Saturday, January 26, 2008

Read in 2007 Recap: Part One

I'm glad I kept track of all the books I read last year. All the reading I did on my three-hour round-trip work commute paid off! I reached a personal best of 56 books in 2007! (Just think how many finished knits I'd have if the train wasn't crowded and I didn't have to worry about stabbing someone with my DPNs!)

I thought I'd revisit these books a few at a time over the next few days or so. My blog posts lately have been about knitting, but I really want to talk about books as well. And talking about books means I'm writing something besides what I write on the job, and that's good--especially since I haven't been writing my book these days. (There's never enough time in one day to accomplish all my goals. It's rather depressing.)

Anyway, because I'm a total dork, I created my own rating system for these books. It's not fancy, but it's mine.

**** Wish I'd written it myself
*** Made the commute fly by

** Worth considering

* I can't recommend it, but that's just me

Starting with the first book I read last year and working my way until the last...

1. Where or When by Anita Shreve ***

What would you do if you saw a picture of your first love in the newspaper? Would you track him or her down? Would it matter if you were both married with children and only knew each other for a few days at a summer camp decades ago? Those are the questions Charlie has to answer when he sees Sian's picture marking the publication of her latest poetry collection. They embark on a love affair as the 1980s savings and loan scandal in Rhode Island hits Charles, a real estate insurance salesman, hard. Meanwhile, Sian must contend with her husband's inability to make money as an onion farmer in Pennsylvania and the devastating consequences of his despair.

Shreve is an expert at characterization, and she's the only author that can make me root for a character to commit adultery. She really makes you feel the characters' emotions, especially with the shifting point of view, and you hang on for the ride even when you realize the affair ultimately will reach a dramatic end. Like the ending of The Last Time They Met (another good read), Shreve delivers a punch you don't expect in the last paragraph or so of the book. I love how she turns the entire book on its head in just a couple of sentences...and I never see it coming.

2. Teacher Man by Frank McCourt ***

I read and loved the first two books of this trilogy, Angela's Ashes and 'Tis, so I'm not surprised that I was blown away by this book as well. In his memoirs, McCourt paints himself as a simple man, and if that's true, maybe everyone has a good story inside of them just waiting to be told. (If you haven't read Angela's Ashes, you should get it right now. I still laugh when I think of McCourt's telling of his first Communion. You have to read it for yourself!) More than anything else, Teacher Man helped me realize how tough it is to be a teacher and makes you wonder why they are paid so little when some people are paid millions simply to kick a football. McCourt details his struggles as a teacher, especially one whose Irish accent makes it difficult for others to understand him. He used unconventional strategies to get children written off by others as failures to learn and excel. Education is so important, and I believe more teachers like McCourt are needed in this world.

3. A Wedding in December by Anita Shreve ***

This book was a real treat because I love Shreve's expert characterizations. Several friends from a private high school reconnect more than two decades later for the marriage of two of their own. It's a tragic love story, but also one of hope. Bill leaves his wife and children to marry his high school sweetheart, Bridget, who is suffering from terminal breast cancer. The story focuses a bit on each of the characters, including Nora, who has turned her home into the inn at which the wedding will be held. Nora's husband recently died, but romantic feelings arise between her and Harrison, the now-married best friend of her high school boyfriend, whose mysterious death at the academy is a major plotline. However, the best part of A Wedding in December is the book being written by Nora's old roommate, Agnes. We actually get to read portions of the book and get involved in the lives of another set of equally intriguing characters. The book takes place in Halifax, Nova Scotia, at the time of the 1917 explosion in the city's harbor. I'd never heard about the Halifax explosion before reading this book, and I did some research afterward. It was very interesting and could have been a stand-alone book. Shreve also is very good at weaving historical details into her novels.

4. The Brethren by Beverly Lewis ***

This is the last installment of the Annie's People series. Most of Lewis' books take place in Pennsylvania's Amish country, and my interest in the Amish culture drew me to her writing several years ago. Lewis' books aren't profound works of art, but they are engaging and fast-paced. They paint a realistic portrait of people of faith who are conflicted when it comes to life, love, and duty. Without giving too much away of the previous two books, The Bretheren follows Annie Zook, the preacher's daughter, who must decide whether to abide by her father's wishes and give up her love of painting and a chance of love with an "Englisher" named Ben. The story also follows several other characters, including Annie's "fancy" pen pal, Lou, who sought shelter in the Amish community when the burdens of her parents' affluent lifestyle were too much to bear; her friend, Esther, an abused wife who was shunned when she embraced aspects of the Christian faith not recognized by the Amish church; and Zeke, Esther's husband, who has been tormented by the kidnapping and possible murder of his little brother--Annie's best friend--years ago. Lewis is very successful at merging the lives of numerous characters, creating complex subplots, and tying things up neatly by the end. (Which is great for someone like me who doesn't like to be left hanging after devoting so much time to a series...anyone seen August Rush? Talk about being left hanging!)

5. A Life God Rewards by Bruce Wilkinson **

From time to time, I like to read books that deal with faith in Jesus. I often read so-called "inspirational fiction," but sometimes I pick up non-fiction in this genre as well. This was a very short book my husband picked up at the library, and I was in the mood for something quick to read on the train. The one thing I remember about this book was a diagram. It shows a small dot, and next to the dot is a long line with an arrow. Wilkinson says the dot is your life here on earth; it doesn't last long. However, the never-ending line symbolizes the afterlife. The point of the diagram is that we should be extremely concerned with the line because it extends into eternity, and everything we do here on earth, in the dot, affects what happens on the line. I try to remember that as I live out each day.

6. Resistance by Anita Shreve ****

Another Anita Shreve. I finished all of her novels that I hadn't read, spending both the beginning and the end of the year with her characters. Resistance takes place in Belgium in 1943 and focuses on Claire, who belongs to the underground resistance movement with her husband, and Ted, the American pilot who is hidden in her attic after his plane is shot down.

This period of history has always intrigued me, especially since my maternal grandparents were German; they were not members of the Nazi party and were carted off to a concentration camp, where one of my uncles died as an infant.

Ted is only with Claire for a couple of weeks, yet they form such a bond. Shreve does a great job developing these characters and painting the scenes so you feel like you were there in the village, experiencing the tension, the fear of discovery. She's also a master of the tragic love story, and this one is no exception.

7. The Weight of Water by Anita Shreve ***

Once again, Shreve mingles the past and present, this time following Jean, a newspaper photographer, her poet husband Thomas, their young daughter Billie, Thomas' brother Rich, and Rich's girlfriend Adaline. They are traveling to the Isles of Shoals on the New Hampshire coast in Rich's boat so Jean can take pictures of the site where a brutal murder took place in 1873. Shreve places the reader in the past as Jean uncovers historical documents detailing the murders of two women as seen from the point of view of a third, who survived by hiding in a cave. Was the man who arrested and put to death for murdering the women actually guilty, or was the surviving woman responsible? Jean becomes engrossed in the history of the island in an attempt to solve the mystery, while back in the present, her attraction to Rich and Adaline's attraction to Thomas becomes apparent. Little did they know that the trip and a storm at sea would change their lives forever, and Shreve uses the storm and the sea to tie the stories together.

8. Eden Close by Anita Shreve ***

Eden Close is told from the point of view of Andrew, a New York City executive who returns to his hometown when his mother dies. Andrew remembers his next door neighbor and childhood friend, Eden Close, who was raped in a home invasion; her father was shot to death, and the blast made her blind. Eden's mother, Edith, is overprotective of Eden and shuts her off from the outside world, and their relationship is further strained when Andrew tries to once again become part of Eden's life. The book is as much about the changes that occur as we grow up as it is about uncovering what really happened the night Eden was raped and blinded and the role Andrew's family played in the incident. Andrew coaxes Eden out of her shell and tries to free her from the weight of her overbearing mother, resulting in a dramatic ending. This isn't Shreve's best book, in my opinion, but the characters and plot are interesting enough to make it a good read.

9. Strange Fits of Passion by Anita Shreve **

(I swear I have only a few more Shreve books left!) In Strange Fits of Passion, Shreve uses flashbacks to tell the story of New York City journalists Maureen and Harrold English and the domestic abuse that prompts Maureen to run away with their infant daughter to a small town on Maine's coast. Maureen grows accustomed to her new life, starting a relationship with Jack, a lobsterman, while dealing with another man who likes her but is unhappy with her seeing Jack. The book is very predictable, considering that you already know what happens at the beginning; a reporter who compiled notes on the events into a book shares them with Maureen's grown daughter. Even so, the book is fast-paced, and I really came to like the characters of Maureen and Jack by the end.

10. The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold ****

The Lovely Bones is gripping from the first page, when 14-year-old Susie Salmon recounts the events of her murder. Sebold's take on the violent death of a young girl is different from anything I've read before, as the story is told from Susie's point of view from heaven. Watching the family drown in their grief and Susie discover her heaven is heart-wrenching. Sebold even follows Susie's murderer, and her father's belief that she is communicating with him and his determination to bring the murderer down are touching. The story is about more than grief, and Susie is given a chance to see her family heal over the years.

It made me wonder about heaven and how it will be experienced, and it made me think about loved ones who have passed on and whether they actually watch over us. The one part of the book that brought a tear to my eye (and made me feel like a complete dumbass because I was on the train) was when Susie meets up with the family dog in heaven. It was so sad, yet so full of joy. This book definitely pulled my heart in different directions, and it was one of the few books I've read that elicited comments from others on the train--all of them telling me how they loved it. It is being made into a movie, and from what I read here, it sounds like it will be a decent adaptation.

That's all for now. It's 2:30 am, and my brain hurts. I'll continue to recap last year's reading, and I still have a bunch of knits to show you from last year. Hopefully, I can get it all online soon so I can concentrate on this year's projects. For sure, I plan to be more active on the writing front this year. I was reading an article in Writer's Digest this afternoon that mentioned how you actually have to write in order to be a writer, not simply talk about your grandiose plans of writing someday. How true!

Disclosure:  All of the books reviewed in this post were either borrowed from the library, borrowed from a friend, or purchased by me.


Serena said...

I love Where or When and A wedding in December by Shreve. I also loved Teacher Man, what a great book and Angela's Ashes is on the list of reading. I just have to get through The Road, which is really a downer I must say.

Resistance by Shreve sounds like another interesting read given my maternal grandfather's parents. It along with the Weight of Water are both on my list. I also have Body Surfing, which I seem to remember you reading as well last year.

Eden Close and Strange Fits of Passion are also on my list, and I love reading Lovely Bones. It is one of my favorite books. I read Lucky by Sebold as well, though I'm not sure I liked it as much, but I do have her latest, Almost Moon.

I can't wait to hear what you have to say about the other books you have read. I have been trying to read everyday for a little bit. I currently have two books. But you know me, I can't read just one.

Serena said...

Also...I really like your rating system. I don't have a rating system. Is that bad??

maniacalmultitasker said...

I'll look into Anita Shreve here at our library.
In the meantime, my daughter is bugging me for Peeps by Scott Westerfeld - looks like anoher vampire story!

Dawn said...

Wow, I was just blown away by the three hour commute! I can't stand to drive 10 minutes to the main road here! (Country roads just kill me). But doing it by train must be a big help. I'd probably go more places if I had a driver! LOL!

I'm a lover of reading as well, I'm not sure how many books I read in a year but it has to be plenty as my girls and I visit our library often. I love historical titles, fiction or not. I get totally lost in them and love every minute of it.

I posted in my comment section about "grinders". Too funny that you mention them and I see a business here in town that sells them just tonight.

It's okay if you don't like green olives, I want to eat them all anyway! LOL!!!! ;O)

Anna said...

I hope to finish writing about the rest of the books soon. I'm glad I'm doing this because in one of the Ravelry groups I belong to, they were talking about "Gone with the Wind" and I mentioned "The Wind Done Gone"...and I remember reading it but don't have the faintest idea what it was about. I looked it up online, still doesn't ring a bell. But I know for a fact that I read it...I remember reading it during lunch however many years ago it was.

Anyway, definitely check out Anita Shreve. Now that I've finished all of her books, I'm eagerly anticipating whatever she puts out next!

Bethany said...

I loved the Lovely Bones. It was so sad, as was the Weight of Water, very sad. But isn't it nice to stumble upon a good book every once is a while instead of the same old crap! i think so.

Anna said...

Yes, I totally agree. I love wandering into the library, looking at the "Just in" section and unexpectedly finding a book that just blows me away.

Hasn't happened in awhile, but I don't give up.