|The 2013 List
reverse chronological order
»Rabbit is Rich
»What Maisie Knew
»Hole in My Life
»Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls
»Hyperbole and a Half
»Looking for Alaska
»Kings of the Road
»Fairy Tales From the Brothers Grimm
»Far From the Tree
»Both Flesh and Not
»Bring Up the Bodies
»The Crying of Lot 49
»The Sound and the Fury
»The Stranger's Child
»The Cat's Table
»Liar and Spy
»The Burn Palace
The 2012 List
The 2011 List
The 2010 List
The 2009 List
The 2008 List
Franny & Zooey,
David Foster Wallace
Honorable mentions: Paul Auster, Rick Bass, Michael Chabon, Charles Dickens, Stephen Dobyns, Neil Gaiman, Thomas Hardy, Graham Swift, Tim Winton.
|The books of 2013|
1. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner
2. Rabbit Redux, John Updike
3. The Crying of Lot 49, Thomas Pynchon
4. Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies, Hilary Mantel
5. The Jungle, Upton Sinclair
All 35 books
Bleeding Edge (2013, Thomas Pynchon)
Why I picked it: My year for Pynchon, and his year on the best-of lists.
What it's about: In the months before and after the 9/11 attacks, fraud investigator Maxine Tarnow delves into a suspicious dot-com in New York City.
What I thought: Much the same feel as "Inherent Vice" — paranoia, conspiracy, smart dialogue, sharp wit, no tidy conclusion. I liked "Vice" better, I think because I preferred the 1971 Los Angeles setting. The Silicon Alley dot-com bust in this novel, though, is close enough to the Silicon Valley version I saw to give me a handhold, and to let me appreciate Pynchon's understanding of tech culture. (He may shun publicity, but his life is obviously far from hermitic.) Advice to self re: next Pynchon — keep a list of characters, because a few of them got away from me.
What's next: I'm a few hundred pages into "Mason & Dixon." After that, I guess I'm ready for "Gravity's Rainbow."
Rabbit is Rich (1981, John Updike)
Why I picked it: See the Rabbits below.
What's it about: Harry, now 46, is back with Janice, living in her mother's house and managing her late father's Toyota dealership. A lot of his attention is taken up by young women, including Cindy, the nubile wife of a country-club buddy; Annabelle, who he suspects is his daughter; and Prue, who is carrying his grandchild.
What I thought: To me, the least exotic installment, because I remember 1979 pretty well and because Rabbit is as close to my current age as he'll get. I'm rooting for Rabbit now, and I'm dismayed by Nelson, who has turned out to be as petty and selfish and defensive as his father — though, like any human, flawed — is open and bighearted.
Telegraph Avenue (2012, Michael Chabon)
Why I picked it: By my accounting, Chabon has had a lot of hits (most notably "The Yiddish Policemen's Union") and very few duds.
What it's about: The two owners of a record shop on the Berkeley/Oakland verge deal with professional and familial trials over several months in 2004.
What I thought: For the first 20 pages, I was tentative: I had no interest in Berkeley satire. But Chabon likes his characters too much to drift far in that direction. As he hopped from one episode to another, there was none of them I didn't enjoy following. The parrot Fifty-Eight is my favorite animal character of the year, and Nat Meets the Zeppelin one of the most delightful sequences.
What Maisie Knew (1897, Henry James)
Why I picked it: I saw the 2012 movie, which is set in this century, and was curious about how far it strayed from the source.
What it's about: The divorce of her self-involved parents puts a little girl under the care of their respective new spouses.
What I thought: It's not as far from the modern movie as you might think. One of the main differences is that James' characters attempted, somewhat, to hide their scandalous behavior, whereas in 2012 it's all out in the open.
I have read James before, but a while back, and recently I have been puzzled when I hear his novels characterized as frustratingly dense and baroque. As it turns out, I was either a much more focused reader back then or I totally forgot what James was like, but this one was a bit of a slog.
Movie: I do recommend it. Julianne Moore, Steve Coogan, Alexander Skarsgard and a pretty amazing little kid named Onata Aprile.
Rabbit Redux (1971, John Updike)
Why I picked it: I liked "Rabbit, Run" well enough to go on.
What it's about: In the summer of 1969, Harry Angstrom's wife walks out, leaving him with 12-year-old Nelson. In her absence, he invites into their home a runaway rich girl and a militant black Vietnam vet wanted by the police.
What I thought: Not as formally elegant but deeper and more fleshed-out than "Rabbit, Run." I liked seeing Rabbit changing amid the turbulent times but maintaining his basic affection for other people.
Hole in My Life (2002, Jack Gantos)
Why I picked it: I heard Gantos, a writer of books for kids, on a radio show talking about episodes from his life covered by this book.
What it's about: A memoir of his young life by Gantos, who was imprisoned for smuggling drugs as a teenager in the late '60s.
What I thought: It's not a scare-em-straight "Go Ask Alice" kind of thing, but it is a cautionary tale about the consequences of one bad decision. Gantos was a decent kid — not a committed student, and too devoted to drinking and pot, but a well-read aspiring writer with college ambitions. The crime that got him sent to federal prison was sort of the lark of an unsupervised teen, and it was only through a lot of luck that he got out relatively unscathed.
Gantos has a nice voice in both senses: He tells his story well, with honesty and self-awareness and without self-pity, and he also reads the audiobook well.
What's next: I did last year start reading "Dead End in Norvelt," Gantos' apparently quasi-autobiographical kids' novel that won the Newbery Medal in 2011. I liked it, but not enough to stick with it. Maybe I'll give it another shot, next time I'm in the market for a kids book. I think there's a sequel out now.
Falling Man (2007, Don De Lillo)
Why I picked it: I've meant to put De Lillo on my list, and this one was less daunting than "Underworld" or "Libra."
What it's about: A New York couple in their 30s in the aftermath of 9/11.
What I thought: It's not meant to be the definitive 9/11 novel. Though protagonist Keith was in the south tower, and the day marked a turning point in his life, the event is largely a backdrop to several years of the couple's life. Only in the last chapter is Keith's experience directly described.
There's not much of a narrative line. More than once, I double-checked the player to make sure it wasn't on shuffle, because things were seeming a little disjointed. But I liked the characters and the various episodes enough to stick with it.
I really liked the reader of the audiobook, but his voice didn't sound familiar so I didn't look at who it was until I was done: John Slattery, my favorite "Mad Men" actor. Great choice for the cool tone of this book.
What next: I've read "Cosmopolis." I made a decent try at "Underworld," but I ought to go back at it. "Libra" is on my bookshelf. "White Noise" only if the others go well.
Let's Explore Diabetes With Owls (2013, David Sedaris)
Why I picked it: Easy read between the weighty ones (Updike and De Lillo, not Brosh).
What it's about: Essays by the humorist.
What I thought: I had read about half of these before. Always enjoyable, but it's sad that we get only one first time with Sedaris and can never again replicate the gasping-for-breath revelation of "Holidays on Ice."
Hyperbole and a Half (2013, Allie Brosh)
Why I picked it: I'd read some of Brosh's hilarious/amazingly honest posts on the blog of the same name. And it was on the free table.
What it's about: Art-and-words from the childhood and current life of a young woman who lives in the Northwest with her boyfriend and their problematic dogs and (for a while) her crippling depression, though the last is a small part of the book.
What I thought: I liked it, but I really liked that Alex loved it. (It was, at least for a couple days, her "favorite book ever.") I hope it showed her that story-telling doesn't need to fit one conventional mold.
Rabbit, Run (1960, John Updike)
Why I picked it: I've been venturing into mid-century novels — Roth, Pynchon, Richard Yates — and this seemed like a good next step.
What it's about: A former high school basketball star in his mid-20s walks out on his wife and young son and wanders into a relationship in the next town over.
What I thought: Liked it a lot. Rabbit isn't always likable, but he's understandable and, as he himself points out, lovable, if only because of his human desire for something more and his capacity for transcendent, if fleeting, delight. I also was blown away by Updike's elegant writing, his perfect descriptions. Will definitely move on to the next one.
Movie: I had to look this up — thought there was one, but couldn't recall the specifics. Yes, in 1970, with James Caan as Rabbit. Didn't get much critical acclaim.
Hold Fast (2013, Blue Balliett)
Why I read it: Alex told me I should. She reads a lot of books, and likes a lot of them, but she rarely puts one in my hands.
What it's about: A preteen girl in Chicago tries to unravel the mystery of her father's disappearance, which has left the family in a shelter and her mother frozen by depression.
What I thought: I preferred Balliett's trilogy of art-world mysteries. This one has some of the same elements — mystery with real-world cultural peg, smart likable young protagonist — but it's also about homeless families in Chicago. Being pulled in those two directions, it didn't hold together that well. It is earnest, though, and good-hearted.
Looking for Alaska (2005, John Green)
Why I picked it: I saw a few mentions of it as a popular and acclaimed young-adult novel with a mystery aspect. It and the book below were my easy-reading picks for vacation.
What it's about: Misfit kid goes to boarding school in Alabama and ends up in a group of unconventional smart kids.
What I thought: Very enjoyable. Refreshing take on the boarding school teens novel.
Kings of the Road How Frank Shorter, Bill Rodgers, and Alberto Salazar Made Running Go Boom (2013, Cameron Stracher)
Why I picked it: From the free table. Three really interesting guys. Shorter was the first radio interview I ever did, in 1978.
What it's about: The three premier U.S. distance runners of the 1970s.
What I thought: When it stuck to the runners, it was good. The digressions — shoes, the history of competitive running, especially the pasted-in pop culture roundups — felt like padding, and sometimes drifted into the ridiculous (Secretariat was a "handsome chestnut mare").
Absalom, Absalom! (1936, William Faulkner)
Why I picked it: This is my Faulkner year; Faulkner and Pynchon.
What it's about: Ruthless Thomas Sutpen rises from poverty to plantation owner before the Civil War, but his ambitions for a son to carry on his legacy are ill-fated.
What I thought: I didn't like it as well as "The Sound and the Fury," but I'm still glad I read it. It's more Southern gothic and is more about race and class whereas "Sound" is to my mind much more about family.
What's next: I imagine I'll round it out with "As I Lay Dying," and, if I still want more, "Light in August."
Anansi Boys (2005, Neil Gaiman)
Why I picked it: I read this just a few years ago, but I picked up the audiobook because I thought Alex would like it on our travels.
What it's about: A nebbishy London office worker — unknown to him, he's the son of a god — meets the flamboyant brother he never knew he had. In the resulting turmoil, he loses his fiancee and his job and gets drawn into a conflict involving a whole pantheon.
What I thought: This was memorable for me as my introduction to Gaiman's longer works, and it lived up to my remembrance. It was neat hearing it along with Alex, who liked it a lot, too.
Illywhacker (1985, Peter Carey)
Why I picked it: One of three Carey novels I had not yet read, and I got it for 25 cents at a library sale.
What it's about: A 139-year-old Australian looks back on his loves, descendants and adventures, starting as a flying flimflam man in 1919.
What I thought: Too meandering for my taste. I read about half its 600 pages, so I'll call it read rather than abandoned. I still might read Carey's "The Tax Inspector," but I'm not mustering much enthusiasm for "The Unusual Life of Tristan Smith."
1861: The Civil War Awakening (2011, Adam Goodheart)
Why I picked it: It got good reviews. I'm fleshing out my 19th-century America history.
What it's about: America right before the start of the war and during its first several months.
What I thought: I didn't leap for it because I thought it would be more military. But though there is a considerable (and interesting) segment about the Battle of Fort Sumter, it is mostly about the political and social movements that led to the war. Some of the threads are obvious (Lincoln's election, the abolitionist movement) and some more tangential but still relevant (the idealization of platonic love between men, the sudden fashion for facial hair*).
I didn't expect it to tie too closely into my California history reading, but there was quite a lot about California: its importance in the slave-state debate, secessionist rumblings, the Fremonts, Thomas Starr King.
What's next: I want to read more about the abolitionist movement, particularly John Brown and "Bleeding Kansas." (Or, as I once saw it in a newspaper story, "Bleeding, Kans.") I've also been meaning to read more about the Fremonts, though I'm pretty sure I wouldn't have liked hanging out with either of them.
*One of my favorite lines was an illustration how uncommon facial hair had been just a few decades previous: "One Philadelphia woman wrote in her diary, 'Today in the street I saw an elephant and two bearded men.'"
Fairy Tales from the Brothers Grimm: A New English Version (2012, Philip Pullman)
Why I picked it: It seemed like good short-bite reading, like I needed on this vacation. And Pullman's name was a selling point — he seems like a pretty smart guy.
What it's about: Fifty Grimm tales, with short comments from Pullman on their origin and different versions.
What I thought: Before I read this, I probably could have named a couple handfuls of Hans Christian Andersen stories, but I couldn't have definitively picked more than a few Grimms. Now I know: It's just about everything else, including almost all the Disney ones (Snow White, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Beauty and the Beast). I knew the originals were kind of gory and dark and weird. It puts you in an odd frame of mind to read a whole string of them.
Movie: I hadn't seen Terry Gilliam's ill-starred 2005 "The Brothers Grimm," so I watched it after I read this. It's pretty much what you would expect of Gilliam + Grimm. The imagery is great, the story less so.
Wolf Hall (2009, Hilary Mantel)
Why I picked it: I liked Mantel's "Bring Up the Bodies."
What it's about: Fictionalized account of Thomas Cromwell's transition from the employ of the on-the-outs Cardinal Wolsey to that of Henry VIII, who is determined to dump his wife and marry Anne Boleyn.
What I thought: Ideally, I would've read this before "Bodies," the second part of the (soon-to-be) trilogy, because the change in Cromwell's standing and ambitions is the main theme of the set. Still, I liked it a lot — smart, funny, good characters, good dialogue. Vivid detail without any "ho-ho, check out our historical accuracy."
Movie: Because of the Mantel books, I watched a few episodes of Showtime's "The Tudors." I'm not going to stick with it — it's not giving me anything more than I got from the books.
Far From the Tree: Parents, Children and the Search for Identity (2012, Andrew Solomon)
Why I picked it: I read an excerpt from it, or maybe just a related article, in the New Yorker.
What it's about: People who have children who are fundamentally different from them, because of deafness, dwarfism, autism, etc., and how those families deal with the children's pursuit of their "horizontal" (non-familial) identity.
What I thought: This is a huge book, 830 pages on 10 topics. I didn't read the whole thing. The chapters I read kind of followed the same narrative; after a few, it seemed pretty repetitive.
Both Flesh and Not (2012, David Foster Wallace)
Why I picked it: Impulse selection at the library. I'm of two minds about the posthumous reissuing of all things DFW, but I always find something enjoyable in his work.
What it's about: Collection of magazine writings by Wallace, the two longest about tennis (Roger Federer, and the U.S. Open of 1999).
What I thought: The tennis articles were my favorite. It's great to read Wallace on tennis: He understands tennis minutely, and he can pass on so much of that understanding to the reader. My second-favorite part was the interstitial pages between chapters, filled with excerpts from Wallace's notebooks of words and definitions (melopard, bort, lowery, gueridon ...). My third-favorite was "Twenty-Four Word Notes," which he wrote for the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus. There's a reason he's a copy editor's favorite novelist. He loved words so much, and he never stopped looking for the perfect one.
Bring Up the Bodies (2012, Hilary Mantel)
Why I picked it: Historical fiction, and I like history, though I wouldn't have said Tudors were my thing. And it, and its predecessor "Wolf Hall," won the Booker Prize.
What it's about: Thomas Cromwell's efforts to disengage his boss, Henry VIII, from his marriage to Anne Boleyn.
What I thought: After Pynchon and Faulkner, amazingly straightforward. Mantel's one stylistic choice that sometimes makes the reader pause is the ambiguous "he." "He who?" you think, but it usually becomes clear. I didn't know a lot before about Henry VIII, so I wasn't sure how much of this was invented; judging from the cast list of "The Tudors," it seems like the basic storyline of "Bodies" is the accepted one. I'm guessing the focus on Cromwell is what sets this apart, and she does make him a fascinating character.
What's next: I probably should have read "Wolf Hall" first. The end of Mantel's Cromwell trilogy is allegedly in the works. I also might see if I like "The Tudors" (lot of good actors), though the last thing I need is another multiseason TV show.
The Crying of Lot 49 (1966, Thomas Pynchon)
Why I picked it: See below. I was in the right frame of mind, thought I shouldn't waste it. I chose this particular Pynchon because of its California tech connection. The "Lot 49" engineers are in the Southern California aerospace industry (Pynchon was once a technical writer for Boeing), but it has a lot of Silicon Valley parallels. The entire text of "Lot 49" was several years ago transmitted in a sort of semaphore from a crypto-artistic installation atop the Adobe building in downtown San Jose. Also, this one is short.
What it's about: Northern California housewife Oedipa Maas is named executor of the substantial estate of an ex-boyfriend. In attempting to sort out his affairs, she runs across what seems to be a centuries-old secret organization attempting to subvert the postal system.
What I thought: A lot easier to get into than "V." Funny and engaging, maybe a little sillier than you'd expect after a huge effort like "V." Great wordplay, of course. Here's how far from normal Pynchon's writing vocabulary is: The guy who created the code for the abovementioned San Jose Semaphore at first used seven-letter words from "Lot 49" as keys for each paragraph of code, but when he put an arbitrary four of these words into Google as a test, "Lot 49" popped right up. So he switched to seven-letter words from "Ulysses."
What's next: Well, "Gravity's Rainbow," but maybe not right away. I might re-read "Vineland," or try "Mason & Dixon" or "Against the Day." The new one, set in Silicon Alley, is expected out in the fall. Maybe I can get one more read before then.
V (1963, Thomas Pynchon)
Why I picked it: I figured as long as Faulkner had me acclimatized to the elliptical and abstruse, I'd go deeper into Pynchon. I really liked "Inherent Vice" and "Vineland" (at the more accessible end of Pynchon's range); still need to get back to "Gravity's Rainbow."
What it's about: Two threads are drawn closer and closer until they meet: the escapades of a group of bohemians in 1950s New York, and an investigation, going back to Egypt at the end of the 19th century, by Herbert Stencil, who is seeking to identify something or somewhere or someone called V.
What I thought: It took only a few chapters until I switched to the let-it-wash-over-you method, not attempting to pin down every character and occurrence but just plowing through and making what connections I could. Sometimes that method works: I ended up having a good understanding of and great affection for "Infinite Jest" and Gaddis' "JR." This time it was less successful — I probably couldn't pass a CliffNotes quiz on "V" — but the prose and the dialogue and the humor were enough to keep me going.
The Sound and the Fury (1929, William Faulkner)
Why I picked it: I'm pretty thin on Faulkner. I remember reading a short story or two in high school.
What it's about: Three brothers from a decaying Mississippi family each narrate a day of their lives: the retarded Benjy in 1928, sensitive Quentin in 1910, mean Jason in 1928.
What I thought: Not nearly as hard to follow as I had been led to believe, and with much more of a story. I would have even been fine if it had continued in Benjy's stream of consciousness for the whole novel (which, actually, was what I expected).
What's next: "Absalom, Absalom!," which also features Quentin.
San Miguel (2012, T.C. Boyle)
Why I picked it: While I was reading Boyle's "When the Killing's Done," set on one of the Channel Islands, I found out that he had written a later novel set on another of the islands, but during an earlier time and based on real people. It sounded good for my California history reading.
What it's about: Two families who live on isolated San Miguel Island, overseeing the sheep operation: Will and Marantha Waters and their teenage daughter around 1890, and Herbie and Elise Lester and their two girls in the 1930s.
What I thought: Briefly I wondered why I was reading a fictionalized account rather than one of the source books it was based on — Elise Lester and her daughter Betsy both wrote books about their time on the island, and the Waterses' time is chronicled in another book. But I suspect those books aren't riveting literature, and that this one offers more in the way of mood and description while still (I think) sticking fairly close to the facts.
Boyle's subtext here is domineering men and their families, which ties in well with the bleak, unescapable setting.
What's next: As always, I'm curious as to how many of the events are true, but not curious enough to leap right into the historical accounts of the San Miguel families. My recent return to Boyle has made me a little more interested in "The Women," his 2009 novel about Frank Lloyd Wright (with, I imagine, some of the same themes as this one).
The Jungle (1906, Upton Sinclair)
Why I picked it: An important work in two of my areas of interest, investigative reporting and California history.
What it's about: Lithuanian immigrant Jurgis Rudkus and his extended family arrive in Chicago around 1900 and seem to make a good start on the American dream, with jobs in the stockyards and a house of their own. Then the inhumane elements of the capitalist society set them on a downward spiral.
What I thought: As Jurgis might say, it started out well. The depictions of the packinghouses are stunning. Based on Sinclair's months of working undercover, the detailed reports of the working and living conditions and the sometimes stomach-turning methods of processing the meat are the reason this book has lasted 100 years.
But Sinclair, an ardent socialist, had bigger goals than exposing lax food safety practices. He saw this book as an indictment of capitalism, and to make his point, he has to drag his protagonist to the depths of despair. It goes on and on for chapters, one horrible thing after another happening to Jurgis. Then, when he hits bottom, he must be redeemed with pages and pages of polemic (mostly socialist, some teetotaling).
It would make the authors' respective heads explode to hear it, but the novel it reminded me of most was "Atlas Shrugged." I would have to reluctantly give "Atlas" the edge in characterization and plotting. Jurgis isn't notably smart or kind or charming or even ambitious. Sinclair has made him such an everyman that he has no personality. The reader just follows Sinclair's pawn, without any particular sympathy, through an endless string of misfortune to a preachy and not particularly uplifting conclusion.
What's next: I think I'm finished with Sinclair. I've read enough about him in Kevin Starr's California history series, and Sinclair's own output rapidly drops in critical acclaim after this one. I definitely want to watch "There Will Be Blood" again, but I have no desire to read its source material, Sinclair's 1927 "Oil!" — I suspect the connection is very loose. This is kind of odd (but he was a really odd guy): Sinclair wrote "The Gnomobile," a kids book that was made into a 1967 Disney movie that I saw. Anyway, I think the next for me in the early-20th-century progressive muckraking genre is Frank Norris' "The Octopus." Judging from Norris' "McTeague," it should have more novelistic value than "The Jungle." And speaking of Starr, I should finish his California series. I have one book remaining, I think.
The Stranger's Child (2011, Alan Hollinghurst)
Why I picked it: I've been reading a lot of stuff set in the early 20th century, and I liked Hollinghurst's "The Line of Beauty."
What it's about: A minor literary family in England, and their would-be biographers, over 70 years.
What I thought: I thought it was going to be in a more compact time frame, with an Atonement-cum-Downton vibe. Then when it got into the '60s I thought it was going to be all about sexual politics. In the end, the dominant themes were private lives and public image, and who gets to write personal history.
The Cat's Table (2011, Michael Ondaatje)
Why I picked it: I've been meaning to try some of Ondaatje's fiction. I read his book "The Conversations," interviews with sound editor Walter Murch, and liked it. But when it came to novels, I avoided "The English Patient" because I wasn't crazy about the movie, and the blurbs for "Anil's Ghost" didn't grab me. This one seemed like a good, short starter. And it was on the free table.
What it's about: An 11-year-old boy, unaccompanied by parents, travels by boat from Ceylon to England in the 1950s. His companions are two other preteen boys and the motley collection of adults at the least prestigious dining table.
What I thought: I liked it, especially the earlier parts where it's all about the boys running amok on the ship. Later, it starts shifting to the narrator's adult perspective, and that didn't hold me as much — in fact, I put it aside and forgot for a while that I hadn't finished it until I noticed a bookmark 20 pages from the end.
What next: On the basis of this, I tried Ondaatje's "Divisadero." See below.
Liar and Spy (2012, Rebecca Stead)
Why I picked it: I really liked Stead's "When You Reach Me."
What it's about: A boy moves with his dad to a new apartment building in New York, and meets an odd kid his age who enlists him in a plan to spy on a third neighbor.
What I thought: "When You Reach Me" had good characters and a really good plot. This one, the characters aren't quite as appealing, and the plot is not nearly as good. There are two twists, and neither is set up really well — one of the set-ups starts seeming odd very early on. I was thinking, "Wait, is she really going to go that direction?" And she did.
Winter Journal (2012, Paul Auster)
Why I picked it: Some of Auster's novels I've really liked, and I liked his earlier memoir "Hand to Mouth."
What it's about: Part memoir, part ruminations on aging and mortality, framed as Auster's journal and looking at his life from the brink of old age.
What I thought: I wouldn't give it a huge recommendation, but I stuck with it. It's in second person, and I really hoped at the start that it wouldn't stay that way — that always seems kind of a precious conceit to me — but it did. You get used to it.
Night Film (2013, Marisha Pessl)
Why I picked it: I liked Pessl's debut novel, "Special Topics in Calamity Physics," and I was intrigued by this one's setting in the world of cult film.
What it's about: A disgraced journalist investigates the death of a young woman whose father is a renowned director of cult horror movies.
Why I left it: I made it about halfway before my annoyance at the characters overwhelmed me. The career trajectory of the main character really seemed false, in my knowledge of the journalistic trades, and the man himself is not appealing. His two sidekicks, especially the young woman, are caricatures. I couldn't shake the feeling that they were there for Hollywood screenplay purposes.
The Burn Palace (2013, Stephen Dobyns)
Why I picked it: I really liked some of Dobyns' novels of 20 years ago — "Cold Dog Soup," "The Wrestler's Cruel Study," "The Church of Dead Girls."
What it's about: A small town in Rhode Island is rocked by weird crimes with a satanic edge.
Why I left it: It's a long book, almost 500 pages, and very meandering. There were so many characters, so many threads, I finally despaired of it ever picking up narrative momentum.
Divisadero (2007, Michael Ondaatje)
Why I picked it: I had liked "The Cat's Table," and this one had the advantage of being set in Northern California starting in the 1970s.
What it's about: The first 30 pages are about three teenagers on a Sonoma County ranch, unrelated by blood but raised by the same man. This section ends with a dramatic violent incident. It then picks up a few years later with their lives as young adults: one a card shark in Nevada, one a writer living in a French farmhouse.
What I thought: I made it about 80 pages. The narrative tone was really formal and cool. It didn't give me anything to like and very little to understand about the main characters.
The Prestige (1995, Christopher Priest)
Why I picked it: I liked the 2006 movie that Christopher Nolan made out of it.
What it's about: A rivalry between two stage magicians in late 19th-century London.
Why I gave up: The book's failings present a lesson in good screenplay adaptation. The movie leaps right into the action. The book dithered along, telling of a modern-day newspaper writer with a possible family secret. I gave up several chapters in.