Monday, February 02, 2009

January recap

books read in January: 4

Dressed for Death (Donna Leon)
Commissario Brunetti is called in on a case, just as his family is escaping to the cool mountains for the August vacation. Venice is vividly described as hot, sticky, and stinky. Leon’s descriptive powers are on overdrive so you can see and smell the algae blooming on the canals. Brunetti’s vacation will wait as he investigates the brutal murder—is there any other kind—of a transvestite, whose face is bashed beyond recognition. As always, the investigation treads on politically sensitive ground, involving powerful people in high places. The inimitable Vice Questore Patta is involved in his own public scandal when his wife takes up with a porn film director—a delicious twist. We’re also introduced to Patta’s new administrative assistant, the delightful Signora Elettra, who brings a distinctive flair to the office. No. 3 in the series.

Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins)
Despite the industry buzz and strong reviews upon publication, I was highly skeptical of Hunger Games. Also, right up front, I’ll tell you I have grown weary of every children’s book worth its salt being part of a series. Doesn't anyone write stand-alone novels any more? That said, I found Hunger Games utterly gripping. This young adult novel is set in a post-apocalyptic North America and follows sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen, who is a contestant in the Capitol’s annual Hunger Games, a televised fight to the death with teenagers representing other districts. It has shades of Ender’s Game and, to a lesser degree, Lord of the Flies. The novel’s premise is cruel, to be sure, which was my initial hesitation, but the author handles her story and characters sensitively. I loved Katniss, who, in addition to facing her survival, asks many of the tough coming-of-age questions. Occasionally suspenseful, I found myself holding my breath through a six-page section near the end. Lots of discussion points make it good for a book group. I am over my disappointment that this book is the first in a series. I am totally hooked and eager for the next book.

Ghostwalk (Rebecca Stott)
I chose Ghostwalk for my book group following a spate of testosterone-driven fiction. It was instantly appealing to me because it was historical with a literary mystery, has a female author, and was smart but not overly clever. I’m far too tired to write my own synopsis so I’m going to copy what the publisher has provided Powell's:
A Cambridge historian, Elizabeth Vogelsang, is found drowned, clutching a glass prism in her hand. The book she was writing about Isaac Newton's involvement with alchemy-the culmination of her lifelong obsession with the seventeenth century-remains unfinished. When her son, Cameron, asks his former lover, Lydia Brooke, to ghostwrite the missing final chapters of his mother's book, Lydia agrees and moves into Elizabeth's house-a studio in an orchard where the light moves restlessly across the walls. Soon Lydia discovers that the shadow of violence that has fallen across present-day Cambridge, which escalates to a series of murders, may have its origins in the troubling evidence that Elizabeth's research has unearthed. As Lydia becomes ensnared in a dangerous conspiracy that reawakens ghosts of the past, the seventeenth century slowly seeps into the twenty-first, with the city of Cambridge the bridge between them.

Filled with evocative descriptions of Cambridge, past and present, Ghostwalk centers around a real historical mystery that Rebecca Stott has uncovered involving Newton's alchemy. In it, time and relationships are entangled-the present with the seventeenth century, and figures from the past with the love-torn twenty-first-century woman who is trying to discover their secrets.
Unaccustomed Earth (Jhumpa Lahiri)
Based on unflinching admiration for Jhumpa Lahiri (I think I’m one of the few who didn’t hate her mostly uneven first novel, The Namesake), I bought Unaccustomed Earth the day it was released in hardcover. Nearly a year passed though before I cracked the spine, and when I did, I savored each word, phrase, and image. Lahiri trods familiar ground here—immigrants, multigenerational relationships, and familial expectations—but she does it oh so well. Just as in Lahiri’s first collection, Interpreter of Maladies, my favorite story was the title story, “Unaccustomed Earth,” in which Ruma, a young mother, receives a visit from her widowed father as well as a new prism to see that the choices she has made for herself are the same ones she criticized her mother for making.

Unaccustomed Earth was a title for the 2009 Conversation with Books at my alma mater. One of the panelists appreciated the uncertain endings that carry a hint of hope. I am delighted to see that Unaccustomed Earth is a contender in 2009 Tournament of Books.

books purchased in January: 3
At the same time that I am operating under a self-imposed ban on buying books, I have made a vow to buy at least one book a month from an independent bookseller. About a week ago, I found myself at Common Good Books, Garrison Keillor’s St. Paul bookstore, thinking that I’d done a great job not buying books all month and celebrating by purchasing Fiction on a Stick, a collection of stories from Minnesota writers. The moment I pulled out my credit card, I had a flashback to earlier in the month when I picked up the paperback release of Peter Matthiessen’s Shadow Country. Oh well, I tried. I also picked up a condensed paperback copy of American Masterworks by architecture critic Kenneth Frampton.


Caryl said...

Great reads last month! And you did pretty well with your book buying ban. I like the idea of buying from independents once a month.

jennifer said...

Thanks Caryl! It's really, really, really hard not to buy every book that interests me, but I'm getting into a habit of keeping a list while I'm browsing at the bookstore. When I get home, I can request books from the library. But, by allowing myself to buy one a month from an indie, I get the satisfaction of a well-planned purchase.

Girl Detective said...

I gave up my book vows this year, and I think I'm buying about the same amount, I just feel less guilty. I shop at Big Brain Comics in Minneapolis about once a week, so that's how I justify purchases at amazon and Barnes and Noble. I don't bother justifying purchases from Half Price books, because they always feel like gems I've uncovered in the stacks.

jennifer said...

GD, Ha! We shop at Uncle Sven's Comics, which is in our neighborhood, every other week. My husband was a regular when he was a Mac student in the late 80s. It's a blast taking our boys there. Usually I hold a table at the pub next door, but lately I've been buying my own comics.