Book List 09

A list of books I’ve read in 2008 (if you want 2006’s book list, it’s here, 2007’s list is here, and 2008’s here). A brief description of each. And the first few lines.

1.  Miles From Nowhere by Nami Mun
Much has been made of the novel’s “episodic” structure and I can see why–those of us used to a more traditional narrative will gnash their teeth trying to find their footing. In workshop, I can see this manuscript getting a lot of feedback about time/place. But the book still sucked me right in from the first page, and I found myself swept along in the narrative because I trusted the voice and loved the characters. I was still annoyed by how the chapters didn’t seem linked at all but I coped by reinterpreting the book as a short story collection, each narrated by the protagonist Joon. And then it clicked for me. Such a strong debut work, and I look forward to more books by Nami Mun.

Opening lines:

“I’d been at the shelter for two weeks and there was nothing to do but go to counseling or lie on my cot and count the rows of empty cots nailed to the floor or watch TV in the rec room, where the girls cornrowed each other’s hair and went on about pulling a date with Reggie the counselor because he looked like Billy Dee Williams and had a rump-roast ass. I didn’t see a way to join in, but I didn’t feel like being alone, either. It was cold.”

2.  The Welsh Girl by Peter Ho Davies
I bought this book more than a year ago. And I’d pick it up to read, then put it back down, pick it up again, then put it back down. I just wasn’t that intrigued by the subject matter (World War II) or by the opening lines–and I’d keep picking it up because I LOVE Peter Ho Davies’ work. He is a tremendous short story writer whose prose is amazing and who in real life is super gracious and charming. But I kept giving the book a chance and eventually I picked it up to read. It was a bit tedious at first, much like a sleepy drive through the English countryside might be if you’re in the mood for something much more active and pulsing. But after awhile, you get into the groove of things and begin noticing details and understand the rhythm of that landscape, just as I did with The Welsh Girl. It is not Peter Ho Davies’ finest work, but man, it does pick up about halfway through, much like an Ian McEwan novel. I especially loved two characters: Karsten and Rotheram and wished there were more of them on the page. I learned a lot about characterization from this novel. In fact, I wished the novel were about THEM, even if Esther is the glue. Loved the theme of identity (are we defined by residency, citizenship/naturalization, ethnicity…?) that pervaded the book throughout.

Opening lines:

“It’s a close June night in the Welsh hills, taut with the threat of thunder, and the radios of the village cough with static. The Quarryman’s Arms, with the tallest aerial for miles around, is a scrum of bodies, all waiting to hear Churchill’s broadcast.

There’s a flurry of shouted orders leading up to the news at six. Esther, behind the lounge bar, pulls pint after pint, leaning back against the pumps so that the beer froths in the glass. She sets the shaker out for those who want to salt their drinks to the melt the foam.”

3.  Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Wow. A masterpiece of a novel. Depressing as fuck (it’s about a disintegrating marriage in 1950s suburbia). But also enlightening as fuck. Especially courageous considering he wrote such a novel (a sociological critique, really) in those times (much like The Great Gatsby was a sociological critique of the 1920s written in that very era). Loved the characters. Every single word is pitch perfect. The structure is perfect. Taught me that you don’t always have to have a happy ending.

Opening lines:

“The final dying sounds of their dress rehearsal left the Laurel Players with nothing to do but stand there, silent and helpless, blinking out over the footlights of an empty auditorium. They hardly dared to breathe as the short, solemn figure of their director emerged from the naked seats to join them on stage, as he pulled a stepladder raspingly from the wings and climbed halfway up its rungs to turn and tell them, with several clearings of his throat, that they were a damned talented group of people and a wonderful group of people to work with.”

4.  American Born Chinese by Gene Luen Yang

I don’t read many graphic novels (the last graphic novel I read was Maus and something by Joe Sacco) but every once in awhile, I pick up a piece that others love and adore.  I can see why people adore this piece.  This is definitely one to read.

5.  2666 by Roberto Bolaño

This is an amazing piece of work.  An epic.  A messy, rich, complicated, awesome epic novel.  I learned so much about craft while reading this piece, because Bolaño dares to go where very few writers dare to go–he lurches through several narrative threads, he sweeps continents and settings, he even writes a 4 page long sentence (kudos to the translator, Natasha Wimmer).  There are points where you think the novel needed a firm handed editor, but the messiness and expansiveness of this novel is what makes it so incredible.  Such as: the entire middle span of the story (the middle span being novel length) is a list of murders.  You’d think a list wouldn’t be fascinating…but it is, even if it leaves you emotionally crumpled at its end.  (I can only think that had he finished the book with an editor, this middle section might have been edited down).  A must read this year (even though it might take a few months).

Opening lines:

“The first time that Jean-Claude Pelletier read Benno von Archimboldi was Christmas 1980, in Paris, when he was nineteen years old and studying German literature.  The book in question was D’Arsonval. The young Pelletier didn’t realize at the time that the novel was part of a trilogy (made up of the English-themed The Garden and the Polish-themed The Leather Mask, together with the clearly French-themed D’Arsonval), but this ignorance or lapse or bibliographical lacuna, attributable only to his extreme youth, did nothing to diminish the wonder and admiration that the novel stirred in him.”

6.  The Housekeeper and the Professor by Yoko Ogawa

I love Japanese writers and Yoko Ogawa is one of my favorite current day Japanese writers.  I was in love with her collection entitled The Diving Pool–when A Public Space offered an advance copy of The Housekeeper and the Professor in their renewal drive, I jumped at the chance.  And that is how I came to own a copy of Yoko Ogawa’s most recently translated work.  Love it.  It definitely resonated with me–the Professor in the title suffers from a short term memory disorder and I identified more with him than the Housekeeper.  The characters do not have proper names–and even though the story itself seems simple, there is great complexity all around, just as the span of 80 minutes (the length of the Professor’s memory) can be simple…but the consequences very complex (how do you maintain a life and relationships with that span of memory?).

Opening lines:

“We called him the Professor.  And he called my son Root, because, he said, the flat top of his head reminded him of the square root sign.

‘There’s a fine brain in there,’ the Professor said, mussing my son’s hair.  Root, who wore a cap to avoid being teased by his friends, gave a wary shrug.  ‘With this one little sign we can come to know an infinite range of numbers, even those we can’t see.’  He traced the symbol in the thick layer of dust on his desk.”

7.  13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley

If you want to hear Jane Smiley give you one-hundred book reports with a craft-centric twist, then this book is for you.  The first half of the very large book discusses both craft elements and history of the novel and it gets interesting at times…but overall, it wasn’t anything I hadn’t heard before.  There are better books on craft written by writers: like Charles Baxter’s Burning Down the House or Aspects of the Novel by E.M. Forster for starters.

Opening lines:

“An inexpensive paperback book from a reputable publisher is a small, rectangular, boxlike object a few inches long, a few inches wide, and inch or so thick.  It is easy to stack and store, easy to buy, keep, give away, or throw away.  As an objct, it is user-friendly and routine, a mature technological form, hard to improve upon and easy to like…”

8.  Farm City by Novella Carpenter

I love this book so much–Novella has a farm in Oakland, on an abandoned lot upon which she squats and plants all manner of fruit and veg…and upon which she also raises chickens, rabbits, pigs, and turkeys.  This book is about her city farm.  It is a GREAT read told with humor and intelligence and compassion and I highly recommend it if you want to read any nonfiction at all.  It’s also a great remedy for these dark and gloomy economic times because the optimistic book is about self-reliance and community.

Opening lines:

“I have a farm on a dead-end street in the ghetto.

My back stairs are dotted with chicken turds.  Bales of straw come undone in the parking area next to my apartment.  I harvest lettuce in an abandoned lot.  I awake in the mornings to the sound of farm animals mingled with my neighbor’s blaring car alarm.”

9.  Long Road Home by Yong Kim

This is a memoir told by a North Korean escapee, someone who survived North Korea’s most notorious labor camp and other atrocities and found his way out, via China and Mongolia, to South Korea and eventually the United States.  It’s brutal and honest and provides insight to life in a country that rarely opens its doors.  If you’re interested in contemporary North Korea, you’ll want to read this.  The book was literally verbally narrated and then transcribed, so there is a very oral narrative quality to the prose, which I enjoyed.  I also speak some Korean so I could imagine him speaking in Korean…the phrasing is at times a direct translation.

The opening lines are very lyrical…beautiful but don’t worry the whole book isn’t a poem, the narrative is mostly matter-of-fact (I’ve also included lines from the book’s middle).

Opening lines:

“Rustling waves approach the shore in endless succession, damping the tips of my toes and luring my sight back to the horizon.  Beyond that horizon lies a place I once called home.  But on this side of the ocean, the shoreline appears etched with motley traces of strangers.  When touched by the sea, they gradually melt as if they never existed….”

Lines from the middle of the book:

“In North Korea, everyone knows that a labor camp is a place where life is suspended.  One does not live there, one slowly dies there.  I was simply another dead soul in Camp No. 14.”

10.  Autobiography of a Face by Lucy Grealy

Been meaning to read Autobiography of a Face ever since I finished reading Ann Patchett’s memoir of her friendship with Lucy Grealy, Truth and Beauty.  This is a good memoir–and to me, this was insight into how a memoir can be structured in a non-chronological way.  And although they are almost chronologically ordered, you can almost hop around and read the chapters independently because they aren’t strictly tied to one another in a particular order.  Almost like an intimately connected collection of short memoir pieces about her stroke.  Very interesting, at least to me. The writing itself is spectacular, something tragically missing in many memoirs these days.  Also, she didn’t seem very much like the person Ann Patchett painted her out to be.  But that’s also memoir: it leaves as much out as it shares with the reader.

Opening lines:

“My friend Stephen and I used to do pony parties together.  The festivities took place on the well-tended lawns of the vast suburban communities that had sprung up around Diamond D Stables in the rural acres of Rockland County.  Mrs. Daniels, the owner of Diamond D, took advantage of the opportunity and readily dispatched a couple of ponies for birthday parties.  In the early years Mrs. Daniels used to attend the parties with us, something Stephen and I dreaded.  She fancied herself a sort of Mrs. Roy Rogers and dressed in embarrassing accordance: fringed shirts, oversized belt buckles, ramshackle hats…”

11.  Lullaby by Chuck Palahniuk

Recommended to me by a friend–who spoke so highly of Palahniuk, I had to give one of his books a read.  (Seriously? I thought–the guy who wrote Fight Club?  I hated that movie!  But I gave it a shot).  After reading Palahniuk’s bio (his father was killed right before he began writing Lullaby) I had to give this particular book a read, I had a feeling that book written in the wake of grief might have a specific kind of emotional intensity. And how.  It gave me vivid dreams at night.  It spooked me.  It pierced my psyche.  And the structure is interesting–sort of made sense as I read it, and it all clicked together after the very last sentence of the book.  Palahniuk’s ability to hold tension in his story, even while revealing all the facts, is amazing and dependent on the structure present in Lullaby.  Makes me want to read it all over again.

Opening lines:

“The problem with every story is you tell it after the fact.

Even play-by-play descriptiono n the radio, the home runs and strikeouts, even that’s delayed a few minutes.  Even live television is postponed a couple seconds.

Even sound and light can only go so fast.

Another problem is the teller.  The who, what, where, when, and why of the reporter.  The media bias.  How the messenger shapes the facts.  What journalists call The Gatkeeper.  How the presentation is everything.

The story behind the story.

Where I’m telling this from is one café after another.  Where I’m writing this book, chapter by chapter, is never the same small town or city or truck stop in the middle of nowhere.”

12.  Travels With My Aunt by Graham Greene

I have mixed feelings about this book–it was recommended to me highly by a friend, and I could totally see why: Greene is a master of his prose (check out the opening lines) and there were brilliant chapters in the novel  The characters were great–this is an example of how if you can write great characters, a reader will stay loyal to your novel out of a pure desire to follow them for hundreds of pages.  But the plot was sort of lacking (I skipped entire chapters out of impatience with the slowgoing plot and was able to move forward without being lost).  And there were coincidences galore (one character pops up at the most convenient moments only to exit very conveniently as well…and people are coincidentally related to each other–and I won’t reveal who/how).  But still worth a read, though not Greene’s best–this is an example of how brilliant prose and great characters can overcome shortcomings (like an overabundance of convenient coincidences).

Opening lines:

“I met my Aunt August for the first time in more than half a century at my mother’s funeral.  My mother was approaching eighty-six when she died, and my aunt was some eleven or twelve years younger.  I had retired from the bank two years before with an adequate pension and a silver handshake.  There had been a take-over by the Westminster and my branch was considered redundant.  Everyone thought me lucky, but I found it difficult to occupy my time.  I have never married, I have always lived quietly, and, apart from my interest in dahlias, I have no hobby.  For those reasons I found myself agreeably excited by my mother’s funeral.”

13.  The History of Love by Nicole Krauss

Recommended to me by a friend who gave me her copy, months ago.  An amazing read.  I should have started reading it immediately.  Intriguing structure, dual narrator, pitch perfect prose, and an incredible story.  I want to write like this!  I learned so much as a writer from her writing (there are little post it tabs sticking out from all the pages where I noted good use of repetition, telling a story through an object, etc).  One of my top favorite books now and I will NOT be giving away my copy!

Opening lines:

“When they write my obituary.  Tomorrow.  Or the next day.  It will say, LEO GURSKY IS SURVIVED BY AN APARTMENT FULL OF SHIT.  I’m surprised I haven’t been buried alive.  The place isn’t big.  I have to struggle to keep a path clear between bed and toilet, toilet and kitchen table, kitchen table and front door.  If I want to get from the toilet to the front door, impossible, I have to go by way of the kitchen table.  I like to imagine the bed as home plate, the toilet as first, the kitchen table as second, the front door as third: should the doorbell ring while I am lying in bed, I have to round the toilet and the kitchen table in order to arrive at the door.  If it happens to be Bruno, I let him in without a word and then jog back to bed, the roar of the invisible crowd ringing in my ears.”

14.  The Road by Cormac McCarthy

One of the most perfect books I’ve ever read.

15.  Julie and Julia by Julia Powell

This is a book for people who don’t read.  It reads like a blog quilt.

16.  Big Machine by Victor LaValle

Murakami + Junot Diaz.  Great read.  And the bonus: if you live in Oakland, you’ll recognize all the landmarks in this novel that he began while in the Bay Area.

17.  Shortcomings by Adrian Tomine

Not as good as Gene Luen Yang’s American Born Chinese, but still a good read, all the same…and a great discussion platform for APA hot button issues.   Teaching it in my class next semester.


11 responses to “Book List 09

  1. Amyable


    Do you have any recommendations of novels by Korean American writers? I would prefer 1.5 or 2nd generation Korean American novelist and where protagonist(s) are Korean American. Any suggestions?


    • Amyable: I do, off the top of my head…
      1. Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee
      2. Edinburgh by Alexander Chee
      3. Miles From Nowhere by Nami Mun
      4. Free Food for Millionaires by Min Jin Lee (I did NOT like this book, but others do)
      5. American Woman by Susan Choi (protagonist is not KA)
      6. Comfort Woman by Nora Okja Keller (protagonist is Korean, not KA)
      7. A Cab Called Reliable by Patti Kim

      Still Life with Rice by Helie Lee

      • Amyable

        Thanks! I’ve read Native Speaker, Free Food for Millionaires (I too didn’t like to too much), and Still Life with Rice. I’ll try the others. Thanks so much!

      • and omg how could i forget!
        8. Paul Yoon’s short story collection, “Once the Shore”

  2. Amyable

    Sometimes when you put it out there, the universe responds. In addition to your great recommendations, one of the blogs I read just posted about a novel by a Korean American!

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  4. Kit

    I was interested to see that you read 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel by Jane Smiley, a book I have picked up about a dozen times and never finished, mostly because I haven’t read about half of the books she discusses. I always feel conflicted by the way she casually divulges the endings of the books she discuses, and worry I might be robbing myself of the surprise. I was curious if you felt the same and how you got around it. Did you only read “book reports” of books you had already read?

    • Hi Kit–her book is really 100 book reports…book reports that often divulge endings and other very specific plot twists. And I can see that if you haven’t read most of the books, her book might really leave you in the dark. But then again, you’re probably not missing much, because I didn’t find her “book reports” all that enlightening. The good thing is that you can skip around and only read book reports of books you’ve already read–I found myself only reading those I’d read previously not because I hate spoilers (read below) but because I understood her analyses much better, having read the referring text.

      As for how spoilers affect my reading…well, I’m one of those weirdos who LOVE TO KNOW THE ENDINGS OF THINGS before I begin. 🙂 Sometimes, I go as far as flipping to the END of a book, because I JUST WANT TO KNOW.

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  6. Admin

    Glad you enjoyed Rev Road — Richard Yates is my favorite author. The Easter Parade, A Special Providence, and his Collected Stories are all worth reading. I’d actually rate Easter Parade as his best book.

    Also, if you liked Lullaby, you might really enjoy Fight Club. I konw it’s cliche to say so, but the book really is far superior to the movie. Especially the ending.

    And one more — check out Shaun Tan’s The Arrival — that, American Born Chinese, and wait, one last recommendation, I swear, Adrian Tomine’s Summer Blonde. Both graphic novels, both lovely works of fiction.

    – Sung

    • omg! so excited to have you stop by. I am going to read other books by Yates, I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of him before the movie (and I am glad I read the book before watching the movie). And I will check out Fight Club, too (I never watched that movie either, but I thoroughly enjoyed Lullaby).

      Thank you for the suggestions. I’d give you mine, but well…they’re sort of all here on my book lists. 😉

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