Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009: Year in Review

Wow, it's hard to believe the year is over.  It's been almost a year since I began book blogging (there will be a post in a week about that!), and I couldn't be happier.  I'll save all my "thoughts about blogging" for my anniversary post.  This post is for those fabulous books I read in 2009.  Many weren't published in 2009, but they were all read by me in 2009.

After much agonizing and indecision, I've created a list of my favorite ten books I read this year.  I've listed them in order, but with the exception of Hunger Games, the order is only mildly meaningful.

My top 10 books read in 2009:
1. The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
2. Interpreter of Maladies by Jhumpa Lahiri
3. Slaughterhouse-Five by Kurt Vonnegut
4. Graceling by Kristin Cashore 
5. Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
6. Going Bovine by Libba Bray
7. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
8. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness
9. March by Geraldine Brooks
10 Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh

Total books read and reviewed: 82
Yup, I reviewed every single book I read this year.  Sometimes I was so excited about blogging, I raced through the end of the book (oops).  Sometimes I had nothing to say and only got out a paragraph or two.  But they all got reviewed. Considering I probably read about six books in 2008, this is a great improvement.  I've been thinking over whether I wanted to set a higher to-read goal for 2009, but I'm actually really happy with my current number.  I'll set 80 books as my goal for the next year.

Reviewing has really been a pleasure, as it has allowed me to think more critically about what I'm reading before, during, and after I read.  I've been proudest of those books that I've approached with an eye toward literary analysis (rather than "Ooh, I really liked/hated it").  

Fiction read: 72
Nonfiction read: 10
I'm obviously partial to fiction, but I've been making decent inroads into nonfiction.  I still think I'll stay mostly in the fiction arena, but I'm looking to make about 15-20% of my books nonfiction in 2010.

Adult (meaning non-YA) read: 56
Young adult read: 26
I didn't read much YA when I was younger, so it's been exciting to read some new YA books this year.  I'm having a lot of fun with the fast-paced storylines and interesting scenarios.  I know I don't want to become only a YA reader, though.  There's too many interesting and important things going on in "serious" (I use this term very loosely and with no insult intended) adult literature.  For 2010, I want YA to make up no more than one third of my read books.

On a random note...
I always get excited when someone with more clout than I agrees with something I've said.  I was reading a New York Times article ("Books You Can Live Without," Room for Debate, 12/27/09) on how to get rid of excessive books (a problem I'm discovering, for the first time, that I have).  Anyway, the author David Matthews had this to say about the books he's getting rid of:
On to fiction. Delillo’s “Underworld” can go, because a book can be long, or it can be boring, but it shouldn’t be both. Marquez’s “A Hundred Years of Solitude” makes the scrap heap, because it would take precisely that combination of circumstances before I could be bothered to finish it. Bye, bye Jamaica Kincaid — assigned 20 years ago by a comparative lit professor — you will always be homework to me. Soon, my bookshelf is lean. All muscle and bone.
See posts on A Hundred Years of Solitude and Annie John.  Happy New Year.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

"Oryx and Crake" by Margaret Atwood

Summary:  This post-apocalyptic novel follows Snowman (formerly Jimmy), who appears to be the only human left among a strange group of human-like people called the Crakers.  The naive Crakers understand nothing of the world that was, and Snowman has created a mythology to explain the world to them even as he struggles with existence himself.  In flashbacks, Snowman relates the events leading up to the catastrophe (or grand plan) that wiped out most of earth's human population by describing his relationships with a childhood friend named Crake and a former child prostitute, Oryx. 

Musings: I've read Oryx and Crake before, but since Atwood's new novel, The Year of the Flood, relies on the premise of the former, I wanted to reread the book prior to checking out her new one.

There is such a deluge of post-apocalyptic literature around now that much of the problematic society depicted in the novel does not seem unique.  This is not a criticism, but rather a note on how commonplace these types of dystopian societies are to readers.  The world Jimmy relates in flashbacks is consumed with physical appearance, sex, making money, and control (among many others) and uses deception and manipulation to achieve its goals, regardless of the cost to real people.  Atwood's novel goes a step further, however, by depicting not only the evils of this society, but the evils of choosing to correct this society.  Atwood's book asks whether remedy can be made within an inexorably flawed species or whether, to correct current problems, humanity must begin from scratch.

Unlike other dystopian and post-apocalyptic novels, the protagonist of Oryx and Crake is not a brave and determined hero seeking to carry on or enact change despite the overwhelming odds.  Snowman is alive--not particularly by choice--but he has little purpose in life.  As the novel progresses, the reader sees that his attachment to the Crakers gives him some goal, but even Snowman realizes that the people have little need for him.  Snowman muses, clearly thinking of his own situation, "Can a single ant be said to be alive, in any meaningful sense of the word, or does it only have relevance in terms of its anthill?  An old conundrum of Crake's" (Atwood 371).  Snowman exists without any clear or noble reason of why he does so.

The three main characters of the novel--Snowman, Crake, and Oryx--are important foils to one another.  Crake represents logic without morality; Snowman signifies the struggle between emotion and reason.  Oryx, the primary female character, is an object for both men, which is emphasized by how little the reader knows about her.  For Crake, Oryx is an object of logic; for Snowman, an object of emotion.  In neither is she a real person.

Atwood is skilled at filling her worlds with rich descriptive detail.  The bits of the story are pieced together slowly, as the novel introduces the reader to questions, answers the questions, and raises new and more difficult ones by the time the novel concludes.

Monday, December 21, 2009

"The Titan's Curse" by Rick Riordan

Summary: While Thalia, Annabeth, Grover, and Percy are on a quest to recruit two recently discovered half-bloods, Annabeth disappears and the group meets the goddess Artemis and her Hunters, including the icy Zoe.  When Artemis also goes missing, Thalia, Grover, Percy, Zoe, and Bianca (one of the new half-bloods) go on a quest to rescue her and help save Olympus once again.

Musings: Reading this book has cemented for me the idea that I need to give myself some break time between reading most books in a series.  While I didn't have a lot of good things to say about Riordan's second Percy Jackson book, The Sea of Monsters, I think that stemmed primarily from reading in directly after The Lightning Thief.  Such back-to-back comparisons make exposing flaws and repetitive structure easy while diminishing the positive qualities.

All of this is probably a roundabout way of saying that I enjoyed The Titan's Curse quite a bit.  The introduction and characterization of Artemis was interesting; Thalia and Zoe brought some new personalities into the series.  Because this novel also drew more on Titan mythology (rather than the Odyssey, which was the basis for much of the previous book), I was less familiar with the stories and more engaged in reading about them.  A "twist" at the end of the book should add the necessary steam to get through the rest of the series.

Some of the most interesting themes in the series are still only half-explored, such as the parent-child relationship between the gods and the half-bloods, and the way in which the evolution (or lack thereof) of gender roles has affected the characters.  Nonetheless, this is a middle-grade novel, so I won't be too harsh.  I'll certainly pick up the fourth book, The Battle of the Labyrinth--in a month or two.

Friday, December 18, 2009

"Annie John" by Jamaica Kincaid

Summary:  A coming-of-age novel set in Antigua as Annie begins to mature and become aware of a widening gulf between her and her previously doting mother.

Musings: I teach an excerpt of this novel at the beginning of the school year, but I had never actually read the book myself.  It's a short read, but after finishing it, I'm not sure quite what to think.

One of the things that most befuddled me was my absolute inability to see a real person in Annie.  She seemed strange and foreign--not in a "person from another country" kind of way, but in a non-human kind of way.  Her relationships with her classmates and her mother, while not unusual, still felt odd to me.  I don't know how to describe it any better.

Annie's increasing distance from his mother and conflicting feelings of devotion and hatred I imagine are typical of many teenagers, but they also were confusing to me.  I've always had a good relationship with my mom, even as a teenager, so perhaps I just can't empathize with the situation.

Annie's mysterious illness which leaves her bedridden for months (?) signifies the book's leap into a kind of magical realism.  I assume there has to be a lot of symbolism there, but the cloud of confusion that followed me through the book didn't let up.

Kincaid has a unique style that is both straightforward and imaginative.  Her novel explores the ways in which mothers and daughters grapple for power and understanding while often failing to achieve both.  Nonetheless, I don't think it's a book I appreciated as a stand-alone read; it would probably work better in a literature classroom.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

"What the Dog Saw" by Malcolm Gladwell

Summary:  A collection of essays by Gladwell, originally published in The New Yorker, in which he uses quirky stories and facts to explain ideas related to psychology, statistics, and similar social fields.

Musings: I was drawn to this book by the review in the New York Times ("Malcolm Gladwell, Eclectic Detective" by Steve Pinker, 11/7/09).  Although the reviewer Pinker was highly critical of Gladwell's populist psychology, broad generalizations, and simplification (and errors) of terms, the descriptions of the types of stories present in What the Dog Saw just sounded so darn interesting that I wanted to read the book anyway.

I was familiar with some of his stories (having a monthly period while on birth control isn't necessary; the only thing traditional interviews predict is how well the interviewer and interviewee get along), but Gladwell still had many interesting anecdotes and histories to tell that I had never heard of.  The comparison of early hair dye commercials provided a look at developing feminism; a discussion of the uselessness of criminal profiling was relevant considering the current proliferation of those type of TV shows.

"Million Dollar Murray," an essay on solving homelessness, was especially fascinating.  It poses some interesting questions about how we define a "solution" in this kind of situation and what, morally, we are willing to do to achieve the most effective solution.  On a "feeding my righteous anger" note, what I probably liked most about this essay was its affirmation that mandatory yearly car emissions testings do nothing to curb emissions.  I grew up in a state that didn't require emissions testing, and I now live in a state which forces me to pay $70 a year for this ridiculous service.  I was sure it was just a ploy for increasing money to the government and auto repair shops.  I was right.

"Something Borrowed" addresses plagiarism.  This is a topic that I think about a lot as an English teacher.  I routinely catch students blatantly plagiarizing (in fact, I used to have students write book reviews on independent reading books, but the plagiarism was so rampant that I gave up the assignment), but Gladwell raises some interesting questions of derivative work versus plain old copying.  I used to do some web design, and I'd often use other images or sites for inspiration.  Sometimes I'd manipulate the original image; other times I'd use the original concept as a starting stone for my own work.  It was occasionally a murky line for me--where does plagiarism become transformative, and thus, original?  Gladwell makes a compelling argument for views on plagiarism in writing being extreme and, perhaps, unnecessarily damaging.

"Connecting the Dots" addresses the famous axiom: "hindsight is always 20/20."  This article discusses our reactions to terrible events after they happen.  The tendency is to look back at the event, see the "clues" that led up to it, and place blame for someone not "putting the clues together" in order to prevent the tragedy.  I'd always felt investigations into things like 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, for example, have been emblematic of our desire to place unwarranted blame. This has always struck me as an emotional, rather than a logical, response to a tragedy.  People look for God, and they look for a scapegoat.  Gladwell points out that our inundation of information makes it difficult to predict many events.   I'm absolutely no Bush supporter, but I don't blame him for not predicting 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina (I just blame him for his response afterward).  Bad things happen.  In trying to assign guilt after the fact and stop every possible kind of disaster, we take attention, time, and money away from things that can be helped.  Plus now I can't bring a normal bottle of shampoo on a plane.

However, some essays missed the mark or made broad suggestions without realistic methods of implementation.  "Most Likely To Succeed" addresses the tricky question of how to hire good teachers.  His proposed solution involves following a financial industry model in which many people are hired, then vetted out through a competitive process over a period of years that costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.  There are too many gigantic flaws in this plan that I won't even bother to go into them.

At times the messages even seemed contradictory.  The same essay, "Most Likely to Succeed," recommends doing away with tenure and hiring superstars; the essay "The Talent Myth," about Enron, criticizes hiring super stars and praises companies that hire on seniority and focus on the organization rather than individuals.

One of the things Pinker does praise Gladwell for is Gladwell's skill at the essay form.  Gladwell is a very talented persuasive writer, even if reading so many of his essays in a row exposed the same basic structure and form to each (most funny to me was the appearance, about one third of the way through each essay, of a brief description of a primary expert: Suzy Expert is a well-dressed woman of forty with a shock of blond hair and freckles... or the like).  Gladwell has a great quote to end his preface, which I found especially applicable to my teaching of writing:
Good writing does not succeed or fail on the strength of its ability to persuade.  Not the kind of writing that you'll find in this book, anyway.  It succeeds or fails on the strength of its ability to engage you, to make you think, to give you a glimpse into someone else's head--even if in the end you conclude that someone else's head is not a place you'd really like to be. (xv)
 Of books recently that have made me think, question, and want to discuss issues further, What the Dog Saw is at the top of the list.  I don't buy all Gladwell says, but the book certainly engaged me in thinking about his suppositions.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

"The Lost City of Z" by David Grann

Summary: In the early 20th century, much of the world was still unexplored (at least by Western civilizations), and the Amazon was one dangerous and unknown area that attracted explorers looking for adventure, fame, and treasure.  One famous explorer was Percy Fawcett, who was known for his determination and single-mindedness; he believed the Amazon was once home to a large and complex civilization, the "Lost City of Z."  After many successful expeditions into the Amazon, Fawcett and his two fellow travelers (his son and his son's friend) suddenly disappeared, never to be heard from again.  Since then, many people have been lured to the Amazon in hopes of finding the truth of Fawcett's end.

Musings: In the age of endless information and interconnectedness, it's easy to believe that all portions of the earth have been thoroughly observed and categorized.  Even isolated villages often have frequent contact with the "modern" world and technology.  Yet The Lost City of Z not only brings us to a time when much of the world was unknown, but it also questions our basic assumption that all that is out there has already been discovered.

During the time of Fawcett's career, exploration was a glamorous and exciting field to much of the world.  I had chuckled at the "quaint" adoration of exploring depicted in Up (the movie clearly drew on stories like Fawcett's for its premise), but Grann shows just how alluring and intriguing this field was.  Just look at the current proliferation of science-fiction and fantasy series.  What's more exciting than the unknown?  And the ability to go "where no man had gone before" just by traveling to another continent?-- how tempting.

It's perhaps not surprising, then, that so many people would risk their lives attempting to explore such dangerous areas as the Amazon.  Grann does an excellent job in detailing Fawcett's and others' journeys into the Amazon, acknowledging both the appeal and the inherent dangers.  These were trips when many people frequently died or disappeared--from illness, disease, animals, insects, dangerous Indian tribes, accident--yet more continued to attempt such quests.

Fawcett is an intriguing character.  He believed fully in himself and his quest, shunning any kind of comfortable life (and his family) in pursuit of his dream.  He was so convinced of his own invincibility (he rarely became ill or injured during his trips), that when he disappeared in 1925, it was almost impossible to believe he was really gone.  No wonder that so many have gone after him.

I typically stick to fiction, but I am really glad I picked up The Lost City of Z.  Weaving history and interviews into a compelling narrative, biography, and personal odyssey, Grann allows the reader to also journey through the excitement of the unknown.  Unlike some nonfiction books, the pace was fast and the information rarely was dull.  Fawcett never located the "Lost City of Z," but Grann also offers new archeological evidence that a large civilization may have existed in the Amazon after all, raising the question of what else we have yet to discover.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

"Specials" by Scott Westerfeld

Summary: Tally has been changed again; this time, she's a special and one of the Cutters, a distinct group of specials led by Tally's former friend Shay.  Tally likes being a special, but she's sad because her boyfriend, Zane, is still only pretty and damaged by taking from the anti-pretty drugs.  Tally and Shay pull off a daring stunt in hopes of making Zane a special, only to find they've set off unrest and fighting among the cities.

Musings: I had really liked Pretties and so decided to go straight into Specials.  I don't know if it was the timing or the book itself, but I really had some problems with it.  The story was interesting, but I hated Tally.  She was cool as an ugly, annoying but growing as a pretty, and obnoxious as a special.  She's accused of being ego-centric, and it's true.  She thinks of nothing but herself and her desires, and I really didn't think she'd changed by the end.  She wants to change Zane because she's repulsed by him "only" being a pretty and not a special, but at the same time, she's madly in love with him and uses him as her motivating source throughout the book.  I couldn't understand her absolute devotion.  I understood her choosing Zane over David in Pretties, but this passionate love seemed out of place.

The egotism continues at the end of the book, when Tally decides she can't rejoin the struggling cities, but instead she will act as their "watch dog" and keep them from destroying the environment (somehow along the way she became a nature freak).  And who is she to be guard for them all?  Who is she to decide what the reforming cities can and can't do?  She's made more mistakes and caused more problems than anyone.

I was frustrated throughout much of the book, which kept me from enjoying most of what happened.  Tally's snooty view of everyone else filtered to me as well, so that by the end I not only disliked Tally, but I could care less about the other characters and their attempts to rebuild society as well.

- See my reviews of book one in the series, Uglies, and book two in the series, Pretties.

Monday, December 7, 2009

"Pretties" by Scott Westerfeld

Summary: In the sequel to Uglies, Tally is back in New Pretty Town, having volunteered to be turned into a pretty so that the anti-pretty mind drugs developed in the Smoke can be tested on her.  Tally remembers little of her time in the Smoke and is otherwise a typical "pretty" until Croy, a boy from the Smoke, shows up with the pills.  Taking the pills with another pretty, Zane, Tally finds herself remembering more of her normal self and taking more risks to stay "bubbly"--not pretty-minded.  Tally and Zane are being watched, however, and must find a way to escape and return to the Smoke.

Musings:  It's been about a month and a half since I read Uglies, so it seemed like the right time to delve into the second of the series.  The book begins with Tally as a pretty, which can be both frustrating and illuminating.  Her change from flighty pretty to serious-minded Tally is enjoyable, even if I could have lived without hearing the world "bubbly" so often.

The romance with David of the first book is replaced with the romance with Zane, a fellow pretty.  The boys are virtually interchangeable, but they do represent a different stage in Tally's life.  When all three are finally brought together at the end I expected the beginning of the ever-popular YA love triangle, but the story moved away from that much more quickly than I had expected.  At first I was surprised at how easily Tally could choose, but her choice made sense.  In the real world, people grow and move on from relationships; a passionate romance one month may mean much less the second.  Only in fiction is the love of one moment the love of a lifetime. 

Like in the first book, Westerfeld begins to raise questions about the nature of humanity and our effect on our environment.  All societies presented in the book--New Pretty Town, the Smoke, and the "savages"--have both positive and negative traits.  Not one represents an ideal society, and it's unclear which, if any, is best.  I'm hoping this idea will be explored further in the next books.

After reading the What is the What (which was excellent, but lengthy and requiring some effort), Pretties was the perfect book.  It was quick, fast-paced, and fun to read.

- See my reviews of book one in the series, Uglies, and book three in the series, Specials 

Sunday, December 6, 2009

"What is the What" by Dave Eggers

Summary: A fictionalized account of the story of Valentino Achak Deng, one of the "Lost Boys" of Sudan.  Told in flashbacks from Valentino's current struggles in Atlanta, What is the What follows Valentino's childhood in Sudan, exodus from his country, and life in refugee camps before being relocated as an adult to the United States.

Musings: I was vaguely familiar with the story of the "Lost Boys" from news programs and a documentary I watched a year or two ago.  Nonetheless, I'm glad I took the time to read a detailed and personal account of one person's experiences.  Although not representative of what everyone went through (nor, exactly, what Deng experienced), the book provides an engrossing look at the challenges facing Sudan and the challenges of growing up displaced.

One of the most interesting questions the book raised for me was what exactly can be done for people like Deng.  Relocating to the U.S. has some benefits, but not the success, wealth, safety, and care that had been imagined.  Nor does living in America (at least on the surface) help rebuild Sudan.  As an adult, Deng struggles between taking care of himself and taking care of his family and countrymen; between life in America and life in his homeland.

The majority of the book focuses on Deng's flight from Sudan and years in refugee camps.  Above all, the story is one of survival and perserverance, even at life's darkest hours.