December

Saving Mr. Banks – dramatized true story starring Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks, directed by John Lee Hancock, 2014. My favorite movie this year! It tells the story of the relationship that developed between Walt Disney (Hanks) and author PL Travers (Thompson) during the making of Mary Poppins. Thompson is absolutely brilliant as the neurotic, obsessive Travers, haunted by her painful childhood relationship with her father, and you can’t help falling in love with Hanks’ Walt Disney. This is a movie I have to own; I’ll want to watch it again!

The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man – by James Weldon Johnson, novel, 1912. The narrator is a musically gifted light-skinned black man living in America during the second half of the 19th century. This book reads like a real memoir, following the character from his early childhood, highlighting his traumatic recognition of the racial divide, and through the different stages of his life in the American South, New York, and Europe, until he eventually abandons his black roots and presents himself to the world as a white man. To be honest, it wasn’t a gripping read. The style is lumbering, and the story tends to follow a this-happened-then-this-happened-then-I-did-this line, with not a lot of tension. But it was worth reading because of how brightly it shone a light on a world and a way of being that I have no other way of entering. One thing that struck me repeatedly was how “politically incorrect” many of the author’s observations were, when viewed by modern standards. Given that the author was himself a brilliant and prominent black man (although too dark-skinned to pass as white), this had something of the effect of literary double vision. A worthwhile read if you have any interest in understanding what it means to be black in America.

Up in the Old Hotel – by Joseph Mitchell, collection of feature articles written 1938-1964. This is the kind of book you want to own. Word portraits of characters, locations and neighborhoods of New York, written by a newspaperman, it’s not something to read at a sitting, but rather a book to dip in and out of. Even though I have only ever spent one day in New York and can’t claim to “get” the city, I enjoyed immersing myself in Mitchell’s stories. Beautifully and simply written, they bring a lost era to life.

The Rapture of the Nerds – by Cory Doctorow and Charles Stross, science fiction novel, 2012. I honestly don’t know why I persevered with this book. Maybe I wanted to prove to … who knows who? … that I wasn’t such a tight-arsed Bible-thumper that I couldn’t enjoy a fantasy with a strong atheistic message. But apart from tediously thumping an anti-faith message (why do so many people who thump on believers not take the trouble to look beyond the memes and get an inkling of what and why we believe?) it was just boring. Set in a post-nuclear apocalypse future, in which a vast proportion of the earth’s population has uploaded itself into a cloud of consciousness surrounding the earth, it focuses on the technophobic Huw. He is selected to a jury responsible for assessing technology sent to the earth by the cloud. Then … I just don’t want to carry on describing this book. The concept could have been interesting, but the characters are two-dimensional at best, the humor is unsubtle, the plot is contorted and silly. I gave it up halfway.

Nothing to Lose – by Lee Child, thriller (#12 in the Jack Reacher series), 2008. It’s been an intense sort of month and I needed an easy but engaging read, so I called on Jack Reacher. I’m usually fairly compulsive about reading a series in order but these books do mostly stand alone. In this one, Reacher is ambling through Colorado until he is brought to an abrupt stop. The people of a small company town, Despair, don’t like strangers and try to force him to turn back. Reacher, being Reacher, promptly makes it his personal mission to stick around until he figures out what they’re trying to hide. It made me sad that the main bad guy was a cult leader identified as a born-again Christian, leading to the all-too-common thumping of Bible-thumpers … but hey, fellow believers, all too often we set ourselves up for that kind of press. Apart from that, there is the inevitable gorgeous but temporary woman – a cop, this time – and lots of knocking down of bad guys and explosions and sneaking around in the dark and general hard-assery, and a couple of dead bodies. And – best of all – the story is well crafted, with an unpredictable but entirely convincing denouement.

Living with a Wild God – by Barbara Ehrenreich, philosophical memoir, 2014. As a committed Christian believer with some tough questions about my faith, I found this “nonbeliever’s search for the truth about everything” challenging but ultimately disappointing. The central event of this memoir is an experience Ehrenreich had in her late teens, when she went for a predawn walk down a quiet street and “the world flamed into life … This was not the passive beatific merger with ‘The All’ as promised by the Eastern mystics. it was a furious encounter with a living substance that was coming at me through all things at once.” She spent the next several decades avoiding thinking about this while simultaneously writing it off to a mental breakdown fueled by tiredness and hunger. (This was reasonable since she had a history of dissociation.) But then, at the time of writing this book, Ehrenreich – all her life a passionate advocate of atheism – decided that there actually was Something Out There, and she had experienced it. She’s not sure what it is, except that of course we’ve all “long since outgrown the easy answer – God – along with theism of any kind”. Whatever. I guess I’m a late developer, since I haven’t outgrown anything of the kind – although I’m also not buying into any “easy answers”.

As Good as it Gets – romantic comedy starring Jack Nicholson, Helen Hunt and Greg Kinnear, directed by James L Brooks, 1997. Melvin Udall (Nicholson) combines OCD with a mean and sarcastic tongue, which he especially loves to turn against his gay neighbor (Kinnear). Udall’s one soft spot is for the waitress Carol Connelly (Hunt), and then Udall’s little dog finds another soft place in his heart. Quite without intending to, Udall finds himself performing acts of kindness that force him to step outside his comfort zone and learn to interact with the rest of the human race. Well, some of them, anyway. This is another feel-good golden oldie that I found well worth a second viewing. Hunt, of course, is charming, and Nicholson is creepy and brilliant.

Ferris Beach – by Jill McCorkle, novel, 2009. I found this an odd book. It’s the story of a shy, self-conscious teenage girl, Katie Burns, and the reader is effectively and consistently drawn into her point of view. McCorkle does an excellent job of remaining true to her protagonist’s character – yet ultimately I found Katie’s character unsatisfying. She is passive and weak to the point that I became frustrated and annoyed with her – which may even have been the point. After all, there really are people just like that wandering around in the real world, voting and breeding and consuming resources. I’m not sorry I read the book because it introduced me to a skilled author who may have written other work I’ll like better, but I don’t want to own it and I wouldn’t recommend it.

The Gods Must Be Crazy – South African comedy starring Marius Weyers, Sandra Prinsloo and Nixau, directed by Jamie Uys, 1980. I’ve seen this absurd, fun, happy movie several times since it first came out, and it never fails to make me laugh. There are three strands to the tale. A Bushman living in the heart of the Kalahari Desert finds a Coke bottle lying where it has fallen from an airplane, and events indicate that it’s an evil thing that must be thrown off the edge of the world. A young journalist living in Johannesburg becomes disgusted with the pointless pressure of city life, and accepts a post as teacher in an African village on the edge of the Kalahari, where she sweeps a hopelessly shy young biologist off his stumbling feet. And then a terrorist trying to escape government troops kidnaps the entire school. Chaos ensues, with plenty of silliness … and some glorious, homesickness-inducing views of wild Africa.

The Book Thief – by Markus Zusak, YA novel, 2005. This deeply absorbing book tells the story of a young girl growing up in Nazi Germany. Liesel Meminger lives with her poor, uneducated foster parents in a town on the road between Munich and Dachau. The story centers around Liesel’s relationships with her foster family, friends and various other members of the community. The looming backdrop of the book is, of course, the rise of the Nazi party, and war. The writing style has a forceful immediacy that simultaneously penetrates Liesel’s personal experience, and gives a broader view of events provided by Death, the actual teller of the story. It’s officially a Young Adult novel, but there is nothing childish about this book – it has a substance and depth lacking in many so-called adult works. I borrowed “The Book Thief” from the library, but it’s on my To Buy list. This is one I’ll come back to.

Bagdad Cafe (aka Out of Rosenheim) – German indie comedy drama starring Marianne Sagebrecht and CCH Pounder, directed by Percy Adlon, 1987. Jasmin Munchgstettner (Sagebrecht), a German tourist, walks out on her husband during a quarrel in the Mojave Desert. She finds her way to Bagdad, a don’t-blink-or-you’ll-miss-it truck stop on a dusty highway. Here she encounters the angry, disillusioned Brenda (Pounder), owner of the diner and motel, and a stream of other colorful characters. This movie is intensely character-driven, revolving around the transformational and transforming relationship between the two women. It’s one of my all-time favorite movies; I recently shared it with a friend, who watched it a second time just a day or two later. Every time I watch it I find something new to love in the quirky characterization, off-beat humor, beautiful cinematography, and an all-round good story experience.

November

W is for Wasted – by Sue Grafton, detective novel (#W in the alphabet series), 2013. Honestly, Grafton is a clunky writer with a not-very-complex heroine, but her books are easy reading and the plots contain enough twist to keep one interested. Kinsey is a private investigator, and in this book she gets involved in figuring out how a homeless man died. There are baddies (a mad scientist) and good guys (some memorable characters; it’s interesting that although Kinsey’s character hasn’t developed much through this series, Grafton is good at quick-sketching the bit players in her novels). In the end, of course, the good guys win.  I won’t rush out to find another Grafton, but this book confirmed that she’s reliable, and I won’t hesitate to take home the next one I encounter at the library.

War Horse – historical drama starring Jeremy Irvine and 14 recognizably different horses, directed by Steven Spielberg, 2011. I took out this movie because I heard the play showing in South Africa was breathtakingly good, plus who doesn’t like a good horse story. It had its moments, although was probably more engaging on a big screen, but I suspect this is a movie that didn’t live up to the book (which I do plan to read). Set during WWI, the story is about a horse (Joey) who is greatly loved by a boy (Albert – Jeremy Irvine), who is sold to the British army and taken off to France. Various scary things happen, with lots of explosions and amazing or sad scenes involving horses. There are also lots of long pauses with stirring music. After a while Albert, who is under age, manages to get into the army in order to go to France and find Joey. And, of course, they do reunite – and if you think that’s a spoiler you’re just naive, because this is a Dreamworks movie, okay? So of course there’s a happy ending. Whatever.

Raising Stony Mayhall – by Daryl Gregory, fantasy novel, 2011. I enjoy post-apocalypse novels, but I am not a fan of zombies because I simply cannot get past the “ick” factor. So I’m not sure what I was thinking when I picked up this book, but I had no regrets! It was a great read, and I’m assuming an unusual take on zombies, in that – while inescapably icky – they’re the good guys and the reader’s sympathies are fully engaged. The story premise is that there has been some kind of zombie-causing outbreak, causing civilization to totter as man-eating zombies go on the rampage. (Anyone bitten and not eaten, of course, becomes a zombie.) The non-zombies (“breathers”) got the outbreak under control by ruthlessly destroying all zombies they found. But as it turns out, zombies rampage only during the early stage of their illness; once the fever leaves them they calm down and stop biting people. So you have these little secret communities of zombies forming, typically protected by sympathetic breathers. Among these communities different political philosophies arise, ranging from those who believe themselves to be an aberration and should quietly die out, to those who believe zombie communities should be reinforced and maintained through a careful program of biting selected breathers. Meanwhile, back on the ranch, the Mayhall family has found and taken in a very unusual zombie, Stony, who adds a messianic new dimension to the situation. I’ll be reading more by this author, just as soon as I get over the ick!

Not Becoming My Mother – by Ruth Reichl, memoir, 2009. This very charming little book offers a loving glimpse into the life and thoughts of Reichl’s mother Miriam. Growing up in Cleveland, OH after WW2, she was in many ways typical of the woman of her era – intelligent, talented and ambitious, but stifled by her parents’ and society’s expectations of a wife and mother, and deeply unhappy with her life. It saddened me to read how the strongest lesson she felt able to teach her daughter was, “Don’t be like me.” Reichl’s discovery of her mother through a box of old notes and letters is poignantly and beautifully shared.

My Secret History – by Paul Theroux, semi-autobiographical novel, 1989. I generally try to separate the personal character of an artist from the artistic product, but the last travel book I read by Theroux (I forget the title) set my teeth on edge, and this work confirms my opinion: this man is a self-absorbed, misogynistic prick. In an author’s note upfront, Theroux states that some of the events are drawn from real life, but the characters are imaginary. That may be true, but I have no doubt that the character of the main protagonist – and specifically his values – is firmly based on Theroux. And yes he writes well, and he’s been to some interesting places, but I don’t like him and I won’t willingly read anything else he has written. In this book, the first part is based on his childhood, and is evocative and disturbing. In the second part he fucks his way through Africa, particularly enjoying the fact that African women (and girls, some of them very young) don’t expect foreplay. In the third part he returns from a trip and is upset to learn that his wife has had an affair, thereby rocking his sense of peace and permanence, and he punishes her by alternately withholding himself and raping her. In the fourth section he and his mistress go traveling together, leaving his wife at home. Yuck – no more! Quality of literary style is only part of a book – the message must also resonate. The problem with this book is that, after the first section, there really isn’t an intentional message. (The unintentional one is “It’s all about me.”)

Gone Girl – by Gillian Flynn, thriller, 2012. If you ever wondered what it was like to be married to a psychopath, this book will leave you fully informed. Nick and Amy Dunne thought they had the perfect marriage, but they’re coming unraveled – both personally, and as a couple. Then Amy disappears, and the evidence increasingly points to Nick as her killer. Did he do it, or didn’t he? And if he did, where is she? This is a gripping book; I read it at a sitting and it made my head spin.

The Day of the Triffids – by John Wyndham, 1951. It’s years since I read any Wyndham, and it was a real pleasure to revisit “Triffids”. I love the way his books are always essentially character-driven, even though the basis of the plot is some impossible event – and this book, one of the earliest post-apocalypse novels written, is a true classic. The basis of the story is that poisonous, intelligent, mobile plant life forms appear on the earth, and then after they are well established the glaring light of a presumed meteor storm leaves all living creatures on earth blind. The triffids, which don’t have eyes anyway, start to take over, and simultaneously many people succumb to a plague. The hero is one of very few people who missed being blinded. The story is essentially about how different groups of people react to and deal with the catastrophe. Reading it, I was entertained – and sometimes horrified – by the difference in basic assumptions between the Fifties, when the book was written, and now. The men are either manly or beastly, the women are either tremulously brave or tight-lipped spinsters, and the triffids are just horrid (and, intelligence or not, there’s nothing at all wrong with chopping them up to process their oil). A fun read, pleasantly stimulating to the imagination, and not too intense. A modern author would probably have done a lot more with this story, but Wyndham was breaking relatively new ground and I think he did a good job with it.

October

The Girl Who Disappeared Twice – by Andrea Kane, detective novel, 2011. I came across this book in mid-November and realized I’d forgotten to review it. Then I realized I couldn’t remember anything about it. Flipping through a few pages reminded me of stilted prose, bland characterization and a predictable plot. Meh – don’t bother.

Game Control – by Lionel Shriver, novel, 2007. This book shines a spotlight on Western aid involvement in Africa. The context is population control, but the theme spans the broader issue of cultural interference. Shriver’s writing is excellent, the story is powerful and chilling, and her characters are interesting, if hard to like. I like her work and will look for more of it, but to be honest I found this book hard going. It is relentlessly bleak, the characters are pretty consistently miserable, and by the end of the story one cannot but feel weary and overburdened by the sheer magnitude of the mess it describes.

The Postman – by David Brin, post-apocalypse science fiction, 1985. It’s about 20 years after devastating nuclear war, plagues and famine devastated the earth and brought the human race to its knees. Gordon Krantz has slowly been working his way west in search of a place that offers some hope of a future. He stumbles upon an old mail truck, where he helps himself to the jacket of a long-dead postal worker. Quite without intending to, he becomes the harbinger of the change he is seeking, as members of isolated communities rally around the image of the postal service as a symbol of communication, cooperation and trade. This book is an easy read, and if you share my enjoyment of post-apocalypse fiction and don’t mind a generous dose of American nationalistic jingoism, you’ll find this one worth reading.

The Casquette Girls – Alys Arden, YA fantasy (although not labeled YA), 2012. I really tried to read this book, because I was in the mood for fantasy and I’d reached the bottom of the pile of library books next to my bed, but I just couldn’t – it’s that bad. It’s set in New Orleans after a monster storm (can’t imagine where the author got that idea!)  The main protagonist is a schoolgirl who returns to the devastated city with her artist father. I was going to go into specifics about why it sucked, but really, life’s too short – suffice it to say the characters and setting were unbelievable and inconsistent (as in, teenage girl has seriously spooky experience, goes home, and goes to bed), and the writing is trite and fundamentally horrible.

The Color of Freedom / Goodbye Bafana – historical drama, starring Joseph Fiennes, Dennis Haysbert and Diane Kruger, 2007. Based on the memoir by his prison guard, this is the story of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment. Himself took this DVD out assuming that I, as a South African and admirer of Madiba, would want to watch it. In fact I was hesitant. The memoir, “Goodbye Bafana: Nelson Mandela, My Prisoner, My Friend”, has been challenged by people close to Mandela, and it’s probably at least somewhat romanticized. I was very pleasantly surprised by the movie, which I found both informative and moving. Fiennes does a phenomenal job as the guard, James Gregory; his depiction of the accent, attitudes and personality of the nasty little racist was pitch perfect, and his character’s transformation under the impact of Madiba’s personality was utterly convincing. Kruger also did an excellent job as his little hairdresser wife. Unfortunately Haysbert was less convincing. It wouldn’t have mattered that he was physically too big for the part, and I could probably have ignored his hair (although really, would it have been that hard to unstraighten it???)  But he gave the role a solemn sort of grandeur that was not true to the man. The words he spoke were, in fact, often things Mandela said – but they rolled out kind of like the voice of God, with no intimation of the humility and humor so intrinsic to Mandela’s true personality. In fact the only time we actually hear Madiba’s “voice” is the one occasion that James Gregory quotes him. Still, it was worth watching, and now I want to read the book, so there’s that.

Delicious! – by Ruth Reichl, novel, 2014. Some books are all about timing. I’ve had to abandon more books than usual this month for reasons of horrible writing, and several that I’ve read all the way through have been disappointing. Then “We Are All Completely Fine” grabbed hold of my imagination and, frankly, creeped me out. “Delicious!” is a warm-‘n-fuzzy, romantic tale about a young woman who moves to New York City to writes about food (which, incidentally, is also what Reichl has spent much of her professional life doing). It’s not great literature, but it’s well written. The characters are generally well drawn, the action and descriptive bits move along at a good pace, and it’s easy to read. And what makes it un-put-downable is the intensely evocative writing about food. Reading this book, I could taste the cheese and the prosciutto, I could smell the gingerbread. Yum! I can’t wait to try the recipe! (Yes, it’s in there.)

We Are All Completely Fine – by Daryl Gregory, fantasy psycho-drama novel, 2014. This eerie little book packs a big punch. The characters are all participants in group therapy, and they have been brought together because they have all experienced – or claim to experience – psychological and physical trauma caused by various supernatural beings. As their stories unfold they merge into the current timeline of the novel, and the reader begins to question just how complete and accurate their own perceptions of daily reality are. An excellent read, and I’ll be looking out for more.

Doc Martin and the Legend of the Cloutie – made-for-television farce, starring Martin Clunes, 2001. I blame Himself. I would never have taken this out, after the first one, and have no idea why he did. It was really, really bad. Nuff sed.

The Silkworm – by Robert Galbraith, thriller novel, 2014. So there’s a major spoiler in the blurb on the dust jacket, which effectively destroyed the suspense of the first third of the book. Then there are some stylistic offenses; two that come immediately to mind are the “plethora” of books lining some room or other, and the “touting” (rather than describing) of someone as something. There is some fairly gruesome stuff that was described more often than necessary, and a bit of sexual tension that doesn’t really go anywhere, and a fundamentally unsatisfying ending. Turns out “Robert Galbraith” is a pseudonym of JK Rowling, whom I already knew to be a second-rate writer. I finished the book but have absolutely no interest in reading any more by this author under any name.

Tripwire – by Lee Child, thriller novel, 1999. After AHWoSG I felt I’d earned myself some literary downtime, so I read the third book in the series. Jack Reacher reconnects with an old crush and she’s still gorgeous. While protecting her and chasing down a mystery left behind by her recently deceased father he hits some people harder than they hit him, shoots them more accurately than they shoot him, and generally muscles his good-guy way to victory. It took Child longer than it should have to get to know Jack and let him loose in these books. I’m enjoying obsessive-compulsively working my way through the series, but if I hadn’t started near the end I might not have bothered to persevere. On the other hand, it was an entertaining, fairly gripping read.

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius – by Dave Eggers, memoir, 2000. Is it just me, or does anyone else think it’s a little silly to write a memoir before reaching 30? Not to say that Eggers hadn’t done some Living by then, but the ripening of years would have added depth to his perspective. This book has been fairly widely acclaimed, apparently, but I found it the pretentious, sometimes tedious work of a bright but self-absorbed and very young man. It wasn’t quite annoying enough to not finish, and I’ll probably at least flip through anything else of his that I happen to stumble over – because as writers go, he manipulates words better than most. But I won’t go out of my way to look for them.

Doc Martin – made-for-television comedy, starring Martin Clunes. Having watched – and loved – the series, when I learned of the earlier feature film version I had to see it. It is a sweet, occasionally funny bit of fluff, and my only real criticism is that giving the series and the movie the same title was misleading. Because of this it took a while to get properly into the movie, which features an obstetrician (Clunes) who learns that his wife has been cheating on him with three of his friends and runs off to a village in Cornwall that he used to visit as a boy. While there, he does some fishing, saves a few lives, and solves the mystery of the village jelly-maker. His character bears no resemblance to the socially inept, hemophobic vascular surgeon of the PBS series.

Die Trying – by Lee Child, thriller novel, 1998. This is the second book in the Jack Reacher series. I’ve read a few of the others – enough to know that I wanted to start at the beginning of the series and work my way through it. Reacher takes on a bunch of nasty white separatists and, in the process saves the FBI’s bacon. And, of course, he also saves the gorgeous young FBI agent. Yeah, there’s a formula, and at this stage in the series Child was still figuring it out, and getting in sync with his character. But as intense, gripping reads go, the Reacher novels take a lot of beating. I’m looking forward to gobbling down the next one!

September

The Sandman – by Neil Gaiman, graphic fantasy, 1988. So in keeping with my recent discovery that graphic novels can be enjoyable, I checked out this classic by one of my favorite authors. Aaaand … no. I love the way Gaiman constructs stories and uses words, and have read all his non-graphic novels. I wish this were available in word form, because I suspect it would be right up there with “American Gods” and “Neverwhere”. But in this format, the words have no substance and the graphics are just plain ugly. If you want a review by someone who liked it, see Wikipedia. I didn’t make it past the first chapter of Volume 1.

Let’s Pretend this Never Happened – by Jenny Lawson, humorous memoir, 2012. If you’re looking for deathless prose or an appropriate gift for a puritanical great-aunt, this wouldn’t be a good choice. Frankly, remove all the “fucks” and every reference to Lawson’s vagina, and you’ll have a substantially shorter read. On the other hand, if you enjoy literally laughing until you cry, get snot all over your pillow, and maybe even pee a little (and I mean “literally” in the sense of “something that actually happened to me”), then this book is for you. What especially appealed to me about it, however, wasn’t just that it was funny – it was the sense of real affection I felt for the author. Crazy things happen to her (and even crazier things happen inside her head), and the way she writes about them is hilarious, but more than once I found myself thinking, “Aww … I just want to give you a hug!” And yes, I know she would hate that, so I would never do it. But I wouldn’t judge her if she hid under the table, either.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell – by Susanna Clarke, fantasy novel, 2004. This is a long, slow read, but don’t be put off unless you’re a slow reader with a limited concentration span. Unlike so many modern fantasy novels, it is constructed tightly enough that my internal editor didn’t once sit up and scream, “Why the hell didn’t somebody prune this bloody thing?” It is also more character-driven than the typical fantasy, and watching the characters interact and evolve was among the most satisfying aspects of the story. For a detailed review, see Wikipedia – or just go get the book. You won’t be sorry!

Can’t we talk about something more PLEASANT?  – by Roz Chast, graphic memoir, 2014. This is one of those books that makes you go “Bwah-ha-ha-OUCH“. By turns poignant, heartbreaking and laugh-out-loud funny, Chast’s take on worrying about and caring for ageing parents is the kind of hilarious that whacks you hard on the funny bone.  I will definitely be looking for more books by her!

5 responses »

  1. Pingback: January top reads | American Soustannie

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