|The 2008 List
reverse chronological order
»Perfumes: The Guide
»Out Stealing Horses
»What I Talk About When I Talk About Running
»Chandler's later novels
»Have You Seen ...?
»The Big Sleep / Farewell, My Lovely
»The House of Mondavi
»In Defense of Food
»Try to Tell the Story
»Best Food Writing 2008
»Gentlemen of the Road
»Music for Torching
»Julie & Julia
»The Eustace Diamonds
»The Mistress's Daughter
»What It Is
»A Series of Unfortunate Events
»The End of the Affair
»The Air Loom Gang
»Into the Wild
»The Brooklyn Follies
»Maps and Legends
»His Dark Materials
»Born Standing Up
»The Adventures of
»My Illegal Self
»The Yiddish Policemen's
»Travels in the Scriptorium
»The Scarlet Letter
»The Widows of Eastwick
|The books of 2008|
1. The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon. The first one I read this year is still my favorite.
2. Anansi Boys, Neil Gaiman
3. Breath, Tim Winton
4. The Maytrees, Annie Dillard
5. McTeague, Frank Norris
Dangerous Laughter, The Golden Compass, Perfumes: The Guide, Lush Life
All the books
47 if you count His Dark Materials as three and A Series of Unfortunate Events as one.
Perfumes: The Guide (2008, Luca Turin and Tania Sanchez)
Why I picked it: I read a review and thought it sounded interesting, but figured it would be too advanced for my extremely limited knowledge of perfume. Then I heard Turin and Sanchez on Kurt Andersen's "Studio 360," and they were funny and accessible, so I put the book back on my list.
What it's about: A few chapters on the history of perfume and on critiquing fragrance, then 300 pages of short reviews of perfumes now being sold.
What I thought: Again, I know very little about perfume, and going in I was dubious about anybody's ability to describe fragrance -- the old dancing-about-architecture problem. I figured I'd just read the essays in the front and flip through the reviews. In fact, I ended up reading most of the reviews. These two are good writers, and even if I couldn't have recognized a perfume from their description, I have much more of an understanding of this whole world that I had ignored before. I know what Turin means when, in describing a fragrance that didn't have the follow-through expected of its type, he tells of an orchestra that played a prank on a conductor by playing nothing instead of the huge clash called for, and the conductor fell forward off the podium. And when he describes a "demure floral with a bellowing woody-amber note" as "the little girl in 'The Exorcist' shouting in a deep male voice."
I'd also like to recommend this book for its humor. I was impressed that Turin and Sanchez avoided the urge to take potshots at celebrity-named fragrances; they seemed to keep an open mind, and even gave complimentary reviews of, for instance, Jennifer Lopez and David Beckham products. But they found many other occasions for hilarious lines. Amarige: "At all times incompatible with others' enjoyment of food, music, travel and sex." Clean Provence: "I lived in Provence for eight years and mercifully never encountered this extraordinary accord of cheap gin-and-tonic and wet concrete." Iceberg Homme: "That's him all right. Now put him back in the freezer." Even the names alone are funny. My favorites (besides Iceberg Homme) are Effusion Man and White Red He ("like an utterance by the sort of person Oliver Sacks would be interested in"). I also like that one of the most acclaimed perfumes of all time is called Jicky. And of course the phrase "loud civet fart" will never fail to amuse me.
Anna Karenina (1877, Leo Tolstoy)
Why I picked it: The Big K! I'm not very deep in the Russian canon, and I thought this might be easier than, say, "Crime and Punishment."
What it's about: What
What I thought: It definitely wasn't what I expected. I knew of the famous climax and I knew it was a long novel, so when Anna and Vronsky are already infatuated midway through the first of the eight parts, I realized it was going to take some major detours, and not just Austenian stumbling-blocks-to-happiness detours. Though some of the digressions could have served their purpose at half the length (on bird hunting, for instance, and a regional political caucus) I liked it as a historical document and, to a lesser extent, as rumination on Tolstoy's philosophical ideas about nature and society and happiness and God.
Movie?Quite a few, cinematic and TV. Annas include Greta Garbo, Vivien Leigh, Jacqueline Bisset, Sophie Marceau.
Out Stealing Horses (2007, Per Petterson)
Why I picked it: Recommendation of Bonnie and Ann.
What it's about: Man in his late 60s recalls a summer he spent as a teen with his father in the countryside.
What I thought: On the list of this type of novel -- "narrator looks back from several decades' perspective on defining moment of youth" -- I'd put this book several notches down, after (off the top of my head here) "Owen Meany," "Alias Grace," "Breath," "Summons to Memphis," "Evening." And I admit this is because I prefer a story with more passion, more drama, more unusual characters. "Stealing Horses" has the handicap (to my taste, anyway) of being narrated by a withdrawn man who was a typically uncertain teenager. It's told in a sort of flat, undefined way, everything given the same weight, the novelistic equivalent of a winter evening. At odds with this subdued delivery is a confluence of events on the very edge of plausibility: In the space of a few weeks, young Trond deals with a death, a major injury, the disappearance of a friend, the disappearance of a relative, and not one but two discoveries about his father. This is the kind of book that tests my limited language of literary analysis, and I'm not doing a great job here, so I'll cut it short. Bottom line: It was interesting in an academic way, but a little too cool to engage me.
What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (2007, Haruki Murakami)
Why I picked it: I was intrigued by an excerpt -- actually one that didn't get much into the running -- in, I think, the New Yorker. I was interested in reading what a good writer might say about running as part of everyday life.
What it's about: Murakami, a novelist, calls this a memoir. It's about running, but it necessarily deals a lot with his inner life.
What I thought: I smiled a lot reading this one. Some were smiles of recognition: Though I am not a marathon-a-year runner like Murakami, I suspect we are in similar age-group percentiles in performance. Like me, he came to running only in his 30s, and his pace and training regimen are much closer to mine than those of most running bloggers I've read. When he talked about injury, about rain, about interacting with other runners, I knew what he meant. And sometimes I smiled at his skill -- his grace and clarity -- in describing what goes on inside his head. I think that even if I didn't know he was Japanese, I would suspect it: There's something very non-American (and, to me, admirable) about his humility, his valuing of balance and honor, his attention to the interconnectedness of things. (Part of the credit for the tone goes to his translator, Philip Gabriel. This book got me thinking a lot about translation. Murakami is almost as well-known for his English-to-Japanese translations (Fitzgerald, John Irving, Raymond Carver) as for his novels, but his own books he has someone else put into English. Some turns of phrase, some idioms, I was very curious about the original.)
And sometimes my smiles were rueful, as when Murakami, who will be 60 in January, talks about how he began slowing down in his late 40s. I'm 46, and in the past few months I have seen an inexplicable but gratifying *improvement* of my times. And as happy as it makes me to average 9:15 on a hilly course, I know it can't last, that at some point, some point soon, my times will get slower, and there's nothing I can do about that. Murakami turned to triathlon; I have no idea what I'll do.
Chandler's later novels (1942-53, Raymond Chandler)
Why I picked them: I so enjoyed revisiting "The Big Sleep" and "Farewell, My Lovely" that I decided to complete the cycle: "The High Window" (1942), "The Lady in the Lake" (1943), "The Little Sister" (1949) and "The Long Goodbye" (1953).
What they're about: Further adventures of latter-day knight errant Philip Marlowe, mostly concerning people who are not what they pretend to be.
What I thought:As always, a very enjoyable read. The crimes, I suppose, are sometimes a little obvious ("The Lady in the Lake") , or a little farfetched ("The High Window"), and too much exposition is just Marlowe telling someone else what he's discovered, but the pleasure is in accompanying him on his rounds. Reading the six in succession, I was struck as I hadn't been before by how the series keeps up with the times. Marlowe grows older, the city grows bigger, mores change. In fact, I didn't make it deep into "Playback" (1958) because it seemed to have picked up a Mickey Spillane influence I wasn't fond of. "The Long Goodbye," the most morally ambiguous of them all, seemed a good place to end the series.
Movies? Three of these novels had theatrical adaptations that I have not seen: "The Lady in the Lake," 1947, with Robert Montgomery directing himself in the lead role; "The Brasher Doubloon" (The High Window), 1947, George Montgomery as Marlowe; and "Marlowe" (The Little Sister), 1969, James Garner in the lead. Altman's "The Long Goodbye," as I mentioned before, is wonderful. And if you want another recommendation from this period of Chandler, he was the screenwriter, with Billy Wilder, of the 1944 movie of James Cain's "Double Indemnity."
Have You Seen ... ? (2008, David Thomson)
Why I picked it: An irresistible concept: David Thomson writes a one-page essay for each of 1,000 movies. I put myself on the library waiting list, then realized that was a dumb move as I was never going to finish it in 3 weeks, but then it showed up at work, not on the free table, but it fell off a truck, if you know what I mean, and nobody ever missed it.
What it's about: See "why I picked it."
What I thought: I thought he'd be more pithy. I've read Thomson before and often liked him a lot, but in this book many of the essays never got any traction, or maybe I just didn't get hooked in. His depth of knowledge is amazing, but sometimes he drifts into glibness, or just drifts. Puzzling element: Thomson rejects the idea of awarding stars as ratings, but then he talks a lot about Oscars, which seems fairly superficial. (It could be argued he uses Oscars as an indicator of popular taste, but that's not the way it's usually presented.)
On the other hand, it's a great book to flip through, to sit down and read five or 10 movies. Just about every entry has you checking to see if a likely cognate is included. ("Dogville" yes, "Breaking the Waves" no. "If ..." yes, "A Clockwork Orange," yes.) Like all the best critics, Thomson is perfectly comfortable challenging the accepted wisdom. I laughed to see he shares a couple of my less popular positions: Jeff Bridges is one of the overlooked actors of our time, and the Coen brothers' best is "Miller's Crossing." (I disagree, though, with his downgrading of "The Conversation" based on the changed reading of a repeated key line. It's a matter of inflection that was missed in the initial, crude recording; on later review of a possibly refined recording, the eavesdropper Harry Caul realizes the correct intonation. This interpretation of the movie not only makes sense but it ties into the theme of tragedy brought about by Harry's distancing himself from personal contact. But such disagreements are part of the fun of this book.) So far (I'm only up to S), the movies I was moved to add to my list to see (or re-see): "In a Lonely Place," "Cutter and Bone" (AKA "Cutter's Way"), "Blow-Up," "Longford."
Movies? Yes! (Ha!)
The Big Sleep (1939, Raymond Chandler)
Farewell, My Lovely (1940, Raymond Chandler)
Why I picked it: I needed a commute book quick when I pulled the plug on Mondavi, and preferably something of a palate-cleanser. Chandler is one of my favorites, and I hadn't re-read these lately.
What they're about: Two of Chandler's novels about Los Angeles private investigator Philip Marlowe, they're about murders, beatings, blackmail, racketeering, bad men, worse women and general corruption.
What I thought: I like Chandler even more than I did when I first read these. He writes with such humor and graceful economy, and I'm always predisposed to anything about Los Angeles in the '30s and '40s. I read the Marlowe books first when I was 13 (my progression went from James Bond and the Saint to Travis McGee and then to Chandler and Hammett), re-read most of them once or twice since then.
The unexpected delight this time was the reading of the audiobook. Digression: As I've been listening to audiobooks for the past couple years I've always figured that the narrators must be pretty good actors. I mean, there are so many underemployed actors out there, the audiobook producers could easily find good talent, right? But while I've never found an author's reading of his own book to be annoying, I can't say the same of the professional narrators, who can, some of them, be so actorly, so mannered. But again: The readings that really stand out as excellent have been by fairly well-known actors -- I particularly liked Peter Riegert ("The Yiddish Policemen's Union") and Lenny Henry ("Anansi Boys"). So maybe this is just personal preference: I like a more subtle narration, by actors used to working in close-up rather than by those who do theater and storytelling and other big-gesture stuff. So: Elliott Gould: really good in these Marlowe books. He has a good voice to start with, and he comes up with subtle variations for each of the many characters, and, most important, he reads Marlowe the way Chandler wrote him. Marlowe is sometimes portrayed as world-weary and cynical; as written, he is definitely battered, and occasionally nonplussed by the goings-on around him, but at the core he is romantic, even sentimental, and that -- and the humor -- definitely comes through in Gould's reading.
Side note: David Thomson's "Have You Seen ..." (see above) says Gould was originally supposed to play the lead in Robert Altman's "McCabe and Mrs. Miller," one of my favorite movies. Warren Beatty is wonderful in the part, and I can't imagine Gould doing better, but something about his reading of Marlowe makes it easier to see him as McCabe.
Movies: Both "The Big Sleep" and "Farewell, My Lovely" were made in the '40s, remade in the '70s. In the first round, the Marlowes were, respectively, Humphrey Bogart and Dick Powell. Bogart is fine; Powell (the movie is called "Murder, My Sweet") I haven't seen. In the second round, it's Robert Mitchum. I like Mitchum a lot, but at 60 he had to change the role substantially to fit his age. Best Marlowe I've seen is ... Elliott Gould, in Altman's "The Long Goodbye."
The House of Mondavi (2007, Julia Flynn Siler)
Why I picked it: Partly work-related, and partly because I needed an audiobook for the commute, and I wasn't seeing much else.
What it's about: The growth of the Mondavi family's wine interests over four generations.
What I thought: A really long book, and, for me, ultimately unsatisfying. What I hoped I would get, especially given the size, was more context of the development of the Napa wine industry and changes in wine drinking and marketing in the United States. If the writer (from the Wall Street Journal) had stuck strictly to the business aspects, I would have realized fairly early it was not for me, but I hung in there hoping for some insight into winemaking or at least some of the promised Shakespearean drama. On the winemaking angle, I should have chosen a different book. As for the family drama, it never really grabbed me. Part of the problem, I imagine, was access, but, bottom line. it's not King Lear, it's just sad and hardly out-of-the-norm family enmity. The book's bulk comes from a lot of repetition (we are told at least five times that Michael Mondavi in middle agerode a Harley) and from inclusion of things that seemed of marginal value to understanding the story. So I'm still looking for my history of Napa winemaking.
In Defense of Food: An Eater's Manifesto (2008, Michael Pollan)
Why I picked it:Partly work-related reading, partly life-related reading.
What it's about: in his follow-up to "The Omnivore's Dilemma," Michael Pollan examines how food manufacturers and agribusiness affect what we eat.
What I thought: I do think this stuff is a big deal, but it's so big that I'm eventually reduced to helplessly saying, well, we all do what we can. At the start of the book, which focused on processed foods, I was feeling pretty virtuous. But when he moved on to how we're supposed to eat mostly plants, I was hunkering down in the back row. It's a good piece of journalism, though, and a good reminder to maintain strong skepticism of all scientific studies.
Try to Tell the Story (2009, David Thomson)
Why I picked it: Thomson is a really smart and unorthodox film writer, and an essay of his about going as a boy to the grand cinemas near his English home made me think that a memoir of his growing up could be intriguing. And the cover photo is beautiful.
What it's about: Thomson's middle-class youth in South London of the '40s and '50s.
What I thought: It never really got into a groove. There is a fair amount about movies, and some about public school (which interested me as a comparison to Roald Dahl's "Boy"), and odd little interludes with his imaginary big sister, but the main thread is Thomson's relationship with his father, who he eventually realized had another household with a mistress. Perhaps this is his attempt to work out his feelings about the situation (as the title suggests), but it's not a situation with enough tragedy or drama to really draw the reader in.
Best Food Writing 2008 (2008, ed. Holly Hughes
Why I picked it:Work-related reading.
What it's about: Anthology of food writing, mostly from newspapers and magazines.
What I thought: I was cheered by the presence of so many pieces from weekly papers (because maybe those people could write for me!) and disheartened by the pieces by journalists who subsequently lost their jobs (because aaargh). As expected, two main topics dominated: eating locally, and molecular gastronomy.
Gentlemen of the Road (2007, Michael Chabon)
Why I picked it:Because of the superior reading experience of my first book of the year, "The Yiddish Policemen's Union," I am compelled to read everything new by Chabon. At least until the end of the year.
What it's about: A couple of grifters in 10th-century Caucasia get caught up in a rebellion led by a dispossessed teenage heir to the Khazar throne.
What I thought: Chabon is the master of leaping from genre to genre, and this time he landed in a genre -- historical adventure -- that is not really my thing. I thought I might be pulled in by the characters (who are strongly drawn) but the writing style, a very dense and ornate exposition, left me cool. I listened to it on my commute, and found myself drifting away from it for five minutes at a time, and I never was too concerned about what I had missed.
Music for Torching (1999, A.M. Homes)
Why I picked it:In reading Homes' memoir, I was intrigued by the descriptions of her fiction.
What it's about: The off-the-rails week following an intentionally set fire at their home will make or break the marriage of a Westchester County couple.
What I thought: This wasn't like anything I had read before, and for that reason alone I stuck with it. It started life as a New Yorker short story, and the topic and characters are very much in that mold. More than once I almost put it down -- just too Updike for me, all the angst of privileged people -- but I kept reading because it had sort of skewed take on the familiar theme, just this side of surreal. I wouldn't give it a hearty endorsement, but I think I'll try one more of Homes' novels.
Julie & Julia (2005, Julie Powell)
Why I picked it:Though I got in on the Julie/Julia blog while it was still running, and I think I eventually read almost all of it, I thought I should give the book a crack as work-related reading.
What it's about: Memoir of a year spent by a New York City secretary on the brink of 30 as she attempts to cook every recipe in Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking Vol. 1."
What I thought:The Julie/Julia Project was exactly what a blog should be: frequent and with a distinct purpose. Every morning you could check in and read about what Julie had cooked the night before. This format wouldn't work well as a book, so Powell spends less time on cooking and mixes in more of her family and social and work life, which really isn't that interesting. The full Julie/Julia Project is still posted as a link off Powell's current blog; read it instead.
Movie:Expected out next year; directed and written for the screen by Nora Ephron, with Amy Adams as Julie and Meryl Streep as Julia. Because neither the blog nor the book would make a good movie, it's had yet another radical format change, adding in material from Julia Child's autobiography.
Bad Monkeys (2007, Matt Ruff)
Why I picked it: Ruff's 1997 "Sewer, Gas & Electric" is a favorite of mine, though I don't hear much about it from other people. And "Monkeys" was on the free table.
What it's about: It's written as the jailhouse testimony of a murder suspect who claims she is a member of a powerful and secret anti-evil organization.
What I thought:I really liked the early chapters, when she tells of her adolescence in the Haight and in a small Central Valley town, and the middle, when the official record of her life starts revealing inconsistencies in her story. These were the more human, more realistic sections of the book. In the last chapters, it drifted more into the science-fiction realm, and there were a few too many changeups for my taste: Who's dead and who's alive? What's real and what's a setup? Who's being played? Still, I liked the outcome better than if it had stuck with the realistic path and concluded that Jane's version of reality was just her way of coping with trauma.
Movie? There ought to be.
The Eustace Diamonds (1871, Anthony Trollope)
Why I picked it: Of the 100 books critiqued in Jane Smiley's "13 Ways of Looking at the Novel," I added only two to my want-to-read list: Wilkie Collins' "The Moonstone" and this. I was intrigued by the description of both as part Victorian social novel and part crime mystery, pre-Conan Doyle. When I became unexpectedly idled in Ashland for a few days in August, I stopped by the used-book store and picked this up.
What it's about: The social and marital prospects of a young widow are complicated by her possession and then her loss of an extremely valuable necklace.
What I thought: It made me appreciate Dickens all the more. I know that's the facile read of Trollope, and it's not that I didn't like this book, but it didn't have the humor and whimsy and the broader social knowledge of Dickens. It's interesting to ponder all the hurdles to marriage not so long ago, but that territory was a better read in Jane Austen and in "The House of Mirth."
Movie? Two BBC translations, as part of the 26-episode "The Pallisers" in 1974, and on its own as six 30-minute episodes in 1959.
The Mistress's Daughter (2007, A.M. Homes)
Why I picked it: I haven't read any of the fiction that Homes is best known for, but I admired her rigorous, unsentimental writing in a book of non-fiction she wrote on Los Angeles. I thought that approach would serve her well in this memoir of meeting her birth parents.
What it's about: In her 30s, Homes met her biological parents, who at the time of her birth had been a young shopgirl and her married boss.
What I thought: As I expected, Homes is blunt and straightforward in at least the first part of this book, and her narrative benefits. Her unflinching depiction of her parents and, to a surprising extent, herself, creates vivid characters; she seizes on just the right detail, the resonant bit of dialogue, that encapsulates a person or a relationship.
The book is an expansion of a magazine piece and I suspect -- I never read the article -- that the original telling makes up the strongest material. What I believe to be the addition is more internal, the writer's response to the situation, and it suffers from the lack of tension that characterizes the first half.
Homes doesn't make the mistake of attempting sweeping declarations about the nature of family. That said, anyone who has been through or witnessed an adult's reunion with birth parents will see things they recognize. The episode that made me laugh: The "is THAT genetic?" scene in which Homes realizes that her 55-year-old mother, like she herself, carries her spending money not in a purse but in a wad in her pants pocket.
American Gods (2001, Neil Gaiman)
Why I picked it:The most ambitious of Gaiman's novels, and related (by theme and by a character) to "Anansi Boys," which I loved.
What it's about: Shadow Moon, just out of prison, gets a job working for a man who turns out to be pivotal in a looming battle between gods brought to America by immigrants and the gods of modern American culture.
What I thought: One could argue that "American Gods" and "Anansi Boys" are too different to justify comparison, but I'm going to go ahead and say "Anansi" -- which came out four years later -- is by far the better, and largely because of two major elements. First, gods vs. people is more interesting than gods vs. gods. My favorite part of "American Gods" is not the epic Road Trip of the Gods that makes up most of the book but when Shadow is dealing with real people in the town of Lakeside. Second, a flawed hero is more interesting. Charlie Nancy is a meek accountant thrown into bizarre situations. Shadow, on the other hand, is a strong, self-controlled, eminently capable character, and because of that and because of his role in the story, there's not much suspense about the outcome of his conflicts.
Overall, I'd say the main charm and main fault of "American Gods" is that it's a sprawling novel, and sometimes it sprawls beyond its structure. The vignettes of the immigrant gods, for instance, make up a big part of the beginning of the book, but it's odd that there are only maybe five of them (perhaps because continuing them at that length would add hundreds of pages to an already large book). But the book has some ideas that I really like: that the gods brought to America have had to find ways to make a living here, and that roadside attractions, as places where people feel compelled to gather, are America's holy sites. And there are some really entertaining episodes throughout the book, so all in all a qualified recommendation.
One last criticism, this of the audiobook: Narrator George Guidall tends to voice women in a simper, and that does a disservice to the story. It's hard to see Shadow's wife, Laura, in the way she's written -- an attractive woman who ends up doing some brave things -- when she sounds merely silly and vacuous.
What It Is (2008, Lynda Barry)
Why I picked it: It's
What it's about: Graphic book in which Barry chronicles her development since childhood as a writer/artist and offers exercises she uses in her class on creating imagery, visual and textual.
What I thought: I liked the autobiographical stuff, which I'm familiar with from some of her previous works. I wasn't so interested in the exercises, but I'm sure some of it stuck in my head. If I were looking for this kind of class, I'd definitely appreciate Barry's self-effacing (neurotic?) and whimsical nature.
Coraline (2002, Neil Gaiman)
Why I picked it:This year's mini-course: Neil Gaiman.
What it's about: A girl discovers a strange but familiar world behind a bricked-up doorway in her flat and finds herself doing battle with a creature who claims to be her "other mother."
What I thought: Creepy but not too disturbing, appealing heroine.
Movie? A stop-motion version by Henry Selick ("The Nightmare Before Christmas," "James and the Giant Peach") is due out in a few months. Coraline's voice is (sigh) Dakota Fanning.
A Series of Unfortunate Events (1999-2006, Lemony Snicket)
Why I picked it:Alex likes to listen to books in the car, and I wanted something that wouldn't drive me nuts.
What it's about: Thirteen-part serial about the misadventures of three siblings recently orphaned and pursued by a man who wants their family fortune.
What I thought: Through the first nine, I thought it was a better-than-average children's series, clever though a bit predictable. I liked that young listeners get some payoff for remembering characters from earlier installments and seeing clues and patterns in the narrative. The last four stories, in which the children get involved with both sides of the fractured secret association to which their parents belonged, became a little more sophisticated, bringing up big issues of good and evil and the nature of people. I liked that it didn't try to tie up everything too neatly; the ending had some unexpected revelations and left some questions unanswered.
Movie? A 2004 movie with Jim Carrey as the villain covers only the first three episodes, and reorders the events radically to give it something of an ending.
The End of the Affair (1951, Graham Greene)
Why I picked it: I was watching "The Third Man," and it occurred to me I still hadn't read any Greene. This one and "Brighton Rock" have been on my list for a while.
What it's about: A London novelist recounts his wartime affair with a married neighbor as he investigates the reason she ended it.
What I thought: I knew Greene's religion strongly influenced his writing, but even having seen the movie I didn't realize this was considered one of his "Catholic novels." I was leaning toward thumbs-up for this book most of the way through -- the narrator Bendrix is a rather unsympathetic character, but his jealousy is key to the story -- but I thought it deteriorated as it got more religious at the end.
Movie? Two, 1955 with Van Johnson and Deborah Kerr, and 1999 with Ralph Fiennes and Julianne Moore. I've seen the latter, and I like it more than the novel, because Sarah and particularly Bendrix are more appealing onscreen than on paper and because it doesn't have the meandering ending that turns her into a saint.
Boy (1984, Roald Dahl)
Why I picked it: Alex and I were loitering in the children's library waiting for the puppet show to start, and I remembered I wanted to see if they had the Orange Biographies* of Blessed Memory, and they didn't, but I saw this. And I picked it up, and by the time Bugsy was done, I had read a couple chapters, so I took it with me.
What it's about: Writer Roald Dahl's life through age 17.
What I thought:It's a slim collection of anecdotes, not much to it. But it was interesting to me to try to connect the boy -- mother's pet, unlikely sports star, opponent of the public school status quo -- with the subversive children's books he would write and with the prickly and complicated man he would become.
*The orange biographies: The awkwardly named "Childhood of Famous Americans," originally published by Bobbs-Merrill in the 1940s and '50s, was a series of "fictionalized biographies" focusing on historic figures' early years. Simon & Schuster now publishes the series (in trade paperback, not in orange) and the small publisher Patria is reissuing some of the out-of-print titles under the name "Young Patriots."
Heart-Shaped Box (2007, Joe Hill)
Why I picked it: I wanted something for the beach, and this came highly recommended by Neil Gaiman.
What it's about: An aging rock star battles the murderous ghost of his ex-girlfriend's stepfather.
What I thought: This is not a big genre for me -- my horror reading has been limited to a few Stephen King novels in high school. (There's a connection between King's books and this, which to preserve any potential reader's objectivity I won't mention. But it's not a secret, and 30 seconds with Google should find it.) I liked the way "Heart-Shaped Box" started, but it got flabby and conventional. In particular, the motivation for the ghost's pursuit of our hero is eye-rollingly predictable and is laid out in ho-hum detail in a dream/flashback that violates even the loosest rules of storytelling.
Movie? Oh, yeah. The book seems to have been written with a movie in mind -- a conventional, unsurprising movie. Word has it the director will be Neil Jordan, who does well with monsters and myth, so maybe he'll be able to make something of it.
The Air Loom Gang (2004, Mike Jay)
Why I picked it: Charley Lindsey recommended it, based on our mutual fascination with the Museum of Jurassic Technology.
What it's about: James Tilly Matthews, an inmate for decades of the notorious insane asylum Bedlam, who insisted that he had been an undercover operative in English-French relations during the Reign of Terror -- and also that he and several noted public figures had been manipulated by a mind-controlling machine called the air loom. It turns out that many of his claims were true, and his "visionary madness" was a bellwether of sorts for psychological disorders of the Industrial Age.
What I thought: I expected this to be mostly about the alleged air loom, but -- apart from a detailed diagram drawn by Matthews -- there's not much material there. Instead, the book pieces together the details of Matthews' life before and during his incarceration. He's presented as an extraordinary but in many ways archetypal patient of the modern age, his particular madness shaped by the upheaval in the world around him.
I was impressed by the research behind this book and by the organization of its many threads, including the French Revolution and its aftermath, the history of mental health practices, the mythology of mind-controlling devices. Matthews develops into quite a sympathetic figure in his decades-long clash with the man most responsible for his incarceration.
I admit that my education on Revolutionary France is limited to art history, and this book made me vow to fill in some of the gaps there.
Movie? It certainly wouldn't be mainstream, but there's enough drama and personal conflict to fill a couple hours.
Lush Life (2008, Richard Price)
Why I picked it:I thought it would make a good beach read -- pulpy but literary. But the library waiting list was so long I didn't even bother to put my name in. Then I saw it on the Friends of the Library cart (thank you, Friends!). And then I finished it. Should've saved it, because now I have no backup. No way I'm taking Anna Karenina to the beach. Update: I think I'll take "Heart-Shaped Box." Should be sufficiently beachy.
What it's about: Aftermath of the shooting of a young white guy in a neighborhood "in transition" on Manhattan's Lower East Side -- a crime similar to the highly publicized 2005 killing of Nicole duFresne.
What I thought: It got off to a galloping start, setting the scene for the shooting and in particular giving a sense of the constant friction in the neighborhood. After the first act, the 24 hours including the shooting, the pace slows way down and the plot follows the overlapping wanderings of the principals. There's no real suspense, except maybe what accidental crossing of paths will bring the investigation to an end. Lacking a driving story or likable main characters, the book relies on Price's considerable writing skill, particularly his famously deft dialogue. He doesn't talk down to the reader, doesn't preach (except maybe a little in the last pages.) It all seems very true-to-life -- the police maneuverings, the casually criminal lives of the project kids, clear down to the most minor of characters. The characters, in fact, are so finely drawn and so meticulously observed that it leaves little room for mystery. To me, the high point was the early hours of the police interrogation, when the reader suddenly starts to doubt what he knows of the crime. And then, once that's cleared up, there's no more "whoa, really?" in the 300 pages to follow. I guess I'd pick truth over surprise, but I like a little of both.
Movie? The film rights were probably snapped up before the book hit the shelves. Price's good reputation as a screenwriter got a recent buffing by the success of "The Wire." I've had on my list to see again, of all things, "The Wanderers," Philip Kaufman's 1979 movie of Price's 1974 debut novel. (And also "The Warriors," also 1979, because I keep getting them mixed up.)
Into the Wild (1996, Jon Krakauer)
Why I picked it: I read it in preparation for seeing the movie version, which just came out on DVD and was one of three 2007 movies that intrigued me for drawing incredibly split reviews (the others being "Zodiac" and "The Assassination of Jesse James ...").
What it's about: Non-fiction account of the travels of Christopher McCandless, a 24-year-old from a wealthy Virginia family who died in 1992 while attempting to live off the land in an abandoned bus near Denali.
What I thought: This is an expansion of a story Krakauer wrote for Outside magazine a few months after the death, and he threw in a lot to get it to book length. Most of the more obvious padding tells of other young men, from John Muir to Krakauer himself, who took risks that could be seen as foolhardy and similar to McCandless' -- a response, I suspect, to the harsh criticism of McCandless that arose after the publication of the magazine piece. Krakauer is a very good reporter: His 1999 "Into Thin Air" became a modern classic on the strength of his recounting a story that he watched unfold. Here, he does as well as anyone could in retracing his subject's steps, but because nobody was with McCandless in his last months the end is soft and ultimately unsatisfying.
Movie? Yes; 2007, directed by Sean Penn, with Emile Hirsch in the lead role. A lot of award nominations, not many wins. I saw it after I read the book (which complicates the critical process as you compare it to the book and perhaps unconsciously fill in the gaps). Hirsch was a good McCandless, charming and self-righteously annoying at the same time. The movie gets around the lack of plot by lingering on sequences of McCandless cavorting in the wild and by adding scenes that the book doesn't have of meetings with other people. Where the book attempted to explain his decisions by probing his personality, the movie pretty much settles on the explanation that a) his parents fought a lot, and b) he was a nature lover. And the movie barely touches on what I thought was the most interesting part of the book: How did he end up in the situation that eventually killed him? The movie goes with a cause-of-death theory slightly removed from Krakauer's, and it doesn't investigate at all his neglected options for returning to civilization.
The Brooklyn Follies (2006, Paul Auster)
Why I picked it: I like Auster in a reserved sort of way. His characters -- solitary people drawn into odd circumstances -- keep the reader at arm's length, but they have interesting stories.
What it's about: Nathan Glass, divorced, retired and with lung cancer in remission, moves to Brooklyn "looking for a quiet place to die." Instead, he runs into a nephew whose life has taken a bad hop, and then Nathan's young grand-niece shows up on his doorstep, refusing to speak a word.
What I thought: Warmer than his other novels, drifting a little more toward the sentimental than I like. I haven't had any desire to read 9/11 fiction -- DeLillo's "Falling Man," McInerney's "The Good Life," Jonathan Safran Foer's "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close" -- but I was touched by the way "The Brooklyn Follies," in its last page, mentions that event and in doing so drops another layer of meaning over the whole novel.
Movie?No. Auster has screenwriter/director credits on a few movies, but my favorite Auster adaptation is one for which he got neither credit: "The Music of Chance" (1993), in which James Spader and Mandy Patinkin run afoul of their opponents in a poker game.
Dangerous Laughter (2008, Stephen Millhauser)
Why I picked it:Affection for Millhauser's writing, though I liked his novel "Martin Dressler" -- really liked it, in fact -- more than I've liked his short stories. And it was on the free table.
What it's about: Collection of 13 stories, a dozen of them on one of three themes: disappearance, fantastic architecture and false histories.
What I think: There's nobody else like Millhauser in being able to create a world, to take a whim and stretch it to the extreme. These worlds he creates are often fascinating, but there's always something threatening or disturbing about them. And the setting or the conceit is really the main character, so the reader doesn't get the virtual hand-holding of identifying with a human character. Which is a meandering way of saying that reading 13 Millhauser stories is an intense experience but not a cozy one.
Movie? No. Earlier short story "Eisenheim the Illusionist" was made into "The Illusionist," with Edward Norton.
Breath (2008, Tim Winton)
Why I picked it: I've liked Winton's novels, particularly "The Riders" and "Cloudstreet." And it was on the free table.
What it's about: Kid on Australia's western coast becomes the disciple of a former surfing star.
What I think: A good one, especially the flashback to adolescence that forms the bulk of the novel (short novel, barely 200 pages). The surfing stuff was really well-done. I started to understand what motivates surfers-- which is crucial to the book, because its heart is an examination of thrillseeking and how it sets one apart. The bracketing story of the protagonist as an adult is not as engaging, and it seemed a little tacked-on, a brief "whatever happened to ..." sequence. But when I thought about whether the book would be better if the brackets were either left off or expanded, I decided that of course Winton got it right by mentioning the years-later consequences of their behavior but not overwhelming the core of the story.
Curious about the cover: I've seen two versions online, one a big breaking wave and the other bubbles in water -- the Australian and U.S. versions, I assumed. It took some hunting to find (on the site of the publisher's Canadian branch) the cover of the copy I read, above.
Movie? Not yet. But the movie of Winton's "Dirt Music," directed by Phillip Noyce, is due out next year.
Maps and Legends (2008, Michael Chabon)
Why I picked it: To tell the truth, the reason I took it off the shelf was the cover: a gorgeous, layered wrap by comics artist Jordan Crane. (The cover tells a lot about the sensibility of McSweeney's publishing: Dudes have money, and they have no problem spending it on a beautiful, unconventional package.) Then I realized that it was Chabon and that the library gods had saved it for me. He's always great to read, a smart, thoughtful writer who is besotted with the joys of genre fiction. And among the topics covered in this book are maps (and I'm a lousy maphead) and the Philip Pullman trilogy (which I was -- see below -- finishing at the time).
What it is: non-fiction collection on no particular theme, but emphasis on comics, graphic novels, genre fiction.
What I thought: Nothing that really blew me away, but it was a nice break between fictions. My favorite chapter was one I was familiar with, having heard Chabon interviewed about it on the "Yiddish Policemen's" audiobook: He talks about happening across a traveler's phrasebook in Yiddish and how the implications of that launched his novel.
His Dark Materials trilogy (The Golden Compass, 1995; The Subtle Knife, 1997; The Amber Spyglass, 2000; Philip Pullman)
Why I picked it: Highly recommended by people whose opinion I respect. Many presented it as a grown-up alternative to Harry Potter, which I did try, honestly, but I couldn't make it past 100 pages.
What it's about: Three-book account of a wide-ranging fight over the future of the world (or worlds, as our heroes traipse among alternative Earths), centering on an 11-year-old girl who's the subject of a prophecy. Heavy science-vs.-religion theme.
What I thought: Let me go on a bit -- three books, you know. My plunge into fantasy started out well. I liked the first book quite a lot, because of its steampunk sensibility and its focus on Lyra, an unconventional girl heroine in that she is uneducated, impulsive, bordering on obdurate. The second book I was not as fond of -- didn't like the witches -- but it had some good scenes with Lyra and buddy Will on the lam in modern-day Oxford and a strange abandoned city.
The third book -- ah, the third book. I stuck with it just because I had made it that far. Way too much stuff on angels, the Creator, biblical and Miltonian allusion. This is what Pullman was heading for all along, but it just got too heavy for my taste. And I really didn't like the extended attention to the character Mary Malone, whom I found bland and annoying. I even found myself disliking by association her friends the Mulefa, and I'm a big fan of talking animals. (My absolute favorite: the scavenger foxes who, having developed rudimentary language skills, scavenge not only carrion but conversation, which they then regurgitate in incomprehensible form. I wish Book 3 had more of that stuff.) Come to think of it, there are a lot of unlikable people/creatures in the final book. Even Lyra was not as appealing to me, because her growing maturity made her calmer and softer and more sentimental -- more the conventional girl heroine.
(While I'm on it, a digression on exactly how mature she might be: At the end of the series, Lyra has recently turned 12. Or maybe she's still 11, and her absentee father is just estimating. In any case, by the book's own definition she is a child, prepubescent, until the last pages. Calling her adolescent would be a stretch. So the nature of her love relationship, though necessary for the emotional punch of the final save-the-world decision, is unbelievable and bordering on repellent. I'm not saying kids aren't capable of love, but a physical relationship that includes a hand-feeding seduction and extended kissing sessions -- ick. Not a major issue in my overall evaluation, but it did seem like a false step.)
So all in all, about half a thumb up. My recommendation: Unless you've got the stamina for the weighty humanity-at-a-crossroads wrap-up, don't start. Quitting after Book 1 or Book 2 would be unsatisfying, but the third one requires some commitment. (And, of course, keep in mind that this is the opinion of a fantasy dilettante.)
Movie? The adaptation of the first book, directed by Chris Weitz, came out at the end of 2007. It didn't do very well in the United States, and the word was that the rest of the trilogy had been scuttled. But this spring the first movie did well in Japan, spawning reports that its overseas success was enough to revive the plan. Has a good cast -- Daniel Craig I like, and Dakota Blue Richards got good reviews as Lyra -- but I have little desire to see it.
Snow Crash (1992, Neal Stephenson)
Why I picked it: This book may have the distinction of being the longest on my to-read list -- so long I can't remember whether it was John Murrell or Barry Parr who recommended it to me 15 years ago. Whichever it was, he set the hook by describing a future Los Angeles whose heroes were pizza deliverymen and couriers.
What it's about: A hacker/pizza deliverer and a skateboard courier get wrapped up in a plot to spread a virus that crashes the brain's neurolinguistic center.
What I thought: I haven't suddenly become a sci-fi fan, but I stuck with this one, mainly because of the courier YT (a 15-year-old girl, brave and independent, but still 15 years old) and the wryly apocalyptic rendering of L.A. I skimmed the long explanations of the plot's underpinnings, concerning Sumerian culture and the Babel phenomenon. (My favorite line: When asked if spoken Sumerian might sound like glossolalia, the Virtual Librarian who assists our hero Hiro says, "Judgment call. Ask someone real.") I don't think I'm the only reader who remained hazy on the what and why of the virus, or the only one who was disappointed by the ending. I don't regret reading it, though, especially since it has become such a techie cult classic.
Movie? Apparently there was some interest, but it never happened. I don't think it would be doable in any reasonable time and budget constraints.
Motherless Brooklyn (1999, Jonathan Lethem)
Why I picked it: Bonnie Miller recommended it.
What it's about: Young man with Tourette's syndrome tries to find out who killed his boss/mentor, a small-time fixer.
What I thought: If you're looking for a straight-up mystery, this is not your book. The clues aren't sufficient to connect the dots; that is done in one burst of exposition near the end. Instead, Lethem uses the genre to frame an examination of appearance and identity. It's also an interesting look at Tourette's, in the way that "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" (2002, Mark Haddon) lets the reader inside the autistic mind.
Movie? Edward Norton is purportedly adapting the book for a movie that he will direct and star in. He's been working on it since before the book came out, though, so I can't say it's a happening thing.
Anansi Boys (2005, Neil Gaiman)
Why I picked it: Neil Gaiman went in a matter of months from completely off my radar to popping up frequently on the sweep. I resisted reading his stuff because: A) I'm not wild about fantasy (but then some of my favorite books, notably "Winter's Tale," would qualify), and B) I really don't know much about graphic novels (but then I think I would probably like them if I paid any attention). So I picked up a CD with a couple radio plays he did, and I liked those. "Anansi Boys" was the next step.
What it's about: A London accountant who finds out, after his father dies, that A) he has a brother he never knew about, and B) their father was a god, specifically the trickster spider god Anansi.
What I thought: Really liked this. Ripping yarn, dryly funny. You'll never look at a lime the same way. Lenny Henry's narration of the audiobook is wonderful.
Movie? No, and I don't know why. It's a very cinematic read. Would take lots of CGI (forget it, Dogme), but I think it's a natural. Too bad Roland Gift is too old to play brother Spider.
Born Standing Up (2007, Steve Martin)
Why I picked it: I admire Steve Martin for the breadth of his interests and the thoughtfulness with which he takes on projects. I read an excerpt of this in Vanity Fair and put it on my list.
What it's about: Martin's autobiography of his life until the end of his stand-up comedy career.
What I thought: Easy, entertaining read. Made me want to dig out my "Let's Get Small" album, which I'm sure I haven't listened to for 25 years.
Movie? No. He talks in the book about his movies "The Jerk" (1979) and "Pennies From Heaven" (1981). I recently saw the latter and, though I applaud the effort, I'm amazed anyone thought that would be a money-maker.
Silas Marner (1861, George Eliot)
Why I picked it: Liked "Middlemarch," have intended to read more Eliot.
What it's about: Reclusive weaver's stash of gold is stolen, and shortly thereafter he takes in a young child who wanders to his doorstep.
What I thought: What I knew about it going in -- love changes miser's priorities -- is really just the fairy-tale-type ending. In fact, the little girl arrives fairly late in the story, which then skips 16 years and wraps up very quickly. It shouldn't have surprised me, given my "Middlemarch" experience, but Silas is a more complex character than I expected, and the book is more about the whole community. In fact, the Silas-Eppie dynamic is downright boring when compared with, say, the midadventures of Dunstan Cass.
One part I could have skipped -- OK, I did skip it --is the townies sitting around in the bar gabbing for pages and pages. I figure it is meant to enlighten me on various philosophies of life and fate, but gaaah it was stultifying.
Between this and "McTeague," (see below) I have the start of a mini-course on avarice or, more precisely, hoarding of money for its own sake, something that doesn't come up much in modern literature.
Movie? Quite a few, including several in the silent era. The one I saw after reading this is Steve Martin's 1994 modern-dress adaptation, "A Simple Twist of Fate." It's a fairly pedestrian movie, with better actors than it deserves (Martin, Gabriel Byrne, Laura Linney). And to make it work in a modern context, they have to have a child custody battle, which is then resolved, rather anticlimactically, by repurposing an event from the book.
Speaking of modern-dress Eliot: I was seized when reading "Middlemarch" by the idea of a contemporary adaptation (which tells you how gripped I was by the political/industrial material). I now see that Sam Mendes is doing a "Middlemarch" movie, but it looks to be period.
Ethan Frome (1911, Edith Wharton)
Why I picked it: I've liked the Wharton novels I've read.
What it's about: A New Englander in an unhappy marriage falls in love with his wife's cousin.
What I thought: I knew going in that this didn't have a happy ending, but I thought it would be a romantically tragic ending, like "House of Mirth" or "The Age of Innocence." No! It is bleak, bleak, bleak. This isn't a spoiler, because right up front the narrator tells you something horrible happened to Ethan Frome (and it's a standard high school lit class book, so the ending is pretty well-known). It's not a bad book -- the depiction of rural life on the edge of poverty is interesting. And it's short. And then there's the end.
Movie? 1993, directed by John Madden. Ha! Unfortunately, not that John Madden. That I might want to see (POW! goes the toboggan). Stars Liam Neeson, Joan Allen, Patricia Arquette.
The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885, Mark Twain)
Why I picked it: Have I read this? I should have. I remember some stories that aren't from "Tom Sawyer." But maybe they're just from anthologies and SRA. Whatever, I'll read it now.
What it's about: Kid rides a raft down the Mississippi with a runaway slave.
What I thought: What can I say, it's "Huck Finn," American classic. I guess I could argue that all that stuff with the Prince and the Duke went on too long, but it's a good collection of stories. Oh, and I didn't understand why they had to keep going down the river after they missed Cairo, even though it would be much worse for Jim. Couldn't they have tried to double back on land? Anyway, turns out I hadn't read the whole thing before.
Movie? Several, none recognized as outstanding. One with Elijah Wood in the title role, one with Ron Howard. Here's one with (in lesser roles) Buster Keaton AND Harry Dean Stanton. Remember that for your next round of Kevin Bacon.
The Maytrees (2007, Annie Dillard)
Why I picked it:The library's audiobook collection is not large, and when I was looking for an audiobook this one got the edge because I've liked Dillard's non-fiction, particularly "An American Childhood."
What it's about:A couple's life in Provincetown, Mass., from the late 1940s into the '70s.
What I thought:I almost abandoned this after 50 pages. I thought I knew where it was headed, or not headed, in its poetic meandering way, and I didnt know if its beautiful language and interesting people could make up for what I saw as a lack of story. But I stuck with it, and an unpredicted thing happened that turned the course, and it ended up being enough of a story for me. The book's strength, though, is its sense of place: the vivid descriptions of Cape Cod and of the characters' relation to the land and the sea.
Gilead(2004, Marilynne Robinson)
Why I picked it: My affection for "Housekeeping," Robinson's other novel.
What it's about: It's written as an extended letter from a septuagenarian Iowa preacher to his young son in the 1950s, alternating between family history and the narrator's contemporary dealings with his black-sheep godson.
What I thought: I wanted to like this, but whenever it hinted at a storyline that interested me it quickly returned to old Preacher Ames, who seemed nice enough but not really riveting. The two tangents I would have much rather followed: Ames' grandfather, a Bloody Kansas abolitionist, and Ames' much-younger wife, a variation on the ragged-edge-of-society women who made "Housekeeping" so memorable. One "Gilead" anecdote, involving a horse and a sudden hole in the street, recalls the earlier novel's genius for cinematic imagery, but "Gilead" is not about story-telling. It's languid and reflective, with a lot of talk about faith. The one sustained arc of suspense, such as it is, ends with a revelation that seems flat and not worthy of the build-up.
Movie? No. If I've piqued your curiosity, "Housekeeping" (1987) is as faithful as I can imagine a movie being to the singular tone of the novel.
McTeague (1899, Frank Norris)
Why I picked it: I'm looking to fill the gaps in my reading of the California canon, and this novel is a two-fer: It's a view of turn-of-the-century San Francisco by a local writer, and it was the basis of "Greed" (1924), a legendary early Hollywood movie.
What it's about: The fiancee of a plodding but not unlikable dentist wins a lottery jackpot, setting off a spiral of bad behavior.
What I thought: A good read all the way through, though not particularly deep or thoughtful. Tends toward melodrama in that it's driven more by action than by character (hey! an antidote to "The Hours") I liked the details of day-to-day life, and I would love an edition that has a map of the location and contemporary photographs.
Movie? Existing are a two-hour version and a four-hour version; Erich von Stroheim's 10-hour cut is lost. I saw the two-hour, one of the best silents I've seen. Good acting, great locations, and the ending is amazing, especially if you think about what they must have had to go through to film it.
His Illegal Self (2008, Peter Carey)
Why I picked it: I have an uneven relationship with Carey's novels. I made it through "My Life as a Fake" despite never really getting a handle on it, and I think I finished "True History of the Kelly Gang" though I can't be sure I didn't abandon it toward the end -- but I really liked "Oscar and Lucinda" and "Jack Maggs," enough to predispose me to Carey. And it was on the giveaway table at work.
What it's about: The young son of two '60s-era student radicals is snatched from his custodial grandmother and ends up on the lam in Australia.
What I thought:My favorite thing about it is how Carey draws you into this odd little enclave in the jungle of Australia. The setting, in fact, engaged me more than either the boy or his captor/caretaker. They weren't unappealing, but Carey doesn't really let you deep inside their heads, whereas I did feel deep in the jungle.
Movie? Not yet. "Oscar and Lucinda" (1997) is a good movie -- Ralph Fiennes, Cate Blanchett.
The Hours (1998, Michael Cunningham)
Why I picked it: The Virginia Woolf connection. I read "To the Lighthouse" recently and was thinking of reading "Mrs. Dalloway," so I thought this might be a nice lead-in.
What it's about: Flips among three characters: Virginia Woolf right before her death, a '50s housewife/mother in Los Angeles, and a middle-aged artsy lesbian in modern-day New York City.
What I thought: Book-clubby. It's all very internal, and I sometimes got impatient with the angst of these women. I found some of the literary devices heavy-handed; if one more person got yellow roses, I was going to fling the book.
Movie? 2002, with Nicole Kidman, Julianne Moore and Meryl Streep (who, in a bit of trivia, is mentioned in the book). Saw it when it came out, liked it OK.
The Yiddish Policemen's Union (2007, Michael Chabon)
Why I picked it: I've liked all of Chabon's novels, and this one was getting good reviews. The Jewish theme was not a particular incentive -- maybe even a disincentive, given my ambivalence about the Zionist debate.
What it's about: Murder mystery set in modern-day Alaska, but a fictional modern-day Alaska that since World War II has been a settlement for Jewish refugees and is about to revert to U.S. jurisdiction.
What I thought: I really liked this one. I'm ready to declare it my favorite of 2008, but it's only January. Good characters, good voice, interesting story. The pace was good: Enough developments that you had to pay attention to keep up with the mystery, but not so many that you got lost. I suppose it adds to reader enjoyment to know a little about black-hat Judaism, but it's not confusing if you don't. I listened to it, read by Peter Riegert, who was very good.
Movie? In development by the Coen brothers; no details of casting. Of Chabon's other novels, "Wonder Boys" was made into a good movie (2000), and "Mysteries of Pittsburgh" and "The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay" are in the pipeline.
Dishwasher (2007, Pete Jordan)
Why I picked it: Thought it might be an interesting look at blue-collar work by a good writer, like the wondrous "Rivethead" (1990, Ben Hamper). Apparently, Jordan was a frequent contributor to "This American Life" before I started listening.
What it's about: Memoir of a guy whose goal is to wash dishes professionally in all 50 states.
Why I gave it up: I hung in for 80 pages and saw little sign of storytelling talent. Pretty much every dishwashing gig to that point was described the same way: "I fell into this job, and it took a little getting used to, but there was free food so it was all right." Jordan comes across as the quintessential slacker, with no ambition except to get drunk.
Travels in the Scriptorium (2007, Paul Auster)
Why I picked it: See The Brooklyn Follies, above.
What it's about: Guy wakes up in a strange room, doesn't know where he is, is visited by a succession of people, some of them vaguely familar to him. I figured this to be one of those author-confronted-by-his-creations things, a suspicion heightened when I recognized a couple of the characters from Auster's previous books.
Why I gave it up: I never got interested in "Mr. Blank" or his plight. Though it's a very short book, I had no motivation to stick with it as the clues came together.
The Scarlet Letter (1850, Nathaniel Hawthorne)
Why I picked it: Another classic I never read.
What it's about: Woman in colonial Boston is subject to public condemnation after bearing a child out of wedlock and refusing to reveal the father.
Why I gave it up: A digression, if you'll indulge me. After reading four chapters and an interminable introduction to this book, I'm in the mood for rambling on irrelevantly. I think I got a decent high school education, but it was not strong on the classics. Maybe because it was the '70s -- "whatever turns you on" -- we seemed to read a lot of excerpts and anthologies, and I am hard-pressed to think of five even near-classics we were assigned. So when I hear people say of Twain or Cather, "Yeah, I had to read that in ninth grade," I'm kind of jealous. The time I wasted in high school on lightweight assignments! But in reference to "The Scarlet Letter," I am not jealous. I pity any high-schooler assigned this. Where was the story? Where was the drama? Maybe it would have gotten better, but life is too short to read boring classics.
The Widows of Eastwick (2008, John Updike)
Why I picked it: There it was, just sitting on the free table, one of the most prominent books of the season.
What it's about: In the sequel to 1984's "The Witches of Eastwick," our witchy heroines return to the Rhode Island town that was, as they say, the scene of their primes and the scene of their crimes.
Why I gave it up: I got through 150 pages and still felt no real connection and no real curiosity about what would happen. Not unexpected: I've never warmed to Updike's characters. And then I happened to flip through "Bad Monkeys," and the widows were toast.
Movie? Now this is an interesting question. The movie of "Witches" was, I think, considered a commercial and critical success, but it deviated substantially from the book, especially in the tailoring of the male lead to make maximum use of Jack Nicholson. (Can you remember all three witches? I could get two. Give up? Susan Sarandon, Michelle Pfeiffer, Cher. The first two would be fine in a sequel, but Cher seems to have gone a different direction.) Anyway, I don't know if Mr. Updike would be too eager to see "Widows" undergo the same Hollywoodization. And maybe Hollywood wouldn't even want it without a role for Jack.
The Sea (2005, John Banville)
Why I picked it: Bonnie and Ann recommended it.
Why I gave it up: I might have continued had I not just read "Out Stealing Horses," another looking-back-on-youth by a rather dour narrator. And this narrator is even less likeable, kind of prissy and misanthropic. The family at the center of the reminiscence seemed more interesting, but 55 pages in he was still in his aging-man wallow. Maybe some other time.