Saturday, December 29, 2007

The Best of 2007

Wow, I read a lot of really great books this year, but I've already beat the "best of" list thing to death, so I've decided to go the awards route. What better way to honor more good reads without having to make any more decisions than absolutely necessary?

And now, without further ado, I present to you in no particular order and with no set categories 2007's Leafy Awards!

(For the record, my name on LibraryThing is yourotherleft since the permalinks to my reviews seem to be rejecting me for some reason.)

The Good...

Best Fiction That I Read at the Beginning of the Year that Has Stuck With Me

Black & White by Dani Shapiro

Best General Non-Fiction

There Is No Me Without You by Melissa Fay Greene (for so skillfully combining a heartwarming story with a well-researched expose of big African problems)

Best Memoir

Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett (for honoring a real friendship with all its highs and lows honestly)

Best Historical Fiction

Small Island by Andrea Levy (for capturing four voices distinctly and bringing each of their experiences to life)

Best Young Adult

Hard Love by Ellen Wittlinger (for capturing the "I'm a normal guy" narrator)

Best Historical Fiction written for Young Adults

A Northern Light by Jennifer Donnelly (for creating a brilliant narrator and successfully keeping the narrative in character and in the time period)

Best Re-Read

The Reluctant God by Pamela F. Service (Because if you're a big history nerd like me, you'd sure like the events of this book to be long as nobody got hurt...too badly)

Most Powerful Descriptions

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson (Because I could taste the strawberries, feel the snow in the air, sense the start of the rainstorm. Wow.)

Best Pageturners

Life Expectancy by Dean Koontz (Dear old Dean makes a recovery from his overuse of the wildly awkward metaphor!)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (well, obviously)
Shout Down the Moon by Lisa Turner (a new author for me, I devoured this book)

Best Tearjerkers (and this is quite an honor considering how few books actually make me shed tears)

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling (Come on, I've "known" these characters for seven books...who can help but cry at some of the stuff in here?)
After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell (For achieving that same aim in six fewer books)

Best Love Story in a book not categorized as "romance" in your local book store

After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell
The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers (also taking the more obscure categories of "Best Use of Art" and "Engaging Use of a Biblical Passage")

Surprise Hits

The Rest of Her Life by Laura Moriarty (for being a book that I didn't like when I read it, but found that I couldn't stop thinking about)
The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Cbosky (because it's written in letters, and I usually hate that, but I loved this!)
Boy Meets Girl by Meg Cabot (because it takes an extra-special touch to help me forget I'm reading chick lit and actually enjoy it)

Most Likely to Help Me Start Liking Short Stories

The Circus in Winter by Cathy Day (And they are interconnected, which I like...a lot)

Best Use of Animals

Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen (This could also fall under "best stunningly realistic account of living in a nursing home by a nursing home resident")

Best Depiction of People of Irish or Scottish Descent living in Canada

No Great Mischief by Alistair MacLeod (So different yet so much the same in their new land)
Away by Jane Urquhart (Both these books were beautifully written...this one gets some awesome points for its nifty mystical qualities and for *gasp* actually managing to include a little humor to lighten the mood of the typically depressing Irish immigrant story)

And the Not So Good...

Most Depressing

The Law of Dreams by Peter Behrens (Wherein the writing was good, but I had to put it down every page or so because it seemed like absolutely nothing good ever happened to the poor narrator...unfortunately, may also take "Most Realistic Depiction of the Irish Immigrant Experience")

Biggest Disappointment

When Madeleine Was Young by Jane Hamilton (So, I felt like a victim of false advertising. Maybe I would have liked it had it been about what it was supposed to be about or described on the cover as what it actually was.)

The Notable DNFs (did not finish)

The Alienist by Caleb Carr (I just kept waiting to get excited about what was happening...and waiting, and waiting, and waiting)
Alentejo Blue by Monica Ali (I just kept waiting for it to start seeming like maybe it had a plot of some sort...before it did, the nastiest description of something unpleasant won this a place in the DNF pile)

Well, that's all for this year. Hope you had a great year of reading, too! Here's to many more!

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

After You'd Gone by Maggie O'Farrell

Having not signed up for a bookring on BookCrossing for a long while, I was surprised to be contacted to receive this book. Despite wanting to escape from the bookring craze, I decided to read this one. I'm so glad I didn't miss it. I can't say enough about this book, but I had to dance around the plot summary because I'd hate myself if I gave away even a little bit of the story. Oh, and I'm pretty indebted to it because it gave me a great bookish quote for my blog header, and I've been waiting for the right one to come along for awhile.

"To me it feels as if everything has been tilted to reveal this whole other picture which has existed just out of sight, all along."

After You'd Gone begins at its end. One Saturday morning Alice Raikes decides on the spur of the moment to visit her sisters in Edinburgh. She's barely just arrived when she sees something, something that remains a mystery until the end of the novel, that is so unspeakable that she departs for home again immediately. Later that night, Alice steps out into traffic and falls into a coma. Was it an accident? Or something worse?

The novel proceeds in various tenses, voices, and points of view, peeling off layer after layer of Alice's story, showing us that things are never quite as simple as they seem. After You'd Gone is many things: a story about true love, about family, about loss, about grief, and about healing. All of these things are beautifully rendered in a style that deceives readers into thinking that maybe they aren't all that involved in the story only to find that they've been so wrapped up in the web of Alice's life, that the core of the story is all the more gripping and heart-wrenching.

At first, I found the story's style of stringing together seemingly unrelated vignettes into larger chapters to be difficult, but as I came closer and closer to the end of the novel, I was stunned at how effective this tactic had been in helping me to know Alice inside and out and to become emotionally engaged with her. What seems so haphazard is, in truth, a surprisingly well-crafted narrative. In After You'd Gone, Maggie O'Farrell has crafted an incredible story that takes us into all the highs and lows of her character's life. All the time, O'Farrell manages to stealthily manipulate emotions without ever being cheesy or melodramatic. She is a master of not just telling but showing us her story - capturing the awkwardness of the beginning of a relationship, the blossoming of love, and the intense pain of grief and heartbreak.

It's hard to make me cry, especially for a book. This one did make me cry - not once but twice - despite my best efforts not to. Maggie O'Farrell has an astonishing grasp of emotions and the human condition. This novel is beautiful, heart-breaking, and not to be missed.

"Today I am bothered by the story of King Canute. (...) The story is, of course, that he was so arrogant and despotic a leader that he believed he could control everything - even the tide. We see him on the beach, surrounded by subjects, sceptre in hand, ordering back the heedless waves; a laughing stock, in short. But what if we've got it all wrong? What if, in fact, he was so good and great a king that his people began to elevate him to the status of a god, and began to believe that he was capable of anything? In order to prove to them that he was a mere mortal, he took them down to the beach and ordered back the waves, which of course kept on rolling up the beach. How awful it would be if we had got it so wrong, if we had misunderstood his actions for so long."

Monday, December 24, 2007

On Books and Me

While bloghopping this morning, I came upon a post at BiblioHistoria reflecting on a New York Times article which talks about how, at one time, reading was perceived to be lazy and unhealthy. I saw a lot of myself in her post, so instead of leaving a ridiculously long comment, I wrote a whole ridiculously long post of my own! (It's been awhile since the last blogly novella, hasn't it?)

I think it's quite ridiculous that reading was once equated with laziness. I have been told that I watch TV too much or I'm on the computer too much, implying laziness, and I've been inclined to agree that there is some laziness in those pursuits, but not always, especially when it comes the computer. However, in my life, reading has been anything but lazy. I've been told that I "read too much" but never in the sense that that made me lazy, perhaps only anti-social. I'm the person that sits in the living room while my parents watch TV and reads. I love to be around my family, but I'd much rather have my face in a book or a magazine or a newspaper than be staring mindlessly at the screen. To me, that's lazy. Hmm...makes you wonder if there will come a time when people will look back on us now and wonder at us thinking that watching TV is lazy!

I've been a book worm from a young age. My mom says that as a youngster I once asked her, "How do you learn to read?" She claims to have replied something like, "Well, you just have to practice." So I went and got all of my books and stacked them up on the floor and began to "practice." Stacks of books have surrounded me ever since. I used to have a bunch of books and now, having discovered the wonder of the library used book sale, I have tons and tons.

They say that when you give gifts, you give the types of things that you would like to receive. I think it's true! Every year, try though I might, I can't seem to resist buying the people that mean the most to me books. This year is no different. My parents both just read The Kite Runner so I picked them up a copy of A Thousand Splendid Suns. My mom is a huge fan of Jan Karon's Mitford series, so I picked up Karon's latest book, Home to Holly Springs for her. My dad loves a good mystery/thriller by Dean Koontz and, more recently, Dan Brown, so it's Angels and Demons for him. My pets, always astute in giving my mother presents (by way of me, of course) chose a hilarious copy of The Dangerous Book for Dogs to enlighten my mom to all their mischievious secrets. That's this year, alone. I love love love to unwrap a book on Christmas day or a gift certificate to get more books and often preferred them to toys or even the electronic gadgets that people of my age seem to covet so much - not that I don't like my gadgets, but not as much as my books. I'm sure my aunt had a hand in nurturing that love for books as gifts, as she always went out of her way to give me beautiful picture books when I was young that I really treasured.

Some of my best memories are book related. I would hardly say that staying up deep into the night reading is lazy. Sometimes I'd sneak out to the edge of my room after bedtime to huddle in the doorway reading by the hallway light until my parents would come chase me back to bed. When I was a little older and permitted to read whatever suited me, being completely absorbed into Stephen King's or John Grisham's page turners long after I should have been asleep could hardly be considered lazy, right? Even now, my reading tastes are little more serious and my reading itself is a little more serious, but I love to fall into the more realistic literary fiction and find that it taps into some of my deepest feelings and longings while also learning new words for my vocabulary and new things about the world far outside my front door. I love to know these things and to share them with the people around me, and doing that, I can tell you for certain, is no lazy pursuit.

Friday, December 21, 2007

So I'm a procrastinator...

...which is why I'm Booking Through Thursday on Friday.

1. What fiction book (or books) would you nominate to be the best new book published in 2007?
(Older books that you read for the first time in 2007 don’t count.)
2. What non-fiction book (or books) would you nominate to be the best new book published in 2007?
(Older books that you read for the first time in 2007 don’t count.)
3. And, do “best of” lists influence your reading?

Thanks to Elle magazine, I got in a bunch of new reads this year that I very likely wouldn't have picked up on my own. In general, I don't think I tend to read many brand new books, but with the advent of amateur reviewer Megan, I've been reading some newer stuff.

Here's a few that deserve some kudos this year for fiction:

Black & White by Dani Shapiro (for just being an out and out excellent read)

The Other Side of You by Salley Vickers (for beautiful, absorbing prose and a plot that really made me think - in a good way)

The Rest of Her Life by Laura Moriarty (because I thought I didn't like it, but a week after finishing it found myself still thinking about and wondering if maybe I did like it after all)

And Harry Potter. But that goes without saying, right?

As for non-fiction, I only read one book published this year in the realm of non-fiction. Unfortunately There is No Me Without You by Melissa Fay Greene didn't quite make the cut as it was originally published in October 2006, but it is definitely a great book! As it stands, though, after some inspection of my "read this year" list, I remembered I did read Jenna Bush's Ana's Story, but I probably wouldn't nominate it for a "best of." To be fair, though, it was a good way to illuminate some big world problems for younger readers and goes so far as to suggest ways the average person can get involved (instead of merely saying "here's a problem, someone should fix it!" which seems to be oh-so-popular these days), and the pictures were fantastic!

To the third question, I have to say I love best of lists. Love them. When I see them in magazines or on websites, my heart goes pitter-pat. Okay, maybe I'm exaggerating, but I do quite enjoy them. I love to make my own, and I love to read other peoples' lists of their "best ofs" for the year (I've found lots of great books this way!). That's not even to mention the many lists put out by websites and in print publications (where I've found even more great books!). No, I don't sit down and read everything off any one list, and there are definitely books on best of lists that I really didn't like, but I find that the lists are a great way to look for books that might strike my fancy that obviously someone thought had some merit. I think they're a very fun way to keep up with what's new and good or what's been under-loved down through the years or even what from the literary past should be a part of my current reading repertoire. In my opinion, they're great fun if you don't take them too, too seriously.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Boy Meets Girl by Meg Cabot

Okay, fine readers (all what, four of you? Or am I being over-generous?), I've told you some lies. I said that having finished the Elle books it would be back to business as usual, but now I've gone and read some chick lit which is hardly usual. Nonetheless, it's been so long since I've actually talked about a book here in my book blog, I figured it couldn't hurt to post about my most recent read. Besides, I really needed some brain candy (after the aforementioned book lacking indication of dialogue), and despite it's shortfalls in the great literary scheme of things, Boy Meets Girl is nothing if not great mind candy.

Kate MacKenzie's life is kind of sucking. She just broke up with the only guy she's ever been with, her loser boyfriend Dale, who despite being with Kate for some 10 years can't muster a real committment. Now she's living on her best friend's couch and working as a Human Resources Rep for a Tyrannical Office Despot (T.O.D.). If all that isn't bad enough, Kate has to fire the lovable Mrs. Lopez, her office's dessert-maker who happens to have some rigid moral concerns about who is worthy of her desserts. When she's involved in Mrs. Lopez's wrongful termination lawsuit she finds herself falling in love (lust?) with the company's despicable (or is he?) lawyer.

Though the book is told entirely through e-mail, voice mail messages, notes written on receipts, journal entries, and the like, Cabot manages to use these things to help you get to know and love her characters (or hate them, as required for some, of course). Sure the characters are exaggerated...the good ones very, very good and the bad ones quite absurdly miserable, but Kate and her foibles are laugh out loud funny. It's pretty obvious how things will turn out, but that doesn't keep you from rooting for her as she struggles to act like a normal person in front of the guy she likes, deal with the T.O.D., and find an affordable apartment in Manhattan not on the same block as a methadone clinic. Some of it definitely reminded me of myself - hunting for jobs ("I didn't go to college to file all day... I should have been an electrician!"), hunting for apartments that don't suck that won't suck my bank account dry (first month, last month, AND security deposit?), and who can't relate to feeling like you look like a blithering idiot in front of the person you're most trying to impress (Uh...right?)? All in all - a ridiculous but lovable tale that kept me laughing and that I could read in the length of day. Just what I needed!

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

An Ode to Quotation Marks

Let's all heave a big sigh of relief. I've finished reading the books for Elle magazine, so it's back to business as usual here at the old blog, if, indeed an "old blog" so young as mine can indeed have a "business as usual." As for the books, one was not especially my cup of tea, one I strenuously disliked, and one...well, one I surprised myself by liking in spite of the nature of the topic covered and the rather unorthodox way in which the author chose to communicate dialogue.

I love quotation marks. Okay, there it is, the whole truth. I love how they set off what one character is saying and then what the other character is saying and so on and so forth. I like neat little lines of a dialogue - one character speaks? That's a paragraph. A second character speaks? Look, another paragraph! I think we could all agree that, in general, the teachers of basic writing across the world had a pretty good thing going with this system.

Now, on to my point. I don't know what it is about quotation marks, but a surprising amount of well-known and respected authors (not to mention some less well-known and respected authors) have felt the need to abandon our old friends, the quotation marks - signifiers of dialogue, markers of clarity, gloriously simple ways of shouting out to the world "Hey, somebody's talking here!" Maybe they replace them with little dashes to indicate speech. Maybe they forgo any punctuation to signify dialogue at all while still maintaining the new speaker, new paragraph rule. Either way, I have to admit that this blatant disregard for quotation marks distresses me to no end.

This is not say that dialogue without quotation marks cannot be "pulled off." A good writer writing a good story without quotation marks is still a good writer with a good story, but also a writer that has the vast potential to irritate me. A so-so writer pushing through a so-so story can be broken by their disuse of the standardized methods of quotation mark usage. I see no quotation marks, I see a book that stands at least twice the chance of my putting it down without ever drawing near to its stunning/poignant/brilliant conclusion. Frustrated by the ambiguity of when and which characters are talking (or wait, is this still narration?), I'm wildly tempted to heave a book across the room. However, quotation mark lover that I am, I can still be won over by a quality story such as the one I just read or maybe something like The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason who I seem to recall, also doesn't share my enduring need for quotation marks.

So, you say, there are plenty of books in the world that have dispensed with the standard usage of quotation marks in dialogue. Why rant now? Why the trouble over this one book?

This book made use of no quotation marks, no dashes, and no, my friends, not even any paragraph breaks to signify speech on the part of the characters. The dialogue is weaved into the narration distressingly eliminating most of the sense of speech, not to mention eliminating any clarity that might have been drawn from say, some...any indication of when and which characters might have been speaking rather than a mere continuation of the first person narration. The hulking paragraphs full of the first person narrator's thoughts tossed about with his speech and the speech of several other characters in his presence at one time made my mind go numb with confusion.

Am I too traditional? Is it too much to hope for to have clearly marked dialogue in every book I read? Am I so "inside the box" that I can't appreciate originality in dialogue presentation? I don't know. What I do know is that I love quotation marks, so much so that I've used more of them in this post than the author whose book I am opaquely referring to used in his entire novel. Oh, quotation marks, how I love thee!

Thank you. Good night.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

My first blogly reading challenge - Man Booker Challenge

I tried and tried and tried to resist joining a challenge despite mounting temptation from all sides (or should I say all blogs?). I don't like to overplan myself and not give myself enough flexibility in my reading. I've done it before many a time and have emerged from the experience hopping mad at myself. I mean, who needs another thing in life to fail at?

Nevertheless, Dewey has managed to sufficiently tempt me with the Man Booker Challenge, which involves reading six books in 2008 that have either won the Booker Prize or have been short or long listed for it. I have about a zillion books that qualify on Mt. TBR, and I only have to commit to 6 books, so I figure I'll be able to manage it - and I'll have knocked some books off said Mt. TBR and have enjoyed some good reading by this time next year. So here it goes with the list...

1. Schindler's List by Thomas Keneally
2. Sacred Hunger by Barry Unsworth
3. The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
4. Family Matters by Rohinton Mistry
5. The Hiding Place by Trezza Azzopardi
6. Quarantine by Jim Crace

It goes without saying (said the committment-phobe) that the list is subject to change. These are just the ones that are especially striking my fancy now.

Wednesday, December 5, 2007

Boredom and Boredom Begat Boredom

My blog is lonely...and I'm pretty sure the title of this post is probably not going to incite great excitement. I need a schedule, wherein I write here more often (and less at a time). Unfortunately, I'm kind of in a bit of a lull with my reading and don't really want to post reviews for the books that Elle sent me because that just seems kind of uncouth despite their not expressly telling me not to. Not to mention the fact that two out of three are on pace to - how can I say this nicely? - not make a lasting impression on me. I like honesty in book reviews but not out and out snarkiness so I'm going to have to work through this a little. Needless to say, this lack of books to review at this time kind of throws a wrench into the whole book blog thing, right? That, and I've got significantly less time on my hands this week and possibly even less time on my hands in the near future. I need to learn some balance between the reading of the blogs, the reading of the books, and the writing of the book reviews and/or mindless drivel that fills the pages of the blog you see before you now.

This week was (un)exciting because I quasi-started my new job. This means, of course, that I was subjected to two full days of nearly pointless orientation wherein a vast assortment of people enlightened me and about 60 other people about matters that have little relevance to me while speaking in dull monotone voices. As if this weren't exciting enough, said boring speeches were accompanied by always exciting informational videos telling us through ridiculously exaggerated scenarios that people don't like to go to the doctor because of the miserable customer service they experience there, that I really shouldn't spew peoples' confidential health information to everyone I know, and, of course, how to wash your hands properly. A monkey probably knows these things without being told but the "elite" new members of one of the larger healthcare providers in Pennsylvania need to have this things expounded upon at great length. The good news is, I am getting paid, I did get a free lunch that was rather very good, and I did get my daily workout hiking to and from their vast parking lot on the side of a mountain (in 50 MPH winds, through 4 feet of snow, with no shoes...or am I getting carried away?). It should be noted that I also almost did manage to lose my mother's car, which is not difficult considering it is a green Chevy Cavalier, which is owned by 1 out of every 9 people in north-eastern Pennsylvania (and possibly the continental United States). But yes, you'll be happy (or maybe completely apathetic) to know that having jumped through 48 hoops, jumped 75 hurdles, and listened to about 10 hours of mind-numbingly obvious information I am now sufficiently eligible to wait by my phone which will hopefully one day soon ring and result in the offer of a temporary job in an immense hospital system of which I have little practical knowledge. Someday someone will ask me how on earth I got my start working in the healthcare field to which I will respond, "I don't know, I guess it just happened," which will be both true and wildly ironic.

Now, I promised myself I wouldn't write my once weekly novella here this week (at which I appear to failing), so I'll stop ranting here and briskly move on to the good news.

On my first time requesting, I have been granted a advance copy of Have You Found Her by Janice Erlbaum from the fine folks at LibraryThing and Random House through LibraryThing's Early Reviewer program. It sounds like a great read, and I look forward to reading and reviewing it both there and here!