Friday, January 29, 2010

reading report - Jan 2010

I'm only about ten pages into the book I'm reading right now, so it will have to wait till next month. So I might as well go ahead and post this.

My Life In France, Julia Child. I'll admit I never would have read this if I hadn't seen the movie Julie and Julia. The movie was good, but I thought the Meryl Streep bit was way more interesting than the Amy Adams bit. So I decided to read My Life in France, which was the basis for much of the Julia Child thread of the movie. The book is fascinating, and kept me absorbed all the way to the end. It is based in large part on letters that Child wrote while she was living in France. It must have been a hoot to get her letters, she is so infectiously enthusiastic (is infectiously a word?). I was so interested in the proess of writing their famous cookbook that I subsequently ordered it, too (Mastering the Art of French Cooking), but I don't think I'm a dedicated enough cook to use it much. It is interesting reading, though. A-

Wishful Drinking, Carrie Fisher. I've read a couple of Fisher's novels, and while they weren't great lit, they were witty and entertaining. This one, a memoir, is not only not great lit, it is almost never witty and only occasionally entertaining. It reads like a transcript of her talking off-the-cuff into a tape recorder, which is possibly what it is. There is one really funny story for those of us who are Star Wars fanatics (the original trilogy), and if you're a fan of Fisher's anyway (which I am), there's some interesting bits about her life, but otherwise I'd say don't bother. C

The Book Shop, Penelope Fitzgerald. The college where I took classes last semester is offering a seminar this semester on Penelope Fitzgerald. I'd never heard of her before, so I thought I'd try reading one of her books since I can't take the class. The Book Shop is the story of a widow who takes her life's savings and invests it in opening a book shop in a small town in rural England. It is initially successful, but eventually it fails. The story is beautifully written, and it's very British. So if you're an Anglophile, as I am, you will enjoy it. But it has that quality of literary fiction that has almost completely turned me off of reading literary fiction, which is an underlying sense of dark despair. In the world of literary fiction, the best intentions of the brave, intelligent few will always be undermined by the small-minded, petty majority. I knew about two-thirds of the way through that it was going to end in misery, but there was this tiny little part of me that was hoping, hoping, that the characters that you love in this story would not necessarily live happily ever after, but might at least find a comfortable niche for themselves. But it was not to be. Predictably enough, it ends in almost complete ruin for the widow, who is a lovely character, a thoughtful and courageous woman. If you like literary fiction, or if you haven't read enough of it to find it monotonous, you'll love it. A+. But somewhat to my surprise, I find that I am not quite that much of a pessimist. It just seemed like another in a long line of beautifully written, self-pitying literary novels to me. Oh, us poor intelligent, sensitive people are always being railroaded by the ignorant masses. But it still gets a B for the lovely prose and meticulous plotting, and a great cast of characters who deserved a better end.

Tell No One, Harlan Coben (suspense). This one is hard to categorize. It's a one-off, not part of his Myron Bolitar series. Its best characteristic is that you can't put it down. It ends, practically on the very last page, with a bombshell of a plot twist, which is kind of fun. It is perfect for a day of travel when you will be sitting in airports and airplanes with nothing to do. But the more you think about it after you put it down, the less sure you are that it's a good book. There are several improbable happenings, to put it mildly. It stretches credulity to the limits, although it's completely within the bounds of similar books. So if you can read a thriller and not think about it much, I'd give it an A-. But if you, like me, start wondering after you've put it down, "Well, what are they going to do now? how are they going to live, knowing that?" it will sort of leave a bad taste in your mouth. And in that case, it gets a B-.

Since I'm on the subject of Harlan Coben here, I'll say something about Fade Away, which is the third book in his Myron Bolitar series. It was on my list of books worth reading for 2009, and I'll tell you why. The first two books in the series are just fun, especially if you're a bit of a sports fan. Myron is an agent for professional athletes, but since he has some past ties to some investigative agency (the FBI? I can't remember), he sometimes is asked to investigate various unsavory situations involving sports stars. He (Myron) is the king of roll-your-eyes lame jokes, but after you get used to it, they start being pretty funny. (I love books that make me laugh.) And there is the usual cast of interesting sidekicks. It's a typical wise-cracking PI-type series, although better written than many.

So when you start Fade Away, that's all you're expecting. And for the first half of the book, that's all you get. But then about halfway through, the story takes a 90-degree left turn and adds a whole new level of interest. Instead of the usual clues and plot twists that lead quickly to the denouement, you figure out that Coben is dealing with some pretty serious stuff: loss and regret, missed chances, revenge and forgiveness. I kept thinking about it for days after I finished it. I still think about one particular scene, which I can't describe without spoiling it. It's a great example of what genre fiction can be. No one's going to mistake it for literary fiction (and maybe you won't be surprised to hear that I'm grateful for that), but it goes well beyond the expected conventions of a thriller. And that's why it was on the "worth reading" list for last year.


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