The 2014 Book List, Part I

In 2014, I read 20 fiction & non-fiction books. Here’s the tail-end of the list, ranked in order of my own most subjective preference. Not necessarily in order of literary greatness, but in terms of my enjoyment of the book, whether it dazzled me with language, or made me think new thoughts, or made me want to make things, or stayed with me long after I read it, or made me feel something, or all of the above. (This also includes an addendum on poetry and the books I abandoned.)

16. Like Life (1990) – Lorrie Moore (Vintage)


Lorrie Moore is usually categorized as a funny writer, and she is. But she is consistently devastating, too. Nobody talks about that. I had read this book in 2007 and it depressed the hell out of me then. This time I couldn’t get through some of the stories, she takes the pain so far. “The Jewish Hunter” is my favorite, maybe because some genuine human connection actually takes place (although it’s not lasting).

17. Laughable Loves (1969, 1974 in English) – Milan Kundera (Harper Perennial)


It’s not worth getting offended over Kundera’s attitudes towards women as his books are almost quaint time capsules of a certain attitude, at this point. In that spirit, I enjoyed these stories, pretending I was a roué Czech doctor for a little while. He’s also deft in depicting the ways a corrupt Communist state infiltrates all parts of life.

18. In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008) – Michael Pollan (Penguin Books. Bought at Human Relations bookstore in Bushwick)


I think this could have worked as a long essay, especially if you’ve read the revelatory Omnivore’s Dilemma. I read this early in the year and can’t remember too much about it, actually, but maybe this is because so much of Pollan’s thinking has permeated our language around food choices and politics (“Eat food, mostly plants,” etc.).

19. Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (2007) – Barbara Kingsolver (Harper Perennial. Received as a gift, sold it to a used bookstore)


A non-fiction account of how Kingsolver and her family moved to a farm in Virginia to live the true locavore lifestyle, growing or raising all of their own food, or procuring it from a 100-mile (I think?) radius. It gave me a new appreciation for the knowledge and work small-farm farmers do.  The book is at its best when she gets deep into the details of farm life, for example, about the mating lives of turkeys. I was less interested when she wrote as an advocate and called on the reader to take similar actions (for example, get a second freezer in order to eat local throughout the winter), particularly as I am already fairly educated about the environmental and political issues surrounding food production and distribution, and am doing the best I can. At those times it came off as preachy or defensive. Also, I just can’t take on feeling guilty for eating bananas at this point at my life.

20. The Sense of an Ending (2011) – Julian Barnes (Vintage)


I love Julian Barnes (especially Flaubert’s Parrot), but I didn’t like the narrator in this story, who kept insisting on his ordinariness, a conceit that seems played out. I think it was a device here, Barnes emphasized the protagonist’s cluelessness in order to keep twisting the plot, in a clever way. Ultimately, it felt to me like the book was about its own cleverness and didn’t convince me on an emotional level. 


I Love Dick – Chris Kraus (1997) 

I was really ready to love this book, I was excited when I bought it. I liked everything about it in theory – the loose form, the fact that it deals with issues of sexuality, gender, open relationships, feminism from a personal perspective – but I don’t know what happened. It didn’t hold my interest. Maybe because Kraus is so obsessively internal, letters about letters. I got claustrophobic. I even tried twice with it.

Z a novel of Zelda Fitzgerald (2014) by Therese Anne Fowler

I couldn’t get past page 3. Not at all how I would imagine Zelda Fitzgerald’s voice. This is like the Hollywood version, or the version made for a docile book club.

Et après… par Guillaume Musso

Picked this up in an attempt to keep up my French. And actually, it made me feel good about my French because I could tell it was badly written! (Schlocky, clichéd.) Also, it takes place in New York! If I’m going to read a book in French I don’t want to be back in NYC

Convinced by Best of 2014 Lists…

I can’t stop reading “best of” lists. Book lists are irresistible, “best of” lists even more so. Here are a handful of recurring books on these lists that have definitively made it on my “to read” list. (I looked at best of lists from the NY Times, the LA Review of Books, McNally Jackson Bookstore, the LA Times, Words Without Borders, a couple of Flavorwire lists…probably others). I’m including the presses, because it is becoming increasingly apparent to me how the identity of a press matters and how important small presses are:

The Neapolitan novels (Europa Editions), the trilogy by Elena Ferrante, translated from Italian. These first came to my attention at my favorite Brooklyn bookstore, Spoonbill and Sugartown. Books that generate obsession obsession with these books. I also like how Ferrante has avoided all media and public appearances, such a rebellious stance in these times.

The Wallcreeper by Nell Zink (Dorothy, A Publishing Project). Sounds imaginative, wild, funny. Also, way to hit it out of the park, small press!

A Girl Is a Half-Formed Thing by Eimar McBride (Coffee House Press). Novel, Irish author. Written in its own sort of language. I was intrigued on hearing the title alone.

Citizen by Claudia Rankine (Graywolf Press). So many poets I know have been declaring that this is the book America needs right now, in the time of protests over racial injustice, the long-bubbling unspoken problems, tensions, violence.

The Unspeakable a by Meghan Daum (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux). Essay collection. I’ve read a couple of interviews with Daum where she says such smart and unusual things so succinctly. I also loved her essay about not having children, which is in here (first appeared in the New Yorker).

And on my “might read” list:

The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison (Graywolf Press). Essay collection, so much acclaim. An interesting subject.

On Immunity by Eula Biss (Graywolf Press). Non-fiction. I’m not that interested in the subject (the anti-vaccine movement), but I think she makes it about much more than this. I was also blown away by her writing in an essay I read in The Believe.

Stoner by John Williams (New York Review Books Classics). Reissues. I read an essay in praise of it and have seen it around. Slim and quiet, how I often like novels…

Manhattan-bound L-train books

An unusual number of print books on the subway this morning.

9:15-9:40 AM, Wednesday, November 19, Dekalb to 1st Ave.: 

The Importance of Being Iceland by Eileen Myles (a girl wearing blue eyeliner and wavy hair who looked around a lot)

A slim book by Georg Trakl (tall guy in a leather jacket), didn’t catch the title

The Gospel of Anarchy by Justin Taylor, looked like a review copy, (unremarkable woman)

A book in Polish, looked like a novel (blond guy in a buzz cut)

The Woman Upstairs by Claire Messud (unremarkable woman)

Books read in 2012, Part III

Before 2013 marches on any further, the stirring conclusion to my book list… In 2012, I read 27 books. Here are numbers 1-10 in the order of most to least inspiration, pleasure, ideas and word-love derived.

(1) and 2)

I worked my way through Volumes 1-6 of the Diary of Anais Nin this year, which I found to be lyrical, compelling, idea-inspiring. 

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 2, 1934-1939 (1967)

Volume 2 was my favourite. Expansiveness as a writer, thoughts on the woman artist. Begins in jazzy New York City, taking on Otto Rank’s patients as an apprentice analyst. Then her return to Paris, her “romantic life” in the houseboat, friendship with Durrell & Henry Miller and the mooching Gonzalo. Reality intruding via the Spanish Civil War and the first stirrings of WWII. Favorite quote from Volume 2 here.

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 1, 1931-1934 (1966)

The beginning of it all: Louveciennes, meeting Henry Miller, café life, reconciliation with her father, initiates psychoanalysis, miscarriage… A choice quote here.

(3) Fun Home (2006) – Alison Bechdel

A book that couldn’t exist in any form but the graphic novel. The interplay between image and text is layered, each panel precise and necessary. I was amazed at how she was able to transmit the confusion and complexity of being a child and adolescent: how the historical time, family history and your personal development (body & mind) all mixes together, while figuring out questions of sexuality, gender and selfhood. The specificity of a time and the great looming role your parents play in it. Literature weaving through it as it did through her relationship with her father. Absorbing, moving, funny.

(4) This Is How You Lose Her (2012) – Junot Díaz

I found this collection to be a bit uneven compared with Drown. The very last story, for example, just sounds like Díaz sitting down & telling you about how he fucked up his love life over a couple of beers, which is entertaining enough, but lacks his magic touch. This book is near the top of my list because of the story “Invierno”, which was so gripping, vivid, & true. It got inside me unlike any other short story I’ve read recently.

(5) The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975)

Andy Warhol on beauty, art, sex, aging, celebrity. Very funny, very charming. More thoughts here. Favorite Andy quotes here.

(6) Cathedral (1983) – Raymond Carver 

This was a re-read for me “Cathedral” and “Feathers” are two of my Carver stories. More complete thoughts here.

(7) and (8)

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 3, 1939-1944 (1969)

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 4, 1944-1947 (1971)

These volumes cover her displacement from Paris during World War II; frustration at the United States, its attitudes towards literature and selfhood. Quote from Volume 4 here. Volume 3 quote here.

(9) Art and Fear: Observations on the Perils (and Rewards of) Artmaking (1993) – David Bayles and Ted Orland

Primarily addressed to visual artists, but for anyone trying to keep up their creative life. Draws attention to process as the primary purpose & function of art-making, in a timeless way. A brilliantly concise history of the various cultural definitions of art & the conundrum artists face today. (Art being defined as a vehicle of individual expression and art about art being the highest intellectual ideal…. Much in the way that writing about writing will get you the most points in academic circles.) 

(10) Will You Please Be Quiet Please? (1976) – Raymond Carver 

Carver’s very first book of short stories. Comforting to see that a couple of them are duds (“Bicycles, Muscles, Cigarettes”), but of course the majority are knock-outs. I especially love “What’s in Alaska?”, “Fat” and “Jerry and Molly and Sam”. 

Books read in 2012, Part II

In 2012, I read 27 books. Here are numbers 11-18 in the order most to least inspiration, pleasure, ideas and word-love derived from.

(11) Are You My Mother? (2012) – Alison Bechdel

I don’t think this should be read without first reading Bechdel’s other graphic novel/memoir, Fun Home. I would call this a companion read. She frequently states that it’s a book about her mother, but it’s really a book about her relationship with her imagemother and coming to terms with her feelings about her mother in psychotherapy. I could see how its “meta-book” quality (she talks about the process of writing the book in the book) and its focus on her therapy (many pages are panels of conversations with her therapists) would not appeal to everyone, but I felt very open to it & interested in it. She touches on a lot of my own interests – the theories of Dinald Winicott, the life of Virginia Woolf, the psychoanalytic process. Bechdel’s persona, a curious, creative, insecure, unrelentingly honest artist and memoirist is also highly sympathetic.

(12) and (13) The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 5, 1947-1955 (1974)

The Diary of Anaïs Nin, Volume 6, 1955-1966 (1976)

I worked my way through Volumes 1-6 of the Diary of Anais Nin this year, which I found to be lyrical, compelling, idea-inspiring. Like friendship. The later volumes aren’t as full of events, emotional upheavals and insights. Volume 6, for example, is padded out with her correspondence with writers in prison, which I started to skim through.

(14) Portnoy’s Complaint (1969) – Philip Roth


Roth was quite brilliant for choosing the psychotherapeutic rant as his form – it allowsfor unlimited quantities of narcissism and the most intimate, embarrassing & shockingly honest admissions. As a reader, you can’t say you didn’t know what you were in for. I liked that Portnoy had some insight, being in his 30s, I was afraid it would all be from the blind-and-horny-young-man point of view. Rich, rhythmic language, like a meaty stew. Daring use of exclamation marks. I was needing to read something risk-taking & this hit the spot.

The funniest part to me was his description of his shiksa girlfriend’s Midwest home, Portnoy’s surprise & delight at the normalcy of it. Again, my only quibble was with the ending – attempted rape of a woman who looks like his mother, in Israel, was not only super heavy-handed in the psychoanalytic sense, but also fully disconnected me from Portnoy, whom I had sort of gotten to like for his honesty & lustiness. I left the book with a feeling of distaste, violence.

(15) Leaving the Atocha Station (2011) – Ben Lerner

imageYoung American poet in Madrid. Some say this is thinly disguised autobiography – I found myself actually not being that curious either way, which is not always the case. I really liked the internal quality of the novel, the absolute subjectivity. You get the feeling that the people the narrator interacts with actually like him better and think he’s smarter, more interesting & socially adjusted than he gives himself credit for (doesn’t help that he’s high & paranoid most of the time). I also loved the way he described the fog of living in a country where you halfway speak the language, how you have multiple interpretations for what someone could be saying to you, and how all of those versions might be wrong. My only quibble was with the ending, it’s all tied up into a neat bow, not sure what we as readers are intended to be left with. (I passed it along to a friend, not a keeper on the shelf, but worth passing along.)

(16) How to Be a Woman (2012) – Caitlin Moran

Extremely funny, bawdy, straight-talking in a most English way. Timagehoroughly enjoyable if you disregard her lofty claims for the book. Namely, that it’s a sorely needed feminist treatise on pop culture & the everyday conundrums of femininity (such as what to wear). Especially if Lady Gaga is the absolute height of feminist achievement (as she claims, ugh). There’s in fact extensive writing & thinking on this stuff all over the internet (though maybe not written by someone of her generation).

However, she is quite lovable. The chapter on breasts and what to call them, for example, is hilarious. I am also 100% with her thinking on the wedding-industrial complex.

(17) Tete-a-Tete (2005)- Hazel Rowley

imageFascinating account of the lifelong relationship between Simone de Beauvoir & Jean-Paul Sartre, spanning their complicated private lives, literary works and the great wave of the 20th centruy. This was my second read, otherwise would be higher on the list – my first read transformed my perspective for a while.

18) Freedom (2011) – Jonathan Franzen

Positive stuff

image-Absolutely absorbing. He plants information masterfully, weaves the story in a way that keeps you reading (from the first sentence you know there’s a downfall to come). Franzen sticks to his mantra of being a friend to the reader – a feat to create a literary page-turner.

-Ambitious in its reach. A successful, rich depiction of the present time in the USA and also a family saga. I was wowed by the scope of subjects he covers & the level of detail.

Negative stuff (spoiler alert)

-It unravels in the last 150 pages or so & that put me off the book as a whole. Endings are so hard!!

First, because it becomes completely ranty & you start to feel the voice author grousing through his characters (see a 3-page dialogue involving a fight between neighbors about keeping cats inside in order to spare birds in the wild). As much as I am sympathetic to urgent environmental matters it started to feel like a lecture & pulled me away from the narrative. Second, the characters and scenarios become too much to swallow: a college kid buying army supplies in Paraguay with minimal Spanish for Iraqi contractors; a young woman (Connie character) whose only ambition from age 12 is to be with this guy – no more depth to her than that (think how much young women change between ages 12-23); the death of Lalitha seemed like a conventional plot twist, etc.

-Walnut Surprise is a terrible name for a blues-country, dark-horse hit band.

-While I appreciate the gesture of creating a happy ending for all (including all of Patty’s dysfunctional family), that again felt a bit forced .

-As with The Corrections, his overall vision of the human heart, human motivations as revealed in the novel made me uncomfortable. A major theme was competition, that competitiveness drives every relationship. It was interesting to look at the world this way while I read the book (including assessing my own relationships), but ultimately it’s not a reduction I want to live by.

Books read in 2012, part I

In 2012, I read 27 books. Here they are in order from least to most inspiration, pleasure, ideas and word-love I derived from them. This is the bottom of the list, top picks to come!

(19) How Fiction Works (2008) – James Wood

How Fiction WorksCoherent, snappy, reader-friendly literary criticism: aaah, sweet relief. James Wood, I will always love you for brilliantly taking down Paul Auster and Michel Houellebecq as overrated in the pages of The New Yorker, no less. Though minus point for how little of an impact this treatise ultimately made on me. (I realize this could also be because the internet has rotted my brain.) The only thing I can recall several months after reading it is that it convinced me to read more Saul Bellow. I guess that could be counted as a success.

(20) Bright Lights, Big City (1984) – Jay McInerney

bright lights

Fluffier than I expected, though some parts definitely made me laugh. Reminded me ofJonathan Ames (The Extra Man), except that I enjoyed Ames much more: more meat, more heft, more risks, more heart. Not convinced the second-person narrative did anything that first-person narrative can’t do.

(21) Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) (2011) – Mindy Mindy KalingKaling

Some funny stuff, though not recommended if you aren’t prepared to deal with her self-obsessed persona. I would skip the accounts of her childhood (not so interesting & not good writing), but enjoyed her take on show business, early years in NYC, etc.

(22) Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) – Azar Nafisi

My favourite parts were when Nafisi was writing as literature professor – intriguing Lolita in Tehraninterpretations of The Great Gatsby, Daisy Miller & Lolita, and their bearing on her and her students’ lives in Iran. I also learned about Iranian history, a fascinating, nightmarish personal account, the upheaval that has occurred in the past 40 years. The style was a bit formulaic sometimes (as in “I can feel the snow of Tehran as I write, I can see my students’ faces as I type these words”) & I started to get all of the characters mixed up, felt like they weren’t drawn distinctly enough, so I wasn’t emotionally drawn in.

(23) In a Perfect World (2009) – Laura Kasischke

In a Perfect worldSpeculative fiction about a plague, but told from an oblique perspective – that of a slightly depressed, newly married flight attendant forced into mothering her evil stepchildren in a midwest backwater. Wonderful creepy details about how American society deals with the plague (obsessive reporting on celebrity deaths, white helium balloons are anonymously released in memory of victims). Also a dark fairytale quality to it, atmospheric. 

However, the heroine’s passivity drove me crazy. There are at least five scenes in which someone says or does something awful to her & she’s too stupefied to react… Ultimately it feels like a problem with the mechanics of the book rather than an active choice made by the author.

Ann Rule(24) Mortal Danger (2008) – Anne Rule

Trashy true crime book, provides all the dirty details of real-life murder cases. (I’m including ALL of the books I read in this list!) The first case is actually a prettyinteresting account of how a relationship can become abusive over time & a woman who never imagined herself as “one of those women” finds herself trapped. 

(25) The English Patient (1992) – Michael Ondaatje

English Patient

This was a bit force-fed (force-read) for me. The only book I had to read on a long plane ride to the Middle East. I felt a bit like Elaine in that one Seinfeld episode. Many lyrical, lovely quotable passages, Ondaatje is clearly a poet, but on the whole I resisted entering this world because it felt so contrived, precious. (For example, the author kept mentioning the characters were in a collapsing Italian villa, through various romantic iterations; proof of passion is a woman stabbing a man with a fork, cracking a plate on his head. But in a way, it’s supposed to make you feel there’s real passion, real magic you don’t have access to.)

(26) Henry and June (1986) – Anaïs Nin 

Henry and JuneCompletely disappointing and actually a little boring after reading Anaïs Nin’s rich, witty, philosophical & idea-packed diaries. This book contains only extractions from her diary that deal with her affair with Henry Miller. Consequently, it’s repetitive and a one-sided vision of a deep-thinking woman- makes her seem singularly obsessed with the affair & its sexual aspects, when there was so much else going on, including within their affair (talks about writing, aesthetics, etc.). If you’re interested in it for the sexy bits, go straight to her erotica (Delta of Venus & Little Birds).

(27) Anais Nin: A Biography (1995) – Deirdre Bair

Read this after much hesitation, but my 2012 obsession with Anais Nin eventually forced my hand. I didn’t trust Bair as a biographer after reading her book on Simone de Beauvoir. Although she writes that she has thought a great deal about remaining Bairimpartial as a biographer there are loads of value judgments in both biographies. It’s not that I needed her to like Nin. It’s that she writes with an active distaste for her subject. No further evidence is needed than her chapter dealing with Nin’s illness and death. While she sums up years-long relationships, books Nin wrote, and other important events in a a paragraph or so, she spends several pages on Nin’s cancer, beginning with the sentence, “The cancer started in the vagina” and details her extensive, years-long suffering. This to me was a passive-aggressive way to mete out justice for Nin’s very active and complicate sex life. No thoughtful assessment of Nin’s complicated relationship with the women’s liberation movement, no real assessment or even description Nin’s life work, least of all the diaries (only details about how she screwed over her loyal publisher for their publication & conspired to get them published by any means possible). No thoughts about what it meant to be a woman writer in her time or even the boldness with which she lived out her sexuality as a woman in a repressive time. 

Blargh. I hated it. Only useful to gain some details about who some of the people in the diaries are, in particular her husband & their unusual lifelong relationship (completely omitted from the published diaries).

Books abandoned in 2012:

Time and Again (1970) – Jack Finney

I’ve had several people tell me this gives a vivid account of New York City in the early 20th century, but the writing style was so flat! It’s supposed to be light reading, too… Second time I’ve tried to read this, can’t say I didn’t try. 

Murphy – Samuel Beckett

Who brings an experimental depressing Beckett novel to the beach? Not sure when the right time to read this would be, but beachside in August is not it…

Incest – Anais Nin

The second “unexpergated” volume of her diaries, after Henry & June, published by her husband after she died. Again, disappointing after reading the versions she edited & published in her time. Only the personal life is here, so she comes off as rambling, obsessive, shallow (whereas the 1960s diaries reveal a rich inner life). Couldn’t finish it.

Books on the street and at the bookstore I wanted and didn’t buy

…but I will get at some point in the future:

* Second volume of Susan Sontag’s journals

* Diane di Prima Beat artist coming of age memoir

* Fellini the Artist -book on his film-making process & analysis of his films

* Give Henry Miller another shot now that I’m not 19 and discovering feminism. (Anais liked his work.)

* Little Birds and Delta of Venus – continuing the A. Nin obsession

* That book on Wabi Sabi

* Mary Karr

* More Grace Paley stories

Books Read in 2011, Part I

I read 21 books in 2011. Here are #11-21, ranked from most insight/pleasure/ideas/inspiration derived from to least enjoyed…


11. Inferno (a poet’s novel) (OR Books, 2010) – Eileen Myles

Sexy, funny, tough. The first third is stunning, about her education, “becoming a poet”, leaving Boston, New York in the 70s, New York poets in the 70s. The middle third (about Poetry Project politics, her forgotten plays, her residency at a rich person’s house, getting her dog) is a bit flabby, you could feel her thinking – “I gotta work on this novel”, maybe she even writes that at one point. I loved the passage about women’s pussies, the different ones she had seen & their infinite range, the importance about loving the physicality of your own.  A good counterpoint to Patti Smith’s memoir (Just Kids) that came out about the same time, which is about the same time period. 

12. Bossypants (Reagan Arthur Books, 2011) – Tina Fey

Tina Fey is a very funny person you also would like to be friends with. Highlights: thoughts on doing a photo shoot for a big magazine; drama camp as a teenager; & her tips for life gleaned from improv comedy.

13. Lolita (Vintage, 1989, original published 1955) – Nabokov

I know several people who would consider it blasphemy to have read 21 books and rank Lolita all the way down at No. 13. There were entire paragraphs I wanted to cut out & marvel at for a while, & sometimes it’s very morbidly funny, but overall, the book is dark, dark & what does it do in the world? A man destroys a childhood (but “Reader, she seduced me”), tells it as a love story. There is an uncomfortable sexiness to it until he actually has her, then the whole narrative shifts. Nabokov successfully paints the American landscape of the time – New England to California & cheap motels in between – which is a great feat. Humbert ultimately justifies his actions with the idea of love but I felt that other thoughts he let slip undermine this justification through “true love”… the idea of the nymphet, for example. He says that a nymphet is very rare, it’s not just a pre-pubescent girl, but then he’s slavering at every little girl that crosses his path. I also hate this book as a cultural signifier for sexiness – l think it used to be even more so in the 60s-70s, but even still look at Japan (not that this is Vladimir’s fault)… There’s a coldness to Nabokov’s novels that keeps me from drawing them too close. There has to be more than perfection in execution. Also, that Poe poem is not that great.

14. The Bell Jar (1971, originally published in England, 1963) – Sylvia Plath

I know Plath the Poet best & I was wowed by her ability to carry off a novel so neatly. It’s well structured & well paced. Esther Greenwood is not afraid to reveal her meanness, pettiness, cruelty, the grotesque visions everyone turns into when she is depressed. The New York part is the strongest, there seem to be omissions from the section on recovery (introspection as to whence the breakdown). Her description of a baby being born was truly viscerally terrifying. Interesting that Esther considers her visit to get a fitting for a diaphragm (before she ever has sex) a most significant step in her recovery: freedom. 

[FUCK: my browser hiccuped and I lost everything I wrote about the books below & more on the book above. Maybe I will try to re-write at some point, but not now. Oh god not now. I hate repeating myself. But I want to publish this before 2011 is over. For the record. UPDATE: I re-wrote, but much more condensed versions.]

15. The Marriage Plot (2011) – Jeffrey Eugenides

I was totally engrossed with the novel & impressed with his portrayal of Madeleine, his female protagonist & college life at Brown in the 80s. But it wraps up too quickly; she becomes a disappointment.

16. Oryx and Crake (2003) – Margaret Atwood

Atwood takes our current disturbing tendencies (cultural obsessions with sex & violence, genetic engineering, consumerism to the point of destruction) to their logical conclusion & beyond. A convincing alternate world. The love story, however, was merely a plot device, not fully rendered.

17. Blue Label/Etiqueta Azul (2010) – Eduardo J. Sánchez

This won a prize for portraying the youth perspective on Venezuela in its current state of economic-political crisis. It does capture a lot of Venezuelan culture, but the fact that it’s a woman looking back at her life made it hard for me to swallow. Why would she care about a lot of this minutiae that happened 20 years ago? The relationships, situations were also overblown. Made me wonder why a young male author would write from a young female point of view.

18. Absurdistan (2006) – Gary Shteyngart

A recurring theme for me seems to be ‘loved the beginning, was slogging through the end’. Most true for this book. Hilarious, incisive portrayal of post-Soviet Russia, New York City in parallel, but then (once in Absurdistan), the satire gets too clever for its own good. Something about his portrayals of sex & women made me not want to read any of his other books. Also hated that he included a version of himself in it (the writer the love interest runs off with, ugh).

19. El prestigio de la belleza (2010) – Piedad Bonnett

The jacket copy said that it was a book about growing up as an “ugly” girl in a society that values beauty in women above all. That’s the book I wanted to read, not a sort-of memoir about a rebellious young girl, in which nothing much happens (she gets sent to a strict Catholic school away from home). She touches on how she manifested a lot of her discomfort in the culture via her body (gastric illnesses), but there is no introspection, reflection on it, it just happens.

20. Chronic City – Jonathan Lethem

 I followed the convoluted plot, saved the clues, tried to understand the characters & care about the portrayal of the Upper East Side & this almost-version of New York. I put in this work as a reader, but it did not pay off. And soooo loooong tooooo, uuuugh.

21. The Imperfectionists – Tom Rachman

I had trouble getting all the way through this, to the point of being actively annoyed, but it was the only thing I had to read on a long plane ride, so I was stuck. Formulaic, often cliched writing. Its seams were showing, really felt like a first “novel”: a series of short stories about staff at an international, English-language newspaper based in Rome. All of the stories could be broken down into the formula “one-dimensional character finds him/herself in an extreme situation” (i.e., the super-shy copy editor gets cuckolded by his beautiful wife; the unambitious proofreader who is devoted to his son & nothing else loses the son; etc.) I can see why this was published – it appeals to the New Yorker-loving crowd who wants something light but that still feels literary. Rome is an exciting location, it gives an insider view of the newspaper life, etc. But I had a bad time reading it. New York Times bestseller? Really?

(Strange aside: I googled “gets cuckolded” to ensure this was correct usage (don’t think I have ever written out “cuckolded” before) & stumbled across many websites on tips for getting your wife to cuckold you! I didn’t know this was such a popular fetish… If you can dream it, it’s on the internet.)