Thursday, December 16, 2010

The New York Times Book Review Best of 2010: Non-Fiction

Continuing from my last post, here are the New York Times Book Review selection s for the best non-fiction books of 2010

Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet

by Jennifer Homans

While I can't say I'm a huge fan of ballet, I am a fan of the arts in general.  I mostly like the music that has been written for ballets but this could be a fascinating read. 

Cleopatra: A life

by Stacy Schiff

This also sounds interesting.  Biography is a genre I don't usually read, but I could always make an exception.

The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer
By Siddhartha Mukherjee.

Here's a different kind of biography, one about a disease.  It sounds pretty comprehensive and it's a subject I don't know much about even though I have had family members who have had cancer.

Finishing the Hat: Collected Lyrics (1954-1981) With Attendant Comments, Principles, Heresies, ­Grudges, Whines and Anecdotes
By Stephen Sondheim.

I know he's really famous and talented, but I'm just not all that interested.  Can I just watch Sweeney Todd again instead?

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration
By Isabel Wilkerson.

Here's another book whose subject I know nothing about.  Could be informative.

Monday, December 6, 2010

The New York Times Book Review Best of 2010: Fiction

Every year around this time, I look forward to seeing what books were selected by the New York Times Book Review as the best of the year.  I've read several books in the past that made the list and enjoyed all of them.  A few examples are the novels A Mercy by Toni Morrison and Special Topics in Calamity Physics by Marisha Pessl and the non-fiction books The Rest is Noise by Alex Ross and The Bounty by Caroline Alexander.  I'm not sying I completely agree with the opinions of the NYTBR panel, but it is a good source for finding books to read.  Here are my thoughs on this year's selections for fiction. 

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

This is the book that everyone was talking about this year.   I read the opening of Franzen's earlier book The Corrections and liked it.  I'm definitely curious about Freedom

The New Yorker Stories by Ann Beattie

I am not familiar with this author. 

Room by Emma Donoghue

The premise of this one is intriguing.  The story concerns a 5-year old boy and his mother who are trapped in a single room.  The story is narrated by the boy.  It's hard to imagine how an entire novel can be sustaiined by the narrative voice of a child but apparently it works. 

Selected Stories by William Trevor

Like the Beattie book, I am not familiar with this author. 

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan

I really enjoyed Egan's previous book The Keep so I'm looking forward to this one.  It has an unusual narrative technique; it seems like a collection of short stories but it is really part of one big story.  One of the stories is told through a Power Point presentation. 

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

After reading a new book...

“It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between. If that is too much for you, you should at least read one old one to every three new ones.” 

I’ve read this quote from C. S. Lewis before but came across it earlier this year when I checked out the book Invitation to the Classics from the library.  This book, edited by Louise Cowan and Os Guinness exhorts Christians to read and explore the classics of literature.  The book opens with three outstanding essays on the value of reading the classics and the Lewis quote appears in one of them.  (I returned the book so I don’t know exactly which essay it was.) 

I realized that I couldn’t remember the last classic I’d read.  (I tried to read The Brothers Karamazov a while back, but didn’t finish it.)  I then decided to make up a list of books recommended by Cowan and Guinness and read them.  I may not read one old book to every new book, or even every three books as Lewis suggested, but hopefully I’ll become more familiar with the great works of the past. 

The first one I read was Madame Bovary.  I’ll have more to say on that in a future post, but for now I’ll say it is one of the best novels I have ever read.  I’m glad I accepted the invitation. 

Monday, November 29, 2010

When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead

I’ve always been a sucker for time travel stories, whether it’s movies like Back to the Future or the novels and stories of Connie Willis.  When I heard that Rebecca Stead’s Newberry Award winning children’s novel When You Reach Me dealt with time travel, I was curious. 

The book is set in late 1970s New York City.  Sixth-grader Miranda and her single mother live in a small apartment and dream of a better life.  Things start to look good when Miranda’s mom learns she will become a contestant on The $20,000 Pyramid.  The preparations for the game show are the backdrop for the main story about Miranda and her friends. 

Miranda’s favorite book is the classic time travel story A Wrinkle in Time.  She reads it over and over and soon finds herself involved in what might be time travel.  One day, Miranda receives a mysterious note that tells her, “I am coming to save your friend’s life and also my own.”   In order to do this, Miranda needs to do certain things to assist the writer.  As proof, the writer provides information about the future that no one could possibly know. 

Despite the fantastic element of the novel,  the real point is how Miranda deals with the relationships she has with several fellow sixth graders.  There are misunderstandings that eventually are resolved.  And of course, we also find out who wrote the notes. 

The novel is well paced and plotted and the writing is simple, but not simplistic.  As an adult reader, I found the characters well drawn, both the children and adults.  For Christian readers, there’s nothing too offensive except for a sub-plot about the boyfriend of Miranda’s mother who wants to move in before he gets married.  The positive messages in the novel are rather simple, mostly the benefits of close friendships with members of the same and opposite sex.  There is an element of self-sacrifice that is important to the story, but surprisingly is not given much discussion, or at least as much as it deserves.