Monday, December 23, 2013

Best of 2013

I was in a reflective mood a couple nights ago, so I started working up my "Best of" list a little earlier than I usually do (I try to wait until the last day of the year, but . . .). Anyway, I reread my "Best of 2012" post and realized I feel the same at the end of every year--should have read more poetry, lots of mediocre books, yada, yada, yada. Nonetheless, I had some definite favorites this year, and here they are.

Best Novel
Life After Life, by Kate Atkinson. This book's premise--that the protagonist is born and dies repeatedly, with subsequent lives changing in small and large ways as a result of her own or others' actions--was intriguing, and Atkinson's development of Ursula Todd's multiple stories was engrossing, informative (I gained a lot of insight into Great Britain during WWII), and occasionally gasp-inducing. While the book broke down a bit at the end, it is still by far the most memorable novel I read this year.

Honorable Mention: There Will be Apricots, by Jessica Sofer; The Round House, by Louise Erdrich; Frances and Bernard, by Colleen Bauer; Traps, by MacKenzie Bezos.

Best Mystery
I spent quite a bit of time in 2013 complaining about the bad mysteries I was reading, and many were really not worth the time it took to breeze through them. One that wasn't: Started Early, Took My Dog, by Kate Atkinson (yes, the same Kate Atkinson who wrote Life After Life). Part of the Jackson Brodie series, Started Early, Took My Dog is packed with human tragedies--numerous deaths (murders, accidents, suicides), child and animal abuse, dementia, family dysfunction, and buying and illegal adoption of children. It has numerous plots and subplots, many unresolved at the end of the book--but above all, it has wonderful characters who make us care about what happens to them.

Honorable Mention: The Husband's Secret, by Liane Moriarty (not sure it's really a mystery, but I'm going to say it is).

Best Short Stories
Signs and Wonders, by Alix Ohlin. Ohlin writes gracefully and develops strong characters within the confines of the short story format.  Her subject matter is the development of identity, as an individual, a friend, a lover/spouse, and a parent, and her stories are both disturbing and poignant.

Honorable Mention: March Was Made of Yarn, edited by Elmer Luke and David Karashima (this collection of material written in the year after Japan's triple tragedies of 3/11/11 was by far my most- read post of the year).

Best Poetry Collection
Valentines, by Ted Kooser. A collection of light poems written for Valentine's Day and charmingly illustrated with pen and ink drawings by Robert Hanna. A joyous book.

Honorable Mention: 180 More, edited by Billy Collins, who lures people to poetry like no one else (except possibly Garrison Keillor).

Best Nonfiction
Sister Mother Husband Dog Etc., by Delia Ephron. This book would be worth reading if it contained only the two moving essays about Ephron's late sister Nora. But it contains much more--sometimes funny, sometimes insightful, always entertaining.

Honorable Mention: Good Prose, by Tracy Kidder and Richard Todd; I Can't Complain, by Elinor Lipman; In the Body of the World, by Eve Ensler; Mortality, by Christopher Hitchens; The End of Your Life Book Club, by Will Schwalbe -- it was a good year for nonfiction, even if much of it was nonfiction about illness and death.

Best Literary Moments of the Year
  • Skyping with author Lisa See at our January Novel Conversations meeting. She was gracious, funny, and informative, and we remain somewhat stunned by and totally appreciative of her generosity in sharing her time and her spirit. It was a book group to remember!
  • Seeing a friend from high school, Julie Santers, publish her first children's book. Charmingly illustrated by Brittany Weidner, Mimi's Tea Party is a lovely story, especially for grandmothers and grandchildren. Check it out on Amazon!

Thursday, December 19, 2013

How to Read the Air, by Dinaw Mengestu

Until people are no longer able to move, the immigrant experience will be fodder for novels. In How to Read the Air, Dinaw Mengestu draws on his own family's experience to create a complex multi-layered story of Ethiopian immigrants struggling to find purchase in the United States. The story is narrated by Jonas Woldemariam, a young man who was born in Peoria to immigrant parents, escaped his violent home (and, to a great degree, his relationship with his parents) to land in New York, but is struggling in both his career and his personal life.

When the book begins, Jonas is helping immigrants write their statements to be presented in an effort to gain refugee status. Jonas finds he has a gift for extending their stories, making them more tragic, a practice he will apply to his own life story before the book ends. At the center, he meets a young attorney, Angela, and the two get married. When Jonas is laid off from the immigrant center, Angela's connections at her law firm help Jonas get a part-time job teaching literature at a private school. Although Jonas enjoys the job, he realizes he is in career limbo--and he and Angela are in something of a suspended state as well, living together as husband and wife but never deepening their relationship, primarily because of Jonas's reticence..

Intercut with the narrative of Jonas and Angela is Jonas's telling of his parents' story, beginning with a trip from Peoria to Nashville intended to be a honeymoon but ending in disaster. Jonas is retracing their path at some time in the future, when he has left Angela and found himself needing to understand his parents' story. A third layer is his father's back story, a long and difficult trek from Ethiopia to Peoria, with stops in Sudan and various European cities along the way. This story, which is quite clearly confabulated, if not entirely fabricated, Jonas spends weeks telling his students during  an apparent breakdown following his father's death.

Mengestu's novel is about the simultaneous fear of disappearing and the inability to take the steps that will prevent that disappearance, about the search for redemption through retelling our stories and the impulse to rewrite those stories as we tell them--powerful themes. The author's prose is often graceful, if not poetic, and the complex structure supports the author's ideas about the mutability of our stories. And yet the book just missed the mark for me--it didn't feel fresh enough to draw me back(I had to renew it twice--and it's not even very long) and the ending left me flat.

Favorite passage:
The world around us is alive, he would have said, with our emotions and thoughts, and the space between any two people contains them all. He had learned early in his life that before any violent gesture there is a moment when the act is born, not as something that can be seen or felt, but by the change it precipitates in the air.

She almost pressed her hand against the window, as if there were something on the other side of the glass that she could touch, and in doing so would save her from the irrepressible fear that she was lost and would never find herself again. That gesture, however, would have made the longing that much more difficult to bear. It was better, she believed, not to translate emotions into actions, to let them lie dormant, because once they were expressed, there was no drawing them back. They enter the world and having done so become greater than us. Of all the lessons I learned from my mother, this was the first.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Launching Our 2014 Year of Reading

Here is what Novel Conversations will be reading in the coming months:

January:  The Sealed Letter, by Emma Donoghue
February:  The Art of Fielding, by Chad Harbach
March: Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter
April: The Magician’s Assistant, by Ann Patchett:
May: The Interestings, by Meg Wolitzer
June: The Burgess Boys, by Elizabeth Strout
July:  And the Mountains Echoed, by Khaled Hosseini 

If you are in the Broomfield (CO) area, join us at 6:30 on the first Monday of the month at the Mamie Doud Eisenhower Library.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Summer Blowout, by Claire Cook

I saw this book recommended as a good beach read but somehow ended up reading it in the dead of winter. Perhaps that was a bad choice . . . or perhaps Summer Blowout just isn't very good. It's a silly story about Bella Shaughnessy, a make-up artist who works at her Irish family's Italian-themed chain of salons. She's recently divorced--her ex-husband slept with her half sister, who works with Bella, as does pretty much everyone in the family. Throughout the novel's hi-jinks, she inherits a dog from a dry-heaving bride, meets a nice entrepreneur who helps her develop a side business, and well, it's all just more of the same. The take-away for me is that writing a funny novel is harder than it looks--eccentric characters in slap-stick situations are not inherently humorous or, if they are, I have lost my sense of humor.

Friday, December 6, 2013

Three More Mysteries

The recent adventures in mystery have been a step up from the batch a month or so ago that caused me to despair of ever reading a decent mystery again. None of these three were great, but they were at least entertaining.

Anonymous Sources is written by journalist Mary Louise Kelly, who spent several years covering security and intelligence issues for NPR, CNN, and the BBC. That fact makes the book scary--it seems like a somewhat far-fetched plot about a reporter on the higher education beat at a Boston newspaper, a Harvard graduate who falls from a tower on campus the night after returning from a year abroad, an odd Pakistani nuclear scientist with a penchant for bananas, a sexy British lord who just happens to be working for MI6, and a plan to bomb Washington, DC. But this author knows something about the intelligence community--so it must be at least remotely feasible, right? Whether that is true or not, Anonymous Sources is fun, and I expect we'll hear more of reporter Alex James.

Second Watch is the latest title in J.A. Jance's J.P. Beaumont series. Beau is one of my favorite recurring characters and, although Jance has written a lot of books about him, she intersperses them with her other three (!!) series, which I think keeps the series a bit fresher than some others. Here Beau is recovering from knee surgery and, under the influence of painkillers, is having some bizarre dreams about his time in Vietnam and his first case as a detective, a case that was never solved. Beau decides to tug at some of the threads of the old case and (surprise, surprise) manages to unravel the mystery. The dream sequences seem kind of hokey, but the book still managed to hold my attention.

Silken Prey finds John Sandford's Lucas Davenport investigating another political scandal in Minnesota. Reading Silken Prey is a bit like watching the tv show Scandal--you realize (or at least profoundly hope) that the plot is ridiculous but you can't look away. The politicians depicted are generally so evil that it makes me feel a little less depressed about the real politicians driving me mad. Crazy mystery as therapy, perhaps?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Next Thing on My List, by Jill Smolinski

Every once in a while, I dip into the "chick lit" category (I hate that phrase) . . . and usually I am reminded why people sneer at chick lit. The Next Thing on My List has a somewhat interesting premise: thirty-something June Parker is driving home from her first Weight Watchers meeting, when she offers another attendee, Marissa Jones, a ride. Unfortunately, they get into an accident and Marissa is killed. Consumed by guilt, June visits Marissa's grave on the six-month anniversary of her death. She runs into Marissa's brother Troy there and rashly tells him she is going to complete Marissa's list of "Twenty things to do before I turn 25" that she found in her car after the accident. The rest of the book recounts her efforts to complete those tasks, which range from "dare to go braless" and "kiss a stranger" to "change someone's life." Perhaps it goes without saying that the process changes June's life.

I had multiple problems with the way the book unfolded. First I didn't think the author's attempts to blend humor and pathos were particularly effective; in fact, they seemed to work against each other. Second, and I admit I could be wrong about this, I couldn't believe that Marissa's family would find June's quest in any way healing or even acceptable, given that she was driving when Marissa was killed and that she kept this private writing of their daughter secret from them for six months (and only revealed it because of a chance meeting). Finally, June's eventual romantic connection (presumably a necessity for chick lit--and don't get me wrong, I love a good romantic connection) ridiculous--despite the fact that you can see it coming. I can only assume that Smolinski believed she had created a character who was a lovable diamond in the rough, whereas to this reader, she had created a one-dimensional buffoon!

I only hope Jennifer Weiner won't track me down and shame me for dissing the genre.