Sunday, January 1, 2017

2016 books

As I did last year, and the previous few before that, I'm posting the books I read last year. More than a couple of doorstops in there.  And a lot of strange stories.  I think my best reads for the year were:  The Forsyte Saga, The Girl in the Garden, The Art Forger, Silver Linings Playbook, Lab Girl, and The Magician's Lie, and with Sidharta, Good Omens.

* = Recommended
X = Stay Away
  • Finished off * The Forsyte Saga:  John Galsworthy - well...just because...I read it only about 2 years ago,'s SO well done.
  • Finished off The Daring Ladies of Lowell:  Kate Alcott - Meh - very disappointing.  Such a good premise (investigating the murder of a defenseless factory girl), with lots of room for depth...just not realized.
  • The Witches of Eastwick (audiobook):  John Updike
  • Bartleby the Scrivener (audiobook):  Herman Melville - I enjoyed this novella a lot.  I could tell you more about what I think of it, but I would prefer not to.  I enjoyed this annotated version, as well.  
  • The Price of Salt (audiobook) (Currently titled Carol, as in the recent film of the same name):  Patricia Highsmith - enjoyed it a lot.  It is amazing to me that such an open and matter-of-fact description of homosexuality could be published when it was (1952).  
  • The Invention of Hugo Cabret (audiobook):  Brian Selznick - meh
  • The Secret Garden:  Frances Hodgson Burnett
  • Wolf Hall (audiobook):  Hilary Mantel - a lot like a Philippa Gregory novel only better written, but I'm not sure I get why this is Booker Prize material.  Don't get me wrong...I love a good Tudor skullduggery story, and this one was very well done (I enjoyed it a lot), but...I guess I just expect something a little more unusual from a Booker
  • X Some Luck (audiobook):  Jane Smiley - major disappointment...I don't know what I'm missing, but I seriously don't get why this was a National Book Award winner.  I found the writing fairly awful, full of tell, full of summary, often precious, characters I couldn't care less about, no idea what their issues were, mostly external conflict or fairly pedestrian internal conflict, at best (e.g. annoying, embarrassing relatives, cheating on your perfect girlfriend with your deceased best friend's girlfriend, etc.), with nothing to learn from the resolution of those pedestrian internal conflicts short of "Suck it up" or "Everything's gonna be OK in the end.  Because it is."  From about disc 2, I was planning to abandon it, but I kept hoping that sometime soon the point was going to be revealed.  Foolish me.  Even places that ought to have been fraught with tension and self-reflection were passed over with ho-hum resignation. Farm boy's first kill in WWI?  No biggie.  Eloping with a stranger you met a couple of days ago?  See ya later, mom, gotta go!  I think a lot of reviewers have responded positively to the book because it portrays the troubles of an "ordinary" family.  For me, though, this misses the point.  It is the job of the writer to make "ordinary" troubles personal, special, and thereby elevate the ordinary to a greater significance, to inspire some urgency in the reader.  It is in this that I feel that Some Luck failed miserably.  I've really enjoyed other work by Jane Smiley (A Thousand Acres, Moo, The All-True Travels and Adventures of Lidie Newton), so I was a little (OK, a lot) surprised to see this kind of stuff out of her.  Though, it's true I also kind of hated Duplicate Keys - don't remember it well enough to remember why.
  • * Elmer Gantry (audiobook):  Sinclair Lewis - While I love the theme of It Can't Happen Here more, I have to admit, I think Elmer Gantry is better written.
  • * The Guide:  RK Narayan - strange little story - I always love Narayan's writing
  • Northanger Abbey:  Jane Austen - every year's gotta have at least one
  • * Fuenteovejuna:  Lope de Vega - I read this years and years ago, I think for my 11th grade Spanish class or else for my college Theater History class, and loved it.  I still love it.  But I don't remember clueing in at that time that this was a sort of homage to Ferdinand and Isabella (in opposition to Alfonso of Portugal)
  • Three Soldiers (audiobook):  John Dos Passos - a little disappointing.  It may be an anti-war book, but it's no Johnny Got His Gun.  More about the petty humiliations of the military hierarchy than about the carnage and destruction.
  • Celestina:  Fernando de Rojas
  • Never Go Back (audiobook):  Lee Child
  • The Trickster of Seville:  Tirso de Molina  (Can you tell, yet, that I've got an anthology of Spanish Gold Age plays?)
  • * The Girl in the Garden (audiobook):  Kamala Nair
  • * Silver Linings Playbook (audiobook):  Matthew Quick
  • Tender Is the Night (audiobook):  F. Scott Fitzgerald
  • The Pilgrim's Progress (audiobook):  John Bunyan - because...well...I'd never read I'm done, and don't have to any more.  I always knew that Little Women (which was one of my formative reads from childhood) made references to this one, but the extent of the connection became much clearer after I read this.
  • Ragtime:  E.L. Doctorow - there goes one of those strange stories
  • To a God Unknown (audiobook):  John Steinbeck - another very strange little story
  • * The Art Forger (audiobook):  B.A. Shapiro - such a great story.  Very interesting from a technical standpoint, but also a very compelling narrative.
  • Love and Freindship:  Jane Austen - because there's a new movie...haven't seen it, though.  Can't begin imagine what they could possibly put in it...the piece is so utterly silly...clearly something Austen cooked up on a dare or to make her siblings double over with goofy can you go?  
  • * How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe (audiobook):  Charles Yu - I enjoyed this a lot...thought provoking reflection on getting stuck in the past, couched as experimentation in time travel.  I think it needed a little more editing (a bit too much on the tell/summary end of things - gets a bit expository at places, but...well...I liked it anyway) - yet another strange one
  • Citizen Creek (audiobook):  Lalita Tademy - interesting historical story, gets a bit mawkish at times...a little disappointing.
  • * Lab Girl:  Hope Jahren - wonderful memoir of the life scientific.  Jahren to characterize her?...a botanist?  a geologist? (you wouldn't think one would get confused about the boundary between those, now would you?  but that's who she is!)   She weaves a narrative that uses human experience to illuminate botany and botany to illuminate human experience and shows some of the truly crazy and/or beautiful things a passion for science can lead to
  • Straight Jacket and Tie:  Eugene Stein - I picked it up based on a reference to "the dark side of Planet Debbie" by David Brooks (regarding primary process in this year's festivities)...when I looked at the reviews, it sounded hilarious.  It was OK...not fabulous, though I have to say, one thing I liked about it was how recognizable it was...apart from the bits about the green aliens and the young gay/bi man struggling with his identity, much was incredibly familiar.  Set in the Bronx and Upper West Side of NYC in a liberal Jewish family with mental health issues, and with a cube-worker office shtick, it could have been about my own friends and family.   And yet, very strange.
  • Hallucinations (audiobook):  Oliver Sacks - Liked it a lot, though not as much as some of his other work.  Very thought-provoking, as always, but with a bit of a shopping-list feel.  I prefer his other works that are in-depth pieces on specific individuals, like pieces in An Anthropologist On Mars.   
  • Persuasion:  Jane Austen - Because...well...I couldn't help myself.  Like I said.  Every year's got to have two and a half, at least.
  • * Caleb's Crossing (audiobook):  Geraldine Brooks - liked it a lot, though Jennifer Ehle's narration was a little disappointing...I mean...considering it is Jennifer Ehle.  Kind of surreal listening to her with a full-on American accent.
  • * Mike and Psmith:  P.G. Wodehouse  - my election night comforter - I don't get all the cricket references, kind of doesn't matter
  •  * The Magician's Lie (audiobook):  Greer MacAllester - it is a testament to the quality of MacAllester's storytelling that I had to stop listening at a few points in the story and resume several days later (after several failed attempts at resuming) because I found some of the scenes so disturbing.
  • It Can't Happen Here:  Sinclair Lewis - so prescient
  • Practical Magic (audiobook):  Alice Hoffman
  • The Well Ain't Dry Yet:  Belinda Anderson - Some lovely little stories here...I've enjoyed it a lot, but it may not be for everyone.  I particularly admire her portrayal of women from across a broad spectrum of age and class, giving them all distinct voices - still working on it
  • The Secret Adversary:  Agatha Christie - never read her before...she's been on my queue since this spring when I was treated to a performance of The Mousetrap, and the intro for the show mentioned that much of her work was intended to make some kind of social point.  I hadn't realized how much like Wodehouse she sounds - I'm still working on this one
And with Sidharta:
  • For the Win: Cory Doctorow - (continued) Annapurna loved this when she was about the same age...I read it a while ago and loved it. Figured Sidharta's about ready.  Fabulous intro to economics for the young adult crowd. But Sidharta lost steam and abandoned it about 2/3 through :-(
  • Candide:  Voltaire - ooohh!!! Burn!  He liked it a lot.
  • * Good Omens:  Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett - I read it previously and loved it.  He loved it, too.  Talk about strange.
  • Of Mice and Men:  John Steinbeck - he was very moved by this one
  • Animal Farm:  George Orwell - he enjoyed this one a lot; made a lot of connections to the World History class he took last year
  • What Do You Care What Other People Think?:  Richard Feynman (started - still working on it)
  • The Once and Future King:  T.H. White (started - still working on it)
  • As always, lots of Calvin and Hobbes, though rather diminshed from years past
  • A bunch of Peanuts books--Sidharta discovered Charlie Brown this year