So Much to Read
"A man ought to read just as inclination leads him, for what he reads as a task will do him little good."—Samuel Johnson

30 December 2009
The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance
Elna Baker

Elna Baker grew up in a warm, supportive, and very well-traveled Mormon family. She loves her religion and plans to stay a teetotaling virgin until she marries in the temple and to become a god after her death. But she's also a natural performer and dreams of being an actor, so when she leaves home for school she chooses New York City. When she loses eighty pounds and discovers that she enjoys flirting with and kissing cute non-Mormon men, of which there is an endless supply in New York, the tension of trying to live in two worlds that aren't at all compatible becomes overwhelming. Baker is engaging and funny, and this book would work as just a weight-loss memoir or a dating-misadventures-in-New-York story, but the religion component—she isn't leaving her upbringing behind, she (or at least part of her) wants a Mormon life—puts her in an impossible place, a more extreme version of a the choice that anyone torn between comfort and curiosity has faced. A security guard from her workplace sums her up: "You know what your problem is? You believe a buncha different things, you've lived in a buncha different places, and now, nobody's like you." "Thanks, Vinny, " she replies, "No one tells you what being unique actually means: that you'll die alone." So what should she do? A choice seems necessary, but also impossible. Baker is still in her twenties, so we can look forward to hearing many more of her adventures—and how she resolves her dilemma.

30 December 2009
The Murder of King Tut
James Patterson and Martin Dugan

This book is good because it tells what happened in Egypt a long time ago with the pharaohs who had a lot of gold and riches. Also it tells about Howard Carter. He is the guy from England who found the mummy and all the treasures. He made me think of Indiana Jones. One of the writers is a famous mystery writer and you can tell because he makes the story very exciting and like a mystery. There is lots of stuff about pharaohs killing people and robbers stealing from pyramids. Sometimes the authors use big words that are probably about sex or other grown-up things. But mostly it is a good book for kids to read and the chapters are only one page long or two pages long. The other guy who wrote the book is maybe the one who found out what all those people from a long time ago were really thinking, even though they are dead now. They are just like real people on TV even though they are from ancient Egypt and also England. I liked this book and everyone should read it.

20 December 2009
Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall
Kazuo Ishiguro

The misty photograph of Venice on the jacket and the melancholy title don't match the tone of this book. The passive male narrators recall the timid butler from The Remains of the Day, but the contemporary and often absurd situations they are in are very different. Mostly musicians who haven't made it or never will, the main characters let themselves be manipulated by people who have personalities stronger than their own, and who are often at least a little bit crazy. Ishiguro is in quiet command of his storytelling, which makes the laugh-out-loud wacky moments even more surprising and pleasurable.

1 December 2009
The Believers
Zöe Heller

At the beginning of this excellent novel we're treated to the scene of Audrey and Joel Litvinoff's first meeting, at a London party in 1962. Then the action jumps to New York in 2002, the Litvinoffs having spent the last forty years raising three children and holding aloft the flame of social justice and radical politics. But this family of do-gooders isn't really doing a whole lot of good, least of all to each other. When Joel, a prominent lawyer, has a stroke and slips into a coma, Audrey, too, comes to a standstill, her personality having calcified over the years. She's sort of a political Larry David: it's easy to see what's making her so angry, and she's hilarious about it, but she still makes everyone around her miserable. The adult children, though fighting inertia and self-doubt, are all contemplating major life changes: adopting a baby (and reevaluating a marriage in the process); joining Orthodox Judaism; and kicking a drug habit. Stir together family dynamics, religion, and New York left-wing politics, throw in some snappy dialogue and a spicy secret or two, turn up the heat, and watch it all come to a rolling boil.
Also by Heller: What Was She Thinking? Notes on a Scandal

23 November 2009
Love the One You're With
Emily Giffin

This is the third novel I've read in two months about a young woman bored in her marriage and thinking about taking up with another man. It's lighter in tone than Still Life With Husband and more smoothly written than Time of My Life. Much to her credit, Giffin resists the temptation to make the husband completely dull-yet-saintly and the ex-boyfriend completely sexy-yet-jerky, and even her Southern debutante characters aren't completely one-dimensional. Best of all, she allows the main character's single and rootless older sister to be the moral voice of the novel. Wealth greases the wheels of the plot—the players can jet off to any city they like on a moment's notice—but otherwise these are recognizable people and problems, presented with expert pacing, snappy dialogue, and sharply observed details.
Also by Giffin: Baby Proof and Something Borrowed

8 November 2009
Her Fearful Symmetry
Audrey Niffenegger

This deliciously creepy ghost story clears the high bar set by Niffenegger's first novel, The Time Traveler's Wife. Again, Niffenegger's characters are present-day but not quite of the modern world: playful and sexy and well versed in pop culture, yet serious and ethereal and somewhat nineteenth-century in their sensibilities. Further adding to the incongruity, the American Niffenegger has chosen to use British English for this story set in London, although most of her main characters are American. Such disharmony may cause her books to suffer as literature, but perhaps a story must necessarily take itself very seriously in order to make its supernatural elements believable. In any case, it works once again. This story of female twins, two sets, reminded me of Diane Setterfield's mysterious thriller about twin girls, The Thirteenth Tale. Symmetry takes a while to build up steam, with a rather dull and irrelevant subplot slowing things down at every turn, but the payoff is well worth it.

3 November 2009
Still Life With Husband
Lauren Fox

Not that there's anything wrong with "chick lit"—why should books that interest women be dismissed? And since when are love, work, and friends subjects only of interest to women? But I know it when I see it. This book has a breezy tone, a hot pink spine, and a narrator, Emily, with a best girlfriend and the sort of sweetly shy yet sexy love interest that shows up in every romantic comedy but has never been found actually walking the earth. On the other hand, Emily lives in Milwaukee, says, "I've always hated shopping," and never gives a thought to how much she weighs. And she's already got a husband, a nice, reliable one who even wants a baby—and that's the problem. Then a cute guy in a coffee shop starts flirting with her, and Emily become more Madame Bovary than Bridget Jones. Fox makes the reader feel the tug of Emily's dilemma, yet doesn't let her off the hook for her choices. This is chick lit with a (hot pink) backbone.

3 November 2009
Time of My Life
Allison Winn Scotch

Jillian is a Westchester County housewife with a husband who has provided her with material comforts and an adorable toddler daughter, but when she hears the bad-boy ex-boyfriend she never quite got over is getting married she wonders what might have been. When a deep tissue massage gone wrong sends her seven years into the past (a development she takes oddly in stride) she has a chance to find out what would have happened if she hadn't broken up with Jack and given up her advertising career. Her actions quickly cause ripples that change the future as she knew it, of course, but she's so wrapped up in her own life and problems that she can't do too much damage. Of most interest is Jill's new perspective on her old relationship: maybe this time around she can just appreciate her boyfriend and ignore the things that bothered her before, knowing a worse fate might await her. Or is it worse? Far-fetched and predictable at the same time, this is a light read saved by a time travel twist.

3 March 2009
One! Hundred! Demons!
Lynda Barry

Gorgeous painted colors and freedom from a little box in the newspaper give Barry's art and stories a chance to breathe, while retaining marvelous details like how other people's houses smell and the cursing of her Filipina grandmother. This series of autobiographical vignettes is hilarious at times and gutwrenching at others, probing memories of childhood hurt or confusion in an adult world that doesn't make sense. She's hard on herself, often revealing her own shame and guilt for passing the cruelty she experienced on to those even smaller and weaker. As an adult she's turned those feelings into a permanent allegiance with the underdog, and has surely helped hundreds to survive their own childhoods and exorcise their own demons.

3 March 2009
One-L: The Turbulent True Story of a First Year at Harvard Law School
Scott Turow

Turow applies the same skills he used later to write bestselling legal thrillers to describe his first year, in 1975, at the most revered, and most high-pressure, law school in the land. This time the villains are sadistic professors and the dangers are classroom embarrassment and overwork, but Turow keeps the reader engrossed. He takes both his profession and himself very seriously—if he has a sense of humor, it's impossible to detect—but the discussions of legal matters are easily accessible for the layperson. The most interesting parts are when he takes a step back to look at how law school prepares a lawyer for practice. At the end of his grueling year he questions how motivating students by terrorizing them can prepare them for careers working with the ambiguities of human interactions. He muses that maybe as women enter the profession they will humanize it. In a 1988 afterword, he calls for legal education to be more practical than what he received, which was designed to turn out legal scholars rather than lawyers. No doubt law school and the legal profession have both changed a good deal in the last twenty years, but the effects of cutthroat competition on very smart people, and the beauty of the pursuit of justice, remain timeless.
Another year in a crucible: Absolutely American, another year at Harvard: The Search for God at Harvard

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2010 reviews

"There was so much to read, for one thing, and so much fine health to be pulled down out of the young breathgiving air...I was rather literary in college—one year I wrote a series of very solemn and obvious editorials for the Yale News—and now I was going to bring back all such things into my life and become again that most limited of all specialists, the 'well-rounded man.' This isn't just an epigram—life is much more successfully looked at from a single window, after all."—F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby