Sunday, February 28, 2010

2002: March

Another dismal month. Only two books read.

8. Who Do You Love? (short story collection) - Jean Thompson. A really solid collection. If you like Raymond Carver, you'll enjoy Thompson. Also, how can you not love a book that takes its title from a Bo Diddley song? If you see this book at a bookstore or a library sale, don't hesitate to pick it up.

9. Rich Dad, Poor Dad (nonfiction) - Robert T. Kiyosaki. His message that "your money should work for you and the best way to do that is in real estate" is interesting, but he doesn't really lay it out how to get it done. Instead, he spends a lot of time comparing his hero Rich Dad with his biological Poor Dad. Those titles grated on the nerves when you saw them on Every. Frickin'. Page. Ultimately, I was put off by the scorn Kiyosaki seems to have for his Poor Dad. Poor Dad was well-educated, but he didn't spend his life trying to be a raging capitalist. For me, he's the more interesting of the two Dads. Son Robert's an asshole -- I'm sorry I spent money on his book.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

2002: February

What an abysmal month. I didn't read much and hardly anything stuck in my memory.

5. The Man Who Loved Children (novel) - Christina Stead. Australian author Stead gets the top prize for The Most Annoying Character Ever in this 1940 novel. The title character, Sam Pollitt, the father of a large brood (7 children) is unpleasant on so many different levels that I long to pick him up and bodily throw him out of the novel. Stead shows the reader and shows and shows and SHOWS and SHOWS what an ass he is and how his behavior is systematically tearing the family down bit by bit. Adding to the already distressing scenes is a sense of dislocation. It's like Stead tried to graft her 1910s Australian upbringing onto this 1930s American family, and everything feels irritiatingly off. Henny, Sam's wife in particular uses phrases that sound oddly clipped in that British sort of way. Even for all of that, the writing is powerhouse stuff and the story sweeps readers along. Check out that jangly cover art. That's an illustrator who definitely read the novel and perfectly captured the tone. This book is available as an audiobook, but it's painful enough to read the dialogue; I can't imagine listening to it.

6. Goodbye, Columbus (novella and short stories) - Philip Roth. I don't remember anything about the book, but I do remember that I didn't like it -- boring with unpleasant characters -- and I was put off reading Philip Roth for five years.

7. The Source of Trouble (short stories) - Debra Monroe. I remember Raymond Carveresque characters and good, solid writing, but nothing in particular.

Friday, February 19, 2010

2002: January

For some reason, I decided to keep track of what and how much I read each month at the beginning of 2002. My life? I was teaching ESL K-8. Running from elementary school to middle school kept me busy, but I still had time to check out the middle school library from time to time.

1. The One-Minute Teacher (nonfiction) - Spencer Johnson, M.D. & Constance Johnson, M.Ed. Aaaargh. The Johnsons have one idea and repeat it over and over. The book is really short, but as Mark Twain (?) would have said, "Those covers are too far apart!"

2. Christina Stead (biography) - Hazel Rowley. An excellent portrait of the Australian novelist, best known for her 1938 novel The Man Who Loved Children.

3. In The Heart of the Sea: The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex (nonfiction) - Nathaniel Philbrick. The story of the Essex tragedy, which took place over two years 1819-1821 was the horror sea story of the 19th century as the Titanic was for the 20th. After the Essex was attacked by a giant sperm whale (which later inspired Herman Melville to write Moby-Dick), the survivors of the wreckage took off across the Pacific in three small boats with most of their suffering ahead of them during the next 90+ days. Starvation and cannibalism play a part in the crew's fate, and Philbrick reports this unsparingly. Although tons of research (Philbrick has pages and pages of end notes) was done, In The Heart of the Sea is not a long book, and the narrative moves along nicely. Very highly recommended.

4. Lupita Manana (novel) - Patricia Beatty. This is a young adult novel. When Lupita's father is killed in an accident, Lupita's mother decides to send her two oldest children, Lupita and Salvador to their aunt's home in California, so they can find work and send money back to Mexico to help support their mother and the younger children. After one unsuccessful trip in which they are stopped by la migra (immigration police), Lupita and Salvador cross the border into the United States. They face a series of obstacles relating to family, work, a different culture and always fear of la migra, but Lupita is spunky and optimistic, always believing that manana (tomorrow) will be better. It was interesting to compare this book with a movie called El Norte that I'd seen a couple of years earlier.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

2001 - The Final Chapter

After I read The Complete Tightwad Gazette, nothing else seemed interesting. I only wanted to read (and talk and talk and talk...) about how to save money. Although I read a few other things, I was constantly dipping back into TCTG. It all felt like a revelation.

29. Living Well On A Shoestring (nonfiction) -Editors of Yankee magazine. Hmm, there's something about New Englanders...they've really got that thrift thing going on. Is it because of their Puritan past? Good hints, but without personal stories or life philosophy. I enjoyed the flinty good humor.

30. The Best Of The Cheapskate Monthly (nonfiction) - Mary Hunt. Hunt was an extreme spendthrift who got so in over her head in credit card debt that she was finally forced to see the light. Again, hints without trying to show people how to get the mindset that's necessary. Plus, she seems a little chirpy.

31. Your Money or Your Life (nonfiction) - Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin. I'm pleased that this was updated in 2008. A worthwhile read about money = life energy and how we so often waste that needlessly. Dominguez and Robin are like Amy Dacyczyn in that they appeal to the reader's intelligence by showing them the workings instead of firing off a volley of hints. Jessica at Both Eyes considers it a book that changed her life and recently wrote a fine review which I recommend.

32. Savage Beauty: The Life of Edna St. Vincent Millay (biography) - Nancy Milford. New Year's Eve. Champagne. Dick Clark. LitAmnesia.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

2001 Part 3

23. Jackson Pollock: An American Saga (biography) - Steven Naifeh & Gregory White Smith. This 900+ page biography isn't just about Pollock, it's about 20th century art and Pollock's world in general as well as the figures he came in contact with like Peggy Guggenheim, Thomas Hart Benton, Clem Greenberg and the artist who would become his greatest promoter and wife, Lee Krasner. Naifeh and Smith present Pollock warts and all. The whole book is excellently researched and written. Ed Harris used this for his source material when he directed and starred in a 2000 biopic about Jackson Pollock.

24. For The Love of God: The Faith and Future of the American Nun (nonfiction) -Lucy Kaylin. Kaylin examines convents in the United States that are clsoing due to dwindling numbers of women unvilling to choose a life of religious service. On the other hand, some convents are thriving, but their numbers are small. Kaylin interviews a few dozen nuns and former nuns. Another good book related to this subject is Sisters by John J. Fialka.

25. The Chocolate War (novel) - Robert Cormier. This is Cormier's big hit, but I much preferred Fade, a later novel. This prep school story about Jerry refusing to sell chocolates for the school and the dramatic outcome seems like so much blather.

26. Tiger Eyes (novel) - Judy Blume. I read this for an Adolescent Literature class, but I only remember that the main character's faher died and the family goes to New Mexico to stay with an uncle.

27. Farewell To Manzanar (memoir) - Jeanne Wakatasuki Houston. Another for the Adolescent Literature class. As a child, the author and her fmaily were placed in a Japanese-American interrment camp until World War II had ended. This thoughtful and intelligent look back at how her whole fmaily was affected should be required reading in schools.

28. The Complete Tightwad Gazette (nonfiction) - Amy Dacyczyn. I was teaching an ESL class for university students and we were doing a chapter on recycling. I vaguely remembered "a tightwad lady" who had some "wacky hints" about recycling. I found the book at Hastings and bought it. The lesson for my students ended later that week and mine was just beginning. I became so engrossed in Dacyczyn's story and methods and the stories of other successes from folliwing her advice that I couldn't stop reading and rereading and ruminating. This ended up being one of the books of my life and one that came with me to Korea. TCTG is an excellent resource. I wish I had encountered such a book early in my life.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

2001 Part 2

I had been thinking that instead of going year by year, I would go book by book, but it's fun to see what kind of reading streaks I go through.

11. Duane's Depressed (novel) - Larry McMurtry. McMurtry returns to the crowd in Thalia. They're getting older and their lives are getting sadder, but still chaotic.

12. The Stone Angel (novel) - Margaret Laurence. Whoops! LitAmnesia! I'm really ashamed of not remembering a novel written by the other great Margaret of Canada. Blush.

13. Texasville (novel) - Larry McMurtry. 30 years after The Last Picture Show, Thalia's in the middle of planning the 100th anniversary of their county, but there's uneasiness because the area has gone from oil boom to oil bust. Jacy shows up in town again, sadder and wiser, but complicating life as always.

14. All Over But The Shoutin' (memoir) - Rick Bragg. Bragg, a veteran journalist, writes about his hardscrabble upbringing in Georgia. He has a way of writing very movingly without getting corny or maudlin.

15. Walter Benjamin At The Dairy Queen (nonfiction) - Larry McMurtry. McMurtry writes about his life as a reader and details what life was like after heart surgery. His health and mental state were so affected that he didn't feel like reading for five years.

16. Buffalo Girls (novel) - Larry McMurtry. The Old West as seen from "Calamity" Jane's point of view in letters to her daughter Janey, whose father was Wild Bill Hickok.

17. Back When We Were Grownups (novel) - Anne Tyler. Rebecca Davitch got married to a widower when she was very young and was pressed into both his family and the family business. When he died and left her a young widow, she carried on with everything. She always, but even more now, wonders what her "real" life would have been like.

18. Max Perkins: Editor of Genius (biography) - A. Scott Berg. Maxwell Perkins was the Superman of editors. He had unfailing good taste, knew how a story should be told and had the uncanny gift of being able to precisely relay that information to the authors he worked with -- a list that reads like "Who's Who In 20th Century American Literature". Furthermore, he knew when authors needed to be handed with kid gloves and when to give them a kind but firm push towards their typewriters. A. Scott Berg seems to have taken Perkins' advice to heart and written a first-rate biography. No doubt his subject would be pleased.

19. Fiona Range (novel) - Mary McGarry Morris. This book was WAY too soap opera in the most annoying way. You know there's a huge secret about Fiona's background from Chapter 1 and you also know that no matter how she misbehaves, she's not really a reprobate -- she's just misunderstood. Sadly, you have to suffer till the second-to-last chapter, wading through a forest full of wooden dialogue.

20. In The Cut (novel) - Susanna Moore. The main character is an English professor who is researching street language and gets caught up in a serial killer case. It's kind of like Joyce Carol Oates lite.

21. The Book Of Zines: Readings From The Fringe (nonfiction) Chip Rowe, editor. A fun look at several great zines including Mystery Date and Beer Frame. You can read scholarly tongue-kind-of-in-cheek analyses of your favorite sitcoms.

22. The Father And The Son (memoir) - Matt Murray. Murray's widowed father announces to his grown children that he's decided to take orders and become a Roman Catholic priest.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Lovely Baby Blog

I can't believe it! Bybee's Bookish Past is a newborn blog, but it's already received an award:

Many thanks to Kathleen from Boarding In My Forties! Kathleen, I must confess: When I first saw the name of your blog, I thought "boarding school" and imagined you in a school uniform that consisted of a smart navy jumper with matching knee socks.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

2001 Part 1

2001 was busy. Except for an Adolescent Literature class during the summer, I was finally finished with school. I had a variety of part-time ESL teaching jobs. One of the highlights of the year was that I got a chance to visit Larry McMurtry's bookstore in Archer City. Even better, he was there sorting books! What can I say? He's my Lit Hero.

1. Son Of The Morning (novel) - Joyce Carol Oates. LitAmnesia. Dang.

2. On Writing (nonfiction) - Stephen King. In the first part, King discusses the influences that shaped him from a very early age. The second part is advice to would-be writers and the last part deals with his near-fatal pedestrian accident in 1999 and his long road to recovery and how it affected his writing. A very short book, especially by King standards, but quite satisfying. Highly recommended.

3. Helen Keller (nonfiction) - Dorothy Herrmann. I liked this bio much better than the genteelly restrained Joseph P. Lash biography published in 1980. Keller comes off here more like a real human. Usually, she seems almost abstract or the patron saint of physical challenges. Herrmann gets more in-depth with the temestuous relationship between Helen and her teacher, Anne Sullivan, Helen's ardent support of socialism, her feelings about sexuality and other previously little-known facts.

4. Anything For Billy (novel) - Larry McMurtry. McMurtry's take on the Billy The Kid legend.

5. Boone's Lick (novel) - Larry McMurtry. This novel is narrated by 15-year-old Shay, but his mother is the real main character and heroine. Mary Margaret Cecil has been waiting placidly in Boone's Lick, Missouri for her husband to make his fortunes in the west. Dick (appropriately named, I might add) comes home every couple of years then he's off again. Finally, one day Mary Margaret packs up her large and extended family and travels west to find Dick. During the long journey, the family makes a surprising discovery about Dick's years away from home. There's a dry comedic tone that makes this book a pleasurable reading experience.

6. One Child (nonfiction) - Torey L. Hayden. A disturbed young elementary student is angry and nonresponsive, due to a mother who abandoned her and a father who abuses her. Sheila is put in Torey Hayden's class. Torey's skills as a caring teacher slowly bring her around and in the process, it is discovered that the child is highly intelligent.

7. The Widower's Son (novel) - Alan Sillitoe. LitAmnesia. I really hate when this happens with English authors. I always feel as if I should have a few points shaved off my IQ.

8. Saratoga Trunk (novel) - Edna Ferber. Creole beauty Clio Dulaine and Texan Clint Maroon meet up in New Orleans in the mid-1800s, hit it off and decide to team up in order to fleece some robber barons at Saratoga. Clint wants to become very rich and Clip's dream is to marry respectably, unlike the other women in her family. Ferber describes New Orleans lovingly and thoroughly. When the action is moved to Saratoga, you can percieve Ferber's interest dropping off considerably. Sadly, for the sake of the plot, this is precisely when and where the novel needs the most energy. Ultimately, it's a fail, but I'll always treasure this book for those early scenes in New Orleans, particularly the one where Clio eats jambalaya for the first time.

9. While I Was Gone (novel) - Sue Miller. zzzzzzzzttt! LitAmnesia strikes again. It always happens with Sue Miller, Elizabeth Berg and Kaye Gibbons. I'm sorry, ladies. I really don't understand why.

10. Private Demons: The Secret Life Of Shirley Jackson (biography). This was a reread. Actually, make that a re-re-reread. One of my favorite biographies. Oppenheimer had the full cooperation of all 4 of Jackson's children, her many friends and scads of correspondence at her disposal. She puts it all together with a discerning eye and doesn't overload the reader with the need to not waste a drop of research as some biographers do. Best of all, she's got a very warm and natural writing style. Highly recommended. If you see Private Demons at your library or in a used bookstore, go ahead and grab it. You won't be sorry.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010


Fiction: 17

Nonfiction: 17

I completed my MA-TESL in May after a really great class in which we read several books about language and culture. In the summer, I headed into the teacher certification program and a part-time job in Kansas City teaching ESL to adults. As far as reading goes, I had a perfectly balanced year between fiction and nonfiction. Didn't plan it -- just worked out that way!

1. Ways With Words: Language, Life and Work In Communities and Classrooms (nonfiction) - Shirley Brice Heath.
Read for the Language and Culture class. This was the first time I ever thought about how home life and school life connected. A real eye-opener.

2. Amelia Earhart: A Biography (nonfiction) - Doris L. Rich.
I got the impression from this biography that Earhart's skills as a pilot weren't all that polished and her husband and manager, George Putnam, pushed her into many adventures that she wasn't ready for (including her ill-fated final flight) because she had such incredible promotional appeal.

3. The Invisible Culture: Communication In Classroom And Community Of The Warm Springs Indian Reservation (nonfiction) - Susan Urmstrom Phillips.
More home and school culture examination. Also for Dr. Cheryl Eason's Language and Culture class.

4. Patton: The Man Behind The Legend 1885-1945 (nonfiction) - Martin Blumenson. Written by Patton's close friend and former aide. An interesting look at Old Blood And Guts, but sometimes seems to get bogged down in long discussions of military tactics.

5. Educating Esme: Diary Of A Teacher's First Year (nonfiction) - Esme Raji Codell.
Esme has the imagination and drive that we would wish for in first-year teachers, and I believe this book should be read during that first and frustrating teaching year, but she comes across as a little arrogant. Also, she expresses appreciation and admiration for her mentor teacher, but except for one shocking but funny incident, she summarizes her training in a couple of breezy, almost offhand sentences. I would've suggested a different title: Esme's Ego.

6. The Inner World Of The Immigrant Child (nonfiction) - Cristina Igoa.
Language and Culture class. After I read this book, I wanted to be Cristina Igoa, the greatest ESL teacher in the world. A fascinating look at what challenges immigrant children face. Igoa also takes readers through the process she used to set up her classroom, and suggests activities useful for teaching mixed levels.

7. Hatchet (novel) - Gary Paulsen.
Exciting YA novel. Brian, whose parents are recently divorced, is on his way to visit his father in Canada. The pilot has a heart attack and Brian must crash land the plane. His adventures during the next 54 days in the Canadian wilderness are suspensefully narrated. Robinson Crusoe for the younger set, but adults will be just as enthralled.

8. "Good Writing" In A Cross-Cultural Context (nonfiction) - Xiao Ming Li.
Language and Culture class. I was having a wonderful time; all the assigned reading was endlessly interesting. Unbelievably, this was my first realization that our straightforward style of writing is not considered proper in all cultures. Wow! Eye-opener! I've thought of this book often during my 10-years as an ESL/EFL teacher.

9. You Just Don't Understand (nonfiction) - Deborah Tannen.
Language and Culture class. Tannen's bottom line is that women talk to connect emotionally and men talk to impart knowledge. This book made me take notice of how I communicate with others. I laughed and shook my head as I recognized some of the conversations I've had that have been frustrating. If I haven't always been more direct since I read this book, I now recognize when I'm not using the necessary communication skills to make myself understood.

10. Waking The Dead (novel) - Scott Spencer.
Fielding Pierce is a young politician who lost his activist girlfriend several years ago when she was killed. He has thrown himself into his work, but can't forget her. Suddenly, he gets the feeling that she might be alive. Is he having a nervous breakdown? I like Spencer's Endless Love better, but this is a close second favorite.

11. Bootstraps (nonfiction) Victor Villanueva, Jr.
The last book for the Language and Culture class. Villanueva, whose family is Puerto Rican, details the prejudice he struggled against all his life, even after he was in supposedly enlightened academic circles. A powerful and angry book. Highly recommended.

12. The Chisellers (novel) - Brendan O'Carroll.
The story of Irish widow Agnes Browne and her huge family. The comedic situations might remind some readers of Roddy Doyle, although there's not as much depth. Brendan O'Carroll is also an actor and had a small but extremely funny part in the movie adaptation of Doyle's novel The Van.

13. The Mammy (novel) - Brendan O'Carroll.
Agnes Browne, who runs a produce stand has recently been widowed. She's feisty and has a wicked deadpan humor. This was made into an entertaining movie called Agnes Browne, starring Anjelica Huston (who also directed) as the title character.

14. 'Tis (memoir) - Frank McCourt.
The sequel to Angela's Ashes. McCourt comes of age as an immigrant in New York City. Wryly funny. McCourt was a brilliant storyteller.

15. The Perfect Storm (nonfiction) - Sebastian Junger.
The true story of how the Andrea Gail was lost during the Halloween storm of 1991. Incredibly engrossing. The movie version does its best but it can't quite capture the hugeness of this tragic event.

16. The Girl Who Loved Tom Gordon (novel) - Stephen King.
Another lost-kid-survival tale. Trisha, who is on a hike with her dysfunctional family, takes a short detour to get away from her mother and brother's arguing. Bad choice. She is lost in the woods for several days. One thing that helps her is imagining that she's having conversations with Boston Red Sox pitcher Tom Gordon. This book is scary in a psychological way, rather than King's usual gross-out tricks. Well-written. I put it right up there with Misery.

17. A Lesson Before Dying (novel) - Ernest J. Gaines.
The setting is the South, and an African-American man is the sole survivor of a liquor store holdup that went terribly wrong. At his trial, he is sentenced to death. His grandmother asks the young schoolteacher in town to talk to her condemned grandson and help him go to his death with dignity. I know this is a modern classic, but I really didn't care for it at all. The premise seems a little phony. The situation is set up so Gaines could lay down some life wisdom. I wish I could have gotten a different feeling from the book.

18. Booth (novel) - David Robertson.
A novel about Lincoln's assassin, and how he charmed the Surratt family into taking part in his heinous plot. Robertson's writing seems a little uneven and the action seems all over the place.

19. Among Schoolchildren (nonfiction) - Tracy Kidder.
Kidder spends a year in Chris Zajac's 5th grade classroom in Holyoke, Massachusetts. This is my favorite of Kidder's books -- I read AS when it first came out in the 1980s and again in 2000.

20. Invisible Writer: A Biography Of Joyce Carol Oates (nonfiction) - Greg Johnson. Johnson did an incredible amount of research into JCO's life and work, but he doesn't really succeed in capturing a successful portrait of her. With any other writer, I'd be disappointed but in this case, I'm glad she's unattainable. Being an enigma seems to work well for her type of fiction.

21. Expensive People (novel) - Joyce Carol Oates.
In this late 1960s novel, Oates goes into the mind of Richard, a young teen from an affluent background who happens to be psychotic.

22. Get Happy: The Life Of Judy Garland (nonfiction) - Gerald Clarke.
Find another -- ANY OTHER -- biography of Judy Garland. Don't read this one. Don't check it out or borrow it or buy it. This guy's got a fat nerve, calling himself a biographer. He should be held down and scrubbed mercilessly about the face with used toilet paper.

23. The Talented Mr. Ripley (novel) - Patricia Highsmith.
My introduction to the original twisted sister, Patricia Highsmith. Great stuff. Ripley is classic.

24. How We Choose To Be Happy (nonfiction) - Rick Foster and Greg Hicks.
The authors compare 9 different happy people from different walks of life and note what they have in common. I found this book sensible and useful.

25. Henderson The Rain King (novel) - Saul Bellow.
The story of Eugene Henderson, a self-made millionaire who runs away to Africa to find out what he really wants out of life was entertaining, but Henderson's philosophical ramblings get a little long-winded and stale. This novel didn't make me want to run out and read more Bellow.

26. Wait Till Next Year (memoir) - Doris Kearns Goodwin.
I got so engrossed in this memoir of 1950s baseball and the Brooklyn Dodgers, that when the Dodgers' owners moved them to Los Angeles, I felt a strong sense of betrayal. Incredible writing. Even if you're not a baseball fan, this memoir has the stuff.

27. The "Genius" (novel) - Theodore Dreiser.
Eugene Witla is an artist who eventually finds financial reward as a commercial illustrator, but his personal life is in a continual mess because he can't control his romantic appetite. The ups and downs of Witla's career seem much more interesting than his passionate love scenes. Dreiser had a bit of a tin ear when it came to the latter. Not his best, but still a good read.

28. Tender At The Bone (memoir) - Ruth Reichl.
The first volume of Ruth Reichl's memoirs. Her writing style is funny and warm, and no one describes food better, except for maybe M.F. K. Fisher. Several recipes -- there's one for schnitzel that will knock your socks off.

29. The Blind Assassin (novel) - Margaret Atwood.
This novel-within-a-novel has a very cool twist ending. One of my favorites by Atwood and the cover of the book is one of the most gorgeous ever printed.

30. The Centaur (novel) - John Updike.
A touching father-son story. Updike's tone is unusually quiet in this one, as if he didn't want to get in the way of the story and the myth of Chiron that is the subtext.

31. Pygmalion (play) - George Bernard Shaw.
For one of my education class assignments, I had to write a lesson plan for high school freshmen around a piece of literature. I'd always wanted to read this play, so I killed 2 birds with one stone.

32. The Waterfall (novel) - Margaret Drabble.
For a novel about adultery, this was boring. I slogged through to the end, but it was an effort. I haven't wanted to read any Drabble since.

33. The Call Of The Wild (novel) - Jack London.
Buck, who is half German Shepherd and half Saint Bernard, is stolen from his comfortable family home and cruelly put to work as an Alaskan sled dog. Although he escapes and meets kind people once again, he eventually turns his back on civilization and becomes the leader of a pack of wolves. I loved the story, but was annoyed at my copy's cover. London explicitly states that Buck looks like a giant wolf, due to his Shepherd bloodline, but the artist drew him looking like a Saint Bernard. I've always meant to read more of Jack London, but haven't gotten around to it.

34. Angel Of Light (novel) - Joyce Carol Oates.
A political family that is descended from John Brown (who was nicknamed Angel Of Light by sympathetic abolitionists) suffers from tragedy. When the father is found dead from suicide, his adult children suspect their mother and her lover and vow revenge. Ruthless, inexorable, just what you'd expect from a Joyce Carol Oates novel.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010


Fiction: 15

Nonfiction: 8

Another low-numbers year because I was still in graduate school. I felt a little overwhelmed during the spring semester, but got it all back again (thanks to fellow students and one particular professor) in the fall with a renewed vigor and an intensity of focus and purpose I hadn't known I was capable of summoning.

1. Lost In Translation (memoir) - Eva Hoffman.
Hoffman's family immigrated when she was a young teenager. Interesting look at second language acquisition and what gets given up when assimilation takes place. Perfect title, so evocative.

2. The Professor And The Madman (nonfiction) - Simon Winchester. The bizarre but true story of how the OED came to be written. This one fairly screams: REREAD!

3. Any Woman's Blues (novel) - Erica Jong. Uh-oh. LitAmnesia. But it seems like the episodes of this were getting fewer and farther between.

4. The Poisonwood Bible (novel) -Barbara Kingsolver.
I suppose this is considered her best novel, but it's not my favorite -- seemed to go on way too long. On the other hand, since it's Kingsolver, I'm willing to give it another try.

5. McTeague (novel) - Frank Norris. 1899 novel. A masterpiece of naturalism. No wonder Erich von Stroheim went crazy over it and made the classic 1924 movie Greed.

6. Terms of Endearment (novel) - Larry McMurtry.
A mother and daughter story...I think it's the third book in McMurtry's Houston series. I'm always surprised and pleased at how well he portrays women.

7. The Wishbones (novel) - Tom Perotta. This book was so much fun. Nice description, background, character development, observations -- you name it -- of life in the mid-90s in a wedding band. Protagonist is early 30s (so is his girlfriend) and about to leave an extended adolescence and 15-year courtship to venture into marriage. Perotta's style is engaging.

8. The Day Diana Died (nonfiction) - Christopher Andersen. A day that need not have happened.

9. Evensong (novel) - Gail Godwin. Good strong sequel to Father Melancholy's Daughter. It's ten years later and Margaret has become an Episcopalian priest. This book ties in so well with the other one that I wonder if Godwin wrote both books as one, initially.

10. Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts On Faith (essays) - Anne Lamott. Nice collection, but I was disappointed to realize that I'd already read most of these essays in Lamott's "Word By Word" column at Salon.

11. Affliction (novel) - Russell Banks. A bleak and wintry novel about Wade Whitehouse, a man whose life has been eroding for years and now he's at the breaking point. The novel is seen through the eyes of Wade's younger brother Rolfe and there are terrifying flashbacks to childhood with their raging and abusive father. Inexorable. Downer. But an outstanding character study. This was also made into a fine movie with Nick Nolte (one of his best performances) and James Coburn that sticks close to the novel and is also unrelentingly depressing.

12. Amy and Isabelle (novel) - Elizabeth Strout. Well-written and immensely readable, but the basic plot line seemed like a homage to Peyton Place.

13. Middlemarch (novel) - George Eliot. I tried unsuccessfully twice before to read this novel, then finally finished it. What a gem. It's long but well worth the time and patience invested. It has truly become one of the books of my life, to be read and savored again and again. George Eliot is so immensely, intensely intelligent.

14. Voices of Silence: Lives of the Trappists Today (nonfiction) - Frank Bianco. Bianco does a wonderful job of reporting on contemplative life in monasteries, particularly Gethsemani Abbey in Kentucky, where Thomas Merton was a monk. Bianco interviews several monks, many of them at critical stages in their spiritual development. He also discusses the psychological sea-change that occurs as monks spend more and more time in the monastery. Plenty of food for thought for those interested in the mysteries involved in the ongoing search for both God and self-awareness.

15. The Catcher In The Rye (novel) - J.D. Salinger. * Re-read* My son was 14, about to enter the 9th grade and I felt like the time was right to introduce him to Holden Caulfield. This was one of our last mother-son reads. I'm happy to report that he became a fan of the novel and has re-read it many times.

16. White Oleander (novel) - Janet Fitch. Astrid's mother is a strange lady -- a poet and single mother who murders her ex-lover with a poison brew made of white oleander flowers. She is found guilty and sent to prison and Astrid is left to somehow survive a series of disastrous foster homes. I read it avidly, but now, upon reflection, it seems like a typical Oprah book club pick.

17. The Old Man And The Sea (novel) - Ernest Hemingway. I read this in honor of Hemingway's 100th birthday.

18. Let Me Alone (novel) - Anna Kavan. A few years after this novel's 1930 publication, the author, Helen Woods, changed her name to Anna Kavan after the main character in Let Me Alone. Anna (the character) has a rough life: mother died, father committed suicide, boarding school, loveless marriage -- some of it in exotic locales. Kavan's writing is clear and direct, like a punch. She published about 20 novels during her lifetime and 5 more were found and published after her death in 1968. I've always wanted to read other novels by her, but have never found one in all this time.

19. Merde (nonfiction) - Ralph A. Lewin. Everything, and I mean EVERYTHING you ever wanted to know about shit. The language is starchy and academic, but he's so enthusiastic about his subject!

20. Co-Dependent No More (nonfiction) - Melody Beattie. Remind me to run right out and avoid my friends who want me to read self-help books! This one was particularly annoying. Where to begin? The writing style was really meandering. Also, the book was set in type that was annoying to the eye. In addition, "bullets" to make a few salient points are fine, but Beattie uses them page after page. Skim this one if you must, but seek out other books about co-dependency that are better written.

21. Sons And Lovers (novel) - D.H. Lawrence. Lawrence at his best, describing the life of Paul Morel and his family in working-class England at the turn of the century, as well as his love affairs with Miriam and Clara. Paul is an artist and when he discusses his work, it comes off as stilted and artificial, not to mention a little boring. Since Paul is a self-portrait of Lawrence, he probably should have just gone whole hog and made him a writer as well. Other than that, it's a wonderful novel -- language, narrative, characters, setting.

22. Edwin Mullhouse: The Life and Death of an American Writer 1943-1954 By Jeffrey Cartwright (novel) - Stephen Millhauser. This dark comedy is a parody of literary biographies and also a microscopic examination of the life of childhood. I've heard it described as being like Pale Fire, except with younger characters. Definitely on my re-read shelf!

23. Teacher (memoir) -Sylvia Ashton-Warner. Ashton-Warner was New Zealand author who spent many years working with young Maori children. This outstanding book describes her pioneering efforts using organic language to build a bridge between cultures.