Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Here is is. Time once again for the year end book review. Truthfully my list is a bit pathetic this year. Repeats. Kids' books and lots of audio books. Going back to school fully and completely slammed me. Even now, on break, I'm not entirely certain I'm going to be able to rest enough to properly gear up for next semester. Of course, getting slammed with my second massive head cold in like three weeks isn't exactly helping either.

I also did not get around to reading your recommendations from last year. The road to hell is paved with good intentions. I've actually always hated that idiom. I have loads of good intentions. Good actions, too, I hope, but my ambition seems to nearly always outstrip either my capabilities or the logistics of a normal life.  In order to give myself one less thing to feel guilty about this year I am NOT going to ask for your recommendations for next year. I have no doubt whatsoever that they will be wonderful, but I hope they will keep.

These books are presented most recently read backwards to January. 
  • The Best Christmas Pageant Ever: Reviewed best at Nemesis this weekend. I love this book. I laugh and cry every time. This was the first year I read it to my kids. We all loved it. 
  • Granta 116: Granta is quarterly journal published in England. I might have mentioned it before? Anyway, every three months this volume comes to my house. And yes, it is technically a periodical, but at each issue being a whopping 200 pages, I'm totally counting it as a book. Hey, it is my list. Granta 116 was called "Ten Years Later" and was filled with stories of post-9/11 living. The shocking thing was that most of this stories were written by non-Americans, mostly living in places besides America. One of my gripes with Granta is that there is no explanation of which pieces are fiction and which are personal essay. I think there is a reason for that--after all, there probably is a fine line between truth and fiction when it comes to learning and teaching bold statements about the human condition. If I didn't already have pacifist leanings before, this collection of stories and essays sealed the deal for me. I still want to write that post about America's lost decade. These essays also demonstrate that when we think of American loss, it is such a drop in the bucket compared to the whole pantheon of human suffering. This year's fourth issue of Granta is still sitting in my bathroom, the topic is "Horror." It might sit for a while longer!
  • Little Men: I rediscovered Louisa May Alcott this year because I found a series of Librovox recordings in iTunes carrying all of her works. This was my fourth of the year and it was probably one (or two) too many. I loved Alcott as a kid, and now I think she is maybe just a little too precious. In her books, only the good die; all the lost boys are redeemed; and Jo can witticism her way out of any scrape. Still, the characters are rather endearing and she just writes about such good, Puritan values; I do wish that more young people would tackle Alcott. It would be good for them. This novel, like her others, seems more like a series of anecdotes only tenuously strung together by a very simple plot. 
  • The Distant Hours: This book was a great Gothic piece to read in October. My book group did it and the discussion was fantastic. If you are looking for something for your next book group that is a little more page turning, a little more tantalizing, and a little less literary than your usual fare, then this might be just the thing. Oh, don't get me wrong, it is still pretty clean and quite well-written, but it is rather a juicy page-turner. World War II. England. Secrets. Big old castle. A really, really good-looking mystery man. Oh yeah.
  • Hunger Games: This book hit the list a long time ago because I was reading it chapter by chapter with a tutoring student. Laborious, yes, but it gave me time to really think about it. This was my second reading and I think I enjoyed it even more this time. I caught the subtleties I had missed the first time in the jarring non-stop action of the plot. This was a really great book group discussion and I think I'll probably re-read the series now. 
  • The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society: Also a re-read for book group. I reviewed this last year. Lovely and wonderful.
  • Sylvester (The Wicked Uncle): I love this book. The author is Georgette Heyer and everything she writes is delicious. Her period pieces focus on Regency England and are hilarious. This book is about a hapless young maiden (of course) who, after a disastrous first season out in London, writes a wickedly clever novel parodying everybody in "The Ton." Through a random series of events she comes into contact with her novel's villain just before publication. Naturally she falls in love with him. Naturally. A delight.
  • Rose in Bloom: Another Alcott title. It is hard to seperate this one from the next, as it is basically a sequel and very little time passes in between. Alcott had very clear ideas about what womanhood should look like and some very definite opinions about the type of education it took to churn out such women. This is a recurring theme in her books.
  • Eight Cousins: This book reminded me of The Secret Garden in some ways. Both books are really based on the premise that lots of fresh air and exercise and positive thinking can change everything. Not a bad thought really, but I found the eternal optimism in both books a little bit on the annoying side. As for Eight Cousins, again, it is more anecdotal than plot-driven. In that way, it reminded me more of the Anne books.
  • The Confession: John Grisham hit another slam dunk in my mind with this one. His early novels are page turners because of their intense and often unexpected plots. His characters, even the barest sketches, are always spot on and just fascinating. The last few books I've read still demonstrate that gift for pacing and characterization, but thematically they are just so rich. Grisham forces the reader to ask piercing questions about the judiciary and political systems that determine so much of what happens in our country. In this particular novel he is intensely critical of the death penalty system. What makes the case so compelling is that our death row inmate is actually innocent.
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God: This is a beautifully written and heart-rending novel by Zora Neale Hurston. Reading her own historical background in the edition I had helped immensely in trying to ferret out what this book is really about. This book is about freedom--for women, for African Americans, from repression. It is about hanging on to the things that are the most beautiful and taking the loveliness of nature deep inside you and making it a part of who you are. Thematically the book was ahead of its time. Spurnned by critics when published in 1937 and then left out of print for nearly 30 years, it is clear that folks had to do a lot of growing up before they were ready for this book. 
  • Little Women: Alcott's best work, in my mind. Her character focus is narrower than in the earlier reviewed books and the story holds together a little bit better. I still can't believe Jo doesn't marry Laurie, however. I'm not quite sure the author even got over it; in Little Men (which takes place five or six years after the end of this book) Laurie, as benefactor to the Plumfield School often comes to visit. He and Jo are as affectionate as best friends and probably rather moreso than married and unrelated grown-ups should be. If I was the German professor I think I'd want to pop Laurie one. I will say, however, that the European section of the book is much more deliberate than the movie and the Laurie-Amy romance is not quite so sudden or unbelievable.
  • Among the Hidden: Jedi Knight read this for Oregon Battle of the Books. (Or OBOB. The next few also.) It is an interesting plot, though maybe a bit old for my nine year old, even if his reading tastes are a bit precocious. It wasn't too hard for him to read; it was short and quite easy, but thematically there are a some difficult issues. It is about illegal third-born children who have to hide so they and their parents aren't killed. It ended rather abruptly with only the barest resolution.
  • Jeremy Thatcher, Dragon Hatcher: Another OBOB title. Stupid. JK Rowling really put a lot of other kids' fantasy books to shame. Jedi Knight liked it okay, but that isn't a huge recommendation!
  • Earthquake Terror: Also OBOB. This is kind of a sweet, though highly improbable, survival story about a brother and sister. I feel like in some ways the author spent a very long time mapping out exactly how to get these kids stranded, alone, in the woods, after an earthquake. Not as much time was spent in figuring out what to do next. Another abrupt ending.
  • Number the Stars: OBOB. A wonderful way for younger children to first learn about the Holocaust. Much easier to read than Anne Frank, based on true events, and with plot elements just scary enough to instruct and hold interest without terrifying. A brilliant little novel. Winner of the Newbery around 1990.
  • The Last Newspaper Boy in America: Another OBOB title. This is a great book for boys. The main character is clever and funny and creative. The plot is rather improbable, but is a good way to explore current events. I really enjoyed reading this aloud with my son.
  • Granta 115: The summer Granta was about feminism. My own feminism post this summer was probably an outgrowth of thinking about what I'd read. I also wrote a personal essay I'm quite happy with in relation to this issue. If anybody is interested in having a copy, please let me know.
  • Foxmask: This book is by one of my favorite authors, but was a new read for me. It is a sequel to the next title down. I don't think I connected to this particular set of characters quite as well as to another series I've read by the author. Although her fantasy-romance telling is always good value, I have found her novels have generally gone downhill. I found myself not caring nearly as much about the fates of these characters as others. A little bit too much love at first sight in this one. She also left a couple of her characters kind of hung out to dry. I think it probably guarantees a third installment. *sigh* One last note about the author--I am impressed with the way that just as many of her female characters are domestic and motherly as they are tough and adventuresome. She really demonstrates that there is no one way to be a woman who is both good and strong.
  • Wolfskin: I read this book first a few years ago. I remember devouring it in one sitting. I was even working full-time as a teacher (with two little kids!) at the time and still stayed up until 3 am in the middle of the week to finish it. Very stupid. After all, I had more days ahead of me and then I had nothing to read. So is it a page-turner, yes, of course. Marrillier excels at putting her characters in impossible situations and then getting them out. She loves rescues. And though her women are very strong, she can't quite get over the romance of the damsel in distress. 
  • Getting Things Done: I had to read this for a class over the summer. Pretty much hated it from the beginning, but what really sealed the deal for me was when the author's sample "to-do" list had the following bullet point, "decide what to do with million dollar inheritance." What the? At first I thought he was being facetious, but other items in the book made me think otherwise. The only good pointer I took from this book was never to have more e-mail in the "inbox" than can be viewed on one-screen. I haven't let my g-mail account go over 50 since reading that and I've actually been a much better e-mailer (word?) because of it.
  • First Things First: I didn't dislike this quite as much as Getting Things Done, but almost. Also read for a class. I just am not a big fan of self-help books.
  • The Last Olympian: A Percy Jackson book. I will review all five of these under the first "The Lightning Thief," although about this one I would like to say that the choice of the last Olympian was a pleasant and touching surprise.
  • Saving Cee Cee Honeycutt: My mom loaned me this one, which is not always a good thing. I had mixed feelings about this title. She told me that it reminded her of "The Secret Life of Bees." I think the comparison is apt, though this book isn't nearly as good. I really liked some things about it. Others were just really tacky . . . and one of the tacky things was, admittedly, laugh out loud funny. I find I like books about the South better after having lived there. In these books, the heat becomes a character. That was something I never understood until I spent nearly 6 summers in Houston.
  • The Battle of the Labyrinth: A Percy Jackson book. I will review all five of these under the first "The Lightning Thief."
  • The Star Garden: Oh, dear. What to do with this book? This and the next reviewed are sequels to the rather excellent "These is My Words." The diary format isn't consistently carried through these two books though it is supposed to be; the voice is much stronger in the first. I think a major problem with the series as a whole is that she got rid of Jack at the end of the first book. The love story of these two is such a major part of the first book that some of the heart is sucked out of the other two, leaving Sarah harder than ever. Some of the border dispute issues are interesting, but they end in such dreadful violence that I felt quite depressed. Most of the reviews I've read, however, have nothing but praise for all three volumes. My take? Meh.
  • Sarah's Quilt: I felt like there were major plot holes and inconsistencies in character. There were issues from the first book that were just left dangling and could have been better resolved in the second and third books and they just weren't. I would have certainly liked a better resolution of Sarah's relationships with her daughter, for one. The whole Lazarus character was confusing and disconcerting to me. As with the above, there is a plot line that ends in some rather horrific violence that I just felt was unnecessary.
  • The Good Earth: I chose this for book group back in April. It is a remarkable book, and a clear definition of a true classic. The simplicity of the story and Buck's language belie just how much depth is to be uncovered here. This is a book to read and then talk about and then feel changed by.
  • The Titan's Curse: A Percy Jackson book. I will review all five of these under the first "The Lightning Thief."
  • A Wrinkle in Time: Another book group pick. I knew I went out on a limb for this one; it wasn't very well-received. Whatever. This was probably the first book I remember really loving and read my first copy into an early grave. This was the book that unlocked fantasy for me and helped me to think about the universe and spirituality in terms bigger than anything I could imagine on my own. It is so wonderful.
  • Granta 114: This particular Granta was called "Aliens" and was about people who end up living in a different place than where they were born or raised, and their experiences in the foreign place. Good stuff. But like all the Grantas I've read: some of the pieces are wonderful and other pieces are just rubbish. Don't think I'll be renewing.
  • Of Mice and Men: Again, the simplicity of this story, its characters and the coarseness of its language is deceptive. This little novel speaks to many aspects of the human condition, and it will probably never run out of things to say. Another true classic.
  • The Sea of Monsters: A Percy Jackson book. I will review all five of these under the first "The Lightning Thief."
  • House of Mirth: Depressing as hell. But then, it is Edith Wharton, so maybe that goes without saying? I am really glad that I read this as a book group title because I think the discussion is pretty essential to having a good experience with this book.
  • The Lightning Thief: This is a very original kids' book series. Just like the slough of Harry Potter knock-offs from a few years ago, this series has been much copied in recent years. (The author is even capitalizing on his own success with a second series that is only marginally different.) The first book uses the formula of two guy friends and a girl, appealing to both male and female readers. However, throughout the other books, this formula is sometimes shaken up so that Percy (the main character) takes each quest with a new assortment of characters. Other successful elements from the Harry Potter stories pop up here, but the context is so new and the writing so funny that the stories are really great on their own. Though not as brilliant or with the depth of the Potter books, I think it is safe to say that the Percy Jackson books will be a mainstay in children's literature for years to come. The same cannot be said of the movie franchise. Loads of mistakes were made in the plotting and casting of this movie (including kids that were way to old to begin with), and a sequel would be nearly impossible. In addition, these books were aimed mostly at tweens, but the movie is a terribly scary PG and was way too much for my little kids. 
  • The Associate: Though not as political charged as The Confession or The Appeal, Grisham has plenty to say about the ridiculous lenghts companies will go to in order to defend lawsuits. In the end, only the lawyers stand to benefit. Not the public. Not the corporations themselves. If we need an answer for why products are so slow to come to market and so expensive when they do . . . There is also some discussion of mistakes we make when we are young coming back to haunt us later on.
  • Cry, The Beloved Country: This is one of my very favorite books, and two recent readings were both in the context of book groups. The first was wonderful, the second not so much. In this book, I see the author essentially on the side of the Black South Africa as he casts blame upon the White minority for their indifference and calculated oppression. He is pleading with his countrymen to find a better solution and a new way forward. Our discussion devolved into the question of how poor people need to better help themselves, with one woman sitting next to me even pulling out the word "Negro." Really. In 2011. I nearly fell of the couch. Our lovely host that night seemed a bit disappointed. She had much she wanted to discuss, I could tell, and the conversation got rather away from her. I have also read this book just because I like it, on several occasions. Some people say it is hard to get through, but I don't see it. The rhythmic language and flowing style are remarkable and lovely. The intro to my book said that Alan Paton wrote the book while he was touring the world speaking on educational reform. He had just read "The Grapes of Wrath" before he left. He wrote this manuscript every night in his hotel room. What a fascinating paper would result from a combined analysis of both texts.
  • A Short History of Nearly Everything: I actually read about half of this book before the end of last year and I believe I reviewed it there. This book is delightful.
  • Madame Bovary:  I actually read about half of this book before the end of last year and I believe I reviewed it there. This book is much less than delightful.  
 That brings my total to 38 (or 37 and two halves). Not my best showing. Not even close. But there are more years and more books. My anticipated titles this year are The House at Riverton, The Help, Grapes of Wrath, The Warmth of Other Suns and Left to Tell. Of course, I am hoping for many more books to happen my way also. Maybe it is, as Juliet says in "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society," maybe books have a way of honing in on their perfect readers. May 2012 be the year you find your perfect book.


heidikins said...

Oh goodness, so many new books to look up!

Of these you have listed several of my favorites. Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Cry, the Beloved Country are both so gorgeous, goodness, I love them to little booky pieces. Number the Stars is also a favorite of mine, ditto Little Women and I think I read The Good Earth for the first time when was 13 or something and have always loved it. It might of been my first "adult" book I read, good way to start, I think! :)

(And I read Madame Bovary last year and really really did not love it. Glad to ee you didn't as well.)


Kimberly Bluestocking said...

I love "The Help".