|The 2010 List
reverse chronological order
»The Invention of Hugo Cabret
»The Devil in the White City
»A Death in Belmont
»Wisconsin Death Trip
»The Elegance of the Hedgehog
»Robert Altman: The Oral Biography
»Parrot and Olivier in America
»When You Are Engulfed in Flames
»Once a Runner
»Songs for the Missing
»Shop Class as Soulcraft
»The World Rushed In
»When You Reach Me
»Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and '40s / American Noir of the 1950s
»The Man Who Loved Books Too Much
»True and False
»Homer & Langley
»How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken
»Down and Out in Paris and London
»A Crack in the Edge of the World
»Southern California: An Island on the Land
»Then We Came to the End
»The Children's Book
The 2009 List
The 2008 List
Franny & Zooey,
David Foster Wallace
Honorable mentions: Paul Auster, Rick Bass, Peter Carey, Michael Chabon, Charles Dickens, Stephen Dobyns, Neil Gaiman, Thomas Hardy, Graham Swift, Tim Winton.
|The books of 2010|
1. Down and Out in Paris and London, George Orwell
2. The World Rushed In, J.S. Holliday
3. America America Ethan Canin
4. When You Reach Me, Rebecca Stead
5. Chronic City, Jonathan Lethem
Brooklyn, Open, Shop Class as Soulcraft, Southern California: An Island on the Land, Already Dead
All 45 books
Moonlight Mile (2010, Dennis Lehane)
Why I picked it: On the basis of "Mystic River," I figured this one would be an easy, entertaining read but sharp enough to make me feel my brain was engaged.
What it's about: Twelve years after "Gone Baby Gone," Boston private detective Patrick Kenzie goes in search of the same girl, now a brilliant high-schooler, and becomes entangled with Russian mobsters.
What I thought: Pretty much what I thought. There have been some amazing riffs on the investigator genre lately ("Inherent Vice," "Yiddish Policemen's Union"), and this isn't quite that, but I'd put it at the top of the second tier. I liked that it was a fairly simple story, didn't throw too many a-ha! clues. Instead of getting all tricky with the plot, it relies on well-drawn characters.
Movie? I imagine, since Lehane's "Mystic River," "Gone Baby Gone" and "Shutter Island" were all pretty successful as movies (at least critically). Don't know if they'll keep the title, as there was a fairly major 2002 release called "Moonlight Mile." If you're in the mood for crazy Russian mobsters now, I recommend "Eastern Promises."
The Invention of Hugo Cabret (2007, Brian Selznick)
Why I picked it: I ran across it while browsing the children's section with Alex, and I recognized the title as that of the movie Martin Scorsese has been working on.
What it's about: An orphan who lives hidden in a Paris train station in 1931 has a run-in with a grumpy old man who seems to be connected with the orphan's ongoing project: the renovation of an automaton.
What I thought: Unfortunately for me, it focuses on the films of Georges Melies, which I find offputtingly creepy. I was much more interested in some of the peripheral elements: Paris in the '20s and '30s, magic acts of the late 19th century, mechanical automatons that write and draw (check out the true-story underpinnings detailed at the end). My favorite image in this book — it's mostly drawings and film stills — was a photograph of something mentioned only in passing, the spectacular 1895 train derailment at Gare Montparnasse. My personal interests aside, I do recommend it. It has a great cinematic feel, and I like Selznick's drawing style (which I recognized from the Andrew Clements books Alex has read). I particularly like Hugo's look, an unconventional and sort of weary-looking depiction of a 12-year-old.
Movie: Due out next year, with the kind of cast Scorsese attracts, including "Sexy Beast" duo Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley, Chloe Moretz, Jude Law and, as orphan Hugo, Asa Butterfield ("The Boy in the Striped Pajamas").
The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic and Madness at the Fair That Changed America (2003, Erik Larson)
Why I picked it: Always a copy in the audiobook section — popular book, got good reviews. And set in late-19th-century United States, close to my area of historical interest.
What it's about: Double-barreled look at events in Chicago in the 1890s: the creation of the 1893 World's Fair, and a killing spree by a pharmacist who preyed on beautiful young women.
What I thought: I wasn't completely won over by the back-and-forth narrative. Still, I admit it's an inspired format. Though I like history, I probably wouldn't have picked a whole book about the 1893 World's Fair, but I got into those chapters, and the other storyline is undeniably gripping. (Someone looking for a more conventional true-crime history would be annoyed by the fair narrative, I imagine.) Early on, I thought the prose was a little overamped — I was wearying of descriptions of blue eyes — but either it settled down or I got used to it.
Movie: Maybe: Leonardi DiCaprio just bought the rights (which had been held for a while by Tom Cruise). DiCaprio would make a good Holmes.
David Copperfield (1850, Charles Dickens)
Why I picked it: Dickens.
What it's about: David's journey from boy to young family man, through happy infancy, beleaguered childhood, striving adolescence and drama-filled young adulthood.
What I thought: You knew I was reading something long, didn't you? Or did you just think I had given it all up for TV? It's useless to try to keep up with Alex, who in the past eight days has read three Harry Potters. But it was about time for this one, which Dickens said was his own favorite. According to the preface of the Penguin edition, it's a favorite of many Dickens scholars, too, as it is something of a bridge between Dickens' earlier works (episodic, character-driven, comedic) and his later (darker, more plot). I am a fan of the later; "Great Expectations" is my favorite, and I'd say I liked this one about as well as "Bleak House."
The great characters (Betsey Trotwood, Steerforth, Mr Dick, Micawber, HEEP) are definitely the best part of "Copperfield." As always with Dickens, the young women are the least well-drawn. I should remember to look for an edition with historical annotation next time I tackle Dickens. The Penguin had footnotes about literary references and manuscript divergence but little about history, and that's what I wanted to know more about. In fact, I think my next Dickens will be "A Tale of Two Cities," but first I want to brush up on French revolutionary history.
By the way, my new catchphrase: "Janet! Donkies!"
Chronic City (2009, Jonathan Lethem)
Why I picked it: I've read two of Lethem's novels: "Motherless Brooklyn" I liked OK, and "Gun, With Occasional Music" I liked a lot. I also started "You Don't Love Me Yet," and I didn't like it enough to stick with. The blurb for "Chronic City" seemed to put it closest to "Motherless," with some of my favorite elements of the futuristic noir "Gun."
What it's about: Mysteries in the fabric of a slightly fantastic Manhattan are pondered by an unlikely threesome: a former teen TV star now known as the fiance of a stranded astronaut; a one-time populist social commentator with a cult following; and an unflappable/irascible fixer for the mayor.
What I thought: Great setting, an alternative but not really futuristic Manhattan full of elements that flirt with the boundaries of plausibility: an apartment building for dogs only, a war-free (and later a tiger-free) version of the Times, a conceptual artist who digs huge pits in urban areas, and something that may be a huge tiger and may be a digging machine run amok that destroys random bodegas. The three main characters are, similarly, at once appealingly quirky and believable. I did have trouble with an important second-tier character: A crucial part of the plot hinges on the narrator's longing for a woman named Oona, whom I couldn't see as anything other than prickly and unpleasant.
(Sidebar here on the main threesome: As I was visualizing the characters, Perkus is obviously a Jason Schwartzman type, the burly and hirsute Richard a Zach Galifianakis -- and then I realized, well, of course, three men in a noirish Manhattan, this must be the basis for that hipstr HBO series with Schwartzman, Galifianakis and -- who's the third? Luke Wilson? Because that would work. But no, it's not, it's Ted Danson, right? Who is totally wrong for Chase, for one thing off by about 30 years. So I had to go look it up, and it turns out HBO's "Bored to Death" is based not on "Chronic City" but on the eponymous Jonathan Ames essay which I have actually read, which is in a book that's been sitting on my finish-sometime shelf for a year. To add another layer of Jonathan confusion, I had a short conversation about this book that left me baffled until I realized that though I had said Lethem, she heard Franzen and was talking about "Freedom." For a while I thought there was a huge waiting list in Tacoma for "Chronic City.")
Though there's no direct reference to Sept. 11, it's hard to read a book so much about New York by a New Yorker without feeling some reverberations. There are layers of fictions, references to calming and sedating the populace, a vague sense of being under siege, and overall the portrayal of the islandness of Manhattan. It's not a depressing or unhappy book, though. I put it up with "Gun, With Occasional Music," and I'll put Lethem's "The Fortress of Solitude" on my list.
A Death in Belmont (2006, Sebastian Junger)
Why I picked it: I first read an excerpt in Vanity Fair a few years back. I like the detail and point-by-point narrative of true crime, and I needed an audiobook for the car.
What it's about: Journalist Sebastian Junger investigates a story from his youth in Belmont, Mass., the 1963 strangling of a neighbor in her home. Roy Smith, an African-American day laborer and sometime petty criminal, was tried for the murder. But also in the neighborhood on the day of the killing was Albert DeSalvo, who later confessed to being the Boston Strangler. DeSalvo was, in fact, that day working a construction job at the Junger home.
What I thought: An interesting investigation, and not perhaps the story most readers would expect at the onset. Junger goes beyond the conclusion that was part of his family's lore and digs into Smith's background and DeSalvo's motivations.
Invisible (2009, Paul Auster)
Why I picked it: My feelings about Auster's stuff are all over the map. The first of his I read, "Leviathan," I really liked. I tackled the New York Trilogy after that, and it was appealing enough that I kept going through his '90s novels and movies and into this decade's "Book of Illusions" and "Oracle Nights." ("Timbuktu" is the one that Auster fans roll their eyes about — "that dog book" — but I read it right after my beloved Abby died, and I can't think badly of it.) Lately, though, I was lukewarm about "Brooklyn Follies," gave up early on "Travels in the Scriptorium" and wasn't even tempted to try "Man in the Dark." Still, I've had enough good experience with Auster that I always flip through his new stuff, and this one grabbed me.
What it's about: A college student, in New York and Paris in 1967, finds himself sucked in by and then at odds with a maleficent older man, the dividing point being a savage crime that the young man believes the older has committed. It's told in the Austerian way, with shifting voices and metafictional stepping-back.
What I thought: This book is an example of what I like most and least about Auster's fiction. What I like most: the immersion of the reader into a slightly off-kilter world, one that's dreamlike in its emphasis on internal life, ambiguous strangers, ominous situations. Auster does dread and foreboding better than anyone else. The atmosphere in his books is a lot like that of Hitchcock's better movies — "Notorious" comes to mind, with its shifts of attraction and repulsion. What I like least: the squishy ending, the sudden dropoff of tension, the resurfacing after the immersion.
Sick Puppy (2000, Carl Hiaasen)
Why I picked it: Except for a shared fascination with strange methods of injury, it's about as far from "Wisconsin Death Trip" as I could get. I needed to reset my brain.
What it's about: The usual Hiaasen formula (and you got to admit his stuff is formulaic): a good woman who has ended up with a bad man, a crazy nature lover, Florida wildlife and wildness, imaginative revenge and retribution, and (good to see him again) ex-Gov. Clinton "Skink" Tyree.
What I thought: Fluff, but enjoyable. Actually a bit longer than I expected, but it gave itself quite a few loose ends to tie up.
Wisconsin Death Trip (1973, Michael Lesy)
Why I picked it: I can't remember where I first heard about it, but I know my reaction was: "Could there really be such a book?" Just the strangeness of the concept was enough to intrigue me, and there are also the newspaper and U.S. history elements.
What it's about: Vintage photographs and short newspaper stories are used to illustrate degeneracy and social decay in rural Jackson County, Wisc., in the last years of the 1800s.
What I thought: A singular book. You don't have to read far to get sucked into this grim portrayal, with its repetition of murders, insanity, violent tramps, arson, window-breaking, infant deaths, women sending obscene mail. I was struck by the number of suicides, so many of them by really odd methods. You'd figure there were quite a few firearms around, but people instead chose to cut their throats, set themselves afire, leap into cisterns, or drink carbolic acid or the sinister-sounding Paris Green.
Is it serious historical research? Yes, though you have to see it also as a product of the early '70s, in its psychological bent, its pastiche format and its manipulation of the photographs. You might be able to argue that anybody could use such a pick-and-choose format to create a misleading portrait of a specific place in time, but considering the abundance of evidence from barely 10 years in a county of 15,000 people, I have to say I believe there was some serious weirdness — a "psychic crisis" — going on.
Movie? You think I'm joking, but there actually is a movie, and it's actually available at my county library. I guess eventually I'll check it out, though I cringe to think how disturbing it could be. I really don't want this stuff in my dreams.
America America (2008, Ethan Canin)
Why I picked it: I admit that, because of the smaller selection, I have a lower bar for audiobooks. But I did like Canin's 1992 novel "Blue River."
What it's about: A newspaperman recalls his entanglement, as the teenage employee and protege of the rich family in his working-class town, in the ill-fated campaign of a 1972 presidential candidate.
What I thought: I liked it a lot. I'm not a huge political junkie, but you don't have to be to realize the importance of the 1972 campaign during a time of big change in America and politics and the media, and this book gets into all of those. And I am enough of a news junkie to get a kick out of rehashing the "melting snowflakes" incident.
I had doubts about the feasibility of inserting a fictional candidate in a real and memorable race, but it works out fine. The politician is Clintonesque in appetites (though not intelligence), and his downfall has shadows of Chappaquiddick. Beyond the real-life influences, Canin has some good insights into the motivations of a liberal, champion-of-the-common-man politician.
Other themes: The gulf in realities and opportunities between the rich and the non-rich, and the hazards both of trying to cross that gulf and of trying to keep one foot in each America; and the compulsion to protect and mentor other people's children, perhaps as a karmic safeguarding of one's own.
Though he made his name in short stories, a form that can encourage stylistic showiness, Canin has a straightforward voice that works well here. My one quibble: maybe one too many shifts in presentation. Most of the story is told in first person by Corey Sifter, looking back, and some of that is his recounting of his more contemporary conversations with the newspaper's intern; a few pieces are told as newspaper clippings; and a segment near the end is Sifter's re-creation of an incident based on very sketchy information. All of those mesh together fine, and I had no problem with the temporal shifts, either. But there was a substantial chapter in third-person-limited about private episodes of the politician and his mistress, and that seemed out of place given Sifter's strong voice in the whole thing. Maybe there was some sort of typographical signal in the print copy that would have been enough to satisfy me, but in the audiobook it seemed detached from the rest of the narrative.
The Wanderers (1974, Richard Price)
Why I picked it: I liked Price's "Lush Life," and I vaguely remember seeing the movie of "The Wanderers" 30 years ago.
What it's about: A gang of Bronx high-school kids in the early 1960s, told as a series of loosely connected short stories.
What I thought: At first it struck me as kind of pulpy, but putting it in context, it must have been seen as hard-hitting and gritty. Strange to think, but "The Basketball Diaries" — the classic of wasted teen life in 1960s New York — wasn't published until 1978. And, like "Basketball Diaries," the tone of this one is the disillusionment of the early '70s, the way the course of American life was cutting the ground out from under these guys' feet. It's definitely dark; any humor is in odd little details, like the brutal gang of Irish guys under 5 feet tall.
Movie? 1979, directed and with a screenplay by Philip Kaufman, although Price has since done a lot of screenplays himself. As I remember it, some major characters were collapsed and others added for the movie. I might watch this again, as well as the movies of Price's "Clockers" (1995, directed by Spike Lee) and "Freedomland" (2006).
The Elegance of the Hedgehog (2006, Muriel Barbery)
Why I picked it: I'm always up for an exceptional preteen finding an unlikely mentor/ally.
What it's about: Among the tenants of a luxury apartment building in Paris are two who feel isolated and try to hide their intelligence: 11-year-old Paloma and the middle-aged concierge Ms. Michel.
What I thought: I was expecting something different, more of a relationship story. Instead, the two don't meet until the end, and most of the book is philosophical ramblings. As this went on, my sympathy for Paloma waned. Yes, her less attractive side might be typical of an 11-year-old, but I just wanted to tell her to get over her preadolescent snit. As for Ms. Michel, an issue of class consciousness seemed to me a weak peg on which to hang her decades of perverse behavior. Possibly this is because of my American perspective; accepting her motivation may require an understanding of societal stratification that I just don't have. I realized at the end that the story I wanted to read is the one that comes after: Paloma widening her world in cahoots with an understanding adult.
Movie? There's a French-language adaptation.
Robert Altman: The Oral Biography (2009, Mitchell Zuckoff)
Why I picked it: Altman is one of my favorite moviemakers, and this format is a quick read.
What it's about: Biography of the director told in the choppy format popular in Vanity Fair -- the events of his life recounted in direct quotes of several dozen people.
What I thought: I'd read "The Nashville Chronicles" as well as an Altman biography that came out midcareer, so I had a good sense of the guy, but this is pretty entertaining. The access to (and honesty of) Altman's family and many colleagues is quite exceptional, and Altman certainly inspires some passionate reactions. The man himself, though, died before Zuckoff was able to get his response to material from these interviews. Also unavailable because of death was producer Scotty Bushnell, the most controversial character in the Altman universe. It's an interesting game to see which colleagues and actors, though still living, declined to comment -- Shelley Duvall, for instance. You can tell a lot about the people from their quotes (Robert Duvall's amused straightforwardness, Warren Beatty's slick rebuttal).
Movies: The only Altman movie remaining on my to-watch list is "Thieves Like Us" (added after my "American noir" reading earlier this year) but now I may rewatch "Brewster McCloud" and "Kansas City."
The Imperfectionists (2010, Tom Rachman)
Why I picked it: Got good reviews, and it's about a newspaper.
What it's about: The editorial staff of a fictitious English-language paper in Rome during the first decade of this century.
What I thought: I can't say I expected a book about a 21st-century newspaper to be cheery, but this one turned out to be really depressing. I'd even call it misanthropic, as the source of its bleakness isn't so much the dire reality of the industry as it is people being ugly to one another and preying on each other's weaknesses. It's formatted as a series of short stories, each focusing on a different staff member. The first hinged on a reporter's personal tragedy, and it turned out to be, in a way, the most upbeat of them. I kept going because the writing was good and the situations rang true and because I figured there might eventually be some redemption of human nature. The last few chapters are the blackest.
Endangered Dreams: The Great Depression in California (1996, Kevin Starr)
Why I picked it: No. 4 of the California history series. I'm now halfway through the series as it stands (plus I read Starr's compact version, "California: A History"), but Starr has yet to cover 1963-1990, at least two more books' worth.
What it's about: Principally, labor issues and populist initiatives in the 1930s. The fifth book in the series, "The Dream Endures," is about those Californians who managed to live the good life during the same period, so I guess I got the hard stuff out of the way first.
What I thought: I was surprised, given the subject matter, that this one was a pretty easy read for me. The chapter comparing the realities of labor camps to "The Grapes of Wrath" was the most interesting to me. The one on the Golden Gate Bridge was so enthusiastic it almost tempted me to put Starr's "Golden Gate" on my reading list, but in the end I decided the chapter itself was enough rhapsody for me on that subject.
Parrot and Olivier in America (2010, Peter Carey)
Why I picked it: Peter Carey + French Revolution (aftermath). Also noted glowing jacket blurb by Paul Auster.
What it's about: Young French nobleman Olivier runs afoul of the Louis Philippe regime and is hurried off to America in 1830 on the pretext of studying the U.S. penal system. His companion, as both his servant and a spy for his mother, is the Englishman called Parrot, trained engraver and aspiring artist.
What I thought: I didn't like it as much as my favorite Carey books, "Jack Maggs" and "Oscar and Lucinda," but it is a good example of what Carey does best: putting two interesting characters together in a setting inspired by historical events or literature. (This one was inspired by Toqueville, and it made me wish I'd read more of him.) It definitely isn't predictable. It's not a huge book, but when you finish, you've been on a long trip.
Movie? Two of Carey's novels have been made into movies: "Oscar and Lucinda" (1997, directed by Gillian Armstrong, starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett), which is very good, and "Bliss" (1985), which I haven't seen, but I'll put it on my so-far-hypothetical Netflix list; it was directed by Ray Lawrence, whose "Lantana" I loved. Carey also was a writer for Wim Wenders' "Until the End of the World."
When You Are Engulfed in Flames (2008, David Sedaris)
Why I picked it: I needed an audiobook for a road trip, and Sedaris is guaranteed entertainment.
What it's about: A collection of essays by the writer/humorist. The longest has to do with his effort to quit smoking, which involved a three-month stay in Tokyo.
What I thought: You wonder how Sedaris can continue pumping out books full of stories about (or at least roughly inspired by) his life, but he doesn't recycle much in this one. (His experience in Japanese language school mirrors the material in "Me Talk Pretty One Day," but he realizes that and doesn't devote much space to it.) It's not great literature, but it's funny and perfect for an 800-mile drive. My favorites were about the hazards of saying "d'accord" to everything because you don't understand what is being said to you in French, and about an incident involving a cough drop and a sleeping passenger on a plane. Caution: If you have a 7-year-old in the car, even a 7-year-old who is blase about frequent coarse language and the idea of a man having a boyfriend, I'd advise you to skip the chapter called "Town and Country" once Sedaris starts talking to the taxi driver. I waited a little too long and was lucky the 7-year-old didn't really get what was going on.
Once a Runner (1978/2009, John L. Parker Jr.)
Why I picked it: Its interesting back story. Originally published 30 years ago and sold out of the author's car at running events, it became a cult classic and the most sought-after out-of-print book in a 2007 survey, commanding hundreds of dollars for a used copy. A canny publisher reprinted it last year.
What it's about: An elite miler at a Florida university is kicked off the team for challenging restrictions imposed on athletes by the school's domineering football coaches. Retreating to a remote cabin, he is coached by an Olympic medalist for a race against the world record holder.
What I thought: I didn't expect much more than soft-core runner porn, so I was pleasantly surprised by the quirky humor in the early chapters. But, though it doesn't take itself too seriously, it's really aimed at the serious runner, and, more specifically, the serious miler, quite a specialized breed of cat. For the non-elite daily runner, my favorite would still be Haruki Murakami's "What I Talk About When I Talk About Running."
Songs for the Missing (2008, Stewart O'Nan)
Why I picked it: I liked O'Nan's previous novel, "Last Night at the Lobster."
What it's about: The aftermath, for her family and close friends, of the disappearance of an Ohio teenager.
What I thought: Given that "Last Night at the Lobster" did such a good job inside one man's head during a much less dramatic situation, I expected this one would be pretty gripping. It never really came together for me, though. Perhaps I would have liked it better if it had stuck to one or two characters; it bounces among the girl's parents, sister, boyfriend and best friend as they deal with this situation over a couple years. The most interesting of them to me was the sister, who had always been in the girl's shadow and now finds herself in the spotlight because of the disappearance.
O'Nan does a good job with the way teenagers behave with each other, and I liked that he presented organized religion as part of expected community behavior but not the source of any insight or solace. What makes it different from many coping-with-family-tragedy stories is the way each character pretty much continues on a certain path, with fairly minor changes in life trajectory despite this hugely upsetting event. This is a frequent format for O'Nan -- a web of people affected by an event. But the disappearance of a child is about the worst event many people can imagine, and maybe it's just too overpowering an idea for his quiet, introspective style.
Movie? I doubt it, especially considering that "The Lovely Bones," a smash book with similar topic, was pretty much a flop as a movie. But I see that O'Nan's "Snow Angels" (similar format and theme) was filmed a couple years ago with a good cast, including personal favorites Sam Rockwell and Griffin Dunne. I'll put it on my list. (Update: I watched "Snow Angels," and I give it moderately enthusiastic recommendation, if you don't mind a movie that's pretty harsh in places. The actors are good, particularly Rockwell. I was taken aback that the pivotal plot point is so similar to that of "Songs for the Missing." I guess I figured that such a loaded device would be good for only one go-round per novelist. On the other hand, you could argue that the two stories are interesting companion pieces, as the reactions of the people involved are so different.)
Utopia Parkway: The Life and Work of Joseph Cornell (1998, Deborah Solomon)
Why I picked it: Generally recognized as a good biography of Cornell, and I wanted to know more about him.
What it's about: Biography of assemblage artist Joseph Cornell, 1903-1972.
What I thought: Good meshing of life and work. It might have mentioned a few too many times what an odd guy Cornell was in several key ways, and there were a few times I thought Solomon was a bit art-schooly in reading things into his works. (Like: "The wicker basket recalls his brother Robert's wheelchair.") But judging from its statements on the few topics I know something about, I'd say it's pretty accurate and thoroughly researched, and it's an interesting read.
Brooklyn (2009, Colm Toibin)
Why I picked it: Got good reviews, and I'm always fine with Brooklyn immigrants.
What it's about: Young woman from Ireland comes to Brooklyn, sponsored by the parish priest, to work in a department store.
What I thought: Very quiet and internal novel, and because protagonist Eilis is uncertain and rather timid, there's not much depth to her introspection, at least to start with. The first half is a pretty prosaic (though not uninteresting) description of her journey and her first months in Brooklyn. Her life is so closely circumscribed that it took me a long time to realize this was taking place after World War II, not World War I. (Yeah, I didn't read the jacket copy.) There's very little mention of world affairs or technology, and nothing of the fashions or popular culture gave me a clue. It's strange to realize that this took place at the same time as "Revolutionary Road," and just a short train ride away.
But then things start happening, and Eilis' world opens up a little, and shortly after that I realized it had kind of sneaked up on me that she was becoming more mature and worldly. I suppose it could be read as paralleling the changing relations of Europe and America after the war. When Eilis returns to her hometown, which is largely unchanged from her childhood, she is seen — though she thinks of herself as the same girl who left two years earlier — as capable, desirable, even glamorous, as if the status of America has rubbed off on her.
Outliers: The Story of Success (2008, Malcolm Gladwell)
Why I picked it: I've liked Gladwell's sociological examinations in other books and his New Yorker articles.
What it's about: Gladwell attempts to debunk the idea of the person who succeeds by will and genius alone by pointing out advantages of culture, timing and circumstance behind notable success stories.
What I thought: I thought Gladwell's thesis is a little shaky. First, his argument seems something of a straw man; I don't think many people discount the roles of background, timing and luck in success. Second, his examples are all over the place. It might have been a stronger book if he had stuck to, say, the role of ethnic and national culture — the chapter on the temperament of people descended from European herdsmen was particularly interesting. But he throws in the advantages of birth month, birth year, place of origin, as well as some that seem really obvious: Kids in wealthy families tend to know better how to present themselves to authority; kids who practice the violin a lot tend to be better than those who practice less; Bill Gates was helped by unlimited hands-on computer time afforded by his affluent school and the parents of his affluent friends. Sometimes I had the sense I was reading a grown-up version of Ripley's Believe It or Not, a collection of tidbits that are interesting in themselves ("Bill Gates, Bill Joy and Steve Jobs were born within 6 months of each other!") but don't hold together particularly well.
Open (2009, Andre Agassi)
Why I picked it: Yeah, odd choice for me. I can't remember the last time I read a celebrity autobiography. (OK, I went and looked: I read Steve Martin's "Born Standing Up" a couple years ago. But I'm pretty sure I haven't read a celebrity athlete autobiography since "Ball Four" when I was 13.) I picked this not for the credited author but for his collaborator, J.R. Moehringer, whose own memoir, "The Tender Bar," was one of the best books I read last year. When I heard that Agassi had sought out Moehringer after reading "The Tender Bar," I thought maybe this would be something more than the usual recitation.
What it's about: Andre Agassi's tennis career, from age 7 to age 35.
What I thought: It justified my excursion into unusual literary territory. I gained some appreciation of tennis in general and Agassi in particular. He manages to describe decades of matches in a way that doesn't make the non-fan just skip the action. And I think I detect Moehringer's influence in the open way Agassi talks of his relationships with people he loves (his wife, his trainer), people he despises (Jimmy Connors. Jeff Tarango) and people about whom his feelings are mixed (his father, his ex-wife, Pete Sampras). In his own book, Moehringer had no problem pointing out his own faults, and that tone shows up in this one as well. It plays into the rehabilitation of public image that Agassi has brought about in the past 10 years.
Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry Into the Value of Work (2009, Matthew B. Crawford)
Why I picked it: I read a review of it last year at Slate.
What it's about: It is not a sentimental ode to the joys of working with one's hands, a sighing over how much we lose by not making our own bread and bookshelves. It is, instead, about the misguided separation of thinking from doing in the modern workforce, the exaltation of "knowing that" over "knowing how."
What I thought: A lot; it's a thought-provoking book. Crawford, erstwhile electrician and holder of a doctorate in political philosophy, left his job at a think tank to run a motorcycle repair shop. He contends that schools, buying into conventional thinking about the value of a job in the "knowledge economy," steer many people in the wrong direction. A job in skilled trades, he says, gives the worker the chance to make his own decisions, to fully engage with his work, to see the results of his labor, to form authentic connections with other workers rather than the false ones of the office team, and to become a vital part of the local economy. His view of an electrician's job sometimes seems overly rosy, and his view of the office job Dilbert-bleak, but he makes a lot of good points about schools and management and meritocracy. Reading this book I wished once again that my dad was still around so I could talk about it with him. As a motorcycle enthusiast and a mechanic, a holder of a doctorate in management, and a university professor who did not have the greatest regard for academia, I think he'd have a lot to say about this one.
Reaper Man (1991, Terry Pratchett)
Why I picked it: Pratchett is well-regarded by people whose tastes I admire in fantasy, a genre that I've been poking around the edges of. I had tried another of his books, a more youth-oriented one, and gave it up; thought I'd try again. (I consider this sort of work-related reading: keeps me in touch with the geek zeitgeist.)
What it's about: Death is forced into retirement and goes to work as a handyman on a farm. With no immediate replacement for him, life force runs amok in the world.
What I thought: Very British humor, not too heavy in the sci-fi underpinnings. Quick, easy read with some laughs.
Movie? Some of Pratchett's novels have been made into TV movies or miniseries in Britain.
Revolutionary Road (1961, Richard Yates)
Why I picked it: Around the time the movie came out, there was a revival of praise from writers and critics calling the book an overlooked classic. What it's about: Young couple in the mid-1950s struggles with the mundanity of their suburban Connecticut life. What I thought: I wasn't crazy about the first few chapters, which seemed to me to be about fortunate people behaving badly, looking for reasons to whine about their lives. That's my stoicism kicking in -- same reason that, though I love Salinger's Glass family stories, I was lukewarm about "Catcher in the Rye." (I'm going to have to reread that one, though.) Anyway, once it took a couple plot turns I got involved. I knew it wasn't going to end well, but I didn't know how it would end badly. It's definitely of its time; there's no way it could be set outside the '50s. I liked how Yates altered the reader's views of Frank and April, gradually revealing more about them. There are a couple intriguing structural things concerning voice that I'd have to sit down with the book to work out.
Movie? 2008, with Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet, who seem right for the parts. I haven't seen it.
Nice (1999, Jen Sacks)
Why I picked it: I read a review of it somewhere, and it sounded like good black humor. What it's about: (Spoilers! The plot twists start immediately.) A young professional woman in Manhattan sort of accidentally becomes a serial killer and in doing so attracts the attention of an actual professional killer.
What I thought: It's a good premise, but even in a novel as short as this it doesn't support a full-featured plot. I ended up breezing through a lot of the relationship development between Grace and Sam, but I kept going because I wanted to see if she gets caught.
Movie? Maybe. It apparently was originally intended for Helen Hunt, and a year ago it was rumored that Reese Witherspoon would star and produce. Nothing since then.
The World Rushed In The California Gold Rush Experience: An Eyewitness Account of a Nation Heading West (1981, J.S. Holliday)
Why I picked it: For my California history reading. This book is often cited in others' research because it's very close to a principal source.
What it's about: The 1849-51 gold rush journey of 27-year-old farmer William Swain, from Youngstown, N.Y., to the Feather River and back. It's based principally on his journal and the letters to and from his family, augmented with others' accounts of their experiences at the same time. What I thought: I definitely endorse the general opinion of this as a must-read for anyone interested in California history. Because of its unique sources — it's amazing that the Swain family kept these papers through the generations — it gives a picture you can't find anywhere else of the average '49er. (Swain spent 21 months away from his wife and daughter, worked hard, got some gold, didn't get rich.) I've read a lot on the gold rush, but most of the history focuses on the notable people, and it's told from a San Francisco point of view. This one really gets you into the day-to-day journey and the goldfields. It shows what an odd culture springs up, disconnected from the reality everyone had known before, when in a matter of months 80,000 driven men flood into an undeveloped area. And though Holliday mostly lets Swain do the talking, he makes some interesting points about how the gold rush not only set the pattern for California as a state but also, by encouraging risk-taking and enterprise, radically changed the country's temperament and direction.
Juliet, Naked (2009, Nick Hornby)
Why I picked it: Looking for something light and entertaining to balance out the rest of my reading.
What it's about: As Annie and Duncan's passionless 15-year relationship falls apart, she chances into an e-mail correspondence with the object of his longtime obsession, a reclusive former rock star named Tucker Crowe.
What I thought: Nick Hornby has a certain hipness factor that I've never really understood; maybe it's by association with the vinyl geeks of "High Fidelity." To me, he's a lot like Helen Fielding: funny and Britishly dry and entertaining, but undeniably lightweight. (Disclaimer: I haven't read the one about the people who want to kill themselves.) "Juliet" has a great premise, and it proceeds briskly and not totally predictably to a satisfying but not Hollywood ending. Along the way, because it's not overburdened with plot, it has time to examine art, criticism, the nature of a meaningful life, and the role of children in the latter enterprise.
Movie? I'm sure there will be one, a cross between "About a Boy" and "Notting Hill." Who would I cast as Tucker? It would be nice to choose a real cult-favorite musician. Jeff Buckley and Townes van Zandt are dead, Leonard Cohen's too old. Steve Earle seems a little too pugnacious. Oh: John Doe! Perfect. Right age, right type.
Rousseau's Dog: Two Great Thinkers at War in the Age of Enlightenment (2006, David Edmonds and John Eidinow)
Why I picked it: Partly because it seemed relevant to my French Revolution reading but probably largely because of the cover, which suggested an entertaining, irreverent read.
What it's about:The personal and very public falling-out between Jean-Jacques Rousseau and his erstwhile benefactor David Hume.
What I thought: It's an engaging read even for someone (like me) who has only a very basic knowledge of 18th-century social thought, because it is such a human story. These two guys have such different personalities, and a series of fairly minor incidents set them pinballing off each other and their mutual friends. In that way, it's timeless, but the documenting of the conflict is possible only because of practices specific to their time: their abundant personal correspondence and the preservation of those letters.
When You Reach Me (2009, Rebecca Stead)
Why I picked it: It's this year's Newbery medalist, plus I heard the author on the radio and liked the excerpt she read.
What it's about: A 12-year-old girl in 1970s New York City begins receiving strange notes from someone who seems able to predict the future.
What I thought: Really well-done mix of realistic adolescent school-and-home life and a mind-bending wait-how-would-that-work time travel theme. The way everything finally snaps together is elegant and delightful; even quirky, seemingly random elements turn out to be part of the puzzle. I read it in one sitting, though I'm generally not inclined toward sci-fi/fantasy: The heroine's touchstone, "A Wrinkle in Time," was one book I never got into, despite several attempts.
Drood (2009, Dan Simmons)
Why I picked it: Dickens-related. I had been waiting on this until I finished "The Moonstone."
What it's about: Historical fiction concerning Charles Dickens' last years and his relationship with Wilkie Collins.
What I thought: I'm going to count this as read rather than abandoned because I made it through almost 600 of its 800 pages. When it came due at the library, I didn't renew.
The premise is interesting: That Dickens' last years and his last, unfinished novel were profoundly affected by a sinister character he met in the aftermath of a train crash. As much as it's about Dickens it's about its narrator, Wilkie Collins, always in his celebrated colleague's shadow.
So it has an interesting start, and it obviously draws on deep research of Dickens and his milieu, but it pretty quickly bogs down. The reader is given fewer and fewer clues as to the identity and motives of the mysterious Drood, and there is a hair-pulling amount of repetition about issues including Collins' laudanum use and his unconventional non-marriage. I realize that Collins' envy of Dickens is key to the story, but it also contributes to making the narrator rather tiresome, not a person you want to stick with for 800 pages. Another objection: The incorporation of real people and events into imagined scenarios sometimes adds a historical richness to the fiction, but other times it's done really clunkily. For instance: Drood's father is identified as "Lord Lucan," a real title in British peerage. By far the most famous of the Lords Lucan is the man who disappeared in 1974 after the murder of his children's nanny, making the use of the name in this context rather puzzling — like setting a novel in the 19th century and calling a character Ted Kaczynski.
Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and '40s / American Noir of the 1950s (1997, various authors; Library of America)
Why I picked it: A couple gaps in my California reading are included in this set.
What it's about: Two-book set, 11 classics of the genre.What I thought: I had read about half of these novels before, but my favorites were two I hadn't read: "I Married a Dead Man" by Cornell Woolrich, and "The Real Cool Killers" by Chester Himes. (The Himes surprised me, because I had read some of his stuff before, and it hadn't really clicked for me.) I found I didn't have the stomach for the ugliness of some of the others, even "The Postman Always Rings Twice," which I had liked 25 years ago.
Movies? Just about all of them. I'd like to re-view the movie of "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?," which I haven't seen in more than 30 years, and I'd like to see some of the movies of Himes' novels and maybe "Thieves Like Us," which Altman directed. The one that's the most intriguing as a movie is "I Married a Dead Man," because it has a great premise but its ending is hard to envision cinematically. (The novella has a different ending than the novel, more solid but sounding a little contrived.) Several movies have been made of it, with one recent version ("Mrs. Winterbourne") trying to get around the bleak ending by turning it into a light romance.
The Man Who Loved Books Too Much (2009, Allison Hoover Bartlett)
Why I picked it: I thought it might be an interesting examination of an offbeat, obsessive criminal, a la "The Orchid Thief" or "The Island of Lost Maps."
What it's about: John Gilkey, a California man who in the early part of this decade stole scores of books from dealers around the country.
What I thought: It would make a fine magazine piece but it really doesn't have enough to support a whole book. The one thing it really has going for it is the author's amazing access to Gilkey. He's not really that interesting, though, and neither are his methods.
Already Dead: A California Gothic (1998, Denis Johnson)
Why I picked it: After reading Johnson's "Nobody Move," I thought I'd try another. I abandoned "Angels" early on (no affinity for either of the characters). "Already Dead" had the added recommendation of its North Coast setting.
What it's about: Nelson Fairchild, who has money trouble and wife trouble, thinks he might solve both through a stranger who claims to be dying. Their deal unleashes on the Mendocino Coast a rain of evil.
What I thought: It's similar to Kesey and McGuane in its on-the-fringe characters and physicality. A hundred pages in, I was on the bubble about sticking with it, but it was enough of a mystery -- told non-linearly, jumping between fall 1990 and a year later -- that I stayed with it. In the end, it follows a sketchy trail and ends up in the deep brush, but though the finish isn't completely satisfying I have to say it seemed true. (There's a prolonged death scene that I finally realized reminded me of the beautiful, heartbreaking ending of "McCabe & Mrs. Miller." Or maybe another movie. It helps in the visualization to have been deep in the strangeness that is the Lost Coast.) I don't think I'm giving away too much to mention that a key theme is the New Agey/semi-Christian "A Course in Miracles," with which I'm only vaguely familiar.
Movie? No. IMDb lists two by the title, but neither is it.
True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor (1997, David Mamet)
Why I picked it: I read a mention of this somewhere, and it interested me as someone who has seen a lot of movies and is as intrigued by the process of acting as any frequent moviegoer. Also, Mamet wrote and directed one of my favorite movies ever, "House of Games."
What it's about: Mamet — writer, director, sometime actor — strongly rejects "Method" and "sense memory" and similar theories endorsed by many well-regarded actors of the past 50 years. His idea is that the actor shouldn't do much preparation but should get out in front of the audience and say the lines as written, and if he doesn't feel comfortable so much the better. (This isn't surprising from someone who has made his name with distinctive and anti-naturalistic dialogue.)
What I thought: I understood what Mamet was saying, but to really grasp this, it would help to be watching what he considers good and bad performances, or at least to have specific examples. I realize, though, that this theory is controversial enough without requiring him to publicly ridicule respected actors. (And he does indeed indicate that he has little respect for many "Great Actors.") Without the specifics, it is most thought-provoking for its intended audience, actors, and for the rest of us it's just a reminder that we should evaluate art by our own standards and not by what the experts are saying.
The Moonstone (1868 serial / 1871 revision, Wilkie Collins)
Why I picked it: This was one of two I put on my list from the 100 in Jane Smiley's "Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel." The other was Trollope's "The Eustace Diamonds," and both appealed to me as proto-mysteries and works of Dickens contemporaries. (Aside: Yes, this is the one that was on my "On Deck" list for literally years (and its extended presence there was one of the reasons I deleted that list). The holdup was that every library copy I found was in such a small format that the type was dauntingly small. I finally found a nice big one at the Burlingame library, which is such a perfect place it almost makes me cry.)
What it's about: Like "The Eustace Diamonds," it concerns the disappearance of valuable jewelry — in this case a diamond that is said to carry a curse and is bequeathed to an 18-year-old by her malevolent uncle.
What I thought: Plotwise, it doesn't exactly race along, but it maintains momentum. It has the usual range of characters, quirky to heroic, expected in Victorian novels, and a fair amount of humor. I'd knock off a few points for the rather contrived device that puts our hero in a bad situation on the night of the theft, but overall it's pretty sophisticated as an early example of the genre.
I have to mention one of my favorite bits of dialogue (this is 1868, remember):
"'May I venture to suggest ... that I might see her here?'
'Cool!' said Mr. Bruff."
I like that almost as much as "Bleak House"'s Leicester Dedlock being described as "a magnificent refrigerator." "Moonstone" also has a bit of shtick about a busted buzzard, and the character called Gooseberry is delightful.
Movie? A 1934 U.S. movie, a 1972 "Masterpiece Theater" series and a 1996 BBC TV movie (with Greg Wise, Mr. Emma Thompson). I'm not motivated to seek any of them out.
Homer & Langley (2009, E.L. Doctorow)
Why I picked it: The real people on which it's based, the Collyer brothers of New York, are a very interesting case.
What it's about: Loosely, about Homer and Langley Collyer, whose bodies were found in 1947 amid piles of junk crammed into their brownstone. This is definitely fiction, though; the biggest of Doctorow's departures from fact is having the brothers live decades past 1947.
What I thought: It comes across as an interesting exercise, showing how the brothers ended up in this bizarre situation, but there's really not much change or unfolding other than the progressive junkiness of the house. The storytelling is unsatisfying, little more than a string of episodes in which Langley behaves like Langley always does. I got the sense that history buff Doctorow had more feeling for the setting than for the people — New York in the 20th century is the third main character. This is no "Ragtime," though.
Side note, Life Meets Art Dept.: The day I finished this, there was a story about hoarding on one of the Web sites I help run. I packaged it up — including an archival photo of the Collyers' house — and gave it good display on a home page, and it got quite a few clicks.
Movie? I don't think there's been a movie specifically about the Collyers, though "Unstrung Heroes" (1995, with John Turturro and Michael Richards) has Collyer-like characters.
How Beautiful It Is and How Easily It Can Be Broken (2008, Daniel Mendelsohn)
Why I picked it: I think I read one of Mendelsohn's essays in the New Yorker and liked it.
What it's about: Collection of essays, many on popular novels and movies, underpinned by Mendelsohn's background in the classics.
What I thought: I didn't read all of the essays -- I skipped some that were really deep into Greece. My favorites were about Oscar Wilde, Truman Capote, "The Lovely Bones," "Brokeback Mountain" and "Middlesex." Without being contrarian (or brutal in the manner of Dale Peck, another of his subjects here), Mendelsohn is not afraid to challenge the most basic elements of the works and the most widely held beliefs about them.
Down and Out in Paris and London (1933, George Orwell)
Why I picked it: I'm not sure how this ended up on my list.
What it's about: It's said to be somewhat fictionalized but based on Orwell's experiences living on very little money in the late '20s, working in Paris kitchens and making the circuit of English lodgings for destitute men.
What I thought: I really liked this. It gives a very detailed picture of these two situations, but it's not as bleak as you might think: Our narrator is hungry and uncomfortable but always holds onto the idea that the hard times will pass. (Understandable, as he, unlike some of his companions, has a safety net; the British tramping, in particular, was apparently done largely as a journalistic exercise.) The people he hangs out with are deep into poverty -- not middle-class people fallen on hard times and looking for social services to get them through, but the homeless living from day to day with very little support.
Couple notes on reading: First, because so much attention is given to getting money and having money and spending money, it helps to have some multiplier in mind to translate the sums into logical modern U.S. equivalents (say, a franc is a dollar, a shilling is 5 dollars, whatever makes sense to you) and to know that one pound is 4 crowns is 20 shillings is 240 pence. Second, the short section on rough language is completely incomprehensible as the examples of bad words are eliminated -- from what I can tell, this is the case with all editions, a condition of its publication. Oddly, the copy I got at the library was kept behind the desk, so I had to ask a librarian for it. Frequently stolen? Hard to imagine. Maybe it's commonly assigned in high school.
A Crack in the Edge of the World: America and the Great California Earthquake of 1906 (2005, Simon Winchester)
Why I picked it: More Californiana.
What it's about: Just what it says. Winchester is a journalist with a geology background (he previously wrote a book about Krakatau) so he's very solid on the science stuff, but he also gives a good sense of what was going on socially and historically in California.
What I thought: Good read, good job of tying a lot of elements together and explaining the succession of geological theories. (The stuff about how the same rocks show up in Wyoming and Scotland is fascinating.)
Winchester's chapter on large, destructive earthquakes that have occurred in the middle of the country made me think, well, I might as well live here as anyplace; then his epilogue on the rich idiots who have chosen to build in Portola Valley made me feel kind of like an idiot. His contention is that it was only because of San Francisco's huge early growth that the city was big enough that people figured it ought to be rebuilt -- that most young communities experiencing that devastation would just be abandoned, sensibly, because of the danger of recurrence. Of course, he being British (and a geologist), 60 years seems a lot younger to him.
And, adding to my unease, his ticking off the succession of geological calamities worldwide in the months leading up to the quake was more than a little scary when read during a string of notable quakes here and abroad.
Angelica (2007, Arthur Phillips)
Why I picked it: The reviews I read of Arthur Phillips' new novel ("The Song is You") said complimentary things about "Angelica."
What it's about: A woman in Victorian England believes that a malign spectre is molesting her young daughter.
What I thought: Engrossing. It starts out creepy and old-fashioned, and becomes more modern, and dark in a more complex way. The character who ends up most sympathetic, and the one with the saddest outcome, is the one you wouldn't guess at the start.
Southern California: An Island on the Land (1946, Carey McWilliams)
Why I picked it: McWilliams was always on my California syllabus, and I figured this was a good place to put him in the Starr progression, as his specialty is Southern California between the wars.
What it's about: The growth of Southern California, particularly Los Angeles, until World War II.
What I thought: McWilliams hits a lot of the same themes and events as Starr, but his particular thesis is the "islandness" of Southern California, disconnected from the rest of the country, the rest of the West, the rest of the state, Its pre-WW2 economy, built mostly on tourism and real estate and then on the movies, was disconnected from the national economy of manufacturing and industry. Even its people were more inclined to create their own islands by ethnic or regional background, profession, or even cultural inclination.
He puts in more of his personal voice than Starr does, occasionally showing his political colors as a lefty lawyer, muckraking journalist and advocate of the working class. I identified with his initial impressions of Los Angeles. He, too, grew up in Northern Colorado and probably would have happily remained there had circumstances been different.
It was an interesting contrast to read a history that didn't have Starr's benefit of hindsight, that stopped rather suspensefully on the edge of the great postwar unknown.
Ravens (2009, George Dawes Green)
Why I picked it: I was familiar with Green as founder of the storytelling series The Moth, and I know he can tell a story, and I heard him on some podcast (Studio 360?) talking about this novel.
What it's about: Charismatic bad guy comes up with plot to extort a family out of half of a lottery jackpot.
What I thought: Has "movie" written all over it. I expected something more dark and quirky, but this is almost Grisham-mainstream. Main baddie Shaw is a great character, written for some young actor to play the heck out of. Sidekick Romeo is harder to get a handle on, which is problematic because his actions are key to both Shaw's plan and the structure of the story. You're inside his head more than Shaw's, and, though you understand his attachment to Shaw, his compassion and misgivings have you wondering why he doesn't just walk away.
Movie: Watch for it. Green's previous novels, "The Juror" and "The Caveman's Valentine," were made into movies.
Holy Land: A Suburban Memoir (1996, D.J. Waldie)
Why I picked it: I was browsing the California history shelf, and I ran across it. Lakewood is of particular interest to me because my mother lived there in the early '50s, shortly after its creation for people like her family: They had lived most of their lives in El Monte and Boyle Heights, far from prosperity and not even with a firm grasp on stability, but Lakewood told them, "Look, you can buy a house here! And then you'll be middle-class."
What it's about: A portrait of Lakewood, told in small bites, by a man who grew up there and now lives in his parents' old house and works for the city.
What I thought: A quick read, because of the format. I was more interested in the historical and sociological elements than Waldie's personal remembrances, but he's a good, clear-eyed storyteller, not sentimental. The book is a good counterpoint to Joan Didion's essay about the notorious Spur Posse, which she blames in part on unsupported expectations inherent in Lakewood, or, I imagine, in any suburb created to take advantage of boomtown prosperity.
Then We Came to the End (2007, Joshua Ferris)
Why I picked it: It got good reviews as a novel in the McSweeneyesque vein.
What it's about: The work life of people in a Chicago advertising office during the dot-com bust.
Why I gave it up: Stuck with it for 85 pages, and it was still vignettes. I was hoping for some narrative, or at least character development. (Just looked at a review, and it turns out I was probably on the brink of some sort of plot.)
The Children's Book (2009, A.S. Byatt)
Why I picked it: The ideas of Byatt's novels tend to be so compelling to me — intellectuals on the fringe in Victorian England — that I forget I've always struggled with the actual books. I don't think I ever finished "Possession" (though I liked the movie), and I got through "Angels and Insects" only because it is short. Also: gorgeous cover.
What it's about: Two artistic, bohemian families in 1890s England.
Why I gave it up: Got to 150 pages and learned a lot about pottery and puppet shows, but the characters and the plot were still coalescing. I might go back to this as an audiobook, but I just had too many things stacking up I wanted to try instead of sticking with the whole 675 pages.