On reading – book notes

“Oh, I forgot about that one. And that one!” I keep noticing books on the bookshelf that I’ve failed to document in my “read” list. So far, if I have them all, I’ve finished 25 books this year, including a couple I re-read, plus one I gave up on and one that was so awful, I should’ve quit:

The Abstinence Teacher by Tom Perrotta – The movie version of Perrotta’s novel Election killed me. Hilarious. Appalling. Perfectly edited. Matthew Broderick portrayed a teacher in midlife crisis so well I cringed through every scene. Reese Witherspoon played Tracy Flick like Marsha Brady on steroids. So good. I loved the book, too, and keep reading Perrotta’s other books because of that love. But I never like them as much. They’re not bad, but they lack that zing!, those addictive characters. This one, too. Solid writing and all, but the novel equivalent of recommending a movie as, “Eh, a good rental.”

Drop City by T.C. Boyle – I needed to read T.C. Boyle. Everyone said so. This book popped up at one of my book swap parties. Suspicious of anything having to do with the 1960s (give it a rest already, hippies!), I nonetheless dove in based on the author’s reputation and was rewarded with the sort of prose that makes one reread a page to have the pleasure of experiencing it again. The story kept me interested; despite my prejudices, I ended up caring what happened to the characters. I’d like to read more T.C. Boyle.

Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight: An African Childhood by Alexandra Fuller (Book Club) – A Book Club choice and such a good one. The memoir of a white girl raised in what was then Zimbabwe. Not everyone has the sort of childhood Fuller had. I imagine very few do. Even fewer would be able to chronicle that childhood with such skill and clarity, weaving the politically dispassionate with the personal passionate and presenting all the complexity of growing up as she did. Terribly sad in parts, shocking in others, yet the matter-of-fact writing never forces emotion upon the reader. I felt it, though. What a ride.

Maps and Legends: Reading and Writing Along the Borderlands by Michael Chabon – Chabon is stupidly good-looking and terribly talented. It’s unfair and this book didn’t make me feel any better about his advantages. It’s just another book that makes me wonder why I bother ever putting fingers to keyboard. Sigh.

Ten Days in the Hills by Jane Smiley – A vacation read. Who knew Jane Smiley – Jane Smiley of a Thousand Acres! – wrote Hollywood smut? Okay, so it’s kinda literary Hollywood smut, but still!

A Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich – Everything I’ve read by Louise Erdrich has done that trick of sucking me in, engrossing me and then leaving me all the better for having been somewhere. Another beautiful story by an ace storyteller.

Slab Rat by Ted Heller – I loved Less Than Zero and The Player in the 1980s? I enjoyed this book, too.

West of Jesus by Steven Kotler – Oh! Oh! Oh! That’s how I sounded reading this book. “Oh, wow! I can’t believe he’s referring to – ” and, “Oh! Wow! This is amazing!” and, “Oh my god! He is blowing my mind!” Seriously. If Tom Robbins was a surfer and a cynic and hit with Lyme disease, he might have written this book. Sort of. The parallels drawn between religion and surfing and near-death experiences and finding peace and being on quests – I loved it. I want to read it again and again until it’s memorized. It’s like my Bible! “Oh my God!”

The Known World by Edward P. Jones (Book Club) – Black slaveowners in the south. Hard to read, not because the writing, which was stellar, but because the scenes in which slaves were hobbled, had their ears cut, etc., reminded me, again, of how hideously messed up people can be and how easily we accept that messed-up-ness as normal. I have a hard time going on in life sometimes, faced with the evils we perpetuate upon each other. So, good, but disturbing. I wouldn’t exactly recommend it unless someone is already interested in this topic.

6 Sick Hipsters by Rayo Casablanca – See Slab Rat review.

The Bastard of Istanbul by Elif Shafak – Seemed good while I was reading it, but hard to hold on to and the big twist was too obvious. Regardless, I think it was lovely.

Bluebird: Studies in Women’s Happiness by Ariel Gore (Book Club) – My pick for Book Club. Loved it! A medium-sized meditation on happiness, what it is exactly, how we get there and why women face different challenges than men might. Insightful and inspiring.

Little Stranger by Sarah Waters – Spooky period piece that’s overall engaging, but slow to start and slow to finish. Maybe I’m too impatient.

Lush Life by Richard Price – I loved Clockers, so wanted to read another book by Richard Price. This one did the same trick of intimately involving me with the characters and worrying me about what would happen to them. Not exactly a happy ending, but then again, New York crime novel, so I didn’t expect it to be sunshine and roses.

The Windup Girl by Paolo Bacigalupi (gave up) – I think this is probably A Very Good and Important Book and I hope people smarter than me have the opportunity to enjoy it.

Little Bee by Chris Cleave – Devastating prose, devastating story. Everyone should read it and then do everything within their power to make the world a safer, more beautiful place.

The Fiddler in the Subway by Gene Weingarten – I could go through and underline passages on every page in this book. A great collection of essays that illustrate exactly how a good writer can write about anything and make it worth reading. Very worth reading. I loved this.

Eventide by Kent Haruf – The sequel to Plainsong and just as lovely.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf – Quiet, written in a manner I could never pull off. Utterly beautiful. I love these people in this book. Haruf does that thing of making me care about characters who, if they were real people in real life, I probably wouldn’t want to know. And yet, here they are and I love them.

In the Woods by Tana French – Ah! Scary psychological thriller! Very good! Creepy, but very good! I’m hooked on her books.

The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe (This was terrible.) – I really hated this book. The author should consider spending a year practicing the very basic creative writing guideline of “Show, don’t tell.” I feel like I read about a story instead of the story happening.

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen – This book deserves its own post. It’s that good. I read The Corrections several years ago and went from disaffected on the first read to absorbed in the second and have continued to return to that book as a reference point by which I interpret life and literature. I bought Freedom trusting it would be better than the one (above) that I’d just finished. It was. When I finished the book, closed the pages together, such a sense of satisfaction resided in me. What a rare feeling, even with the best of books. But yes, Freedom left me utterly content.

Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje – Interesting and intertwined stories that sustained me through the first 80 percent and lost me at the end. I think I need to give it another try.

Dear American Airlines by Jonathan Miles (2nd time) – Funny! So very funny! And clever. And true. Everyone with a drinking problem or a relationship problem should read this book. As should everyone who has been stuck in an airport or who enjoys witty prose and artful storytelling. So yes. A good read. Both times.

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins – Young adult novel, intense and violent, addictive. Reminded me of other classic dystopian novels, but held its own. I polished it off in a night because I couldn’t stand to put it down. I’ll be reading the sequel soon.

The Braindead Megaphone by George Saunders – I thought I had friends who cared. People who would never let me live so long without reading someone as brilliant at George Saunders. Apparently I was wrong. At least now I know. Another book I could go through with a pen, underlining and note-taking like mad. Something like: “!!!!!” and “Yes!!!!!” and “This is so right on!!!!” I read this and want to be a better writer. I read this and felt the great joy of being a reader. One of those books I want everyone to read. “You must read this now!!!!” As brilliant as the Daily Show with a whole bunch of heart thrown in.

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2 thoughts on “On reading – book notes”

  1. Great mini-reviews. Your journalism experience shows in your ability to succinctly sum up each book and your reaction and feelings. And now I’ve got a pile to add to my list of “books to get to.” Where do you find the time for re-reads???
    Oh and check out Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle. More provocative than Drop City but the writing just as good.

  2. Thanks for the reviews–now I have a few more books on my “to read” list! I thought Little Stranger so very creepy–it stayed with me for a long while after finishing.

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