Saturday, March 31, 2007

The Best American Non-Required Reading (2003) - Dave Eggers (ed.) : I received this as a gift from Ashley a long time ago and have picked it up every once in awhile to read a piece or two. It is a collection of essays, stories, commentary, articles and other types of writing edited by Dave Eggers ("A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius"). I really enjoyed this collection - it was fun to read all the different styles of writing from hilarious to heart-breaking. My favorite piece was Judy Budnitz's short story "Visiting Hours", from Harper's Magazine, which tells the story of a brother and sister from a not quite perfect suburban family. I also enjoyed James Pinkerton's "How to Write Suspense" from Modern Humorist, which satirically outlines the key factors to any successful suspense story (I actually laughed out loud while reading this in a dentist's waiting area). There are a wide-variety of "Best American" collections each year ranging from Short Stories to Sports Writing to Non-Fiction. I've found them to be generally fun to flip through - not necessarily reading the whole book in one shot. This one was no different, and most of the pieces were good finds by Eggers that were a nice change of pace from my usual reading.

Trash - Dorothy Allison : This is a collection of short stories by the author of the absolutely phenomenal Bastard Out of Carolina and the good, but not magnificient Cavedweller. Allison's style fits in the genre of "grit lit" - stories set in the "white trash" South, with families filled with unwed mothers, severe physical, sexual, and emotional abuse, and general poverty. The majority of stories in "Trash" center around relationships among women - romantic, as well as familial. The writing is graphic and powerful, often times difficult to read - with images impossible to forget.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Blast from the Past*: The Monk - Matthew G. Lewis : I read this book during a college seminar on The Gothic Novel, but was reminded of it when flipping through this 1,001 Books to Read Before You Die book. I LOVED this book - it is sinister and fascinating and I remember not being able to put it down. It's the story of Ambrosio, a hypocritical and evil Catholic monk who sinks further and further into depravity as the novel unfolds. For a book published in 1796, I thought it was absolutely tremendous (could be because I was taking 18th Century British novels at the same time and all of those were SO BORING). This is definitely an oldie but goodie.

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Fascinating Factoid: Charlotte Bronte (Jane Eyre), Anne Bronte (Agnes Grey), and Emily Bronte (Wuthering Heights) all published their novels in the same year (1847). I find this to be an incredible coincidence - particularly since Anne died in 1849 and Emily in 1848. Either they saved up the writings and went full force for publication, or once they put their novels out for the public, they had no other reason to keep on living.

Life & Times of Michael K* - J.M. Coetzee : This was recommended to me by Daniel after I mentioned how much I'd loved Disgrace (discussed in Feb.). Daniel recommended it as a "character study" - but I think I related much more to the main character in Disgrace. Michael K is a non-white in South Africa during the country's civil war. He attempts to take his ailing mother back to her hometown, but when she dies along the way, he struggles for survival, ending up in a work camp and eventually as a vagrant. The book is told mostly in the third-person focusing on Michael K, but one section is in the first-person from the perspective of a guard in the work camp. Michael K lives life on his own strange terms (I was reminded of Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener - "I prefer not to"). This novel, like "Disgrace" is marvelously written, but I did not at any point identify or understand Michael K - I found him hopeless while still remaining hopeful.

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die, Winner of the 1983 Man Booker Prize)

Brief Interviews with Hideous Men - David Foster Wallace : This is a book of short stories by the author of the War & Peace-like (in terms of length) Infinite Jest (which has been sitting on my shelves for YEARS). As the Powells' review states, "One either loves or hates David Foster Wallace," which I can see...but I think I'm somewhere in between. In general, he is much too "modern" for me. His writing is very stream-of-consciousness/internal monologue - and while I feel like he perfectly captures the inner-workings of the minds of actual people, I also feel like he's moving 10 million times too fast for me to keep up. I tried to do a little wikipedia research on Wallace to see if he's in a defined genre - he reminds me of Irving Welsh ("Trainspotting"), but only in the writing, not in the story-telling. I just can't quite place him - and I think people who like linear stories will not be fans, but if you like vignettes or snapshots of real life, then I would recommend checking him out - if only to read someone who is trying to do something new in literature for the 21st century. (Thanks to Sarah for letting me borrow it from the library on her SF library card!)

Thursday, March 22, 2007

The Memory Keeper's Daughter - Kim Edwards

This is definitely and Oprah book club type book - Norah gives birth to twins - one of whom has Down's Syndrome. Before she realizes this, her doctor husband Daivd asks a nurse to take the girl to an institution. He then tells Norah that the daughter died. The nurse Caroline, however, takes the girl away and raises it as her own. The book follows the lives of Norah, David, and their son Paul - as well as Caroline and Phoebe. David struggles with his secret as it tears his relationships with his wife and son apart. I found myself getting annoyed with David and his never-ending dilemma of whether or not to tell his wife the truth about their daughter - but for the most part I truly enjoyed this book - and the ending was particularly heart-felt and satisfying.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Dress Your Family in Courduroy and Denim - David Sedaris Another collection of essays by David Sedaris, who I find absolutely hilarious. Most of the pieces have been previously published in Esquire, GQ, or The New Yorker - or read as part of NPR's "This American Life." I first became familiar with Sedaris when I read Me Talk Pretty One Day. I've since read Naked, Barrel Fever, and Holidays on Ice - all of which I'd recommend. The Rooster is back in this collection (read: for a brief introduction to Sedaris's younger brother. Warning - there is a lot of cursing involved) - getting married and having the first Sedaris grandchild. I can see people finding Sedaris irritating, or not quite getting how he's funny, but assuming you like him, I definitely recommend this book.

Monday, March 19, 2007

The Master* - Colm Toibin The Master is a fictional biography of the writer Henry James. Despite the fact that this novel was named one of the NY Times top books of 2004, I don't think I would have ever thought to pick it up. But, it is the current Stanford Book Salon book of the month, so I thought I'd check it out. I'm glad that I did. It is marvelously written - each chapter almost contains it's own story about a period in James's life - one about his relationship with his sister, one about his rivalry with Oscar Wilde (and Wilde's subsequent trial for homosexuality), one about his brothers who have gone to war while he's stayed home to write... All in all, it does not, in my opinion, paint James in a very favorable light - he comes across as a feeble selfish coward in most instances - which makes, for me, the title of the novel, quite ironic. But, I am interested in reading some of James's work - as well as some literary criticism about this novel and James's life - to find out more about who he was. The book also made me quite interested in Oscar Wilde, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and others mentioned in the book.

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Dreamland - Kevin Baker

I started this book awhile back when I was in my phase of new novels with Dickens-like plots (I thought of it as a cross between A Fine Balance by Rohinton Mistry and Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold). This book started out great - set in the early 20th century in NY, it follows a number of coney island performers, young women working in sweatshops, young men trying to scrape by, and a whole bunch of people in between. I enjoyed reading about the characters lives and seeing how they all interacted. Then, it seemed to turn into one of those memoirs I read too many of in college of the strikers turned socialists (like that musical "Newsies" - which I highly recommend). And I put it down for a few months. The book is about 200 pages too long, but it's a good story, I just got a little tired of it after awhile.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

A Far Country - Daniel Mason - By a friend of mine from high school (who wrote the NY Times Bestseller The Piano Tuner), this is the story of 14 year of Isabel, growing up destitute and hungry in a small rural town. She is sent to the big city settlements (which sound a lot like Brazilian favelas) to work for a cousin. She hopes to meet up with her oder brother there, but he has gone missing, and she spends the rest of the book in a frenzied attempt to track him down. While not a lot actually happens in this book, the writing is beyond beautiful and I found myself reading and rereading passages just because the language was so perfect. I loved this book - in no small part because it is Daniel's - but also because it captured so perfectly the bond between an older brother and younger sister. I recommend this to anyone who savors writing that reads like poetry.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Bean Trees - Barbara Kingsolver

Ever since I read and loved The Poisonwood Bible in college, I've been meaning to go back and read this book. I'd heard it was very different - and it was, but I still really liked it. It's the story of a young woman in a small town who drives across country. In Oklahoma, she is saddled with a child, and they travel together and settle down in Tucson. The books follows their developing relationship, as well as the main character's new friendships. I read this book in one sitting - which shows what a fast read it is, but also that it was interesting enough to sit down with for several hours. The characters were realistic and the story touching (and heartbreaking at times). I'm looking forward to reading Animal Dreams next.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

Wide Sargasso Sea* - Jean Rhys

I have been meaning to read this book since I read Jane Eyre in college. Wide Sargasso Sea is the story of Antoinette - who later becomes Rochester's crazy wife in the attic Bertha - the one who serves as an obstacle to Jane and Rochester's marriage. I love books that incorporate aspects and characters from other books (Ulysses, The Eyre Affair, The Brothers K, Wicked...). I finally picked up a copy of The Wide Sargasso Sea at Powell's during my latest trip to Portland. I found Anotoinette's story very compelling - she is the heiress to a decaying plantation in the West Indies, who is married off to an Englishman (Rochester). The book is written in parts from the perspective of both Antoinette and Rochester - the writing takes some time to get used to and is not a style that I am a particular fan of. But, the book is short, and I did want to see how Antoinette fell into madness. The story itself is simple and relatively interesting - but unless you're a Jane Eyre fan, I don't think I would spend much time on this one.

(* - listed in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die)

Monday, March 5, 2007

Stranger Than Fiction - Chuck Palahniuk This is a collection of essays and short non-fiction pieces by the author of Choke (read and reviewed a couple months ago) and Fight Club. Many of the pieces reveal very personal information about Palahniuk - including the fact that his grandfather murdered his grandmother and then commited suicide in front of Palahniuk's then 4 year old father. The summer Fight Club came out in the theaters, Palahniuk's father was shot and killed by the ex of his short-term girlfriend. Palahniuk also reveals his methods for collecting stories and tidbits that often end up in his fiction writing. The pieces are funny, clever, random, interesting, disgusting, and everything in between. I am a huge fan of Palahniuk's writing, and if you enjoy his novels, I would recommend this.