Book List 2011

If you don’t want to read, how can you write? My reading list for 2011.

1. Great House by Nicole Krauss
This has become one of my favorite books. I loved Krauss’s The History of Love and this book has made me a true fan of her work. She is very good at structure–her books hang on a good foundation, and even if the plot takes you far, you’ll always have something on which to hang; in Great House’s case, it’s a desk.

Opening lines:

Talk to him.

Your Honor, in the winter of 1972 R and I broke up, or I should say he broke up with me. His reasons were vague, but the gist was that he had a secret self, a cowardly, despicable self he could never show me, and that he needed to go away like a sick animal until he could improve this self and bring it up to a standard he judged deserving of company.”

2. I Have the Right to Destroy Myself by Young-ha Kim
This is one grim book. I have always valued a good joke and a sense of humor in any writing, and Kim’s book makes me wish he had cracked at least one joke, or included a lighthearted moment. But then again, if you buy a book with this title, I guess you sign up for a bleak world.

3. To the Lighthouse by Virginia Woolf
At long last, I read this masterpiece! It makes you think.

4. The Faith of a Writer by Joyce Carol Oates
A friend recommended I read this, because of her piece on running as it relates to her writing. I enjoyed this.

the first few lines:

“Writing is the most solitary of arts. The very act of withdrawing from the world in order to create a counter-world that is ‘fictitious’–’metaphorical’–is so curious, it eludes comprehension. Why do we write? Why do we read? What can be the possible motive for metaphor? Why have some of us, writers and readers both, made of the ‘counterworld’ a prevailing culture in which, sometimes to the exclusion of the actual world, we can live? These are the questions I’ve considered for much of my life, and I’ve never arrived at any answers that seemed to me final, utterly persuasive. It must be enough to concede, with Sigmund Freud in his late, melancholy essay Civilization and Its Discontents, that ‘beauty has no obvious use; nor is there any clear cultural necessity for it. yet civilization could not do without it.’”

5. My Korean Deli by Ben Ryder Howe
People raved about Howe’s insider look at The Paris Review, which is a great counterpoint to Howe’s outsider-looking-in perspective of his Korean deli and his Korean mother-in-law.

first few lines:

“Fall 2002
Last summer my wife’s family and I decided to buy a deli. By fall, with loans from three different relatives, two new credit cards, and a sad kiss good-bye to thirty thousand dollars my wife and I had saved while living in my mother-in-law’s Staten Island basement, we had rounded up the money. Now it is November, and we are searching New York City for a place to buy.”

6. A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
Structure and treatment of time! There’s a lesson to be taken from this book.

7. The Wilder Life by Wendy McClure
If you’re a “Little House on the Prairie” freak like I am (I even donned calico dresses as a child, and ahem, I want one again)…this is the book for you.

first few lines:

“I was born in 1867 in a log cabin in Wisconsin an dmaybe you were, too. We lived with our family in the Big Woods, and then we all traveled in a covered wagon to Indian Territory, where Pa built us another house, out on high land where the prairie grasses swayed. Right?

We remember the strangest things: the way rabbits and wild hens and snakes raced past the cabin to escape a prairie fire, or else how it felt when the head of a needle slipped through a hole in the thimble and stuck us hard, and we wanted to yell, but we didn’t. We moved on to Minnesota, then South Dakota. I swear to God it’s true: we were a girl named Laura, who lived and grew up and grew old and passed on, and then she became a part of us somehow. She existed fully formed in our heads, her memories swimming around in our brains with our own.”

8. Blood, Bones & Butter by Gabrielle Hamilton
Hamilton, beloved chef/owner of beloved Prune restaurant in NYC, has written a very good memoir about her journey as a chef, which ends up really being about her marriage. This chef can write!

the first few lines:

“We threw a party. The same party, every year, when I was a kid. It was a spring lamb roast, and we roasted four or five whole little guys who each weighed only about forty pounds over an open fire and invited more than a hundred people. Our house was in a rural part of Pennsylvania and was not really a house at all but a wild castle built into the burnt-out ruins of a nineteenth-century silk mill, and our backyard was not a regular yard but a meandering meadow, with a creek running through it and wild geese living in it and a Death Slide cable that ran from high on an oak to the bank of the stream and deposited you, shrieking, into the shallow water.”

9. Imaginary Girls by Nova Ren Suma
My friend has me reading YA novels. Imaginary Girls transcends its genre (the language is unmistakably literary) and is an amazing, spooky tale of sisterhood that gets under your skin. I don’t even have a sister.

10. Hold Still by Nina LaCour
Another friend of mine has me firmly in love with YA novels. This book is about what we do when our friend dies. And in many ways, it is representative of the fragility of female friendship, and how they fall by the wayside in women’s lives. I wish I’d had this book to read when I was in high school.

11. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides
Eugenides said his first book (Virgin Suicides) revolved around language, and his second (Middlesex) revolved around plot. He said The Marriage Plot focuses on characters. And that is true. This is an exercise in characters and their individual stories. There was a point at which I wished the novel would have GONE somewhere, but that’s just my preference as a reader, I guess. And I’m still a big fan of Eugenides. (And did I tell you? I met him irl. Such a thrill!).

first few lines:

“To start with, look at all the books. There were her Edith Wharton novels, arranged not by title but date of publication; there was the complete Modern Library set of Henry James, a gift from her father on her twenty-first birthday; there were the dog-eared paperbacks assigned in her college courses, a lot of Dickens, a smidgen of Trollope, along with good helpings of Austen, George Eliot, and the redoubtable Brontë sisters. There were a whole lot of black-and-white New Directions paperbacks, mostly poetry by people like H.D. or Denise Levertov. There were the Colette novels she read on the sly…There was, in short, this mid-size but still portable library representing pretty much everything Madeleine had read in college, a collection of texts, seemingly chosen at random, whose focus slowly narrowed, like a personality test, a sophisticated one you couldn’t trick by anticipating the implications of its questions and finally got so long in that your only recourse was to answer the simple truth.”

Still reading:
Tinkers, Say Her Name, We the Animals, Midnight’s Children, The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake, Drifting House…

2 responses to “Book List 2011

  1. so i see that you’re “still reading” Midnight’s Children. i can relate. truth be told, i took a lot of breaks, and that book took me about a year. however! i really loved it. plus, i know there are so many (SO MANY) books of worth to read, but sometimes i find myself slowing way down because i just love being in that book’s world, and i’m not ready to give it up. this happened w/ Midnight’s Children, Brothers K (Duncan, not Dostoevsky), and is currently happening with The Savage Detectives.

    there. i’ve outed myself as a writer who is a slow reader.

    • @Bryan: I feel so relieved that someone else can relate to my “still reading” Midnight’s Children! It is no doubt an amazing book, but it’s taking me a long time to get through it. And I’ve found that since I’ve immersed myself in the writing life, my reading has slowed down in a tremendous way (how on earth did I graduate with an English degree, which entails reading at least one book per week?).

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