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Books Read 2011

Year 3 of tracking the books I read. All links go to Powells.com. Support your local bookstore!

A Prayer for Owen Meany , by John Irving. Is the first book of the year too early to declare a book of the year? Most probably. But right now, I know this will be going on this year’s short list. My first experience of Irving was the movie version of The World According to Garp, which I saw as a 14-year-old. And that was too young to see the beauty in a sad ending (and a sad middle, truth be told). So that scared me off. Then, pregnant with one of the girls, I picked up Cider House Rules. But just a few pages in, it became clear this was a book about an abortion doctor, and for all that I am a strong proponent of choice, I just couldn’t read it while pregnant. Owen Meany, though? Right time, right place and it’s definitely a winner. Because Irving was so popular, and because I hadn’t ever read him, I assumed he was one of those light pop writers. But no! The man has his narrator discuss Thomas Hardy! And he uses the Bible as more than just a prop! And his characters, especially Owen himself, are hilarious. I highly recommend this novel in particular, and I will certainly be giving his other novels a second chance.
The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet, by David Mitchell. I loved Cloud Atlas so much, how could I not read this newest one of Mitchell’s? I’d have finished this book at the end of 2010 if I hadn’t lost the book *in my house* for two weeks. And to find it on the shelf where it belongs — sheesh! It wasn’t as entrancing as Cloud Atlas, but it was still so very good. I cried at the end; not because it was a sad ending, but I often cry when I finish a good book — I’m sad that my visit to this particular world and these particular characters is over. Maybe that’s just me.
Mockingjay, by Suzanne Collins. Loved it. I was worried it would be as weak as book #2, but it finished strong. Although they break my heart, I appreciate stories that reach their natural conclusion, without the sappy “happily ever after” that is so unrealistic. Bad things happen to good people. Not all the protagonists can make it through. And nobody gets out without scars.
The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobsen. This year’s Man Booker Prize winner. I enjoyed it, loved the author’s voice, but didn’t really get into it.
The Crying of Lot 49, by Thomas Pynchon. I tried this when I was in my twenties, and I just didn’t get it. Then it was recommended in that “How to Read Like a Professor” book (which I had picked up not to learn how to do that — I already do, thankyouverymuch — but to get a nice long list of suggested reading), and the author warned that it should be taken for the cartoonish, druggy period piece that it was. NOW I get it. It’s all about paranoia, but then all Pynchon is about paranoia. Glad I gave it a second chance.
I Am Number Four, by Pittacus Lore. Abandoned. Just because a novel is written for young adults, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t hold together. There were too many inconsistencies in the first 75 pages, so I stopped. Disappointing.
Tom Jones, by Henry Fielding. Considering that I have very little patience with much modern “literature”, I have decided to enjoy myself with the erudite and witty prose of the eighteenth century. And boy, did I enjoy myself. Every page was chock full of social commentary and contemporary asides — I’d like to say “i got my money’s worth,” but I borrowed it from the library (and even returned it on time) so it didn’t cost me a thing. I am repeatedly surprised by how realistic writing was, even in the 18th century. There’s sex, out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and an expectation that young men of position would taste the wares before marriage, so to speak. Yes, yes, still very sexist (women aren’t afforded the same leeway), but sex isn’t hidden away — it’s just part of life. Just not directly on the page in lurid detail.
A Visit From the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. I enjoyed this one! If you like David Mitchell’s stories-within-stories style, you will enjoy this little book. The chapters jump back and forwards through time (and I love Egan’s take on the future of journaling), but by the end you will have a full-blown story of the characters. If I hadn’t already read it, I would certainly pack it with me to the beach (if beach reading isn’t necessarily light romance in your book).
The Best Horror of the Year, Volume 2, by Ellen Datlow. For years, I would look forward to August (then it became October) when Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling’s yearly anthology The Year’s Best Horror and Fantasy would come out. Then Windling withdrew from this project and two other people (behind Small Beer Press) took over the fantasy editing part. Then, last year, they cancelled the anthology all together. WHY? Oh, I was distraught (still am). The anthology was a great way to dip into the best short stories and novellas of the year, without having to wade through lots of mediocre chaff. Ellen Datlow is back, with a slimmer anthology that only offers the best horror (of course, since that was her domain). I am happy I picked this book up, but I miss the other half — because good horror often blends into good fantasy. If you at all enjoy horror, then I’d suggest picking it up, if only for the last story in the book, “Technicolor” by John Langan. It is gooooooood. (And not really scary at all!)
Blackout, by Connie Willis. Darn it. I hate it when an author goes and messes up something they did so well! In 1999, Connie Willis wrote the hysterical time travel romp To Say Nothing of the Dog, where history academics from the future go back in time not to play around, but to research their material first-hand. If you haven’t read it, I think you should. Sadly, she has recently come out with two other books based on the same premise, but I won’t be able to continue with them. There are too many people, to little page time given to start caring about any of them, and it is taking much too long for the story to move forward. It’s the typical weakness of planned trilogies, I’m assuming pushed by a publisher because the original stand-alone story was so good. Not worth my time to complete even this first of the new three. Boo.
Unformed Landscape, by Peter Stamm. Well, knock me over with a feather: A Swiss German author whose prose is as unemotional as you would expect. And whose characters feel disconnected from their lives, their loved ones, and themselves. The stark unformed landscape remains in the background, never-changing, ever-changing with the seasons. In the end, you realize you did care enough about the main character that you’re happy she has found contentment. And the novel ends with the Northern Lights, shimmering their psychedelic craziness onto the frozen north.
The Chosen, by Chaim Potok. Always thought I read it, but when I picked it up on our library shelf, I realized I never did. I enjoyed it — lots of layers of meaning in that title! I learned quite a bit about Hassidim — not that I’ve changed my mind about it. Pleasurable read.
The Haunting of Hill House, by Shirley Jackson. This is her most famous novel? I don’t know — not as chest-tightening as “The Lottery”, not as flippantly mid-century as Life Among the Savages. I don’t like it when I feel a story skips some explanation; I’m glad I read it, but I’ll need to give her novels one more try — this one didn’t do it for me.
The Great Gatsby, by F. Scott Fitzgerald. I was forced to read this as a teen, as most of us are. I couldn’t stand it! The characters were all self-absorbed, shallow, and the narrator seemed a whiny idiot. I am so glad I picked it up the other day. What a difference 25 years makes. Now, I can see the bittersweetness of Gatsby’s situation. Now, I see that moment in the pantry between Daisy and Tom as a representation of the depths of a relationship — that being a couple is different from just being two people in love. This novel is wasted on the young; it really is.
The Screwtape Letters, by C.S. Lewis.
The World Without Us, by Alan Weisman.
We Have Always Lived in the Castle, by Shirley Jackson.
The Children of Men, by P.D. James.
The Glass Books of the Dream Eaters, by Gordon Dahlquist.
The Difference Engine, by William Gibson.
Darwinia, by Robert Charles Wilson.
Barchester Towers, by Anthony Trollope.
Dune, by Frank Herbert.
The Year’s Best Science Fiction, #28, edited by Gardner Dozois.
Midnight Riot, by Ben Aaronovitch.
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