Friday, December 24, 2010

Book Round-Up for 2010

So I left off in July with No. 32, but my summer reading didn't end there. Unfortunately, I've lost the list, but I know I read Woodsburner by John Pipkin (33), Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel (34), and Mary, Queen of Scots and the Murder of Lord Darnley (35) by Alison Weir.

That brings the total to 35 for the summer. In September, before classes had gotten too intense, I managed to read some books I'd gotten earlier from Bookmooch, Alice Sebold's memoir Lucky (36) about her rape and the trial that followed, which I was primarily interested in for background on The Lovely Bones, and Company of Liars (37) by Karen Maitland to see how she re-imagined The Canterbury Tales. I would call it more closely a riff on some of the ideas of The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron, a group of people on the road with a common goal from the former, and people hiding from the plague from the latter. However, the format was very much that of modern fiction rather than poetry or a group of stories, and the stories are primarily told from one point of view. There is also a much more malicious element alive in this book than its forebears, which explains the title.

Then school reading caught up with me, and I've decided to include essays and novellas, though not poetry, as I can't remember how much or all of the specific poems we read for my Survey of American Lit 2 class. Poetry included Whitman, Dickinson, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Claude McKay, William Carlos Williams, Robert Frost, T.S. Eliot , and more.

38. The Awakening by Kate Chopin

Not my first time reading it, but first time for a class. I had much more sympathy for Edna this time around. However, I don't know if she would do much better in today's society, her young self was so impressionable, it seems inevitable she would be trapped, especially as a woman who decided to have babies she didn't really want. Today we still think motherhood comes first, is that an opinion we should re-examine?

39. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins-Gilman

I had never been assigned or heard of this story before, though it's apparently taught in some high schools. I don't think the woman goes mad, she just takes a metaphor too far and projects her self-image and self-understanding into the wall-paper, understandable under the circumstances. Eff the hysteria cure.

40. Spring Storm by Tennessee Williams

The only Williams play I'd read before was The Glass Menagerie, this is apparently more like A Streetcar Named Desire. It boils nicely down to class and gender issues, and how none of the protagonists quite fit their role in life.

41. Lectures on Kant's Political Philosophy by Hannah Arendt

The spectator is more important than the actor, judgment can coincide with obedience, and the law should correct for unscrupulous actors. That's what I learned. Also, don't read this unless you have to or have an academic interest in the subject.

42. Observations on the Beautiful and Sublime by Immanuel Kant

The first section is food for thought, but Kant's extrapolations in later sections simply confirm sexual, national, and racial prejudices of the day and really lowered Kant in my esteem.

43. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man by James Joyce

I've been frightened of Joyce for quite a while now, but I buckled down and read this for my Lit theory class. It wasn't as scary as I feared, but I don't think Joyce will end up being a favorite for me. I can see how his writing is beautiful and skillful, and re-reading passages helped me discover the meaning in them. The book as a whole though was difficult to get through and while I'd say I could pick out some general themes (bildungsroman, the development of personal autonomy and the role of the aesthetic, the pernicious influence of religion), I wouldn't say I understood a lot of it. A book to try again another day.

44. "On the uses and disadvantages of history for life" by Friedrich Nietzsche

An odd and thought-provoking essay on the interpretations of history and how they (mostly negatively) affect the present and ideas for coping with history while living in the present. Sadly prescient on how the Germans believed their history and culture proved them somehow superior.

45. "The Soul of Man under Socialism" by Oscar Wilde

Pithy and conversational, it doesn't hold together well, but is vastly amusing and reflective of Wilde's state of mind. He suggests that in the future machines will be used for all manual labor and men will be free to pursue art.

46. Rings of Saturn by W.G. Sebald

This book took me most by surprise. Ostensibly a memoir of one man's walking tour of England, it's actually a journey into Sebald's mind as reflected by the outside world, and he jumps from memory to imagination to re-imagined history with circular references to silkworms, Rembrandt, and Thomas Browne. It seems to explore the importance of history and imagined history on life and living memory, and will assuredly be a book to re-read in my future.

47. Trickster Makes This World by Lewis Hyde

A perfect prelude to our semester discovering tricksterism in American literature, Hyde introduces us to the trickster in many guises and tricksterlike traits and elements from mythologies, literatures, and folk tales worldwide. An enjoyable book to read (albeit a tad repetitive), for class or no.

48. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

Enough said. My favorite work of American literature, the book and its author are tricksters supreme.

49. Tracks by Louise Erdrich

This was my first book by Erdrich, and I was suitably intrigued. The plot was enjoyable, and the characters forced me to do a lot of thinking, from a trickster point of view and otherwise. I would read her other novels that deal with the same family.

50. Tripmaster Monkey by Maxine Hong Kingston

What luck that this should be No. 50! Monkey is a complex but not unintelligible work, and while others found the protagonist Wittman a controversial figure, I sympathized with and found him quite likable. He's certainly arrogant, but no less smart and creative for that. I was so glad to have the opportunity to read this, i would never have heard of it if not for my trickster class.

51. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz

This had been on my list for a while, but I finally read it for my trickster class. This is probably my favorite new read of the year. Diaz combines Spanglish, references to all my favorite fantasy and sci fi books plus comic books and other geeky/nerdy references like Star Trek and weaves it into a cohesive, enthralling narrative about Oscar and his family. At first, I wished Oscar were the book's narrator rather than the family friend Yunior, but having Yunior as narrator adds another layer of mystery and a point of reference for typical Dominican-American culture against Oscar's fantasy world. I learned a lot about the mindset of the Dominican Republic in the Trujillo regime and I think Diaz is truly doing something new through transforming magical realism into a new American genre-focused literary art. This is the work that will help turn science fiction into literature besides adding to the cultural diversity of today's American literature. Plus, it is a GOOD BOOK. If there is one book I will recommend to all my friends this year, this is it.

52. Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen by Marilyn Chin

This is a very new book, that I probably wouldn't have read if not for, again, trickster class. It helps to read this book as a series of Chinese myths and parables about some of the same characters that are reinvented for an American world and audience. It's a new way of looking at the world (in American literature at least), fun and quick to read, but a little more there if you choose to go back and read it again.

53. The History of Love by Nicole Kraus

This had been on my to-read list for years and I finally got it from Bookmooch. I don't know if it quite lived up to my expectations, but it was worth the wait. This was a book that really experimented with what it means to read between the lines, in terms of punctuation and creative formatting, and like Jonathan Safran Foer's work, was an apt choice for the subject and characters. The stories are neatly woven together and interesting in themselves, but what really got me about this book was how it was written and why and several times I had to stop and think. This could be termed a Holocaust book, but one that kind of skirts around the main event, focusing more on human effects, but not the atrocities themselves. It's a way of looking at the Holocaust that I feel is becoming more common and has its merits, like how scenes surrounding sex are so much more evocative than describing the act itself. Still, is it avoiding the horrors through not describing them directly? Or is a deeper truth still being conveyed?

54. The Whiskey Rebels by David Liss

I had strong expectations for this book, which were not quite fulfilled. I remembered Liss as a great writer of characters as well as mystery, but these characters were not as compelling or believable as some of his earlier works. Liss does a good job of inserting his fiction into historical fact, and his mystery is such that the reader always feels like he's a step ahead. In truth, Liss knows just what he wants the reader to know when, and for the most part, he succeeds. I figured out most of the plot points about halfway through, but I usually peg mysteries in the first chapter, so I'll give him points. His choice of main villain is poor and stereotypical, but his cast of "heroes," one of whom, I could argue, is the true villain, is more complex. I was disappointed that this wasn't about the real Whiskey Rebellion and also that his two main characters just didn't seem to act like real people. Perhaps I've outgrown Liss or maybe he just lost his touch on this one.

55. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

My third re-read, I had to identify what wasn't right vis-a-vis the movie, although truth be told, it was my favorite of all the films so far and the most accurate since the first movie. It's interesting how in this book Harry finally figures some things out without Hermione or before she does, the only times before or since, I'm sure!

And that's it for 2010, maybe I'll have a couple more up my sleeve before New Year's, we'll see.

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