Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Thought I’d Like More/Less Than I Did

Top Ten Tuesday

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish. Each week, the site posts a new Top Ten list topic that everyone is welcome to answer.

This week, I thought I would talk about some well-hyped books that came out within the past few years. For each of these, I bought into the hype, with varying results. While some of these books greatly exceeded my expectations, others, regrettably, fell short. I should point out that I didn’t actually dislike (or, at least, vehemently dislike) any of these books. They were each just much different from how I had guessed they would be.

5 Books I Thought I’d Like More Than I Did:

Swamplandia!The Night CircusGone GirlThe Marriage PlotHow To Be a Woman

1. Swamplandia! by Karen Russell—I really thought I would love this one, which means I was almost certainly setting myself up for disappointment. Russell is a great writer, but there were times when I could tell that this was a short story that had been unnaturally expanded. The characters and settings were interesting, but I couldn’t quite connect with any of them. All of the book’s cleverness never really added up to a complete story, even though some individual parts were quite brilliant.

2. The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern—I loved the atmosphere in this book, but was underwhelmed by the character development and, especially, the love story. The descriptions were beautiful, but I found myself caring more about the Night Circus itself than about any of the people involved with it.

3. Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn—I will admit to not quite guessing the twist, but this book had little to recommend it outside of that. Though very clever and well-plotted, I found it completely depressing. It left me feeling empty and unsatisfied.

4. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides—The beginning of this book was a hilarious send-up of pretentious English majors (probably best appreciated by pretentious English majors, like me), but the middle was endlessly depressing. Until I started reading, I had no idea that the story was largely about one character’s bipolar disorder. Though beautifully and thoughtfully written, this book was a lot less fun than I thought it would be.

5. How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran—Moran made some good, funny points, but I thought there was too much Lady Gaga love and excessive references to British celebrities that aren’t well known outside of the country. The book was at its best when Moran was being honest and insightful about her own very personal experiences. I could have done without the rest.

5 Books I Thought I’d Like Less Than I Did:

State of WonderThe Tiger's WifeBefore I Go to SleepBetween Shades of GrayThe Hunger Games

1. State of Wonder by Ann Patchett—I knew the reviews had been good, but I picked this book up more on a whim than anything else. I was surprised when I became instantly hooked. The story is suspenseful, unusual, and at times completely insane—all things that I can appreciate. Where else can you find magic tree bark or a pregnant septuagenarian?

2. The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht—I had seen this book being promoted for so long that my curiosity finally got the better of me. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was certainly surprised by what I got. There was magical realism, profound insights on war, and a whole lot of weirdness. In a good way. Mostly, though, I was impressed by Obreht’s writing, which was skillful, assured, and quite lovely.

3. Before I Go to Sleep by S.J. Watson—I love the movie Memento, so I was curious to see how a suspense novel would handle a similar premise. I tore through this book in a couple of days, eager to discover what came next. Every page was exciting, and even though the ending was completely ridiculous, I still loved the ride.

4. Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys—When this book started winning awards—and getting mistaken for Fifty Shades of Grey—I decided to see what it was all about for myself. And…wow. This was a tough read, but so, so worth it. Though at times heartrending, it still managed to show how resilient the human spirit is.

5. The Hunger Games Trilogy by Suzanne Collins—I hadn’t even planned to read The Hunger Games until I happened to see it on my friend’s Kindle, which I had borrowed for a week or two. Curious but not expecting much, I read through the first few chapters and was immediately addicted. I’d say I raced through the book to make sure I could finish before I had to give the Kindle back, but, really, there was no stopping me anyway. I tracked down the final two books of the trilogy and read them each in about a day. I loved them all, and I can confidently say that I completely understand the hype for this series.

Reading Out Loud: How I Got Into Audiobooks

It started with a long car trip, a short attention span, and this book:

Me Talk Pretty One Day

This was the beginning of my conversion, from audiobook skeptic to…well, someone who still doesn’t listen to audiobooks very often, but who can finally appreciate them in the right context.

I’ll be honest: I’m not a great listener, and the idea of reading a book solely by listening to it terrifies me. What if I miss a lot? It may be easy to do a 30-second rewind, but what if I need to revisit something that happened a few chapters ago? There are limitations to the audiobook that don’t exist on the printed page. For someone who has been reading physical books (and now e-books) for decades, it’s not so easy to go back in time and adapt to a more passive reading experience. I need to see the words, to interact with them on the page. With audiobooks, there is nothing to hold on to: readers must give themselves over to the experience, sacrificing control for the very different pleasure of having a story presented theatrically to them.

I like this idea in theory. It makes one think of families gathered around an old-timey radio (except, of course, in this case the large piece of furniture has been replaced by an electronic device that fits in the palm of a baby’s hand.) What could be more delightful than this act of togetherness? In actuality, though, many audiobooks are not that fun to listen to. They can be presented dully—or, worse yet, in improbable voices—by people who did not write the book, but were simply hired to read it.

Which brings me back to Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris. What I immediately liked about this audiobook was that it was read by the author. David Sedaris was telling his story to me, as if we were friends…or, at least, as if I had kidnapped him and forced him to entertain me for the duration of a long car ride (after which he was free to go). This actually heightened the reading experience for me, making it less about me interacting with the words themselves and more about the author speaking directly to me.

BossypantsI’ve discovered that this is type of audiobook I can appreciate. When another long car trip introduced me to Bossypants by Tina Fey, I was ready. Tina Fey is a talented performer, and she delivers her jokes better than any hired voice actor could. After all, it’s her story: there’s not going to be a better person to do her Lorne Michaels impression. Again, I felt that the reading experience was actually improved by listening to the author’s own voice. But it had me wondering, could I only respond favorably to authors telling me their life stories? What about fiction?

Beauty QueensLately, I’ve been listening to Beauty Queens, a YA book written and read by Libba Bray. My long car trips are behind me; now, I listen to the book while I knit. I think the two activities complement each other well, and it’s a habit I would like to keep up with in the future. My only worry is that I will never find another book as thrillingly well done as this one. For starters, Libba Bray may have the most charming multiple personality disorder ever. She juggles over a dozen characters, complete with different accents and linguistic quirks, flawlessly, and her energy level is always set to 11. The book is a satire about teenage beauty queens who get marooned on an island and must learn to survive, and it is just as hilarious as it sounds. I am finding that listening to an audiobook can actually be exhilarating…and I’m even pitying the people who only got a chance to read this in print. In short, it’s a far cry from my audiobook-hating days, when I assumed the only way I would listen to an audiobook was if I had just had laser eye surgery.

Of course, my first love will always be the printed word. It’s comfortable. It’s reliable. It won’t sway my taste too much in either direction, like a well-executed or terribly-executed audiobook might. Still, it can’t boast the engaging performance aspect of the audiobook—or, at least, not until I get better at funny voices. It’s always limited by my limitations—of imagination, of pronunciation, and, of course, of performing a Lorne Michaels impression. Sometimes the audiobook is just better. But the trick is finding the right one.

A Year of Reading: 2012

Woman with book

January

  • Farewell, My Lovely by Raymond Chandler
  • Please Ignore Vera Dietz by A.S. King
  • Save Me the Waltz by Zelda Fitzgerald
  • The Moon and Sixpence by W. Somerset Maugham

February

  • The Boy Who Couldn’t Sleep and Never Had To by D.C. Pierson
  • Matched by Ally Condie
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green
  • White Teeth by Zadie Smith
  • Never Have I Ever by Sara Shepard

March

  • Chime by Franny Billingsley
  • Two Truths and a Lie by Sara Shepard
  • Just Kids by Patti Smith
  • The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
  • Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
  • Moonwalking with Einstein: The Art and Science of Remembering Everything by Joshua Foer
  • Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns) by Mindy Kaling
  • Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
  • Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins
  • A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray

April

  • Hickory Dickory Dock by Agatha Christie
  • Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children by Ransom Riggs
  • The Bedwetter: Stories of Courage, Redemption, and Pee by Sarah Silverman
  • Dash & Lily’s Book of Dares by Rachel Cohn and David Levithan
  • Wonderland by Joanna Nadin
  • Old School by Tobias Wolff
  • The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher

May

  • When You Reach Me by Rebecca Stead
  • Persuasion by Jane Austen
  • Between Shades of Gray by Ruta Sepetys
  • The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie
  • An Abundance of Katherines by John Green

June

  • Bossypants by Tina Fey
  • Swamplandia! by Karen Russell
  • Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris

July

  • The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
  • The Tiger’s Wife by Téa Obreht

August

  • Crossed by Ally Condie
  • The Girl is Murder by Kathryn Miller Haines
  • Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain
  • Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard
  • A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness
  • Hide and Seek by Sara Shepard

September

  • Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
  • Every Day by David Levithan
  • Wallflower at the Orgy by Nora Ephron

October

  • Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them by Francine Prose
  • Anna and the French Kiss by Stephanie Perkins

November

  • The Turn of the Screw by Henry James
  • The Casual Vacancy by J.K. Rowling
  • Carrie by Stephen King
  • Passing by Nella Larsen

December

  • State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
  • Maus, Vol. 1: My Father Bleeds History by Art Spiegelman
  • Maus Vol. 2: And Here My Troubles Began by Art Spiegelman
  • Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver
  • How to Be a Woman by Caitlin Moran
  • On Becoming a Novelist by John Gardner

[Image courtesy ClipArt ETC]

Top Ten Tuesday: Books I Read In 2012

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish. Each week, the site posts a new Top Ten list topic that everyone is welcome to answer.

QuietThe Handmaid's TaleOld SchoolPlease Ignore Vera DietzThe Hunger Games

1. Quiet—Susan Cain

For me, Quiet was a revelation; for others, it is the start of a revolution. The success of this book is heartening, because it proves that there are a lot of people besides me who are interested in what it means to be an introvert in today’s world. One of Quiet‘s virtues is that it reaffirms the value of the introvert in a time when it is almost inexcusable not to constantly manifest extrovert behavior. What’s more, it shows that some of these prized extrovert qualities are actually the cause of some of our current economic and societal problems. It doesn’t knock extroverts (well, only off a pedestal), but it makes a great argument about the need for balance. It’s a great read for introverts and extroverts alike, but it’s especially helpful in teaching introverts to accept, and even prize, the qualities that they may have been criticized for in the past.

2. The Handmaid’s Tale—Margaret Atwood

The story of Offred, a woman who, even in name, is defined by men in her restrictive society, is harrowing and horrifying. It is bleak, it is infuriating, and, worst of all, it doesn’t feel that far out of the realm of possibility. I loved this book not because it was an easy read, but because it was an important one. Particularly in this past year, when woman’s bodies and rights were constantly a source of debate and government regulation, I found its message to be a powerful wakeup call.

3. Old School—Tobias Wolff

No student of literature should pass up the opportunity to read this clever, often hilarious, and very insightful coming-of-age story about one boy’s experience in a writing-obsessed prep school. From its spot-on, uproarious portrayals of famous writers like Ayn Rand and Ernest Hemingway, to its nuanced understanding of everyday prep school life, this book is both fun and incredibly smart.

4. Please Ignore Vera Dietz—A.S. King

As much as I enjoy YA books, I’ll admit that it’s sometimes difficult to find a character who feels 100% real to me. (Of course, the same can also be said for books written for adults.) What most impressed me about this novel, aside from its sheer uniqueness, was how believable Vera Dietz is as a character. She is complex and conflicted, yet, in a genre currently over-saturated with dystopian fantasies, refreshingly ordinary. She is the kind of girl I would like to be friends with: though she is no damsel, she also is not fighting against the whole world. Hers is a quieter courage, but one that is immensely important. The title of this book is ironic, for we should all be paying attention to her.

5. The Hunger Games Trilogy—Suzanne Collins

When a series is hyped as much as this one, it can be difficult to judge it solely on its own merits. In fact, these are the types of books I often avoid, or at least put off reading, because it is almost impossible for me to determine how I actually feel about them. I read the first book of this trilogy accidentally; at least, I didn’t set out to read it, and I only started perusing it because my friend had a copy on her Kindle, which I was borrowing. But from the first few chapters I was hooked. A day or so later, I was looking for someone who could lend me the latter two books. And then I devoured those. What I liked about The Hunger Games isn’t easy for me to articulate because I have been bombarded with other people’s opinions as well: it’s sometimes difficult to separate out their feelings from my own. I found the story incredibly interesting, of course, and I loved Katniss both when she was strong and when she was in a weaker, but still totally believable, state. Perhaps what also appealed to me, though, was the fact that these books are so universally beloved, and thus something I can discuss with a wide variety of people. I think the greatest thing about the series is that it really is as good as everyone says it is.

When You Reach MeBetween Shades of GrayPassingState of WonderThe Complete Maus

6. When You Reach Me—Rebecca Stead

Have you ever read a book that made you nostalgic for a place you’ve never known? If so, then you have some idea of the effect When You Reach Me had on me. It is a book that is in some ways deeply nostalgic—for childhood, for innocence, and for a different New York City—but which is also quite timeless. It works beautifully just on this level, but it has the added bonus of being an intricately-plotted time travel story. From beginning to end it is flawless, wonderfully rendered for both children and adults.

7. Between Shades of Gray—Ruta Sepetys

It can be hard to pick up a book knowing it will make you sad. No matter the accolades that have been heaped upon it, this type of book often requires a certain mindset. Between Shades of Gray is obviously no beach read, but it is exquisitely written, at once beautiful, heartrending and, most importantly, truthful. It tells a story that has too often been left out of history, of Lithuanian families forced by the Soviets to relocate to the treacherous conditions of Siberia. Despite the almost insurmountable odds, these people maintained their humanity and helped each other to survive. I was tremendously moved by this story, and glad that the experiences of these people are no longer shrouded in silence.

8. Passing—Nella Larsen

Passing is weird and wonderful and not at all what I expected. On the surface, it is a story about race, particularly as it applies to three black women who are light-skinnned enough to “pass” for white. Yet, it is so much more complex and convoluted than that, at times feeling like a taut thriller that plays with readers’ expectations. The ending is shocking, and seemingly comes out of nowhere. Still, it is perfectly fitting for this bizarre tale of secrets, doppelgangers, and race betrayal. I was consistently challenged and impressed by this one.

9. State of Wonder—Ann Patchett

This book has it all: a remote village in the Amazon rainforest, hallucinogenic malaria pills, magic tree bark, a pregnant septuagenarian…. How could anyone resist? Better yet, it is brilliantly written and, despite its absurd premise, completely believable. It’s rare to find a book that is this much fun while still maintaining some semblance of “serious” writing. I look forward to reading more from Ann Patchett.

10. The Complete Maus—Art Spiegelman

One of the biggest debates regarding Holocaust literature is how to present the material, and whether such stories can be told at all. Maus is one of the most inventive takes on this that I have seen: it is a comic book, with cartoon mice and metafiction tendencies. As such, it may not solve any of these quandaries, but it does try to find a new way to present the story of a Holocaust survivor. What I liked about Maus was that it recognizes that not everything can be told in words, and that any version of a story will fall short of the real thing. It calls out its shortcomings, but still manages to be emotionally honest and thus effectively devastating.

Top Ten Tuesday: Books to Get In the Halloween Spirit

Top Ten Tuesday is an original feature/weekly meme created at The Broke and the Bookish. Each week, the site posts a new Top Ten list topic that everyone is welcome to answer.

Although I don’t usually (read: never) participate in blog memes, I thought this topic seemed like a lot of fun. I really like the idea of Top Ten Tuesday, and I’m excited to check out the suggestions that others have generated for this week’s list. Maybe this will be a new thing for me! (Please do not check the status of past “new things for me,” including knitting, exercising, and cooking vegetables.) Regardless, please enjoy my painstakingly-crafted list, which I hope is sufficiently scary, atmospheric, and/or just plain weird. Keep in mind that I’m not exactly a horror connoisseur—the only Stephen King book I’ve read is the one he wrote about writing!

10. Chime — Franny Billingsley

Do you like witches, bog creatures, dead people and self-hating narrators? Striking, florid prose and magical scenarios? What about dreamy landscapes just on the edge of the Industrial Revolution? Chime is one of the most original YA books I have recently read, precisely because it combines all of those elements so weirdly and so wonderfully. It tells the story of a guilt-ridden young girl unable to come to terms with her magical powers, and the evil influences in her life who have poisoned her against her gifts. It’s a strange story, an acquired taste, but one that is wholly enchanting and memorable.

9. Black Hole — Charles Burns

Looking for a graphic novel that will haunt your dreams? Look no further than Black Hole, a visually-stunning (and nightmare-inducing) story about a sexually transmitted disease that turns its victims into literal monsters. The artwork for this comic is amazing, evoking the classic horror movies you like to watch every Halloween, but the story itself is quite dark and bizarre. Characters develop lesions, boils, and even tails, becoming horrifying mutants who must live as outcasts. The whole comic is disturbing, to say the least, but it makes for an unforgettable experience.

8. Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children — Ransom Riggs

Old photographs can be spooky in general, but the pictures included in this YA book take that creepiness to a whole new level. Combining found photographs of magical children who hover, harness balls of energy, or simply aren’t there at all, with a story about a modern day teenager who travels back to the 1940s to meet these strange beings, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children offers a reading experience unlike any other. It is eerie, mysterious, and a lot of fun—just the right mix of light-hearted and terrifying to get in the Halloween spirit.

7. Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife — Mary Roach

It’s easy to get lost in a good horror story, but there’s no reason why Halloween has to be all about fiction. In Spook, science writer (and skeptic) Mary Roach takes a look at the afterlife, from ghostly apparitions and séances to reincarnation and soul-weighing, to find out whether claims of such occurrences could be for real. Along the way, she enrolls in medium school, travels to India to interview the family of a supposedly reincarnated child, and voluntarily subjects herself to electromagnetic fields in an attempt to see whether they can cause her to perceive (or hallucinate) ghosts. The book is great fun, and an amazing journey, but it also has a lot of interesting insights into our belief—or our desire to believe—in the supernatural.

6. A Monster’s Notes — Laurie Sheck 

There are a lot of Frankenstein stories out there, and relatively few of them have anything that touches upon the brilliance of the original. If you’ve read Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, however, and are looking for a new take on the story, consider A Monster’s Notes by Laurie Sheck. Let me be upfront: this is certainly the most avant-garde book on the list. It has variously been described as being “bold,” “baroque,” and “oddly compelling.” (Yeah, oddly.) Nonetheless, it is one of the most moving and original works of contemporary literature I have recently read, and it is completely worth exploring if you are an adventurous reader. While you may not necessarily get scared, you will be enchanted; this is a poetic book that works a magic all its own.

5. The Historian — Elizabeth Kostova

I’m just assuming you’ve already read Bram Stoker’s Dracula, but if you haven’t, start there first. Done yet?  Then you’re ready for this academic Dracula story, which makes research a thrill (and will have you thinking twice about digging too deep into the life of Vlad the Impaler). The Historian has all the elements of a good, creepy mystery: strange clues hidden in ancient books, secret tombs and old churches, and even an evil librarian! It’s the kind of book that will make you believe that Dracula is real, and still alive in the present day. Just try going to sleep with that worry weighing on you.

4. Northanger Abbey — Jane Austen

Northanger Abbey is technically a gothic novel parody, I guess, but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in atmosphere. In satirizing popular books like Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, Austen conjures up a pretty good haunted house story, even if you know all the spookiness will have a reasonable explanation. It’s a good choice for anyone who eschews horror, prefers the lighthearted side of Halloween, or has just joined a Jane Austen book club. If you’re really adventurous, try reading it alongside the Radcliffe book.

3. Jane Eyre — Charlotte Brontë

I would argue that Jane Eyre is the perfect book to read at any time of the year, but it does seem to be a particularly good choice for Halloween, thanks to its gothic DNA. Thornfield Hall might as well be a haunted house, for all its things that go bump in the night. Many of the situations are quite harrowing, and, of course, the atmosphere is sufficiently spooky. If you haven’t read it yet, it’s about time. And, actually, I think it might be time for me to revisit it.

2. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell — Susanna Clarke

Okay, so there are shorter books to get you ready for Halloween. But this is one of my favorites, precisely because it is so sprawling, so imaginative, and, to put it simply, so magical. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell is the story of two feuding magicians, but it also brings together a number of equally enchanting characters and subplots. Villains like the gentleman with thistle-down hair are as memorable as the main protagonists themselves, and the numerous footnotes may just contain some of the best fairy tales I have ever read. Worth the time, if you have it; worth making time for, if you don’t.

1. The Monk — Matthew Gregory Lewis

I’m guessing that if you’re not specifically into late eighteenth century literature, the gothic novel, or really, really weird literary curios, then you’ve never read this book. Probably you’ve never even heard of it. Well, The Monk defies any sort of tidy summarization, but suffice it to say that it takes every gothic trope popular in its day and magnifies it by a thousand. It features family secrets, a lusty monk, and, oh yeah, SATAN, who just shows up because…why not? It’s a wild ride, and one you won’t soon forget. Basically, this book is the Halloween spirit, and if you haven’t read it yet, you must.

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