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I’ve long wanted to keep a list of books I’ve read but have never managed to find a method that works. Here is another attempt, along with brief and personal notes. (Unless otherwise mentioned, the books are all novels.)

February 2013

How Should a Person Be? by Sheila Heti

I think if I were younger and/or a different person, I would have loved this novel. It’s experimental but readable, it’s got an interesting process-story (Heti did actually record conversations and transcribe them), and it’s blunt. I did like the bluntness, and the way it surprised me and made me realize that novels don’t usually sound this way. But, I did not love the novel because I did not love the voice, and the whole project got a bit tiresome. I read most of it, skimmed the rest.

Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, by D.T. Max

My daughter keeps telling me I’m obsessed with David Foster Wallace. She does not know about the truly obsessed. I did enjoy this biography; I felt it illuminated the man and the writer in a straightforward style.

January 2013

I’m in an unlucky cycle of unfinished novels:

Prosperous Friends, by Christine Schutt

Toby’s Room, by Pat Barker

May We Be Forgiven, by A.M. Homes

Where’d You Go, Bernadette, by Maria Semple

The general reason why I decided to abandon these books after reading at least half, and in some cases more, was that I just didn’t become attached. I didn’t care enough, about the characters, or the language, or the themes, to want to find out more, to want to be in the particular world the author created any longer. But it’s a weirdly sad experience, that feeling of detachment, and I can’t help but wonder if it’s not them, but me.

Swimming Home, by Deborah Levy

I’ll begin with the end: On the last few pages, I was swept away by this novel, emotional to the point that I felt angry with the author for putting me in such a state, and then I turned to the first page to start again, to understand how she did it. Levy’s short novel is, from the beginning, bright with physical objects that the writing reminds you have meaning, are symbols without being stand-ins, metaphors that build a puzzle but without being tricks:  a heavy chair dragged between two loungers, a blow-up ET, a rat in the kitchen. Because there is, even for a short novel, a slightly long build-up, a kind of waiting period, waiting for more meaning, waiting for deeper understanding, I almost lost interest. But only almost, in part because the surfaces were interesting enough to keep me going, what they pointed me to made me curious. And then when the meaning hits, when the characters finally say things directly, perhaps because of the waiting, and because all that the language describes has accumulated in your mind, it hits hard and deep.

The Elephant Keeper, by Christopher Nicholson

Another novel I didn’t finish. While I enjoyed learning about elephants, the reactions to them in England, the relationship the narrator has with them, that wasn’t enough to make me want to keep going.

December 2012

Arcadia, by Lauren Groff

In all the end-of-year, best books lists I’ve been reading, somewhere someone wrote that she or he liked Arcadia best so I ordered it from the library and read it in the rapid way I believe it was meant to be read (because within the parts the novel is divided into, there are no chapter breaks, only a kind of flowing, encouraging white space). While the novel, which is told from a sort of loose third-person focus on Bit (also an interesting device, getting the most of a close POV while also giving us the sweep of omniscience), the main character, tells the story of a commune in the 70s, the people who worked to realize the ideals of the community, and later how it fell apart. I was only a bit disappointed by its move into the future, which for some reason felt too familiar a move these days. What stands out for me about this novel are the people, slightly archetypal, but because of this, arresting, memorable, and their relationships.

We the Animals, by Justin Torres

A nugget of a novel, hard and concentrated, each short chapter a bite into the world of the narrator’s family. I enjoyed Torres’ book on several levels, the way he allowed the reader to be immediately inside the home, seeing things through the eyes of one of this pack of boys who had to learn how to grow up from their sometimes brutal, something loving parents. Characters were finely drawn, the language strong without being show-offy–the animal-theme from the title beautifully extended. While I was not surprised by the last few chapters, and I understand why they needed, from a certain perspective, to be there, I was disappointed by their inclusion. I wanted to the book to continue to be what it had been.

Gone Girl, by Gillian Flynn

Several lists are calling this one of the best books of its kind of 2012. This novel weaves an intricate psychological plot of two people tormenting each other in a marriage. The voices are well-done, there is humor, it feels contemporary; I was drawn in and excited to continue, especially after about the half-way point. There was even a moment when I felt a glimmer of a hope for something more, social commentary, insights into marriage, gender roles–and there was a little bit of that. But, in the end, because the characters were rather far removed from anyone I know or would want to know (or be), the book didn’t take off into something meaningful.

November 2012

Carry the One, by Carol Anshaw

I feel lucky to have read so many books I liked this month, but even in this good month, Anshaw’s novel is one of my favorites. In the first chapter, a girl is killed in a car accident, and the subsequent chapters follow the people who feel in some way at fault through more than twenty years of their lives. The primary point-of-view characters are three compellingly drawn siblings, in their early twenties at the beginning of the novel, each struggling with patterns of behavior or personality traits that both define who they are and their struggle. I felt close to the novel because the characters are around my age, come from a difficult family, and have some similar ways of thinking about the world, both interior and exterior. The book is funny, the language often exquisite, and Anshaw resists reduction while she uses the initial tragic event as a continued focal point.

The Age of Miracles, by Karen Thompson Walker

My thirteen year old daughter recommended I read this dystopia, which she read as part of a book group in her class. When I finished, we agreed that the novel got better if you kept reading, that the narrator did not feel eleven, more like thirteen going on fourteen, and that the story of the slowing was pretty freaky and compelling. There is a certain narrative distance, a retrospective narrator who stays quite cool throughout, but it’s a quick read, and certainly the idea behind it stays with you.

It’s Fine By Me, by Per Petterson

I worried that I wouldn’t enjoy this novel as much as I have Petterson’s others but I did. It’s a smaller book, takes on less history, less drama, but the voice of the first-person narrator, Audun, a young man, is as engaging as in Petterson’s previous novels.

Beautiful Ruins, by Jess Walter

Called by Laura Miller the best audiobook of the year, Beautiful Ruins follows several characters, with the main action taking place in the 1960s in Italy and in contemporary Los Angeles. Maybe I would have liked it better on the page, because I had a hard time becoming, and staying, involved. The narrator gave some character Italian accents, which struck me as odd since during long stretches all the characters are speaking Italian. I admire the writer for taking on famous movie actors, and weaving a story skillfully through time, but something was missing for me.

Other People’s Children, by Joanna Trollope

A highly consumable and yet still subtle novel about divorce and remarriage and raising, as the title says, other people’s children. I listened to this book, and it was a pleasure from the first words. Trollope thankfully resists happy endings.

The Life of Objects, by Susanna Moore

For me, The Life of Objects became increasingly interesting as I got deeper into the novel. The narrator is a young woman who has left her native Ireland to travel to Berlin in the late 1930s with a woman she hardly knows in order to become the personal lace-maker to a rich family. As the reader suspects, and the narrator, as she gains experience and Germany prepares for and embarks into an aggressive war, understands, there are more complicated reasons behind most everything. The novel’s perspective on what Germans knew and did not as the war and its atrocities unfold is one worth considering and ultimately the novel, while sometimes frustratingly distant, was a satisfying read.

The Garden of Evening Mists, by Tan Twan Eng

The most gorgeous book I’ve read in a while, The Garden of Evening Mists shifts between three historical time periods, the frame–1970s Malaysia, the story the narrator looks back on–1950s Malaya, and the time furthest in the distance but still carried with anger–1940s, WWII. The geographical setting is always the highlands near Penang, a Japanese detention camp where the narrator suffered multiple cruelties, and the tea plantation and Japanese garden where the narrator seeks to carry out her sister’s wishes and make some peace with what happened to her. The lush vegetation, the elements of weather… all are described in both realistic and figurative language, deepening the reader’s immersion in the world of the novel. At times the novel moves slowly, but it’s well worth continuing to understand how the lives and histories of all the characters collide and how the narrator finds some peace.

October 2012

The Eclipse, by John Banville

I was all set to give John Banville another try, and had the ambitious plan of reading up to and including the novel  just published–three books that apparently form a trilogy. I started with Eclipse, and while I enjoyed it initially, the language mostly, and certain interesting flashes of character, I got bored being in the head of the main character, not sufficiently interested in the story of his self-banishment to the house in the country.

The Submission, by Amy Waldman

Again, reality proved less exciting than anticipation. This novel, which imagines an anonymous competition for plans for a 9/11 memorial and the results when the jury unknowingly chooses a garden designed by a Muslim-American architect, did not move me. I knew immediately that I wouldn’t love it; it just felt too well-written but in a high-end-chain-store-bakery kind of way, but the accumulation of characters who might have been interesting… I felt like I had bought what looked like a really good croissant and then wished I was eating something else.

The Lifeboat, by Charlotte Rogan

I couldn’t help but love the story of this author getting her book published–first novel, woman, in her fifties–but I don’t love the novel as much. There is a detached tone that isn’t working to immerse me. I’m reading primarily to find out what happens, on the lifeboat in the Atlantic in 1914, and at the trial afterwards, which isn’t enough for me to be deeply involved.

The Fault in our Stars, by John Green

This YA novel tells the story of two teenagers who find each other when they are both living with cancer. Sad from page one, the wit and critique of platitudes often involved in illness make the book bearable.

The Imperfectionists, by Tom Rachman

Each regular chapter of this novel focuses on a character in some way connected to an English language newspaper in Rome–the obituary writer, a copy editor, a reader–and set in contemporary time. Between these chapters are another set of chapters, in italics, that tell the history of the paper itself. If it weren’t for these italicized chapters, this book wouldn’t read like a novel. I enjoyed reading it, though the stories are devastating, each character in one way or another pushed around by life, but not because of history or poverty but because of the small, poisoned streams that can run through each of our lives. They are all, for the most part, deeply unhappy. And yet they continue.

Carpathia, by Cecilia Woloch

I find it much harder to know what to write about books of poems. I was enchanted by these, evocations of the nature in cities, weather, birds, bodies, and especially the prose poems, with titles that included where they were written and who they were for.

September 2012

Once Upon a River, by Bonnie Jo Campbell

I was simultaneously taken and not taken by this book. The river, the land, the main character’s interaction with the flora and fauna of the area–all of it was intriguing. But the story, girl gets cast out, or casts herself out, of her home, is violated and violent, searches for a life that can be hers–somehow I was at arm’s length from this and I’m not sure yet why. I kept having the feeling that I was reading something that was set in the more distant past (Margo hunts and fishes), and while the story is engrossing, I wanted it to offer more to present day readers.

Wild, by Cheryl Strayed

I gulped this memoir down in a few days of pleasure. I enjoyed Strayed’s story and her writing. It didn’t rock my world, though, and I wonder whether it would have if I had read it as a young woman. When do books strike us deeply–is it timing, the writing style and structure, something else?

Say Her Name, by Francisco Goldman

I remember sobbing while reading Goldman’s piece in the New Yorker about the death of his young wife, Aura, on a beach in Mexico. I’d saved reading this book for a time I needed to get at some sad feelings, and release them. Sadly, the book was disappointing. It felt unfinished, loose in a way that I didn’t like, perhaps too nostalgic. I kept thinking that it was too much, to write a good book about the death of someone you loved as much as he loved Aura.

August 2012

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, by Rebecca Skloot

In an extremely readable book of non-fiction, Rebecca Skloot takes readers through the story of Henrietta Lacks, her illness, death, and “immortality” through the cancer cells that were taken from her body without her or her family’s knowledge and used for important research. The book is at its most powerful when Skloot describes her encounters with Henrietta’s children, especially her daughter Deborah, who the author forms a complicated relationship with as she researches not only Henrietta, but also her first daughter, who died in an institution, and the history of medical ethics.

Gods Without Men, by Hari Kunzru

I got through a bit over half this novel before my interest faded, and I might have kept reading if I hadn’t had another novel tempting me. It’s the geographical setting–western U.S. dessert–that holds the various characters and plot lines of this novel together, and Kunzru samples past, present, and future in an attempt to create a kind of mosaic. Perhaps if I had given it more time, a picture would have emerged, but for me, the stories felt too separate and not building to a larger, more interesting whole so while I was partial to one (the narrator of which is a Sikh-American man with a young, autistic son), I read the others only to get back to it.

By the Lake, by John McGahern

Hard to get into, but once I was in, I was enchanted by the community of characters living on this lake in Ireland.  Much of the book is presented in dialogue, with quirky, thoughtful individuals thinking and talking about what it is to be human. It is like overhearing the best bits of conversation.

How to be a Woman, by Caitlin Moran

This hilarious book should be on everyone’s Must Read list. Moran writes about such topics as why we should reclaim the term “strident feminist,” what the current craze for waxing has to do with feminism, and the pros and cons of a variety of names for our female parts. Read the book and laugh, but don’t be fooled: her message is profoundly serious.

Another Country, by James Baldwin

I must have first read this novel in my early twenties. All I remember is that I loved it, and that it made me want to drink scotch. I love it again, but in a more watchful way, as if before I was in love with the book, and now I love it. The way Baldwin tackles raw, intense, and often conflicting emotions, brings them through the body and into relationship, explosive, painful, with the world, is quite remarkable.  I probably sensed even back then that I would never become a drinker, nor do I have the ambition now; instead the novel makes me want to write with more force, cut away the soft bits, the pleasing stuff, and shock, with thought, with emotion, with description and analysis of place and time and people that takes the reader over.

July 2012

In the Garden of Beasts, byErik Larson

This book focuses on the experiences of the American ambassador to Germany in the years 1933 and 1934. I found it interesting on a number of levels, from the frustrations of Ambassador Dodd with the wealth and empty socializing he encountered in his new life in Berlin to the portraits of high-ranking Nazi officials and the ruthlessness with which they terrorized individuals and the country at large, to the clueless enthusiasm Hitler was greeted with. Well-worth the time to read.

The Sense of an Ending, by Julian Barnes

From the moment I started this novel, I loved the voice, the casual, speaking-to-the-reader tone of it, and without self-consciousness. I was also drawn to the content, the main character’s attempt to understand time, and how it passes, and how we are different now (older) than we were when we were young, and what this difference consists of, and what we have “failed” to remember. In the end, though, I felt let down. The novel raised such interesting questions but, perhaps because of the requirements of the plot, it failed, in my view, to follow with insightful and complicated enough answers.

Leaving the Atocha Station, by Ben Lerner

This novel, told in the first person, tells the story of a young American poet living for several months in Madrid. The character, who muses with regularity about whether he is a fake or not, how poetry and art do or do not affect individuals and the world, and what it means to live in a language, among other topics, is strangely sympathetic. Perhaps it’s the right novel for the moment, since I’m in Berlin and living between languages, but it also makes me recall other times abroad, and the kind of heightened, and sometimes torturing, self-awareness and doubt that comes, as well as the desire to stay.

June 2012

Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeannette Winterson

Winterson has written quite a lot of fiction with some autobiographical content, but this memoir takes a direct and difficult look at her adoption and upbringing, and the effects of this on her as a writer and someone looking for love and relationship. Her style, while she tells the quite appalling story of how her mother would lock her out of the house or in the coal hole all night, is engaging and funny, and her musings at the end about what it means to live, to fully live, are moving and illuminating.

Lit, by Mary Karr

Disclaimer: I didn’t finish this memoir, so I don’t have the full picture. The book is billed as telling the story of Karr’s alcoholism, and I was expecting more about that, more psychology and perhaps even science. Instead there was a lot of family life, there were coming-of-age stories, rich in detail, but to me unsatisfying.

When Things Fall Apart, by Pema Chodron

I reread this book by the Tibetan monk and writer every few years when I am in need of her kind of wisdom. The good thing is that I always kind of forget it so when I read it again it feels new and revelatory. It’s easy to forget to lean into the hard times, particularly during those times when the impulse is to turn away.

Heft, by Liz Moore

A friend recommended this novel, and listed a number of others who’d liked it; later she called and said that it might be kind of cheesy, or sort of young-adult. I read the novel, told in two first-person voices, one a grossly obese former college instructor, the other an eighteen year-old high school senior, and enjoyed the story of their lives. Yes, it was a little cheesy, and it did feel, increasingly, like a YA novel. There is a simplicity to it, and a simplification in terms of plot movement and relative happy endings. But what the author does beautifully is inhabit the bodies and minds of her two characters. I felt  I was seeing the world through their eyes, and their eyes are unique.

Portrait of the Mother as a Young Woman, by Friedrich Christian Delius

This brief novel, set in Rome in 1943, rests the mind and body of a young, pregnant woman awaiting the return of her husband from where he is stationed in Africa. We walk with her for an hour to a church that offers a service in German, and hear her thoughts about Italians, the war, her husband, the baby moving inside her. What is mesmerizing is that the novel is told in one long sentence, divided into short paragraphs, with each paragraph ending on a comma, and the new paragraph, indented slightly more than the usual five spaces, beginning. I mention this because it continued to strike me through my entire reading, in part for its originality and in part because it worked so well for the story.

Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman

I have to return this non-fiction book to the library today even though I haven’t finished it, but from only reading the first part, I’ve learned a lot. The author, a psychologist who won a Nobel Prize in Economics, describes two brain processes, the fast, automatic intuitive one, and the slow, deliberate, difficult and tiring one. He describes experiments that show how these two different processes work. It’s fascinating stuff, though the book itself is rather slow.

The Night Circus, by Erin Morgenstern

A pleasant patchwork of a novel, set in the late 1800s, that tells the romantic tale of two magicians, a competition, and a circus. The plot builds and twists and it was quite fun (to listen to while I got exercise on the stationary bike). I had a similar feeling to the one I had with Heft that I was reading a young adult novel, a certain lightness, entertaining, not moving me into difficult territory–though when I consider this as even a partial definition, I know I’m wrong. I’ve read plenty of fiction marketed to the teenage audience that takes on a whole lot.

May 2012

A Gate at the Top of the Stairs, by Lorrie Moore

I’ve never read anything by Moore before, so of course I was immediately wowed by her language. Her descriptions, her metaphors and similes, the images she creates and carries through–gorgeous and funny and powerful. This novel takes a young Midwestern woman through a bit over a year of her life, the mostly peculiar encounters she has with others. For a long way into it, I thought I loved the language, but wasn’t moved by the story itself, but by the end that had changed.

The Forgotten Waltz, by Anne Enright

I’m still wondering about this novel by Enright, which tells the story, in the first person, of a love affair. I liked the voice, retrospective, non-linear, at times extremely honest and funny, with a very individual way of seeing the world, but I also kept feeling that in the end it was the story of an affair. The choice of a non-traditional, non-realist style did not do much, if anything, to get me to see it, understand it, or feel it differently. I guess I’m just surprised. I hoped it would have done more.

The Spare Room, by Helen Garner

I read Monkey Grip, a novel by the same author, years and years ago, and, brief as it was, it has stayed with me, quite physically, along with a handful of others over the years. It’s impossible to say today whether her recent novel will but it’s a moving, emotionally powerful book. The narrator recounts what happens and what she feels during the three-week stay of a close friend, who has come to her city to undergo experimental cancer treatments.

Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonson

I found this story of an elderly British man and his relationship with a Pakistani-British woman entertaining and predictable. Besides the fact that I felt like I guessed everything that was about to happen, what stood out for me about this novel was the vividness of the characters.

April 2012

By Blood, by Ellen Ullman

A strange experience, reading this novel about a man listening in on therapy sessions in which a young adopted woman goes in search of her birth mother and learns the story of her origins in Nazi Germany. I felt the novel set up was completely contrived (without acknowledging this), many of the characters cliched, but I was also kind of riveted to the unfolding story. Plot is such a powerful thing.

The Resilient Writer: Tales of Rejection and Triumph from 23 Top Authors, by Catherine Wald

I’d been saving this book to read post-rejection, but one afternoon I picked it up, thinking I’d read an interview and instead reading the whole thing straight through. Wald chose an interesting bunch of writers and the selections are short, but the questions get into more than just how writers handle rejection. The writers, mostly literary, talk about how they see themselves, how they approach their writing. It felt like the right thing at the right time.

The Paris Wife, by Paula McLain

As all the blurbs proclaim, this novel tells the story of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife. This is ironic because in the novel, the character Hadley laments the fact that she will probably be known this way. But it is not just the book jacket that does not fulfill her wish to be fully seen for herself; the novel itself focuses heavily on the Hemingway character. It’s a good story, and set in an interesting time, and there are a few insights into the complicated nature of marriage, but I wanted to get a more vivid feeling for Hadley.

Fraud, by David Rakoff

I heard David Rakoff on the radio and thought he was very funny. And he is. His essays have personality, and show things about him that are not considered especially popular these days. He writes, for example, that one of the reasons he likes New York City so much is because he gets to be indoors as much as possible. After reading several essays, I felt there was something missing, though, some deeper or more cohesive message outside of who is he.

March 2012

Imagine, by Jonah Lehrer

Yes, there are problems with this book about creativity, but man is it fun to read. Lehrer, like Malcolm Gladwell, writes in an inviting way about really interesting ideas and illuminates them with memorable examples. He goes from neuroscience to schools to businesses, giving real life examples about creative people and eras. And like Gladwell, he overgeneralizes sometimes, but that isn’t a reason not to read the book.

The Sisters Brothers, by Patrick deWitt

The peculiar voice of this novel got me interested right away. Eli, the younger Sisters brother, tells the story of the two brothers’ journey to California during Gold Rush time. The brothers are hired killers, after a man for reasons that become clear as Eli wonders whether he’s suited for the job. In the end, it was a fun read (considering the violence) that didn’t provoke deep thoughts or feelings.

Soulstorm, by Clarice Lispector

A collection of very short stories by Lispector, who I’d heard about but never read, that my advisor recommended to me. They are strange pieces, bare yet rich, concerned with life and death and love in a way that stays with me when I’m done, wondering whether I dreamed it.

This Is Not the Story You Think It Is, by Laura Munson

The right book for the right day–a memoir about not letting one’s sense of well-being be controlled by forces outside one’s control.

C, by Tom McCarthy

Strange, because I was expecting something, well, stranger. Or more heady. Or–I don’t know. Zadie Smith made such a fuss about Tom McCarthy, and how his previous novel was the future, the answer to the dilemma the contemporary novel had sunk into. I enjoyed C for the most part. The degree of detail, the specificity, is astonishing and mostly well-portioned, the story–basically of a young British man before WWI in an odd family of scientists and the deaf, during the war, and in Egypt, after–engaging. But I felt always like I was watching, never completely in the world of the novel, never really moved.

February 2012

The Leftovers, by Tom Perrotta

In this novel, Perrotta imagines a community after an inexplicable, Rapture-type event, in which many people have simply disappeared. The novel explores the reactions of those left behind. I felt distant from the book from the beginning, and gave up three-quarters of the way into it. While the idea is exciting, I couldn’t get inside any of the characters, share their confusion or grief. I kept trying to imagine what I might feel, and what language it might take to get at that. This novel didn’t do it for me.

Blue Nights, by Joan Didion

Joan Didion’s memoir divides roughly into two parts: first, musing/remembering her daughter’s young life, from adoption to around age five; second, thoughts about her own aging, her losses, her fears, mixed in with memories. The book doesn’t have you crying from page one, but I found it a difficult and sad book to read. I was somewhat surprised by the absences, the forays into “magical thinking.” The overall frailty, and Didion’s ability to express that in language… amazing as always.

Pina–a film by Wim Wenders

Okay, I never write about films here, but this one was so astounding, surprising, amazing, etc that I just had to. It defies my ability to put it into words, which is how the film starts, with Pina Bausch explaining that that is where dance begins. The film shows her amazing works, dancers in simple costumes dancing on dirt, in water, on the schwebebahn, interrupted only by thoughts from the dancers themselves. Simple, deep, moving, the focus on the body and human emotion, I plan to buy it and watch it again and again.

There But For The, by Ali Smith

A novel written around a man who comes to a dinner party and never leaves. Intriguing story, structure (multiple third person) I like, and Ali Smith’s wonderful ability to think herself into the heads and hearts of interesting characters… but in the end, it didn’t work for me, not like The Accidental. I found the parts too separate and am not yet sure, and maybe won’t ever be, what holds it all together enough to call it a novel.

Adam and Evelyn, by Ingo Schulze

This novel pivots on the late summer of 1989, when Hungary had opened its borders but the former East Germany had not. As the novel opens, Evelyn finds Adam cheating on her in their home, she sets out for a holiday in Hungary, with potential plans to leave the east for good, and Adam sets off after her. The story sounds engaging but I didn’t find it compelling, perhaps because the characters were not all that interesting. I loved the details of the DDR, the whole Eastern European mindset, but it wasn’t enough to make me excited about the novel.

January 2012

State of Wonder, by Ann Patchett

The novel, a contemporary Heart of Darkness, tells the story of an Indian-American scientist who goes into the Amazon to investigate the death of a friend and colleague. She joins a research project on fertility, led by an older scientist with ambiguous morality and a severe manner, and becomes entangled. I listened to the novel and was mesmerized by the voice of the narrator, taking me out of the uncomfortable circumstances of long plane rides and a Vermont College dormitory room, but I found much of it unbelievable–broadly drawn, almost caricatured.

The Hours, by Michael Cunningham

For this, the third semester of my MFA, I’m investigating novels told by several third person narrators so I started by rereading The Hours. I enjoy Cunningham’s gorgeous prose and construction, and the voices of the three female narrators with their questions of identity and meaning in life. This time around, I felt the novel was a bit too tightly constructed and close, but still worth reading.

World and Town, by Gish Jen

Again, a novel I listened to, which I feel makes me biased in some way–it’s such a different experience to be read to, a luxury… As I listened, I especially loved the conversations between one of the primary narrators, Hattie, a Chinese-American woman in her fifties, and both her old friends and a younger, Cambodian-American girl with whom she develops a relationship. The content of these conversations feels authentic, difficult, the complex and compelling lives of the characters revealed through inquiry, disagreement, teaching.

The Accidental, by Ali Smith

Ali Smith explores the effects of a stranger, Amber, who has come to town–or in this case come to stay. The four members of a London family are unhappily on holiday, each one struggling internally with some failure. Amber enters their lives and in some way exposes each character’s sore spot and forces each one to deal. I was especially moved by Magnus’s story and in the end felt the novel belonged to the two children.

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers

The main characters of this novel circle around a deaf-mute man, John Singer, who they each feel understands them better than anyone else in their lives. McCullers lets us inside the heads of these peculiar people, not only the deaf-mute Singer, but an adolescent girl who listens to music with her entire being, an African American doctor who reads Spinoza and named one of his Karl Marx, and others. The novel reminds me how different we each are but also how similar, searching for someone who understands us.

December 2011

When the Emperor Was Divine, by Julie Otsuka

A close-up of a Japanese-American family sent to an internment camp during World War II–cleanly but emotionally told, mostly from the children’s perspectives, an engrossing story. When I finished it, I happened to watch part of Snow Falling on Cedars. It was an unconscious choice, which then resonated with the novel since they are both set at around the same time with some similar themes. But the movie was overwrought where the novel was fine.

To the End of the Land, by David Grossman

If you let it, this novel takes you over, enveloping you in its difficult embrace. I spent several weeks reading about Ora, a contemporary Israeli mother struggling with herself, her relationships with the men she loves, including her two grown sons, and her country. The novel is framed by a long hike that Ora embarks on with Avram in order to escape her home and the news she fears most–that her soldier son will be killed–and while there isn’t a lot of plot per se, there are hidden pieces of information that explode to wake you again and again to the tragedies of the place and time. I feel shaken, changed after reading.

How to Read an Unwritten Language, by Philip Graham

This is another novel by the talented Vermont College faculty as I prepare for my winter residency. It tells the story of a man who collects objects that have value to him because of the stories–other people’s stories–that are attached, and while it reads loosely at first, a kind of collage, it gradually tightens and narrows. It was a bit harrowing emotionally, in fact, made more so for me by the style in that much of the feeling is under the surface, not made fully explicit by the author. I’d like to read it again, thinking about how the various elements of the novel circle around this notion of reading an unwritten language.

November 2011

Another Burning Kingdom, by Robert Vivian

This brief novel in three voices tells the story of two brothers and a wife, and how they navigate their commitments and priorities with regards to each other and their own worlds. Besides deriving tension from the younger brother’s threats to plant a bomb in a government building, it’s a voice-driven, interior landscape sort of novel, bringing us deeply inside the heads of the characters. I especially enjoyed the shifts at the end.

Pudd’nhead Wilson, by Mark Twain

Before reading this novel, I’d only read short stories by Twain. I enjoyed the oddness of the novel, with its dramatic plot twists, the switch of two babies at birth so that one would grow up “white” and the other “black,” the introduction of Italian twins, duels, etc. Lively reading. When I finished, I watched the Twain documentary by Ken Burns which helped me understand the context and the man.

Habit of a Foreign Sky, by Xu Xi

I found this novel an oddly satisfying read. The main character is a forty-six year old woman who travels between New York, Hong Kong and Shanghai. We meet her just after her mother dies, and follow her life as she processes the death and her past, while making choices about her future. There was something very compelling for me about the main narrator, a type seldom seen.

The Cat’s Table, by Michael Ondaatje

I’m a big fan of Michael Ondaatje, but wasn’t planning to run out and buy this book. However, when it was given to me, I read it right away. I enjoyed the story of the voyage on the ship from Sri Lanka to England, and the older narrator’s attempts to understand his life as a result, in some ways, of that voyage. I’m still wondering about Ondaatje’s decision to name the narrator Michael when he explains that, apart from the ship and some similar timing, the novel’s events did not resemble real events in his life. What did he gain from these choices?

When to Go Into the Water, by Lawrence Sutin

This book was a delight to read, with its main plot line, the story of a Frenchman born in 1900 who makes his way through the world and writes about it in a book of the same title as the novel, interrupted by brief accounts of people who find and read his book later. The language is lovely; it invites rereading.

Arabesque: A Search for the Sublime, by Patricia Hampl

This collection of essays is difficult to describe. Matisse, Morocco, the South of France, Turkey, color, indulgence, men, women.  The style meanders in a seemingly loose and mostly enjoyable way.

October 2011

Train Dreams, by Denis Johnson

It’s a pleasure to read a novella, and one that does allow one to enter into a dream, and the dreams of the narrator. The images of the fire, the dog that Grainier adopts, the wife and child he loses, have stuck with me.

Space, in Chains, by Laura Kasischke

I haven’t loved other poetry by Kasischke but these poems, from first to last, I found arresting, moving, and also mysterious–they certainly demand several readings, though the pleasure of the image and the word and the juxtaposition is there right away.

Open City, by Teju Cole

I’m still unsure what I think of this novel. It unfolds like the walks that the narrator, Julian, a psychiatry resident, takes in New York City. I felt close to the voice right away, but at times thought it was too easy to put together a novel based on walks and mostly unplanned encounters with strangers and friends. At other times I thought it was incredibly difficult, the restraint involved, the lacking of telling, generalizing, or aggrandizing, and the way this allowed me in–an intimate novel without being highly emotional. The final page demonstrates this beautifully. I’d say it definitely worth reading and mulling over.

September 2011

The Scarlet Letter, by Nathaniel Hawthorne

I reread this novel as part of a book club which I joined at my son’s new high school where parents read some of the works that students read, and then are led in discussion by English faculty. For me, it was especially refreshing to hear the voice of the narrator, so different from anything I’ve read published recently, and to experience again how our ears are trained by consumption, and then we extrapolate what’s “good” from what we are given and therefore know. I was also reminded what a sensual writer Hawthorne is, how he brought me into the physical, emotional world of his time so convincingly.

Seven Years, by Peter Stamm

This novel, by a Swiss writer, takes on the terrain of attraction and love and marriage in an interesting, somewhat obsessive way. The narrator, a man in his twenties and later early forties, explores two very different relationships, one with a Polish woman he meets accidentally at a beer garden, the other with an architecture student who later becomes his wife and business partner. The novel is unromantic and searching in a way that makes one think.

The Accident, by Ismail Kadare

A spare novel with a mysterious story–I have to put some more thought into what kept reading to the end. I’m also still not sure what to believe about the accident that supposedly killed the two lovers, one apparently a European diplomat, the other an Albanian student, and the kiss that preceded and perhaps caused the accident. Unsure, perhaps, apparently–words that aptly describe the interactions between characters, and between the author and the readers of this novel.

August 2011

The Man in the Gray Flannel Skirt by Jon-Jon Goulian

Continuing on my memoir binge, I read this one by a man in his forties who grew up in the same town where I lived for a number of my childhood years. When Jon-Jon Goulian was sixteen and went to Andover for a summer program, he decided to stop playing soccer and start wearing women’s clothing. The book is organized around this decision in order to answer a larger question: why am I the way I am? Parts of the memoir were hilarious (his description of the hairy armpits of the young woman who waxed his chest), and I wasn’t bothered that in the end, the question was not answered–how could it be? But it does leave me wondering about memoir in general.

When Katie Woke and How Clarissa Burden Learned to Fly by Connie May Fowler

The first is harrowing memoir of the abusive relationship Fowler lived through in her twenties, and how it grew from the seeds of childhood abuse, both witnessed and of her. The second is Fowler’s latest novel, which relates one day in the life of a novelist trapped in a marriage and suffering from a long case of writer’s block. It was  interesting to read these two books one after the other, one so terribly real, the other funny, condensed, but with tons of drama.

You Don’t Look Like Anyone I Know, by Heather Sellers

In this memoir, which alternates between present-day chapters in which Sellers learns that she suffers from a rare neurological disorder called prosopagnosia, or face blindness, and chapters in which she describes her childhood shuttling between divorced parents, a schizophrenic mother and an alcoholic, cross-dressing father, Sellers main and to me very interesting question is how and why we do or do not recognize people (including ourselves). She would not have called her mother mentally ill as she was growing up and her explanation is subtle and true to what I know. How this obscured the fact that she can’t recognize faces again makes complete sense. I am a big fan of Sellers’ second book on writing, Chapter After Chapter, and was pleased to read this exciting new book.

The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht

It is always a risk to read a book after hearing a lot of the hype around it. Unfortunately, the novel, set in the Balkans, which weaves realist action with folk tales, did not live up to what I’d heard or hoped. While I was interested in the project–the depiction of the area, with its wars and racism, the connection to folk tales–I never became truly engaged or attached.

July 2011

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, by Elizabeth McCracken

This is a memoir about about losing a baby and having a baby. I’ve always wanted to read McCracken’s fiction, which I still have not. This little book didn’t wow me, but I’ve heard fabulous things about her other work.

Bossypants, by Tina Fey

Light, funny, and feminist.

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain, by David Eagleman

I read a profile piece in a recent New Yorker about this author, a neuroscientist, and got his most recent book about the brain about decision-making, criminal activity and more. Interesting, thought-provoking material–some of which is a bit one-sided. But still, I’m finding it well worth reading.

Atlas of Remote Islands, by Judith Schlansky

This is a beautiful book, with maps and short pieces about tiny islands, and a bit too conceptually-driven for my taste. In a way, I wish there were more books like this, more room for books like this in our much-narrowed publishing world.

June 2011

Cleopatra: A Life, by Stacy Schiff

I’m taking a break from reading novels, and decided to start my summer with this biography of Cleopatra. The author takes the stand in her introduction that she wants to only describe events that are historically factual rather than rely on the myths and legends about one of the world’s richest and most powerful women. I enjoyed the history, though the level of detail was sometimes tedious.

The Tiger, by John Vaillant

I just enjoyed this book of nonfiction. I looked forward to it. I read in long stretches. I talked it up. The author tells the story of one specific tiger attack in the furthest east of Russia, while at the same time going into tiger folklore, Russian history, recent and past, human-animal relationships, etc. I got it from the library but I think I’m going to need to buy my own copy!

The Weather in Berlin, by Ward Just

Because I loved Forgetfulness, I got this other novel (of many by Ward Just) from the library. This is the story of a Hollywood director whose career has stalled when he accepts a sort of fellowship to stay in Berlin for several winter months. I didn’t like it nearly as much as the first one I read, not for any particular reasons, just not as compelling, not enough there for me.

Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi, by Geoff Dyer

I didn’t think I’d enjoy this book as much as I did. I kept expecting to get annoyed… It tells the story, in two parts, of a forty-something British journalist, first on a trip to the Venice Biennale, then to Varanasi, though the second part is told by a never-named, first-person narrator. I’m not sure yet how Dyer pulled it off–enough common concerns, enough irony, enough distance, but not too much of any… A fun and intriguing read.

May 2011

Disobedience, by Jane Hamilton

Sadly, another book I didn’t end up falling in love with.  The narrator is a seventeen-year-old boy who finds out his mother is having an affair. I liked the writing, the situation, the characterization, but it felt too static, wasn’t either pushing me forward or giving me as much as I wanted from the pages.

A Map of Glass, by Jane Urquhart

A story with a story within it, the first contemporary, one narrator with Aspergers (though never named as such) searching for details about her dead lover, the other, an artist, the man who found the body. The second story is historical, set during the period before WWI, and is a sort of family saga about the timber industry. The whole novel takes place on or near Lake Ontario, and place, the physical landscape, is as much what both stories are about as anything. I have mixed feelings–I loved the ideas that drove it, but felt they had almost too much presence, particularly with the Aspergers narrator: it felt as though a textbook definition were made physical.

Forgetfulness, by Ward Just

A complicated story of our times that does not succumb to easy answers or endings, Forgetfulness tells the story of a middle-aged man whose wife is killed by men suspected of being terrorists. Beginning with the death, the novel follows the painter husband through the months after losing his French wife, during which he sorts out whether revenge will help him or hurt him, and how and where he should continue to live. I kept wondering as I read, why have I never heard of Ward Just before? This novel does for me what a novel should do.

The Weekend, by Bernhard Schlink

English translation of a German novel about a German terrorist who is pardoned and let out of prison. Odd, interesting, very German in its focus on the radical movements and ideas of the 60s-70s. I’m not sure how I feel about it.

April 2011

Breaking Night by Liz Murray

This is a memoir by a young woman whose parents were addicted to drugs and couldn’t provide her with basic physical or emotional support. I read it mostly to understand what someone in her situation might go through and she gives a clear and detailed picture.

Five Skies, by Ron Carlson

I’d been wanting to read Ron Carlson and now I know why. Wonderful novel about three men, each with a recent loss to contend with, building a bizarre project in the high dessert in Idaho. Beautiful language, interesting psychological insight, tight structure–a pleasure on many levels.

The Wig My Father Wore, by Anne Enright

At first, super charmed, then charmed and annoyed, then mostly annoyed. I love Enright’s language and imagination in this novel about a single woman to whom an angel appears; I wanted to love the whole novel, but I didn’t care… I need to care.

Funeral for a Dog, by Thomas Pletzinger

I was about half-way through when I decided this contemporary German novel–about a journalist who seeks the story of a reclusive author and his three-legged dog–wasn’t for me. I started with a lot of pleasure but what felt interesting and fresh at first became tricky and monotonous. Too many thirty-something characters drinking, smoking and having sex; not enough of the richer, deeper stuff that makes me want to keep reading.

Disgrace, by J.M. Coetzee

I think I’ve avoided Coetzee because I thought I wouldn’t like his work much. I got this novel for free at a book swap, and I have to say I was both riveted and repelled. The story of Professor David Lurie, who loses his job because of an affair with a student and his response to it, what happens on the East Cape farm his daughter owns–it all felt remarkably true and difficult and humanly and historically complicated.  Coetzee tells these stories with an almost invisible structure and story-telling style; after this one book I’d be hard-pressed to say what the author thinks of these characters and their situation.

March 2011

The Blindness of the Heart, by Julia Franck

I’d had this translation from the German on my wish list for a long time, thinking I’d love it and learn from it. Maybe that can only lead to disappointment, but I found this novel weirdly flat and formulaic. It tells the story of two sisters, through the death of their father from infected wounds  and the demise into insanity of their Jewish-German mother, their move to Berlin, hyper-inflation, and the rise of acute nationalism and antisemitism, with difficult relationships and drug addiction added to the mix.

The Story, by Michael Ondaatje with drawings by David Bolduc

A limited edition tale about a king and his pregnant wife, and the son who grows up to repeat a cycle. Text on the left page, lines with printed words in black and and Ondaatje’s almost elliptical handwriting in red directly underneath; on the right, David Bolduc’s drawings, some with a figurative relationship to the text, some metonymic, some associative.

A House at the Edge of Tears, by Venus Khoury-Ghata

In this novel translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker, poet-novelist Khoury tells the story of her brother and family just before the war that devastated Lebanon in the 1970s. It’s an oddly constructed novel, with sections alternating between first person plural “we” with second person “you,” in italics, at times distant and opaque, at times close and emotional. The story of her brother, a poet and addict committed by the father to an asylum, is heart-breaking.

The Secret Scripture, by Sebastian Barry

A novel in two voices, one of Roseanne, a one-hundred year old woman finally telling the story of her past, the other of the psychiatrist of the institution, both telling his own story and the story he learns from other sources about Roseanne. The language is beautiful, the story is heart-breaking, and while the final “reveal” is expected, the other revelations, and what they meant to the characters and about the society they lived in, are not. Does what I want a novel to do: make me feel, make me think, make me cry.

Farewell Sidonia, by Erich Hackl

An account by the Austrian writer of a baby adopted into a working-class family in the early 1930s. What makes the story pressing, and horrifying, is the fact that the baby is of Roma (or gypsy) origin and is considered “black,”  and after ten years with her adopted parents and siblings, is taken away, first to be reunited with her clan of origin, and then taken to Auschwitz where she dies of grief.  The tone is factual and spare, until the “chronicler” breaks through in the last quarter of the book to comment.

February 2011

The Solitude of Prime Numbers, by Paolo Giordano

Quick read about a young man and woman linked by tragedies in their pasts and the serious psychological issues that resulted–something missing for me in this novel. I kept feeling like I was reading not-very-well-written young adult fiction. Was it the translation?

Great House, by Nicole Krauss

Interesting novel of the multiple connected stories type. Here the overt anchor is a desk, large and heavy and many-drawered, that gets passed along, either as a gift or for safe-keeping, to several characters in the book. In the end, the character connections are made overt, and overlapping themes abound. The tone, I felt, was a bit too evenly heavy, though I enjoyed the lovely language, in particular the way Krauss describes feelings through physical metaphor.

Forever Valley by Marie Redonnet

An odd little novel, part of a triptych, about a young woman raised by a priest, who begins digging pits to look for the dead. Because of the allegorical style, I felt removed as I read, watching and listening with interest, but not immersed.

I Curse the River of Time by Per Petterson

Per Petterson’s first person narrator at first sounds a lot like the narrators of Out Stealing Horses and To Siberia, but the cumulative effect is different–less about story, or a past that explains something about the present–more about how nothing can explain where we are today. The novel is filled with a sense of melancholy and inadequacy–beautifully real.

January 2011

Just Kids, by Patti Smith

I bathed in Smith’s memoir of her days with Robert Mapplethorpe and their mutual quest to become artists–they truly were “just kids” but in a way I found inspiring and moving.

A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan

Super fun, emotional, sensual, intellectual novel–the first of Egan’s that I’ve been more than just interested in. Goon Squad tells a number of characters’ stories in a way that’s difficult to summarize but makes a lot of sense while you’re reading.

By Nightfall, by Michael Cunningham

Tells the story of a fortyish man in the art world who, his assistant says to him at the end, falls in love with beauty. I loved bits, particularly the author’s insistence on fully describing minor characters, but I was irritated by the main character’s insistence on the fact that he was getting old (and he’s younger than I am…) and didn’t find some key elements of the plot believable.

Why Did I Ever, by Mary Robison

A gem of a novel written in 536 short bits of quirky, funny, devastatingly sad first person narrative that somehow, astoundingly, add up and satisfy. The main character, though she lives in the South, writes for Hollywood, has three ex-husbands, a boyfriend, and two grown children, and spends a lot of time in her car.

December 2010

All is Forgotten, Nothing is Lost, by Lan Samantha Chang

The first Christmas book I read–follows three MFA poets and a professor, plot plus thoughts about poetry and the writing life. It all remained a bit distant for me, as much as I’m interested in the content.

Versed, by Rae Armantrout

There is a kind of interrogation of language that I go to poetry for–here, Armantrout is doing that and more. Very cerebral.

Backseat Saints by Joshilyn Jackson

Quick and addictive, with many plot twists and turns around serious subject matter–a woman attempting to flee her abusive husband and past. My first book in this genre.

Mother of Sorrows by Richard McCann

Autobiographical stories that remind me what it was like to be a different, awkward adolescent searching for a comfortable identity. At least that’s the first half. The second is darker, though in some ways the questions are the same.

Theft by Peter Carey

Big characters, big language, art world fame and misfortune–I was dazzled but never really connected.

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart

Funny, well-written book for readers ages 9 and up. One of my daughter’s favorites of the year so she decided to read the entire book to me! I had the pleasure of being read to, and falling asleep by, the pages of this fun book.

Room by Emma Donoghue

Compelling book about a young boy and his mother being held captive in an eleven by eleven room–I was disturbed, haunted, and enchanted by the voice of the five-year-old narrator, and the relationship between the mother and her son, and of each to the room and the outside world.

Let the Northern Lights Erase Your Name by Vendela Vida

I read it in one evening–interesting story of a young woman who goes in search of her biological father (in Lapland!), cool structural repetition/mirroring, somehow distant or without emotional resonance for me

The Comfort of Strangers by Ian McEwan

Spooky, twisted McEwan from the old days–a British couple travels to a Venice-like city and fall into a bizarre relationship with a local couple.

November 2010

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer

Extremely long and luscious historical novel about Hungarian Jews during the lead-up to and trauma of WWII– traditional in structure and style

Comedy in a Minor Key by Hans Keilson

Short and very interesting story of a Dutch couple sheltering a Jewish man in their home during WWII–Keilson does a lot in few pages

Happier by Tal Ben-Shahar

Non-fiction by the Harvard professor who taught a popular course on happiness–less irritating than most “self-help” books. Happiness, as he defines it, is the combination of pleasure and purpose.

The Other Woman by Ellen Lesser

A good, quick read with emotional intensity–the story of a young woman tangled in the drama of her lover’s divorce.

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