Reading List 2010 (16/229)

Nearing the end!

  • Howl’s Moving Castle, Diana Wynne Jones
  • Castle in the Air, Diana Wynne Jones
  • The Disappearance, Bentley Little
  • Hedda Gabler and Other Plays, Henrik Ibsen
  • Atmospheric Disturbances, Rivka Galchen
  • The Narrator, Michael Cisco
  • Emergency Sex, Kenneth Cain, Heidi Postlewait & Andrew Thomson
  • Dangerous Laughter, Stephen Millhauser
  • Celebrity Chekhov, Ben Greenman
  • Us: Americans Talk About Love, ed. John Bowe
  • 61 Hours, Lee Child
  • Bel-Ami, Guy de Maupassant
  • A Gate at the Stairs, Lorrie Moore
  • The Children’s Hour, A. S. Byatt
  • Terminal World, Alastair Reynolds
  • Consider the Lobster, David Foster Wallace

Almost there! Which is good, because I have a house full of people I love, and there’s chili on the stove, and a crackling fire for me to sit in front of.

Unfortunately for my fire-sitting, chili-eating, and people-chatting, there are a lot of wonderful books here to write about. Even more unfortunately for me, Terminal World wasn’t one of them. I absolutely adore Alastair Reynold’s gothic, baroque space operas, and I was looking forward to seeing him write in a world that isn’t his Revelation Space universe. The result wasn’t up to his usual standard, though I don’t think the world was the problem. His premise was that the world is divided into “zones” in which different levels of technology work, and in which human biology also works slightly differently. This results in some amazing concepts, like people traveling “up-zone” to try to get to the levels where humans can be digitally uploaded, before their bodies stop working due to massive trauma. My problem with the book was that I never really felt the main character was at risk. He had to leave his home and go have some adventures, sure, but my heart never quite went out to him. It’s hard to do a high-adventure picaresque, and Reynolds doesn’t quite manage it.

The Children’s Hour, on the other hand, started slow but became truly amazing by the end. I had trouble getting going because wow, there are a lot of characters introduced near the beginning. (Just for example: one character has seven children, and all their stories matter to a greater or lesser degree.) However, all the characters are wonderfully drawn, even those who are less central to the story, and the world of the early twentieth century is beautifully evoked. That’s true both in the incidents of the novel, and in the issues they find themselves concerned with – though those issues often also presage our modern lives. The real power of the novel, though, comes from the inevitable roll forward to the first World War, and its devastating consequences both for the lives of those who fight and those who remain behind. Some novels have sections that could stand well on their own; this one can’t be read or understood except as a complete, brutal, gorgeous arc. Highly recommended.

Bel-Ami is a delightful, vicious little gem of a novel. A handsome young man becomes a social climber, over the backs of those who loved and trusted him. It’s not quite Vanity Fair but it’s a similar feel. You’ll especially like it if you resented Thackeray for giving Becky Sharpe her comeuppance, since Maupassant feels no need to punish his anti-hero. (Yeah, yeah, I know that it’s narratively important. I understand, and I even enjoy it! But there’s a part of me that always wants Becky to get away with all her schemes.)

Finally, I’m still grateful to Austin for making me read David Foster Wallace’s essays. (I tried Infinite Jest, didn’t like it, and gave up on the guy way to soon.) Consider the Lobster is brilliant. I keep trying to pick a favorite essay and failing. Probably the most professionally useful is his essay on authority, language and the dictionary, but “How Tracy Austin Broke My Heart” is just a joy to read. It makes me want to read sports biographies, and that’s saying something.

Happy reading!

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