Thursday, December 31, 2009

Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog

Muriel Barbery, The Elegance of the Hedgehog. So I did throw this one across the room when I finished it. It was so fucking French. Did you read The Little Prince for French class? Anyway, parts of it I liked. I genuinely liked the protagonists. But the tone struck me as false. As pretentious. As exactly what Renée would have hated. Plus, I'm sentimental. And O. Henry plot twists drive me insane.

Monday, December 28, 2009

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest. This took me six months to read and I'm still in too much anger or grief to write about it. So exasperating.
So, I loved this book. Even though it took 300 pages to really follow it, even though it was discursive to the point of madness, and even though sometimes I felt like I was swimming in a septic tank of misery. There were times when it was dull, not for the sake of dullness, but to make a point about dullness. But description dragged me in and won me over. Ennet House was perfect to the last detail - hysterical in its maddening triviality and the tiny miseries of living with other people. I loved Hal, and Mario, and Don Gately. I loved the stupid jokes, and I especially loved the words and their ridiculous use. I knew, knew, that the story could not possibly gather up all the threads and tie them off. Even more unlikely that there could be some kind of personal conclusion or completion, much less happiness. It's not like I wasn't warned. Still, I wanted to throw the book across the room when I finished it.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone

Abraham Verghese, Cutting for Stone. Twins, surgeons, nuns, unrequited love, and revolution from India to Ethiopia to New York and back again. It's overblown and dramatic, but who cares? I can't remember the last time I stayed up all night to finish a story.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Roddy Doyle, The Snapper

Roddy Doyle, The Snapper. It's the Rabittes, before The Van. Jimmy Sr is as obscene and soft-hearted as ever. It's the details and the dialogue that make this family so hilarious and right on.

Paul Davies, How to Build a Time Machine

Paul Davies, How to Build a Time Machine. Not quite the practical guide I was hoping for - but a nice little book about wormholes and such. Good pictures, funny text, everything you want in an armchair time-travel treatise. The printing of the book itself was very strange - sans serif with gray highlighting, a strange page layout, and a barcode-like motif around the page numbers - I couldn't figure it out and it was visually annoying.

Sunday, December 06, 2009

Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms

Terry Pratchett, Men at Arms. More post-finals relaxation.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites and Carpe Jugulum

Terry Pratchett, Equal Rites and Carpe Jugulum. Fighting gender stereotyping in the practice of magic and unconventional vampire battling. Granny Weatherwax reminds me of a few formidable women I know, though they don't have broomsticks (even ones that need jump starting). More school break fun. I haven't yet found a Discworld story that doesn't make me giggle at least once. So be careful if you read these in public or while drinking milk.

Friday, November 27, 2009

John Gardner, Grendel

John Gardner, Grendel. Grendel's story- angry and absurd, with perfect pitch and cadence. And liking and understanding the monster only makes him more terrifying: isn't a despairing and articulate devourer infinitely more horrifying than a mindless voracious beast?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, Three Cups of Tea

Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, Three Cups of Tea. A fascinating glimpse of people working together for community development and education despite incredible geographical and political barriers. Unlikely and beautiful - it's as much a love story of place and a lament about war as a story about building schools.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

George Eliot, Silas Marner

George Eliot, Silas Marner. Exactly as I remembered the story nearly 20 years ago. But now I can't quite figure it out.

Friday, October 09, 2009

Laurie Halse Anderson, Fever 1793

Laurie Halse Anderson, Fever 1793. The yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia is one of the most interesting stories in American history and medical history. The account of Mattie Cook, her family, and their coffee shop during the epidemic was well-written, fascinating, and accurate (though fictional). I especially enjoyed the coffee shop and the depiction of Bush Hill. A young adult Bring Out Your Dead, really.

Saturday, October 03, 2009

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway

Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway. Luminous and beautiful language - I loved the breathless rush of thoughts. Clarissa Dalloway was perfect and refracted by everyone with clarity and brightness. The book was everything that Orlando could have been and wasn't.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Alice Munro, The View from Castle Rock

Alice Munro, The View from Castle Rock. I loved the sense of place, of geography and geology informing the stories. I'd love to see the country around lake Huron. These characters seemed less distant, sharper than others of hers I've read.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Nicholas Harberd, Seed to Seed

Nicholas Harberd, Seed to Seed: the Secret Life of Plants. A journal sketchbook about plants: growth, life, reproduction, and death. The life cycle of a thale cress plant in an English graveyard describes global growth and development. An explanation of transcription factors and how genetic material connects the growth of the plant to the world. A discussion about science, communicating a series of minute observations, and how to connect them back to the encompassing world. How one scientist can hold the world as sacred, and view it in awe and wonder for its order and beauty.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Virginia Woolf, Orlando

Virginia Woolf, Orlando. A flowery and playful story of a young nobleman/noblewoman, aspiring poet, hero, patron, and general dreamer and layabout. I loved the gender and time-stretching nature of Orlando and the settings. The style was pompous and sly - toying with literary biography and period literature - but sometimes too half-there, too elliptical. Moments of wit surprised me - for short stretches, the book was so funny, so insightful - but there were also tedious expositions that sapped the story.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

China Mieville, Perdido Street Station

China Miéville, Perdido Street Station. This book grew on me like a harmless and grotesque tumor. At first I was annoyed by the florid language, but I stopped noticing, and then deep into the story it seemed a piece with the fecund world of New Crobuzon. Likewise the sprawl of settings and variety of organisms was messy and distracting early, but settled into complex and satisfying patterns.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards! and The Light Fantastic

Terry Pratchett, Guards! Guards! and The Light Fantastic. Silly, snorkly, and endlessly entertaining. I'm glad there are so many of these to read - I'm going to ration them through med school as emergency fun.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own

Virginia Woolf, A Room of One's Own. Read it.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

John Updike, My Father's Tears

John Updike, My Father's Tears. He wrote the same stories over and over again in dozens of gentle variations, exploring every permutation and perspective. Every time I read a collection of his, I remember that I prefer his novels. But I also enjoy thinking about the nature of memory, and defining stories that evolve as they are told over our lifetimes. So if you want to read about a solitary and beloved only child who moved from the town to a farm (or a middle-aged man dealing with bodily decay and the aftermath of divorce or adultery) told and retold in beautiful language, read Updike's short stories.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Cormac McCarthy, The Road

Cormac McCarthy, The Road. The apocalyptic waste land crossed by vaguely doomed and asymmetrically flawed travelers is Cormac McCarthy's logical end point. The Road is minutely engrossing (like most stories of scavenging survival), and the parent-child emotion pulls more blatantly even than usual. I always love all McCarthy's characters, despite the inevitable, and against my will. I think that's his point though - people love every damn thing and it can't be helped.

Friday, July 03, 2009

Donald Ray Pollock, Knockemstiff

Donald Ray Pollock, Knockemstiff. Good stories, but harsh. And not harsh like drinking bad whiskey, harsh like eating cigarette butts soaked in bad whiskey.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

William Nicholson, Slaves of the Mastery and Firesong

William Nicholson, Slaves of the Mastery and Firesong. The rest of the Wind on Fire trilogy. These are dense, allegorical, and unique. The morality is much more nuanced than most fantasy, although on the surface the world is simple. The Mastery is superficially the most totalitarian and brutal state imaginable (just as Amaranth was the most repressive social hierarchy in the first book) but each story element unfolds into a more interesting state. I don't mean to say that the morality is not finally clear, just that the stories recognize complexity and potential for both good and evil in the heroes and villains. These two books didn't have quite the mythical feeling or emotional pull of the first in the trilogy, but the whole story was imaginative and powerful.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Georges Simenon, Inspector Cadaver

Georges Simenon, Inspector Cadaver. My first Inspector Maigret mystery (I don't know how I missed him in my Agatha Christie phase). A provincial investigation of a suspicious death, with a country house, snobbery, hostile gossip, and a sleazy house guest. Inspector Maigret is restrained, ruminative, and reluctant. Well-written, and even in translation the language is unmistakably french.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Rita Mae Brown, Rubyfruit Jungle

Rita Mae Brown, Rubyfruit Jungle. Pretty humid, not to say moist. But Molly Bolt is a girl worth the humidity. She's fierce enough to rival Scout and she's less of a brat than Holden.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief

Susan Orlean, The Orchid Thief. This was interesting. I would have liked more on the orchids and less on the people. The botany is incredible and the descriptions needed large color plates. I thought the contemporary orchid people were a little boring, but I would definitely read an entire book on the Victorian era orchid hunters. The story was scattered, running off in all directions, but when it focused on the flowers or on the character of LaRoche it was fascinating.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Neil Gaiman, American Gods

Neil Gaiman, American Gods. This was pretty disappointing. It was a fine thriller but it wasn't really funny or especially creative. The story had moments of spark, but mostly it seemed mechanical. I think the author like describing the background of middle America and the stories of the gods more than writing about the main character. Evidence in favor of my theory that strong silent men make crappy protagonists. And Shadow is a stupid name, anyway (it made me imagine him as a cross between a German Shepard and "The Rock").

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Terry Pratchett, Monstrous Regiment and Going Postal

Terry Pratchett, Monstrous Regiment and Going Postal. More fun. Monstrous Regiment is about the small criminally insane nation of Borogravia and its very unusual recruits. It changed my relationship with socks. Going Postal follows the, er, choice of the very talented con man Moist von Lipwig to go straight (more or less) and take a civil service job reviving the post office.

Friday, May 29, 2009

V.S. Naipaul, Magic Seeds

V.S. Naipaul, Magic Seeds. The next half of Willie Chandran's life (or the next third of it, anyway). Willie floats with the same reserve and disconnection. He somehow drifts through years of fighting with a guerrilla revolutionary force and further years of imprisonment. He lives more and more within his own skin and the best parts of the story are the details of how he connects minute to minute of time. His return to England pulls away from that focus, and in the end it's no different than his first arrival. He's still amiable, but full of less and less potential.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Terry Pratchett, Night Watch

Terry Pratchett, Night Watch. Marvelous. Scratched so many itches at once that I'm going to have to invent a new category of fun reading. This one had all the satisfaction of a good mystery/police novel smooshed in with science fiction and a really great imaginary universe and slathered all over with just slightly over the top hilariousness. Like Douglas Adams with more plot? No, not exactly. But that absurd humor that makes me snort when I'm reading and whisper lines out loud to myself just to hear them again. I can't exactly recap the plot, but Commander Sam Vimes is the kind of archetype who's fun to read about even when he's boring, and he was definitely not boring.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Edward P. Jones, All Aunt Hagar's Children

Edward P. Jones, All Aunt Hagar's Children. These are longer short stories, but the book doesn't have the scattered feeling of some collections. They are coherent and narratives transition smoothly: the people aren't connected, but the personality of the growing city of Washington provides continuity. Many of the characters are transplants, leaving rural communities behind, while others never left but are seeing their city change around them.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Kevin Crossley-Holland, At the Crossing-Places and King of the Middle March

Kevin Crossley-Holland, At the Crossing-Places and King of the Middle March. The second two books in this Arthurian trilogy. Again, the short chapters and the interweaving of two stories are original and pleasing. The book is meticulously researched ("our" Arthur's story is at end of the twelfth century) and therefore absolutely fascinating. The narrative is vivid and nuanced at the same time, which is hard to pull off when writing a squire's account of events leading up to a crusade.

V.S. Naipaul, Half a Life

V.S. Naipaul, Half a Life. Willie Chandran moves from continent to content, half escaping and half creating. He leaves behind his parents, but not quite their resentment and shame. And so he lives a life of repetition. The hypocrisy and entanglement of class and pigment follow him around the world. He's always almost absent, always leaves himself a backdoor open for escape. He manages to never be fully invested, to be continually making time. His half lived life has so far been cushioned by falsehoods and protective coloration. And yet he's attractive, amiable, full of untapped promise.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees

Italo Calvino, The Baron in the Trees (translated by Archibald Colquhoun). Cosimo, disgusted by snails at dinner, runs away to the trees and never comes down. His little brother records his life as an adventurer, scholar, lover, madman and revolutionary. Wonderful.

Adam Gopnik, The King in the Window

Adam Gopnik, The King in the Window. This story had a wonderful sense of place, and Paris through the eyes of a lonely child was enticing. But that's the best I can say for it. It had entrancing moments, but the plot splayed out and the story wasn't cohesive. The quantum computing subplot was especially clumsily patched on to the world of water, windows, and mirrors.

Monday, April 27, 2009

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, Good Omens

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, Good Omens. A total blast. Best weekend reading ever. Beats my efforts at description right now, but trust me, it's a good time. I've never read Pratchett before, and Stardust was my introduction to Gaiman. After finals I'm going to try some Discworld books.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

J.M. Coetzee, Slow Man

J.M. Coetzee, Slow Man. Quiet, understated, and perplexing. Paul Rayment's life is jolted and his image of himself is shattered when he loses a leg. A reserved, dignified and solitary man is confronted by his own foolishness. I thought Elizabeth Costello as a mechanism detracted from the core of the narrative; but it's difficult to write about the need for human connection and care without sounding stale, and maybe the device avoided emotional boredom. But she seemed forced and unconvincing and poisoned the story.

Sunday, April 05, 2009

Vladimir Nabokov, Ada

Vladimir Nabokov, Ada. Extremely sticky. More than a little affected. And yet- beautifully allusive, velvety, with spurts of enchanting wordplay. But the language was too indulgent to sustain and the romance was more ridiculous and annoying than erotic. I felt it was closely related to to a book I might enjoy, but I was never able to stop rolling my eyes.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009

Kid's books again

So these books have been a renewed addiction for me. I can read one of these in an evening, even if I'm tired - and if they are really good, I can read them out loud snuggling with the boys.

Kevin Crossley-Holland, The Seeing Stone. A retelling of Arthurian legend in very short chapters. Interesting and detailed snapshots of medieval life.

Eva Ibbotson, The Secret of Platform 13. A cute little story, old-fashioned in feel.

William Nicholson, The Wind Singer. Fantastic. Original, gripping and nuanced. Reminded me of A Wrinkle in Time. Passing this one on to my little brothers, and searching out the other two books in the trilogy.

Patricia Maclachlan, Tomorrow's Wizard. A very little story and very good fun. Perfect read out loud book.

Brian Jacques, Castaways of the Flying Dutchman. Just terrible. Disappointing - the Redwall books were fun, but this wasn't even fun. I was hoping it was going to have seafaring and adventures, desert islands and such. The first chapter was promising, but the rest of the book was just badly written sweetness and light.

EL Konigsburg, The View From Saturday. Championship sixth grade quiz bowl team.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Somaly Mam, The Road of Lost Innocence

Somaly Mam, The Road of Lost Innocence. (I read this for a group at school). While it was shocking, it was not written to titillate. Somaly says that she told her story in a book so that she doesn't have to keep telling it, so that it stands apart from her. What was remarkable was the practical attitude of the book.

"I don't feel like I can change the world. I don't even try. I only want to change this small life that I see standing in front of me, which is suffering."

It is a personal story about the global sex trade and human trafficking, and more importantly, about the effort to fight it. Her organization (as well as Somaly and her family) have been threatened and attacked as a result of her work against organized trafficking. They continue to provide protection, shelter, education, and support for sustainable employment to victims of human trafficking in Cambodia. Somaly has written a direct and honest story with the purpose of creating awareness and support for her organization and her cause.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

More kid's books

Carol Matas and Perry Nodelman, More Minds. Good idea, not so great execution, still a fun little fantasy. Unremarkable. Gail Carson Levine, Ella Enchanted. This was actually really cute. Didn't realize it was a retelling of the Cinderella story until 2/3 of the way through it. Always wondered why she was so docile. Good candidate for read out loud. Robert C. O'brien, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. Still just as good as the first time. I've never thought about rats the same way since I first read this. I always imagine them making intricate machines in their vast underground tunnels and only appearing at subway stops and alleys on their way to somewhere else. It is odd to read it now when I view lab animals as convenient models for things. Now I worry about such poor study design, and all that lost data is tragic (although I'm still on these rats' side, of course). I'll probably never be able to do animal work - too many children's books and an overactive imagination.

Saturday, February 28, 2009

Zadie Smith, White Teeth

Zadie Smith, White Teeth. Hilarious and uncomfortable. Layers of commentary and strife. The Chalfens made me wince, probably because I've heard echos of their smugness in their eccentricity in my own head. I actually liked this better than On Beauty, because I liked the people better. Not that anyone was particularly admirable. Samad was possibly the least admirable but the most sympathetic - his hypocrisy actually made him less exasperating and more comprehensible. If he was my husband I'd kill him, though, not just beat him in wrestling in the back yard.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Comfort Food

I wish I could say I've given up reading for pleasure to focus on Human Organ Systems. Unfortunately, I've just reverted to binging on sweets. Full disclosure in the interests of honesty: three old Martha Grimes mysteries (The Man With a Load of Mischief, The Anodyne Necklace, and The Old Contemptibles). Michael Crichton's Sphere (very mediocre). J. K. Rowling's Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them, and Jane Yolen's Wizard's Hall (both darling). Just think of how much knowledge I could have been gaining. So it goes.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


John Updike died today. He was a good imaginary friend of mine. We'd get in fights, but he'd always write something to bring me back to him. I wish I could thank him. Coming after the deaths of my dear imaginary friends Saul Bellow, Madeleine L'Engle, and Kurt Vonnegut, I'm starting to feel like an elderly person who dreads reading the obituaries.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Robb Forman Dew, The Truth of the Matter

Robb Forman Dew, The Truth of the Matter. A wistful, rounded book. I loved the glimpses of Agnes' internal process - a wonderful description of the corners of consciousness. I thought the story was a little wispy, but it was told sensuously and was quite beautiful.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace

Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace. (The Peavar and Volokhonsky translation.) I'm not sure what to say about this. I hadn't read it in about 12 years and I have to say it was a lot of fun - it's a big juicy novel. I enjoyed the characters and even the history(diatribes)- in fact I thought the background was the most fun. I had more appreciation for prince Andrei this time, and less sympathy for Pierre. But by the end I was enraged at so many things. The ending- the relationships of Natasha and Pierre, Marya and Nikolai, were so disappointing. Even more than in Anna Karenina, I felt that the women weren't actually people. And Tostoy's attitudes about marriage were infuriating, even in context of the time. Not that the center of a marriage is creating a family, but the relationship between husband and wife is so lopsided. I don't like the implication that the wife is almost solely a vessel for the reflection and refinement of her husband's personality. Natasha was especially obnoxious, and while Marya had potential to be an interesting person, it didn't happen. I want to be clear, I liked the happy domestic scenes (and the breastfeeding), it was Tolstoy's condescending and limiting views on the rest of the role of a wife that was infuriating. The scene with Marya's diary almost made me vomit. But I guess that I've changed a lot in a dozen years, maybe I'm less able to accept things uncritically, or maybe I just have another perspective on life.

After posting, I realized that I had better explain, because I know it's the family tradition to love Pierre. So here's why Pierre is basically worthless. Yes he has a good heart. I like him, especially when he's drinking, feels bad, and won't get off the couch. But his role as an intellectual is a monumental waste. He's a follower - a guru-hopper - he doesn't have any substance. His feelings are good, but he never develops any discipline. What he really needs is a regular job - all that money is bad for him. He's really only any good when he has something to do. At the very least, he needs a counterpoint, a challenge; but Andrei's dead, and Natasha is quite the opposite.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Philip Roth, Indignation

Philip Roth, Indignation. Not so good. The Olivia character was a complete cliche (the main character was something of a cliche too, maybe on purpose -I don't know - but if so, too subtle for me). Despite the dead gimmick, there wasn't all that much to it. There was one supremely funny and outrageous scene that made it worth the time, but only because it was a very short book.