Monday, March 2, 2009

Books I Read in December (Part II), January and February

For quite a while, I've been posting about the books I read every month, but in December, I only managed to post thoughts about half of them and I've been delaying subsequent posts ever since.

I needed to really think about what I want to say about these books, which led me to question what I was reading, why and what I hope to find. I've never intended my posts to be reviews. There are scads of places to find a standard synopsis of plot and general impressions about books. I don't want or need to try to replicate that. But in thinking about what I'm trying to get out of the books I read, I've been able to zero in on my choices and read much more closely. I plan to talk more about my reading objectives in my next post.

For now, I want to get this list out and provide a few thoughts about these books. If you've read any of these, I'd love to hear what you thought.

On Beauty, by Zadie Smith This book was the start of my problems in talking about books and I may do a separate post about it. I have not read White Teeth, but I have read a number of articles and essays by and about the author. My expectations were high and this was a very good book. What makes this book (and others that fall into the high expectation category) difficult to talk about is that I read them much more closely and tend to be a tougher critic. Zadie Smith is unquestionably a great talent. On Beauty is filled with richly drawn characters and is dense with plot and subplots. There is a point at about the halfway mark where I sensed fatigue on the author's part. I had the strange notion that the author was under tremendous pressure to finish the book and to live up to the early reputation she'd garnered. I also learned, once I'd finished the book that if one happens to be familiar with the works of E.M. Forster, one might have noticed some parallels. I'm disappointed to have not read any Forster and wish I had. I'm certain it would have further enhanced or even changed my experience with this book entirely.

God Knows, by Blayney Colmore I can never resist reading books written by people I know. By sheer chance I found this book, written by the Episcopal priest (now retired) I best remember from the church I attended through adolescence. I was delighted to find that he's also a blogger and I am very happy to be back in touch with him. I nearly finished this book in one sitting. It captures beautifully many of his thoughts and ideas about life and the nature of the world and what it's all about

Edinburgh, by Alexander Chee When I saw the blurb from Annie Dillard on the cover (I never see Annie Dillard blurbs, so this one I paid attention to), I knew I was in for something special. You can find a short plot synopsis here. Reader reactions about the story itself are conflicted, but I believe the tough subject matter has been a factor. There is no debate about the beauty of Chee's prose. I recently heard that he was a poet before he attempted long form fiction, which would explain the lyric, almost hypnotic effect the book had on me.

"Fifteen. I lose my voice. My new voice sounds like a burned string rubbing. Singing is touching, you bang the air and the air moves something inside you and the thing moved registers, says, That is a sound. When we sing to each other we are touching each other through this sleeve of air between us. When my voice changes I know this new creature is capable of no significant touch, no transformations. This voice cannot erase me, take me over and set me aside. This new voice has no light. It can barely push enough air aside to tell people, Hello, Good Morning, Good Night. I stop talking as much."

Songs for the Missing, by Stewart O'Nan This book is about the disappearance of an eighteen year old girl in Ohio and the impact the disappearance has on her family, friends and community over the course of a year. The NYTBR said this. I am sure it's a matter of taste that this book didn't satisfy me, because the reviews have all been very positive. I have no criticisms about the way the book is crafted, I just felt something was missing. Stewart O'Nan is immensely popular and I believe this is his eleventh novel.

Living by Fiction, by Annie Dillard This book changed my life and was the impetus for a complete change in perspective about reading and writing. I wrote about it briefly here. In Living by Fiction, Annie Dillard talks about the art of literature. She has inspired me to seek out the works of many of the modernists and post-modernists and to study how the best examples work. She has caused me to slow down and study novels, rather than tear through them. Dillard's approach to fiction is scholarly, yet she never takes herself too seriously and in fact, is quite funny at times. Exploring the question of whether or not fiction interprets the world:

"Complexity, subtlety, and breadth are the virtues here. If a writer is going to engage in the intellectual business of assigning meanings and showing relationships, he had better think very well. The novel of ideas had better be good...On the other hand, a novel is not a very long-playing but lightweight television set. We are no longer children, and we no longer enjoy fiction with our eyes only. We seek, as I say, a complex, subtle, and broad set of ideas...And-- importantly -- writers who have only an ear for prose and a taste for subtle surfaces may be credited with having a good deal more. We may actually assume such writers have something on their minds."

I will never see fiction again in the same way, and for that I'm grateful.

Swann's Way, by Marcel Proust I was excited enough about this book while reading it to dedicate a post to it before I was even finished. Committing to reading the whole of In Search of Lost Time or Remembrance of Things Past is to the reader what running the New York Marathon is to the casual jogger. Swann's Way is the first of seven volumes that make up the whole novel and it initially took some time to learn how to read Proust. I read with a highlighter and dictionary at hand and was constantly checking the end notes. Over time, Proust taught me how to read him and to truly love his work. The book was originally self-published and one publisher's rejection was something to the effect of "I don't see why a man should take thirty pages to describe how he turns over in bed before he goes to sleep." If you've read Proust, you're probably laughing. In contrast to the modern novel's get to the point within fifty words or less approach, this languid style takes some getting used to and I imagine, most people don't have the patience for it. But if you can weather the initial shock of bumping up against Proust's style, there is something wonderful here.

In the Shadow of Young Girls in Flower, by Marcel Proust Although I intended to spread the seven volumes of Proust's novel out over a long period of time, I was engrossed enough after Swann's Way to move on to Volume 2.

The Wordy Shipmates, by Sarah Vowell This pop-culture exploration of the Puritans and their journey to America to become John Winthrop's "city upon a hill" could not have been a more radical departure from Proust! Sarah Vowell was best known to me as that quirky voice often heard on NPR's This American Life. The Los Angeles Times Book Review (may it rest in peace) called her "a Madonna of Americana". Despite the unusual style and the humorous insights, The Wordy Shipmates draws an excellent historical picture of early American figures like Massachusetts Bay Colony governor John Winthrop, Rhode Island's Roger Williams and activist Anne Hutchinson that is informative and surprising. At times, the analogies to pop culture were intrusive -- but that's me. I think this book and this approach have made legitimate history more accessible and palatable to younger readers who might not otherwise be interested in the subject.

The Stranger, by Albert Camus I'd read Camus and Sartre in early adolescence and despite my cigarette-sneaking, black turtle-necked, angsty, brooding nature, I'm afraid the philosophical implications were lost on me at the time. I picked it up again after having watched a series of lectures on DVD about Existentialism and it made much more sense the second time around. For more The Stranger, look here.

Waiting for the Barbarians, by J.M. Coetzee After reading Disgrace, I became a fan of the South African born Coetzee. Waiting for the Barbarians is an allegorical tale about oppressors and the oppressed, set in a fictional country in an indeterminate time period. One can't help but wonder about Coetzee's roots in South Africa when reading this story, but it's not long before one's musings about the story become broader even than that.

Pale Fire, by Vladimir Nabokov I'd read Lolita (more than once, actually) and although I'd heard of Pale Fire, I knew nothing about it when I began to read. The novel is structured around a 999 line unpublished poem, written by a recently deceased fictional poet and narrated by his fictional friend and neighbor. This is an amazing example of successful metafiction. I am not a huge fan of metafictional novels because so many are (in my opinion) more style than substance. Not so with Pale Fire. This novel is one of those few where I was dazzled by the concept, the prose and the elegance of it the entire way through. I would imagine there are scholars who've spent entire careers studying and interpreting this work.

The Adventures of Augie March, by Saul Bellow Reading novels written decades ago is sort of like getting off a freeway, driving into a rural village and getting out to stroll. I have an almost visceral change in posture when I pick up one of these older, bigger books and I feel like I have all the time in the world to give to them -- and they generally do need more time and patience.

English-born writers and literary critics Christopher Hitchens and Martin Amis have both noted that The Adventures of Augie March is certainly on the short list of Great American Novels if you consider the definition to encompass a story that focuses on life in America within a given time period.

"I am an American, Chicago born -- Chicago, that somber city -- and go at things as I have taught myself, freestyle, and will make the record in my own way: first to knock, first admitted; sometimes an innocent knock, sometimes a not so innocent. But a man's character is his fate, says Heraclitus,, and in the end there isn't any way to disguise the nature of the knocks by acoustical work on the door or gloving the knuckles."

Wikipedia describes the novel this way: "The Adventures of Augie March (1953) is a novel by Saul Bellow. It centers on the eponymous character who grows up during the Great Depression. This picaresque novel is an example of bildungsroman, tracing the development of an individual through a series of encounters, occupations and relationships from boyhood to manhood."

Bellow, like Proust is a writer who demands patience. I read this novel with highlighter in hand, as I do Proust as the author frequently makes references to historical figures and events that aren't necessarily well known (at least not to me). I recently read a quote from Norman Mailer about Saul Bellow where he accused him of reading a million books, but not really having any ideas. I thought was an interesting comment as Bellow's familiarity with a huge body of literature comes through quite clearly in his work, but I don't know that I agree with the second part of his comment.

I kept the highlighter handy for a second reason. Bellow was an incredible writer. I often like to highlight especially fine passages in books I read to refer back to them later, but in the case of this book, I found myself tempted to highlight nearly everything! His descriptions of people, in particular, captivated me.

"He was a beer saufer; droopy, small, a humorist, wry, drawn, weak, his tone nosy and quinchy, his pants in creases under his paunch; his nose curved up and presented offended and timorous nostrils, and he had round, disingenuous eyes in which he showed he was strongly defended. He was a tio listo, a carnival type, a whorehouse visitor. His style was that of a hoofer in the lowest circuit, doing a little cane-swinging and heel-and-toe routine, singing, "I went to school with Maggie Murphy," and telling smokehouse stories while the goofy audience waited for the naked star to come out and begin the grinds. He had a repertory of harmless little jokes, dog yipes, mock farts; his best prank was to come up behind and seize you by the leg with a Pekinese snarl."

Throughout Augie March's journey, he encounters and often returns to dozens of characters. The dialog and discussions between them are full of ideas.

"Boredom starts with useless effort. You have shortcomings and aren't what you should be? Boredom is the conviction that you can't change. You begin to worry about loss of variety in your character and the uncomplimentary comparison with others in your secret mind, and this makes you feel your own tiresomeness. On your social side boredom is a manifestation of the power of society. The stronger society is, the more it expects you to hold yourself in readiness to perform your social duties, the greater your availability, the smaller your significance. On Monday you are justifying yourself by your work. But on Sunday, how are you justified? Hideous Sunday, enemy of humanity. Sunday you're on your own -- free. Free for what? Free to discover what's in your heart, what you feel toward your wife, children, friends, and pastimes. The spirit of man, enslaved, sobs in the silence of boredom, the bitter antagonist. Boredom therefore can arise from the cessation of habitual functions, even though these may be boring too. It is also the shriek of unused capacities, the doom of serving no great end or design, or contributing to no master force. The obedience that is not willingly given because nobody knows how to request it. The harmony that is not accomplished. This lies behind boredom. But you see the endless vistas."

I loved this book and will be reading much more Saul Bellow.

The Easter Parade, by Richard Yates I'm an enormous Woody Allen fan and bought this book some time ago because his characters in "Hannah and Her Sisters" mention it. With all the talk about Revolutionary Road recently, I decided it was time to read Richard Yates.

The Easter Parade is the story of two sisters, who live different, but individually tragic lives and is told over the course of four decades, beginning in the 1930's. The book has one of the best first sentences I've read in a long time:

"Neither of the Grimes sisters would have a happy life, and looking back it always seemed that the trouble began with their parents' divorce."

The book is told from the point of view of the younger sister, Emily and I was quite taken with the intimacy and accuracy the author brought to a female character. The writing is spare and beautiful and the story was poignant and painful.

On a separate note, this book is the type of story that I believe people are talking about when they claim that literary fiction is depressing.

* * *


Carleen Brice said...

Perfect examples of different strokes for different folks. I appreciate that unlike so many other bloggers you don't assume your opinion is the same as reality, i.e. taste is a very subjective thing and your writings here acknowledge that.

Ello said...

Wow What a huge diverse group of books! I actually do not know more than half of these and have read none! I'll have to look into many of these now!

Elizabeth said...

Lisa, these comments are really great. I've read most of the books here but look forward eagerly to the Annie Dillard (have read everything of hers except for that!)and Alexander Chee. I so admire your ability to review such a disparate bunch of fiction and wonder why you aren't writing for some big publication! But thanks for writing for the humble crowd, anyway...

Charles Gramlich said...

The only one of these I've read is "the STranger" and that was quite some time ago. Most of my reading in Jan/Feb was all genre stuff, a lot of it western themed.

Denis said...

Jesus, it's like waiting for the Blue whale to broach! How deep did it dive and where the hell did it go? No rational human being would read Marcel Proust and Saul Bellow in the same decade. Whatever happened to Watership Downs? Don't cut your ear off, OK!

Sustenance Scout said...

OK I was laughing at your last line about literary fiction and then completely lost it when I read your uncle's comment! You had me at Bellow (the Dillard book is already at the top of my nonfiction tbr list) but Proust is way way way over my head. WOW to the overall list, what a mix! K.

pattinase (abbott) said...

Lisa-Watching you push yourself to read great books is insi]pirational. I've read some of these. I agree something was missing, more than a girl, in the O'Nan book. Try A Prayer for the Dying and be amazed. Or SNOW ANGELS. I loved Bellow's early books like this one--he got too cerebral later. I love all of Richard Yates. Read the recent bio of him if you want to understand his writing-he was one depressed guy. WHITE TEETH was perhaps the most amazing book by a twenty-something I've ever read.

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

I really liked the O'Nan book--but as I read I realized I was reading it as a writer--really paying attention to the narrative voices and how he dealt with the subject matter. i think that made a difference. I also really appreciated Easter Parade. I need to catch up with most of the others.

Great list and comments, Lisa. Thanks!

steve on the slow train said...

I read "Assassination Vacation," or listened to it, read by the auhtor in her rather annoying voice, but it was fascinating. I'll see if I can check out the audio version of "Wordy Shipmates." Reagan lifted the "City on the Hill" remark from Winthrop, and added the adjective "shining," thus changing Winthrop's message entirely.

I'll see if I can get hold of a copy of "God Knows." It sounds interesting, especially for an Episcopalian like me.

P.S. The high school English departments of America seem to be obsessed with assigning depressing fiction to their students. Our generation may have had a hard time with Dickens, Twain, Austen, etc., but reading it wasn't depressing.

Lisa said...

Carleen, Thank you and your comment means a lot. Trying to express my thoughts on books as coming only from my opinions and tastes is my goal. I'm with you. I really don't care for it when someone declares that a book is no good...period...just because it wasn't his or her cup of tea. I found a couple of older posts from some litbloggers where they actually wrote out their statements of intention about books and what they look for. I'm hoping to do something similar so that my opinions are clearly qualified, based on my own individual criteria.

Ello, Edinburgh, by Alexander Chee was a Moonrat recommendation. I'm not saying you might be interested because he's Korean-American, but...he's Korean-American if that's of interest :)

Elizabeth, I think you might like the Alexander Chee and I know you'll like the Annie Dillard. I just got Pilgrim at Tinker Creek after you and my Uncle Denis gave it raves. You are too nice. I always feel woefully ill-equipped to talk about books because I never feel like I'm doing them justice.

Charles, I think at one point or another it's almost mandatory to read The Stranger!

Denis, HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!! You crack me up. I think you and Elizabeth have about the same opinion about Proust, the guy. You mentioned him whining for 50 pages about whether or not his mother was going to come up and kiss him goodnight and Elizabeth had made similar comments about his milque-toastiness :)

Karen, I'm still laughing too! I'll see you and Carleen on Friday...hooray!

Patti, You've read a ton of books I'd like to. Good note on later Bellow. I read RAVELSTEIN and I liked it, but it didn't get to me like this one. I recently read an article about Yates' last ten years and it sounds like he lived alone in a crappy little place, hooked up to an oxygen tank and only got out when his ex-grad students would pick him up. Pretty sad -- but he appeals to me anyway and I want to read his short stories and probably REVOLUTIONARY ROAD. And - now I want to read WHITE TEETH too.

Judy, It really makes quite a difference where a book falls in the batting order for me. A book that falls somewhere in between Nabokov, Proust and Bellow is probably going to seem a little flimsy, even if it's very good compared to its contemporaries, I think. As a matter of fact, if I had just gotten my first novel published I wouldn't want me reading it!

LarramieG said...

IF only you could teach a class, head a seminar or hold an online book club on one of your "lighter" monthly selections, it would be fantastic Lisa.

Actually I have another idea...hope to share with you soon.

...e... said...


debra said...

(o) very tired.....

Vesper said...

Thank you for these varied reviews! It is such a pleasure for me even to read about these books. I must say I envy you (but not in a bad way) for the impressive number of books that you read every month...

Leslie said...

Love your blog, love your reading habits. I aspire to read like you someday (soon), Lisa!
Okay, gushing over. Time to go retire with my latest bestseller ;-)
<3, Leslie

Riss said...

Two things: Nabakov is my hero. I read Pale Fire in the bookstore. Like, sitting on the floor in front of the shelf and not moving..

And I'm curious about trying to read some Proust now. Hm...maybe. We'll see.

Claudia said...

What a list of great books! I'm afraid to admit that I've only read The Stranger and another Zadie Smith book, but you've given me a few more to look into. I'm intrigued by Proust now and I've been meaning to get into Coetzee for some time.

Patry Francis said...

An impressive list. I really related to your words about Saul Bellow. His digressions are marvelous. I think my favorite is Herzog. Though I read it in college, I still remember the opening page.

Seachanges said...

Lisa - this is another one of your great posts: too much to take in at one reading so I'll come back to it. Meanwhile I've left a little surprise for you on my site - have a look: my comment is really confirmed by this post!

kate hopper said...

As always, I so enjoy your reading reviews, Lisa. And as always, I'm envious of how many books you read. Thank you so much for taking the time to discuss these here.

Greg said...

Hey Lisa,

It's been awhile since I've checked out your posts, but you're obviously still crackin' away. You've read so many books already in 2009. It's pretty impressive to have such a literary cousin. I added your site to my list so I can read what's new in the world of literature.

Check out my new post at when you get a chance. It's just about capital markets, but maybe you'll pull something helpful or interesting from it.

Lisa said...

Larramie, If only someone qualified to talk about books would do it, I'd love it!

Thanks for stopping in "e"

Debra, Take a've been busy with amazing creative endeavors.

Vesper, The number of books is decreasing with the increasing difficulty of the selections :)

Leslie, Definitely read the books my friends have written (I already have), and skip the dead guys :) If you haven't done so yet, I insist you get thee to Amazon immediately (they deliver to Holland, right?) and read Orange Mint & Honey, Souvenir, All the Numbers, Tethered, Catching Genius, One Sister's Song, Leaving Atlanta...I know I'm forgetting some, but start with those!

Riss, I love the image of you sitting quietly on a bookstore floor somewhere with Nabokov!

Claudia, I won't push Proust on anyone...that's a choice each person has to take responsibility for, but I am certain you will be glad you've read Coetzee. I've only read "Disgrace" and "Waiting for the Barbarians", but he's written quite a few and from what I hear, you can't go wrong with any of them.

Patry, I've got a used copy of Herzog right here and I just bought Humboldt's Gift after reading that a Denver poet I admire quite a bit was quite influenced by it. I really like Bellow a lot.

Kate, I am so glad you stopped in. I enjoy these books so much that I figure someone besides my poor husband has to hear me gush about them. Thanks for allowing me to do it.

Greg, This year you probably won't see a lot of new books. I've got quite a few older ones in my stack to read, but please keep checking back anyway.

I stopped over at your place and I'm going to have to put some time aside to go back and carefully read and see if I can understand anything!

Khaled KEM said...

wow...I am really impressed by how many books you read..thanks for the review..I will try to check them all..

Steve Malley said...

I always love these posts: you're a hell of a reader and a damn fine critic! Thanks!!

susan said...


I chose your blog for my "This is How You Do It", Weekly Geek post.

Thank you for the fine reads.

Subscribe Now: Feed Icon

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