At the beginning of the year, and at the beginning of this blog, I meant to start keeping a record of the books I was reading and offering my thoughts on those books. Not reviews so much as personal impressions (I do enough reviewing elsewhere!). I started with Toni Morrison’s brilliant Song of Solomon, which was the first book I read in 2010. And then I stopped keeping track of them here. However, this doesn’t mean I stopped reading. Far from it. I’ve stayed true to my goal of always having a book on me at all times and reading whenever I have a free moment, usually during a commute. I haven’t read as many books as I would’ve liked so far this year, but I haven’t done too shabbily either. Here’s what I’ve been reading while you weren’t looking:
THE SPARROW by Mary Doria Russell
At the beginning of this year I realized that, while I’ve watched a lot of sci-fi television, I’ve read comparatively few sci-fi novels. I asked around for recommendations and, knowing that I have a penchant for sci-fi mixed with spirituality, the book that came to the top of everyone’s list for me was The Sparrow, a story of first contact with an alien race by a ragtag group of human civilians financed by the Jesuits. I’m so glad I read it. First of all, the main chracter is a Puerto Rican priest, and the entire first part of the book takes place at and around the Arecibo Observatory, which just tickles me to no end for obvious reasons. All of the characters are incredibly well-done and none feel superfluous. What I loved most of all was that religion wasn’t presented as an obstacle to a greater reward. Rather, it was presented as the constant for this character. He loves one of the women in the story, but he values the promise he made to God more, and so he lets her go, allowing her to be with someone who ends up being better for her anyway. The book raises some interesting ethical issues that could only arise on another planet, and it really makes you consider, then reconsider the things you value. While it’s definitely science fiction, it reads like a more domestic, literary book, and when hard science makes its appearances, because all the characters are civilians, it is explained in layman’s terms, so it’s easy to follow. Finely etched characters and a story looked at through an unusual prism make this a great choice of novel whether you’re interested in sci-fi or not.
CERTAIN GIRLS by Jennifer Weiner
I’ve been a Jennifer Weiner fan since her first novel, Good in Bed. Certain Girls is sort of a sequel to that book, in that it goes back to check in on Cannie Shapiro, now married to the love of her life, and the mother of a daughter who is about to celebrate her bat mitzvah. What I like about Weiner’s books is that she doesn’t sacrifice intelligence when using the conventions of “chick lit” (a term I hate, but it’s a term that, when you say it, people sort of know what you mean). Her characters aren’t catty and only interested in men and designer shoes. They tend to be regular women who are smart and ambitious and have very real, normal concerns. Cannie, however, is her most successful character in this way, and I feel like it has something to do with Cannie being her most autobiographical character. Both Cannie and her story have a depth to them that books like In Her Shoes don’t. I think Little Earthquakes comes close, but that has so many characters in it that it became a little unwieldy. Certain Girls also focuses on Cannie’s daughter, who is trying to become her own person in the shadow of a very overprotective mother, and she too is a believeable character. It was refreshing to have the narration ping-pong between Cannie and her daughter, getting to see Cannie (and ourselves) through someone else’s eyes. Not only was the story very true-to-life, but the ending was completely unexpected sad in a way that real life is often unexpected and sad. I would highly recommend reading Good In Bed and Certain Girls back to back.
THE INVISIBLE BRIDGE by Julie Orringer
Ever since I read her fabulous short story collection, How to Breathe Underwater, years ago, I’ve been looking forward to a full-length novel by Julie Orringer. Her prose is elegant without being snooty, if that makes any sense, and she’s really great at capturing the voices of young women. So, I snatched up a hardcover copy of The Invisible Bridge the second it came out. It tells the story of a young, Jewish architecture student named Andras who falls in love with an older woman in Hungary just before the beginning of WWII, and the novel follows the couple through the war and its aftermath. I hate to say it, but I was a bit disappointed in this book. Perhaps it was the years of waiting for it, but it just didn’t live up to my expectations of what Orringer would or could do. At the start of the novel, it completely pulled me into the world of these characters. No lie – I found myself going to cafes more often just so I could read this book and feel like I was in Europe. (I’m so fucking pretentious and lame) The love story between Andras and Klara was interesting in the way that their age difference mattered then in a way it wouldn’t matter now (she wasn’t even 10 years older), and their personalities were such that watching them navigate their relationship kept me intrigued. But then The War Came. And that’s kind of the problem with historical fiction about WWII. There are just so many books set there, particularly books about the Jewish experience of it, that unless there is a real reason why this particular story needs to be told in this particular way, the whole thing falls flat. And so once it becomes yet another litany of hardships and horrors, it became clear that there was no reason for this story to exist except that Orringer wanted to tell the story of her family. That is a goal I greatly respect, but it doesn’t make a book interesting. There was one character, Andras’ best friend, Polaner, who was interesting because he was gay in addition to being Jewish. His portions of the story were fascinating and all too brief. I almost wish the novel would’ve been about him instead. Then The Invisible Bridge would have a reason to exist instead of being a superfluous Holocaust novel.
THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins
It’s the first book in the latest Young Adult trilogy that’s sweeping the nation. There’s already a film in the works, and when the last book in the series, Mockingjay, came out a few months ago, the internet burst with excitement. That excitement was the first I’d ever heard of this series, and after several friends insisted, I decided to give the first book a whirl. This is quite possibly the first time I’ve ever thought that the hype should have been more. The Hunger Games is an intelligent, nuanced story featuring an amazing female protagonist that I hope every young girl makes her role model. Katniss Everdeen is a wonderful character, and Collins doesn’t shy away from putting her through hell. The story of The Hunger Games is surprisingly dark and political for a YA book, and the first-person present tense narration makes it a nail-biting read. I’ve already purchased the second book in the series, Catching Fire, and I know I will love it. The Hunger Games proves that not all YA sci-fi/fantasy fiction has to be painfully written, vapid, or feature helpless girls and glittery vampires.
So, that’s been my reading so far! Well, that and many comic books. I’m currently reading My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult, and Catching Fire will be next. After that, I hope to get to Great House by Nicole Krauss, the new novel from another one of my favorite authors. Lots of great reading ahead!