Archive for December, 2009

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2009: A Year in Review, part 2

December 31, 2009

These questions were borrowed from Simon over at Savidge Reads. I like how they help me write down some qualitative ideas without necessarily making a list. I tried to do that and just kept fighting with myself. So here are some thoughts about all of the books I read this year.

Favourite book of 2009?
The Wings of the Dove by Henry James. This was actually an easier choice than I thought it would be, although it was a close tie with Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri and The Moonstone by Wilkie Collins. James just does such an amazing job of getting inside people’s heads! This was probably one of my hardest reads of the year, but every minute was well worth it. The best non-fiction book was easily William James: In the Maelstrom of American Modernism.

Least favourite?
The Club Dumas by Arturo Perez-Reverte. I loved the premise of this book. The book includes an antique copy of a Dumas book, some mysterious deaths, and bizarre characters. However, the ending of this book infuriated me to the point that I specifically sent some emails to friends warning them not to read this book.

Any that you simply couldn’t finish and why?
It’s sometimes hard to remember, but so far there are The Brothers Karamazov and The Name of the Rose. I definitely expect to finish those in the first few months of next year. There was also a nonfiction book that is going on its third year in my “currently reading” stack: The Secret Life of Words. It’s just slow going. I may or may not finish that one anytime soon. Of course, there’s also The Count of Monte Cristo, by Dumas, but that’s entirely due to an incident involving a water bottle that I really don’t want to talk about.

Oldest book read?
Virgil’s Aeneid. One of the most beautiful books I read all year, and would have made my top five list if it weren’t for a couple of chapters toward the end that were too war-filled for my taste.

Newest?
The Year of the Flood by Margaret Atwood. I loved it. I usually pre-order any new Atwood books scheduled to be published.

Longest and shortest book titles?
The longest is Michelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling; the shortest is No Name by Wilkie Collins. I didn’t count subtitles or letters after colons.

Longest and shortest books?
This is sort of hard to do without LibraryThing, but my best guess would be that this longest is The Wings of the Dove at 711 pages. The shortest is probably a tie between the two novellas that I read: The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett and The Lifted Veil by George Eliot. The Eliot book is about 70 pages.

How many books from the library?
None, although I did borrow one from my mom. I have a thing about owning the books I read.

Any translated books?
Only a few; much less than last year. One was the aforementioned The Club Dumas. Another was of course The Aeneid. The two others were both by Emile Zola: The Masterpiece and Nana.

Most read author of the year, and how many books by that author?
This was a tie of six books each by Georgette Heyer and Jacqueline Winspear.

Any re-reads?
Only one, Oryx and Crake, in preparation for the release of The Year of the Flood.

Favourite character of the year?
This is tough. First of all, I adore Maisie Dobbs because for some odd reason I identify with her strongly. However, I also laughed the most at two of the characters in The Moonstone: Miss Clack, with her hilarious lack of self-awareness and her tendency to “lose” religious tracts so that others may find them, and Mr Betteredge, one of the most quintessential British butlers ever written who uses Robinson Crusoe as his guide to life. I also really grew to care for the title character in David Copperfield. A couple of other books had great characters in general, even though a particular one doesn’t stand out for me at the moment: A Room with a View (definitely one of my favorites this year) and The Wings of the Dove.

Which countries did you go to through the page in your year of reading?
This might be my favorite question, even though my answer may be paltry. America, Great Britain, Ireland, Spain, France, Austria (!), Romania, Bulgaria (those two thanks to Dracula), Italy, India. Next year I must get Africa in there. And I don’t know how Russia got left out. I must have out-Russianed myself in 2008.

Which book wouldn’t you have read without someone’s specific recommendation?
Cotillion, by Georgette Heyer, and thus the rest of the Heyer books. These came recommended by a whole host of people, but my coworker Amanda was the one who literally took me into the store and put this book in my hands.

Which author was new to you in 2009 that you now want to read the entire works of?
This will be a long list. Heyer, as mentioned above. Lahiri; I can’t believe I waited this long to read her. Wilkie Collins. E.M. Forster–Howard’s End is my February book club pick, so I’m on my way there. Du Maurier. Kazuo Ishiguro, even though technically the first book I read by him was my last book completed in 2008, it feels like I discovered him this year.

Which books are you annoyed you didn’t read?
Oh so many. I wish I had finished The Brothers Karamazov. I wish that I had read Wolf Hall and Brooklyn–two books published this year that everyone is raving about but that I haven’t bought yet. I wanted to read Little Dorrit before watching the miniseries, but I didn’t, so now both are waiting for me. I bought The Way We Live Now, and of course now I’m worried that it will be more like The Way We Lived Last Year. Hopefully not.

Did you read any books you have always been meaning to read?
Yes! The Sound and the Fury, which I got through with the help of a friend reading it concurrently. David Copperfield and The Wings of the Dove were two big books that I’d had on my shelf for ages. All three of these lived up to their expectations.

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2009: A Year in Review

December 30, 2009

Well, I was hoping to finish North and South before posting this, but it’s time to admit defeat on that one. I will certainly spend some time tomorrow reading it, but I highly doubt that I will be able to complete it by the evening. I spent some time counting up the books I read and categorizing them using categories that I used last year, even though I didn’t have a blog then! I believe that I must have stolen the idea from Danielle over at A Work in Progress, because that was one of the first blogs I started reading. Since I can’t link to the previous year’s numbers, I will just document them here, in the same place. The first column is last year’s data; the second column is this year’s data. Next year, I plan to record all my books in librarything, because that seems easier than tallying everything by hand.

2008/2009

Books completed: 33 / 57

Fiction: 25 / 49
Non-fiction: 8 / 8

Of the fiction:
Classics: 14 / 15
Mysteries: 0 / 14
Young adult novels: 0 / 1
Short story collections: 0 / 3
Individual stories: 0 / lots
Graphic novels: 0 / 0
Plays: 1 / 0
Modern literature ? / 10
Other ? / 6
In my system, a book must be only one genre. Therefore, Wilkie Collins counts as a “classic”, not as a “mystery,” etc.

Books written by women: 16 / 35
Books written by men: 17 / 22
Books written by multiple authors: 0 / 0

Books by American authors: 13 / 23
Books by British/Irish authors: 4 / 28
Books by Canadian/Australian authors: 2 / 2
Books in translation: 14 / 4

Books that were re-reads: ? / 1

There are a few themes here that deserve comment:

1. I read many more books! I think this was because I read much shorter books. It’s not recorded on the blog, but most of the books I read last year were huge, long, translated books. This year I read many more “average length” books.

2. This was the year of the mystery. I read 14 mystery stories, and that doesn’t even count Wilkie Collins. Also, two of the non-fiction books I read, The Monster of Florence and The Mysterious Mr Whicher, were very mysterious books as well. I found three modern mystery series that I love: Jacqueline Winspear’s amazing Maisie Dobbs books, Tasha Alexander’s Lady Emily books, and Rhys Bowen’s Her Royal Spyness series. It’s not surprising that these series combine historical fiction and mystery, two of my favorite genres.

3. I finally read some short stories! In 2008, after compiling the list above, I was horrified to learn that I hadn’t read a single short story. In the past, I had always been a huge story advocate. I resolved to read at least one a week in 2009. I definitely kept that resolution–I completed three short story collections and read many more single short stories out of other books. This is something that I really enjoyed doing and definitely plan on continuing in 2010.

4. I didn’t read as much literature in translation. This is something that I’m only slightly sad about, because I was pretty surprised that last year over half of my books were by non-Americans. Of course, this year that’s true, too, I simply just read a lot of English literature by non-Americans. I’m not too worried about this, but I do have a slight desire to try and read more contemporary literature in translation instead of just classic translated works.

I’ll complete my wrap-up tomorrow with some more qualitative questions that I’m borrowing from Savidge Reads.

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Teaser Tuesday: North and South

December 29, 2009

After a short holiday blog break, I’m now thoroughly looking forward to an exciting 2010 all over the book blogs. Seeing everyone’s end-of-year favorites has been interesting; I should be posting mine tomorrow. It’s also fun to see everyone’s lists of goals for next year, whether they be challenges, restrictions, or amorphous projects. I’ve been putting a few ideas out there already, such as my Austen project and my James brothers project. Another one of my goals is to continue to participate in the Classics Circuits, and I’m well on my way to that one–I’m hosting Edith Wharton in couple of weeks and I’ve signed up to read Their Eyes Were Watching God for February’s African American History Month tour. I haven’t signed up for any challenges, though, tempting as they are, mainly because I already have a full plate between the Classics Circuit and my real life book club, which I hope to continue attending every other month.

Truthfully, it’s been hard to stop and think about next year’s reading plans because I am entirely engulfed in Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. I suppose that I shouldn’t be surprised, given how much I enjoy a classic victorian novel. But after reading several reviews of this book, I was a little unsure of what to expect. Would I find it a simple retelling of Pride and Prejudice? Or would I find it preachy? Luckily, I haven’t found the book to be either of these things. Of course, a small part of the plot (the love story) does so far seem to be remarkably similar to the plot in Pride and Prejudice. But the entire rest of the novel, that is, the remaining eight-five percent, focuses on something new and exciting: the plight of mill town workers before, during, and after a strike. Here’s one of my favorite passages so far. We are hearing our hero, Margaret, thinking about Mr Thorton, one of the town mill-owners.

Of course, speaking so of the fate that, as a master, might be his own in the fluctuations of commerce, he was not likely to have more sympathy with that of the workmen, who were passed by in the swift merciless improvement or alteration; who would fain lie down and quietly die out of the world that needed them not, but felt as if they could never rest in their graves for the clinging cries of the beloved and helpless they would leave behind; who envied the power of the wild bird, who can feed her young with her very heart’s blood. Margaret’s whole soul rose up against him while he reasoned in this way –as if commerce were everything and humanity nothing. She could hardly thank him for the individual kindness, which brought him that very evening to offer her — for the delicacy that made him understand that he must offer her privately — every convenience for illness that his own wealth or his mother’s foresight that had caused then to accumulate in their household…

From pages 151-152 of the Penguin Classics edition.

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The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett

December 21, 2009

I don’t know if I could say this any more forcefully: You must go read this book! It’s a novella, and quite easy reading, so it’s perfect for this time of year. What would happen if Queen Elizabeth suddenly and mysteriously became an obsessive reader? Alan Bennett answers that question rather hilariously in this short tale that any reader would enjoy. The Queen’s worldview and her priorities begin to change, and I found myself identifying with her frequently. If she hadn’t had servants, her house would have gone uncleaned, and she was never seen without a book while traveling in the car. Of course, as I read about the Queen’s reading list, I certainly added many more books to my own list. I’m now very excited to read something by Nancy Mitford. The Uncommon Reader makes many poignant observations about what it means to be “a reader;” any frequent reader would find this book amusing; especially at this time of year while we are all compiling our “best of” lists and thinking about how our reading has affected us this year.

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Overdosing on Victorians

December 18, 2009

I think that this has clearly been my season to go overboard on Victorian literature and historical fiction. After finishing the Dickens, I started Elizabeth Gaskell’s North and South. So far, I’m enjoying the book, but I’ve only just begun, so I’m interested to see how I feel as the book gets deeper into the plot. The reviewers on the Classics Circuit have, in general, given tepid praise to the book. I hope that Gaskill’s occasional urge to “preach” doesn’t bother me too much. I laughed at the story about Gaskill’s shock upon discovering the true identity of George Eliot, as related at Moored at Sea. I would suggest reading the story if you haven’t already.

My need for comfort reads didn’t disappear one I set aside the Dostoevsky. Since then, I’ve read two more historical fiction mystery books. That’s right, after finishing the first book in the Lady Emily Ashton series, I went out and got the next two. The general consensus that the books improve as the series continues is definitely correct. I’ve enjoyed both of these even more than I did the first book. I especially loved spending time in Vienna in A Fatal Waltz. It’s so much fun to read about Emily and her friends raising eyebrows all over Victorian England.

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The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Charles Dickens

December 16, 2009

After a slow start with The Mystery of Edwin Drood, I sped right through the “end,” which is quite unfortunate because this book doesn’t even have a proper ending. It was left unfinished when Dickens died, although some of the author’s friends and papers give hints about the intended ending. The novel centers around a group of people in the town of Cloisterham. Two of the young characters, Rosa and Edwin, are engaged to be married, despite the fact that they aren’t in love. They are both orphans, and their parents were friends and wished for the two to eventually get married. Edwin spends a good deal of time with his Uncle Jasper, who also happens to be Rosa’s music teacher. Unfortunately, Uncle Jasper is in love with Rosa, much to her horror. Into this situation enter a brother and a sister, Neville and Helena. They are “charity cases” of one of the town’s reverends. Now what should happen but of course, Neville also falls in love with Rosa. Quite a messy love quadrangle. When one of the people in this crowd goes missing, a scandal ensues, with everyone pointing fingers at everyone else.

I am hardly in a position to judge the quality of this book. Since it ends so abruptly, it’s difficult to see if the mystery would have been interesting or if the characters would have been well developed. I was frustrated, however, because I did not like any of the characters. Rosa is so simpering and boring that she seemed like a parody of a hapless Victorian woman. It was hard for me not to roll my eyes at some of the things that were said about her, never mind for me to understand how multiple men were in love with her. The one character that I did like–Neville Landless–didn’t receive much page time, though I wish he had. My ambivalence towards the characters really surprised me, as my favorite thing about Dickens is usually that his characters are so endearing.

I read this book in anticipation of reading Drood by Dan Simmons. That book is actually narrated by a fictional Wilkie Collins, and concerns the events surrounding the last years of Dickens’ life. Surprisingly, right around the same time, Matthew Pearl’s book, The Last Dickens, was published. As far as I can tell, that book has a similar premise, but without the Wilkie. What an odd coincidence. The reviews for Drood were all over the map, so I’m excited to read it myself to see how I like it.

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Bellwether by Connie Willis

December 14, 2009

A number of friends had recommended that I try some books by Connie Willis. She has a reputation for being funny, smart, and witty. I borrowed a copy of Bellwether from a friend, and although I read it quickly, I discovered that the book didn’t age well. The main character in this novel researches fads and how they start. She works at a large corporate research company, along with biologists, physicists, and other scientists. While some of the humor in this book really did make me smile–particularly the jokes about corporate culture–many of them fell flat. I ultimately realized that this was often because the world has changed enough in the past thirteen years that the fads of the 90s are no longer really interesting to me. The constant references to “cafe lattes” (did we really call them that then?) and “anti-smoking fads” just don’t seem funny to me. If someone wrote a book just like this last year, I think I might enjoy it more. I did like the writing, though, so I’d like to try another book by Willis. Perhaps I’ll try To Say Nothing of the Dog. Since that book is about time travel, perhaps it won’t be quite so dependent on the trends during the time it was published. I’m always on the lookout for funny books, because I tend to get bogged down when I read too many serious books in a row. So I’d be thrilled to find an interesting, witty, author!