Tuesday, February 08, 2011

25 Books in 2011

If I had nothing else to do, no kids, no husband, no jobs, no house to clean, no laundry, no e-mail, etc, etc, I would love nothing more than to sit somewhere comfy and read all day long.  I think I could read a hundred books in a year, probably more if I really didn't have any other responsibilities.  Unfortunately, there are enough other things that demand my time and attention that I have to align my priorities a little differently.

My book-reading personality is such that once I get into a book, I'm hard-pressed to put it down.  The aforementioned responsibilities go by the wayside, as does sleep and eating anything healthy.  (I do eat snacks while reading, since they usually don't require me to set my book aside to prepare or eat!)  So, when thinking about my reading resolutions this year, I decided that I can justify neglecting every other aspect of my life say, twice a month.  Even though I'd love the number to be higher, I feel good about committing to 25 books this year.  Yes, that looks good, and reasonable.

I decided to document my list here-- and on Goodreads-- because lists like this are fun.  Also, if you love reading as much as I do, you might appreciate knowing what's out there.

1.  Edible Stories:  A novel in sixteen parts by Mark Kurlansky.  *** (some adult content)

I went to the library to see if I could find my book club selection, Room (see below), but the waiting list was a billion people long.  I am opposed to leaving the library empty-handed, so when this predicament occurs, I like to browse the new-release section and see what I can find.  In this case, I always judge a book by its cover.  And can you really resist this marvelous cover?

I know!  Also, I really love short stories, especially when they all tie together.  Short stories help with the neglecting-life thing because you can kind of start and end quickly.

I was not disappointed in this pick-- it was funny, quirky, and full of mouth-watering descriptions and weird characters.  All of the chapters are named after food, although the stories themselves are more about the people and their relationships.  There is no hero or heroine in these stories, but some characters are much more likable, and forgivable, than others.  And I can't give away the crazy little twist in the last chapter, but let's just say-- I think Margaret kind of deserves it.  :)

2.  Room, by Emma Donoghue ****

Sherrie picked this book for our January book club selection, and it was a good one.  Told in the voice of 5-year-old Jack, who lives with his mother, a kidnap victim, in an 11 X 11 room.  Born in his mother's prison, Jack has never seen the outside world except through television, and tells a very complex story though the simple language of a child.  While there are some adult themes in this book, the main character's innocence keeps everything very implicit.  This book spurred a great discussion about the powers of motherhood, sacrifice, choices, and love.  My heart was pounding at some points, and I think I cried a little bit, too.  I really enjoyed it.

3.  The Underneath, by Kathi Appelt *****

I still had some time before the end of the month, so I decided to pick up this youth novel recommended by my friend Becca.  First off, I should tell you that I haven't read a book about animals since I was required to read Where the Red Fern Grows when I was in Junior High.  I was pretty concerned about cheesiness and silliness and animals that talk in squeaky voices like on Cinderella.  Luckily, Becca is a girl I can trust and when she says "... a book everyone should read," I take her word on it.

Of course, she was right.

Yes, the animals do communicate, but it is not silly or juvenile, but sweet and real.  This is what they would say if they could talk.  And the story, filled with ideas and themes that we can relate to our human world, is both touching and profound.  I loved the tone and rhythm of the writing-- such excellent story-telling!-- and the sweet characters made me want to love my own children with all my might and maybe get them a pet.  We'll see. 

4.  Unbroken:  A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand. *****

Becky chose this book as February's book club pick, and I'm so glad she did.  I don't normally pick up books like this-- Chris is the WWII buff and I tend to go for fiction-- but I really enjoyed reading this true-life story of Louie Zamperini, an American athlete who was captured as a Japanese POW in World War II.  The facts in this book are astounding and I appreciate the research that the author did to tell the story to its truest.  The main character is as likable as they come and I couldn't help but cheer for him throughout.

This book is not for the faint-- it's a long, sometimes very tough read.  It's an excellent book, though-- well-written, interesting, and overall redemptive.  The pictures are fantastic and give a great authenticity to the story.  Great story.

5.  My Perfect Life, by Lynda Barry.  ** (some adult content)
After the intense, real-life misery in Unbroken, I wanted to read something light and funny.  This little comic book (... or graphic novel... I'm not sure of the right genre... ) looked promising.  I peeked at the front cover at the library and actually laughed out loud at the drawings and nicknames of the main character's teachers.  That part was pretty hilarious.  For me, it kind of went downhill from there.  I admit that maybe I didn't get it, but there were just too many sad and ugly parts of the book for me to find a lot of humor in it.  Four out of four Amazon reviewers gave this five stars, though, so what do I know?

6.  The Rehearsal, by Eleanor Catton *

Are you ready for my description of a good book?  I think I can sum it up in one word:  anticipation.  I like books that make me anticipate-- whether that's excitement over what's going to happen next in the stories or what words the author will choose to describe a character.  Anticipation is what keeps me turning from one page to the next, and what causes me to pick up a book again if I've had to put it down.  One more thing on good writing-- the best writing, for me, is when I'm so engrossed in the story that I don't think about the writing itself.

Another random library pick, this one was not as pleasing as the last (although the cover is pretty cool).  As for anticipation, this book was really lacking.  I think the author was trying to sound super intelligent and unique with her crazy characters named things like "the saxophone teacher" and "the Head of Movement" and her completely random and hard-to-follow sequences and headings like "Thursday" and "November".  I've read books that have complicated timetables and that don't necessarily go in sequential order, but most of those have arrived at a satisfying conclusion that makes the whole story fit together.  This book felt like it was just trying too hard-- way too hard--, and at the end, all I could think was what?  It gave me a headache.

7.  The Thirteenth Tale, by Dianne Setterfield ****

Oooh, a good one.  Thank you, Elena.  This book was just what I needed after a reading slump in March.  It was beautifully written, mysterious, and just the right amount of creepy.

I LOVED the author's language-- there were so many phrases that I thought, "ooh!  I need a highlighter!"  In The Thirteenth Tale, a woman is writing the biography of a novelist, and both women's (and the authors) appreciation of good literature is apparent throughout.  The plot kept me guessing until the end, and I wasn't disappointed.  Okay, so the wrap-up was a little cheesy, but I liked it.  Great read.

8.  Agnes Grey, by Anne Bronte ***

In The Thirteenth Tale, Jane Eyre was mentioned enough that I desperately wanted to read it.  (I plan to, by the way, before the end of this year.)  Unfortunately, I couldn't get a hold of a copy (our library only has one... what?!) in time for a trip, so I decided to bring this little gem by Charlotte's sister instead.  I really enjoyed it.  I haven't read a classic for a while, so it was fun to get back into the beautiful language and propriety of this kind of book.

Poor Agnes decides to become a governess, which I can only imagine is one of the worst jobs ever.  Agnes (and I suspect Anne, who wrote many of the experiences in this book after her own life) and I have something in common:  we don't like other people's children.  This is not to say that I don't like your children-- I do, if they want to come and play with mine for a day or the weekend, or if you need me to watch them for a while.  What I mean is that I could never run a day care.  Zzzz.  Agnes would understand.

I love the innocence and sweetness in this kind of love story, and Agnes Grey was a quick read that left me smiling. 

9.  Wicked:  The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West, by Gregory Maguire ** 1/2  (adult content)

So far, everyone who I've told that I've read this book has said, "You really should see the musical.  It's so much better."  And even though I've never seen the musical (on the to-do list, though) I have a feeling that it would be better-- at least more satisfying-- than this book.  It's not that I didn't like the book, it's just that I still feel a little confused and frustrated by it.

Gregory Maguire created a very fantastic fantasy world that honestly lost me sometimes.  The main character, Elphaba, while smart and sassy and every bit deserving of cheer, was ultimately an utter disappointment.  I kept hoping that somehow she would get something right, but it seems like she was doomed to failure from the beginning.  Depressing.  I would like to talk about some of the political implications with someone, though, but not enough to suggest we read this in book club.

Again, I hear that the musical is really good-- and with a happy ending.

10.  Where the Mountain Meets the Moon, by Grace Lin *****

I saw this book recommended on Amazon, so I picked it up at the library and read it out loud to Thomas and Gordon.  What a wonderful book!  All three of us loved this sweet story about a little girl who follows her father's stories to the Old Man of the Moon to try to change her family's poor fortune.  The story is interwoven with short fables that the boys just loved, and I loved the simple but lovely language.  I also loved that Gordon would ask to read "Minli" every night and that both boys wanted me to keep reading once I had started.  I got a little bit choked up at a couple of parts (I think there is something about reading about families while reading with your family) and I was sad when the story ended.  I would recommend this book to anyone-- read it to your kids!

11.  The Know-it-All:  One man's humble quest to become the smartest person in the world, by A.J. Jacobs  ***1/2

I like A. J. Jacobs.  He is funny, honest, and a fabulous writer.  I do wish, though, that I had read this book, where A.J. reads the entire Encyclopeadia Britannica first, then read the more profound, though-provoking The Year of Living Bibically next.  That's not actually A. J.'s fault-- he did come out with this one first, I just read them in the wrong order.

The Know-it-All is funny and clever, but I didn't get the same satisfied feeling at the end as I did with his other book.  A lot of this book talks about the difficulty of retaining all of the facts he read in the encyclopedia, while I felt like there was a marked and more permanent change in the other book.  Maybe something about spiritual vs. secular?  That's another topic for another time.  Anyway, I did enjoy this book.

12.  Midwives, by Chris Bohjalian **

I bought Midwives at a garage sale.  I had heard about it before but couldn't remember if a recommendation came with it or not.  The cover did, however, have a giant "O" and "Oprah's Book Club" stamped right on the cover, so I figured I couldn't go wrong for a quarter.  Plus, I like putting new things on my book shelf.  I think my review is a little bit spoiling, so if you're set on reading this one, don't read the review.

I have kind of mixed feelings about this book, leaning towards the negative.  The story was pretty riveting and had plenty of discussion material.  My problem was with the very last chapter. See, when I read a book, especially if that book is written in first person, I, like most readers, develop a relationship of trust with the main character.  If the main character tells me something is the way it is, then it is, and I feel and see things through their eyes.  I think this is how it's supposed to be. So, if I read 370 pages of a person's story, feel like I know and believe in their perception, and trust that the plot of the book happened as said, I feel really upset-- violated, even-- when in the last chapter, I find out I've been lied to for 370 pages!

I'm positive that Mr. Bohjalian thought this was a really shocking twist, and it kind of was, but I felt more angry and annoyed than shocked and awed.

13.  Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, by Lisa See  ****

Ah, 19th Century Chinese women and their cat fights.  Just kidding, but only sort of.  At lease this first-person main character admitted that she was a mean hypocrite right up front!

I actually really liked this book.  I love the idea of a secret women's writing.  I kind of feel like women do have a way of communicating that men don't quite understand even now, but it's much more special and romantic to have secret notes on a fan.

Snow Flower is a book about friendship and I could see parallels to some of my own relationships as I was reading it.  Women are catty and gossipy and cruel to each other in every culture, and I loved how these characters were very real that way.  I also thought that this book made me think a lot about pride and how it affects the way I see myself and others.  It was a good read.

14.  Saving CeeCee Honeycutt, by Beth Hoffman. *

Ugh.  I couldn't even really get through this one.  There were a lot of really great reviews and it was on my recommended list at Amazon, but I just could not get into this book.

First of all, the main character is supposed to be... twelve?  What?  I'm sorry, but I have never met a twelve-year-old with that much maturity, even the really mature ones.  Really hard to believe.  And were there no men (excepting CeeCee's conveniently absent father)?  Or children (excepting CeeCee, who, as mentioned, was not really a child)?  And money just flowing freely?  Why do I not live in this world?  Oh, right, because it's make-believe.

The thing that really got me was that this book was supposed to have taken place in Georgia in the 60's and there is a part where the black housekeeper and her two friends take CeeCee, a twelve-year-old white girl, on a trip to the coast with her aunt's priceless vintage automobile?  WHAT?!?  Sorry, but that would not happen.  The Help was a much more believable, interesting, and satisfying book about life in the South in the 60's.

15. Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte *****

A classic!  I am ashamed to admit I'd never read Jane Eyre until now, but enough mention was made about it this year that I couldn't avoid it.

Poor Jane is an odd one-- and apparently not attractive-- but she is independent and strong-willed and I loved rooting for her.

This was probably my most challenging read so far.  I had to really pay attention to the very long sentences-- and sometimes re-read them-- to make sure I understood what was being said.  Chris interrupted me once and I read him the next sentence I was about to read.  The sentence itself was a paragraph long and by the end, Chris was saying, "okay, okay, I get it!"

Despite that, I found myself reading at every spare minute and staying up late to read just one more chapter.  I loved Jane Eyre and would recommend it to anyone. 

16.  The Gentleman Poet:  A Novel of Love, Danger, and Shakespeare's The Tempest by Kathryn Johnson *** (some adult content)

I liked this book, but I didn't love it.  The story was interesting and the characters were mostly engaging, although I was kind of annoyed that the purist heroine did a moral 180.  Well, I guess they were stranded on an island. 

17.  Mermaid:  A Twist on a Classic Tale by Carolyn Turgeon. * (adult content)

Maybe because I was really excited to read this book and had too high expectations, or maybe because it really was that bad, I am giving this book only one star.  Boo.

This book is Hans Christian Andersen's classic tale re-done-- except that it's not really re-done.  It's the same story, the only "twist" being the added perspective of the other woman.  I would have been fine with that being the twist, except that the writing was just okay and aside from that one addition, the story really didn't have any imagination for me.

I have a real hang-up with the Prince in this book-- he is supposed to be the one that these two women are willing to die for, and he's a complete jerk.  He is, of course, amazingly handsome, and aside from that, he's a good hunter, he likes sex, and he's mad that his dad (the king) doesn't trust him to make his own decisions.  Sounds like a winner to me.

And the mermaid-- when the sea witch takes away her voice, she says something like, "don't worry, you'll come up with other ways to win the prince."  And what does she come up with?  Sex.  That's it.  She has absolutely no personality, no spunk, no nothing, except her beauty (of course), and her willingness to go for whatever the prince is up for in the bedroom.  I think that's pretty darn pathetic.  Even Ariel had a sweet charm and cuteness that made her loveable, and she was a cartoon. 

In the end, I think the author is confused, as are a lot of people, about the difference between love and sex.  I'm interested in reading an actual love story, so this book was not for me.

18.  The Reading Promise:  My Father and the Books We Shared by Alice Ozma ****

Don't let the title fool you-- this book isn't about books.  It's about a father who read a lot of books-- in fact, he read to his daughter from one every night for several years-- and his daughter and their relationship.  It is a book about a very imperfect parent and his very imperfect child, and their struggle to maintain a loving relationship through some difficult times.  It's a great book, and I'd definitely recommend it.

Alice's dad is a struggling single father with two daughters, and I definitely admired his tenacity in keeping their reading promise.  But it's not so much the reading that impressed me-- I was more touched that a man who isn't touchy-feely and clearly has difficulties understanding teenaged girls (and who can blame him) goes to such lengths to make sure that their one connection, books, remains unbroken.  His efforts, and his daughters' successes because of them, gave me a lot of hope for imperfect parents everywhere-- and made me want to read to my kids.  :)

19.  The Walking Drum by Louis L'Amour **

Mysha picked this book for book club, and even though it was crazy eights long, I read it.  That's right, I read a Louis L'Amour.  I'm feeling pretty diverse in my books this year!  Ha!

I thought that I hadn't read Louis L'Amour before, but when I was sending a book club e-mail and looked up his name to make sure I was spelling it right, I noticed the title Hondo.  I read Hondo in high school, and I feel like there are some pretty similar themes-- heroism, toughness, the insanely lucky ability to pick a fight with the right bad guys at the right times.  I also really love (ahem) the way that the ladies just fall over the hero, like they can't control themselves.

Even though this book was a huge bestseller, and the (male) librarian told me that it was his favorite book ever, I didn't like it.  Sorry, L'Amour fans, I just couldn't get into it.  Kerbouchard was annoying and arrogant, I'm not really interested in a lot of fighting, and I just didn't feel very passionate about the quest.  Even though there were a few lines that I underlined, as a whole, I just didn't really like this book.  And I probably won't pick up another L'Amour for a while.

20.  The Maze Runner by James Dashner ***

The Maze Runner was another book club pick and I mostly enjoyed it.  It's a young-adult book, set in the dark distant future, and the characters are all in a dangerous maze and have had their memories wiped.  I wasn't crazy about their slang or their violence (read: Lord of the Flies), but the book was definitely action-packed and I sped through it pretty quickly.  I haven't gotten to the next two books (it's a series of three, as apparently all young-adult books are now), but I just might.  Not bad. 

21.  The Buddha in the Attic by Julie Otsuka ***

Here's another book that I judged by the cover-- look how great it is!

This book is written in first-person plural-- "We"-- and I really, really liked that, but was very confused and annoyed when, in the last chapter, the "we" changes from the group of Japanese picture brides to the white people they left behind in California.  I wanted to know what happened to the Japanese women!  I had to look it up on Wikipedia!  Come on, Julie Otsuka!

22.  Entwined, by Heather Dixon ****

Here's a riddle for you: my sister-in-law's sister-in-law's student wrote this book.  Emily, my husband's sister, recommended this book, written by the former student of her husband's sister, Lisa.  In fact, the book is dedicated to Lisa.  Cool, huh?

This book is a take on the Twelve Dancing Princesses fairy tale, and after Mermaid, I was a little bit wary.  Luckily, Emily was right on-- this book was great.  I loved the characters, especially that the author was able to give distinct personalities to all twelve sisters (okay, so their names were a little bit cheesy), and that the story was about more than just finding a handsome prince.  I loved the descriptions of the kingdom, the coolly evil Keeper, and the great, quirky men that fall in love with the princesses.  Such a fun read!

23.  The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton ****

This book was kind of reminiscent of The Thirteenth Tale, and I realized again that I really like this kind of gothic fiction.  This novel jumps through three different women's stories in three different time periods, and I felt like the author tied everything together nicely.  I love a good little mystery, and a little love story, and this book did not disappoint.  Great read!

24.  The Princess Bride: S. Morgenstern's Classic Tale of True Love and High Adventure by William Goldman *****

Several of my friends recommended reading this book, and I'm so glad I did.  I've seen the movie about a hundred times-- I can quote it-- but reading this book was even better.  William Goldman is hilarious, and the characters are even funnier and smarter than they are in the movie.  It is fantastic.  Five stars!

25.  The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin *****

This book was the perfect thing to read between Christmas and New Year's Day.  It's a memoir about a woman who wants to be happier and the research and steps she takes to do it.  I absolutely loved this book-- first, Rubin is a fantastic writer and she is fresh and honest about her project.  Second, I love that she focuses on small steps she can take to be happier-- this isn't a book about leaving your life behind and discovering yourself, it's a book about choosing to be happy where you are.  I love that-- it's real. 

Rubin gives so many great suggestions and pointers in this book that I'm actually planning to read it again soon.  Two thumbs way up!


Christina said...

Thanks for sharing, Elise! I've been wanting a new read lately so I love to hear what people are reading and liking these days. Funny thing-- my SIL came to my rescue and brought 'Unbroken' to me just last night. I'm 2 chapters in and can't wait to get back to it tonight. Good luck on your 25 this year. I think I've maybe read 25 my entire life! Shame on me, huh?

Becca said...

Yes! I love your posts anyway, but posts about reading . . . well!

25 is a very manageable number. I am jealous of the Idaho Falls library being part of your life.

romantic said...

Hello i have read this blog today i am form Bucuresti i work at parfumuri romantic, thank you bye

Heidi said...

What a great goal! I can relate to your love of books and the struggle for balance when reading a good one. I remember a trip to Hawaii during which all I wanted to do the whole time was read my really good book. Good book suggestions, too. Happy reading!

Elena said...

YAY! I have always LOVED your blog book reviews. I also set the goal of 25 books this year and hope to JUST keep it at that. I get WAY too carried away with reading. Can't wait to see what you end up choosing for book club.