Last spring, I decided to start a book club. Turns out, the thing I most complained about in my English lit classes was also what I missed: talking in circles about books. So I started a book club hoping to keep my mind captivated, meet new people, and read some great books. Most of what I read in 2011 was a book club read or McSweeney’s Quarterly, but I’m attempting to include everything. I strayed a bit from my typical reading, and consumed quite a few short stories this year, along with novels. Here’s the list. It’s in reading order to the best of my memory.
The Best American Short Stories, 2010 Because I let someone borrow this, and read it at the beginning of the year, I’m failing to remember many stories. If I get my copy back, I’ll be sure to update this.
The Twenty-Seventh City, Jonathan Franzen (book club) This book proved to be a rough maiden voyage for our book club. Most of us did not enjoy it. I actually put down Freedom when the book club started and have yet to pick it back up (gasp!). The Twenty-Seventh City is Franzen’s first novel and it shows. The writing was showy and poorly paced. I was so disinterested I actually had to skim the last fifty pages to finish in time for book club. In the midst of my skimming–spoiler alert–I missed the suicide of one of the main characters.
American Pastoral, Philip Roth (book club) Roth’s Pulitzer winner also proved lacking for many of the book club members. We all agreed it was technically exceptional, but wanted more out of it. Confession time: under all my sass and cynicism lies a sentimentalist. While I can appreciate well written literature, I need some redemption to really love a story.
McSweeney’s Quarterly, 37 About half of this edition featured Kenyan writers and brand new stories from them. The letters are very often my favorite part, but the short stories are the star. Two favorites are “Take Care of that Rage Problem” by Edan Lepucki, which begins with a mother explaining to her daughter why she’s been arrested for indecent exposure, and “A Brutal Murder in a Public Place” by Joyce Carol Oates that tells the story of a bird trapped in an airport terminal.
The New Man, Thomas Merton This is the only nonfiction from my 2011 reading list, and also my first Merton. I read it over a long span of time, for better or worse. Merton’s insights were eye-opening as well as approachable. Having a Catholic background may have helped at times. I especially enjoyed his belief that intelligence and the will must work together in faith.
Kafka on the Shore, Haruki Murakami (book club) I fell in love with this book. I’m a fan of magic realism, but I had to sell it a bit to the book club. They thanked me in the end. Kafka follows two characters: one, a teenage boy with an Oedipal complex, and the other an old, mentally-handicapped man who talks to cats. INTRIGUE.
Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, Bebe Moore Campbell (book club) I did not fall in love with this book. I could appreciate its history, as it chronicled (I think) thirty to forty years of a Southern black family. But I couldn’t really get past the writing.
My Name is Asher Lev, Chaim Potok (book club) I think it’s safe to say we all adored this book. Asher Lev is an Hasidic Jewish boy growing up in Brooklyn between WWII and the Cold War. He is an exceptionally gifted artist, struggling to balance his orthodoxy with his gift. Potok not only does an excellent job with character development, he allowed the reader to imagine Asher’s artwork with ease.
East of Eden, John Steinbeck The book of the year. I bought this while Borders was closing, thinking, “Well, maybe I’ll read it someday.” Someday came sooner than expected. Having read The Pearl, Of Mice and Men, and In Dubious Battle for various English classes, and not really enjoying them, I had my doubts about East of Eden. But this book captivated me. I loved the unforgiving honesty of Cathy, Charles and Cal. I loved Lee’s wisdom and faithfulness. This book felt strangely close to home while I was reading it. I even dreamt one of the lines before reading it the next day. I ought to devote an entire post to East of Eden.
Bowl of Cherries, Millard Kaufman (book club) This was our attempt at a “light” read; it follows a boy-genius who has dropped out of his Ivy League university. As it turns out, Kaufman may very well have been a dirty old man. He wrote the screenplay introducing Mr. Magoo to the world, as well as some other Oscar nominated screenplays. Bowl of Cherries reads a bit like a screenplay, complete with explosions and last-ditch helicopter escapes. The story was at least entertaining, but lacked polish.
McSweeney’s Quarterly, 38 McSweeney’s always has some surprises, and while this edition featured the typical fictional short stories, it also included some nonfiction and a retelling of Rapunzel. “The Hens” by Roddy Doyle was a favorite. It’s one of those stories you feel a little disconcerted while reading, as it tells of a woman hired to babysit chickens in the midst of neighbor wars. A lot more blood than I expected.
The Living, Annie Dillard (book club) The Living was our last group read for 2011. It’s an historical fiction, so not everyone’s cuppa tea. This is Dillard’s first novel (if you’re unfamiliar, she writes nonfiction usually). I think Dillard was very successful with her first fictional effort. It’s clear that she devoted much time to researching the setting for her novel (the PNW throughout the 1800s). The Living follows early settlers of the PNW, detailing covered wagon trips from the East Coast, relationships with natives, and hop farming in the midst of Prohibition.
Put Out More Flags, Evelyn Waugh (book club) We decided to go Secret Santa style for our last book club read of 2011, and my assignment was Put Out More Flags. I’d read Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited and didn’t remember enjoying it, so I wasn’t too jazzed for this book. But I was pleasantly surprised by how much I liked it. Put Out More Flags follows a loose group of thirty-somethings in England at the start of WWII. Most of the characters romanticize and glamorize the war, unaware of the very real effects the war is going to have on England. I found it to be an interesting social commentary, and couldn’t help relating it to the hipster nation I find myself in. As the characters discussed the war, each eager to get his/her two bits in, I thought of my generation of twenty-somethings who know a little about a lot, and want you to know it too.