Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Year Four of Reading

This is my birthday post of the books I read over the past year of my life. These are not necessarily the most well written books or the books most respected by professional reviewers, but the books I personally enjoyed most. I read 81 books this year, and these are the 12 I liked best.

*A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki A Japanese-American stalled writer finds the diary of a young Japanese girl washed up on a seashore and becomes obsessed with finding the author. An engrossing and touching story, with a bit of mystery, a bit of philosophical meditation, and some magical realism. A finalist for this year's National Book Critics Circle Award and Booker Prize. (Feb. 2014)

*The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt A long, complicated book with a multitude of interesting characters, very Dickens-like. The story follows a young, orphaned boy to adulthood, telling of his adventures and misadventures and the people who influence him along the way. Winner of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize. (Dec. 2013)

*Going After Cacciato by Tim O'Brien One soldier's Vietnamese War experiences, both real and fantasized. Very dreamlike and surrealistic. Winner of the 1979 National Book Award. (Dec. 2013)

*Little Dorrit by Charles Dickens A typical Dickens novel with a heroine who is too-good-to-be-true and a villain who is too-bad-to-be-true, and yet they are like people you know, just a shade exaggerated. A complicated and suspenseful plot makes this one of the better Dickens novels, except that at 900 pages it drags on too long. (Dec. 2013)

*The Magic Toyshop by Angela Carter The familiar plot of orphans left in the care of a villainous relative, with the special Carter combination of the grotesque and the surrealistic. I don't know if everyone would appreciate this author, but she is one of my favorites. (Oct. 2013)

*Doctor Sleep by Stephen King The compulsively readable story of the little boy from The Shining when he is all grown up and grappling with substance addiction and soul-sucking vampires. I generally love Stephen King and I refuse to believe he is no more than a genre hack. (Oct. 2013)

*The Tenant of Wildfell Hall by Anne Bronte. A realistic novel from the "other" Bronte sister, warning of the dangers when a good girl chooses a bad boy, thinking he can be whipped into shape. (Oct. 2013)

*Middlemarch by George Eliot Maybe the most well-written book I have ever read. Three intertwined love stories with spot-on character portrayals. It's lengthy, it's not easy to read, it's a bit cynical, but it's the best of the best. (Sept. 2013)

*The Monk by Matthew G. Lewis A no-holds-barred early Gothic novel with authentic thrills and chills. Also very sexy. (Aug. 2013)

*To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis I read several so-called "comic" novels this year, and this was by far the funniest. A very clever account of time travel to Victorian England. (July 2013)

*The Orphan Master's Son by Adam Johnson A picture of North Korea through the eyes of Pak Jun Do, a sort of Forrest Gump-type character who is present in various roles at crucial events. In turns satirical, humorous, tragic, and horrifying. Winner of the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. (May, 2013)

*The Snow Child by Eowyn Ivey A realistic picture of early settlers in Alaska, together with a magical realism account of love realized. It is not the most well written book I read this year, but it may be my favorite. Finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize. (May, 2013)

I read only three books this year which I absolutely disliked, in spite of the fact that they were all well written. I just couldn't overlook the fact that the focus and subject matter were abhorrent to me. These were Being Dead by Jim Crace, about what it's like to be dead, in graphic detail; Mrs. Palfrey at the Claremont by Elizabeth Taylor, about what it's like to be old and in bad health and bored and depressed; and Dog Soldiers by Robert Stone, about what it's like to be aimless and without hope.

I actually read about 20 fewer books this year than in the years immediately past, and that's a good sign, in my case.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Keepers of the House by Shirley Ann Grau

For the last couple of months I have been reading current contenders for the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, plus several past winners. This novel, which won in 1965, is one that I had not read, or in fact even heard of before. Frankly, I am surprised it was chosen, as I would not have thought it to be of that quality. Perhaps it won because it concerns race relations and a woman's liberation from male dominance, two "hot topics" at that time.

The setting is the Deep South and the plot unfolds in a very Southern style, meandering back and forth to tell the story of one prominent family. The central character, Abigail, moves serenely from her role of pampered daughter and granddaughter to her role of dutiful wife, secure in her world, until a family scandal forces her to confront the suppression, hypocrisy, and incipient violence of her Southern heritage.

It's an interesting story, well worth reading, told by an author who is obviously a Southerner herself. My objections, then? The language doesn't hold up to the standard set by the classics of Southern writing; the pace of most of the book is slow and a bit boring at times, with much extraneous detail; the climax of the book is over-the-top melodramatic, with actions which do not seem realistic, even for the time and the place; finally, the whole plot is somewhat predictable, it seems to me.

Judged against novels as a whole, I would consider this one above average, but judged against what one expects of a Pulitzer winner, I would consider it weak. However, as I read more winners and think about the now-classic books which were passed over, I'm beginning to think that maybe the Pulitzer is not all its cracked up to be.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Doomsday Book by Connie Willis

Within the 500+ pages of this book a reader will find two plot lines which, though they are connected, seem almost like two separate novels because they are so divergent in tone. Each one is well executed, but the two together make for an uneasy fit even though they are both part of the same story.

Plot #one is a science fiction story about time travel. Sometime in the 21st Century the favorite student of a university professor travels against his advice back to the year 1320. Sure enough, many things begin to go wrong from the first and the student becomes stranded in the path of the approaching spread of the Black Death. This part features an almost slapstick tone as the professor scrambles in his efforts to rescue the girl, dealing with bureaucracy, a flu epidemic and quarantine, visiting American bell ringers, and an almost total inability to get people on the phone. Despite the comedy, this part becomes a bit repetitive, as many set pieces are repeated time after time.

Plot #two is more in the vein of historical fiction, a chronicle of the student's stay in the 14th Century. The tone here is somber and tragic, as she confronts being lost in time, unable to escape the disease and death all around her. This part is very touching and often tear-worthy. A seemingly accurate picture of the period is presented, although the scope is limited to one relatively well-off family in one small village.

Perhaps Connie Willis used these two disparate tones to emphasize the relative silliness of most modern problems in comparison to the problems faced during the Middle Ages. Perhaps she had another reason that I missed noticing. Even if so, the shifting back and forth from comedy to tragedy was disconcerting for me as a reader.

Doomsday Book won both the Hugo and the Nebula Awards, science fiction's highest honors, in 1992. In spite of my criticisms, I still found it to be quite enjoyable to read.