Thursday, December 29, 2005

52 Books 52 Weeks: A Year in [Book] Reviews

I did it! I read 52 books! Here I present a rundown of all things literary consumed between January '05 and now:

2005 Introduction.
I didn’t really stick to that whole “no thousand word diatribe” thing, did I?

1. Thy Brother’s Wife by Andrew M. Greeley.
One of my mother’s favorite authors, I’d always wanted to read something of his so I knew what she was talking about. After running into the good Father, and acting like a star-struck idiot, while working at the Art Institute, I finally did it. Although mass-market in feel, Greeley does good by reminding us that priests are humans too.

2. The War of the Worlds by H.G. Wells.
A fabulous criticism on war cloaked in a sci-fi tale. Though I really liked the movie, despite Tom Cruise, the book is still better. Go read it.

3. America (The Book) by Jon Stewart and The Daily Show.
Perhaps one of the best books I read all year. From the high school text book format, to the scathing criticism of American history and government, to the fact that there’s a lot of legitimate information in this book, I can’t think of a single person who wouldn’t enjoy it. Also, “poonberry tree” still makes me giggle.

4. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri.
A Pulitzer Prize winning collection of short stories ruminating on culture, marriage, and the differences between individuals. While story collections can often feel stilted and reliant on experimental voices, Lahiri’s writing is nothing short of complete.

5. The Hostile Hospital by Lemony Snicket.
Book the Eighth in the Series of Unfortunate Events in which the Baudelaire orphans wind up in a dilapidated hospital with the Volunteers Fighting Disease and find the Library of Records containing clues to their parents’ deaths.

6. The Carnivorous Carnival by Lemony Snicket.
Book the Ninth, in which the orphans end up at a carnival complete with an ambidextrous freak. They dress up as freaks themselves, but end up being found out and whisked away to Mortmain Mountain.

7. Werewolves in Their Youth by Michael Chabon.
I love Michael Chabon dearly and his collection of short stories does not fail to please. There are some heavy topics covered herein and although I love Chabon’s writing in any capacity, I did miss the length he usually imparts in his stories. He has a great talent for that.

8. The Ground Beneath Her Feet by Salman Rushdie.
A doozy of a book that slightly dented my will to read. This is a life-long account of a love triangle between three rock musicians and the impact the music has on their lives and the world around them. My first Rushdie, considered his weakest by many probably because it feels very unedited. It makes me curious to read Rushdie’s other works, though. Also, it inspired a U2 song.

9. Under Her Skin edited by Pooja Makhijani.
Reviewed in Bookslut, this book features essays by several different women on the topic of growing up female and of color. Because that’s something with which I have firsthand experience, I identified with much of what the authors had to say, especially the parts about the hair. I later had the opportunity to ask Pooja Ten Questions.

10. Television by Jean-Philipe Toussaint.
Reviewed in Bookslut, Television follows a writer who decides to cut TV entirely out of his life in order to concentrate on his Vuillard monograph. His rationalizations and failed attempts make this story hilarious. I’d really like to pick up more of Toussaint’s work.

11. Lost in a Good Book by Jasper Fforde.
This is the kind of stuff I read when I want something easy and amusing. A palate cleanser in which Thursday Next must learn to bookjump using only her mind. Her partner in this adventure? A vampire hunter named “Spike” Stoker. Lewis Carroll’s Red Queen and Dickens’s Miss Havisham make appearances here.

12. Cast of Shadows by Kevin Guilfoile.
A debut novel from a local author, I reviewed this mystery/adventure story for Gapers Block. It was a fast-paced and engaging read and it was very easy to get emotionally invested in the characters. I almost cried at the end. Having had the opportunity to meet him, I can say that Kevin is a top-notch guy and I wait with bated breath for his next work of fiction.

13. Hairstyles of the Damned by Joe Meno.
The inaugural Gapers Block Book Club book, which I never would have read on my own. I’m far from punk, but Joe Meno’s story of growing up in the 90’s brought a lot of memories back to me. To think – my kids will have no idea what a mix tape is. Meno’s writing is inventive without being pretentious.

14. The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde by Robert Louis Stevenson.
I have a great interest in the reading the original texts on which many pop cultures references are based. I liked the title story here and was surprised to find out the angle from which it was told, but the short stories that filled out the rest of the book left me scratching my head. My Victorian Achilles reared its head.

15. Children Playing Before a Statue of Hercules edited by David Sedaris.
A collection of Sedaris’s favorite short stories. Sedaris’s efforts are noble, as he notes in his introduction that he was introduced to many of his favorite writers through anthologies of this sort and hopes he can inspire other readers to delve further into these authors’ works. Works for me. Includes Jhumpa Lahiri, Alice Munro, and Tobias Wolff.

16. How to Be Alone by Jonathan Franzen.
A number of essays on the pursuit of alone-time, something I very much enjoy. Includes the “Harper’s Essay,” in which Franzen puts forth theories on how readers are made. Very interesting for anyone who has ever eschewed a night out on the town for a night in with a book.

17. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams.
A reread, pursued in anticipation of the movie’s release. This may be my favorite of the five-part trilogy, but it’s also the first one I read and the only one I’ve read thrice. That probably has something to do with it.

18. I’m Not the New Me by Wendy McClure.
Reviewed in Gapers Block the week of its release and again for our Book Club. INTNM is an easily-read, but thought provoking memoir of Wendy’s experiences with weight loss and the internets. The book, like her life, doesn’t end when she loses the weight and Wendy proves that online journaling isn’t just for geeks and little girls.

19. The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger.
A reread, for which I originally interviewed the author in Bookslut and later reviewed for the Gapers Block Book Club. It’s a science fiction love story, following the intertwined lives of Henry and Clare and their Chicago home. That sounds like a bad thing, but Audrey’s way with words and plot make it exceedingly wonderful.

20. The Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Douglas Adams.
Also a reread, in preparation of the movie. Some of those previews looked like they took place at the concert, so I read through the second in the series to be safely refreshed.

21. The Hard Goodbye by Frank Miller.
My first comic, purchased by my best friend after having seen the movie and going on and on about how I wanted to read the books. Brilliant art and a solid plot line involving Marv’s hunt for a cannibalistic psychopath that made the movie even more stunning in retrospect.

22. Daisy Miller and Washington Square by Henry James.
The moral of Daisy’s story? Don’t flirt with boys! Although the extreme lengths to which James imparts his women are laughable by today’s standards, the writing is solid and the two stories are enjoyable to read. I’ll tackle James’ greater works at a later date.

23. The Women’s Room by Marilyn French.
A feminist novel in which the protagonist goes from resolving to never be a repressed housewife, to becoming just that, to divorcing her husband, to studying at Harvard and meeting a whole range of liberal feminists. A nice critique of the varying forms of feminism and a good story, too.

24. Cultural Theory and Popular Culture by John Storey.
Boring for you, perhaps, but right in my area of study. The title explains it all. I only wish the book contained original texts instead of the editor’s summary of those texts. Kind of feels like someone else did my homework for me. But I guess that’s what the follow up is for.

25. McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern No. 13 edited by Chris Ware.
The comics issue of McSweeney’s. This gave me a lot to work with when I realized I wanted to get into the comics world. Lovely pieces by Seth, Richard McGuire, and Ware himself.

26. Crossing California by Adam Langer.
The Gapers Block Book Club proves its worth, because I would have never picked up this excellent book without it. It’s the story of a group of Jewish high school kids growing up in Rogers Park. Langer’s characterization is so great that you truly feel like you know the kids by the time you finish the story. I can’t wait to read the follow up.

27. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers.
I wasn’t as fond of this book as I thought I would be. Set in the south, the book is composed of several different narratives that center around a deaf man who comes to stay in a boarding house. Well-written, but just not for me.

28. Summer Blonde by Adrian Tomine.
Four stories dealing with social isolation. More a chunk stolen from the characters’ lives than their complete life stories. Tomine’s art is clean and his narratives are linear, making his stories entirely believable.

29. Looped by Andrew Winston.
Reviewed at Gapers Block, this was undoubtedly my most disappointing read of the year. For all of the praise it received for interweaving seven different storylines, I found this structural element to be its greatest downfall. I’m surprised Winston didn’t take a hit out on me.

30. Heat Wave by Eric Klinenberg.
Read during the month of July for the Gapers Block Book Club. Perhaps the worst time possible to read this account of the 1995 Chicago heat wave that, while being one of the nation’s greatest natural disasters, is also one of its most ignored. Doesn’t make for great 102-degree reading, but informative and shocking otherwise.

31. Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury.
One of my four favorite books of all time. Reviewed for the Gapers Block Book Club and read by the Book Cellar’s own book club, at whose discussion I met biographer Sam Weller and wound up having my tattered, thirteen-year-old copy signed by the man himself.

32. I Sing the Body Electric! by Ray Bradbury.
Riding high on my Bradbury love, I dived into this collection of short stories I found in the free box outside Powell’s. Contains such goodies as “Tomorrow’s Child,” about a child accidentally born into a different dimension, and the title story, about a substitute mother. I can never get enough Bradbury.

33. American Gods by Neil Gaiman.
Andrew assures me this is a great book, but because I read half of this, put it down to read other things, then read the remainder, I didn’t understand a lot of what happened. Some of the characters that appeared in the beginning I had forgotten by the end. Maybe I’ll read it again someday, but in one go.

34. Jimmy Corrigan by Chris Ware.
Maybe not the daddy of the modern graphic novel, but certainly the big brother or uncle or mentor. This influential book follows Jimmy’s trip to meet his father for the first time, an adventure told over the course of three generations. Great full page portraits of the Chicago World’s Fair.

35. Unless by Carol Shields.
A wonderful, amazing story on the meaning of goodness. With feminist undertones and solid, elegant writing, Shields’ name deserves to be more widely heard. I made Doppelganger jealous with my newfound Shields love.

36. Little Children by Tom Perrotta.
An amusing story featuring suburban parents who need more excitement in their lives. Predictable affairs ensue, but Perrotta’s writing keeps the story interesting. The best Perrotta I’ve read thus far.

36.5. Magical Thinking by Augusten Burroughs.
The only book I didn’t finish this year. I found the essay in which Burroughs equates baldness with breast cancer incredibly offensive and, had I not been in public, I might have thrown the book violently in disgust. I’m upset that I wasted any amount of time on the man.

37. Ghost World by Daniel Clowes.
Two once inseparable friends grow apart as they graduate high school and look for different things in their lives. Interesting take on friendship and alienation.

38. Nowhere Man by Aleksandar Hemon.
Experimental, told from the viewpoint of several different narrators, this Book Club pick generated some interesting discussion because none of us really knew what was going on. Not my cup of tea, but I understood it a little better after hearing others’ thoughts on it.

39. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling.
I’m trying to get this series read after having avoided it for so long. I don’t love Rowling’s writing, but it’s an easy escape and not as annoying as I had anticipated. The third in the series, this book follows Sirius Black’s escape from Azkaban prison and reveals his part in the elder Potters’ murder.

40. The Slippery Slope by Lemony Snicket.
Book the Tenth, introducing Hotel Denouement and a character once thought to be dead. We still don’t officially know what VFD is, but we do know that it stands for Very Fresh Dill. Sunny is really starting to grow into her own.

41. The Lone Surfer of Montana, Kansas by Davy Rothbart.
An excellent variety of short stories by the creator of Found Magazine. I also had the opportunity to hear Davy read from his book in a performance that made me want to rush home and reread it with his voice in my mind. I later interviewed Davy, which can be read, along with the review, at Gapers Block.

42. Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs by Chuck Klosterman.
Ruminations on pop culture. Some call it unnecessary and self-congratulatory. I call it fabulous.

43. McSweeney’s Quarterly Concern No. 12 edited by Dave Eggers.
Contains stories written in twenty minutes, which I thought would be gimmicky and patchy, but which were surprisingly good. I also really liked James Boice’s “Pregnant Girl Smoking,” written in an interesting voice that illustrates the narrator’s shock at the story-inspiring incident.

44. The Grim Grotto by Lemony Snicket.
Book the Eleventh. I’m getting a little weary of the constant deflection from these “unfortunate” tales, but really I’m just eager to figure out how everything comes into place. Two more to go.

45. Clyde Fans Book 1 by Seth.
A gorgeous, haunting tale of two brothers and the family fan company to which each has devoted his life. In this first part we watch Abe go over his life with some regret and then travel back in time to see Simon abandon his work in a nervous fit. I can’t wait until Book 2 is published.

46. The Polysyllabic Spree by Nick Hornby.
A book about books by an author I love. Need I say more?

47. Colors Insulting to Nature by Cintra Wilson.
I’m usually against penetration of the fourth wall, but in this raucous, whirlwind of a teenage melodrama, the author’s direct comments to the reader were spot on. Liza wants nothing more to be famous and her trashy mother, mentally disturbed brother, and string of useless boyfriends aren’t going to stop her.

48. Microserfs by Douglas Coupland.
Remember when Windows was a new thing? I do, too. I feel old. But at least I mostly understood what was happening here. My children won’t.

49. Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk.
Imagine only having to run through a series of words in your mind and every annoying person in your path falls to their immediate death. Imagine having to prevent everyone else in the world from stumbling upon these words. Started out with a bang, but ended up more fantastical than I would have like. Still a good read.

50. The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature by Neal Pollack.
I was hesitant to read this because Pollack is among the Eggers canon of writers, but I actually enjoyed many of the essays herein. A bit acrimonious and self-effacing, which can come off as insecurity, but not something I regret reading.

51. The Final Solution by Michael Chabon.
My love for Chabon is not shaken by this mystery novella written in a perfect Victorian tongue. Inspired by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, the book is an homage to Sherlock Holmes, who makes a quiet, modest appearance here.

52. Life of Pi by Yann Martel.
Enthralling, emotional, and wonderfully written. Pi Patel is stranded at sea with nothing but a Bengal tiger to keep him company. How he survived the ordeal is startling and unforgettable. Wholly deserving of that Booker.


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