Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Books I Read in 2008

I love talking about books. I really do. But I will caution you in advance: The books I managed to read this year were an uninspiring lot overall. Some good ones, even great ones, sure. But, looking back, not as many as I'd have hoped. Maybe that's because most of my actual sitting-in-my-house reading time was spent on books for my synagogue's book club, and as anyone who does the book club thing knows, those are more often hit and miss than the books you choose for yourself.

But, hey. They're also a lot more fun, for the same reason. You just never know what's behind that next cover when you're not the one doing the deciding.

And on that note...


1. Strange Bedpersons by Jennifer Crusie: I like series romances. They are fun, and they are relaxing, and they remind me of my grandma, who used to lend me all her Harlequins and Silhouettes when she finished reading them, because they were fine for me to read even if I was ten years old, and who talked about them with me, and even once took me to a fan luncheon to meet a Real Live Harlequin Author. It was awesome. Anyway...most of the time, I don't bother even listing the dozen or so that I read in a typical year, because they take half a day, and what is there to say? But I'm going to own up to a couple from this month, because they were sent to me by the folks at Harlequin, as part of some “get three books free if you try our book club” deal. And one of the romances was an early one by Jennifer Crusie, when what she wrote was romance rather than chick lit. Now, I have to say, Crusie can write really, really, really likeable almost nobody I’ve ever read. It’s fluff, but it’s fun fluff. This book did make me wonder about something though...about how romance and erotica and everything in between really ‘works.’ Because this was supposed to be a romance novel—obviously, coming from Harlequin or one of its other brands—and it has some serious sex scenes, but they were...not at all a turn-on. On the other hand, I’ve read some truly awful series romances—bad writing, bad characterizations, bad everything—that were nonetheless steamy. What’s the diff? I need to think about this more...

2. Just for Kicks by Susan Andersen: This was the second of the three books, and it, too, was fun. And steamier than Crusie’s, though not as well written. Case in point? (For the record, I couldn't face reading the third--some kind of historical romance, which is just Not My Thing--and gave it away to Goodwill.)

3. Stuart: A Life Backwards by Alexander Masters: Hoo boy. That’s a rough read. Excellent book, incredibly ambitious. But sometimes I just don’t want to know, and as I read through Stuart’s life, I began to dread more and more the ‘beginning’ I knew was coming. This was somebody’s boy, and it all just went wrong. And worse yet, there was a lot in him to mourn when it did go wrong.

4. The Zookeeper’s Wife by Diane Ackerman: I read this for my temple book club and, well, I shouldn't even list this, to be honest, because I only got through half of it, or maybe less, before the club met. And I'm never going to finish it because I just didn't...I don't know. I didn't get it maybe. Or maybe it's just that memoirs are so prominent these days that a biography like this--written by someone who never met the people in question--just feels so distant. And fictional. I mean, I would read these details or thoughts or occurrences and know that there was no way Ackerman could truly know this to be true, and that put me off. I think I would have prefered it if it were presented as truly fictional. Or maybe not.


5. Life of Pi by Yann Martel: I already wrote a blog entry about this, but in short, it was really good. And wow. And I’m a sucky book critic.

6. Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud Montgomery (with Em): We loved this to pieces. To pieces. I'd have thought it might be too 'young' for Em...not the language, which is plenty mature, but the whole sweetness and lightness of it. But not at all. We are now officially Ann Fans.

7. Atonement by Ian McEwan: Someday I'll write a whole long blog entry about how the one kind of story I just cannot abide--in books, in movies, on TV--are stories in which everything hinges on a misunderstanding, or a piece of information withheld. And that entry will explain why, although this was clearly a masterfully written book, I got about halfway through and had to stop reading. It was making me so uncomfortable that picking it up to continue reading resulted in my becoming physically ill. No book is worth that. I don't think...


8. Triangle by Katharine Weber: A fictional story about (though that ‘about’ should be in quotes, because it’s not, not really about) the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911. I read this for my temple book club, Just, no. Why so much? Why so ambitious? Why so ploddingly plotted...or, rather, ploddingly overplotted. Why so many parts that go nowhere? Why no characters that feel even slightly real? Seriously. Just no. Which is a pity, because it’s not that it’s bad. It’s just that it’ good.


9. Lamb by Christoper Moore: Funny. Interesting. And probably way more so to people who actually know ANYTHING about Christ's early life. Which I do not. Because I am only just catching up on the key points in my own religion, people! I'll get to it. But in the meantime, I'm going to carry Chris Moore's version of the story in my head for a while, and smile when I think about it.

10. Kira-Kira by Cynthia Kadohata: Emily read this in maybe two days, and she's not usually a won't-put-the-book-down kind of kid. (Though she's since done the same with the entire Twilight series, swallowing it basically whole. Oy.) Then she told me I had to read it, too. It's a beautiful book on its own, 'juvenile' or 'young adult' or whatever it's supposed to be aside. I was glad I read it.

11. Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen: I read this for my book club, too. And enjoyed it. It was fun. It was well plotted. It wasn't especially innovative or anything, but it didn't need to be to be a just plain old good book.

12. The Maytrees by Annie Dillard: I would like to read it again, just so that I could mark the lines that stopped my heart with their earnestness and beauty and truth. I really would like to read it again...if I'd had the faintest idea what the hell it was about the first time I read it. All I know is that it was depressing, and yet sweet, and yet annoying.


13. My Most Excellent Year by Steve Kluger (with Em): A disclaimer, first. This is my brother-in-law's book. It's a young adult book, but it's also not. It's an everyone book. There's a young character in it who is based on N, and there are stories in it that come from Em, and there's a character named after me...two, actually...and I've read it a few times in its various draft forms, and of course I'm going to love it, because of all that. And yet I can still say with certainty that even if it weren't my brother-in-law's book, I'd have enjoyed it immensely. Because you can't not. It's that kind of book.


14. Fluke by Christopher Moore: He can’t write a bad book, and they’re all totally enjoyable. But if I had to say that one wasn’t my absolute fave, it would be this one, which just got a little too...bad sci fi for my tastes.

15. Miriam’s Kitchen by Elizabeth Ehrlich: An interesting memoir made even more interesting to me because, while my own sort of Jewish journey isn't taking me anywhere near becoming kosher, my feelings about my journey are similar to Elizabeth's. Plus, you can't really go wrong with a book that ends most chapters with some yummy sounding recipes.


16. A History of Love by Nicole Krauss: This was intriguingly written, and it was ambitious, and it was unusual. And it was good. Better than I'd expected it to be when I started it. It lost me in the end a bit--there were twists I'm not sure I followed, threads that still felt tangled when I'd closed the book--but it was still good, for all that. I was impressed.


18. The Shiniest Jewel by Marian Henley: This was a graphic novel/memoir about an adoption sent to me by a publisher that wanted me to review it on my blog There wasn’t much to say. I was underwhelmed. So I never bothered to review it, and now I'm sure nobody will ever send me another book to review for them, and there goes my career as a book reviewer. Sigh.


19. Shiksa Goddess by Wendy Wasserstein: Read this for my book club. I know this isn't going to be a popular opinion, but...I don't think she's a very good prose writer. I don't think playwrights always are. These essays truly underwhelmed me. Even the ones that were supposed to break my heart. I mean, those were better than some of the other more reporterly stuff, but still. I just couldn't find anything to rave about. My book club compatriots disagreed with me. Strongly, in some cases. So...there you go. Just one woman's opinion.

20. In The Image by Dara Horn: Read this for my book club, too. Hmm. This one REALLY lost me in the end with a flight of fancy that just...turned me off. So much so that I think it tainted my opinion of the rest of the book, which I had been enjoying. Not loving, not eating up, not melding with, nothing like that. But I'd been enjoying it. Until I was knocked entirely off kilter by its bizarre finish, and left wondering if I'd ultimately wasted my time. (Some of my book club compatriots disagreed with me strongly about this one, too. That's why book clubs are so much fun.)


NADA. Sad, no?


21. Certain Girls by Jennifer Weiner: Read this for my book club. (See a pattern here?) I found it a littel bit trite. I'm not a big Weiner fan, though. And while I didn't dislike it (like I did some of her other books, notably Goodnight Moon and Little Earthquakes), I just didn't find anything to write home about. And so I'll stop writing home about it now.

22. Flirting with Pride and Prejudice edited by Jennifer Crusie: Some of these essays were fun. Some of them had some insight. But some of them were kind of insipid, too. Still, time spent thinking about Jane Austen's work is never time spent badly.

23. Outwitting History: The Amazing Adventures of a Man Who Rescued a Million Yiddish Books by Aaron Lansky: The last of the book club reads for this year. I had very low expectations for this book, thinking it would be pedantic and preachy and some other p words I'm too lazy to come up with right now. I was very wrong. It was fun, and gossipy, and interesting, and it made me want to go out and find some Yiddish books to read. Even though my Yiddish is limited to less than a dozen words, most of them relating to body parts.


24. Anne of Avonlea by Lucy Maud Montgomery (read with Em): Nothing will ever beat the joy of discovering Anne in Anne of Green Gables, but we still loved this book.

25. The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai: Too often, the circumstances surrounding the reading of a book influences your opinion of that book. Two of my all-time-favorite books (Marquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude and Morrison's Beloved) were books I read in a single weekend when I was, sick-sick...stuck in bed with a high fever and aches and pains and needing SOMETHING to distract me. Would I have liked them as much if I'd started them, as I did The Inheritance of Loss, on an airplane trip in mid-summer, then put them down for a couple of months while I read book-club books, then picked them up again only to get distracted by something else? Would I have liked them as much if it was only in the last third of the book that I actually read more than a few dozen pages in a row without reading another book in between? All of which is to say...I really, really was impressed with The Inheritance of Loss. I think that, had I read it like a book is meant to be read--in one more-or-less solid go, without huge gaps of time during which other plots got stuck in my head--it may have made even more of an emotional impression. Nonetheless, it's a definite recommend. Not a bad way to wrap up the year. Not a bad way at all.


Anonymous said...

I really loved OUtwitting History when I read the ARC, so we agree there. I loved Fluke, if only for the scene where the boat was being used as a prophilactic (sp?) which reduced me to incoherent laughter wiht tears streaming down my face.
Chris in NY

Cate said...

I saw that you are not adverse to the "romance" genre, at least as practiced by Jennifer Cruisie. Have you ever checked out any of the books by Julia Quinn? I HATE romances, in general, but her books are total crack for my reading eye. Any of them. Her heroines are sort of Jane Austen-ish in the correct time-frame, but more NOW in their assertion of their value and importance. It really works for me, and I think you'd like them, based on what you've written here.

shandon said...

What a great, eclectic list! And thanks for the honest commentary -- very entertaining.