Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Summer Reading

I've become critical of contemporary American writers. Most of what I find readable, well-written, interesting, and lucid from this country seems to be memoir which I fear has little enduring merit. It's interesting today in a voyeuristic way, but I don't think much of it will be on the shelves of libraries and book stores twenty years from now (if there are bookshelves in 20 years -- I'm thinking of getting a Kindle).

I've been reading like crazy this summer and have been delighted to find many books I've enjoyed -- most of them either in translation or by English speaking(writing) people of other (than American) Nationalities.

1. The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo by Steig Larrson -- translated from Swedish. A fast-paced gruesome, crime story set in Sweden. Highly recommended for those with strong stomachs. (I misplaced the book, so its image is missing from the photo above.)

2. The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery -- translated from French. Set in Paris, this unusual book is an intellectual snob's delight, some might think it tedious. A great inward look at two very different people. Recommended for quiet fireside nights -- definitely NOT a page turner.

3. The MacKade Brothers: Devin and Shane by Nora Roberts -- I chose this book because I read somewhere that Nora Roberts is underrated as a writer (American). She does write cogent, lucid, grammatically correct prose. However, the story is formulaic, predictable, and less than compelling. Okay, I have now read one Nora Roberts, don't make me read anymore. Not recommended, unless you feel you must have this experience yourself.

4. The Glass Castle by Jeannette Walls -- a memoir (American) of life in an amazing family living on the edge: the edge of poverty, insanity, wealth, criminality. Fascinating reading for us voyeurs.

5. Suite Francaise by Irene Nemirovsky -- a novel set in WWII France during the early years of the German occupation. Translated from French. Nemirovsky was born in Russia, immigrated to France, converted to Catholicism, and perished at Auschwitz in 1942. I can't get enough of Holocaust stories. I remember becoming aware of it as a child of about ten and have been absorbed by it ever since. I weep and grieve at every telling and still need to read more. Each story is unique and I won't be done until I've read six million. Beyond that, Nemirovsky is a brilliant writer.

6. Ghost Train to the Eastern Star by Paul Theroux -- an American travel writer. You either like Paul Theroux or you don't. He's an opinionated snob who runs around the world making contact with Nobel Prize winners -- a group of people he feels he belongs with. I enjoy his writing, but don't think it merits a Nobel prize. In this book, he reprises a trip (The Great Railway Bazaar) he made thirty years ago circumnavigating Asia by rail. He succeeds in giving the reader a view from the inside looking out, rather than that of an outside observer. Recommended if you are a Theroux fan.

7. Almost Moon by Alice Sebold -- one of the best young(ish) American writers. Her stories are grim and gruesome, but beautifully written.

8. Lucky by Alice Sebold -- a memoir of a brutal rape. Compelling -- I read it in a single sitting. I hope it was cathartic for her to write. Again a bizarre family -- I can't imagine Sebold's mother not being more supportive during the aftermath of the rape. But then, this is Alice's story, we haven't heard from her mother.

9. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Society by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows -- a first novel by American Shaffer who fell terminally ill before completing the book. Niece Barrows saw the project through. The story is an interesting view of WWII and German occupation of the Channel Islands (another glimpse of the Holocaust).

10. Sarah's Key by Tatiana de Rosnay -- de Rosnay is of English, Russian, and French descent. She lives in Paris and writes in English. Because it's a novel of the Holocaust, I had to read it and I'm not sorry. Well-written and a moving nearly plausible story (except the romantic ending is a bit schmaltzy).

11. When Will There Be Good News? by Kate Atkinson -- a British crime writer. I'm so glad I discovered Atkinson. After all, P.D. James is getting quite old and can't go on writing forever. Atkinson is a good writer and a good story teller. Great escape reading.

Let me know if you want to read any of these and I'll send the book your way. I don't hang on to books I've read; I pass them on, sell them, or donate them. So many books, so little shelf space.


  1. I think I've read another one of Alice Sebold's books - "The Lovely Bones"? I think she was the author. Anyway, it was a really good book. If you can part with it, I'd love to read "Lucky". Sounds really interesting. I'm a big fan of Linda Howard's books - although I'm afraid the story lines are formulated, she really draws you in. (Plus it doesn't hurt that her books are extra-steamy). Nora Roberts is boring to me - I've tried to read a couple of her books and they just seem really dumbed down, almost as though she's patronizing her readers/audience.

  2. Yes, Alice Sebold wrote "The Lovely Bones" -- I read it a couple of years ago and thought it was excellent, although, again, a tough subject -- not a happy book. I'll hang on to both of my Alice Sebold books for you. If you liked "The Lovely Bones", you might also like two by Donna Tart: "The Little Friend," and "The Secret Garden."