Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Books I Read in September 2008

I got lots of reading done this month and since I've been doing so many serious posts on election issues recently, I need to lighten things up with a major change of subject. So here are the books I read in September:

Leaving Atlanta, by Tayari Jones is a fictional account of the period around 1979-1982 when the Atlanta child killer was at large and murdered 29 African American children. The story is told from the points of view of three fifth-grade classmates. Tayari Jones gives voice to a unique and terrifying period from the perspective of three very different children. Reading as a writer, I was particularly taken by the fact that the author successfully pulled off shifting points of view using third person, first person and even choosing to use the unusual second person for one character. The children's voices were authentic and powerful. This book was frightening, heartbreaking and beautifully written. It was selected as One of the Best Books of the Year in 2004 by the Washington Post. Tayari Jones, also the author of The Untelling (on my TBR stack) is one of my favorite blogging authors and you can read her posts, filled with insights, observations and links to all things literary here.

Man in the Dark, by Paul Auster is the story of 72 year old August Brill. An insomniac and a retired book critic, he is recovering from a car accident at his daughter's house in Vermont. He is immobilized, with two broken legs and is still grieving his wife's death. His middle aged daughter is alone after a painful divorce and his granddaughter has also come to stay after losing her boyfriend to a horrific murder. In order to deal with his insomnia, Brill imagines a parallel world where 9/11 never happened and instead of going to war with Iraq, America is at war with itself as a result of the 2000 election. After reading Man in the Dark (a quick read at 180 pages), I picked up The Brooklyn Follies on the B&N clearance table. Auster, who has written many novels, but was new to me is one of my best finds this year.

The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, by Barack Obama is a book I hadn't gotten around to reading until after the nomination. Since the author had his sights on the Presidency when the book was written, it is a detailed vision of his views on our two-party system, values, the Constitution, politics, opportunity, faith, race, the world and family. This book is not quite as personal as the memoir that preceded it by some ten years, but it provides an excellent perspective on how Barack Obama sees the possibilities for our nation -- and I like his views. He's the first politician who has ever inspired me and given me hope, something we sorely need right now.

One Good Turn, by Kate Atkinson is the author's fifth novel, but the first I've read. She's an English author, living in Edinburgh and this is her second mystery featuring a retired police officer, now millionaire. Atkinson has a unique, sardonic voice and the story, told in multiple points of view is packed with eccentric characters. The story is kicked off when a good Samaritan helps the victim of a beating incited by a case of road rage and somehow everyone involved becomes part of the sinister story that follows. To be truthful, I wasn't expecting a mystery, but I just love Atkinson's style. I've got Behind the Scenes at the Museum and Human Croquet on the TBR shelf and will be reading them shortly. To be honest, I'd read an interview with Kate Atkinson before reading any of her work and she seems kind of -- cranky. That appealed to me.

The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wrobewski has been getting lots of attention, particularly since Oprah selected it for her book club. Fortunately, I was in the middle of reading it when the announcement was made, otherwise my irrational reverse snobbery about popular novels probably would have led me to ignore the book for quite a while. The hype is true and you can read reviews galore on this one, along with the most complimentary blurb -- from Stephen King, no less -- that I have ever read by an established author about a debut novel. A fellow blogger (after seeing me Twitter my enthusiasm while reading the book) Twittered back that the book is "awful" and found a bad review to back up her opinion, so fair warning, not everyone shares my glowing views but overwhelmingly, the book has gotten great reactions. The author (who lives in Colorado) spent over ten years writing this story and then rewriting and revising it. It is an adaptation of Shakespeare's Hamlet, set in early 1970's rural Wisconsin on a small farm where the Sawtelle family raises a fictional breed of dogs. I should also disclose that I love Hamlet and I own three different film adaptations of it on DVD. If the reader was unfamiliar with the story of Hamlet, I have no idea what kind of a reaction he would have to this story, but the prose is undeniably beautiful. I am guilty of being biased toward books for many reasons and I confess to being especially enamored of this one because of the Hamlet connection and because I have such great admiration for this debut author (a software developer by day) who took the time to learn how to write a wonderful story and then made it big. Congratulations to David Wroblewski and his Cinderella story and I hope a second novel will follow -- when he's ready.

The Confessions of Max Tivoli, by Andrew Sean Greer was quite successful and there was a lot to like about it. The plot device is that the main character is born with the physical appearance of an elderly man and he grows older mentally like any other child, but his body appears to age backward and grows younger every year. The tragedy of the story is that Max is able to try to win the heart of the woman he falls in love with at three different times in his life although she never recognizes him for who he is. The book is set in turn of the century San Francisco and the writing is unquestionably beautiful, although the prose is written in a formal, almost stilted fashion so I was somewhat relieved that the book ended when it did. Perhaps my expectations were too high and I've never been a huge fan of historicals so I enjoyed, but did not love this book. The story arc was almost too inevitable and I just wasn't surprised, sympathetic or intrigued enough by Max Tivoli's plight. Andrew Sean Greer is a talented author and his other works aren't written in quite this style. I've got his short story collection, How it Was For Me, his novel The Path of Minor Planets and his newest book, The Story of a Marriage on my TBR shelf and I do look forward to reading them.

Slaughterhouse-Five or the Children's Crusade: A Duty Dance With Death, by Kurt Vonnegut was the audio book I went to sleep to for several nights this month. Vonnegut's words, as read by Ethan Hawke were oddly, the perfect bedtime story. From the Audible website: "Kurt Vonnegut's absurdist classic Slaughterhouse-Five introduces us to Billy Pilgrim, a man who becomes 'unstuck in time' after he is abducted by aliens from the planet Tralfamadore. In a plot-scrambling display of virtuosity, we follow Pilgrim simultaneously through all phases of his life, concentrating on his (and Vonnegut's) shattering experience as an American prisoner of war who witnesses the firebombing of Dresden." I had never read this book and I just loved it. I think the firebombing of Dresden was an event that really defined Kurt Vonnegut, and for good reason. Incredibly, it's a chapter of World War II that most people don't seem to know much about, although the destruction allied bombing caused to civilian men, women and children could be said to have rivaled that in Hiroshima or Nagasaki.

* * *

By next month, I hope to have finished Dreams From My Father, by Barack Obama. I was about 250 pages into it when Scott happened to pick it up and commented that he'd really like to read it -- so I'll finish it after he does. This memoir was written in 1995 when Obama was selected as the first African American President of the Harvard Law Review and it provides a very personal perspective into who this man is. If he hadn't become a politician, he would have had a successful career as a novelist. He's an excellent writer.

Tomorrow night is the Vice Presidential debate, so we'll be in front of the TV with popcorn and Twizzlers because there's really no telling what we're going to see, but it will certainly be historic.

Despite any political differences we may have, there lots of amazing bloggers in our online community. If you haven't already, please take a look at Moonrat's raffle to help a friend in need and Travis Erwin's very noble cause to help spread literacy.

I would promise to exclusively get back to my regularly scheduled posts about books and writing, but this election is just too important. I want to share what I learn about the issues here in the hope that some of it may be helpful to others and in the hope that it might generate some discussion. And hey -- I'm pretty proud of us. So far, despite the number of issues related posts, we've all been civil and that's a great thing. Thank you for that and remember that no matter how wound up we get about the politics, this is what's important.

And now -- with all the heaviness of the news of the world behind us, PLEASE share something positive! What have YOU been reading lately? Has anybody read any of the books I listed and if so, would you care to comment on them? Seen any good movies? Heard any uplifting anecdotes? Get any good news? What keeps you going?


Charles Gramlich said...

Hum, ten years to retell Hamlet? Seems a little extreme.

iyan and egusi soup: said...

lisa! your commitment to the written word inspires me. and thank you dearly for the always encouraging words on my blog--you're a gem.

Larramie said...

Uh, I thought you were going to "lighten" the mood with the books you've read but, Lisa, they all sound serious. ;)

Also, this election is about people wanting something different and basing their choices on believing words expressed differently. Still words are mere words and it would be wise for everyone to both listen and read in between the lines.

Seachanges said...

Both Kate Atkinson and Paul Auster are favourites of mine, although I have not yet read this latest Auster. The reviews are quite good on the whole so I'll pick it up some time soon! Great reviews and reminders, as usual. Let me know what the Barak Obama is like - I keep looking at it and then get distracted by something else! As far as elections are concerned, we have heated debates here between Labour and Conservative of course with party conferences linking into the serious mood of the credit crunch! Not sure if we get to see the full debate between the two American VP candidates but will look out for your comments! Always good to read. Enjoy your evening watching :)

pattinase (abbott) said...

Try The Music of Chance by Auster or The Book of Illusion, two of my favorites.

Yogamum said...

I read The Lace Reader by Brunonia Barry (pretty good but I figured out the "twist" way before I should have) and am reading "The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society" (or something like that, it's a long title) and it is filling my need for something light to read these days. I'm afraid to turn on the news every day, it just seems to get worse and worse.

Melissa Marsh said...

No good books lately (well, unless you count Word Painting by Rebecca McClanahan), but no good FICTION lately.

The Electric Orchid Hunter said...

Kate Atkinson! Yes, yes yes! I've read Behind the Scences at the Museum, Human Croquet (my favourite!), Emotionally Weird, Not the End of the World, and Case Histories. She's so good. Never got round to One Good Turn (but it's on my shelf!), and now she's already got a new one out: When Will There Be Good News?.

Lisa said...

Charles, I should have characterized it more as a story evoked by Hamlet that also included bits and pieces inspired by Macbeth and King Lear, as well as The Jungle Book -- but yeah, more than ten years. You got me thinking and I feel a post coming about how long people take to write books. Thanks for the inspiration!

Olufunke, I am so glad that you are settled in your new home with a new job and things are working out so wonderfully for you. You're a real inspiration to me and an example of following your heart and having faith that you will end up where you should be. xo

Larramie, You're right! I guess I don't read too many stories with happy endings, do I? Although -- no matter how tragic the story, I'm never brought down by the them. Good thing, huh?

Very good point on the election and I think the candidates will be pressed more than usual to address how their ideas and plans will be affected by the $700B bill that looks like it will pass. What will they give up? And the other thing people would be wise to recognize that Presidents can have all kinds of wonderful plans and ideas, but those are only the start. Unless they are able to work with Congress to see their ideas realized and unless they are willing to accept compromise at times, nothing happens. The Clinton Administration learned that very painful lesson when they developed an approach to health care, but didn't get any buy-in beforehand. I figure the right ideas and intentions are a start and everything a wait and see.

Seachanges, I'm so glad I found both Atkinson and Auster and I look forward to reading more of them. If I was going to recommend only one of the Obama books, I'd actually recommend the earlier memoir. Most of what is in "The Audacity of Hope" is a combination of his what's in his "Blueprint for America" (which is on his website) and things about him, his career and family that are pretty well known and easy to find out.

I don't know that he was thinking about politics at this level when he wrote "Dreams From My Father". He was 33 (he's 47 now) and it's really a story of a man born in Hawaii (which is really nothing like the rest of the country) to a white mother and Kenyan father who left the family when he was only two (I think) -- and in large part, it's about a man with this unusual heritage trying to figure out how he fits in. It is really the closest view into who I really think he is that I've seen.

The debate is over now and I'm sure by now the word is out that both candidates did better than I think their campaigns expected them to and by and large the polls show Joe Biden winning by a large margin (and given their respective experience it would have been a shock if he hadn't), but the net result is that it probably didn't help or harm either campaign to any large degree, so it will be back to the economy and we'll see how the next Presidential debate goes.

Patti, Thanks for the recommendations. He's written so many novels that I really appreciate them. I was stunned by how much I really loved "Man in the Dark" and I can't believe I hadn't ever heard of him or read him before.

Yogamum, I was intrigued by "The Lace Reader" when I saw the book trailer (believe it or not), but then I read something on Galleycat about how the book went from being self-published to being a best seller and some ugly behavior that occurred between the author and her original publicist and it turned me off. I'm so fickle. I read about that "Potato Peel" book when it was released and it sounded like it might be good too. You'll have to tell me what you think when you finish. Don't be afraid! Things are going to get better -- I'm SURE things will have to settle down at least by the election. I think the whole country is so wound up we're about the lose it.

Melissa, Based on what you said about "Word Painting" on your blog, I'm thinking about checking it out. It sounds like you got a lot out of it, which is a good endorsement in my book!

Orchid Hunter, YOU were the one who recommended Kate Atkinson in the first place and I bought the first two books -- then a friend of mine saw "One Good Turn" on my Amazon wish list and surprised me with it after I had to send one of my recommendations. It turned into a bit of a "gift war" -- the best kind! So thank you for introducing me to her. I love her voice and her style.

kate hopper said...

Lisa, I am, as always, blown away by how much you read. (You put me to shame.) I'm adding some of these to my list, though I probably won't get to them until 2010. Sigh.

Peter said...

I'm halfway into Dreams from My Father, too. I also just picked it up recently. You're right: he's quite a writer.

Peter said...

Er, I'm halfway through Dreams from My Father. I'm totally into it! :)

Anonymous said...

Just discovered your great blog! It's like finding a new book.

I've read Edgar Sawtelle twice now, once because David W was going to be reading at a local bookstore in June and I wanted to have read it. Then again last month for a book group. I think it's one of the top five or ten novels I've ever read and I've been reading for a long time. It's destined to be a classic, in my opinion. It's got everything: a page-turner of a story, layers upon layers of meaning and metaphor, exquisite prose. I read Hamlet many years ago and though I remember the overall gist of it, it didn't come into play at all when I read the book the first time. (I was fortunate not to have read reviews or even the jacket flap.) In between reads the blatant Shakespeare (mainly names) bothered me a bit but when I read more slowly and deeply the second time, the exploration of fate and choice and life and death completely blew me away, both as a contrast to Hamlet and in the ways it differs. I've had to restrain myself from starting it again. I feel sorry for anyone who blows it off because Amazon pushed it, or because of Oprah, or because it "can't" have a deep meaning because it's such a good STORY. I'd die happy writing something even half as good. And man, those Almondine chapters...........

Rave over.:)

Lisa said...

Kate, I'm pretty sure if I had an infant and a teeny tiny little girl around all the time, my reading would be confined to the backs of cereal boxes :)

Peter, Yes, I have been pretty blown away at his writing. Did you happen to see the reprints of two of his poems that were in The New Yorker?

Mary, Welcome! Oh, I'm so glad another "Sawtelle" fan has weighed in and feels the book is as exceptional as I do. I didn't say I thought it was destined to be a classic, but I was thinking it and I agree with you. The 10+ years he took to write it really had me thinking and when I compare this to the average best seller that is written in 1-2 years, there really is no comparison. Sometimes putting the time in really does pay off. Rave anytime!

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.

Virginia Woolf