2011 Reading List: First Half

I wrote a year-end post about all the books I read last year. By the end of the year, I had a difficult time remembering the books I had read in January. In aid of my memory, I decided to do a review of the books I’ve read every half a year or so instead.

My Dark Places by James Ellroy

This book read more like a crime blotter than a novel. It’s an encyclopedic compendium of names, places, facts, figures, etc. discussed in a very clinical way. Ellroy talks about his mother, whose murder this book is about, in such a disconnected way. He’s not writing about his mother; he’s writing about some nameless, faceless person. There’s no emotional connection here. I realize that this must have been a very personal book for him and quite difficult to write, but it doesn’t show. Instead, what we get is a true crime book with no story and no resolution. I guess I was hoping for something more along the lines of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood; it’s not even close.

Let The Right One In by John Ajvide Lindqvist

I’m usually not a big fan of reading modern books on which modern movies are based, but a friend of mine gave me this book nigh on three years ago. It sat on my to be read pile collecting dust until I finally decided to read it. This is one of the least disappointing contemporary books I’ve read in a while. The movie–the original version, not that sad sack of crap Hollywood produced because Americans are afraid of subtitles–is one of my favorites. Because it is so low budget, they went back to the old Hollywood style of scary where they imply more than they show. The scene in the pool near the end of the movie is one of my all-time favorite scenes precisely because you are forced to use your imagination. I was afraid that reading the book would ruin the film for me, but thankfully, that’s not the case here. Each stands on its own as a separate and distinct bit of entertainment.

It Can’t Happen Here by Sinclair Lewis

I’ve been trying to make it through some of these “books you absolutely, positively have to read before you die” lists that are everywhere on the interweb. I automatically discount lists that have Cormac McCarthy’s The Road or any Ayn Rand listed on them, but that still leaves quite a few. This book is on many of those type of lists. I can sort of see why, at least, contextually. When it was written, this book was shocking, but it doesn’t really hold water today. It is still somewhat relevant, but it ends by seeming farcical. I’m not sure I’d put this on a “must read” list, but it wasn’t a waste of time. Lewis was a fine writer and this is a nice piece of fiction.

Where I’m Calling From Stories by Raymond Carver

This is a collection of short stories by the American author first published in 1988. Some are better than others, but altogether they add up to interesting reading. Whereas George Saunders‘ Pastoralia (another collection of shorts I discussed in the previous book post) is more about the creativity of the story than the writing, Where I’m Calling From has slice of life stories which are less about the story and more about the characters. This isn’t great writing, but it is above par and worth a read.

Teach Us To Outgrow Our Madness by Kenzaburo Oe

Most of the time, when I see a sticker on the front of a book that says “Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature,” it has the opposite of the desired effect on me. I’ve yet to read a winner of this honor that was truly deserving of it. This book is no exception. It’s a collection of four stories. It took me a long time just to drudge through just the first one. It rambles, there’s no distinct voice made even worst by the fact that the narrator refers to himself mostly in the third person, but at other times, in the first person. The first story in the book is a shambolic mess of run-on sentences, poorly constructed dialog, and to make matters even worse, a story that’s not interesting enough to make up for all of it. The other three stories are better, although, just having read this a few months ago, I’m having difficulty recalling what they are. The only one I can remember is the first one because I wasn’t all that fond of it.

Yokai Attack!: The Japanese Monster Survival Guide by Hiroko Yoda

If you have no idea what a Yokai is, this would not be the book I’d recommend to find out. It’s also not the book I’d recommend if you are familiar with the basics and would like to know more. It is far from a thorough compendium of information. The wikipedia entry on Yokai would be a better starting point. That said, it is a fun little read. Each Yokai gets 4 pages: one with stats and description, one with an illustration and two with a slightly more detailed description. This book is interesting bathroom reading, but if you’re really curious about the fascinating world of Yokai, there are better books. Yokai Attack!, while cute, is superficial and hardly comprehensive.

When I Forgot by Elina Hirvonen

I read this in one or two sittings since it’s not a difficult read. In fact, it’s almost too simple. It’s very ethereal; it’s more like a cloud than a novel. When I Forgot drifts back and forth between character perspectives and timelines. The writing is average and the storyline, what little there is of one, isn’t as engrossing as I could have hoped. All in all, it’s not a bad effort for a first book, but ultimately, it’s pretty forgettable.

Best Short Stories of Fyodor Dostoevsky

I’ve probably read all of Dostoevsky at one point or another. I like rereading books at different points in my life just to see whether my opinion has changed. I have to say, I wasn’t all that taken by Notes From The Underground reading it through again a decade or two later. It seemed to ramble without a destination and with an unsympathetic protagonist. Of the stories in this collection, my favorite is A Gentle Creature. Still, Dostoevsky remains one of my favorite Russian authors.

The Art Of Racing In the Rain By Garth Stein

This was handed to me by a friend since I just got a dog. It’s a novel written from a dog’s perspective–an unrealistically smart and human-like dog’s perspective. Other than the point of view, there’s nothing really all that unique about it. The writing, dialog, story, characterization are on par, but not above. It relies mostly on the emotional connection between man and beast as a way to engage the reader in the plot and play on our sympathies. It played on my sympathies a little much for my liking. It has made me look at my dog slightly differently though, so that’s something.

City of Thieves by David Benioff

I’ve read more books than I can count about Soviet involvement in and around WW2 written by some of the best authors in the world. This is not one of them. Perhaps its not fair of me to compare this book to its ilk, but I can’t help it. City of Thieves is obviously written by someone who wasn’t there and has no idea what it was really like. Granted, I wasn’t there either, but based on this book, it seems as though I’ve read more material from people who were than he has. This story comes off as a weak pantomime of a second-hand story where the author, when lacking facts, just made it up as he went along. That would be fine for fiction, but for historical fiction, well, not so much. If you thought Saving Private Ryan was a deep and meaningful movie that did a really good job of showing exactly what wartime was like, then you might like this, too.