Thursday, January 31, 2008

2007: My Year in Books, Part II

July - December

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov—I supposedly read this in college, in my advisor Roman Graf’s class on Faust, but I only recalled the first two or three chapters. I don’t think I ever actually read more than that for the class. The beginning is slow. I can see why I stopped reading, particularly in that class when I was always so behind. My idea of myself, though, as a student who always read everything assigned, has been slightly dashed. I swear I read absolutely everything else. Glad I persevered this time around. Deeply layered, allegorical, fantastical, amazing.

Black Swan Green
by David Mitchell—Cloud Atlas is one of my favorite books and what impresses me about David Mitchell is that he’s so versatile. It’s one of those books that when I try to explain it, it sounds terribly boring. But it’s so not. It’s so magical.

The Sweet Dove Died
by Barbara Pym—Someone’s graduating lecture at Bennington was on Barbara Pym and I thought she sounded pretty awesome, so when I was in Cape Town in June and couldn’t pass up a book sale at the mall and came across this novel, I thought, why not? I thought, it’s nice and small so maybe J will hardly notice that I’ve bought another book when theoretically we have a moratorium on purchasing more books until we had read what we’ve brought to Uganda with us. I enjoyed the writing, which seemed sort of charmingly old-fashioned, but I wouldn’t say I was blown away by the book. Perhaps I chose the wrong one to start with.

Harry Potter Books 6 & 7—Reread Book 6 before 7 arrived. Book 7 was just about everything I wanted it to be.

Blood Meridian
by Cormac McCarthy—Mind-blowing, mind-blowing, mind-blowing.

Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky—I finished my time at Bennington and Harcourt almost simultaneously and suddenly I no longer had any required reading, so I decided I would read some of the books that everyone else was reading. Some of those books proved incredibly disappointing and made me lose heart in the human race—like Running with Scissors—and others, like Suite Francois and Black Swan Green—renewed my faith. Though with this book I found all the supplementary material about the author’s life almost more interesting than the novel itself.

Twilight by Stephanie Meyer—YA. Vampires. The second half of the book is totally different than the first half, but totally riveting.

Lives of Girls and Women
by Alice Munro—Lovely, astonishing.

Rules for Old Men Waiting
by Peter Pouncey—Another book I found on the sale table in Cape Town. I’d remembered reading a lot of positive reviews for it when it came out. It was a fine, elegant book, but not something I could get really excited about.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics
by Marisha Pessl—I started reading this on our trip to Egypt and recall being so happy to spend some time with it by the pool in Luxor. I wanted to hate it, but I loved it. My only complaint is it’s about 200 pages too long, which is a lot really.

The Writing Life by Annie Dillard—A really slim book, but I read this little by little over the course of a few months, starting in May when my friend Kelly sent it to me the day I left my parent’s house to return to Uganda and ending in October. Parts definitely spoke to me as a writer, while in other parts I felt Dillard took herself way too seriously.

The Stranger
by Albert Camus—One of those books that appears so simple, but is so powerful, and I’m left wondering how that happened. Shattering, in so many different ways.

The Children’s Hospital by Chris Adrian—I nearly gave up on this book, but I’m so glad I didn’t. In the beginning I was confused, annoyed, and judgmental. I thought Adrian was being obtuse and I really wanted someone to give him a good slap. And then something happened. Something magical. Totally original, imaginative, epic, complete.

The Magus by John Fowles—If I were forced to make a top ten list of my favorite books, this would be on it. This was only the second time I had read it, and though it wasn’t as much of a mind-fuck as I remembered it (perhaps that can only happen on the first reading), my impressions this time was that it’s complicated, sophisticated, and ambiguous. I found myself comparing the reading of the book to the God game in the book. Nicholas Urfe feels there is no real choice in continuing with the game—how could he go on with his life knowing these beautiful women exist, Conchis and the house exist, knowing the mysteries are there and still unsolved? And I thought, halfway through, if I put this book down right now, how could I go on with my life knowing this book exists unfinished? I couldn’t.

The Anchor Book of New American Stories, edited by Ben Marcus—When I finished the Magus, I only had a few days left before flying back to the States for Thanksgiving. I didn’t want to start anything major or start something that would mean I would need to take two books on the plane just in case, so I decided to read a few stories in this collection until I left. I had rifled through the book before and read a story here and there, but this time I started at the beginning and went straight through until it was time to leave. I made it about halfway through. This is supposed to represent the canon of the contemporary American short story and I suppose it is that pomposity on the editor’s part, to think he and few friends can conceive this, that bothered me so much. The first few stories I loved. And then I hit a few in a row I just couldn’t understand what they were doing there. So I started to question everything: I love Christine Schutt, but why was she in there and not Amy Hempel? Why this Lydia Davis story? Etc. Until eventually I came to despise this rarefied world of the short story. Like the Weezer song, why bother? It comes across as so f-ing pretentious and half the
time really boring. And then I felt bad about being bored. For not being more studious of these stories. For not trying harder. But seriously, can you define a canon when it’s still in the process of being created?

Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby—What makes this book so good is Hornby’s self-reflection, his ability to understand himself and others like him. He knows how to interpret a scene with humor and compassion. And yes, I think it helped that where he said “Arsenal” I could replace it with “Red Sox” and totally understand what he meant.

The Naming by Alison Croggon—More YA fantasy from the big brother! I don’t think I’ve read this much fantasy in a year in, I don’t know, ever. But this was a good, solid read. For being really cheesey, the protagonist was also incredibly loveable. I sort of need the sequel, like, now. (Sam, M&D will be here for my birthday and I'm sure are willing to ferry packages...)

Stop Time
by Frank Conroy—It’s not necessarily his story that makes this book so good, though it is interesting, it’s Conroy’s choice of words, his images, the beauty he was able to create in unbeautiful circumstances.

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