Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Year in Review

I only keep a journal when I’m traveling, living outside of Texas, or chronicling my kids. But a few years ago on a dismal New Year's Eve, I decided to write my own year-in-review entry covering books, movies, music, and notable events of the year in one fell swoop. The next year I dispensed with everything but the books. After that, I started maintaining my book list throughout the year rather than try to remember author names and titles after 12 months of reading. Although I don’t write down every book I read, as some are best forgotten (see Cheer!: Three Teams on a Quest for College Cheerleading's Ultimate Prize), I do note my favorites.

Here's my list of fiction and nonfiction notables (in the order read) for 2008. Click on the title to read a summary.

Fiction
The Senator's Wife by Sue Miller
Zoo Station by David Downing
The Guy Not Taken: Stories by Jennifer Weiner
A Peculiar Grace and Lost Nation by Jeffrey Lent
Consequences by Penelope Lively
What is the What by Dave Eggers
Extremely Loud, Incredibly Close by Jonathan Safran Foer
The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman
Belong to Me: A Novel by Marisa De Los Santos
The Commoner: A Novel by John Burnham Schwartz
A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini
Unaccustomed Earth by Jhumpa Lahiri
I'll Never Be Long Gone by Thomas Greene
The Cure for Modern Life by Lisa Tucker
The Condition by Jennifer Haigh
The Beautiful Things that Heaven Bears by Dinaw Mengestu
The Deportees: and Other Stories by Roddy Doyle
The Sound of Language by Amulya Malladi
The Brambles and The Tiny One by Eliza Minot
This Book Will Save Your Life by A. M. Homes
Karma and Other Stories by Rishi Reddi
Fine Just the Way It Is: Wyoming Stories 3 by Annie Proulx

Nonfiction
Animal, Vegetable, Mineral: A Year of Food Life by Barbara Kingsolver
The Nine: Inside the Secret World of the Supreme Court by Jeffrey Toobin
Paris to the Moon and Through the Children's Gate: A Home in New York by Adam Gopnik
Grace (Eventually): Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott
Sheetrock & Shellac by David Owen
Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez and Kristin Ohlson
I Was Told There'd Be Cake - Essays by Sloane Crosley

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Oh my, it’s fruitcake weather

With her Texas twang, my aunt does a perfect rendition of that line from Truman Capote's “A Christmas Memory”. After first watching the movie version at her house, several years later I encountered the audio version on a long car ride to Arkansas. It wasn’t until I bought a copy of Breakfast at Tiffany’s at a church book sale that I read the print version. It’s always with a sense of delight tempered with melancholy that I turn to the story, sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, to follow Buddy and his friend as they buy whiskey from Mr. Ha Ha Jones, send fruitcakes to the White House, and craft homemade kites for Christmas morning.

Every year different details in the story stand out. The year my mom made homemade fruitcake, I could taste the citron as I read their recipe. Last year, when my daughter was infatuated with dolls, I could picture exactly the wicker buggy with wobbly wheels they use to haul pecans. This year, I noticed the prices of things in the Depression era story – two dollars for a quart of whiskey, fifty cents for a Christmas tree, a dime for a picture show.

This story sates that yen you had for something rich and sweet and Christmasy, and like fruitcake, endures December after December. So after you've set up the Advent wreath, made the gingerbread cookies, and assembled some 15-odd nativity sets, it’s time to curl up with a hot mug of cider and “A Christmas Memory”.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Twenty Fragments of Ravenous Youth by Xiaolu Guo

Xiaolu Guo has conceived the love child Ha Jin and Sandra Cisneros never had. Taking after her mother, Fenfang Wang depicts her life in Beijing in short Mango Streetesque stories - buying a green-apple bathing suit, writing a screenplay, scrounging up money for a meal. She has left her rural family behind and now lives alone in the city. Supporting herself as a movie extra, she moves from apartment to apartment trying to avoid an obsessed ex-boyfriend.

As she pours a glass of Great Wall Red Wine or slurps her UFO noodles, Fenfang wearily tries to make something of her new found freedom. As she recounts, children in rural China skip from childhood to middle age. At 21, she is determined to revive a youth she never experienced and fill it with shiny things. Ever her father's daughter, she details the realities of Chinese life interfering with her pursuit - endless paperwork, nosy elders, dust. Whether choking on exhaust or failing to find romance at McDonald's, Fenfang views her disappointments matter-of-factly. As she says, "It wasn't that the landscape was ugly exactly, it's just that you wouldn't take a photo of it."

Luckily Guo is there taking snapshots. Each fragment of this collection reveals the aimless ambition and enthusiastic ennui Fenfang and her peers are confronting in post-modern China. Is it any wonder that Fenfang excels at roles such as Bored Waitress or Woman Walking Across a Bridge? Although her part may seem insignificant, catching a glimpse of her, albeit briefly, may lead us to contemplate what her life is really like. We may ponder what books she reads, how she takes her coffee, or why she dreams. We may even ask who her parents are. If we don't, as one character notes, we're likely to take nothing more from the experience than we would shopping for cabbages.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Mi Mi Mi Mi

I often lend good library books to my mom. I had just finished Jhumpa Lahiri’s latest book of stories and had stashed it in the diaper bag to take to her. I hadn’t even had a chance to put my bag down when she greeted me with, “I have the best book. You have to take it.” I followed her back to her bedroom where she handed me Unaccustomed Earth just as I pulled it out of my bag to give to her.

The funny thing is growing up, I remember my dad always reading a paperback thriller, but I have few memories of my mom’s reading habit apart from the unopened Book-of-the-Month package floating around the back of the car. I do remember seeing her with a book called Victory Over Japan and thinking how boring to read a book about World War II.

It wasn’t until a high school sick day spent perusing the bookshelves in the living room that I came across the same book by Ellen Gilchrist. I spent the rest of my recuperation enchanted by the Mannings. That was only the beginning of a shared affinity for authors ranging from Elizabeth Berg to Amy Tan.

More recently, my mom has introduced me to Eliza Minot’s The Brambles and A. Mannette Ansay’s Blue Water. I also discovered The Secret Life of Bees because it was on her bookshelf. I do have to be careful in my recommendations to her. To this day she thinks I lent her Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout because she identified too well with the crotchety protagonist.

By the way, Mom, I just checked out the new boook of stories by Annie Proulx. I’ll let you borrow it when I’m through.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Geeks Gone Wild

Normally I reserve low expectations for a book subtitled “Bringing Down the House.” In tell-all type language, 21 by Ben Mezrich reveals how a group of MIT students form a card counting team to win big at the blackjack tables. The book focuses on one member as he moves from novice to top player to fallen from glory. Interspersed among the main chapters are interviews with a security expert, casino host, stripper, and fellow team members.

Their method is fascinating. It works this way. A spotter will sit at a table and place unobtrusive bets while counting the cards in play. When the count is favorable, they will signal for a teammate to come over who will place higher bets. I won’t go into it here, but the explanation of their counting technique is simple to follow but would be impossible (for us memory-challenged folk) to execute.

If you can ignore the fact the book was probably written in the hopes of turning it into the “high-concept, cinematic thriller” the author alludes to, you’re in for a fast, interesting read. Although I haven’t seen the movie version yet, I suspect it inspires some people to want go to Vegas. But after reading the descriptions of ratty gym bags filled with chips, bundles of cash strapped to hairy legs, spilled drinks, and smoky casinos, I only wanted to go wash my hair.