Books 2009


Click images to link to descriptions at Amazon.com.

My first thought is that this would be an excellent book club book. I couldn’t put this book down and actually stayed up until the wee small hours to finish it. The novel is full of memorable, relatable characters, told in the richest (and still highly accessible) prose.

Jordan spins the story in several voices about a year on a Mississippi Delta cotton farm. The novel begins with a death of an old man, and the narrator alludes to the fact that he did not die of natural causes. That mystery kept me turning the pages from the first. And the tale of how the man came to his fate is one of the most compelling I have read in a long time.

The characters were wonderfully drawn. There is Laura, the city wife brought by circumstance and a landsick husband to a filthy farmhouse and a hard way of life. She has to care for two small children while dealing with her dark-hearted father-in-law. She develops feelings for Jamie, the brother-in-law who comes home from World War II to live with them. He’s broken on the inside, but a lovable character as well. The family interacts with the sharecroppers on their land, whose own son is a decorated WWII veteran struggling to return to the realities of life in post-war Mississippi while helping his family bring in their crop. All of these narratives weave a stark but realistic view of the Jim Crow South.

This book had me breathless at times. It is a tale of love, loyalty, and tragedy. I read many good books this year. Mudbound was one of the best. It was a fitting end to a wonderful year of literature.

This Is Where I Leave YouUsually, I wait until the end to review the books, and I will get to that, but I have to tell you that four chapters in, I have laughed harder at this book than anything I have ever read. I’ll never be able to order cheesecake again without thinking of Jonathan Tropper, let me tell you.

sarah's key

I don’t know about you, but I don’t really need any “fluff” in my Holocaust stories. Sarah’s Key is written like a mystery, and yes, what happened to Sarah and her key were things I found incredibly moving and compelling. However, the way the author wove them into a story that takes place in the present was kind of disappointing, and in the end even dissatisfying. I’m just saying; I don’t need my Holocaust stories wrapped like a gooey center in the hollow of something that reads like the screenplay of a Lifetime movie. You might feel differently, and that’s why those two ice cream guys in Vermont make so many flavors. I don’t want to ruin it for you, so I won’t say anymore.

American Wife Sittenfeld

Well written and compelling, though I had to stop reading after about 175 pages. There are some fairly uninhibited descriptions of sex between the wife and her future husband, and while I might not usually mind that, the thought that the novel is based on George and Laura Bush made me unable to continue.

Shanghai Girls Lisa See

Starts off great, a compelling historical novel set in Shanghai. But once the girls come to America, the book breaks down and becomes a bit melodramatic. Ultimately I couldn’t wait to be finished with it, and that seemed to take forever.

The Help

BOOK CLUB SELECTION FOR OCTOBER

Loved, loved, loved this book. Couldn’t put it down, and yet at times, I was so drawn in, so scared for what might befall the characters for the risks they were taking that I had to, simply to catch my breath. Wonderful book told in three different perspectives, each of which was endearing in its own way.

Everything That Rises Must Converge

Beautifully written, though I can only take a few of these dark stories at a time.

Mighty-Queens of Freeville

You might like it, but it was a bit too “plucky” for me.

Elephant Keeper Nicholson

Looking at this list, you can probably figure out that I like reading historical fiction. This one was pretty good, about a man who becomes attached to an elephant after becoming its keeper. Well written and thoughtful, it was a somewhat romantic and sad read. I found it interesting the way Nicholson suggests that both the elephant and her keeper live in their own kinds of captivity. The language was easily accessible, overall a quick read.

Sense and Sensibility

Book Club Selection for September

story-of-a-marriage

Well written, thoughtful story of a marriage, just like it says in the title, though I was a bit disappointed that the book didn’t have more to say about marriage in general. It was more one woman’s story, and even that, it only focused on six months of this particular marriage, a moment in time that probably wouldn’t occur in most marriages. The novel works best as historical fiction, marking a point in time (the 1950’s) and telling stories (of racism, love, and loyalty) that we don’t usually see in fiction.

I know it was a conscious choice on the part of the author, but I found myself wishing for the husband’s perspective throughout the novel. We do get a glimpse of that  in the end, and that’s the narrator’s point, that we guess at what our partners want, that we never really know them. Maybe it’s just a factor of my time and situation, but to me, the story of a marriage should include a lot more dialogue between the partners. But what do I know? This week I scored only 58% in my husband’s “How well do you know Manfrengensen?” Facebook quiz.

The Walking People

Interesting characters, and a good portrayal of Irish immigrant life in the twentieth century. The novel took a while to get going, and then after a while, kind of petered out near the end. I didn’t find myself compelled to read it as I have with other novels in the same genre.

the elegance of the hedgehog

Book Club Selection for July

I tried to get through this one, but I just couldn’t do it. By page 65, I could not read one more pompous word. Never before have I read anything so flagrantly pretentious. I didn’t care for a single character. And another thing, and this is just one of my pet peeves, I hate when a character tells the reader (and never fails to remind said reader at every opportunity) that he or she is ugly. I don’t know why, I guess it’s because I believe beauty is only skin deep, so that even though they may be considered by some beholding eyes to be unattractive, they must have their redeeming qualities. But over and over this main character told me she was ugly, had a hunch back, etc, etc. Leave it to me to decide, dear writer, whether or not your characters are ugly or attractive. By page 65, I was sick of hearing it. I don’t care if you’re ugly, Madame Concierge, I just don’t care about you.

Seems I was one of only two members of the book club who couldn’t finish the book. The general consensus seemed to be that they felt it was well written, though admittedly pretentious. They thought it was the kind of book they should like, but most felt a twinge of guilt that they didn’t.

Brooklyn Novel Colm Tobin

So far, this is the best book I have read this year. The beautiful prose takes you into the mind of a young Irish girl who imigrates to Brooklyn in the 1950’s so that you almost feel like you are Eilis herself. You could say that it’s a small book in its focus, and by that I mean that the story involves the way Eilis makes her way and finds herself in Brooklyn, but on a larger scale the book looks at what the definitions of home and identity are. Even though the action is quiet and personal, the book had me on the edge of my seat and I couldn’t put it down. I feel like I will be thinking of Eilis and Brooklyn for a long time to come.

Year of Wonders

Good book, though I read it on the beach…not exactly a light kind of read. It tells the story of a village that quarantines itself when the Plague breaks out among its citizens. Good story, though lots of death and gore. Good characters, and rather haunting.

burnt shadows

Epic and emotional, this well-written novel follows two families from Nagasaki in 1945 to New York in 2002. The book is best before its more modern parts, and after that is still good, though uneven. The earlier parts read like a historic novel, which I liked. It had a kind of aura that reminded me of Ruhsdie, only more feminine, but then the later parts had elements of too much feminine, nearly bordering on chick-lit.

olive-kitteridge

Book Club Selection for June

Strout’s Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories made me want to hug my husband and never let him go. These are certainly tales of loneliness, and they made me appreciate the beauty of the moments we take for granted. Mrs. Kitteridge is a bit of a curmudgeon to say the least, but oddly enough, at times I thought I recognized  bits of myself in her. And just when you thought she was the most dour individual in modern fiction, she would open her heart to show something beautiful.

It was kind of a struggle reading another collection of short stories so closely after Unaccustomed Earth, but that’s just me. I’m not a huge fan of the format because I find that as soon as I begin to understand the characters, the story almost always ends. These stories all involve Olive Kitteridge in some way. In a few of the tales, she is only a memory or a fleeting thought in a character’s mind. But when I finished the book, I found myself feeling that I would miss Olive, remembering her at times, just like these distant characters in her life.

unaccustomed earth

Great book to read after The Great Perhaps because it made me appreciate the power of excellent writing all that much more. These engaging stories of Benghalis and their offspring in America are told in beautiful prose.

The Great Perhaps

Basically a “slice of life” kind of book where all of the main characters complain for pages and pages about how life sucks. Told in present-tense prose, the book goes on for almost three hundred pages of downward spiral until the author slaps a happy ending on the last thirty pages or so that feels really out of place, like it comes from out of the blue.

The main character Jonathan obsesses about the giant squid he hopes to find, the narration getting bogged down in biological science. He has a bit of a nervous breakdown holing up in a tent made out of sheets in the family’s den, and that’s where he basically stews throughout the middle of the book.

His wife Madeline is also an animal researcher whose research revolves around the social order of a pigeon colony. At first it seems there’s a bit of a mystery there — some of the pigeons are murdered and raped by other pigeons. I’m not sure if it’s possible for pigeons to rape each other, but that was a minor point, especially when Madeline’s story swerves away from the pigeon thing so that she can follow a man-shaped cloud as it walks around the sky above the city of Chicago. Say what? I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be aliens or some kind of dream, but I kept reading to find out what the heck it was. When what the heck it was was finally explained, I was even more confused.

Jonathan and Madeline have two daughters, also with their own problems. Amelia is seventeen (and yet there is no discussion in the novel of things a real seventeen-year-old might be thinking about like the future and college). Instead, Amelia stews about the pervasiveness of corporate America, these angry rants that in the end go nowhere. Along the way she has an oral sexual relationship with a professor whose class she sneaks into, and she also spends some time fashioning a pipe bomb, but both of those ideas fizzle out and go nowhere in particular.

The younger sister Thisbe is also an annoying whiner who puts her faith in God. Her faith is tested, however, when she meets and becomes attracted to another girl.

There’s also a grandfather character who is so sad he’s trying to just disappear. Clouds and moths both figure prominently as metaphors, and there is also some delving into Jonathan’s ancestors (oddly though these trips are also told in present tense) to point to Jonathan’s fear of clouds as well as his apparently genetic inability to move forward.

For the most part, I didn’t enjoy the book too much, but perhaps that’s just me.

Not sure how I feel about the last line, but otherwise I really liked the book. Brilliant, funny, shocking and sad. A Russian soldier and a young man are sent on an impossible mission during the siege of Leningrad. It read like a movie, but I don’t hold that against Benioff, who is a screenwriter. The last line kind of felt a little too Casablanca, but otherwise I highly recommend.

guernseypotatopeelpie

Cute, and I mean that almost to a fault. Kind of took serious subject matter (the deprivation of war, life in concentration camps, etc.) and baked it with enough sugar to make it palatable for those who might not otherwise  like to read about such things. I could totally see this as a movie though, most likely starring Brenda Blethyn and a cast of plucky Brits. Hillary Swank or Gwyneth Paltrow could lend the film a marquee name as the lead, a London journalist named Juliet. The whole story is told as a series of letters, which I wasn’t too keen on, personally. I probably would have liked it more, felt more attachment to the characters, had it been told in more straight-forward prose.

People of the Book

Interesting book that reminded me a little of The Red Violin, only it tracked a book, one of the Serajevo haggedah, back to its origins. Compelling read, and I was blown away by Brooks’s craft, the way she wove the story around these seemingly disparate characters.

Birth of Venus

I found this to be a passionate and romantic read. It was hard to put down.

hour_i_first_believed

Book Club Selection for May.

While I found this book to be a page-turner, I wouldn’t say that it got under my skin in any way or haunted me when I was finished. It’s an okay read. If you are interested in the subject matter (survivors of Columbine) or a fan of Wally Lamb, than this might be a good book for you. Otherwise, I would at the very least wait for the paperback.

sister' keeper jodi picoult

Usually when I make it two or three hundred pages into a book, I will force myself to finish no matter how hard that may be, but in this case, I had to pull the plug. This was the first, and likely last, Jodi Picoult novel I’ve read, and I can’t believe how absolutely banal it was! The characters were utterly two dimensional. There’s the girl, Anna who is suing her parents for medical emancipation, and her mother just happens to be an attorney who, though out of practice for years, decides to represent against her own daughter. The judge appoints Anna a guardian ad litem to oversee her welfare during the case, and that woman just happens to be the long-lost love of  Anna’s lawyer. And then there was the reunion sex scene between those two…absolute schlock. Anna’s brother is an arsonist, who of course is acting out against their firefighter dad. Overall, the whole story was worse than a lifetime movie. The language was trite, filled with metaphors that were more cheesey than a dinner by Kraft. I can’t believe this woman is a multi-multi- best-selling author. Books and authors like this are to the publishing industry what American Idol and the Disney Channel are to music. I wouldn’t even recommend this as a beach read.

Bridge of Sighs

Very enjoyable. I really loved the characters. Excellent storytelling, and at times laugh-out-loud funny.

Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (U.K)

Book Club Selection for April.

Vapid, cliche-ridden and devoid of likable characters, I only finished this one because it’s my book club’s choice for this month. Contains graphic sex and violence, much of which has nothing to do with the mystery of the story. I saw the end coming from less than two-hundred pages in (though albeit, I thought the killer had a different motive), and I wish I had followed my gut instinct and stopped reading after two rape scenes that turned out to have NOTHING TO DO WITH THE STORY!!!

The main female character has trouble reacting to situations and interacting with people. She is often described as having a blank expression, and she refuses to talk to psychologists or any authorities. She’s a ward of the state and deemed “mentally incompetent,” yet she functions as this amazing researcher and computer hacker. It’s only in the final pages that the main male character hypothesizes that she may have Asberger’s Syndrome. Oh, yeah Stieg Larrssen? That might have been a handy piece of solid info earlier on to help us know the girl and be amazed by her talents.

stellanAnd that male character, ech. He’s a total mimbo, sleeping with every available lady in the book, none of whom he has any kind of attachment to. The ladies find him irresistible, though I myself imagined him as a kind of heavier, older version of Stellen Skarsgard, who is like, probably Robert Redford in Sweden. Seriously. Even the chicks he doesn’t bag look at him sideways like all he has to do is say the word. He is attached to one woman, an old friend who’s married, and yet both of them expect their other lovers to just “understand” their bond. Maybe it’s that way in Sweden, but it didn’t hold much weight for me.

My copy of the book proclaims that this is “one of the greatest crime novels ever written.” To which I add: NOT!

Why all the raves that have been proclaimed in Europe then, you ask? My simple answer: Marketing ballyhoo.

Out Stealing Horses

Compelling and quick read. I had a little trouble getting used to the terse language (not sure if it was because of the translation, just different from what I am used to) but there were times when I was caught up in the rhythm like a sled ride. Beautiful and emotional book, though the emotions are quite understated.

Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas

I was really excited to read this one because of the subject matter: a town in Colorado is affected by the Japanese internment camp outside its borders during WWII, but overall I found the novel disappointing. First of all, it tells the story from the perspective of a thirteen-year-old girl, which I found to be a bit of an annoying rip-off of To Kill A Mockingbird. There’s even a scene where a lynch-mob-type crowd is dispersed when a plucky character calls out individuals’ names. It’s full of stereotypes and caricatures more than real or memorable characters.

I thought the book was more young adult fiction than anything else. As an adult reader, I found both the language and the story lacking.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret

Fun kids’ book, part fiction, part “graphic novel” (or was it a flip-book?) Either way, the illustrations pushed the narrative further. Quick read, even at more than 500 pages. Edison and I read this for our family book club, and we both enjoyed it a lot. There were parts I found so exciting, that I actually gasped aloud.

Book Club Selection for March.

Haunting and hilarious, as well as a history lesson wrapped in a contemporary novel.

The Space Between Us

Compelling read, though there were a few spots that I found to be a bit contrived. Overall, glad I read it.

Loved this one until the last 100 pages or so, when it seemed like the author just threw too much more heartbreak in there to be believed. Also, the very end was just a little too “tidy” for me. Glad I read this after Abundance because I may not have figured Abundance would be worth the time.

Excellent book.  Sweeping romantic epic which follows the life of Marie Antoinette from her marriage to her death. I came to love her character, and I was sorry to finish it.



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