The 2009 List
reverse chronological order
»Inherent Vice
»Material Dreams
»Imagining Los Angeles
»Conquest of the Useless
»Run River
»Where I Was From
»Inventing the Dream
»The Girl Who Played With Fire
»A Spot of Bother
»The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao
»Hallelujah Junction
»The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet
»Nobody Move
»Fragile Things
»Americans and the California Dream
»The Graveyard Book
»Goodbye to Berlin
»The Tender Bar
»The Wordy Shipmates
»California: A History
»The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War
»After Dark
»A Boy's Own Story
»The Abstinence Teacher
»In Nevada
»The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo
»West of the West
»Last Night at the Lobster
»The Razor's Edge
»When the Shooting Stops
»The Great Gatsby
»Alice Adams
»The Magnificent Ambersons
»Gun, With Occasional Music
»Righteous Porkchop
»Nureyev: The Life
»The Tenth Muse
»The End of Alice
»Alone in the Kitchen With an Eggplant

On deck
The Education of Henry Adams,
 Henry Adams
The Moonstone,
 Wilkie Collins
Call It Sleep,
 Henry Roth

»Winesburg, Ohio
»The Little Book

The books of 2009

1. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, Stieg Larsson
2. Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman
3. The Tender Bar, J.R. Moehringer
4. Last Night at the Lobster, Stewart O'Nan
5. Inherent Vice, Thomas Pynchon

Honorable mentions:
The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet, The Abstinence Teacher, Home

All 41 books

Inherent Vice (2009, Thomas Pynchon)
Why I picked it: Pynchon! Smart and funny and a lot more of an easy read than "Gravity's Rainbow" would lead you to believe.
What it's about: Pynchon does Chandler, moved to 1970, and with the Marlowe role played by Lebowski the Dude. Pothead hippie P.I. in a South Bay beach town tangles with drug smugglers and bad cops.
What I thought: I didn't know going in that this was part of my Southern California module, but the time and place are as strong as the characters, with throwaway references to such icons as Sydney Omarr, Kaufmann & Broad, Evelyn Wood and Tommy's (though I always think of it as at Beverly and Rampart, not Beverly and Coronado), as well as just about every TV show running in the 1969-'70 season. The characters are great, the dialogue hilarious, the story basically just there to give them something to talk about.

Material Dreams: Southern California Through the 1920s (1990, Kevin Starr)
Why I picked it: No. 3 in the series.
What it's about: The first book was almost totally Northern California, the second about half and half, and this one is all Southern, principally Los Angeles, as it says "through the 1920s."
What I thought: My favorite of the three, because of my interest in the topic. I particularly liked the parts on the arts-and-literary community. That said, I have to mention that I winced at the number of typos and proofreading errors (some as major as giving someone the wrong first name) and at the repetition of fairly substantial pieces of prose in different parts of the book. I have no problem with repetition, but I think someone ought to at least smooth out the more obvious cut-and-paste.

Imagining Los Angeles: A City in Fiction (2000, David Fine)
Why I picked it: Fits my module of California story and myth.
What it's about: Straightforward survey of fiction set in Los Angeles, from the 19th century to the end of the 20th.
What I thought: A quick read, and thorough, though it occasionally slipped into a plodding academic tone. Most was review for me, except some of the '30s stuff; there were just one or two books mentioned that made me think, ooo, gotta put that one on my list.

Conquest of the Useless: Reflections from the Making of 'Fitzcarraldo' (2009 U.S./2004 Ger., Werner Herzog)
Why I picked it: Herzog strikes me as one of the most thoughtful and interesting filmmakers working. From seeing "Fitzcarraldo" and the documentary "Burden of Dreams," I know there's plenty about that production to reflect on.
What it's about: Journal entries from 1979-'81, when Herzog was setting up and making the movie near the headwaters of the Amazon. Not a lot on actual filming.
What I thought: Interesting look at a very unusual artist, the kind of guy who could live in primitive, uncomfortable conditions -- mud, poison snakes, huge spiders, bizarre foods, extreme physical discomfort and danger, hostile natives, hostile co-workers, lack of equipment -- and still a) never question why he was there and b) find beauty in the situation.
He claims not to dream but to have lucid daytime visions, many of which he reports in the book and any one of which could become a movie. He chooses a vision and that apparently becomes his burden for as long as that movie takes.
Movies: "Fitzcarraldo" (1982) and Les Blank's making-of documentary "Burden of Dreams." If you want to make it three, "My Best Fiend," Herzog's documentary about his relationship with the mad actor Klaus Kinski. More jungle insanity by Herzog: "Aguirre the Wrath of God." Recent, more mainstream Herzog: "Rescue Dawn," "Grizzly Man." Just out: "Bad Lieutenant Port of Call New Orleans."

Run River (1963, Joan Didion)
Why I picked it:It's the companion piece to "Where I Was From" (below): Didion wrote it, she says, as a young woman missing California, and in reexamining it 40 years later she saw it to be based on a false view of the state.
What it's about:Twenty years of married life (1938-1959) on a ranch near Sacramento.
What I thought: It's not the sort of novel I would have read absent the context above. It has a sort of Southern Gothic feel to it, and the main characters are notable for their lack of direction or even desire. The writing, though, is particularly remarkable for someone barely out of college -- it has those good bones that are Didion's hallmark.

Where I Was From (2003, Joan Didion)
Why I picked it: I was looking for a break after 300 more pages of California's invention of itself, so I chose a book about California's invention of itself.
What it's about: Sacramento native Didion examines the California myths she grew up with and the reality of the state today.
What I thought: Didion knows the value of a good story but she is also driven to write truthfully. It's fascinating to watch her make connections between her pioneer family's view of California and its reality in the 21st century -- one of her theses being that the developments that many old-time California families believed were destroying the state after World War II were actually continuations of the very values and forces that created it.
At one point in the book, I started to suspect, unhappily, that maybe it was less of a cohesive work and more a collection of her writings on California, but then the pieces started fitting together. Didion is one of the few writers who combines such an exacting, fearless voice with a heart of humanity, even vulnerability.

Inventing the Dream: California Through the Progressive Era (1986, Kevin Starr)
Why I picked it: Part 2 of the series. And since Starr is still writing, I can't fall too far behind.
What it's about: California history, 1880-1915, with Starr's particular emphasis on the state and its people as a project of self-invention. This one overlaps chronologically with the previous one but with greater attention to Southern California.
What I thought: As with the first one, it required focused reading. I would've said before I started the series that I am more interested in the history of Southern California than that of the north, but through this book that hasn't been true. Many of the Southern Californians of this book made me impatient, coming across as they did as self-impressed and tied up in the mission myth. I liked best the chapter about architect Arthur Page Brown and the pre-quake building of San Francisco.

The Girl Who Played With Fire (2009 U.S./2006 Sweden, Stieg Larsson)
Why I picked it: Part 2 of the Millennium trilogy, Part 1 of which I liked very much earlier this year.
What it's about: Crusading journalist Mikael Blomkvist and socially warped hacker Lisbeth Salander get caught up with international smugglers of teen prostitutes.
What I thought: If it was a little less riveting than "Dragon Tattoo," it could be written off as a predictable Act 2 letdown. Salander is a great character, but she works best playing off Blomkvist, and the story arc kept them apart for most of this book. I could've done with less of the police and more of Salander. Whenever she's on the page, the story gallops right along. I'll even forgive the red herring of an opener.
Movie? Status seems to be much the same as six months ago: Swedish movies done, with plans to release them soon for English-language audience.

A Spot of Bother (2006, Mark Haddon)
Why I picked it: Bonnie and Ann recommended it, and I liked Haddon's "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time."
What it's about:While a woman's engagement draws the disapproval of her parents and brother, their own personal lives are falling apart.
What I thought: I wonder if it might not have made a better short story. The characters are well enough drawn, but the plot got spread a little thin.

The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (2007, Junot Diaz)
Why I picked it: Critical acclaim, including a Pulitzer.
What it's about: Three generations of a Dominican family, on the island and in Paterson, N.J.
What I thought: It wasn't really strong on story, but I liked that it drew me into cultures and history I know very little about. Its smart, vernacular narration is a plus. All in all, though, the type of multigenerational epic I've never gotten into.
Movie? IMDb says it's in development.

Hallelujah Junction (2009, John Adams)
Why I picked it: Because of the name. OK, no -- because my musical wanderings have brought me to the brink of Adams' operas (though not any further into his more modern, experimental work). But also I'm inclined to like someone who would name a composition and a memoir after a wide spot on Highway 395.
What it's about: Autobiography of the minimalist composer, who has lived and worked in the Bay Area for 30 years.
What I thought: I lack the musical education to really understand his discussions of his work, but I liked the insight into creative methods and collaborations.
Movie? I was waiting to read this before I watch "Doctor Atomic" and the making-of documentary "Wonders are Many."

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet (2009, Reif Larsen)
Why I picked it: Genius kid, maps, marginalia: This one was written for me.
What it's about:Twelve-year-old with "obsessive mapmaking tendencies" travels from his family's Montana ranch to the Smithsonian, where he has been offered a fellowship by people unaware of his age.
What I thought: It's every bit as appealing as I expected, and it has several interesting angles I didn't expect, including the discounting of science in America, and the uneasy relationships between kids and adults.

Nobody Move (2008, Denis Johnson)
Why I picked it: Johnson's "Tree of Smoke" got a lot of critical acclaim, but the subject matter didn't appeal to me. Crime fiction, on the other hand, is an easy read.
What it's about: Jimmy is on the run after shooting his loan shark's enforcer. Anita is taking the fall for her husband's embezzling of public funds. Together they flail toward vengeance.
What I thought: Early on, I figured it was very close to Elmore Leonard. But Leonard's characters are appealing, even the bad guys; in this one, there was really no one to like or admire. just a lot of violence and brutal behavior, It wasn't hard to listen to, but it just felt kind of flat. One thing I liked: It took place on the Feather River near Oroville, an area that I know well but that I've never seen before as a book's setting. I'm interested enough to read some more Johnson, maybe "Angels" or "Already Dead."
Movie? It wouldn't surprise me. The book started life as a Playboy serial, so that might give it a boost toward hot-property status. Johnson's story "Jesus' Son" became the 1999 movie of the same name, with a great performance by Billy Crudup.

Fragile Things (2006, Neil Gaiman)
Why I picked it: Looking for an audiobook for the solo drive to Yosemite. I took this even though my previous experience with Gaiman's short fiction -- "Smoke and Mirrors" -- didn't engage me.
What it's about: Thirty-two stories, most written for compilations. Heavy on the Gothic and the twist ending.
What I thought: Uneven and not particularly memorable. The three that stuck with me are "A Study in Emerald," a Sherlock Holmes/space alien mashup that I had heard before on somebody's podcast; "Sunbird," which had engaging, whimsical characters but a plot that bordered on shaggy-dog; and "The Monarch of the Glen," which follows protagonist Shadow after the events of "American Gods."

Americans and the California Dream, 1850-1915 (1973, Kevin Starr)
Why I picked it: Book 1 of the definitive series by California's state librarian emeritus. My reading list has been inching toward this for a while.
What it's about: Starr's particular purview is not just history, but the mythology and self-image that have shaped the state and set it apart.
What I thought: It's not a quick read, but I enjoyed it. The chapters that go the fastest for me are those that focus on a specific person -- Josiah Royce, Jack London, Gertrude Atherton -- as representative of some of the currents of thought.

The Graveyard Book (2008, Neil Gaiman)
Why I picked it: My shortstanding affection for Gaiman's brand of modern fantasy.
What it's about: A riff on "The Jungle Book" in which the orphaned boy is adopted and raised not by animals in the jungle but by dead people in a graveyard.
What I thought: Finally -- out of the on-deck circle after a year. Just when I thought the demand at the library might be diminished, it won the Newbery Medal, and there was a new round of buzz. I must say I think it deserves the Newbery, as well as the Audie for audiobook of the year (read by Gaiman).
I've read five of Gaiman's novels, and three of them concern a mild-mannered young man thrown into battle against forces of darkness. (The others: spunky little girl thrown into battle against forces of darkness; tough but sentimental ex-con thrown into battle against forces of darkness.) I like all three very much. If this one seemed familiar, it was in the sense of comforting and appealing -- but if pressed I'd admit I might have preferred a little more novelty. That said, "Graveyard" is perhaps stronger than the other two in the area of relationships between people (or between people and not-really people), and the ending is quite poignant. Marketed as a kids' book, but it defies pigeonholing.
Movie? Said to be upcoming, with direction by Neil Jordan.

Goodbye to Berlin (1939, Christopher Isherwood)
Why I picked it: Christopher Isherwood is less interesting to me as a writer than he is as an archetypal expatriate in Los Angeles and a bellwether of the cultural scene there during World War II. But I thought it would be interesting to compare that to his earlier expatriate experience, in Berlin.
What it's about: A collection of stories, told as first-person reports, about life in Berlin in the early 1930s.
What I thought: Berlin during the rise of the Nazis is an inherently interesting situation, but I didn't have much feeling for Isherwood's characters. Most of them struck me as dull or silly or lacking in ethics. I can recommend the audiobook reading by Michael York, who has has made a second career out of Isherwood. His accents are great; I will now never be able to read "Isherwood" without thinking "Herr Issey-voo!"
Movie? "Cabaret" (1972) and "I Am a Camera" (1955) were based on the stories. (In the book, Sally Bowles is much less a star, her act much less outrageous than in "Cabaret.") I recommend the recent documentary "Chris & Don," about Isherwood and L.A. artist Don Bachardy, although it gives much more a sense of Bachardy, who is still alive.

The Tender Bar (2005, J.R. Moehringer)
Why I picked it: I read a couple good reviews of it, and I am predisposed to like coming-of-age memoirs.
What it's about: The childhood and early adulthood of J.R. Moehringer, a newspaper writer; a pivotal role is played by the bar in his Long Island neighborhood.
What I thought: Though it took Moehringer a while to find his right career, the newspaper business has long attracted reporters with his blend of blue-collar sensibility and literary leanings -- so if this book sounds a little like Pete Dexter, a lot like Rick Bragg, that is to be expected. But though the romantic, self-destructive and somewhat extended adolescence is familiar, Moehringer has his own voice, a little neurotic but appealing, with less bluster than many of his older colleagues. He gives a detailed account of his abortive internship at the New York Times but, in the epilogue, doesn't mention that barely 10 years later he won a Pulitzer. Moehringer, who like me is in his mid-40s, left the newspaper business in 2007, taking a buyout at the Los Angeles Times.
Movie? It's reported that Scott Rudin bought the rights. A story Moehringer wrote for the L.A. Times magazine inspired "Resurrecting the Champ."

The Wordy Shipmates (2008, Sarah Vowell)
Why I picked it: I'm not a rabid fan of Vowell's -- though I sense she has many -- but I've been enjoying my recent dips into history, especially when it's told by people who are crazy about it in a light-hearted way (see Kate Beaton).
What it's about: The Puritans who formed the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 1630s.
What I thought: An easy, amusing read about an often-neglected segment of American history.

California: A History (2005, Kevin Starr)
Why I picked it: Now I'm picking up steam with the California history. Starr is the acknowledged master, and I thought I'd blow through his overview before going on to his "California Dreams" series, currently seven volumes.
What it's about: California history from Spanish days to 2004.
What I thought: I could sense that Starr was constrained by fitting everything into one volume. He knows so much fascinating stuff, and he's used to covering a decade per book. But if you were just going to read one California history, this is a good one. And I do feel more ready to go in depth now.

The California Gold Rush and the Coming of the Civil War (2007, Leonard L. Richards)
Why I picked it: As I mentioned after "In Nevada," I was ready to start reading serious California history.
What it's about: Well, the title pretty much gets it all. Actually, there was less gold rush than I expected, and a lot more national politicking and machinations concerning slavery.
What I thought: A lot of information, and it definitely filled in some of the gaps in my historical education. Some of the specifics I was already solid on -- I must have taken some class that really hammered on Dred Scott, because that was very familiar -- but it gave me a good general picture of the state of the nation in the 1850s. The two things that surprised me most: that Southern California was most definitely a backwater, very little changed from its Mexican days, despite all the activity and political importance of the state as a whole; and that so many men were still fighting duels. Every few pages, someone was killed in a duel.

After Dark (2007, Haruki Murakami)
Why I picked it: I hadn't read any of Murakami's novels -- they seemed a little cool and stylized for my taste -- but in his memoir about running he came across as very thoughtful and decent, so I tried this one.
What it's about: The events from midnight to 7 a.m. in a small area of Tokyo, with the pivotal characters two college students getting to know each other, and the pivotal action the beating of a prostitute in a hotel. The big theme is duality: Every character has made a leap from one life to another, or is straddling two lives and paying the price in humanity.
What I thought: In the end, yeah, it was a little more talky and formal than I like, in the same way Richard Linklater's more philosophical movies are. It's definitely thoughtful, though, and thought-provoking.

A Boy's Own Story (1982, Edmund White)
Why I picked it: On the free table. I had heard of it, didn't know much about it.
What it's about: "Autobiographical novel" about a boy coming of age in the 1950s and struggling with his homosexuality.
What I thought: Though none of the characters are really likeable and some of the episodes mildly disturbing, it's an easy read and the prose is occasionally wonderful. As for plotting and action, it's so meandering, with a lot of hopping around in time, that the narrator's one really decisive act -- a betrayal of someone he barely knows -- takes on added weight. And then the book ends while you're still getting your head around that, so it sticks with you.

The Abstinence Teacher (2007, Tom Perrotta)
Why I picked it: Needed an audiobook for a road trip. I hadn't read any of Perrotta's previous novels, but I was familiar with him from the movies of his "Election" and "Little Children."
What it's about: Intertwined stories on the theme of toeing the line: Ruth is a divorced mother and sex-ed teacher who sees her control over both spheres slipping away; Tim, a former cokehead now born again, attempts to integrate his faith into his daily life.
What I thought: The tone is very recognizable from the two works mentioned above: decent people finding it hard to keep their footing in the stream of suburban life. The characters are really well-drawn, and Perrotta avoids predictable plotting. Clear up to the last pages, the story could have gone in several directions.
Movie?Not yet, but it would definitely work.

In Nevada (1999, David Thomson)
Why I picked it: Interesting pairing -- cerebral film writer from England on the prickly fascinations of Nevada.
What it's about: See "why I picked." Chapters, not chronological, on various aspects, including gambling, UFOs, boxing, Reno, Las Vegas, Hoover Dam.
What I thought: What sets Thomson apart as a movie critic is his roving mind, his unpredictability. That quality sometimes leads him to insights you don't get from his more conventional colleagues, but it also means you occasionally get meandering, unsatisfying ruminations, especially when he's on a topic broader than one movie. So "In Nevada" is hit-and-miss: some interesting stories, but it doesn't really come together as a whole work. Between this and "West of the West," I'm starting to think I'm ready for the rigors of Kevin Starr's California histories.

The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2005, Stieg Larsson)
Why I picked it: I read a good review of it somewhere, citing it as a smart mystery, when it was published in English last fall.
What it's about: A Swedish financial journalist, on leave from his job after a libel conviction, takes a private assignment to research the decades-old disappearance of a teenage girl whose family runs a large corporation.
What I thought: I really enjoyed it. The setting and the characters set it apart from the standard mystery novel: It's a missing-person mystery, bracketed by episodes concerning Sweden's financial press (including a timely assessment of media complicity in bankers' misbehavior), and overlaid by a character study of the titular girl, a damaged, socially isolated young woman. It is so wide-ranging that I was surprised to find out that it is the first of a trilogy -- I can't imagine the author could keep up that density of plotting for two more books, let alone the series of 10 he had planned before his death in 2004. But I am delighted by the prospect of two more, especially given the heart-sinking ending of the first. The second will be published in English at the end of July, and at the end of March my library already had a waiting list of 18 borrowers.
Side note: These are the most caffeinated characters I've ever run across. Are real-life Swedes like this? They basically live on coffee, with a sandwich thrown in now and then. Great attention is paid to thermoses, espresso machines and coffeehouses. I envision a drinking game, shots every time someone says "coffee."
Movie? All three books are being made into movies in Sweden, with the first having been released in February. There are rumors of interest by English-language producers.

West of the West (2009, Mark Arax)
Why I picked it: I'm always looking for good reading on the history, culture and mythology of California.
What it's about: A series of largely unconnected chapters on recent events in California. Major subthemes include immigrants, agriculture, the development of the Central Valley and crime.
What I thought: It was pretty much like reading a string of long newspaper features, which makes sense, given that the author was a reporter for the Los Angeles Times. I wasn't familiar with his work, but I did know his name, because his departure from the Times came amid his very public conflict with an editor. And from this book I suspect he is of a type I know, the newsroom adrenaline junkie. These reporters know a good story, and they're quite adept at finding people who have a story to tell, but they're less good at analysis, and particularly poor at stepping back and taking a dispassionate look. In his introduction to this book, Arax says it's not a book about him but that the narrator "I" will show up occasionally. Make that *frequently.* This is basically a collection of laxly edited "people I have met" essays, without a whole lot of depth.

Last Night at the Lobster (2007, Stewart O'Nan)
Why I picked it: During my first years out of college, about all I read was contemporary realism. Now I look at my list and I see mostly genre fiction and stuff that's more than 50 years old. Every once in a while, I feel like I should dip back in and see what's going on. This one got good reviews.
What it's about: The night of work at a Red Lobster in Connecticut that will be closing for good at the end of the shift. The resonance of the evening is heightened for the manager -- from whose point of view the story is told -- by the presence of the waitress who was once his girlfriend.
What I thought: A lot of modern writers, given this topic, couldn't resist making the narrator too clever for this job, a guy working through his angst before returning to writing or academia. I like that O'Nan doesn't hold his characters at arm's length like that -- they're just getting through the working day, one more step in their working life, taking hope in small things.

The Razor's Edge (1944, W. Somerset Maugham)
Why I picked it: I had liked this one in high school but hadn't read it since then, and I was curious as to how it would stand up.
What it's about: Some American expatriates in France between the world wars, particularly a young man on an unconventional quest to find happiness and the meaning of life.
What I thought: I can see why I liked it at 16. It would appeal to an idealistic person with a curiosity about Eastern religion. In the '40s I imagine it was quite a novel topic. Now it seems to me very talky, peopled with caricatures, lacking in story-telling and weakened by its "as-told-to-me" format. I had remembered only one incident from the first reading, and it turns out it's about the only interesting bit of action (Isabel's scheme to break up Sophie and Larry) in the midst of a lot of pontificating and recounting. And because of the drifting narrator, even that bit is broken up into three pieces. And, finally, I've always disliked the name Larry.
Movie? Two, 1946 with Tyrone Power and 1984 with Bill Murray. The second got cool reviews, pretty much written off as an odd personal project by Murray, coming off a string of Hollywood hits. I'd be interested in seeing it anyway.

When the Shooting Stops (1979, Ralph Rosenblum and Robert Karen)
Why I picked it: I was watching Elvis Mitchell interview Edward Norton and when talking about editing they mentioned this book. I'm surprised I hadn't heard of it, as it came out at a time when I was reading heavily in this area.
What it's about: Professional biography by feature-film editor Ralph Rosenblum.
What I thought: There are a couple strong chapters, on editing "Annie Hall" and "The Night They Raided Minsky's," both of which changed drastically from the initial cut. The "Annie Hall" discussion is more illuminating, as the changes were largely in story and structure. Trying to describe the look and pacing that characterized "Minsky" is a little harder, and a shot-by-shot description of the Odessa Steps sequence in "Potemkin" is pretty ridiculous. (This is a book that cries out for a companion DVD.) The more biographical and "famous-directors-I-have-known" segments are skippable.

The Great Gatsby (1925, F. Scott Fitzgerald)
Why I picked it: Haven't read it in quite a few years, and I found it on audio.
What it's about: Jazz Age millionaire of mysterious means attempts to rekindle romance with his pre-war sweetheart, who is now married.
What I thought: Beautiful book, in characterization and imagery. It's hard to believe it's just a few years after Tarkington; the post-war leap in literature is huge. Fitzgerald creates some great characters and turns them loose, without really much in the way of story. (The men are more solidly written than the women. I agree with Fitzgerald's assessment that his incomplete understanding of Daisy was one flaw. I've never quite grasped Jordan, either.) It was amazing to see how many passages I remembered practically verbatim, 20 years since I last read this.
One idea that struck me this time was Nick's contention that their Western (in this case, non-East-Coast) upbringing shaped the principal characters and set them toward their destiny. It's my conceit -- shared, I suspect, only by a few German film directors -- that even today there's a character particular to the American West.
Movie? Three theatrical releases so far: 1926 with Warner Baxter in the lead, 1949 with Alan Ladd, 1974 with Robert Redford. I've seen the last, which was deservedly panned. Redford, in particular, is disastrously miscast: He lacks Gatsby's rough edges. Mia Farrow just kind of drifts through. Bruce Dern, though, isn't a bad Tom, and Karen Black and Scott Wilson are good Wilsons. In the 2000 A&E version, most notable is Martin Donovan as Tom. Mira Sorvino is a better Daisy than Farrow, being livelier and edgier; Toby Stephens (who does a lot of dashing BBC roles) is a forgettable Gatsby; and Nick doesn't make the best use of Paul Rudd. Word is that Baz Luhrmann is planning a remake, and I wouldn't bet much on that. I'm just glad Nicole Kidman is too old for Daisy.

Alice Adams (1921, Booth Tarkington)
Why I picked it: I thought I'd continue on to this, Tarkington's second Pulitzer winner, fresh off "Ambersons."
What it's about: Young woman on the fringes of prominent society maintains tenuous grip on her hope of making a good marriage. Her mother has her own plan for raising the family's status.
What I thought: In a way, it reminded me a lot of the movies of this period: melodramatic, with broadly drawn characters. Alice can come across as pretty pathetic; sympathy for her relies on understanding her social situation, which is only slightly less constricted than Lily Bart's.
Movie? The best-known is the 1935 version, directed by George Stevens, Katharine Hepburn in the lead. I haven't seen it, not being a big Hepburn fan, but David Thomson recommends it as some of her best work, so maybe I'll give it a shot. I see it's described as comedic, which is a little hard to imagine, but playing it for comedy would make it more attractive to a modern audience. Or even a 1935 audience, I imagine.

The Magnificent Ambersons (1918, Booth Tarkington)
Why I picked it: I read some praise of it that made me reconsider my opinion of it (fueled largely by the movie, more on which below) as basically just a costume drama.
What it's about: Leading family's scion runs roughshod over Midwestern town. Will he finally get his comeuppance?
What I thought: I don't think it completely works unless you agree with the universal praise of George's mother. I can stick with George being a jerk for 90 percent of the book, and I can understand his erstwhile girlfriend's actions, but it bugs me that nobody ever thinks the worse of Isabel for making big mistakes with a big impact on her life and her son's and those of others who love her.
Beyond that, I wish Tarkington plotted the story with a little lighter hand. You can practically see the questions for high-school readers at the end of every chapter: How do George and Eugene represent a societal shift in the early 1900s? Why is the town repeatedly described as grimy? But I guess most novels I've read from this period have a heightened drama, bordering on melodrama.
Movie? Yes, 1942, Orson Welles' directorial follow-up to "Citizen Kane." Welles actually would be a perfect George, and he did play him in a radio drama, but here he doesn't have an onscreen role. The cast, though, is quite good, and it might have been a very good movie, but Welles headed off to South America, and RKO took his movie and cut out almost an hour. The original cut has been lost. This is interesting: I see there's also a 2002 version made for A&E by Alfonso Arau ("Like Water for Chocolate") with Jonathan Rhys Meyers as George. Apparently not modern-dress.

Gun, With Occasional Music (1994, Jonathan Lethem)
Why I picked it: I was looking for an audiobook for the commute, and I knew Lethem from "Motherless Brooklyn."
What it's about: A Chandleresque detective story set in a futuristic police state where, among other things, animals have been artificially evolved to take on some human roles and the citizenry is encouraged to self-medicate with free drugs such as Forgetol and Acceptol.
What I thought: Smart, funny book, and works much better as a mystery than "Motherless Brooklyn." It's not supertightly plotted, but neither does Lethem take advantage of too many futuristic flights of fancy in developing the mystery, I loved the plot twist that puts the break between Parts 1 and 2.
I go into most movies and many books having read reviews, but with this book I got to experience the clean slate of the spoiler-averse because I hadn't noticed the "science fiction" sticker on the spine. I appreciated the "huh?"-to-"ah!" progression of the first chapter -- but not enough to stop reading reviews.
Movie: No. But I see by IMDb that since I read "Motherless Brooklyn" last year, Edward Norton's script has finally gone into production.

Righteous Porkchop (2009, Nicolette Hahn Niman)
Why I picked it: Work-related reading.
What it's about: The way meat is raised today in America, presented by a vegetarian environmental activist who led a campaign against industrial farming, then married a rancher and became one herself.
What I thought: As I tend to do with this kind of book, I glommed onto the parts that endorsed my views of eating. Because I have pretty much given up chicken and pork but still eat beef, I liked that Niman, though still a vegetarian, focuses on finding meat and dairy sources outside factory farming. (And, yes, she puts forward a good argument that beef ranching is much less cruel than most poultry farming.) In fact, I wish there was more of the stuff on finding humanely raised meat, but of course it's really dependent on where one lives.
Movie: Someone in Hollywood has got to be leaping at that plot, minus the animal cruelty and environmental depredation.

Nureyev: The Life (2007, Julie Kavanagh)
Why I picked it: I saw a PBS program on Rudolf Nureyev a couple years ago, and I realized I knew very little about this truly iconic person.
What it's about: Eight hundred pages, in great detail, about Nureyev's life.
What I thought: It's certainly comprehensive. I guess technically I should list this with the books I abandoned, but I think 450 pages qualifies it for the top list. I put it down not because there was anything wrong with it but because my appetite for knowlege about Nureyev was filled at that point. As with any definitive biography, there's an immense amount of detail, and it gets a little repetitious. But eventually the density of information, mosaiclike, starts to give you a full picture. It certainly gives a good sense of Nureyev's personality (self-absorbed, temperamental, occasionally charming); I also was struck by Kavanagh's subtle development of themes including Nureyev's longing for his homeland and the unexpected rejuvenation of Margot Fonteyn's career. The episode that continually blows me away is his defection, how he had about 15 minutes to make this decision that changed everything. Baryshnikov's defection came down kind of humorously; Nureyev's is just wrenching, pure drama.

Neverwhere (1996, Neil Gaiman)
Why I picked it: Another Gaiman fix while I wait for "The Graveyard Book" to become free. The nice thing about not discovering someone (especially a prolific someone) until well into his career is that you have a lot of back catalog to pick from.
What it's about: Office worker is compelled into a quest in a fantastic, alternative London.
What I thought: My first reaction was that Gaiman's "Anansi Boys" wouldn't have seemed so wonderful if I had read this first, as they have a similar premise and similar main characters. But it's different enough from "Anansi" that it didn't seem too familiar or predictable. As with all of Gaiman's stuff, it's funny and lively and quirky, and he reads it really well. I was particularly impressed with his solution to the ending: The natural instinct is to want Richard to return triumphant to his own London, but that would be the most conventional finish and one that sells out Richard. Gaiman comes up with an ending that satisfies the reader's sympathies but puts a little twist on it.
Movie? It was a BBC TV series before it was a book (and then a comic book series). There is talk about it being made into a theatrical movie, but I'm seeing nothing definite on that. Now I want to rewatch "The Fisher King."

The Tenth Muse: My Life in Food (2007, Judith Jones)
Why I picked it: Free, and work-related.
What it's about:Memoir by the editor of many of the most important cooking books of the 20th century. Her writers include Julia Child, Marion Cunningham, James Beard, MFK Fisher, Edna Lewis, Claudia Roden, Marcella Hazan.
What I thought:A very appealing read, humorous and generous, as you might expect of someone who has spent 50 years putting together books that sell. There's a lot about food, naturally, but also a lot about creating a community and, between the lines, about harnessing creativity.

Home (2008, Marilynne Robinson)
Why I picked it: I was disappointed by "Gilead," the companion to this novel, but because of my affection for "Housekeeping," I still had high hopes for this one.
What it's about: After 20 years of no contact with his family, an untrustworthy drunk comes back to his childhood home to try to pull his life together in the company of his sister and their aged father.
What I thought:. I liked this a lot better than "Gilead," which covered the same period of time and many of the same events but was told by the elderly godfather of "Home" protagonist Jack. "Gilead" was kind of drifting, its main questions of a theological nature. Its encounters between Jack and narrator Ames were unsatisfying, unenlightening and ultimately placed too much emphasis on one aspect of Jack's life.

"Home," told in third-person-limited voice by Jack's sister, lets us see Jack's struggle with issues of fate and family and the injury of Ames' disapproval. The reader roots for Jack even while realizing the pain he has caused many people.
Movie? I'd say no chance, because of the lack of action and the necessity of its setting in the 1950s, but look at "Revolutionary Road." Again, I highly recommend the movie of "Housekeeping."

The End of Alice (1996, A.M. Homes)
Why I picked it: Having read one novel and two non-fiction works by Homes, I was intrigued enough to try one more.
What it's about: A man in prison for a sex crime against an 11-year-old girl details his incarcerated life, his correspondence with a young woman about her own deviant behavior and, finally, the events leading to the crime for which he was convicted.
What I thought: If you asked 100 readers what they thought of this book, I bet 98 would use the word "disturbing" in the first 10 seconds. And that would be 100 readers who gave it a positive review; those who didn't would certainly have a more damning description. I felt about "Alice" as I did about Homes' other works: Like nothing I have read before, but perhaps nothing I really want to read. I admire the structure, the writing; the word that always comes to mind when I think of Homes' work is "rigorous." She never backs down, never takes the easy way. I guess I'm up for more Homes, whenever I need a challenge.
Movie? Yeah, no.

Alone in the Kitchen With an Eggplant (2007, edited by Jenni Ferrari-Adler)
Why I picked it: I ran across it while rearranging books at work and brought it home for occasional 15-minute reads.
What it's about: Collection of essays about cooking and/or eating alone.
What I thought: OK light reading. By far the standouts were the title essay by Laurie Colwin and one by M.F.K. Fisher.


Winesburg, Ohio (1919, Sherwood Anderson)
Why I picked it: It fit into the early-20th-century fiction I had been reading. I was also intrigued by Fitzgerald's comment: "There is an impression among the thoughtless ... that Sherwood Anderson is a man of profound ideas who is 'handicapped by his inarticulateness.' As a matter of fact, Anderson is a man of practically no ideas -- but he is one of the very best and finest writers in the English language today. God, he can write!"
What it's about: A series of short stories, sometimes considered a loose-knit novel, about the inhabitants of a small Midwest town.
Why I gave it up: It makes "Ethan Frome" look practically giddy. Everybody is damaged and beaten-down and unpleasant. I got through about eight stories, and it maintained the tone, and that was enough.

The Little Book (2008, Selden Edwards)
Why I picked it: I must have read a complimentary review of it somewhere, and I liked the premise.
What it's about: A '70s rock-and-roll star is somehow transported from San Francisco of 1988 to Vienna of almost 100 years previous.
Why I gave it up: I honestly gave this one a chance: 11 chapters. But through most of that I was keeping on because it was a sort of interesting critical exercise to figure out how elements so delightful in "Hotel New Hampshire" (eccentric kid, prep-school/Ivy League milieu, Vienna) could be so annoying here. I came up with three main complaints:
  • Characterization. Very flat. We know that our hero Wheeler Burdon is unconventional because everyone keeps saying it, the narrator and the other characters, but we never really see much of it. Edwards' idea of fully realized characters seems to depend on giving everyone a cute nickname (Dilly, Weezy, the Haze) and using it as often as possible.
  • Dialogue. Wow, these people are stilted. Every conversation turns into a lecture. And related to that...
  • Narrative style. Very much the lecture. Every element is completely unpacked for the reader, every plot point or characterization hammered at, every foreign term presented like a flash card. And this is especially a problem in a story with a mystery at its heart. If the writer isn't going to trust us to understand on our own the most minor plot point, how is he going to let us connect the dots that explain Burdon's time travel? My suspicion is that he probably doesn't. Burdon seems oddly uninterested in finding out how he got to Vienna, and I wouldn't be surprised if it's left unexplained.