The Half Year Book Report (#1)

January through June 2015

I read quickly and often. And because I don’t have TV, I listen to a lot of audio books. (Say what you will, I consider listening to audio books reading.) Because I consume so much content, I don’t remember a lot of what I read and there seems to be something in conversation every day that triggers some memory of some book that I will never be able to recall. So, after 36 years, I’m finally starting to write down a few basic notes about what I read so that I have some record of them…and can make recommendations to my lovely friends and followers! These aren’t reviews, clearly, just a few notes to help jog the noggin’. So please don’t judge the quality of my writing. These are literally just my unedited thoughts.

Title: The Skies Belong to Us

Author: Brendan I. Koerner

Date Finished: 1/4

Finished: Yes

Format: Hardcover

Ranking Out of 10: 10

Notes: Well-written and well-researched. This book was fascinating because I didn’t know anything about this spate of hijackings that plagued the US in the 60s and 70s. It was interesting how much the airlines continued to reject the government’s desire to install x-ray machines and allow the FBI to interfere with settling hijackings. The politics of how other countries handled our hijackers was also interesting – Cuba throwing them all in jail, Algeria being somewhat amenable, and France having a policy of sheltering people with strong political passions. And what the hell happened to Cathy Kerkow? Where is she? What kind of fabulous life did she lead?

 

Title: Let the Birds Drink in Peace

Author: Robert Garner McBrearty

Date Finished: 1/10

Finished: Yes

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 7

Notes: This is a collection of short stories by a local Denver writer. I bought it because I heard the author read aloud part of one of them and I thought it was wonderful. Like most short story collections, some of the stories were great, some mediocre, and just a handful were not interesting at all. I enjoyed the majority and I’d read more from this author.

 

Title: Johnny Got His Gun

Author: Dalton Trumbo

Date Finished: 1/15

Finished: No

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 1

Notes: I gave up on this book. I picked it up from the library because it was on a list of quintessential American terror stories. The author was investigated for anti-American activities because supposedly the terror expressed by the soldier in the book was so realistic and gruesome. I read about 50 pages and just couldn’t read anymore because it was one of those stream of consciousness type books. I couldn’t figure out at what time the action was happening because it seemed to be going back and forth between different moments in his life without any really strong indicators to the reader. Just couldn’t tolerate it.

 

Title: Reading Like a Writer

Author: Francine Prose

Date Finished: 1/28

Finished: Yes

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 10

Notes: A must read for any writer. Different from any other book I’ve read on writing because it’s all presented through examples from famous books. It goes through the standard topics, details, sentences, paragraphs, dialogue, POV, etc but is filled with many rich examples of gripping prose. I copied down a lot of the examples for future reference and this book is really what got me interested in doing the Sunday Sentence.

 

Title: Still Writing

Author: Dani Shapiro

Date Finished: 2/1

Finished: Yes

Format: Hardcover

Ranking Out of 10: 2

Notes: This book was all fluff and no substance. She wrote a bunch of books, so apparently we are supposed to care about her random musings about being a writer and having the life of a writer. I didn’t find them particularly useful or interesting.

 

Title: Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art

Author: Scott McCloud

Date Finished: 2/1

Finished: Yes

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 6

Notes: This book was pretty cool. It wasn’t what I expected. I got it from the library because I was told it has a lot of useful information on how to create a good narrative. I don’t agree with that but I did learn some really information about how comics are made and the decisions that go into using one style or another. It was very enjoyable. Some of the topics were about how different drawing styles are used in different elements within the frame to draw your attention; how the frame itself can change your perception of the story; how abstract characters allow us to relate to them more; how passage time can be expressed different ways through different techniques – such a single frame representing a single moment or a series of subsequent events. Worth a read.

 

Title: Women in Clothes

Author: Heidi Julavits, Leanne Shapton, and Sheila Heti

Date Finished: 2/1

Finished: No

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 5

Notes: I might have read this book a little more thoroughly if I could have checked it out from the library longer, but there is really nothing in it that makes me want to check it out again to read in more depth. Some of the anecdotes were funny or relatable, but ultimately, it’s just a book about strangers talking about their experiences with clothes. Why should I care about these strangers? The idea of the book is a good one though.

 

Title: The White Tiger

Author: Aravind Adiga

Date Finished: 2/9

Finished: Yes

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 9

Notes: I have a fetish for Indian epics, so obviously I was going to love this one. It’s the story of a poor Indian boy who becomes a driver for a rich family, ends up murdering his employer, and then plays the game himself – having learned all about bribery from his former employer, takes the money he stole from this man and starts his own car service, doing everything he detested in his employer – including drinking, whoring, bribes, etc.

 

Title: Theft        

Author: BK Loren

Date Finished: 2/17

Finished: Yes

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 7

Notes: I read this book in just a few hours over the course of two nights. It was very enjoyable but there were some elements of it that I really don’t care for. There were too many references to local stuff, which really bothers me maybe more than it should. I just think that sometimes writer’s emphasize local landmarks because it’s cool, when really the action could be occurring anywhere. And the “water in his eyes” comments instead of just saying he was tearing up. That seemed gimmicky to me. But I loved the story and how everything tied together. I’m not sure I entirely understood the wolf analogy. I’d love to ask the author to explain it.

 

Title: Leaving India

Author: Minal Hajratwala

Date Finished: 2/17

Finished: No

Format: Hard cover

Ranking Out of 10: 10

Notes: This is a bit of anomaly because I only read half of it even though I enjoyed it immensely. I love books about India. And even though this one only partly occurred in India and partly in South Africa and partly in Fiji, I could picture every bit of it. I could really feel the experiences of the writer’s family. But I get in moods for these books and then I fall out of these. It sat in my house for two months and then I read a whole bunch of it in a few days and then set it aside when I got the biography of the Romanov sisters and that was it. I couldn’t get back into it. Maybe I’ll finish it someday but there’s just so much else to read.

 

Title: And So We Read On

Author: Maureen Corrigan

Date Finished: 2/25

Finished: Yes

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 10

Notes: Love, love, love. Love. This book is amazing. Not only did the author reveal a lot of fascinating points about Fitzgerald and his life, but also about the book. It was like studying the book in college and I loved every minute of it. She gave me so many things to think about and I felt like she was inside my soul, feeding my feelings about The Great Gatsby and making me tick.

 

Title: The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

Author: David Wroblewski

Date Finished: 4/5

Finished: Yes

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 6

Notes: I can’t remember how/where this was recommended to me, but it had something to do with the protagonist not being able to speak and using sign language. But then it also turned out to be a lot about dogs and the human relationship with dogs. Those types of books always get me. But overall, this wasn’t really my kind of story. It was engaging enough not to give up on it, but not something I’d say is a must-read for anyone.

 

Title: Lovers at the Chameleon Club

Author: Francine Prose

Date Finished: 4/14

Finished: Yes

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 8

Notes: Like all books that are told from alternating points of view, this one took me a little bit to get into, figure out the relationships among narrators, and start enjoying. But once I did, I was very glad I stuck with it. Prose has some unique characters in here with interesting life trajectories. I’m only rating it an 8 because while it was highly enjoyable and I’d definitely recommend it, there was no “wow” factor.

 

Title: The Dead Yard

Author: Ian Thomson

Date Finished: 4/20

Finished: No

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 8

Notes: This book is a fascinating account of modern Jamaica. Jamaica is a beautiful but tragic country and the author captures that well. I got this book from the library because I went on vacation to Jamaica and I always like to read about the places I’m going. But I didn’t finish it while I was there and now, 5 weeks after my return, I’ve sort of lost interest. It’s time to return it to the library, so I will, having read only half of it. But I would still definitely recommend it.

 

Title: A Natural History of the Senses

Author:  Diane Ackerman

Date Finished: 4/20

Finished: Yes

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 10

Notes: This is a book I will be buying a copy of for my bookshelf. Normally, this sort of touchy-feely stuff isn’t for me, but this book is fascinating. Ackerman devotes one chapter to each of our five senses and just write a whole bunch of vignettes and mini essays about that sense. She really makes you get caught up in that sense so you think you are tasting or hearing whatever she is describing. For writers who want to know how to describe things using all five senses, this is a must-read.

 

Title: The Museum of Innocence

Author: Orhan Pamuk

Date Finished: 4/24

Finished: No

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 2

Notes: OK – there have been more than a few books on this list that I quit for various reasons – mostly because I exceed my three renewals from the library and didn’t quite care enough to request again, but this is the first one that I deliberately threw out before its expiration. This isn’t the first time that I’ve tried Orhan Pamuk. He’s a really well known author and writes stuff that I feel that I should like, but I just don’t. I’ve never been able to finish one of his books and this one made me so angry! The narrator was so fucking annoying. Oh, you poor, poor baby. You have everything in the world but you’re pining away over some young girl? And pining and pining and pining. Please, someone tell me – is there anything more to this novel than that? I got about 1/3 of the way through and couldn’t stand it anymore. I was getting angry and feeling insulted as a reader that all I was being given was this whiny bitch’s inner thoughts about longing for this girl. Awful, really awful.

 

Title: We Don’t Live Here Anymore

Author: Andre Debus

Date Finished: 4/25

Finished: Yes

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 7

Notes: Three novellas, easy read. Definitely made me want to see the movie. Enjoyable, but interesting I kind of missed the biggest point until I read the critic’s blurb on the back about how this is a book about understanding. I mean, obviously I got that in the book by each character’s reaction to the adultery of his or her spouse, but I didn’t really think about it until I read that blurb. Interesting how some people really do get stuck and others are able to move on from relationships that aren’t working. Definitely a novel that captured the inner thoughts of humanity.

 

Title: Bearded Women: Stories

Author: Teresa Milbrodt

Date Finished: 5/1

Finished: Yes

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 7

Notes: I enjoyed these stories quite a bit. One of the first times I’ve read through a collection of shorts and enjoyed almost every single one. Usually I like fewer than half. The idea behind this book is just so cool – take a bunch of people with circus/sideshow deformities and write about just a normal event in their lives. As if the deformity isn’t abnormal at all, but something that’s perfectly normal to have to deal with. The characters are so different from me and yet just like me. Very interesting concept and certainly original. I gave it a 7 because there is nothing about the actual use of language that made me go, whoa! It’s easy reading.

 

Title: Here

Author: Richard McGuire

Date Finished: 5/2

Finished: Yes

Format: Hardcover

Ranking Out of 10: 10

Notes: Beautiful. Brilliant.

 

Title: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Author: Junot Diaz

Date Finished: 5/5

Finished: Yes

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 8

Notes: I enjoyed this book and I would have given it a 10, but the style of writing bothers me. All the “our girl” “dude” “mother fucker” as ways of addressing the characters irritated me to no end. I’d like to read another one of his books, but I’m not sure I can stand all that again. Maybe the others are different. One thing – the end of this story is very, very beautiful.

 

Title: Heartburn

Author: Nora Ephron

Date Finished: 5/7

Finished: Yes

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 6

Notes: I’m a little embarrassed to admit I read this but I do read this sort of book once in a while. I’ve read Confessions of a Shopaholic and The Devil Wears Prada and the Nanny Diaries. And by read, I mean listened to. This kind of story is perfect for those days at work when I have a lot of mindless work to do instead of my usual authoring and editing. I’m only giving it a 6 because I don’t think chick lit could really ever merit more than 6. It was an easy, pleasant story. Good for background noise and mindless entertainment.

 

Title: We are Called to Rise

Author: Laura McBride

Date Finished: 5/12

Finished: Yes

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 8

Notes: I saw this author speak at Lighthouse Writers Workshop and absolutely loved listening to her. She talked about her process, how she got published, her experience with fans after the book was published, and she read a little. I wasn’t entirely sold on the actual book itself, which deals a lot with soldiers and PTSD, but her enthusiasm and her passion for her book made me buy it. It is a sweet, well-written book with an appealing cast of characters that really you can really sympathize with. The way the characters’ lives come together is inventive and kept me turning the pages; I read it in two nights. The only reason I gave it an 8 is because it waxes philosophical too often for my taste. McBride has a lot of feelings about the world and life and humanity that she wants to impart and chooses to do it by interspersing her own thoughts in the novel, rather than in essays. Although she does do a fairly good job of making these thoughts organic to her characters, I say these are her own thoughts rather than those of her characters, because she stated a lot of these thoughts directly in her speech and Q&A at Lighthouse. And while I may agree with her sentiments and ideas, I’m not a fan of having them in the middle of a novel like this (Although she is nowhere near as egregious about this as John Irving is. Last Night in Twisted River was an obnoxious political treatise.)

 

Title: Running the Books

Author: Avi Steinberg

Date Finished: 5/15

Finished: Yes

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 9

Notes: I loved this memoir. But I knew I would before I started. It’s a book about books – what’s not to love? OK, not exactly. It’s a book about his experiences working in a prison library and it’s about the relationships he formed and the life lessons he learned. It had a natural ending – when he quit his job – but Steinberg does a much better, more meaningful, job of ending the book than that. The book is wonderful. Period.

 

Title: She Was: A Novel

Author: Janis Hallowell

Date Finished: 5/20

Finished: Yes

Format: Hard cover

Ranking Out of 10: 7

Notes: Good read. Somewhat predictable progression of events, but I didn’t mind at all because the circumstances surrounding the main character were unique and because the book was well-written. It was easy to become attached to the main character and get pulled into the story.

 

Title: Born with Teeth

Author: Kate Mulgrew

Date Finished: 5/22

Finished: Yes

Format: Hard cover

Ranking Out of 10: 6

Notes: Like many of you, I suspect, I knew nothing of this actress before seeing her on Orange is the New Black. So I was surprised to find out from the book what a prolific acting career, both on screen and stage, she has had. She also has had a pretty wild ride in life in general and there’s some real emotional pull to her story. The book was fun to read and easy to read (I read it all in one night). But a lot of the writing was cliché (with the occasional high level vocabulary thrown in here and there – bon mots, anyone?) and I suspect that if you weren’t a fan of her work, you might not care to read this. Hence the low-ish rating. But this book, your sofa, and a bag of microwave popcorn makes for a good way to spend a rainy Friday night.

 

Title: What If?

Author: Randall Monroe

Date Finished: 5/24

Finished: Yes

Format: Hardcover

Ranking Out of 10: 9

Notes: This book is a lot of fun. It’s not meant to be read from cover to cover and not every question will be interesting to everyone. And you have to be in right frame of mind to dive in because a lot of the answers are seriously scientific and technical. But it’s fun to keep around to flip through and read whatever catches your eye. The amount of research that Moore put into answering these seemingly unanswerable questions is amazing.

 

Title: Inadmissible

Author: Tamer Elsayed

Date Finished: 5/24

Finished: No

Format: Kindle

Ranking Out of 10: 2

Notes: I started to read this one several times because I wanted to like it. I think the author probably has a really good story to share. But I just couldn’t tolerate the quality of writing. It was all tell and no show. I can handle that for a little while, but the author seems to have tried to cover every detail of his entire life and so events just fly by in two or three sentences and then on to the next. Impossible to get interested.

 

Title: Beloved

Author: Toni Morrison

Date Finished: 5/27

Finished: No

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 3

Notes: I could not get into this book at all. A few parts here and there hooked me in, but overall, I was lost and uninterested. Oddly enough, I was reading a craft book on writing (Crafting Novels & Short Stories: The Complete Guide to Writing Great Fiction. I haven’t included book report notes on any craft books I’ve read) and one of the segments mentioned Morrison’s lack of use of the past perfect tense in her flashbacks and said that it was OK because all those “hads” weigh the narrative down and make it boring. Yes, I see the point, but honestly, I think that’s why I was confused for a lot of the first half of the book. I couldn’t figure out who was who and what was happening when. Also, part of my problem with this is probably that is was an audiobook. You have to pay attention to magical realism. Reading the Wikipedia synopsis of the book went a long way toward enlightening me. And Morrison’s voice is too soft and slow to make me pay attention. It’s appropriate for some parts of the story, but sustained over so many hours, it just put me to sleep.

 

Title: A Brief History of Seven Killings

Author: Marlon James

Date Finished: 5/29

Finished: No

Format: Hardcover

Ranking Out of 10: 8

Notes: Even though I barely read any of this, I’m giving it a super high ranking because the quality of what I read was amazing and I have no doubt that he weaves an incredible narrative. James writes in many different voices with such vivid description and specific language that the reader is pulled in to each character’s experience. But the very things that make this book great are the reasons I barely made it through any of it. There are too many characters. The book starts with a list of probably 150 characters that you constantly have to refer to because the chapters of the book are written from all these different points of view. And each chapter (at least in the bit I read) is very short while the book is 500+ pages long. It’s just too much. And the patois of some of the PoV characters makes reading their chapters very slow going. You might not have noticed by this point, but I read a lot and I just don’t have the patience for something that is slow going.

 

Title: Leaving the Atocha Station

Author: Ben Lerner

Date Finished: 5/31

Finished: Yes

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 7

Notes: Someone recommended this to me because I asked a question in a writing class about how to write dialogue that is occurring in a foreign language when one of the characters is a native English speaker and doesn’t speak the foreign language well. And what a great recommendation! The way Lerner communicates the English speaking characters confusion about conversations in Spanish is brilliant. In fact, all of his use of language is brilliant. I had never read him before but I’m definitely a fan. I only gave this a 7 because the plot didn’t quite grab me, but if I were judging this book solely on the writing, it would be a 10++. Lerner in my mind is now like Javier Marias, a writer I absolutely adore for his rhetorical skills.

 

Title: The Folded Clock

Author: Heidi Julavits

Date Finished: 6/10

Finished: No

Format: Hardcover

Ranking Out of 10: 5

Notes: I wanted to like this more than I did. I read one entry from it in a seminar on Flash Fiction and completely loved it, so I immediately order this book from the library. But I was kind of disappointed. Clearly the person who ran the seminar had picked out the best piece. Well, that’s not entirely true. There were some other entries that we very entertaining, some that we decent, and some that were blah. Sometimes I did just feel as if I was literally reading someone’s unedited diary of random, boring thoughts and events of the day. Other times, I was quite entertained. Other times, I felt really connected to her and she made me think. Hence the rating of 5 – the entries ran the gamut from 1 to 10 pretty evenly. Not enough to make me read the whole book. Also, I’m not sure why the entries are presented in the order they are instead of chronologically.

 

Title: Of Mice and Men

Author: John Steinbeck

Date Finished: 6/12

Finished: Yes

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 9

Notes: I never read this in high school and figured that it was about time, even though I already knew the plot. Oh my goodness. Sad, sad, sad. Really sad. Not just the end – the whole book. Poor people. All of the characters. Just sad.

 

Title: The Grifters

Author: Jim Thompson

Date Finished: 6/18

Finished: No

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 1

Notes: This is another one of those books that I can’t remember why I read. Generally that means I read some excerpts from it in a book about writing. It was used as examples of something, and so I just put it on my reading list. But I’m not sure why now. I listened to almost the whole thing actually; I only had about half an hour left. But I realized I just didn’t care and had been using the second half of it just as background noise and not paying attention at all. So I just stopped.

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