their study.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

Top 10 Books Read in 2008

Can you tell I'm procrastinating? Well, I am. It's January and time for looking back. Here are the top 10 (well 11) books that I read in 2008. They are in no particular order and they have been chosen based on my engagement & excitement and not necessarily for literary value (though I would argue the merits of any one of them).

#1: Sharp Teeth: Toby Barlow

If George Pelecanos, Kelley Armstrong, and Sonia Sones all got together in a dive bar in L.A., talked for hours and had a few too many, a novel like this might have been the result. Written in blank verse, Sharp Teeth tells the gritty, bloody, yet strangely captivating story of a lycanthropic underworld in Southern California filled with schemers, criminals, and down and out folks simply wanting to belong . . . to something.

#2: Fingersmith: Sarah Waters

If David Mamet's movie of cons and con men, House of Games, had been set in 1860's London, it might have gone something like this. Sue Trinder, orphaned at a young age, and raised by Mrs. Sucksby and her "family" of thieves, fences, and ner-do-wells, is pulled into a complex con game with a young man, the neighborhood calls the "Gentleman." He needs Sue's help to woo another young orphan, Maud, who lives with her reclusive uncle in the country--an orphan who will come into money of her own only after she is married. Sue takes on the role of Maud's maidservant and her job is to help the romance along; however, once the Gentleman spirits Maud away to be married (since her uncle would never permit it), the plan is to have Maud institutionalized as insane and for Sue and the Gentleman to take the money. However, things are much more than what they seem and Sue certainly did not bargain on having feelings for Maud.

#3: The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo: Stieg Larsson

A mystery in the vein of Henning Mankell--that is, not a lot of flashy show downs (okay, well one) but a lot of intriguing, deliberate investigation and some vivid characters. A crusading financial journalist, Mikael Blomkvist, recently convicted on libel charges, is hired by Henrik Vanger, the aging head of family-owned corporation, to investigate the disappearance of his niece, Harriet, almost 40 years before. Lisbeth Salander works for the security firm that is initially hired by Henrik Vanger to investigate Mikael (prior to hiring him). People often underestimate her--judging her by her punk rock exterior, all heroin skinny with lots of tattoos and piercings. Also, her social skills leave something to be desired. However, not only is Lisbeth a genius hacker but she is a brilliantly meticulous investigator. It is when Mikael and Lisbeth join forces that things really get interesting.

#4: The Hunger Games: Suzanne Collins

This novel, set in a dystopian future, has the United States divided into twelve districts (the 13th district was obliterated after a failed rebellion) and a ruling Capital (giving shining city on a hill a whole new sinister twist). Life in many of the districts is hard and made harder by the fact that each year every district must send two tributes, one girl and one boy, between the ages of 12 - 18, to the Hunger Games, a contest-to-the-death a la Survivor, broadcast on national television.

Katniss Everdeen is sixteen going on 30, supporting her mother and sister, Prim, by hunting game and collecting plants in a forbidden area outside of District 12 (an area encompassing much of Appalachia and focused on mining). When Katniss's sister, Prim, is chosen for the Hunger Games, Katniss steps in to take her place. The boy chosen from District 12 is Peeta, son of the local baker, and a boy that once did Katniss an enormous kindness. As the novel follows Katniss to the Capital and through the horrible (but all too familiar) rituals preceding the games, the tension grows. Will Katniss be the first tribute from District 12 to win in decades? When the time comes, will she be able to kill Peeta? What will be lost by winning?

#5: Love is a Mix Tape: Rob Sheffield

I really loved this book. It wasn't just that it made me laugh. It wasn't just that it brought back a swirl of music-tinged memories from the 90's. It wasn't just that it made me cry. It wasn't just that the author is my age and that we seem to speak the same pop culture language. It was all these things and more. Rob is a tall, shy music geek from Boston pursuing a graduate degree in English when he meets Renee, a bold "punk-rock girl" from West Virginia who is getting her MFA. Music connects them from the very beginning. They both perk up when a Big Star song is played at the local bar and the soundtrack to their developing relationship is wonderfully eccentric (and most likely recorded over some crappy band's demo tape). This book isn't just a mix tape; it's a love letter. A love letter to Charlottesville, Virginia, to Renee and all she stood for, to music and especially 90's music, and, of course, to mix tapes.

#6: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle: David Wroblewski

This is the third book that I've read in the last year that does a modern take on Hamlet and it was by far the best. David Wroblewski takes the spirit of the Shakespeare play and crafts a novel about family connections, silence and communication, and the dream of creating the perfect breed of dog. Edgar is a young man growing up with his parents on a farm in northern Wisconsin. He has been mute since birth but is able to communicate with his parents, Gar and Trudy, using sign language--part ASL and part his own creation. The family business is breeding dogs and training them and that's just one of the fascinating bits of this story. When Gar's brother, Claude, returns to the area, trouble starts because the brothers' relationship is complex and strained. As the story begins to build and you know (or at least suspect) that the events will lead to a Shakespeare-like tragedy, it's hard to stop reading.

#7: Maynard & Jennica: Rudolph Delson

This is a quirky love story set in New York around the time of September 11th and narrated by a cast of thousands (well, more like 30). This cast includes the two title characters but also friends, family members, and a number of random New Yorkers, who weigh in as the relationship between Maynard and Jennica develops. If you hate things that border on twee, this is not the book for you but I enjoyed the eccentricities including the structure of the story itself. Besides, how can you resist a book that concludes with a list of "speakers in this comedy" and said list ends with, "As well as an aged MACAW, certain CICADAS, certain FROGS, certain CRICKETS, and one EMERGENCY BRAKE on a certain No. 6 train" (p. 296)?

#8: The Translation of Dr. Arpelles: David Treuer

In this novel, David Treuer weaves two stories together in interesting and ambiguous ways. One strand follows a 40-something translator of Native American languages who works archiving unwanted books in a giant book depository (I picture that warehouse at the end of the first Indiana Jones). Every other Friday, Dr. Apelles visits a library archive to work on translation projects. At the start of the book, he has found an exciting new text to translate and one that changes him in the process. The other strand seems to be the story that Dr. Apelles has found-a story of two Native American young people, who are destined to be together--though they must survive many challenges to do so. By the end of the novel, it is not clear what is being translated and what is truth and it left me with many questions (in a good way) and a desire to talk about this book with a book group and lots of coffee.

#9: Dairy Queen: Catherine Gilbert Murdock

This is a great coming-of-age story that involves football, cows, and learning to take chances. DJ Schwenk worries that she has become a cow-not questioning the many hours a day that she spends keeping the family's dairy farm going (while her dad recovers from hip problems), not questioning the angry silence between her Dad and her two older brothers (who are both off playing football in college), and accepting her flunking of English class the previous semester as inevitable. However, when a family friend, who happens to be the football coach of a rival town's team, sends his star quarterback, Brian Nelson, to help DJ with farm chores (and eventually to be trained by DJ), something happens . . . and nothing in the Schwenk family will be the same.

Tied for #10:

Mistress of the Art of Death: Ariana Franklin

Though it took me a chapter or two to get into the rhythms of this novel's omniscient narrator, once I did I couldn't put it down. In 12th century Cambridge, a young child is murdered and the townspeople blame the Jews. An out-of-control mob not only attacks and kills one of the wealthier Jewish families but they chase the rest of the community into the local castle, where the sheriff and his men must protect them. The king, Henry II, is concerned because the Cambridge Jews had been a reliable source of income for his royal coffers. He contacts his cousin, the King of Sicily, to send for a "doctor of death," a doctor who has been trained to examine dead bodies to determine cause of death (think forensic investigations when autopsies were still a sort of blasphemy.) The Italian king sends his best doctor, who just happens to be a woman.

Kornwolf: Tristan Egolf

What do a middle-aged boxing trainer, a 30-something journalist who has trouble keeping a job, and a young Amish boy whose father brutalizes him have in common? Read this novel and find out. It's a story of prodigal sons (to quote the back cover), werewolves, family curses, rural Pennsylvania, and human weakness. Yet it's also wickedly funny, dark, suspenseful, and satirical. Not your typical werewolf story or really typical in any way. I found this at a used bookstore in Providence, RI, and bought it because . . . who can resist a story that combines the Amish and werewolves. This, however, nicely exceeded my expectations and I'm looking forward to tracking down Egolf's two earlier works. I wish there were more to come but Tristan Egolf committed suicide in 2005.

Contenders that didn't make the cut:

No Country for Old Men: Cormac McCarthy
by George: Wesley Stace
Unaccustomed Earth: Jhumpa Lahiri
Julie & Julia: Julie Powell
And She Was: Cindy Dyson
The Spellman Files: Lisa Lutz