Tuesday, January 29, 2013

My 25 Favorite Reads of 2012

(This is a long overdue post, but maybe people are looking for some new titles to help them with any reading challenges they may have signed on to do in 2013 -- people still do that, right? -- and will discover some here.) I keep detailed statistics of the books I read every year, because I’m geeky like that. For several years, I wrote blog posts that noted how many books I’d read total and then broke them up into categories like “books by male authors” or “books by American authors” or “books written in the 19th century”. I’ve found that it’s gotten a bit depressing to do that, though, because every year I begin with all these grand plans to, say, read very few books from the 21st century, since I’m so disappointed by so many of them, and then I wind up reading 63 books written in the 21st century. Or I decide I’m going to read more short story collections, and I read none. Or I’m going to read more books translated into English from other languages this year, and then I read 6 (and do two Stieg Larssons really count?).

Rather than looking too closely at all the numbers and reminding myself that, basically, I’m still just a book slut who should stop pretending that meaningful relationships are all she wants, I’m going to do something different this go-round. I’m going to boast that I finished reading 95 books in 2012, decided not to finish 4, and was nearly through 2 others when 2013 arrived on the scene. This means I read a whopping 49,500+ pages. Wow! That sounds pretty impressive.

These are the 25 that I thought were the best (arranged alphabetically by title). This doesn’t mean they were necessarily the sorts of books that wind up on “greatest books” lists, but they are the ones that resonated with me, that made me laugh or cry or think, or that made me abandon almost everything else in life until I’d gotten through them. I’d love to know what others thought of any of the books on this list, so please feel free to share your opinions.

1. 1984 by George Orwell
I expected to drag myself through a ho-hum classic. Instead, I was riveted and terrified and talked about it ad nauseam to anyone who would listen. If anyone isn't tired of listening, I wrote about it on my library blog here.

2. 11/22/63 by Stephen King
The Stephen King book for people who don’t think they like Stephen King. But I already like Stephen King, and this one tackled one of my favorite subjects – time travel – with such an interesting premise, one that was quite believable despite being quite absurd. Oh, and we had a little (doomed) romance, too. I loved it.

3. About Time by Simona Sparaco
“Wow!” That’s the one-word review I wanted to write about this book when I wrote this instead.

4. The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie
I absolutely, truly did not want to read this one for my book-and-a-movie discussion group. I was absolutely; truly wrong not to think I was going to love this funny and sad little book about surviving and how we choose different identities in order to do so. (We followed it up with Smoke Signals, a movie I saw when it came out, but which was even better than I remember after having read this book.)

5. Broken Harbor by Tana French
Okay, so when is the next Tana French book due to be published? As far as I’m concerned, she can do no wrong.

6. Burn, Witch, Burn! by A. Merritt
This book had every horror ingredient to make Emily happy: questions of science versus black magic; creepy dolls; a heavy reliance on ancient myth and folklore; the role of psychology in fear; and plenty of ambivalence about what was really happening. Set it in New York City, and really, what could be better? (NOTE: at 2:30 a.m. – I’m sure those of you familiar with the hour can attest to this – acrobatic dolls wielding tiny weapons seem perfectly plausible).

7. Diary of  Provincial Lady by E. M. Delafield
You could call Delafield’s unnamed wife the original Bridget Jones, but you’d be doing her a disservice. She’s deeper than Bridget and has much more to tell you about the society in which she lives. Even though you’re laughing out loud on the outside, on the inside you’re realizing how horribly oppressive it all is.

8. The Cellist of Sarajevo by Steven Galloway
Pure poetry to help soothe absolute horror. A perfect book to remind me what an incredibly spoiled and easy life I've lived thus far.

9. Dragonwyck by Anya Seton
Sigh! Barring, you know, things like The Castle of Otranto and Jane Eyre can there be such a thing as the perfect Gothic romance? If so, this is it, all the more amazing because it doesn't take place in some remote European castle or manor, but rather in an Upstate New York I never even knew existed, historically, until I read this book.

10. The Domestic Life of the Americans by Fanny Trollope (or “Mrs. Trollope”, as my copy says)
A fun, funny, and enlightening look at early 19th-century America as seen through the eyes of an English lady. I enjoyed her perspective, the historical detail, and verification that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

11. The Eyes of the Overworld by Jack Vance
All three of the Dying Earth books by Vance are good, but this one (the 2nd) was my favorite. The last time I ran across a character in fantasy who delighted me as much as Vance’s Cugal does was the last time I encountered the Phoenix in E. Nesbit’s The Phoenix and the Carpet. Vance created a wonderful, dreamlike state (seriously. I had some awesome dreams when I was reading this book) in which to appreciate this character who is clever, funny, wise, and just oh-so-full-of-himself enough that those other three traits aren't always enough to keep him out of trouble.

12. Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
I had no idea. Really. I just had no idea that people still led such lives in New York City. I thought this was going to be a book about sweatshops and tenement housing circa 1907. And, no, I didn’t find the ending the least bit unbelievable.

13. Kane and Abel by Jeffrey Archer
If you’d told me last year at this time, “Emily, this year you’re going to read this book by Jeffrey Archer, and you’re not going to be able to put it down,” I probably would have looked at you as if you were nuts. But then, because I’m me, I would’ve gone in search of this tale about two corporate enemies and probably would’ve read it long before it was chosen for our library book discussion group, discovering that you’d been absolutely right: I was unable to put it down. Well, stranger things have happened, I suppose.

14. Little Scarlet by Walter Mosley
A fascinating and riveting book that opened my eyes in ways they’ve never been opened when it comes to the plight of blacks living in America. Easy Rawlins, as I described him here, is a righteous marshmallow whom it’s hard not to love.

15. Model Home by Eric Puchner
There’s a Jonathan Franzen-ish feel about this book, but I liked it much better than The Corrections. Maybe it’s because Puchner’s a master of characterization. Each one of his believable and empathetic characters is a train wreck waiting to happen. I don’t tend to think of myself as the rubber-necking type, but there I was, front and center at the track, unable to move until I’d witnessed all the accidents.

16. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
A highly, highly addictive drug. So much so that I’m being very careful before I pick up the second book, which I received for Christmas, featuring my friend Kvothe.

17. The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster
You’ll know all you need to know when I tell you that this is the only book I read as a child that I’ve since read 3 times as an adult. Well, except Daddy Long Legs by Jean Webster, which would also have made this list if I hadn’t read so many other good books this year.

18. Rules of Civility by Amor Towles
If you haven’t read it already, what are you waiting for? It certainly deserves the comparisons to F. Scott Fitzgerald and Edith Wharon that it’s received. An added bonus: the author sent me a lovely email after I wrote this.

19. Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen
Need I even give any sort of explanation as to why this one makes the list?

20. Salmon Fishing in the Yemen by Paul Torday
I said it before, and I’ll say it again: finding good, 21st-century farce isn’t easy. If you’re going to find it, it’s best to turn to a British writer, even better just to go right to this brilliant little book by Torday. Nobody escapes his wry observations, which makes for many, many chuckles, and even a few laugh-out-loud moments.

21. A Son of the Circus by John Irving
It had been years since I’d read any John Irving, which is funny, because I always think of him as one of my favorite authors. I wasn’t quite sure how he, Mr. New England, was going to pull off a book set in India. Well, he’s John Irving. He pulled it off with aplomb, and as always, I began missing the company of his beautifully well-drawn characters the minute I got to the last page.

22. Strangers at the Feast by Jennifer Vanderbes
Another one to compare to Jonathan Franzen, I read an online review that described this one as “The Corrections lite”. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. It’s “The Corrections tight”. Vanderbes has an incredible knack for giving snippets of information about her fully-realized characters without getting into unnecessary detail, snippets that work miracles when it comes to understanding them. All the while, she tells a compelling story that raises all kinds of interesting questions.

23. The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale
A fascinating story that made me think so much about family relations/dynamics and the problem of isolation in those Victorian English country houses.

24. Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand
Shattering! It was exhausting to read (or rather, to listen to, because that’s what I did) but impossible to stop until I got to the bitter end. It brought to life the horrors of World War II’s Pacific theater in ways I never could have imagined. Nonetheless, Hillendbrand managed to end it with hope.

25. Wild by Cheryl Strayed
I still can’t believe I suffered, along with memoirist Strayed, through unbearable heat, frigid cold, a monstrously heavy backpack, dehydration, moments of loneliness and despair, lost toenails – not to mention a hiking boot that went sailing off a cliff -- and came away from it thinking, “I’d like to hike some of the Pacific Crest Trail.”

Friday, January 18, 2013

A Coffin for Dimitrios by Eric Ambler

Ambler, Eric. A Coffin for Dimitrios. New York: Vintage Books, 2001.

(This book was originally published in 1939.)

"Yet another one of those forgotten mystery writers of the early 20th century. Ambler is caustic in a way I like, and there was a very good surprise at the end. It's a great vacation read, and I'll probably read more of his at some point."

That's what my brief review of this book on Goodreads says, which I wrote after I read it back in July of 2011. I was thrilled when it was chosen as this month's book for the Connecticut mystery book group, because (even though this is the only book of his I've read thus far), I think it's high time the world rediscovered Eric Ambler, who was recommended to me by a friend who never steers me wrong. If you look him up, which I did last time I read him, you'll find he's described as a writer of "spy novels." I suppose I need to read more by him, because I wouldn't describe this book as anything other than an ordinary old mystery, even more so because our "hero" isn't a spy. Yes, we encounter espionage, but our protagonist Latimer is a former professor turned full-time mystery writer. To get an idea of Ambler's wry sense of humor, you hit it on the second page of the first chapter in this description of Latimer:
A Bloody Shovel was an immediate success. It was followed by 'I,' said the Fly and Murder's Arms. From the great army of university professors who write detective stories in their spare time, Latimer soon emerged as one of the shamefaced few who could make money at the sport. (p. 10)
I was hooked the moment I read not only that line about the army of university professors, but also those book titles. The book titles become even funnier when Latimer (who has settled in Turkey when we're first introduced to him) meets the Turkish Colonel Haki, whose common language with Latimer is French, and has to spend "some time trying to explain in French the meaning of 'to call a spade a bloody shovel.'" (p. 15)

But let's get back to the notion of a "spy novel." This is the second book I've read for the CT mystery club whose author is generally known as a writer of that genre. Maybe I need to redefine that genre for myself, because I expect it to be technical and (despite all the "page-turning" claims) boring, which I noted when we read John Le Carré. Neither this nor Call for the Dead could be described as technical or boring. I will say that if I'd just read a description of the two books side by side, and had been told to pick one, I would have chosen this one for the fact that it was written before the Cold War, a topic I find tiresome. 

Funny, though, I did find similarities between the two books, and not just because they both involved spies. It had more to do with the matter-of-fact writing style of the two authors, although based on these two books, I'd say Le Carré was the more sentimental of the two. Le Carré has more of a sense of longing for the good old days and wanting everything to be right and in its place, whereas Ambler seems to be laughing at human desire for such things (sorry. These are just feelings I have, and I can't really back them up with any examples or clues as to why I have them. Maybe someone else in the group, having read the two books I have, can identify why I might feel this way?). The other author Ambler brought to mind, strangely enough, was Somerset Maugham. There's this wonderful old-fashioned style of writing that's gone completely out of vogue these days, probably because editors and publishers don't think anyone has the attention span to tolerate it, in which a story's narrator likes to give his or her opinion, an opinion which is usually philosophical in nature and often involves quoting others' opinions. It may be out of style, but I love it when I come across a writer who likes to express his or her feelings about things. In fact, I probably lied when I said I was hooked from the moment I read the aforementioned quote. I was probably hooked from the very first line of the book, "A Frenchman named Chamfort, who should have known better, once said that chance was a nickname for Providence." (p. 9). We have both a quote and an opinion about it in one sentence, not to mention something to mull over ourselves: are chance and Providence the same thing? I read that, and I'm smiling.

That's what there is to love about this book, because, apart from it, the plot was pretty straightforward. We knew who the "bad guy" was from the beginning, and it was just a matter of figuring out everything he'd done and how he'd done it. Latimer takes on this "what and how" as his task, and we follow him from country to country, all over pre-WWII Europe, not sure whom, exactly, we can and can't trust. There is the huge surprise when you near the end of the book, which I mentioned on Goodreads, as well as the standard fear-for-your-protagonist's-life plot device incorporated in almost every mystery I've ever read (always a little more nerve-wracking when the book isn't told in the first person, which this one isn't), but there's nothing extremely original plot-wise, here, to those who've been in a mystery book club for something like five years. 

Bottom line: I enjoyed it immensely and still intend to read more Ambler. I might even read other authors defined as writers of "spy novels." But I can guarantee an early death (and don't accuse me of murder) if you decide to hold your breath waiting for that to happen. 

Sunday, January 13, 2013

12 - 14 - 12

It's been a month since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, a very tough month for me (which is why a New Year's resolution to revive this blog was put on hold for a couple of weeks). If I still have any readers left who were with me when I began this blog, you know that I moved from Connecticut to Pennsylvania five years ago. What you may not know is that I moved from the village of Sandy Hook in Newtown, CT. I wrote on my Facebook page, but it's worth repeating, that I'm saddened that I will never again have this conversation:

"So, where did you live in Connecticut?"

"Newtown. You've probably never heard of it. Do you know Connecticut at all? It's between Danbury and Waterbury."

It's funny how life works. I hadn't been back to Sandy Hook for some time, but in early November, while in CT for Rebecca's baby shower, I had gone to Sandy Hook with Zoe's Mom (just after Hurricane Sandy had devastated other parts of Connecticut I know and love. 2012 was not a good year for the name "Sandy"), so I could meet the new tenants who are renting Bob's and my house and to take a "walk through" with them. Our old tenants -- former neighbors with 3 young boys -- had moved into a house not far away, but I hadn't seen them this go-round. My November visit reminded me of the early days of Bob's and my marriage (we moved there together the year we got married and lived there for 12 years), of questions about whether or not we should have children, of the neighbors we knew and loved, of the friends we made at Valley Presbyterian Church in nearby Brookfield (many of whom lived in Newtown, like we did. New England doesn't have many Presbyterian churches, and it was the only one in the area). Sandy Hook was a lovely little place to begin married life.

We've been away long enough that most of the kids we know are too old to have been in attendance at Sandy Hook Elementary on Dec. 14th, but we did know of six children (including our former tenants -- Bob and I used to babysit the oldest boy -- and Zoe's Mom's niece and nephew). We spent an agonizing two days waiting to hear whether or not they were all okay. Understandably, getting back to messages sent/left by Bob and Emily was not high on parents' priority lists at that time. We got final word when the list of victims was released late Saturday afternoon. Nobody we know personally was listed among the victims.

That is not to say we know anyone who hasn't been affected. It's a small community, one in which it's impossible to raise children and not to have known at least one, if not all, of the victims. We even heard from one friend who is a school nurse in the city of Bridgeport at a middle school. Her school was suffering that day because Sandy Hook's principal, who was identified early on, was married to one of their teachers. Our friend described how hard it was for her colleagues that day, suffering as they were, to try to hold it together for the students, all of whom were getting all kinds of misinformation via cell phones. Because Bob and I lived in Newtown for over a decade, I also happen to know young men and women  (I still think of them as "kids" even though they're in their early twenties now) who went to school with Adam Lanza and his older brother Ryan. How sad for one young friend in particular when early reports identified Ryan as the gunman.

So, it's been a month, and I'm still grieving. I'm not as glued to the news about it as I was 3 and 4 weeks ago, but I still find myself crying at odd times. I expect to grieve for quite some time, especially when I think of all the kids I've known personally who spent their first few years of school at Sandy Hook Elementary. The last time I was at the school, I went to see a young friend play a lion in her kindergarten play -- a young friend who is now a middle schooler and who is pursuing drama, thanks, I like to think, to that experience.

I grieve for all those who have been left to pick up the pieces and to somehow find the bravery to keep on going. I've attended one funeral for a child in my lifetime, and it was devastating. I'd hate to have to do it again. I can't imagine attending funeral after funeral for those beautiful young children. I can't imagine being a parent who has to help a young child through the horror of losing so many friends. I can't imagine being the parent of an older child who wasn't at the school, but who is now afraid to go to school, and not for the typical reasons a 12-year-old kid might be afraid of going to school (someone might make fun of her shoes, say, or a teacher might ask a question she can't answer), but because school is now viewed as a potentially very dangerous place. No child should have his or her innocence rocked like that.

Selfishly, I will say that being down here in Pennsylvania, there have been times when I've felt quite alone in my grief. I'm learning more about human denial and dissociation than I ever cared to learn. People in my community here don't want to hear or talk about Newtown. Bob made it a focus of 2 sermons (the Sunday right after the shootings and the following Sunday), and a couple of people responded, "How much do we have to hear about Newtown? It's Christmas! Where's the Christmas joy?" I can forgive them (sort of) for their insensitivity. They don't want to think about it or talk about it (especially those who have kids of their own). I just hope no one is being that insensitive to the residents of Newtown. I also hope that those of us who are not in Newtown, don't just move on with our lives, heads in the sand, glad this horrific thing didn't happen in our own communities, forgetting that there is a lovely little town in Connecticut that will be grieving for a very, very long time. They deserve to remain in our thoughts and prayers.