Reading life review: December

Books read this month: 17
Books read in 2011: 125

I've got a rapidly advancing bookmark in Lily King's The English Teacher, and both The Autobiography of an Execution (David R. Dow) and Like Shaking Hands with God (Kurt Vonnegut and Lee Stringer) are poised on my nightstand for all-in-one-gulp consumption. But this seemed as good a place as any to call it a month... and a year.

The Schwa Was Here (Neal Shusterman)
YA fiction. A delightful and clever story from the author of Unwind, this reminded me of Richard Peck's work, as well as Gary D. Schmidt's The Wednesday Wars and Trouble.

My Lobotomy (Howard Dully)
Memoir. Although it seems clear that the author's message is one of hope and triumph through research and self-knowledge, this was still one of the saddest, most horrifying stories I have ever read. Related link here.

World War Z (Max Brooks)
Fiction. Gosh, it took me forever to finish this! But that's really more a remark on my distractedness over the last couple of months than on this compelling novel. Published three years after his popular The Zombie Survival Guide, Brooks' post-apocalyptic tale is related through a series of eyewitness reports, a device which makes the audiobook particularly compelling, according to Mr. M-mv. (Note that the full-cast audiobook, while superlative, is an abridgment.)

Mean Mothers (Peg Streep)
Psychology. Subtitled "Overcoming the Legacy of Hurt," this exploration of a provocative subject provided background material for a recent research project.

Miss Peregrine's Home for Peculiar Children (Ransom Riggs)
Fiction. The photos were a neat "hook," and I appreciate genre "shake-ups" (e.g., Dan Wells' I Am Not a Serial Killer), but, in the end, Peculiar fell short for me. Related aside: I began reading this on the Kindle but finished reading it on the iPad. This is definitely a book that should be read in the traditional format or on a larger format e-reader; the Kindle simply couldn't offer the clarity needed to appreciate the photographs.

Twisted Summer (Willo Davis Roberts)
YA fiction. A cozily predictable mystery for the youngest YA readers, Twisted Summer features Cici, a fourteen-year-old girl who wants to be acknowledged as one of "big kids." What I appreciated about this simple story was that Cici demonstrated her maturity through her displays of tenacity, intellect, and loyalty -- not through, say, sexual and/or substance experimentation. I know, right? How positively old-fashioned.

The Grounding of Group 6 (Julian F. Thompson)
YA fiction. When it was first published in 1983, Grounding caused a bit of a stir with its blend of satire and psychological thrills (to say nothing of its frank sexual content, which, though tame by today's standards, was quite taboo then). I was nineteen when it was first released and missed its ascent into cult classic status (enthusiastic review here). And though I had rediscovered the merits of YA fiction by the time Grounding was re-leased in 1997, I somehow missed it again. Arriving at the book sans hype, then, I would say that it is both competent and compelling, though not nearly as memorable as a more recent entry into the "really, really bad parents" sub-genre of YA fiction: Neal Shusterman's Unwind.

Lord of the Flies (William Golding)
Fiction. With the Misses. This was my fourth go-round with Golding's classic, and I see something new each visit. What a startlingly perceptive view of people and what little holds us together, eh? And how eye-opening to read this after having seen, loved, and dissected "LOST." I'll have more to say about this one in January.

Brain Jack (Brian Falkner)
YA fiction. This fast-paced blend of cyber-geekery and thriller put me in mind of Cory Doctorow's Little Brother and Robert J. Sawyer's WWW: Wake: Teen hacker Sam Wilson lands a position with a national cyber defense organization in lieu of a jail sentence. His job? To help protect the world from a malicious presence on the internet.

Tomorrow Code (Brian Falkner)
YA fiction. Not quite as seamless as Brain Jack, this was still a competent effort from New Zealand author Brian Falkner. This time, the protagonists race against (and through) time to save humanity from a virus.

Missed Connections (Sophie Blackall)
Art. This collection of illustrated love stories is delightful and touching. Have you seen the Australian illustrator's whimsical art before? If not, start with the blog that inspired the book.

Why We Broke Up (Daniel Handler)
YA fiction. Written by none other than the man behind the pen name Lemony Snickett and illustrated by the incomparable Maira Kalman, this is, quite possibly, my favorite book of 2011. Imagine Ellen Page's Juno narrating the unlikely (and short-lived) romance between a smart-talking, "different" girl and the co-captain of the high school basketball team. Now couple that sarcastic and searingly honest insight with the detritus of a failed relationship -- the ticket stubs, books, shirts, combs, matchbooks, and so on that hold so much meaning. VoilĂ ! It's magic. It's also wonderfully cinematic; I will not be surprised when plans to translate it into film are announced. Highly recommended.

Drawing from Memory (Allen Say)
Graphic autobiography. I agree with the Chicago Tribune: "This visual memoir is captivating and always unexpected."

Pilgrimage (Annie Leibovitz)
Photography. Elsewhere, folks are rather awed by this volume, but I was left somewhat cold by the effort. The photographs are stunning, but that admission addresses not Leibovitz's eye or art but rather the compelling subjects themselves: Emily Dickinson's dress. Virginia Woolf's sitting room. Charles Darwin's specimens. John Muir's field notes. Annie Oakley's boots. Unfortunately, these fascinating subjects suffer from a poor, disjointed layout and a, for lack of a better word, distant text. Call me soulless, but when Leibovitz notes that her journey began with the headline-grabbing financial crisis that sent her into personal and professional turmoil, I didn't think she was experiencing some sort of life-altering epiphany. I thought, Yes, so you decided to get to work, put out another book, and make some money. Smart woman. All of that said, I urge you to seek out the volume for the valuable history-museum-in-a-book that it is. How many of these amazing places and objects might we miss if not for such books?

The Heights (Peter Hedges)
Fiction. Told in alternating voices, The Heights chronicles, as one reviewer put it, "marital claustrophobia." The dark humor, crisp narrative, and wickedly wise social observations put me in mind of Tom Perrotta and Meg Wolitzer.

The Creative Habit (Twyla Tharp)
Non-fiction. Chapbook entry here.

The Kitchen Madonna (Rumer Godden)
Juvenile fiction. In search of something different but also sweetly simple, even childlike, for our Christmas week read-aloud (because (a) they are never too old for read-alouds -- just ask them; and (b) "sweetly simple" just feels right by the glow of the Christmas tree, whether you are four, fourteen, or forty-seven), I pulled out The Kitchen Madonna, which I first heard about over at Here in the Bonny Glen. The Misses and I loved this beautifully moving story.


Alison said...

I couldn't agree more about Miss Peregrine. It is one of the few Nook books that I have purchased, and I regret it tremendously. In fact, I had to run over to our local B&N to look at the pictures. And then the story..... eh. It hasn't been a good year for books for me. Everything seems to fall flat. Maybe it's just the reader.

Melissa Wiley said...

So happy to know you enjoyed Kitchen Madonna. Such a touching book.

Thank you for another year of thought-provoking, mind-enriching posts. I always get a happy jolt when I see there's a new M-mv post in my Reader. Cheers, friend.