Books I’ve Read
1. Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl – Another book I picked up at Powell’s last year on a friend’s recommendation. I was a bit turned off at first by all the gimmicky parenthetical references, but once I started skimming over them and got into the story I enjoyed the book a lot more. Pessl created some interesting and memorable characters in this book.
2. El Combustible Espiritual, Ari Paluch – I started this last year and kept putting it down because, well, it’s easier to read in English than Spanish! But I stuck with it and am really happy to have finally completed an entire book in Spanish – thus far I’d only read newspapers, magazines, and short stories. This is a very popular self-help book here in Argentina (title translates to The Spiritual Fuel), and the sequel just came out recently. Self-help books are big business here. I didn’t love the book, and a lot of it didn’t really resonate with me, but at least I finished it! Something I read near the end that really stuck with me (my liberal paraphrase): Although it’s sometimes difficult to understand, life doesn’t take things away from us, but liberates us from them, so we can fly on to something else, the trip easier for not being weighed down by excess baggage.
3. The Innocent, Ian McEwan
4. Committed, Elizabeth Gilbert
5. A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson
6. El niño con el pijama de rayas, John Boyne – My first novel in Spanish! I want to read books written in Spanish rather than translations of books written in English (this is The Boy with the Striped Pajamas), but it was recommended by a friend as an easy read, and she loaned it to me, so I thought I might as well give it a shot. The story is not an easy read, but the Spanish was pretty easy–I understood it all, even though there were some words here and there whose meaning I had to guess at based on the context. Sometimes I get motivated and read with a dictionary nearby, but it slows me down so much that I try not to look up a word unless it is absolutely crucial to my understanding something, or I’m curious enough to make the effort! I’m trying to alternate between reading English and Spanish books this year, so more to come. Oh and the story is really interesting. I’d be interested in seeing the movie version too.
1. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows – A loaner from Mom and Dad for my trip West after Christmas. It’s an epistolary novel – something I still think I’d like to write someday – not just between two people, but a whole host of characters, both on the island of Guernsey and in England. I learned a bit about the Nazi occupation of Guernsey, and liked being party to the unfolding relationships between the islanders and a writer on the mainland who learns of their “society.”
2. The Pleasure of My Company, Steve Martin – Yep, the actor. Who, it turns out, is a really great writer too. I bought this for $1 at the Salvation Army in SF before I left for the airport – as if I needed any more books loading me down! But it was a smart move – the character he’s created in this short book is fascinating and hilarious, and it was a fun, quick read.
3. The Rules of Engagement, Anita Brookner – I found this book alternately really boring and rather enjoyable and engaging. I think it’s because I tend to read quickly, and this book really benefits from a slower reading (which I was not always capable of) to enjoy the world Brookner’s created. Not a lot happens in this book, so its strength is really in the descriptions of people’s personalities, motivations, world view… which I could probably learn a lot from for my own writing (and to help with what I feel is a general lack of ability to describe people in everyday life), if I had the patience to study it more thoroughly. This is Brookner’s 22nd novel – wow! – and I wonder if this is her typical style or is unique to this book.
4. The Song of Kahunsha, Anosh Irani – Picked up off my friend’s bookshelf. An engaging novel about an orphan on the streets of Bombay. Good characters, intriguing images. *Possibly missing one before the next book, I can’t remember!
5. Infidel, Ayaan Hirsi Ali – I saw her speak in Philadelphia a few years ago, I think when this book came out. She’s a brilliant, fascinating woman, and it was really interesting to read more about her life and how she ended up who and where she is today.
6. Jitterbug Perfume, Tom Robbins – Complete shift from the last book, but a fun one. I picked up this book from a friend who was leaving town, not having any particular interest but figuring I always need more books! I started it not really having any intention of reading the whole thing – for some reason I assumed I wouldn’t really like it – but it was entertaining and I did finish it.
7. Kabul Beauty School, Deborah Rodriguez – One of my friends didn’t finish this book – she was too annoyed by the writer’s tone and personality, I think. I felt some of that too, but it didn’t make me stop reading. It’s rather rambly and hard to keep track of all of the people, though the latter doesn’t matter too much. The fascinating stories of the women she encountered in Afghanistan are what kept me reading much more than her personal experiences there. For better or worse, she is completely unapologetic about continuing to be a strong, brash, independent woman in Kabul, where that’s not exactly welcomed. Some of the things she does are just crazy – like running out in her pajamas to yell at the druglord/terrorist brothers living next door. But I do believe she has made an impact on the lives of some of the women who came to her beauty school, which is significant. She talks at the end about how much she loves Kabul and the people of Afghanistan, but it was never clear to me exactly what she likes so much about it. I understand it can be hard to put your finger on that kind of thing, but I felt this was missing.
8. The Zahir, Paulo Coelho – This was an interesting story, but not nearly as engaging for me as The Alchemist. It has a lot of autobiographical elements and I think they were distracting, making me wonder if the author really thinks or does such and such, like the character in the book.
9. The Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafón – I picked this up at the last book exchange, intrigued by an endorsement from someone at the Washington Post that seemed to have been written just for me: “If you love A. S. Byatt’s Possession, García Márquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, the short stories of Borges… or Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy… then you will love The Shadow of the Wind.” And while I can’t say I did love it as much as I remember loving Possession or New York Trilogy, it was still pretty great, a good read with lots of depth, interesting characters, and intriguing plot – a perfect hefty book to sink into on vacation (which is just what I did!).
10. The Ginger Tree, Oswald Wynd – Narrated by a Scottish woman who moves to China to marry an Englishman in the early 1900s, this book provided an interesting glimpse of expat life in Asia 100 years ago. The Scottish author grew up in Japan around the time the novel takes place, which makes it seem a logical choice of subject matter for him – but it’s interesting that he chose to write from the female perspective. An interesting read but I didn’t feel particularly wowed by it.
11. The History of Love, Nicole Krauss – This was one of several novels recommended to me by a friend while we were drooling over books at Powell’s. Remembering other books with intertwining stories that I’ve enjoyed, I decided to give it a shot. I really liked it, though I did find it confusing at times. I even had to go back to find a few details that turned out to be relevant later in the book, though maybe this is partly because quite a few days passed between each period of reading time I was able to devote to the book, and I didn’t always remember what had happened earlier. But near the end I couldn’t put it down, and I almost wish it had been longer and more complex to keep the story going another 100 pages!
12. The Patron Saint of Liars, Ann Patchett – This is another book I bought at Powell’s in July. I enjoyed it, and found the characters really interesting. The book is divided into sections, each narrated by a different character, which I always find a cool way to get different perspectives of a place and of events. The book ends with a section narrated by the main character’s daughter, and I think I found it frustrating that we don’t hear from the main character again – a lot happens after the section she narrates at the beginning of the story and I wanted to find out more from her perspective about why things turned out the way they did.
13. The American Boy, Andrew Taylor – A pretty serious stretch of the term “historical fiction,” this book vaguely revolves around Edgar Allan Poe during a short period he spent in England as a child – the American Boy of the title. It was an interesting story at times but I often was left wondering if all the exposition of various details was really necessary, where it was leading, and why the book had to be almost 500 pages long. It’s a mystery of sorts, but the turning point where it all starts to come together left me scratching my head a bit. It’s one of those stories where I wonder why the narrator doesn’t just walk away instead of letting himself get wrapped up in things that aren’t his business. I’m glad I finished it – but am looking forward to reading something different, and hopefully more satisfying!
14. The Inheritance of Loss, Kiran Desai – I’ve spent a lot more time reading in the last week or two, thanks to 1) being sick, 2) not having a lot of work, and 3) having this great book to keep coming back to. It was recommended, and loaned, to me by my friend Cate. As I sit here trying to figure out how to describe it, so many different things come to mind that factored into my really, really liking this book. It’s set in India, the US, and England, against the backdrop of a Nepali uprising in northern India. The descriptions are fantastic–I have this vivid image of a crumbling house. Of living, breathing mountains. Of memorable characters and the places they inhabit. The theme of immigration, of being a foreigner, of whether to stay abroad or whether to go back, of serving a country that offers you nothing in return, of everyone who’s “stuck” at home and dying to get out, having no idea what life is really like abroad… this all hits close to home and also provides deeper insight into the lives of immigrants to the US. In fact I just had a conversation last night with a Cuban, an Argentine, and a Venezuelan about Cubans trying to get to the US, and Venezuelans faking papers to get visas, etc. etc. And recognizing how much some people like me want to leave that all behind–and yet how privileged I am to be able to go back whenever I want. Anyway this book also includes several love stories, lots of depth of character… I could go on and on. In a nutshell, highly recommended.
15. The Enthusiast, Charlie Haas – Mia left me this book when she headed back to the States. It’s a quick, fun read, and in the end had more depth than I expected. Lots of unique characters (though most you don’t get to know in much depth) and funny scenes. Pick it up if you have a chance!
16. Travels in the Scriptorium, Paul Auster – I brought this back from the States sometime last year and was saving it for, well, I’m not sure. I finally decided to pick it up in December, and I enjoyed it well enough, though not as much as many other Auster books, and I was frustrated at the end–not sure if it was with myself for not “getting it” sooner or with the book/author for messing with me!
17. The Mistress’s Daughter, A. M. Homes – another one I’d been saving for some special occasion. This was an interesting read, though it probably would be even more interesting to those who’ve been adopted as Homes was. It’s nice to learn more about one of my favorite authors, but I prefer her fiction.
18. Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think, Brian Wansink – I read this earlier this year (another Powell’s purchase) and forgot to add it to the list. This was a fascinating read, with lots of really interesting tidbits (for example, people eat less when they have some visual of how much they’ve eaten, such as a pile of bones growing in front of you while you enjoy all-you-can-eat buffalo wings, and that fancy descriptions on restaurant menus make you believe the food will be better and also that it’s worth a higher price). I didn’t feel the need for the Reengineering Strategies at the end of each chapter, which seem to have been added to try to sell more books.
1. When We Were Orphans, Kazuo Ishiguro
2. Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman
3. Don’t Get Too Comfortable, David Rakoff
4. Vanity Fair, William Makepeace Thackeray
5. The False Inspector Dew, Peter Lovesey
6. The Magus, John Fowles
7. The Road, Cormac McCarthy
8. The Kite Runner, Khaled Hosseini
9. Plain and Simple: A Woman’s Journey to the Amish, Sue Bender
10. Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer
11. The End of Alice, A.M. Homes
12. The Fortress of Solitude, Jonathan Lethem
13. The Brooklyn Follies, Paul Auster
14. Hollow Ground, Stephen Marion
15. Toward Amnesia, Sarah Van Arsdale
16. Brick Lane, Monica Ali
17. Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro
1. A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit
2. Over the Edge of the World, Laurence Bergreen
3. Daughter of Fortune, Isabel Allende
4. Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert
5. Freaky Deaky, Elmore Leonard
6. Geek Love, Katherine Dunn
7. The Last American Man, Elizabeth Gilbert
8. Educating Alice, Alice Steinbach
9. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Marina Lewycka
10. The Good Earth, Pearl Buck
11. Sagebrush and Cappuccino: Confessions of an LA Naturalist, David Wicinas
12. Suite Française, Irène Némirovsky
1. The Apple in the Dark, Clarice Lispector – I decided to read something from my own bookshelf this time. I couldn’t remember where I got this book, but I’ve had it forever it seems. While I didn’t hate this book, it was quite an effort to slog through it. It felt much longer than its 360 pages and I never really got into it. Perhaps the words “existential tale of human anguish and transcendence” should have been a warning, but I’ve enjoyed other books that I suppose would fit the same description–I’m not sure what makes this one different. Nothing really happened in the first 30 pages (or more) except a guy jumps over a fence and stumbles through the dark (just as much metaphorically as literally, as it turns out). When you don’t know where this guy is, or who he is, or why he’s stumbling around in the dark, it’s rather difficult to care about his so-called existential dilemma. This improves a bit over time, but not much! Around page 350, though, a receipt fell out: “Tower Books, Sacramento, CA… Remainder Cut Out… $3.98… SAT AUG 02 16:42:04 1997…” No wonder it feels as if I’ve had this book forever—I’ve carried it with me all over California—it’s probably one of the first books I bought after I moved here. Who knows what led me to buy it back then… I probably considered myself particularly erudite at the time, being newly graduated and all that. It was so satisfying to have that snippet of my past, and an explanation of where the book came from, no less, fall into my lap. Maybe I should keep the receipts tucked in all the books I buy. I have been trying to purge books before I move again—I’ve gotten rid of six, yes, six! But I’m keeping this one. As a token of my years in California—and as a trophy, now that I’ve managed to finish it! And I’ve slipped the receipt back between the pages, too. When I slid the book back into its place on the bookshelf, I noticed what an integral part it is—the shelf looked “off” without it, and the colors on the spine just perfectly complement the books on either side (Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams and Stories by Katherine Mansfield).
2. The Sweet Hereafter, Russell Banks – This was for book club, and it was a nice, pleasant, easy read compared to Apple in the Dark. It’s told through the narratives of several different characters, which I always find interesting. It’s fairly short—256 pages—and is all focused on one incident, a school bus crash in which 14 of a small town’s children are killed. It provides interesting snippets of the characters’ lives before and after the accident (mostly after), yet doesn’t get too deep, which I suppose is okay. Although it makes me wonder how much of a conversation it’ll spawn at our meeting. I know I saw the movie based on the book, but don’t remember it very well. I’d like to see it again. I also just remembered I own the soundtrack, so I’m listening to that now. Would have been interesting to listen to it while I was reading the book!
3. Art & Lies, Jeanette Winterson – All I can say is wow. It feels like it’s been a really long time since I read a book that was so full of wonderful language, that was written by someone who really seems to be in love with words. Here are just a few choice phrases that caught my attention: “The sun had dropped on to the roof of the train and bloodied the grey metal… The man twisted his head to watch the spilt sun trickle down the window.” “Colours became her talismans. At the end of each black and white day she dreamed in colour. At night, she soaked her body in magenta dyes, scrubbed herself with pumice of lime. The pillow was splashed in crimson by her black hair. She slept under a cloak of Klimt.” I didn’t see her face but I heard her voice and it had yellow in it.” Thanks to Mia for loaning me this gem. I’m going to count it for The List as one book by a well-established author (by my own definition) that I’ve never read before.
4. Double Fold: Libraries and the Assault on Paper, Nicholson Baker – My last book club book in LA, chosen by yours truly. I realize there’s probably a limited audience for an “expose of the process which over the last 50 years has destroyed hundreds of thousands of irreplaceable newspapers and ‘brittle books’ in the dubious name of preservation,” but luckily the bookclubbers were into it and we had a lively discussion and some insight from a special guest who’s a librarian in the LA Public Library system.
5. An Equal Music, Vikram Seth – My reading’s been slowed down this spring by working, moving, and driving, and it took me a long time to finish this one. By the same author as A Suitable Boy, which I read in India and loved. This one was recommended to me years ago and I finally got around to it, after having bought it in San Antonio last fall. I really enjoyed this one too, even though it was really different than the other—this one’s set in contemporary London and the main character is a violinist in a string quartet. This is much more of a love story than the other one and I was sucked in immediately.
6. Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon
7. This Book Will Save Your Life, A. M. Homes
8. On the Road, Jack Kerouac
9. Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime, Mark Haddon
10. Your Money or Your Life, Joe Dominguez and Vicki Robin
11. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, Phillip Gourevitch
12. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Oscar Hijuelos
13. The Adventures of Augie March, Saul Bellow
14. The Passion, Jeanette Winterson
1. The English Patient, Michael Ondaatje – Better than I expected it to be. Really atmospheric.
2. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency, Alexander McCall Smith – A good read, although I’m surprised it’s gotten as much attention as it has—doesn’t really seem like a standout to me. A surprising book for a male author.
3. Book of Illusions, Paul Auster – Auster’s one of my favorite authors. This is one of his best in a long time.
4. Garden State, Rick Moody – A rock ‘n’ roll kinda book about twenty-somethings flailing in the morass of NJ just outside NYC. Not exactly where I grew up so I didn’t really relate, but still decent.
5. Sister India, Peggy Payne – Better than I expected. A novel about an American woman who runs a guesthouse in Varanasi, India. Made me want to go there but also made me wonder what it would be like to be stuck somewhere while there was inter-religious violence and a curfew.
6. Empire Falls, Richard Russo – For book club. A really great book with great character development. At our meeting we talked about what a great candidate this book is for a movie–it’s so vivid. I found out HBO is making a movie, due out next year. I may check out some of his other novels.
7. Yoga for People Who Can’t Be Bothered to Do It, Geoff Dyer – A travel memoir-ish, loosely related collection of stories or vignettes, some really hilarious. The flap says it’s about how the author “learned to feel completely at home in a state of perpetual arrival and departure.” I didn’t love it, but I’m glad I read it. He talks about being antsy staying in one place for too long–that definitely happens to me.
8. Mr. Dalloway, Robin Lippincott – An “homage” to Virginia Woolf, imitating her style and focusing on Mrs. Dalloway’s husband. The similarity to Woolf’s writing is, on the surface, impressive. I thought an online search would find scathing reviews of this book, especially for the (male) author’s revealing that Mr. Dalloway had a 10-year affair with a man. But, most reviews I found were pretty complimentary. I recommend it if you’re a Woolf fan.
9. Without a Net: The Female Experience of Growing Up Working Class, edited by Michelle Tea – A nonfiction collection of essays by women. OK, so I didn’t read the whole thing. This was published by another division of the company I work for, and a new book club was started to read books published by the company. This was the first assignment, and once I knew I couldn’t make it to the meeting I stopped reading. Some of the stories were interesting but I thought they represented a small cross-section of the community; many seemed to be part of the editor’s circle—into zines, performance art, and many are lesbian. I would’ve liked to see more diversity. And, some of the essays were too didactic, too pedantic for me. I probably won’t finish it.
10. Blindness, Jose Saramago – For book club. I’d read this several years ago, but remembered it fondly so didn’t mind reading it again. It was just as enjoyable the second time, especially since I didn’t remember how it ended. A really interesting plot–a whole town, then country, goes blind. At first they quarantine those affected, but soon it’s spreading too fast to contain. Interesting to see how the author imagines such a condition would affect humanity. His style can be difficult; whole conversations are often contained in one run-in paragraph with just commas between the different speakers (plus the narrator), but I like the rhythm and dreamlike state it can create; it works for this subject.
11. Falling in Place, Ann Beattie – I first started reading Ann Beattie when I found out she’d also attended American University (but about 30 years before I did). Her writing style isn’t really one I often read (she’s been compared to Cheever, Salinger, and Updike) but I’ve enjoyed all the novels and stories of hers I’ve read, including this one. I found a good description of her style in an author profile on the Ploughshares (a literary journal) website: “She simply wrote about the people who surrounded her: educated New Englanders, some who’d participated in the counterculture of the sixties, languishing now in the ennui of the seventies, fighting vague disappointments and failures with impulsive acts and eccentric obsessions. Especially regarding relationships, Beattie was fascinated with examining people’s passivity—‘this whole Beckettian thing—I can’t stay and I can’t go’—but she chose not to excuse the circumstances in which her characters found themselves, or explicate how they got there. Instead, she adopted the deadpan, stark style about which critics made such a fuss.”
12. What I Loved, Siri Hustvedt – Fabulous! Hustvedt is married to Paul Auster, one of my favorites, so I was interested in reading her work. And, it was highly recommended by someone I don’t know but who’s a voracious reader. This was a great read. Interesting characters, intriguing relationships, complex plot and themes, yet accessible, engrossing, and hard to put down. I didn’t want it to end!
13. East Toward Dawn: A Woman’s Solo Journey Around the World, Nan Watkins – This adventurous woman embarked on a several-month trip through Europe and Asia just before she turned 60. Most travelogues, it seems, are written by men or by much younger women, so it was interesting to get a new perspective. Having worked at a university for many years, Watkins knew former students all over the world with whom she was able to stay during her travels—I’m jealous of that and wish I had more worldly connections! This was a very personal story, as much about her coming into her own after a divorce and the death of her son as it is about travel. Overall I enjoyed it, and this particular line has stuck with me: “Too many women spend their lives defining themselves in relation to others.” I’m still figuring out exactly what this means to me, but I think it’s important.
14. Atlas of the Human Heart, Ariel Gore – This was an Avalon book club selection, but I missed the meeting. An engrossing, entertaining read about a 16-year-old girl’s three-year adventure in Asia and Europe. The things this girl gets herself into are crazy and for the most part this is not how I’d like to travel!
15. Mysteries, Knut Hamsun – A book club selection. A fairly interesting story, but I didn’t love it. Written in 1891, it’s an intriguing departure from other novels of its time, but the lack of background information about the main character is rather frustrating (but also probably why the book has the title it does). One never gets a good sense of the character’s motivation, which is also frustrating. We learned at our meeting that the translation many of us had, by Gerry Bothmer, is considered terrible (“freely adapted rather than translated”) by the translator of the Penguin edition. A quick review did make the Penguin version appear to be a more studied translation with a much preferable tone and style. Oh well. I’ve got too many other things on my to-read list to even consider re-reading it in the better translation.
16. Family Matters, Rohinton Mistry – I loved Mistry’s second novel, A Fine Balance, so was eager to read this one as well. Unfortunately, Family Matters couldn’t match up to the elegance and magic of the earlier work (a tall order to begin with). For most of the book, I didn’t think I was enjoying it and kept waiting for it to pick up. Then, suddenly, in the last third or so I realized that not much else was going to happen, and that’s kind of the point—the title, after all, suggests so much about relationships amongst family, and that’s really what this book is about. I was able to settle down and enjoy the rest of the book a bit more with that in mind. If you only read one of Mistry’s books, go with A Fine Balance. (I haven’t read his first novel, Such a Long Journey.)
17. Egalia’s Daughters: A Satire of the Sexes, Gerd Brantenberg – For Avalon book club. The second Norwegian book in a month! An entertaining read, in which sexism as we know it is turned on its head—men stay home with the children, must curl their beards and defer to their women (called wim in this book). It takes a while to get used to the change in words (men are menwim), but it got me thinking and made me realize how arbitrary these social conventions really are.
18. Yoga Hotel, Maura Moynihan – A woman in my book club gave me an advance copy of this book of short stories set in India. Moynihan’s father, the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, was ambassador to India when she was a teenger, and all the stories revolve around westerners in India. I enjoyed some of them more than others, but overall it’s a solid collection and only increased my curiosity about the country.
19. Pnin, Vladimir Nabokov – For book club. I think this is only the second Nabokov book I’ve read (Lolita‘s the other one). I really enjoyed it. The chapters are more like short stories, snapshots of the experiences of Pnin, a Russian emigre who’s a professor at a college in the States. He’s a kind of pathetic, sad fellow, yet very likable and intriguing. A short, interesting introduction to his work.
20. In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin – A classic. I’ve been meaning to read this for a long time. I’m glad I got around to it, but I was a little disappointed. It’s an interesting twist on the typical travelogue I read—very history-focused and very little about what it was like to be there. It seems he really only writes about how he got from one place to another, or any other travel-lit type details, to move along his research about his grandmother’s cousin who discovered a fossilized mylodon or something there (can you tell I wasn’t too into that part of the story?). I sometimes got bogged down in the historical information and forgot what I was reading! Patagonia certainly has a wacky history—even Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid holed up there for a few years—and I suspect it’s just as wacky today (although this book was written in the ’70s). I still would like to go to Patagonia, but this book didn’t really increase my interest in the place. Some of the Amazon reviews also point to his lack of respect for the native people there, too. It didn’t occur to me while I was reading the book, but I do recognize now that he describes estancia workers as lazy and drunk and rarely says anything positive about the non-Europeans he encounters.
21. Self Help, Lorrie Moore – I’m worried I missed a book in there, but this is the next one I’ve got jotted down. This is a book of short stories by a writer who’s been recommended to me for years. I don’t read many short stories, but these were great, and as I read them in a short period of time I noticed that they were related in tone—a kind of self-helpish voice that was interesting and enjoyable. In some of the stories it becomes almost a how-to: how to have an affair, how to talk to your mother…
22. Things You Should Know, A. M. Homes – I don’t read short stories in general, honest! But here’s another collection of them, also recommended. I bought this a few months ago, when I’d just discovered this writer (who wrote Music for Torching, a great book that was the last I read in 2003). The stories cover a broad range of themes and characters, and the narrators and main characters are all over the map—middle-aged married men, young boys, twenty-something single women. I think she creates a believable snapshot of them all.
23. Life of Pi, Yann Martel – The book it seems everyone’s been talking about lately. It was an engrossing read, and I like reading stories where the characters have to come up with ingenious ways to eke out a survival—the main character is stranded at sea in a 30-foot lifeboat with a tiger—but I’m not so sure about the ending. My book club will be discussing it this weekend, and I might have more to say after that. If you’ve read it, I’m curious to know what you thought!
24. The House on Dream Street: A Memoir of an American Woman in Vietnam, Dana Sachs – A wonderful book. I read this in just a few days—couldn’t put it down but didn’t want it to end. I enjoyed living vicariously through Dana as she made a home for herself in Vietnam in the early ’90s. She’s honest about the setbacks and the difficulties, as well as the beauty and the magic. I couldn’t get enough.
25. Kissing in Manhattan, David Schickler – A collection of short stories, but about an interconnected web of characters that reappear in various plot lines. There’s some edgy, unusual stuff in this book and I wouldn’t say it’s for everyone, but I liked it and found the characters very interesting.
26. Looking Backward, Edward Bellamy – Written in the late 1800s, this book is about a man of that era who wakes up in the year 2000 and discovers that the world is a much different place than it was in his time. An interesting book, since we’ve passed the year he describes. The 2000 of this book is a kind of socialist utopia, and certainly not what we’ve ended up with today. Some of it sounds very appealing on the surface—like everyone getting to do the kind of work they’re most suited for—but as you delve deeper you realize it’s a little disturbing—what if what you prefer to do is not what you’re most suited to do? This book definitely gets you thinking about the state of the world and what it would be like if there was no competition between individual businesses because everything’s run by the government, if the streets were covered with retractable awnings so you could go anywhere even in inclement weather…and much more.
27. The Moviegoer, Walker Percy – I enjoyed this book, but felt like I was missing something. I’m not sure why it’s called The Moviegoer, first of all. While the main character does go to the movies occasionally, it doesn’t seem like an integral part of his being. There are references to characters that are never introduced, and other obtuse metaphors that I didn’t understand. It won the 1962 National Book Award, but I’m not sure why. Maybe I should read some of the criticism on this one.
28. She’s Not There: A Life in Two Genders, Jennifer Finney Boylan – Another book recommended by the woman who runs the Reading Room blog. I enjoyed this one a lot—it’s a memoir about a male-to-female transsexual. It’s a touching, honest (it seems to me) portrait of her experience and gives a lot of insight in particular into how this change affects her relationships—with her (his) wife, children, family, and friends. As kind of a side note, her best friend is the novelist Richard Russo, so you get a little insight into him as well. There were definitely times I teared up while reading this book–a little embarrassing on public transit or at the gym! I highly recommend this one.
29. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, Michael Chabon
30. The Lovely Bones, Alice Sebold
31. Middlesex, Jeffrey Eugenides – I’m afraid I might have missed a book in here somewhere, but don’t know what it is! I really enjoyed Middlesex. I didn’t want to finish it, because all my books are packed up and I didn’t know what I’d read next, but I had to stay up last night until I’d finished the last page. I enjoyed the writing a lot. There were many interesting phrases and ways of describing things (I wish I had some examples!). I think it’s really cool that a book about a hermaphrodite (or intersex person) could become so popular, and even win a Pulitzer Prize. After working on Finding the Real Me at my last job, I am particularly interested in the world of the sex and gender diverse, and am happy to see it becoming a little bit more acceptable to talk about these things.
32. Straight Man, Richard Russo – This was the last book I read before I left home, and while I was reading it, I kept thinking that it wasn’t as good as Empire Falls. Yet somehow, when I was finished with it, I was very satisfied, and looked back on the reading experience fondly. I’m not sure why that happens with certain books. I guess I’d say that Empire Falls will make you love Richard Russo, and Straight Man will make it even more clear what a great writer he is.
33. Time Traveler’s Wife, Audrey Niffenegger – I LOVED this book. It’s exactly what I was looking for in a book for the start of my trip. It was engrossing and I was always eager to read it, yet it was complex and made me think and wasn’t an easy read (but don’t let that make you think it’s too hard). I think everyone should read this book. Oh, and I think I heard that they’re making it into a movie, so be sure to read the book first!
34. The Secret History, Donna Tartt – A gift from my roommates and another perfect book for the road. An interesting story, and an interesting method of delivery, since you find out at the very beginning of the book that someone’s been killed, and even who did it. The rest of the book recounts what happened up until the murder (and you almost can’t blame them for doing it), and then what happens after the murder. Highly recommended.
35. Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight, Alexandra Fuller – I was lucky enough to meet a fellow lover of books in Cusco, and I traded her Time Traveler’s Wife for this book about a white girl growing up in Africa in the 1970s. I’m not quite finished with it yet, but it’s really interesting, and mostly about how her family was affected by their time in Africa. I’m curious to see how it will end!
36. Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain – I haven’t read any Twain besides Huck Finn, so I really didn’t know what to expect from this book. I was glad to find it witty, funny, and much better than I’d expected. Some of his observations about travel are timeless, like how after traveling in a difficult place or for a long time it’s nice not to have to worry about where your next meal is coming from or how many miles you’ll have to ride that day. And that you should never assume the people around you don’t speak English!
37. The Immigrants, Howard Fast – Picked this up in a hostel book exchange in Puerto Varas. I’d never heard of Fast, but apparently he was a staunch Communist for years, wrote lots of politically charged novels, more than 60 in all (some under a pen name). This book was entertaining, but I didn’t find it particularly well-written or memorable. Its most redeeming quality is that it’s set in San Francisco, from the late 1800s through to the 1950s or so, and it’s interesting to read about the Barbary Coast and the 1906 earthquake, to recognize the street names, and imagine life in SF during that time.
38. House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende – I got desperate in El Calafate and BOUGHT a book. It was worth it. Kept me enthralled for days, and it’s really, really, good. In the interest of lightening my ever-increasing load, I left it in a book exchange, but this is one I’d like to own for future reading.
39. Suzanne’s Diary for Nicholas, James Patterson – Then I got even more desperate, and traded Allende for this piece of fluff. It’s 250 pages, and I started it in the Ushuaia airport and finished it before the plane touched down in Buenos Aires three hours later. It kept me occupied, but was utterly unrewarding in the end. Now I’m bookless, again. Buenos Aires has a reputation for taking books and bookstores quite seriously, but they don’t seem to bother with much except pocket paperbacks in English.
40. Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood – I bought this in Buenos Aires. It was an okay read, but I never really got into it, and once I was home in the States things were really busy and I hardly read anything at all! Didn’t want to take a half-finished book off on the second leg of my trip, so left it at home. May pick it up again, may not.
41. A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth – My parents bought me this for the second leg of my trip, and it’s great so far. There are some parts about legislation one of the characters is trying to pass that aren’t so interesting, but it’s a long (1,500 pages), sweeping epic of a few families’ entertwined lives in 1950s India, and I love it. It’s a hefty tome to carry around, but it’s nice to not have to look for a new book every week. I suspect it may last me through all of India. It’s also a great book to read here, as so much more of it makes sense now that I’ve seen India for myself.
42. Hold the Enlightenment, Tim Cahill – Short stories by a master travel writer. Entertaining and fun.
42. The Alchemist, Paulo Coelho – Quintessential travel reading, about a boy who goes on a quest.
43. Holy Cow, Sarah McDonald – A girl leaves India swearing she’ll never go back, but a fortune-teller at the airport ends up being right—she’ll be back. Reading this as I finished up my travels in India meant I could relate to so much of it, and even appreciate the country a bit more.
44. The Joke, Milan Kundera – Thought-provoking but kind of depressing.
45. The Autograph Man, Zadie Smith – Entertaining read, but not as good as her first, White Teeth.
46. You Have the Right To Remain Silent (meditation book)
47. Art of Living (meditation book) – Bought these in India, read them before I headed off to my meditation retreat.
48. The DaVinci Code, Dan Brown – Couldn’t resist anymore. A great story, I couldn’t put it down.
49. Devil in the White City, Erik Larson (only read half, gave to Mitch for the plane ride home) – Interesting re-creation of the events around the World’s Fair in Chicago in 1893. Still hoping to finish it! (Finished months later: It was satisfying to finish this book, although I bet there are better in the genre. The amount of research this guy did is mind-boggling, though.)
50. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell – Mitch brought this over and left it with me. An interesting novel created from several interconnected short stories about different people in different time periods and different worlds, essentially.
51. Surviving the Killing Fields, Haing S. Ngor – Not exactly a light read, but important. Wish I had read it before I went to Cambodia or while I was there. This is the guy who won an Oscar for his role in The Killing Fields.
52. How to Be Good, Nick Hornby – Super-fast read; finished in a lazy day or two in Laos. Interesting, entertaining.
53. Running Backwards Over Sand, Stephanie Dowrick – Chick lit, about a Kiwi girl in London…don’t remember the details but it was okay, not amazing.
54. Sex Slaves: The Trafficking of Women in Asia, Louise Brown – Educational, but not exactly light reading. I didn’t finish it—decided it was too academic and dry for the road, although it did enlighten my perspective on some of the women I saw on the streets.
55. Beach Music, Pat Conroy – Recommended by a friend’s dad. Never read any Conroy, and was pleasantly surprised by this book. The main character is a travel and food writer, and the descriptions of places and meals were fantastic.
56. Between the Acts, Virginia Woolf – Thought I’d read some Woolf in England, but finished it before I got there! Enjoyed this one, although maybe not as much as some of her others.
57. Oracle Night, Paul Auster (finished this once back in the States) – Another fine book by one of my favorites, although I kept waiting for something more to happen, and suddenly it was over. I think the whole mystery of the notebook could’ve been explored a little more deeply.
58. Bud, Not Buddy, Christopher Paul Curtis – My brother gave me this young adult book for Christmas; they’ve been reading it in some of the classes where he’s been a teacher’s aid. It’s a really cute story, and I haven’t read a book of this genre in eons–it was interesting, especially to think about the different techniques and angle one would have to use to write for a younger audience.
59. Harry Potter and the Sorceror’s Stone, J. K. Rowling – Finally! An enjoyable read, just like everyone says. Will probably read the next one eventually, but I’m not in a huge hurry–there are still so many other things to read!
60. Simplicity Lessons: A 12-Step Guide to Living Simply, Linda Breen Pierce
61. The Broom of the System, by David Foster Wallace. I’m not sure I want to read his magnum opus, Infinite Jest, so I read this one instead. Not too bad, but not amazing. The most interesting thing was the part relating to the title. A therapist asks a character which is the most essential part of a broom, the bristles or the handle. She says bristles, figuring she could lean down close to the floor and still sweep without a handle. But the therapist points out that it depends what you want to use the broom for–if you want to smash a window with it, the handle is the most important part. Of course…if you wanted to smash a window, why not use a brick or something instead?
62. Everything Is Illuminated, Jonathan Safran Foer – It got so much press, so much hype, but I wasn’t amazed. It was decent, but not the greatest book ever.
63. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Dai Sijie – Entertaining and an easy read. There’s a movie of the Chinese Seamstress book out now, or soon. I bet it makes a better movie than book, actually. I found the book okay but not overwhelmingly good. I won’t dissuade you from reading it, but I won’t recommend it either. There are about 1,000 other books, at least, that you should read first, I bet.
64. Choosing Simplicity: Real People Finding Peace and Fulfillment in a Complex World, Linda Breen Pierce – I found this so interesting I could just start reading it all over again right now. I’m fascinated by this “simple living” concept and realize that this is a natural time in my life to take these ideas into consideration, as I’ve already simplified in a lot of ways and it’s easy and tempting to fall right back into old patterns of wanting and spending that I’d rather avoid.
65. Los Angeles, A. M. Homes – A funny, entertaining read, perhaps more because Homes is a great writer than because it’s about my new (temporary I’m sure) home. She talks about how you can’t really pin down LA, can’t identify it, because it’s so spread out and it’s so many things at once and to so many different people. Which may be true, although is that not also true of plenty of other places? But here’s LA for you—last night at happy hour my roommate, her friends, and I discussed the fake boobs of the bartender (they asked her once, to confirm their suspicions); last week I went to a birthday party and met actors, models, production assistants, and varying wannabe degrees of the same. Somehow book editing really stood out as not quite fitting in, although they were nice enough about it. The guy from Boston said, “Wow, you must be smaht.”
66. A Long Way Down, Nick Hornby – Entertaining, great character development (it’s about four suicidal individuals who each head to a rooftop from which they plan to jump on New Year’s Eve, but it’s such a popular suicide spot they meet the others and end up forming a ramshackle suicide support group of sorts).
67. Specimen Daze, Michael Cunningham – Three interconnected novellas. I’m still not sure what I think of this genre of writing, but in this case the obvious thread linking the stories together is the poetry of Whitman, so that made it pretty fascinating.
68. The Last Days of Publishing, Tom Engelhardt – I rather enjoyed this one. The narrator is an editor, and he had some cool things to say about how he approaches a manuscript. But other than that, it’s an interesting look at the state of the industry and the characters that populate it. But if you don’t care about any of that I bet you wouldn’t find it very interesting!
69. Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen – For a new book club. It was much more enjoyable than I expected, given my vague recollections of having read Austen in college. It was entertaining and a great glimpse into a different era, when men were betrothed to their cousins and women were criticized for looking “blowsy” after having walked—gasp!—three miles across a field—Just look at the inches of dirt on her petticoat! The book club discussion I went to for the book was great, too, and I think it’s a group I’m going to stick with.
70. Voluntary Simplicity: Toward a Way of Life That is Outwardly Simple, Inwardly Rich, Duane Elgin – It’s considered one of the seminal texts on the subject, but it felt rather bland and academic to me in places. There was certainly some interesting material, though, especially a section on how our mind works (actually, he’s quoting someone else, Roger Walsh, a physician, psychiatrist, and brain researcher, here): “I was forced to recognize that what I had formerly believed to be my rational mind preoccupied with cognition, planning, problem solving, etc., actually comprised a frantic torrent of forceful, demanding, loud, and often unrelated thoughts and fantasies which filled an unbelievable portion of consciousness even during purposive behavior.” Sounds pretty much like my experience on the meditation retreat, and I nodded my head throughout this extended excerpt. The point of all this, though, is to say that in order to act voluntarily, we need to understand the extent to which we tend to act involuntarily. Pretty interesting stuff.
71. Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter, Mario Vargas Llosa – For book club. Lost track of when the meeting was and had to scramble to read the whole thing in about four days, but I did it! It was actually kind of fun to push myself to read in pretty much every spare moment. I could really get a lot of reading done if I did that more often! The book was pretty light and fluffy—surprisingly, since I thought Vargas Llosa was a “serious” writer, but apparently he does some of both—and a quick and entertaining read. Although the book is set in Lima, where I didn’t spend much time, there’s lots of references to Peruvian culture that I understood, so that was cool. As always, I wonder what gets lost in the translation, but with a fun book like this it probably doesn’t matter too much. Apparently the early-90s Keanu Reeves movie Tune in Tomorrow was based on this book. I can only imagine how that turned out.
72. Spice: The History of a Temptation, Jack Turner – This book is full of fascinating facts, about Europeans’ interactions with Indians to trade spices thousands of years ago, how bodies were burned on funeral pyres of cinnamon, in the middle ages men considered women who naturally smelled of spice to be the best mates, and much more, but it wasn’t exactly a page-turner. I really had to fight to finish this one, but I kind of like that sense of accomplishment after conquering a tome like this (actually, it’s only 310 pages, but it felt much longer, and the thick pages and hardcover made me think I was slogging through at least 600 pages). The guy who wrote it is in his late 30s, and has impressive credentials, and I spent a lot of time pondering the insane amount of research he did and how difficult it would be to organize all those little snippets of information into a logical, cohesive whole. For that, I bet lots of index cards were employed, and I give him and his editors a lot of credit. I also appreciate the bits of humor here and there, such as explaining that a guy who’d recently had a gangrenous arm cut off “had a lot of time on his hands (or hand).” Welcome comic relief around page 290 last night!
73. My Nine Lives: Chapters of a Possible Past, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala – This was recommended by a former co-worker of mine, and it’s been on my list for a long time. While I enjoyed it, I think I enjoyed the idea of it more than the writing or any particular story. As the author writes in the Apologia at the beginning, “These chapters are potentially autobiographical: even when something didn’t actually happen to me, it might have done so. Every situation was one I could have been in myself, and sometimes, to some extent, was.” It certainly is an interesting exercise to consider all the different ways one’s life might have gone—if one’s parents had been from a different place, had been wealthy or poor, made different choices, not to mention all the choices we make in our own lives—whether to take a job, take a trip, go to the home of a stranger met on the bus, have an affair… But I suspect that being the reader, and not knowing all the nuances that informed these stories (like, did she have an affair with her philosophy professor, but not have his child? Did she meet a guru in Delhi but not move to the Himalayas with him?), isn’t the best part. I bet it was much more enjoyable for the writer, imagining all these different lives for herself, and it’s something I might even like to take on myself.