That Old Ace in the Hole by Annie Proulx -- I listened to the audio book on a road trip. It was a kinda fun story about a guy that goes to Oklahoma to scout locations for huge hog farms. Lots of well-written characters. My favorite was a cowboy monk whose monastery raises buffalo. Yay!
Larry's Party by Carol Shields -- Essentially, the life story of an average man who is crazy about mazes. It was alright, but it didn't light my fire. OK.
Becoming Real: Defeating the Stories We Tell Ourselves That Hold us Back by Gail Saltz -- OK, that title is terrible. But it turned out to be one of those books that makes so much sense that you start applying it's theories to everyone you know and trying to convince people to join the cult. Yay!
The Big Sea by Langston Hughes -- He's an oddly flat narrator of his own story, which makes it a little hard to relate. OK.
Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights by Kenji Yoshino -- Amazing, life-changing ... about the way we think about ourselves and alter our personality to fit in. Double Yay!
The Fortress of Solitude by Jonathan Lethem -- About two boys growing up in Brooklyn, mingled with urban music history. Yay!
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen -- A rather cynical story about a family. No likeable characters at all. Boo!
Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner -- This is one of those books that might have worked better as a series of magazine articles, but it's quite clear that that wouldn't have satisfied Levitt's ego. God, this guy! He's SO proud of himself. He even begins each chapter with excerpts from a profile written about him in the The New York Times Magazine. His skill as an economist is very dependent on happening upon decent data gathered by other people. I mean, he tells a few compelling stories, but he's not all that and a bag of chips, as he seems to think. OK.
Maurice by E.M Forster -- I love me some Forster (especially Howards End), and this one was no different. His writing is so lovely. And I support his advocacy: he decided he wanted to write a love story about two men that ended happily. He says:
A happy ending was imperative. I shouldn't have bothered to write otherwise. I was determined that in fiction anyway two men should fall in love and remain in it for the ever and ever that fiction allows...
It's a beautiful story. Yay!
Smilla's Sense of Snow by Peter Hoeg -- This one's been sitting around for years after a friend gave it to me and insisted it was super. I should have heeded her earlier. What's not to love about a heroine who's prickly, depressive, and prefers her solitude, but tries to solve a crime anyway. The story is set in Copenhagen, and Smilla's a transplanted Greenlander who's not crazy about Europeans. There's lots on the culture of Greenland and it's exploitation by the Danes. The science of snow and ice. And a rather slow part in which we get more than we really need about life aboard a ship. But the author used to be a sailor and clearly didn't want his knowledge to go to waste. I would definitely recommend it though, especially to other prickly depressives. We're not alone. Yay!
Running with Scissors by Augusten Burroughs -- I believe this got a lot of positive attention, but it seems mediocre to me. It reads like the unedited journal entries of an unhappy kid living with some crazy people. Parts are amusing, if you're fond of the scatological, but I don't get the feeling that all that writing allowed him to make any sense of it all. More writing that's just typing? OK.
The Unthinkable Thoughts of Jacob Green by Joshua Braff -- Oo, this is a hard one. It's a beautifully written story about an adolescent and his overbearing father. The characters are so well done, and often really funny. The scenes with the father in a rage make me feel I'm experiencing them myself. I mean, so hard to take, but ultimately: Yay!
Pamela by Samuel Richardson -- Published in 1740, this is "generally considered the first modern novel," according to the cover blurb. It's the story of a servant girl in a British country house who resists (and resists and resists) the efforts (including kidnapping) of her employer to force her to become his mistress. (P.S. I was kind of surprised at how relatively frank Richardson was about the sex stuff. Jane Austen didn't say nearly so much almost a century later.) Eventually, the master is so moved by his servant's high-mindedness and virtue that he falls in love and marries her. Part of how you can tell it's the first novel is the author doesn't provide us with any B-plots. The story becomes quite tedious after while, when we are treated to nothing but Pamela's narration on a decidely narrow train of thought. But it does give some perspective on the history of fiction. OK.
Pope Joan by Donna Woolfolk Cross -- I read this one on the recommendation of my Dad's late wife Carole. It came up when everybody in my family had seemingly just finished reading The DaVinci Code. This one also deals with a bit of unsubstantiated Catholic legend -- a pope around the time of Charlemagne who was a woman disguised as a man. The writer could be clumsy in her efforts to jam in historically relevant information, but she tells an engaging story, pushing all the right womyn-power buttons. And she does something I wish more historical fiction authors would do: she includes an author's note that explains who and what in her story is part of recorded history. Indeed, what is the good of doing all the research necessary to write historical fiction, if you can't know what's true and what's imagination? Yay-ish.
Rumspringa: To Be or Not to Be Amish by Tom Schachtman -- This is a pretty amazing look at the Amish culture, not just the practice of Rumspringa, which begins for kids in the tradition when they turn 16. At that point, the teenagers are not subject to the church's rules about forbidden behaviors and can spend time in the outside world deciding whether to be baptized and live in the Amish community or remain outside and go their own way. Between 80 and 90 percent of them decide to return to the community, and the book largely wants to answer the question "Why?" The author makes some fascinating comparisons between Amish and mainstream life, and talks about what the community offers: a sense of belonging, strong identity, and meaning. One of the things I took away was that the community limits self-actualization and the idea of an individual reaching his or her own potential (no education after 8th grade is permitted), but provides lifelong support and safety that is hard to come by elsewhere. Good stuff. Yay!