Tuesday, February 16, 2010

2009 Favorites

The Emperor of Ocean Park by Stephen L. Carter

Published in 2002, this is the story of Talcott Garland, an African-American law professor who teaches at an Ivy League university. His father has just died, leaving behind a cryptic note. This is a beautifully layered legal thriller with great twists and turns.

Await Your Reply by Dan Chaon

I was a fan of Chaon’s previous novel You Remind Me of Me and his short story collection Among the Missing, but this book still surpassed my expectations. There are several narrators, intricate twists and turns, and the theme of identity theft is woven into the search for self.

Moonlight in Odessa by Janet Charles

I think I read this because Kirkus gave it a starred review, and wow was I glad that I did. Daria lives in Odessa, Ukraine and has a part time job at Soviet Unions, a dating service that matches up American men and Ukrainian women. She’s a compelling main character, and this is a fantastic debut novel.

The Good Soldiers by David Finkel

This is a nonfiction account of the 15 month Iraq deployment of the 2-16 Infantry Battalion, led by Colonel Ralph Kauzlarich. It is gritty, often heart rending, and I could only read it in short spurts because it was so intense. I found it to be an important and honest look at a group of soldiers, and the larger issues surrounding the war in Iraq.

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold

This is a fictionalized rendition of the life of magician Charles Carter and it is a sweeping, sparkling, wonderful book. It reminded me a bit of The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay because it’s intricate and beautifully written, and I did not want it to end.

Lit by Mary Karr

This memoir follows Karr’s first book The Liars Club and its sequel Cherry and I was a little worried that a third book might be overdoing it. I was wrong! This book details Karr’s marriage and complex relationships with alcohol and religion. She is a poet and her turns of phrase are stunning.

A Gate at the Stairs by Lorrie Moore

Moore’s long awaited novel is narrated by Tassie Keltjin, a college student in a Midwestern town struggling to find her way in the world. There’s a subplot that I was a little iffy on, but I still loved the book overall. Moore’s writing is so strong and unique.

The Night Gardener by George Pelecanos

Three detectives come together to solve a case when a killer strikes again after 20 years. Pelecanos’ books are often dark but I’m drawn to them because he’s got an amazing talent for creating characters and atmosphere.

Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese

This is Verghese’s first foray into fiction after publishing two memoirs. It’s a sweeping, magnificent story of Shiva and Marion, the twin sons of Sister Mary Joseph Praise, who died during childbirth. The action moves from Ethiopia to New York and back again, and it’s riveting.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

2008 favorites thus far

The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

This book was like nothing else I've ever read, and it captivated me completely. It's a glorious mix of fiction, with multiple narrators (Oscar was my favorite, if only for his assorted Dungeons and Dragons references), some magic realism (which, truth be told, I usually can't stand), some interwoven facts, often in the form of footnotes,about the history of the Dominican Republic (I learned a lot)and an omniscient narrator in the form of Junot Diaz, who every so often interjects something perfect. The language in this book is stunning-- the kind of sentences and descriptions that I am still mulling over in my head, four months after reading it. There are twists and turns and sadness and heartbreak and hilarity. I'm not doing it justice. You really, really should read it. Viva Oscar (and hooray for this book winning the Pulitzer Prize for fiction!)

A Complicated Kindness by Miriam Toews

I had this book on my 'to read' list but couldn't remember where I got the recommendation. Then I saw it listed as a favorite of John Sampson from the band The Weakerthans AND it was a pick for One Book, One Canada, so I knew I needed to read it soon. This is the story of Nomi Nickel, a 16 year old in Manitoba who is struggling a lot of things: her mother and sister leaving the family and now living alone with her father, her Mennonite upbringing, the small town she lives in, and the general angst of being sixteen.
Her character is funny and heartbreaking and I enjoyed the glimpse into the Mennonite world.

Drop City by TC Boyle

Kudos to my friend David for recommending this book-- WOW. Set in 1970, this is the story of a commune (Drop City) and the complications that ensue when they move their base camp from California to Alaska. Boyle manages to take two disparate groups of people-- the commune members from CA and the people they meet in Alaska-- and really make them both come alive. The latter scenes in Alaska were my favorite. This review says it better than I can:

"What is surprising is how soulful Drop City frequently is, and how much human complexity Boyle manages to smuggle in....Boyle [provides] one of the funniest, and at the same time most subtle, novels we've had about the hippie era's slow fade to black." Dwight Garner, The New York Times Book Review

Other books I've liked a lot this year (not quite 'favorite' status):

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin
Brother I'm Dying by Edwidge Danticat
In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
Project X by Jim Shepard
The Inner Circle by TC Boyle

Books that disappointed me greatly because I've loved other things by these authors:

Almost Moon by Alice Sebold
Ellington Boulevard by Adam Langer
Soul Thief by Charles Baxter

Sunday, February 10, 2008


Schulz and Peanuts: A Biography by David Michaelis

I checked out this book on a whim-- it beckoned to me from the new books shelf at the library and I thought 'why not?' (oh, the beauty of the library and the freedom it offers...) What an excellent and pleasant surprise this book turned out to be! It's one of the best biographies I've read in a long time. The fact that I'm only a casual fan of Peanuts and yet was completely captivated by this book is a testament to how well written and researched it is. Schulz (who went by the nickname "Sparky" for most of his life. Sparky Schulz? I could never get used to reading this) is a compelling character, and I think that the author does a good job of exploring all of his complexities and delivering an even handed portrait. This book also provides an interesting look at the early days of comics. They were a phenomenon, and I enjoyed learning about the history and evolution of their popularity.
There are actual Peanuts comic strips scattered throughout the book, and I loved this touch! They're not all grouped together in one section, and they're not even always in the same place on a page. It was wonderful to read about a particular story line or technique that Schulz was working on, and then see a relevant comic strip.
I'd recommend this book to anyone who likes a good biography, and/or who has even a passing interest in Peanuts or comics in general.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

The Rest of 2007

Here are some other books I read and enjoyed immensely in the pre book blog days of 2007:

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson
Bad Luck and Trouble by Lee Child
What is the What by Dave Eggers
The Dissident by Nell Freudenberger
Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Beauty, Sighs, and Love

On Beauty by Zadie Smith

This book grabbed me immediately, and when I wasn't reading it, I'd get flashes of thoughts like, "I wonder what will happen next?" This is the story of two families, one in London, one in New England. Both fathers are academics, and bitter rivals. I thought the family dynamics in this book-- husbands & wives, parents & children, siblings-- were rendered beautifully. There were some great twists, and Smith has an obvious talent for flawless prose.

Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo

Richard Russo is one of my favorite authors. I have been enthralled by each and every one of his novels up 'til now (favorites: Empire Falls and Risk Pool ) so I had been hotly anticipating his new book. It's not that I hated it; it's just that it never really pulled me in the way his other books have. Russo has an uncanny ability to capture the intricacies of small towns and the folks who inhabit them. There's some of that in this book,some of his breathtaking description and glorious wit, but there's not enough. The book just never came together for me. So, I beg of you: please read one of his five other novels before you read this one.

What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt

I had this on my 'to read' list for awhile, but I can't recall where I got the recommendation. I had no idea what to expect, but I was captivated by this book. It's the story of a painter named Bill Weschler, an art historian named Leo Hirshberg, and their lives and families. I liked the art angle, though sometimes I got a little bogged down in the descriptions. There were some twists in this book that I never expected, and I think that was my most favorite thing about it. It's a very rich book, full of description and action and intensity. I definitely recommend it.

Backlog Part Three (of Three)

The Prince of the Marshes: And Other Occupational Hazards of a Year in Iraq by Rory Stewart

I was eager to read this since I loved Stewart's first book, The Places in Between, so much. Turns out that this dovetailed perfectly with Imperial Life in the Emerald City, too. This is Stewart's account of working for the Coalition Provisional Authority in Iraq. He was a provincial governor, so he provides a first hand perspective of this daunting work. His account of working in Nasiriyah when there was an uprising is harrowing. His compound was being hit by mortar rounds, and it took hours for help to arrive. As with his first book, Stewart mesmerized me with his fearlessness and grace. He makes an effort to get to know the people he serves, and to know their history. I was particularly struck by this passage, which sums up fairly well the complexity of the CPA's role in Iraq:

"We had promised democracy and believed, as Bremer said, that it was the only legitimate basis of government, but we did not think Iraq was yet ready for elections. We felt we needed to stay but felt ashamed of the occupation. We were controlling the lives of people who had not invited us in and who had not voted for us. We wanted to justify the invasion by doing some good; but we knew little about the people who surrounded us, or their culture. Every day we gambled on insufficient information, trusted and suspected, persuaded reluctant bureaucrats, threatened, rewarded and charmed. I needed to keep taking risks and taking sides, and people were going to be killed almost whatever we chose to do."

The Prince of the Marshes, p. 116

I liked this book a lot, and appreciated Stewart's insight and intelligence immensely.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Backlog Part Two (of Three)

Julia Child by Laura Shapiro

This book is part of the Penguin Lives series of short and excellent biographies. I like them partly because they remind me of the first books I really loved- a series of dramatic historical fiction biographies. There's no fiction here, but they're succinct, and that's a selling point to me. Sometimes I don't want to know every little thing about someone's life: I'd prefer a good overview with some choice details. This book delivers on that premise. I learned things about Julia I never knew (she eschewed the local/organic food movement in the 70s; she had several plastic surgeries) and the author also gave a good sense of how passionate Julia was about food and France. I especially liked this excerpt:
"Today there appear to be two kinds of good cooks: those who want to impress people and those who want to feed people. The meal may be delicious in either case, but you can always tell the difference, in part because it's written across the face of the cook when he or she presents the platter. "Admire me," some of their expressions seem to say. "Here, this is for you, let's eat!" say the others." Julia definitely fell into the latter camp.

ps. This book is a nice companion piece to My Life in France by Julia Child and Julie and Julia by Julie Powell (an account of the author's effort to make all of the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking)

pps I also recommend the Penguin Lives Elvis Presley biography by Bobbie Ann Mason.

Crossing California by Adam Langer

I loved this book. It was one that I didn't want to end, but I was also continually curious to see what the author would do. The characters are outstanding-- the book centers around three families in 1979 in Chicago. We get chapters from the various kids' perspectives, and from the adult ones. I was hugely impressed by Langer's ability to make each character so well formed. He also does a magnificent job in weaving together all of these narratives. I thought the book was hilarious and sad and intricate and hopeful and altogether wonderful.