Wednesday, December 31, 2008

2008: The Year in Review

I ended up 5 books short of my 150 book goal for 2008. But, instead of spending the last week of the year craming in those last books, I decided to spend it cleaning out some of my closets and trying to get a bit more organized - and reminding myself that my book goals should not stress me out! I am hoping there will be lots of time in 2009 to read. I certainly have a lot of books on my shelves that have been there for years and deserve to be read and passed on to new homes!

2008 was a great reading year for me and I enjoyed sharing my blog with folks and learning about new books from people who dropped in to share now and again. And just in case you're interested, here are my top picks for the year (of course, not necessarily published this year, just culled from the books I managed to get around to in 2008):

1. The Forger's Spell - Edward Dolnick
2. Pillars of the Earth - Ken Follet
3. Unaccustomed Earth - Jhumpa Lahiri
4. Gone with the Wind - Margaret Mitchell (thanks to Courtney)
5. The Book Thief - Markus Zusak (thanks to Mema)
6. Half of a Yellow Sun - Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (thanks to Hilary)
7. Finding Iris Chang - Paula Kamen (thanks to Mom)
8. The Likeness - Tana French (thanks to Colleen)
9. I Know This Much Is True - Wally Lamb
10. The Twilight Series (all 4) - Stephenie Myers

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Ms. Hempel Chronicles - Sarah Shun-lien Bynum

I finished this book yesterday and I'm starting to believe that I may need to read it again. Not because I enjoyed it, but actually quite the opposite. I found this book difficult to get into and the main character, Ms. Hempel, self-congratulatory and irritating. The problem is that this book keeps appearing on "Best of 2008" lists and otherwise receiving wonderful write-ups. It makes me think I really must have missed something. Similar to The Wonder Spot, this book focuses on the same character, but each chapter is basically a stand-alone short story. In many ways, Ms. Hempel is a very real charaters - she is a new teacher struggling with teaching in an "appropriate" manner, but also in innovative ways that will engage her students. It is difficult, however, not to read her as simply trying to win some sort of popularity contest. She is also recently engaged, though the details of the relationship are sketchy (as is her fiance, it seems), and I didn't feel as if the author went much beyond the surface. While the reader can tell that Hempel is conflicted, and stuck in that age between childhood and adulthood, I just couldn't see her as anything more than a constant complainer. Yet, as I read more and more reviews, I appear to be in the minority, so this may be one I take another stab at down the road. But probably not anytime soon.

Skellig - David Almond

The winner of numerous awards for children's literature, Skellig was one of the novels recommended by Nick Hornby in his travels through YA fiction. Skellig is the story of young Michael, who has moved into a new home following the birth of his very sickly sister. While his parents are preoccupied with his sister's health care, Michael is left to explore on his own. In his garage, he comes across a strange creature - perhaps human, but perhaps more. He shares the secret with Mina, his precocious home-schooled neighbor. Though I tend to read children's literature here and there and do not by any means have a grasp on what comes out in a given year, I was surprised that this book has won so many awards. It seemed all over the place to me. There is no satisfactory explanation of where the garage creature came from, or how he deteriorated to his present state. As Michael drops in and out of school, he is consumed by worry over his little sister - he feels his heartbeat inside his own, yet this connection is never fully explored. Then there is Mina's obsession with William Blake and her superior attitude. While it is clear that Michael has much to learn from the world that cannot come from his structured classroom, Almond's exact point on this issue is unclear. Michael's parents pay sporadic attention to him and tell them they love him, yet don't seem to do much to support him through the difficult transition. In the end, I just felt like the story didn't hold together. I didn't really care that much about Michael, and I found Mina to be an irritating distraction. While there were interesting ideas here and there throughout the book, ultimately, I didn't feel it amounted to very much.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Killing Rain - Barry Eisler

This is the 4th installment of the series featuring John Rain, the half-Asian all-amazin' assassin. Israeli intelligence has dispatched Rain to Manila to take out weapons dealer, Manheim Levi. To my delight, Rain is unable to take on this task single-handedly and is forced to entertain the assistance of loud-mouthed sharp-shooter Dox (who made his appearance in Rain Storm). On the verge of completing the assignment, Rain uncharacteristically gives in to his conscience and he botches the job. Levi and the Israelis are on to Rain, but he is determined to finish what he started, and contacts Delilah - his love interest from Rain Storm, and also a trained intelligence agent. With Eisler's patented twists and turns, the reader (and Rain) don't know who to trust or where anyone's true alliances lie. Killing Rain had a lot less of the surveillance and counter-surveillance techniques that I thought slowed down the plot of the prior Rain books - and Eisler started to write Rain as a human being with flaws, rather than a mindless killer who is always ten steps ahead of the other guy. This may be disappointing to readers who relish the fight scenes and CIA black-ops lingo - but for me, it was a much appreciated turn. The book ends with a shocking (to Rain, but not really to the reader) revelation that sets up the plot for installment #5, The Last Assassin. But, I fear I will have to wait until book 6 for the return of my beloved Dox. I better get reading...

Saturday, December 13, 2008

Tallgrass - Sandra Dallas

Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the United States government set up a number of internment camps for Japanese-Americans. One of these camps, located in Colorado, housed evacuees from California. Sandra Dallas's fictionalized camp, Tallgrass, sits right on the edge of town where 13 year old Rennie and her family work their sugar beet farm. Reminiscent of To Kill a Mockingbird, Rennie's father is an outspoken advocate of civil rights, and stands-up for the Japanese, when the townpeople voice their prejudices. Shortly after the establishment of the camp, a local girl is found raped and murdered. Everyone suspects the "foreigners," though Rennie's family chooses instead to hire a few of the boys from the camp to work their farm. The book follows the escalating tension between the camp and the town, as seen through Rennie's young, confused, and conflicted, yet perceptive, eyes. Dallas does a good job of portraying the ignorance and hypocrisy of the townspeople, particularly when Rennie's own brother is captured by the Germans. In a town filled with alcoholism, domestic violence, secrets, and shame, the outrage the townspeople feel toward the Japanese, is clearly a mirror to our current society and its treatment of Middle Eastern-Americans. While a lot of great fiction has already been written about the injustice of the campes (When the Emperor Was Divine and Snow Falling On Cedars among them), this is a welcome addition to the list told from an interesting perspective.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Promises to Keep - Joe Biden

In general, I'm not a fan of politics or politicians. But, with all the excitement over Obama going to the White House (and I did enjoy his memoir Dreams From My Father), it only seemed fair that I would make equal effort to get to know his vice-presidential running mate. Obviously, I knew Biden was a life-long politician, and I learned during the DNC that he had lost his first wife and daughter in a car accident. And, I did know that foreign policy is his forte. But, I didn't know much else about the senator from Delaware. Promises to Keep portrays Biden as a very folksy guy, growing up middle class, raised by parents who taught him stellar values - most importantly that he is no better or worse than anyone else, and that all people deserve to be treated with respect. These fundamental ideals have (allegedly) gone on to shape Biden's view of politics and the change he hopes to see in the world. I was touched by his descriptions of his family, and the heartbreaking loss of the love of his life. I was also amazed by the incredible sacrifices his siblings, sons, and current wife have made to support his various races for political office. As with most memoirs (particularly those of politicians), Biden pats himself on the back quite a bit - though of course he attempts to do it in a "I have so many things to be modest about" kind of way. I got a little tired of him constantly pointing out how much younger he was than everyone else who had ever held his position, or the other men he had to work with in the Senate. But, I do believe that despite being a part of Washington for so long, that Biden does know and remember what it is like to be a real person in a real family. Even as he relayed his experience as head of the judicial committee during Bork's Supreme Court nomination, his drafting of the Violence Against Women Act, and his views on genocide in Serbia - Biden always seemed to maintain a healthy perspective of his role in it all. Of course, I have some basic differences of opinion with Biden - he is a Catholic, and allows his religious beliefs in my opinion to bleed into his legal arguments more than he should. And, despite his belief that ALL people should be treated equal, he clearly took the same position as Governor Palin at the debates with respect to gay marriage. While this is no small issue - and a huge red flag of hypocrisy - for me, I did finish this book with a better understanding and respect for Biden than I'd previously had. His vast experience, and his apparent willingness to learn from people on both sides of the aisle gives me great confidence for the next four years. The new administration has many many miles to go before they sleep, and I only hope that he and Obama can keep all the promises they've made.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Shakespeare Wrote for Money - Nick Hornby

This is Hornby's third and last collection of his columns from Believer magazine. The first two, Housekeeping vs. The Dirt and The Polysyllabic Spree have been reviewed in previous posts. I didn't know this third one had beeb published and was positively ecstatic to find it among ornaments and stationery and other treasures in a small shop on Fillmore Street in San Francisco. Hornby's columns are about the books he's bought and the books he's read every month. Clearly, a column after my own heart. The difficulty is that I waiver between wanting to just sit myself on the nearest corner and devour every chapter, and wanting to just read one here and there so that they will seemingly last forever. And now that Hornby has announced his retirement from Believer to focus on his family of all things, I really did want to make this one last. Alas, it was impossible, and like a DVD of Lost episodes, I found myself saying "just one more," until sadly I'd reached the end. As with many Hornby novels, there are many football/soccer references. I could do without these. But, to my delight, in this series of columns, Hornby discovers the excitement of the world of young adult fiction. Given his recent book, Slam, written for young adults (which is on my shelves and I am saving for a very special occasion), Hornby has entered a world of literature that I have loved - ever since I was a young adult. I was happy to get some new recommendations, and to learn about something called the Alex Awards - which are given out every year to the 10 books written for adults that are found appealing to young adults. - or as Hornby calls them "The Non-Boring Book Awards." While encouraging young adults to expand their reading horizons and transition them to "adult" literature, they are no doubt a good place for adults to look for fun books! I took a look at past winners - which include some of my favorites: Into Thin Air, Caucasia, Plainsong, Peace Like a River, The Book of Lost Things, and Water for Elephants. So, needless to say, I definitely plan on mining the list for future reads. Hornby's essays, as always, are filled with humor and literary insight, and are a wonderful celebration of my favorite pastime. I'm sad that I won't have more collections to look forward to, but am sure that I will continue to go back and re-read his columns for more recommendations for a long time to come.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

A Little Too Much is Enough - Kathleen Tyau

Set in post-WWII Honolulu, each chapter of this book follows the life of Mahi and her extended Hawaiian/Chinese family. The chapters could each be read as stand alone vignettes, and at times even reading them in sequence it is difficult to determine which character is speaking, what stage of life they are speaking about, and how each of the characters is related to one another. But, one thing Tyau definitely does is capture the spirit of Hawaii - what it is like growing up on the islands, surrounded by loving (and often crazy) family, and thinking about food all the time. I enjoyed this book, and my mother, who spent much more time living in Hawaii than I, absolutely loved it. I think for readers who are not too familiar with Hawaiian traditions and slang, this might be a difficult book to access, but for the rest of us, it is a definite treat. It made me miss my grandparents and afternoons filled with all the delicious mango I could eat.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Two or Three Things I Know For Sure - Dorothy Allison

I've referenced Allison's novel Bastard Out of Carolina before - but it's one I read back in college. It's set in the South and tells the story of a young girl growing up amidst poverty and abuse. To date, it's one of the most powerful books I've ever read, and even now I cringe at the sadness and horror it contains. One of the literary concepts I truly believe in is the idea of survival through storytelling - particularly in the feminist tradition. Allison is a primary example of the raw strength that comes from putting pen to paper. Two or Three Things I Know For Sure is Allison's memoir (written initially as a performance piece) about her life growing up in the South surrounded by her own poverty and abuse - it focuses on the women in her life - her sisters and mother, her aunts and girlfriends - and what they taught her about the importance of self-worth. As the title suggests, through the book, Allison shares the "two or three things she knows for sure," including "No one is as hard as my uncles had to pretend to be," "I'd rather go naked than wear the coat the world has made for me," and "If we are not beautiful to each other, we cannot know beauty in any form." Allison's story-telling ability seems to have been cultivated as a child - as a way for her to escape the reality of her life, as well as a way to make her experiences real. While I wish this book would have been longer with more stories and in-depth detail about her life, I'm sure Allison wrote it more for herself than for others. And even if I'll always wish there were more from her, I am quite grateful for what she has chosen to share.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Letter to My Daughter - Maya Angelou

This is a kind of "Everything I Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten" collection of thoughts and wisdom from Maya Angelou to the daughter she never had (biologically, that is). It is a hodge-podge of essays, poems and random thought based on Angelou's life experiences. It is at times preachy and judgmental, but alas, beautifully written. And, of course, there is truth in each of Angelou's pieces of advice. Most of her advice is of the "suck it up and endure" variety, and while she recounts clearly difficult times in her life, sometimes the conclusions she reaches seem to simplistic and fail to honor the feelings she had at the time of the event. This is a good book to pick up while browsing in the bookstore, read a few quick chapters, and move on. Or to have lying around the house to read in pieces here and there. While quick, as a straight through read, I found it a bit irritating.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Uncommon Reader - Alan Bennett

This short novella has received a lot of good press - which always makes me a bit skeptical. But, I was pleasantly surprised and highly recommend it for a quick read during a quiet evening at home. The Uncommon Reader features Queen Elizabeth - not known for her literary prowess - forced out of politeness to borrow a book from a traveling library. Each week, as the bookmobile visits the Palace, she trades in one book for another, until she finds that she has indeed caught the reading bug. From here, she finds herself wishing she could cancel dinners and teas, if only to find another minute to read. Her natural curiosity knows no bounds, and this translates into an insatiable reading appetite. Those around her try desperately to change her course, arguing that reading isolates and that she should not be perceived as endorsing one form of entertainment over another. When she hopes to engage her subjects by asking what book they are currently reading, most respond in horror, unsure of the response she expects (though some enthusiastically commend Harry Potter). Bennett's novella has the Queen finding herself irritated by chores that take away from her reading time, and by all accounts acting as any bibliophile would - only her role as a monarch puts her into some tough situations. I found this book quite clever - even if a little silly at times. But, definitely a really fun read - and a good reminder of how much time I do spend reading, perhaps to the detriment of other things.

Exit Ghost - Philip Roth

Exit Ghost is Roth's ninth novel featuring writer Nathan Zuckerman. Alas, this is the first one I've read, so I will have to find some time later to go back in time and read the others (including The Human Stain). Here, Zuckerman finds himself an elderly man, living in New England, removed from New York's post-9/11 world and on the brink of the 2004 election. Zuckerman returns to his hometown for surgery, but after a brief encounter with the former girlfriend of his now deceased friend, the short story writer E.I. Lonoff, he decides to swap his home for that of a young couple - both struggling themselves to make it in the literary world. Zuckerman falls for the wife, and becomes entangled with her ex-boyfriend, a young man who hopes to become Lonoff's biographer, and to reveal a shocking secret that Zuckerman simply cannot fathom. In an effort to work through his feelings over the wife, and Lonoff's ex, as well as the decline of his body due to age, Zuckerman takes to writing a play - the dialogue blurring his fantasy with reality. While I think going back and getting some background on Zuckerman from Roth's previous novels, I found this book easy to get in to and interesting as a character sketch about an aging individual who feels that he is slowly losing touch with the world around him - often by choice, but also because things are moving ahead much too quickly. I have yet to find a book by Roth that I've absolutely loved, but they all seem to have something intriguing that sticks with me for days after, and so I will keep plugging through until I've read all 25+.