Sunday, March 13, 2011

Book Report: Stars and Stinkers

Two years ago, I started keeping track of the books I read. I'm not sure why I decided to. But I'm glad I did.

I bought a pretty, blank-page journal and started in. In chronological order, I recorded the title/author of each book, when I read it, and a short paragraph or two about each book.

Journaling about books helped me realize some things:

1) I used to think I read a book a week, on average. Turns out I was overestimating. It's more like 42 books a year, or a book every nine days. Still, that's not bad.

2) Some books were totally forgettable. If I hadn't journaled about them, I would not even remember them, two years later.

3) A few months back, I received a Kindle for the holidays. I love its portability. Now I can take dozens of titles on vacation with me, and they all fit into this itty-bitty little device. But I also love the physical presence of books, so when I read a good book on the Kindle, I go out and buy it anyway. Books are easier for me to remember if I read them "in person." Seeing the book's cover, feeling heft of it, and smelling the paper helps me experience the book more fully. And somehow that helps me remember it better.

If you are a list person, you might enjoy glancing through my entire chronological list of books read (at the end of this post). If you're not, at least take a look at these 10 must-read faves:

My "10 STARS," in no particular order, are:

1. Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett
This was my second time enjoying this novel, which I first heard on audiotape shortly after it came out in the 1980s. A great yarn set in medieval England, its fictional Kingsbridge Cathedral is loosely based on the real-life cathedrals in Wells and Salisbury. The book is populated with well-drawn, believable characters, and it has a wonderful love story. "Pillars" covers a grand sweep of time, and at the heart of it all are Follett's fabulous descriptions of the massive cathedral.
2. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck
The quintessential Dust Bowl story of America in the 1930s. Loved it the first time I read it years ago, love it still. A family saga, road novel, a stinging indictment of government failings, and an eco-novel. One of my favorite chapters is entirely devoted to describing a tortoise's attempt at crossing a road.
3. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery
Three completely engaging characters, a Paris setting, a coming-of-age novel, a Cinderella story, and a healthy dose of very Gallic language and philosophising (the novel is translated from French). I read it once quickly because I couldn't put it down, then went back and read it again slowly to savor the delicious language.
4. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett
Love, love, LOVE this book, set in the American South in the 1960s. Spunky characters fighting against the status quo, trying to fit in--or not--railing against injustices, and cooking up a storm of Southern food. (It made me go off on a tear, researching the perfect caramel cake, which I then served to my book club.) The black domestics in this tale speak in very thick vernacular, but if you sound out their words, you can just taste their lives. Absolutely wonderful.
5. Catcher in the Rye, by J. D. Salinger
The Boy read this last year for his English class and didn't like it because the main character, Holden Caulfield, "is a jerk." Ah, but that's the point. In this poignant coming-of-age novel, the main character is a deeply distressed teen, unhinged by his brother's death and his family's failure to process the tragedy. He is so hurt, so drawn to others who are helpless or weak, so completely out of touch with the motivators within him. You can't help but be moved by him. It's a masterful novel, one that stays with you long past the reading of it.

6. As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner
What a masterpiece! I hadn't read this since college, and I'd forgotten what a powerful, spare, and innovative work it is, with its multiple story-tellers and use of stream-of-consciousness. One entire chapter reads: "My mother is a fish." Makes me want to read all of Faulkner's novels, all over again.
7. Room, by Emma Donoghue
An amazing novel about a kidnaping victim imprisoned for years in a fortified storage shed, and the little boy she bears her captor. The story is told from the point of view of the five-year-old boy, and it's so well done, it's like the author crawled inside his head. Funny, sweet, chilling, and totally engaging. A tour de force that I'll definitely read again.

8. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving
A big, dense, delicious book that took me weeks to finish. But I loved it all, from its intriguing cast of characters to its over-the-top, not-quite surrreal scenes. I won't soon forget Owen as baby Jesus in the annual Christmas pageant, shrieking from his overly tight swaddling clothes at his parents, "Get OUT!," or how he foretold the date and circumstances of his ultimate tragedy. Compelling and--I suspect--full of Christian symbolism I can only begin to catch.
9. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender
Right before I read this book, I had read a real Stinker (see the "Stinkers" list, below). I was so grateful that "Lemon Cake" took the bad taste of the last book out of my mouth. I loved this one--it is magical realism that, for once, I liked. Quirky, inventive, funny, touching, evocative. I definitely want to read more by Bender.
10. Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese
This is such a great book, I bought it on my Kindle, then raced out and bought it in paperback. It's got everything: a love story, a mystery, a commentary on race/class/religion, memorable characters, and an ending that ties everything all together. I'd recommend this one to anybody who likes a really well-crafted novel.

If you read nothing more over the next two years than these 10 books, above, I guarantee you will love yourself for it.

Now, then.

On the other end of the spectrum, I read some godawful books. Some were so bad I had to throw in the towel before finishing them. And I try really hard to Never Give Up on a Book.


Life is too short for some of these bozos.

Here, again in no particular order, were the "10 STINKERS" I endured over the past two years:
1. The Friday Night Knitting Club, by Kate Jacobs
Oh, dear. This was my book club's selection, and I had to lead the discussion. I got around the distasteful task by distracting everybody. I brought in a bunch of different yarns and showed them swatches made up in different stitches. Thank goodness they didn't mind the runaround, because this book is not literature. It's airport book.
2. Bridge of Sighs, by Richard Russo
I give up on Russo. Previously, I had waded through his "Empire Falls," which inexplicably won the Pulitzer. So here I was, again slogging through another overblown story with somewhat engaging people, but not enough to make me stick it out. Somewhere after page 400, I Just. Gave. Up. The glacial pace, the characters I couldn't care about: It was a relief to go on to another book.
3. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Fforde
The Hubby loved this book. I had high hopes for this book. This book sucks. It's a great idea, though; characters from literature are going missing--possibly being kidnapped--from their books. A talented detective is hot on the trail of murders and stolen, first-run manuscripts. Literary and "real" figures meet and mix their destinies. But I tried twice, and just had to give up. This is a mediocre detective story, despite its brilliant concept. What a shame!
4. The 50-Anniversary Collected Works of M.F.K. Fisher
Fisher is the grande dame of culinary writing from the first half of the 20th century. I felt it was about time I learned what all the adulation was about. I was underwhelmed; I found her cranky, picky, overly prone to snobbishness, and sometimes downright weird (like when she insists you don't need to wash dirty dishes with soap, just water). I loved her chapter on sharing a fresh-fruit pie with her dad and sister when she was very little. But other than that, bleah.
5. Running with Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs
Good Lord! If even half of the atrocities and ridiculousness in this autobiography are true, it is an appalling miscarriage of parenting. Ultimately, reading this was like a slow-motion train wreck: riveting but revolting.
6. The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen
I tried hard to like this book, I really did. So many people seem to be gaga about Franzen. But this book features a distasteful main character: Strike One. It has no supporting characters worth caring about: Strike Two. And the author staggers between straight narrative and attempts at poetic/dramatic prose: Strike Three and you're out, Mr. Franzen.
7. Oprah: A Biography, by Kitty Kelley
Euwww! Every time I read more of this tell-all, I felt as if I needed to get up and wash my hands. Oprah is trashed, minced, trounced, filleted, and stripped naked of privacy on every page. Kelley makes some attempt to enumerate Oprah's charitable and humanitarian side, but it is really a sop in the face of a tide of Awful. I remember now why I don't read these "biographies"--Oprah may, indeed, be a diva obsessed with controlling every detail of her life. But nobody, outside of a murderer, should be treated this way.
8. The Shack, by Wm. Paul Young
This was a toughie. It was suggested--and enthusiastically lauded--by a member in my reading group. She was going through a tough time, and this book seemed to resonate with her. But I found the book oddly similar to Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a wildly popular piece of drivel from the 1970s. Both books are just pap. What's worse, The Shack was very Jesus-y, which is fine, but it presented its Jesus-ness in an way I found amazingly insulting to non-Christians. This does not qualify as literature.
9. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
There is no poetry in this books' language. Nothing about it merits being called "literature." It is a compelling story idea, however. English school children in the countryside are being raised in an insular fashion. Over the years, they slowly learn what their ultimate fate is to be. But the book is neither creepy enough to be sci-fi, nor emotional enough to be an internal study of the human condition, nor well told enough to be a page-turner.

This novel is like those dull people who seize control of a conversation by saying, "That reminds me of the time I was..." and then drone on about something that has nothing to do with the conversation at hand. I call them "Uncle Stanleys." (No, I don't have an Uncle Stanley.) The author uses this annoying technique so often, I actually started calling the book "Uncle Stanley" and ultimately threw it across the room.
10. Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen
Mr. Franzen has the distinction of being the author of two books on my "10 Stinkers" list. Why is everybody in love with this guy? I actually put a message on my FaceBook page, asking if anybody else out there abhors his novels. (It was gratifying to learn that some folks feel the way I do.) I've tried twice in two years to give Franzen's books a chance. There's not a single character in this book that I like--or even like to hate. I will not be trying his works again, no matter how highly lauded they may be.

Obviously, the Stars and Stinkers reviews above are very subjective. If you feel strongly about any of these, I'd love to hear from you. And if you have a must-read book to recommend, please tell me. I'm always looking for the next good read.

(And now, for you obsessive-compulsive types, here is my entire book list, in chronological order, for the past two years. I've included an (F) for fiction, (NF) for nonfiction.):

1. The Last Chinese Chef, by Nicole Mones (F)
2. The Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett (F)
3. Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson (NF)
4. The Secret Life of Bees, by Sue Monk Kidd (F)
5. The Shadow of the Wind, by Carlos Ruiz Zafon (F)

6. Lifelines, by Edna Bliss (Not available to the public; this is my mom's self-published autobiography. But I include it for the purposes of accurate reporting.) (NF)
7. Doctors: The Biography of Medicine, by Sherwin B. Nuland (NF)
8. The Guernsey Literary & Potato Peel Society, by Mary Ann Shaffer and Anne Barrows
9. Run, by Ann Patchett (F)
10. The Glass Castle, by Jeanette Walls (F)

11. When You Are Engulfed in Flames, by David Sedaris (NF)
12. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, by David Wroblewski (F)
13. Me and Mr. Darcy, by Alexandra Potter (F)
14. A Thousand Splendid Suns, by Khaled Hosseini (F)
15. Engleby, by Sebastian Faulks (F)

16. The Bridge of Sighs, by Richard Russo (F)
17. The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein (F)
18. The Friday Night Knitting Club, by Kate Jacobs (F)
19. The Memory Keeper's Daughter, by Kim Edwards (F)
20. Modoc: The True Story of the Greatest Elephant That Ever Lived, by Ralph Helfer (NF)

21. The Eyre Affair, by Jasper Forde
22. The Reluctant Fundamentalist, by Mohsin Hamid (F)
23. The Art of Eating, by M.F.K. Fisher (NF)
24. World Without End, by Ken Follett (F)
25. Death With Interruptions, by Jose Saramago (F)

26. Script and Scribble: The Rise and Fall of Handwriting, by Kitty Burns Florey (NF)
27. Blood & Thunder: An Epic of the American West, by Hampton Sides (NF)
28. Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing (NF)
29. Travels with Charley in Search of America, by John Steinbeck (NF)
30. The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck (F)

31. She's Not There: A Life in Two Genders, by Jennifer Finney Boylan (NF)
32. Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close, by Jonathan Safran Foer (F)
33. Dr. Jeckyll & Mr. Hyde, by Robert Louis Stevenson (F)
34. The "Percy Jackson & the Olympians" series, by Rick Riordan (F)
35. The Tale of Beedle the Bard, by J.K. Rowling (F)

36. The Elegance of the Hedgehog, by Muriel Barbery (F)
37. Running with Scissors, by Augusten Burroughs (NF)
38. Made in America: An Informal History of the English Language in the United States, by Bill Bryon (NF)
39. As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who Was Raised as a Girl, by John Colapinto (NF)
40. Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout (F)

41. The Help, by Kathryn Stockett (F)
42. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, by Michael Chabon (F)
43. Necessary Losses: The Loves, Illusions, Dependencies, & Impossible Expectations That All of Us Have to Give Up in Order to Grow, by Judith Viorst (NF)
44. The Geography of Bliss: One Grump's Search for the Happiest Places in the World, by Eric Weiner (NF)
45. The Lacuna, by Barbara Kingsolver (F)

46. The Catcher in the Rye, by J.D. Salinger (F)
47. My Life in France, by Julia Child (NF)
48. The Other End of the Leash, by Patricia McConnell (NF)
49. The Corrections, by Jonathan Franzen (F)
50. Schlepping Through the Alps: My Search for Austria's Jewish Past With its Last Wandering Shepherd, by Sam Apple (NF)

51. The Good Earth, by Pearl S. Buck (F)
52. Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith, by Annie Lamott (NF)
53. Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith, by Annie Lamott (NF)
54. As I Lay Dying, by William Faulkner (F)
55. A Prayer for Owen Meany, by John Irving (F)

56. The Housekeeper & the Professor, by Yoko Ogawa (F)
57. Major Pettigrew's Last Stand, by Helen Simonson (F)
58. The Hand That First Held Mine, by Maggie O'Farrell (F)
59. The Beans of Egypt, Maine, by Carolyn Chute (F)
60. Oprah: A Biography, by Kitty Kelley (NF)

61. The Quiche of Death: An Agnes Raisin Mystery, by M.C. Beaton (F)
62. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo,
63. The Girl Who Played With Fire, and
64. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets' Nest, all 3 by Stieg Larssen (F)
65. The Shack, by William Paul Young (F)

66. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, by Aimee Bender (F)
67. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro (F)
68. Room, by Emma Donoghue (F)
69. Little Bitty Lies, by Mary Kay Andrews (F)
70. The Corrections, by Jonathan Frantzen (F)

71. Little Bee, by Chris Cleave (F)
72. Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, & Redemption, by Laura Hillenbrand (NF)
73. A Dog's Purpose, by W. Bruce Cameron (F)
74. The Member of the Wedding, by Carson McCullers (F)
75. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, by Carson McCullers (F)

76. The Graveyard Book, by Neil Gaiman (F)
77. Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens (F)
78. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah (NF)
79. The Little Giant of Aberdeen County, by Tiffany Baker (F)
80. The Girl Who From the Sky, by Heidi W. Durrow (F)

81. Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Vergese (F)
82. Dog Walks Man: A Six-Legged Odyssey, by John Zeaman (NF)
83. The Hangman's Daughter, by Oliver Potzsch (F)
84. The White Tiger, by Aravind Adiga (F)
85. Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian, by Avi Steinberg (NF)


  1. Great tips from such an avid reader - thanks. I've read a few of the books on your 'general' list, but none of your top 10 (which I now will), nor any of the stinkers (which I won't).
    You might like to read "The Cookbook Collector" which I recently finished nnd enjoyed; and, being a big fan of Barbara Kingsolver, I've just re-read her novel "Prodical Summer", and her collection of essays "High Tide in Tucson" - love them both. xoxo

  2. oops - its "Prodigal...." (sorry - just a sign of my distrations right now. xoxo)

  3. Thanks for sharing! I loved this post. Some of your "stinkers" list really cracked me up! I will be reading a couple of your Top 10's very soon! I can't believe you disliked MFK so much! While I wouldn't say she is warm and fuzzy, I get a big kick out of her writing and eccentricity! However, half of my book club members didn't show up because they disliked her so vehemently after reading "How to Cook a Wolf", so you're not alone on that front!

  4. You know what's funny? I liked The Eyre Affair. It wasn't a masterful piece of literature, no, but it was a fun detective caper with a more-engaging-than-usual plot line that rewarded readers who were well-versed with the English canon. I thought it was fun.

    Guess I'm with Dad on this one. :)



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