Thursday, July 24, 2008

Novels! (I knew I'd get to it eventually)

(Psst . . . There's a list of books at the bottom if you want to skip all the reflective stuff)

My loyal readers (all dozen or so of you) may notice that in the "subtitle" (what's that called, anyway?) of my blog, I say, "Dating (or not even dating), weird approaches to Judaism, academia, and novels." Well, dating and weird approaches to Judaism I talk about a lot. I have occasionally made reference to my dissertation and how stressed it makes me feel, but I decided that posting too much more about academia wouldn't be good, since some of you guys know who I am. Keep it close to the vest, that is how I feel about blogging about one's work. But there is no good reason for me not to talk about novels.

I love novels! I love them. When Shabbat starts, I like to have at least two novels in my apartment, plus a magazine. Ideally, I would have started reading one book, so I know I like it, lest I be rudely surprised. The magazine could be either new or not, as long as there is something left to read in it. But I digress.

Where do all these novels come from, Katrina, you might ask? Well, first of all, I spend a fair amount of my disposable income on them. Since that's not much, I try to cut back on costs by: 1) borrowing books from friends (this rarely works, since I have idiosyncratic tastes); 2) buying remainders at my local book store, which has yielded more good books than I would expect; and 3) charging everything on my Amazon Visa and then spending the reward gift certificates on books. I also got my love of novels from my dad, so, whenever I'm home, he usually buys me a couple.

How do I have time to read all of these novels? Shouldn't I be reading for grad school? Well, Shabbatot in the summer are LONG, so even if I go to shul and then lunch, that leaves 6+ hours of reading. Even if half of that is taken up by napping, that's still a lot of reading time. And I am a fast reader. Also, I spend a fair amount of time with my books and my computer, so when I go out to or host dinner on Friday night and interact with all the people, it's cool, but it makes me kind of hyper. Even if I get home at midnight, I often have trouble calming down, so that's another reading opportunity. Then (gasp!) I read a little during the week.

Of course, the most important question (if you're still reading this after the thrilling previous paragraphs) is, what do I read? I happen to have very specific taste in novels. I used to feel bad about this, but then I figured, hey, it's my escape, so eat it, Dostoyevsky! I like to read books originally written in English because writing style is very important to me. I prefer contemporary fiction (within the last ten years, usually), and most of the books I read are by women*, which I think is a style thing. Not that men can't write in the kind of feminine style I like, but I think there is this pressure to be Hemingway. When I go to a bookstore, I will pick up a book that looks good and read the first few sentences. By that point, I can usually tell if it's a "no." People probably think I'm crazy because I can pick up a book, look at the back or page 1 for a few seconds, then put it down. If it's a "maybe," I move on to other books, repeat, and decide at the end, unless I'm in a rush. When I order online, I usually stick to authors I know, with some attention paid to reviews.

So, here is a partial list of books and/or authors I have really enjoyed these past few years. Maybe you'll decide to read one or more of them and tell me what you think. The authors are in alphabetical order to avoid appearance of favoritism:

Michael Chabon, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay and The Yiddish Policeman's Union: No, I am not comparing the two. Kavalier and Clay is a FREAKING MASTERPIECE. I felt blessed to be reading it and hoped it would never end. But YPU was still quite good as a book and, to borrow my father's adjective, "brilliant" as a satire. I know that opinions on the book were mixed. If you want to know what I think it was about, leave me a comment, and I'll tell you.

Kiran Desai, The Inheritance of Loss: This is one of the first post-colonial novels I have read that understands the mind-blowing complexity of the post-colonial world.

Junot Diaz, The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao: Yes, I read it BEFORE it won the Pulitzer, and I couldn't put it down. It's part story of a nerd, part window into Dominican-American culture, part mystery. Afterwards I read Diaz's first book, a collection of stories called Drown. Not as good, but pretty darn good.

Nathan Englander, For the Relief of Unbearable Urges: Like Yiddish Policeman's Union, it's probably only funny if you're really Jewy. The first two stories in particular blew my mind.

Keri Hulme, The Bone People: Really weird in terms of style, plot, and everything else, but worth it. It's about an artist (with almost the same name as the author) who lives in New Zealand and meets a Maori boy and his foster father and befriends them.

Gish Jen, Mona in the Promised Land: Another hilarious book for Jews to read, I think. It's about a Chinese-American teenager growing up in Scarsdale, her Jewish friend (boyfriend?), and her interactions with the Jewish communnity. It seems the two groups have something in common! Fancy that.

Jhumpa Lahiri, The Interpreter of Maladies, The Namesake, and Unaccustomed Earth: I can't really decide which is my favorite. They are all different. IofM is a collection of interconnected short stories, set in an apartment building in India, UE is short stories and a novella set in the States, and Namesake is a novel set in the States. The part of Namesake in which the narrator explains why the main character is nicknamed "Gogol" is particularly good.

Andrew Miller, Oxygen: I picked it up for $5 at the bookstore, really enjoyed it, then realized I had read another of his books in a similar fashion.

Denise Mina, Field of Blood: Totally accidental borrowing from BFF, and now I practically keep her in business. Her first book is the real thing, though--it's the thinking woman's mystery. Gory.

Tim O'Brien, The Things They Carried: a semi-autobiographical book of interlinked short stories about the Vietnam war. I thought there was nothing more anyone could do with the subject post-Apocalypse-Now and Born-on-the-Fourth-of-July, but I was WAY wrong.

Ann Patchett, Bel Canto: another beautifully written book. It's hard to explain her way with words if you haven't been there.

Chang-Rae Lee, Native Speaker: It's the Korean-American immigrant story, beautifully told.

Marilyn Robinson, Housekeeping (warning: this book is for style fiends only; it has a plot, but the cool part is that every single word was chosen with care to be the perfect word for its sentence--wow).

Lionel Shriver (who is actually a woman), The Post-Birthday World: A really creative set-up. A woman has the opportunity to kiss an acquaintance of her husband's. Then the book continues in alternating chapters based on whether she did it or not. Shriver has a very unconventional way of looking at the world, to say the least, as you will find if you read We Need to Talk about Kevin (not just another school shooting book, that's for darn sure) and the satire Game Control.

Zadie Smith, White Teeth: Really unusual and really good, it tells the story of two inter-connected immigrant families in the UK. But I totally can't do it justice by describing plot.

Colm Tóibín, Mothers and Sons and The Heather Blazing: I'm a sucker for Irish fiction. I think as a Jew I identify with all the suffering and yearning for a homeland. Toibin is an artist.

What do you guys like? I'm always looking for recommendations . . .

*Funny story: After I compiled the list, I realize there are an awful lot of men on it. Hmm . . . Have to think about it. Also, the number of books that take place in different countries surprised me.


js said...

I liked White Teeth, too. Have you tried her "On Beauty"? I especially think that you would like all of the stuff about academic life.

katrina said...

I have read "On Beauty," actually. I didn't like it as much as I was expecting. A lot of the sex seemed graphic and gratuitous.

elf said...

I enjoyed reading your list, and a surprising number of items on it were totally unfamiliar to me. As you know, I don't read as much fiction as you do, and when I do read novels, I'm a lot slower about it. This is partly because of the way I read: I often find myself rereading parts of a book, either because I'm really enjoying it and want to savor the better bits, or, more frequently, because I feel that I've missed something. (I have a hard time keeping track of people, whether real or fictional, so this happens fairly often when I read novels.) I also have trouble finding time to read fiction. This isn't because I don't have time per se, it's just that when I decide to veg the slight bit of effort that it takes to pick up a novel and focus my eyes on the page often seems like too much for me. Sometimes I read before bed, but it's usually just a page or two before I conk out. Then I can't remember where I was and end up reading it again the next night. On Shabbat I read a bit more, but most of the hours that I don't spend at shul or at meals is usually spent honing my incredible skill of marathon napping.

There are exceptions. I read Kavalier and Klay in a matter of days because it was so fantastic that other things (writing, housework, sleep) fell by the wayside until I was finished. Most of the time, though, I don't have much trouble putting a book down even if I like it. I'm currently in the process of reading Denise Mina's The Dead Hour, which I'm enjoying overall, but I haven't actually opened it in almost a week.

I was going to comment on some of the actual books and authors on your list, but this comment has gotten so long that I think I'll just wrap it up here. Maybe later.