Saturday, December 20, 2008

75 books every man should read

In contrast to the list of top books every woman has read, I've only read 9 from the similar list for men as compiled by Esquire. Unfortunately, they published their list in a very annoying format so you have to flip through this whole slide show thing to see their whole list. You can find it here, if you're so inclined.

Again, what makes these books essential for men? I did see a lot of books about war and/or naked women. Is that all? Can it be that simple?

top 75 books every woman should read

...according to Jezebel
  • The Lottery (and Other Stories), Shirley Jackson
  • To the Lighthouse, Virginia Woolf
  • The House of Mirth, Edith Wharton
  • White Teeth, Zadie Smith
  • The House of the Spirits, Isabel Allende
  • Slouching Towards Bethlehem, Joan Didion
  • Excellent Women, Barbara Pym
  • The Bell Jar, Sylvia Plath
  • Wide Sargasso Sea, Jean Rhys
  • The Namesake, Jhumpa Lahiri
  • Beloved, Toni Morrison
  • Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert
  • Like Life, Lorrie Moore
  • Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
  • Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë
  • The Delta of Venus, Anais Nin
  • A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley
  • A Good Man Is Hard To Find (and Other Stories), Flannery O'Connor
  • The Shipping News, E. Annie Proulx
  • You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down, Alice Walker
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
  • To Kill a Mockingbird, Harper Lee
  • Fear of Flying, Erica Jong
  • Earthly Paradise, Colette
  • Angela's Ashes, Frank McCourt
  • Property, Valerie Martin
  • Middlemarch, George Eliot
  • Annie John, Jamaica Kincaid
  • The Second Sex, Simone de Beauvoir
  • Runaway, Alice Munro
  • The Heart is A Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
  • The Woman Warrior, Maxine Hong Kingston
  • Wuthering Heights, Emily Brontë
  • You Must Remember This, Joyce Carol Oates
  • Little Women, Louisa May Alcott
  • Bad Behavior, Mary Gaitskill
  • The Liars' Club, Mary Karr
  • I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings, Maya Angelou
  • A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, Betty Smith
  • And Then There Were None, Agatha Christie
  • Bastard out of Carolina, Dorothy Allison
  • The Secret History, Donna Tartt
  • The Little Disturbances of Man, Grace Paley
  • The Portable Dorothy Parker, Dorothy Parker
  • The Group, Mary McCarthy
  • Persepolis, Marjane Satrapi
  • The Golden Notebook, Doris Lessing
  • The Diary of Anne Frank, Anne Frank
  • Frankenstein, Mary Shelley
  • Against Interpretation, Susan Sontag
  • In the Time of the Butterflies, Julia Alvarez
  • The Good Earth, Pearl S. Buck
  • Fun Home, Alison Bechdel
  • Three Junes, Julia Glass
  • A Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft
  • Sophie's Choice, William Styron
  • Valley of the Dolls, Jacqueline Susann
  • Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford
  • Gone with the Wind, Margaret Mitchell
  • The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. LeGuin
  • The Red Tent, Anita Diamant
  • The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Milan Kundera
  • The Face of War, Martha Gellhorn
  • My Antonia, Willa Cather
  • Love In The Time of Cholera, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  • The Harsh Voice, Rebecca West
  • Spending, Mary Gordon
  • The Lover, Marguerite Duras
  • The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy
  • Tell Me a Riddle, Tillie Olsen
  • Nightwood, Djuna Barnes
  • Three Lives, Gertrude Stein
  • Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons
  • I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith
  • Possession, A.S. Byatt
I've read 21 of them and I recognized several as ones I've been meaning to read. Any favorites on this list? What was left out? Why are these essential for women in particular?

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

10 books to *not* read before you die

by Richard Wilson, Times Online September 17, 2008

10: Ulysses – James Joyce
9: Lord of the Rings – J R R Tolkien
8: For Whom the Bell Tolls – Ernest Hemingway
7: À la Recherche du Temps Perdu – Marcel Proust
6: The Dice Man – Luke Reinhart
5: Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – Hunter S Thompson
4: The Beauty Myth – Naomi Wolff
3: War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
2: The Iliad -- Homer
1: Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen

You really should read the article to see his reasoning. Some are quite funny, some are almost offensive. Take his reasoning on the number two pick, The Iliad:
The very idea that you are somehow culturally incomplete without knowledge of Homer is ridiculous. The Iliad is one of the most boring books ever written and it’s not just a boring book, it’s a boring epic poem; all repetitive battle scenes with a lot of reproaching and challenging and utterances escaping the barrier of one’s teeth and nostrils filling with dirt and helmet plumes nodding menacingly. There’s a big fight between Achilles and Hector and that’s about it.
He left out the bit about the cataloging of ships. Still, it is an amusing article. What are your most over-rated books?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

House Lights

by Leah Hager Cohen, published by Norton, 2007. 302 pages

A beautiful character-driven novel about Beatrice, a teenage girl who decides to be an actor. Her grandmother is a famous actress, but has been estranged from her family for as long as Beatrice can remember. Beatrice reaches out to her grandmother for advice, and in doing so begins the long process of defining herself separately from her parents. At the same time, her parents become embroiled in a scandal stemming from accusations on her father for sexual harassment. Both internal and external pressures help Beatrice leave her home and restrictive parents.

This is a rich book. The author has a gift for language, making descriptive passages that seem so right. The book emphasizes the need for language to have real meaning, not just sound important. (Beatrice's father is a professor who often launches into lectures that sound important but aren't necessarily meaningful.) The emphasis on truth and meaning is a refreshing change from Beatrice's childhood filled with words that cloak feeling and establish boundaries.

People who like character driven books and coming of age stories would like this book.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Then We Came to the End

by Joshua Ferris
Published by Little, Brown and Company (March 1, 2007). 400 pages.

A wonderful book about the disintegration of an advertising company. Written in first-person-plural, the reader is swept up in the action as we hear gossip, rumors, and watch our coworkers do weird or annoying things. As more people are laid off or fired and offices begin emptying, the sense of panic rises as each character anticipates the inevitable. The character development is very strong; we get a distinct impression of the people working here, their quirks, their fears. I found myself wondering who exactly the narrator was. Which of these strange people is the one telling this story? Some chapters of the book could be their own little short stories: sometimes very funny anecdotes, sometimes a scene of despair.

I highly recommend this book for fans of the Office television series, for those who like character development over plot, for anyone wanting an inside view of an American office as it struggles to survive at the end of boom times.

Monday, May 26, 2008

The Plot to Save Socrates

by Paul Levinson, 2006, 266 pages

This book was recommended to me by someone who said it reminded them a bit of To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis. As this is one of my favorite books, I promptly checked it out of the library. I can say that yes, there was time travel and some sleuthing involved, but it wasn't humorous in the same way as Willis can be. The novel was at times a bit ponderous and loosely based on philosophic ideas rather than relying on wit and plot to draw the reader in (which was the case with To Say Nothing of the Dog).

The book opens with Sierra Waters, a grad student in New York City in 2042. Her specialty is ancient Athens, which turns out to be just ideal because she ends up becoming embroiled in a time travel quest which goal is to save Socrates from his fatal poisoning in ancient Athens.

The plot begins when her teacher finds an old lost dialog involving Socrates and his conversation with Andros, a visitor to his cell trying to convince Socrates to escape. Andros claims to be from another time, and can provide a DNA-complete replica of Socrates to leave in the cell, so no one will ever know the difference. So the mystery becomes: who is Andros? Did/will Andros succeed? What will the impact be on modern society to suddenly have Socrates living among us again?

To answer these questions, Sierra and her teacher, and a few friends they make along the way, begin traveling through time, assuming different names and roles as events roll along. This gets a bit confusing as the narration shifts from character to character, so the reader never has one character to cling to in all of the adventure. The reader is left to straggle along behind all of the adventurers and try to pick up what is happening. For a long part in the middle of the book, it almost threatens to unravel completely, but then things start to come back together. By the end of the book most things are resolved, but the reader is still left feeling a bit uncertain.

Besides the storytelling method outlined above, another technique used by the author was to tie in parts of the newly-discovered Socratic dialog as the book moves on. At the beginning, our characters had found only a page or two; by the end of the book the reader has finally been exposed to the entire discovered dialog. As the characters find the pages, they often seem to ramble on a bit in their own kind of Platonic dialog amongst themselves (especially when they get to talk to Socrates himself!). I found myself struggling a bit as this happened more and more often. If I see another character simply replying "yes" to a long question from another character, I will scream.

Last Night at the Lobster

by Stewart O'Nan, 2007, 146 pages

The scene is the last day of operation at one Red Lobster location in a run down corner of a New England mall. Manny DeLeon, the manager here for years, has come to feel the restaurant is his, and the loss of it weighs deeply on him. He takes pride in his work and cares for the employees under his supervision.

The book opens as Manny arrives for the last day of work at the Red Lobster, which is complicated by the huge snowstorm on the way, the last minute no-shows of some key employees, and Manny's lingering feelings for his ex-girlfriend -- the waitress Jacquie. Also causing distraction is the fact that Christmas is only 4 days away and he still doesn't know what to get his pregnant girlfriend. He wants to find that one gift that will make their relationship better, and in a larger sense, Manny is looking for the one perfect thing that will make everything better. Despite his best intentions, the day winds to a close much the way it opened, and the book ends.

This novel is extremely poetic in its sparse way. There is a whirlwind of character and emotion in the short 146 page book. The reader comes to care for Manny and his restaurant, despite the fact that they are both, in some ways, losers.

Saturday, April 5, 2008

Twilight series

By Stephanie Meyer

I resisted this series for a long time. I'd seen it around, it kept popping up when I was doing my young adult fiction class, but it hadn't really been recommended to me by anyone I knew, so I didn't bother with it. The third book in the series, Eclipse, came out recently, so I kept seeing it promoted in book stores.

Finally, I gave in. What is it that all these teenagers are finding so interesting? I admit that I gave in shortly after re-reading Sunshine and found myself craving more vampire fiction. Haha.

Yes, these are more vampire books. This series is, however, much more in the romance genre than the horror genre (which isn't to say that there aren't scary parts, however).

Basically, the story involves shy, awkward Bella moving in with her father, Charlie, in Forks, Washington when her mother remarries. She is surprisingly popular at her new high school, and makes friends, and is pursued by boys, none of which were things that happened at her last school in Phoenix, Arizona. One boy in particular, Edward, is particularly attractive to her, but he tries to remain aloof from her. Finally though, he gives in, even though every moment they spend together puts her in danger, since he's a vampire. He's a vegetarian vampire -- he doesn't eat humans -- but her particularly alluring scent tempts him to lose control. Also, of course, there's more danger you can get into when you associate with vampires.

I can completely see why these books are so popular, especially among teens. The emotions of young love are so well described and so intense that I found myself quite wrapped up in Edward and Bella's blooming relationship. I also found myself frustrated that they never even so much as take off their shirts; it's all very proper. They have heated and passionate kisses... and that's it. *sigh*

I eagerly devoured the following two books in the series: New Moon and Eclipse. In New Moon, Bella finds herself without Edward for some time, causing her to be a complete wreck. In Eclipse, she is in a bit of a love triangle and gets into a big hubbub with other vampires and some werewolves. Throughout these books, she continues her blind devotion to Edward and her desire to be turned into a vampire as well.

While I really enjoyed reading them, I'm left with a bit of a sour aftertaste. They are a little like literary junk food. The first book draws on ideas from Genesis in the Bible, the whole knowledge of good and evil thing. The second book steals not too subtly from Romeo and Juliet, the third from Wuthering Heights. Not only are the allusions not-too-subtle, but Bella is actually reading Romeo and Juliet, and Wuthering Heights at the beginning of each novel. When the fourth book comes out, I'll just check out what Bella is reading as the story opens, and I'll know how it turns out. Considering the lack of actual sex so far in the novels, hopefully she'll be reading a Playboy magazine or something. Just get it over with already! Sheesh!

This brings me to my main concern about this book. I'm suspicious that the values of the author lean to saving your soul by avoiding pre-marital sex, and mindless devotion to your husband. Indeed, Meyer did attend Brigham Young University, which is where many young Mormons go to college. While there's nothing wrong with promoting your beliefs, I am worried that all this abstinence-only stuff is getting out of hand. According to how things work out in the Twilight series (so far) it's fine for you to be so in love that you practically die when your love goes away, just as long as you don't actually ever have sex. I don't know; I guess all the tension of not having sex does help the book out. Without that tension they would probably lose a lot of the teenage fans. I'm not sure that loads of teenagers getting married at 18 just so they can finally have sex is really the best thing though.

I'll end this luke-warm review by admitting that I am eagerly awaiting the fourth book, due out in August, and the movie of the first book, due out in December. Even though it does pain me a bit to admit it. (Hey, it's better than when my generation was devouring Flowers in the Attic.)


by Robin McKinley, published by Berkley Books in October 2003, 389 pages

I've been meaning to review this one for quite some time now. I first read this book in early 2007, shortly after taking the class Book Lust with Nancy Pearl. (You may have heard of Nancy, she does book recommendations for NPR, and has her own action figure! Her superpower is that if you talk to her for a minute or so, she will be able to recommend the perfect book for you to read. It's really quite eerie.) For her class, we had to read at least one book from each fiction genre. I mentioned that I hadn't read one for horror yet, and she recommended this book, Sunshine.

Her recommendation was excellent. Sunshine has a perfect blend of magic, vampires, strange other things that are creepy, some nice sensual bits, and a good coming of age story (one of my weaknesses, and why I'm drawn to young adult fiction in general) for my tastes.

It's told in first person by Sunshine, a young woman who does the baking for Charlie's Bakery, who is living as simple a life as people can anymore, after the Voodoo wars that decimated the population and made certain areas of the cities unlivable. Charlie, her stepfather, has created a family around the people who work and frequent his bakery, and they all get along well, gather for movie nights every Friday, and generally get by.

Sunshine gets a little bored and cramped by all this one day, and goes for a walk by herself. She goes to the lake, which is a little too close to a Bad Area, and gets abducted by a gang of vampires. They leave her in a deserted house to tempt their enemy, a very strong and powerful vampire who they have managed to capture and chain up in the house.

An uncertain truce develops between them, and this drags Sunshine into the middle of a vampire war. She learns that vampires have gotten closer to taking over the world than any human had yet feared, and maybe by joining forces with her new vampire friend she can help to prevent it. Along the way, she also begins to discover she has some secrets of her own that might just come in handy.

This is definitely a horror book; there is plenty of gore, destruction, and scrapes with death here. There's also a bit of graphic sexuality that was actually a bit shocking (I think I've been reading too many young adult books). Plenty of vampires and other demons to keep any Buffy fan happy. In fact, there were more than a few things that reminded me of Buffy.

Something that I really appreciated was the author's ability to blend normalcy with the supernatural. One moment Sunshine is in her bakery, making cinnamon rolls "as big as your head", something she is famous for at Charlie's. The next page, she's chained up next to a vampire, dripping with blood. When Sunshine is next at home, she spends several pages (or chapters? I can't remember) trying to forget what happened and pretending everything is normal again. That resolute desire to have everything back to normal just by pretending is something I'm sure we've all felt at some point. We can even get away with it sometimes. That dread of a buried experience builds up the tension and horror in a very effective way, is maybe even scarier than being attacked by a vampire.

I don't think I've given away too much, even with this lengthy of a review. I highly recommend this book, if you are up for the horror bits. I liked it so much, I re-read it with the year, and proceeded to read everything else I could find by this author. None of her other novels come close to this one, in my opinion.

Friday, April 4, 2008

I Was Told There'd Be Cake

By Sloane Crosley
A review of a review

I can't tell if I want to read this or not. From the review I just read, I'm vaguely irritated, but also compelled, by the book. I half wonder if it is the review itself that annoyed me, or the idea of this book. Let me share my observations. (The following quotes come from the article "I Was Told There'd Be Cake": Savvy, funny musings of a 20-something By Haley Edwards; Special to The Seattle Times, published 4/4/08)

First there's this tidbit. The reviewer says that the book is funny, but she's not sure why. "Maybe it's because Crosley, a 20-something New York City girl, is just like us. She grew up in a middle-class, middle-income family in the plain vanilla suburbs." Yeah, just like you, maybe. Does this mean that the rest of us won't think it's funny?

On the other hand, how can I resist inside jokes that I actually get? "In one essay, Crosley writes that a certain girl 'looked cooler than Jem and her Holograms.'" And... "Crosley masterfully re-creates the Millennial generation's coltish obsession with the computer game 'Oregon Trail.'... Crosley would name one of her characters after her algebra teacher, who she 'loathed,' she writes. 'Then I would intentionally lose the game, starving her or fording a river with her when I knew she was weak ... Eventually a message would pop up in the middle of the screen, framed in a neat box: Mrs. Ross has died of dysentery. This filled me with glee.'"

(side note: "Millennial generation's coltish obsession"? Huh? Sure, I was obsessed with My Little Ponies. The obsession with "Oregon Trail" is surely more cultish than coltish. Ok, I'll stop being snarky.)

So you can see my dilemma. I may have to read this book, just to see if it's the book or the review that bothered me.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Must read

After seeing Sunday's Unshelved, I've decided that "Pandora's Star" and "Judas Unchained" need to be on my reading list. Check it out:

Friday, March 7, 2008


By Robin McKinley
342 pages, 2007

I've been a fan of Robin McKinley since I read "Sunshine", which I will have to post about soon. Sunshine turns out to have been one of my favorite books, maybe not of all time, but that I read in 2007. I read a lot of books in 2007.

Since reading "Sunshine", I read "Deerskin"... twice. I re-read Sunshine earlier this year, just for fun (actually it's a great book to read in the middle of a dreary sunless winter), and was reminded how great it was, so I put Deerskin on hold, and when it arrived and voraciously started reading... and it was eerily familiar. I opened it randomly later on down the book... oh yes! I've definitely read this. I didn't actually re-read it all the way through, but it is now fresh in my mind again. I'll have to post about that too.

But anyway, back to Dragonhaven, after my disappointment in having already read Deerskin, I was very eager to start this book. This is a young adult novel. It's written in a boy's first person point of view. He lives in an animal preserve in the middle of nowhere with his dad and some other naturalists, but it's a pretty lonely life. He's still depressed from his mother's untimely death a couple years ago. Just to make things worst, his dog died too.

As a kind of coming of age ceremony, he gets to go on his first solo overnight hike into the depths of the animal preserve. Not to worry, the animals that live in this preserve are secretive and have never been reported to attack humans. They also happen to be wild dragons. Something happens on his solo hike that changes his life forever.

So yeah, this is another coming of age story, but with a wild premise. I didn't particularly care for the style it was written in, since a huge amount of the head and end of the story are exposition and denouement. It really took a lot of movement away from the telling. I got kind of bored, even though he was talking about dragons and other exciting things. I really liked this middle parts though, where he's telling the action as it happens, and I could get really wrapped up in it.

I read this while I was quite sick, and it really distracted me from my suffering. I would recommend this book if you like a little fantasy mixed with a little realism.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Looking for Alaska

by John Green, 2005

John Green's first novel (at the tender age of I think 27). He also wrote "An Abundance of Katherines" which I reviewed a while back.

The story starts as Pudge, a high school boy with no friends, decides to transfer to a boarding school in Alabama to, as he puts it, "seek the Great Perhaps." The Great Perhaps was mentioned in someone's famous last words before dying, which Pudge takes a strange interest in. Throughout the book he quotes people's dying words with a morbid interest.

He arrives at boarding school, meets his roommate, and begins the various lessons of a young person's life: drinking, smoking, sex, and pranks. All of these "firsts" are written with a freshness and awkwardness that feels authentic.

The book is split into two parts. The first is designated "Before", and each chapter begins with how many days before it is. It begins "one hundred thirty six days before." Before what, the reader doesn't know. The tension builds though as we get closer to the day of the event.

The second half of the book is designated "After", and again, each chapter begins with how many days after it is. The tension fades as the memory of the event fades.

All in all, a good book for revisiting those awkward days of teenagedness. Tense, dramatic, and sad, but illuminated by learning and dare I say, enlightenment.

Anansi Boys

by Neil Gaiman, 2005

I only just now realized that this is "Anansi Boys" and not "Anasazi Boys", which is what I had been saying in my head when I read it. That's kind of a mind bender.

Anyway, the story starts with the death of Fat Charlie's father, who was quite a lively character. Always singing, dancing, goofing off, and womanizing, Fat Charlie's father never ceased to embarrass him. So, needless to say, they'd had a strained relationship and now his father's dead. Fat Charlie ends up learned a lot more about his father from old family friends at the funeral, and also learns that he has a brother! In the course of the book, Fat Charlie learns that his family is a lot more strange than he ever suspected. At this point, the book veers into a strange, otherworldly aspect that intersects nicely with Fat Charlie's regular life.

I've read other of Gaiman's books, and I generally like him. His style is humorous, and a little dark. I might describe him as a bit of a darker Terry Pratchett. In fact, the book they wrote together was pretty much the perfect blend.

The Eyre Affair

Another work by Jasper Fforde. I'm on a kick right now. This is the first of the Thursday Next series. Thursday Next is a literary detective, that is, she solves crimes that are somehow related to works of literature, like a stolen original manuscript or something like that. In this book, the criminal has found a way to actually enter the literary work and mess with it; in this case, he has kidnapped Jane Eyre. Also, as a side plot, there are elements of time travel (Thursday's father used to work in the time division of the police force, now he's on the lam in time).

All of Fforde's unique elements are in this as well. Actually I think this was his first published novel. Fun literary nods and clever word play abound. I've got the next couple Thursday Next books on hold now. yay!

The Big Over Easy

The first of the Nursery Crimes series by Jasper Fforde. I seem to be taking this series out of order. This one was a murder mystery about who killed Humpty Dumpty, who was found broken to bits at the base of his wall. When his body was reconstructed, they discovered a bullet hole. Oh my!

Once again, lots of literary puns and allusions, lots of nursery tale characters appear, and Jack even has an encounter with a beanstalk. Not much else to say that I didn't say about The Fourth Bear, I'll just reiterate that I love Fforde's style, very funny and a light read. I look forward to more.

Wednesday, January 2, 2008

The Fourth Bear

by Jasper Fforde, 2004

This was my first Fforde book. I've heard lots of good things about some of his other works, and the other day I was wandering around the public library looking for something fun to read, and I saw this. It was in the mystery section, but by the cover I could tell it certainly wasn't taking itself seriously. (Side note: the people who do Fforde's art live in Portland, Oregon!)

I think I'm going to read a lot more of this guy, he's hilarious. This particular novel was one of his "Jack Spratt Investigates" mystery novels. Jack Spratt works in the Nursery Crime Division of the Berkshire police department. He's got a secret history as a Person of Dubious Reality since he's indeed *that* Jack Spratt, who could eat no fat. His first wife could eat no lean, and she died from it. Anyway, he gets into all kinds of trouble with various characters from nursery rhymes, and solves cases. This one involved Goldilocks who got into trouble when she was trying to meet her secret lover but stumbled upon a cabin in the woods occupied by three bears. Also, there is a Ginja warrior causing havok - a ten foot tall gingerbread man created as the ultimate fighting machine. There are even slight hints along the way that the characters seem to be aware that they are in a book, and one time even discuss the author and his overextension to build up a bad joke.

This would be enjoyed by those who like the Discworld novels by Terry Pratchett, especially the ones set in the police department. Also a good hint of Douglas Adams' mischievousness.