Tuesday, January 31, 2012

Top Ten Books That Would Make Great Book Club Picks

This week's topic at The Broke and the Bookish.

I'm feeling the need to be a little more specific, so I've grouped books according to book club type. Most of these are books I felt I got more out of through reading in a class or would have gotten more out of through discussion.

American Literature Book Club

1. The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

2. Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

3. My Antonia by Willa Cather

Classics Book Club

4. Candide by Voltaire

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

Women's Book Club

6. The Awakening by Kate Chopin

7. The Yellow Wallpaper by Charlotte Perkins Gilman (a short story, but I want to include it anyway)

Nerdy LOTR book club

8. The Silmarillion by J.R.R. Tolkien

9. Beowulf (The Tolkien translation)

10. Everything else in the Tolkien ouevre

In conclusion, who wants to start a nerdy Tolkien book club?

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Top Ten Books I'm Excited to Read in 2012

I missed this Top Ten Tuesday topic for The Broke and the Bookish, and this week's a freebie, so here goes.

1.Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

2. Abarat: Days of Magic, Nights of War by Clive Barker

3. The Winter Palace by Eva Stachniak

4. Catherine the Great by Robert K. Massie

5. Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

6. Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisa Peshl

7. Insurgent by Veronica Roth

8. Sisterhood Everlasting by Ann Brashares

9. At Home: A Short History of Private Life by Bill Bryson

10. A Walk in the Woods: Rediscovering America on the Appalachian Trail by Bill Bryson

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet

4. The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet by Reif Larsen

It definitely feels like an accomplishment to finish the book I've been saying I'm going to read for at least the past two years now. I will say it took me a bit to get into it, to get used to the writings and maps in the margins and connect them with the rest of the story, but once I became accustomed to it, I read much faster. Although I'm not a cartographer or a fan of maps and charts in general, there was something about the patterns and connections of T.S.' thinking that felt familiar to me. There is never just a straight narrative in my head, there are always other tangents and questions on the side, so I appreciate Larsen's acknowledgment of that aspect of how we think. I'm not much of a spatial learner, but I'm trying to develop more appreciation for maps etc. and I think the book was helpful to me in that regard.

T.S. Spivet, a 12 year old from a ranch in Montana, constantly draws maps and makes calculations of, for example, how many corns of ear his sister Gracie shucks, how many were bad, and which pests were responsible for the bad ones. He gets a call from the Smithsonian that he has won the Baird Award, usually reserved for adults. Upon realizing that the Smithsonian doesn't know he's a kid, T.S. resolves to show up anyway and hitches a ride on a train out of town.

The runaway kid plot reminded me strongly of The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, which does get a plug from T.S. toward the end of the book (as does, strangely, Moby-Dick, although the only similarity I can conjure is that of the single-minded pursuit of a quest, except that T.S. can hardly be called single-minded). T.S.' journey is surreal and quixotic and is ultimately a conduit for his strange and intriguing thoughts on the nature of life. His insight is punctuated with the recent grief of his younger brother's death, which gives the story the shape it needs.

I would recommend The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet to thinker and scientific types, perhaps even readers of graphic novels. T.S. is a largely convincing child prodigy and I, for one, would definitely enjoy a discussion with him. Whatever the pitfalls of the book, including strange plot devices and unfinished business, he's worth meeting.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Nonfiction Recommendations

In reviewing my reading last year, there was quite a significant lack of nonfiction, and I've decided this year that I would like to more actively seek out nonfiction to read.

I know I will always prefer and probably have more fun reading fiction (although I'd love to hear of books that will challenge this assumption), but I do enjoy biographies and some memoirs (not of the celebrity or gimmicky variety i.e. I liked Reading Lolita in Tehran, reading Kim Kardashian's memoir I would regard as a punishment), and I've enjoyed being challenged by Stephen Hawking's The Theory of Everything and Richard Dawkins' The Selfish Gene. Bill Bryson has been recommended to me, so he's on the list, and I think I would be fond of travel writing, which I've heretofore mostly pursued in article rather than book form.

What nonfiction books do I have to read? Which authors will make me change my mind about the relative entertainment value of nonfiction? Which books will make me think, but not overload me with the nitty gritty?

Friday, January 13, 2012

Divergent

3. Divergent by Veronica Roth

In the wake of The Hunger Games, I can't help but anticipate Divergent's popularity soaring to even greater heights. Right now, it's a slow buzz, but it deserves to grow and fans of The Hunger Games and dystopian lit with a strong female protagonist everywhere will be pleased.

Beatrice Prior was born into Abenegation, one of five factions formed after an apocalypse. Those who blamed selfishness chose Abnegation, those who blamed stupidity chose Erudite, those who blamed cowardice chose Dauntless, those who blamed dishonesty chose Candor, and those who blamed aggression chose Amity. On her sixteenth birthday, Beatrice will be allowed to choose which of the factions she will spend her life with. Faction comes before blood and if she chooses a different faction, she may never see her family again. On the day of her choice, however, Beatrice discovers that she does not fit neatly into one of the categories, but is instead Divergent, a dangerous mental state that can get her killed if the wrong people find out. With this knowledge, Beatrice chooses Dauntless over her birth faction and embarks on a rigorous and dangerous training program that may result in her death in any number of ways before or after she becomes a member.

Beatrice is my favorite kind of likable, kick-ass girl protagonist. She's got plenty of guilt and embarrassment from being raised to think of others before herself, but her natural instincts to assert and protect herself arise in her new faction. She's like any "good girl" learning to love her wild side, down to flirting, tattoos, and daredevil stunts. Her love interest, Four, is not a sweetie pie like Hunger Games' Peeta, instead he's older, cynical,and demanding as her training instructor, but with an integrity and emotional strength that matches hers. Roth is at her best in depicting the realistic tension between them. Overall, Roth demonstrates an acute understanding of characters and relationships between people, and that, again, is my favorite part of the book.

I enjoyed the slower pace of the book's first half and how we are allowed to get through most of the fascinating Dauntless training process before the inevitable debacle against Divergence begins. Unfortunately, the last third or so of the book goes at such a fast pace that it's impossible to process all of the twists and turns. While it keeps the pages turning, there's nothing really so remarkable about what happens, and slowing it down would have given certain events the impact they needed.

*SPOILER ALERT* At one point, Four is turned against Beatrice, a devastating turn that could have had a lot of emotional power...had it lasted for more than a few chapters. I was expecting it to last until the next book, since there's a sequel coming out this year! *END SPOILER*

I do appreciate that Roth gives this book a concrete ending, as so many series writers do not. I found Divergent a quick, enjoyable read and will be looking forward to the next book. It may or may not go on the SFF Lit list, it may have too many similarities to The Hunger Games without the same level of writing/plotting skills to back it up, but Roth is definitely a writer to watch.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

The Fallback Plan

2. The Fallback Plan by Leigh Stein

I suppose it's not surprising that my mother would find it amusing to buy me a book about a college graduate who moves back home with her parents. Fortunately, that's where the similarities between my life and that of the main character, Esther, end. (Okay, that and that we're both Jewish with obviously Hebraic names).

The plot, which I'm not sure exists, revolves around Esther's job babysitting for a couple who has recently lost their younger child. She befriends the mother, adores the daughter, and embarks on a vague affair with the father. As far as I can tell, the character has little depth beyond her love of the little girl, no ambition except to mooch off her parents forever, and does not change at all from the beginning to the end of this insipid production.

The character doesn't even have the redeeming quality of making me want to hate her, she's simply not worth it. I don't care about her feelings on any topic, and that would be the only reason to read the book. It's nice for Stein that this got her published, and as her bio unequivocally states that she no longer lives with her parents, it's clear that her character is at least not entirely biographical. The Fallback Plan, then, is hope for college grads everywhere. If we've got nothing else to do, might as well get published.

Her Fearful Symmetry

1. Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger

I received this one from Bookmooch recently, and got to it right away since I found myself, unexpectedly, to be such a big fan of The Time Traveler's Wife. This book's plot and characters are not as intriguing, but are undeniably haunting. Where Chicago plays a role in the earlier book, Highgate Cemetery in London is the star of Her Fearful Symmetry. The author is a certified tour guide at Highgate, as is one of the main characters.

Twins Julia and Valentina inherit a flat in London from their aunt Elspeth, whom they cannot remember meeting. Elspeth is their mother's twin, but the two had an unspecified falling out before the twins' birth. Robert, former lover of Elspeth and future lover of Valentina, is our Highgate Cenetery tour guide. Martin, a middle-aged neighbor whose severe OCD caused his wife to leave him, becomes a project for Julia. I found both Robert and Martin to be more relatable and interesting characters than the twins, whose motivations often seemed unclear. It's not spoiling much to reveal that Elspeth as ghost is also a character and her motives are unclear as well as suspect. Niffenegger demonstrates again her skill for nifty organization of chapters, but the overall plot is frankly a bit flat.

For those interested in Highgate Cemetery or fans of Niffenegger, the book is an interesting read, but not as stunning or well-developed as its predecessor.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Science Fiction and Fantasy Literature

My reading goals for 2011 were:

1. Find 10-20 good quality science fiction/fantasy novels

2. Make a dent in my list of seminal works to read

The second one was virtually ignored, so let's just forget about that. However, I promised a round-up of SFF Literature and I will deliver, although I think this will continue to be an ongoing project here.

I read 16 SFF titles this year, 17 including Gloriana's Torch, which has a large alternative history element.

Of these, I'm going to designate 6 books/series as part of the elusive category, "Literature." My qualifications for Literature may be slightly or even radically differently from anybody else's, but essentially I look for a distinct and effective writing style that uses language appropriately and creatively, a plot with a distinct structure (beginning, middle, and end, not necessarily in that order but present) that is appropriate to the genre/topic/characters, and characters that feel like real people and who can be understood, identified with and/or emotionally reacted to.

My candidates for SFF Literature are:

1. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins (mostly on the merit of the first book, I was satisfied with the third, but the second disappointed me somewhat)

2. The Belgariad by David Eddings (he creates a realistic world and characters while following an almost perfect Hero's Journey)

3. The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick (He does something different with plot, language, and concept that puts him over the edge, even though some of his characters are lacking)

4. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss (this is the gold standard, really. A tightly constructed and creative plot and character that is very interesting and still easy to identify with)

5. Gloriana's Torch by Patricia Finney (Her use of language, world-building, characters are all magnificent, and her plot is interesting if a bit loose)

6. The Time Traveler's Wife by Audrey Niffenegger (her characters are achingly real and her gift with organization is amazing, even if the overall plot arc might lack some panache, the way she does it makes it unique)

That's far from 10-20, but I need a larger reading sample, so again, let's view this as an ongoing project.

Why did, for example, A Song of Ice and Fire, not make the list? George R.R. Martin, once you get past the shock value, isn't really doing anything special or interesting with his inevitably horrifying plotting, and his world-building and even characters pale in comparison to all but one (High Castle) of the books mentioned above. That doesn't mean he's not worth reading. It just means I don't see his books as having the same staying power as some of the ones above.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

2011 Reading Meme, Borrowed from Boston Bibliophile

How many books read in 2011?
52, including The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides and The Boy Detective Fails by Joe Meno. I started Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger before the New Year, but finished it afterward.

How many fiction and non fiction?
47 fiction and 5 nonfiction. Oops, might want to work on that!

Male/Female author ratio?
Not counting authors twice, I read 22 male authors and 15 female. I'm actually surprised it wasn't more even.

Favorite book of 2011?
It's a tough call, but I probably derived the most pleasure from Elizabeth I by Margaret George.

Least favorite?
A Song of Ice and Fire kind of got on my nerves. So, looking back, did Steal Across the Sky by Nancy Kress.

Any that you simply couldn’t finish and why?
If I couldn't finish anything, it was probably for a class and because I didn't have enough time. I also never finished The Origin of Species, probably because I wasn't in the right mindset.

Oldest book read?
The Romance of Tristan & Iseult, since it's composed of scraps of poems dating back to the 13th or 14th century or earlier, though there's no definite publication date.

Newest?
And So It Goes, Kurt Vonnegut: A Life
by Charles J. Shields, which came out in November 2011.

Longest and shortest books?
Not sure, but Elizabeth I may have been the longest and The Facts Behind the Helsinki Roccamatios the shortest.

How many books from the library?
Eight

Any translated books?
Apparently only one, The Betrothed was translated from Italian.

Most read author of the year, and how many books by that author?
Shakespeare, since I took a Shakespeare class my last semester. I read a play or epic poem every week for 4 months, so about 16.

Any re-reads?
The Subtle Knife and The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman, Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery, and most of the Shakespeare plays were re-reads.

Favorite character of the year?
Katniss Everdeen and Peeta Mellark from The Hunger Games.

Which countries did you go to through the page in your year of reading?
The UK, Italy, and many fictional universes.

Which book wouldn’t you have read without someone’s specific recommendation?
The Boy Detective Fails, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, The Believers, The Name of the Wind, and probably more. I can't thank my friends/fellow book bloggers enough!

Which author was new to you in 2011 that you now want to read the entire works of?
Margaret Cavendish. and all early modern women really, but Lanyer and Cary don't have any other authenticated works, though I could read the Edward II that might be Cary's. Also, David Eddings, Alessandro Manzoni, Patrick Rothfuss, and, er, more. I have delusions of grandeur when it comes to how much I can read.

Which books are you annoyed you didn’t read?
Special Topics in Calamity Physics and The Selected Works of T.S. Spivet. I have no excuse, I own them both.

Did you read any books you have always been meaning to read?
Yes, I did get to a lot of books that had been on the back burner, including The Perks of being a Wallflower, Neverwhere, The Other Queen, and The Belgariad.

Bonus question: How many science fiction/fantasy books did you read?
16, including The Hunger Games trilogy and the first three books of A Song of Ice and Fire, and counting The Belgariad as two books since I read them in two volumes.