The year's nearly over, and it is so fun to look back and remember all the books I've read -- 133, and counting (might get up to 135 by the end of the week!). Some great books, some mediocre ones, but overall, a good year. There's really no fair way to compare say, Steinbeck to Suzanne Collins, so I've taken a cue from Suey and created four different lists. Since I've read more than 100 books this year, I think it's pretty reasonable. And how could I narrow it down to just 10 anyhow?
Top 10 Adult Current Fiction/Nonfiction
1. A Very Long Engagment by Sebastien Japrisot -- why did I wait so long to read this book?
3. The Ginger Tree by Oswald Wynn -- again, kicking myself for waiting so long. This book sat on my shelf untouched for about 15 years. I loved it!
4. When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson
5. This is Where I Leave You by Jonathan Tropper -- irreverent, bawdy, hilarious
6. A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini -- I was dreading it after The Kite Runner, but I couldn't put it down.
7. The Family Man by Elinor Lipman
8. When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
9. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
10. In the Woods by Tana French -- a good thriller, if slightly frustrating.
1. The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak -- I cried like a baby at the end.
2. When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead -- my top pick for the Newbery Award
3. The Hunger Games/Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
4. The Dead and the Gone and Life as We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer -- engrossing and scary. Made me want to go out and stock up on canned goods and batteries.
5. The Birchbark House by Louise Erdrich -- the Native American side to all the Little House books.
6. Pedro and Me by Judd Winick
7. Shabanu: Daughter of the Wind by Suzanne Fisher Staples -- a great feminist YA book, and a great look at life in the Middle East.
8. Bud, Not Buddy by Christopher Paul Curtis -- made me laugh and cry.
9. The Circuit: Stories from the Life of a Migrant Child by Francisco Jiminez
10. Climbing the Stairs by Padma Venkatraman
Top 10 Classics:
1. Wives and Daughters by Elizabeth Gaskell -- the perfect book for the Jane Austen fan.
3. The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim
4. Daddy Long-Legs and Dear Enemy by Jean Webster -- the book that made me start blogging. Undeservedly ignored by readers today.
5. Can You Forgive Her? by Anthony Trollope -- still reading it, but I love it already.
6. The Custom of the Country by Edith Wharton -- not her best, but still a fascinating character study.
7. Elizabeth in Her German Garden by Elizabeth von Arnim
8. Cranford by Elizabeth Gaskell -- not so much like the miniseries, but gently humorous and endearing.
9. David Copperfield by Charles Dickens
10. Don't Look Now by Daphne du Maurier
11. The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins -- the groundbreaking sensational novel of the Victorian era. Brilliant cliffhangers. (Sorry, I couldn't stop at just ten!)
Best Rereads of 2009
1. Ethan Frome by Edith Wharton -- so bleak and tragic, but I can't stop reading it.
2. Howl's Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones -- give this to all the Harry Potter fans who need a new author to love.
3. The Painted Veil by W. Somerset Maugham -- Kitty is another heroine who needs a good sharp slap, but her personal development makes for a great read.
4. Rebecca by Daphne du Maurier -- poor Mrs. de Winter. Best Gothic novel, ever. The great plot twists overshadow some beautiful writing.
5. The Good Earth by Pearl S. Buck
6. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
7. Emma by Jane Austen -- I want to smack her, but I still love her.
8. Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling (OK, so it's seven books. Forgive me.)
9. The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
Saturday, December 26, 2009
-- Two books by Pearl S. Buck: Peony and East Wind, West Wind. Very exciting!! I loved The Good Earth, and I got to visit Pearl S. Buck's home in Pennsylvania when I was at the JASNA meeting in October -- if you're ever in Bucks County, it is so worth the trip. Her home and history are fascinating, and I was itching to catalog her library! Unfortunately the gift shop has very few of her books for sale, but that's easily remedied.
-- More teeny tiny portable editions of Jane Austen: Persuasion, Pride and Prejudice, and Sense and Sensibility -- my three favorites. Great for putting in a purse or carry-on. There's no excuse not to read while waiting in the doctor's office, in line at the post office, etc. And they're illustrated! And have cute little ribbon bookmarks. Too cute.
-- The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier. An Englishman visiting France meets his double, who then steals his identity. Great concept, with hints of A Tale of Two Cities. But creepier.
And now for the nonfiction:
-- Tea With Jane Austen by Kim Wilson -- a great little cookbook with traditional recipes adapted for modern cooks, plus excerpts from Austen's works and letters, etc. Plus cute illustrations.
And finally. . . A Christmas Carol Keepsake by Dr. Elliot Engel, a Dickens scholar. It includes the abridged version of A Christmas Carol that Dickens used for his performances of the novel, plus Victorian Christmas recipes, games, crafts, etc., and all kinds of interesting tidbits. This was a fantastic gift from my mom, who had the pleasure of seeing Dr. Engel speak at her library. And it's a signed copy!!!
Plus, my stocking was filled with teeny author puppets from The Unemployed Philosophers Guild. My favorites: Oscar Wilde, Zora Neale Hurston, and Edgar Allen Poe. And Santa also included The Scream, just because it's funny.
My biggest problem now: not enough space on the bookshelves. Dear Santa, please bring me more bookcases next year!
Sunday, December 20, 2009
This book has been sitting on my to-read pile for a couple of weeks, and I came thisclose to returning it to the library unread -- it had been on my hold queue for so long, I'd forgotten why I put it on reserve. Last night, on a whim, I picked it up, and I honestly can't remember the last time I laughed so hard reading a book. More than a year, I'm sure. I laughed so hard my kids were staring at me, my husband was staring at me, and I'm pretty sure the dog was staring too. If I'd been on an airplane I would have been completely embarassed.
Unfortunately, I can't go too much into this book without spoiling it, and that would be so wrong of me. I'm terrible at repeating jokes, I ruin them without fail. But I'll give a basic synopsis: Judd Foxman, his siblings, in-laws, and mother are sitting shiva for his late father, per his dying request (which is ironic because Dad basically didn't believe in God anymore). Nevertheless, this dysfunctional family is back together for the first week in ages, and it shows. They really, truly, put the fun in dysfunctional.
Let's face it, every family has problems. But the Foxman family, besides the patriarch's slow, painful death from stomach cancer, is dealing with divorce, infidelity, infertility, drug problems, a struggling business. . . stuff that sounds extremely realistic and depressing. Oh, and did I mention Judd and his wife have been separated since he caught her in an, um, extremely compromising position. . . with his boss? Plus, the soon-to-be-ex drops a major bombshell on him just before he leaves for the funeral. Yeah, his life sucks.
Somehow, Tropper manages to intertwine all the family horrors and tragedies with moments of outright hilarity. Mom is the bestselling author of a beloved parenting manual, which includes the most embarassing anecdotes ever about all four children; Wendy, the oldest, is struggling with three small children and an egotistical fund-manager husband who won't get off the phone; the ne'er-do-well youngest brother Phillip shows up with his life coach/fiancee; middle brother Paul is still bitter about taking over the family business after his sports career was destroyed. . . not to mention colorful neighbors, a rabbi with an R-rated nickname, and various friends and relatives who straggle in to pay their respects to the deceased. Yet, none of the hilarity descends into farce, and the family's serious problems are dealt with honesty that's never maudlin.
A warning: this book is not for those who are easily offended. It's pretty explicit, especially regarding Judd's love life and raging libido, plus some drug references and scatalogical humor. But if this doesn't bother you, it will definitely put your family's problems into perspective -- a great choice for the holidays when most people are stressing and a lot of people are downright depressed.
According to the book's jacket, This is Where I Leave You is already being adapted into a movie, which doesn't surprise me in the least. As I read this book, it reminded me of two movies: Death at a Funeral, the 2007 black comedy; and A Christmas Tale, a French film starring Catherine Deneuve which has been in my DVD player for about five days -- it's 2 1/2 hours and there's only so much Gallic dysfunction I can take in one sitting. However, isn't nearly as silly as the first and is a whole lot more enjoyable than the second. I'd recommend reading this book before the Hollywood producers get their hands on it and ruin it.
Friday, December 18, 2009
Oh, joy of joys! My Secret Santa swap arrived, and I love it! It's an ARC of a brand new book, Rude Awakenings of a Jane Austen Addict. I am just tickled because a) I am a huge Janeite -- just went to my local JASNA meeting on Sunday, which was great fun -- and b)because I just saw the first book at the library this week! I was drooling over it but decided to restrain myself. It looks very fun -- in the first book, a modern LA girl wakes up in Regency England, so it's the whole fish-out-of-water scenario. I think I'd enjoy this, because I really liked the Regency House miniseries from the BBC that we watched in our Jane Austen book group -- a pretty accurate assessment of what life was really like in Jane Austen's time. And I loved Lost in Austen as well.
This book is the sequel, in which a young lady from Regency England wakes up in 21st century L.A. Now that would be a rude awakening! At any rate, I am delighted to get an early Christmas present -- I just couldn't wait until next week to open it. Thank you, Secret Santa!!!!! And please send me your blog or email address so I can write a proper thank you.
Thursday, December 17, 2009
Monday, December 7, 2009
Though I feel slightly guilty, while reading and reviewing these two novellas, I can't help but refer to Cranford, the excellent BBC miniseries which aired in the U.S. in 2008. Like many of us here on the Classics Circuit, I fell in love with the charming and quirky residents of this English village and was eager to read the book. As many of us are aware, the series incorporates not only the novella of the title, but other stories as well: Mr. Harrison's Confessions and My Lady Ludlow.
The Cranford Chronicles includes all three of the novellas that were the basis for the miniseries. I had the pleasure of listening to the audio version of Cranford this summer, so I was eager to read the rest of the stories as well.
If you read Cranford, you won't find the hapless doctor who's the center of the village love triangle. (Or quadrangle. . . I can't keep track of how many women fall in love with him. Anyway, it's very humororus.) Nevertheless, if you want to read about poor Mr. Harrison, this is the edition you want. Essentially, Mr. Harrison is chatting with a visitor, Charles, and reminiscing about his arrival, his early career, and his romantic misadventures. In this case, the town is actually called Duncombe, but it shows strong parallels to Cranford. His medical colleague, Mr. Morgan, points out soon after he arrives:
"You will find it a curious statistical fact, but five-sixths of our householders above a certain rank in Duncombe are women. We have widows and old maids in abundance. In fact, my dear sir, I believe you and I are almost the only gentlemen in the place. . ." which sounds an awful lot like Cranford. Of course, being one of the only eligible males makes the hapless Mr. Harrison the target of a lot of scheming and speculation. Though he's an excellent doctor, Mr. Harrison makes quite a few social missteps that are nearly his undoing. Of course, it all works out in the end. Fans of the miniseries will find a few surprises, but it's very close to the the TV production, and in a good way. It's a quick, charming read (only 89 pages), but as with Cranford, not much really happens, just charming sketches of provincial life that will make you laugh and cry.
Lady Ludlow, though kindhearted and well-intentioned, is snobbish and elitist. The idea that lower classes should receive any education is absolutely abhorrent to her. Though she petitions to have a poacher released from jail since his wife and children would starve, she completely rejects the suggestion of her estate manager that said poacher's whipsmart be given any sort of education that could help him later in life -- i.e., pull himself by his bootstraps and not have to steal to survive. Nope, he needs to learn his station and stay there!! Hang around a cow pasture until you die, because, that is your lot in life, and you need to accept it. In other words: don't get uppity. Reminds me an awful lot of how American slave owners kept the slaves in check by keeping them illiterate.
Lady Ludlow uses this opportunity to tell a long, detailed, drawn-out story about French aristocratic friends and how they suffered tragically during the French revolution because those upstart revolutionaries were such meanies and killed off all the poor, misunderstood aristocrats. Apparently the English aristocrats were terrified the same things would happen to them. This part was really difficult for me to read, since as a librarian, it's the antithesis of everything I believe in. Knowledge is power.
Besides, this section went on waaaay too long, about 70 pages, and I always find it irritating that characters in books can recall entire conversations and minute details of events years later, when they heard about it second or thirdhand. Riiight. I'm not sorry to admit I skimmed more and more of this section and finally skipped ahead until the poor aristocrats lost their heads. There's a reason this episode was left out of the TV series.
I very nearly gave up during this section, but finally, Lady Ludlow offers a solution to this freethinking estate manager: the well-born but poor spinster Miss Galindo will help you with the accounts! This is pretty radical for her, since women have no business doing men's jobs, bu the story picks up again. After Miss Galindo agrees to take the job, Gaskell includes a great little zinger aimed at her fellow writers. I just love this quote. Miss Galindo is explaining to Lady Ludlow that she once aspired to write a novel:
"Well! I got paper and half-a-hundred pens, a bottle of ink, all ready --" [says Miss Galindo]
"And then --" [asks Lady Ludlow]
"O, it ended in my having nothing to say, when I sat down to write. But sometimes, when I get hold of a book, I wonder why I let such a poor reason stop me. It does not others."
Oh, snap! That just made the entire novella worthwhile. It's equally as witty as something Jane Austen would have written. The story really improved after this, and I'm really glad I finished it. Gaskell combines a great story with some social commentary. The characters are so well drawn, and she does a great job of tying everything together in a delightfully satisfying ending. It's well worth reading.
Wednesday, December 2, 2009
It seemed serendiptious when Wilkie Collins was chosen for the very first Classics Circuit, as it just so happened that the Classics Book Group to which I belong had selected The Woman in White for its November discussion. (This would be the Real People book group, which makes it much harder for me to wiggle out of reading the book in a timely fashion.) "Aha!" I thought. Cleverly, I planned to kill two birds with one stone, and I eagerly signed up on the Classics Circuit to review TWiW.
Foolishly, it did not occur to me that quite a few other people decided to take this opportunity to read and review what is most likely Wilkie Collins' most popular work. What did occur to me, however, that I would most likely be unable to come up with something clever and pithy and insighful that had not been said already. Oh dear.
But as luck would have it, my generous lending library -- how I love you, SAPL -- is chock-full of other works by Mr. Collins. Twenty-three of them, to be exact. However, since most of them are unfortunately available only as downloadable e-books, and as I had just completed the 600+ pages of The Woman in White (you can read my pithy and insightful review here.) I was most intrigued by A House to Let, which lists joint authorship by Mr. Collins and two of my favorite Victorian authors -- Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell -- plus a writer called Adelaide Anne Proctor. I was intrigued -- how interesting to compare some of my favorites on a collaborative novel. Well, novella, to be exact, since it's a mere 94 pages. According to The Victorian Web, A House to Let was originally published as a 1958 Christmas edition of the magazine Household Words.
A House To Let is comprised of six chapters: an introductory chapter credited to both Collins and Dickens; then a chapter by each author individually; and a closing chapter, again written by Collins and Dickens (of course, as the editor, Charles Dickens gets top billing).
Our story begins in the first chapter, "Over the Way," jointly written by Dickens and Collins. An elderly lady named Sophonisba, upon the advice of her physician, rents a house in London for several months. Her manservant, Trottle, finds the perfect place. The only drawback is that it is directly opposite a mysterious house, which has stood vacant for many years. Sophonisba is not put off by this, but soon after moving in, she believes that a mysterious eye is watching her from the vacant house. She is determined to learn its history, and both Trottle and Sophinisba's old friend and admirer, Jabez Jarber, get to work to trace the previous owners and tenants.
Each subsequent chapter, written by a different author, traces another owner or tenant in the history of the mysterious house. This was an interesting (and quick) way to compare the styles of the different authors, each of which show some of their personal, typical styles. The first chapter was fairly light, witty, and easy to read, and I definitely recognized Collins' direct, easy-to-read style. The second chapter, "The Manchester Marriage" is classic Gaskell, a beautifully written, somewhat tragic domestic tale of a couple from Manchester who move into the house. It is the second marriage for the wife, who was widowed when her first husband was lost at sea.
However, the third and fourth chapters were nearly my undoing. I didn't care much for the third story, "Going Into Society," which was the Dickens contribution, about a carnival man and his friend, a dwarf who is desperate to join high society. One of Dickens' greatest strenghts is his fascinating, quirky, supporting characters. They're wonderfully colorful when sprinkled throughout his novels, but ten pages straight was a bit much for my taste. It's written in dialect, which I found difficult to wade through, and besides, I've always found carnival and circus characters a little unnerving. The fourth chapter was also tough, as it's written as a long narrative poem by Adelaide Anne Procter. I know next to nothing about poetry, so this was pretty challenging, though it's only ten pages long.
I was glad I stuck with it though -- the Wilkie Collins story, "Trottle's Report," is a standout. It's spooky and gothic, with creepy, mysterious characters, just as I expected from Collins. And the final chapter "Let at Last," wraps up the mystery and provides the reader with a happy ending. Without giving anything away, I'll just say it's exactly what I would have expected from Dickens, very reminiscent of Oliver Twist or Little Dorrit.
This book is a nice introduction to some Victorian writers. Although the stories are all meant to go together, I could have easily skipped the chapters by Dickens and Procter, which I didn't much care for anyway. Still, it's a quick respite after some of the lenghty works by these authors. If you want to try Dickens, Collins, or Gaskell, but you don't have time or energy to attack a 600 page tome, this is a fine place to start.