December 31, 2007

2007 Year in Review

Here are the 66 books I've read this year:

Michael Alexander Beowulf
Lewis Carroll Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass
Ernest Hemingway A Farewell to Arms
Neil D. Isaacs Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Erich Maria Remarque All Quiet on the Western Front
H.G. Wells The War of the Worlds
Isaac Asimov I, Robot
Pat Barker Regeneration
Wolfgang Benz A Concise History of the Third Reich
Ray Bradbury The Martian Chronicles
Marion Zimmer Bradley The Mists of Avalon
Bill Bryson A Short History of Nearly Everything
Italo Calvino Cosmicomics
Karel --apek War with the Newts
J.L. Carr A Month in the Country
Arthur C. Clarke Childhood's End
George Coppard With a Machine Gun to Cambrai
Phillip K. Dick Ubik
Laura Esquivel Like Water for Chocolate
Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex
Jeffrey Eugenides The Virgin Suicides
Hans Fallada Little Man, What Now?
Susan Faludi Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women
Peter Fritzsche Germans Into Nazis
Rupert Gethin The Foundations of Buddhism
Mark Haddon The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
E.T.A. Hoffmann Tales of E.T.A. Hoffmann
Michael Howard The First World War
Washington Irving The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle
P.D. James The Children of Men
Norton Juster The Phantom Tollbooth
Laurie R. King The Art of Detection
Ruth Kluger Still Alive
Ursula K. Le Guin The Left Hand of Darkness
Jean-Yves Le Naour The Living Unknown Soldier
Stanislaw Lem The Futurological Congress
Vicki Mackenzie Why Buddhism? Westerners in Search of Wisdom
Gregory Maguire Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister
Frederic Manning Her Privates We
Ian McEwan Atonement
Ian McEwan Saturday
Walter M. Miller, Jr. A Canticle for Leibowitz
Margaret Mitchell Gone with the Wind
Alice Munro Open Secrets
Joyce Carol Oates I Am No One You Know
Marge Piercy Woman on the Edge of Time
Alain Robbe-Grillet The Erasers
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban
J.K. Rowling Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
William Shakespeare Henry IV, Part One
Mary Shelley Frankenstein
Edmund Spenser The Faerie Queene: Book One
Ellyn Spragins What I Know Now: Letters to My Younger Self
Olaf Stapledon Star Maker
Patrick Süskind Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Justin Taylor The Apocalypse Reader
J.R.R. Tolkien The Tolkien Reader
H.G. Wells The Invisible Man
H.G. Wells The Island of Dr. Moreau
H.G. Wells The Time Machine
Yevgeny Zamyatin We

Some of the best were The Martian Chronicles, The Mists of Avalon, Cosmicomics, War with the Newts, and The Phantom Tollbooth. A few were disappointing, but considering that I basically discovered science fiction this year, I'm very excited for the future.

December 28, 2007

Book 66: Saturday

Ian McEwan

I had read about this book as an intricate study of the spectacular and mundane events that can be contained within a single day's time; unfortunately, I was also expecting a superb companion to Atonement, McEwan's masterpiece and literary meditation. While Saturday does have its merits and definitely displays a fascinating array of fine prose, it fails to live up to McEwan's other work and drags its feet far too much in the mundane to truly captivate readers. The premise itself is at once simple and complex; McEwan has carefully chosen his protagonist and draws him with astonishing clarity. Because the book possesses an extremely unsteady characterization-to-plot ratio, readers know Henry Perowne thoroughly before he actually does anything and, consequently, can guess at much of the plot and much of his revelations. It is here where the book begins to go slightly awry.

Perowne may be incessantly drawn out, with his thoughts exposed page in and page out, but he isn't particularly sympathetic. He is kind of a jerk, actually, and takes advantage of bourgeois medical training, compromising an already compromised man. Though he (rightfully) has doubts, his so-called concessions are slight and are condescending. Throughout the book, Henry (and McEwan) tries to mask the fact that he isn't particularly interesting, nor particularly kind or caring. Sure, he is an excellent family man, but he lacks basic sympathy. While he is not particularly vile and it is interesting to be exposed to a normal character, the depth with which Henry is presented isn't justified by Henry. He simply isn't that interesting, and the long, unnecessarily drawn out passages in which he gets lost in his daydreams are particularly uninspiring. Instead of presenting an interesting character study on the modern British everyman, McEwan settles for an absolute dullard, proving perhaps that life is boring and mundane but making for an uninteresting novel.

The plot, while contrived, is intriguing and comes in just in time to rescue the reader. I do not give up on books and I was damn determined to finish this one today, but I was lost in the quagmire and was about ready to give up when the climax came, about fifty pages too early. Instead of building suspence up to a palpable crescendo, McEwan introduces a twisting, terrifying plot element only to completely abandon it until it sneaks up on the reader again, after a midsection of utter malaise.

It isn't that McEwan is a bad, or even boring, writer. Atonement too had its long passages of reflection and suffered from a lack of concrete plot. What sets Saturday apart is its concentration on a subject that does not warrant the scope of a novel. Maybe the book does accurately detail a spectacular day in a mundane life; even when extraordinary things happen, they usually occupy only an hour or two at a time, at most. The problem is that McEwan's insights and daydreams, while vividly imagined in stunningly crafed prose, cannot alone sustain the book's 290 pages. McEwan is undoubtedly gifted, and enough of his talent shines through to make me want to read his other books, but, in the end, Saturday succeeds mostly as an argument for exaggeration and hyperbole in literature. As a meditation on the mundane, it is excellent, but that doesn't make it a particularly thrilling read.

Grade: B

December 24, 2007

Book 65: Woman on the Edge of Time

Woman on the Edge of Time
Marge Piercy

If I were pressed to describe Piercy as an author in only one word, few contenders would come even remotely close to "unapologetic". Woman on the Edge of Time is a pointed satirical utopian criticism of modern America. Written in the 1970s, what makes the book even more biting is the fact that little seems to have improved for those stuck in the same plight as Connie. Indeed, for some of the poor and some with mental disorders, society's inevitable need and desire to control everything has probably worsened things. The fact that Piercy can draw such fierce attention to these issues within the context of a highly readable (if not entirely enjoyable) novel without always being overly preachy is quite the accomplishment. The book has its moments when the feminist itch overwhelms the plot, but such steadfastness is appreciated within the all-or-nothing framework of the book. Connie is playing for the highest stakes, and Piercy makes it clear that her fight transcends her personal struggle and must be taken up by society.

The book itself is quite an interesting construction. Beginning in hard-set, grim reality, the first chapters will no doubt scare some readers with their bluntness and excessive violence. While this may be a drawback, the novel's grittiness is necessary for it to pull off its theme; Piercy holds nothing back at any point and crafts a strong novel with strong situations for her readers to react to. Piercy does this for a very distinct reason: when Connie begins time-traveling to the peaceful and completely communal Mattapoisett, the contrast between dirty modernity and utopian vision becomes even more pronounced and effective. Though it is uncertain whether Connie is indeed hallucinating or traveling to the future, the book seamlessly weaves visions of the future in with Connie's hospitalized present in various hospital wards. Mattapoisett is at first disorienting, but the quick jumps between times fit the novel thematically and contribute to an overall sense of potential achievability.

Piercy is a bit headstrong in her criticisms, and many times the reader screams, "Okay, I get it!" The book definitely does not revel in subtlety, but the alternate future(s) it creates have stunning vitality and are imagined with such force that they seem to be staring us down as we read the book. Piercy plays for all the marbles and, for the most part, wins, though her visions are a bit too utopian to ever seem a feasible future reality. The book's violent urgency thus acts as both an asset and defect; while it gives the story and Connie power, a little more restraint may have made the book more powerful and less of a rant. There are passages that seem more fit for DailyKos than for my fantastic literature class, but the book definitely has merit and its fire drives it along.

Connie herself is also vividly imagined and, crazy or not, immediately draws and demands the sympathy of the reader. She is the only aspect of the book that is faithfully exaggerated. Though she is a very strong and unique character, she is consistent and leaps off of the page into hard reality. By the book's end, we feel as though we know Connie far better than the doctors or other patients of the hospital wards. Sympathy for Connie's plight holds the book together during its flirtations with over-eagerness, and the novel hangs together through her consistency and the reader's resultant empathy.

Because of this vivid portrayal of a realistic woman, the book's final chapter (a detailed and "scientific" rundown of Connie's treatment, as seen by her doctors) really hits home and asks for change more than the most overt feminist calls to action. As the book closes, we see Connie as the doctors do and are forced to ask ourselves whether she is, in fact crazy. Doubting her, of course, opens the can of worms about mental illness and the way we treat women, ethnic minorities, and the poor in this country. Piercy seems at last to realize the virtue of subtlety and, in these final two or three pages, nails the message completely. Woman on the Edge of Time may be a very blunt object hitting you directly over the head with its radical ideology, but Marge Piercy carefully constructs a narrative that embodies the very need for her utopian vision, persuading the reader through careful fiction that there is merit in Mattapoisett.

Grade: A

December 12, 2007

Book 64: Like Water for Chocolate

Like Water for Chocolate
Laura Esquivel

Reading this book makes the movie make so much more sense! What at first seems to be nonsense and and unnecessary grandiose parade of circus-like events turns out to be a strong dose of realism and intense emotions in the original literary incarnation. Esquivel looks at life in a surprsingly new light: through food. Though my own family is connected through food in many ways, never had it occured to me that a novel could be told through recipes and their impact on the main characters. Esquivel has tapped into something very fundamental to human relations and excels in establishing and exploring the important impact that food and recipes have on lives. Forever tortured by her mother, Tita's only escape is the kitchen, and the fact that her story is told via food not only makes sense but is the cement that holds the otherwise overly-dramatic novel together.

Esquivel's decision to separate the book by months of the year, each with an accompanying recipe, does not make much sense and can distract from the story at large. Had she let the recipes do the talking, or aligned the chapters and the plot better (the first chapter, January, takes place in December), the book would have been much stronger and much more coherent. The recipes that are included are brilliantly intertwined with events in the book, with instructions coming between bouts of plot without disrupting the flow of the book. Like Water for Chocolate is definitely a structural achievement: easy to read and forcing the reader to reconsider a traditional form (the recipe book), this book takes thematic and structural integration to the next level.

Where Esquivel trips up a bit is in the plot. While the magical realism connected to food is appreciated and in fact enhances the book, other supernatural events seem tacky and distract from the overall theme of the novel. The appearances of the ghosts in the text could be presented more spiritually than realistically and still accomplish their intended function as reminders of years past. What the book does not do, however, is compromise for the mere sake of a happy ending. Tita's continual despair does take a toll on the reader, but is mitigated by the fact that she is perpetually weak and whiny, as is her lover. The book's dearth of positive characters takes a toll after a while and makes the reading experience quite depressing and somewhat grating; there is only one likable main character and they get completely screwed over. Esquivel offers what is perhaps a truer vision of life and circumstances, but it doesn't hurt to have sympathetic characters once in a while.

Like Water for Chocolate operates on two different levels. The writing is simple and clear, with a realistic storyline that digresses in one or two too many places to really resonate with the reader. The overall plot itself is not necessarily thematic, but the novel's deeper intention of revealing the importance of food to familial ties and human relations shines. It is here that the magical realism really comes through and does a great job of elucidating and providing theme. Esquivel taps into the deepest recesses of human nature and succeeds in presenting an argument for the importance of food, using fantastic elements in a carefully balanced manner. It is just unfortunate that the novel reaches a bit beyond Esquivel's abilities and tries to be universal on more than one level. The book is definitely worth reading (and I want to try some of its recipes), but don't be surprised if there are moments of frustration at Esquivel's excessive symbolism and complications.

Grade: B