Monday, September 10, 2007

A Midsummer Latesummer Night's Book Reckoning

I guess all those books I've read over the summer aren't going to blog themselves. Problem is, I've read 27 books since I last wrote about one. That's great and all, but it makes for an intimidating round of catch-up. It's like when you run into somebody whom you haven't seen in years, and they ask you what's new, and you're like, "Oh, nothing. Just EVERYTHING."

So here's what I'm going to do to make this enterprise less scary for myself. Today I'm going to list all the books I've read, with mini-reviews. Maybe I'll get to longer reviews someday, maybe not. I am, after all, a fey creature, prone to vapours and whimsies, as ephemeral as a unicorn fart. But if there's a particular book you're especially interested in, let me know, and I'll do my best to bump it to the top of the list of things to write about. (Note: 50 Books management is unable to define in clear terms what "do my best" actually means.)

Espresso Tales, Dream Angus
by Alexander McCall Smith (#17-18)
Do I have anything new to say about Alexander McCall Smith? Dare I repeat myself? Simply put, McCall Smith is my go-to guy for stories that give me a sense that there is an order -- a gentle order -- to the universe. Unrealistic? Probably. Who cares?

A Curtain of Green and Other Stories
by Eudora Welty (#19)
This is Welty's first collection of short stories, published in 1941. If these are just the first, I can't wait to read the rest. And can I just thank all you folks who pimped Welty to me way back in the day?

God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater
by Kurt Vonnegut (#20)
I was feeling sad after Vonnegut's death, and wanted to re-read this, his most optimistic and redeeming novel. I was still sad afterward, but it was okay.

The Line of Beauty
by Alan Hollinghurst (#21)
For some reason, this book made me think of The Great Gatsby and Evelyn Waugh's Mayfair novels and Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children. In other words, it was pretty good. There's a movie, isn't there? Worth seeing?

Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim
by David Sedaris (#22)
This, to me, is Sedaris's most wistful collection of stories, and my favourite to date. It's funny, too.

Einstein's Monsters
by Martin Amis (#23)
Reading Amis's circa-1987 thoughts and stories about nuclear weapons and the Cold War was, strangely, anthropological yet relevant. As interesting as the stories are, the introduction is even better. I don't usually push introductions on people, but you really should read Amis's forward to this book.

Vinyl Cafe Diaries, Home from the Vinyl Cafe
by Stuart McLean (#24-25)
After Martin Amis finished scaring the living shit out of me, I needed to read some stories that were the literary equivalent of a grilled cheese sandwich and tomato soup. If you tend to disparage this kind of reading... well, bully for you. I'm made of more fragile stuff.

After Dark
by Haruki Murakami (#26)
I wanted to read The Wind-Up Bird Chronicles. I ended up reading this. It was okay, but it felt kind of like I was reading a treatment for a screenplay. This is a trait I've noticed in other contemporary novels, as if the writer were already planning two steps ahead to when their publisher sells the movie option for their book. Or maybe I'm just projecting my own cynicism. Maybe the more innocent explanation is that TV and movies have moulded how some writers create stories. Or maybe I just got a bad translation.

Shooting an Elephant
by George Orwell (#27)
Don't tell anybody, but I think I have a crush on George Orwell. I could read his essays every single day for the rest of my life and never get bored. Plus, I think if he were alive today, he'd either be a blogger himself, or at the very least he'd be a huge blog advocate. I have proof.

Youth in Revolt
by C.D. Payne (#28)
I read this years ago, and while I didn't love it quite as much this time around -- due, no doubt, to the fact that I am now somewhere between an old biddy and a fuddy-duddy -- I still enjoyed it. It's sort of like The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole meets Portnoy's Complaint.

Arthur and George
by Julian Barnes (#29)
This novel surprised me by being one of the best new books I've read this year. Oh, and look: I guess it was shortlisted for the Booker Prize, too. Those people are S-M-R-T.

A Wrinkle in Time, A Wind in the Door, Many Waters, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, An Acceptable Time
by Madeline L'Engle (#30-34)
I was sad to find out that L'Engle recently passed away, but I was glad that I finally got to read the entire Wrinkle in Time series. They're a bit cheesy and New Age-y (the power of love and forgiveness seems to save the day a fair bit) -- and yes, there are unicorns -- but that's what makes them so sweet. Enjoy them before we get even further away from the '60s.

Freddy the Detective, Freddy Goes to Florida, Freddy and the Space Ship
by Walter R. Brooks (#35-37)
I don't know. I just like stories about talking pigs, okay?

Season of the Witch
by Natasha Mostert (#38)
This was given to me, and I kind of worried that, what with the smoldering hero and the hot ladies and the occult stuff, it would be like a poor woman's version of an Anne Rice novel (which is tough, since sometimes Rice herself writes the poor woman's version of her own novels). But then the book redeemed itself by being like a cross between a poor woman's Anne Rice novel AND a poor woman's Umberto Eco novel, and somehow the combination worked. I'm not too proud to say I pulled a nigh all-nighter to finish it.

Diary of a South Beach Party Girl
by Gwen Cooper (#39)
What can I say? When you're on a roll with the chick lit, you're on a roll. This novel is a diary. A diary about a girl. A girl who likes parties. A girl who specifically likes parties in South Beach. (Cryptic titles are so passe.)

by Curtis Sittenfeld (#40)
I seem to be rocking the blank-meets-blank trope today, so why stop now? Prep is like Catcher in the Rye meets, er, something not unlike Catcher in the Rye but more contemporary and written by a woman. Maybe A Complicated Kindness? Maybe?

The Dharma Bums
by Jack Kerouac (#41)
We had just come back from a fantastic camping trip and I realized that I needed to re-read this story about camping and hiking and Buddhism and enlightenment. Pretentious? Holy crap, yes. But compelling nonetheless. Side note: You know you're getting old when you start developing fond, forgiving, maternal feelings toward Kerouac characters.

Jane Eyre
by Charlotte Brontë (#42)
I know Jane has her haters out there, but for the love of god, I have no idea why. An undergrad professor came thisclose to ruining this book for me, thanks to his obsession with what he termed the sadomasochistic qualities of Jane and Rochester. It's taken almost fifteen years, but fortunately I've bounced back. And while I'm providing the running commentary on my age as it relates to the characters in the books I'm reading, I should mention how disorienting it was to realize that I'm two years older than Rochester is at the beginning of the story. Maybe I'm just developing fond, forgiving, maternal feelings toward EVERYONE.

by Carol Shields (#43)
I spent way too long trying to read Umberto Eco's The Island of the Day Before, before I realized that I needed less whimsy, not more, swirling around in my fevered brain. Thank god for Carol Shields. Her stories about regular folks encountering minor-but-important crises and crossroads in their lives have a roundness that may not be exactly true to life, but at the same time have their own internal truth. Plus, quilts!

Done! Whew. That felt good. And remember what I said (unless senile dementia has struck you since you first started reading this post back in 1973): if you want more on any of these books, fire me a comment!


Anonymous said...

"I know Jane has her haters out there, but for the love of god, I have no idea why."

Because Lucy Snow from Villette is a much better heroine. Jane Eyre is cool when she tells the minister that the way to stay out of hell is simply not to die; but she loses my interest as the novel progresses. Lucy Snow, however, is awesome from beginning to end.

Steph said...

How sad is it that I prefer the mini-reviews?

Have pity on me and my brain that is getting increasingly unable to sustain focus for longer than it takes me to tie a toddler's shoe.

Her Ladyship said...

Could you do more on "Arthur and George," por favor? Gracias.

b*babbler said...

I second Her Ladyship, more on Arthur and George? Please? If I offer chocolate?

Anonymous said...

I'd be interested in more of your thoughts on the Time Quartet. Also, have you read An Acceptable Time? Apparently L'Engle considered (sniff) it to be a part of the Time Quartet, which was really the Time Quintet.

AlienEm said...

I'm re-reading Jane Eyre right now also, and although I am an English Master's student, I have no desire to put the hate on Jane. Love her to death. Like overly salty chicken soup. Maybe I shouldn't, but I do.

Anyway, my vote is also for Arthur and George. How have I not heard about this book? Oh yeah, because I'm still in FREAKIN SCHOOL.

Veronica said...

Are these people who hate Jane the same people who love Wuthering Heights? Because WH is awful and Jane is wonderful and they are so wrong. (Jane is one of my all-time favorite books and WH is one of my all-time least favorites - what's your take on this?)

Karen Olson said...

Am I the only person who never read Wrinkle in Time? Since the author died, I've heard more about how great this book is, but I still don't know too much. More, please?

restlessly said...

Book reviews, finally, yay! I was just about to ask about them actually. ;-) That's interesting - I never thought about it but I did actually love Wuthering Heights, but didn't like Jane Eyre all that much. How did you make the connection?

I didn't get all the hype abt Wrinkle in Time. Something just went over my head about it?

Jeane said...

I'd really like to hear more about the last few books of the Time um- Quintet. I never got past A Wind in the Door, myself. What's An Acceptable Time about?

RandomRanter said...

I adore the Murry/O'Keefe adventures and have read all but Many Waters and also love the Austin series, although I think it starts a bit slower.

pussreboots said...

I see we're reading a lot of the same things right now including Jane Eyre and Dharma Bums.

I'm in the camp of loving both Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights.

Anonymous said...

Hurrah for Jane! And bah to WH. I didn't like Jane Eyre when I read it as a kid, but loved it when I reread it as a grown up.

And I want to hear more about Arthur and George, too.

Let us know if you see the Line of Beauty movie--I loved the book.

Anonymous said...

Hmm, I love Jane Eyre (it's even one of the very rare books-I-like-as-movies thanks to Orson Welles) but I've never gotten around to reading Wuthering Heights (shush, I've been busy) so now I'm afraid I won't like it. I hate it when I manage to actually get worried that I'll hate a classic once I get around to reading it- it always makes me feel like such a geek.

But I *heart* Orwell, so any day a mention of him shows up in a post somewhere is a good day.

Anonymous said...

Could you write more on Prep please? It really really depressed me for some reason, and maybe a review could get rid of that bad taste in my mouth.

And Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are both amazing, just very different. And I'm an English Ph.D. student.

Canyon said...

I second a more in-depth Prep review -- I too found it depressing, but only because it was so bone-chillingly accurate about school life. It's now one of my favorite books (is that perverse?). If you liked Prep, though, it's worth checking out The Man of My Dreams, her second book -- just as devastatingly accurate about relationships. And, um, lollipops!

I remember disliking A Wrinkle in Time because L'Engle overused the word "tangible." A petty reason to dislike a book, I know, especially one that included unicorns.

chachi said...

I'd like to hear more about Jane Eyre, pretty please? I read it as a teenager and don't have fond memories. I much prefer Wuthering Heights, although it's been a while since I read that as well. Shall I give Jane another chance?

Anonymous said...

i'm a huge eudora welty fan and i can't recommend "one writer's beginnings" heartily enough to do it justice. it's non-fiction, a memior, kind of, but told through the lens of developing as a writer. she's amazing.

Bybee said...

I hope you don't mind if I borrow your idea of writing mini reviews. My backlog is starting to pile up and I get more and more intimidated. I'll give you full credit of course.

The girl in Prep reminds me a little of Esther Greenwood in The Bell Jar.

I'm not a Jane-hater and don't see how anyone could hate her. She got my sympathy right out of the gate as a child with that wretched aunt and that knuckle dragging trog of a boy cousin.

AlienEm said...

*slight spoiler alert for JE and WH*

It seems to me that Jane Eyre is a book that satisfies all of one's expectations about Victorian Romance, with a slightly gothic and dark and stormy side to it. Meanwhile, Wuthering Heights lets you think that those expectations are going to be met, but instead the gothic, dark and stormy side takes over, and nobody is happy in the end. I often go to a Victorian novel for comfort, and WH did not fit the bill. However, WH is fascinating for so many other reasons. To talk about in a class or write about in a paper? WH every time. To cuddle up with and enjoy over and over again? Jane. I like WH for intellectual reasons, but it's still hard to read. It's just so consistently sad and one of those stories where you feel like everyone could be happy if they just sat down and talked rationally about things.

Sorry; way too long for a comment but so fun to talk about!

me said...

Could you do more on Dharma bums? I have never read Kerouac, but as I oftentimes come home from fabulous camping trips, I am wondering if this should be the one I start with.

P.S another book review from Master Sam wouldn’t go amiss either.

Ellen said...

I liked the BBC "Line of Beauty" TV movie (I think it was technically a series, but maybe 3 hours tops). It doesn't quite capture the spirit of his books, but I thought it was a very beautiful, largely uncensored take on it. The lead actor is amazing, as well.

If you like Hollinghurst and Messud, you should read "Free Food for Millionaires" by Min Jin Lee -- another great novel with the same general subject. Unfortunately, it's not in paperback yet, but hopefully soon!

Veronica said...

I have no legitmate reason for connecting the love/hate between Jane and WH, but I've noticed that with most people, if they love one dearly they vehemently hate the other, myself included. My problem with WH is that none of the characters were likable. I don't have a problem with them being ridculously flawed, as they were and as people can truly be, but Emily didn't make me care about what happened to any of them. 400-some pages is a lot to go through, not caring.

M said...

I too love Alexander McCall Smith. Something so grounding about him. Saw him at a recent writers festival and found him to be as personable as I had imagined.

I also agree with your reckoning of The Line of Beauty. It continues to resonate with me.

Love the mini-reviews, so digestible.

Mella DP said...

Back off, sister, George Orwell is mine, all mine! (And here I was thinking I was the only one ever swooning over Down and Out...)

I just started Dream Angus and it's just too lovely. I have to look into the rest of that series.

(Oh, and Up With Jane, Down With Cathy, from this corner.)

Anonymous said...

Could you do a longer review on Diaries of a South Beach Party Girl? I LOVED it and thought it was incredibly moving and well written, and some of the characters were priceless.

Andi said...

Brava! Excellent work. You made me blow sugar cookie crumbs out my nose, and I think it was the first time I've done that.

Your crush on Orwell is at least grounded in some sort of admiration based on reading. I recently developed a girl-crush on Miranda July after simply reading her website. I think I'm the literary equivalent of a giggling 13-year-old. Or maybe I'm just Isabella from Wuthering Heights (my current read, currently haunting my every waking hour). Hark! It calls. Gotta go!

Jeff Hogg said...

After Dark was ok but probably my least favorite Murakami book. Try reading Hard-boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

Anonymous said...

I felt the exact same way about After Dark.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is MUCH MUCH better - that is the book that made me love Murikami and it will truly blow you away.

I've heard that he has refused to sell the rights to any of his books even though everyone wants to make them into movies, but again, that's what After Dark felt like.

Sandy D. said...

I like the mini-reviews. I do it every once in a while on my blog - stole the idea from MentalMultivitamin's On The Nightstand posts. Like Nick Hornsby's book essays (The Polysyllabic Spree, etc.), you can then also write about books you never finished. :-/

tinylittlelibrarian said...

You're awesome - I loved those mini-reviews. I'm envious that I can't write such things. I might have to give them a try, but yours are most excellent.

I'm a definite Jane-lover and a not-so-much WH person. Although I haven't read WH since high school, maybe it needs another chance.

Prep gave me mixed feelings - I found Lee really unlikeable yet I thought it was well-written.

And I haven't read Wrinkle in Time, either. Bad children's librarian!

Anonymous said...

Youth in Revolt! Youth in Revolt! My Adrian Mole love borders on the unhealthy.

Perseus said...

I thought the same of After Dark, except that I also think it wouldn't be a particularly great film either. It'd better suit an episode of The Twilight Zone.

... said...

i liked Prep mostly because Lee is me and me is Lee. i find self-loathing makes for good reading.

BFW (Tammy) said...

I LOVED Prep. Sort of emabarassing, since I'm an almost-forty year old food blogger -- with a 3 year old... but it was a great read none the less!

Amanda said...

I agree with everyone who says Jane Eyre is great and Wuthering Heights is awful. I felt exactly the same way. Anne Bronte's The Tenant of Wildfell Hall I felt was right in between.