It seems lately that friends have been asking me for some book recommendations and, because I'd love to get some recommendations from you readers out there, I thought I'd start by giving a snapshot of my 2011 reading to date:
1. The 42nd Parallel,John Dos Passos. If the mark of an excellent piece of fiction is leaving me wanting to go out and buy the rest of the trilogy immediately - then this book is a success. It took me a little while to get into it, but once I did - I spent more than one late January night foregoing sleep to continue reading. Dos Passos describes things perfectly, without sacrificing plot or pace. Loved it. (I started reading volume 2 of the trilogy, 1919, last night - already engrossed.)
2. The Dreamer Wakes, Volume V of The Story of the Stone, Cao Xueqin. Not quite as wonderful as Volumes II-IV in this five volume epic also known as the Dream of the Red Chamber, but the whole set was something I'm really glad I read and I am still a little sad to have left these characters behind. Hope to read it again someday with a little more background into the significance of the names and culture. Definitely makes me want to learn more about this period in Chinese history! (If anyone is interested in tackling these books - I have a pretty enormous family tree diagram that I created, current through Book IV, that helped me and my friends out a lot in keeping everyone straight)
3. The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler. A romping good noir time. I'd be interested to read some of Chandler's later books to see how his style and characterizations develop. Having some friends who also read it over tomorrow to watch the movie - will let you know how they compare!
4. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien. Yes, I had somehow missed reading this back in junior high school when everyone else did, so I wanted to get it done before the first half of Peter Jackson's film version comes out in winter 2012. For some reason more episodic than I expected...but delightful all the same. The ending battle though came up quite suddenly and I'm not sure there's not something missing there that Tolkien may have written and decided to leave out. I wonder! Definitely have to get through the Lord of the Rings trilogy soon so I can move on to exploring the rest of Tolkien's world. Any suggestions?
5. My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk. While very engaging and intriguing in parts...this book was about 100 pages too long and the ending somehow let me down. The world Pamuk illuminates is worth seeing and has changed my view of the arts in some ways, but his story both takes too long and ends much too conveniently and crassly.
6. A Moveable Feast, Ernest Hemingway. You'll see from the posted link that I opted to read "The Restored Edition", which supposedly undoes some of the edits made by Hemingway's wife, Mary, and reorders the chapters to something closer to what Hemingway had intended (the original edition was published posthumously). A splendid variety of well written sketches from Hemingway's memories of his life in Paris after World War I, the only "negative" I can find with this book is that it illuminated some big gaps in my own reading - namely Ford Maddox Ford, Ezra Pound and other of his friends and acquaintances. I kept thinking the episodes in this book would somehow make a great HBO miniseries if an adaptation could be made. A must read....though it will definitely make you feel like you need to read so much more. (And maybe drink less.)
7. Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell. I loved this, and it's no wonder they're planning a movie version, since I could practically see a movie in my head while reading it. It's one of those books that is a little hard to describe, but like the film The Red Violin (which I believe is reminiscent of, but not adapted from, a couple of books), each main character has his or her own story, but somehow they all relate through time. I'm definitely planning to read this one again in a few years to see if I get something different from it - there is so much to absorb. The unusual format works here and is more than an artistic exercise by Mitchell. Creativity at its best.
8. Chronicle of a Death Foretold, Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Well, I keep trying but I've yet to read a Marquez that I really liked. Like Mitchell's Cloud Atlas (above), it is an interesting exercise by the author - a journalistic, out-of-sequence account of a single event, but I feel like I didn't really gain anything from reading it. I neither liked nor disliked it. It fell very flat. I do note that I seem to be the only one of my book club that didn't like it, however. It's short, so if Marquez is your thing you might give it a try anyway.
9. One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (Willetts translation). I'm a little mad at myself that this had been sitting on my bookshelf for over a decade. A remarkably honest and even funny tale given the bleak prison camp circumstances of the characters. In my opinion, Ivan is one of the great protagonists - he is a survivor, but somehow manages not to step on others in the process. Of course, this is all told through "his eyes" and is only an account of one day, but I suspect Solzhenitsyn himself is peeking through not just Ivan's eyes but in some of the other characters as well. Looking forward to reading more from him - hopefully in a translation as well done as the Willetts. Highly recommend this!
10. The Hemingway Book Club of Kosovo, Paula Huntley. I just finished this in the wee hours of Tuesday morning, so it may be a little too fresh in my mind, but I'll do my best. The title of the book is maybe a little misleading - this is a nonfiction book taken from Paula Huntley's journals of her time teaching ESL in Kosovo in 2000-2001. As a (former) student of international affairs and history, what I liked best about this book is that we get a rare outsider's inside view of a conflict both centuries old and extremely current. While I think some of her views may be justifiably biased, taken in the larger context, this book is a great reminder that we are all still individuals in this fast-moving and often overwhelming world. That while it very much feels insignificant and insufficient, sometimes helping just one person, or a handful of students and neighbors, can be, in the eyes of those helped, so much more than enough.
So, that's it so far, but I'm currently working on 1919, Middlemarch and out of a little curiosity, A Game of Thrones. Love to hear thoughts on any of the above and get your suggestions for further reading.
**PS - a special thanks to my friend Mindy who kept track of her reading last year and inspired me.