Monday, October 30, 2006

39 for 39

I love making lists, especially reading lists. For years I have kept an impossibly long list of books to read. Reviews, word-of-mouth, a favorite author's body of work, bookstores' new release tables and booksellers' shelf-talkers, all inspire me.

In 2004 and 2005, I wrote lists of authors I wanted to read, which I thought would give me more latitude in my reading, but still allow me to set some goals. And, I managed a few, but I find it's hard to only read off the list—so many books, so little time, you know?

Recently, I have been inspired by a few bloggers and book forum participants who make reading lists—and read off them. As a result, I have decided to make a list for the new year that begins with my birthday. 39 books for 39 years, in no apparent order:

A Small Death in Lisbon, Robert Wilson
recommended by father-in-law, a publicity blip in '06 renewed my interest
Memento Mori, Muriel Spark
part of the Muriel Spark Project
Pride and Prejudice, Jane Austen
I'm only slightly ashamed to admit I'm a 39-year-old P&P virgin
The Big Oyster, Mark Kurlansky
represents the literary side of my love affair with oysters
The Keep, Jennifer Egan
strong early reviews
Look at Me, Jennifer Egan
Charles Baxter recommended it; 2001 National Book Award finalist
Heat, Bill Buford
read excerpt in the New Yorker
Nasty Bits, Tony Bourdain
Bourdain rocks
A Year in the World, Frances Mayes
a travel must-read
Poet of the Appetites, Joan Reardon
big fat biography of M.F.K. Fisher
11. something by M.F.K. Fisher
Consider the Oyster
is a possibility
12. The School at the Chalet, Elinor M. Brent-Dyer
a Chicklit recommendation
13. Daughter's Keeper, Ayelet Waldman
the only Waldman I haven't read
14. a Ripley book by Patricia Highsmith
a classic
15. Play It As It Lays, Joan Didion
a classic
16. The Spy Who Came In from the Cold, John le Carre
a classic by a master
17. The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers
started before Oprah chose it for her book club; would like to finish
18. Stone Diaries, Carol Shields
award-winning Shields
19. The Yiddish Policeman's Union, Michael Chabon
not yet published, but highly anticipated
20. The 5th Business, Robertson Davies
you've got to start somewhere
21. The Whole World Over, Julia Glass
reading for '07 Conversation with Books
22. The Thief Lord, Cornelia Funke
previewing for the children
23. The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Victor Hugo
inspired by summer '06 trip to Paris
24. Case Histories, Kate Atkinson
catching up with Atkinson
25. One Good Turn, Kate Atkinson
she's hit her stride
26. Harriet the Spy, Louise Fitzhugh
a classic I missed as a child
27. Shadow of the Wind, Carlos Ruiz Zafon
started on Paris summer vacation, need to finish
28. Specimen Days, Michael Cunningham
three linked stories, Walt Whitman, why not?
29. Time Travellers Wife, Audrey Nieffenneger
it's never too late...
30. Places in Between, Rory Stewart
outstanding front-page NYT book review
31. The Pursuit of Love/Love in a Cold Climate, Nancy Mitford
all self-respecting Chicklit-er seems to read Mitford, and this was the first book I found locally
32. A Complicated Kindness, Miriam Toews
it's slim
33. The Know-It-All, A.J. Jacobs
Chicklit recommendation, token nonfiction
34. White Ghost Girls, Alice Greenway
read strong reviews for this too
35. Jane Austen Book Club, Karen Joy Fowler
Fowler is one of friend Krista's favorite authors
36. My Name Is Red, Orhan Pamuk
2006 Nobel Prize for literature winner
37. Brief History of the Dead, Kevin Brockmeier
honors for the book I've checked out most from the library this year
38. Snow Leopard, Peter Matthiessen
classic Matthiessen
39. Feeding a Yen, Calvin Trillin
recommended, and short

Making lists is fun, but problematic—where to start and where to end are conundrums. The above list largely represents books that I already own—some having been shelf-sitters longer than others. Some authors have been nagging at me for years (John le Carre, Calvin Trillin, M.F.K. Fisher, Robertson Davies, Peter Matthiessen), while some books have been nagging very persistently for a shorter time (The Brief History of the Dead, The Places in Between). The list also includes a book that has not yet been published (The Yiddish Policeman's Union). And, it does not include any books that I might read for book groups (on- and offline) or that I might pick up while browsing at a bookstore or the library, nor does it include anything in the ongoing Muriel Spark Project.

A few books have even made a reserve list:
Gone-Away Lake, Elizabeth Enright
In Patagonia, Bruce Chatwin
Spies, Michael Frayn
The King of Infinite Spaces, James Hynes
Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Jonathan Safran Foer
Salt, Mark Kurlansky
1968, Mark Kurlansky
something by John McPhee (Oranges)

Number Fifteen

#15, Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro
After reading some strong reviews last fall, finding it on the NYT Notable list, and following its progress in The Morning NewsTournament of Books, I bumped Never Let Me Go up my list. This is one of the novels I’ve read this year that will stick with me for a long time. I’m not going to even attempt a plot synopsis; rather I will note a few things that I really dug.

Ishiguro has an amazing controlled style that made me feel very uncomfortable, but it was a page-turning uncomfortable. At any given moment, the reader only knows as much as necessary, but is left questioning all that goes unsaid.

Ishiguro’s characters are so well-drawn. The novel explores an intense relationship between three characters, beginning with their time as children at boarding school until their deaths, which often reminded me of the way Margaret Atwood depicts friendships with rifts and shifts.

The backdrop of the novel involves cloning and organ harvest, which smacks right up against the science and ethics topics I love to think about, and it’s utterly eerie. I know Ishiguro is on record as saying the novel isn’t about cloning, but his treatment of breaking science is timely and forces the reader to think about what is biomedically possible.

Highly recommended if you like your fiction creepy, contained, or post-apocalyptic. (Checked out from the library)

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

More Catching Up

#13, What Do You Do All Day?, by Amy Scheibe
I have a real weak spot for smart, light-hearted fiction, which I’ve started to call “lit lite”. The criteria? Feminine is good; must be meatier than chick lit; must not take itself too seriously. WDYDAD qualified on all counts plus was published by my former employer (St. Martin's Press)—how could I go wrong? Amy Scheibe, who is an editor at Counterpoint Press, has written an intelligent and funny novel about being a stay-at-home mom and its attendant adventures (high and low). The only slightly annoying part was the unlikable, slick husband and the drama that centered around his fidelity while he was on a three-month-long business trip. And, I did resent the occasional instance where our protagonist was portrayed as either paranoid or bumbling. Otherwise, I breezed my way through this book, alternately laughing and crying as the protagonist (Jennifer Bradley, a former antiquities art dealer) discovers the joys and struggles of parenting and confronts the challenges of being a modern mother. (Checked out from the library)

#14, Their Heads Are Green and Their Hands Are Blue, by Paul Bowles
Way back in January, this was my selection for book group. Since I no longer work for a book publisher, I don’t have access to the latest and greatest books, so I couldn't offer an advanced reading copy. I also didn’t want to choose either a Random House title (almost everyone in our group works for Bertelsman and I think they ought to read outside the box) or a Holtzbrinck title (I hate hitting up my successor for books every time it’s my turn to choose). So, I picked a classic that would be provocative and would have a strong sense of place (Morocco and Sri Lanka, among others). Bowles is so amazing; his essays are lyrical and timely, and he is a consummately keen observer, which is a quality I value highly in a writer. Needless to say, no one in the group bothered to read the book so we never discussed it. The essay on music is worth the price of the book alone. Harper Collins is in the process of reissuing Bowles’s backlist with gorgeous jackets, and they’re all on my list, starting with The Spider’s House. (Purchased at McNally Robinson, a Soho indie and one of the few bright spots in what had been a mostly rancid business trip for MHSP in June 2005).

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

2006 National Book Awards

Around this time tomorrow morning, Lawrence Ferlinghetti will announce the finalists for the National Book Award. For a publishing geek, the anticipation is as strong as a child's suspense on Christmas morning! Stay tuned.