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Stack o’ Books 2009 – Part II


Stack of books read in 2009The stack of books pictured at right sits on a shelf in the mancave, and represents all but two of the books I finished in 2009.

Part II: Fiction

Wow, 23 of the 33 books I read last year were fiction. It’s usually closer to 50/50 for me. Huh. Anyway, alphabetically, by author …

  • Pat Barker – The Man Who Wasn’t There
    Set in Ireland, this is a story of a twelve year-old boy who has never known his father. Images from movies fuel his imagination of who his father must have been. Or is?
  • Olga Grushin – The Dream Life of Sukhanov
    In 1960s Moscow a young, promising Soviet abstract painter betrays his art to accept a safe and prosperous position as editor of a Soviet art journal. Now, twenty-some years later Gorbachev is in power and changes are in the air. This novel is the story of the protagonist facing the reality of what he has lost of himself. Actually, he faces this in his waking dreams, so maybe “reality” is the wrong word. The author makes very effective use of tense changes from the third- to first-person in the “dream sequences.” An amazing first novel for this writer!
  • Mark Haddon – The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime
    An entertaining story of a young autistic boy who is forced to play detective, and investigates the killing of a neighbor’s dog. He learns a lot about his own family and himself in the process. Cute story with more depth than expected (by me, at least). The title alludes to a Sherlock Holmes story.
  • Mark Haddon – A Spot of Bother
    I read this book (my second Haddon novel of the year) on the recommendation of my daughter Nicole. The story is centered on a hypochondriac father and his more-than-a-little-bit dysfunctional family. It culminates in a wild wedding, some loose-end tying-up, reconciliation, and the prospects of “happily ever-after.” Much like many of Shakespeare’s light comedies. Hard to imagine, though, that the happiness held up for this group. A fun, quick read.
  • Jane Hamilton – When Madeline Was Young
    I’m still waiting for a novel of Hamilton’s to live up to her A Map of the World or The Book of Ruth.
  • Patricia Highsmith – Ripley Under Ground
    In this, the second of Highsmith’s Ripley novels, Tom Ripley is involved with an art forgery scheme that is falling apart. Nothing that a couple of murders and some deft acting by Tom won’t fix, though.
  • Patricia Highsmith – The Blunderer
    Man A kills his wife. Man B has fantasized about killing his own wife, and is fascinated with man A: what sort of man is it who can actually follow through and get away with it? Then man B’s wife dies under suspicious circumstances that are similar to the murder of man A’s wife. Detective learns of contacts between the two men and begins to suspect that one or both of them are guilty of murder. It’s a riveting tale.
  • Patricia Highsmith – Ripley’s Game
    Third Ripley novel. Out of spite and just to prove that he can do it, Tom Ripley gets an “innocent” man (who thinks he has a terminal disease) to commit a murder. Tom is remorseful (!) and tries, in his own inimitable way, to make things right. He’s not wholly successful.
  • Patricia Highsmith – Suspension of Mercy
    Another man who thinks about killing his wife. Will he do it?
  • Franz Kafka – The Trial
    One morning, Josef K is been arrested and charged with an unspecified crime. This is no better, really, than waking up to find that one has turned into a large cockroach. He spends a year trying to find out with what he is charged, and to get a trial. It’s not a good year, and it ends badly. This was my second time reading The Trial, and it will stay on my every-ten-years-or-so list.
  • Garrison Keillor – Love Me
    St Paul, Minnesota man wins fame with his first novel, moves to New York City, becomes too big for his britches, fails as a writer, loses the love of his down-to-earth Minnesota wife. Man moves back to Minnesota, writes an advice column (as “Mr Blue”), and learns what it is he has lost. Reconciles with wife, lives happily ever-after in down-to-earth St Paul. Humorous in places, but I prefer Keillor’s Lake Wobegon stories.
  • John McGahern – High Ground
    A collection of short stories written by my favorite Irish author. Pretty quiet stuff, but nicely done.
  • Nicholas Meyer – The West End Horror
    This is the second of three Sherlock Holmes pastiches by Meyer. I’ve got a weakness for Holmesian pastiches in general, and now I’ve read all of Meyer’s (the first, The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, is still the best). As in the other two, this one puts Holmes in the company of real-life figures of the late 19th century. Oscar Wilde, Bram Stoker, George Bernard Shaw and others play roles in this novel. It is not based on the Jack-the-Ripper murders as I had thought.
  • John Mortimer – Rumpole Rests His Case
    Seven new cases in the first new collection of Rumpole stories in a few years. He isn’t looking back at a distance, though, these cases feature Rumpole working very much in the new century. He’s got to be more than 80 years-old at this point, but he’s still a lot of fun. At the end of the book, it looks like he may finally be retired …
  • John Mortimer – Rumpole and the Primrose Path
    … but he’s not. At the end of Rests His Case, Rumpole suffered a heart attack, and he finds himself ensconced at the “Primrose Path” old-folks home at the start of this one. “Bollard” is of course planning for his replacement, and Rumpole is having none it. (John Mortimer, however, died in January of 2009, so the end of the road for Rumpole looms. Two collections of short stories—published in 2006 and 2007—followed Primrose. At least one postumously-published collection wouldn’t be a surprise.)
  • George Orwell – Coming Up For Air
    George Bowling finds that you really can’t go home again. Not even if all you want to do is to catch some carp.
  • Annie Proulx – Fine Just The Way It Is
    This is the third volume of Proulx’s short stories set in Wyoming. As with the previous two, she bats about .500 with me. Too often for my taste she resorts to weird supernaturalism (a man-eating sage tree in one, the devil himself in a couple of others) that seem out-of-place with the hard, dusty realism of others.
  • Leon Rooke – Shakespeare’s Dog
    This is my fifth or sixth foray into the broad category of “fiction loosely based around the life of Shakespeare.” Previous novels included a mystery (or two?), an “autobiography of Anne Hathaway,” and a story told by Shakespeare’s daughter Judith. This tale is related in the first person by Shakespeare’s dog. That’s right, his dog. But it works, weirdly.
  • Gary Shteyngart – The Russian Debutante’s Handbook
    I think I probably bought this book on my first visit to a used bookstore after finishing Shteyngart’s second novel, Absurdistan, in 2008. My enthusiasm and expectations for it were (unrealistically) sky-high. Despite that, it almost delivered. A very funny book by a very funny writer.
  • Maj Sjowall and Per Wahloo – Murder at the Savoy
    The sixth in a series of ten Martin Beck crime novels written by the wife and husband team of Sjowall and Wahloo. The “atmospherics” of these novels—they are set in the Sweden of the 1970s and 80s—appeal to me in a way I can’t really describe. An enjoyable read, again, but to me this one doesn’t measure up with the best of the series (which are Roseanna and The Man on the Balcony).
  • Wallace Stegner – The Big Rock Candy Mountain
    This Stegner novel is semi-autobiographical. Maybe more than “semi,” too, as I understand it. If so, he had quite an upbringing by a real rascal of a father. This may be my favorite of the five or six of his novels I’ve read.
  • Anne Tyler – Digging to America
    Two American families adopt Korean children. They meet at the airport on “arrival day,” and impulsively decide to get together to celebrate the occasion. This leads to a life-long friendship between families that would seem to have little in common except the adoptions. The story is of the relationships that are created. The Korean-American adoptees and their experiences are decidedly not the focus of the novel (as I had expected they would be). One of the families is Iranian-American, and their cultural experience is much more important to the story. Another fine slice of American family life from Tyler.
  • John Updike – Gertrude and Claudius
    This is a little bit like Stoppard’s Rosencrantz & Gildenstern. Except that Gertrude and Claudius certainly aren’t minor characters in Hamlet, and this retelling is not at all funny. Actually, it not a retelling of Hamlet at all, and it’s not a play. It’s nothing like Stoppard’s work at all! But it is a piece of fiction written from the point of view of a character from Hamlet (Gertrude). It’s somewhat dark.

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