Monthly Archives: December 2011

2011 in Reading: A Retrospective

Happy New Year’s Eve, EDIWTB readers! I hope you all have a wonderful celebration tonight and a great year in 2012. I know it will be a big year on this end, with a new addition coming in June.

Last year, Books on the Nightstand issued a challenge: read 11 more books in 2011 than you read in 2010. I took that challenge on, and am happy to report that I far surpassed it. I read 54 books in 2011, compared to 33 books in 2010. I’m happy about that number. I credit audiobooks, which allowed me to layer more books in during a month, despite my short commute. BOTN’s challenge for 2012 isn’t to add ANOTHER 12 to the 2011 count, but to choose 12 selected books – 12 non-fiction, 12 classics, etc. Or just 12×12=144 books (!). I’d love to repeat this year’s number, but I have a feeling that will be hard.

Here are my standout reads for 2011:

Special mention to debut author Susan Barr-Toman, whose When Love Was Clean Underwear I found to be an especially impressive first novel.

The theme of the year was: depressing subjects. The books I read spanned the following: the siege of Leningrad, war veterans and families, the horrors of life in Afghanistan and Pakistan, suicide, a Rapture-esque dystopia, kidnapping, unnamed diseases, autism, polygamy, bigamy, anti-Semitism, madness in the Amazon, adultery, amnesia, giving up children with Down syndrome, 9/11, slavery in America, child estrangement, missing parents, ghosts, picture brides and Japanese internment. Sheesh.

The breakdown:

  • 45 fiction, 9 non-fiction
  • 4 repeat authors during 2011: Katie Crouch, Khaled Hosseini, Tom Perotta, Julie Otsuka
  • 14 audiobooks
  • 14 male authors, 40 female authors

The silliest books I read were Save Me by Lisa Scottoline and Sweet Valley Confidential by Francine Pascal (but I enjoyed this one nonetheless).

Here’s to another great year of reading in 2012! What were your favorite books and reading  highlights from 2011?

WHEN THE EMPEROR WAS DIVINE by Julie Otsuka

OtsukaLast month, Julie Otsuka was a finalist for the National Book Award for her book The Buddha in the Attic. I hadn’t heard of her before, but was intrigued by both that book and her first novel, When the Emperor was Divine, which is about Japanese internment camps during WWII. When the Emperor was Divine is told from the point of view of four members of a Japanese family living in Berkeley in 1942 – the mother, who receives orders to pack up her family and move from their home; her daughter, who describes the long, dusty train ride to Utah, where they lived for 3 years; her son, who talks about the monotonous life they lived in the camp; and finally the father, who was sent for four years to prison on suspicion of being a dangerous Japanese loyalist.

When the Emperor was Divine is short but packed with evocative, powerful prose. Otsuka never gives her characters names; their anonymity only heightens the process of deracination and loss of ownership they went through in the camp. It’s such a sad, embarrassing episode in our history, and Otsuka doesn’t dramatize it – she lets the details and facts tell the story dispassionately. At one point, she simply lists all that the son remembers about her father – “He loved pistachio nuts. He liked to doodle. He wore beautiful suits and did not yell at waiters. Whenever the boy knocked on his door his father would look up and smile and put down whatever it was that he was doing. He was extremely polite.” etc. No flowery emotion here, but none needed – you can tell how the boy feels about his father just by this list.

I read a comment on Amazon that said that at an author event, Otskuka revealed that while researching her book, she didn’t interview people who had been interned at the camps (and who are dying off), but instead relied on books that have been written about the period. I was disappointed to hear that. There is a lot of detail in When the Emperor was Divine that I’d assumed had come from primary sources, not necessarily from her imagination or from a book. But knowing this didn’t lessen the impact of the book for me, which was strong. I liked this book a lot and look forward to starting The Buddha in the Attic.

Hey, FTC! How was your holiday? Oh, mine was great, thanks. In fact, this book was a Hanukah gift – nice, huh? So you don’t have to worry about the undue influence of a free review copy here.

THE SECRET LIVES OF THE FOUR WIVES by Lola Shoneyin


The Secret Lives of the Four Wives by Lola Shoneyin explores polygamy in modern Nigeria. Bolanle, an educated young Nigerian woman, makes the inexplicable (to her parents, anyway) decision to become the fourth wife of a wealthy older Nigerian man, Baba Segi. The Secret Lives of the Four Wives is about what happens to Baba Segi’s household, and his wives, once Bolanle joins the household.

The first three wives are less than hospitable to Bolanle, with two of them actually plotting her demise. Meanwhile, Bolanle is still childless after two years of marriage, to Baba Segi’s great consternation. When he decides to seek medical intervention to determine why, the book starts to explore why the other three wives resent Bolanle so much, as well as the secrets that they have each kept to keep their husband – and their household – a happy one. What once seemed black and white gets a lot more complicated, with shades of gray now permeating the characters.

I enjoyed The Secret Lives of the Four Wives a lot. Shoneyin’s writing is crisp and sparse, and her unspooling of the family’s secrets is satisfying and well-paced. I also enjoyed learning about how dificult modern Nigerian culture can be for women. I get a little provincial in my reading at times – lots of contemporary American settings in the books I choose – so this was a great change of pace, though I could have used even more detail about Nigeria.

Overall, a good read. Thanks to William Morrow for the review copy (Hi FTC!) – I think that’s how this one ended up on my TBR. Give this one a try if the plot sounds appealing – you won’t be disappointed.

 

KEEPING THE HOUSE by Ellen Baker

Keeping the houseKeeping the House, by Ellen Baker, is a large, meaty family saga about a small town in Wisconsin mostly during and after World War II. There are two parallel stories going at once – first, that of the Mickelson family and their supposedly cursed house, the largest in town; and second, that of Dolly Magnuson, a newlywed in her early 20s who moves to that same small town and becomes obsessed with the Mickelsons and their family history.

Keeping the House is one of those books that makes me really grateful to be born when I did. Two of the main characters are frustrated housewives whose lives are unfulfilling, to say the least. They are homemakers and mothers (or trying to get pregnant), and they are restless and resentful. Most of the women in the book are either married to, involved with, or mother to soldiers/vets/men killed in action, and Keeping the House is also about the brutality of war for both those who fight it and those left behind.

Keeping the House has a lot of things I like in a book – historical American setting, family domestic drama and detailed, observant writing. For me, the book took a bit of a turn toward the end, when it started bordering on melodrama. Too many little plot twists that were unlikely (such as women getting pregnant the first and only time they were with the wrong man), too many secrets, too much focus on one unstable character and his abhorrent (yet always excused) behavior. I was of course too deeply involved with the book to give up at that point, but I did start to roll my eyes a bit.

Keeping the House is a long book, and despite its faults, I am glad I read it. I ceratinly got wrapped up in it, and I liked the setting and subject matter. I listened to this one mostly on audio, and the audio version is just OK. The narrator sounds like she is smiling the whole time she is reading, and she (like the book) is a bit overdramatic. 13 discs of that voice is a lot.

I think I requested this book from Random House when it came out in 2007, so a belated thank you to Random House for the review copy!

THE HAZARDS OF HUNTING WHILE HEARTBROKEN by Mari Passananti

Chick lit is alive and well.

I am not usually a big fan of the genre, but perhaps due to year-end exhaustion I decided I was in the mood for something light, and picked up a review copy I’d been sent of The Hazards of Hunting While Heartbroken by Mari Passananti.

All of the ingredients are here: Manhattan thirtysomething heroine, dependable best friends, bad recent breakup, guy who seems too good to be true. But I was pleasantly surprised by how original this book was. Passananti’s heroine is Zoe Clark, a legal headhunter whose fiance (and boyfriend of ten years) left her because he was gay. Zoe is in a stressful job with a tyrannical boss and is also in danger of losing her apartment because she can’t make the rent. In swoops a successful ad exec who sweeps her off her feet and seems to be her ticket to emotional happiness and financial stability. But she has nagging doubts about him, and ultimately decides to do some detective work to find out if he is really who he appears to be.

I liked Passananti’s crisp, witty writing and her depiction of Zoe’s life in NY. It’s an engaging read, and I kept wanting to get back to it to find out what happened. (I may have skipped ahead a few times just because I coudn’t stand the suspense! Bad habit, I know.) Overall, I enjoyed this one a lot. A few characters bordered on caricatures, which always bothers me, but not all of them.

If you’re open to chick lit, I recommend The Hazards of Hunting While Heartbroken. It’s fun and memorable and worth the time. It’s also a first novel for Passananti, from a small press, so check it out if it sounds appealing and let’s reward a talented first time novelist! I also just found her blog, The Little Grape.

Update on the Blog

Hi EDIWTB readers! I haven't been posting here too often the last few weeks, and I wanted to explain why.

First, I have been hard at work with a web designer building the NEW Everyday I Write The Book, which I hope to launch in the next few weeks. I am migrating to WordPress, and will have a new URL (http://www.everydayiwritethebookblog.com/). I'm really excited about the new site, which will be more user-friendly, easier to search, easier to find via search, and generally better-looking! So stay tuned – the new site will launch soon.

Second, I haven't been reading as much as I'd like the last two months or so. I was hoping to end the year very strongly in terms of reading, but my energy level has been way down. I am about 13 weeks pregnant, and have had a very hard time keeping my eyes open! Hopefully, as I get out of the first trimester, I will get my energy back and won't be falling asleep on the couch at 10:30 every night! It is putting a major damper on my reading.

So that's my news. I AM reading, I promise – am in the middle of a NYC-based chick lit-esque book (The Hazards of Hunting While Heartbroken) that I am enjoying more than I thought I would, and have started an engrossing but long audiobook (Keeping the House). So reviews are on the way.

 

HER FEARFUL SYMMETRY by Audrey Niffenegger

SymmetryI finally got around to reading Her Fearful Symmetry by Audrey Niffenegger. It came out in 2010 and was very hot on the book blogger circuit. I actually got a review copy of it at the time, but decided that it wasn’t my kind of book (despite really enjoying The Time Traveler’s Wifereviewed here) and eventually gave it away. Then I saw Her Fearful Symmetry on audio a few weeks ago at the library and decided to take it out. I also downloaded on my Kindle – the first book I have read on the device.

What a strange book. Her Fearful Symmetry is basically a ghost story, a gothic tale about identity and secrets and families. It centers around two sets of idential twins: Edie and Elspeth, who are estranged and in their 40s, and Julia and Valentina, who are Edie’s daughters. Elspeth dies of leukemia and leaves her entire estate, including her apartment in London, to her nieces, who live in Chicago and have never met her. The one stipulation is that Julia and Valentina must live in Elspeth’s apartment for a year, without their parents.

The theme that came up over and over for me was claustrophobia. Julia and Valentina are close to the point of having no life outside of each other. Valentina longs for independence from her bossy sister, while Julia relishes the role of caregiver and refuses to give her sister the space she craves.

There are veyr few other characters in the book. One is Robert, Elspeth’s boyfriend, who lives in the flat the girls’ apartment. Robert, who is writing a dissertation about the neighboring Highgate Cemetery, is grieving the loss of his girlfriend and starts to transfer his affections to her niece, Valentina. The other main character is Martin, their upstairs neighbor who suffers from OCD and cannot leave his flat. Martin’s wife has left him, and Martin has sunk further and further into isolation and his own obsessions.

Things get supernatural when Elspeth’s ghost returns to the flat and starts interacting with her nieces and Robert. She cannot leave the flat; she is ever-present. Valentina, who is intimidated by London, stays home more and more so that she can transcribe missives from Elspeth. Julia, meanwhile, becomes interested in Martin and tries to help him overcome his disease.

The characters are all trapped – in the past, in unhealthy relationships, by long-seated secrets that cannot be revealed. I found myself literally searching for air as I read it. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – it’s a sign of Niffeneffer’s skill as a storyteller. I wasn’t even bothered that much by the ghostly elements of the book, which would usually be something I would avoid. None of these characters is particularly likable (other than Martin), but they were certainly interesting.

Some plot twists toward the end (one foreseeable, one not) also heightened my interest in the book.

So here’s my advice – if you liked The Time Traveler’s Wife but think that Her Fearful Symmetry isn’t for you, as I did, give it a try. Even if you haven’t read Niffenegger before, keep an open mind about this one. I am not big gothic/supernatural reader at all, but I still enjoyed it. She’s a very talented writer and her books are original and incredibly memorable.

A word on the audio: The narrator is very British, perfect for the material. I hated her depiction of Julia and Valentina – not sure if it was her poor American accent or her attempts to make them seem listless and young, but they came across as even more juvenile and whiny than I think Niffenegger intended. Otherwise, her diction and delivery were perfect.