2011: The Year in Books

I did it. I read fifty books this year. After 2010′s embarrassing performance, I’m rather proud of myself, especially since that fifty includes some really long ones like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell and 1Q84 and some really hard ones like The Satanic Verses and Midnight’s Children.

I enjoyed the vast majority of them, and I enjoyed the experience of spending most of the year ahead of my quota, then playing catch-up at the very end. I wasn’t sure I would make it: I finished #46, Midnight’s Children, only a couple of days before Christmas, leaving a week to read four novels. Luckily, I found some good short ones. I’m looking forward to some longer ones this year, but I think I’ll try to stay away from the long and difficult. Rushdie does have some shorter novels.

Here’s my list from 2011, formatted like my 2010 list. Bold means I really liked it, and italics means I really disliked it. If it’s neither of those, it was good enough. I’ll use strikethrough for the few books I tried to read and gave up on.

This list is much more impressive than last year’s. In 2012 I’m attempting another fifty and trying to put a more formal spin on things since I’ll be cross-posting to the liberry’s webpage (yay!).

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I haven’t yet announced my favorite book of the year. Last year, it was David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas, with Murakami‘s Dance Dance Dance as a close second. If you would have asked me then, I would have predicted that 1Q84 would top my list this year, but I didn’t like it half as well as I thought I would, though that doesn’t mean I didn’t like it. And, if you’ve been following my blog recently, you might expect Midnight’s Children, but no! It’s a close second to…

Drumroll please…

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One Hundred Years of Solitude

Yep. The best book I read this year was the very first one. I think it’s My Very Favorite Book Ever. I’m not going to rehash my review here. The closest rival is, as I said, Midnight’s Children, but that’s because they’re so similar. I hope I find a book half as good as either of those in 2012.

So, that’s it. Out with the old, and in with the new, as they say. I have another fifty books ahead of me, and fifty-two weeks to read them. Wish me luck.

2011 Book #50(!): The Loved One

201112311039.jpgI arrived at The Loved One because I was looking for a very short novel (I had two days to read it!), and I read a random article about how prolific Evelyn Waugh was. I was first introduced to him earlier this year with Brideshead Revisited, which is now one of my favorite novels. Then I read A Handful of Dust and liked it, too. I’m really surprised at how much he wrote and how much I like him. When I picked up Brideshead Revisited, I expected something serious and stuffy, but it’s really funny – and fun.

The same goes for The Loved One. I went to Starbucks yesterday and read all but the first fifteen pages in one sitting. It’s a really entertaining read.

Dennis Barlow is a really bad British poet transplanted to Hollywood to write a film script about Shelley. The other expatriates are unhappy with him because they think he’s tarnishing their reputations because once the film doesn’t pan out, he gets a job at a funeral home for pets called the Happier Hunting Ground. Barlow lives with another Brit named Sir Francis Hinsley, who promptly dies. Barlow has the task of dealing with the human funeral home, Whispering Glades, which is entirely excessive on every level. While he’s there, he meets the cosmetician (Hinsley hanged himself, so he has an interesting facial expression that must be dealt with), Aimée Thanatogenos, and begins dating her, regaling her with his terrible poetry. He soon discovers that he gets better results when he uses poems by Shakespeare or Tennyson or Poe because she’s too dumb to realize where they come from. He asks her to marry him just after she’s offered a promotion so she can support him: he says it’s perfectly acceptable in England. But! He has a rival in Whispering Glades, Mr. Joyboy, who also has his eye on Aimée. Ridiculous mischief ensues.

The Loved One is a very English novel, and it reads like one of the old shows that come on LPB on Saturday nights. It especially reminded me of Are You Being Served. It’s about English snootiness and American excess, and it’s hilarious. And a very quick, light read.

2011 Book #49: The Perks of Being a Wallflower

201112292239.jpgIf I had read The Perks of Being a Wallflower when I was 15 or 16, it would have blown my mind. I really wish I had read it then: it might have made the melodrama that was my adolescence a bit more manageable. Or, at least, I might have realized that other kids had similar things going on. And while it makes me a bit nostalgic for the good (and bad) times I had in high school, it also reminds me how much easier things get when you grow up.

It’s about a somewhat damaged kid who starts high school and makes friends with a bunch of seniors who introduce him to the things kids are almost inevitably introduced to: sex, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes. The kid’s name is Charlie, and he’s very innocent at the beginning (I was beginning to wonder if he was *ahem* mentally challenged). He’s a good kid and always thinks of the needs and wants of others before his own. He’s generally not a troublemaker, but he occasionally has Donnie Darko-style fits (that’s another thing I wish had been around when I was fifteen). He almost instantly falls in love with Sam, one of his best friends, and he deals with unrequited love for her throughout the book. A bunch of angsty teenager mischief ensues. There’s also a big reveal near the end that I don’t think was necessary but that might explain some things.

The Perks of Being a Wallflower is poignant, but it can also be funny. Here’s one of my favorite passages, in which Charlie describes his first girlfriend. It made me chuckle.

I did go to the dance, and I did tell Mary Elizabeth how nice her outfit was. I did ask her questions, and I let her talk the whole time. I learned about “objectification,” Native Americans, and the bourgeoisie.

But most of all, I learned about Mary Elizabeth.

Mary Elizabeth wants to go to Berkeley and get two degrees. One is for political science. The other is for sociology with a minor concentration in women’s studies. Mary Elizabeth hates high school and wants to explore lesbian relationships. I asked her if she thought girls were pretty, and she looked at me like I was stupid and said, “That’s not the point.”

Mary Elizabeth’s favorite movie is Reds. Her favorite book is an autobiography of a woman who was a character in Reds. I can’t remember her name. Mary Elizabeth’s favorite color is green. Her favorite season is spring. Her favorite ice cream flavor (she said she refuses to eat low-fat frozen yogurt on principle alone) is Cherry Garcia. Her favorite food is pizza (half mushrooms, half green peppers). Mary Elizabeth is a vegetarian, and she hates her parents. She is also fluent in Spanish.

I think I like Mary Elizabeth so much because that’s who I thought I was in high school. I wasn’t, of course.

My plan for this blog post was to explain why I’m too old fully to enjoy this novel, but I think I’m changing my mind. Sure, it’s in the YA section of the library, as I guess it should be. In fact, here’s a review on the Teen Scene blog by one of my coworkers (It makes me feel ooooooold and highlights the difference in perspective seven or eight years can make).

I’m not sure if I’d want my kid reading The Perks of Being a Wallflower. I say I’ll leave my bookshelves open and encourage reading of any sort, but I don’t think I’d want my twelve- or thirteen-year-old knowing about all of that stuff just yet. Fifteen, sixteen, sure. Hopefully my kid will have a much easier time in high school than Charlie did.

Bonus: The author, Stephen Chbosky, isn’t primarily a novelist. He wrote the screenplay for Rent and the short-lived CBS series, Jericho.

2011 Book #48: The Sense of an Ending

201112261518.jpgThe Christmas Crunch continues, in which I readandreadandread to reach my fifty-book goal before the year is out. Which means I’m limited to short novels for the moment. At a lean 163 pages, The Sense of an Ending definitely qualifies. It’s actually been on my to-read pile since it came out earlier this year. I ended up with a copy because it was on the library’s newly catalogued list, and I clicked the hold link before anyone else.

It’s about Tony, a sixtyish-year-old man looking back over his life, especially focusing on the relationship he had with his friends in his school days and early adulthood. He starts when they were in high school, discussing philosophy and literature. A kid their age named Robson gets his girlfriend pregnant and then kills himself, and the topic of his suicide floats throughout the novel. The friends finish school and slowly go their separate ways. A couple years later, Tony is in the US when his parents call him back home to England because his friend Adrian committed suicide. He and Adrian hadn’t seen each other for quite a while after Adrian dated Veronica shortly after she broke up with Tony. Forty years later, Veronica’s mother dies and, in her will, leaves Adrian’s diary to Tony, but Veronica has it and doesn’t want to give it up. Then things get complicated, etc, etc.

I’m kind of ambivalent about this one. I generally liked it, and I think it’s very well-written, but it’s also sappy and preachy like The Unbearable Lightness of Being, which I really didn’t like. That said, I definitely think it’s worth a read. Just be patient toward the middle as it gets a bit boring and repetitive. Later, though, it gets good again. The Sense of an Ending isn’t exactly a relaxing read for a lazy Sunday morning, so read it (preferably in one sitting) when you have some time to decompress afterward.

2011 Book #47: Slaughterhouse-Five

201112241801.jpgI first read Slaughterhouse-Five many years ago. So long ago, in fact, that I have no idea when it was. I might have been in high school, or I might have been in college. I only remembered a vague outline involving Dresden and time travel – and that I really didn’t like it. Not one bit. The funny thing is that I’m a huge fan of Vonnegut. I’ve read most of his novels, and this is the only one I didn’t like. Something must be wrong.

So, several years later, I decided to give it a second chance. That chance happened a couple of days ago because it’s almost the end of the year, and I’d only read 46 books. This is the Christmas Crunch, and I need short books. Slaughterhouse-Five definitely fits into that category.

It’s about a young (then old, then young again, etc, etc) man who has just joined the army and ends up a POW in Dresden just before the fire bombing decimates the city. Except (the first words of the novel-within-the-novel) “Billy Pilgrim has come unstuck in time.” He travels back and forth to different points in his life – and death. Including an alien abduction that makes him understand life, death, and time differently.

I liked it better this time, though I’m still a bit ambivalent. It’s okay. It’s certainly not my favorite Vonnegut novel. I think I’ve fallen into a long novel morass, coming off of Midnight’s Children, 1Q84, and Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell. Long novels give authors opportunities to fill in gaps left in stories. Vonnegut wasn’t one to write a long novel, of course, and he wasn’t one to write particularly intense ones, either. My favorites are The Sirens of Titan and Cat’s Cradle, both of which are pretty funny. Slaughterhouse-Five is funny in its own way, too, and poignant. I guess I just didn’t spend enough time reading it to internalize it. Maybe that’s what happened when I read it before.

So it goes.

2011 Book #46: Midnight’s Children

MidnightsChildren.jpgI’m not quite sure what to say about Midnight’s Children except that it’s fantastic. Really. If you haven’t read it, head over to your local library and pick it up right now. Disregard your Christmas planning, ignore the hurt faces of your family, and hole yourself up for a week, book in one hand, cup of coffee in the other. You won’t regret it. Children are resilient: a few years of therapy, and they’ll learn that some things are more important than having parents at Christmas.

I’m kidding, of course. Kind of.

At this point, I’m trying to figure out why I haven’t read this before. I’ve ranted several times about colleges not assigning long books anymore, so I won’t rehash that here. But everyone should read this novel. It’s about everything: history, family, love, good, evil, etc, etc. Just like One Hundred Years of Solitude, which, I’m sure, is why I liked it so very, very much.

That’s not to say it’s easy reading: Rushdie isn’t easy. I had a helluva time with Satanic Verses, but that one was worth it, too. Midnight’s Children, though, is my favorite of Rushdie‘s so far. I picked up a couple of his other novels when I was in Houston, and I’ll read them soon. After the Christmas Crunch is over. But I’ll talk about that later.

Midnight’s Children is about the children born at midnight on India’s first day of independence from the British and how they, specifically Saleem Sinai, fit into and affect that history. It’s an autobiography from Saleem’s point of view, beginning before he was born with an account of his grandfather’s life, and then his parents’, and then his own.

I had a hard time reading it at the beginning: as I’ve said, Rushdie isn’t easy, and his syntax takes a bit of getting used to. But you read and you read, and then you can’t stop reading. A year or two ago, a friend of mine was reading it, and he excitedly told me that it’s a challenge until you hit a certain page (which I will not divulge as he refused to remind me), and then BAM. You’re in it for the ride, and you can’t give up on it because you know it’ll be worth it in the end.

The closest analog that I’ve read is One Hundred Years of Solitude, which gives you a sense of a sweeping history, like all things are encapsulated somewhere in the novel. There’s also the magical realism of Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Haruki Murakami. Rushdie creates a whole world around you, and you can’t help but be a part of it, swept up in the chaos of Indian independence and what follows. And the end! The end! But I won’t go there.

Seriously. If you’ve never tried Rushdie and you hadn’t planned to because of what you’d heard about his books (So many rumors! He’s not at all what I expected!) or the man himself. I remember hearing about what happened after he published The Satanic Verses when I was too little to understand what was going on, and now I can see how both of these novels are incredibly controversial – but that’s all the more reason to read them. He knew there’d be a scandal (seems like a petty word to use in that case), and he did it anyway. The result is incredibly moving – and, quite often, funny. I had no idea until I puffed up my chest and said, “Hey. Today, I’m gonna tackle Rushdie.” I haven’t looked back.