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Books Read 2009

I think it would be a very good idea to keep track of the books I read. Enter this list. Any comments or suggestions as the year progresses will be entirely welcome. (Except for the first two books, I’ll be using Powells.com for my links.)

Sabriel, by Garth Nix. Book 1 of the Abhorsen Trilogy. I read this back in 2002, and decided to reread it over Christmas break. I had forgotten how much I enjoyed it! Any book that has a strong female lead is going to have a special place in my mother-of-two-daughters heart. Adventure, mystery, action, danger, with just a whiff of romantic attraction. This is what young adult fiction ought to be.
America America, by Ethan Canin. What a good story. It’s the story of the fictitious 1972 presidential elections. What are our secrets? What do we know? What is truth? We can’t ever know The Truth. Even our own interpretation of events change as we grow older, as we learn more than we did at the occurrence. Everything and every action has layers. Highly recommended.
imagedbcgi Shadow and Claw, by Gene Wolfe. First half of the Book of the New Sun tetralogy. So different than the run-of-the-mill postindustrial SFF world. In fact, for most of the first book, it isn’t clear whether this is a postindustrial or some kind of alternate medieval world. The language style is more epic and formal than most, too. But how can I not be impressed by a story that is not only metatextual, but at one point has two characters discuss semiotics, in a perfectly natural way?
lavinia Lavinia, by Ursula K. Le Guin. This one took a while to warm up, storywise; the book’s voice is very different than what we find in the Earthsea books. But I always enjoy a modern retelling of a classic tale, and this novel tells the story of Aeneas’s Italian wife — Lavinia. I thoroughly enjoyed Le Guin’s vision of the religious mysteries as practiced by Lavinia and her people.
alchemist The Alchemist, by Paulo Coelho. I liked it. Like any book in translation, this one read a bit stiffly, but that may be Coelho’s style. I enjoyed his pithy, laconic humor. I don’t understand why this book became the darling of all those self-help types (actually, yes, I do know why: many of them don’t have a working sense of humor), because to me it was cut from the same cloth as one of those long jokes with detailed set-up. If you’ve read The Alchemist, you know what I’m talking about. If you haven’t read it, go ahead and give it a try. It’s short, and doesn’t make your brain work too hard. (Plus, you’ll chuckle.)
saramago The Gospel According to Jesus Christ, by Jose Saramago. (Hmm, I seem to be on a Portuguese award-winning author streak…) Oh! This was so good! I think the pithy, laconic humor (see discussion of The Alchemist) is a Portuguese trait. I like how Saramago envisioned the life of the man, Jesus. He turns out to be a sensitive guy — with all its positive and negative implications. I was a bit disappointed at the Catholic (vs. Christian) turn it takes for a (very) brief while, but Saramago is Catholic, I’m sure, so it shouldn’t have been a surprise.
achebe Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe. I liked the zig-zag storytelling schema of this novel, evocative of oral tradition story-telling. Another great African novel to add to my list.
atlas Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. Six nested stories, told in very different voices, and set in very different times from the 1800s to the far future. The connections between the stories won’t become apparent until you are about halfway through. This novel is fabulous — I think everyone should read it. The language in the Frobisher story is gorgeous. Highly recommended.
netherland Netherland, by Joseph O’Neill. Well, this recently won the PEN/Faulkner award. The New York Times Book Review raved about it last year. My opinion?

Meh.

It wasn’t so bad that I didn’t finish it. But when it was over, I kinda wished I had.

bulgakov1 The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov. Considered one of the masterpieces of 20th century literature. I read the 1967 Glenny translation, and I found it extremely readable; on the other hand, this translation is said to sacrifice textual accuracy for flow, and I could believe that because some characters come out so flippant (Margarita seems to have no moral sense, for example) that it’s hard to feel interested in them. You should read the Wikipedia page just to get a sense of the number of people who say this work has influenced them — everyone from Salman Rushdie to Franz Ferdinand, for crying out loud!
slowness In Praise of Slowness: Challenging the Cult of Speed, by Carl Honoré. In Praise of Slowness is an introduction to the variety of ways to implement slowness in everyday life. There is, of course, the very famous Slow Food Movement, and a recent graphic by the folks at the New York Times’ Economix blog shows the clear relationship between eating quickly and obesity rates. But Honoré also introduces us to slow cities, slow medicine, slow sex (Sting and Tantric sex, anyone?), slow work, slow leisure (we’re definitely losing the ability to enjoy slow rest in our culture), slow children, and, believe it or not, slow exercise. This gave me lots of food for thought; I’m glad I read it.
leibowitz A Canticle for Leibowitz, by Walter M. Miller. Another science fiction classic I hadn’t heard of before. It’s really three connected novelettes dealing with post-apocalyptic Dark Ages and a second Renaissance, allowed in large part to a band of monks directed with the safekeeping of pre-apocalypse writings (technical, scientific, and mundane). It brings up questions of morality, the militaristic tendencies of humans, euthanasia, and (possibly) hope. I enjoyed it, although it didn’t make me feel uplifted at the end (not that it had to do that, mind you, just that I probably agree with his lowered expectations of humanity across the ages).
gruen Water for Elephants, by Sara Gruen. It was a quick, brainless read. I enjoyed reading about circus culture in the early 20th century. But one thing bothered me (mostly in the beginning). Remember how when Wally Lamb came out with She’s Come Undone 12 years ago, everyone and their mother raved about how amazing it was that a man could write about a woman? I thought it was hogwash, because his main character was emotionally fragile, sexually exploitable, and just, in general, a weak person. I had no sympathy for her, and I completely disagreed with the cooing and adoration Lamb received. Well, in this book, Gruen thinks men think about sex (the act and the genitals) constantly, even at the ripe old age of 90 (or 93). Sorry, but that is just as much a generalization as Lamb’s weakling female was. Forget about proving to us how well you can pretend to be a male character, and stick to the story, please.
No-1 The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, by Alexander McCall Smith. I grabbed this on a whim at the used bookstore, and read it in a few sittings over the past two days. I loved it! It’s written in the short-sentence, rambling story-telling style I equate with African novels (as in, novels written by Africans). There are several laugh-out-loud musings by the main character, and I think I’ll happily pick up the second, third, fourth,… in the series. I stayed away from it so long because it was so popular with the country-club book chat crowd. Dang it, I should remember that sometimes, they actually pick good books, too!
imageDB.cgi The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom, by Jonathan Haidt. I wasn’t too satisfied by the connections of ancient texts to ideas of happiness, but I really liked this book. Haidt definitely helped me understand myself better — at least now I can say that the elephant is in control, rather than the rider (inside joke; read the book and you’ll understand). The studies that have been done to study how the mind works are fascinating, and Haidt pulls them all together in a highly entertaining yet thoughtful way. I have felt that my needing help with my, ahem, emotional lability, was proof of a weakness in me. But after reading this book, I think I’m on the path to accepting this lability; I just happen to have lost the genetic happiness lottery, and trying to even out those genes is no weakness at all. Highly recommended.
opp.cgi American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, by Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin. Fascinating biography. I read this because it was one of the few books on Newsweek’s 50 Books to Read Now list that my bookstore had, that looked somewhat interesting, and that I hadn’t yet read. The Cold War is something that I knew about, but never studied (I think when I was in school we were still too close to it to have anyone provide a good historical look at it). The development of the Bomb, the actual use of it, and the way it destroyed the purity of science research is a lot more sullied than we like to think. Bird and Sherwin do a good job of providing incredible detail without getting heavy and dull.
picout.cgi My Sister’s Keeper, by Jodi Picoult. Trixie loves Picoult. I figured I’d read the one she brought with her on vacation. Little did I know it was about to be released as a movie! (I probably wouldn’t have read it if I knew…) In the end, all four of us read it during our Southwest travels. Good fluff reading, with what I understand are Picoultian touches: a moral issue, multifacted characters, and a twist ending that tears your gut. Bring it to the beach — but realize you’ll snap at anyone who tries to interrupt you.
lush.cgi Lush Life, by Richard Price. I remember putting this one one of my “Things to read when it comes out at the library” lists a few years ago after reading a review. Like most of these lists, they’re scribbled on scratch paper which I invariably recycle during a desk clean-up. After a friend suggested it recently, I finally read it. It was fine, but draggy at parts. You can definitely tell that Price makes his living as a hardboiled police drama screenwriter, I felt at times as though I was “reading” an episode of CSI. Except, since it is written rather than viewed, the reader gets much more of the characters’ inner turmoil. It was still draggy, though.
lonelywerewolf.cgi Lonely Werewolf Girl, by Martin Millar. I think I’ve read too many fluff books in a row (like, two). They don’t keep my attention as long as I’d like them to. I’ve enjoyed Millar’s short fiction, and his take on modern creatures of the dark (werewolves, fairies, demons) is entertaining, particularly in the punk fairy bit, but I’m not sure I’m going to have the patience to read this one completely through (I’m currently 2/3 of the way through.)
imageDB.cgi The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, by David Gramm. Sometimes, what you get out of a book is different than the main topic. I’m glad I read this, because now I have a clearer understanding of the “green hell” which is the Amazon, the deadly results of European contact, and the current state of archaeological knowledge of Amazonian history. Full review in this post.
Old Filth, by Jane Gardam. I heard about Jane Gardam in a review by Maureen Corrigan on Fresh Air (why wasn’t she teaching at Georgetown when I was there, I ask you??). Although the review focuses on the newer, follow-up to Old Filth, I decided to start with this one first. I am glad I did, and will definitely be reading The Man in the Wooden Hat in 2010. I love Gardam’s style — it is very sparse, but she packs so much information into each word. The first similarity that came to mind was Hemingway, although Gardam’s prose doesn’t retain the same distance that Hemingway’s does. Highly recommended.
The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood. I first encountered Atwood, as so many people did, through The Handmaid’s Tale. I loved it, but follow-up reads of other Atwood novels left me cold. I read a positive review in some magazine or newspaper about Year of the Flood, so I decided to give this one a chance. I clearly must not have read the review closely because it wasn’t until past the halfway point that I realized this novel is a prequel to her 2003 novel, Oryx and Crake (which I had completely ignored because of the uninspired middle novels she had been writing). Well, now I’ve decided 2010 will also see me reading Oryx and Crake. I think I can say that in my opinion, what Atwood does best is create vivid dystopias. I thoroughly enjoyed this one; although it certainly isn’t as dark on a personal level as Handmaid’s Tale, the environmentally damaged future feels very dark, perhaps because it seems very possibly, given the way humans are acting in our reality.
13 Comments leave one →
  1. Split Sister permalink
    12 January 2009 1:19 pm

    This is a great idea! I’m taking a half-time hiatus from the Twilight series and reading Lamb, by Christopher Moore. Have you read it? It’s hilarious! The subtitle is “The Gospel According to Biff, Jesus’s Childhood Friend” a funny alternative gospel…I guess funnier to me as a previously-Catholic /currently Atheist.

    I’ll be coming back here over the months to see if there are any recommendations I can snag!

  2. Peaceable Imperatrix permalink*
    12 January 2009 2:22 pm

    Yep, I read Lamb years ago (and I think I gave it to Cowgirl as a b-day present at some point, too). It is too funny. I hope you enjoy it!

  3. Cateling permalink
    25 February 2009 10:16 am

    Yes, tell us!

    I like your library bag, though.

  4. Cateling permalink
    20 March 2009 8:10 pm

    I read Gone to Soldiers by Marge Piercy this week. It’s a WWII story through a feminist, Jewish lens. Very interesting, well-researched and well-written. I recommend it! Not what you might consider “light” reading though, so be forewarned.

  5. Peaceable Imperatrix permalink*
    25 March 2009 6:31 pm

    Cate: Thanks for the recommendation. I’ve got a few in my queue, but you have intrigued me with your description.

  6. Cateling permalink
    26 May 2009 8:32 pm

    I sat on my backside and read 3 books this weekend. It was lovely!

    My first Octavia Butler, The Parable of the Sower. Why didn’t I start reading her 20 years ago? I’ll have to look for something else by her the next time I go to the library. Any recommendations?

    I also read Inkheart by Cornelia Funke, which was fun but mostly fluffy.

    Last but not least, I just finished The Daughter of the Queen of Sheba, a memoir by Jacki Lyden. A fascinating look at how her life was shaped by her mother’s mental illness.

  7. Peaceable Imperatrix permalink*
    27 May 2009 3:03 pm

    That’s the only Butler I’ve read, too. I picked up the sequel at the library, but it is written from the point of view of Lauren’s estranged daughter, after Lauren’s death, and it didn’t grab me, so I left it on the shelf. Trixie loved the Inkheart books, but I never actually looked at them; she had so much fun explaining the plot to me. Thanks for the Lyden suggestion! Another one in a similar vein is The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls. (I had some questions as to the veracity of some of Walls’ memories, though).

  8. Cateling permalink
    21 July 2009 4:39 pm

    Alexander McCall Smith! What fun he is to read! 44 Scotland Road is a fun novel that he originally published in serial form, so it’s a little bit roller-coastery, but light and fluffy and nice for summer reading.

  9. Peaceable Imperatrix permalink*
    22 July 2009 6:16 pm

    AMS is great fluff reading — with enough intelligent humor to keep one’s interest up.

  10. 12 August 2009 7:55 am

    I meant to say ages ago that you’ve inspired me to start my own list. It’s interesting, looking back at what you’ve read, isn’t it? And I’m with you on AMS – first read one of his Edinburgh novels while on holiday in France, and have managed to notch up about six of his so far. Can’t get into the Botswana (?) ones, though.

  11. Peaceable Imperatrix permalink*
    23 August 2009 10:56 am

    Earthenwitch: Yes, even now, just 8 months into it, I know I would have forgotten some of the early books already. I’m glad you’re doing this as well (but I’m a list-maker, so these sorts of things make me very happy). I think African novel style is very different — either one likes it, or one doesn’t.

    • Cateling permalink
      29 September 2009 9:30 pm

      Thanks to Netflix, I learned that these books were made into a movie/miniseries/whatever starring Jill Scott, and shown on HBO last year. They are now out on DVD. Very nicely done, IMO and fun and somewhat fluffy to watch. I enjoyed the videos as much as the books.

  12. 7 January 2010 8:56 pm

    I read TYOTF and then immediately I had to go pull Oryx & Crake from the shelf and re-read it. One is not before or after the other; they unfold at more or less the same time, different perspectives on the same event.

    I think my personal life experiences inclined me toward not caring for O&C at the time it was published, so I was rather pleasantly surprised to find that I did in fact find it rather brilliant on re-reading. Not sure if this is just the changes in my own circumstances, or if it’s a better read having the additional data of what is happening in this universe from TYOTF, but whatever it is, I’ll take it.

    Currently re-reading Handmaid, possibly for the first time since becoming a parent. It’s a whole ‘nother book now, but its picture of the future is not as accessible and immediate as that in the two newer books.

    +10 to Atwood’s dead-on gift for dystopia.

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