Fat Books & Thin Women

2011: The Year in Books
December 29, 2011, 7:43 pm
Filed under: Blog Stuff | Tags: , , ,

In the past year, I’ve read 97 books. (This will probably be 98 by the real end of the year; I’m on Lehane’s Mystic River and having a hard time putting it down to, you know, do all the “American stuff” I should be doing while on vacation.) I finished my Peace Corps service and the next day took a furgon (van) to Tirana, Albania, to start my Fulbright grant. I also came back to the States not once but twice (after twenty months without setting foot on American soil), both times making the library one of my first trips after arriving home.

A quick highlight of some of the best and worst in reading, of the past year.

Best “Discovered” Author: Margaret Atwood. After having a copy of The Blind Assassin on my shelf for years, I finally read The Handmaid’s Tale and, just a few days ago, The Blind Assassin. I’m still not sure how to write about her novels, but I can’t wait to explore her backlist – even if I never come up with a review any better than: “Incredible. Read it now.”

Author to Abandon: In my first year in the Peace Corps I got hooked on Elizabeth George. That lasted until I traveled to Egypt last winter, and found myself trapped, on the bus ride across Macedonia (we were flying out of Bulgaria, so my first leg of the trip was ten hours of bus rides across my home country) with a copy of What Came Before He Shot Her. And, my god was it bad. I gave her one more try with the soul-crushingly bad Missing Joseph, in which George confirmed for me that she does not really want to be a mystery novelist, not any more, but rather to be a writer about society’s ills – under the guise of a mystery novel. Never again, Elizabeth. Never again.

Most Over-hyped Novel: The Night Circus. Count me in the group of reviewers grumbling over feeling tricked and let down by this one. Beautiful cover, tons of gushing reviews, but the occasional moments of gorgeous description weren’t enough to make up for Morgenstern’s “plot” and vaguely drawn characters.

Book I’d Most Like to See as a Movie: Still, I think that some of the things I did like about The Night Circus will translate well to the screen. I can’t wait to see what the circus looks like on the big screen…and am hopeful that the director will flesh out the plot.

Author Whose Novels Makes Me Most Uncomfortable: After finishing Stieg Larsson’s spectactularly mediocre Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, I was at a loss for Scandavian crime fiction. Where to turn but to Henning Mankell, whose The Fifth Woman and Faceless Killers I read in November and December. I decided to give the books the benefit of the doubt despite their terrible titles, even offering Mankell a chance to redeem himself for the bloated mystery of The Fifth Woman, but I’m checking out after two tries. Either the translations are bad or Mankell’s prose is as lumpen and sodden as I think it is; I’d like to give my time to mystery novelists with some style. What’s more, Kurt Wallander just makes me uncomfortable: his suspicion (founded on zero evidence) that one of the victims of The Fifth Woman was gay, and the way he obsesses over this theory for over half the novel; his wet dreams about “black women”; his attempts to seduce married women. Just, ugh, Kurt. Ugh.

Novelist Who Most Makes Me Want to Move to Boston: Dennis Lehane! Dennis Lehane! Dennis Lehane!

Book/Article/TV Series/Movie That Most Made Me Want to Move to Texas: Friday Night Lights, duh. I’m partial to the article over the book (a closer focus on the football itself), but Bissinger’s ability to reveal a town in both article and book form is extraordinary. I really, really thought, while reading the book and watching the TV show, that I would do well living in the heart of economically depressed Texas. And clearly I wouldn’t (read Friday Night Lights the book and it will be clear why; Bissinger is not judgmental but people often don’t appear in their best light [in other words, lots of racism]), but that I thought that – even for a minute – is a marker of just how carefully Bissinger drew his town and his subjects.

Author I’m Most Excited to Read in the Future: I’m going to fudge this one a little. I’m psyched to read more Margaret Atwood and Colson Whitehead, but when I thought of this category (about twenty seconds ago) it was with Karen Russell in mind. I didn’t love Swamplandia!, which I read while home last summer, but moments of the novel were thrilling and creative and had me wishing she had written more. My review of Swamplandia! reflects my disappointment with the novel; although this was Russell’s first novel I somehow expected more of it and of its close. I don’t plan to revisit her first novel, but I do want to see what Russell comes out with in future.

Best Short Story: I haven’t been keeping up with Story Sundays lately (these’ll be back on schedule soon, promise…really, I do promise), but looking back at the list is a powerful reminder of how many Really Good Short Stories I’ve read in the past year. Because I can’t choose just one, my two favorites of the year are Murray Dunlap’s “White Boy” and Kelly Link’s “The Faery Handbag.” (Side note: Kelly Link also wins the honor of being Most Featured Author, with three stories in the past year. She is absolutely one of the best short story writers alive.)

Worst Book: Gertrude Stein. Three Lives. I read a few bad books this year, but this is the only one that had me wanting to tear the book to pieces.

Best Book: So hard to choose just one. Soooo hard. In the past week alone I’ve read Colson Whitehead’s Zone One (incredible! and also the first time I’ve read a book because I love the author’s twitter feed) and Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, both of which deserve a place in the year’s top five. Top honor, though, still has to go to Michael Crummey’s Galore from Other Press. An unbelievable look at a town, tradition, how we share our histories and stories, and time. It’s been less than a year since I read Galore, but it is already near time for a reread.

I hope all of you have had a wonderful year, wonderful holidays, and are looking forward to the New Year! On my way back to Albania I’ll be stopping for a few days in Rome, so regular posts won’t resume for about two weeks. See you then!


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love the way you thought about your reads for the year. read Blind Assassin this year as well as part of the 1book140 read, and also love, love, loved it! and am also a fan of Dennis Lehane- great novels.

Comment by Jennifer, bookspersonally

Ack! So many mixed reactions to The Night Circus. I’ve had my eye on it for a while, but hearing that the characters are kind of weak makes me want to bump it down to a library book rather than a purchase.

PS: Welcome to the Margaret Atwood fan club!

PPS: Have fun in Rome!

Comment by ohemgillie

yeah, i’d peg the night circus as a good library book rather than a book to buy. and i’m psyched to finally be part of the atwood club – looking forward to reading so many more of her books this year.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Yay for Margaret Atwood! I’m happy to hear you are enjoying her so much. She’s fantastic.

Have fun in Rome and Happy New Year!

Comment by Brenna

This is a wonderful list, thank you.

Comment by Cassie

Haha I love that Dennis Lehane makes you want to move to Boston, although (at least from the few of his novels I’ve read) he never really focuses on the nice aspects of the city.

Comment by Alley

I know! It’s this vision of this gritty underworld that is so appealing. I don’t know how he does it…I guess I want to be in a world full of detectives operating beyond the confines of the law and all the skeezy people he deals with. I’ve been trying to think of another series that captures a place so well – you know, not necessarily the good aspects of it, but just gives you a sense of place – and all I can think of is The Wire with Baltimore.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

Great, great list, and 100% agreed about Galore. I guess I need to come up with my list … one of these days. :)

I also feel the same about Elizabeth George. I just don’t get it. Annoying.

Loved The Blind Assassin, though. Fantastic book.

Comment by jenn aka the picky girl

You’ve convinced me to try my shelved Atwood in 2012. I was Richard “Forded” in 2011…The Sportswriter will be the classic of the trilogy,

Comment by Paul H

I completely agree about Kelly Link. And Atwood also leaves me in awe every time I read one of her novels. Happy New Year, Ellen!

Comment by nymeth

Wow, thanks for the Mankell warning, ick!

I am a huge Atwood fan. I hope you get around to her dystopian novels too; they are my favorite!

Comment by Jenny

As a fellow Margaret Atwood fan, welcome to the club! I love everything she writes, even her poetry. I recommend Alias Grace to everyone who asks me for Atwood, it is a historical novel about a real life women accused of murder in the 19th Canada and how a psychiatrist has to determine whether she was insane at the time of the crimes nor not. It is a wonderful reading, hope you get it sometime :)

HAPPY 2012!

Comment by Elena

Sold – I’ll try Alias Grace next. Thanks for the recommendation!

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I’m very glad to hear you’re having a good time with MYSTIC RIVER. To a certain extent, this book changed my life. I went to visit Boston this summer and found it to be very unlike what he described (although it’s an AMAZING city), but I can see where he took his inspiration. Can’t wait for Lehane’s next novel althought I have no idea when it will be.

You also kinda struck my sixth sense of curiosity with your comments on Elizabeth George….will need more information of her, but she looks like a polarizing writer.

Comment by Benoît Lelièvre (@BenoitLelievre)

I would love a Dennis Lehane Tour of Boston, because I’m sure if I went there I would see a world absolutely different than his books. My vague memories of the one trip I took there (when I was in 7th or 8th grade) are just of walking Harvard…so not really the world he’s writing about.

And Elizabeth George, oof. I did like some of her early novels, but the more recent novels are too bloated and distracted to bother with.

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I had every intention of getting to The Night Circus along with practically everyone else but was so caught up in other reading that it will just have to sit on my shelf for awhile longer.

Sorry to hear about the Wallander book. I haven’t read any but did like the tv series a great deal.

Comment by Carl V.

97 books?! NINETY SEVEN!?! I am in awe. And seriously wish I could accomplish such a feat.

Agree with you completely on The Night Circus (both that it was over-hyped and that it might make a great movie). Can’t wait to see what you read in 2012!

Comment by Rebecca ♥

I was surprised to see that number, trust me. I’m sure it’ll go down once I’m back to 9-to-5 employment 7 or 8 months from now. (Good reason to read as much as I can, while I can…right?) Glad to hear that I’m not the only one who didn’t love Night Circus!

Comment by Ellen Rhudy

I enjoy reading these lists. I need to read more Atwood, everyone seems really impressed by her writing. What a year for your!

Comment by rebeccareid

I read Blind Assassin last year as well! I didn’t love it, but I liked it and thought it was great writing. Also, have you read Karen Russell’s book of short stories? I forget what it’s called, but I remember liking some of them very much. I haven’t read Swamplandia mostly due to the mixed reviews on it. I had to read something of Gertrude Stein and I think it was Three Lives when I was in college but don’t remember a blessed thing about it.

Comment by Christy

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