Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Flavorwire's best of 2011

So there have been a lot of amazing book debuts in 2011. I've had trouble deciding what to read because there are so many great new authors this year.  If you're like me, and you've felt overwhelmed with such a rich list of possibilities, Flavorwire again has come to our rescue.  Here is their list of the Best Debut Novels of 2011.  Top 10 lists are hard to make, especially when it comes to books, and while my list of best books from 2011 may not match up with theirs exactly, it should at least give you some ideas as to where to start.  And while I have not read many of the books on this list yet, most of them are sitting on my bookshelf waiting to be read.

Friday, December 23, 2011

A Christmas Story by Jean Shepherd

   We've all seen the classic Holiday film, A Christmas know, with Ralphie and his BB gun, "you'll shoot your eye out," etc.  Though Jean Shepherd admitted that much of his tales of childhood in northern Indiana are embellished, they are at least based on a true story (or rather stories).  His original collection of these tales appeared in the book In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, which was published in 1966.  Nearly 20 years later in 1983, a handful of Shepherd's essays were the inspiration for the classic film.  And in 2003, the book A Christmas Story was published, which includes 5 essays from the original collection.

   Even though things occurred in a much different chronological order in the book, it's still a very funny bunch of stories that are (mostly) true.  However, fans of the movie may be a little disappointed to find that, in reality, many scenes from the movie did not actually occur at Christmastime.  For example, the scene where the dogs eat the family's Christmas turkey was adapted from Shepherd's original story about the neighbors' dogs eating their Easter ham.  And Ralphie's infamous fight with Farkus actually happened during the summer months.  So Christmastime plays a much smaller role in this book, but the essays are still funny and entertaining.

   I read this book aloud to my husband and we both laughed out loud quite a bit, but I will warn you that this book is not as kid-friendly as the film.  The Old Man's language is not censored here as it is in the movie, so it may not be great to read with a child, but adults may read this collection and get that same feeling of nostalgia and bubbly feel-good Christmas memories that the film offers.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall

   Golden Richards may have 4 wives and nearly 30 kids, but he still feels like something is missing.  That something is happiness, fulfillment, and a sense of control, and his search for these elusive emotions lead him down some very unexpected paths.  In the meantime, Golden's quest for personal validation requires him to make a few sacrifices, tell a whole bunch of lies, and keep a lot of secrets, which of course, leads to the slow detachment from his family.  With a large cast of interesting characters, The Lonely Polygamist is not really about Mormonism or polygamy - it's about a family pushed to their breaking point, facing challenges and struggles that many families deal with at one point or another - finances, time management, identity crises, health problems, marital stress, and communication barriers to name a few.  The Richards clan is just like any other dysfunctional family, except on a much larger scale, which means extensive consequences rippling through each member of the family in a way that makes balance and control nearly impossible. 

   I really loved reading this book.  I probably would have enjoyed it even more if I hadn't taken three months to read it. I know I know...but it's been a busy semester and the 600+ pages of this novel sometimes seemed very intimidating.  So I put this book on hold for a while and picked it up again a few days ago.  I sped through the last 400 pages and then kicked myself for ever thinking that reading this chunkster would be a chore.  The Lonely Polygamist is an unforgettable family saga and yes, it is epic, but it moves very quickly unless you set it down for 2 1/2 months like I did.  I'm so ashamed! I don't even deserve a book blog!

   Anyway...Brady Udall grew up in a Mormon family and did extensive research on the aspects of polygamy (an estimated 40,000 people live polygamist lifestyles in the U.S.), so the story feels raw and grounded.  The characters are prismatic, but the novel only fully develops a handful of them (understandably).  My favorite character is Rusty Richards, Golden's 12 year old son who is kind of the oddball of the bunch.  His behavior includes: storing multiple objects in the waistband of his pants, snooping around in his sisters' underwear drawers, an affinity for romance novels, bombs, and guns, and a pretty big crush on his aunt Trish. In short, Rusty is curious, mischievous, and defiant - all characteristics of a boy beginning puberty in the midst of family chaos.  Rusty provides most of the comic relief in the story as his sense of physical awakening and self-discovery parallels his father's own journey.

   We all know how the world sees polygamists (just look at the buzz around TLC's show, Sister Wives or the public interest in the Warren Jeffs trial).  Polygamy harbors a fundamental aspect of marriage and family life that is so foreign and unknown to most of us.  So what do we do when we don't understand something as a society?  We become voyeurs.  Well, Brady Udall has put this family under a microscope for the voyeur in us all, and they're really not so different from the rest of us.  And while I don't think that writing (or reading) this book should be synonymous with condoning the polygamist lifestyle, I think Brady Udall has attempted to and succeeded in providing us with a new perspective on family dynamics.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

My Top 5 Books of 2011

So many good books have been published this year, but it is the time of year where we choose our favorites, so in keeping with the fashion, here are my top 5 books from 2011.

Friday, December 16, 2011

The Worst Noel: Hellish Holiday Tales

   The Worst Noel is a collection of holiday-themed essays that cumulatively assert that Christmastime is the worst time of year.  Authors such as Ann Patchett, Cynthia Kaplan, and Joni Rogers have made contributions to this collection, which makes for quite a mixed bag of hellish holiday experiences.  This book started off really strong for me as I read it aloud to my husband (who also really liked it at first).  There were some funny stories about a Christmas Eve encounter with a deer (Cynthia Kaplan), getting into a car wreck with a mall Santa (Joni Rogers), applying for a job at the mall as Rudy the Reindeer (Louis Bayard), and several tales of silly/embarrassing family holiday traditions.  I enjoyed these, but then the book took a different turn about 50 pages in.  The tone changed from good-humored and lightly sarcastic to depressing, whiny, and offensive.  Apparently most of these authors really dislike the south/southerners (except for Ann Patchett) because it's boring and Nashville didn't have any organic peanut butter (Neal Pollack). Oh goodness! No organic peanut butter?? Well bless your heart...that does sound like the worst Christmas ever!  And by the way, Nashville is my home town. We have organic peanut butter thank you very much!

   Anyway, I guess I just thought I was getting something along the lines of David Sedaris's Holidays on Ice, but unfortunately, I was mistaken.  The majority of the book comes from the perspective of rich white folks complaining about why their holiday experiences were the worst of the worst.  Some of these reasons include: too much food, Christmas carols, Christmas trees, holiday traditions, crappy presents, and Christmas decorations.  I felt like I was missing something.  Even though I agree that retail-style Christmas music is obnoxious and lots of decorations end up looking forced and cheesy, these things are primary characteristics of the holiday season.  I know you're probably upset that I didn't mention baby Jesus and all, but the majority of these authors are actually Jewish (or have Jewish heritage), so the nativity didn't come up that much.  However, there was much whining and carrying on about how Hanukkah is sooooo boring and Christmas presents are better than Hannukah presents, but Christmas is still the worst!! Good grief Charlie Brown!

   After a while, the tone of the book became so overwhelmingly snotty that it was no longer funny or amusing...just irritating.  The first few essays are really hilarious and worth reading, but if you forge ahead with the other 150 pages or so, you may find yourself rolling your eyes at these little brats and getting a little pissed off at the constant whining and self-pitying over things like having to receive presents and eat holiday cookies.  Seriously, who is such a Scrooge that they won't even eat a damn sugar cookie?? Next year, I think I'll return to Holidays on Ice.  David Sedaris never disappoints!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Shakespeare's Christmas by Charlaine Harris

   Lily Bard is headed to her hometown of Bartley for her sister's wedding, but she just can't seem to leave trouble behind and always ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time.  On second thought, considering her sharp intuitions and extensive karate training, maybe it's the right place at the right time.  When she arrives in Bartley, she finds that two prominent members of the town have been brutally murdered, and on top of that, her private detective boyfriend has just informed her that he has chased an 8 year-old kidnapping case to the not-so-sleepy little town.  When Lily suspects that the murderer may be closely involved with her family, she works overtime to discover the true identity of the killer.

   This is the third book in the Lily Bard Mysteries series following amateur sleuth Lily Bard in her small town of Shakespeare, Arkansas.  While you don't necessarily have to read these books in order, Lily's personal story makes much more sense if you can at least read the first one in the series (The first book is Shakespeare's Landlord).  But that shouldn't be too hard to do considering that these books are around 200 pages each and very fast-paced.  Shakespeare's Christmas is light and entertaining but I must say, the Christmas theme is pretty weak.  Other than a few brief mentions of cold weather, town decorations and carols, Christmastime is not very apparent.  You really could read this book any time of year, which was a disappointment to me considering how much I love holiday/seasonal themes in literature.  But, Lily is not exactly a sentimental character, so the continuity is preserved with the lack of holiday cheer.  Still, this book is a quick and easy read, which is good for this busy time of year, and if you're familiar with Charlaine Harris's caliber of storytelling (The HBO show True Blood is based on her novels), then you know that she can weave together a very engaging plot with just enough sex, violence, and surprises to keep you on your toes!

Monday, December 12, 2011

More Holiday Gift Ideas!

 If my Holiday Gifts for Book Lovers post didn't give you enough ideas for this season (or if you're low on cash), here are some great DIY gift ideas courtesy of Huffington Post.  Now many of these exceed my level of craftiness, but a few of them I think I could actually make.

Some of these DIY crafts include homemade bookmarks, dust jackets, journals, and step-by-step instructions on how to bind your own books with pretty fabrics.  Most of the designs are geared toward teens, but some of them could work for any age group.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

In Red by Magdalena Tulli

   In Red is not a book you want to read if you're looking for a linear plot - it's a book to read if you like lots of metaphors and descriptive imagery.  Magdalena Tulli tells the story of the fictional town of Stitchings in wartime Poland, and while the inhabitants of the town make appearances, In Red is more about the town of Stitchings itself.  The story is told through elements of folklore and fairy tales, but the implications are far from the realm of fantasy.

   These little vignettes about Stitchings sometimes seem as though they were written by the town - by the crumbling walls, the cobblestone streets, or the cold, unforgiving landscape.  The narrative style is observant and uninvolved, as if none of these characters ever knew that their stories were being absorbed into something much more permanent than their own brief lives.

   While In Red is not always engaging as far as the plot is concerned, the writing is incredibly beautiful and unique.  Even the simplest phrases resound with poignancy and careful grace.  Here is a passage from the last few pages of the novel:

The town of Stitchings survived the fire.  Stories are indestructible...They endured, sewn together any old how, so long as the thick threads held cause and effect in the right order.  Memory yields most easily to the shape of ready-made patterns.  Even if the decayed fabric has gotten overstretched and tears with a loud noise, never mind the rips, for they are not what the eye lingers upon. (p.157)
Magdalena Tulli has a way with words.  She can verbalize those translucent feelings and ideas that people have but can't explain.  It's like when you're trying to remember a dream and you can't recall anything specific other than the way it made you feel - Magdalena Tulli is remembering the dreams of Stitchings, yet she can turn these fleeting bursts of memory into words that manage to retain the integrity of their origins. 

   And for this wonderful writing we must also give credit to the translator, Bill Johnston, who obviously knows exactly what he is doing!

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Full Dark House by Christopher Fowler

   Arthur Bryant and John May have worked together for 60 years as detectives for London's Peculiar Crimes Unit until a mysterious explosion abruptly ends Arthur's life.  John is heartbroken over the loss of his best friend and decides to personally investigate the strange and unexpected circumstances of his friend's death.  The clues he finds lead him back to the first case he investigated with Arthur Bryant - a string of murders in a London theatre in the throes of WWII.  It is a case that both Arthur and John had considered closed - until now - leading John to believe that something incredibly dangerous was overlooked 60 years ago.

   This book is like 2 mysteries for the price of 1!  As John relives his first investigation from the 1940s, he also begins to unravel the mystery of his partner's tragic death.  Christopher Fowler is a great writer and did a great job with the organization and juxtaposition of these two stories.  There are so many diverse elements in Full Dark House I can't imagine why it wouldn't appeal to everyone in some way or another.  It includes elements of mystery, history, botany, chemistry, Greek mythology, literature, and even a little bit of romance!  This may sound overwhelming, but Fowler weaves them all together perfectly, and then the story unravels in very unexpected and (dare I say) peculiar ways.  I read this book for my book club and I'm really looking forward to discussing it with the rest of the group later this week.

   Full Dark House is the first in the Bryant and May mystery series (a.k.a the Peculiar Crimes Unit mystery series).  So far there are 10 books in the series, and if you want to know more about the Bryant and May mysteries you can visit Christopher Fowler's blog.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Holiday Gifts for Book Lovers

Now that the Holiday season has officially begun, it's time to start thinking about buying presents. Gifts may not be the reason for the season but we all know how important the perfect gift is.  So here's my gift-giving advice for those of you who have serious book lovers on your list!

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

   Tristran Thorn is a young man in love, and young men in love often make crazy promises.  One night, Tristran and his beloved Victoria see a star fall from the sky, and Victoria says she will give Tristran anything he desires only if he can find the fallen star and bring it back to her.  The star has fallen in the land of Faerie, and Tristran sets off on a magical journey where he encounters an unexpected friend.  He does indeed find the star, which turns out to be a beautiful young woman.  Tristran is unprepared for this encounter and is unprepared for the fact that he is not the only person in pursuit of the fallen star.  The star needs his protection, but this strange land is new for Tristran so he can only rely on his instincts to bring them both to safety.

   I really like Neil Gaiman, but this just is not my favorite of his works.  I really liked the storyline and the imagery, but the plot seemed a little unbalanced to me.  It started very slowly, and then it seemed like all of the action was packed into the last 75 pages or so.  But this is really my only complaint.  It's hard not to be mesmerized by talking trees, unicorns, and evil witches.  I read this book out loud to my husband (who is a huge Sandman fan), and he was a little bored at the beginning too, but we both were believers in Faerie by the end.

   Stardust is a rather short book intended for ages 13 and up, so it's a pretty quick read (unless you're reading aloud...then it's a little longer), but just so you know, there is a fairly graphic sex scene in the first part of the novel, so it may not be appropriate for all teens.  Overall, though, I'd say Stardust is a shining star of a book (sorry...I couldn't help myself)!  :)