Books of the year

I read Zadie Smith’s On Beauty last week (yes, the boys were good enough that I was able to read on the airplane), and enjoyed it, but don’t have a whole lot to say about it.  As with her debut novel, White Teeth, I think Smith is better at creating characters than building a plot, but the characters are interesting enough that I’m willing to go along for the ride.   I’ve never read Howard’s End, which it riffs off of, so I probably missed some of her cleverness.  (I’m sure I saw the movie, but can’t remember any of the plot.)  In general, I think it’s hard to write a really good novel about academics.  Wonder Boys was disappointing and Moo was clever but nothing more.

The NY Times published its list of 100 Notable Books of the Year, so I thought I’d report on the ones I’ve read:

  • Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, JK Rowling  A great improvement over the last one in the series.  I’m glad I just read it though, rather than making the huge time investment in reading it out loud with T.
  • The March, EL Doctorow.  I’m in the middle of this, and liking it very much.  Not to be confused with March, by Geraldine Brooks, which is also set in the Civil War.
  • Never Let Me Go, by Kazuo Ishiguro.  I really didn’t get why this one got such good reviews.  I just didn’t care about any of the characters, or what happened to them.  I actually didn’t finish the book, just skimmed the last chapter to see what the big surprise was.  If any of you read it and liked it, I’d love to hear why.
  • On Beauty, Zadie Smith.  See above.
  • Saturday, by Ian McEwan.  This one pulled me in neither by force of plot nor by likable characters, but by sheer brilliance of language.  McEwan captures individual moments absolutely perfectly, and also tips his hat to Mrs. Dalloway.
  • Shalimar the Clown, by Salmon Rushdie.  I don’t know if this one should make my list, since I only read about 10 pages of it before realizing that there was absolutely zero chance of my finishing it before it was due back to the library, so I stopped.  Midnight’s Children is the only Rushdie book that I’ve really liked, but I liked it so much that I keep giving him more chances.
  • COLLAPSE, by Jared Diamond.  Another one that I started but didn’t get very far into.
  • Freakonomics, by Leavitt and Dubner.  Some interesting ideas, but if you’ve read an article about it, you’ve heard most of them.

7 Responses to “Books of the year”

  1. momzom Says:

    I read On Beauty, liked it well enough although I thought it fell apart at the end (as did White Teeth, as did Autograph Man. Maybe she should try shorter novels). Anyway, inspired by On Beauty, I started reading Howard’s End. It is breathtaking, and will likely turn out to be one of the novels that I treasure and feel are very important to my life. I strongly recommend giving it a go. One downside is, On Beauty seems like a much lesser novel by comparison, and you realize how many episodes in it are there not from some inner necessity, but just because they mimic Howard’s End. But do try Howard’s End.

  2. Jennifer Says:

    I’m still impressed by your book review a week, but had been consoling myself that you managed it by only reading non fiction – and now you’re reading serious fiction too!
    I’ve tried White Teeth several times and never been able to get into it. So I didn’t bother with On Beauty.
    I did enjoy Collapse, though. Not as good as Guns Germs and Steel, which I loved, but very readable.

  3. Maggie Says:

    Have you read Atonement, by McEwan? I think it’s one of the best novels that I’ve read in the last few years. I haven’t gotten to Saturday, yet. The Corrections was also good, not so much that I enjoyed it but it certainly made me think deeply. I’m in the middle of Everything Is Illuminated, by Jonathan Safran Foer, and really enjoying it so far. Can you tell I’m a few years behind the timeliness curve on the fiction reading?
    Unlike you, it seems I ONLY read fiction these days. I don’t think I’ve finished any of the non-fiction books I’ve gotten out of the library in the past 5 years (i.e. since my son was born) despite the best of intentions. I know a non-fiction book is good these days if I get more than 2/3 through it before NOT finishing it!

  4. Anne Says:

    Although I haven’t read On Beauty, I did read White Teeth. I agree with you, her characters are good, the plots are weak. White Teeth had a good plot at the beginning that was woven together wonderfully, and I’ve never seen a book with such early promise fall apart so much at the end. It’s too bad.

  5. landismom Says:

    Wow, I can’t believe I only read three of these books (and one of them was The Hot Kid, which I DO NOT believe was one of the best books of the year–or even one of Elmore Leonard’s best). On the other hand, the Times definitely does tilt heavily toward biography and autobiography, and I can only read about one of those a year–my current bio read is a great one on Bayard Rustin (Time on Two Crosses).
    The other two books from the list I read were the Harry Potter (agree with your assessment) and Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore. Murakami is an acquired taste, and I’ve acquired it, but I think this book is the kind that most folks would put down on page 10. It took me a while to get through it, and I’m a fan.

  6. Wayne Says:

    People always talk about McEwen’s wonderful prose, but I haven’t really felt so great about it — it’s just good, which is all it needs to be, I guess. But it was sort of like finally reading Delillo and thinking, “Is this what people have been so excited about?”
    I didn’t read Kazuo Ishiguro’s new book because I was really underwhelmed by When We Were Orphans. I know that everyone likes Remains of the Day, but I prefer The Unconsoled, which is one of the best books about the worst kind of waking nightmare. People compare it to Kafka, but that’s not entirely fair, I think. It’s terrifying without trying to be terrifying.
    Right now I really like Marilynne Robinson, whom I met a couple of weeks ago when she gave a sermon at a local church. I’m reading Housekeeping, which so far is a little better than Gilead, which was very good.
    I met Zadie Smith at a book signing for White Teeth. I asked her where she got her information about Jehovah’s Witnesses for the novel, and she said someone from the publishing house had an acquaintance with the religion and supplied her with details. Thing is, Jehovah’s Witnesses don’t kneel in pews or wear crosses or do half a dozen other things Smith describes, and I mentioned this to her, adding that she nevertheless captured the spirit of that religion’s doctrine fairly enough. She was pretty nice about the whole thing. Or just tired from the long book tour, I don’t know.
    I’m not a Jehovah’s Witness, by the way.

  7. Elizabeth Says:

    I’ll add Howard’s End to my list.
    Yes, I’ve read Atonement. I think I enjoyed reading it more than I enjoyed Saturday, but Saturday has gotten under my skin in a way that Atonement didn’t. The opening sequence of Saturday in which the main character sees a light moving across the sky and immediately thinks of 9/11 absolutely perfectly captured the way the attacks have changed my life.
    I thought Gilead was beautifully written, but hard to get into. I read Housekeeping years ago, and remember liking it, but don’t remember any of the details of the book. I should re-read it.
    I read the excerpt from Everything Is Illuminated that was in a magazine a while back, and was totally underwhelmed by it. When you’re done with the book, I’d be interested in whether you recommend it.

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