Wednesday, November 20, 2002

All Fiction (alphabetical)

Absolute Power by David Baldacci - I think this is the best of his novels. Though the others are also good airplane reading.

Angels & Demons & Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown. Very clever, reasonably well written thrillers. Despite the hype about Da Vinci Code, I thought Angels & Demons was better. Also read his earlier 2 books, Deception Point and Digital Fortress, which were ok, but not as good.

Angle of Repose and Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner. My favorite writer. Great stories, beautifully written.

Atlas Shrugged by Ayn Rand - one of my all-time favorites. I first read Atlas when I was 12 or 13 and then reread it every few years into my twenties. In a 1991 Library of Congress survey, a majority of Americans named it second only to the Bible as the book that had most influenced their lives. I also enjoyed the The Fountainhead.

Bee Season by Myla Goldberg - When, much to everyone’s amazement, Eliza Naumann, the under-achiever in her odd family, wins her school’s spelling bee and then the subsequent state spelling bee, the dynamics of her family change, and the family begins to unravel. There were some parts of the book (particularly in the first half ) where the author spends too much time describing Eliza’s study of words - and the book drags. Not one of my favorite books, but I’m glad I stuck with it.

“Burglar” books by Lawrence Block – eg, Burglars Can’t be Choosers, The Burglar who Studied Spinoza, The Burglar who Liked to Quote Kipling, The Burglar in the Rye, etc. The main character is a bookseller by day, burglar by night and, of course, something always goes awry involving him in a mystery, which he solves with a whimsical, dry sense of humor.

The Book of Fate by Brad Meltzer – One of the better airplane books I’ve read in a while. A young aide is injured during an assassination attempt on the President, and a close friend of the President’s is killed. Eight years later, the aide sees the supposedly dead friend of the President – and then (of course), he has to figure out what’s going on. It’s engaging and entertaining.

Brothers K by David James Duncan – About a family in the 1950’s and 60’s. The youngest son, who narrates, describes it as “the story of an eight-way tangle of human beings.” The very different characters go in very different directions, but at the core, they’re tangled together as a family. It’s well written and Duncan’s phraseology is often very creative (eg, describing a family road trip as “pre posthumous purgatory”.) I also really enjoyed his first book, The River Why, and his more recent collection of short fiction and nonfiction, River Teeth.

The Big Rock Candy Mountain by Wallace Stegner - This is the only novel by Stegner that I’d never read. It’s a somewhat autobiographical account of his brutal childhood. His abusive, itinerant father is constantly chasing his latest get-rich-quick scheme, dragging his family behind him and getting more bitter at each failure. His ever-loyal mother always has an excuse for his father’s behavior. And the two sons who hate their father, love their mother, and are just trying to get through their childhood. The writing is very good (though not Stegner’s best), and it’s a book worth reading – but it’s not one of my favorites of Stegner’s.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon - I finally got around to reading this book that everyone raved about when it was published - and it turned out to be a great start for 2007. Written from the perspective of an autistic 15-yr old, it’s interesting, clever and funny in a very gentle way. Definitely worth reading.

A Debt to Pleasure by John Lanchester – At a loss for how to describe this book, I turned to Amazon’s editorial reviews, and they said it better than I could: “A gorgeous, dark, and sensuous book that is part cookbook, part novel, part eccentric philosophical treatise … Join Tarquin Winot as he embarks on a journey of the senses, regaling us with his wickedly funny, poisonously opinionated meditations on everything from the erotics of dislike to the psychology of a menu, from the perverse history of the peach to the brutalization of the palate, from cheese as "the corpse of milk" to the binding action of blood.” Keep a dictionary handy; Lanchester’s vocabulary is fantastic. Also read Fragrant Harbor, but it was extremely disappointing; I struggled to even finish it.

Dream West by David Nevin - historical novel about Charles Fremont (explorer and first (? or at least very early) governor of California. Also read Eagle's Cry, Nevin's novel about the Louisiana Purchase but didn't like it as much. Maybe because of personal interest rather than the content of the book, though.

John Dunning novels – The main character is a cop who becomes rare book dealer. The stories are mysteries related to rare books. Fun reading – and the book collecting aspect intrigued me.

The Echo Maker by Richard Powers – Powers’ new book (which just won the National Book Award) is about identity and what makes us who we are. A young guy, Mark Schluter, totals his truck on a straight stretch of highway and suffers brain damage resulting in Capgras Syndrome (a real neurological syndrome usually found in schizophrenics), which makes him believe that his sister isn’t really his sister, but is an imposter. His sister contacts an Oliver Sacks-type famous neurologist who gets involved in this unusual case while handling his own identity crisis. And there’s the nurse who seems over-qualified and overly-involved in Mark’s case. And there’s a cryptic note that was mysteriously left at Mark’s bedside while he was in the coma. Many questions, much complexity – but all very well-written and eventually resolved… It’s Powers doing what he does so well. (also see The Gold Bug Variations below.) Check out this interview with Powers in The Believer.

The Eight by Katherine Neville - smart, entertaining book about 2 women in different centuries; story revolves around a chess set. Entertaining novel. Very clever. Her second and third novels, A Calculated Risk and The Magic Circle, were bad and worse.

Einstein's Dreams by Alan Lightman - Short stories about Einstein day-dreaming about different concepts of time. Incredibly creative book. Also read a book of his essays Dance for Two, which I enjoyed, and his second novel, Good Benito, which I didn’t like much.

Ella Minnow Pea by Mark Dunn – Ella Minnow Pea lives on the island of Nollop, named for Nevin Nollop, who came up with the pangram (a sentence containing all letters of the alphabet), “The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog.” As the letters from this sentence fall off a building in the town, the town council decrees that those letters may no longer be used – and they disappear from the book. To regain the use of the full alphabet, the town has to come up with a pangram that’s no longer than 32 letters. It’s a creative, fun read - particularly toward the end, when you’re deciphering letters written without using most of the alphabet.

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde – Hitchhikers Guide meets the Classics. This is this author’s first novel and it’s great – very clever, well-written, lots of word play, and thoroughly entertaining. Set in an altered version of London in 1985, literature is so important, there’s a division of the “police” that handles “literary crimes” (like forging Byronic verse), time-travel is common, and (some) people can move between the “real” world and the worlds in literature. The heroine is a “Literary Detective” chasing a bad guy who’s kidnapping characters out of literature. I’ve also read his second book “Lost in a Good Book”, and his third (can’t remember the title) but they weren’t as good.

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – I picked up the 50th anniversary edition of this book, which I hadn’t read since high school, and I loved it. Great story, insightful and foresightful (is that a word?) And his coda in this edition – telling the politically correct types to keep their hands off his writing – is passionately written, very funny and absolutely right on target.

The Flanders Panel by Arturo Perez-Reverte. Clever, well-written mystery. Great vacation reading. It's a cross between Sherlock Holmes and Godel, Escher, Bach. And if you know anything about art/art history (which I don't), you'll probably like it even more, since the art world is the backdrop. I’ve subsequently read the rest of his books – all of which were disappointing.

Fourth Procedure by Stanley Pottinger - medical thriller with a great plot twist. excellent beach reading. This was his first book. The second one - titled something like "Slow Burning" wasn't nearly as good.

Galatea 2.2 by Richard Powers – After living in Holland for several years, publishing 4 books, and breaking up with his long-time girlfriend, Powers (the character) returns to the US to be a visiting writer at the midwestern college he’d attended. He gets involved in a project that culminates in an advanced Turing Test. Working with a cognitive neurologist who’s developing a computer neural network, Powers trains this system (named Helen) on the Great Books curriculum that he’d had to study as a grad student. This primary story line is classic Powers – it’s engaging and thought-provoking and very smart.

He simultaneously tells the story of his relationship with the girlfriend he left in Holland, and about a grad student he has a bizarre crush on. These parts of the book were less engaging - though I enjoyed the autobiographical aspects about the writing of his previous books.

As usual, Powers' writing is great. A few of my favorite lines/paragraphs:

What was I supposed to do for the rest of my life? The rest of the afternoon alone seemed unfillable. I went shopping. As always, retail left me with an ice-cream headache. (p32)
Though Taylor, I discovered how a book both mirrored and elicited the mind’s unreal ability to turn inward upon itself. (p141)
It occurred to me: awareness no more permitted its own description than life allowed you a seat at your own funeral. Awareness trapped itself inside itself. The function of consciousness must be in part to dummy up and shape a coherence from all competing, conflicting subsystems that processed experience. By nature, it lied. Any rendition we might make of consciousness would arise from it, and was thus about as reliable as the accused serving as sole witness for the prosecution. (p 218)
I picked up an old microscope at a flea market in Verona… I showed him where to put his eye. I watched him, thinking, this is how we attach to existence. We look through awareness’s tube and see the swarm at the end of the scope, taking what we come upon there for the full field of sight itself. (p226)

Geographer’s Library by Jon Fasman – another of these books (like DaVinci Code, Codex, Rule of Four, The Eight, etc.) which weaves history and in this case, alchemy, into a current-day mystery.

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson - 2005 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. Set in the 1950's, the narrator is a 77-year-old small-town pastor, whose health is failing, so he writes an extended letter to his 6-year-old son - about life, faith, and relationships between fathers and sons. The writing is quiet, insightful and often lyrical. After all the hype about this book, I was skeptical, and although it took me a while to read, I really enjoyed it.

The Gold Bug Variations by Richard Powers – The first time I started this book, I couldn’t get into it. Second time, I got into it and had a hard time putting it down. The book bounces between 2 timelines – 1950’s and the early study of DNA, and 1980s when a couple is trying to figure out why a very promising young geneticist dropped off the map (in the ‘50’s) and ended up (in the ‘80’s) doing grunt work at a data processing facility. This book is pretty dense and includes (sometimes very detailed) references to everything from music to genetics to art. (The title refers to Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Poe’s short story, The Gold Bug.) Not a lot actually happens in the book, but it’s incredibly clever and well-written. I’ve bought several of his other books to see if I like them as much. 7/06 update: Just read Plowing the Dark– and it’s not nearly as good as Gold Bug. Two different stories going on again but they don’t tie together well, and the writing seemed pretentious.

The Hanged Man's Song by John Sandford – I’ve read and enjoyed most of Sandford’s ‘Prey” series, so I bought this to read on the beach in Mexico. This is one of his series with a main character named Kidd, who’s a programmer/hacker. Kidd finds a friend brutally murdered, and his laptop (containing a lot of potentially harmful information about a lot of people) is missing, so (of course) Kidd and his wise-cracking hacker friends have to go after the murderer, find the laptop and revenge their friend’s murder. It contains some fun MacGuyver-like creativity related to hacking and breaking and entering. Overall, it’s entertaining and light… Just right for the beach.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams –I’ve started this book several times over several years, but never actually finished it until now. It’s silly, amusing, funny and sometimes very witty. I enjoyed it. (And now I know where Alta Vista’s Babel Fish got its name. Cool!)

Huckleberry Finn & Tom Sawyer by Twain – re-read these classics recently, and was reminded of Twain’s genius.

Greg Iles – I don’t remember which of his books I read first, but I liked it, and then read all his other books. Good airplane reading.

Jayber Crow by Wendell Berry – This is the first book I’ve ready by Berry and it made me a fan of his writing. About a small town and the people who make up the community, described through stories, anecdotes, observations and memoirs of Jayber Crow, the town barber (and grave digger and church janitor on the side). Insightful and beautifully written.

Laughter in the Dark by Vladimir Nabokov – This book starts: “Once upon a time there lived in Berlin, Germany, a man called Albinus. He was rich, respectable, happy; one day he abandoned his wife for the sake of a youthful mistress; he loved; was not loved; and his life ended in disaster.” The story includes some twists; the characters are great; the writing is very good – though not the amazing writing of later works. You know exactly where the story’s going, but it’s a great read to get there.

Life of Pi by Yann Martel – Fantastic story about a boy in a life raft with a tiger. (yeah, I know… sounds silly. I looked at it on those front-of-the-store best-seller racks several times, but never bought it until a friend recommended it.) And I loved it. It’s a wonderful, creative, well written story.

Lion’s Game by Nelson DeMille – entertaining airplane/beach book. I read all the rest of DeMille’s prior books and enjoyed them. His more recent books have been lackluster.

The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery - What a wonderful little book! I've read this book twice before - years ago in French and more recently in Spanish. In both cases, it took me forever to read the book and I was so focused on figuring out what each word/sentence meant that I didn't even remember the story. This time I read an English translation (2000, by Richard Howard,) with "restored original art", and I loved it! I'll definitely be re-reading this one periodically. And I immediately pulled a couple of other Saint-Exupery books off my bookshelf to re-read.

Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov – This is an incredibly disturbing book - but the writing is absolutely fantastic! The writing and the insight into Humbert Humbert are so good that by the end of the book, I didn’t hate him (as I’d fully expected to do); I just felt sorry for him. This writing is even more amazing given that English was Nabokov’s third (!) language. Gotta read more of his.

Lords of Discipline by Pat Conroy - my favorite of Conroy's – about a kid at military school. I also really enjoyed Prince of Tides. The Water is Wide is another great Conroy story – about a year he spent teaching on an impoverished island off the coast of S. Carolina. It’s scary that there are parts of the country seemingly living in a different time - but it’s a good story and well-written. I didn’t like Beach Music much.

March by Geraldine Brooks. I really enjoyed another of Geraldine Brooks' books (People of the Book), and I liked the premise of March, so I had high expectations for this book and wasn't disappointed. This book is about Mr. March, the absent father from Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, who'd enlisted in the Union army, where his idealism runs into the reality of war. The book was engaging and well-written.

A Meeting by the River by Christopher Isherwood. Two very different brothers – one a successful publisher with wife and kids in London and a gay lover in LA, the other preparing to take his vows as a Hindu monk - spend some time together after years of distance. The book flips back and forth from the perspective of one brother to that of the other. I enjoyed it and like the way Isherwood writes.

My Lucky Star by Joe Keenan. This one should be in its own “total trash” category, but it’s hilariously funny (particularly the first half) and extremely well-written. The soap-operatic plot twists and characters get a bit old in the second half, but it’s fun reading regardless. The author was a long-time writer for Frasier and this book is filled with that sharp, smart wit. Great summer reading.

Old School by Tobias Wolff – A wonderful coming-of-age novel about a scholarship kid in a New England prep school with a very strong literary tradition. In the writing contest in which the students compete to win a meeting with visiting authors (eg Frost, Ayn Rand), the protagonist is obsessed with winning the opportunity to meet Hemingway – and finds his voice in a way that has long-term repercussions.

People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks. An entertaining, very well-written fictionalized history of the Sarajevo Haggadah, a 14th century illuminated manuscript, which is on permanent display at the National Museum in Sarajevo. A rare manuscript, interesting characters, mystery, intrigue, history, romance, multiple time lines… what’s not to like? (See also New Yorker article about Dervis Korkut, the museum’s chief librarian, who saved the book from the Nazis.)

A Place on Earth by Wendell Berry – The second of Wendell Berry’s books I’ve read and, like Jayber Crow (see above), this is also about the community of Port William and the intertwined lives of the people who live there. This book has several main characters, and by the end, I felt like I knew them all well. Like Jayber Crow, this book meanders along at the pace of life in a small, rural town, and it seems appropriate to read it slowly and to savor the fantastic writing.

Pride & Prejudice by Jane Austen – Prompted by the impending release of the movie, I re-read this recently and again enjoyed Austen’s sharp wit and social commentary. (And the recent movie captures that very well, BTW.)

Prior Bad Acts by Tami Hoag – After giving up on PG Wodehouse (see reject pile for that story), I was looking for some “good” trash to read, and this paperback was right at the door when I walked into Barnes & Noble. It’s a decent airplane book – gory murder, liberal judge who’s in danger, wise-cracking cops, and even the (completely expected) twist toward the end. It’s a quick, entertaining and completely undemanding read.

The Razor's Edge by Somerset Maugham - About a young American WWI veteran, who leaves his fiance and a comfortable life / opportunities, etc. and goes to Europe in search of meaning / personal fulfillment. Over the years, he comes in and out of contact with the other characters, whose conventional lives look caricatured. I’ve heard people rave about this book – but I just thought it was ok.

Recapitulation by Wallace Stegner – A successful diplomat returns to his home town to organize his aunt’s funeral and reflects on the people who impacted him while he was growing up, and influenced who he has become.

Rule of Four by Ian Caldwell and Dustin Thomason – Of the same genre as The Da Vinci code, this story revolves around a 15th century coded document. Better written than Da Vinci code.

Second Growth by Wallace Stegner – About a rural town in New England - the people who live there, the urbanites who spend their summers there, and the encroaching outside world. Not one of my favorites of Stegner’s, but I enjoyed it and it’s – as always – well-written.

Secret life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd – for some reason, it reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird. Good story and well written. Very easy reading. Her next book, Mermaid Chair, was very disappointing.

Shogun by James Clavell - fantastic book. A "must read." (I took a class at college on feudal Japan because of this book.)The rest of that series are also good, but not as good.

Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse - I was looking for something quick to read when I saw a copy of Siddhartha on one of my bookshelves. Well, this is one of those books that I quickly realized should be read slowly, so it wasn’t particularly quick - but it was great. Siddhartha goes through several very different phases of seeking in his life, and eventually reaches serenity and enlightenment. Definitely adding Hesse to my list to read more of his.

Daniel Silva novels – I read several of these and enjoyed them. Main character is a Mossad agent who’s also an art restorer. Very entertaining.

Snows of Kilimanjaro by Hemingway - great collection of short stories.

Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl – I bought this book because of the absurd title and the creative layout – each chapter is a class on a syllabus for a Great Works literature course, with the conclusion as the final exam. It’s about a high school senior and her father, a professor – but it gets more complicated than the standard coming-of-age fare. I was immediately impressed with the writing, described by one reviewer as demonstrating a “talent for verbal acrobatics”. This is the author’s first book – published to mostly rave reviews - so I’ll bet there are more to come from her.

Spectator Bird by Wallace Stegner – Through reading his journal from the trip, an elderly couple remember a trip they took 20 years previously. Switching back and forth from the trip to the present, the book is about life, getting old, marriage, commitment, choices. It’s by Stegner – so (as always) it’s beautifully written.

Sphere by Michael Crighton - very engaging novel about a spherical space ship lying on the floor of the ocean. Great beach reading.

A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson - laugh-out-loud-funny book about hiking the Appalachian Trail. His book about Australia (In a Sunburned Country) is also good, but not as good.

Wolf Willow by Wallace Stegner – part history, part memoir and part fiction about the plains of southern Saskatchewan, where Stegner grew up. As always, Stegner’s writing is amazing and his descriptions of this harsh frontier are beautiful. And as much as I like almost everything of Stegner's I've read, this is one of my favorites. A couple of paragraphs that particularly struck me – from The Whitemud River Range, a story about cowboys rounding up cattle during the brutal winter of 1906-07:

On those miraculously beautiful and murderously cold nights glittering with the green and blue darts from a sky like polished dark metal, when the moon had gone down, leaving the hollow heaven to the stars and the overflowing cold light of the Aurora, he thought he had moments of the clearest vision and saw himself plain in a universe simple, callous, and magnificent. In every direction from their pallid soapbubble of shelter the snow spread; here and there the implacable plain glinted back a spark – the beam of a cold star reflected in a crystal of ice. (p.163)

Nothing between them and the stars, nothing between them and the North Pole, nothing between them and the wolves, except a twelve by sixteen house of cloth so thin that every wind moved it and light showed through it and the shadows of men hulked angling along its slope, its roof so peppered with spark holes that lying in their beds they caught squinting glimpses of the stars. The silence gulped their little disturbances, their little tinklings and snorings and sighs and the muffled noises of discomfort and weariness. The earth and the sky gaped for them like opened jaws; they lay there like lozenges on a tongue, ready to be swallowed. (p. 165)

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