Thursday, December 30, 2010

Beth's Best Reads of 2010

And now for my most anticipated post of the entire year - a look back on the ten best reads of 2010! I love lists and I love ranking books against each other, so it's always fun and frustrating in equal measure to come up with a list of favorite reads. You've probably predicted a good chunk of these, but hopefully there's a few you forgot I even read. Hopefully, something on this list might find its way on your to-read list for 2011.

Here's the rules. The books can be any age, but I had to read them for the first time in the calendar year of 2010. No re-reads allowed. The books are listed in a countdown fashion, so my favorite read is at the bottom of the list at #1. I'm also attaching my original review for each book. Not all of these books are classics or even particularly outstanding, but they all entertained the hell out me in a year when I really needed entertainment. Enjoy!

10. 20th Century Ghosts, by Joe Hill: This short story collection by Hill (Stephen King's son) features some of the most moving stories I've ever read. Some are strictly horror tales, but several others were simply stories about humans being human. "Bobby Conroy Comes Back from the Dead" is a fantastic spin on the zombie tale, where everyone is a living person but finding themselves surprised by their own resurrections. It's a classic tale of regret and redemption. Meanwhile, the story "Pop Art" made me cry my little heart out in its final pages. A moving and beautiful piece on childhood friendship, it surprised me in its surefootedness and emotional complexity. Seriously, if you only read one short story in the next year, make it "Pop Art." It's totally worth every second.

9. Lord of Scoundrels, by Loretta Chase: This was the year I discovered a profound love for historical romance. The sole originator of that love was this book. Considered one of the classics of the genre, it did not disappoint. I'm not sure what makes this book so great, but much of its success definitely lies in Chase's writing, which is witty and charming. Dain and Jessica make an intriguing couple, and the way the book creates such a neat narrative circle in the end made the form nerd in me very happy. This was perhaps the single most entertaining book I read all year.

8. Alcools: Poems 1989-1913, by Guillame Apollinaire (Translated by Frances Steegmuller): The World War I-era French poet Apollinaire has been one of my favorite poets for a few years now, but it wasn't until this June that I got around to reading one his most famous collections. Alcools is compulsively readable, a rare thing for a poetry book. Once I started it, I couldn't stop. Everything here is so strange and beautiful and modern.

7. American Gods, by Neil Gaiman: Gaiman's most famous novel for adults is on this list simply for introducing one of my favorite characters not only of 2010 but of all time: Shadow. Shadow is maybe one of the most perfect creations I've ever come across in literature: a badass who's loyal to a fault, a good guy who can't stay out of trouble. He's amazingly complex, and the scenes where he hangs out in the mysterious town of Lakeside, Wisconsin, are among the coolest passages I've ever read. As a bonus, American Gods became my non-reading brother's favorite book when he read it this summer. He's even talking about re-reading it. Yay!

6. The Hunger Games trilogy, by Suzanne Collins: A three-for-one deal made up of The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay, this young adult trilogy was one of the most flat-out entertaining reads I've ever encountered. I was sucked in from the very beginning. The tale of Katniss Everdeen, a teenager in a ruined, post-war state of government, is violent and extremely bittersweet. The final book featured some of the most pessimistic passages I can remember in contemporary literature. Yet, it's honest and terrible and a truly original reading experience. Awesome.

5. Galveston, by Nic Pizzolatto: Without a doubt, this debut novel by a former DePauw professor featured the best sense of place I encountered all year. The story of a convict and the young woman who travels with him in hiding, it's Southern noir in all its glory. The characterizations are good, the plot is strong, and the writing is incredible. Some of the best descriptions of setting I have ever had the joy of reading.

4. Harmonium, by Wallace Stevens: I spent years hating on Wallace Stevens. He's considered one of the greatest American poets of all time, but I always found him too weird. Well, that's changed. The man is a fucking genius, bar none. His inventiveness with language is playful and profound at the same time. He's a poet that's actually fun to read, and I loved this collection - his first - more than any other book of poetry I read all year.

3. Resurrection, by Leo Tolstoy (Translated by Rosemary Edmonds): Tolstoy is second only to Fitzgerald on my list of favorite writers. He just blows me away every time. This novel isn't one of his most famous, and it definitely has some major flaws, but you can't argue with the way he sets up scenes and cathartic moments. He's a master of quiet devastation, even in the middle of his longest epics. This book, despite all its queasy philosophical inquiries, was a wonderful, wonderful read.

2. Good Omens, by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman: I love love love this book! It was one of my first reads of 2010, and it set the tone for the entire year. It's funny and witty and has some of my favorite characters of 2010, particularly in the love-hating friends Aziraphale (a pretentious angel) and Crowley (a too-charming demon). This book is such a perfect blend of Pratchett's bizarre humor and Gaiman's obsession with mythology that it had to be a winner. Seriously. I could read this book once or twice a year and probably never get sick of it.

1. The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak: It shouldn't surprise any of you that this teen novel takes the lead prize. It's a tearjerker, but it manages to make you cry without being overtly sentimental or treacly. It earns its emotions through its puzzling narrative and strong characters. The figure of Death makes a wonderful narrator, and Zusak uses some fantastic foreshadowing to move his story along. All the main characters have a grace that's admirable and honest. The tale of a girl coming of age in Nazi Germany, it's a book about holding onto humanity in the face of evil, as well as an exploration of the power of language and writing. If you can make it through the end without bawling like a baby, you might not be human. This book is a major accomplishment, and I am so very happy to make it my #1 read of 2010.

Honorable Mentions: Packing for Mars, by Mary Roach; Beyond Heaving Bosoms, by Sarah Wendell and Candy Tan; The Help, by Katherine Stockett

Well, I hope you all enjoyed this list. What were your personal favorite reads of the year?

Monday, December 27, 2010

Tolstoy, You Magnificent Bastard!

Book Reviewed: Resurrection, by Leo Tolstoy. Translated by Rosemary Edmonds

Well, it's official. I'm a Tolstoy fanatic. Russian lit fans tend to be either Tolstoy people or Dostoevsky people (as Elif Batuman argues in her essay collection, The Possessed). By all rights, I should be a Dostoevsky girl. He's funnier, his views are more in line with my own, and he comes from a darker, more interesting point of view. But I'm not a Dostoevsky person. I am a full-blown Tolstoy-ite.

Tolstoy's writing (as filtered through his translators) never fails to blow me away. His fictional world is extremely detailed; Tolstoy never leaves anything out of his descriptions. Characters are fully-realized and capable of great kindness and utter terribleness in equal amounts. When I'm reading a Tolstoy novel, I don't need any stimulation whatsoever from the outside world. I already have everything I could possibly want in front of me. Even during the dullest passages, there is something to admire.

When I picked up Resurrection as my last read for 2010, I wasn't sure what to expect. War and Peace is one of my favorite books ever, but I had a tough time getting through Anna Karenina last summer. I struggle with Tolstoy's philosophies and themes; I disagree with them more often than not. I have to admit: Tolstoy is not an easy writer to get along with.

Resurrection, which was Tolstoy's last novel, is tailored to explore his ideas on religon and society. He's not afraid to point out everything that is wrong with the entire Russian judicial system (or the any judicial system at all, really) or to call the Orthodox church hypocritical or blaming the wealthy for being blind to the country's problems. He's obviously angry about what he sees around him, and he puts it all in this book. The book begins with the murder trial of a prostitute named Maslova (also called Katusha). One of the jurors, Prince Nekhlyudov, recognizes her as a girl he ruined as a young man. Nekhlyudov realizes he's the reason Maslova's life has turned out so badly, so he boldly decides he must join himself to her fate. When she's sentenced to several years of hard labor in Siberia, he decides he not only has to follow her out there, he must marry her as well. In the meantime, he gets caught up in helping other prisoners, realizes owning land is wrong, and loses touch with his fellow landed gentry.

By the end of the book, Nekhlyudov has become a completely different person, a more aware person. Hence, the novel's title. I don't want to give away anything, but things don't turn out exactly as he planned. However, he still comes to the conclusion that giving up his comfy lifestyle is the only way to live an honest and redemptive life. By the end, Tolstoy also brings in the theme of forgiveness, as Maslova comes to her own ideas about what Nekhlyudov has done. In the end, Tolstoy argues, only God can make any real judgments on us. It's an unoriginal theme that comes off very nicely in the final scene between Maslova and Nekhlyudov, a scene that reminded me how good Tolstoy is at creating cathartic moments.

The book's preachiness bothered me, particularly in the last ten pages, which were a bit of a drag (I had very similar feelings about War and Peace, too). However, that didn't keep me from absolutely loving this book. Seriously, it's one of the best reading experiences I've had in quite awhile. It's all because of how well Tolstoy paints scenes. The smallest moments have a grace to them that most authors of such high-minded material can never muster.

Whatever is wrong with Tolstoy as a writer, you cannot argue that he doesn't write some of the best domestic scenes in all of literature. I love the quietness, the longing that goes into these kind of scenes. In the first part of the book, after Nekhlyudov recognizes Maslova at her trial, we are taken to their youth together, when they really were in love with each other. The way Tolstoy writes these scenes took my breath away. In the midst of a very tragic and profound story, we get the description of a ribbon in Maslova's hair, a chaste kiss exchanged before Nekhyudov destroyed everything. It adds to the power of the book, and it makes the characters worth your time and energy.

I really did enjoy the way Tolstoy unfolded his two leads. Even though his views on gender roles are pretty blah, Tolstoy does give a kind of inner life to his female characters that you really don't see in Dostoevsky. Maslova is tough and hard when around Nekhlyudov, but in moments by herself or with her cellmates, you see she's vulnerable and trying hard to deal with what she's been given. Nekhlyudov is a slightly harder nut to crack, but I still found him fascinating. As a young man, he's adventurous and politically liberal, basically something of a budding revolutionist. As he gets older, he becomes a complete snob, taking what he wants only because of his title. His transformation into a kind of saintly figure never felt completely real to me. Towards the end of the book, on his way to Siberia, Nekhlyudov finds himself having dinner with some fellow gentry, and he's so at home there that you can't imagine he's going to make it anywhere else. He's now a man caught forever between two worlds, and I think it's awesome that Tolstoy allowed this kind of shade of gray in a character meant to represent so many of his own philosophies.

In a couple days, I'll be posting the list of my favorite books I read this year. Resurrection will most definitely be on this list. I had such a great time reading and digesting it. If you think you're one of those people who doesn't have time for Tolstoy, think again. This book is shorter than his most famous novels, and it packs quite a punch. Tolstoy blows me away every time. Hopefully, he might do the same for you one day.

Friday, December 24, 2010

Merry Christmas!

I hope you all have a wonderful Christmas!

Next week, I'll be wrapping up 2010 with a review for Tolstoy's Resurrection, my annual top ten list, and some other fun end-of-the-year stuff. See you then!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Poem of the Week: "A Visit from St. Nicholas," by Clement Clarke Moore

This week's poem should be familiar to you all, seeing as it's one of the most well-known poems in the world. I think it's fun to see the poem in it's entirety, so in honor of Christmas, I thought I'd give you all a chance to reconsider it. Also, note that it's title is NOT "'Twas the Night Before Christmas." Enjoy!

A Visit from St. Nicholas, by Clement Clarke Moore

Note: Due to a wedding I'll be attending next Sunday, there will be no Poem of the Week posted. Sorry.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Jane Austen's Birthday: A Guest Post from Amy

Today is the birthday of Jane Austen, one of the most famous writers of the English language. To celebrate, I asked my good friend and fellow blogger Amy, an Austen fanatic, to write something about the author. I hope you enjoy Amy's musings on Jane!

235 years ago today, Jane Austen was born in Hampshire, England. It was there that she grew up reading, writing little plays and stories for her family, and honing the all-observing eye and wit for which she has been remembered these past centuries. Whether you personally enjoy Austen’s writings or not, the continued presence of her oeuvre on bookshelves worldwide, in academia, and in practically every corner of popular culture speaks to the virtues of the lady who should, by all standards of her time, have been insignificant and not worthy of any special notice.

Happy am I that she wrote, though, and that she was significant. And that we still read.

You see, the beauty of Austen’s novels lies in their total reality. True, barouches and assembly room balls and entailed estates are no longer really part of the common experience. But what about friendship? What about negotiating your place in the family unit, or in the neighborhood? What about working through conflicts between what you want and what is expected of you? What about the struggle of wanting to be an adult, and sometimes mis-stepping? What about having faith in yourself?

All of Austen’s characters experience at least one of these things, and for good reason—they are universal themes. We all experience them at some point. We all struggle to be kind to that one person who completely grates on our nerves. We all secretly want to smack upside the head that person who only thinly veils their boasts. And we all do boast, sometimes even when we know we shouldn’t. We all do all of the things that Austen’s characters do, and we encounter the same people (do you know a Miss Bates? a Mr. Collins? a Mrs. Bertram?). Sure, the mechanics of daily life have changed since the Regency period. But what we experience and feel as humans? That has remained remarkably constant.

My point, I suppose, is that reading Jane Austen is like peering through a window into our own lives, albeit dressed up with some finery and the sort of language we’d be so lucky to encounter. When all the waistcoats and muslins are stripped away (metaphorically, of course!), the stories have just as much place in the modern day as they did in the Austen’s time—Clueless, Bride and Prejudice, and the recently-published book The Cookbook Collector are all proof. The strength is in the story, in the wry observations of how people act, of what is in their nature.

It is in my nature to read Austen, and I hope that, in honor of her birthday, you’ll read something of hers as well. Two hundred-years’ worth of readers recommend it.

I want to close by attempting to answer a question posed to me at the library earlier this week: what do you think Jane Austen would have thought about the fact that people still read and discuss her novels so passionately?

I think, publically, Austen would have been properly embarrassed by all of the praise and attention.

In private, though? I think she would have laughed, turned to her sister, and very astutely characterized us all: “I am sure that they all fancy themselves an Elizabeth Bennet or an Anne Elliot, a Darcy or a Wentworth. If only they could see themselves as I see them, as they really are! But, if all human creatures were so handsome and well-principled, I would never have had anything to write about in the first place.”

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Poem of the Week: "Winter Trees," by William Carlos Williams

This week's poem is short and sweet, inspired by the tons of snow coming down up here in northern Indiana. I think this poem has a quiet little loveliness to it, and I hope you enjoy it.

Winter Trees, by William Carlos Williams

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Getting Deeper into Zusak

Books Reviewed: Fighting Ruben Wolfe AND Getting the Girl, by Markus Zusak

In a few short weeks here, I'll be posting the list of my favorite books I read this year. There, you will most definitely be seeing Markus Zusak's The Book Thief, the only book to make me sob like a baby since last July (when I read Gilead). Before his famous book about Nazis and death and the power of language (and a million other things), Zusak wrote three other teen novels that gave him a good name, albeit one that wasn't exactly a known. His first two books, Fighting Ruben Wolfe and Getting the Girl, are about the Wolfe brothers in Australia. Cameron Wolfe, the younger brother, narrates both stories, often focusing on his relationship with his family, and in particular, his older brother Ruben, with whom he is very close.

It's always hard to read the early work of a writer with whom you've had a torrid and hot affair with over one great book. Nothing from the younger and usually less mature years is going to come close to the awesomeness you remember with longing. I'm already nostalgic for The Book Thief and I only read it six months ago. Therefore, it didn't surprise me that Fighting Ruben Wolfe and Getting the Girl left me feeling a little disappointed.

They aren't bad books by any means; they just don't have the grace and power of The Book Thief. However, combined they do take about a third of the reading time as that book. In the first book, Fighting Ruben Wolfe, Cameron Wolfe describes the troubles of his family. His father is unemployed and depressed; his saintly mother works too hard; his sister Sarah is troubled and parties too much; his oldest brother Steve is successful and doesn't accept his family's problems. Cameron and Ruben, the brother to whom Cameron is basically attached, have somewhat embraced this "wrong side of the tracks" attitude, even though it's pretty defeatist. Cameron is sensitive and observant, Ruben charming and overly tough. They share everything, so when Ruben is invited to join an underground boxing ring, Cameron comes along, too. Fighting gives Ruben a purpose, but Cameron doesn't like seeing the way his brother has changed as a result. The book's last fifty pages are pretty predictable, with the brothers forced to fight each other, but Zusak handles it very well. That single fight scene, while a little overwrought at times, manages to be the best one in the book.

Zusak is a master of the big, important final thirty pages. He repeats this skill again in Getting the Girl. The book centers more on Cameron this time around, as he starts a sweet relationship with one of Ruben's ex-girlfriends. Cameron begins to become less of a loner and develops more self-confidence through this new relationship, and it colors his relationship with his family members. I actually enjoyed seeing the way the other Wolfes developed between Fighting Ruben Wolfe and this book. Their father is once again working, so the family in general is much happier. However, we see the way the relationships between Cameron and each of his siblings affect his life. Sarah helps to empower him, but Ruben works his best to bring Cameron down once he finds out about his ex dating his brother. In my favorite plot development, we get to see Cameron interact with his overly-ambitious brother Steve. The way Zusak plays out the story between Cameron and Steve works out wonderfully, managing to be ugly or beautiful in all the right places. It was a nice touch and added something more to the struggle between Ruben and Cameron. As I mentioned above, Zusak pulls this book's disparate storylines all together in the last thirty pages, where we see the power of familial love and personal strength in a horrible situation involving Ruben and Cameron.

Overall, neither of these books quite lived up to the greatness that was The Book Thief. Zusak's writing isn't as strong here, and the traps he managed to avoid by having the figure of Death as the narrator in The Book Thief fall wide open under the narration of Cameron in these two novels. The observations can be really unsubtle in certain moments, and the writing can swing between being too bare and being too precious. Plus, I have a hard time with lovesick narrators, and Cameron could really get on my nerves at times. I'm not sure which book I liked best of the two. Fighting Ruben Wolfe wasn't written as well, but it had a much more propulsive story. However, the moments between the Wolfe siblings in Getting the Girl really gave that book a power that Fighting didn't have. Overall, as teen novels, I'd recommend these books as a nice antidote to the Twilight-heavy world of the genre. But if you're going to read one Zusak book in your life, read The Book Thief. Don't even bother with these two.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Anne Carson: Still Awesome

Book Reviewed: Glass, Irony, and God, by Anne Carson

My first taste of Anne Carson came in a British Lit class. Carson is actually Canadian, but we were reading writers of the colonies, so she counted. Plus, my professor admitted he had a soft spot for Carson, which is just another reason why he's one of my favorite people. He had us read a brief section of the long poem that "made" Carson, "The Glass Essay." I remember liking it, but it took a couple more years for me to become a real Anne Carson addict.

Anyway, I finally got around to reading the whole "Glass Essay" in one of Carson's most important books, Glass, Irony, and God. It featurs several long, intricate poems and one academic essay. The essay, which ends the book, is titled "The Gender of Sound," and it got the feminist-y side of me all riled up. It's easy to see why Carson is such a respected classicist. Her work here, about the history of views towards women's voices and sounds, is fascinating and not at all stuffy. It made me miss reading this kind of stuff in college, actually.

Her poems aren't too shabby either. My least favorite was "The Truth About God," which felt sort of rambling and overbearing. Carson walks a fine line between her work being affective and being too preoccupied with abstract concepts without presenting interesting imagery to back it up. This is one of the latter, I'm sorry to say. The same goes for "Book of Isaiah." "The Fall of Rome," about feeling like a stranger in the city, has some lovely moments, particularly in its first half, but just didn't grab me.

In my favorite Carson book, Men in the Off Hours, she presents a set of poems called "TV Men," wherein famous figures (usually from classical mythology or history) are presented from the point of view of cameras and television production. They are complicated, bizarre pieces, not for the light of heart. But when they work, they are some of my favorite things to read. Carson has a couple of "TV Men" poems here, and the one featuring Hektor entertained the hell out of me. I seriously think I could spend hours at a time reading these "TV Men" poems.

The best poem, though, was the first one in the collection, the famous "Glass Essay." This essay-poem is complex and interesting, bringing together a lot of Carson's pet subjects in a smart and emotionally-satisfying way. The poem is about the painful end of a relationship for the writer, but it's also about her parents getting old. Carson looks at her life as a woman in contemporary society through the experience of reading and loving Emily Brontë. My favorite thing about Anne Carson is the way she writes about the experience of reading or admiring good writing. She understands that what we read colors our views of the world, and she's always playing with the dynamic of real life versus literary life. I adored "The Glass Essay" because of this exploration, and I could identify strongly with what she was saying. Seriously, this poem might be one of my favorite things I've read all year.

Usually, I would never recommend Anne Carson to a fellow reader because her stuff often comes off as too intellectually precious and self-indulgent. But "The Glass Essay" is easy to read and understand. Also, it's equally satisfying to the mind and the heart. If you are a Carson novice, or if she makes you nervous, you should check out "The Glass Essay."

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Poem of the Week: "The Guardian," by Joseph Mills

Although a good long cry at the end of a great, deserving book can be a cathartic and wonderful experience for me, I don't like getting teary-eyed over poems. Poems can be emotionally devastating or so beautiful they physically make you hurt, but they can't pull of the kind of sentiment that novels or memoirs allow. I like poems that are as intellectually satisfying as they are emotionally satisfying. This poem is the exception. When I ran across it at the Writer's Almanac site, I was surprised to find myself getting worked up at the end. It's such a sad poem and for anyone whose ever seen a situation like this, it really hits close to home. I wish it were a little more stimulating and that the language was a little deeper, but I can't argue with the sentiment here. Enjoy!

The Guardian, by Joseph Mills

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

This Week in Trashy Reads #16

Trashy Read #16: The Best Mistake, by Nora Roberts

Inspired by the Nora Roberts read from last week, I picked up this super-short book to pass some time. Mostly, I just wanted to read something quick late at night while most of the lights were off so I could enjoy the Christmas lights framing my F. Scott Fitzgerald poster.

This is one of Roberts's books from her old days as a series/category romance writer for Harlequin. It definitely reads as such. (For those of you who don't know what a series romance is, all you need to do is go to your local Wal-Mart or grocery store and look at the thin paperbacks with overly-smiley couples on the front. They are published monthly and cost very little; they're the Oreos of the romance world.) A single mom, Zoe (Roberts loves her single moms) takes on an upstairs tenant in her house named Cooper, a local sports writer. Cooper eventually falls for both Zoe and her cute son Keenan. Both worry they are making a mistake but end up engaged by the end.

I don't have much to say about this book, honestly. The characters were pretty underdeveloped, and I missed the friendships with secondary characters that Roberts's longer books always contain. Reading this book was the equivalent of eating whipped cream, but I'm not going to complain. The book literally took me an hour and ten minutes to read, and it was fairly adorable. As usual, Roberts delivers on the warm and fuzzies.

Next in Trashy Reads: Who knows? I have an old Judith McNaught historical sitting on my desk. It's apparently one of the much-loved classics of the genre. I've also been jonesing to reread Lord of Scoundrels. I have no idea what book will pick me next.