Sunday, December 20, 2015

Books of 2015

My Year in Books
I've been keeping track of books I'm reading on Goodreads for the last couple of years. I find it very convenient and satisfying to log a book when I've finished it, and it's especially satisfying at this time of year to look back at what I've read. You can find me here on Goodreads.

I thought I'd share my reading list this time, since a large portion of the books I read in 2015 are taken from the assignments in two classes I took as part of Johns Hopkins' MA in Writing program. One course, entitled Heritage of Fiction I, covered the historical development of English-language novels from their beginning to the year 1900. The other, The Novel in the 21st Century, looked at new novels published since the year 2000. Maybe next year I'll concentrate more on the missing 20th century (although something tells me that this is where most of my lifetime reading has taken me.)

I've listed the books below, along with a couple words of commentary about each. I've reviewed some of these more extensively on Goodreads, so have linked to the reviews if I have them. I knew I had read 26 books so far this year, but was astounded to see Goodreads' statistics that said these 26 amounted to 9,358 pages in total. If I look at the stack of books, though, it's over two feet tall, so this does seem about right.

So, without any further throat-clearing, my list of books read in 2015:

Everything I Never Told You, by Celeste Ng - Loved this book and gave it 5 stars! Read my review here.

Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson - One of instructors at Hopkins said this was his favorite book ever, so I had to read it. I absolutely loved this Pulitzer Prize-winning masterpiece and gave it 5 stars. My review here.

Atonement, by Ian McEwan - The first book assigned in my 21st Century Novel class. I've loved other books McEwan has written, but really didn't like this at all. The author experiments with different styles of novel-writing, which is clever I suppose, but the result was a book that felt like a hodge-podge. And the main character is very unlikeable, so that didn't help.

The Lazarus Project, by Aleksandar Hemon - Also assigned for class, but this one I adored. What a great book! I loved it and want to read more by Hemon now.

The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender - I'd read several of Bender's short stories before so was prepared for a weird story. And this book did not disappoint. I really liked it and gave it this short review: "Disturbing but oh-so-well-written. Still thinking about this book, days after I finished it."
  
The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman - Really didn't like this one and found many amateurish mistakes that I've seen in student work in fiction workshops. Actually, things I've seen in workshop are often much better than this. I was astounded at all the glowing reviews. Just goes to show that sometimes it's "who you know" more than "what you know."

A Girl is a Half-Formed Thing, by Eimear McBride - A unique voice, quite experimental, but in the end I found the whole thing to be basically a gimmick. Here's my review.

Asterios Polyp, by David Mazzucchelli - A graphic novel and a really great read! I haven't read graphic novels and my only experience is as a kid reading comic books, so I was pleasantly surprised. In fact, this book may have converted me to this form.

Ardency: A Chronicle of the Amistad Rebels, by Kevin Young - This was advertised as both a "novel in verse" and a "poetry collection," but I would say the second is more accurate. Without additional information about the historical event this was based on, I would never have understood it. Unfortunately, we read this much too fast to really get into it. Poetry needs to be read more slowly than I was able to do for this book.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan - Fantastic book, and well-deserving of the Pulitzer Prize, which it was awarded in 2011. The author experiments with forms but never loses track of the story. which is amazing since the story is not told at all chronologically. I had to make a graph to straighten out all the plot twists - it was fun and illuminating to do that, actually, and I learned a great deal about writing from studying this book.

NW, by Zadie Smith - I tried to read Smith's "White Teeth" a few years ago and gave up when I couldn't get interested. This book really wasn't any better, but since it was a class assignment, I read the whole thing. Very disappointing book that I never quite saw the point of. My 2-star review is here.

Cloud Atlas, by David Mitchell - I loved this book. It was, by far, my favorite book of the 21st Century Novel course, and maybe my favorite book all year. And I read a lot of great books this year, so that's saying a lot. I had been hearing about this book for a long time, and don't know why I waited so long to read it. It's really great - so just read it!

Evidence of Things Unseen, by Marianne Wiggins - I read this book to learn how she handled a rather unique omniscient narrator, but found myself swept away by the stories and the characters. I was in tears in my first sitting and that wasn't the only time - it kept happening throughout the book. The ending is phenomenal. I don't know if I've ever felt such a wave of goosebumps sweep over me after reading a final line as I did with this book. It's really great. Read it!

A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole - I read this in about 2 days at the beach and laughed out loud through most of it. It's wonderful and I see why it's so well-loved. Such a tragedy that we lost this author at a young age. I would have loved to read more by him.

Washing the Dead, by Michelle Brafman - This debut novel is authored by an instructor at Hopkins, and I heard about it through a reading she did on campus. I read it since other people I knew said it was good - and, wouldn't you know, they weren't just saying that to be nice. It really is good! I loved it and gave it 5 stars. Here's my review.

If You Want to Write, by Brenda Ueland - I found this book on my shelf and decided to re-read it and learned all over again why I think it's one of the best writing books ever. It's really a classic and every writer should read it and read it again. My review here.

A Taste for Death, by PD James - This book held my attention for awhile, but I was pretty disappointed in it. I'd heard good things about this author and wanted to try out some of her classic detective-novel fiction, but this really wasn't particularly good. My review here.

Moll Flanders, by Daniel Defoe - This was the first book assigned in my Heritage of Fiction Class and is considered by many to be the first English-language novel ever. Since it was published in the late 1700s, the language is very difficult for a modern reader to follow, but the story is also difficult. After the class discussion I learned that, perhaps, the book is a satire - in which case I completely missed the point! Another interesting fact: Daniel Defoe also wrote Robinson Crusoe and published it even before Moll, but he claimed it was a true story, so folks don't consider it to be a novel. Of course, he also claims Moll was a real person who told him this tale, so....let's just say, novels were really different back then!

Frankenstein, by Mary Shelley - Despite its status as a classic, I found this book quite difficult to read and flawed in a number of ways. It's considered the first science fiction novel ever, though, so that's reason enough to take a look.

Pere Goriot, by Honore de Balzac - This was actually fairly entertaining and begins to include some of the features we expect in modern novels, such as realistic dialogue, description of setting, movement and action, etc. The plot of this book was "novel-worthy," too, if you ask me. Balzac tackles some important questions here and does it in a very readable way.

Emma, by Jane Austen - Believe it or not, I had never read Emma until it was assigned in this class! I know...heresy, or something. In my defense, I was a chemistry major, so who had the time? Anyhow, this book is great and Jane Austen's reputation is well-deserved. The characters and their extremely trivial concerns drove me nuts, but beneath that English-aristocracy-nonsense there were real human beings with real human concerns. And Austen tells the story in a very skillful way. One thing I was amazed by is how she developed character almost completely through dialogue. Very impressive. My review is here.

The Bondwoman's Narrative, by Hannah Crafts - This may or may not be the first novel written by a black woman, but evidence suggests it is and that she wrote it while a slave, then smuggled it out with her when she escaped on the underground railroad to the north. It's a surprisingly compelling read and actually one of the better books we read in the Heritage of Fiction class. There are many amateurish mistakes and she plagiarizes Dickens shamelessly, but the story is compelling - as is her own story, which the investigators have pieced together and include as an extensive introduction. Read my review here.

Sketches from a Hunter's Album, by Ivan Turgenev - This is a collection of character sketches, not even really full stories, written by one of the great Russian novelists before he even wrote a novel. It's quite poetic, too, and you can really tell that Turgenev was really mostly a poet. The book is historically important, as well, and apparently so moved the Tsar that he decided to free the serfs. My review is here.

Middlemarch, by George Eliot - Excellent, and a true classic. I'd actually not attempted this book before since it's so intimidatingly long (800 pages!) but had enjoyed Silas Marner and The Mill on the Floss in earlier years. Eliot is an amazing writer and I greatly enjoyed this very convoluted tale about a town in provincial England.

The Return of the Native, by Thomas Hardy - I'm actually still thinking about this book a few weeks after reading it, so that must mean something! There are so many striking images and metaphors at work in this book about life on the Egdon Heath and they've really stuck with me. I'm still mulling over all of what it means, too. Although I didn't particularly enjoy reading this at the time, it may be a book I'll go back to later.

What Maisie Knew, by Henry James - This is a psychologically complex story about a little girl caught between divorced parents who use her as a weapon in their ongoing war. Step-parents appear and make the waters even muddier and Maisie must find a way to survive the truly cruel onslaughts she's subjected to by almost all these people. This was a very difficult book to read, and not just because of the pain inflicted on this child that we are forced to witness. I actually think that James made an admirable attempt to advocate for a child caught up in such horrible circumstances - but I wish he had told this story in language that was a bit more readable! I have never seen so many phrases set between commas and parentheses - so many that by the time I reached the end of the sentence I had no idea what the verb was. And he does this over and over, which is extremely tedious. It's odd that he chose this approach, since some scenes, where he doesn't do it, really soar.

Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff - I'm putting this in my list even though I'm not done with it yet. But I will be before the year is out! It had been on my to-read list for a long time, ever since I read glowing reviews about it in the Washington Post and the NYT. And, then, President Obama said it was his favorite book of 2015 - so I decided I'd better buy it quickly before it sold out! I am about halfway through with it and not ready to say anything yet, except that things really started to heat up in the last few pages and I am now intensely interested in it.

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So, there you go: the Books of 2015! Here's to more excellent and happy reading next year...



Sunday, December 13, 2015

Seven Years and Counting

A stunning oak leaf hydrangea in my back yard
I am astounded to note that my blog is now seven years old. I started this little publication on Dec. 11, 2008, but never quite expected it to take off. And, yet, it did take off and soon I was posting monthly or weekly--sometimes even several times per week.

I am even more astounded to see that my blog is still getting several hundred views every day, despite the fact I've not posted in over a year! I hope to remedy that. Seriously. I've missed my blog, but life sometimes (often) had a way of taking over and the blog got pushed to the back burner and...well, you know how it goes.

But, just because I haven't been writing blog posts, doesn't mean I haven't been writing. I have been writing. A lot. I've written short stories, a full novel, part of another novel and even a few poems since I last posted here. I've also written a few dozen papers for the classes I've been taking as a student in Johns Hopkins' MA in Writing program.

It's that program that's been the main reason for my absence from this blog. I'm learning a lot and greatly enjoying all my classes there. It's hard to believe I've been at this for almost two years now, but it's true--I started the program in January, 2014 and hope to finish next year around this time. I also hope to post a bit more often on my blog during the coming year but I've learned my lesson about promising such things. I've announced brand new and exciting Blog Post Schedules multiple times over the last seven years and every one of those was eventually abandoned.

So, let's just say I'll be posting when I have something to say. Today probably isn't one of those occasions, except for the fact that I came upon this gorgeous display of fall color in my back yard (see above) and wanted to share it. The oak leaf hydrangea is one of my all-time favorite plants and this year it's been spectacular, possibly responding to the 70+ degree weather we are having this weekend.

Until next time....