Thursday, December 31, 2009

2009 in Books

Here it is, my annual list of books I read this year (previous editions: 2008, 2007). I decided to start including plays, something I've never done before, which is one reason that this list has 10 more books on it than last year's does. (I counted plays according to how they're bound when published: therefore No Exit and Three Other Plays counts as one book, not four.) 2009 was my first full year out of school, so if I was going to change the listing procedure, this was obviously the year to do it.

Links go to previous blog posts, if I've already written about the book; I provide brief comments if I haven't.

1. Shopgirl, by Steve Martin (novella). Recommended.

2. Wise Children, by Angela Carter (novel). Recommended, particularly for theater types.

3. Tess of the D’Urbervilles, by Thomas Hardy (novel, 2nd read). Recommended.

4. The Confessions of Max Tivoli, by Andrew Sean Greer (novel). Mixed feelings: while the premise is interesting (if the same one as Benjamin Button), the execution felt belabored... not a success, though not dreadful.

5. A Dead Man’s Memoir, by Mikhail Bulgakov (unfinished novel). Mixed feelings.

6. Cleopatra’s Nose, by Judith Thurman (essays). Recommended.

7. A Night at the Opera, by Sir Denis Forman (opera reference). Mixed feelings--yes I know that my previous blog post reads more like a "Recommended" but now I am more annoyed than charmed by the cutesy opera summaries. What can I say, my aesthetic tastes are in flux. Forman's writing about the actual music of the operas, though, is still valuable.

8. Mating, by Norman Rush (novel). Recommended. It features a lot of the elements I love most in fiction: an interesting setting (postcolonial Botswana); a wry, self-aware narrator; a story about a smart loner woman falling in love with an unattainable man; astute writing about group behavior/psychology; words that I have to look up in the dictionary. Original and thought-provoking.

9. Twenty-Eight Artists and Two Saints, by Joan Acocella (essays). Highly recommended.

10. No Exit and Three Other Plays, by Jean-Paul Sartre (plays). Recommended. Of this collection, I was most intrigued by Dirty Hands, which is probably too long and talky to stage effectively, but makes for great reading. And No Exit is a classic. The other two plays in this volume are pretty tedious though.

11. Death & Taxes: Hydriotaphia and Other Plays, by Tony Kushner (plays). Mixed feelings: this is minor Kushner, so while I'm a fan, and might suggest that fellow playwrights should take a look at this collection, it probably doesn't have much to offer the general reader.

12. Bel Canto, by Ann Patchett (novel). Mildly recommended: I picked it up because I'm an opera fan and it's a bestseller--and while it's solid, well-written fiction, it didn't amaze me, for whatever reason. I enjoyed it while reading it; but the best novels feel like they have deeper secrets to reveal, and this one doesn't.

13. The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton (novel, 2nd read). Highly recommended. So glad that I gave this book a second chance, and finally realized how heartwrenching it is. Perhaps it helped that I read it at a time when I was feeling hemmed in by Society, or at least by my job--because it is a very great book about compromises made and romantic ideals thwarted.

14. The Custom of the Country, by Edith Wharton (novel). Mixed feelings: while well-written and providing an interesting look at society and manners in the Gilded Age, it was a bit of a letdown after The Age of Innocence--episodic, and hard to care about the protagonist. Unusually for a novel by a female author, all the men come off better than the women.

15. Haroun and the Sea of Stories, by Salman Rushdie (novel, 4th read?). Highly recommended: reading it as an adult, it's still inventive and delightful, but now the morals stand out a lot more. (this is the first fiction Rushdie published after the fatwa was declared). I bet this is the only children’s fantasy-adventure novel that features an attempted suicide bombing and a paragraph about the banality of evil!

16. 36 Views of Mount Fuji, by Cathy Davidson (memoir). Mixed feelings.

17. Le Grand Meaulnes, by Alain-Fournier (novel). Recommended: I basically agree with what Adam Gopnik writes in the intro to my Penguin Classics edition, that this is a young man's book and not all of it stands up to adult scrutiny, but its best parts are surprisingly beautiful, evocative and powerful.

18. Possession, by A.S. Byatt (novel, 2nd read). Highly recommended.

19. Le dieu du carnage, by Yasmina Reza (play). Recommended: though some people have dismissed this as a slick comedy, I actually got a chill when I read the last page and realized that I had seen human beings turn into animals before my eyes. Good writing there.

20. Timebends, by Arthur Miller (memoir). Mixed feelings.

21. Complete Short Fiction, by Oscar Wilde (short stories). Recommended. I tend to prefer the funny stories (see my post on "The Remarkable Rocket") but the sentimental ones serve to remind us that Wilde wasn't just a creator of aphorisms--he was more complex than that.

22. Nobody’s Perfect, by Anthony Lane (movie reviews and essays). Highly recommended.

23. N.P., by Banana Yoshimoto (novella). To be avoided.

24. Back Back Back, Celebrity Row, & Outrage, by Itamar Moses (plays). Very mixed feelings: Back Back Back is solid, Outrage is messy but fascinating, and Celebrity Row... Without going into too much detail, let me just say that I helped workshop an earlier draft of this play at JAW/West 2005, and I really prefer the earlier version.

25. Fear and Trembling, by Amélie Nothomb (novella). Recommended: a wry, witty, autobiographically inspired story of being a Westerner working for a big Japanese corporation. A quick read, fun.

26. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, by Haruki Murakami (novel). Recommended. I don't know if I "got" the ending, or maybe its 600 pages are a little less than meets the eye. But it is a real page-turner, nearly made me faint on MUNI, and redeemed Japanese fiction for me after N.P., so I am left with a favorable impression overall.

27. Waiting for Lefty & Other Plays, by Clifford Odets (plays). Recommended, particularly Awake and Sing!

28. Flow, by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (psychology/self-help). Recommended: an easy book to read and to agree with its ideas about what brings true happiness--the hard part is putting it into practice!

29. Sexual Personae, by Camille Paglia (literary criticism). Recommended: this book is sui generis and sometimes totally off-the-wall, but that's what makes it engaging and thought-provoking. I didn't always enjoy it, much less agree with it, but I know that I'll return to it.

30. The Golden Gate, by Vikram Seth (novel in verse). Recommended.

31. Ella Minnow Pea, by Mark Dunn (novel in letters). Mixed feelings. I read this because the complete review made it sound like the best thing ever; and while it is undoubtedly clever, it's also a little cutesy, and didn't nourish me the way that good fiction ought to.

32. Complete Stories, by Dorothy Parker (short fiction). Highly recommended.

33. Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Other Stories, by Truman Capote (novellas). Recommended. (Here are my posts on the stories "Breakfast at Tiffany's" and "A Diamond Guitar," but I also want to mention "A Christmas Memory," which is gorgeous.)

34. Dracula, by Bram Stoker (novel). Mixed feelings: this is one of those novels that you read more for its historical importance than for its inherent literary qualities. The epistolary structure meant that I liked it better than Frankenstein, though.

35. Consider the Lobster, by David Foster Wallace (essays). Highly recommended.

36. Sights and Spectacles, by Mary McCarthy (theater criticism). Mixed feelings: McCarthy proves that even in a theatrical golden age like mid-century America, there were lousy plays and contrarian theater critics, but she isn't very fun to read. And maybe she didn't know how to watch a play: her review of the original production of A Streetcar Named Desire doesn't even mention Marlon Brando, and how is that possible?

37. On Chesil Beach, by Ian McEwan (novella). Recommended.

38. The Threepenny Opera, by Bertolt Brecht (play with songs). Recommended: cynical, snide, and highly influential theater. I'm going to go see this in January!

39. Bonjour Tristesse, by Françoise Sagan (novella). Recommended, at least if you're a francophile and are fascinated by precocious youth (Sagan was 18 when this was published). This book feels like part of the same sensibility that produced Brigitte Bardot and the Nouvelle Vague.

40. The Meaning of Sunglasses, by Hadley Freeman (humorous fashion advice). Mixed feelings: the trouble with "humorous" books is that they're never as funny as they're billed. Freeman thinks she's being kooky and opinionated, but beneath the fun turns of phrase, most of her fashion advice just comes down to common sense.

41. Life of Galileo, by Bertolt Brecht (play). Highly recommended. Perhaps Brecht's least "Brechtian" play, it is one of his easiest to feel real affection for (not just intellectual appreciation) and to be moved by. I plan to blog more about it next week.

42. Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro (novel). Recommended. Most surprising is how well Ishiguro writes about female adolescence and friendship. And how the book turns out to be an allegory for the human condition: hoping that art and love will save us, but knowing we cannot stave off the inevitable...

Even though I ended the year reading a bleak novel, I can't end this blog post on such a bleak note, so forgive me for also wanting to pat myself on the back for having read forty-odd issues of The New Yorker in addition to these forty-two books! Yes, I finally think I've figured out a method for keeping up with that magazine while also reading drama, literature, and non-fiction.

And I just bought way too many books at Powell's and in Vancouver over the holidays, so I look forward to reading them in 2010!


Mead said...

"Theater types"?

Marissa said...

Oh, you know what I mean, Mead. People who are interested in theater/live in our world/that kind of thing.

Or are you implying that this is funny because ONLY theater types are reading this blog?

Mead said...

No, I was just musing over how unmonolithic theater folk actually are. Would you say that you are a theater type, f'rinstance?