Saturday, March 28, 2009

And Now For the Thrilling Conclusion of: In Which I Make a Meme

Now remember, these are not necessarily my all-time favorite books, but rather the best representatives of the best books on my shelves.

6. Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell. Here we represent literary fiction. I read Cloud Atlas for book club a few years ago; I was mad when they picked it, because the back cover uses the word “postmodern” to describe it, and that word makes my brain melt. And then I started the book, and found the first chapter, written in the style of a diary of an 1800s ocean journey, hard to read. And I really didn’t trust the author to pull of the overly clever structure he was using. But I fell in love with the simplicity behind the complicated structure, with the connections between different styles of storytelling, with the mainstreaming of science fiction, with the incredibly different ways of addressing the same themes.

I have a fairly low tolerance for standard “literary fiction,” which too often loses track of its story in the face of its ideas. But when an author does it right, it can be amazing. Mary Doria Russell does something like this with The Sparrow, Marilynn Robinson in Housekeeping. The People of the Book, by Geraldine Brooks, is another novel that uses beautiful prose and historical research to tell a series of stories that are really one story, about tolerance and faith and history.

I choose Cloud Atlas here both because it’s one of my favorites, and because it brings in another element that I find fascinating—mainstream fiction that bridges the gap with science fiction. Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go is another of my favorite example of this—a story that people who “don’t read science fiction” would pick up and enjoy, but that is science fiction both thematically and in plot.

7. Arrows of the Queen, by Mercedes Lackey. This is mostly a nostalgia choice, but it also represents something important. First, there needs to be a decent amount of fantasy on this list, because that’s what it takes to reflect what I read. But this was the first fantasy novel that I ever read. For my twelfth birthday, my aunt sent me three novels. One was Trespasses, a solid World War II family saga; one was People of the Wolf, which I think she picked because I liked Clan of the Cave Bear, and one was Arrows of the Queen. I could not for the life of me figure out why she picked these books—with the exception of People of the Wolf, they were like nothing I’d ever read. Somehow, I never ended up reading People of the Wolf, but read Trespasses several times (though I haven’t thought of it in years). And Mercedes Lackey became one of my favorite authors. I gobbled up the rest of her work ,waited for the new ones to come out, searched for anthologies where her stories had been published.

Sad to say, I’ve grown out of her a bit lately, but I think it’s more a matter of us growing apart—as her books go along, they get more complex and, I think, more flawed. But her early, simple work I can still go back to with the fresh eyes of someone who can be amazed at the person who came up with a world where everyone has a psychic connection to a sentient horse. And dammit, I still love her for it.

8. Going Postal, by Terry Pratchett. Because good funny is hard to find, but vitally necessary in life.

9. The Nine Parts of Desire, by Geraldine Brooks. And here we come to nonfiction. Since I would say that at least 90% of what I read is fiction, I only get to put one of these on the list, but there’s a broad range in here. I choose this one because I learned so much from it that I carry with me today—though it was written more than 15 years ago, it’s an excellent guide to the Middle East, if you’re willing to exclude any current events and just look at history. This is where I learned about the difference between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, and about what is said in the Koran vs. what is practiced by tribal cultures that have adopted Islam over the centuries.

My nonfiction reading is kind of all over the map, though. I like pop psychology books and memoirs (An Unquiet Mind, by Kay Redfield Jameson), books about how medicine works (Better, by Atul Gawande), autism memoirs (The Seige, by Clara Claiborne Park—I used to work in autism, and Clara Park was my advisor in college), and explorations of any subject that are either fun (Stiff, by Mary Roach) or titillating (Leaving the Saints, by Martha Beck). I’m a bit of a sucker, actually, for titillating when it comes to nonfiction.

10. Farthing, by Jo Walton. I think this is a good book to sum it all up, because it covers so much ground. It’s plain old good fiction. It’s thought-provoking, with an alternate-reality twist. It’s a mystery—I don’t read a lot of mysteries, but I’m loyal to a few: Colin Cotterill’s Dr. Siri stories, and the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency books. It’s speculative fiction, which I would say is not anything as flat-out fantastical as science fiction or fantasy, but it comes back to bridging those gaps between genre and mainstream, like Never Let Me Go. The book is about a murder mystery set in an alternate 1940s England, where Hitler rules continental Europe, and England and the U.S. remain out of the war. Ideas about right and wrong, loyalty, fear, and bigotry are examined in great detail by a flighty socialite of a narrator. It’s a wonderful book, and represents so much of what I’m hungry for when I read. You should really check it out.

So I wonder if this covers everything. You'll notice that I snuck a bunch more titles onto the list through the backdoor, but even there, I had to trim--Adventures in the Screen Trade, by William Goldman--humor, or nonfiction? A Gift Upon the Shore, by M.K. Wren--how do I work it into the text of #10? Sadly, I don't; there's too much great stuff out there. But here's a glimpse, and, for anyone who thinks they might like what I like, a little reading list. So, enjoy.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

In Which I Make a Meme, Part the First

Inspired by a "15 Albums" meme that Mike did on Facebook, I've decided to start one of my own: 10 books. The idea is to create a 15 book reading list that will encapsulate and summarize my taste. A lot of them are my favorites, but not all the choices are my "desert island" favorites; I went for a representative corps, rather than the outliers. But the idea is that if you read this list, you should be able to go out and make an intelligent decision if you decided to, say, buy me a gift. (Which would be very nice of you. Thanks for even thinking of it!)

You'll notice that I sneak in a lot of other titles from the pool of work that each item represents. I'm cheap; sue me. Also, the post was really long, so this is the first half. More to come.

Okay, here we go!

1. In This House of Brede, by Rumer Godden. This book is representative of a few overlapping categories: nun books and detail books. In sci-fi and fantasy, there's an element of storytelling called worldbuilding, in which the author gives you the details you need to understand the world in which the story takes place. The details of day-to-day life in this nun book are exquisitely well-drawn, and a world as foreign as any imaginary one just springs to life. Most nun books (I'm not sure if this is a category acknowledged anywhere else in the world, except privately among readers of nun books) have as part of their appeal the sweet simplicity of a life outside of the world, and also the rigorous inner journey of someone who has chosen something difficult and meaningful to devote themselves to. (As the Mother General says in The Nun's Story, by Kathryn Hulme, my first and most cherished nun book, "In many ways it is a life against nature.")

Audrey Hepburn brought me to the movie The Nun's Story, which brought me to the book, which brought me to this book. Some of them are memoirs, some novels. And I'm not interested in racy exposés; though I don't demand all roses and sweet smiles, I'm in the nun books for the focus of these lives, and that's what I love to read about. I love to read about a life that is hard and worth it; as John Adams said (or something like it), there are only two kinds of people worth anything--those with a commitment, and those that require the commitment of others.

2. Miss Manners' Guide to Excruciatingly Correct Behavior, by Judith Martin. I am an advice junkie. Part of it is a creepy kind of voyeurism--other people's problems are titillating--of which I'm not proud. Part of it is the bald fact that great writing is great writing, and Judith Martin has a simple grandeur and vicious dignity that is pretty thrilling. And part of it is just the catharsis of being told exactly how one might go about living the perfect life, even if that is totally unattainable. Also, the question-and-answer format is very digestible. Fun fun fun.

3. Shining Through, by Susan Isaacs. Chick lit: I'm a female, and my taste in literature can in no way be defined as highfalutin', so there will be some chick lit. But I'm seriously picky about chick lit, since I secretly kind of hate anyone I see wearing sharp-pointy-toed shoes, even people I like. Which means I kind of hate a lot of people in chick lit books. But there are some books that make the cut--Megan McCafferty, some Elinor Lipman, the Bridget Jones books. Susan Isaacs takes the cake, though, and Shining Through is the best of the bunch. The life and loves of a sassy World War II secretary-turned-spy. Can't get better.

4. Preludes and Nocturnes, by Neil Gaiman. It’s so pedestrian of me to pick Sandman to represent comics in this lineup, but it’s incredibly famous and popular and classic for a reason. Besides graphic novels, this is also great fantasy, and an excellent example of a plot-driven story that is still full of and very much about important ideas--duty, honor, history, storytelling. It is so intensely up my alley (and, I guess, everyone else’s) that I can’t even articulate it, except maybe to say that this is one of those works that not only wish I could have written but feel lives in my brain as though it was there before I read it. You know what I mean? I love Hellboy, Castle Waiting, and a lot of great one-offs (The Last of the Independents, by Matt Fraction--anyone?), but The Complete Sandman would definitely be at the top of my desert island list, so I think it has to make this one.

5. Ghosts I Have Been, by Richard Peck. If there is a compendium of all Peck’s Blossom Culp books out there, I’d pick that, but if I had to pick one, you have to go with the original. I twiddled with this part of the list a bit—I wanted to include some quality YA fantasy (Princess Academy, by Shannon Hale), and some indulgent Pez-type stuff (I actually wrote an explanation of why Goodbye, Stacey, Goodbye is my favorite Babysitter’s Club book), and I recently fell in love with something else again (Bloody Jack, by L.A. Meyer), but if I want to boil it down, I think my desert island choice in this category would be Blossom Culp.

I’d like to say I keep up on the kids’ stuff because of my hoped-for youth librarian-future, but the truth is, it’s the other way around. Librarianship looked like a good place to go, since I was already reading this stuff. I think fantasy writers and YA writers are doing some of the purest storytelling out ther; they can’t afford to lose the story--the characters, the plot, the events—to their ideas and themes and statements about life, but they have to include those elements. I think it makes for disciplined work, and I think that’s why so much YA material appeals to me. I’m a little surprised, actually, that it only got one spot on the list, but here you have it.

Okay, this is more than enough for now. Six through ten, coming at you soon. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Up And Coming

I'm working on a big post with kind of a cool meme in it, but it's taking some time and energy, so I wanted to drop in and discuss my current reading list. But first, I want to point out the awesome-cool Goodreads widget that updates the images of the books I'm reading, with links directly to my Amazon Associates account. So feel free to click through those, if you'd like, or just admire the ever-changing list of books I'm reading, whether I actively blog them or not.

So, right now, I'm finally getting around to some Nero Wolfe, as recommended by my good friend Kris, whose taste is as eclectic as one might wish. It's got that fast-paced, workman-style mystery that you get in a noir tale, and I'm really loving it. I mean, it took me about two hours to read the first half, so it's not deeply profound or anything, but I have no idea what's going to happen, and I'm excited to find out. Nero Wolfe himself is kind of irritating, though. And has Orson Welles ever played him, 'cause he totally should have. It's called The Golden Spiders, by Rex Stout. (Pen name? I wonder.)

Because this is due soon, I put aside (at great emotional discomfort) the second Bloody Jack book, which I had made good progress on: The Curse of the Blue Tattoo. The reason this hurts so much is because I have FINALLY found the motherlode--a pirate book that is also about a girls' boarding school. I am absolutely swooning! And this reminds me of my fondness for boarding school books, and makes me ask: recommendations, please! Books, especially YA, that take place at boarding schools, especially of the past. Besides Charlotte Sometimes (more of a kid's book than YA) and the Great and Terrible Beauty Series (very satisfying), I'm practically stumped. Suggestions!

That's it for now. Look out for a more in-depth post in the next few days. No, really!

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Ah, Young Love

Do you remember Sunfire Romances? Those historical young girls with a gleam in their eye and two chaste boys chasing them? My favorite was Cassie, a white girl raised by the Mohawk* tribe, in love with a trapper, pursued by a blacksmith, trying to be part of both worlds. It turns out that the author, Vivian Schurfranz, wrote another one, Josie, which is actually quite hard to get your hands on.

Hard, that is, unless your local library buys ten books a year, and the majority of their YA holdings were published before I was a young adult. There she was, just staring up at me from the paperback rack. So I brought her home.

And now I'm afraid to reread Cassie, because if Josie is any indication, these babies don't hold up too well. I remember Cassie as compelling, but Josie is somewhat disjointed. On many levels there's nothing more wrong with it than with any book written 20 years ago for 13-year-olds, but that is not to say that I need to want to read them.

Except, of course, the Babysitter's Club.

So I dipped my toe in that nostalgic pool, and came out...well, wet. But it's okay. I'm wrapping up Fieldwork, which has inexplicably taken me a long time to read, and about which I will have more to say as I finish. Until then, dear reader, read on!

*Correction: it was the Iroquois tribe, and I apologize to Cassie, Vivian Schurfranz, and Native Americans everywhere for not paying more attention.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Starring Sally J. Friedman as Herself

So the narrator of this novel I'm reading, Fieldwork, by Mischa Berlinski, is a character named Mischa Berlinksi. Mike's reaction to this information was, "So he read Everything is Illuminated." I feel for the guy, since he was probably working on this book five years ago when Everything came out, and he's going to be looked at as a Johnny-Come-Lately to the self-named narrator bandwagon, but I have to say his use of this is irritating me way less than Jonathan Safran Foer's did.

JSF was my least favorite part of that book. It seemed at once self-indulgent and as though he was laughing at himself in order to laugh at the reader, somehow. Is this character you, or isn't he? This isn't an experience you had. Is it that you were imagining yourself in that experience? Is this really how you see yourself? But that's so sad; this was no Mary Sue situation. If it was a fictional character, why give him your name?

Berlinski is doing something different. I'm not 100% sure why he's using his own name, but it helps that I like the character, and that it is a believable rendition of someone writing about himself. He's not much of a character, either--one thing I love about this book is that it is, in large part, a reporting procedural. He heard about this interesting story and tracked it down, and the shape he is using to tell the story is the shape of his investigation into it. "He" being Berlinski the character, who is a writer and, so far, not much else.

Basically, I feel like, in Fieldwork, this gimmick is adding a layer of veracity, and I really am wondering how much of the time the author spent in Thailand is reflected here, how many missionaries and anthropologists and international teachers and hill tribesmen he met before deciding to write a novel around them. In Everything Is Illuminated, the trick was used to put distance between you and the author; it turned his third person narrator into someone unreliable, who either didn't really like himself or was lying outright about who he (thought he) was.

To be fair, though, Fieldwork uses way too many italics, which pitfall Everything managed to avoid. Credit where credit is due.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009


I was really just returning things. Really. I had 21 books out; I was returning 4. But I ran into My Favorite Librarian, and we chatted, and I strolled into new nonfiction, which is a small section, not too tempting, right? And there's this book called The Wisdom of Whores. What's this? A sociological study of sex education in the red light districts of Eastern Asia?'s not really something I....the author is cited as having a biting wit. And look at this first page--she's got an engaging style, all right. Well, I don't have to read it, I'll just check it out.

And, on display, Salman Rushdie's new book, for which I'd seen an interesting blurb somewhere. I've never read one of his books before. Ah, what the heck?

So...I now have 19 books checked out. Sigh. In my defense, two are for Mike, one for Marsha, and six are picture books for Adam, and one I've finished. That brings me down to 9 that I intend to read. Oh, oh, and one is a Sunfire Romance! It was on a rack in Medford. Josie, by the author of my favorite Sunfire, Cassie. It's all just so exciting!

Right now I'm reading Fieldwork, by Mischa Berlinski. So far, really surprisingly good--a reporting procedural Thailand mystery thing. Really engaging!