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.

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