BOOK/S I AM PRESENTLY READING:
BEATRIX POTTER: The Extraordinary Life of a Victorian Genius. Linda Lear. 447 pages. A fellow artist, she’s also called by her middle name and her first name is Helen. So wonderful to read this after stomping around her country on my trip with Dianne and Gail in fall 2008. It’s poignant how Potter was original, creative, and a good businesswoman in Victorian times yet also felt so bound, obedient, and strangled by her mother.
BOOKS I HAVE READ, from the most recent to when I started keeping records in July 2003:
THE BOOK OF UNHOLY MISCHIEF. Elle W . 367 pages. A story of chef “Guardians” preserving forbidden scientific and philosophical knowledge in Middle Ages Venice.
WOMEN AND MONEY: Owning the power to control your destiny. Suze Orman. 246 pages. Besides the blah blah blah of sound financial planning and facts, Orman offers many themes that are thought-provoking such as keeping your name, taking control of your own accounts, maintaining separate personal funds, etc.
HOW WE DECIDE. Jonah Lehrer. 259 pages. A few too many male stories of decisions, but otherwise interesting discussion of how we make decisions using emotions and facts.
THE DOUBLE BIND. Chris Bo—. Schizophrenic describes delusion incorporating Great Gatsby characers.
TEN MEN DEAD: The story of the 1981 Irish hunger strike. David Beresford. 334 pages. I should have read this before going to Ireland in 2006. Details of 1981 prisoners who died after political fasts for five conditions. Brits conceded after all died and others gave up. The “comms”–tiny messages written on cigarette papers–were fascinating.
LUNCHEON OF THE BOATING PARTY. Susan Vreeland. 429 pages. Two months on Seine island with Renoir and models. Sometimes too much inner dialogue, but for an artist much lovely detail. I saw this painting at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C. soon afterwards.
LEANING INTO THE WIND: Women write from the heart of the west. 337 pages. A collection of short pieces–the longest is maybe two pages–of loss, love, beauty, strangeness, living on the great plains. Writing is mixed. Poetry, personal reflection, work with animals.
THE ROAD TO WIGAN PIER. George Orwell. 232 pages. Terrific descriptions of north England culture and poverty, thoughts on socialism, predictions for the future. So sad Orwell died at 46.
A BEGGAR AT THE GATE. Thalassa Ali. 333 pages. Follows stifled British woman in Raj India amid idiotic, arrogant Brits. Mystic Indians with their own tribal challenges starting to see Brits as the real problem. Compelling love story and details of the Punjab.
QUIET CORNERS OF PARIS. Jean-Christophe Napias. 166 pages. Writing can be a bit brittle. Lovely photos, arranged by arrondissement. I often don’t recognize the location descriptions, though.
A ROOM OF ONE’S OWN. Virginia Woolf. Introductory essay a slog of its own. Each woman needs a room with a lock and 500 pounds a year of her own money to spend.
THREE CUPS OF TEA: One man’s mission to promote peace one school at a time. Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin. 331 pages. Even a flawed person can work for peace and justice. On-going story of crusade for building schools in Central Asia.
THE STORY OF MY BOYHOOD AND YOUTH. John Muir. 145 pages. Bought this at Muir’s birthplace in Dunbar. So attentie and admiring of all nature. Worked hard and noticed everything.
THE PROFESSOR AND THE MADMAN: A Tale of murder, insanity, and the making of the Oxford English dictionary. Simon Winchester. 242 pages. I reread this. Madness amidst scholarship. Well done.
WAR JOURNAL: My five years in Iraq. Richard Engel. 377 pages. Written about 2002 to 2007ish? Published 2008. Sometimes all over the map, but what else to expect? An obscene, fanatical, male mess. Hard to read the horror and chaos.
SHORT STORIES. Maeve Binchy. Four stories read in Scotland on my trip. Last one on alcoholic returning from rehab quite compelling. Good writing.
THE WELL-ORDERED HOME: Organizing techniques for inviting serenity into your life, Lathleen Kendall-Tackett. 119 pages. Can be infantile rambling amidst a few good ideas. Needed a strong editor.
WUTHERING HEIGHTS. Emily Bronte. 247 pages. Overwirtten, but the compelling characters shine through. Obsessive love.
THE DUD AVOCADO. Elaine Dundy. 255 pages. A 21-year-old girl in 1950s Paris: semi-autobiographical. First published in 1958. Drinking to excess, actors, out all night carousing. Hard to relate.
ARRANGED MARRIAGE. Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni. 300 pages. Eleven stories. Good writing; heartbreaking snapshots into Indian culture, expat living in California, roles, being authentic, and communicating.
THE POCKET GUIDE TO BEING AN INDIAN GIRL. B.K. Mahal. 259 pages. Smarty-pants British slang and Indian words often not translated: immersion in teenage angst and attitude. Daughter and father journey to find their true selves.
JESUS’ SON. Denis Johnson. 160 pages. Eleven stories. Really good writing. Junky hip with observations on the rest of us.
THE POET AND THE MURDERER: A true story of literary crime and the art of forgery. Simon Worrall. 263 pages. And I thought I knew a bit about Mormons. Sad details of Mark Hofmann forgeries and Sotheebys’ greed and arrogance. Worrall needed a Salt Lake editor to do consistent spellings and references. Some inexcusable errors.
LE MARIAGE. Diane Johnson. 322 pages. Lots of Parisian tidbits mixed in with attitudes towards Americans and the French. But I don’t like any of these people. Some serious subjects addressed: adultery, marital respect, culture clashes, mother feelings. NOT a comic novel.
VISIONS OF GERARD. Jack Kerouac. 130 pages. So sad, more accessible, like you’re looking right into Kerouac’s beating heart as he describes his wonderful, doomed older brother’s nine years of life.
VISIONS OF CODY. Jack Kerouac. 398 pages plus notes. Dense writing, was he just taking constant notes or mining his head for these details?
SUNK WITHOUT A SOUND; The tragic Colorado honeymoon of Glen and Bessie Hyde. Brad Dimock. 274 pages. A 1928 mystery of river runners plus the reenactment of the route with Dimock and his wife.
THE ROAD. Cormac McCarthy. 287 pages. Sparse, searing odyssey after the apocalypse. Everything burned and looted, but goodness in father and son endures.
ESCAPE. Carolyn Jessop. 413 pages. Memoir of FLDS family: control, lust, and domination protected by God’s wishes. Jessop quite brace to reveal all the abuse. Ends with Warren Jeffs’ capture.
MIDDLESEX. Jeffrey Eugenides. 529 pages. Weird but mostly engaging story of incestuous Greek immigrant grandparents’ move to Detroit. A fictional family moes through riots, etc., plus daughter’s identity change to a man.
BIG SUR. Jack Kerouac. 241 pages. More of the Dulouz Legend, once he’d become famous and drunk after On the Road. Detailed, brilliant, poetic, gossipy, yet kind, tragic.
HOW TO MAKE AN AMERICAN QUILT. Whitney Otto. 179 pages. Read for Book club July 2008. Ruminations on quilting, men, marriage, betrayal. Book could have used another editing go-round.
THE RETURN OF THE NATIVE. Thomas Hardy. 337 pages. Beautifully written moor drama of power, humility, fitting to one’s environment. Timeless conflicts. Complicated, dense descriptions. Egdon Heath is a character. Love that Diggory Venn!
KABUL BEAUTY SCHOOL. Deborah Rodriguez. American woman sets up school. Incredibly consistent male hysteria and interference at every turn. Salons a necessary female haven.
THE REVOLUTIONARIES WORE PEARLS. Kaye Lowman. 134 pages. Could use some editing and fewer exclamation points, but a warm story of ordinary women who changed the tide of unhealthy infant feeding.
THE HUMMINGBIRD’S DAUGHTER. Luis Alberto Urrea. 495 pages. Lovely story of a northern Mexican curandera who gained respect and adoration from Indians and Mexicans. From lowly beginnings to Santa Teresa.
THE YIDDISH POLICEMEN’S UNION. Michael Chabon. 411 pages. Weird, revisionist Jewish story with Jesish state in Sitka, Alaska. Strong writing in detective noir style.
THE WIDOW OF THE SOUTH. Robert Hicks. 404 pages. Based on real story of Carrie McGavock who cares for 1,500 soldiers buried at her plantation cemetery after the 1864 Battle of Franklin.
HULLABALOO IN THE GUAVA ORCHARD. Kiran Desai. 209 pages. Quirky characters acting sometimes in desperation over controlling family situations. Interwoven with searing facts of Indian culture.
THE GLASS CASTLE. Jeannette Walls. 288 pages. Tale of criminally negligent parents a tough read. Reader wants peripheral adults to intervene, remove kids. Children of alcoholics tell a sad, confused tale.
ONE OF OURS. Willa Cather. 395 pages. Such good writing. Nebraska farm boy marries wrong, is overlooked, but finds meaning and adventure in WWI France.
THE SWALLOWS OF KABUL. Uasmina Khadra (nom de plume for Mohammed Moulessehoul). 195 pages. Two doomed Afghani couples in Taliban-ruled Kabul. Shocking and frightening snapshots.
THE BROKEN CEDAR. Martin Malone. 306 pages. Lebanese family and an Irishman looking for his father who was hung but survived. Sboer, careful portrait of great pain, death, love.
THE BOOK THIEF. Markus Zusak. 550 pages. Death narrates Leisel’s life as a foster child in Nazi Germany. Lovely, stark comments by Death as Germany wins, then plummets.
THE WELSH GIRL. Peter Ho Davies. POW camp for Germans in WWII in Caernaervon, Wales. Discussion of place, ethics, war, and the real enemy. English are more the Welsh enemies than the Nazis.
SEVEN VOICES ONE DREAM. Mary Ann Cahill. 212 pages with black-and-white photographs. Choppy patchwork of interviews with the founders of La Leche League. Interviewer’s questions can detract from the otherwise interesting responses and memories (though often repetitive) of the seven housewives who started an international organization in 1956 from humble roots in suburban Chicago. Some macro editing would help this otherwise charming group/organization memoir. Contains photos of the founders in the early days and with their families.
AN IRISH COUNTRY DOCTOR: A NOVEL. Patrick Taylor. 337 pages. Taylor is an actual M.D. from Northern Ireland. The original title was The Apprenticeship of Dr. Laverty, but perhaps that didn’t grab American readers like anything with “Irish” in the title.
A THOUSAND SPLENDID SUNS. Khalid Hosseini. Follows several Afghani women and the men, soldiers, and regimes that torment them through war, child-bearing, marriage, sacrifice, and escape. An excellent companion to Hosseini’s The Kite Runner.
EINSTEIN’S DREAMS. Alan Lightman. 179 pages. Physicist-author imagines fantastical turns and twists of time and sequences of life in patent clerk Einstein’s Vienna (?) and Zurich (?).
THE CITY OF FALLING ANGELS. John Berendt. 398 pages. Nonfiction series of pieces about Venice centered around the burning down of the opera house Fenice (“feh-NEE-chay”). A detailed look at culture and the Italian and American players in the history, culture, and preservation of Venice.
THE RISING SHORE–ROANOKE. Deborah Homsher. 270 pages. Fiction based on the facts known about the Roanoke, Virginia, “Lost Colony.” Follows story of two women–Eleanor Dare and her serving girl Margaret Lawrence–as they navigate growing up and sailing to the New World. I had lunch with the author with Jane Maestro in Ithaca, New York, in March 2008.
ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT. Erich Maria Remarque. Author is from Osnabruck, Germany–where all the Grossmans are from–and served in WWI. Gentle, insightful, coming-of-age in the trenches of World War I. Also saw two movies based on book. Both quite good. The 1930 version has strengths as does the recent remake with Richard “John Boy” Thomas. Required reading for the whole world.
THE PLACES IN BETWEEN. Rory Stewart. 297 pages. Scotsman walks across Afghanistan right after the fall of the Taliban. Text is interspersed with author’s sketches.
THE GLEEMAIDEN. Sylvian Hamilton. 405 pages. Third of a novel series featuring the knight Sir Richard Straccan. Can be confusing with story lines and characters from the author’s previous THE BONE-PEDLAR. I hadn’t realized “glee” is Irish for song: now “glee club” makes a lot more sense. I picked this book up in Dubai, but I don’t usually go for historical fantasy.
IGNORANCE: A NOVEL. Milan Kundera. Translated from the French by Linda Asher. 195 pages. Twists and emotional turns of two Czech emigres who return to Prague after 20 years. Both remember yet don’t remember. Kundera interjects snatches of The Odyssesy, as Odysseus grapples with returning to Ithaca.
THE BRONTES: A FAMILY HISTORY. John Cannon. 141 pages. A small book that packs a literary wallop. The Brontes’ family history in Ireland (where the family name was originally Brunty) seems to contain many of the plots of the Bronte sisters’ books. Fascinating and a requirement for any English major’s book shelf.
THE NARROWS. Michael Connelly. 400 pages. I’m not a mystery buff, but the settings had me hooked. From Los Angeles to Catalina Island to Las Vegas to the Mojave Desert (notably the Zzyzzx exit), the details are personally compelling for this southwestern gal. The detective, Hieronymous “Harry” Bosch, is a sad, complicated yet ethical character you woudn’t mind sharing an apartment complex with.
A STEP FROM HEAVEN. An Na. 156 pages. Heartbreaking and wonderful story of a Korean girl’s assimmilation into southern California culture along with her depressed, abusive father and her carrying-on mother.
THE DANCING GIRLS OF LAHORE: SELLING LOVE AND SAVING DREAMS IN PAKISTAN’S PLEASURE DISTRICT. Louise Brown. 290 pages. Brown is an English woman who lives for extended periods in a Lahore red-light district documenting the culture of the sex workers and their families. Brown also recommends Ruswa’s UMRAD JAN ADA, Manto’s SELECTED STORIES, and Weiss’s WALLS WITHIN WALLS plus several films about Indian and Pakistani women.
BLOODY FALLS OF THE COPPERMINE; MADNESS, MURDER, AND THE COLLISION OF CULTURES IN THE ARCTIC, 1913. McKay Jenkins. 236 pages. Two Catholic priests go up to northern Canada to convert Eskimo people who’ve seen maybe three white people in their entire lives. The priests are murdered, an enthusiastic crew from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police go up to investigate, and things, of course, fall further apart. Some RCMP members quite sensitive, though. The main Eskimo suspect tells the court he thought the two white men were trappers. Therein lies the kernel of this cultural tragedy.
MARCH: A NOVEL. Geraldine Brooks. 273 pages. Brooks takes Mr. March from Louisa May Alcott’s LITTLE WOMEN and fleshes out his Civil War experiences: what happens to a man during war, and how can he return to his family but a grossly changed man? I watched COLD MOUNTAIN right afterwards. If CM’s Inman had lived, he might have been just as broken and emotionally knotted up as March. The Australian author Brooks is the wife of Tony Horwitz, whose CONFEDERATES IN THE ATTIC I also really enjoyed.
THE RED-HAIRED GIRL FROM THE BOG: THE LANDSCAPE OF CELTIC MYTH AND SPIRIT. Patricia Monaghan. 250 pages with pronunciation guide, glossary, notes, and an index. To my delight, Monaghan starts with describing the hag magic of County Clare. Makes me want to return to Ireland, this book in hand.
THE LADY AND THE UNICORN. Tracy Chevalier. 248 pages. Historical fiction based on the few facts known about the six huge luminous ”The Lady and the Unicorn” tapestry series in the Cluny Museum in Paris. I would have liked more details of medieval Paris, but I’ll take Chevalier’s take on this.
THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO. Alexander Dumas. I unashamedly read the abridged version. Dumas wrote this during the same year as he wrote THE THREE MUSKETEERS. I have read that he had a studio of writers whom he supervised.
ETHAN FROME. 1911. Edith Wharton. 130 pages. The themes and images really pop out of this dimunutive book: being trapped and crippled, power and manipulation, sex, choices, suicide pacts, and the desolation of finances and of dreams. Zeena Pierce (pierces the heart, piercing manner) and Mattie Silver (shining) are names carefully chosen by Wharton. “Florida” seems to be a symbol of all that’s warm and what could have been for Ethan. Wharton wrote this while living in Paris on the rue de Varenne, a street with nice apartment complexes and the Biron Hotel (now the Rodin Museum). From rue Varenne, you can see the Hotel des Invalides and its dome where Napoleon is buried. In Wharton’s time, Rodin was working in the Hotel Biron with other artists. Wharton’s upper class situation seems almost cruel as she carefully chronicles Starkfield’s “inarticulate” (her word) New Englanders.
MADAME BOVARY. 1857. Gustave Flaubert. 321 pages. Careful, detailed writing. Slow going but quite wonderful. Emma Bovary is woefully unprepared for life, though sometimes I felt the truly tragic figure was her husband Charles. The short description of the aimless eight-hour ride where Emma is seduced in a carriage is masterful.
SHE CAME TO STAY. 1943. Simon de Beauvoir. 409 pages. Her first novel, based on the menage-a-troi between her, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Olga Kosakievicz (to whom the book is dedicated). Endless conversation with little action.
THE RAZOR’S EDGE. 1943. Somerset Maugham. 314 pages. I’m rereading this. The writing is measured and gorgeous. The Everyman Larry character compelling, but the narrative bogs down when Larry describes religion in India.
INTO A PARIS QUARTIER: REINE MARGOT’S CHAPEL AND OTHER HAUNTS OF ST.-GERMAIN. 2003. Diane Johnson. 194 pages. Ex-pat author describes her neighborhood and its history in great detail. Book weakens when she makes modern political comments.
A MOVEABLE FEAST. 1964 (but covers 1922-26). Ernest Heminway. 140 pages. I reread these short sketches about living in Paris before he became famous. Paris is a feast you keep with you the rest of your life, thus the moveable part. Tales of meeting, drinking, and hanging out with F. Scott Fitzgerald. Scott and Zelda were a tragedy together.
TETE-A-TETE: THE LIVES AND LOVES OF SIMONE DE BEAUVOIR AND JEAN-PAUL SARTRE. 2007. Hazel Rowley. 351 pages. Brings these two to agonizing life. Jean-Paul was constantly falling love with new women; Simone was bi-sexual and prone to fits of sobbing over her own love affairs and shortcomings. Fascinating to learn the details of Simone’s life that she then used in her fiction.
LONESOME TRAVELER. 1960. Jack Kerouac. Eight essays. Such brilliant, original writing with not a single cliche or wasted breath of a word. In biography, he comes off as casual and sloppy; in his own observations, he seems keen and precise.
WORDS IN A FRENCH LIFE: LESSONS IN LOVE AND LANGUAGE FROM THE SOUTH OF FRANCE. 2006. Kristin Espinasse. 282 pages of comments and French lessons based on Espinasse’s blog <french-word-a-day.com>
KEROUAC: A BIOGRAPHY. 1974. Ann Charters. 367 pages with fascinating, detailed notes. Dizzying back-and-forth of Ti Jean’s unhappy life. Fascinating, wearying, drunken catalogue. Kerouac’s travels more complex and erratic than even On the Road reveals.
THE GLASS CASTLE. Jeannette Walls. Fiercely protective but honest memoir of woman’s family living in California desert and West Virginia. Alcoholic father and negligent mother both brilliant but criminally neglectful of children. Insight into homelessness.
SEEKING ENLIGHTENMENT; A SKEPTIC’S JOURNEY TO RELIGION. September 2007 book club. Nevada Barr. Essays on her life and falling into what she seemed to need: an Episcopanlian congregation. Sometimes poorly written with little editing, sometimes very honest.
FUNNY IN FARSI; A MEMOIR OF GROWING UP IRANIAN IN AMERICA. Firoozeh Dumas. Writing can be uneven, but her 27 essays about being an outsider are sweet and educational.
LONG AGO IN FRANCE. MF.K. Fisher. Newlywed sallies forth in Dijon in 1929, the same year my grandparents went to Paris with my 5-year-old father. Talks of eccentric people and living cheaply.
ALL IS VANITY. Christina Schwartz. August book club. Good read, dark plunge of writer using friend’s financial decline as basis for novel, destroying friendship.
DANDELION WINE. Ray Bradbury. Semi-autobiographical essays on life in a small Illinois town in the summer of 1928. (Perhaps set in 1928 to avoid going into talking about the Depression?) Some essay fair, some brilliantly poignant.
BALZAC AND THE LITTLE CHINESE SEAMSTRESS. Dai Sijie. I read this again after four years for July 2007 Book Club. Two young Chinese men are forced into re-education program in a dismal village. They discover a suitcase of Western books and share their discovery with a seamstress. The seamstress takes some of the books’ theme to heart and flees to the city.
RED POPPIES; A NOVEL OF TIBET. Alai. A coming of age story of the privileged son of a powerful chieftain. Was a bestseller in China. The chieftains succumb to opium, syphilis, and Communists.
THE BOTANY OF DESIRE; A PLANTS-EYE VIEW OF THE WORLD. By Michael Pollan. Gardener explores histories of the apple, tulip, marijuana, and the potato. Fun and fascinating read.
BRICK LANE. Monica Ali. A Bangladeshi woman struggles with her boorish academic husband in London. Straight narrative mixes with letters from the sister with big gaps in times and flashbacks to life in Bangladesh. Lovely, long book.
A YEAR IN VAN NUYS. Sandra Tsing Loh. A spoof on A YEAR IN PROVENCE. Such a delightful contrast to Reichl’s traditional style. Cartoons, edgy memos and e-mails, lot of wonderful rants. Very L.A. A balm for my California soul.
TENDER AT THE BONE: GROWING UP AT THE TABLE. Ruth Reichl. I kept asking myself, “Why do I care about this?” Maybe Reichl has adoring fans. When someone says, “You should write a book!” maybe sometimes you shouldn’t. Reichl’s parents range from negligent to mentally ill. More introspection and depth would have helped. And she needs humor. So straight.
PASSIONATE NOMAD: THE LIFE OF FREYA STARK. Jane Fletcher Geniesse. Very detailed and exquisitely slow reading. Many themes: looks and destiny, writing and observation, language and access, and colonialism and self-determination.
THE GOOD EARTH. Pearl S. Buck. Originally published in 1931. A Chinese Grapes of Wrath perhaps. Awful treatment of women. Calm, cool writing. No analysis. All the inner thoughts of male farmer Wang Lung.
PASTRIES; A NOVEL OF DESSERTS AND DISCOVERIES. Bharti Kirchner. Very readable, compelling, sweet. Nice treatments of baking, emotional moving on.
INSIDE THE KINGDOM: MY LIFE IN SAUDI ARABIA. Carmen bin Ladin. Very vain, but strong and honest. She tries hard to be a good mom. Carmen stands alone against her Saudi husband Yeslam bin Laden. Is terrified for her daughters.
NIGHT AND DAY. Virginia Woolf. Can be slow going, but lovely turns of phrase and inner thoughts and agonies. So well written, but lots of semi-colons.
QUEEN BEES AND WANNABEES. Required reading for all women. Damage of hierarchies and conflict that can last a lifetime.
YOU’RE WEARING THAT? UNDERSTANDING MOTHERS AND DAUGHTERS IN CONVERSATION. Deborah Tannen. Covers topics like metamessages, the Big Three (weight, hair, clothes), closeness, daughters and fathers, evolving relationships even after death.
THE MEMORY KEEPER’S DAUGHTER. Kim Edwards. Book Club pick for February 2007. 401 pages. The “Memory Keeper” is the name of a camera the lead character Norah buys for husband David. The treatment of childbirth and initiating breastfeeding was certainly short on detail and impact. David gives their Down Syndrome twin daughter to nurse, thinking she’ll deliver it to an institution, but she ends up raising it. Many repercussions for the family. Based on a true, sadder story of a man who found out he had a Down Syndrome brother who had died in an institution.
DOGEATERS. Jessica Hagedorn. 1990. Set in Manila. Graphic, hip, in vernacular. Many Filipino voices, covering family conflicts, agendas, getting what you want, facades, manipulation, and observation.
THE POWER OF ONE. Bryce Courtenay. 1989. 513-page coming-of age saga set during World War II in South Africa. “Peekay” is brilliant, English, sensitive, and wants to be welterweight champion of the world. Good cultural details and memorable characters. January 2007.
THE MADONNAS OF LENINGRAD. Debra Dean. Book Club pick for January 2007. A quick read. Effective interplay of present and memory of woman with Alzheimer’s. Descriptions of art in The Hermitage can feel forced, like an art history lecture. Artwork can be seen at Hermitage’s Web site. And be sure to rent The Russian Ark, a movie made entirely in ONE TAKE at The Hermitage. January 2007.
LUCKY GIRLS. Nell Freudenberger. Such good writing. Five stories. I do tire of having to keep changing my mind’s eye with each new set of characters in each story. Prefer reading longer forms. December 2006.
THINGS FALL APART Chinua Achebe. Book Club pick for December 2006. Plodding then fascinating then disturbing as outsiders bring religious difference and new values to Nigerian villager. December 2006.
NEVER LET ME GO. Kazuo Kishiguro. Book Club pick for November 2006. Wordy, endless examination of small incidents in boarding school for organ donors. Creepy as facts and history doled out.
DARK STAR SAFARI. Paul Theroux. Overland from Cairo to Cape Town. Damage of outside aid, deterioration of large cities, Theroux’s love of the bush, turning 60.
A WALK IN THE WOODS. Bill Bryson. Book Club pick for October 2006. Comic, serious description of hiking Appalachian Trail by guy returning from 20 years working in England. Bryson describes self as a writing spy.
TRAVELS WITH MYSELF AND ANOTHER. Martha Gellhorn. Not afraid of anything. Writes with black humor. Calls Hemingway (the “Another” in the title) her U.C., “Unwilling Companion,” on their China trip. Seeks out war, admires competence, doesn’t suffer fools.
REBECCA. Daphne du Maurier. Saw Hitchcock movie of this starring Laurence Olivier. Cornish coast noir centering on dead first wife of Maxim de Winter. It’s quite a dramatic hook to name the book after a character who never appears. Creepy, hopelessly sexist, and class conscious. Wonderful exposition.
THE HOUSE ON MANGO STREET. Sandra Cisneros. Short, poetic chapters of colorful, spare impressions of Hispanic life. Lovely.
FOR THE LOVE OF IRELAND; A LITERARY COMPANION FOR READERS AND TRAVELERS. Edited by Susan Cahill. Variety of Irish writing, snippets plus directions to locations. Rich in literary, geographic detail.
JAYWALKING WITH THE IRISH. David Monagan. Look at Cork with eyes wide open: thugs, conversational conning, suspicion all wrapped in charm and alcohol.
NIGHT DRAWS NEAR; IRAQ’S PEOPLE IN THE SHADOW OF AMERICA’S WAR. Anthony Shadid. The real, honest, non-Western version of 2003 invasion events. Compelling, disturbing, genuine.
FRENCH IMPRESSIONS; ADVENTURES OF AN AMERICAN FAMILY. John Littell. Can be goofily overwritten, but author-son is using mother’s letters and articles to reconstruct year in Montpellier with family.
INTO THIN AIR. Jon Krakauer. Great detail on Everest history, climbers’ stories, very engaging. Should what happens on the mountain stay on the mountain?
THE PRINCES OF IRELAND: THE DUBLIN SAGA. Edward Rutherford. Evelen centuries of Irish soap opera. Lots of detail, but poor dramatic involvement with the history. Can be exhaustingly talking. After 500 pages, I gave up.
MADAM VALENTINO: THE MANY LIVES OF NATACHA RAMBOVA. Michael Morris. Could use editing, but good details of a talented woman trying to live her own life in the shadow of a famous, weaker, charming man.
POMPEII. Robert Harris. Day to day, minute by minute, visualization of Vesuvius’ eruption through story of Marcus Attilius, aqueduct engineer.
ALL I DID WAS ASK: CONVERSATIONS WITH WRITERS, ACTORS, MUSICIANS, AND ARTISTS. Terry Gross. Variety of NPR “fresh Air” interviews (some combined). Great way to examine the art of interviewing.
THE YEAR OF MAGICAL THINKING. Joan Didion. Book Club pick. Detailed, brilliant, examination of husband John Dunne’s death. She tries to remember every premonition, hint, omen; goes hour by hour till heart attack.
THE GOOD WOMEN OF CHINA: HIDDLE VOICES. Xinran. Shocking, jaunting, sad stories of young, old, struggling women in traditional, changing China.
ON THE ROAD. Jack Kerouac. Fabulous, frantic continuous travel rant of guys hitching, driving, taking buses and drugs, meeting girls. Defined the beat generation.
THE EDUCATION OF LITTLE TREE. Forrest Carter. Book Club pick. Gentle, dignified story of boy and his Cherokee grandparents. I cried and cried at their deaths. Carter in KKK but maybe a novel of redemption.
DARK LOVER: THE LIFE AND DEATH OF RUDOLPH VALENTINO. Emily W. Leider. Mesmerizing, detailed, exhaustive background yet highly readable. So sad more f his movies aren’t available.
SOMEWHERE HOME. Nada Awar Jarrar. Inner dialogues and life stories of different Lebanese women. Lots of flashbacks, integrating of all stages of their lives.
HIGH FIDELITY. Nick Hornby. Wonderful stream of anxious consciousness, worry, memory, music, and film. A style worth studying. Endless analysis of all conversations, relationships, music choices.
EX-PAT: WOMEN’S TRUE TALES OF LIFE ABROAD. Edited by Christina de Tesson. Varied essays by women in Paris, Belize, Ukraine, Belfast, etc. Real mix of writing skill.
TEACHER MAN: A MEMOIR. Frank McCourt. Lots of inner dialogue about jobs on docks and in classrooms. Lovely, loving descriptions of high school teaching up to the brink of writing Angela’s Ashes.
WHEN THE EMPEROR WAS DIVINE. Julie Otsuka. Book Club pick. Quiet, spare descriptions of Japanese-American family’s evacuation to Topaz. Return to Berkely is especially chilling, lonely, heartbreaking.
TINTIN IN THE NEW WORLD. Frederic Tuten. Weird, extended lectures from characters. Tintin grown up and in love with a heartless woman.
GOOD NIGHTS. Jay Gordon. Describes many aspects of co-sleeping including some sleep training (after baby is 12 months old). Sometimes cutesy, overwritten. Could have been tightened to be more helpful to sleep-challenged readers, like with bulleted lists.
RED WATER. Judith Freeman. Book Club pick. Three polygamous Mormon wives describe life with and after John D. Lee, hardships of frontier life. Legacy of injustice, real and perceived.
A BED OF RED FLOWERS; IN SEARCH OF MY AFGHANISTAN. Neloffer Pazira. Written by star of the movie “Kandahar” and “Return to Kandahar.” Important voice: it isn’t just “the Taliban are bad.” Afghani history, culture very complicated and violent.
THE TORTILLA CURTAIN. T. Coraghessan Boyle. Book Club pick for December 2005. Some writing clumsiness, name choices can be dumb, great contempt for Anglo characters. Felt like reading House of Sandy and Fog: nothing good can come of this.
WEEKEND IN PARIS. Robyn Sisman. What fluff! I kept waiting for irony, another shoe to drop, SOME kind of darkness to present itself. Moments of insight, but lightweight.
MINARET. Leila Aboulela. Riches to rags Sudanese woman in London. Good insight into fears of domestic workers.
THE NAMESAKE. Jhumpa Lahiri. Book Club pick for November 2005. Terrific narrative writing of Gogol’s life, Bengali culture, second generation children, love.
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME. Mark Haddon.
The halting, painfully detailed writing of an autistic boy about his separated parents and a murdered dog.
GILEAD. Marilynne Robinson. Book Club pick. Slow, thoughtful writing of an old preacher. Lots of Bible talk.
TRAVELLING WITH DJINNS. Jamal Mahjoub. Meditation on life, family, travel, Africa-Europe. Also flashbacks to marital problems, parents’ deaths, and sibling relationships. Quite good.
TOUJOURS PROVENCE. Peter Mayle. Essays on various aspects of ex-pat living in south of France. Some hints of the writing/famous author’s life.
THE KING’S ENGLISH: ADVENTURES OF AN INDEPENDENT BOOKSELLER. Betsy Burton. Book Club pick. Not well-written, but all subject matter of interest.
SAVAGE BEAUTY; LIFE OF EDNA ST. VINCENT MILLAY. Nancy Milford. Wow. Probably wouldn’t have been friends with Millay. Promiscuous, bisexual, self-absorbed. Very impressive, detailed writing.
ISHMAEL; AN ADVENTURE OF THE MIND AND SPIRIT. Daniel Quinn.Philosophic dialogue between gorilla “Ishmael” and man can be quite clunky and stilted.
CRESCENT: A NOVEL. Diana Abu-Jaber. Love affair in L.A. with half-Iraqi woman cook and Iraqi exile. Lovely food and Iraq descriptions. Realistic Arab ex-pat portrayals.
SCHEHERAZADE GOES WEST; DIFFERENT CULTURES, DIFFERENT HAREMS. Fatema Mernissi. Reads like a dissertation. Recommend reading the last chapter first.
ALL SOULS; A FAMILY STORY FROM SOUTHIE. Michael Patrick MacDonald. Essential reading for anyone who loves Boston. Author’s four brothers died. Memoir of choosing life over suicide in face of family pain.
LIFE OF PI. Yann Martel. Book Club pick. Great writing; lots of animal detail. Whole story an allegory for what really happened.
THE MANHATTAN BEACH PROJECT. Peter Lefcourt. Not one iota of detail about Manhattan Beach. Reality TV series “Warlord” gets set up. Fast, smart writing. Shows depth of problems, power struggles, anarchy of various ‘Stans.
MEET JOHN TROW. Thomas Dyja. He also did Civil War baseball book, Play for a Kingdom. Midlife crisis played against absorption of Civil War character John Trow.
THE TIGER LADIES: A MEMOIR OF KASHMIR. Sudha Koul. Lovely progression of past life in Kashmir to ex-pat Kashmiri living in New Jersey.
LE DIVORCE. Diane Johnson. Ex-pat Americans in Paris. Stepsisters’ relationship. Inane book jacket info calls this a comedy, but serious themes: adultery, suicide, despair.
MY FORBIDDEN FACE: GROWING UP UNDER THE TALIBAN: ONE WOMAN’S STORY. Latifa. Was 16 when Taliban took over Kabul. Family refreshingly complicated.
SOLDIERS OF SALAMIS. Javier Cercas. Journalist obsessed with incident in Spain’s Civil War. Plodding till last section.
THE WARLORD’S SON. Dan Fesperman. Great spare language. Believable, rich in details about Afghanistan. Strong, sensitive, knowing portrayals.
THE KNOWN WORLD. Edward P. Jones. Dense, almost Biblical peopling of `1850s South and complex slave stories, families.
DEATH ON THE NILE. Agatha Christie. Movie of this made me want to see Nile myself, but there really wasn’t enough Egyptian stuff. Lots and lots of complicated motives, criminal details.
THE FUTURE HOMEMAKERS OF AMERICA. Laurie Graham. Air Force wives in Cold War British air base. Fun, compelling characters. Frequent movers, then all visit each other as circumstances change. I life the short chapters.
A HUNDRED AND ONE DAYS; A BAGHDAD JOURNAL. Asne Seierstad.
Account of reporting conditions in Saddam’s and post-Saddam’s Iraqi capital. Day-by-day, hour-by-hour before, during, after U.S. attach. Seierstad’s hunger, adrenaline for danger, war-zone reporting.
THE SOUTHERN GATES OF ARABIA; A JOURNEY IN THE HADHRAMAUT. Freya Stark. Writing can be long-winded with too many commas and not enough periods. Her warmth, curiosity, and respect for all people shine through. Terrific descriptions, from geography to costume to her own illnesses.
WITHOUT RESERVATION: THE TRAVELS OF AN INDEPENDENT WOMAN. Alice Steinbach. Newspaper reporter takes nine months off to go to Paris, London, Oxford, Venice, etc. Some pretty predictable, some quite insightful. Talks about Freya Stark’s recent death in Italy.
WHISPERS IN THE SAND. Barbara Erskine. Woman traces great-grandmother’s trip to Egypt. Sometimes too romance novelly, but sure did make me want to return to Egypt to see all our cruise sites again plus Abu Simbel.
ZOYA’S STORY: AN AFGHAN WOMAN’ STRUGGLE FOR FREEDOM. Zoya.Reads like a dictated story. Young woman with RAWA during Taliban years.
THE PILOT’S WIFE. Anta Shreve. Good inner and outer dialogues. Good writing about dread, exhaustion, fear. Husband’s secret life revealed after plane crash. Do we really know each other?
THE SEWING CIRCLES OF HEART: A PERSONAL VOYAGE THROUGH AFGHANISTAN. Christina Lamb. Astonishing variety of experiences and voices. I do wonder about risks she poses for those she visits. She doesn’t even dye her hair. Post-Taliban impressions.
LAST TANGO IN ABERYSTWYTH. Malcolm Pryce. Welsh noir—though I don’t recognize this Aberystwyth as same one I visited in 1978. Quirky writing; can be too many characters to follow.
FROM RAGS TO RICHES: A STORY OF ABU DHABI. Muhammed Al-Fahim. Needs editing. Good personal take on Abu Dhabi’s history and rise from primitive conditions to modernity.
EMMA’S WAR: LOVE, BETRAYAL AND DEATH IN THE SUDAN. Deborah Scroggins. Great background on Sudan’s conflicts, though can be slow going. Good writing; lots of comments interwoven.
THE VILLAGE OF WIDOWS. Ravi Shankar Etteth. Set in Delhi. Two murder mysteries. Detective/cartoonist learns truth about father and discovers doctor’s evil plot.
SERVING CRAZY WITH CURRY. Amulya Malladi. Sisters, mothers, and daughters in conflict. Indian family in San Francisco area. Good, fast read. Good Indian food. Devi attempts suicide, goes mute, cooks.
A BORDER PASSAGE: FROM CAIRO TO AMERICA—A WOMAN’S JOURNEY. Leila Ahmed. Achingly perceptive on all nuances of being female. Sometimes painful memoir. Very sensitive to influences on us as women. Some parts get bogged down in politics.
HONEYMOON IN PURDAH: AN IRANIAN JOURNEY. Alison Wearing.
Canadian woman goes on “honeymoon” with gay friend throughout Iran. Good writing, remarkable access to a variety of people.
PALACE WALK. Volume 1 of THE CAIRO TRILOGY. Naguib Mahfouz.Hypocrisy of head of household in WWI Cairo. Incredible imprisonment of women in their own homes. Wordy. Lots of various voices, perspectives from main characters.
MAYADA: DAUGHTER OF IRAQ. Jean Sasson. Iraqi history, ignorant men in government, torture. Love and concern for Iraqi women comes through.
MAN FROM ST. PETERSBURG. Ken Follett. Book Club pick. Lots of romance for a thriller.
BEYOND THE PYRAMIDS. Douglas Kennedy. Wanders around 1985-ish Egypt. Gives modern voice. Sometimes warm, sometimes frivolous, always curious.
THE POISONWOOD BIBLE. Barbara Kingsolver. Book Club pick. Doom written all over this. So much parental darkness. Such a relief to hear father burned to death.
STAYING ON. Paul Scott. Good back-and-forth writing of different characters’ perspectives. Nice raging, wounded voce of old woman.
WEST WITH THE NIGHT. Beryl Markham. Such good writing (though it’s been rumored that her husband actually wrote this). Sensational, slow-motion treatment of a horse race.
THE RED TENT. Anita Diamant. Fabulous. Day-to-day women’s lives in Biblical times.
HEAT AND DUST. Ruth Prawer Thabvala. Life, love, betrayal during British Raj in India. Depressed woman find “nawab,” Indian prince.
INTERPRETER OF MALADIES. Jhumpa Lahiri. Wow. Stories’ writing is compact, searing. Subjects look into the heart.
THE MATRIMONIAL PURPOSES. Kavita Daswani. Indian woman putting up with matrimonial pressure. Billed as Indian “Sex in the City” but not as biting. Love of parents shines through.
THE BOOKSELLER OF KABUL. Asne Seierstad. Straight-forward depiction of Afghani family. Translation from the Norwegian sometimes stiff.
HOLY COW! AN INDIAN ADVENTURE. Sarah MacDonald. Unapologetic, kind of raw, young person’s view of Delhi life. Love-hate of India. Crass, immature at times.
THE SUN IN THE MORNING. M. M. Kaye. British woman growing up in rich colonial India. Warm, reflective writing. Such a good memory of how it feels to be young. First of a three-part memoir.
HONOR LOST: LOVE AND DEATH IN MODERN-DAY JORDAN. Norma Khouri.Shocking, sad, very personal.
GUESTS OF THE SHEIK. American woman n small southern Iraqi village. Great information.
HOUSE OF SAND AND FOG. Reread. Book Club pick. Such a tragedy. Painful to finish. Like watching a truck with the brake lines cut: it can’t go well. Fine writing.
MRS. MIKE. September 2004. Narrative of young bride in the Canadian wilderness.
MOTHER WITHOUT A MASK. December 2004. British mom lives with women in Abu Dhabi and Al Ain.
READING LOLITA IN TEHRAN. Azar Hafisi. December 2004 Like a fleshed-out thesis.
SECRET LIFE OF BEES. Reread. Book Club pick for November 2004. Great, thoughtful writing. Sometimes a few too many celebrations.
PALE HORSE, PALE RIDER. June 2004 Title story great portrayal of woman in flu epidemic.
THE GREAT INFLUENZA. May 2004 Wow. Can be very slow, but brilliant background. Needs editing for smoother syntax.
THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER. Carson McCullers. May 2004 Odd, lots of loneliness in all characters. See into each character; like we’re the deaf-mute.
YEAR OF WONDERS. April 2004 Novel about plague in rural England. Compelling, well written. Odd ending in an Arab country.
AS THEY WERE. M.F.K. Fisher. May 2004 Great writing. Living in France, growing up in California.
PRICE OF HONOR. Han Goodwin. April 2004 Chapters on each Arab nation. Pretty scary: the worst of fundamentalist violence against women, control at all costs.
SOMETHING TO DECLARE. Julian Barnes. April 2004 Essays on France. Dense, complex writing. Too much about Flaubert.
PARIS IN MIND. March 2004 Various essay, not just Parisian romance. The real Paris.
MICHELANGELO AND THE POPE’S CEILING. March 2004 Wow. So much great art history detail! Would have liked better descriptive illustrations. Sistine is so huge.
ANGRY HOUSEWIVES EATING BON BONS. March 2004 Immature writing, but can sometimes be engaging.
THE DA VINCI CODE. Dan Brown. February 2004 Loved all the art references. Talky and teachy.
STORYTELLER’S DAUGHTER. February 2004 Wow. Afghanistan. Shocking. No apologies. Non-fiction. Wonder how Americans can ever understand Afghans.
A CUP OF TEA. February 2004 Short chapters, like movie scenes. Good tension. Sparse, a bit weak.
MARRYING THE MISTRESS. Book Club pick for January 2004. Well written. Good read. Characters have depth.
BLUE SHOE. Anne Lamotte. December 2003 Great writing. Very engaging.
THREE JUNES. Book Club pick for December 2003. Loved Fenno character. One section too long. Good writing.
THE VIRGIN BLUE. Book Club pick for November 2003 Could have been denser. Tried hard to be historical. Predictable romance.
SEE JANE DATE. November 2003 Funny, sometimes feels like sit com writing.
DOWN AND OUT IN PARIS AND LONDON. George Orwell. November 2003.Orwell worked as dishwasher, etc. Very graphic. The poor man’s look.
TESS OF THE D’UBERVILLES: A WOMAN’S TRAGEDY. Thomas Hardy.Can be slow going. Wonderful account of rural life.
UNDER THE BANNER OF HEAVEN. Jon Krakauer. October 2003.Solid writing, sometimes tedious. Mormons pretty scary.
PLAINSONG. September 2003 Wonderful writing. Plain and spare.
TENDER IS THE NIGHT. F. Scott Fitzgerald. July 2003 Hated characters, so aimless. Good writing. The unprincipled rich, Gatsby abroad.
MRS. DALLOWAY. Virginia Woolf. July 2003. Elegant stream of consciousness, especially excellent on mental illness.
BALZAC AND THE LITTLE CHINESE SEAMSTRESS. August 2003 Elegant. Not romantic. How literature opens up the world especially to a young girl.
GONE WITH THE WIND. Margaret Mitchell. September 2003 Movie came out when my mother was 16. Scarlett so awful. Great grounding in Civil war.
THE BOOK CLUB. July 2003 Romantic novel billed as fiction.