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It’s that time of year to make lists.  With this list I will cover two memes at once – my Two Thirds Book Challenge update, and my contribution to the #libfavs2011 tag (librarians listing their favorite 11 books read in 2011).  So in no particular order …

(1) The Sparrow and (2) Children of God by Mary Doria Russell

Early in 2011 I read two books recommended by one of our English professors at my university.  I’m surprised I had never heard of them before.  They were (1) The Sparrow and (2) Children of God by Mary Doria Russell.  Basically, the books are about a team of Jesuits (yes, Jesuits) who become the first humans to visit Alpha Centauri after catching snippets of song on a SETI satellite.  Imagine the stories of the Spanish missionaries and treasure hunters who came to the New World in the 1400’s and later, retold as a sci-fi alien contact parable.  These were books that stayed with me for a long, long, long time.  I still think about things from these books and it’s been almost ten months since I read them!  The characters, the cultures, even the details for the logistics of the trip itself are laid out in details.  I will warn you, though, that the second book – Children of God – can be a harrowing book in some parts.  It’s when everything breaks down, just as things inevitably did when our Old World met New World.  Highly recommended.

(3) An Object of Beauty by Steve Martin

I enjoyed reading Steve Martin’s Shopgirl a few years ago, and I want to know more about the art world someday so this little book seemed like a good choice for me.  Overall, it was just okay, but I’m including it on this list because of the way he wove the artwork and the experiences of seeing the artwork into the story.  In the edition I had from the library, there were even color images of the paintings in question sprinkled throughout the book.  But for anyone who thinks ebooks can’t improve on their paper counterparts, this would be an example against that claim.  I would much prefer to have read this as an ebook on the iPad with hi-res images for the paintings that I could make full-screen and really absorb.  The little bitty images in the paper book did not do justice.

(4) Among Others by Jo Walton

I read this book on the heels of other similar stories about awkward kids discovering some unknown ability or world and battling their own monsters, imagined or otherwise.  The other books included Robert Louis Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses and Ransom Riggs’ Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.  I chose Among Others for my list because I think it was the best written and the characters stayed with me far longer.  Most importantly, the protagonist had a deep and abiding love of books that delighted me.  Seeing the way the character thought about books, people, and places felt like stepping into someone else’s life.  This one of the few books written as a diary that actually felt like reading a diary.

(5) The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern

I’ve seen wildly different reviews for this book – seems to be a love it or hate it item.  I myself absolutely loved it and can’t wait to own a beautiful hardcover mint condition copy of my own.  I think the “hate it” crowd wanted stronger characters or plot or something, though I didn’t see much lacking in those departments for what it is — a fantasy/magic realism fiction.  I think those same critics are pleased as punch with writers like China Mieville – who I also enjoyed this year, with his book Embassytown.  But here’s the thing that a writer like Morgenstern has, that a writer like Mieville does not:  Style.  Mieville’s prose is clumsy and choppy.  The words trip over themselves, the dialogue is stilted. But his story ideas are fantastically brilliant and original.  Morgenstern, on the other hand, writes beautiful prose with gorgeous descriptions.  She sets a scene and you can practically walk in it.  You can smell the circus food, you can hear the gravel crunching, you can feel that breeze go by.  I only wish her circus had more amazing tents so I could read her descriptions of them.

(6) The Late American Novel, edited by Jeff Martin

Now we get into my Two Thirds Book Challenge books.  Though, of course, I am reading themes not books.  This one comes from my Writing theme and it was an excellent choice.  Dozens of writers of various genres put in their two cents about the future of writing, reading and books.  The reactions are all over the place, the styles vary dramatically, and the different voices are very strong.  Out of all these essays, there were only a couple I found myself skimming through rather than reading carefully and soaking up.  I took many notes and in some places laughed out loud.  Ironically, I read the book in the Kindle app on my iPad.  I would love to get a paper copy and read it again in a year to see how the predictions are faring.  Highly recommended for personal collections and gift giving.

(7) The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman

One of the motivations of using themes in my Two Thirds Book Challenge was to broaden my reading palette, but so far I’m still stuck in fiction, which is the theme of my next couple books on this list.  Gaiman was one of those authors that seemed to be too hyped to me, so I avoided his books for a while.  Then a year or so ago I read Good Omens by Gaiman and Terry Pratchett — lots of fun.  After that the Twitter book club 1 Book 140 picked Gaiman’s American Gods and I read along.  Enjoyed that, too.  All sorts of mythology and legends being pulled together and brought into a modern age that doesn’t know what to make of mythology or legends. The Graveyard Book is no exception to that trend — Gaiman takes Kipling’s classic The Jungle Book and changes the setting to a graveyard.  He pulls it off in a wonderful way, and without a tacky ending.  I would love to see more stories with these characters.

(8) The Magicians and (9) The Magician King by Lev Grossman

When Magician King came out, I saw all sorts of interviews and reviews on book blogs discussing the allusions and references to writers like C. S. Lewis, J. K. Rowling, J. R. R. Tolkien, Neal Stephenson, and many others.  Just like my fascination with retold myths, I was intrigued by this series that admitted to so many influences.  It took me a couple times to start The Magicians — Quentin is not the most sympathetic character, after all.  But once I pushed through the first few chapters, the book really took off for me and the second book was even better.  Now I’m contemplating a return to the Narnia books that I haven’t read in … 25 years??  Though seeing them through the jaded, skeptic eyes of Grossman’s characters makes me hesitate, too.

(10) and (11) … ??

I’m not going to pick these yet because I still have ten days in the year left – ten days that include quite a few hours in airports, airplanes, and away from work.  Who knows what I might read next?  Maybe even (gasp) a nonfiction book!

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