Category: Books 2014 (page 1 of 6)

2014: The Year in Books

Here we are at the beginning of another year. As usual, I read Lots of Things last year, and I plan to do the same in 2015. Here’s what I read in 2014, formatted as always: bold means I really liked it, italics means I hated it, and plain ol’ text means it was good enough.

Lots of bold this year!

So, you ask, what was the best? Sort of like last year, I’m going to list a couple: the BEST book I read (as in objectively the best) and the book I most enjoyed. If you’re a regular reader, you probably know at least the first book already.

Drumroll, please…

butcherscrossing

Yep. This is the second year in a row that John Williams has taken the prize. Last year, it was Stoner, which is in my top five Best Books I’ve Ever Read. I’m not sure that Butcher’s Crossing made its way that high, but it just might be in the top ten. It’s perfectly constructed and definitely the best book of 2015. I had to get it from the library’s ILL system because there was no local copy, and I liked it so much that I asked for my own copy for Christmas. It’s sitting on my shelf next to Williams’s only other novel, Augustus, which I’ll probably read this year.

Okay, the best novel is down. This second category isn’t quite as easy, and my decision surprises even me. Ready?

bernadette

What? I know. Where’d You Go, Bernadette was the first audiobook I listened to on my frequent walks with Zelda, and I enjoyed it so much that it made the top of the list. I somehow doubt it’d be here if I’d read the book, as the audiobook presentation made it for me. That’s one I’ll probably listen to again at some point.

Of course there are honorable mentions because I can’t make up my mind about this one. Butcher’s Crossing is my rock solid choice for Best Book, but I’m clearly fuzzy about Where’d You Go, Bernadette, so here are some close runners-up, in no particular order:

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So there you have it: Cosmicomics by Italo CalvinoThe Inverted World by Christopher Priest, and The Wind through the Keyhole by Stephen King. Oh so good! I’m reliving them in my head right now. I sure hope Mr. Stephenking finds it in his heart to write another Dark Tower novel…

Onward!

2015 is off to a slow start: I’m reading another novel by Mr. Stephenking, and it’s LONG, so give me a couple weeks. I’m trying to make myself suffer through the second half of a crappy audiobook so I have something to post, but I’m not sure it’s worth it. I’ve decided to dispense entirely with any extracurricular reading goals (beyond the Usual Fifty), so we’ll see what happens. I’m not even going to try making a TBR list because we all know how that turned out last year. Yay, 2015!

Photo credit: Jack

2014 Book #64: The Enchanted

enchantedAaaand we’ve made it to the last book review of the year! Yay! 64 is a record, though I got close last year. I think I’ve written about every book but one about diabetes. I skipped that one (though it’s excellent) because I’m the only person I know for whom it’s even remotely relevant. Anyway.

The Enchanted happened on a whim: I ran across it while I was browsing Book Riot’s deals page, clicked through, then saw that it has good reviews on Goodreads. I saw “magical realism” and prison and said to myself, why not? A few minutes in, I was hooked.

It’s about a man on death row in a maximum security prison. We figure out very early that he’s insane, though we don’t know what he did to get there. The magical realism label is a lie: he’s just crazy. But he’s beautifully crazy! The horses on the cover come from an image in his mind of golden horses running below the prison during executions. It’s really amazing. He spends lots of time talking about the lady (a lawyer) and a fallen priest and their involvement with the inmates. One of said inmates, York, is scheduled to die very soon, and the lady tries to save him even though he wants to die. She goes to his hometown and talks to relatives and others, trying to find out exactly what happened. We don’t get the full story. We also hear about the other inmates and what happened to them that turned them into killers. The lady and the fallen priest have baggage of their own.

This book is kind of a psychological study on what turns people into killers and how two people with very similar pasts will cope with it differently. And did I mention that it’s beautiful? The Enchanted is a bit sentimental for my taste, but the effect is glorious, and it’s worth reading even with its sappy undertones. I might even read it again someday.

Image credit: Drew Bates

2014 Book #63: Over Sea, Under Stone

overseaunderstoneHere I am, at the end of the year, in catch-up mode AGAIN. Meh. Maybe my 2015 resolution needs to be to get my blogging act together. (Really? you ask. No, not really. My actual plan is to outlaw recreational cheese and nuts in my house. Maybe I’ll last ten minutes.) Anyway, my laziness means that this post will be short, as I have one more book to review and my grand end-of-the-year post to write. Wish me luck.

Which means that there is no way I’ll do this book justice. Over Sea, Under Stone is aimed at a younger demographic than I usually read, but I enjoyed it more than most YA novels I’ve read recently (not that I read lots of those, either). It’s kind of like the Hardy Boys discover a fantastical map and begin a huge adventure that involves King Arthur and (probably) a dragon.

Okay, that’s almost exactly what happens. Three siblings and their mostly conveniently absent parents go to visit their eccentric uncle in Cornwall. He happens to live in a huge old house, and you begin to wonder very quickly if it contains a certain wardrobe. That, it doesn’t, but there is a conveniently hidden staircase to a conveniently hidden attic which contains a conveniently hidden mysterious map for the children to discover and puzzle over. Turns out their discovery is also convenient to their uncle, who rented the house and has been looking for that very map for some time now. The children and their uncle begin a race against some sort of Dark Forces in search of the (a?) Holy Grail, which had at one point been in King Arthur’s Possession. Things happen. Mysteries. Mayhem. You get it.

See? I made Over Sea, Under Stone sound awful! What’s funny is despite all the clichés, it’s not. I enjoyed it immensely, and I’m going to read the rest of the series soon. It’s quick and fun and exciting, even with the few eye-rolls in the process.

I wish I had discovered this book when I was ten.

Which all means that you should settle in for some light winter reading. This book is best served with a roaring fire and a footstool. And maybe some hot chocolate. Sadly, I don’t have any of those things, but I enjoyed it nonetheless.

Image credit: Sharon Langridge

2014 Book #62: The Glass Bead Game

glassbeadgameIn a recent post, I talked about how I joined Roof Beam Reader’s 2014 TBR Pile Challenge – and failed miserably. Well, in my mind, The Glass Bead Game makes up for all of it: this book has been on my TBR pile longer than any other book. That’s right: I tried reading it (WHY?) when I was about 14, and I got maybe an eighth into it and gave up. There’s no way I could have finished this novel then, and I’m not even sure why I started. It probably had something to do with trying to impress someone because I was 14 and dumb.

So. Why did I pick it up again so many years later? I randomly found the audiobook and thought I’d have a better chance with it. And I finished it! That in itself is an accomplishment: The Glass Bead Game is one of the hardest books I’ve ever waded through. It makes The Satanic Verses seem like simple, easy reading.

That said, it’s a good book. Is it worth slogging through some 800 pages of dense prose? Probably not. I don’t think I’d recommend it to anyone I know.

I’m not going to discuss the plot in detail. It’s structured as a formal biography of Joseph Knecht, who became Magister Ludi, or Master of the Glass Bead Game. The game itself is what fascinated me so many years ago, and I think that part of my frustration then (and now) involved its never being explained. We know it’s a game about connections, like a melody being played then followed by related variations. But multiple fields of knowledge are involved – usually mathematics. The game is played with symbols. It’s really complex. The biography follows Joseph Knecht from early childhood through mid-adulthood, then switches to “legend” about what he did after he left his post. Last are three “lives” he wrote while he was a student.

The tone is serious and a bit lofty – definitely not easy reading. Audiobooks are great for books like this (it’s how I got through Anna Karenina, which I hated): you still absorb the contents well enough, but it’s a more passive experience because it’s much harder to go back and reread, and it’s much easier because no matter what, the narrator just keeps going.

Keep in mind that Hesse won the Nobel Prize for this novel. It’s his last and is considered by many to be his magnum opus. I’m ambivalent. I can see how The Glass Bead Game is a Great Novel (certainly moreso than the aforementioned Anna Karenina, which, again, I hated), but I didn’t experience the strong feelings I was expecting. Most of it was pleasant and interesting enough, but I don’t think I’ll ever read it again, and I won’t recommend it. If you want to read something difficult, I suggest some Rushdie – you won’t be disappointed with Satanic Verses or Midnight’s Children if you manage to get through them.

(A note about the featured image: it’s from Pretini by Mario Giacomelli and is one of my very favorite photographs.)

2014 Book #61: The Crossing

crossingI picked up The Crossing because I’d read a string of crappy books, and I wanted to read one that I knew would be good. All I knew about it was that it’s by Cormac McCarthy and that it’s the second book in the Border Trilogy. Actually, I guess I should have known exactly what to expect. I like reading books that I know almost nothing about – the plot happens as it happens, and I can go for the ride. That’s what happened here, and oh, what a difficult ride it was.

Shortly after I began reading this book, I wondered whether I was emotionally equipped to finish it. Turns out I was, but barely. The Crossing made me cry. I don’t remember the last time that happened. Stoner, maybe? It’s been a while.

Instead of offering any sort of plot summary, I’m going to post some quotes because you should really read this book, and I don’t want to spoil your experience.

He camped that night on the broad Animas Plain and the wind blew in the grass and he slept on the ground wrapped in the serape and in the wool blanket the old man had given him. He built a small fire but he had little wood and the fire died in the night and he woke and watched the winter stars slip their hold and race to their deaths in the darkness. He could hear the horse step in its hobbles and hear the grass rip softly in the horse’s mouth and hear it breathing or the toss of its tail and he saw far to the south beyond she Hatchet Mountains the flare of lightning over Mexico and he knew that he would not be buried in this valley but in some distant place among strangers and he looked out to where the grass was running in the wind under the cold starlight as if it were the earth itself hurtling headlong and he said softly before he slept again that the one thing he knew of all things claimed to be known was that there was no certainty to any of it. Not just the coming of war. Anything at all.

Also:

If a dream can tell the future it can also thwart that future. For God will not permit that we shall know what is to come. He is bound to no one that the world unfold just so upon its course and those who by some sorcery or by some dream might come to pierce the veil that lies so darkly over all that is before them may serve by just that vision to cause that God should wrench the world from its heading and set it upon another course altogether and then where stands the sorcerer? Where the dreamer and his dream?

One more:

For the world was made new each day and it was only men’s clinging to its vanished husks that could make of that world one husk more.

Cormac McCarthy is the best living American novelist.

The Crossing is now one of my favorite McCarthy novels. Blood Meridian still takes top honors.

This novel is the second in a trilogy, though you don’t have to read the first one to know what’s going on. I’d imagine there might be at least a few references to the first one, but it’s been a while since I’ve read All the Pretty Horses, and I didn’t catch any. I guess The Crossing isn’t McCarthy’s most accessible novel, so you might want to start with The Road if you like popular lit. It’s not like the rest of his novels, though. Blood Meridian is more representative. I think I started with Outer Dark, which might be even more grim than this one. McCarthy is not a cheery writer.

Photo credit: Pam Morris

2014 TBR Pile Challenge FAIL – and Let’s Try This Again

We’ve hit the middle of December, and I’m ready to concede defeat. Around this time last year, I made the leap and joined a reading challenge beyond my usual 50 (which was once again a success!): I joined Roof Beam Reader’s 2014 TBR Pile Challenge. The goal was to read 10 books that had been on my TBR pile for at least a year (with two just-in-case alternates).

I totally failed.

Here’s the partially completed list:

And the alternates:

That’s 7 out of 10. Not too bad, really. I started off well: I read most of them at the beginning of the year when they were still kind of interesting to me, but then I hit a point where I didn’t want to read any of them, and that didn’t change. So here we are. At some point, I still want to read WarlockWickedRagtimeDemons, and The Children of Men, but those will happen when they happen. I’m just going to read books when I want to read them.

So why am I attempting another challenge? Because it might be interesting. I’ve chosen POPSUGAR’s 2015 Ultimate Reading Challenge. This one is more open-ended, and it might expand my reading horizons, which is always a good thing.

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It’s fifty-two books if I read one for every checkbox, but I’m going to try to complete a loose version of it and check off whatever boxes fit the book I happen to be reading. That’ll have me reading a play and a romance, neither of which is usually on my radar. We’ll see what happens. After last year’s performance, I’m not sure what to expect.

2014 Book #60: The Bell Jar

belljarI finished The Bell Jar a few days ago, but I’ve been putting off writing about it because I’m still not sure of my opinion. I started with 4 stars on Goodreads, then went back and changed it to five because it’s an amazing book. My only real issue with it is that it’s so autobiographical that it seems like it fits better into the memoir category. But I’ll get to that.

I’ve spent way too long thinking about this book. Let’s get on with the review.

You’ve probably know what happens in The Bell Jar: Sylvia (ahem, Esther) goes off to New York for a super-duper internship, discovers that she’s directionless, finds herself depressed and suicidal, and ends up getting shock treatments in a mental hospital. But that’s just the surface. My favorite part of this novel is the beginning, before she stops functioning. She’s an intern for a major fashion magazine, and she deals reasonably well with the social and work-related pressures involved. That part of the novel was really fun, but it only made up a third of it, or so. When Esther gets home, she becomes lethargic and visits a psychiatrist after she hasn’t washed her hair or changed her clothes for three weeks. Things go downhill from there.

I vaguely remember reading The Bell Jar when I was in high school, along with Prozac Nation and Girl, Interrupted and the like, in my Stupid Angsty Teenage Phase (it’s almost funny that I can condense it to that now). I’m surprised that I didn’t really remember anything about it because I can see how it might have been my favorite novel at that point. On the other hand, I can also see that I might have been too young and inexperienced to appreciate it, like I hit it at the wrong time. It’s always interesting to reread books from my childhood and experience them from an entirely different perspective. A good example of that is Something Wicked This Way Comes, which I first read when I was fourteen or so. I think I appreciate The Bell Jar more now that it’s been so long since I was a teenager.

Which all means that my perspective on this novel might be a bit skewed by my past experiences.

I’m not saying that’s a bad thing. I think that Sylvia Plath made her past experiences into a fantastic novel, but I’m not sure that there’s enough straight fiction not to make it a memoir. After The Bell Jar she planned to write another “novel” about her later life, but, as far as I know, she never published it. I’ve read lots of her poetry, which is intensely personal, and I wonder if she was capable of separating herself from her work enough not to write about herself. I also wonder what that means about Sylvia Plath. We can gather that she never got out from under the “bell jar” of depression, and such an intense psychological state can easily get one stuck on introspection…but my purpose here isn’t to further psychoanalyze Plath. It’s to explain that The Bell Jar is an amazing, very approachable classic novel, and, despite what you might think about both Plath and this work, you should give it a chance. It’s really good, and it’s beautifully written. It’s definitely worth your time.

Photo credit: Shin Yoo

2014 Book #59: Revival

revivalI’m not quite sure what possessed me to read a Stephen King book the day it came out. I was just coming off of The Wind through the Keyhole, which was fantastic, and I guess I was more hopeful than I should have been. Revival, unlike The Dark Tower series, is King’s usual fare, and it’s not very good.

It’s about Jamie, who begins the book as a six-year-old kid and grows into an adult, always somehow shadowed by Charles Jacobs, a local pastor who was fired from his parish after three years. Jacobs studies electricity, performing experiments and wowing the local children with a table with electric lights and a model of Jesus that walks across water. Shortly after Jacobs arrives in town, Jamie’s brother Con has a skiing accident that leaves him unable to speak. Jacobs cures him with electricity applied to his neck. Jamie really likes Jacobs, and everything goes smoothly until a couple years later, when Jacobs’s wife and child are killed in a horrific car accident. Jacobs loses what little faith he had in God and delivers what Jamie calls the Terrible Sermon. He is fired and disappears. Jamie grows into a young adult, plays guitar in various bands, and ends up addicted to heroin. He wanders into a carnival, only to see Jacobs, now going by a different name, using electricity to take creepy photographs. Jacobs recognizes Jamie and uses electricity to cure him of his addiction, but Jamie quickly learns that such power has its consequences, and not just for him. Things Continue to Happen in a Mr. Stephenking sort of way.

All of that said, Revival moves surprisingly slowly. I should probably note here that most of my experience with King involves The Dark Tower, which appears to be a huge exception to everything else he’s written, but I was expecting more horror and more action. Which might mean that Revival is a better book than a lot of his others – not that I’ve read most of them. My last non-Dark Tower-related King novel was Salem’s Lot, which I hated mainly because (*spoiler alert*) I hate vampire novels. But I’ve talked about that before.

(And here’s where I put in the real spoiler alert.) I was excited about Revival because of the religious theme, and I was pretty well on board until about the halfway point, when I realized that this is a Frankenstein novel. Too many variations of this novel have been written since Mary Shelley had a good idea so many years ago. It’s overdone. A small credit to King is that it doesn’t turn out exactly as you’d expect, and it’s better for that. And there’s an interesting glimpse of a horrific afterlife at the end that, if it wasn’t, well, stupid, would make the entire book worth reading. Okay, end of spoiler.

So I’ve done a good bit of complaining, but I kind of enjoyed Revival. It’s really not very good, but I enjoyed myself through most of it. It’s certainly not one of King’s better novels, but it’s nowhere near his worst, either. (That honor just might be left to The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon. Ugh.). Which all means that if you like the kind of novels Stephen King writes, you might enjoy this one. He’s kept the horror to a minimum and veers toward (an attempt at) gothic near the end. It’s probably about what you’d expect because that’s good enough to fill Mr. Stephenking’s wallet, and with books like this, he seems only to be after the paycheck.

And here’s my own (very minor) spoiler alert: my annual template change is coming up, and if Elegant Themes doesn’t release their new blog theme in the next couple of days, Oh wait…I forgot will soon look like this. I think it’s perfect. Next year, my goal needs to be to learn coding well enough to make my own WordPress templates. These things are expensive!

2014 Books #54-58: Ridiculous. I know.