Sunday, 2 January 2011

On my bookshelf, 2011

So, last year I made it to sort-of 50 books. I'm not sure if I want to set a numeric goal for this year, because if I do I will never get round to reading Anna Karenina, Moby Dick or Gone with the Wind (although my motivation is a little on the low side for all of those anyway).

Who am I kidding? I'm far too competitive, even if it is only myself I am competing with. Full disclosure: this list (and last year's) includes book I finished this year, even if I started them last year. That said, there will be books I start this year that I don't finish until later, so it all comes out in the wash, or something.

1. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer.

- 9/10. Difficult to know how this one can be topped. Oskar, the main character, is so very real and his story is haunting and heartbreaking, and I loved that it was long enough that you could really get into it - great book to take on holiday. It was a bit of a stretch that so much tragedy could have happened in just one family, but the story was so good, and so well-written, that I forgive it. I love how the different elements all tie up. I welled up several times at the end. Can't wait for J Safran Foer's next novel, and trying not to feel inferior about the fact that he's only a year older than me.

2. Cupid and Diana, by Christina Bartolomeo

- 7/10. I was looking for a book set in Washington DC, and this one is infused with its setting, so I wasn't disappointed. Yes, it's chick lit, and no, I don't read much of that particular genre, but it was funny and wry and there were some great observations on the life of an early-thirties woman trying to find love. The ending left me unconvinced, though - she had me rooting for a different one. I recommend this one for a poolside read in the summer.

3. Chapter after Chapter, by Heather Sellers

- 8/10 Inspirational and helpful, and tackles some questions that none of the (many) other books I've read about writing have answered. I liked the "nobody tells you" chapter - I feel better prepared for life as a writer now, though I still need to do the exercises!

4. Super Sad True Love Story, by Gary Shteyngart

- 7/10 I enjoyed this, and he writes well. I'm not really sure what I was expecting, but it wasn't this. It was a good read, though, and a scarily plausible prediction of America in the not too distant future.

5. The very thought of you, by Rosie Aliison

- 6/10. Not the sweet coming-of-age story implied by the title, the cover or the reviews. Still, I couldn't seem to stop reading, so there must have been something about this book that I liked, and towards the beginning especially I found it quite moving. I love that she structured her book how I plan to structure mine. And gold star for not one but two mentions of Belgium!

6. Catcher in the Rye, by J D Salinger

- 8/10. I found Holden's voice compelling and readable and I really liked him as a character with his wry observations, his recurring pet phrases and yes, even his negative outlook. The ending didn't feel very satisying, but I think the book was more an insight into a character than a story with a definite beginning and ending as such. I liked it a lot.

7. Dog Days, by Ana Marie Cox

- 6.5/10. Not a book I'd lend to my mum or recommend to my pastor, or even normally read myself, but it was really useful research for my novel: another DC-based book with a great "sense of place". I'm bemused by the title, though.

I was going to give it a lower rating so you could all admire my preference for literary fiction over chick lit, but the truth is, despite its mildly ridiculous yet oddly believable plot and language and erm, things, it was a bit of a page turner!

8. The American Future, by Simon Schama

- 8.5/10 I don't read much non-fiction, and I certainly don't read much history. I would read more if it was all like this, though it's a slow burner: you have to be awake and able to concentrate for good bit of a time!

Schama is a master storyteller, weaving together the strands of history, and shedding light on current issues by drawing lessons from past events, but never in an over-obvious way. He assumes an intelligent reader, and I like that. I also particularly liked that he admitted that he finds it hard to square certain very positive aspects of true Christianity with his own worldview.

Oh, and he likes the word pyrrhic. I love words with odd spellings, so that worked well for me.

9. Florence and Giles, by John Harding

- 6.5/10. I really only read this because I was doing a book review - but can't complain, there are worse ways to earn money! Not really my kind of book - it's aGothic novel, and possibly more of a YA novel too, but it made interesting use of language and that's always good to keep me reading. "Nothing prepares you for the chillingly ruthless finale," says one review, and that's about accurate.

10. Primary Colors, by Anonymous/Joe Klein

-8.5/10. I thoroughly enjoyed this - quality writing, a good story, a romantic subplot, and a genuinely unpredictable ending. I was a little confused by the many characters, though, particularly in the first third of the book.

Joe Klein's observations are astute, his writing is carefully crafted and a joy to read, with some great turns of phrase. There were too many characters for me to be able to keep track of all of them, but the ones I could felt so real. Aspiring writers could do a lot worse than study this writing. The main character had more than a hint of Josh Lyman about him, too: "politics, politics, politics... you're a stunted little man, you don't even have the courage to tell Daisy that you love her". The romantic subplot was beautifully done - subtle and realistic - though I admit that I did skip ahead to find out what was happening with that, in much the same way as you might "accidentally" Google Janel Moloney "just to check Donna doesn't die" and happen to find out (spoiler alert) that it all works out for Josh and Donna in the end. Anyway, I digress

11. Sammy's House, by Kristin Gore

- 8/10. I loved this! Sammy's Hill, which I read last year, was good, but this was a notch up from this. Sammy herself is fun and endearing and has lots of quirks I can identify with. I was really rooting for her and Charlie and I am normally quite scathing of happy endings, so Kristin Gore clearly worked her magic. Plus, you know, the whole DC thing.

I think I said this about Sammy's Hill, but it's basically Bridget Jones meets the West Wing. These are both very good things.

12. The me I want to be, by John Ortberg

- 7/10. Eminently readable, though I enjoyed it less (and got less immediate pratical application from it) than his other books. But maybe that says more about where I'm at right now than about his book.

13. The People's Choice, by Jeff Greenfield

- 7/10 This was, at times, an easy read, and at times I really needed to concentrate to understand the point he is making. And he is making a point: it's a lesson in the oddities of the American electoral system as much as it is a novel, and there were way too many characters for me to be able to keep with them all, but I enjoyed it, and the ending was more satisfying than I thought it would be. The style is idiosyncratic - the author is consicously talking to and educating readers. I liked that, though I'm not sure I'd want to read a hundred novels in this style.

14. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

- 9/10 Haunting, beautiful, enchanting, heartbreaking. 

15. The Privileges, by Jonathan Dee

- 7.5/10 I really enjoyed the first two thirds of this. I hope the ending is deeply meaningful and somehow passed me by, because otherwise it's just weird.

16. I think I love you, by Allison Pearson

- 8/10 This book perfectly captures how it feels to be thirteen years old. I enjoyed the second half - the main character as an adult half - less, but it still gets 8/10 because some scenes were amazing, in particular the scene at the David Cassidy concert, which has haunted me, and there were times when I had to sit on the train platform after I'd got off because I couldn't bear to finish the chapter there and then.

17. Breakfast at Tiffany's, by Truman Capote

- 8.5/10 Beautiful, elegant, moving.

18. When a Woman Trusts God, by Sheila Walsh

- 6/10 To be honest, I always suspected I might not love this. I can't really tell you what the main point was, other than that of the full title - beautiful things happen when a woman trusts God. I keep hoping one of these days a book like this is going to tell me what it actually means practically to trust God, and how you square that with the fact that God is not predictable, but this wasn't the one! 

19. Living History, by Hillary Rodham Clinton

- 8/10 Learned so much through reading this. Inspiring and moving too. Only wish there were an afterword in which she became President!

(Later edit: I'm currently in a pro-Obama phase, and so I regret writing that. But those were the feelings the book stirred in me, and he was being a little weak at the time.)

20. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck

- 9/10 This book epitomises what I love about literary fiction: lyrical, poetic, heart-breaking, deeply understanding of and full of compassion for humanity. The only thing I didn't like was the ending - it left too many unanswered questions. You go on this epic journey with this family and you get to the last page and want to say "and then what happened?" It's as if he leaves you in limbo.

21. The Writers' and Artists' Yearbook Guide to Getting Published

- 8/10 You wouldn't think, would you, that this would the kind of book you would curl up with in bed and read cover to cover? And yet Harry Bingham (doesn't he sound like a Jane Austen character?) writes so well,so informatively, and even so humorously at times, that's exactly what I did! I've learned so much about the publishing industry and the world of being a writer through this. It's also, for better or for worse, what introduced me to Authonomy - which may bear part of the blame for there being fewer books than I'd like on this list this year.

22. The Finkler Question, by Howard Jacobson

- 6/10 There's no doubt the man can write, and I enjoyed it at first, but then it got darker, weirder, and more incomprehensible to those not versed in the intricacies of Judaism and the intellectual arguments for and against Zionism, and he lost me.

23. Wannabe a Writer We've Heard Of?

- 8/10 Packed full of useful tips, and an easy, fun read. A lot of is is probably most  useful to writers of commercial of issue-based fiction (for example, I highly doubt that I would get as much airtime on television for loving the West Wing or living in Belgium or being an expert on language learning as she does for talking about controversial aspects of relationships) but there was still more than enough material in here that I can use or adapt. Good stuff. Realistic, too, and very British in tone, which is useful when your market is the UK, and makes a change from all the (mostly very good) American stuff I've read about writing. 

24. Hostage in Havana, by Ann Somerhausen

- 8/10 A fascinating, elegantly written of a tumultuous year in Cuba in the early 1970s (complete with a kidnapping), as the American wife to the Belgian ambassador. If all memoir were like this, I would read a lot more of it! 

25. Know Doubt, by John Ortberg

- 8/10 Honest and helpful, though the main point for me was in chapter three, where he talks about different levels of belief - head, heart and core, and how your core beliefs are what affect your behaviour. After that, the rest kind of felt like filler - but that may just be because it was the part that I most needed to hear. 

26. Becoming George Sand, by Rosalind Brackenbury

- 8/10 This was an interesting one. The writing was beautiful in places, the descriptions wonderfully detailed: if it had just been about Maria's life in Edinburgh now, it might have been one of my top five books of the year. But there were sections I was sorely tempted to skip over - my heart sank whenever I arrived at a  "life of George Sand" section, and there were some tenuous links made between Maria and George, too.

27. Bird by Bird: Some instructions on writing and life, by Anne Lamott

8.5/10 I loved this - and not just because Bradley Whitford does too. I loved her refreshing honesty about, for example, jealousy towards other writers.The concept of a crappy first draft - just get it out there, it doesn't matter if it's bad, it probably should be bad - has of course been invaluable but has been quoted and requoted so much that I felt like I already knew that part. It made me want to read more of her stuff. Parts of it, though, baffled me, and after re-reading some paragraphs three times I had to admit defeat on them.

28. No Plot No Problem, by Chris Baty

7.5/10 I read this in preparation for NaNoWriMo, and would definitely recommend it to those getting ready for their first attempt. It was practical, funny, encouraging and easy to read - and was the first (and so far only) book I've read on my iPad.

29. Capitol Offence, by Barbara Mikulski

7/10 Enjoyed this, more for the DC and politics sides (which is why I was reading it in the first place) than the thriller part - but the fact that I made it through a thriller speaks volumes in and of itself, even though I was left frowning at the end of it, unsure of exactly what had happened.

30. The Audacity to Win, by David Plouffe

9/10 This is a remarkable book, particularly when you consider it was the author's first, and written fast. The quality of the writing was high enough to hold my interest, and it's packed full of insights - I did a lot of underlining! It was a great way to learn about Obama and the campaign, and really inspiring - I didn't know anything about American politics in 2008 and so I wasn't aware of the enormity of what was achieved. I have a better idea of that now, and of a campaign that was built on some great principles, valuing each member as part of the team and placing huge importance on grassroots support, innovating, always daring, always willing to step outside conventional wisdom. A campaign with the discipline to stick to its playbook, and I'm very glad it did. I loved the human moments, too - when David Plouffe goes home at the end, I could visualise that as a West Wing scene - though I was blown away by the sacrifices made by Mr Plouffe's wife, Olivia Morgan.

32. Helen of Pasadena, by Lian Dolan

8/10 The perfect travelling/can't-sleep-because-I'm-jetlagged-after-just-coming-back-from-Pasadena book. I'm calling it "high end commercial fiction" rather than chick lit, to assuage my intellectual guilt. I even cried  little bit. Fine, go ahead and judge me.

31. The End of the Affair, by Graham Greene

7/10 This ties with The Finkler Question as the weirdest book I've read this year. There are some great observations and turns of phrase, but the religious element feels kind of false and exaggerated and a bit incoherent. Another one of those books that I started out thinking I would love and then frowned more and more as I turned each page.

32. The Whites of their Eyes: the Tea Party's revolution and the Battle over American history, by Jill Lepore

8/10 I read this for a book club meeting I went to while I was in Studio City, California. Well, actually, I only read the first third in time for the meeting, but I finished it later, and I liked it. It was thoughtfully structured, intelligently argued, thought provoking, informative, and provided plenty of "ha!" moments.

33. A Week in December, by Sebastian Faulks

6.5/10 I had high hopes for this book; I'd been saving it for months, to read at an appropriate point in the year. And maybe if it hadn't been so hyped I might have liked it more. Instead, my overwhelming emotion was "meh". There was a lot that was good about this book, but there was also a lot that was preachy, overly complex, and contrived (for example, it just happened that one particular character was reading the Koran, for no reason that was integral to the plot, so that he could comment on what was probably going on in the mind of another character, when their stories weren't interlinked.) I think it might have worked better as separate novels. Also, I know once you're published and famous you can do what you like, but I wanted to scribble helpful advice in the margins like "show don't tell!", "too much backstory up front!", "you are losing readers who don't know anything or want to know anything about the banking system"!

So there you have it - my reads of 2011. And since 33 is my age, I'm taking it to be a nice symbolic number. It was always the intention, of course. Cough. 


Anonymous said...

I have to ask why did you find The End of the Affair, religious element "kind of false and exaggerated and a bit incoherent"?

I didn't and I'm wondering if it's a Catholic thing

Claire said...

I just thought it was a bit random and weird! But now I can't really remember why! Sorry...