Old Reading

Below is the list of what I've read before the year 2000.

Just finished reading Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres. It was quite a wonderful book written elegantly from the perspective of a woman who has spent her whole life on an Iowa farm. I really liked her book, Moo and picked up A Thousand Acres on the strength of Moo. Moo is a very funny book--kind of an American version of an Anthony Burgess or Malcolm Bradbury novel. I also read a novella called To The Wedding by John Berger. Weird but interesting. I was less thrilled with the new novel by Andrew Holleran, The Beauty of Men. It was slickly written but self-indulgent. It's the classic "summer reading." I just finished The Wasp Factory by Iain Banks. Very spooky book (published first in 1984) that has the temerity to print many of the bad reviews inside the front cover. If your taste runs to Grand Guignol and you're looking for Vladimir Nabokov meets Stephen King on a date chaperoned by John Irving, look no further. And the book is under 200 pages.

I recently finished God: A Biography by Jack Miles. Miles is a Jesuit priest who puts together a biography of God as presented in the Old Testament. For an agnostic such as myself, it takes quite a bit of writing talent to make God look interesting! And speaking of writing talent, will Amy Tan ever do anything disappointing? I truly enjoyed A Hundred Secret Senses. I picked up a book called The Story of the Night by Colm Toibin. It's an odd story set in Argentina--odd since Toibin is an Irish writer. I liked the story for about the first 2/3 of the book and then I thought it headed down a rather grim and predictable path. For fun, I'm noodling through a "collected essays" book by Gore Vidal. It's clear that he's an excellent writer with an outstanding mind... and it's equally clear that he knows it! And also on a lighter note, I just finished Thank You for Smoking by Christopher Buckley. A pretty good send-up about American culture and hypocrisy and found on the remaindered table for about $5!

More recently yet, I read Hey, Joe by Ben Niehart. Innocent and strange little first novel. Another confection was Mona in the Promised Land by Gish Jen. Very clever idea for a book but somehow not quite so good as other Chinese-American coming of age stories. The David Sedaris collection, Naked, is a real wicked pleasure. There is something about the twisted innocence of Sedaris that is utterly beguiling. And the Bill Bryson book, Notes From a Small Island is like a little love poem to Great Britain from an American who really seems to "get it" about that small nation.

On a trip abroad (October, 1997), I managed to squeeze in quite a bit of reading. I went through the latest Scott Turow book, The Laws of our Fathers, in about 1.5 flight segments. Perfect book for airplane reading -- interesting but not terribly deep. I also read Now and Then by William Corlett. It's a somewhat constipated though well written look at repression and release. Read The God of Small Things by Roy. Charmingly written but not a book that demands rapid reading. It has a sad ending that is pretty much a foregone conclusion but gets you to think and hope it will move differently. I managed to find another copy of The Love Junkie by Plunkett. This book (now out of print) is truly one of my guilty pleasures. It's very tongue in cheek and occasionally "laugh out loud" funny.

The most recent set of books includes The Partner (typical Grisham though with an odd bittersweet ending), The Lost Continent (fairly hilarious Bryson effort that did seem to slow down toward the end), Timequake (typical Vonnegut story but short, quick and more "terminal" than most of his work). Another amusing travelogue is Malaria Dreams about an ill-fated though somewhat banal motor expedition across Africa. I enjoyed Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. I had read Into the Wild with mixed feelings, but Thin Air captured the mania and stupidity that accompanies mountaineering on Everest where having a lot of money and a lot of luck often trumps skill and talent.

A book I stumbled upon at BJ's Warehouse store called An Instance of the Fingerpost by Iain Pears was quite a find. The dust jacket compares it to The Name of the Rose, and I suppose that's fair. But the story is in many ways more complex and rich and readable. It's long but worth the time. A shorter but still interesting book is Love Sucks by Ken Shakin. A series of anecdotes of love in the 80s and 90s in New York.

I read Red Mars by Kim Stanley Robinson. A pretty good science fiction story about the colonization of Mars in the next century. Lots of good scientific speculation and better character development than I am used to seeing in this genre. Two books made into movies... The Sweet Hereafter and The Object of Your Affection were quite good. I was surprised how much I liked Hereafter since I adored the movie and didn't know if I'd like the tone of the book or not. But it was quite enjoyable. Affection was better than the movie and had a nice briskness that worked better than the somewhat compressed cinematic version. And yes.. Jennifer Aniston was quite good in the movie! I read Bill Bryson's Mother Tongue which is quite light and Bernard Lefkowitz's Our Guys which is quite heavy. I read Duplicate Keys which is early Jane Smiley. An interesting whodunit where the murder is fairly peripheral to the action. More recently, on the keys theme, I read Joel Kostman's Keys to the City. This is a collection of brief stories told by a locksmith with a keen eye and pen. One of the stories was adapted to a piece on NPR's This American Life -- one of the finest radio adaptations I've ever heard. And as a bit of a guilty pleasure, I read Helen Fielding's Diary of Bridget Jones. It's almost as if the ghost of Patrick Dennis flew right into Fielding's body to animate the ditzy, dysfunctional and charming character of Bridget.

I'm doing a poor job of keeping up with my reading, but I finished a few mildly entertaining books recently. I read the latest Jonathan Kellerman book, Billy Straight. It's the first one of his that I've read without Alex Delaware and it suffers for it. I also read the funny if totally self-indulgent autobiography of Stephen Fry, Moab is My Washpot. And I completed the book about the collaboration between Minor and Murray in the creation of the Oxford English Dictionary -- The Professor and the Madman by Simon Winchester. It was a bit quirky.. easy to read.. informative.. but not life-altering. Finished Bill Bryson's A Walk in the Woods which was enjoyable and pretty much classic Bryson as well as I'm a Stranger Here Myself. And I enjoyed Memoirs of a Geisha by Arthur Golden. In a way, the telling of a story of a geisha by a Western man could have the potential for "it's not that it was done well, but that is was done at all" quality. I'm curious to hear the feedback from the Japanese readership when the book is published in the Japanese translation.

I enjoyed the Thomas Wolfe book, A Man in Full, which was a quick read despite its heft. He has a great ear for how people talk even if he is the funniest and glibbest cynic of letters in the US. And don't try to take me away from a Sara Paretsky novel -- her latest, Hard Times, could be her best.

I am making another (probably hopeless) effort to teach myself Spanish. It's incredibly hard to stay motivated with only a book, but poising it between the bathroom and the bed, I am taking a stab at it daily. I guess they don't call it The Idiot's Guide to Spanish for nothing.