6/11/12

Books 2012, Part 1

Here are the books I read in the first half of this year. As usual, I write only what I remember about them, no looking anything up on the internet to help jog my famously hole-y memory.

With no further ado: the books I've read so far this year.

In the Garden of Beasts by Erik Larson. Based on extensive research, this is the true story of an American diplomat and his family in Germany just before WW11. It is fascinating to inhabit the minds of those at the higher levels of government who, in hindsight, SHOULD HAVE KNOWN about Hitler, and just ... didn't. They didn't like Hitler, but they didn't see him as the personification of evil as he would come to be known. Larson's book helped me understand this phenomena even as I spent a good portion of the book yelling at the protagonists "STOP HIM! GOOD GOD STOP HIM!!!" Larson's book "Devil in the White City" is one of my all time favorites and this has many of the same elements: a true story of a climatic time period, told in intimate detail. Unfortunately, this one failed to draw me in in the same way - especially annoying: the long descriptions of silverware in their house. WHY? Where was his editor?? -  though I had exceedingly high expectations for it, so perhaps that's not fair. If you like detailed, personal stories in historical settings, you will like this book.

Bitter in the Mouth by Monique Truong. Oh dear me. I don't remember the plot of this book AT ALL. Hmmm, I remember it being a character-driven coming of age story, with beautiful prose and a looping, disjointed structure. I remember that the language was so lovely it literally made me stop, take a breath, reread, read aloud, AND forcibly read aloud to other people who happened to be near me. Probably a good bet for those who like adventurous, poetic literary fiction.

Emily, Alone by Stewart O'Nan. If Bitter in the Mouth is ethereal, this novel is grounded. I loved this book. It's the story of a year in the life of an elderly woman named (Guess!) Emily. I fear that description makes it sound horribly boring and it wasn't. It's just not a flashy gem of a book. It's a small, perfectly round stone, softened at the corners, that you slip in your pocket.  I was oddly affected by this book and put a number for O'Nan's other books on my library list.

The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. This novel has a grand, sweeping narrative: two magicians are chosen from childhood to battle one another until only one remains. I expected to love this book. Love story! Circus! Magic! I'm there! But I didn't fall in love. It seriously dragged in sections for me and I almost put it down about two thirds of the way through. The characters didn't draw me in as I expected them to. The end improved on the whole book for me but not enough for me to give a whole-hearted endorsement. I'm curious to see where Morgenstern goes with her future work, though. If the premise intrigues you, perhaps you'll like it more than I did.

The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. Now here's a book I didn't expect to like that I loved. Flat out LOVED. Mostly male characters! Sports! Long! Written by a man! Truth is, none of those things made me want to read it. But I read a few glowing reviews and I'm so glad I gave it a shot because I loved it. I loved the characters. I believed in them. I wanted the best for them, even if I wasn't quite sure what that would be. I felt satisfied by the ending, even as I was sad to see my friends go. Two thumbs up!

Three Stages of Amazement by Carol Edgarian. Bleh. I remember that there were parts of this novel that I liked but mostly it was a bust. It centers around a wealthy family in San Francisco and their misunderstandings. As a massage therapist in San Francisco many years ago, I worked for wealthy clients like the main characters. Except no one is really like these characters. They didn't feel real to me. While I enjoyed some of the descriptive writing, the plot felt obvious, the characters cliched. I can't say I recommend it.

Mitten Strings for God by Katrina Kenison. Um. I read this? I think?
 
What I Thought I Knew by Alice Eve Cohen. Dude. This is a grenade of a book. Small. Tight. Ready to explode. It's the memoir of Cohen's totally unexpected late-in-life pregnancy. She is a playwright and you can tell: I kept waiting for paragraphs to leap off the page and run for the stage. As she wrestles with horrible questions of birth defects, late term abortion, and financial ruin, she doesn't pull a single punch. If you like memoirs, and mommy memoirs specifically, this will impress.

Looking for Alaska by John Green. Someone out there loves John Greene. Maybe Princess Nebraska? Maybe Jonniker? Anyway, I took whoever-it-was' advice and got this YA novel from the library. The setting is a boarding school and the plot revolves around a certain mysterious girl named Alaska and all who fall in her orbit. I liked it, the characters were believable, the structure was interesting, but the plot was a bit high strung (to be expected from YA novels, I suppose). I might get another of his books but I haven't felt compelled to yet.

The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides. Middlesex is my all time favorite book. ALL TIME. So I had very high expectations for this novel. It's basically a love triangle between three college grads: Madeleine, Mitchell and Leonard. Mitchell and Leonard, a religious seeker and a manic depressive respectively, felt the most real to me as they try to find themselves and vie for Madeleine. Madeleine, who worries that's she's too normal, is .... too normal. Bland. Blah. While the prose is as elegant as I expected, the plot felt slow and uneventful. I kept waiting for something to happen. But! The ending! ROCKED. A seriously great ending. Thanks for that, Eugenides.

Signs of Life by Natalie Taylor.  Twenty-something and pregnant, Taylor lost her young husband suddenly. This memoir of the year after his death is sad and light at the same time. As I read, I could feel her youth, in good and bad ways. There was surprisingly little about her feelings on motherhood, most of it is about her loss of her husband and how her job as a teacher helps her heal. I love hearing how people get through the worse things that can possibly happen, it somehow assuages my own anxieties.  So if that's your thing too, you'll like this book.

The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Phillipe Sendker. I read a positive review of this novel that made me want to read it. At its heart, it's a romance and a mystery. A grown daughter sets out for Burma to find her missing father and a mysterious woman. She uncovers a love story that made me cry my way through a half a box of tissues. Sweet, romantic read.

Some Assembly Required by Anne Lamott. My first book purchase of the year. I just knew I'd need to own it so why wait for the library book, you know? Lamott chronicles the first year of her grandson's life and it's told both from her point of view and her son's. Just as wonderful as you'd expect. Sweet, fast read.

The Science of Yoga by William J. Broad. A bit dry, this book, but if you love yoga you will find much food for thought here. He makes a case for how yoga can improve your mood, your sex life, and your creativity. But he also punches holes in commonly accepted logic about yoga, including the belief that it can speed up your metabolism (spoiler: it doesn't) and uncovers some truly scary potential physical effects on more advanced practitioners. It makes me want to ask every single yoga teacher if they've read it and then engage them in conversation about it.

The Lifeboat by Charlotte Roga. Another novel I had very high expectations for that didn't quite thrill me in the way I thought it would. Just after the sinking of the Titantic, newlywed Grace sets out from England on a transatlantic boat trip with her husband. When the boat sinks, Grace is one of the few who makes it onto a lifeboat and one of even fewer who make it to America.  What happens on the boat results in her being brought up on charges of murder. In my opinion, the best part about this book is the author's story:  she wrote this book many years ago while raising triplets, dusted it off, sent it in and IT'S PUBLISHED. It's like some kind of literary fairy tale!

Wild by Cheryl Strayed. Strayed, who writes the Dear Sugar column, weaves magic in this memoir of her time solo hiking the Pacific Crest Trail (like the Appalachian Trail but on the West Coast) as she heals from losing her mother and her marriage. It is just fantastic. If this interests you even in the slightest, GO BUY THIS BOOK. My favorite of the books I've read this year so far.

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Okay! Your turn! What books have you loved that you read so far this year?

11 comments:

Michelle said...

I have Emily, Alone and Night Circus on my to read list.

I've read a lot of not great YA books about zombies, vampires and reincarnation. I can't stop myself and need an intervention.

Books I have liked this year: My name is memory and Is everyone hanging out without me.

I'm reading The summer we came alive and really liking it.

Good Enough Mom said...

Awesome list, Jenna! Thanks! I am so amazed that you READ!!! I have so many books stacked high on my nightstand that I can't see my clock. (Speaking of your time post...I hide from time, especially in the morning..."sorry I'm late. You know, I can't see my clock!")

Last year, I DID manage to read Chris Cleave's "Little Bee." At first, I loved it--it was depressing but had really lovely imagery that captured HOPEFULNESS in a great way. But then, the story became a big 'ol traumafest. And, you know, in my work, I hear so much f'n trauma that I just couldn't take it. I stuck it out with the book with the conviction that it just HAD to get better. But it totally didn't. So, in the end, thumbs down.

But I still think about the imagery that so beautifully captured hope. That's not an easy feeling to depict!

Hope all's well!

Bronwen said...

Thank you, I love that you do this -- I put a handful of these on my Wish List. I have had so little time to read this year, but my favorite recent book that I could see you liking was The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta.

twisterfish said...

Reading? I used to enjoy doing that!

I will put some of these on my list and make a point of reading more starting right now ... summer is the perfect time to read a few good books!

clueless but hopeful mama said...

Michele- I'm so curious to hear what you think of both those books! I await your reviews! (And thanks for the recommendations! I'm adding them to my list.)

GEM- I struggled through Little Bee as well. SO MUCH TRAUMA. But beautifully told.

Bronwen- I loved The Leftovers! I love Tom Perrota!

twisterfish- Let me know what you read - and what you think of them!

Hillary said...

I am convinced everyone in the world but me LOVED The Art of Fielding. I liked it, but was not in love with it like everyone else. I did, however, LOVE The Night Circus, about which most people are ho-hum, so I guess it all evens out. I really enjoyed Emily, Alone, too.

I just read Jeannette Winterson's memoir, Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? It's not uplifting, exactly, but her writing is beautiful and the story is compelling. Made me understand her books a bit.

Marie Green said...

I love John Green. I really loved Fault in our Stars... maybe the best book I've read in the past year or two. I also loved Anne Lamott's newest... but DUH, she's my idol.

Twitter recently told me to read the murder-mystery-type books by Tana French but I do not LIKE murder mysteries. DO NOT LIKE. However, I read everything twitter tells me to, and these were awesome. I read In the Woods and The Likeness and LOVED LOVED LOVED THEM. Was shocked!

Thanks for some new recs. xo

grammalouie said...

I just finished reading Elizabeth Street by Laurie Fabiano. It's a novel based on her own family's history. Italian immigrant community in New York, 1900-1910. More drama than you might imagine and well-written.
Also loved Susan Orleans, Rin Tin Tin. If you love dogs, this is your book.
And, then there was the biography of Cleopatra by Stacy whats-her-name. Cleo was one multi-faceted chick. Mean and nasty, powerful, vigorous. Not much (almost no) surviving primary sources but what there is this author makes the most of. Lots of gore, by the way.

grammalouie said...

Oh, and I almost forgot to tell you about my favorite novel I read recently - Jodi Picoult's Lone Wolf. Loved it for many reasons - great character studies, lots of info on wolves, a little quirky and very well written. A real page turner.
Now I want to complain about the new way I am supposed to prove I am not a robot. My aged eyes are having a really hard time identifying the letters and numbers. I tried SIX times to get it right on my previous post. Wish me luck this time!

shannon said...

I Just started reading "Wild" at your suggestion... crying ALREADY! Love, love love it! Thanks so much.

Anonymous said...

Slightly embarrassed to admit I read the Rob Lowe and Meredith Baxter autobiographies - they were enjoyable! Also just finished Eating for Beginners, which I liked. Oh and Eating Animals, which was a downer (expectedly so). Thanks for doing this list, I get a lot of my 'next to read' from this!

Sarah

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