Monday, January 3, 2011

A Year in Books

I read 29 books this past year. This does not include the self-help books I skimmed, which I did not include in my “One Word Book Reviews” because, quite honestly, who likes to admit they’re reading self-help books?

29 books isn’t a particularly grand number for someone who claims to be a “voracious” reader. In fact, initially I was sure I had read 39 books- recounting I am somewhat shocked the number is so low. What have I been doing this year? Writing too many blog posts, I guess.

Most of the books I read weren’t even particularly memorable. Of course, it’s hard to tell if a book is worth committing time to until you’re a good way into it, and once I am invested, even a little, in a book, it’s hard for me to close it leave it behind.

This year, I read three books about the holocaust, several memoirs about Christian life, two classics, two books about fundamentalist Mormons, one lesbian love story (you can probably guess which one by the title, which SHOULD have clued me in, but didn’t), and one book about a woman who falls in love with a man who was raised by wolves. Which was weird. I read more female than male authors, and hardly any non-fiction.

So, here is a review of some of the books I read in 2010 in three categories: Pretty Pretty Bad, Meh, and Pretty Pretty Good.

Pretty Pretty Bad:

The Shunning by Beverly Lewis: And this is why I don’t read Christian fiction. Plot: An Amish girl is shunned by her family for something or other, I forget what. Why is the Christian book market inundated with Amish romance novels? What is the obsession with the plain people? I mean, I like the movie Witness, but it had Harrison Ford and a young Viggo Mortensen. Beverly Lewis is a major Christian author. This book had a ridiculous plot, shoddy prose, and a predictable, absurd ending. It was Harlequin without the sex.

Grace (Eventually) by Anne Lamott: I love Anne Lamott. I really do. Operating Instructions helped me through my severe post-partum depression after Caleb was born. (I think I’m still here thanks to Zoloft and that book.) Anne is refreshingly candid, and really, really funny. Grace (Eventually) is her third book of essays about her faith. A friend commented that although she enjoys Lamott’s writing, as a person, Lamott hasn’t really… progressed. Grown. Become wiser. Learned from her mistakes. Those kind of things.

I began this book when it was first published and finally finished it last year. There are some lovely pieces, but so many are just full of political wackiness. In one essay, Anne vehemently slams anybody and everybody who is against abortion. And though Anne’s passion was once something I appreciated about her, her passionate stance, dare I say hatred, of anyone who refers to a fetus as a human being, is unreasonable. And scary. And to follow up that essay with another about how she helped a dying friend commit suicide was just- what’s the word? There’s no word. It was too much.

Her essays have turned from thoughts on personal faith to far, far, far leftist propaganda. And here’s what bothers me most. As much as I love Anne and her hippie Jesus-loving ways, I know in my heart of hearts that she would not like me.


The Language of Trees by Ilie Ruby: Ruby’s ghost story is set on Canandaigua Lake, which is just outside of Rochester. The novel was profiled in the local paper, and always one to support “local” authors (I’m not actually sure that she’s local), I ordered it right away. Yes, I spend way too much money on books.

I think this is her first novel, so I’m cutting her some slack. Ruby weaves together Native American folklore with a pretty forgettable love story. However, Ruby’s lyrical prose saves the novel and I have a feeling her next novel will be better.

Churched: One Kid's Journey Toward God Despite a Holy Mess by Matthew Paul Turner: Another kindle read- this one was funny, but felt incomplete. I imagine writing it was a cathartic exercise for Turner, a guy raised in a strict, fundamentalist church. The book is filled with stories that will astound the non-religious. (For the rest of us, it’s hardly anything we haven’t heard before.) My beef is with the title: I have no idea where he stands with God now. I frequent Turner’s blog, Jesus Needs New PR, which only baffles me further. The book felt incomplete to me, probably because Turner hasn’t yet reconciled his beliefs, whatever they may be, with the holy mess from whence he came. Still, he is a witty writer, and I will watch out for future books.

Second Nature by Alice Hoffman: Hoffman writes fantastic stories- modern-day magical realism. There’s always an extraordinary facet to her storytelling, and I usually enjoy her novels. This one, the one about the woman who falls in love with a man who was raised by wolves, was too much of a stretch for me. A reader needs a story to be believable. And this was too far a stretch of imagination and ultimately failed as a “fairy tale,” though it was as bleak as Grimm’s.

Pretty Pretty Good

Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro: There is one short story in this volume that I can’t get out of my head. Every writer should read Munro, arguably the greatest female writer alive today. Her stories are poetry.

Admission by Jean Hanff Korelitz: The novel’s protagonist is an admissions officer at Princeton. The author was once an admissions officer at, I believe, Dartmouth. The story isn’t particularly compelling, though it holds one’s interest- some reviewers complain about the main character’s “aloofness.” Just the same, I liked her, and empathized with her personal plights and her fall into a rather deep depression. The most fascinating aspect of the book is the rare glimpse into the inner-workings of an ivy-league school’s admissions process. Plus, there are enough allusions to great literary characters and scenes to keep any book geek on her toes.

Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky: This is supposedly the easiest of Dostoevsky’s novels. I’m going to tell you why reading these Russian novels is so difficult, just in case you were wondering. Every character has three different names, and they all freaking sound the same.

Our main character is the murderous yet sympathetic Rodion Romanovich Raskolnikov. Sometimes he is referred to by his first two names, sometimes only by his last name. His close friends and family call him Rodya. All of the main characters are similarly afflicted with multiple slavic names. Semyonovna Marmeladov- or Sonya! Dmitri Prokofych Razumikhin! Pyotr Petrovich Luzhin! (Who is not to be confused with Porfiry Petrovich, of course.) My pee-sized brain had trouble at first, but thankfully, the characters are distinct and can be sorted out in context.

A truly great novel. It raises moral ambiguity within the reader- sure Rodya killed two women in cold blood, but we do so want him to get away with it. Because poverty drove him to it, and deep down, he’s a decent man who loves his family. And isn’t his inner turmoil punishment enough?

Other stand-outs from this year include Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Namesake, Markus Zuasak’s I Am The Messenger, Edith Wharton’s Twilight Sleep, and Lorrie Moore’s Anagrams.

As for the self-help books. They were both pretty good. One was about depression and the other about organization. The problem with both books was the way they were set up: the first halves explain why we are the way we are: depressed, unorganized, or in my case, both. The second half offers solutions. If, like me, you have difficulty FINISHING a self-help book, you end up knowing WHY you are the way you are, but have no idea how to fix yourself.

Both books seemed promising; perhaps I’ll give them another go.

The Depression Cure: The 6-Step Program to Beat Depression without Drugs

Living Organized: Proven Steps for a Clutter-Free and Beautiful Home

Because I am a comment whore and because I LOVE a good book recommendation: what was your favorite read of 2010? (Commenting is actually quite easy. You can even comment anonymously if you want to.)


Julie said...

`Thanks!! My next read on my new Nook is that Alice Munro book- so now I am excited! Have you read Olive Kitteridge? That's another short story book that I loved!

MGBR said...

My favorite read of 2010 is not yet published: The Waiting Place, by Eileen Button. Everyone should go to and pre-order this book, in my blatantly biased opinion.

I also finally read The Wizard of Earthsea, by Ursula LeGuin, and really enjoyed it. My brother-in-law loaned it to me ages ago (well, about 3 years ago), when I'd just devoured the Harry Potter series (books 1-7, Jul-Nov '07).

I'd guess I read about a dozen books last year (a low number for me...but then I don't consider myself a hard-core reader). The Help (Stockett), Quotidian Mysteries (Norris), and of course Farm Hands by Tom Rivers would also be on my "Best Of" list.

Mary said...

Holly, I love to see what people are reading. I would agree with Marsha as I also had the opportunity to read Eileen's book, it is amazing you will love it! She by the way is a big fan of your blog! The Help was amazing! Also just finished The Good Thief which is an All Rochester reads book. It was very good!

Toaster said...

I have read many classics, even some Russian ones (loved Anna Karenina!), but I suffered my way through Crime & Punishment awhile back, hating every minute of it. :(

I think we have different tastes; one of of my favorite books of the year (or perhaps it's just the recency effect) was Dean Koontz's latest, What the Night Knows. But I also read a book that reminded me of you: it was a memoir about yoga and motherhood, and the author writes in a funny, self-deprecating way that is a bit reminiscent of your blog. The book is:

Jessica said...

I loved and just finished Firefly Lane (On Mystic Lake is also great) by Kristin Hannah also I will Carry You by Angie Smith (very sad but very touching - about how she handled the death of her baby) and Prozac Nation (about a girl suffering from depression) by Elizabeth Wurtzel is an old favorite.

Liz said...

I read The Paper Bag Christmas by Kevin Alan Milne for the first time and then immediately read it to my oldest two kids. Bitter-sweet Christmas tale. My kids loved it but it was kinda' sad. Loving Our Kids on Purpose by Danny Silk - life changing parenting book. Free Range Kids by Lenore Skenazy - controversial but I believe a lot of what she preaches! Thanks for having me look over my list of books... makes me feel like maybe I might have accomplished something this year! And sorry for the long comment!

Holly said...

Believe it or not, I'm making a list of the book recommendations. Two votes for The Help! Hmmmm...

Holly said...

Oh yeah- Eileen's book is definitely on my list- can't wait! And I strongly strongly recommend that everyone go out and buy Tom Rivers' Farm Hands yesterday.

Dad said...

Must also strongly endorse Alice Munro's Too Much Happiness -- definitely one of the top new books I read last year. Truly memorable stories.

Anonymous said...

Forget Koontz and forget his book “What the Night Knows” (a ghost vengeance story, been there, done that), instead read a book that’s been BANNED like “America Deceived II” by E.A. Blayre III.
Last link (before Google Books bans it also]:

Dad said...

Who are you, Anonymous? This is from a 2007 review of this book on Amazon: "I am constantly running into spam on political web sites, all either written by the same person, or by a group of people who are using the same boilerplate. Every one of them claims that Amazon and other sites have banned this book. Obviously Amazon hasn't, so why the lies? Why the spam? I would venture to guess that it is a sleazy campaign to drum up sales for a book which cannot stand on its own merits." The other reviews on Amazon say the book is dreadful and ungrammatical.

Beth Fisher said...

Glad to know about the Alice Hoffman. I really enjoy her books but I'll be sure not to get THAT one. Sounds weird. Wolves???