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Books Read 2010

Keeping track worked well last year, so I’m doing it again. All links go to Powells.com. Support your local bookstore!

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The Way We Live Now , by Anthony Trollope. My first Trollope, and, oh, I liked this one. It’s very long though — and in typical 19th-century writing style, it’s heavy on narration and light on dialogue. With my 21st-century short attention span, I started to think of this as my “bath reading” — because when you’re soaking in the tub (something I do about once a week in the chill of winter) you can’t be distracted after a short chapter with the latest updates on Facebook, or the most recent blog post in your feed reader. I can’t say I was happy with how any of the relationships turned out. There was no clear hero (well, two minor characters had the most honest motivations of the bunch), and I feel like most of the women got shafted in their spousal choices, even if it was their own choice. But a great slice of life in the Victorian era, and timely in its representation of investment machinations and power politics. Don’t be scared off by Trollope! (Now I want to reread Daniel Deronda, which I first read in grad school…)
The Man in the Wooden Hat, by Jane Gardam. Such a good follow-up to Old Filth. I am happy that she fleshed out the story from Betty’s point of view. I think I said this last year with Old Filth, but the best way to describe her writing is to think of it as Hemingway — short unadorned sentences, with so much meaning packed into each one. Tender, too — I’m feeling a bit wistful right now (I just finished the novel), both for the characters, and for the passage of time.
Lirael, by Garth Nix. The characters weren’t as compelling as Sabriel in the first book, but enjoyable nonetheless. I do believe I will finish this trilogy this year — I don’t think I want to wait a year (and risk forgetting a few details, as I did between books 1 and 2) to continue.
Best Served Cold, by Joe Abercrombie. Currently reading. Oh, no. This one is terrible. Do NOT read!
Corambis, by Sarah Monette. Yes, OK, the cover looks like a cheap romance novel. But it certainly isn’t. There’s sex, but it’s twisted S&M and not written to turn you on. More to turn you away from the misuse of power. This is the fourth (and last) in a series, and I have continued it only because the story is intriguing. An ex-wizard, his half-brother an ex-assassin, lots of tormented souls, and an incredible world which is not ours. I’m glad to finally be done with the series. And you know what I would like? A fantasy story that does not think homosexual love necessarily means S&M. Really. That would be quite a pleasure to read. (And hard to find, it seems.)
The Lady in the Tower: The Fall of Anne Boleyn, by Alison Weir. Anne Boleyn was totally framed, dudes. Weir tries to absolve Henry of wanting to get rid of Anne so he could move on to Jane Seymour (who comes across as a conniving, heartless schemer  — although, to be fair, so was Anne), but I don’t believe it. I think he was between a rock and a hard place, wanting to be rid of Anne, have a son, and not be seen as an inept ruler by the rest of Europe. Weir does a good job of bringing original sources to bear in a book clearly written for the layman. (I also liked her Six Wives of Henry VIII, and look forward to reading her other books on women in English history.)
Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood. I didn’t like this one as much as Year of the Flood. If I had read this one first, I probably wouldn’t have continued the series. You don’t really need to have read this one first — and in fact, the world is fleshed out much more in Year than in this one. the upcoming third book in this trilogy is titled MaddAddam, and if that means it will focus on the eponymous band of anti-establishment Rambos, then I think I will like that one, too.
The Hunger Games, by Suzanne Collins. This was great. It’s a teen title, so an easy read, but the subject matter isn’t. A future dystopia, a take on Survivor-type reality show-making, and a strong female protagonist. I definitely recommend this (much better than the Twilight baloney they’re stuffing in young women’s faces).
Empire of Ivory, by Naomi Novik.Book 4 of the Temeraire series. An alternative universe. Napoleon rules France. The British Navy rules the seas. And dragons ride the skies, used throughout the world as battle mounts of the air. A fantastic series, I very much enjoyed the first three books, several years ago. I just recently noticed that Books 4 and 5 are out. This one suffers from series-itis — it’s mostly a filler book that helps move the plot towards the action in Book 5. But that’s OK. If you enjoy alternative universes, if you liked Horatio Hornblower, then you’ll enjoy this series. Try it!
The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Steig Larsson. It didn’t really pick up until about halfway through, but it was a great (fast) read. It kept me from sleeping soundly one night as I tried to figure out whodunnit. I think I will be reading the subsequent two in the Millenium series.
Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins. Book 2 of the Hunger Games Trilogy. As in most trilogies, the second book feels more like a placeholder, moving things along towards the grand finale. I still enjoyed the story, though, but it didn’t really kick in until the second half. Now I’ll take a little break before I read book 3. (I have to, since it isn’t out yet!)
Independent People, by Halldor Laxness. I first heard about Nobel-Prize winner Laxness, and this book in particular, in a news piece on the reaction of Icelanders to the repayment deal being brokered with the UK after the bank failure. It seems the Icelandic people consider themselves terribly independent, and would rather consider hardship than losing that independence to anyone. This novel is sort of the Icelandic Bible of identity. Bjartur, the main character, is not a man you’d love (except during the parenthetical responses he gives whenever someone tries to pontificate to him). But he certainly holds firm to that ideal of independence, even if that means starvation, hardship, and even death. I like this novel.
Life among the Savages, by Shirley Jackson. We all know her as the author of “The Lottery”, but she was actually a prolific writer of both fiction and nonfiction. This is a book of essays originally published in magazines, about being a wife and mother. Jackson is hilarious, in a rambling way. These stories are rather dated (a pregnant and in labor Jackson takes a taxi to the hospital, and she lights up a cigarette on the way…). A quick read ( I read it in two short evenings), but I bet you will laugh. I did.
Vanity Fair, by William Makepeace Thackeray. Oh this was good. Very very good. I suppose like most people I preferred the chapters dealing with that naughty Becky Sharp than with the sweet sweet (*ptui*) Amelia. But what I liked most of all were the riffs on society at large. Which is what Thackeray wanted, I imagine. The last 100 pages were hard going, mostly because we all know where the story is headed, but it just wouldn’t get there. Since the story is 750 pages, 100 isn’t such a big chunk, after all.
The Magicians, by Lev Grossman. “Harry Potter for adults” they said. “Fantasy for grown-ups, in other words, and very satisfying indeed,” they trilled. Really? At least in Harry Potter, there were things to strive for as you grew up to be an adult wizard — these magicians have no work ethic, no post-graduation responsibilities, in fact all they seem to be good at is drinking, drugging, and whoring. And I wonder: what exactly is it that makes this fantasy for grown ups? Is it the sex and drugs and many mentions of penises and heavy breasts? I know that is what most modern fiction is all about. I think I’m going to stick to classics — at least those are adult tales that believe there is more to a full life than sex.
[no picture] I filled some evenings reading an anthology of the year’s best science fiction and fantasy (not Dozois’s yearly bible, though, just one I picked up at the library. It was entertaining, but I couldn’t tell you what any of the stories were about — in one eye and out the other.
Desert [in French], by JMG Le Clezio. Currently reading. I almost decided to drop this one, but then I read another rave review. Sigh. I shall try to have it finished by the end of the year.
Little Bird of Heaven, by Joyce Carol Oates. Did not like. Sloppy language, no character worth caring about, obsession with perverted sex.
Anathem, by Neal Stephenson. It is long. 900 pages long. And it centers around a group of philosopher-mathematicians who like to have dialogs. But I really enjoyed it. Stephenson without the tediousness of the Baroque Cycle stories.
The Warden, by Anthony Trollope. I read and enjoyed The Way We Were earlier this year, so decided to get the Barchester novels under my belt. This is the first. It was good — not as long or rich a tapestry as TWWW, but Trollope has a sharp eye for character, and I am glad I read this one. I hope some of the subsequent Barchester novels are a bit more meaty.
Altered Carbon, by Richard K. Morgan. Just what I needed: a fast-paced, futuristic whodunit. What does humanity mean when your “essence” can be slipped from body to body? What does it mean for those wealthy enough to live for centuries? If there were a mass move to space colonization, what would that mean for the society of those who chose to remain behind on Earth? Good questions.
The Pregnant Widow, by Martin Amis. Meh. I have decided I don’t really care for all the books set in the Baby Boomers’ youth. What the heck do I care about their sexual escapades, their puny world view (me me ME!!!), their obsession with wealth, and their trite revelations of life? I don’t.
War and Peace, by Leo Tolstoy. This took me 9 weeks of the summer to read. (No surprise, eh?) But not because it was heavy going — it was surprisingly easy reading, and the storylines kept my interest. It’s just so darn long. Too many people are frightened off by War and Peace. They shouldn’t be — it’s worth reading, and it’s not hard to keep the relatively small list of characters straight. Really.
Queen of the Tambourine, by Jane Gardam. I do so love Jane Gardam. Her books are short, but packed with emotion. I’m so glad I’ve discovered her. (Although by now, the third of hers I’ve read, I begin to wonder if all these middle-aged women who have felt sexually unsatisfied by their partners aren’t somehow a reflection of herself?
Proofiness, by Charles Seife. I read a review of his book in the New York Times, so I requested it from the library. If you like to get yourself riled up by reading about the dastardly ways that marketers (political or otherwise) pull one over on you, then you’ll enjoy this book. And it may give you a few hints of things to look out for as you are bombarded with “facts” in your everyday life.
The Children’s Book, by A.S. Byatt. I adored Possession. I enjoyed the movie version of Angels and Insects. I really didn’t get much out of The Virgin in the Garden (not a surprise — it’s set in the 1960s-1970s, and the characters are of the baby boomer generation). Somehow I recall a poor review of The Children’s Book when it came out, so I wasn’t interested in trying this one out. But in a bookstore in California this summer, I saw it, I started reading it, then I bought it. Byatt has a gift when it comes to bringing Victorian England to life. The tiny details, the big picture — they help me feel like I could dive right in. I’m glad I finally gave this one a chance.
Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro. It’s true — Ishiguro is great at letting the actions tell the story. As a veteran SF reader, though, there were so many weaknesses in the plot it was hard to not let my “WAIT a minute” meter take over, especially in the second half. But a good read, thanks to a skillful wordsmith.
Pedigree, by Georges Simenon. Georges Simenon is one of the more famous Belgian novelists of the 20th century. Well, famous everywhere but in the United States, that is. He is known for his mystery novels, but Pedigree was the first of three planned autobiographical novels. In the end, it was the only one he wrote. I enjoyed this one not only because it is a slice-of-life of Belgian city life in the the beginning of the 20th century, but also because on practically every page a location or point of interest of Liege is mentioned in passing, and I would recognize it from my almost yearly summer visits during my youth and teen years. I hadn’t ever thought about how much I had absorbed from taking the bus from my godmother’s house near the Guillemins train station to my grandmother’s apartment across the river from the Place de la cathedrale. Or just spending time in this very walkable city. It was a pleasure to read, and I’m happy I did.
One Comment leave one →
  1. 6 May 2010 7:21 am

    Hey, I just discovered this part of your blog. Love it. I’ll keep my eye on it…..

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