Friday, January 3, 2014

A Partial Reading List, 2014

So she says, "you know, like Atwood's work."

Yes, I say. Yes, like Atwood -- Margaret Atwood. I know the name.

"Or Lessing. Or Munro. Those authors."

Yes, yes. Doris Lessing, Alice Munro. That last one just won some prize. The Nobel. And sure I've read Nobel Prize winners before. Like Albert Camus.

"You haven't read any of those authors, have you," she says in a cold scolding voice. The subtext at work is women authors, I haven't read any of those women authors.

I shrug, giving it my best ham. Guilty smirk. And it's not to say this past year I haven't read women authors: sure I have. In fact, some of the best books I've read for 2013 were by women: Hilary Mantel (Wolf Hall), Julie Otsuka (The Buddha in the Attic) and Doris Kearns Goodwin (Team of Rivals).

"You just didn't happen to mention those authors," I say, sheepishly.

She scowls again, and points to my list. Of the twenty-seven books I read for 2013, only four of them were women authors. (Although I listed three of the four above, I thought best not to mention the fourth. It was pretty bad.)

She does the math fast. She's really smart. "That's about 15%. If you're generous."

I think of ways to defend myself more, but the data doesn't lie. Sure, I try to steer clear of the hegemony as much as a straight white male can. But if 85% of my reading time is dedicated to straight white male authors, how much am I actively trying to expand my horizon?

I think, maybe, she has a point.

So here's my 2014 book list, at least for the start of the year. Considering the average number of books I read each year is 25, and considering I hate breaking promises, I resolve to read 10 books by women writers.

"That's 40%!" I proudly pronounce. She's unimpressed, which always impresses me.

First 10 Books for 2014

1. The Bully Pulpit ~ Doris Kearns Goodwin

Right now I'm racing through Team of Rivals to get to Goodwin's next history, which came out this winter. (I've already read a little of it, in truth). The fact that it is about Teddy Roosevelt, William Taft, and the Golden Age of Journalism is what spurs me forward. I think I'll appreciate it more than her Lincoln biography, mostly because it seems more a work where, as an historian, Goodwin is trying to answer some more complex questions than were approached in Team of Rivals. Specifically on what effect the news media has on a presidency and how it shapes a national narrative. I'm interested to see what kind of lessons we can draw from that in our own time. This is definitely my #1 book on my reading list.

2. Bring Up the Bodies ~ Hilary Mantel

The second book in her Thomas Cromwell trilogy following Wolf Hall (have I mentioned Wolf Hall?) and I'm very excited to read it. Of the kind of historical fiction that surrounds Henry Tudor (Henry VIII), Mantel's work is the most sophisticated. Suspenseful without much violence, Mantel does a wonderful job of recreating what the real anxieties were during Reformation England in a way I have not seen equaled.

3. Quiet Dell ~ Jayne Anne Phillips

This is a new thriller that I've picked up here at Wallace Books and read pieces of at a time. Phillips re-imagines the real story of a killer who preyed on widows in western Virginia. In her novel, the heroine, journalist Emily Thornhill, becomes involved in the investigation and works to bring the killer to justice. The opening lines of Quiet Dell give a good impression of Phillips writing style, which I think has a light literary touch:

Phillips' new thriller
"When the year turns, there are bells on the wind. All the old years fall on the ground in lights. When you walk across those lights, it sounds like walking on all the piled-up leaves of giant trees. But up high the bells are ringing for everyone alive. There are silver and gold and glass bells you can see through, and sleigh bells a hundred years old. My grandmother said there was a whisper for each one dead that year, and a feather drifting for each one waiting to be born."

4. Anything "essay" by Susan Sontag

I'm going to write as little as possible in this entry. The fact that I know the name and have absolutely no connection with anything she has written (and here I hear the hiss and sneer from nearly every one of my female friends), means that I better just shut up and get to reading.

5 and 6. Oryx & Crake and The Year of the Flood ~ Margaret Atwood

Kim says to try Cat's Eye first, but Devo let me borrow his copies of the first two books of Atwood's Oryx & Crake trilogy (the third book, MaddAddam came out this year), so I'm going to start there. In any case, post-apocolyptic fiction (or as Wiki puts it, "speculative fiction") always draws my interest.

7. Shout Her Lovely Name ~ Natalie Serber 
Local author Natalie Serber

Let's talk local Portland authors and let's talk about the short story. Two good things. For one, you can bask in that smug feeling that you understand a little more about the local PDX culture then, say, those pleebs who haven't read a local author. As a bonus, short stories are like short jogs: you feel like you accomplished something, and you still have time for so much else!

The New York Times had some good things to say about Shout Her Lovely Name, here.

8. Cleopatra ~ Stacy Schiff

Alan Cheuse, of National Public Radio, says of this history that "Schiff deftly separates fact from legend, legend from poetry, and creates a model of methodology and compelling story. She re-creates a place and time in a praiseworthy leap from scholarship to narration." That works for me. After all, the only thing I thought was interesting about Cleopatra would be what Shakespeare wrote. But I'm willing to be mistaken.

Good non-fiction by women authors

9. Galileo's Daughter ~ Dava Sobel

Why has it taken me so long to get to this book? Only good things have I heard -- and as much as I'm taken by early twentieth century politics, or classical (even legendary) Egyptian figures, I might as well delve into Florence and papal Rome while I'm at it. In any case, science meets religion is always a fun topic -- and I do like the idea that most of the primary material comes from a cloistered nun: should give new insights to that part of history! (Here's where you can comment yes or no, since Sobel's book has been out for so long)

10. The Red Tent ~ Anita Diamant

Earlier this year, a customer here at Wallace Books recommended The Red Tent to her daughter, and pulled it from our Staff Recommends shelf. She asked if I was the staffer who recommended it. I wasn't. I said I had started reading it years ago when it first came out, but couldn't get into it. She said she had the same problem, but after the first two chapters the book explodes (figuratively, of course; if it exploded literary that would be some pretty bad marketing). She said it was wonderful. I promised that I would read it. I still haven't forgotten that promise, so The Red Tent will be read. (And if any of you had the same problem, we have many used copies in the store, so pick it up and try it again!)

As I get through this list, I'll write up extra posts to informally review them. Also, if you've read these books, we'd love you to send us your views on them -- did you like the book, hate the book? How's the weather for you today? Is there a traffic accident we should avoid? You know, the relevant stuff.


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