Thursday, December 29, 2011

Beth's Best Reads of 2011

By now, you all know the drill on this one.  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 2011. 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.

2011 was a great reading year, mainly because my friends and family members were suggestion superstars this year, constantly tossing great books my way.  The pickings this year were so good that I expanded my usual list of 10 books to 15 this year. Of course, all these good books made it extra hard to decide what should top the list.  It was especially hard to decide a winner between my top 2 books, but one of them emerged the victor nevertheless.  I hope you enjoy this list, and please be sure to tell me what your favorite reads were this year!

15.  A Month in the Country, by J.L. Carr.  My biggest weakness in fiction is for brief, poetic novels, and A Month in the Country is the perfect example of this type of book.  Carr tells the story of a physically, morally, and emotionally wounded World War I veteran in just a hundred and some pages, but it feels like the stuff of an epic.  What makes this novel so wonderful is the amount of things that go unsaid.  It's what the narrator doesn't tell us that is most devastating, making this one of the loneliest books I've ever read. 

14.  Silk Is for Seduction, by Loretta Chase.  Laugh all you want.  Just as I was losing faith in the historical romance, Loretta Chase's new book swooped in and saved the day this summer.  Marcelline is without a doubt my favorite in a long line of awesome Chase heroines, and her romance with Clevedon is organic and well-deserved.  This is just the first book in a new series by Chase, and if the others are half as good as this one, I will be a very happy Beth. 

13.  I Am the Messenger, by Markus Zusak.  I've made it no secret on this blog that I'm a huge Zusak fan.  His most famous novel, The Book Thief, topped this list last year.  I Am the Messenger is a deceptively simple story about a young man looking to make his life better.  The plot is implausible, but that doesn't matter.  Because this young adult novel is all about what it means to find the courage to change your life.  The narrator, Ed Kennedy, and his friends and family aren't always great people, but that doesn't mean they don't deserve the chance for forgiveness or love in their lives.  I love how non-cynical Markus Zusak is, and I think his streak of humanity is what makes his books so memorable. 

12.  The Family Fang, by Kevin Wilson.  As an unflinching look at the mistakes parents can make in raising their children, The Family Fang can feel a little heavy at times.  Luckily, Wilson finds the humor and warmth in his two protagonists, the screwed-up siblings Annie and Buster Fang.  This novel can make you laugh and wince at the same time, which is no small feat. 

11.  Stranger Things Happen, by Kelly Link.  This book made the list simply for the fact that it contained my two favorite short stories I read this year: "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" and "Louise's Ghost."  The former is a series of love letters from beyond the grave and the second is an extremely bizarre examination of friendship and jealousy.  I think Link is one of the best short story writers out there, and I really wish she'd hurry up and publish a new book. 

10.  The River King, by Alice Hoffman.  If Neil Gaiman was the de facto master of my 2010 list, then Alice Hoffman has taken his place in 2011.  I went on a Hoffman rampage this summer (see No. 4 below), and even though this isn't her best work, I think it might just be her most evocative.  I've never read a book so deep in mood.  By the book's end, I felt as waterlogged as the drowned boy at the book's center.  Seriously, the pages began to smell like a mildewed dorm room while I was reading them.  Hoffman isn't afraid to go dark, and this book is a testament to her supernatural strengths as a straight-up storyteller. 

9.  A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan.  I was so impressed by the structure of this award-winning novel this summer that I was sure it would place higher on this list.  Unfortunately, it didn't stick with me on an emotional level the way a lot of the books on this list did.  But I still think Egan is crazy-talented, and the construction of Goon Squad blows me away just thinking about it.  The book has some really wonderful and moving chapters, even if it did feel overly clever as whole.  Egan shows just what narrative derring-do can accomplish in contemporary fiction.

8.  My Year of Flops: One Man's Journey Deep into the Heart of Cinematic Failure, by Nathan Rabin.  I've been reading Nathan Rabin's AV Club column on movies that bombed at the box office since my freshman year of college, so I knew I'd eventually pick up the book that came out of those columns.  But what I wasn't expecting was how rewarding an experience this hilarious collection would be.  The first movie Rabin tore apart was Elizabethtown (which just so happens to be one of my least favorite movies ever), and this essay appears at the beginning of the book.  Then, after years of writing his flops column, Rabin rewatched Elizabethtown and found that his life had changed so much for the better that he could no longer mock the film's heart.  The resulting essay from that experience is actually quite moving.  Never in my life did I think the snarky Rabin would make me cry, but he did. 

7.  Wuthering Heights, by Emily Brontë.  When I read this classic novel back in July, I never thought it would make this list.  I found the whole thing to be batshit crazy.  But you know what?  I haven't been able to stop thinking about Wuthering Heights since.  It features some of the least sympathetic characters of all time - crazypants Heathcliff, bitchy Catherine, annoyingly spineless Edgar Linton.  But the things that come out of these people's mouths ranks among some of the most beautiful sentences in literature, and the book certainly entertained the hell out of me.  Had anyone told me how nuts this book was, I never would have believed them.  I'm glad I finally found out for myself. 
6.  The Marvelous Bones of Time: Excavations and Explanations, by Brenda Coultas.  This strange little book - half poetry and half ghost stories - is unlike anything else I've encountered in recent poetry.  Coultas writes poems about Indiana and its surrounding states using the language of place and time, creating a kind of elegy for the abolition movement in her native Midwest.  The ghost stories in the second part of the book are creepy and elusive, hitting just the right nerves in their brief tellings.  Coultas lurks outside of the contemporary poetry scene, and this outsider perspective does wonders for her work, which is entirely her own. 

5.  A Short Autobiography, by F. Scott Fitzgerald (Edited by James L.W. West III).  Rumors of this book began way back in 2010, and I was literally counting down the days until it came out this summer.  Fitzgerald scholar James West put together Fitzgerald's most personal essays in chronological order, creating the first ever view of Fitzgerald's life as told from the author's own point of view.  This book seems tailor-made for a Fitzgerald fan, and I really appreciate its existence.  The essay "Author's House," a feigned interview between a fictional reporter and a one-time famous writer who is clearly Fitzgerald himself, is particularly heartbreaking and worth the price of admission alone. 

4.  The Red Garden, by Alice Hoffman.  This is one of those books that flies well below the critical radar, which I think is unfortunate.  Alice Hoffman might not be a future classic author, but she creates atmosphere in her books like no one else writing right now.  The Red Garden is immensely entertaining, an unfolding of characters and moments centered on the ficitonal town of Blackwell, Massachusetts.  This series of connected short stories features some really lovely scenes, ones that I've carried around with me since I read the book back in May.  If you're looking for a book that just tells a great story, this is the one for you. 

3.  Crush, by Richard Siken.  Yes, this book has been around since 2005.  But I didn't pick it up to read until this last February.  I should never have waited so long.  This is a truly great collection of poetry.  Violent, erotic, and energetic, the lines in Crush continually knocked me out while I was reading them.  Poems like "Litany in Which Certain Things Are Crossed Out" feel completely vital to not just contemporary poetry, but to the longer view of poetry as well.  Crush is the kind of book that really exemplifies what poetry is capable of doing. 

2.  The Moviegoer, by Walker Percy.  The second I finished Percy's 1961 novel, I knew it was making this list.  I really, really love this book.  Jack "Binx" Bolling is in the middle of a life crisis just before his 30th birthday.  Unhappy with his womanizing, his constant moviegoing, and his transitory ways, he's forced to reckon with his soul and his lifestyle.  The thing that sets this novel apart from other similar stories is its beautiful writing.  Some of Percy's sentences had my head spinning from their sheer perfection.  The Moviegoer is the kind of short, rich novel that deserves to be savored slowly. 

1.  The Anthologist, by Nicholson Baker.  This short, conversational novel just barely managed to beat out The Moviegoer as my favorite book I read this year.  It won based solely on what it meant to me personally.  Baker's story about Paul Chowder, a poet who agonizes over writing the introduction for an anthology of rhyming poems, is funny and sad in equal measure.  Baker gets into the head of a poet in a way I rarely encounter, and the things Chowder says about poetry are the kinds of arguments poets have been having for centuries.  But whether you're a poetry fan or not, this novel manages to be entertaining in its breezy and fast style.  I read The Anthologist at just the right time in my life, and it's become the best kind of book to read: the kind that becomes a friend.

This Week in Trashy Reads 2011 #8

Trashy Read 2011 #8: Unlocked, by Courtney Milan

It sounds silly to say, but the historical romance writer Courtney Milan was the biggest reason I decided it was finally time to look into getting an e-reader.  When her novella Unlocked came out in e-book form only a few months ago, it got great reviews.  I had to get my hands on this book, and if getting an e-reader meant finally having a chance to read stuff I couldn't get in paper form, than so be it.  I would get an e-reader.

So it's no surprise that Unlocked is one of the first books I bought for my Kindle (the fact that it only cost 99 cents helped as well).  It's a short, simple little story, but I appreciated how sweet it was.  I've mentioned before on this blog that I enjoy reading Nora Roberts because she always writes protagonists who are good people.  They remind me of the kind of people I'm attracted to in real life.  Unlocked works for the exact same reason.  There's not much of anything in the way of plot going on in this novella, and the actual character development is pretty weak because of the length.  But the hero and heroine are likable and you want good things for them, which goes a long way in my opinion.

Evan Carlton, the Earl of Westfield, returns home after years spent mountain climbing in the Alps.  Before he left England, he was in love with a girl named Elaine Warren.  Unfortunately, Elaine wasn't among the more popular members of the ton, so Evan found himself all too frequently making fun of her with his friends.  He made her life miserable.  So he comes back to make amends.  Elaine is suspicious of him, but she attempts to befriend him eventually.  Of course, she finds she loves him too.  They get a pretty speedy happily ever after.  I really liked the character of Elaine because she should have been a cliched wallflower but Milan never took her in that direction.  Sure, she's easily embarrassed and wary of social events, but she's still smart and funny and enjoys life.  She and Evan are so damn agreeable that you have to root for them.  Also, Evan does something for Elaine and her family about half-way through the book that made my heart jump a little.  I usually roll my eyes at the cheesy stuff in romance novels, but even I had to admit his act was incredibly sweet.

Overall, it's a nice if inconsequential little romance.  Milan is a fairly new writer, and she's won a crazy amount of fans since her 2010 debut.  I will most definitely be reading more of her in the future.  She's not quite as witty or fun as Loretta Chase, but if she keeps doing a Nora Roberts and creating warm, inviting little romances, I'll be a fan for sure. 

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Creepy But Slightly Overrated

Book Reviewed: Anna Dressed in Blood, by Kendare Blake

I got a Kindle from my parents for Christmas, and so far I love having it.  It's cheaper and easier for me to buy romances and new books, and my library has digital lending, which means I can now access library books on the go and carry them around in one place.  I will still be buying trade paperbacks and poetry in paper form, but the Kindle should do wonders for my reading habits, I think. 

This is all background to the fact that the first book I bought for my Kindle was a teen paranormal romance.  Kendare Blake's Anna Dressed in Blood made NPR's best-of-2011 young adult books list, and the book's description sounded right up my geeky alley.  Cas Lowood, a teenage ghost hunter, goes to Thunder Bay, Ontario, in pursuit of an infamous ghost with the creepy moniker of Anna Dressed in Blood.  Cas is cynical and avoids attachment, focusing only on his goal of one day going after the spirit that killed his father.  In the meantime, he travels all over North America, hunting down violent ghosts.  Basically, this book's set-up sounds like Supernatural fanfiction.  Which is exactly why it appealed to me.

However, when Cas gets to Thunder Bay, his plans don't quite work out.  First, he accidentally makes some real friends with the popular but loyal Carmel and dorky, lonely Thomas.  Then, Anna doesn't turn out to be what Cas expected.  Yes, she's a violent killer.  But that's only because of a complicated and tragic past that trapped her in her haunted house.  Cas eventually falls for and helps Anna, but when his own scary past catches up with him and his new friends, he struggles to figure out just what his new life of friendships and a false sense of security might mean.  Anna Dressed in Blood is the first part of what looks to be a longer series (the next book comes out sometime in 2012), so it's got a rushed ending that isn't wholly satisfying.  Also, while I couldn't help but like Cas, I had trouble with the character of Anna.  It's easy to see how their two lives would endear them to each other, but I'm not sure I quite believed the romantic angle in the second half of the book.  Same goes with the budding relationship between Thomas and Carmel.

Anna Dressed in Blood is not a great book, and I'm not exactly sure why it got so much end-of-the-year praise.  Despite that, it was still a fun read.  There are some genuinely terrifying moments in this novel, and Blake knows how to write creepy in a way most pure horror writers can't even manage.  (This might actually be one of the book's weaknesses: the horror stuff is so good that you can't help but wonder why the book wasn't geared more toward that genre).  I think the relationship between Cas and Anna has the potential to expand in more interesting ways in the later books, though, so I will probably follow the rest of the series as it goes along. 

Note: I am once again working at the library and if any paranormal-reading teens ask me for recommendations, I am throwing this one their way for sure. 

Monday, December 26, 2011

Poem of the Week: "As I Walked Out One Evening," by W.H. Auden

Hello everyone!  I hope you had a wonderful Christmas.  I'm afraid I have some mildly bad news.  I think this might be the last regular Poem of the Week for a while.  Next semester, I will be very busy, and it's getting harder and harder to find the contemporary poems I like someplace on the web.  If I find a poem that I absolutely have to share, I will most definitely post it here.  Otherwise, don't expect a new poem every Monday.  Sorry. 

But I leave you with a poem I absolutely love.  I've posted it here before, but that's only because it's so awesome.  Also, it seems appropriate for this time of the year's end, when everything is tinged with a kind of nostalgic sadness.  "As I Walked Out One Evening" includes some of my all-time favorite lines of poetry, and I think you'll like it.  Enjoy!

As I Walked Out One Evening, by W.H. Auden 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Mindy Kaling, Can We Be Friends?

Book Reviewed: Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? And Other Concerns, by Mindy Kaling

I've liked Mindy Kaling for some time now.  Although I gave up on The Office (where Kaling was a head writer since the beginning) three seasons ago, it used to be one of my favorite shows.  And the character of Kelly Kapoor, played by Kaling, is really funny.  So when I heard that Kaling had written a book of short and humorous personal essays, I knew I'd have to read it.

This is a minor book.  It's not going to end up on my year's-best list, and it's most definitely not the most well-written memoir I've ever read.  I enjoyed it anyway.  It's very funny, which is no surprise, but it's also quite candid.  I especially appreciate the way Kaling writes about relationships and how she mocks marital and family conventions out loud but underneath really, really wants a conventional marriage and family.  I rarely read memoirs by women who are willing to laugh at their anxieties over being the ideal "modern woman."  Kaling does this like no one's business. 

I read Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (a title, by the way, that all too accurately describes my own inconsequential identity crisis) while in the middle of writing a long research paper about how 18th-century obstetrical engravings affected the male medical gaze which in turn affected Romantic British poetry.  Yeah, it was a doozy.  So when I curled up after hours of writing about some unpleasant topics, it felt nice to curl up with Kaling's book.  When I finished it, I just wanted to call her up and be like "Men, am I right?!"  Because if you can read this book and not want to be BFFs with Mindy Kaling, then you are made of sturdier stuff than me. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Poetry Round-Up

Books Reviewed: Sleeping with the Dictionary, by Harryette Mullen; Versed, by Rae Armantrout; Nine Acres, by Nathaniel Perry

I read so many poetry books these days that I find it difficult to post a comment about each one to this blog. So every once in a while, I'll do one of these poetry round-ups to let you know what I've been reading and to give a few brief thoughts on what I thought of each book.

Sleeping with the Dictionary:  I didn't know much about Mullen before we read this award-winning book in my poetry workshop.  Mullen is a language poet, which might just be my least favorite type of poetry.  Despite that, though, I actually found this book to be more fun than I was expecting.  Mullen has a very playful sense of language, which kept the weightier aspects of her material from seeming too burdensome.   Although there's lots of poems that spread across multiple pages in this collection, I found that my favorites were usually the super-short poems.
Versed:  Rae Armantrout is also famous as a language poet, although I don't think language is her prime concern in Versed, a collection that won both a Pulitzer and a National Book Award in 2010.  Armantrout's poems are heavy on the big questions, her language often loaded with abstraction.  This works better some times than it does others.  I tended to like her more personal poems, particularly "Own."  I enjoyed Armantrout's poems while I was reading them, but I'm not sure they're the kind that will stick with me for long.  That being said, I'd be more than willing to read her other books.
Nine Acres:  I might be a bit biased towards this book, as I did have dinner with Nathaniel Perry when he came to campus last month.  He did a very charming reading and signed my book afterward.  Also, he studied under Maurice Manning, with whom you all know I'm obsessed.  So it's no surprise that I liked this debut collection.  Perry used an old farming manual as inspiration for these poems about the rural life, using the manual's chapters as poem titles.  It's a device that gets a tad over-symbolic or over-sentimental at times, but the book is still well done as a whole.  After a semester of reading and discussing a lot of smug theoretical poetry, it was wonderful to just sit down and just read something warm and quiet.  This is one of the few books of poems I've read that I would be perfectly willing to suggest to my non-poetry-reading friends.  It's a very open, friendly collection. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Poem of the Week: "After the Movie," by Marie Howe

I stole this week's poem from my old poetry professor, who sends out a mass email every Friday with his own Poem of the Week selection.  I really loved this last one he sent, so I decided to post it here as well.  It's a much more narrative-y poem than I usually go for, but for some reason, this one just hits some kind of sweet spot for me.  Enjoy!

After the Movie, by Marie Howe

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Yep, That's a Bill Nighy Part if There Ever Was One

Book Reviewed:  Arcadia, by Tom Stoppard

I'm not sure how it is that I've gotten to the age of 25 as a lit nerd without once reading Tom Stoppard.  An insanely popular and well-loved playwright, Stoppard is known for his clever use of literature and language.  Finally, though, I have experienced this guy for myself, as we were assigned his play Arcadia for my lit class.  My class is on British Romanticism, but the professor thought it would be interesting to wrap up the semester with a play that's about the study of Romanticism.  She was right, of course.  This play was the perfect end to a semester that was as much about the study of Romantic works as it was about the works themselves.

The play divides its time between two periods: first, 1809-1813, where a tutor named Septimus Hodge works with a precocious genius, Thomasina Coverly.  Septimus is a good friend of Lord Byron, who is mentioned often but never seen.  Septimus is also in the middle of an affair with the wife of a minor and annoying poet, Ezra Chater.  The second time period takes place in the modern time, where a couple of academics, Bernard and Hannah, attempt to discover why Chater eventually went missing.  Bernard believes Lord Byron killed Chater during a duel, but the professor is far too willing to destory his career in the pursuit of fame.

The play's a little confusing at times, with the way it pops back and forth between past and present.  Also, there's a lot of talk of chaos theory and advanced mathematics.  But that didn't stop me from really enjoying the couple hours I spent in Stoppard's world.  As is to be expected, the play is hilarious, particularly when the uber-pretentious Bernard is on the scene.  In the original production of Arcadia, the awesome British actor Bill Nighy played the role of Bernard.  This could not be a more perfect casting choice.  It's impossible to read Bernard's lines without seeing Bill Nighy in your mind performing them. 

Yet, despite all the humor and the math and the stunning structure, the heart of Arcadia is surprisingly heavy.  The poignancy of the final revelation felt like a punch to the gut, and the more I've thought about the final scenes, the sadder it makes me.  Like Alan Bennett's The History Boys, this is a play that's entertaining enough when you read it but which sticks with you for days afterward.