Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Best of 2008

While this is not the best of 2008 books, it is the best of the books that I read in 2008. While I had hoped to reach 100 books this year, it's not going to happen. My research and writing is filling every crevice of time, and I have every belief that 2009 will be my year for success.

Enough about me - let's get to the list:

First place, and closest to a TKAM on my list, is HALF OF A YELLOW SUN by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. This is ideal characterization and plotting, while dealing with a difficult topic without becoming sappy. I cannot praise it enough.

Other top books of 2008 are (in my reading calendar order):

  • GATES OF WAR, by Steven Pressfield. Long live Sparta and its rich history.
  • THE GOOD EARTH, by Pearl S. Buck. Sensual language and imagery of pre-revolutionary China.
  • FIELDWORK, by Mischa Berlinski. I always find it fascinating when someone tricks me into believing a story is "real."
  • THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER & CLAY, by Michael Chabon. Early New York, comic books, Jewish history - you can't go wrong.
  • THE BRIEF WONDROUS LIFE OF OSCAR WAO, by Junot Diaz. Dominican boy with no "game" and several pop culture/80's references.
  • A CASE OF EXPLODING MANGOES, by Mohammed Hanif. An interesting take on the death of Pakistan's president in 1988 with prose that sings.
  • A THREAD OF GRACE, by Mary Doria Russell. Italy's role in WWII, as told through several point of views. Simply amazing plotting and characterization.
  • THE GIVEN DAY, by Dennis Lehane. While I hate how much I loved this book, it is a tapestry of Boston history and racism in the 1910s. Lehane, stick to this style of writing.
  • THE CONFESSIONS OF MAX TIVOLI, by Andrew Sean Greer. With the popularity of Benjamin Button, if you want to explore the idea of backward aging, read this book. Bah, read it anyway.
  • SNOW FLOWER AND THE SECRET FAN, by Lisa See. Stunning historical vision with intricate layering of women's language, both spoken and written.
Honorary mention: LOTTERY, by Patricia Wood. It made me cry, and most of you readers know that is difficult for my black coal heart.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

98. "The Blood of Flowers" - Anita Amirrezvani

First there wasn't and then there was. Before God, no one was.

This is how all of the stories began in 17th century Iran, and a village girl dreams that her own story will have the sweet almond ending of the fables. However, during the comet, her family's luck turns, and she ends up scouring pots with her mother by the "kindness" of distant relations.

Still, the girl dreams of more. In the village, she wove a turquoise rug and sold it for her dowry. Now, her distant-uncle runs the royal rug shop. He teaches her to design, paint, and plot the knots tied on the rugs.

This is not a fairy tale, though, like she had grown up learning. She is married out on a three-month contract - basically, similar to the deal in "Pretty Woman," though she doesn't even get to stay during the daytime. Instead, she weaves a rug that begins to earn her uncle's respect.

Like Arabian Nights, there are fables or moralistic stories intertwined with the main narrative. Most were lovely additions, though I'll admit that I skimmed over them. The girl shows the spirit of many women, tied by their own knots, yet struggling against them. This is what carried the story and captured my interest.

4.0 out of 5.0 Polo Cocktails.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

XX. "The Meaning of Night" - Michael Cox

I just need to say "no." No more faux Victorian gothic-types of novels. It is taking me almost six months to read Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, and that's more of a fantasy book, besides. So, another one bites the book worm dust.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

97. "Lottery" - Patricia Wood

Perry L. Crandell (L for Lucky) is not retarded, as we learn in the first few sentences. He has an IQ of 76. That point - literally - is what provides meaning in Per's life, along with Slurpees at a place where a pretty girl named Cherry works and being besties with a man named Keith.

Then, Perry wins the lottery. His brothers hound him for cash. His mother sends letters. Without his Gram to protect him, Perry relies on Keith's good advice to protect him along his bumpy journey.

This was one of those books where I thought I knew where the story was going. It's funny, it's poignant, and it's tense. But, to my great glee, the author didn't take the easy way out with the last 70 pages. Sure, some of it is tied up a little too nicely (with a bow on top), but I liked the choices.

It is not Flowers for Algernon. But it is still worthy of our attention.

3.75 out of 5.0 Tall Ships.

96. "The Farming of Bones" - Edwidge Danticat

Another bit of history hidden from American schoolbooks: the Haitian massacre of 1937 (also known as the Parsley massacre). In this book, Amabelle and her "man," Sebastian, are separated during the melee after planning on leaving their respective working lives.

Danticat is brilliant at using language to sing, to play, to lament, to grieve. This is one of the books best read aloud by someone with a lyrical voice.

Sebastian is a cane worker, which is one of the worst jobs for Haitians. His body is scarred from the sugarcane (symbolic for bones because of the way it is burned before harvest). Still, she loves him and plans for he and his sister to leave. His friend leads her to Sebastian's mother's home, where she finds out more about the massacre.

This book should have weighed me down. It was heavy with symbolism and wonderfully written words, but my mind flew away from the horrors. I have read too much recently to be appreciative. Still, my mind goes back to the way the soldiers asked the Haitians to say "parsley," knowing they couldn't trill the r's like Spanish-speakers. I felt that Biblical weight like stones in my mouth.

3.5 out of 5.0 Rum Cobblers.

95. "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan" - Lisa See

I find the relationships between women much more interesting than the relationships between men and women. There is a plethora of viciousness that you do not find in a typical male/female break-up, and there is such a waste of anger and jealousy.

While the relationship between two Chinese women, Snow Flower and Lily, is interesting (bonded as "old-sames," which is more sacred than the bond of marriage), it is the historical aspects of this novel that intrigued me into avoiding my life for a rich six hours.

While, we all know about foot-binding, this book goes through the process with specific details. The idea of old-same relationships, as well as female groups formed based on age or status, is also fascinating. But it was the discovery of the only known female-created language, nu shu, that kept me enthralled. As a way to communicate, Snow Flower and Lily write in nu shu on a shared fan. This writing must be read carefully because of nuances, which causes the near-death of their old-same relationship.

I thought of all lost friends after reading this book, as well as the pettiness some women hold in their hearts. But I also thought about the connections between women that cause this new language to be born. It's simply a sweet tale, like deep fried taro.

4.5 out of 5.0 Candy Girls.

Monday, December 15, 2008

94. "A Ship Made of Paper" - Scott Spencer

This National Book Award finalist was the ideal carrot for motivating me through a pile of essay-grading today. Read 10 papers, read 10 pages. Throw the student writing away, then devour the book. Try plan A again. Fail.

Daniel is a model husband-father to Kate and Ruby, though he is not married or the natural dad. Still, he is devoted to them, except for the part of his heart that yearns for Iris, the mom of Ruby's best little buddy at daycare.

While Kate continues on a downward spiral of drinking and obsessing over the O.J. Simpson trial, Daniel and Iris begin an affair. Iris, who is a reluctant African-American ("I don't relate to my race," she says"), is too afraid to leave her buttoned-up husband, so the entire small town soon knows of their indiscretions.

Scott Spencer is a master at passionate, romantic writing. He makes armpit hair sexy. While the play on racial tensions didn't work for me, the taut storytelling more than made up for it.

4.0 out of 5.0 Sex on the Grass.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

93. "Trauma" - Patrick McGrath

Anton Chekov said that if the gun is shown in the first act, it must be fired by the last. The first line in Trauma is: “My mother’s first depressive illness occurred when I was 7 years old, and I felt it was my fault.” Bang.

A psychologist who quotes Freud, self-analyzes his relationships, and creates complex social situations (screwing both his ex-wife and a new girlfriend), Charlie is determined to see everyone's "trauma" but his own.

For lovers of the Gothic style of storytelling, this is a dark haven. For me, it was a cell. I'm writing about a psychologist, and my character would have had a shot of whiskey and told Charlie to see a shrink by the 40th page. Biased? "Yeah, babe, can I gitchu back?"

2.0 out of 5.0 Pegus.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

XX. "The Sister" - Poppy Adams

OK, authors. You get 30 pages. Sometimes you get more, but then you whip a red herring into the batter and I throw your book in disgust.

I know this is up for an award or someone loved it with a capital L. But what has two thumbs and doesn't give books much of a chance? This chica.

Bored. Read about moths and butterfly collections and collectors before. Got the metaphor between the dried up old collections and the dried up old sister living in the house. I fell asleep while reading. Not once, every friggin' time.

If it's worth it, convince me.

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

92. "The Confessions of Max Tivoli" - Andrew Sean Greer

With The Curious Case of Benjamin Button arriving at theatres, I was drawn to this novel about Max Tivoli, a man born as a grizzled, old baby, who progresses through the aging process backwards. It is not the basis of the film (which is a short story by F. Scott Fitzgerald, and one that I would not recommend). Still, there are similarities; in fact, even Max claims to see a 12-year-old at a bar in Spain who has the eyes of an old woman and knows she is like him.

Old, gentlemanly Max falls in love with Alice when both are at the birth age of 14. His infatuation drives him to follow her throughout her life, reappearing in his different ages to dupe her into loving him anew. Along the way, his selfishness causes him to lose many of his loved ones, both families and friends, but he still is relentless in his push to possess Alice's heart.

It's a much better novel than I expected. People told me that the ending is bleak. Of course it is. But the writing is phenomonal. Every few pages Greer throws in a description or detail that brings truth to the foreground... a strange oxymoron with this style of fantasy novel. His writing tries to convince the reader that Max can be forgiven for his actions, while socking you in the gut.

4.25 out of 5.0 San Francisco Cocktails.

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

91. "Out Backward" or "God's Own Country" - Ross Raisin

Sam Marsdyke is a lonely, beyond socially-awkward young adult who lives on his family's sheep farm in rural Yorkshire. With no one to talk to, he creates his own stories and dialogue, but the thick patterns take a while to understand. Still, between the thick Yorkshire brogue, slang, and made up words, there are several funny moments, like when watching a ram's castrated pal:

"[...] poor castrated sod who kept himself pot-of-one the rest of the year waiting for his charver the tup to come and stay, though I didn’t know what the bugger it was them two had to talk about. Been up to much lately, oh, you’ve been rutting have you, that’s nice, I don’t much go in for that myself these days, not since my knackers were sliced off."

Sam begins a friendship with the new "townies" who move into a nearby farmhouse; their daughter reaches out to Sam, not knowing that the reason he was kicked out of school was due to accusations of rape. As story unfolds, the reader knows it can't end well, but the combination of the unique voice and the natural desire to watch a train wreck carry one through to the final chapter.

Long-listed for the Dylan Thomas prize, the novel is best read when alert and functional. It takes work to understand Sam. Still, I think he's one of the best delusional and unreliable narrators since Keyes's Flowers for Algernon.

3.75 out of 5.0 Ward Eights.

90. "The Picture of Dorian Gray" - Oscar Wilde

You know the story: a portrait that ages while the man doesn't. Intriguing premise. It must be; there are at least four movies about Dorian Gray, the latest to be released in 2009.

But do the movies capture the essence of Dorian Gray? Do they show how Lord Henry becomes a demonic figure in Dorian's life? Can you examine each frame for the perfect snarkiness of dandies and blatant homosexual overtones?

The only disappointment was the familiarity of the language. Later, I read that many of the phrases had been reused in Wilde's play, The Importance of Being Earnest.

Still, read the book. Skip or breeze through the chapter on Dorian's fifteen years under the portrait's spell (gemology, traveling, yawning). But read the book.

4.0 out of 5.0 Greyhounds.