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Blogging & Musing...

Books that WOW you

Friday, 14 October 2011 08:24

wow2It's easy (for me, at least) to talk about books and writers that disappoint, so maybe it's time to talk about the ones that knock your socks off, the writers that astonish you with their prose. Not just good writing, or even really good writing, but extraordinary writing.

The books I've listed below aren't necessarily my favorites, though some are; they're not always heavy on plot, and a number are interrelated short stories—not my particular structure of choice.

Mainly, they're impressive for the sheer beauty of their prose and vision—the kind of writing that elicits a shiver and a..."how did they do that?" Some are fairly new releases, others have been around for a couple of years. Here's my list...so far.

Kevin Brockmeier The Illumination
Jennifer Egan A Visit from the Goon Squad  *
Louise Erdrich A Plague of Doves
Jeffrey Eugenides Middlesex
Jonathan Franzen Freedom  *
Nicole Krauss Great House
David Mitchell A Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet  *  and  Cloud Atlas
Elizabeth Strout Olive Kitteridge *
Zadie Smith On Beauty *
(* Click on title for Reading Guide; click on * for our Book Review.)

Of course, there are plenty of wonderful writers...really, really good ones. Some of my favorites are Kate Atkinson, Margaret Atwood (she probably should be on the superlative list), Anita Brookner, Michael Chabon, Jonathan Safran Foer, Elinor Lipman, China Mieville, Ann Patchett, Richard Russo, and Colm Toibin.

Let us know if you've got some superlatives...or some all-time favorites.

 

Books That Disappoint—what to do?

Wednesday, 27 July 2011 14:02

bad-dog3Some books make you wonder why the author bothered...and then make you wonder why YOU'RE bothering. Do you continue with a disappointing book...or put it down?

I've done both recently. I picked up Jaimy Gordon's Lord of Misrule on the basis of its solid reviews. But Gordon's prose felt so clogged and overworked it was offputting. It turns out Gordon is a professor of writing, which maybe is why the book feels a bit like a writing-class exercise. I love dense, rich prose, but not.... Well, anyway, I put the book aside.

Then I picked up Sara Gruen's newest, Ape House, in which a family of apes—who communicate using American Sign Language—eventually become stars in their own reality tv show. Just think of the possibilities! But Gruen's prose is thin and screen-writerish. And her apes turn out to be a lot more interesting than her humanoids.

I finished Gruen's book, though—thinking there might be a payoff. Besides it wasn't painful to read. And there is a sort of pay-off at the end, predictable but sweet.

*Added later...For a truly great read about apes and people, try The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore (sorry, no reading guide)...it's brilliant, funny, and  disturbing.

Questions for Book Clubs
What do you do with disappointing books...especially if one is your book club selection? Which ones have disappointed...and why?

 

Venus & Mars—do we write differently? (Part 2)

Friday, 15 July 2011 10:32

mars-venus-statue

Lately, I've been struck by something strange: my growing preference for male writers. I'm a little tired of Venus, which is hard for me to admit...what with being a girl.

But after reading a lot of female authors recently, I find myself bored with their focus on the intimate—the bird's eye view into relationships and family—waiting for the shoe to drop, the relationships to explode, tragedy to strike, and a general mess to be made of everything. I'm always worried how it all gets cleaned up.

I'm thinking of authors like Sue Miller, Jodi Picoult, Anne Tyler, Alice Hoffman, Jennifer Weiner, Marilynne Robinson. These are incredibly talented writers; they're wonderful. It's just that....

Men seem to write on a larger scale; even the personal is painted on a broader canvas, sometimes of near-epic proportions. I'm thinking of David Mitchell's The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet ... Jeffrey Eugenidies Middlesex...David Wroblewski's Edgar Sawtelle......Phlip Roth's The Human Stain or American Pastoral.

After finishing one of those novels, I feel as if I've been part of something grand, something vast and far beyond my day-to-day perception of life. There's a thrill in that.

But now, in the very act of putting pen to paper (or finger to key), I'm starting think of all the exceptions: Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall is of an era, and Louise Erdrich's Plague of Doves is mythic. Both Richard Russo and Chris Bohjalian write with penetrating intimacy. So...well, there you go. I've proven nothing.

Still, the issue recalls an earlier post in which I asked the same question: Do men and women write differently? The question at the time was spurred by Liesl Schillinger, who wrote in a New York Times review of Domestic Disturbances:

While the voice and mood of the novel are masculine, clinical and objective . . . the book’s descriptions of colors, smells, clothing and bodies show feminine perception.

So...if Liesl can say something like that...maybe I'm not nuts.

 

Hey...you talkin' to me?

Saturday, 29 January 2011 10:41

me-bookEver get that “ah-ha!” feeling when reading? You come across a passage that practically shouts, “Hey, pal. Pay attention—this is YOU we're talkin' about.” It’s eerie, sometimes unnerving.

One of the narrators of Nicole Krauss’s Great House describes herself in a lengthy passage…and I felt an itch of recognition, a not very pleasant itch either…so I won’t quote it here.

But I love that books can do that…make us see ourselves…recall feelings and experiences…and put them into words! It’s uncanny.

Question for Book Clubs
Was there a particular character—or moment—in the book you’re reading now that gave you a sense of self-recognition? What about in other books? If you’ve come across those passages, can you recall how they made you feel?

 

Take that—you g#*&~! book

Tuesday, 23 November 2010 00:00

throw-a-bookYears ago a friend came across a sex scene in Nelson DeMille’s Gold Coast—a couple playing a masquerade to juice up their sexlife. It was so offensive to her she tossed the book across the room—all of which she proudly announced to our book club. (The offending passage involves Lady Godiva...on a horse, of course...very funny. There's an even funnier pirate scene later on.)

What about you? Ever throw a book? I nearly did the other night. In my case, it had to do with the book’s heroine—dense, bratty (her own words turned on herself), and stubborn, in a very stupid way. It was all the more irritating because the book had started out with such promise.

What makes a book toss-worthy? What gets us so riled up that we want to throw it across the room? Is it anger … revulsion … disappointment … fear? And what sparks those emotions?

What's a toss-worthy reason?

graphic sex or violence?
offensive language?
gross injustice?
irritating characters?
predictable plot lines?
unrealistic coincidence?
just plain bad writing?

But here's the thing...isn't it wonderful how literature evokes such passion? Think about it—books come to us as nothing more than tiny black squiggles on a flat white page…which we use to create meaning…which in turn inspires powerful responses. Astonishing…when you think about it.

 

Featured Book Club — from the Big Apple

Wednesday, 17 November 2010 09:15

booker-prize-bookclubCheck out LitLovers newest Featured LitClub—a brainy group of New Yorkers, who tackle the Booker Prize awards list (winners and nominees). That’s some impressive reading!

They also have a great idea for any book club—a Book Swap. The group organized a Swap at a library in SoHo (SoHo…ah, how cool izat?) in conjunction with a Peace Corp veterans book club. It proved so successful the library wants to make it a seasonal event.

The two groups are also considering a joint read and discussion. The Peace Corp group reads international books, which ties in beautifully with the Booker Prize list. *

* Britain’s Man Booker Prize is awarded to English-written novels by authors from the 54-member [British] Commonwealth of Nations, plus Ireland and Zimbabwe. Commonwealth nations include countries in Africa, the South Pacific, and the Carribbean, as well as Australia, Canada, India, New Zealand.

 

Harry Potter—Confessions of a former skeptic

Saturday, 23 October 2010 12:22

harry-potterIt’s late in the game, I know. But I just finished reading all 7 Harry Potter novels. I’d avoided them up to now because...

1. They’re for kids
2. I don't like fantasy
3. Way too much hype
  4. I’m swamped with a long list of “must-reads.”

Turns out, I was misguided—on all 4 counts. Apologies to the millions of HP fans—I’m now one of you. ICH BIN EIN HARRY POTTER-ER!!!!

Some thoughts on Harry Potter books

  1. They're complex—Seven long novels with interlocking plots, details, secrets and characters. How did Rowling keep track of it all? Post-it notes?

  2. They're funny—Portraits that talk and leave home to vist to their neighbors; books with titles like “Which Broom” and "One Minute Feasts–It’s a Miracle!” and much more.

  3. They're mythological—Represent the archetypal hero's journey; peppered with parallels to Greek, Druid, and Norse mythology.

  4. They've got rich, long sentences—All of us, kids and adults, can work on our ability to read long, complex sentences. And Rowling gives us some doosies…stretching out to 50 words! F-I-F-T-Y words! They’re long, lovely things!

Granted, the writing on occastion is clunky, storyline overplotted, and villains cartoonish—but all of that’s incidental considering the totality of Rowling’s project. I’m enthralled…and surprised that I am! If you haven’t read Harry Potter…do!

For book clubs, we have Reading Guides for all seven…with discussion questions.

 

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