Here it is September, and not only that but mid-September, and I have not posted my periodic list of books absorbed.
This will be the second year I have attempted a complete list of books. Some I read, some I hear, as CD sets in the car while commuting.
Memento Mori, by Murial Spark. Although recommended on MaudNewton.com, it never grabbed my interest. Didn’t finish.
The Spectator Bird, by Wallace Stegner. Book on CD. National Book Award, 1976. Solid novel. Sad. The tangents aren’t tangents, it all ties together. First person with no wavering, though of course the narrator is wavering — it’s his uncertain life, while he leads it. Set in the early ’70s, mostly a flashback to 1956, three months in Copenhagen, for him to heal from a heart attack and both he and his wife to begin to heal from the drowning of their young adult son.
Our Kind of Traitor, by John le Carre. Book on CD. Do le Carre’s recent books all start out the same way? Well-drawn person who turns out to be a secondary character? Still, I enjoy his political thrillers. He found he didn’t need a Cold War setting, after all.
Literary Life: A Second Memoir, by Larry McMurtry. Short, oddly entertaining and it shouldn’t be. It’s pretty obvious McMurtry shot this volumne out to fulfill a contract. It’s not careless, but put much out there. Still, if you want to spend a couple of hours watching a great writer’s mind working, here it is.
The Outliers, by Malcolm Gladwell. Book on CD. Narrated by the author. Gladwell has made my my white list, he can voice audio books just fine. I’ve not let go of his 10,000-hour theory of success go in the months since. It is a valuable concept The book is broader than that — who and what are the outliers among us. Gladwell goes for the why, and it makes sense.
The Illumination, by Kevin Brockmeier. Don’t tell me it’s not fantasy in the Stephen King mode. But character driven more than plot driven, the latter being King’s mode. Little Rock references are used in one of the cities the novel is set in, but the city is not identified. A creepy small novel, with an ending not very satisfying — maybe that was on purpose.
Water for Elephants, by Sarah Gruen. Book on CD. Entertaining yet predictable romance about a young veterinary student who ends up working for a circus. Melodrama and not a thing wrong with that. The book is famous for starting as a National Novel Writing Month project. Will see the movie when it’s released on DVD in a few weeks.
Barney’s Version, by Mordechai Richler. Didn’t finish, failed to grab me. Later in the year saw the movie adaptation on DVD. May return to the book.
Spousonomics: Using Economics to Master Love, Marriage, and Dirty Dishes, by Paula Szuchman and Jenny Anderson. Fun book, pushes you to see your life, far more than just your life as half of a couple, in a new light. If I owned the book, I’d be doing a lot of underlining.
How to Live, or, A Life of Montaigne in One Question and Twenty Attempts at an Answer, by Sarah Bakewell. A fantastic book I first checked out of the library in January, but had to return because others had placed holds on it. Montaigne coined the term “essay” for the kind of short pieces he wrote. If he wasn’t the first essayist, he gave it a form, although his is so loose that centuries of teachers would have marked up all his projects. He’s hard to read now — he was a 16th-century nobleman writing in French. Translations thus are frustrating. Bakewell summaries Montaigne’s prolific output, organized simultaneously into themes and biography. Clever, and it works. Montaigne would have been at home blogging. One of my favorites this year. If I find it in paperback, I’ll buy it.
Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life, by Karen Armstrong. Easy to skim, and I did.
Good to Great and the Social Sectors: A Monograph to Accompany Good to Great, by Jim Collins. Book on CD. Read the book later in the year. A must for anyone active in non-profits, as a volunteer or otherwise. It’s just 42 pages.
Foreign Bodies, by Cynthia Ozick. Book on CD. Thoughtful novel about subtle cruelty and intergenerational traits. Deftly written.
While Mortals Sleep, by Kurt Vonnegut. It’s not that they’re uneven, but these are early stories. I could learn a lot by studying them, but there’s so much else to read. So I went through them but did not pore over.
A Visit from the Goon Squad, by Jennifer Egan. Book on CD. Winner this month of the 2010 Pulitzer for fiction. A contender for my book of the year. It’s everything than Franzen wants thematically in his Freedom but both more digestible and cleverer. A common criticism of Egan’s book is that it’s not set in chronological order, which is called postmodern or experimental. Posh. Nothing new about moving time elements around. Now having a chapter in the form of PowerPoint slides — yeah, that’s new, and charming.
Broom of the System, by David Foster Wallace. Book on CD, Didn’t finish. It was straightforward enough but way too many characters are too unpleasant to spend time with. People I respect revere DFW. Me, I don’t get it.
The Keep, by Jennifer Egan. Book on CD. Almost as good as Goon Squad, and certainly couldn’t be more different. Young NYC loser ends up in a remote German castle with a childhood rival. I now plan to read every Egan book.
Mary Ann in Autumn: A Tales of the City Novel, by Armistead Maupin. Didn’t finish. Wrong month, when I’ve got Franzen and Egan, even Wallace.
Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen. Book on CD. Hated the beginning, whiny suburbanites who end up being not even secondary characters. But effective way to start. Once Franzen gets rolling, the couple at the center and their college friend, all through decades of their lives, are unforgettable. Is the book a tragedy (in the common not classical sense)? It can be argued either way, which does make it memorable.
Elmer Gantry, by Sinclair Lewis. Book on CD. A classic, deservedly. Even if Lewis editorializes way too much, he is a great storyteller. Later saw the movie, and even though the film took huge shortcuts, cutting the last two-thirds of the plot (really), it contained all the book’s main points.
The Athletic Benchley: 105 Exercises from the Detroit Athletic Club News, edited by Thomas J. Saunders. A new (2010) anthology. Bob was commissioned to write for this newsletter, before the movies but after he got famous. Any chance to read newly found Benchley is a treasure. Some are very good. The book is beautifully made, includes all the illustrations and the typography of the newsletter.
The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit by Sloan Wilson. Book on CD. Close enough to the Gregory Peck movie adaptation, but was hoping for more depth. The Jonathan Franzen introduction has every element of bad forwards, introductions and prefaces (is there a difference?). As a recorded book I couldn’t easily follow my practice of reading this sort of stuff afterward, if at all. What ruins a preface? Too long, self-referential, presumptuous, arcane and full of spoilers.
Dog Sense: How the New Science of Dog Behavior Can Make You a Better Friend to Your Pet, by John Bradshaw. A valuable book of lay science, to counter dozens or hundreds of dog training books and magazine articles. Arguments are well sourced.
Patricia Highsmith: Selected Novels and Short Stories. Book on CD. The short stories vary widely, but even the soft, slight ones inform the two novels, Strangers on a Train and The Price of Salt. The editor, Joan Schenkar, penned a fine, informative introduction — it’s a brief biography with critical notes that inform what you’re about to read. The original Strangers is better than the movie, and it’s one of the best mid-career Hitchcock’s! (I need to rent that now.) The latter is my first lesbian novel: Love is love, you know?
The Submission, by Amy Waldman. Waldman does a hard thing: Form a cohesive, intertwining plot around some near facts of a 9/11 ground zero memorial, then even trickier, create full characters whom you care about. The twist? Anonymous entries for the design contest, with the bickering awards panel unknowingly choosing a Muslim architect.
Now, mid-month, the Highsmith is still in the deck in the Prius. The Collins and Bradshaw have entered the stacks of Shady Hills manse. All the rest are from the Fayetteville Public Library.
I’m not posting links to these titles. You know how to Google, don’t you, Bing? You just put your fingers down, and type.