January 16th, 2009

Reading List 2009 (10/10)

The advantage of vacation early in the year: one gets well ahead on one’s reading.

The Hobbit, J. R. R. Tolkien
The Fellowship of the Ring, J. R. R. Tolkien
The Two Towers, J. R. R. Tolkien
The Return of the King, J. R. R. Tolkien
The Silmarillion, J. R. R. Tolkien
Touchstone, Laurie R. King
Darker than Midnight, Maggie Shayne
Ritual, William Heffernan
Pandora’s Daughter, Iris Johansen
No One Heard Her Scream, Jordan Dane

As always, I began the New Year (and celebrated my birthday!) by re-reading Lord of the Rings. Every year I find something new in it; this year I spent a lot of time on the poetry, as a way of understanding the world’s disenchantment and re-enchantment. (Why yes, I do have a friend writing his dissertation on that topic. Why do you ask?)

I finished a bit quicker than usual, because I was on vacation and spent most afternoons on the beach with a book. Hard to complain, right? But I realized I would have to conserve the remaining books I’d brought with me if I wanted to make it to the end of vacation without going a bit stir-crazy. Fortunately the hotel had some English books I could borrow, but they were all fairly ridiculous thrillers. The Heffernan had the advantage of being partly set at Chichen Itza, where we’d just visited the day before, and partly set at the American Museum of Natural History where the boy volunteers - but really I wouldn’t read any of them again except under duress. Especially the Johansen. I’ve read a few of her stand-alone books and they’re pretty universally terrible, not to mention embarrassingly formulaic. Somehow in the back of my head I think they’ll be up to the level of her Eve Duncan series (which is, let me tell you, not a particularly high bar to set) but they never are.

The one bright spot - and I knew it would be one - was Touchstone. I love King’s work in general and yes, I do have a massive crush on her portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. This stand-alone thriller, though, focuses on labor-union skulduggery in 1920s Britain. King does a wonderful job evoking the feel of the period, and she’s equally convincing when writing about striking miners and about aristocratic country week-ends. She manages to avoid the worst cliches of both genre and period while doing it, too! It’s really easy to fall into faux-Christie, say, but she keeps her own voice. Not that the novel was perfect: the Big Twist was something I’d figured out in the first chapter, and it’s likely that most careful readers could do the same. Still, overall I’d recommend the book to anyone who likes a good thriller, even if you aren’t already a fan of King’s.

The second half of my reading to date gets its own post, but that may have to wait until after Shabbat. Shabbat shalom, everyone! Happy 2009!

Reading List 2009 (12/22)

And the rest of my 2009 reading so far! Notice I’m well ahead of a book a day - by more than 25%, for the curious - but I doubt this will last past January. As the semester gets underway, I’ll have less opportunity to read fiction, and non-fiction always slows me down.

Sense and Sensibility, Jane Austen
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
Mansfield Park, Jane Austen
Emma, Jane Austen
Northanger Abbey, Jane Austen
Persuasion, Jane Austen
Lady Susan, Jane Austen
Hold Tight, Harlan Coben
I Remember the Future, Michael A. Burstein
Space Magic, David D. Levine
The Vintner’s Luck, Elizabeth Knox
The Bottom Billion, Paul Collier

Why yes, I do really enjoy Austen. Do we need to fight about that?

The theme of this week’s reading, though, was “Holy shit, why have I never heard of this amazing book before?” Specifically: Levine, Knox, Collier. I cannot say enough good things about any of them, and trying would make this post unreadably long - so we’ll stick with the more-or-less facts.

I picked up the Burstein book because I’d heard it had a lot of stories about time travel, which it in fact did. (Did I mention I love time travel?) But I found the stories largely uninspiring. They were good and some of them were clever, but none of them left me delighted. The concepts were all excellent, but the execution just didn’t push my buttons. Then a friend said, “Why don’t you try David Levine?” So I did, and went, “Right! Yes! Terrific! This is what I wanted!” There are a few duds in the collection (”Fear of Widths”) but the stories are largely tight, well-conceived, and well-written. I particularly appreciated how he smoothly moved back and forth between science fiction, fantasy, urban fantasy and alternate history. “Tk’Tk’Tk” is the award-winner here, but my personal favorite was “Love in the Balance.” While it wasn’t the best story in the collection, I was completely enchanted with the world the story implied, and I’d read just about anything Levine chose to set in that universe.

Knox tells the story of a man’s lifelong friendship with an angel, who visits him one fateful night in his vineyard in 1808. The book’s structure moves year by year through Sobran’s life, sharing incidents and vignettes that shape him and define his relationship to Xas, the angel. (Though I also loved the introduction of Aurora, the local baroness, who is delightfully practical about the whole angel thing.) The language is gorgeous yet simple, the characters well-developed and the supernatural elements original (and wonderfully done!). Really, this book was a delight from beginning to end, assuming you don’t mind a little tragedy in your romance and vice versa. I almost dismissed it as an Oprah’s-book-list-wannabe, but this little gem is something much richer, deeper and stranger. Highly recommended.

Finally, Collier’s book left me walking around the house going, “Oh my god! Capital flows of domestic investment! Wage gaps! Devaluation of local currency! Yes!” He tackles the problem of the “bottom billion,” as one might guess from the title - the billion people living in seriously troubled countries that are failing to grow. I’m totally impressed with his empirical research, and even more so with his ability to make complex economic concepts clear - and to explain why they matter, profoundly, for our policies toward failing states. If you read one non-fiction book this year, make it this one.

And now, Shabbat Shalom for real!