Monday, June 15, 2009

Putting It Down

I have a confession. I recently stopped reading a book, more than halfway through it. I really try not to do this very often. Of course, there are the occasional books that I struggle with from the start. But in general, I try to only read things that I feel will hold my interest.

My recent failure was 2666 by Roberto Bolano. I have seen this book so often touted by reviews and even on bookstore shelves as a "must read". I was bound to cave and try to read it eventually. I finally gave in when I found a copy that was divided into three trade paperback books. Until then I had been very reluctant to carry around such a weighty tome. In premise it seemed interesting. All these different characters drawn to a city in Mexico where hundreds of women have been murdered over a span of years (this part is real). It is divided into 5 parts and I made it through 3 1/2. Then I just had to put it down.

Even though I was well into it, I just couldn't stomach the thought of hundreds of more pages. The writing was a bit distant, and despite it being heralded a new era in Spanish literature, I just couldn't love it. I suppose I might admire the sheer heft of it, but not the book itself. Oh well. It happens.

How do you feel about stopping books halfway through? Do you feel like you might sometimes be missing out on something great? I worry about it sometimes, but apparently not enough to stop me from stopping.

My New Love

I have a new love in my life. It is my new NEO by AlphaSmart. If you don't know what a NEO is, it is essentially a word processor. It's nothing else, absolutely simple. And I'm in love with it. This no doubt makes me a total nerd, but that's a label I'm perfectly willing to claim.

It's a full size keyboard that runs on three AA batteries and has enough memory to hold a full size novel. It has approximately 700 hours of battery power, so you can pretty much just type and type and never run out of power. It also has one simple "on" button that immediately places you back at the last place you were typing.

I can't brag about it enough. You just transfer files to the computer by a USB cable. It's only weighs a pound or two, and according to the manufacturers it is pretty much indestructible. No more carrying around bulky notebooks, now I just throw my NEO in my bag and go. I can type anytime, anywhere.

It has no Internet, no solitaire, nothing extra. I find it to be extremely freeing. And I also find myself writing with much more frequency now that I don't have to spend a ton of time waiting for a computer to boot up or worrying that the battery is going to die. I'm not the only one who loves it though; I found this a minute ago:

Anyhow, enough about my new gadget. (Is it still a gadget if it's actually a technological step backward?)

I have just finished The Likeness by Tana French. It blew my mind just like her last book In The Woods. They are technically thrillers I suppose, but they are rich with imagery and thick plot. I highly recommend both, although I would start with In The Woods as The Likeness has some elements of being a sequel. Beware! These books are lengthy and aren't quick reads. However, you will be unable to stop once you get into them. So make sure you have a large chunk of time to read! :)

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Book List, Part 2

So, here's the second half of the list. Yes, it does indeed contain both Louise Erdrich and Barbara Kingsolver.

13. East of Eden, John Steinbeck- A great book for when you're in the mood for some dusty atmosphere. Not quite as dusty as The Grapes of Wrath. I have my limits on depressing, and that one is just too much. This is a retelling of the Cain and Abel story, which while not entirely undepressing, is still a great read.
14. A Walk in the Woods, Bill Bryson- I struggled to pick a book by Bill Bryson, because everything he has written I think is smart and hilarious. I opted for this classic about the author and his friend hiking the Appalachian Trail. They are not experience hikers, by any means, and you don't have to be a seasoned hiker to enjoy this book. It's just funny and wonderful. I recommend anything and everything by Bill Bryson, but if you're only going to read one book by him, this should be it.
15. A Natural History of the Senses, Diane Ackerman- I was so fascinated by this book the first time that I read it. It is essentially what the title says it is. A look at each of our senses, how they work, and how they affect our perception of the world. The writing is beautiful, and Ackerman is just so smart. Even if the premise of this book doesn't interest you, I think you will find a lot to appreciate in its pages.
16. A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley- This is a modern day King Lear story. This time the setting is a modern-day farm. I love to read retellings of classic stories, and this one is great. Full of family drama, as is the original. :)
17. bird by bird, Anne Lamott- Anyone who is interested in writing should own this book. Lamott is funny and so very wise. She writes about the craft of writing in a way that makes you feel like she really truly does it, hard work and all. It's a great book to pull out and just read a small chapter or two, if you're feeling frustrated.
18. Nine Parts of Desire, Geraldine Brooks- Before Geraldine Brooks was a novelist, she was a journalist. This is a chronicle of her time spent among Muslim women and gives a fascinating look at their inner lives. If you're female, this is worth a read. It will make you appreciate your own freedoms, but also give you more insight into what is a very stereotyped culture.
19. The Executioner's Song, Norman Mailer- This book is marketed as fiction, but it really isn't. It's fiction in the same way that In Cold Blood is fiction. The events actually happened. These people really existed. It comes across more as investigative reporting and an eye-opening portrait of a killer. It's a very long book, but it is broken up into very small segments and you will finish it in no time.
20. The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love, Oscar Hijuelos- This book is everything you might imagine. It's raunchy and heat soaked. It's full of drama and has a wonderful sense of atmosphere. It's another Pulitzer-winner, so the raunchiness obviously is the good kind, not the smutty kind. haha
21. The Red Convertible, Louise Erdrich- This is a short story collection that basically chronicles Erdrich's entire career. I think if you had to pick one Erdrich book this would be the one to pick, because most of these stories are contained in some form in her novels. The stories are wonderful all on their own, but they also serve as a great starting place from which to explore the rest of her work. And you certainly should explore the rest of her work.
22. Plays Well With Others, Alan Gurganus- Probably best known for The Oldest Living Confederate Widow Tells All, Gurganus made me look at writing in a whole new way with this book. I stumbled across it in high school and was obsessed with it for a long time. It is the story of three friends in New York City in the 80's, and all that that entails. AIDS, drugs, etc. But what is most enthralling to me is the writing that Gurganus seems to have just invented. He strings together adjectives and phrases that give this book its very own language. It's hard to describe, but very obvious to see upon reading.
23. The New GRANTA Book of the American Short Story, edited by Richard Ford- Everyone should own at least one really big book of short stories. This is, to me, the most bang for your buck. It's huge, although the drawback is that it's not exactly suitable for carrying with you. Still, if you like modern American short stories, you will find excellent ones here. And plenty of them. On the other hand, if you prefer classic short stories, or British, or Irish, or stories about Latino women going through bad break-ups, there are anthologies for you too. They apparently can anthologize anything these days, no matter how specific. This just happens to be my favorite.
24. The Lotus Still Blooms, Joan Gattuso- The basic beliefs of Buddhism are layed out in this very accessible, practical book. I read it much too quickly the first time through, but it's hard no to speed through it. You certainly don't have to be Buddhist to enjoy this and gain some very valuable insights that you can use in your everyday life.
25. Anything by Barbara Kingsolver- This ended up being last on my list because I couldn't pick a book. I love Barbara Kingsolver and everything she has written. I love that her writing, whether it's fiction or nonfiction, is deeply connected to the earth. I feel I should recommend The Poisonwood Bible, arguably her best. And it's true, I was deeply affected and devastated by its power when I first read it. But I have discovered her other works are no less wonderul. I am partial to Animal Dreams, but I also love her living-off-the-land memoir Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. And her essay collections are warm and witty and earthy. Whatever you pick, just read her. It will simply make you happy.

There you go, that's my list. It has made me very, very happy just to type this all up for whoever cares to read it. What would be on your list?

Monday, June 8, 2009

Stranded on an Island? Bring these....

I've always wanted to make a book list. Not because I'm an expert (although I do read a LOT), but just because I like thinking about things like this. I happen to think these books should be on everyone's book shelf, but if anyone has some better suggestions, please share!! I love a lively book discussion.

1. Little House on the Prairie (entire series), Laura Ingalls Wilder: I'm counting this as one number because I can't pick just one. These were some of my favorite books growing up and spending a lot of summers in Minnesota as a child I actually got to see some of these places!
2. Anne of Green Gables (entire series), L.M Montgomery: This is the last series that I count as one book, I promise. These books changed my childhood. I credit them, and my very literate parents, for my love of books and all things dreamy. If you have a child, please give them these books.
3. Andre Dubus- Collected Stories: I believe these stories were the beginning of my short story obsession. His writing is just superb, that's all there is to say.
4. The Stone Diaries, Carol Shields: This book chronicles the life of its main character from the day of her birth and past her death. It is an old-fashioned great story. No gimmicks, no experiments, just great writing. Oh, it also won a Pulitzer, which never hurts.
5. Little Women, Louisa May Alcott: Every woman has probably read this at some time in her girlhood. If you haven't, you still should even if you're grown. If for no other reason than to have a better background for the next book on this list. Also, who didn't want to be Jo March as a child?
6. March, Geraldine Brooks: Here, Geraldine Brooks gives us the story of Mr. March, who is absent for all but a small portion of Alcott's novel. We are told he is off to war. This book is his story. I was so fascinated by this story, not just because of the original novel. This is a wonderful story all on its own. I highly recommend it. Brooks based the character on Alcott's own father whose own life makes for pretty good reading also.
7. Empire Falls, Richard Russo: I'm a sucker for small town sagas. This book is excellent fall reading, when the leaves are turning on the trees. The story is set in a sad, small town whose industry is all but dead. Yet, Russo gives us such a compelling story about very realistic people. Be forewarned, there are some passages about animal abuse that I found hard to stomach, but this Pulitzer-winner is very much worth the read.
8. One Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez: It's true, I read the first 75 pages of this book three times before I got any further. If you can make it past the part about the ice, you're home free. The rest of this book is amazing. It's funny, tragic, and has the touch of surrealism that's trademark in Marquez's work. I recommend this book a lot, but no one ever seems to read it. Come on guys, it's great!
9. Woman: An Intimate Geography, Natalie Angier: I read this book when I need to be reminded how great it is to be a woman. Angier writes in a very accessible way about all the things that make women women. It's full of biology, anatomy, hormones. Basically, all the things that separate us from the men. If you want to be in awe of the way your body looks, smells, feels, and works, read this now.
10. Anne Sexton- The Complete Poems: This is the only poetry included in this list. The rawness of Sexton's poetry voices a lot of feelings that women are often afraid to voice. I love anyone who's not afraid to face down the very hard, very real issues in life.
11. And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts: I may have read this book more than any other book on this list. It seems that every few years I get the urge to read it again. It's essentially the story of the beginning of the AIDS epidemic in America. I think this should be required reading for everyone. It is an eye-opening look at how politics and prejudice can get in the way of so many important things. AIDS is just one of these things, but a better example will not be found. It's also a fascinating story of the people who championed this cause when no one else was listening.
12. The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri: Lahiri may very well be one of the best new writers out there. She is most known for her short story collections, her first of which won the Pulitzer. This is her only novel so far, and I was blown away by it. I admire her writing for its simplicity. It always amazes me when an author can pack so much into a story by using plain, simple language. The story centers around an Indian family and their children growing up in America, and all the cultural confusion that ensues. You really can't go wrong with anything by Lahiri, just read her.

I think I'll save the second half of this list for another post. I'd love to get some feedback on what would be on your list.