Friday, December 10, 2010


Look at me go! Literature twice in a row, I don't know what the world's coming to. To be fair to my reputation, I already knew that I enjoy Forster, so it was not so much of an effort as it might have been.

A classic romance, about a girl (Lucy) who learns to expand her worldview on a trip to Italy. An unsuitable young man and his scandalous father teach Lucy to throw off the strictures of convention and be true to her own feelings. It takes her a great deal of lying and a stupid engagement before she gets it. I was quite taken aback by the happy ending (sorry to spoil the surprise). I didn't realize Forster - or anyone in the Bloomsbury group, for that matter - approved of happy endings. I thought they would be too, too bourgeois. I was glad to note, however, the vitally important sudden, meaningless death. If you haven't read Forster before (and you really should) it's kind of his shtick. This is the third novel of his that I've read, and it's happened every time. 

Grade: A

Thursday, December 9, 2010


I picked this up on the same hit-or-miss trip to the library as Practically Perfect (I really liked the cover. Also the mention of monsters). I hesitated because as we all know I am lazy, and the description struck me as Literature. No apparent easy romance. Possible effort in reading. All of these things turned out to be true, but I am Improving Myself.

Willie Upton returns home to the mythical town of Templeton, NY after she has a disastrous affair with her PhD supervisor. The day she returns home, the corpse of a huge monster surfaces in the lake. Willie's aging hippie-turned-Baptist mother informs her that she's lied about the identity of Willie's father all her life. It's a man in town, though she refuses to tell Willie who, and Willie puts her researching skills to work discovering who it is, reading through the history of her family for generations. Alternating between Willie's narrative are excepts from the diaries and correspondence of her ancestors, complete with photographs. The PoMo relationship between fiction, reality, truth, and narrative are here in full force* as Willie sifts through the layers of her and the town's history. Willie is a passionate and dynamic character, and there's the definite sense that life is messy and that's the way it should be. 

The Monsters of Templeton rocked my world. It is being added to the short list of books that have overwhelmed me with awesome and made me want to cry even when they weren't sad. If I hadn't already finished most of my Christmas shopping, this is what most people would be getting. 

Grade: A++

...And I am now officially caught up with the books I have read this month.

*Reminds me of my lone German lit class at Reed, with Ülker Gökberk, where we read W.G. Sebald's** The Emigrants and I struggled in vain to understand German way beyond my level and Post Modern German ideas.

**Any time I think of this author, which is surprisingly often based on my (lack of) comprehension of his book, I think his name in Ülker's crazy academic German: Vey-Gay ZAY-bald.


I have a soft spot for Sharon Shinn. All of her books without fail have romance, and I'm a sucker for women warriors stiff with fantasy notions of honor. Ultimate escape reading.

Wen is a great warrior with a tragic past that keeps her constantly wandering, searching for waifs to rescue. She rescues a young lady from kidnapping and ends up the captain of her guard, as difficult as Wen finds it to stay in one place. She doesn't believe she deserves happiness, comfort, friends, etc. Eventually she falls in love with the young lady's uncle (an unsuitable romance between a common soldier and a scholarly lord...), saves the day, finds redemption, and lives happily ever after.

As is often the case with Ms. Shinn, this book was quite silly. Wen's angst was a bit annoying, because she had no reason for it. I knew who the supersecret villain was as soon as she (sorry to give it away) was introduced. Though I flatter myself that I am supersmart, I don't think it was very subtle. This all isn't to say that I didn't enjoy it. Mindless fantasy is quite fun. Still, it wasn't Shinn's best*. 

Grade: B

*I think her best are probably the Samaria series, beginning with Archangel, which has a very interesting alternate world, hot and way more interesting romance, and better angst.


I may be one of the last people in Portland to read this (Mark hasn't yet, ha!), because it was 2010's selection for the "Everybody Reads" program. (I think the name basically explains it, but the idea is that everyone in Portland reads the same book, and even if they don't attend discussions or anything like that, we're drawn together more as a community. Oh Portland.) 

The book chronicles the last major outbreak of cholera in London, and its wide-ranging impact. It's a fascinating portrait of Victorian society and the evolution of scientific inquiry. As a person with a thoroughly literary, non-scientific mind, it was interesting acknowledging how certain things that I find to be natural and intuitive about science were completely ignored not so long ago (scientific method, anyone?). In the last two chapters, Johnson relates the epidemics of old to modern threats to civilization and their likely outcomes. It made me feel more sanguine about mass death and apocalypse. Perhaps not a great thing, but it was obscurely comforting to see the course of history as a continual pattern of overcoming and being brought down by tragedy. 

The writing was engaging, I learned stuff, it was good.

Grade: A

Chick Lit

This was the product of random browsing at one of Portland's tiny library branches (I've been forever spoiled by the vastness and quality of Santa Clara's main branch library. Portland's main branch is big and impressive-looking, but hard to navigate and surprisingly barren of books.) Random browsing is always hit-or-miss, and unfortunately this time it was a miss. 

Anna is an interior designer (which, she explains exhaustively, is practically an architect and much more important and interesting than being a decorator) who buys a cottage in the country to fix up and sell for profit. In the process she's handed an abused ex-racing greyhound, makes friends with the requisite eccentric harried young mother next door, and falls in love with the neighborhood. A man for whom she's nursed an unrequited burning love for THREE YEARS shows up and becomes an obviously unsatisfactory boyfriend. She gradually realizes that she should be with the local guy who is just as frumpy and unpolished as she is and they live happily ever after.

This book was for the most part boring, boring, boring. I like fluffy books, and dogs, but this one was just trying too hard. Anna's persona is somewhat appealing, since she wanders around in overalls and work boots and hits things with hammers, but anyone who waits for someone they never even went on a date with for three years is just dumb. The Wrong Man is excessively flat, and the Right Man is a bit spastic. Not a winner, alas. I have not found myself a new fluff author.

Grade: C

Wednesday, December 8, 2010


I picked up this book because I'm minorly* obsessed with the TV show Bones, which is loosely based on the life of the author Kathy Reichs. I was worried that reading the books would just be a rehashing of the plots I've seen on the show, but I was relieved to discover that the TV show so far has nothing to do with the books. 

Dr. Temperance Brennan is a forensic anthropologist working for the Quebec coroner's office. Based on her bone examinations, she believes there is a serial killer on the loose, butchering women. The police don't believe her until after they discover the bodies of more women: the plot of perhaps half of all police thrillers. (I don't mean this as a criticism, merely a qualifier.) Lots of suspense, as the killer of course comes after Tempe.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It has all of the necessary ingredients for a good mystery, and is genuinely scary at times. Tempe is an interesting and believable character. Quebec is not a popular novel setting, so the cultural observations are interesting side notes. The writing is better than average, and I look forward to the next book, wherein (one hopes) begins a romance. 
Category-specific** grade: A

*I just discovered that "minorly" is not a word. Discovering that a word I use regularly does not exist is shocking to me. I almost deleted it, but I still like it and find it useful. I don't think "majorly" should get all the adverbial glory.

**I plan on giving books grades, and since I am reading a wide variety of books, I don't want to rate all of my entertainment books C- or anything because I'm comparing them to Mrs. Dalloway (A++). Therefore, from here on out, all grades are to be taken in the context of their genre or category. Déjà Dead, for instance, was an excellent mystery book, but I wouldn't call it Literature. To paraphrase Mr. Hemingway, my world was not rocked.

Welcome to December

At the beginning of this month I decided that I needed more structure to my reading. Mostly I have been reading trashy books by authors I already know and what looks good on the recommended tables of Powell's. There isn't anything wrong with that, necessarily, but I've been struck with the Victorian notion of Improving Myself. 

My new reading program is this: every month, I will read a classic, a nonfiction book, a book in French, a Shakespeare play, and a trashy/genre book. Of course, for the most part I will read a lot more than that, but I'm just forcing myself to read more difficult books that I tend to let fall by the wayside. I read in one of Barbara Kingsolver's essay collections that she only reads great books because there are so many amazing books in the world and so little time in which to read them. If she starts a book and it doesn't wow her, she abandons it. As a committed (prudish) hedonist, I can't fully ascribe to her idea, but I can at least strive to improve some of my reading. (Besides, Kingsolver is a Serious Novelist and my life goal is to become a semi-famous writer of trashy but clever books.)

And so, the winners for December's book list are:
The Ghost Map by Stephen Johnson (Nonfiction)
A Room with a View by E.M. Forster 
Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupéry
Déjà Dead by Kathy Reichs

A large part of the reason why I'm starting this blog is that at this point I've read so many books that I'm starting to forget them. My innate laziness will be a challenge, but I want to document every book I read, even (especially?) the ones that weren't particularly worth my time. So you will hopefully be hearing a lot from me.