The Night Circus: Erin Morgenstern -
This is a repeat. I loved the book and enjoyed listening to it a couple of years ago. I revisited it on the morning walks early in September. I still love it. Ms. Morgenstern has been somewhat publicly working on her next books for several years. I hope to hell she’s not stuck with the sophomore jinx. though she admits that Night Circus took her a long time and many substantial revisions to get right.
The Name of the Rose: Umberto Eco -
I love Eco. This was the first of his novels that I read years ago and I remembered liking it. Now, not so much. He’s as discursive as Stephenson but the detours and explications of the heresies of the 13th (?) century simply did not hold my attention in the same way that Stephenson’s digressions on the nature of money and the banking economy or the arcana of cryptography did. Clearly I skipped the dull parts when I read the book. That’s a test of how well a discursive writer holds up their end of the author/reader bargain. Can you listen to the work? Because when you’re listening all the parts get equal weight (time) and there is no way to skim the dull bits. A lesson to learn for writers.
Ready Player One: Ernest Cline / narrator: Wil Wheaton -
A classic in the genre that I’ve never bothered to read because I’m not a game player. The last games I played were the text adventure games when they were first played on terminals connected to big computers in the labs at school.
Likable characters and a stroll down late 80’s memory lane. It doesn’t hurt that Wheaton has a real love for the book and the 80’s. It comes through in the narration.
The Poisonwood Bible: Barbara Kingsolver -
A missionary family go to the Belgian Congo in the early 1960’s as the colonial era ends. The narrative is told in five voices, each of the women in the Price family getting to tell portions of the story. The voices are convincing — though you’ll probably hate reading (listening to) the oldest daughter.
I thought is was going to end at about 60% of the way through. When Mrs. Price and her three remaining daughters (no, that is not a spoiler you learn that one of the daughters is “left in Africa” at the beginning of the book) escape the village and more importantly the clutches of the horrible missionary Rev. Price. I think that the rest of the book is interesting, but it doesn’t have the narrative impetus of the first half. There is too little interaction between the remaining female members of the family. Through out the first half of the book the story was about the relationship between those women. Then second half of the book the story is about the relationship each woman has to her own past. Still… I sort of liked it. And I understand why it would be an Oprah pick. (Not all Oprah picks suck. Seriously. But you can count on them to be centered on relationships between women.)
Second Hand Souls: Christopher Moore -
A follow-up to A Dirty Job. More about the a little girl who is Death and her helpers. It’s not quite as funny as A Dirty Job, but it’s worth an afternoon.
The Devil in the White City: Erik Larson -
A serial killer at the 1893 Columbia Exhibition in Chicago.
It’s a dull depiction of the killer and a pretty boring retelling of the Fair as well. Of interest only in that you get to see FL Olmsted working at the end of this life and the creation of the Ferris Wheel.
There are better serial killer books (even from this period of time) and there are better histories of the Columbia Exhibition.
It’s also incredibly poorly written, to wit, the only depiction of the serial killers psychopathy is given as “those eyes” over and over and over again.
Marie Antoinette’s Watch: John Biggs -
A lovely thing for watch geeks, or anyone who finds the intersection of history and technology fascinating. Recommended by William Gibson who is a bit of a watch nerd. This book traces the history of the most famous of the Breguet watches, the 160, originally commissioned for the French Queen and finished decades after her death. Stolen from a museum in Israel in 1983 and returned under mysterious circumstances in 2007.
Love Machine: Louise Erdrich -
A complex story about complex family relationships set on the Chippewa reservation in North Dakota. A set of short stories from multiple points of view that show the relationships between the characters from different points of view and let the reader slowly come to understand more about the people and places involved. Perhaps more than the characters themselves know.
Life After Life: Kate Atkinson -
What that stupid movie Ground Hog day should really have been about. We follow Ursula Todd, born on a winter’s night in 1910, through multiple iterations of her life. In each one she makes a different crucial decision that either ends in her death or in a path that diverges from her previous life. I expected to get bored by wandering along the same path so many times but Kate Atkinson manages to reiterate the events of previous lives without retreading ground. Lives span the first and second world wars and on almost into the 21st century. Only once did the story veer off into “no really?” territory.
Tomcat in Love: Tim O’Brien -
Professor of linguistics, Thomas Chippering is a very unlikable man. He thinks of himself as a connoisseur of women. But also as faithful man who has been wronged all his life. The mental gymnastics that goes through to maintain his self-image are laughable. In a darkly comic way.
I like O’Brien’s writing. I didn’t like Chippering — you aren’t supposed to like him but you are supposed to empathize with his ongoing attempts to keep his self-image intact in the face of increasing evidence of his infidelities and responsibility for all of the misfortunes that befall him. I couldn’t quite manage it. The book is worth reading none the less for the writing and the weird bits were the narrator goes off on tangents about how individual words have come to have their meanings twisted for him.
Birds of America: Lorrie Moore -
Short stories by one of America’s masters. Realism, if you like that sort of thing you’ll like the book. She’s one of my models.
Middlesex: Jeffery Eugenides -
The first line of this book is:
I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remarkably smogless Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emergency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.
What is the meaning of gender? Is it fixed at birth? Set by upbringing? Or fluid through out our lives? Big questions that are never really definitively answered. Which is rather the point of the book. It’s also a sprawling Greek saga of three generations. With lots of enjoyable characters and well hidden secrets.
I am still looking for a transcendent book. One that surprises me with both it’s writing and it’s story. Haven’t gotten there on anything lately except perhaps the Lorrie Moore short stories and Middlesex — though neither reaches all the way to transcendent. Only close.