I set a goal to read 30 books this year (which was considerably higher than the 18 I read in 2011). Over the last 12 months I have churned through 62 books and have no intention of stopping the momentum. The biggest change I made is to read on my lunch break. That is an hour every day of uninterrupted reading time and not only does it help me refocus on my afternoon it brings me an immense amount of pleasure. Apparently, I like my books more than I like my coworkers. Lunch time reading, folks. That’s where it’s at!
The Sound and the Fury, by William Faulkner. This is the most difficult, most frustrating book I have ever read. After 50 pages I was convinced I had a wonky edition the publisher had messed up, I thought he’d put all the words in a martini shaker, put it in a paint mixer for 20 minutes, and then sprinkled them across the pages in neat rows. I could hardly follow the story line or identify the main characters, which Faulkner did on purpose, the cad. I eventually Googled a basic plot–there is no plot–and a character list, buckled down and finished “the greatest book about the South ever written.” (Said by someone who is either crazier or more literary than me. Or both.) This story is in 4 parts, each about the same time period (20-some odd years) with the same old money, aristocratic Southern family, the Compson’s, told from 4 different family member’s perspectives. The first, and most difficult, is narrated by Benjy, a mentally disabled man-child. Benjy’s narrative bounces around A LOT from his childhood to his middle age and mostly centers around his sister Caddy, who is always kind to him. (Benjy is also called Maury after his Uncle Maury, who also makes appearances and rarely with the “Uncle” moniker to differentiate him from his namesake.) There are no real markers of time, or when time has passed or the character is remembering time past. Sometimes the change of time is mid-sentence–and of coiurse there is no punctuation–and half of the text is in italics which is supposed to signify a new thought or idea. But again, martini shaker/paint mixer. The next two sections are narrated by Benjy’s two brothers, Quentin and Jason. Both are emotional and mental wrecks and their narratives aren’t that much easier to read than Benjy’s. Quentin’s is a stream of consciousness from the day he commits suicide, and Jason’s is full of rage and revenge, which rarely leaves the revenger thinking (or speaking) clearly. All three of these men are obsessed–sexually and otherwise–with their sister, Caddy. (Caddy’s illegitimate daughter is also named Quentin, which you don’t find out until section 3 although she is mentioned often in Benjy’s section and, at the time, you don’t know there are TWO characters named Quentin Compson, one a brother from Benjy’s childhood, the other his niece in his middle-age. Not confusing at all…) The fourth section is written by Dilsey, the black Mammy character who takes care of the entire Compson family for several generations. She is, by far, the easiest to understand and has the most insight into the family and their affairs. However, it takes a couple of hundred pages of impossible text to get there. (Maybe read her section first?) I think I would have liked this a lot better had I read it with a literary guidebook or professor to explain what was going on and why Faulkner made the choices he did. Will I re-read it with the Spark Notes? Um, probably not. But the next time I read Faulkner (if I read Faulkner) I will invest in a guidebook. Or a professor.
(Why is it that my reviews of books I hate are always longer than ones of books I adore? Not sure, but I edited this to about a third of it’s original size, and it’s still a massive paragraph.)
At The Mountains of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft. This short book (or long short-story) was the pick for our October book club, I probably would never have chosen it on my own as horror isn’t really my genre of choice. However, for the time it was written (1920′s), he was the first to ever write about a horror novel that centered around creatures on our planet from another planet, or creatures of an alien species, and that–shocker–humans may not be the culmination of intelligence in the universe. In Mountains of Madness there isn’t any true gore or horror like we think of today, it centers around an exploration party in Antarctica and the weird, sophisticated, grotesque creatures they find in a skyscraping mountain range near the South Pole. Frankly, I feel Lovecraft’s style is the basis for every “Journey to the Center of the Earth” and “King Kong” movie ever made. Lovecraft is the original master of such plot points and freak-you-out ideas.
Death Comes for the Archbishop, by Willa Cather. Yet another book about my new heartthrob, Santa Fe. Cather has a mellow, descriptive, beautiful writing style and this story of two French priests who move to the New Mexico territory in the mid-1800′s is sprinkled with facts, history, charming and memorable characters, Mexican and Navajo traditions and interpretations of Catholicism, and descriptions of the mountains and deserts of the Southwest. The story follows these two priests for decades, describes their work, their beliefs, their hurdles and difficulties and their friendship. It is not necessarily a gripping page-turner, but I loved the descriptions of Santa Fe and the surrounding country. I could easily recall memories of the old and new churches in Santa Fe, the villages of Taos and Abiquiu (AHH-bee-que), and the miles and miles of reddish hills dotted with juniper and sage.
The Anthropology of Turquoise, by Ellen Meloy. I really wanted to love this book, but it took me almost a month to finish it. The cover touts it’s place as a finalist for the Pulitzer, and perhaps my disliking whole chapters of it makes me considerably less literary than I like to assume. But. Despite Meloy talking about her life in and love of Utah’s red rock canyon country and her obsession with all things turquoise–river, sea, jewelry, sky–I found her writing a bit too angry and ranty and her emotions a little too far detached for me to ever become completely invested. I felt this way about parts of Edward Abbey’s Desert Solitaire as well. It’s hard for me to really relate to someone who so fiercely loves the wild desert places, loves to explore them on their own, loves to describe them in beautiful detail and metaphor, but absolutely abhors the idea of anyone else being able to see or visit those places and have their same experience. It seems elitist and snobbish and I don’t like it.
The Diaries of Adam and Eve, translated by Mark Twain. This isn’t really a book, it’s more of a stand-alone short story. Twain has written (pardon, “translated”) this dual point of view story detailing the very beginnings of the world in the Garden of Eden. You read an entry or two from Eve’s perspective, and then a few from Adam, and then back to Eve. It touches on some of the fundamental differences in men and women, their communication and interaction style, their preferences and priorities, and how they view the other. A couple of hilarious moments: Adam gets frustrated by the animals affection for Eve, annoyed that they follow her around. When a brontosaurus comes into camp he laments that the thing follows Eve around like a “pet mountain.” (Insert me snorting my hot chocolate due to laughter.) Adam also is confused by the addition of Cain. At first he assumes Cain is a fish, then a kangaroo, then a hairless bear…it isn’t until Able shows up that Adam stops trying to find another fish/kangaroo/hairless bear to prove his point. A very quick read full of a number of hilarious paragraphs. (Thanks Becky for the recommendation!)
The Rent Collector, by Camron Wright. It’s not often that a book is based on a movie, but The Rent Collector is a fictional take on the award winning documentary “River of Victory” which is the story of a Cambodian family who lives at Stung Meanchey, the largest municipal dump in the country. The documentary is heartbreaking and wonderful, the book is less heartbreaking (perhaps because I had already seen the movie?), but also introduces a new idea to this family at Stung Meanchey. What would happen to the protagonist, Sang Ly, if she learned how to read? Wright blends the fictional and real together well, and I loved the introduction of literature and reading and literacy to this family who has so little. In many ways it had a bit of Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress mixed with River of Victory. As a side note, the documentary was made by Wright’s son, who happens to be a friend of mine. It was awesome to be able to enjoy both their projects and hear and read bits of themselves sprinkled throughout.
A Moveable Feast, by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway is a talented writer (shocker, I know) with a unique style of short, declarative sentences. This memoir was published after his death and details a few years he spent in Paris with his first wife, Hadley, and son “Bumby.” I liked most of it, the parts I liked the best were about Hemingway’s interactions and experiences with characters I knew, Gertrude Stein and F. Scott Fitzgerald. That being said, while they were both kind and friendly to him and worked hard to help his career by editing his work, giving feedback, and promoting him to their own publishers, his writing about them is viscous. Part way through he turns on them both and can hardly bring himself to say another positive word about them, even though they were still helping him in his career and he still counted them among his closest friends in Paris. Not that you have to love everyone you meet, but the viciousness surprised me. This review nails it. (Is it sacrilegious to say that I liked the movie Midnight in Paris, which is basically the same idea, better than A Moveable Feast? I hope not. I don’t want Hemingway to haunt me, he’s a mean old bugger.)
The Innocents Abroad, by Mark Twain. I loved the first three quarters of this book. Twain details a 6-months long pleasure cruise that takes a group of mostly nameless companions from New York City to the Mediterranean as they explore Spain, France, Italy, North Africa and Turkey. They then travel through Syria, Palestine and the Holy Land and finally return home. Twain is sarcastic and wry and often bombards the idea of traveling via guide book as all the guide books say the same thing and praise the miles and miles and miles of museums, sculptures, and artwork. In fact, Twain has some quite hilarious paragraphs about all the art in Europe. However, after several hundred pages (500 pages), this sarcasm gets old, tiring, and I really would have loved for the main characters to come across something they truly loved (I find Bill Bryson falls into this trap in many of his books). In 6 months and a dozen countries how is it possible not to find one thing that moves you completely and changes you for the better and elicits something other than a sarcastic response? I realize the wit in discussing the places you travel and the differences (none of which you like) of this or that strange custom, food, tradition, or site. However, after 61 chapters of it I was ready to read something–anything–that found Rome wonderful, or the pyramids in Egypt amazing, or the architecture of the Hagia Sophia captivating and ground-breaking. Permanent snark gets really old after 500 pages.
Leadership and Self-Deception, from The Arbinger Institute. I actually read this twice, once for a staff meeting book discussion at the request of my boss, and another because I thought it had a lot of good points and I wanted to think about them in an outside-of-work setting. It’s a quick read and has a lot to say about interpersonal relationships and dealing with people who are, in your opinion, unreasonable, irresponsible, and do and say things that you cannot understand. Basically, it gives you new ways to change your attitude and behavior to more easily deal with those who drive you bonkers. It is a little bit touchy-feely/warm-fuzzy in places, but I think there are a lot of excellent points.
The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon. During WWII the United States considered creating a temporary refugee state for displaced European Jews in Alaska, the bill never got through Congress, but Chabon has taken that historical footnote and created a”what if” scenario. In this book there is a thriving Jewish district in Sitka, Alaska that is on the cusp of being turned back over to the control of the United States. Throw in a double homicide (or more), a Jewish mob, a strangely endearing detective, a lot of plot twists, a bunch of chess allegories and some politics and you’ve got The Yiddish Policeman’s Union. I liked the story well enough, but the reason I am giving this book 4 stars instead of 3 is because of Chabon’s amazing writing. He can paint a story like nobody’s business, and his descriptions and metaphors are brilliant, his Pulitzer (for The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay) is evident here. I wish I had marked the sentences I liked the best (most of which had very little to do with key plot points). This was a pleasure to read.
Gods and Generals, by Jeff Shaara. This is the prequel to The Killer Angels and details the events of the Civil War leading up to the battle at Gettysburg. I read The Killer Angels over the summer and absolutely loved it (review is here, at the end, under 5-star books). I loved learning more about the generals and commanders of Gettysburg, learning more about what led up to that battle and the different perspectives of the Federal army (the North) and the Rebels (the South, obviously). I loved learning more about Robert E. Lee, Longstreet, Stonewall Jackson, Hancock, McLaws, Chamberlain, Hood, Pendleton, Stuart and a dozen other men who led the respective armies to victory or to destruction. Gods and Generals and The Killer Angels brought the Civil War to life for me in a way no history teacher ever has. There is a third installment to wrap up the Civil War (The Last Full Measure, by Jeff Shaara), it’s on my list. I went to see Lincoln a few days after finishing this book, and it helped me a lot to have the background of both Gods and Generals and The Killer Angels. The film doesn’t deal with much of the beginning of the war, and it made me want to read The Last Full Measure even more.
The Feminine Mystique, by Betty Friedan. This book, published in 1963, is said to have launched the second wave of feminism. I was shocked at how much of it still rings true today. SHOCKED! The culture in which I live is, in many ways, still aligned with many uber-conservative 1950′s-era traditions, and while some are great, many, in my opinion, are repressive and limit the person-hood of half of the population. The percentages of women who drop out of college are astronomically high here, as are the percentages of women who prefer to never work outside the role of mother and wife. Friedan’s statistics show that both of those things lead to higher rates of depression among mothers, lack of self-esteem or a sense of self-worth, and more women losing their sense of self and needed to live vicariously through their children, which in turn messes up another generation by limiting independence and promoting co-dependence. I suppose it’s not surprising that my state is also one of the highest per capita for plastic surgery, ice cream consumption, and anti-depressants. Friedan is not anti-motherhood or even anti-stay-at-home-mom, she is simply promoting the idea that women should be treated like and encouraged to become fully functioning human beings, and that, perhaps, not all women are completely and entirely fulfilled by motherhood. Some are, and that’s fine. But her point (one I wholeheartedly stand behind) is that all men are not fulfilled completely through fatherhood, so why do we teach our daughters and young women that their only role is motherhood? Men can be fathers and scientists or authors or teachers or businessmen. Why do so many women believe that they cannot also do both? The argument that women are encouraged to graduate from college is only part of the solution. In the long run, women who have a college degree but do not use it fall into the same statistical categories as women who never went to college: depression, lack of self-worth, inability to allow children to be independent because if the mother is no longer needed by the child what is her role? This is clearly a much longer post and thought than I will be sharing now, but I think everyone should read this book; men, women, mothers, fathers, single people, married people, young people. Everyone. I bought this used at the Phoenix Booksale last year (or the year before?) and I really wish I could meet the woman who owned it before I did, the notes in the margins and the highlighted portions are, for the most part, exactly what I would have wrote and highlighted. I think she and I would have been great friends.
10 Comments so far
Leave a comment