Friday, December 31, 2010

Jonathan Stroud, The Ring of Solomon

Jonathan Stroud, The Ring of Solomon. Another sneak peek at a Christmas book, this is a prequel to the Bartimaeus trilogy. Bartimaues, the djinni-hero-narrator is just as hilarious, vain, garrulous, and generally entertaining as in the first three books.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Jonathan Franzen, Freedom

Jonathan Franzen, Freedom. Fantastic; every bit as good as The Corrections. Exactly what a novel should be.

John le Carre, Our Kind of Traitor

John le Carré, Our Kind of Traitor. A young English couple on an island holiday get entangled with an international criminal and his children. You know what to expect: wistful characters, (either idealistic and naive or idealistic and exhausted by a lifetime of compromise and operational gray areas) in situations fraught with moral ambiguity, political urgency, and human feeling. Not as amazing as A Most Wanted Man, but another solid, well-crafted novel.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

John Updike, Toward the End of Time

John Updike, Toward the End of Time. All right, John, here's the deal. I love you, but I can't keep doing this anymore. I don't know why I keep reading your often mediocre and sometimes horrible novels. This book was generally muddled and and sort of limping along, but it was the combination of lazy interpretations of cosmology and particle physics and the absolutely florid and often astoundingly gross descriptions (you deserved this award, and let's leave it at that) that forced me to this. Your lovely language and gift for recognizable and heartbreaking description (and let's face it, when you're good, you're really really good) just aren't worth it right now. I'm not reading anything of yours for a year. Not even that nice volume of short stories I found. A year from now, I'll pretend like this never happened and start over again with your Rabbit books.

Suzanne Collins, Gregor the Overlander and The Hunger Games

Suzanne Collins, Gregor the Overlander and The Hunger Games. We have a bad habit in my family of sampling the books we buy for each other before giving them. Anyway, these were fine and pretty well written. Gregor was a story about a young boy going on a mission in a mysterious land to save his father and the kingdom, with the adorable twist that he has to carry his two year-old sister on his back the entire time. The Hunger Games was fun, fast-paced and thrilling (like watching the novel's horrible gladiatorial television show of the same name, no doubt) but I found it a little hollow.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere

Neil Gaiman, Neverwhere. Better than American Gods. More than a little reminiscent of the Sandman series. Richard Mayhew (a forgettable Neo-ish regular guy) accidentally falls through the cracks into the goth-ish world of London Underground and ends up a hero. Reads like a screenplay and you can just see the costumes (ah, wikipedia just told me that Gaiman wrote it as a television series first, which explains that, although in my mind the marquis de Carabas must be played by Johnny Depp).

Sholom Aleichem, Selected Stories.

Sholom Aleichem, Selected Stories. Found a lovely copy of these at a used book store; they were not what I expected. Let's just say that you will already know some of these short, hilarious stories about life in the fictional Eastern European town of Kasrilevka.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Jacqueline Winspear, Birds of a Feather

Jacqueline Winspear, Birds of a Feather. An ok detective story, I suppose, with Maisie Dobbs as a doubly unconventional private investigator in 1930 London. But intuition, psychology, and mind-body awareness are not the most interesting of investigation methods or conversation topics; and while the background was great, the plot was only unoffensive. I didn't really fall for Maisie, either (internal dialogue can be too explicitly voiced and make a hero boring).The blurb on the back said "If you like classic mysteries you'll love... " - that may be true, but then again, if you like classic mysteries you might like classic mysteries better.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet

Salman Rushdie, The Ground Beneath Her Feet. Rock-and-roll, gods and superstars, myth, earthquakes, colliding worlds. Big and florid.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


So I've been reading on my smartphone, substituting reading free ebooks for my old favorite vices of sudoku and crossword puzzles. I really enjoyed Secret Adversary (by Agatha Christie - a Tommy and Tuppence!) and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which I hadn't read in ages and had totally forgotten. But one of my favorite books, Notes from the Underground, was a little frustrating to read on a three-inch screen so I gave up and dug it off my bookshelf to finish. I think that phone reading is better suited for less complex reading or at least shorter sentences, as it's tough to focus when flipping the pages so frequently, something a bigger screen would help. I can't imagine how horrible it would be to read Henry James on a phone - it would take three screens per phrase.

If I could read in the bathtub with one, I might buy an eReader device of some sort (especially for magazines and journal articles - I print out way too many pdfs). But I think I am too attached to paper books to ever really change over. I like to lend books, to give them away, to browse through piles of them, to acquire them on curbs from dejected little heaps. I still remember plunking down my Christmas money to buy my first book on my own. It was a paperback copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and I read it 28 times in a row, memorized it, and eventually made a replacement cover for it out of gold foil and candy-wrappers.

Monday, October 25, 2010

Jeanne Birdsall, The Penderwicks

Jeanne Birdsall, The Penderwicks. Four children on summer vacation at a country estate with a dead mother, affectionate yet preoccupied father, and rambunctious family dog. They have adventures, get into scrapes, stick up for each other and make new friends while facing all sorts of obstacles. Sounds familiar, right? The story is explicitly reminiscent of E Nesbit and Edward Eager and CS Lewis - and mentions by the children of really good books are themselves a tradition in these sorts of stories.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Michael Thomas, Man Gone Down

Michael Thomas, Man Gone Down. Good. Emotionally convoluted, dramatic, and far-fetched but also emotionally convincing. Beautiful language goes a long way.

Julian Barnes, The Porcupine

Julian Barnes, The Porcupine. The narration of the trial of a deposed party leader after the fall of the USSR. The slyly understated dialogue of the prosecutor and the accused reminded me of Camus.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Jon Fasman, The Geographer's Library

Jon Fasman, The Geographer's Library. Eh. Pretty lame despite some fun details and a decent plot. The journalist/investigator protagonist was a brat. And I'm tired of alchemy, anyway. Not like this, not the historical proto-chemistry (however mystical), but like philosopher's stone, immortality, secret societies, blah blah blah. I can just watch Indiana Jones or something.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Virginia Rounding, Catherine The Great.

Virginia Rounding, Catherine The Great: Love, Sex, and Power. This was recommended by the ladies at Stuff You Missed in History Class. Don't be fooled by the titillating subtitle - this book is perhaps less shocking then any old Russian novel. Catherine did have a series of young favorites, but she and those around her were unfailingly discreet. Catherine is a fascinating figure and the biography itself was decent, and seem to get better and less awkward as it went along. Early in the book it felt as though someone comfortable with more academic prose was trying a bit too hard to be relaxed and conversational. Catherine's letters and those of her friends and visitors to her court were wonderful and the author did a great job of framing people's words; for example pointing out that certain correspondence was often intended to be intercepted and read by people other than the adressee - a sort of free advertising or propaganda. Catherine's letters to Voltaire, for example, were intended for a wider audience. Some letters were just fun to read - the long and frank correspondence between Catherine and her dear friend and art dealer Friedrich Melchior Grimm, full of details about her grandchildren, dogs, and daily life - made her absolutely come to life. Catherine lived in such a fascinating time, right at the beginning of our modern age, and how she managed to efficiently adopt an new country and religion, take it over in a neat coup, efficiently rule and expand a vast empire (based on serfdom) with the longest reign of any Tsar, while simultaneously maintaining within herself at least the ideal of an enlightened ruler modernizing and improving Russia, is incredible.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Trenton Lee Stewart, The Mysterious Benedict Society

Trenton Lee Stewart, The Mysterious Benedict Society. An extremely gifted team of orphan children must save the world on their own while deep undercover at a shadowy and Brave-new-world-ish sinister academy. Cute, funny, vaguely unoriginal. I am passing it on to my little brother Ben, who I think will enjoy it more than I did.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Daniel Pinkwater, The Education of Robert Nifkin

Daniel Pinkwater, The Education of Robert Nifkin. Started reading it out loud in the car to the boys (we recently enjoyed listening to The Neddiad on tape), realized it was a little out of their age bracket and finished it up to myself. Hilarious. Home room, commie infiltration of ROTC, his parents' furnishing misadventures; Robert Nifkin relates his high school (and delinquency) experience in the best Pinkwater deadpan.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Jonathan Stroud, The Bartimaeus Trilogy

Jonathan Stroud, The Bartimaeus Trilogy. The Amulet of Samarkand, The Golem's Eye, and Ptolemy's Gate. I loved these. A really fun and funny well-written trilogy. Bartimaus (the sometimes snarky, extremely famous, quite accomplished, infinitely clever, fabulously powerful, and ever modest djinni-narrator) is priceless.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Philip Roth, Exit Ghost

Philip Roth, Exit Ghost. I was going to complain that this book was exactly the same as the last Roth book I read, but to be fair, it was a little better put together than Indignation. But nothing about Zuckerman's (it's another Zuckerman book) terminal obsession with decay and impotence was interesting or even novel - and even in his impotence and senility he can't narrate one damn female character that is anything more than the object of sexual fetish - no life of their own beyond a mirror for their men to gaze into. But really - the only reason I can't forgive this book is that there was not one damn beautiful or funny or amazing moment in it - it was stale and tired, a meandering waste of time.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper's Apprentice

Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper's Apprentice. Fun, fun, fun!

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Namesake. Gogol (the American-born son if Indian parents) was a little flat, while his expatriate parents' surroundings and personalities were lovingly rendered. Gogol's affairs, academics, career, failed marriage, even his apartment were never convincing; he seemed a construct, a stereotype. His parent's emotions, even their furniture and food, were somehow more textured - it was odd because their role in the story was so traditional (immigrant parents and their American children, tensions ensue...) and yet they were more convincing. I was disappointed.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

John Banville, The Infinities

John Banville, The Infinities. Gods, self, mathematics, death, family. A nearly mundane family drama acrobatically spun into a universe with slightly different underpinnings (for example, here Johann Beringer was correct and fossils were indeed the capricious fabrications of God). So much artifice, so many sly jokes, so many lovely narrative turns. The writing was ridiculously beautiful. Words so lovely the story was outshone by its clothes.

Saturday, August 07, 2010

Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains

Tracy Kidder, Mountains Beyond Mountains. The Paul Farmer story. A dangerous book to read; a book to change your life.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

E. O. Wilson, Anthill

E. O. Wilson, Anthill. Loved, LOVED the parts about the ants. The early story about Raff Cody falling in love with the longleaf pine forest was lovely, and the view of academia as a very specialized colony was fabulous. However, sadly, the end of the book had a clumsy and perfunctory Grisham-style thriller tacked on. And it wasn't very thrilling or even interesting (and so lacked the only redeeming quality of a real legal thriller). It seemed like a creative writing exercise where you're asked to re-create a certain style and you use a web template. This was especially disappointing, because Wilson can write so beautifully. It's like a lovely book was growing and it suddenly acquired a fifth useless leg mid-development. And I wanted more ants. So I suppose that after clinical rotations I'll stop putting off reading The Ants.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief

Markus Zusak, The Book Thief. Leisel is a foster child in a small town in the outskirts of Munich during World War II. She first becomes a book thief when she finds The Grave Digger's Handbook at her little brother's funeral. Despite the frequent tragedy, the book is funny, original, and emotionally convincing (it's easy to set a tragedy in that time and place, but it isn't easy to be genuine and tell a story that any child or adult can identify with). I loved Leisel and her friends and family; and I loved her discovery of words and the word use in the book itself.

P. D. James, The Private Patient

P. D. James, The Private Patient. One of her usual tight and intricate mysteries. I'm not really an Adam Dagleish fan. He's too perfect; a grown-up's fantasy - I mean, really, a tall, handsome, reserved, and distantly wounded critically acclaimed poet wedded to his work who comes WITH the perfect London flat? And unlike another ridiculously perfect British detective, he is never funny or silly or entertaining or close to human. I always enjoy reading her books, though, because they are like her detective: a little distant, a little chilly, but technically impeccable. This one, set in a private plastic surgery clinic at a lovely old manor house, was no different, and had lovely little plot twists in a nice tight frame.

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey

Thornton Wilder, The Bridge of San Luis Rey. After five travelers die in an "act of God" (a rope bridge collapse), a priest tries to discover a rational system to determine why some are chosen to die and some are chosen to live. What evolves from this research is a beautiful distillation of the essence of five lives.

Sunday, June 27, 2010

Bernhard Schlink, The Reader

Bernhard Schlink, The Reader (translated by Carol Brown Janeway). I had forgotten that I had read this, but couldn't stop. It's a surprisingly subtle story. Unbridgeable chasms between individuals. Language, literacy, awareness, guilt.

Terry Pratchett, The Color of Magic, Eric, and Feet of Clay

Terry Pratchett, The Color of Magic, Eric, and Feet of Clay. Feet of Clay was a detective story featuring golems and the City Watch. Cheery Littlebottem and Dorfl join the Watch, Lord Vetinari gets poisoned, Commander Vimes and Captain Carrot investigate. The Color of Magic and Eric (or Faust) were Rincewind adventures.

Friday, June 25, 2010

Jane Smiley, Ordinary Love and Goodwill

Jane Smiley, Ordinary Love and Goodwill. Two beautiful novellas about family life.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler's Wife

Audrey Niffenegger, The Time Traveler's Wife. A delicious fluffy layer-cake of a story. I loved the holey time-addled story line (and while chronological impairment is a plot gimmick, it's fun, enlivened the plot, and provided an excuse to talk about the nature of love, identity, and choice). Henry and Claire were lovable, their friends and family were perhaps even more interesting, and the setting in and around Chicago was an extra layer of icing. But I wish Claire had more of her own identity. So much of her self was wrapped up in Henry, waiting for him, helping him, loving him - although I suppose she was essentially a child-bride and so perhaps that level of entanglement is not surprising. I really wonder about her art. Were her thoughts expressed in her sculptures alone and hidden from us? Perhaps not, since most of her works that were described also seemed to revolve around her relationship with Henry or around Henry himself. I would have found the love story more powerful if I felt they both had stronger identities- Henry apart from his time-wandering, and Claire apart from Henry. But I suppose that our personalities are often constrained and defined by the happenstance of our lives.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

William Gibson, Spook Country

William Gibson, Spook Country. This book wasn't really science fiction, more like techno-now fiction; sort of a spy-art-gizmo-post-9-11 hodgepodge. The only hazard of writing in the near-present is that the tech in this 07 book already seems quaint. Interesting plot with (wonder of wonders in this genre!) a moderately interesting grown-up female reporter/ex-musician with an actual personality as narrator. Naturally she gets sucked into a strange and intricate caper involving satellites, dirty money, and shadowy government organizations. My major complaint about William Gibson is that he doesn't really like people, he likes things. All his books are absolute love stories to things and designs (they should come with tiny replicas or glossy catalogs) but the people never really go anywhere or develop - if you expect that than they are a fine entertainment.

Samuel Shem, The House of God

Samuel Shem, The House of God. Dr. Roy Basch undergoes a curriculum of self-defense training and skill set acquisition including bouncing, buffing, and turfing during the absurd purgatory of intern year in the Seventies. It's hilarious (and bitter, and very very raunchy). I kept hearing this strange vocabulary and references to characters like the Fat Man over the last few years - so, I thought I had better read this and then anything I get myself into in the next couple of years will seem benign by comparison.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

E. Nesbit, The Wouldbegoods

E. Nesbit, The Wouldbegoods. Loved it. The better they try to be, the more trouble they make - I love the Bastable kids. And for kicks, check out E. Nesbit's wikipedia page; who knew she was a radical?

Friday, April 30, 2010

John Updike, The Witches of Eastwick

John Updike, The Witches of Eastwick. Complete muck. Blech. Not even the sermon on parasites at the end saved it.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals

Terry Pratchett, Unseen Academicals. Loved this one. Sports, academia, high fashion, pies, and candle dribbling.

Victor LaValle, Big Machine

Victor LaValle, Big Machine. Ricky Rice gets a mysterious letter and a one-way greyhound ticket to northeastern Vermont. He leaves his job as a night janitor and enters a surreal secret organization in a stone library. He spends his days with ex-criminals and ex-junkies doing research and preparing reports while dressed in immaculate 1920's menswear. It gets weird from there.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

More comics

So, it's the end of spring break and we've been on a comics binge at my house. The Iowa City Public Library has a phenomenal collection of comic books (really amazing) and we have them stacked on every surface of our house. It's been great, because the boys are getting to see classic superheroes and lots of new stories. I read Renee French's The Soap lady to the boys. Horrifying and beautiful - I really need to go see the Mutter Museum. Next I read a couple of Neil Gaiman collaborations to myself: Murder Mysteries and The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch. Yawn. But best of all has been Tank Girl by Alan Martin and Jamie Hewlett. She's my new friend. Pow!

Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated

Jonathan Safran Foer, Everything is Illuminated. Funny, silly, charming, heartbreaking. Sometimes the letters were a little precious - but Alex the letter-writer actually became more human as the story continued (and self-conscious as they could be, the emotions felt genuine). The scenes with Sammy Davis Junior Junior the insane dog were hilarious enough for me to forgive any possible sin of earnestness.

Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis

Marjane Satrapi, Persepolis. A beautiful story.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Edward Marston, The Malevolent Comedy

Edward Marston, The Malevolent Comedy. This is the first of the series I've read - they feature an Elizabethan theater troupe whose dramas spill off the stage and into murder and kidnapping territory. The bizarrely talented and resourceful bookholder, Nicholas Bracewell, leads the investigations (and why a guy who is trained in the finer points of all deadly weapons, accounting, detecting, and general problem solving is working for a theater company I don't know). Fun and light, but not much of mystery. The setting and characters were pleasant, but I'm not dying to read any more of these.

Don DeLillo, White Noise

Don DeLillo, White Noise. Fear of death - wouldn't it be nice if there was a pill for that?

Thursday, March 11, 2010

David McCullough, John Adams

David McCullough, John Adams. Could have been a bit shorter, and I admit that I used it to fall asleep a few times. But I loved Adams - his moderation of thought and his independence - and I even enjoyed his inconsistencies, his vanity, and his moodiness. I liked that he was self-aware enough to admit his faults to his wife. I really did fall in love with Abigail Adams. If I was going to do it over, I'd probably read the Wikipedia article on John and get a collection of Abigail's letters. So many letters, to so many people, crossing oceans; really remarkable. Without the letters, the book would have been a dry recounting of official record; with the letters it sometimes had the gossipy feel of a novel or movie. The most suspenseful subplot was the relationship between Adams and Jefferson (and it had a happy ending, too, which was nice).

One fascinating thing was how much illness was a part of the story: so many children dying, adults suddenly taking ill, the widespread fear of epidemics, and seasonal illnesses that we have no conception of today. Infectious diseases lurked in the corners of this book - typhoid, diphtheria, tuberculosis, pneumonia, malaria - sinister characters picking off the players like snipers. I'd forgotten that the yellow fever epidemic in Philadelphia happened when George Washington was president and displaced the entire Congress, and I had had no idea that Dr. Benjamin Rush was one of Adams' closest friends.

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca

Daphne du Maurier, Rebecca. The worst book ever. I never read it as a kid because I thought it would be icky and it totally was (so nice when childhood grudges are justified). Horrible people, sloppy dramatic writing, predictable plot. I've never been so annoyed with a protagonist in my life. What a whiny, spineless, melodramatic, pouty little brat. And Max was the most insipid gelatinous sulky condescending love interest ever - I refuse to believe that he would ever have had the balls to shoot his wife. At least Rebecca had orgies and was evil and maybe even interesting. I would have had to thoroughly drug myself before even having dinner with those people. Oh my, it was just so horrible.

Friday, February 26, 2010

Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus

Kurt Vonnegut, Hocus Pocus. Chalk another one up for the elders of Tralfamadore.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Sloane Crosley, I Was Told There'd Be Cake

Sloane Crosley, I Was Told There'd Be Cake. These were like going out for coffee with a friend (who you don't really like, but who is really entertaining when she talks about herself, which is always).

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Terry Pratchett, Interesting Times

Terry Pratchett, Interesting Times. One last fun book leftover from Christmas. Actually, I think it was my least favorite discworld book so far (which is to say that I thoroughly enjoyed it)- Rincewind isn't my favorite wizard and the Counterweight continent doesn't hold a candle to Ankh-Morpork.

Alan Zweibel, The Other Shulman

Alan Zweibel, The Other Shulman. Shulman is your middle aged faintly whiny guy who's just realized he's no longer a promising young man; he's a familiar character, which actually makes the fact that he has an evil double pretty funny. Shulman's lost (and gained) enough weight over his life to make a second person and that person has decided to ruin his life. There are some hilarious moments as Shulman clomps along in training to shamble through a marathon, and his love of stationary is genuinely endearing.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Mischa Berlinski, Fieldwork

Mischa Berlinski, Fieldwork. The story unfolds intricately, piece by piece: you have to peer over the narrator's shoulder as he investigates an old murder of a missionary in a hill country tribal village. Anthropology, journalism, and murder in Thailand: it's a good read, and all of the pieces are interesting, but the whole story doesn't feel quite right - I guess I didn't really buy the conclusion.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Michael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs

Michael Chabon, Manhood for Amateurs. Pretty fun set of essays. Hard not identify when you have kids. He falls into old-fogeyisms occasionally (when I was a kid, yadda yadda, kids nowdays, yadda yadda) that I think are a little much. Enjoyed his stories about drawing superheroes and playing legos with his kids, and his defense of popular culture.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel

Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel. Fantastic. Really. So engrossing - you forget that you already know some pieces of the story. The most fascinating parts are not the familiar parts. Who cares about Henry and his stupid sex life - but textiles! And reformation! And painting, and disease, and family life, and finiancial markets, and education and marriage. A beautiful novel with a great story and real flesh on the people and places. Thomas Cromwell was the most interesting main character, and I loved the way Thomas More was depicted (a contrast from "A Man for all Seasons" and lining up more with how I've been privately thinking of him for the last few years). I looked up every painting I could find by Holbein, too.