Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category

Reading Report: Books and Me in 2011

In Book Reviews, Culture, Reading, Writers, Writing on October 11, 2011 at 3:23 pm

My goal for this year was to read 80 books. I didn’t have a list of which ones; I learned my lesson a couple of years ago: I don’t stick to lists. I’m too ADD. I hear of a book that sounds interesting and I immediately get it out of the library, just so I have it at hand. I currently have approximately 75 books out of the two libraries I go to. (My husband works at one of them, so I can get out as many as I want on his card.)

I’m actually three ahead of where I need to be to finish 80 books by the end of the year. I’ve read 65 and those are just the ones that I actually finished. There are at least a dozen more that I got halfway through before I decided that they weren’t worth my time to finish them. They weren’t necessarily bad books; I just didn’t care for them or couldn’t get into them for some reason. And of course there’s always another book or more that’s tantalizing me from my bookshelf.

Recently I’ve been on a Scandinavian kick. Ever since I read Smilla’s Sense of Snow years ago, I’ve been fascinated with the Scandinavian novel. There’s something about their atmosphere that draws me to them. And then of course there was Stieg Larsson’s The Girl Who…  series which I finally read this year. From there I jumped to Henning Mankell and Jo Nesbo and just the other day I got two books by an Icelandic author named Arnaldur Indridason that are supposed to be good. (Jar City and Silence of the Grave.)

I also continued my love affair with Philip Kerr‘s novels, particularly the Bernard Gunther detective series (which are set in Germany) and started a new one with Val McDermid. Kerr and McDermid both happen to be Scottish. Another Scottish writer I like is Ian Rankin. All of the above are mystery writers.

I have a theory about the mystery genre. Some people consider any genre writing to be commercial or even junk. While that may be true of some of it (James Patterson’s later novels come to mind), it is a gross misrepresentation of the better examples. I get a lot of flack for being a devourer of mysteries. Reading mysteries is considered to be like eating popcorn or penny candy, while literary fiction is likened to a gourmet meal.

I don’t buy that. I see literary novels as an acquired taste, like eating caviar. You’re not sure what you’ve gotten into and you may never be sure if it was worth the bother (and the cost, in time).  But with genre fiction, you know what to expect. The worst examples are the ones that are so formulaic all you have to do is insert new names and settings and you’ve got a new book. But the best … oh, the best are the ones that surprise you. You start out thinking that you’re going to read a mystery and you end up feeling like you’ve been given so much more.

Val McDermid does it with the character Tony Hill, a neurotic psychologist who aids the police in their investigations. Ian Rankin does it with the gritty pictures he draws of life in Edinburgh. Philip Kerr does it with his “inside look” at Germany before, during and after the Second World War. And the Scandinavian authors do it with a sense of place that lends itself to a particular life philosophy.

Mysteries provide us with a view of human nature at its worst and its best.  The criminals might be bad, but sometimes the heroes aren’t much better. And, like puzzles, they stimulate our intellect. Mystery readers are not typically passive readers. They become involved. Mysteries bring out the participant in us. In that sense, they are like movies of the mind. It’s no accident that mystery novels are made into movies more than any other kind of literary genre.

Every novel should have suspense in it, because that’s the way we live life. We never know what’s going to happen next. That’s why I like writing with surprises. It doesn’t have to be a mystery, or even fiction. Some of the nonfiction books I read this year earn high marks for bringing new insights and information into my life. I loved The Poisoner’s Handbook and The Midnight Disease, for instance.


2009 Book List Progress Report

In Book Reviews, Opinion, Reading, Religion, Self Improvement, Writers on November 11, 2009 at 10:54 am

These are the books I have left on my 2009 Book List (out of 30):

  1. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, Junot Diaz
  2. The Gathering, Anne Enright
  3. The Night Watch, Sara Waters
  4. Waiting, Ha Jin
  5. Against Interpretation, and other essays, Susan Sontag (nonfiction)
  6. The Given Day, Dennis Lehane
  7. A Beautiful Place to Die, Malla Nunn
  8. Fever 1793, Laurie Halse Anderson (Young Adult)
  9. Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen
  10. The Hour I First Believed, Wally Lamb
  11. Eclipse, Richard North Patterson
  12. House of Leaves, Mark Z. Danielewski
  13. The Secret Life of Bees, Sue Monk Kidd
  14. The Book Thief, Markus Zusak (Young Adult)
  15. The Road, Cormac McCarthy
  16. Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer

I made it about half-way through my reading list and then got bogged down. I didn’t slack off, though: I read a whole lot of books besides these. I just can’t believe that it’s been a year since I made this list. (See my original post.) Right now I have #1 and #6 in my possession. I started #6, but it’s not a typical Dennis Lehane book (it’s a historical novel) and I had trouble getting into it, even though I normally like historical novels.

What have I been reading instead? For one thing I got off on a tangent about Islam (and if you’ve been reading this blog, you know that I recently became a convert, which takes care of one of the items on my 2009 Project List as well). But I’ve also been reading anything and everything that comes to my attention that sounds interesting. I’ve been keeping track of them in Goodreads, so if you want to see what I’ve read, check there.

These are the books I read on my original list:

  1. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Ann Fadiman (nonfiction)
  2. Rereadings, edited by Ann Fadiman (nonfiction)
  3. Never Let Me Go, Katzuo Ishiguro
  4. The Crooked Inheritance, Marge Piercy (poems)
  5. Summit Avenue, Mary Sharratt
  6. The Terror, Dan Simmons
  7. In the Land of Invisible Women, Qanta Ahmed (nonfiction)
  8. A Life of One’s Own: A Guide to Better Living Through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf, Ilana Simons (nonfiction)
  9. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination, Elizabeth McCracken  (literary nonfiction)
  10. The Paper Anniversary, Joan Wickersham
  11. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle, David Wroblewski
  12. The Tin Roof Blowdown, James Lee Burke
  13. Sloppy Firsts, Megan McCafferty
  14. Paris Trout, Pete Dexter

I really liked 1, 2, 3, 6, and 9.  I’m glad I read 12 and 14. I didn’t finish 4, 10 and 13. 7 is part of what encouraged me to look more into Islam. I would have liked 8 if I had been more familiar with Virginia Woolf’s work.

Not bad for a list of 14.

I won’t get 16 read by the end of the year. Particularly because I already have a stack of books on my shelf that I want to read first. They are:

  1. Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew B. Crawford (nonfiction)
  2. A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore
  3. Crow Planet, Lyanda Lynn Haupt (nonfiction)
  4. Big Machine, Victor LaValle
  5. Homer & Langley, E. L. Doctorow
  6. The Great Theft: Wrestling Islam From the Extremists, Khaled Abou El Fadl (nonfiction)

And those are just the ones I can see from the couch! I chose 1 and 4 because they’re on Publisher’s Weekly list of the ten best books of 2009. I intend to read as many of those ten books as I can and also focus more on contemporary female authors because there was such much controversy about the fact that there were none on the ten best list. I don’t read that many contemporary books–I have a tendency to not think of reading a book until it’s been around for a couple of years at least.

One thing I’m looking forward to is seeing the movie they made out of The Time Traveler’s Wife which I read last year. I heard it wasn’t that good, so I’ll probably wait until I can get it from the library. But I still want to see how well they transferred the book to the screen. It’s a complicated book; they had their work cut out for them. What made them pick this book to make a movie out of? I suspect it had something to do with the success of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, which I didn’t really care for (the movie, not the book/story).

I feel that I accomplished my goal of reading more intentionally and not reading as much “junk.” I want to continue to work on that by finding out more about the authors I read and their other work, if any. I want to work on remembering what I read. What good is it to read if you don’t remember it? That’s like eating with no sense of taste. I’d like to put my reading in perspective with my life.

Book Review: Reading Lolita in Tehran

In Book Reviews, Culture, International, Reading on July 8, 2009 at 3:18 pm

Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books Reading Lolita in Tehran: A Memoir in Books by Azar Nafisi

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
A wonderful mix of literary criticism and political history, this is the author’s recounting of the years she spent in her native country, Iran. She lived there during the Revolution and her description of what happened then is harrowing, but oddly fatalistic. She writes about friends being executed, of the morality police making surprise home inspections (looking for satellite dishes), of the oppression of women with as much (or less) passion than she writes about Nabakov, Jane Austen and others. A great look into one person’s everyday life while her world is falling apart around her.

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Book Review: Who Speaks for Islam?

In Book Reviews on July 5, 2009 at 6:27 pm

Who Speaks For Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think Who Speaks For Islam?: What a Billion Muslims Really Think by John L. Esposito

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
This is basically a summary of the findings of Gallup polls about Islamic attitudes and concerns around the world. Perhaps the most interesting was that Muslims’ greatest grievance about the United States is that Americans do not respect them and their religion. It seems to me that if we want to make peace with Islam we have to learn as much as we can about it, while keeping an open mind. That’s a good way to read this book as well.

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The Islamist

In Book Reviews, Reading, Religion on March 19, 2009 at 11:43 am

The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left The Islamist: Why I Joined Radical Islam in Britain, What I Saw Inside and Why I Left by Ed Husain

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
This is an excellent book for anyone confused about the rise of Islamism, or radical Islam. As we follow the journey taken by the author from moderate but uninvolved Muslim to Muslim anarchist to thoughtful Muslim in a post-9/11 world, we see some of the different threads of political and religious beliefs that have led to the various factions in the Arab world today. This is not an exhaustive study by any means, but it comes across as well-informed and heartfelt.

The author, Ed Husain, is a British Muslim and he has a lot to say about the Islamic community in Britain and how it has evolved into the forms that it takes today. He also describes his experiences in Syria and Saudi Arabia where he went to learn Arabic and to teach English through the British Council. He writes about the concept of “jihad”: its original significance and its distortion among modern Islamic fanatics. And he shares his personal faith-walk.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in the history and the modern face of Islam.

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My Book Project: Progress Report

In Book Reviews, Reading on February 27, 2009 at 2:17 pm
  1. Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Ann Fadiman (nonfiction)
  2. Rereadings, edited by Ann Fadiman (nonfiction)
  3. Never Let Me Go, Katzuo Ishiguro
  4. The Crooked Inheritance, Marge Piercy (poems)
  5. Summit Avenue, Mary Sharratt
  6. The Terror, Dan Simmons
  7. In the Land of Invisible Women, Qanta Ahmed (nonfiction)
  8. A Life of One’s Own: A Guide to Better Living Through the Work and Wisdom of Virginia Woolf, Ilana Simons (nonfiction)

I’ve read the above books from my New Year Book List, but I’ve also read thirteen others besides:

  1. Islam: the Religion and the People, Bernard Lewis
  2. The Huffington Post Complete Guide to Blogging, editors of Huffington Post
  3. Mallory’s Oracle, Carol O’Connell
  4. As I Lay Dying: Meditations Upon Returning, Richard John Neuhaus
  5. The Memorist, M.J. Rose
  6. Being Catholic Now: Prominent Americans Talk About Change in the Church and the Quest for Meaning, Kerry Kennedy
  7. A Test of Wills, Charles Todd
  8. Belong to Me, Marisa de los Santos
  9. After Hours: Conversations With Lawrence Block, Lawrence Block
  10. All the Way Home: Building a Family in a Falling-Down House, David Giffels
  11. Sinner’s Guide to the Evangelical Right, Robert Lanham
  12. A Broom of One’s Own: Words on Writing, Housecleaning, and Life, Nancy Peacock
  13. Judas Child, Carol O’Connell

My Book Store

In Book Reviews, Uncategorized, Writers on February 22, 2009 at 1:40 pm

One of my interests is feminism, or more holistically, the experience of women. I have a blog called Femagination to which I’ve just added a book store. I’ve been spending the past two days searching for books and DVDs about a whole range of topics of interest to women (not just to feminists). These include:

  • Finances
  • First Wave Literature
  • Memoirs
  • Motherhood
  • Multicultural Feminism
  • Politics
  • Reproductive Rights
  • Second Wave Literature
  • Sexuality
  • Spirituality
  • Third Wave Literature
  • Women Writers
  • Women’s History
  • The Workplace

I intend to expand my inventory periodically and would appreciate any suggestions from readers for additional books and topics. Please vist my store and tell me what you think of it!

Book Review: In the Land of Invisible Women

In Book Reviews, Reading, Religion on February 15, 2009 at 10:16 am

A Female Doctor's Journey in the Saudi Kingdom In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom by Qanta A. Ahmed

My review

rating: 4 of 5 stars
A fascinating look at Saudi Arabia and its brand of Islam. The author was born a Muslim but never lived in a Muslim country until she took a job as a doctor in Saudi Arabia. To say that she experiences culture shock is an understatement. But she also finds herself as a Muslim. I thought this was this was a very evenhanded, realistic account of what it was like to be a woman in a legalistic Islamic society.

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My Book List

In Book Reviews on February 4, 2009 at 9:58 am

I’ve been making progress on my 2009 book list, but I’ve been sidetracked by Good Reads–I’ve got over 80 books on my to-read list there! I’m on the sixth book from my wordpress list but I’ve read eight other books that aren’t on the list in the same time. So I’ve read almost 14 books since the first of the year. The weird thing is, I don’t read that much during the day–most of these books were read at night before I went to sleep. Granted, sometimes I stay up very late reading, but the fact is, I’m a fast reader. I try not to skim, but I still do sometimes. It’s a form of editing for me. Kind of like making my own abridged version of the book. I still get the essence, but I take less time to get there.

Writing a review, even short ones, which are all that mine have been, helps to fix the book in my mind. So I’m going to try to write more of them. If they’re not posted here, they’ll be on Good Reads. I’ve also been making up trivia questions. (And don’t get me started on the trivia quiz–it’s addictive!) You can go to my account here.

Book Review: Belong To Me

In Book Reviews, Family, Friends on January 31, 2009 at 5:23 pm

A Novel Belong to Me: A Novel by Marisa de los Santos

My review

rating: 3 of 5 stars
I started out really liking this book, and I would still recommend it to anyone who likes stories about friendship and families and the power of love. But the author was overambitious, I think. She could have split the book up into two novels. There were two major plot lines going on and it just ended up feeling like too much. The author has a Ph.D in Literature and before she started writing novels she was a poet. It shows in her writing. She has written another novel, Love Walked In,which I’m putting on my to-read list.

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