Sunday, January 04, 2009

2008 Reading List

Last year around this time, I began posting my 2007 Reading List. This was my attempt to briefly document the forty-some books I'd read in 2007, in groups of five. I never made it past #15. As is often the case, I found it difficult to keep it brief. Or I spent too much time struggling to write on books I no longer cared about.

This year I've decided to try again. I read fewer books in 2008, so I should be able to compete this in six or seven posts.

1 Alice in Wonderland- Lewis Carroll
Though I've never read this before, nearly every scene was so familiar to me (the tale having so permeated popular culture) that I felt as though I were re-reading a well-loved book from childhood. Reading it in Japanese was quite fun, particularly in recognizing the more quotable lines. It has been pointed out to me that Carroll (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson- whew,) was a logician. He must have had great fun writing the Wonderland characters' twisted logic that so infuriates Alice.

2 The New Life- Orhan Pamuk
Pamuk won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, which of course peaks ones curiosity. A blurb on the back of this book mentioned The Usual Suspects, and I found the post-modern-ness of the description intriguing. It's the story of a young man, a university student in Istanbul, who reads a book that changes his life.
TNL was an enormous success in Turkey. The opening line is "I read a book one day and my whole life was changed." It's not at all clear initially why the book is able to have such a profound impact on him. The details of the novel-within-the-novel are revealed very slowly, interwoven with our hero's own story. Ultimately, we discover that what makes the book so powerful is that it is, in a sense, our hero's story. The ending is therefore deliberately predictable.
I don't know if the translation was poor or if Pamuk's prose is awkward as well, but I had a hard time getting into this novel. Though told in the first person, I felt distanced from the main character. Plot-wise, it takes a long, meandering time to get to the interesting bits. That said, I would consider reading one of Pamuk's later novels.

3 Fingersmith- Sarah Waters
I came across a reference to Waters' celebrated debut, Tipping the Velvet, some years ago, and have been looking forward to reading something by her ever since. I can't say why it took me so long, but when I finally got around to it, I was not disappointed.
Waters writes period novels, and Fingersmith is set in Victorian England. The story revolves around two girls, both orphans, whose fates are linked from birth. Sue is raised among thieves by her adopted mother, Mrs. Sucksby, while Maud grows up with her uncle in decidedly more affluent circumstances. Of course, all is not as it seems.
This novel has got it all: an intricately woven plot with delicious twists, and a brilliantly detailed Nineteenth Century English setting populated by unforgettable, Dickensesque characters. Indeed, if you have exhausted your library's collection of Dickens and (Wilkie) Collins, by all means check this out.

4 Black Dogs- Ian McEwan
I'm pleased to write that I haven't been disappointed by a McEwan novel since Amsterdam.
Black Dogs is about a man's preoccupation with his in-laws, a couple whose wildly divergent paths in the search for meaning (he in the public sphere, she in personal spirituality. The classic reason/emotion dichotomy) led to decades of estrangement. I suppose there is a certain heavy-handedness in McEwan's exposition of this theme, but he is so masterful that his prose is nevertheless a pleasure to read.
The title refers to an encounter the mother-in-law had with two feral beast years ago. For her it was a successful encounter with evil that subsequently came to define her life.

5 Black Swan Green- David Mitchell
I've read Mitchell's three earlier novels, fascinating books with wildly diverse characters, geographies, time periods. Each employs a creative method of storytelling. In comparison, BSG is much more conventional, more personal. It follows Jason Taylor from the time he turns thirteen in January, 1982 until the following January. Each chapter is a scene from one calendar month. The narrative voice is spot-on, as is the often squirm-inducing depiction of what it is like to be thirteen years old: the awkwardness, the casual cruelty, the simultaneous attraction and repulsion of girls.
Mitchell was born the same month as me, and though his British childhood was an ocean away from my American one, the common time period (references to Thatcher, the Falklands War, popular music) drew me in along with the more universal themes.


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