Saturday, December 29, 2012

2012: The Year in Books (The Sunday Salon)

In 2012 I read and reviewed 47 books here on SmallWorld Reads, and probably read a total of a dozen others (juvenile fiction read aloud to my youngest).

 (I've been doing this for five years now. See my other Best of the Years posts.)

Top 10 Books Read in 2012
Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks. From my review: "This was our book club's read for June, and, for perhaps the first time ever, everyone not only read but loved this novel!"

The Distant Hours by Kate Morton.  From my review: "The Distant Hours is a gothic novel full of mystery, suspense, romance, and hauntings. … This is one of those books that I thought about during the day and couldn't wait to get to in the evenings."

The Forgotten Garden by Kate Morton. From my review: "It was just, well, it was everything I could possibly want in a novel. A mystery with a ghost story feel. Romance, lost love, found love, familial love, orphans, good guys, villains, a manor, a secret garden (and speaking of that, well-done cameos with real life figures), fairy tales, and did I mention suspense."

The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer. From my review: "I'm really quite astounded by The Invisible Bridge. The last 50 pages or so I read in a doctor's office while waiting for a friend, and I embarrassingly wept now and then. I was slightly numb when I closed the book, stunned by human resiliency as displayed in the character but also stunned by Orringer's ability to craft such a novel."

Left Neglected by Lisa Genova. From my review: "Genova has a PhD in neuroscience from Harvard, so her novels, which deal at one level with complex neurological issues, feel so completely believable. But it isn't just the medicine that's good: Genova is a fantastic writer. She can get spot-on into the heart and soul of her characters."

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson. From my review: "This was a beautifully written, lovely novel about Ernest Pettigrew, a perfectly stuffy English gentleman. This was our book club's November read, and everyone absolutely loved it."

Room by Emma Donoghue. From my review: "Who wants to read a book about a kidnapped woman and her son, who are living in an 11X11 room and visited nightly by "Old Nick"?…But if you don't meet Jack and Ma, you're missing on two wonderful, strong, courageous characters and an unforgettable, powerful, yes—positively gripping story."

The Rebel Wife by Taylor Polites.  From my review: "I had a hard time putting down this post-Civil War novel. I was even reading during breakfast and lunch, which is quite an unusual feat for this mom who usually saves reading for bedtime. The novel was that engrossing."

The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien. "I was hooked from the very first line, and I was reluctant to put it down each night to sleep. I carried it with me during the day when I wasn't reading it. I carried the language of Tim O'Brien—the absolutely beautiful poetry, the lyrical longing, the heartbreak."

True Sisters by Sandra Dallas.  From my review: "Sandra Dallas has once again written a fascinating tale woven around a unique piece of American history. This time her subject matter takes us out of Colorado mining country to the Mormon Trail in the mid-1800s."

FAVORITE BOOK(s) of 2012
I'm going to have to call a tie between Kate Morton's The Forgotten Garden and Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried. I can't really compare the two: one is sort of a Gothic romance/ghost story, and the other is a gritty, heart-breaking story of war. But they were both absolutely beautifully written.

* Don't Forget the Classics!
I read several classics this year. I don't count these on my Top 10 list because, well, somehow they seem to be above such things. Here are my beloved classics from this year:
  • The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Mark Twain)
  • Ethan Frome (Edith Wharton)
  • I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (Maya Angelou)
  • My Antonia (Willa Cather)
  • O Pioneers! (Willa Cather)
  • Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
  • The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (Robert Louis Stevenson)
  • Watership Down (Richard Adams)

• I added 38 books to my Ever-Growing TBR list, and I marked off 19. That means that my TBR list continues to grow faster than I can read, and it also means I read a lot of books that aren't on my TBR list.   I learned about books from posts on The Sunday Salon, Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books, from various internet sources, from personal recommendations, and especially from other book bloggers.

 • Below is the total list of books read, minus the juvenile fiction. Each link leads to a review or, rarely, to if I didn't get a chance to review it. My star-ranking system is as follows: 5 stars--must read; 4 stars--highly recommended; 3 stars--enjoyable; 2 stars--ick; 1 star--no, no, no.

Book Review: The River Wife

So, I had this novel listed by "J. Agee" on my TBR list. I assumed it was by James Agee and was distressed to see, upon finding it at the library, that the author of The River Wife is actually Jonis Agee. I nearly put the book back on the shelf but decided to take a chance. After all, I must have added it to my TBR list because of someone's great review.

The novel starts with a young wife, Hedie, who finds an old diary one night while waiting for her husband to come home. The story then shifts to Annie Ducharme and her river bandit husband, Jacques Ducharme. Eventually we get to Ducharme's second wife, and then, well, I got mixed up, honestly.

I really liked the story of Annie. And I liked the stories of Omah, Laura, and Maddie, although I'm not sure I could tell you what relation they were to Jacques, Annie, and each other. The story of Hedie was also interesting. The problem for me was that I couldn't quite piece together all of the connections these women and their stories had to Jacques. I kept feeling like something was missing, that all would be revealed just around the corner.

There was so much unsaid in the novel—so much reading-between-the-lines that needed to be done. I tried, I really did. Again, I really loved Annie Lark's story, and I wish the novel could have been just about her and Jacques. This first third of the novel was beautifully written, rich in character and language. In the end, though, I felt sort of unfulfilled and a little dumb. What did I miss? How did I miss it? Ever feel like that at the end of a novel? 

Monday, December 17, 2012

Book Review: O Pioneers!

"We come and go, but the land is always here. And the people who love it and understand it are the people who own it— for a little while."

I'm teaching Willa Cather's My Antonia for American Lit right now, and I realized that I've never read her other most discussed novel, O Pioneers. I downloaded this copy free for my Kindle app, although I'd gladly buy it in hardback.

Such a lovely, lovely little novel. O Pioneers has the same wistful, yearning mood as My Antonia, and the main character, Alexandra, reminds one of Antonia. Both are stories of the power of the land and the struggle of immigrants, taking place in Nebraska at the end of the 19th century. Of the two, O Pioneers has the happier ending. (My students are just now reporting that "My Antonia ends so sad!")

O Pioneers centers on Alexandra Bergson, the daughter of a Swedish immigrant who becomes a wealthy landowner because of her own business acumen and foresight. Her older brothers are hard workers but lack creativity and ambition. Her younger brother is her pet—her hope for integrating into America. He goes to college and does well, and Alexandra has great hopes for his future. Of Emil, Cather writes:
"Out of her father's children there was one who was fit to cope with the world, who had not been tied to the plow, and who had a personality apart from the soil. And that, she reflected, was what she had worked for. She felt well satisfied with her life."
Things don't end up quite the way Alexandra hopes. Cather portrays Alexandra as an incredibly strong, multidimensional woman. She is well respected for her business dealings, yet loving and tender with her younger brother, the neighbor women, and Carl, her childhood friend who comes back to her in middle age.

Cather is a beautiful writer, and her descriptions of the simplicity and power of the land are amazing:

"She had never known before how much the country meant to her. The chirping of the insects down in the long grass had been like the sweetest music. She had felt as if her heart were hiding down there, somewhere, with the quail and the plover and all the little wild things that crooned or buzzed in the sun. Under the long shaggy ridges, she felt the future stirring."
O Pioneers! is a sad but beautiful novel, the kind that makes you strangely yearn for a time long ago, in spite of the hardness of the life. Highly recommended.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Book Review: Girlchild

This debut novel by Tupelo Hassman is not for the reader looking for a warm and fuzzy beach read. This is hard stuff—and really, really good stuff. If you've read Dorothy Allison's Bastard Out of Carolina and Emma Donoghue's Room without ending up in a fetal position, you can read Girlchild. But be prepared.

Rory Hendrix comes from a long line of bad seeds. Her family portfolio is filled with abuse of all sorts, poverty, poor choices, drug use, unwed mothers, welfare, alcoholism, gambling, and dead ends. But Rory is resilient and, shockingly to everyone, brilliant. But is her smartness enough to save her?

She has a lot to contend with in this novel, which positively oozes poverty and desperation. Her life is hard, and her mother, though loving, makes poor choices which almost kill Rory—and certainly take away any innocence she may have had. Rory is friendless, practically parentless, and even terrified of living. But she keeps on surviving, determined to be the one to change the family cycle.

Hassman's prose is simply beautiful. She has a haunting voice, sad and cracked but determined, filled with poetry. I can't say I felt uplifted after reading Girlchild, although perhaps I felt hopeful. But to think that Rory's story is played out day after day in every town in the U.S. is heartbreaking. If you are a reader who appreciates a candid look at life below the poverty line, pick up Girlchild.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Book Review: The Rebel Wife

I had a hard time putting down this post-Civil War novel by Taylor Polites. I was even reading during breakfast and lunch, which is quite an unusual feat for this mom who usually saves reading for bedtime. The novel was that engrossing.

Augusta Branson is a new widow, thrown into a world of chaos and confusion just when she thought life might be returning to some semblance of normalcy after the Civil War. Born into a wealthy, well-respected Southern family, Augusta lost seemingly everything during the war: her father, brother, and her lifestyle. She is forced by her mother to marry a Eli, a man hated by her society for his political standings.

When Eli dies of a strange sickness, Augusta quickly realizes that she knows absolutely nothing about anything—that, as a rich southern woman, she has been kept in the dark her entire life. The Judge, who has been a father figure of sorts to her, informs her that she has no money—that her husband was scoundrel. But her husband's trusted servant, Simon, has a different story. Can she trust a former slave, whom she has believed to be vastly inferior, over her kin and mentor, the Judge?

 Augusta begins uncovering all kinds of truths she doesn't want to believe. She'd like to just exist in the oblivion that the doctor-prescribed laudanum brings—but can she really trust the doctor to know what's best for her? Are her servants hiding something? And most of all, how will she and her young son survive? 

Polites is an excellent writer, and this story of life in a violent time of upheaval after the war is mesmerizing. Highly recommended.