Tuesday, February 19, 2008

2007 Stats

I'm on a decline. My New Year's resolution this year is to stop the downward trend on books. I am pleased that, despite declining volume, I've increased my pre-1980 reading, and increased my non-fiction numbers over 2006. Random fact: in the past four years, the date published of my reading shelf averages out to 1996. I'd like to eventually get that number down to 1990.

November, December, January Book Reviews

Somewhere between work, ski season, and the holiday crafting frenzy, I've slipped 3 months behind. Arg! I haven't done tons of reading, but the ones I did make it through were substantial. Here goes...

1. Y The Last Man, V. 9, Brian K. Vaughan et al., Rating: 4.5
Finally, a major plot reveal! After nearly a year of globe trotting, we learn the source of the epidemic. It's a good installment.
2 & 3. Fables, V.8 & 9, Bill Willingham et al., Rating: 4.5
As always, excellent. Beautiful artwork, compelling story.
4. How Doctors Think, Jerome Groopman, Rating: 3.9
This was a nice counterpoint to October's medical read, Better. Both take on the subject of how doctors interact with patients, and how they can learn to give better care. While I think Gawande is a stronger writer, this book is well-written and insightful. If you care about the subject, read both.
5. Ride with Me, Mariah Montana, Ivan Doig, Rating: 2.9
The final installment of Doig's Montana trilogy, Ride with Me is a pale shadow of the previous two books. Stick with English Creek.
6. Intuition, Allegra Goodman, Rating: 1.9
This book was doomed from the beginning. It's a legal thriller, of sorts, packed with sexual harassment, workplace drama, mistaken love affairs, and emotional drama. Goodman clearly understands the office politics of the environment she's describing. It's just that the environment is so boring. Seriously - who wants to read about the day-to-day squabbles of 15 medical researchers? Working with mice? Nice try, but it doesn't work.
7. California History, Harr Wagner and Mark Keppel, Rating: 4.0
I found this book - published in 1927 - at the Napa Library book sale about a year ago. The package itself beautiful - embossed red cloth with blue line drawings, thin glossy paper, dozens of photographs. It looks great on a shelf, with my collection of other orange books (the only color I have a section for - they just look so nice together). The book itself is mixed. It's often charming and sweet, often wrong, and, at times, horribly racist. Native Americans don't fair well at all - there are 2 chapters devoted to their "laziness". I wouldn't give this book to anyone to read, but as a snapshot of the time period, it's great.
8. Severance, Robert Olen Butler, Rating: 2.0
Butler gets a big gold star for a clever idea. This book is a series of essays cataloging the final thoughts of people between beheading and death - roughly two pages per person. The people are interesting (Marie Antoinette, for example), the thoughts intriguing. However. He makes no distinction between people who know that they're going to die and those who don't. I think it's a huge line that must be drawn, and it's a critical error.
9. The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck, Rating: 4.8
I really liked this book. It's moving, interesting, full of complex characters, and brings to life a world that's extremely foreign.
10. The Executioner's Song, Norman Mailer, Rating: 3.7
I understand the hype around this book - the research is voluminous, the writing considered and detailed, the character exploration nearly bottomless. Unfortunately for the average reader, it's over 1000 pages long. And you know the conclusion from page 1. It...just...drags....on.
11. The Abstinence Teacher, Tom Perrota, Rating: 3.0
Perrota's Election was genius - the biting humor of the movie owes everything to Perrota's writing. Little Children was inspired, too. This book, unfortunately, is average. It's fine - but nothing more. The anger and wittiness of his previous books is missing. From another writer, this is a decent effort, but from Perrota it's a major disappointment.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Best Book Ever

This book puts together all my passions (well, at least crafting and celebrity gossip) in one horribly wrong package. Awesome.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

October 2006 Book Reviews

1. Better, Atul Gawande, Rating: 4.3
Like Gawande's previous book Complications, Better is a thoughtful, entertaining, and informative work. Without being pedantic or overly technical, he touches on major issues influencing modern modern medicine and the world at large. I like his mix of personal anecdotes and actual research. This is definitely a book that is worth reading, whether or not you're in medicine.
2. English Creek, Ivan Doig, Rating: 3.7
3. Dancing at the Rascal Fair, Ivan Doig, Rating: 4.2
English Creek is quite good - good enough that I went right out and got the second book in the trilogy. The action in Dancing actually takes place before that of its predecessor, and I enjoyed it much more. It was oddly satisfying to read about people when you already know much of their outcome. The second book also explains the history and populating of the "two medicine country", which adds a lot of depth to the series (in many ways, the land is the subject of the book, more so than the people). I just picked up the third book - full report to come on that next month.
4. Son of a Witch, Gregory Maguire, Rating: 2.2
The long-awaited sequel to Wicked is, like the rest of Maguire's books, a major disappointment. Wicked was clever and mischievous and very funny; this book is scattered, random, and hard to follow. It's also oddly homo-erotic in ways that are just plain odd.
5. The Empanada Brotherhood, John Nichols, Rating: 3.9
While I wasn't carried away by this book, I admire the craft of it. It feels very much like a Hemingway novel, with similar stripped-down language and dialogue-heavy chapters. The Kirkus review states, "The human energy swirling around the empanada stand is full of sound and fury but signifies very little." I think that might actually be the point.
6. The Gravedigger's Daughter, Joyce Carol Oates, Rating: 4.2
I've always considered Oates an "Oprah" writer, melodramatic and girly, slightly lowbrow, without ever reading any of her works. I totally take it back - The Gravedigger's Daughter is strange, dense, filled with fascinating characters, and beautifully written. Considering how prolific she is (a book a year on average), I have nothing but awe for the talent of this writer. I'll definitely read more of her books.

Monday, October 08, 2007

September 2007 Book Reviews

Better late than never? I had a birthday party this past weekend, and have been busy getting ready for the last week. I did, however, manage to read two pre-1960 books in September. And more non-fiction than fiction. I'm breaking my normal habits!

1. A Member of the Wedding, Carson McCullers, Rating: 4.0
This was an NPR recommendation that I picked up on a whim. McCullers has a really unique voice. This particular story is that of a pre-teen girl, wanting to be more (more interesting, have more friends, have a better life, anything), and creating her own reality in which the impossible could happen. I has really impressed with both the realism of the character, and McCullers' gift for making you understand exactly what the character is going through. It's like being eleven again.
2. Where I Was From, Joan Didion, Rating: 4.0
My new friend Chris sent me this book after I took him to Point Reyes for the day. I think I did a pretty good job of convincing him that California is a really nice place to live. He recommended (and sent me) this book - an homage and narrative of the state by one of its most revered writers. It's really fascinating. It's a fairly slim book, but it took me two weeks to get through. That's a big compliment - I kept slowing down and rereading passages, unwilling to miss anything.
3. Exodus, Leon Uris, Rating: 3.2
This book is fascinating. It has all the elements of a 1970 bestseller: implied sex, wartime heroes, abused and needy children, despots and criminals in powerful positions, and a dramatic, arid landscape that must be conquered. It's really a page-turner. It also ends on an up note - the chosen people triumph! The irony is that the book will be 50 years old next year, and the same struggle violently continues.
4. Four Seasons in Rome, Anthony Doerr, Rating: 2.3
This is another NPR book, but unfortunately one that makes for a better interview than read. It's about an American couple living for a year in Rome with 6-month old twins. That's about all there is to it. It's fairly sweet and charming, but never really rises about the level of an edited journal.
5. Every Visible Thing, Lisa Carey, Rating: 3.7
Like my first book this month, Every Visible Thing is told from the point of a pre-teen (in this case, two of them). The subject matter is much deeper - a missing sibling - but it has a similar realism and point of view that makes the writing succeed. This isn't a great book, but it's a good one.

Monday, September 03, 2007

August 2007 Book Reviews

I got off to a slow start in August, and then cruised through four books in the last week. A lot of beach time helps.

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, J.K. Rowling, Rating: 4.3
She didn't let us down - while it's not better than the rest of the series, it's absolutely a worthy successor. I only slowly got into the plot, but by the end I found the book impossible to put down. I cried at the conclusion. (Happy tears or sad tears? You'll have to read it to find out.)
2. The Road to Samarcand, Patrick O'Brian, Rating: 4.4
This is a perfect summer read - fairly short, action-packed scenes, lots of emotional depth, and fascinating characters. This is my first Patrick O'Brian novel, and I plan to pick up a few more. The book was published in England in 1954, but is only now being released in the U.S.
3. The Yiddish Policemen's Union, Michael Chabon, Rating: 2.9
It wouldn't be fair, I suppose, if every book was great. I loved Chabon's earlier novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, but haven't liked any of his other works, this most recent book included. Which isn't to say it isn't well written. I think it probably is quite good, but it's not for me. Chabon has a gift for genre fiction. It's up to you, the reader, to like the genre he has chosen to write in. Noir mysteries are not my cup of tea.
4. The Post-Birthday World, Lionel Shriver, Rating: 4.0
The plot of this story hinges on a single decision - whether or not the narrator chooses to kiss a man. Chapter by alternating chapter, the book explores what would have happened if she did (or didn't). It's an interesting concept, a choose-your-own-adventure novel for adults, and it's beautifully executed. I love that the "right" decision is ambiguous throughout much of the novel. It's not really an easy book, but it's honest and intriguing.
5. Jack of Fables, Bill Willingham et al, Rating: 4.0
The Fables universe recently spun off this new series, featuring Jack (and the beanstock, the candlestick, Jack Frost, etc. - all the same guy). It's great. There's energy in the storytelling that has been lacking in the main series for awhile. Perhaps the creators just needed the freedom to create a new world.
6. Sin in the Second City, Karen Abbott, Rating: 0.5
I've seen perhaps a dozen reviews for this book in the past few weeks, and am convinced that not a single reviewer actually read the book. The subject matter has potential (very high end prostitution in Chicago around the turn of the twentieth century), but the execution is awful. Terrible. Seriously-wasting-your-time bad. Skip it.
7. On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan, Rating: 3.8
This book is very different. The entire plot revolves around a single, emotionally-fraught night (a wedding night), as two newlyweds struggle to express their fears and feelings, without having the experience or emotional vocabulary to do so. The reading experience feels slightly inappropriate - the moment seems so private - and yet it's hard to pull away from. I do recommend it, but don't expect it to be a light read.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

July 2007 Books

Let's start with first things first: yes, I've finished Harry Potter. But I'm holding that review back a month for all of you that are still reading.

1. All Creatures Great and Small, James Herriot, Rating: 4.4
I read this as a teenager - it (and the rest of the series) is one of my mother's favorite books. Herriot was a vet in rural England beginning in the 1930s and continuing well into the 1970s. His stories focus on the early years, getting to know the countryside, his clients (4-legged and otherwise), setting up a practice, and starting a family. He's the archetypal "glass half full" man - every moment, if sometimes a bit trying, is still a joy. I really enjoyed this reread (probably my third or fourth time) simply for his wonderful attitude.
2. The United States of Arugula, David Kamp, Rating: 4.0
Great books on food are few and far between, but this is absolutely at the top of the class. The text follows the last 60 years of food in America, but it's not your average non-fiction work. Kamp has a gift for writing about facts in an incredibly dishy, gossipy way. It feels like you're really getting the inside scoop. He's quite persuasive - I actually went out and bought grass-fed steaks while I was reading it.
3. Catherine the Great, Virginia Rounding, Rating: 3.5
This author is less adept. The book is interesting - Catherine the Great was a very intriguing woman - but occasionally lapses into slow cataloging of facts. I'd only recommend it if you really want to know a lot about her, or the start of the Hermitage Museum.
4. One of Ours, Willa Cather, Rating: 3.0
I'm making an effort to read fewer new releases. One of Ours is a Pulitzer Prize winner; unfortunately it's not Cather's best work. There's nothing really wrong with it - I enjoyed seeing WWII through the eyes of someone writing immediately following it - but it's slightly flat and slow moving.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

June 2007 Book Reviews

We're having a beautiful summer, the kind San Francisco is absolutely not known for. Warm evenings, long hot days, bright mornings. I've spent a lot of time reading in the yard and at my local swimming hole, Lake Temescal.

1. The Hypocrisy of Disco, Clane Howard, Rating: 4.0
This is an upcoming Fall release from Chronicle Books. I was pleasantly surprised by it - the author recounts a few years of her decidedly non-traditional upbringing in Northern California (think camping in abandoned fields, macrobiotic food, and a complete lack of knowledge of - or access to - basic hygiene). She very accurately captures the language and attitudes of her 13-year-old self. I hope this sells well enough to allow her publish the rest of her story.
2. Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, John Perkins, Rating: 1.0
I hated this book. Finishing it was painful. Perkins clearly has a point to make: if you miss it the first time, don't worry, he'll say it again. And again. And then 10 times more in the next chapter. Basically it goes like this: "What I and other economic hit men do is terrible. We're awful people. We fly to exotic lands first class and hang out with world leaders. Because of our jobs we exploit the people of third world countries. Did I mention that I spent time with world leaders? Let me tell you how cool it was the time I hung out with Fidel Castro." And repeat.
3. The Emperor of Ocean Park, Stephen L. Carter, Rating: 3.2
To enjoy this book it's necessary to forget that the story is a mystery. The writing and characters are quite good, the plot long-winded and at times hard to follow. Once I resigned myself to just being along for the ride, I liked it quite a bit.
4. We Are all Fine Here, Mary Guterson, Rating: 3.9
This is a bitterly funny, slim little book. It's short but packs a surprising amount of emotional impact. The story follows a woman who has a one-time fling with her high school flame, and finds herself pregnant, unsure if the father is her husband or old boyfriend. This isn't chic-lit; the narrator's emotional journey as she approaches the birth is smart, honest, and very real.
5. Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall, Bill Willingham, Rating: 3.0
This is a one-off in the Fables series, a self-contained side-plot. The art is stunning, the story itself uneven. If you're a huge Fables fan, check it out, otherwise stick to the main series.
6. Y The Last Man: V. 8, Vaughan & Guerra, Rating: 3.2
I can't tell if I'm just losing my interest in this series, or if the writing is declining. This is fine, slightly formulaic. The plot line is progressing too slowly for my taste - it's time for a major revelation or a new central character.
7. The Bible Unearthed, Israel Finkelstein and Neil Asher Silberman, Rating: 3.0
The subject matter of this book is fascinating: modern archaeological finds, and how they support / don't support stories in the Bible. The treatment is too scholarly - in the hands of a different set of writers, I really think this could be a real eye-opener. Instead, it's dense and extremely hard to digest. It also really should have included pictures to bring the finds to life.
8. In My Father's Court, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Rating: 4.2
Singer has collected his childhood memories in this charming collection. He grew up in an ultra-orthodox home in pre-WWII Warsaw, one of the youngest children of two highly intelligent, devout people. It's a very intimate account, and also quite moving. The upcoming Holocaust is a constant shadow over the characters, but it doesn't interfere with the joy that comes across in many episodes. (As a random aside, Singer also wrote the story that became the movie "Yentl", and won the Nobel Prize in 1978.)
9. Prisoner of Tehran, Marina Nemat, Rating: 3.8
Nemat was imprisoned as a teenager for her political views, one of tens of thousand such prisoners. After two years (and forced marriage to one of her captors), she was freed and eventually able to move to Canada. She buried her memories for nearly twenty years. Although not a natural writer, Nemat has a fascinating story to tell, and very successfully captures the conflicting emotions she's had about her past.