It has been exactly one year since I posted my last book report (see it here), and I'm pleased to have averaged one book per month this past year, even though one of them took me all winter (see the fourth book listed and you'll understand). It was a good mix this time - a number of classics, a couple I've been wanting to get around to based on recommendations, and a few that were basically hot off the press. I'm not elaborating much here in the interest of mental energy, but I'd be happy to discuss them more if you're interested. Let me know any favorites of yours I should add to this year's list!
The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer: A coming-of-age story set at a 1970s creative arts camp that weaves the present generations with the past. Kind of unbelievable, kind of pretentious, but if you take it for what it represents in finding your place in the crowd, and the complexities of responding to the kind of peer pressure that allows you to reinvent yourself, it’s worth a read.
Where’d You Go, Bernadette by Maria Semple: This book was recommended to me by several people, and it was probably the most delightful of this bunch. My only complaint was that for the creativity of the storytelling mechanisms (i.e., email messages between characters), there wasn’t much variety in voice or tone. Everyone was a little too clever. But I got sucked in.
The Dinner by Herman Koch: About halfway through this book, I started asking myself, “Am I supposed to like anyone in this book?” The answer is no. Nevertheless, a great anti-hero story that is compelling and complicated. I love the structure, which uses the various courses of a dinner at a fancy restaurant in moving the story along.
Les Miserables by Victor Hugo: This was a bucket-list book. I read the unabridged version, though I abridged it a bit on my own, skimming past a bit of the deep historical set-up. I will never regret having read this book, or how sore my hands and wrists got while trying to keep a 3-pound book out of the bathwater. Having been so familiar with the story (thanks to Andrew Lloyd Weber), reading this book allowed me to grapple with the moral quandaries of Jean Valjean and Marius in a much more profound way. The ending brought me to tears, not only because I was so proud of myself for getting there, but because I had truly experienced something divine.
Dear Life: Stories by Alice Munro: This was my first dive into the beautiful world of Munro’s prose. It won’t be my last. I sunk so far into some of her stories that days later, I was thinking back on them as though they had really happened to someone I knew.
The Paris Wife by Paula McLain: It’s hard for me to read books like this that base themselves on actual events and writing, and on as much as we know of historical figures’ characters. Still, I truly admire those who write them, and I thus try to read them without wondering how true a scene was to the actual event. This was based on the accounts of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, and I loved the portrayal of her as a strong, practical woman who was nevertheless insecure in her love for her husband. I read this as much for the portrayal of Paris in the 1920s, which is an era and a place to which I would love to take a time machine.
Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf: This was a re-read because it didn’t stick with me the first time, but I can’t say it stuck with me much the second time, other than the fragmented style of storytelling and my continued disinterestedness in it. However, there were a few lines that I found to be quite lovely, like "...how fresh, like frilled linen clean from a laundry laid in wicker trays the roses looked."
Netherland by Joseph O’Neill: When I first picked up this book, I thought it had to do with 9/11 and how a Dutch family copes with relocating to New York, but that was hardly it. I read a review that likened it more to a modern-day Great Gatsby, and the more I thought of that comparison, the more it seemed to fit. The main character, a Dutch guy, hooks in with a cricket club in New York, and there’s a lingering mystery about its leader. Totally bizarre. But I kind of liked it.
The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde: I loved this book. We live in a world that markets countless ways to keep us looking young, and this is that classic story that shows how that obsession can eat one’s soul. I love Oscar Wilde for writing things so dark and humorous (though this was lighter on humor).
The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt: I cried twice while reading books this year. Les Miserables was the first, and this was the second. It might be one of my top 10 of all time. There is so much to this book, from the haunting images to the unlikely relationships, to the beautiful symbolism of the Goldfinch painting – and the writing was just so elegant and still approachable. If you haven’t read this, you must.
Telegraph Avenue by Michael Chabon: This was a fun read that made me wish I knew the city of Oakland a bit better. It reminded me a bit of Nick Hornby’s High Fidelity as a record store is practically one of the characters, along with the soundtrack it provides along the way – in this case, it was a lot of jazz.
One Summer: America, 1927 by Bill Bryson: I was aching for some good nonfiction and this totally delivered. I’ve loved Bryson’s writing for years, and this was a lovely return to his fascinating and approachable encyclopedic research. It is all about the summer of 1927 – the baseball, the tabloid scandals, the mob, the bootlegging, the electric chair, the strangest president, and the sad life of Charles Lindbergh. And so much more. You have to read it to believe it.