Okay, I know we’re over twenty days into 2010 and it’s a little late to be doing year-summation things, but I do want to get this entry out. Despite the facts that I never leave the house without a book and skip over Match.com profiles of guys who say they don’t read, it’s been awhile since I’ve done a blog post about books. So, although I left out many of the books I read last year so that this post wouldn’t go on forever, here’s a sampling:
The Road by Cormac McCarthy
This was either the first or the second book I read this year, and definitely not the best. I think it’s the Arrested Development of recent novels—everyone seems to like it but me. I just thought it was dull and plodding and repetitive. I kept reading sentences and thinking, “Wait, didn’t I already read this?” Boring plot, boring characters…overall boring book.
The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz
After I finished this book, I started seriously questioning my taste. I read it right after The Road, which made it the second Pulitzer Prize winner in a row that I didn’t like. My main problem with it was the main character, whom I couldn’t stand. It’s not always necessary for the reader to like the main character, but it is necessary for the main character to be interesting. Oscar was neither likeable nor interesting. He’s an overweight, whiney nerd who wants to get laid. That’s it, really. Why was I supposed to care about him? I had no idea. I did learn a lot about the history of the Dominican Republic from this book, but it almost felt like the historical stuff was there to pad a rather dull story about an unlikeable character.
The Time Traveler’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
I don’t think I’ve ever done such a complete 180 on a book. For about the first sixty pages, I was having trouble getting into it, and I almost stopped reading. But then I got interested, and by the end I knew I’d have to read it again (which I did, later in the year). I think the format just takes some getting used to—if you’re not familiar with the plot, it’s about the romance of Henry, who has a condition that causes him to involuntarily travel through time, sometimes seeing himself in the past or future, and Clare, who does not. Despite the weird premise, it doesn’t feel like fantasy or science fiction—it’s really just a love story. The main characters are likeable and interesting, and the romance is convincing enough that you can manage to suspend your disbelief enough to accept the time-traveling plot.
American Wife by Curtis Sittenfeld
I liked this book a lot, way more than I expected to. I liked Sittenfeld’s two previous novels, Prep and The Man of My Dreams, but I think this is better than both of them- stronger plot, more interesting characters. This is “the Laura Bush book,” a novel where the main character is clearly modeled after the former first lady. So it feels kind of weird to be recommending it so strongly, but back in 2004, Curtis Sittenfeld wrote an article for Salon about how even though she’s a Democrat, she loves Laura Bush, and her argument was convincing enough that I could see how Laura would be an interesting subject for a book. But this is a novel, so it’s about “Alice Blackwell,” who comes across as an interesting person with a complicated inner life. While it skips sections of her life, including large parts of her husband’s political career, it’s divided into the important parts: her teenage years and a tragedy that shaped her, the beginning of her romance with her husband, the early years of her marriage, and her life in the White House. There are some fantastic characters in the book, especially Alice’s liberal, outspoken, closeted lesbian grandmother. The author also nails the characterization of the W character, Charlie Blackwell, and his family. She makes you believe that someone could actually fall in love with and marry Dubya. There’s one quote that sums the book up quite nicely: “All I did was marry him. You’re the ones who gave him power.” And that’s why, even if you don’t think so at first, a book about Laura Bush can be interesting
The Sweet Life of Stella Madison by Lara Zeises
I first heard of young adult author Lara Zeises when poking around the website for Emerson College’s MFA program and seeing her listed as one of the graduates. Later, I found out that about ten years ago, she was my boss’s assistant at another publishing company. Before this book published, I’d been in contact with her both for work-related reasons and to tell her how much I liked her previous YA novels (Bringing Up the Bones, Contents Under Pressure, and Anyone But You, along with the two True Confessions of a Hollywood Starlet books, which she writes under the name Lola Douglas). Then one day at work, I got a special delivery—an advance copy of her new book, The Sweet Life of Stella Madison! It’s a very enjoyable book about the teenage daughter of two famous chefs who, despite knowing nothing about food herself, is asked to write a food column for the local newspaper. Meanwhile, she’s torn between two guys and attempting to come to terms with her parents’ separation. It’s a fun read with a great main character, and I definitely recommend all of Lara’s other books, too.
I Was Told There’d Be Cake by Sloane Crosley
Sloane Crosley is a publicist in her early thirties, and this is her first book of humorous essays. They were kind of hit-or-miss. Some of them are really funny- two favorites are the ones about a Miranda Priestly-like first boss and another about being a bridesmaid for an old friend she’d fallen out of touch with- but some of them are really boring. There are some essays that could be summed up in one sentence- “I didn’t find out until I was sixteen that my father is my mother’s second husband.” “I’m a vegetarian who eats sushi.”
Commencement by J. Courtney Sullivan
Milton, MA native and Smith graduate Courtney Sullivan’s first novel was published last summer, when she was twenty-seven. It follow four friends who meet at Smith and alternates between their college years and their lives as twenty-somethings trying to make it in the real world. During college, things like date rape, an affair with a professor, and falling in love with a woman shape their experiences. After college, they contemplate first jobs, real-world dating, and marriage and children. They’ve learned all about feminist principles and female empowerment in school, but figuring out how those concepts work in their own lives is trickier. This is a theme that really touched a nerve with me, because unlike the characters in the book, I never took women’s studies or thought seriously about feminism while in college. It’s only since graduating and working full-time that I’ve become really interested in the subject, but that’s a topic for another blog post. In any case, the characters seem very real and are in the same stage of life I’m in, which made this book easy to get into—I read the whole thing very quickly. One thing that did bother me, though, was a subplot where one main character gets in over her head working with a radical filmmaker on a documentary about human trafficking. While I appreciate what the author is trying to do in bringing attention to a horrifying topic that most people don’t know a lot about, in the end, the point she ends up making is more about how crazy the filmmaker is than anything else. But overall, this was a great book that I highly recommend.
The Mommy Myth: The Idealization of Motherhood and How It Has Undermined All Women by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michaels
Speaking of feminism, the title of this book jumped out at me one day in Borders. I am woefully under-read on feminist topics, but of all issues, I think I’m most interested in why mothers, even if they’re married, have a much harder time balancing work and family than men do. This book delves into some of those reasons and takes a critical look at the ways in which the media and pop culture make mothers feel like they’re doing everything wrong—everything from magazine cover stories about celebrity moms to sensationalized media stories about “bad mothers” to idealized portrayals of parenting in Lifetime movies and TV shows like Thirtysomething. It also looks at how legislators have squandered chances to help working mothers, decrying as “Communist” required maternity leave and state-sponsored daycare, things that women in many developed countries take for granted. The book is written by one communication studies professor and one philosophy professor, and it’s very well-researched, but it’s also very accessibly written in a snappy, sarcastic tone, and I really enjoyed reading it. It was published in 2004, so I’d like to hear what the authors have to say on recent pop culture topics like Kate Gosselin, the Octomom, and what shows like Desperate Housewives and Mad Men say about motherhood.
We Thought You Would Be Prettier: True Tales of the Dorkiest Girl Alive by Laurie Notaro
This is another book of humorous essays. I think I’d put Laurie Notaro somewhere below Susan Jane Gilman and above Sloane Crosley in the running for the “female David Sedaris” title. Two essays I remember are one about why she got banned from the Y and another about how she tends to speak her mind at inappropriate times. I think this was her fourth book, so I have to check out the other ones.
Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
Hands-down the saddest novel I read last year. This is a young adult novel that begins after a teenage girl named Hannah commits suicide. The narrator, Clay, had a crush on Hannah and is devastated by her death. Then one day, he gets a package in the mail containing several audio tapes. Before her death, Hannah recorded herself explaining her state of mind before her suicide. Each side of each tape explains what one person did that played a part in her decision to end her life, and the tapes have been passed down from one person mentioned on the tapes to another, in the order that they’re mentioned. A lot of actions had unintended consequences, and Hannah herself is not innocent in that regard. It did bother me how Hannah seemed to blame her problems on so many other people and had so little regard for her parents, who weren’t the source of her problems. But this was an engrossing, thought-provoking read overall, and I like that the book acknowledges that suicidal depression isn’t always caused by one big thing, but sometimes by smaller things that add up and spiral out of control.
Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women by Susan Faludi
Spurred on by The Mommy Myth, I bought another book on feminism. This one was first published in 1991, but in 2006 an update edition with a new preface came out. It explores how in the 1980s, the news and pop culture kept misleading the public into believing that career-minded women or women whose first desires were not for a husband and children were crazy, sad, lonely, doomed, etc., and that feminism itself was to blame for these problems. It was a really interesting read and I didn’t want it to end.
Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc
For over ten years, LeBlanc followed a family in the Bronx and the layers upon layers of trouble that followed them over the years. Their experiences read like a laundry list of social issues—teenage pregnancy, violence, drugs, prison time, poverty, homelessness, sexual abuse, all of which occur in the family more than once. In particular, the narrative focuses on Jessica, the girlfriend of a big-time heroin dealer, and Coco, the girlfriend of Jessica’s younger brother and the mother of two of his children. It can get a little complicated keeping track of all the people involved in the story, but that’s how life is. It’s a very ambitious work of journalism, but I think LeBlanc succeeds completely. It’s amazing how much access she was able to get to these people’s lives and how much they opened up to her.
Undress Me in the Temple of Heaven by Susan Jane Gilman
I adored Susan Jane Gilman’s Hypocrite in a Pouffy White Dress, so I was excited to read this book. While that book was composed of humorous essays, this one is just a narrative. After graduating from Brown in 1986, Gilman and her friend (whom she pseudonymously calls Claire Van Houten) decided to travel around the world, starting in Communist China. Not speaking the language and not quite comprehending the implications of travelling in a Communist country, they find themselves in over their heads. But most frighteningly, Claire starts acting paranoid and delusional, and it takes Gilman awhile to realize that her friend is mentally ill. While the subject matter is serious and at times very suspenseful, there are plenty of touches of humor throughout with Gilman’s distinctive style. She’s a great writer, and I can’t wait to read her other book.