Monday, December 28, 2009

Year End Thoughts

The last present is opened; the remnants of the (very rare) rib roast is in the freezer awaiting resurrection as Beef Wellington, the lovely glow of Mimosas on Christmas morning has worn off - life has resumed and I finally know what day of the week this is.

Only a few days are left in the year and, like everyone else, I am reminiscing about many things, some pleasant and some not. Actually, January 1 is really just another day in the string of days that makes up our lives. But because we segment our lives into years, I guess it is a good time to reflect on the way the year played out. Now, about my reading life, let me say I had lofty goals.

Unfortunately, I didn't reach my reading goals this year - real life got in the way. In addition, I have been stuck on Armadale by Wilkie Collins for weeks now. That in itself has set me back several books on my TBR stack. But for the fact that it's Wilkie, I would have given up in frustration and moved on to something else. The story is actually very interesting - and sufficiently "twisty," but I think Wilkie could have economized on the character and plot development a bit and whittled down the 600+ pages by quite a few. I've never been inclined to read multiple books at the same time (even though I got two really nifty bookmarks for Christmas), so I'm determined to plow through the remains in order to get to the rest of the reading stack.

I had planned to tell you about my favorite and least favorite reads; however, like a mother reflecting on her children sleeping peacefully in their beds, picking a favorite is almost impossible. Conversely, the worst rushes to the finish line unchallenged. It is the only (read) book I have on the shelves that I will gladly give to a new home, and I feel more than a little guilty that it is so unloved. It's enough to make one want to read another bowser just so the two can keep each other company.

Yes, yes, I know. The Story of Edgar Sawtelle by David Wroblewski received rave reviews - some readers going so far as to say it is one of the best books of all time - comparing it to Shakespeare's Hamlet. And, after all, it was an O-o-o-o-prah book, so that seals the deal. I found it plodding, over worked, and just plain too long. I could feel it trying very hard to be precious. So I, and about 10 other people on the planet, say "blah" to this book. I give it my "Golden Toilet Plunger Award" being, I think, the only book I can say I truly hated.

In the disappointing category, I will have to nominate The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. I was predisposed to really love it, but for some reason it just failed to resonate with me. The plot was ripe with promise, but it never bloomed. In fairness, somewhere in the middle of it I got a shipment of books from Barnes & Noble. I am like a bumble bee in a field of flowers when a fresh new book arrives all crisp and fragrant. I think I might have been a tad anxious to flit on to the new pretty flowers and became itchy to finish the Setterfield. I raced through the last third of it and perhaps didn't give it the attention it deserved. I did like Setterfield's writing, and I might try it again one day. But, I don't know. There are just so many books to read....

Okay, enough kvetching. Among the books I loved, in no special order and certainly not a complete list:

The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which was unique in its premise, beautifully written and hauntingly sad and hopeful at the same time.

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. A book on the journey through grief, this memoir touched me in a very personal way, and introduced me to the straightforward yet lyrical writing of Didion. Perhaps some of its appeal for me was the timing. In any event, it was among the best of the best.

The Uncommon Reader by Alan Bennett. This little novella was so clever and funny and bright. It is the perfect little book to read when life is gray and nasty and needs a quick injection of warmth.

Sea of Poppies by Amitav Ghosh. This novel is the first in a proposed trilogy set in the 19th century with the slave ship Ibus, the Opium Wars and swashbuckling adventure at its core. I flat out loved it. The characters are so sharply drawn and unique they could have been created by Dickens. The intricate story line, in fact, is very Dickensian. The reader may initially have a little difficulty with the vernacular Ghosh uses in the dialogue, but there is a glossary in the back and, like learning a language by hearing it and speaking it, after a time one gets the gist. Ghosh writes brilliantly; and, on the the strength of this book, The Glass Palace is next on my reading list.

The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman is in the young readers genre, but adults will miss a wickedly wonderful read if they pass up this 2009 Newbery Medal Award winner. Nobody Owens is orphaned when his entire family is murdered in their beds. Escaping by chance, "Bod" wanders into a graveyard and the resident ghosts elect to raise, nurture and educate him, together with the man appointed to be his Guardian. The graveyard is the only place where Bod is safe, and outside its gates the murderer awaits to finish his task. I actually broke into sobs at the end of the book. This is an easy to read book (as it should be considering its intended audience) which should not be missed at any age.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick was unlike anything I had experienced before. Not really a graphic novel, this is a big book of beautifully written prose interspersed with pencil sketches which actually provides a continuum of the story. The words and the pictures interlock like the fingers on both hands to become one whole - neither will stand alone. The sketches pull the reader into the story much like a film would. And although it is very cleverly told, the story, taken by itself, is delicious.

The Haunted Hotel by Wilkie Collins. I read the first chapter on line. I can only recall one other occasion when reading the first chapter of a book totally grabbed me. (Harry Potter And The Sorcerer's Stone. There was just something about Prof. Dumbledore and Prof. McGonagall standing out on a muggle street in the dead of night which made me want to read more.) This is a short book, and so utterly Wilkie that any follower will be rapturous.

Water For Elephants by Sara Gruen is what one reads instead of actually running away to join the circus. The protagonist, Jacob Jankowski, tells his story from the perspective of a 93 year old man who resides in a nursing home. It weaves in and out of the past and present, as he relives his life traveling with a third-rate circus during the Depression. Gruen has populated the tale with strange (sometimes wonderful, sometimes twisted) characters that ride the circus train from small town to small town. We get to go along for the ride. It was a super read.

There were more books, of course. Happily for me, most of them were good. But the unfinished stack looms tall and appealing, and time is a very cruel master. So, onward!


  1. Aw, poor Story of Edgar Sawtelle. It is good though that it doesn't have company. We like to keep the books we don't like as few as possible, yes? I am now placing Sea of Poppies on my TBR list. You made it sound irresistible. I hope Wilkie ends up being overall enjoyable and that you finish him up soon so you can move on to something new and fragrant :)

  2. Thanks for the great list, Grad; some I had read (or wanted to), but a couple were new to me. And keep me posted on the Beef Wellington. Happy almost new year!

  3. Stefanie, I hear that Ghosh is now working on the second volume of the Ibus Triology. I can't recall when I anticipated the publication of a book more. I check at least once a month to see if it's out yet. And as for my darling Wilkie, I really do wish he'd get on with it - but I'm in for the long haul!

    Tinky, Happy New Year to you as well. I was going to make Beef Wellington for Christmas dinner, but couldn't find a decent tenderloin. So I got a standing rib roast - which was way to big. After sending a lot of it home with my son Charlie, I had a lovely big hunk left. The bones went to the dog and the rest went into the freezer. I made the duxelle last night. Hopefully, the roast won't get overcooked on this second go-round.

  4. Sawtelle aside, it sounds like you had a great reading year. I loved The Uncommon Reader and would like to read the Didion book at some point, and the Wilkie Collins. The others you mention sound intriguing as well. Have a great year of reading in 2010!

  5. Dorothy, I really did have good luck this year. I'm getting my 2010 list together (with the help of bloggers like you who post such good stuff!) Happy New Year!

  6. Tink, I think I meant way tooooo big.

  7. Grad, you are a delight. I've added Didion and Gaiman to my list but, like you, I also have an appealing stack to get through first. Good luck with the Wilkie. Perhaps a little skim-reading will help to pass those pages faster.

  8. Pete, you are so perceptive!! (She said blushing). Actually, Armadale has progessed wonderfully and is now a full blown great read. Ah...patience and perseverance made a bishop of His Reverence!

  9. Happy, happy New Year, dear Grad! I am slow visiting, being a bit chronic fatigued (January so often has that effect) but reading you always perks me up. A lovely list of books that pleased you (many headed over to my own tbr) and I am still laughing at the Golden Toilet Plunger Award. Fabulous!

  10. Litlove, I understand completely about January, and I don't suffer from CFS. Nevertheless, after the holidays I often feel as though I've been hit over the head with a ball peen hammer. Happy reading.

  11. I totally agree with you on The Thirteenth Tale. And I just added The Graveyard Book to my to-read list. Thanks! I also just posted my end of the year reading on my blog.