The End of Year Book Report (#1)

There’s quite a gap between the last date in the January – June report, but I was reading! I just had about 8 books going at once. And some short stories. And The Paris Review. Anyways, here’s the last six months worth of notes.

 

Title: Drop City

Author: T. C. Boyle

Date Finished: 7/16

Finished: Yes

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 6

Notes: I read this because I was reading a few books that took place in Alaska in anticipation of my trip to Alaska. And I had never heard of T. C. Boyle until I read something of his in a workshop at Lighthouse Writers Workshop just last month, so this seemed like a good choice. It was enjoyable – clearly I enjoyed it because I finished it – but I’m kind of wondering what the big deal is. Why did it win some award? This book was different in that it had a plot, but it didn’t. It’s really somewhere in between genre and literary fiction. I was wondering almost to the end where the story was going and what the point was, but it did come to a satisfactory conclusion. I was more interested in the story of the couple in Alaska than in the story of the hippies at the commune, and I was a bit disappointed that the story of the couple kind of petered out throughout the book. About the writing – if you read my blog, you know that I participate in David Abram’s Sunday Sentence. But I didn’t select anything from this book for that. Not that I didn’t enjoy the writing – to the contrary, there were a lot of amazing phrases. But that’s the problem, they were phrases in longer sentences. Lots of really cool phrases but he writes long, long sentences that bury the cool stuff in average phrases. And if you know anything about me, you know I’m a stickler for rules and order, so I just can’t post a phrase as my Sunday sentence. I just can’t do it.

 

Title: Lit

Author: Mary Karr

Date Finished: 7/26

Finished: Yes

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 6

Notes: I can’t believe one person can have three memoirs. Clearly there must be something worth reading there, but maybe I picked the wrong one to start with. Well, that’s not entirely fair. I was very much into this book for the first half. And then I just completely lost interest. It’s hard to pinpoint why. Maybe it was just too much religious stuff, but I think my interest started to wan before she really got into her struggles with coming to terms with accepting God. I don’t know. I enjoyed it for awhile, but I don’t feel any need to pick up one of her other memoirs.

 

Title: Blue Nights

Author: Joan Didion

Date Finished: 7/26

Finished: Yes

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 6

Notes: Joan Didion has been on my to-read list for a really long time. I read a few of her essays and enjoyed them immensely, so I figured I should try something more substantial. Maybe, like I wrote above about the Mary Karr memoir, this wasn’t the right choice to start with. I knew what it was about before I chose it and it sounded nice. And the parts about her daughter were sweet and moving. But there was too much other stuff in this book about other people she knew that died and other concerns she has. Seems like she should have stuck to an extended essay just about her daughter. She said something in the book about not having a particular style and I thought that was an accurate statement. I didn’t find anything particularly amazing about her style of writing.  And that’s my struggle as a writer – I don’t have a style. I feel like anything I’ve written could have been written by anyone. But, Didion was successful, so…

 

Title: To Kill a Mockingbird

Author: Harper Lee

Date Finished: 7/27

Finished: No

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 8

Notes: I hadn’t read this book in probably 20 years, so I figured it was time what with Harper Lee being in the news again for the new book. I didn’t remember much about it all except the basic plot and the names of the characters. I mean, come on, Atticus, Scout, Jem, Dill, Boo? Not really forgettable. But I did forget how good this book really is. Or maybe it’s not that I forgot; it’s just that I never knew. You can get a lot more out of a book like this when you are an adult with some real world experience and not just a high school kid who is being forced to read it. I most loved the part where Scout goes to school and the teacher is clueless about the culture she is teaching in. Scout tries to explain things to her in a way that anyone from the area would completely understand, but the teacher thinks Scout is being difficult. Really brilliant and such a realistic picture. I only marked it an 8 because when the trial is over, the storyline kind of devolves into a political treatise by the author. I wanted a story, not a lecture, so after a short while, I turned it off.

 

Title: Flash Fiction: 72 Very Short Stories

Author: Various

Date Finished: 8/1

Finished: Yes

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 8

Notes: Almost none that I really didn’t care for at all. So clever – taking situations that are normally positive and making them negative, putting odd twists on ordinary situations. Actually, the ones by well-known authors are the ones that I enjoyed the least. Interesting variety – some hinting at larger feelings and the larger world in a way that made them relatable to something in your own life. Others very self-contained and drew you into the characters themselves in such a short passage. Some were a little too abstract.

 

Title: Remains of the Day

Author: Kazuo Ishiguro

Date Finished: 8/4

Finished: Yes

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 8

Notes: I’m fascinated that a book can be so slow moving and yet really pull you into the characters. A whole lot of nothing happens, but I got hooked for sure. But the reason I marked this one only an 8 is yet again, like To Kill a Mockingbird, there’s a very large section of the story that seems like just the author’s personal rant, this time about the British political system. This drives me crazy! If I pick up a novel, I want to read a novel the whole way through. I don’t want an essay or lecture plopped down in the middle of it. The whole situation the protagonist is placed in for the ranting portion of this book is so contrived to me. Just get back to the story already!

 

Title: A Slow Death: 83 Days of Radiation Sickness

Author: NHK TV Crew

Date Finished: 8/18

Finished: Yes

Format: Hardcover

Ranking Out of 10: 7

Notes: This is difficult to rate because it’s not meant to be literature or really good writing of any kind. The point is to tell the story of what happened to nuclear power worker Ouchi after he was exposed to a lethal dose of radiation in 1999. As a book length, news story, this book certainly gets the job done. And it is well-written; it’s just not a book you read for the writing. The author balanced the different perspectives of the people involved well.

 

Title: The Secret History

Author: Donna Tartt

Date Finished: 8/23/2015

Finished: Yes

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 7

Notes: This book was recommended by a classmate of mine in a Lighthouse Writer’s Workshop class. The recommender was very into literary fiction and was working on a piece of her own. The instructor had emphasized to us that a blend of literary and genre fiction was really hot right now and if we wanted to be published, that’s what we should write. This book was definitely a blend. I enjoyed it enough – I finished it – but to me it was way longer than it needed to be. And that’s because it was literary. There were large sections where nothing was really happening, although there was still some tension being built up among the characters. But I think I would have enjoyed the book just as much, and maybe more, without all that. I never really felt invested in the characters that much, despite all of this insight into who they were and despite spending time as their intimate in conversations.

 

Title: Train Dreams

Author: Denis Johnson

Date Finished: 9/3

Finished: Yes

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 9

Notes: This novella sucked me in. I had never heard of Denis Johnson, but apparently a lot of people at Lighthouse Writers Workshop in Denver have. So after hearing a few people talk about a collection of short stories he wrote, I decided to try something of his and this is what I selected. Not disappointed at all. This story really pulled me in to the experience of the protagonist. I love that it’s mostly grounded in reality, but there’s a slight mystical/fantastic element to it. It didn’t get a perfect 10 because the last 15 minutes or so had me scratching my head. Didn’t seem to fit in with the rest of the book and I just plain didn’t care for it. I’d love to see an alternate ending.

 

Title: At the Jim Bridger

Author: Ron Carlson

Date Finished: 9/5

Finished: Yes

Format: Hard cover

Ranking Out of 10: 9

Notes: Another recommendation from classmates at Lighthouse. Well, actually we read the flash fiction piece Single Woman for Long Walks on the Beach in a class and I decided that I had to read more. And it seemed once again like a lot of my classmates knew who he was, but I had never heard of him. Very glad I picked this book up. It’s a rare occasion that I like every story in a short story collection, but I really did with this one. Some more than others for sure (At the El Sol, The Ordinary Son, and At the Jim Bridger were my favorites) but there wasn’t a single one that disappointed. The reason this book didn’t get a 10 is because there weren’t any sentences that wowed me. The stories themselves were excellent and the quality of writing was very high, but there just weren’t any sentences that I had to stop and reread because of their independent beauty.

 

Title: Two Dogs and a Suitcase

Author: Sarah Jane Butfield

Date Finished: 9/6

Finished: Yes

Format: Kindle

Ranking Out of 10: 5

Notes: I’m not one who often reads reviews, but I wanted to see what this author’s first memoir was about, so I was poking around on Amazon and happened to scroll through some of the reviews. And they all seemed to capture exactly what I was thinking the problems with this book are. (1) The author assumes you’ve read her first book and so there’s a disconnect for readers who haven’t when she talks about her family (2) What happened to the dogs? The title doesn’t fit the book (3) What happened to the house? The whole last third of the book isn’t relevant to their renovation project or their life in France. I enjoyed the book enough to finish it but I wish it had stayed on track and come to a more natural conclusion about what happened with their house.

 

Title: On Chesil Beach

Author: Ian McEwan

Date Finished: 9/12

Finished: Yes

Format: Hard cover

Ranking Out of 10: 10

Notes: Well, well. This is a surprise 10. I picked up this book because it was used as an example in a book about writing. But when I got the book, it just looked like a lame romance, so I left it sitting on the bookshelf for quite some time. I decided to try it finally because it was short, and then I read the whole thing in one day. When writing teachers tell you that sentences have to do more than just say something – they have to provide background information and context – this book is what they mean. The very first sentence reveals so much about the story and characters and background and is almost a summary of the whole book. Every sentence in this book does work. And then, at the end, the author bluntly states the moral of the story, just like Aesop did, and it works for this book. It just kind of makes you go “shit, he’s totally right”. The book takes places over the course of just a few hours (with a lot of flashback in between and some serious flash forward at the end) and it’s just really, really good. I had to stay up at night and finish it because I really needed to know what happened to the main characters.

 

Title: A Good Man is Hard to Find (and other stories)

Author: Flannery O’Connor

Date Finished: 9/23

Finished: Yes

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 8

Notes: I finally got around to Flannery O’Connor. She’s been on my to-read list for ever and I had a physical copy of this book, but I loaned it to someone and never got it back. No big deal. It was probably a used copy that I only paid a quarter for online. So, I feel conflicted about how I feel about these stories. I want to like them more. What I love are the descriptions of the characters. Each character is so real, so alive. But the plots just didn’t hold my attention and I found that the endings often fell flat for me. There were a few exceptions, of course, but I don’t feel the need to read more of her work any time soon. Maybe study it for the way she describes her characters, but that’s all. Another point I wanted to bring up that I found really interesting was the stories simultaneously seemed really progressive, in terms of subject matter, and really backwards, in terms of how much racism was portrayed. I had to keep looking up the years the stories were written because somehow they seemed internally irreconcilable to me. Maybe that just goes to say how little I understand the times in which these stories were written, but I was left with an interesting impression that no book has given me before. For these reasons, I give the book an 8 even though I generally didn’t care for the stories themselves.

 

Title: Music for Torching

Author:  a.m. homes

Date Finished: 10/9

Finished: Yes

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 5

Notes: Eh, so is this what literary fiction is? I kept waiting for something to happen, but nothing really did until the end when something big happened that seemed to come out of nowhere and was just confusing and purposeless, as far as I could tell. Maybe I’m just not smart enough to get it. The book held my interest for quite awhile just on the merits of the characters alone, but I definitely lost interest toward the end and just wanted to book to be over. I read up on the author and some of her other work. I was into this book enough that I’m willing to give something else of hers a try.

 

Title: Don’t Let’s Go to the Dogs Tonight

Author: Alexandra Fuller

Date Finished: 10/16

Finished: Yes

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 10

Notes: Love and fascination. Wow. At first, I had a bit of a hard time with her style of writing because I couldn’t tell if she was really just trying to put the writer in the mindset of the time and place she grew up, or if she’s just really a racist. So I read about the first quarter and then set it aside to do some research on her. I read a bunch of articles and watched some interviews on YouTube and realized that I’m obsessed with this person. Then I finished up the book very quickly. It was almost impossible to put down. Her life experiences are almost surreal at times. (I really hope this isn’t one of those cases where we eventually find out that everything she wrote is a lie) This book is a rare combination of both amazing writing and a gripping tale. I don’t know how she failed to sell 10 novels because in my opinion, she’s a fantastic writer.

 

Title: Animal, Mineral, Radical

Author: BK Loren

Date Finished: 10/29

Finished: No

Format: Kindle

Ranking Out of 10: 7

Notes: I hesitate to mark a completion date for this book, but by 10/29 when my library loan expired for the second time, I hadn’t looked at it in over a month, so I think it’s time. I might borrow it again one day because I did enjoy it, but you have to be in a certain kind of mood to read this book. Some of the essays are really engaging and modern in tone while other have an Emerson or Thoreau-esque quality to them and are a bit slow reading. I just haven’t been in that kind of mood for quite some time. BK is such an excellent writer and so insightful but with the old-fashioned tone some of her work has, I can see why she isn’t more popular. But still, I absolutely recommend this book.

 

Title: The Pregnant Widow

Author: Martin Amis

Date Finished: 11/5

Finished: No

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 3

Notes: No. Just no. This is my second attempt at reading Martin Amis and I still have a third book of his on my bookshelf, untouched for the last three years. I read a piece about him the Atlantic a few years ago that made me think I was going to fall in love with his work but I have not. This book was slow and all the talk about tits and asses was tiresome. I got through about 1/3 of it before my library loan expired and I had no interest in renewing the loan to keep listening. Moving on.

 

Title: The Beast in the Garden

Author: David Baron

Date Finished: 11/8

Finished: Yes

Format: Paperback

Ranking Out of 10: 9

Notes: Yikes. Yikes! OK, I’m definitely scared to go out my backdoor now. But even if you don’t live in Boulder county, I’m sure you’ll find this book fascinating. It has a little bit of everything you might want to know about mountain lions in America and their interaction with humans, past and present. Terrible anecdotes, historical events, biology, geography, naturalists. And it’s all written in an accessible and entertaining way.

 

Title: All the Light We Cannot See

Author: Anthony Doerr

Date Finished: 11/23

Finished: Yes

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 8

Notes: Very enjoyable (and tragic) story. I’m generally pretty burnt out on World War II stories, so if one captures my attention enough to (1) pick it up and (2) actually finish it, it must be pretty good. Well written, good plot.

 

Title: Sunshine Park

Author: Paul Auster

Date Finished: 11/25

Finished: No

Format: Audio

Ranking Out of 10: 3

Notes: Much like the Martin Amis book, I think I was supposed to love this author. I have 4 of his novels in my wish list for some reason. But this one didn’t do it for me. It just didn’t capture my attention. I listened to about half of it and then just let it expire. Not sure if I’m going to try another or not.

 

Title: Etta and Otto and Russell and James

Author: Emma Hooper

Date Finished: 11/27

Finished: No

Format: Hard cover

Ranking Out of 10: 5

Notes: I think this book could be very sweet if I was in the right mood, but it was very slow going and I just kept looking at how many more pages I had to go and realized that I just couldn’t do it. The style of writing was too…simple. In some ways, it reminded me of The Summer Book by Tove Jansson, but it didn’t have the sass and humor. I read about 20 percent and just couldn’t read anymore.

 

Title: Everything I Never Told You

Author: Celeste Ng

Date Finished: 12/3

Finished: Yes

Format: Hard cover

Ranking Out of 10: 9

Notes: I enjoyed this book immensely. I’ve never been through any circumstance like the main one in this book, but it was so relatable. All of the characters were so rich and the author did a fantastic job of getting across each family member’s feelings and secret inner life and how the other people in the family were so oblivious to it. How you can live with people and be so physically close to people and yet they know nothing about it. It would have been impossible not to be drawn into this story.

 

Title: Me Before You

Author: Jojo Moyes

Date Finished: 12/12

Finished: Yes

Format: Hard copy

Ranking Out of 10: 5

Notes: I surprised myself by finishing this book. I really didn’t care for it that much, but I was reading it for a book club (which I didn’t end up making it to since my car got stuck in the snow in my driveway) and it was just entertaining enough to keep my going, but the whole time, I felt a little dirty. Not because the book is dirty but because a lot of the book was cheesy, made-for-tv-romance-movie quality, which is something I rarely read. I started getting annoyed at the political opinions thrown into the book, but then, to the author’s credit, she started including both sides of the issue (unlike John Irving who just spouts off pages and pages of political essays in the middle of some of this novels. ugh).So that kept me going. I appreciate that she made the issue more real that way. Anyways, it’s a decent enough beach book if you’re going to the Caribbean this winter.

 

Title: The Night Circus

Author: Erin Morgenstern

Date Finished: 12/26

Finished: Yes

Format: Kindle

Ranking Out of 10: 8

Notes: It took me a few months to read this book, and I’m not sure why because I really did enjoy it. It’s a strange mystical kind of novel, yet it’s not too far out there. There are enough elements of reality to keep me engaged. Well, that’s not entirely fair. The mystical elements really kept me engaged too – the imagery, the way the writing was able to transport me into the circus and make me really want to be there. Oddly, the whole point of the book, the competition, seemed ambiguous to me. I kept reading but I wasn’t sure what exactly the goal of the characters was. I wonder if anyone else had this experience with this novel. Anyways, well worth a read!

 

I’ll also mention that between September 25 and November 30, I read about 6,000 pages worth of books for young people (grades 1-8) for a project I was working on for a major educational publishing company. I’m not including any commentary on those books here, but if you want to know more about any of the following, just ask! Ballerina Dreams, You Wouldn’t Want to Be Cleopatra!, Sassy, Little Sister is NOT My Name!, The One and Only Ivan, Wildfires, Red Riding Hood Gets Lost, The Wild Book, Pride of Puerto Rico, With Friends Like These, Who Needs Enemies?, Buzz – A Book About Insects, Daedalus and Icarus, Great Debates: It’s Your Right! (Maybe), Plastic, Ahoy!, Call Me Maria, Escape From The Ice, Joseph Stalin, Peak, Shadowshaper, Sweetgrass, Miracle’s Boys, The Skin I’m In, Codetalker, Danger Zone, Young Americans, Stargirl, and The Plight of the Pandas.

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