Moneybeets Returns to the Category Challenge
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These category challenges set up earlier every year :) I took the year off in 2010 to read whatever I wanted, but I'm ready to return! I will only be aiming for 5 books in each category, though--121 is about twice what I'd normally read in a year. I tried to get a good mix of challenging categories and books I'd be reading anyway, but some may still change. For now, the categories are:
2. Reading Globally
3. Historical Fiction
6. Short Stuff
8. Belletrista Picks
9. Gothic Fiction
10. Owned & Unread
3. Historical Fiction - A favorite genre of mine, sure to be completed quickly!
1. A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel (4/24/11)
2. The Kitchen House, Kathleen Grissom (5/30/11)
3. Snow Falling on Cedars, David Guterson (12/17/11)
Chaka, Thomas Mofolo
Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry
When Christ and His Saints Slept, Sharon Kay Penman
4. History - The nonfiction companion to category 3. Each book must be from a different area.
1. Josephine: A Life of the Empress, Carolly Erickson (1/7/11)
2. The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan (6/18/11)
3. Cleopatra: A Life, Stacy Schiff (9/11)
Fatal Shore, Robert Hughes
The Black Jacobins, C.L.R. James
6. Short Stuff - Novellas, plays, & short story collections.
1. A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Flannery O'Connor (5/15/11)
2. South of the Border, West of the Sun, Haruki Murakami (6/19/11)
3. In the Land of White Death, Valerian Albanov (8/18/11)
4. Full Dark, No Stars, Stephen King (9/10/11)
Night Shift, Stephen King
A Shakespearean play
7. Mysteries - A perennial favorite.
1. The Broken Shore, Peter Temple (1/4/11)
2. Truth, Peter Temple (1/22/11)
3. Amagansett, Mark Mills (4/12/11)
4. Northwest Angle, William Kent Krueger (10/11)
5. Silence of the Grave, Arnaldur Indriðason (12/25)
An Instance of the Fingerpost, Iain Pears
More Inspector Wallander
8. Belletrista Picks - I had a "Women Writers" category in '09, but unfortunately I ended up subbing in a lot of books from class instead of reading things I was actually interested in. Some of my favorites that year, though, were from my women writers category. With the advent of Belletrista, this category seemed a natural choice.
1. Sky Burial, Xinran (1/8/11)
An Instance of the Fingerpost has been on my TBR list for a long time now -- can't wait to see what you think of it! Love the categories and book choices in general, too!
1. The Broken Shore, Peter Temple (Mysteries)
Before beginning the 11 in 11 challenge, I had been slogging through The Once and Future King for about a month and a half, no joke. It's pretty long, and eventually became tedious. I just wanted a page-turner that was easy to digest--an antidote of sorts. I don't read cozies or romance novels or YA vampire crap, so police procedurals are pretty much my drug of choice when I feel overwhelmed by "serious literature." (See also: my devotion to Law and Order.)
Temple's The Broken Shore satisfied my craving, and I'll certainly be back for more, but I don't exactly see it as a major accomplishment in the genre like some other reviewers opined. The thrust of the investigation--interviewing witnesses, reading microfiche, etc.--doesn't even begin until the second half. Maybe those bits are boring to other people. Personally, I most enjoy the process of solving a mystery, because I think it gives a more realistic picture of police work than a predictable shoot-em-up denouement. This book was a little scant on that, but it's just a personal preference.
More importantly, Temple wasn't always clear on where Cashin was going with his theories. There was a large "info dump" towards the end where quite a few important suspects came to light, but I forgot who was who because we didn't know anything else about them! It's always a bad sign when you're struggling to remember who's already dead, who's a suspect, and who's a potential victim.
Despite my nitpicks, this was miles more entertaining than the last book I read! Maybe it comes off better for the comparison, I don't know. Cashin is more normal and likeable than many popular detectives--a curmudgeon, to be sure, but so am I. Unlike the stiff Wallander and the absolutely interminable Lisbeth Salander, Cashin seems like he could be a real detective. That's what really saved the book for me. Yes, I demand realism in my sensationalized crime novels! Kind of a lost cause, but there you are...
2. Josephine: A Life of the Empress, Carolly Erickson (History)
Hehe, I'm cheating a bit, the first half of this was read in '10. Sssh!
I'm not sure whether to classify this "historical fiction" or "popular history," and here's why. First, Erickson has written both historical fiction novels and historical biographies. Josephine is the first book of hers I've read, though, so I can't compare it to her other works to see which genre it more closely resembles. The book is not written like a historical text (very few endnotes, lots of discussions about Josephine's feelings that have no factual basis), but it also doesn't read like a novel (there is no dialogue, for example.) I'm quite puzzled. I see from her LT profile that she is a trained historian, but this doesn't appear to be the work of one. However, I suppose straightforward biographies are written a bit differently, and place more emphasis on the subject's personal life, than a history book that's simply about one person. I do feel I learned quite a bit about Josephine de Beauharnais, but I'm a little suspicious of reading Erickson again in the future. A book I read a few years ago, Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette, gave the reader an intimate look at the queen while remaining firmly in the arena of facts. Maybe Fraser has just spoiled me, and biographies of queens will never be the same again D:
3. Sky Burial, Xinran (Belletrista)
What an exhilarating little book! The author Xinran, a former talk show host in China, was contacted by a Tibetan woman, returning to China for the first time since the Cultural Revolution. Over two days, the mysterious woman told Xinran the incredible story of her decades-long search for her missing husband, an army doctor. A doctor herself, Shu Wen gave up her job and family to join the Chinese army and go to Tibet, hoping she would be able to search for him there. But due to political tensions and a simple spate of poor luck, she falls in with a displaced Tibetan heiress and a family of nomads. That's just the first half!
It's amazing how much Xinran packs into a novel of less than 250 pages. And it's clearly a novel, albeit a novel "based on a true story." (By necessity, most of the dialogue and personal introspection must be exaggerated or guessed at--the author only met with her phantom storyteller for about two days.) And the writing feels more natural when describing Tibet's landscape or religious practices instead of Wen's worries about her husband, which I found strange for a talk show host. Wen did not come alive for me, and I wondered why after thirty years she chose to leave her Tibetan family to again search for her husband. Even if he was alive, they probably wouldn't recognize each other. So the love story was underwhelming, but I really loved reading about Tibet, a country I am completely unfamiliar with. It's hard to believe a place like that existed in the very recent past.
4. Thérèse Raquin, Émile Zola (Owned & Unread)
I'm going to expose my ignorance, now; until quite recently, I was convinced Emile Zola was a black author from northern Africa. I have no idea why I thought this, since his name is clearly French. Of course, I also used to think my mom drank "Cafe Ole," some sort of spicy Mexican coffee, when it was really just plain coffee with milk (cafe au lait). Where do I get these ideas?? Anyway, that's not important to my review, just a fun tidbit.
So! Thérèse Raquin. A joy to read, even though Thérèse and Laurent are, of course, despicable human beings. The way the French write about relationships is so accurate, so relatable, even hundreds of years after publication. Thérèse's affair was well and excruciatingly detailed, but Zola's portrayal of the enfeebled Mme. Raquin, forced to depend upon her son's murderers for basic care, evoked a level of pathos you would not otherwise find here. And the well-meaning oblivion of the Raquin's Thursday guests was excellently done. I can't wait to read more Zola this year, now that I... know who he is *sheepish*
5. Truth, Peter Temple (Mysteries)
Unfortunately my earlier misgivings about Temple proved to be correct. Like Tana French, who I love, Temple's mystery series takes a minor character from one book and makes them the star of the next installment. This could be an easy way to refresh the series with every book, if the author bothers to change anything about the character other than their name. Temple does not. Stephen Villani has children and an ex-wife, but I found no other noticeable differences from The Broken Shore's lead detective Joe Cashin. If he had just replaced "Villani" with "Cashin" before publication, nothing would've seemed amiss. Hmmph. Also like the series debut, there is a lot of political posturing before anyone starts working on the case. As a result, the "big reveal" suffers--lots of interchangeable and confusing suspects.
I would be ready to give up on Temple's series if I did not suspect the next installment would bring Villani's underling-cop Dove as narrator. Dove is one of the few characters in either book that has a distinct point of view, and I would be interested to see what Temple would do with Dove at the forefront.
6. The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson (Gothic Fiction)
You know, Shirley Jackson really is great. I've devoured every book of hers I've picked up--and I don't know why that number isn't greater. Do I sense an author theme coming on for next year? There's not much insight I can offer into The Haunting of Hill House, everyone knows about the "scientific" investigation and Eleanor's ghostly hand-holding incident. The psychological aspect is also a bit tired, every other horror/thriller that comes out now has a similar denouement. I just want to talk about Eleanor. Jackson managed to turn a likable, sensible woman into an utterly repellent creature in only a few hundred pages, it was hard to tell when the flip came over. Horror is done best like this, when you don't know exactly why spooky things are going on. The things that you can't wrap your mind around are the scariest.
I'm not doing the book justice, so I'll leave you with an excerpt, one of the best opening paragraphs I've ever read:
"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone."
7. True Grit, Charles Portis (Other)
I saw the movie first (the recent remake, not the original) and was very surprised at how faithful it was to the book. Usually I feel screen adaptations fail to live up to the print version, but in this case I felt it enhanced the book. The sparse, wild backdrop of the film made imagining the book a little more magical, I felt.
True Grit was unpretentious, straightforward, but witty and clever. I found it charming that nobody made a fuss about fourteen-year-old Mattie going out into the wilderness with two men, or carrying a gun, or shooting someone. She was mature enough to handle herself, and things were left at that. Now, everyone would be shrieking about psychological trauma. Mattie herself is extremely funny and observant in a dry kind of way, and very devout despite, well, most of her actions in this book. It is sometimes refreshing to read about no-nonsense times and places like that. True Grit is old-fashioned, but it couldn't be any other way. If other westerns are like this, I'll be reading many more.
8. The Monster of Florence, Douglas Preston with Mario Spezi
Preston's fiction isn't the kind of thing I go for, but I was immediately interested in this non-fiction treatment of the Monster of Florence case when I saw it mentioned elsewhere on LT. Here in the US, we are exposed to lots of crime fiction, but mostly the "home-grown" variety, if you will. (Jack the Ripper being the exception.) I know there are plenty of foreign serial killers--the Rostov Ripper and the Monster of the Andes are particularly prolific. The cradle of the Renaissance, though, is not a place you normally associate with gruesome death.
Spezi (who contributed to the book, although it is drafted by Preston) is a journalist who's reported on the case ever since the first murder in the early 70's. Preston got in on the story when he inadvertently purchased some property adjacent to one of the crime scenes. Together, they tried to uncover the truth and expose the shoddy investigating of the Florence police. This is where things get interesting. Spezi stands accused of the crimes himself, and Preston is named as a collaborator. The incompetence and corruption of the police force, at its highest levels, is just as terrifying as the Monster's acts. The delusions of conspiracy theorists are taken as fact, while tangible evidence is suppressed or misinterpreted. Spezi gets his day in court and emerges victorious, but his trial is only one episode in a saga of idiocy that renders the real Monster almost impossible to identify. Even if someone confessed today and handed over the murder weapon, it seems unlikely that anyone would believe him after all the false turns the case has taken. Preston's writing is solid, if not unique, but a story like his and Spezi's is fantastic enough on its own.
Quick note--as of today, my first category is "Law" instead of "Reading Globally." I'm finding it difficult to choose books I would like that fit this year's theme reads, and I have a separate category for world lit. I'm trying to decide whether to pursue law school, so I'm more interested in learning about the law right now anyway.
19 I love that quote (as I love the author). "..whatever walked there, walked alone" always sends shivers up my spine :-)
9. Amagansett, Mark Mills (Mysteries)
Man, there has been a serious decline in reading around here. Nearly May and not even ten books read yet. Sad! Fortunately, my reward for being busy is my first big-girl job, so I can't complain much. (Full-time with benefits! No more coffee wenching! Sorry, I'm terribly excited.)
I was still slowly nibbling away at A Place of Greater Safety when finals ended, and I just wanted an easy mystery to jump-start my reading. Amagansett was just fine in that regard. Nice and atmospheric, with a few maritime flourishes to lend it a little extra something. For a story set in a small town in the 50's, though, there were some pretty modern attitudes from a few of the characters. It was easy to tell who the "good" and "bad" guys were by simply examining their thoughts on premarital sex, which I think is kind of a weird barometer to use. If you focus on the story instead of the police officer's personal life, though, Amagansett is fairly enjoyable. I'd definitely recommend it to someone who's looking for a slightly quirky police procedural.
10. A Place of Greater Safety, Hilary Mantel (Historical Fiction)
12. Safer, Sean Doolittle (Other)
While I tend to stray away from U.S. literature set in big cities (especially New York--I think I've disliked everything I've ever read about the place,) I do like to read about small towns. I understand how they work, and how stifling it can be when everyone has known you since childhood and remembers all the stupid things you used to do. I lived in a place like that for many years, haha. Recently I moved to a major city in another state, and while I kind of like that nobody knows who I am, it becomes lonely very quickly when your car dies and you have no one to pick you up. The married couple in Safer is undergoing the opposite transition, where they have been established in the city for many years and choose to downgrade to a small town for their careers. The kind of community that has neighbors who know your name and stop to chat with you on the street is just as foreign to them as a city that has vegans in it is to me.
It was kind of fun to look at this book from that perspective. It did make me more frustrated with Paul when he was unable to handle his nosy neighbors in a constructive way. If it bothers you that your neighbor is keeping tabs on your comings and goings, close your damn blinds. If you call the police, like he did, they will probably not believe you. Little stuff like that bothered me. I was also annoyed, as usual, that someone who probably makes several times my annual salary had the leisure to investigate the death of a former tenant in his home. Paul really seemed like an ass when compared to his wife Sara, who works long hours while handling a difficult pregnancy. That said, Safer was a solid mystery that kept me guessing the whole time. Doolittle is very skilled at evoking small-town politics, and how intrinsic to the community old ties are.
14. A Good Man is Hard to Find and Other Stories, Flannery O'Connor (Short Stuff)
16. The Lost City of Z, David Grann (Reading Globally)
I'm making an effort this year to read more non-European history and nonfiction. European history (especially French and German) made up the bulk of my college studies, and while I still love it, I think it's important to learn what else was going on in the world, since all of it ultimately affects us. And since American education is so slanted toward our own country and those that produced it, I've missed out on some great stories like this. This book is still from a Western perspective, since the author is American and the explorer is British, but it offers a window into a time and place where Western values and culture could not permeate--and in many cases, do not to this day.
Frankly I was not interested in the modern expeditions to find Fawcett. Luckily, most of this is about Fawcett's own journey, and the sections about Grann's travels in the Amazon are short and easy to skim. I like that Grann showed how Fawcett's pipe dream of the lost city of Z became almost an obsession for him in the bleak years of WWI, and the extraneous pressures that motivated him to press ahead with this quest when maybe it wasn't such a good idea. (He was going bankrupt, for one thing, and was concerned that a rival explorer with superior equipment was searching for the same city.) After Fawcett and his son disappeared, it was fun to spot all the parallels between this and the Franklin search for the Northwest Passage--others setting out to find the missing explorers and disappearing themselves, and the missing man's headstrong wife playing a key role in the organization of the search parties. I wonder if in many years, we would see a similar situation if, for example, a few astronauts disappeared while exploring Mars? I look forward to reading that book, if I am still alive... :)
17. The Worst Hard Time, Timothy Egan (History)
I feel a bit uneasy about classifying this as history because, while it is an amazing book, it's more of a snapshot of life of the Dust Bowl inhabitants than a scholarly work. Egan does place the Dust Bowl in its appropriate historical context by beginning with the Homestead Act that enticed settlers to move to No Man's Land, as well as describing some of the reforms FDR tried to put into place to help the citizens of Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas in the worst years. There was even a great bit about Volga Germans living in Oklahoma. But Egan focuses the bulk of the book on the locals' hardships--trying to keep children free of "dust pneumonia," their frustration when they are unable to sell their year's crop of wheat for fair prices at the dawn of the Depression. I was particularly interested when talk turned to the numerous foreclosure sales taking place after about 1932, since I work in foreclosure myself.
Ok, so The Worst Hard Time is part history, but the greater part could be called biography or even journalism. But could I see one of my professors assigning it? Yes, probably. I truly learned a lot from this book. When we covered the Depression in school, we did talk about the Dust Bowl, but only very superficially. I remember learning that the Dust Bowl was "the breadbasket of America" before 1930, and the desiccation of the land was the result of a few years of bad drought and nothing more. I never realized that this "breadbasket" had only been farmed at all for ~30 years prior to the depression, and during atypically wet years. We also never learned that it affected anyone outside the four states that suffered from it--nothing about the few colossal dust storms that reached all the way to Washington D.C., or the starvation that came to other states while the Dust Bowl had a surplus of grain. I always wondered why anyone chose to stay there once it became apparent that they could not make a living, but after reading the stories of those who did stay, it seems that some great and intangible pull prevented them from leaving, even if they could not understand why. For many, it was the first time anyone in their family had owned and worked their own plot of land, and they were proud of that, even when the land was unworkable. They remembered the happiness and prosperity of the good years, and felt that giving up and moving away would be forfeiting all their hard work and success. Eventually, simply driving out of town at all became problematic, as sand dunes covered the roads. Perhaps this is why people stay in depressed areas even today.
18. South of the Border, West of the Sun, Haruki Murakami (Short Stuff)
Several years ago, when I started to read seriously again, I went through a long Murakami binge and read everything he had available in English at that time. Except this book. My tiny library didn't own it, it was years before I knew about inter-library loan, and B&N never seemed to have a copy. I was a part-time coffeeshop waitress and had no disposable income to spend on Amazon purchases. All that has changed in the five years since I last read a Murakami. The city I live in now has a well-stocked library which seemingly houses everything I could ever wish to read, and anything that isn't immediately available can usually be found at the Half Price Books a few blocks from my apartment. I have a real job in a law firm and can afford small indulgences. But this is part of the reason I hesitated to complete Murakami's catalogue even when I had the means to do so. I worried that I would no longer connect with his world in the same way I used to.
His most resonant work, for me, was the first of his that I read--Norwegian Wood. Although I had been warned this wasn't the best one to start with, I'm glad I chose to proceed with it. The characters in Wood are lonely college students, which I also was. It didn't have much of a plot but I was completely immersed in the atmosphere of confusion and frustration that comes with leaving childhood, falling in love, etc. I felt like Norwegian Wood was about me. The other Murakamis I read were substantially different from this outing, although I still loved them, they just weren't Norwegian Wood.
Going by my 18-year-old self's reaction, I should've loved South of the Border, West of the Sun. It's absent of Murakami's usual magical realism (which I actually like, but distances you from the story somewhat.) Instead of a college boy, the protagonist is a professional starting a family. This is a little ahead of where I am in my life, but I definitely have more in common with him now than Toru, the main character from Wood. I have a career path, am semi-settled, have a long-term relationship. But instead of empathizing with Hajime, I just felt irritable. While I can definitely understand the lifelong attraction he has to his first love, I couldn't figure out why he had time to be mooning over her. The man owns two popular nightclubs and has little kids--where did he find the time to run off with Shimamoto and, later, mope about her absence? Maybe I just have less time and patience for navel-gazing now. It wasn't a bad book--none of his are--but it just didn't say anything to me. However, I must say it was kind of fun to visit the "me" that started reading Murakami six years ago. I wonder what that person would say about the person I've turned into...
20. World War Z, Max Brooks (Other)
Always entertaining. I can't wait for the movie, although I hear Brad Pitt will be in it and that displeases me.
23. Children of the Street, Kwei Quartey (Reading Globally)
25. The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest, Stieg Larsson (Owned but Unread)
I already read the first two in the Millennium trilogy last year and gave up for a while. Dragon Tattoo was really good, but I found The Girl Who Played With Fire seriously underwhelming. I love mysteries and crime stories, but thrillers are not my thing, and the second installment leaned heavily toward the "thriller" category. While the debut novel primarily focused on a family drama, the second had none of that, substituting political conspiracies and government intrigue instead. It was also far less believable, a bad sign considering the first book included a businessman-cum-serial killer and a phony kidnapping. And while much has been made of the unusual heroine Lisbeth Salander, I personally didn't care for her. As Mikael Blomkvist opines in Hornet's Nest, she has no one but herself to blame for many of her problems. The over-the-top reactions to Salander's persona and style quickly became grating, too. Piercings and tattoos are not especially unusual anymore--I can't imagine that the ordinary Swede would be shocked by seeing a tattooed young woman.
Seeing the film version of Dragon Tattoo changed my mind about Lisbeth. Maybe the writers had a bit more flair than Larsson, or maybe Noomi Rapace is just a very talented actress. For whatever reason, Lisbeth became much more likable on the big screen. That convinced me to give the third book a try--and after all, I already owned it!
I'm pleased to say that I did end up enjoying the book overall, and felt it wrapped up the series nicely. There were a few plotlines that didn't go anywhere, but then Larsson had planned several more books in the series. Maybe Berger's stalker or the wife-killer Lisbeth observed in Jamaica would've turned up again in future installments. I liked the feminist tone of the story, too. That's not something you see often in crime fiction. Whether you like them or not, Larsson's female characters are strong and confident without exception. They are bright, competent, and likable, regardless of the challenges most of them run into. I only wish he had written a female villain (and maybe he was planning to) to see what he would make of an exceptional woman who was also evil.
The strange thing is that Larsson still falls into one of the cliches of thrillers & detective novels--the male main character who gets copious amounts of ass despite being middle-aged and pudgy. Unless the guy in question is famous or rich, THIS DOES NOT HAPPEN IN REAL LIFE. Larsson at least has the good taste to make most of Blomkvist's conquests his own age. It's not that people in their fifties don't date, especially now that divorce is common--but really, dude gets more action than I do. It was sort of depressing, really, as well as being strange contrast to the otherwise fresh take on gender relations in the series.
26. The Shining, Stephen King (Other)
One of my favorite books, and a rare case where I enjoy the movie as its own entity even though it significantly differs from the printed version. As soon as the weather gets nippy and leaves start falling, I just have to re-read it... I know Stephen King isn't a very sophisticated author, but I really do enjoy his stuff. (Some of it.) There's nothing wrong with reading for the story instead of construction, as I have to remind myself every so often.
43--As a mystery, it was fine if a little predictable. I liked the rural setting and some of the Ojibwe flavor Krueger added. Personally, though, my biggest pet peeve of the mystery genre is when "civilians" are heavily involved in the police work. While this was touted as "A Cork O'Connor Mystery," Cork definitely takes a backseat to his daughter Jenny, a recent college grad who has no business interfering in matters best handled by the police and Child Protective Services. Also, a baby played a major role in this book, and I don't like kids. But I enjoyed the book enough to give another Cork O'Connor story a try. I understand this is #12 or so in the series, and I expect some of the earlier installments are more standard police procedurals. Have you read Krueger's other books? If not, I wouldn't recommend starting with this one.
I've been reading Krueger all year. I started with Purgatory Ridge (#3) and then backed up and read them in order, starting with (#1) Iron Lake. I have three (I think!) left to go before I'm ready for Northwest Angle. They have gotten more "family-friendly" as they've gone on. I'm torn because I don't particularly care for that aspect but I do like it when characters grow and change. The first books are definitely more hard-edged and I'd encourage you to try one.
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