Saturday, January 26, 2008

2007: My Year in Books, Part I

January - June

For the two years I was at Bennington I had to read four or five books each month and annotate them. After graduating last January, I didn’t miss annotations at all, but I still felt the need to keep a record of the books I had read. My friend A. from Bennington used to do a semester round-up of her books (one example here), which is sort of the inspiration for this list.

I should also note that after two years of required reading at Bennington and trying to keep up on Harcourt's books at the same time, I took the opportunity to read some less serious books, and always exactly what I wanted. I brought all these intense books with me to Uganda, thinking that with few other options I would force myself to read some of them. This was, for the most part, wishful thinking.

Eragon by Christopher Paolini—Last January I went off to Bennington for my last residency and J went off to Uganda. I wouldn’t see him again for two months. At Bennington I was terrified of giving my lecture, broken-hearted to be away from my husband for so long, proud to be graduating, but sad to be seeing my friends for the last time for who knew how long. Instead of dealing with any of these emotions, I curled up on my maddeningly uncomfortable dorm bed and read Eragon before falling asleep each night or between lectures (okay, sometimes during lectures, too). It was good escapism reading. And the secret is now out that I like fantasy literature.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf—There are characters to fall in love with in this book. Simple writing, complex characters.

O. Henry Prize Stories—These types of collections seem to be created for the sole purpose of alternately infuriating and breaking aspiring writer’s hearts. I would read one story and think, “Garbage! Why isn’t one of my stories in there?” and then I would read another and think, “Oh. Well, yeah, that’s damn good,” and proceed to feel sorry for myself for not being a better writer.

The Dead of Summer by Camilla Way—Good, suspenseful, quick reading. I might even say chilling.

Eldest by Christopher Paolini—Definitely not as good as Eragon. Kid needs to learn how to write about love, or just not write about it all. Still, impressive and at times very entertaining.

Life as We Knew It by Susan Pfeffer—Just before I left Harcourt I swiped this book from the Kids department. It’s a young adult novel and I had seen it mentioned on a lot of the literary blogs I used to read. The idea is that a huge asteroid crashes into the moon and knocks it off course, closer to Earth, which causes huge weather disruptions when the gravitational pull is altered. Chaos ensues. The narrator and her family hole up with a huge stockpile of food. The book is narrated through diary entries, which gets a little tiresome, and it can also get quite sappy, but for the most part I admired the concept and found myself growing somewhat attached to the characters. The big disappointment was that Pfeffer left the idea completely unresolved. It ends with this feeling that the government (or somebody, it’s unclear who really) has somehow learned to deal with the situation and everything’s going to be alright, but why? How?

Waterland by Graham Swift—A book I feel I need to reread to fully appreciate. I found the going slow and writing style sometimes tedious, and yet I’m pretty sure I loved this book.

Sabriel by Garth Nix—The first book I read upon arriving in Kampala. That first week here I had no idea what to do with myself. J had to work and we were staying with a friend and I felt self-conscious walking around the neighborhood (not much to walk to anyway) and self-conscious sitting around the house with the houseboy in constant attendance. Just generally unmoored. So I closed myself in my room and read Sabriel. And I thought it was awesome. Totally engrossing fantasy with a strong female protagonist and no f-ing elves for once.

Moving the Chains: Tom Brady and the Pursuit of Everything by Charles P. Pierce—The second book I read in Kampala. Obviously I wasn’t ready for anything too serious. But I pretty much love Tom Brady and clearly so does Charles P. Pierce. Go Pats!

Be Near Me by Andrew O’Hagan—I flat-out love this book. It’s quiet, sure, but so beautiful. Even better the second time.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen—This is me catching up on my classics. It's shameful some of the books I haven't read yet. But this was awesome.

What is the What by Dave Eggers—I had my doubts that Eggers could stop being Eggers for five minutes to convincingly give voice to a Sudanese character, but I was impressed. Even though there were some Eggerisms in there—rarely—this was Valentino Achak Deng’s book. Totally moving. Loved it.

Lirael by Garth Nix—The sequel to Sabriel. I read this on our honeymoon in Zanzibar. Great beach reading, if not as good as Sabriel. Totally left hanging at the end and I had no hope of getting the third book any time soon, which I suppose is a lot like how I’m feeling about the fourth season of Lost.

Foucault’s Pendulum by Umberto Eco—Dense and not good beach reading, though I also started this in Zanzibar after finishing Lireal. The driving plotline is completely compelling and the book overall is so smart (too smart?), but there were too many references that went over my head (and no wireless Internet connection at home to check some of them out) that it felt really bogged down. And made me feel kinda dumb.

The Rotter’s Club by Jonathon Coe—I picked up this book on the street in Zanzibar because Coe seems to blurb other writers quite frequently, including Scarlett Thomas, who wrote one of my favorite books, The End of Mr. Y. I thought he would be worth checking out. Well-written and with interesting subplots, but I read this and thought, what’s the point? I just couldn’t seem to care.

The Untouchable by John Banville—One of those books that leaves you thinking about it long after you’ve finished. You’re left with so many questions—but not the annoying kind of questions that ultimately have no answer, but questions that make you want to go back to the text and look for the answers. Loved it.

Abhorsen by Garth Nix—Okay, so it didn’t take me that long to get the third book after Sabriel and Lirael. Liked this one better than Lirael and probably as much as Sabriel. Lots of questions get answered, a lot of different components come together. Solid stuff.

Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs—I know a lot of people must have loved this book for it to have been on the bestseller lists for so long, but I hated it. I thought the writing was—hmm, how do I say this nicely?—shit. Also, I thought this book was supposed to be funny? I found it only utterly depressing.

The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde—Ditto catching up on the classics. But also a story in the Faustian tradition that gave me something to think about while writing my novel. Loved it.

A Fan’s Notes by Frederick Exley—There are books I think of as Bennington books, meaning books I had never really heard of, but everyone else at Bennington seemed to have read them and talked about them all the time and I felt stupid for not knowing them. Glad I read this, can’t say I loved it as much as I expected to—perhaps it was talked up a little too big that it could only be disappointing. But the story is amazing, tragic and hopeful, smart, surprising-all the good stuff. I just wish Exley could have been reigned in a tiny, tiny bit.


Sam said...

That guy who gave you the Sabriel and Liriel books must be wicked smart. Who's ever heard of Garth Nix? Only the hardcore fantasy nerds. And when does the sequel to Eldest come out, anyway? Us fantasy nerds are dying for the finish.

hannah said...

Oh, yes, I forgot to mention that my brother is much nerdier than I am. Admittedly he gives awesome presents. Does this make him wicked smart? I'm reluctant to put that in print. More evidence of his awe-inspiring gift-giving in the second half of the year reading list. Coming shortly.

laura said...

Loved this post (not surprisingly). I agree with you about Running with Scissors, and I like the range of your reading!!