Archive for the '2005 Book Challenge' Category

2005 Book Challenge: It’s a Tie!

Tuesday, January 10th, 2006

I started off 2005 with a 50 book challenge, but upped it to 100 when I realized that my inclusion of both graphic novels and young adult novels made for a faster-moving list. At the end of the year, the tallies were spookily exact, though some books could be argued as to which category they belong in, e.g. Persepolis: graphic novel or non-fiction? I chose the former. When in doubt, I also went with where it would be shelved in a bookstore or library. So, the final numbers. Novels: 39. Non-fiction: 13. Young adult: 27. Graphic Novels: 25. That’s 52 novels and non-fiction, and 52 YA and GNs, for a grand total of 104. Apologies for no italics, inconsistent author names, and no links, but all books are linked in the “50 Book Challenge” category.

I’ll start with the bad news. There are only two books I read last year that I feel were a waste of my time: Prep by Sittenfeld and Rent Girl by Tea. Both were highly hyped and featured static, immature main characters. For me, the lack of character development far outweighed any good points of the narratives.

I’ve starred the books I found particularly good. Lying Awake by Salzman was an accidental find, which impressed me all the more because I had no expectations. Ex Machina, Y the Last Man, and Daredevil were my favorite graphic novels and ongoing comic book series of the past year. I am proud to have finally read the entire Don Quixote. Satrapi’s graphic novels were much more engaging and involving than Reading Lolita In Tehran.

I found the young-adult novels by writers who also write for adults more complex and better written than a lot of what’s out there: Godless and Invisible by Hautman, All Rivers Flow to the Sea by McGhee, Sexy and Big Mouth and Ugly Girl by Oates.

Several books are starred because I flat-out enjoyed them: Case Histories by Atkinson, The Year of Secret Assignments by Moriarty, Magic or Madness by Larbalestier, and I Capture the Castle by Smith. Additionally, I re-read some old favorites, like Top Ten, Batman Year One, Speak, The Tempest, and Howl’s Moving Castle.

Finally, some of the starred books were not only good reads, but each had a “wow” factor that particularly impressed me: Briar Rose by Yolen, Empire Falls by Russo, Paradise by Kennedy, Bangkok 8 by Burdett, Never Let Me Go by Ishiguro, Housekeeping and Gilead by Robinson, What I Loved by Hustvedt, The Driver’s Seat by Spark, Mothers and Other Monsters by McHugh, In a Lonely Place by Hughes, and Alias Grace by Atwood.

1. Swordspoint by Ellen Kushner
*2. Briar Rose by Jane Yolen
3. Rats Saw God by Rob Thomas
*4. Ex Machina by Brian K. Vaughn, Tony Harris et al.
*5. Y the Last Man 4 by Brian K. Vaughn, Pia Guerra et al.
6. Best American Nonrequired Reading 2002 ed. Cart & Eggers
*7. Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi
8. Doing It by Burgess, Melvin
9. Rush Hour 1 Sin ed. Cart, Michael
10. Rush Hour 2 Bad Boys ed. Cart, Michael
11. Girl by Nelson, Blake
12. The Earth, My Butt, and Other Big Round Things by Mackler, Carolyn
*13. Empire Falls by Russo, Richard
14 to 17: special-topic research for novel
18. From Romance to Realism by Cart, Michael
19. What You Wear Can Change Your Life by Woodall & Constantine
*20. Lying Awake by Salzman, Mark
21. Carnet de Voyage by Thompson, Craig
22. Tender at the Bone by Reichl, Ruth
23. Saving Francesca by Marchetta, Melina
24. When the Messenger Is Hot by Crane, Elizabeth
25. Stop that Girl by McKenzie, Elizabeth
26. Fast Food Nation by Schlosser, Eric
*27. Don Quixote by Cervantes
28. All This Heavenly Glory by Crane, Elizabeth
29. Beware of God by Auslander, Shalom
*30. Daredevil: Widow by Bendis/Maleev
31. The True & Outstanding Adventures of the Hunt Sisters by Robinson, Elisabeth
32. Embroideries by Satrapi
33. Tomorrowland ed. Cart, M.
*34. Speak by Anderson, Laurie Halse
*35. Case Histories by Atkinson, Kate
36. Where No Gods Came by O’Connor, Sheila
37. Mysterious Skin by Heim, Scott
38. Scott Pilgrim #1 by O’Malley, Bryan Lee
*39. Paradise by Kennedy, A.L.
40. Scott Pilgrim #2 by O’Malley, Bryan Lee
41. The Fall by Mawer, Simon
42. Hulk: Gray by Loeb/Sale
43. WE3 by Morrison/Quitely
44. Daredevil V. 11: Golden Age by Bendis/Maleev
45. Family Matters by Guterson, David
46. The Wonder Spot by Banks, Melissa
*47. Persepolis 2 by Satrapi, Marjane
48. Wasteland by Block, Francesca Lia
49. Necklace of Kisses by Block, Francesca Lia
50. Prep by Curtis Sittenfeld
51. In the Shadow of the Law by Kermit Roosevelt
*52. Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson
53. Rush Hour 3: Face ed. Cart, Michael
*54. Y the Last Man v. 5: Ring of Truth by Vaughan
*55. The Year of Secret Assignments by Jaclyn Moriarty
56. If Chins Could Kill by Bruce Campbell
57. Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner
*58. Howl’s Moving Castle by Diana Wynne Jones
*59. Bangkok 8 by John Burdett
60. The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency by Smith
61. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by Rowling
62. Runaways v. 1 by Vaughan
63. The Cute Manifesto by Kochalka
64. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by Rowling
65. Reading Lolita in Tehran by Nafisi
66. A Changed Man by Francine Prose
67. The Clouds Above by Jordan Crane
*68. The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
69. Other Electricities by Ander Monson
70. Tricked by Alex Robinson
*71. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
*72. Magic or Madness by Justine Larbalestier
73. The Queen of Everything by Deb Caletti
*74. Was it Beautiful? by Alison McGhee
75. DC: The New Frontier by Darwyn Cooke
*76. Invisible by Pete Hautman
77. Snap by McGhee
78. Sweetblood by Hautman
79. The Kite Runner by Hosseini
*80. Godless by Hautman
*81. What I Loved by Siri Hustvedt
82. The Panic-Free Pregnancy by Broder
*83. Gilead by Marilynne Robinson
*84. Mothers and Other Monsters by Maureen McHugh
*85. All Rivers Flow to the Sea by McGhee
*86. I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith
87. The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns
*88. The Tempest by Shakespeare
*89. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood
90. Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore
*91. Big Mouth and Ugly Girl by Joyce Carol Oates
*92. Sexy by Oates
*93. In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes
94. Revision by David Kaplan
95. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen
96. No Limit by Hautman
97. Mr. Was by Hautman
*98. Top Ten Book 1 by Moore/Ha/Cannon
*99. Top Ten Book 2
100. Top Ten: The Forty-Niners by Moore/Ha
101. Smax by Moore/Cannon
102. Rent Girl by Tea/McCubbin
*103. Batman: Year One by Miller/Mazzuchelli
104. Batman: The Long Halloween by Loeb/Sale

Batman: The Long Halloween by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale

Monday, January 2nd, 2006

#104 in my book challenge for 2005 was Batman: The Long Halloween, written by Loeb and illustrated by Sale. This was Loeb and Sale’s first multi-issue collaboration, and it has much to recommend it. It is rooted in the characters from Frank Miller’s Year One, but expands on them in this noir tale of mafia and corruption in Gotham City. A killer is loose and taking out members of the Falcone family business. Batman, police commissioner Jim Gordon and DA Harvey Dent are trying to catch the killer and collect enough evidence on Falcone to put him in jail. Each member of Batman’s rogues’ gallery is introduced over the course of thirteen chapters, interpreted through Sale’s distinctive and striking artistic style. There is excellent characterization here, and great chemistry between Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle, and their alter-egos Batman and Catwoman. The story falls flat at the end, though. When the killer is purportedly revealed in one of the penultimate chapters, it is satisfying and makes sense. Yet the book goes on to finger not just one but two other characters. It’s a surprise ending that was set up in advance, so I have no quibbles there. But it’s murky–it’s not clear who murdered whom, and this feels cheap after the earlier, more satisfying reveal.

Batman: Year One by Frank Miller

Monday, January 2nd, 2006

#103 in my 2005 book challenge was Batman: Year One, two steps back from where I started, which was to read the Loeb/Sale collaboration Catwoman: When in Rome. The Catwoman story takes place after Batman: The Long Halloween, which in turn is rooted in some of the ancillary characters from Miller’s seminal Year One. So re-reading Year One was where I began, and was reminded of why it’s not only one of my favorite Batman stories, but one of my favorite graphic novels. It’s not really about Batman; this is Jim Gordon’s story. Both the art by David Mazuchelli and story by Miller are spare and impressionistic, yet so evocative that the book feels rich and complete. Batman is one of the most intriguing, complex superheroes because he is “merely” human. Year One shows the messy humanity of Batman, Catwoman, and the very fallible Gordon. It doesn’t involve a single supervillain, only corrupt civilians. The mood of this book was evident in last year’s successful film, Batman Begins, which many assumed, incorrectly, was adapted from Year One.

Rent Girl by Michelle Tea and Laurenn McCubbin

Monday, January 2nd, 2006

#102 in my book challenge for 2005 was Rent Girl by Michelle Tea, a recommendation on Blog of a Bookslut. It’s an autobiographical account of Tea’s time as a prostitute. Just because a book is about prostitution doesn’t make it edgy or interesting. I found it irritating. Tea became a prostitute after she found out her girlfriend was one, and because she had nothing better to do and the money was good. There are some occasional insights about the relations between clients and prostitutes, and Tea’s honesty about her feelings about the clients are sometimes impressively complicated and dark. Ultimately, though, this is the story of a foolish, immature girl surrounded by others like herself. She does not grow or change over the course of the narrative, and I found it hard to care much about her. The book was further diminished by numerous misspellings. Additionally, the illustrations by McCubbin, a darling of comic-book bad-boy Warren Ellis, were not only stiff and too photo-model based, but they often contradicted the text. I found this disconnection particularly annoying. Did McCubbin not read the text carefully? Was the text altered after the art was done? Whatever the reason, the text describes one woman wearing a floral dress, but a solid-color sheath is pictured. Another woman is written as wearing a conservative dress, but one with a thigh-high slit is pictured. Later, a guy in a polo shirt is drawn wearing a button down. This book’s sales and reviews likely benefit from its salacious subject, but I found the story and art merely adequate.

Top Ten by Alan Moore

Wednesday, December 28th, 2005

Top Ten Books 1 and 2 were #s 98 and 99 on my book challenge for the year, the graphic novel collections by Alan Moore, illustrated by Gene Ha with layouts by Zander Cannon. I re-read this series before reading the new Top Ten graphic novel, The Forty-Niners, by Moore and Ha, which was #100. Then I enjoyed all of them so much that I pulled out the Smax mini-series by Moore and Cannon and re-read that to get to #101. These are some fine graphic novels.

First, about the original Top Ten series. This is a police/mystery procedural, set in Neopolis, a city where everyone has super powers. Top Ten are the police force who try, and mostly succeed, in maintaining order. Moore’s story is marvelous. The multiple plots threads are complex and intriguing. The characters are many and yet still fleshed out. Ha’s scratchy, detailed art perfectly conveys the chaotic nature of the story, while Cannon’s behind-the-scenes layout makes the complex story flow clearly. Top Ten begins with Robyn Slinger’s first day on the job. Partnered with a big, surly blue guy named Smax, Robyn is immediately part of the multiple cases the force is handling. The twelve-issue series had multiple arcs, and maintained them all throughout as Robyn and her fellow police officers figure things out.

Top Ten: The Forty-Niners is a graphic novel original that tells the story of the early days of Neopolis, and centers on of one of the characters from the earlier series, Steve Traynor, aka Jetlad. It’s set in a mythical post-WWII time. Ha’s art is different–softer, with more pastel to reflect the nostalgia and the promise of the new era. While it can’t compete with the complexity of the longer series, this is still an outstanding story with lovely art and great characterization.

Smax has an entirely different tone. It is set in the immediate aftermath of the original series, and follows Robyn as she accompanies her work partner Jeff Smax to his homeworld to attend the funeral of the “uncle” who raised him. Smax comes from a pre-industrial world where magic still figures prominently, with fairies, elves and more. Cannon’s whimsical art style is suited both to the magical milieu of the story as well as its humorous tone. While there are dark parts to the story, the ending, as is true of the Forty-Niners, is not for the conservative. Smax is a fun, funny romp of a story, filled with visual in-jokes.

Both Smax and The Forty-Niners are good companions to the original Top Ten, fleshing out some of the background. After having read all four, though, I am reminded that the original series is probably one of my favorite comic series. Ever. It was certainly my favorite book from Moore’s line of America’s Best Comics. (Yes, I did like it even more than League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The storylines were more complex, the characters more engaging, and the endings more satisfying.)

Mr. Was by Pete Hautman

Thursday, December 22nd, 2005

#97 in my book challenge for the year was Mr. Was by Pete Hautman. This was an involved and involving mystery, family history, and time-travel saga. Time travel tales are hard to pull off, but Hautman weaves his story in and out of time skillfully. There are interesting, complex characters who come in and out of the interesting and complex plot. I had a few questions about names, two that were remarkably similar, and one that someone should have recognized, but these were minor plot issues in an otherwise impressive, economically told tale.

No Limit by Pete Hautman

Thursday, December 22nd, 2005

#96 in my book challenge for the year was No Limit by Pete Hautman, a young-adult novel. It was previously published and out of print under the title “Stone Cold”. It was retitled because most teens assumed that the book had to do with the wrestler with the same nickname, Steve Austin. It was republished because of the recent increase in poker popularity and awareness, particularly for no-limit Texas Hold-em. It was a quick, entertaining read about a sixteen year old boy who gets hooked quickly into poker. As he learns and wins, it’s easy to see why he continues to gamble. He is able to succeed mainly by learning to read other players’ “tells,” or their mannerisms at the poker table. While this is interesting, it is likely to be dated now that poker has gained a wider awareness. He has a goofy, hapless friend who does less well. The ending is a surprise, but is not unearned, and perhaps the best part of the book. Hautman neatly avoided both easy moralizing and the obvious ending. The dynamic of the main character and his friend, though, is nearly identical to that in Godless, one of Hautman’s more recent, and I think better, novels.

Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen

Thursday, December 22nd, 2005

#95 in my book challenge for the year was Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen. After I read and enjoyed Karen Joy Fowler’s The Jane Austen Book Club last year, I resolved to read all six of Austen’s novels; I’m halfway there. Northanger Abbey tells the story of an average girl, Catherine Morland, and how she becomes involved in Bath society and her entanglement with two families, the Thorpes and the Tilneys. Catherine is an often painfully naive main character, and the book frequently read to me like a middle-grade novel with its simplistic, passionless encounters between the sexes. What was more intriguing was Austen’s defense of the novel as an art form, as well as her critique of those who take escapist reading more seriously than it deserves. The hero of the book, Henry Tilney, was not a favorite of mine. I found him something of an ass, condescending to women, thinly characterized, and not that interesting. This was a short, easy read, worthwhile in some aspects, but without the stronger authorial control of the two, later-written Austen novels I’ve read, Pride and Prejudice and Emma.

Revision by David Michael Kaplan

Friday, December 16th, 2005

#94 in my book challenge for the year was Revision by David Michael Kaplan, recommended in a workshop I took with writer Faith Sullivan at the Loft Literary Center earlier this year. This is an enormously helpful book that elucidates one of the toughest aspects of writing. His general advice is to get a first draft of a story down however you can, then spend lots of time and effort polishing it. Interestingly, this advice is antithetical to the medium in which I’m discussing it, a weblog. In general, I doubt there’s a lot of time-consuming polishing going on in the blogosphere. Kaplan’s book is simple, practical, and useful. It provides impetus and inspiration for launching into the next round of revisions on a work.

In a Lonely Place by Dorothy B. Hughes

Thursday, December 15th, 2005

#93 in my book challenge for the year, In a Lonely Place was a recommendation from my husband G. Grod, who read a recommendation of it by Frank Miller, the comic book creator of Sin City. Miller embraces a lot of the conventions of 40’s pulp noir. Hughes, however, did not. In a Lonely Place is narrated exclusively by the bad guy, Dix Steele, and Hughes carefully ensures that the reader is engaged by the story but does not identify with him. Dix’s misogyny is never in question, but the violence is always implied. The book is part of a series of women writing noir, and has an excellent afterward that contextualizes the work and allows the reader to reconsider details of the novel within a feminist framework. I was glad for the thought-provoking afterward, as it encouraged me to keep thinking about things I rushed through reading because the story was so compellingly told.

Sexy by Joyce Carol Oates

Thursday, December 15th, 2005

#92 in my book challenge for the year, Sexy by Joyce Carol Oates was much darker than the young adult novel by Oates I’d read previously, Big Mouth and Ugly Girl. While it has similar themes of persecution and rumor, it is told entirely from the point of view of its main character, Darren Flynn. He is good looking and an athlete, but uncomfortable both about the attention his looks attract as well as his working-class family. Darren is a complex, interesting character, and at the end of the book Oates does not offer up easy answers for the many difficult questions she’s raised.

Big Mouth and Ugly Girl by Joyce Carol Oates

Monday, December 12th, 2005

#91 in my book challenge for the year (am I going to make it to 100? I just don’t know!) was Big Mouth and Ugly Girl by Joyce Carol Oates. I’ve been so impressed recently by talented “adult” authors like Alison McGhee and Pete Hautman who have written books for the young adult market, and Oates’s book is another fine example. It’s about two high school misfits, Matt and Ursula, whose respective nicknames make the title. Matt gets in trouble because of his mouth. Ursula’s part of the story is told from her point of view, with insight into her perception of herself as Ugly Girl, and how that serves her. As their stories unfold and intertwine, both characters develop believably and in environments that are richly detailed. There is some ugliness in the book, but of the kind that a good young-adult author doesn’t shy from, and it’s redeemed by hope and character development. Good writing and good characters, and an auspicious introduction for me to the works of Oates, who I have not read before.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

Thursday, December 8th, 2005

Or, more pithily, Biff, by Christopher Moore, was #90 in my book challenge for the year. It intrigued me when I first read about it, but I had just begun not to write down books, but to accrue enough recommendations or sightings that I could remember them without prompting. Biff definitely got enough recommendations from the media and from trusted reader friends that it earned a place on my reading list.

Biff has been resurrected by an angel in order to write a new gospel, one that fills in the blanks left by the Big Four. As noted in the title, Biff is Christ’s, or Joshua’s, friend since childhood. They get into trouble together, they fall in love with Maggie, and they bumble through a buddy tale in which they travel far, meet the three wise men, learn kung fu, confront demons, and more. Unfortunately for Moore, we all know how the story ends, and it isn’t well. The book is at its best imagining what might have happened in the thirty years after the birth narratives and before Joshua began preaching in earnest and on the record. The book is eminently quotable, with some genuinely hysterical scenes, as when a caffeinated Joshua decides to heal everyone he can in a marketplace. Moore’s book points out some of the common misconceptions and re-imagines them–the wise men aren’t kings, Mary of Magdalen isn’t a whore. This is a fun, funny, clever book. I didn’t find it life-changing, or overly thought-provoking, though.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Monday, December 5th, 2005

#89 in my book challenge for the year was Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood. It would be easy to review the book in a word: wow. As regular readers might know, though, I am not prone to under-writing. Alias Grace was recommended to me years ago by a trusted friend, and has sat accusingly on my bookshelf since. I found its size daunting, which made it all the more ironic when I read the first hundred pages, stopped to read another book for a deadline, then picked up Alias Grace again, and re-read those hundred pages again just because I could, because I wanted to, because they were that good. I flew through the rest of the book, so rapt with the story that I gave scant attention to the awe-inspiring mastery of Atwood’s prose.

What amused and sometimes discouraged me most read was how Atwood brazenly flouted conventional wisdom on how to write a novel. Phrases from writing instructors echoed in my head: don’t switch verb tense; don’t vary point of view; be wary of flashbacks and dreams. Atwood did all these and more. She is writing proof that rules are meant to be broken by those who can, and a novel need not be experimental and weird to break the rules. Alias Grace is a tremendous story written with astonishing skill, with Atwood’s trademark ambiguities that give so much credit to the reader for interpretation.

The Tempest, 11-19-05 at Theatre Unbound

Friday, December 2nd, 2005

A few years ago my husband G. Grod and I subscribed for two seasons to the most well-known local theater. We saw some good shows, but two seasons was enough for me. In the end, all the plays seemed the same; the creative director had homogenized them to the point of blandness. This put me off theater for quite some time. Recently, though, I was seized with an urge for Shakespeare. With a baby due in less than three months, I will not soon have three hour chunks of time to do with as I wish. I was lucky in that I could choose between an all-male production of Measure for Measure at the aforementioned theater, or an all-female production of The Tempest at Theatre Unbound. The latter seemed an obvious choice.

The program for the production noted something else obvious, though it hadn’t occurred to me. Even though theater no longer insists that all its players be male, the number of roles for women is still quite small. Staging an all-female production gives more women the opportunity to play more Shakespeare.

The room was small, and the staging consisted only of a small number of props and some versatile drapes. This was a wise choice, as it let the audience focus on both the play itself and its gender-bending production. It was also a brave one, since The Tempest is a play with so many supernatural elements that it would be easy to justify an extravagant staging.

As with many productions some performances were forgettable, while others were striking. Caliban was played with such ferocious intensity that s/he was painful to watch, while Ariel was played with such humor and physical grace that s/he drew all eyes when on stage. The performance that most made me think, though, was that of Prospero. The actor was skilled, but her manly suit could not mask a motherly mien. To have the meddling father of Prospero embodied in a mother’s physique made me realize that the meddling is creepy no matter which parent is doing it.

Another upside to seeing The Tempest is that it is a short play. It is not one that is usually edited, so that when you see the production you are usually seeing the entire text enacted. I re-read the play for the performance, which was #88 in my book challenge for the year. A good and learned friend recommended the individual Arden editions to me years ago; they have since been my volumes of choice. My husband G. Grod prefers his Penguin omnibus, but I like one play at a time, even with scads of footnotes to a page, even when those footnotes are politely vague:

Act IV, Scene I, line 236. Now is the jerkin under the line…Malone records a suggestion that the jest is less decent than any of these conjectures.

My favorite line from the play has never been a famous one. It is spoken by the drunk:

I am not Stephano, but a cramp. (Act V, Scene I, line 286)

It was a particularly apt one, since the next morning my uterus decided to express outrage over who knows what, and began a series of painful but ultimately non-harmful cramps that landed me in the hospital on monitors for five hours. I’ve been resting and hydrating since, and all cramps have abated. Like the characters in The Tempest, I seem to have weathered this particular storm.

The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns

Wednesday, November 23rd, 2005

#87 in my book challenge for the year, The Skin Chairs by Barbara Comyns was lent to me by my friend Becca. It is told by 10 year old Frances, whose family falls upon hard times and must struggle to adjust. It is a novel of childhood, of pre-WWII England, and both a horror novel in some of the details it relates, as well as a romance for its happy ending. It is well-written, and the child’s voice is compelling, but I found the creepiness and the happy ending were strange bedfellows.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

Monday, November 14th, 2005

#86 in my book challenge for the year was I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, who is better known as the author of 101 Dalmations. This book was lent me by my friend Becca, who says she read it when young and re-reads it regularly. I was sad when I finished the book that it’s taken me so long to read it for the first time. I envy Becca her long history with it, because it’s a sweet, restorative book. It is narrated by Cassandra Mortmain, the daughter of a one-shot-wonder author father. Their family rents a crumbling castle in not-very-genteel poverty. Their lives and fortunes change when the castle is left to a wealthy American. The book is by turns amusing and sad, and Cassandra’s coming of age is both believable and inevitable. I was surprised by how satisfying I found the ending. As the book led up to it, I couldn’t see how the author was going to pull it off, but she did. This is a wonderful book, short of some cliches along class and country issues, and especially good if you’re feeling in need of something cheering.

All Rivers Flow to the Sea by Alison McGhee

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2005

#85 in my book challenge for the year, All Rivers Flow to the Sea has all the trademarks of McGhee’s impressive collection of novels. It is sad and beautifully written. It focuses on new characters in her fictional town of Sterns, NY, but includes characters from former novels as well. This is a young adult novel whose main character, Rose Latham, struggles with grief as her sister languishes in a coma. Rose’s flawed coping behaviors, as well as the persistent people around her, are sharply touching and real. As with all of McGhee’s books, her characters continued to hang out in my mind after I finished the book, and I’m so glad to have them. They are wonderful company. I saw McGhee at the Twin Cities book fest recently, and she described her original three novels, Rainlight, Shadow Baby and Was It Beautiful?, as “saddest, sad, and sadder.” I’m not sure where she would place All Rivers Flow to the Sea on that continuum, but I think it falls into sadder, while her middle-grade novel Snap was sad. Someone asked which book she recommended reading to start. She said Shadow Baby, since it was not only an audience pleaser, but less sad than some of the others. I say, read them in order. Start with Rainlight, which is the saddest, but still my favorite. They’re all of a piece, and they’re all wonderful.

Mothers and Other Monsters by Maureen McHugh

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2005

#84 in my book challenge for the year, Mothers and Other Monsters was recommended at Blog of a Bookslut. It is a collection of speculative short fiction by McHugh, a much-awarded speculative fiction writer who has formerly published novels. There are stories about Alzheimer’s, ghosts, parents and children, other worlds, and werewolves. What is most impressive about this collection is its strong writing across a huge variety of settings and topics. I usually prefer novels to short stories, but this collection kept me engaged, and better yet, it made me think.

The collection included excerpts from two of McHugh’s novels, Mission Child and Nekropolis, the former of which I’ve read. I liked but didn’t love it when I did; I remember it as distant and chilly–not emotionally engaged. Reading the segment, here, though, made me want to revisit it. I wasn’t as drawn in by the segment from Nekropolis, a more recent novel that got many impressive reviews.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

Tuesday, November 1st, 2005

#83 in my book challenge for the year, Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is a Great Novel, if such a thing exists (see last entry.) It certainly is one of the best novels I’ve read, at least this year, if not ever. Robinson has written only one other novel, Housekeeping, though she has written other books. Many wondered if Housekeeping would be the only novel by Robinson, since there was a gap of more than twenty years between them. A writing instructor of mine told the story of the publishing editor who stood in the doorway of a colleague’s office. “Guess what I’m holding?” the editor asked, reverently. “Marilynne Robinson’s second novel.” Gilead is a series of letters written from an older (seventy-ish) father to his young (seven-ish) son, meant to be read when the son is older. I can’t conjure enough adjectives to do this book justice. Lovely, timeless, seamless, touching. That the letter conceit works, in addition to telling history, new story and characterization, is a stunning feat of writing. I am accustomed to reading at a fast clip. This book defies quick reading. It is rich, complex prose to be savored. Housekeeping made the Time best-of list I wrote about yesterday. Gilead belongs on that list, too.