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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