Monday, January 4, 2010

Reading Highlights, 2009

When I'm not reading whatever review books come my way, requested or no, my shelves are usually stuffed with borrowed fiction. I'm lucky enough to have friends whose tastes either run in similar lines or overlap enough to offer excellent, personal recommendations. These, on top of my usual library line-of-vision choices and a few Barnes & Noble sale sprees, comprise my varied choices. To you, I offer a short list of my favorite reads of the year:

A Homemade Life, Molly Wizenberg
Then We Came to the End, Joshua Ferris
Fine Just the Way It Is, Annie Proulx
Unaccustomed Earth, Jhumpa Lahiri
The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood
The Monsters of Templeton, Lauren Groff
The Great Perhaps, Joe Meno
Sharp Teeth, Toby Barlow
The Idea of Love, Louise Dean
Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout
The Pioneer Woman Cooks, Ree Drummond
The Book Thief, Markus Zusak

I read a blizzard of titles penned by one of my flagged 2008 authors, Scott Westerfeld. All wilt in comparison to his famed Uglies series, simply because the entire world — speech to behavior to characterisation — isn't as fully imagined. Still, Westerfeld is clearly a visionary YA writer. Enigmatic and riveting reads, all, from the Midnighter series to the Peeps series to the adult Succession series. Published late in '09, 'Leviathan' is still rising on my library wait list.

Another author I stalked was Margaret Atwood, trailing her career through decades of high productivity. Happily, I ended my intrigue with the world of 'Oryx and Crake' by following it into this year's publication, 'Year of the Flood.' Both excellent, thorough explorations. 'Penelopiad' and 'The Tent' were the two weakest, least memorable books, while 'Cat's Eye' bored my eye sockets for two weeks as I gave myself 5 page/day assignments, determined the thing would pick up pace later. It did, but barely. 'The Robber Bride' started slowly, but built tension beautifully along the way and I cared a great deal by book's end. Same with 'The Blind Assassin,' though none of the titles are on par with Atwood's pinnacle story, 'The Handmaid's Tale,' where insightfulness meets creative storytelling.

Disappointments? I soldiered through Ursula Hegi's 'The Worst Thing I've Done,' which seemed out of character with a startlingly superficial plot. 'Under the Table' by Katherine Darling, a poorly organized but edgily marketed culinary school memoir that delivers none of its promised intrigue and falls flat by chapter two, despite my unkillable curiosity on the cooking school theme. Chris Bohjalian's 'Before You Know Kindness' mired its plot in a boggery of irony and ethics, before even introducing the hook. Plan to invest 100 pages or so before it gets interesting. I also desperately wished to like 'Confections of a Closet Master Baker' by Gesine Bullock-Prado, spurred by a love for all things bakery. But the meandering stories lead nowhere and the author stays cool, unfriendly and set apart, keeping to the kitchen as much in print as she attests to doing in real life.

Who I'm looking forward to reading more from in 2010: Joe Meno, Lauren Groff, Markus Zusak, Kiran Desai. I'll also be catching up on Carol Shields' and John Steinbeck's previously unread titles. As always, I'm on the lookout for quality food memoirs — please, oh please Ruth Reichl, write another! — and some great YA titles, alongside my hearty diet of nonstop fiction. And, yes, I absolutely take recommendations. How else would I find these gems?

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