Friday, December 9, 2011

Books of 2011, Part 1 (& WIN A BUNCH OF BOOKS!)

Am I the worst blogger ever or what? It's been almost two months since I last posted. I'm not proud. I've been hard at work on my master's thesis though, so while I haven't been writing here, I have been writing somewhere! Can I make it up to you with some free books and 50-something brief book reviews?

This year I've read 53 books so far (plus countless picture books I read and forgot to log on Goodreads). I hope to make it to 55 by the end of '11 - I have to finish The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks & then A Clash of Kings is up. Between now & the end of the year, I'll post 11 installments of five book reviews each & tell you a little about all the books I read this year. & for each installment, I'll be giving away a book! I think that will assuage my guilt.

I'm starting this thing off with a bang by offering up my FAVORITE picture book of 2011. It's one of my favorite books of '11, picture or not. I've already blogged about my adoration for it here.

Just leave a comment on this post for a chance to win. Trust me, you want this book. Unless you don't have a sense of humor, in which case, go away. & now, the first installment of my book review list.

Books of 2011, Nos. 1-5

1. Amy's Eyes, written by Richard Kennedy and illustrated by Richard Egielski (1985)

I read this book at the recommendation of a Goodreads friend, & had really high hopes, since many of the Goodreads reviews begin with something like "I read this book as a child & it's still my favorite book of all time." This charming story is about a girl who's left on the steps of an orphanage with a sailor doll. Through a series of events that's surprisingly unmagical, Amy turns into a doll, and her sailor turns into a human - albeit a tiny one. There's sailing, swashbuckling, talking animals, battles, lost treasure, a stuffed animal who's weirdly obsessed with Biblical prophecies, & a fair balance of humor & sadness. The story was well written, but at 437 pages, it really dragged, & this is coming from someone who loves long books. (Why do I always assume massive children's fantasy books will be good? I should've learned my lesson with Inkheart.) While I read this book almost a year ago, I remember thinking over & over again, "This is a lovely book, but I wish it was over." So in the end, it was only okay. Maybe I would've been more captivated if I'd read it when I was little, or if 150 pages or so had been edited out.

Rating: 3/5 stars
Recommended for: Readers who like their fantasy pretty tame, children, readers with a lot of patience
2. The House with a Clock in Its Walls, written by John Bellairs and illustrated by Edward Gorey (1973)

I know a lot of people grew up reading the gothic mysteries starring Lewis Barnavelt, Anthony Monday, or Johnny Dixon, but this was my first experience with a John Bellairs book. Unlike my Amy's Eyes experience, this book made me feel like a kid again. It was funny, a little dark, had some really well thought-out supernatural elements - & of course, Gorey's illustrations are fantastic. In the story, the newly orphaned Lewis Barnavelt moves in with his uncle, a mediocre wizard. Their house was previously inhabited by some evil wizards who plotted to end the world by sticking a doomsday clock in the house's walls. There are ghosts, spells to raise the dead, cemeteries, Halloween - all elements of a really fun scary story, that's surprisingly offbeat & challenging for essentially being a series chapter book. It prompted me to go pick up more books by Bellairs.

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for: Children who enjoy books with a dark or supernatural twist, Halloween reads, readers who fall in between chapter books & middle grade

3. My Lobotomy by Howard Dully (2007)

Howard Dully was pretty much your average boy - rambunctious & prone to acting out. To fix the child she deemed uncontrollable & dangerous, Dully's stepmother arranged for him to be lobotomized. His father went along without asking questions. So, Dully writes, at age 12 in 1960, "I was given a transorbital, or ‘ice pick’ lobotomy. ...Dr. Walter Freeman, the father of the American lobotomy, told me he was going to do some ‘tests.’ It took ten minutes and cost two hundred dollars." Most of Dully's life thereafter was spent in halfway houses, prison, & mental institutions, dealing with drug & alcohol addictions. In his 50s, he decided to ask why.

This might be the most heartbreaking book I've ever read, but also one of the most remarkable. I'm really into medical literature (see: anything by this guy) but you don't have to be to appreciate this book. "Enjoy" would be the wrong word. I can't say I enjoyed this book, because it is unbelievably tragic. It is incomprehensible what Dully went through, & so horrifying that by the end of the book you will wish you could personally, violently murder Dully's stepmother, father, & Dr. Freeman, even though a couple of them are already dead. ...Too much? The most incredible aspect of this book is Dully's ability to forgive those who ruined his life, & who couldn't look him in the eye & admit their wrongdoing. A painful read, but completely worth it. I'll never forget this book.

Rating: 5/5 stars
Recommended for: Fans of medical literature & memoirs

4. The Enchanted Castle by E. Nesbit (1907)

Reviewed earlier this year here. Sad to say, six months later I barely remember the book. Even after finding this & The Railway Children pretty lackluster, though, I've bought at least three other books by her, so there's something that keeps me coming back. I love her writing style, but her plots leave something to be desired.

Rating: 3/5 stars
Recommended for: Adults readers of antiquated British lit, child readers who appreciate dry humor & tame fantasy

5. The History of Love by Nicole Krauss (2006)

I have a love/hate relationship with this book. The title made me want to read it; it's a really good title. The fact that it's written by Nicole Krauss made me not want to read it; I imagine she & her husband (Jonathan Safran Foer) to be really snooty, pretentious jerks. Probably because I met him & he was indeed snooty & pretentious. The History of Love is essentially a diet version of Foer's Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I picture them in a Brooklyn brownstone, facing each other across flea-market desks, clicking away at vintage typewriters & bouncing ideas off each other while their vegetarian children run circles around the room. "How 'bout we throw some old Jewish folks in here?" "Great, I'll use that, too!" "I'm getting a little bored with this format. I think I'll throw in some blank pages for fun." "It's like you're reading my mind! Precocious child narrator?" "Well, duh! Of course there's a precocious child narrator!" "I'm so glad we're married! We practically finish each other's -" "Sandwiches?"
But dammit. I adore Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. I've read it four or five times. & dammit if I didn't fall for The History of Love as well. I fell for all of its silly postmodern tricks & old Jewish folks & precocious kids & multiple narrators & bizarre string of circumstances that brings everyone together in just the right way at just the right time & brings a tear to your eye at the very end. It feels cleverly formulaic but it works. So, whatever. I resolve to continue reading & begrudgingly loving their books while bitterly hating their attractive brunette selves for no real reason.

Rating: 4/5 stars
Recommended for: Fans of Jonathan Safran Foer, postmodern tricks, offbeat love stories, & convoluted family histories

Part 2, coming soon!

1 comment:

  1. i am curious about this picture book! the cover and title alone make me smile. :)