Wednesday, December 31, 2008

My Top 20 Books Read (for the first time) in 2008

I read 81 books in 2008, 71 of them for the first time. Which means narrowing this down to a top 20 was pretty difficult (in fact, there are an additional five books at the end of the list. Anyway, because narrowing things down was hard enough, these are not in order of preference, but rather in order of my having read them...

The Uncommon Reader, Alan Bennett I read this book in one sitting, the afternoon of New Year's Day. It's a cute, short read, wherein the Queen of England's yorkie runs off while she's taking it for a walk and she follows it into a book mobile that visits Buckingham Palace once a week for the kitchen staff. It's very sweet.
The appeal of reading, she thought, lay in its indifference: there was something undeferring about literature. Books did not care who was reading them or whether one read them or not. All readers were equal, herself included. Literature, she thought, is a commonwealth; letters a republic. Actually, she had heard this phrase, the republic of letters, used before, at graduation ceremonies, honorary degrees and the like, though without knowing quite what it meant. At that time talk of a republic of any sort she had thought mildly insulting and in her actual presence tactless, to say the least. It was only now she understood what it meant. Books did not defer. All readers were equal, and this took her back to the beginning of her life.

Going Postal, Terry Pratchett My first foray into the Discworld, but certainly not my last. I actually read 6 of the Discworld books this year, and loved them all, but decided to limit my list to just the first one, because choosing between them would be too difficult. If you haven't read Terry Pratchett, you really really should. Laugh out loud hilarity mixed with fantasy and social commentary. Delicious.

Atonement, Ian McEwan You'll notice that there are 3 different Ian McEwan novels on this list, because apparently this year I went on a bit of a binge. I actually started this book toward the end of 2007, got most of the way through it, saw the movie, and then didn't finish the book for another week or so. The first part was my favorite, and I had to drudge through the middle bit while Robbie is in France, but as a whole the book is beautifully written. I can certainly understand why Ian McEwan is often considered a man's writer, his details are sometimes almost clinically harsh, but that doesn't make the words any less lovely.
They stared at each other in confusion, unable to speak, sensing that something delicately established might slip from them. That they were old friends who had shared a childhood was now a barrier--they were embarrassed before their former selves. Their friendship had become vague and even constrained in recent years, but it was still an old habit, and to break it now in order to become strangers on intimate terms required a clarity of purpose which had temporarily deserted them. For the moment, there seemed no way out with words.

Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist, Rachel Cohn & David Levithan This is the only book I read twice this year, once in January and again right before the movie came out. It's like Before Sunrise for teenagers and very sweet.

Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë I did actually attempt to read this once before, when I was in fourth or fifth grade. I didn't really appreciate it then, though. My mother read it again earlier this year, for the first time since she was in high school, and so I picked it up after her. Of course I loved it. The story is equal parts empowering, heartbreaking, sweet, romantic and gothic. And my mother assures me that, when I'm her age, I'll find even more to appreciate in Jane's story.

The Eyre Affair, Jasper Fforde Of course I had to follow it up with this, which was hilarious and smart and did I mention hilarious? I had read The Fourth Bear and The Big Over Easy already, so I knew that his writing was witty and intricate, but not like this! I read the rest of the series, too (except I haven't really gotten into Thursday Next: First Among Sequels, yet), and loved each book more than the last, it seems, but again, I'm only listing one.

On Chesil Beach, Ian McEwan More Ian McEwan. Another perfect little book. I read it in a weekend, staying up late to finish it while all my roommates slept in our flat in London. I especially loved the way the last few pages spin the story out into the future and we see the paths these characters end up on.

Peter Pan, JM Barrie As you might have noticed, I had a bit of a literary love affair with the UK this year. 13 of these books are by British writers, and 13 are at least partially set in the UK (14 if you count Going Postal). This is largely because I was studying abroad in London last semester and falling desperately in love with the city and the country. I read a little more American fiction once I got back to the US, but that was hardly what I was most interested in. Peter Pan was one of the many books I purchased abroad, a £2, lime green Penguin Popular Classics copy from the Borders on Oxford Street. It's small, technically it's considered to be a children's book (though the only one I've ever seen that included the word "orgy"), and it's rife with murder and racism, but it's also maybe the sweetest book I've ever read. The language is playful and the story is wonderful. I've been fighting off the urge to read it again ever since I put it down April.
Stars are beautiful, but they may not take an active part in anything, they must just look on for ever. It is a punishment put on them for something they did so long ago that no star now knows what it was. So the older ones have become glassy-eyed and seldom speak (winking is the star language), but the little ones still wonder. They are not really friendly to Peter, who has a mischievous way of stealing up behind them and trying to blow them out; but they are so fond of fun that they were on his side to-night, and anxious to get the grownups out of the way. So as soon as the door of 27 closed on Mr. and Mrs. Darling there was a commotion in the firmament, and the smallest of the stars in the Milky Way screamed out:

"Now, Peter!"

Saturday, Ian McEwan The third and final of the McEwan books on this list. I bought my copy at a used bookstore in Brighton, and read the book with a map of London in front of me, tracing the main character's path across the city, just blocks away from my own flat in Bloomsbury. I think it may be the first novel I've read that takes place in a post 9/11 world, which isn't to say the first book I've read to take place after September of 2001, but the first to be so sure to remind me of that fact. It was interesting to see it from the perspective of someone that wasn't American. Also interesting was the fact that the whole book takes place on a day when my parents were working their way across London to Portabello Road, Americans trying to get from one side of the Anti-War march to the other.

The Buddha of Suburbia, Hanif Kureshi The first of these books that I read for school. I took a Novels of Britain and Ireland course while I was abroad. There were only 3 of us (all girls) in the class, and I've never had so much fun doing assigned reading. Each 2 and half hour class was just a long conversation, and I always came away from it feeling like a knew so much more about literature and about Britain. This book is largely about what it's like to be half English and half Pakistani (but born and raised in London) in a post-colonialist Britain. It's hilarious, but also touching. And I wrote one kick-butt essay on the book.

Eat Pray Love, Elizabeth Gilbert I made the mistake of starting this book on the way home from Europe. Of course, by the time our plane landed in Philadelphia all I wanted to do was turn around and fly to Italy for pizza in Naples. The book is, on the whole, inspirational, and not in the sappy/cheesy way. It also made me very, very hungry.

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman I love Neil Gaiman. He mingles fantasy and reality so beautifully, so that you really believe that, if you looked hard enough, you might actually find the magic that permeates his books. It's the thing I've always loved about Harry Potter as well, the ability to transition between a real place (a tube stop, King's Cross Station) and somewhere that exists only in your imagination (London Below, the Leaky Cauldron).

The Hours, Michael Cunningham Mrs. Dalloway just missed this list (look for it below in the honorable mentions), but The Hours really stood out to me. It ties in with the book that inspired in so beautifully, while existing as its own story as well. And admittedly, it's a much easier read.
"As she rubs Louis's back, Clarissa thinks, Take me with you. I want a doomed love. I want streets at night, wind and rain, no one wondering where I am."

The Things They Carried, Tim O'Brien This is one of those books that left me totally unsettled, gave me bad dreams even--largely because I dozed off immediately after finishing it--and yet I still loved it. The writing is beautiful, and the stories are heartbreaking and sometimes funny.

Possession: A Romance, AS Byatt I don't really remember why I picked this up, but I had trouble putting it down once I had. It's a love story that literally spans centuries, and leads to another love story that's less romantic than neurotic, but still enticing. I haven't seen the movie adaptation, but I can't imagine it holds a candle to the book.
They took to silence. They touched each other without comment and without progression. A hand on a hand, a clothed arm, resting on an arm. An ankle overlapping an ankle, as they sat on a beach, and not removed.

One night they fell asleep, side by side, on Maud's bed, where they had been sharing a glass of Calvados. He slept curled against her back, a dark comma against her pale elegant phrase.

Brideshead Revisited, Evelyn Waugh I picked this up when I first saw the trailer for the new movie, because I very much love Matthew Goode, Haley Atwell and Emma Thompson. I hadn't anticipated loving the book quite so much, but the language (the sort of stylized speech of decades I wasn't alive for) drew me in and the characters (especially Sebastian) kept me reading. Of course, the movie was hardly true to it, and I haven't had a chance to watch the 1981 miniseries, yet, but it did introduce me to a new novel to love and cherish.
"What is it?"

"His heart; some long word at the heart. He is dying of a long word."

A Thousand Acres, Jane Smiley Jane Smiley visited my school last semester, while I was abroad, and just a few weeks before I saw King Lear at the Globe. I'd never read any of her writing, but I was a little bummed about missing a visit from such a respected author. Then, this summer, I had the idea that I wanted to write some modernized version of King Lear. Of course, that was when my roommate told me it had already been done, by Jane Smiley. The book was even sitting on my bedside table, waiting for me in my To-Read pile. So I picked it up and fell in love and of course it broke my heart, but it was absolutely worth it.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers Is it a bit pretentious? Sure, but it's also a beautifully, brilliantly written book about love, loss, responsibility, and trying to get cast on The Real World. I laughed, I cried, all that good stuff.
"They are gone and I am soaring. Those motherfuckers! My head is clear and muscular and filled with blood. Something has happened. We're alive, we've won! Powerful us! They were scared. We scared them off. They feared us. We won. We told them to go away and they did. I am the president. I am the Olympics."

Assassination Vacation, Sarah Vowell If I hadn't come to the conclusion that Sarah Vowell was stalking me, I don't know that I ever would have read this book. History? Presidential assassinations? Really? But her name started popping up everywhere, largely because I was binging on This American Life at the time, and it became clear that she was both hilarious and charming, so I picked this up at Barnes and Noble (pet peeve: there is no S at the end of Barnes and Noble, unless it's a plural--"there are two Barnes and Nobles in my area"--or possessive--"I prefer Barnes and Noble's Starbucks to the stand-alone Starbucks at my mall"--so Cashier-that-rung-me-up-the-other-day, take note!). For a book about murder and american history it's a surprisingly light, entertaining read. I picked up a copy of The Partly-Cloudly Patriot the other day and can't wait to read it.

The Tales of Beedle the Bard, JK Rowling This is mostly a sentimental addition to my list, because it's Harry Potter, but it was a fun, easy read, and some of Dumbledore's commentary was deliciously biting. I've missed the Potter-verse, so it was nice to step back into it for an afternoon.
This exchange marked the beginning of Mr. Malfoy's long campaign to have me removed from my post as headmaster of Hogwarts, and of mine to have him removed from his position as Lord Voldemort's Favorite Death Eater.

Honorable Mentions

College Girls: Bluestockings, Sex Kittens, and Coeds, Then and Now by Lynn Peril - I asked for this for Christmas last year thinking I'd flip through it and read bits and pieces, but I ended up reading it cover to cover. It's a fascinating book about the evolution of the "College Girl."

Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson - Another book I read for Novels of Britain and Ireland. It's the bible without women, basically, and it's both touching and funny.
I learnt that it rains when clouds collide with a high building, like a steeple, or a cathedral; the impact punctures them, and everybody underneath gets wet. This was why, in the old days, when the only tall buildings were holy, people used to say cleanliness is next to godliness. The more godly your town, the more high buildings you'd have, and the more rain you'd get.

Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf - It was tough going at first, but I ended up really enjoying this book.
Ah dear, she remembered--it was Wednesday in Brook Street. Those kind good fellows, Richard Dalloway, Hugh Whitbread, had gone this hot day through the streets whose growl came up to her lying on the sofa. Power was hers, position, income. She had lived in the forefront of her time. She had had good friends; known the ablest men of her day. Murmuring London flowed up to her, and her hand, lying on the sofa back, curled upon some imaginary baton such as her grandfathers might have held, holding which she seemed, drowsy and heavy, to be commanding battalions marching to Canada, and those good fellows walking across London, that territory of theirs, that little bit of carpet, Mayfair.

And they went further and further from her, being attached to her by a thin thread (since they had lunched with her) which would stretch and stretch, get thinner and thinner as they walked across London; as if ones friends were attached to one's body, after lunching with them, by a thin thread, which (as she dozed there) became hazy with the sound of bells, striking the hour or ringing to service, as a single spider's thread is blotted with rain-drops, and, burdened, sags down. So she slept.

The Overwhelming by JT Rogers - I read this play about the genocide in Rwanda for my playwriting class, and then had the opportunity to sit down one-on-one with the playwright. It was an interesting play with a subject about which I knew very little.

Nory Ryan's Song by Patricia Reilly Giff - The only book from the Children's and Adolescent Lit class I took this semester to make top 25 (though Tuck Everlasting would have been top 10 if I hadn't already read it several years ago). It's sort of a miserable little book about the Irish potato famine, but I found it charming.


Thursday, December 4, 2008

An Afternoon With Harry

So today was the release date for The Tales of Beedle the Bard, the book of wizarding fairy tales form JK Rowling. My copy was pre-ordered (of course) and came in the mail this morning. I spent my afternoon reading it.

It was wonderful!

The fairy tales themselves are sweet and true to the universe JK Rowling created with the book series. They're dark (as all good fairy tales are), relatively simple, and come with morals attached--morals for wizard and muggle children alike.

It's the commentary "found" in Dumbledore's office that really makes the book something worth reading; each story is followed by a little essay written approximately 18 months before Dumbledore's death. The essays are not only filled with bits of new information about the wizarding world that couldn't be squeezed into the 7 novels or the 2 Hogwarts textbooks previously released (like the existence of a school we'd never heard of, the Wizarding Academy of Dramatic Arts--WADA), but are written with all of Dumbledore's self-assurance, silliness and occasional snark.

A few quotes:

As the emminent Wizarding philosopher Bertrand de Pensées-Profondes [Bertrand of Profound Thoughts] writes in his celebrated work A Study into the Possibility of Reversing the Actual and Metaphysical Effects of Natural Death, with Particular Regard to the Reintegration of Essence and Matter:

"Give it up, it's never gonna happen.


This exchange marked the beginning of Mr. Malfoy's long campaign to have me removed from my post as headmaster of Hogwarts, and of mine to have him removed from his position as Lord Voldemort's Favorite Death Eater.

I fully enjoyed the book, and I'm sure I'll go back to it again and again, just as I have with the novels.

Now we've just got to wait until July and the release of the Half-Blood Prince movie for our next taste of the Wizarding World.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

The Power of the Rewatch

Just as I love to reread, I love to rewatch. Sometimes it's the same thing several times in one week (there was a period a couple years ago where I watched the Disney Beauty and the Beast 10 times in 1 week, and my annual Thanksgiving-Christmas Love Actually period is sure to expand from my 1 viewing last weekend to at least 5), sometimes I need to take a break between viewings. It's a way to forget, or to allow my initial reaction to harden into vague impressions...easier to write over on further viewings. And when it's TV shows I'm rewatching I tend to watch whole seasons at once.

Lately I've been working my way through season 3 of The O.C. I watched the whole series through back when it was airing, and I had some pretty solid opinions of it. Seasons 1 and 4 were awesome. Season 2 was decent but far from perfect, and season 3 was the weakest link. Poor plot, poor was where the show veered so totally off course that I considered dropping it from my weekly line-up.

I've said before that when the show started it wasn't trying to be anything. There were models (90210 was mentioned often), but at the same time, The O.C. was something completely new. In season 2 the road block was that the show was trying to hard to be itself. By season 3 it was becoming One Tree Hill (one of my guilty pleasures, yes, but also some of the worst...everything on television). In season 4 The O.C. was back to attempting something brand new, and while it wasn't the same show as season was pretty awesome.

But now that I'm rewatching season 3 I'm starting to realize that it wasn't quite so bad as I remember. Even season 1 had a black pit of doom (the Oliver Period), and while I disagreed with some of the decisions that Josh Schwartz and co. made (Seth's drug phase, Sandy leading the Newport Group, Volchek, Ryan's brief return to a life of crime), it's still making me laugh and cry and everything else that I look for in good television.

This is the season where we were introduced to Taylor Townsend, who became one of my very favorite characters in season 4 and who turned me into a big Ryan fan just by association. It's the season where we got rid of Marissa (finally), and where Kaitlyn returned as a different actress, more grown-up and with her own plots.

It's not perfect TV, but it's decent, better than I remembered.

That's the nice thing of about rewatching, you can discover something you missed the first time around, when you were busy making snap judgments. I found out that Johnny wasn't really that bad (like when I found out that Veronica Mars' Piz was more awesome, less annoying), nor was Kaitlyn, who seemed terrible the first time around, only growing likeable in season 4. I had forgotten about the quality Seth/Kirsten time we got this season, and about how adorable Neil and Julie's engagement was. The one thing that doesn't seem to have changed is the way the finale brings me to tears.

It's nice to find out what you missed when you weren't really paying attention (intentionally or otherwise).