Monday, August 12, 2013

Books of 2013

The following titles are novels that I've read (or reread) this year in order from January to... (why am I writing this part?).  I tried to be brief because sometimes I just want to know the gist of something--give me the seed of the story, whether it's worth the time, and then shut up.  So, that's what I've done, with some anecdotal information because it's my blog.  

The Hobbit by Tolkien
     There's not much more to say about this stunning story that hasn't already been written, so although this was my first choice for the new year, I won't even attempt to be clever or creative, but rest assured, if you haven't read this and are contemplating it, stop reading this and pick up one of the best stories written, grab some hot tea (how very British of you!), and get to reading.  Sweet but not sappy, inventive and absolutely addictive.

Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
    So, I teach the hell out of some Shakespearean tragedy, but it's important to include his comedy as well.  While he's got some famous ones, I prefer Twelfth Night to do the job.  There's a line in there where Viola (dressed as the young man, Cesario) is cryptically telling the man she secretly loves that the only female in her family (referring to herself) could never speak her love, but sat "like Patience on a monument, smiling at grief."  That always gets me.  The whole plays is about mistaken identity and reinforces the idea that unless we are brutally honest with ourselves, we may never even know what we want anyway.  To the right is the promotional image for the film because there aren't any interesting covers for the actual play.  The movie is fun too!

Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling:
     I really, really, really wanted to like this book.  However, in the end, I didn't.  Here's the deal: I knew there was no Harry in this.  I knew there was no magic, or Hogwarts, but come on... just a little nod to something of the genre.  Just a knowing, wink-wink, would have been appreciated.  Oh, and for those of us who loved the emotional and physical adventure of Harry and Company, be prepared to be absolutely underwhelmed by the lack of both.  Tear, whimper.  It's an ostensibly realistic portrayal of a town with the old money and then those "on the other side" where characters from both sides are monsters.  It's a little dark, definitely depressing, but certainly well written.  I'll admit that Rowling's facility with language was a surprise; I'd pegged her as brilliantly creative, but left it at that.  This novel lets her flex those linguistic skills.  I just didn't like the story!

Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
     What a page turner, and much needed after the bore fest of my previous choice.  This one was chosen by our book club and was a perfect escapist novel filled with interesting narrators and some wild plot twists.  You have two narrators--one the husband, and one the wife--and as the reader, you're torn on more than one occasion as to which one you trust or even like.  I got into the style of the novel as well--it wasn't a bubble gum beach read by any means, but I didn't feel like I had to work too hard either.

Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
   To be fair, this is another one that I'm using with my juniors, but as an English teacher, I invariably need to reread it.  At times this can be taxing, but my-oh-my how I adore this little novel, ahem, novella.  The story of an unlikely friendship between two men, Lennie and George, trying to make their American Dream become a reality. And the film with the fantastic John Malkovich and Garry Sinise is really wonderful as well; I cry every time.  (This past semester I didn't really "prepare" before reading the last chapter aloud to them and I totally couldn't get my shit together.  Another sweet kid took over for me.) I love this particular cover.

The Color Purple by Alice Walker
     This is an outside reading option for a large research paper my AP seniors will be using basically as one of their sources, but all that doesn't seem to matter.  You will fall so deeply and completely into the dark world of Celie--you love her and want to fight for her.  Even when she's an adult, you still see her sometimes as this helpless child whose innocence was stolen from her--whose life was stolen.  You celebrate her evolution as a character through her diary entries which are also her prayers to God, whom she at times denies, and for good reason.  This is both a heartbreaking and heartwarming novel.  Pulitzer--duh?!  National Book Award, of course!  Now I get it.

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien
     Yet again, I'm cheating a bit in that I've read this one, but it was worth the reread.  Each time another chapter speaks to me in a way I hadn't expected.  It's a collection of war stories told by Tim O'Brien--who was in the Vietnam War.  Except this is fiction.  Why?  Because sometimes you have to lie to tell the truth.  This is infuriating for a seventeen-year-old, but fodder for valuable class discussion.  It's raw, complicated, beautiful, and terrible.  It's humanity.  I was enthralled from the first stories and then overwhelmed later as you get to more "truths" or explanations revealed in later chapters which at times contradict details earlier forcing you to ask those important questions, like does it even matter?  I think my juniors got a lot out of it--some simply because they could read a book with cussing, but be that as it may, it reaches all the kids in some manner.

Wild: From Lost to Found On the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

   This one has been on lots of book club lists (including my friend, Oprah), and that's exactly how I was inspired to read this one--my book club.  It's a memoir about a young woman who takes a year off from regular life to hike the rigorous Pacific Crest Trail because she is lost emotionally (and at times physically), yet by the end becomes... you guessed it, found!  There were some sections in the reading which were extremely compelling including the portions with her dealing with the recent death of her mother and clearly coping with all the complications that a mother's death can create.  It was heart wrenching stuff, but the low-middle class kid came out and started to get annoyed with all her self-induced, bullshit drama.  I felt like yelling at her to "suck it up.  Get a real job. Stop using so many drugs and stop fucking around."  But some people need  a long trail and a year off to figure it out.  Either way, it's well written, but if you've had enough with the Eat, Pray, Love entitled, white woman drama, then this isn't for you.

Fifty Shades of Grey by E. L. James (Trilogy)
     Alright, alright.  I know. But I had to find out what all the hub-bub was about, and here's the deal.  I totally get it. It's a story that, yes, certainly has sex in it.  But more importantly, it has the equivalent of sex for most women.  It's centered around a hot, brilliant, and wealthy young man who needs help.  Help from whom?  Help from a young and also hot brilliant young woman.  He NEEDS her--it's so thick with Lifetime Television-esque scenarios the academic in me sneered.  But... I kept reading.  It also has her detailed shopping trips, what savory dishes they ate with the wine, what vacations they took to romantic and picturesque places around the world.  It just had all the frivolous things women take pleasure in, and then we get the added benefit of just how desperate he is without her.  We get the physical AND emotional intimacy!  Oh my!  This was also the first book (I refuse to call this a novel) where I read it solely from the comfort and protection of prying eyes using my iPad.

The Passage by Justin Cronin
     The reviews for this novel really intrigued me including one by the famous Stephen King who is quoted as saying "Read this book and the ordinary world disappears."  Whoa! Right? Now, I typically don't go for unnecessary blood and gore in my summer reading, but this was something right out of the X-Files, and you know I'm a slut for anything Scully and Moulder-related.  So, I embarked on this journey and was not disappointed.  The gist is that there has been a terrible government experiment gone awry causing the end of the world as we know it.  And as cliche as that sounds, it seems totally believable while you're reading. You meet a whole host of protagonists and even skip around in time.  This novel plays with all kinds of genres including science fiction, fiction, romance, and definitely a little gothic! Word to the wise, this is a long one, so you'll have to commit.  Also it's the first in the triology, but really it gives a sense of closure if you don't want to read the second or third. I'm on the fence about reading on.

Saturday by Ian McEwan
     When I saw the film, Atonement, I was really blown away by the whole thing--the sweeping story line of love and betrayal, told from an outsider's narration who affects the plot early on.  Then someone suggested the short but dense novel, Saturday and I was intrigued.  It's just one day in the life of this neurosurgeon, but it was so incredibly well written with phrases that just cut right to the truths of humanity--get it?  "Cut"...You delve into the past of this interesting and articulate family and then something dramatic happens... It really is a worthwhile read.

The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
     This felt like the "summer of Gatsby" since the film finally came out, and since it was summer, I finally found the time to go see it--at a super sketchy dollar theater, ironically--but this was also the first time I am preparing lessons for the kiddies upon their return.  This was their summer reading as well.  This novel is as a beautifully written as its character's are ethically flawed, all save Nick--our little cowardly lion who is able to grow a pair by the end.  Can't wait to hear the seniors' take on it--I'm sure they'll be critical, and I'll have to destroy them.

The Lacua by Barbara Kingsolver
     One of her previous novels, The Poisonwood Bible, really is like a religious text for literature teachers looking to use a novel rich with texture, distinctive narrative voices, and a deeply moving plot line.  I've always wanted to read more of her works, and I finally got my grubby hands on The Lacuna.  While the former was set in Africa, the focus of this novel is really Mexico during the exciting and turbulent times of the Russian Revolution while in the home of the infamous painters and rebel thinkers, Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.  Our narrative then travels back to the U.S. and our narrator is forced to confront the ugly, and frankly embarrassing, trials against involvement with Communism with the HUAC trials. The concluding pages just take you to another place altogether--compelling, wondrous, evocative and lovely. Read!

Next up? A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
     Ok, this one is going to be short.  "It was the best of times; it was the worst..." and I'm asleep.  Sorry Dickens.  You lost me on this one.  NEXT!

Game of Thrones by George R.R. Martin
     What an interesting read.  Now, I was unaware of the whole index in the back--but those are for yuppy cheaters.  I roll the hard way and made various family trees (or really webs with all the bastard children) on post it notes. Quite handy as you start getting through the various plot twists. This puppy took some time for me, by no means a slight on the novel, but more a commentary on how fucking busy the end of the semester is.  You've got political conspiracies, murder, cover ups, and then let's talk about love.  You've got thwarted love, familial, fraternal, hell, even incestuous.  This series has it all.  Now, since it's a series there's quite a bit to cover which the HBO series leaves out for the sake of time and to keep the attention of the typical ADD-prescribed viewers, but all the same it's damn entertaining. 

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