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…


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.

2011 Book #45: Wise Blood

I have almost nothing to say about Wise Blood, though I enjoyed it immensely. Fresh off 1Q84, I wanted something a bit shorter and not on the Kindle. I was limited to my own library since it was Black Friday, and I wasn’t in the mood to change out of my pajamas. After reading Everything that Rises Must Converge and finally deciding that I love Flannery O’Connor, I picked up Wise Blood at the Centenary book sale, and it sat on my shelf for a few months.

Then, on Black Friday, I sat down and read the whole thing.

Which is very rare for me. I’m pretty sure that the only time I’ve read a whole novel in one sitting was Cormac McCarthy‘s Child of God, one afternoon at Barnes and Noble. Though I really enjoyed it, that novel is a blur since I didn’t take time to digest it in part.

Same goes for Wise Blood, sadly. Once I picked it up, I couldn’t put it down. Luckily, Palmer and I were both off of work that day, and we weren’t going anywhere until late afternoon. He caught up on TV shows while I holed myself up in the library for Serious Reading Time. Palmer even came in for a while and napped with the kitties. It was a good day.

Except, of course, that I remember almost nothing about this novel. O’Connor likes to explore religion, and that’s a big part of what Wise Blood is about. It felt like an extended short story. It’s also O’Connor’s first novel (of which I think there are only two), and it whet my appetite to read the rest of her work. I’ll have to reread this one in the near future, in bits and pieces, so maybe I can talk about the plot a little.

2011 Book #44: 1Q84

1Q84 finally made it into English. I’d been waiting to read this novel since the Japanese version was announced a couple of years ago. I even pre-ordered it on my Kindle (who wants to lug around a thousand-page hardback?) and got it at midnight on October 25th, the very second it was released. And I dove right in.

1Q84 is being called Murakami‘s magnum opus, but it’s pretty run-of-the-mill for him. It’s just really long. In typical Murakami style, the point of view snaps back and forth between two people, Aomame and Tengo, both of whom are around 30 and live in Tokyo. The novel begins with Aomame riding in a cab, in a hurry to make an appointment. There’s a huge traffic jam, though, and she gets out of the cab in the middle of the expressway and exits down a hidden flight of stairs used for earthquakes and the like. Then things get weird. Tengo, meanwhile, gets drafted to rewrite a seventeen-year-old’s novella called Air Chrysalis, the release of which angers a religious movement and some only partially explained magical beings called the Little People.

The name, of course, is a reference to 1984, and that’s the year in which the novel is set. Once Aomame discovers she’s in some sort of alternate reality, she names it 1Q84, where the Q stands for Question since she doesn’t yet know what’s going on.

This novel is really complicated, as I guess any thousand-page novel should be. It took me almost exactly a month to read, which, considering how busy I’ve been lately, isn’t too shabby. In fact, if you count Lord of the Rings as three books (which I don’t), I’m pretty sure it’s the longest novel I’ve ever read. And I didn’t get bored: something interesting is always happening. As with most other Murakami novels (I’ve read all of them), I wish some of the supernatural elements came with more thorough explanations. The translation is good – both of the usual translators, Jay Rubin and Philip Gabriel, worked on this one, so I didn’t have a problem with the style. I don’t think it needed to be quite as long as it is, though I really enjoyed every minute of reading it.

As I was reading 1Q84, I was sure it would become my favorite Murakami novel yet, but, a few days out, I’m not sure that’s the case: I think The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle and Kafka on the Shore might still be at the top of my list.

2011 Book # 43: The Mysterious Benedict Society

I generally like kids’ novels – Harry Potter, for instance, or The Hunger Games, or The Golden Compass, or The Blue Sword, etc, etc, etc. I think it’s because I can usually identify with the characters, and an adult having written them probably helps. That said, The Mysterious Benedict Society didn’t work for me. It might be aimed at a younger crowd than I’m used to, though these kids are 11 and 12, and Harry Potter started out at that age. I was also somewhere around 18 at that point – certainly nowhere near 30.

The Mysterious Benedict Society is about four kids, all of them basically orphans, who see an add in the newspaper offering adventures to kids who can pass a test. They’re the only for who pass, and they’re taken to a large house and, eventually, told what’s going on: There’s a Bad Guy who is sending out subliminal messages saying that he is awesome and that they should do whatever he says. He runs a school on an island just out of town, and they’re supposed to infiltrate it and discover his secrets. Well, they do both, then, in a heroic move, they decide to stay and try to destroy him. Things continue to happen. The end.

Again, I’m not a fan. It almost seems like Trenton Lee Stewart started writing a novel for a slightly older age group, then, mid-novel, decided he should aim a bit younger. I liked the beginning well enough. Stewart’s style is okay, though the characters are a bit flat, and there aren’t any particularly slow points. I found myself thinking too many times through the novel that the kids were being dumb and taking risks that even kids wouldn’t take. They seemed to be acting even younger than they were, which really irritated me. And then there are some stupid twists that made me roll my eyes. For instance (spoiler!): one of the kids is really short and pouty, though she turns out necessary. She’s probably as smart of the rest of them, but she has a really bad attitude. We find out why at the end of the novel: she’s a precocious two-year-old. Urrrrgh. Then, there are the life issues brought up in the beginning and then tied up way too simply at the end. Like (another spoiler!) one of the kids has a ridiculous photographic memory, and his parents take advantage of him, signing him up for game shows and amassing piles of money. He runs away, and his parents get tons of donations to help find him, which they spend on themselves. The kid seems a bit bitter, as he should be. At the end of the novel, though, when all the kids are being adopted (meh), his parents show up all apologetic, and all, saying they decided they missed him and went into debt looking for him. Instead of being angry like any normal kid would do, this particularly smart kid is perfectly happy to be reunited with his parents, and things go on as if nothing had ever happened. Yeah, right. I was annoyed.

So I guess I’ve just found a novel aimed at too young an audience with which I can identify, though the top of the book’s cover claims that it was at the top of the New York Times’ bestseller list, and I don’t know how it could do that without a bunch of adult readers. It’s also a series: the Mysterious Benedict Society has quite a few adventures on the bookshelves. I won’t be checking those out anytime soon.

2011 Book #42: The Castle

kafka_castle.jpegI had forgotten that Kafka died before finishing The Castle , or I probably wouldn’t have picked it up. Few things annoy me more than not knowing how a novel is supposed to end, though, I guess, good ol’ Wikipedia gives us a clue, but that’s only a bit of a consolation because, of course, it is Wikipedia. The Castle has been on my reading list for a few years. I started reading it a long time ago, but I didn’t get very far. I don’t remember why. I think it might have put me to sleep. This time, though, it held my attention throughout, and I really enjoyed it – until it cut off at the end with absolutely no resolution.

Here’s the general plot: A man named K. wanders into a village governed by officials in a castle not far away. He checks into an inn, goes to sleep, and is awakened by the innkeeper and one of those officials, who says he doesn’t have permission to stay in the village and that he must leave immediately. K. claims to be a land-surveyor summoned by the castle (we never really learn whether he is or not, but I assume he’s lying), and after some phone calls, he is allowed to stay. So he sleeps. The next morning, he tries to contact various officials, but he finds it impossible. He thinks he has a chance at talking to an official who knows an official, etc, etc, etc, but, of course, he doesn’t. It’s the same general idea as The Trial , though they’re certainly two different novels. And then it breaks off. The end.

It doesn’t sound like it, but I really do like Kafka. I read The Metamorphosis when I was in high school, and I really enjoyed it. I read The Trial when I was in college and, for a while, thought it was the best novel I’d ever read. The Castle was okay. Next time, I’ll read one Kafka finished writing.