The Books of MMVII

Falling Angels
Tracy Chevalier
Jan 2007 (re-read)

There’s nothing like coming down from the Holidays on some gothic fluff. It’s a little on the sappy side, but I don’t think most people would see it that way. I just have a very low tolerance for sappiness and will stop reading if it goes too far, but I made it through this book. The attention to historical details are really what make it interesting to read. I think I’ll re-read Girl With The Pearl Earring this year (I read it in 2001) and maybe rent the movie.

Lost City Radio
Daniel Alarcón
February 2007 – new

I’ll have to re-read this one in a couple of years. It still haunts me. Definitely one of the best new books I’ve read in some time. I also recommend Alarcón’s short stories.

Cold Mountain
Charles Frazier
Feb 2007 (re-read)

This is just a plain ol’ good book. The story is an old fashioned page-turner. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s a Classic Masterpiece of American Literature, but for a romance, the language is very juicy and robust without being overly sentimental. Also unusual for a romance, I think men and women could both enjoy the characters. The unconventional dialogue works OK once you get used to it.

Balkan Ghosts
Robert Kaplan
March – April 2007 (re-read)

I love travel essays. I could read this book over and over and still find it fresh each time because the writing and stories are so intense. Probably too wordy for a lot of people though. But I like that. I like to feel a little lost when I’m reading a book or watching a movie, like I’ve walked into a story as it’s in progress and got swept up into it. In this sense, I truly feel like I’m traveling to a new place, using my dictionary and occasionally the internet to connect those extra bits of trivia and history, as my guides.

The Art of the Personal Essay
Selected by Philip Lopate
March 2007

My husband & I have been passing this one back & forth… although I’ve mostly been hogging it 🙂 I’ve been sailing around this vast 800-page book. So far, my favorite essays are:

The exquisitely artistic In Praise of Shadows by Junichiro Tanizaki expressed many thoughts I’ve had in mind for years about the imposition of Western technology on Eastern civilizations and undeveloped nations.

Hateful Things by Sei Shonagon – hilarious! She’s like the devious friend you keep just because it’s so entertaining to hear her make fun of people.

George Orwell’s chilling Such, Such Were the Joys flushed the toilet on the head of Goodbye, Mr. Chips.

Street Haunting by Virginia Woolf captured this rare feeling I’ve experienced on certain walks in various cities.

Finally, Philip Lopate’s genius Against Joie de Vivre is a funny, prickly, tender self-portrait.

Saving Fish From Drowning
Amy Tan
July 2007 – new

I adore Amy Tan’s epic novels, like The Joy Luck Club and The Kitchen God’s Wife, but they were written years ago. Saving Fish From Drowning was the first recent work I’ve read of hers. It’s a comedy about a group of Western tourists that disappear in Burma, written from the perspective of a ghost. It was mostly a page-turning read but really dragged in some chapters, especially the last part.

Despite the omniscient point of view, I found the characters to be flat and bland. I wouldn’t say they were undeveloped, it was more like the author went through a lot of trouble to make them sound like they had interesting lives (a TV personality, an African-American philanthropist, a former cannabis grower-turned-botanist, an international art consultant…) but they were actually very boring, stupid people.

On the other hand, the ghost’s voice was inspired by a rather opinionated real-life woman, so maybe the lack of development was an important part of the narrative after all. And maybe Tan also did it to show that educated people can be just as closed-minded and culturally ignorant as backwater rubes, and how it’s worse because they are educated. But these people were just plain stoo-pid. In the end, it left me confused, frustrated, and hating all the characters.

Days of Obligation: An Argument with My Mexican Father
Richard Rodriguez
July 2007 – new

My husband just finished this book, so I picked it up over the weekend. It was an interesting, sort of fateful, choice after reading Amy Tan’s novel. While Tan’s novel was a critique of Western/European culture clashing with Eastern/indigenous peoples disguised as a comedy, Rodriguez’s multi-faceted analysis is as perfect and sharp and breathakingly beautiful as cut crystal.

Days of Obligation is not just regional non-fiction about “history” and “culture,” it is an all-encompassing work about the concepts of time and people in the U.S. and Mexico. Usually, critical essays (and movies) about culture make me depressed and feel a lot of scummy white American guilt, but Rodriguez just tells it like it is, which is the one of the hardest skills, I think, for a writer to master. He goes from the deeply personal to the universal and back again in a single, awesomely-worded sentence, yet his profundities are so easy to read and understand.

I feel Days of Obligation on many levels: as a lifelong Texas resident (a state that was born from the clash of two cultures), an inhabitant of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood of color, in my spiritual life as a Catholic, in my marriage.

And so I say everyone – regardless of color, language, status, background, religion, sexual orientation – everyone in a border state (Texas, California, New Mexico, Arizona) needs to read this book, everyone in congress making laws about immigration and education needs to read this book, everyone in agricultural/rural areas and industrial centers of the U.S. needs to read this book, high school and college students and teachers need to read this book. You will get something out of it.

The Shining Company
Rosemary Sutcliff
July 2007 – re-read

I got The Shining Company at age 9 but couldn’t get through the vocabulary, unpronounceable names, advanced structure, and mature subject matter till I first read it completely at age 13. By that, I mean I wasn’t old enough to understand the complex personalities and relationships of the characters, not that the content was rated R.

Since then, though, I’ve read this wonderful book many, many times with great pleasure, and each time I get something different out of it. It’s a historical coming-of-age adventure set in early medieval Wales and Scotland about a boy who leaves home to become a warrior. In the process, he learns important things about friendship, justice and valor.

What I love about this book is what is doesn’t do. First, rather than being approached from a sci-fi-tinged or romantic angle, the tone is academic in its treatment of history. It discusses the Roman occupation of the British Isles, religious practices of the Druids and very early Christians, and way of life of the tribes and clans all over the country. A really interesting, shadowy time. Second, instead of presenting a patronizing view of the young teenage protagonist, the predominant theme of the book is about the real strength of children to learn hard truths about life (something adults underestimate and often do not possess themselves).

A. S. Byatt
August 2007 – re-read

Another one I’ve read over and over. This book is just… Wow. Magnificent on so many levels. I was surprised a movie was made about it, because it’s got so many threads and themes, you really can’t follow them all in one reading. And of course, the movie paled in comparison to the book.

There are several layers of storytelling happening simultaneously. Besides a very complex omniscient viewpoint, there’s correspondence, diaries, short stories and other texts within stories, all making for a lush character-driven novel that is super-realistic and yet a fantasy at the same time.

The Game
A. S. Byatt
August 2007 – re-read

I friggin’ love A. S. Byatt. That sentence doesn’t sound like I enjoy lit-er-a-ture does it?! But she is a master of the English language in a way that few fiction writers are nowdays.

This book traces the bizarre childhood relationship between two sisters (one a barely sane, medieval academic, the other an insecure yet popular pulp novelist/TV personality), and the disasterous impact it has on their adult life and everyone surrounding them. The storytelling is all mixed up into a tapestry (this cliché metaphor is actually a very appropriate description) of flashbacks, diary excerpts, letters, sections from novels and essays, poems, dream sequences and schizophrenic tripping.

Eastward to Tartary: Travels in the Balkans, the Middle East and the Caucasus
Robert Kaplan
September 2007 – new

Kaplan educates and fascinates once again in the extension of his travels begun in Balkan Ghosts. While Ghosts describes his journalistic adventures, history and current events in the early 80’s to very early 90’s, Eastward surveys the changes in the political landscape of this forgotten region a few years later. He gives accounts of oligarchies and mafias in Bulgaria, pre -WWII history in Turkey, ethnic tensions in the Caucasus mountains, ancient watering-holes in Lebanon, current politics in Turkmenistan, oil wealth in Georgia, religion in Armenia, Kurdish claims to land in Iraq. The main point of this book is to show how the collapse of the Communism in Russia and eastern Europe has allowed the people of far Eastern Europe and the Near and Middle East to their pre-WWI thoughts, passions and beliefs, which the were brutally crushed throughout much of the 20th century. So in looking back and trying to use the history of the past 75 years as a guide for what is happening in this volatile and resourch-rich region now risks irrelevancy and shortsightedness.

Culture and Society in Venice 1470-1790

Oliver Logan
October 2007 -new

My thoughts in these two posts.

Crime and Punishment

Fyodor Dostoevsky
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
October – November 2007 – re-read

I got about halfway through this book over a year ago but had to put it away for awhile. It made me feel depressed and claustrophobic, and the action moved very slowly. I picked it up again just looking for something to put me to sleep quickly at night. I was surprised that I rather enjoyed the second part – the pace picked up, there were fewer raving inner monologues, and the dialogue was fantastic. Having just read Eastward to Tartary, the characters seemed more alive because the culture of the East was fresh in my mind.

dorothy parker

I have to read this short story collection once a year, it’s so good. What else can I say about Dorothy Parker that hasn’t already been said?

Bella Bathurst
December 2007 – re-read

This is one of my favorite books of all time. It’s a sordid tale about a group of middle-class 13-year-old English boarding school girls dragged to the countryside by their two teachers for sort of P.E. camp for two weeks. What starts off as merely a hellish way to kill time between terms mutates into an all-out war between a trio who appears to be best friends, beautiful, precocious Caz, Hen, a silently suffering anorexic, and temperamental Jules. While on the trip, the girls are largely un- or misguided by adults who are dealing with their own problems. But this war is not fought with the physical violence or straightforward abuse of Lord of the Flies (which I read bits and pieces of around New Year’s), it’s a female war: brutally manipulative, secretive, deceptive, undermining of confidences and dreams, all waged with a smile under the pretense of friendship. It’s a chilling reminder of the awkwardness and impressionability of adolescence.

Sense and Sensibility
Jane Austen
December 2007 – new

I appreciate Miss Austen’s talent, but her novels just aren’t my cup of tea. I saw the movie years ago, and I kept thinking, “Now what part of the movie was this? Or was that in Pride and Prejudice? And which version of Pride and Prejudice?” The movie I really do like is Persuasion, although I haven’t read the book.

The City of Your Final Destination

Peter Cameron
December 2007 – re-read

Peter Cameron’s quiet, delicate storytelling is exquisite. The variety of characters is refreshing, not because they are of different backgrounds, ages, and sexual orientations, but because the dialogues between them are somehow so calmly measured, even when they are impassioned. The wackier people in Cameron’s stories aren’t half as loudmouthed and annoying as the cast in Amy Tan’s novel. And we all have people in our lives, especially in our families, who are completely different from us, and yet we’re able to, we have to communicate with them civilly because it’s our lot in life – we’re thrown together. I also like the escape to faraway places. City is about a grad student who travels to Uruguay to research his thesis. It’s not as suspenseful or intoxicating as Andorra (one of Cameron’s other novels that came out about 10 years ago) but I think it will make a good movie.

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