Monthly Archives: December 2013

Guest Blog: Wife’s Top 10 Books of 2013

Having been mentioned so frequently in yesterday’s blog as the source of excellent book recommendations, I finally succumbed to Layla’s suggestion that I do a guest blog of my top ten books of the year. Flattery gets you everywhere…

It’s been horribly hard to narrow it down to a top ten, since this has been my best year for reading for as long as I can remember – due not least to a challenge from the lovely Thomas of My Porch to see who could read 100 books first. (To my chagrin he won, but I had a lot of fun anyway.)

The first book I read this year, I Am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe also has the first spot in my list of top ten books of the year. I loved Charlotte as a character, and even more I loved seeing a slice of American life – an a Ivy League university – that I’ll never experience.

The second book that makes it into my top ten is Rose Tremain’s The Colour. It’s the story of a couple’s emigration to New Zealand at the time of the gold rush (along with the husband’s mother). I love her writing (her book Sacred Country is probably one of my top 50 favourite books of all time) and very much enjoyed reading both this and Music and Silence this year. But The Colour wins out for me because of the book’s ability to really communicate obsession and because of the complexity of the relationships. And I like a pioneering book…

Which leads me very nicely onto my third book of the year: The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier. Published this year, I do not understand why it hasn’t received more attention. Again with a strong interesting female character (I’m starting to notice a pattern here!), it’s the story of a Quaker girl’s emigration to America in 1850 at the time of the Fugitive Slave Law. But more than that, it is a story about an English girl becoming American but keeping some of herself. And it is a tale of complex compromises. If you read just one book off this list, I would make it this one.

My fourth book is very different: The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence. It’s hard to explain how touching and interesting this book is without making it sound a bit sentimental – which it isn’t. Ultimately it’s a book about friendship – our main character is an teenage epileptic science nerd who befriends an aging American Vietnam War vet. The tragi-comedic undertone reminded me of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole and I would guess that those who like one will probably like the other.

Our Man in Havana by Graham Greene is my fifth book and probably needs little introduction to most of you. I’m not quite sure what made me finally get round to reading it – other than a job will come up at our Embassy in Havana around the time I leave here… But I completely loved it (though am not absolutely sure the book convinced me that a job at the Embassy is necessarily for me!). For those who haven’t read it, it’s political satire and thriller combined, with characters so vivid that I felt I should invite them over for a cup of tea.

My sixth book is The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris. I just loved this for absorbing me in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community that I’ll never be able to access myself. I really cared about the choices the characters made – almost unable to read on when they made the “wrong” choice. Despite being on the long list for the Women’s Prize for Fiction in the UK, this also hasn’t received as much attention as I think it should. (And so if you are going to read two books off this list, this should be your second!)

My seventh book is Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. It’s a story of a number of overlapping lives, all affected by a walk that a man does on a tightrope between the Twin Towers. I loved it for showing me 1970s New York, for McCann’s ability to make stories converge and for his ability to make me care a lot about a character in just a few lines.

My eighth book of the year is The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood. I can’t think why it took me so long to catch up with the rest of the world and to read it. It’s speculative fiction of the best kind and I was unable to do anything other than read once I picked it up. It’s about the role of women, the role of Government and what compromises a society – and an individual – can be talked into for their own protection. It’s completely dazzling.

My ninth book of the year is a cheat: it is the Madaddam trilogy by Margaret Atwood (a cheat because I ought to choose between the three or give them three spots on the list of top ten – ah well, it is my list so I shall cheat if I wish). I’d been deterred by Layla who originally read Oryx and Crake and wasn’t an enthusiast (she has now entirely revised her position as her review shows!) but was lured in nonetheless because The Handmaid’s Tale was so good – and because of some persuasive blogging by Thomas. As complex as Dickens, as compelling as a thriller and as thought provoking as a philosophy lecture, this trilogy has it all. I possibly liked the last, Maddadam, the best but even as I typed those words I thought of all the reasons why I loved the other two just as much. Certainly, Madaddam was one of the only books to make me cry in public (twice) this year.

Since I have got into the routine of cheating, my last spot will go to The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald AND The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt jointly. They do have something in common: a flawed character who may (or may not) be the architect of his own doom. They are also the two books which spring to mind when I think of the phrase “tour de force”.

Best re-read of the year goes to Dickens’ Great Expectations and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. And my worst book of the year goes without question to Jonathan Lethem’s Dissident Gardens. Nonetheless, it has been an excellent year’s reading.

Roz reading 2

(This is my lovely wife reading at a floating temple in Burma/Myanmar – Layla)

What I read in 2013: a list and some graphs

In 2013 I challenged myself to read 50 books. And I am very satisfied to have read 52 – that’s one a week. So before I progress to my intimidating 3-point uber-challenge for 2014, I shall keep you in suspense, and first pause to glory in the full list of what has been a delightful year of reading. I didn’t have my blog at the start of the year so after each book I will retrospectively rate them all on a star scale of 1 – 5, 1 being rubbish and 5 being brilliant, listed in the order in which I read them. And then a little graph interlude afterwards, where we shall lament my poor taste in choosing books… All comments and particularly recommendations based on these tastes will be most welcome!

1. Heft by Liz Moore *****
2. Tunneling to the center of the earth by Kevin Wilson ***
3. Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan *****
4. Pyongyang by Guy Delisle ***
5. Calling Dr Laura by Nicole Georges **
6. The Young Pretenders by Edith Henrietta Fowler ****
7. I am Charlotte Simmons by Tom Wolfe ****
8. Shenzhen by Guy Delislei ****
9. Tom’s Midnight Garden by Philippa Pearce ****
10. The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky ****
11. The Patron Saint of Liars by Ann Patchett ****
12.  Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster *****
13. This Much I Know Is True by Wally Lamb *****
14. A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gale ****
15. Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card *****
16. How it all began by Penelope Lively ****
17. The Universe versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence ****
18. The first book of Calamity Leek by Paula Lichtarowicz *
19. Web by John Wyndham ***
20. A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar by Suzanne Joinson ***
21. The 10 o’clock Question by Kate de Goldi ****
22. Cassandra at the Wedding by Dorothy Baker ****
23. Where’d you go Bernadette by Maria Semple *****
24. Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford *****
25. I’m a Stranger Here Myself by Bill Bryson *****
26. The 100 year old Man who Climbed out the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson *****
27. When you are engulfed in flames by David Sedaris *****
28. Me talk pretty one day by David Sedaris ****
29. The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe *****
30. Maggie and Me by Damian Barr *****
31. Reality, Reality by Jackie Kay ****
32. Almost English by Charlotte Mendelson ****
33. The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier *****
34. The marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris ****
35. A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki **
36. Instructions for a heatwave by Maggie O’Farrell ***
37. Glasshopper by Isabel Ashdown ***
38. Life after Life by Kate Atkinson *****
39. May We Be Forgiven by AM Homes *****
40. The Twelve Tribes of Hattie by Ayana Mathis ***
41. Bridget Jones Mad about the boy by Helen Fielding **
42. Salvage the Bones by Jesmyn Ward **
43. Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver ***
44. Exerpts from a Hot Pink Notebook by Todd Brown ****
45. A Cure for Dreams by Kaye Gibbons ***
46. Oryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood *****
47. The year of the flood by Margaret Atwood *****
48. Maddaddam by Margaret Atwood *****
49. Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Lethem *
50. How the Garcia girls lost their accents by Julia Alvarez ***
51. The Seeds of Time by John Wyndham ****
52. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt *****

bookgraphs

I am choosing not to be concerned that I cannot be fully trusted to find enjoyable books when left entirely to my own devices… I shall just assume that I would have come to many of the wife recommendations if wife had not got in there first (as she was smugly and alarmingly reading at double my speed this year). Onwards and forwards to the books of 2014!

My worst books of 2013

I must say, this has been one of my best ever reading years – mainly, I suspect, because I keep stealing book recommendations from my lovely wife who knows my tastes (I am a tad vocal, I fear) and steers me away from the duds. And yet, it hasn’t all been stellar reads for me. And so, dear readers, brace yourself for what have been my top five most disappointing, dreary, and annoying reads of the year!

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The First Book of Calamity Leek by Paula Ichtarowicz
If I was designing a book I was definitely going to like, it might have looked something like this one – coming of age, speculative fiction, strong female narrative voice, school setting, dystopia, cult-ish, character-driven, quirky premise, good reviews. A bit like the brilliant Never Let Me Go. And yet this book infuriated, disturbed and bored me in equal measures. Its technique of slowly revealing what’s happening is just too slow – and confusing and tedious. The characters who should have compelled me left me apathetic. The language annoyed me. The big reveals at the end had insufficient impact because I had ceased to care much. Nicely conceived, poorly executed.

Dissident Gardens by Jonathan Letham
This book about three generations on activists in New York City clearly had the self conscious, smug certainty of being a Great American Novel but instead it was unremittingly boring and wearyingly verbose. I couldn’t wait to finish it. I struggled to do so.

Bridget Jones: Mad About the Boy by Helen Fielding
It’s just depressing when a long-awaited sequel to a very well rendered first book (and moderately well rendered second one) turns out to be rubbish. What was charming for Bridget Jones in her 30s was charmless at 50-something.

A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki
This book just annoyed me with its complex attempted magic realism that doesn’t quite come off and my vision of the author patting herself on the back for her work of genius. What’s annoying is that it’s occasionally really good. Which makes me all the more let down by the pretentious rest of it.

Calling Dr Laura by Nicole Georges
I probably took against this memoir by a lesbian with family issues because it wasn’t the brilliant Fun Home by Alison Bechdel… Though to be fair if I’d read Bechdel’s sequel, Are You My Mother, this year instead of last, I might have had to put it on this list of disappointments too. Fun Home (also Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi and Burma Chronicles by Guy Delisle) transformed my appreciation of graphic memoirs. I expect a lot. And Calling Dr Laura didn’t do it for me.

My top ten books of 2013

My goodness, it has been a fine year of reading. My ambition was to read 50 fiction books this year, and I slid across the finish line with How the Garcia Girls Lost their Accents last weekend. Sure I might manage to squeeze in a few more in the next fortnight… But with the requisite 50 books under my belt (no, I will not feel shame that my lovely wife is just about to pass 100!!), the window demanding more books for Christmas still open, and after great deliberation, for your reading delight, here are my 2013 winners…

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Top 10 books of the year (in no particular order)

Heft by Liz Moore
The very first book I read in 2013 was also one of the best. Heft is a beautifully written book – the study of a man marooned by his weight and regrets in a Brooklyn house til unlikely new relationships disrupt the status quo. The characters in this book are an absolute delight. It is subtle. It is charming. It made me cry and laugh. It was a treat to read.

The Maddaddam Trilogy by Margaret Atwood
Oryx and Crake, The Year of the Flood, and Maddaddam simply have to be considered and consumed as a whole, epic, glorious work of speculative dystopian/utopian fiction. Atwood builds a convincing, complex world teeming with brilliant characters and inventions. The writing is at times dazzling. Atwood’s imagination and skill at bringing so many pieces together is superb.

I know this much is true by Wally Lamb
I am increasingly excited by Wally Lamb’s extravagant, sprawling, rich, captivating prose, and his sensitive, complex character portraits. This study of two brothers, one with schizophrenia and a penchant for the dramatic, is complicated, compelling and says a lot about family relationships, responsibilities and love in the context of modern-day America. Can’t wait to read his new one.

The Brooklyn Follies by Paul Auster
Another Brooklyn-set book about a man who had resigned himself to life trickling to a tedious close til unexpected events and a cast of charismatic characters breathe new life into him. And it features a lovely bookshop. A charming, sparkling book.

Where’d you go, Bernadette? by Maria Semple
Set in Seattle and Antarctica, in a dilapidated house juxtaposed by her husband’s job in sleek Silicone Valley, an agoraphobic, rebellious design guru loves her family, rails against private school mothers and conformity, and then inexplicably vanishes. This novel has brilliant characters, a quirky set-up, an intriguing premise, comedy, pathos, an ambitious, complex narrative voice, and moments of brilliance. I was compelled.

The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe
I unexpectedly loved this historical semi-fiction novel based on the early years of space flight in America. Unusually for me, this was despite the characters playing a backseat role to the enormously exciting, suspenseful plot. The book absolutely captures the bravado, the adventure, the zeitgeist, the romance of space flight while having loads of fascinating, apparently quite accurate technical detail. I couldn’t put it down.

The 100 year old man who climbed out the window and disappeared by Jonas Jonasson
I adored this extremely quirky, fantastical book with its intriguing, charming protagonist and the unfolding of the history of his improbable life influencing the key historical events of the 20th century as he picks up a merry band of randoms (and an elephant) in his latest escapade. It weirdly makes perfect sense if you can suspend belief. I found it a hilarious delight, sort of in the tradition of Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day.

The Last Runaway by Tracy Chevalier
This historical novel about a Quaker girl coming from England to America and making a life for herself with a background of the Underground Railroad to help slaves escape had delightful prose, beautiful characters, glorious setting, fascinating historical detail, and an excellent, compelling plot. I loved it – this is an important book from a very talented author.

May we be forgiven by AM Homes
A brilliant piece about the repercussions of family actions, the relationships we make, and finding yourself. It’s about a staid man who finds himself looking after his brother’s children after said brother kills the children’s mother. This fascinating book merges the credible and the incredible to paint a complex, exciting, alarming, and ultimately loving world at the cusp of the 21st century where anything can happen. It’s hard to explain. It’s very good.

Sweet Tooth by Ian McEwan
Well written, wry, compelling, and very English in feel, we follow our protagonist into a career in MI5 where her espionage activities gets complicated with romance. Brilliant characters leap off the page. The first spy-themed book I’ve ever loved.

Though I admit I struggled to decide whether to give the final place in the top ten to Sweet Tooth book or to The Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet by Jamie Ford which was beautiful and brilliant and about the plight of Japanese people living in Seattle during WWII amongst other things. Loved the characters, plot, and writing!

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Well, that was stressful! I feel guilty for all my other lovely reads, which didn’t quite make the top ten (or eleven). Thus, honorable mention goes to the seven more than I also particularly loved:

A Perfectly Good Man by Patrick Gayle
How it All Began by Penelope Lively
The Universe Versus Alex Woods by Gavin Extence
When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
Maggie and Me by Damian Barr
The Marrying of Chani Kaufman by Eve Harris
Life After Life by Kate Atkinson

2013 has been an excellent reading year. I suggest you annotate your Christmas list if you haven’t read some of these yet!

How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents by Julia Alvarez

One sentence plot
A family with four daughters flees their comfortable life in the Dominican Republic for political reasons, and makes a life for themselves over the years in New York City.

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The review
I fished this book out of my friend’s pile of books she no longer wanted, which isn’t necessarily an auspicious start for a book, but I rather liked How the Garcia Girls Lost Their Accents – though I hate the name. The book is written in a complex but engaging style, from the perspective of four daughters whose father gets involved in dangerous politics and has to move his wife and children to New York City. As a fan of coming of age stories, this sounded like a winner.

The book ranges in time from the girls’ idyllic childhoods with servants and cousins and fancy houses with huge gardens, to their first years of culture shock and assimilation in New York, to their teenage troubles and visits to ‘the island’, and then the grown up daughters celebrating their old father’s birthdays. That’s a lot to cram into under 300 pages, and Alvarez’s success in pulling it off is patchy but ultimately enjoyable.

The story of this immigrant family and their complex relationships with each other and with the island they left behind is a compelling one. The series of vignettes have moments when they are funny, poignant, fascinating, illuminating, tragic… particularly the ones describing the daughters returning to the island and trying to understand how they fit in after their Americanization. I quite enjoyed the chronology hopping back and forward, each time revealing little pieces of what made these people. The characters are interesting. I particularly liked the study of the parents emerging through their daughters’ perspectives as the story unfolded. I like the concept Alvarez is trying to achieve. I like learning more about life in the Dominican Republic.

The main problem I found with the book is that the four daughters were quite hard for me to differentiate and keep straight in my head. Perhaps because their perspectives are written in the third person and essentially sound like the same voice. I didn’t care much about them as individuals. The end is also a bit bizarre – crammed and rushed, quite unlike the rest of it, like the author was happily writing away when someone suddenly told her she had just 100 words to finish the entire book. Odd.

The story of the Garcia sisters has stayed with me. Despite the book’s many technical challenges, I enjoyed it and am fairly glad I read it. A shame I didn’t give myself a 3 1/2 shoes rating option…

The verdict: 3/5 shoes