Recent Reads and Recs: January 2012 Edition

Reviews that aren’t really reviews, but glimpses into some books I’ve read that might cross your path… and if they don’t, maybe some of them should:

This month was an especially hectic one for me, and after finishing Freedom early on in it, I considered what my days ahead were going to be like. I decided I needed some guaranteed, light and easy reads. I called out to my Twitter and FB world and received many great suggestions. Three of the five books below reflect those suggestions.


Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen Freedom, by Jonathan Franzen

I mentioned last month that this book was a gift that I finally was getting around to reading. I had not jumped on it because I had heard mixed reviews about the author in general.

Book jacket summary is not a very good description of the book, I don’t think. Here is a different one: Freedom encapsulates the trials of a marriage and a family. The marriage is Patty and Walter. Patty’s life reflects the never-quite-recovered-from date rape in high school with parents that did not handle it well. Walter is a caretaker and idealist. Their marriage is clearly doomed from the start and Patty’s depression permeates the entire family. It is Patty and her depression that primarily drive the story, and later it is Walter’s disillusionment in his marriage and his career choices.

After finishing the book, I can better understand the mixed reviews. On the con side, it was definitely overlong. And this is coming from someone who is trying to sell a long book, right? There were bits that I could understand, to a certain extent, that Franzen included – mostly overexplanation of enviro-political activism. I have no problem with authors inserting their own beliefs into the storyline – even when I disagree. Interestingly, I leaned toward the character’s side in this case (save the earth-type stuff), but even I found it was too much. He believes in alternative transportation and overpopulation. I get it. The true overlong parts fell into the category of giving us backstory way too far into the story… backstory that we no longer needed for characterization or any other reason for that matter. I scanned it. I put that into italics because this is huge for me. I read everything. Just ask my sister. Okay, my sister’s experience is from when I was in Kindergarten or 1st grade and she had to walk me to my classroom and she said it took forever because I had to read everything on the walls until we got there, but really, I haven’t changed much.

My husband’s question while I was reading this not-very-good book was one he asks me as if he hasn’t known me for over 20 years: Why are you still reading it?

Um, because that’s what I DO. I finish books. Even if they’re not so great. Silly boy.

Beyond that, though, was that even though I didn’t feel this book was all that great, it wasn’t all that bad, either. It had its moments. It had strong writing, overall. And it had me hooked enough to want to know how it ended. And the thing is, it had an extremely satisfying ending. Almost satisfying enough to make up for the previous 400 pages. And really, that counts for a lot.

Tea Time for the Traditionally Built by Alexander McCall SmithTea Time for the Traditionally Built, by Alexander McCall Smith

This novel is the 10th installment of The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. These never disappoint. They are mysteries of a completely quiet and untraditional sort – meaning, no high action, no murders, etc. The setting is in a mid-size town of Botswana and the cases are those that address daily life mysteries. The solutions are simplistic and usually reveal far more about human nature than anything else. Precious Ramotswe starts her detective agency after her recently passed father leaves her a sum of money. She is, of course, mildly criticized for starting such an endeavor, for whoever heard of a female detective? And while the novels are set in recent times, it is clear that in Gaborone, Botswana, gender roles and careers are still not quite balanced from the U.S. perspective. However, it is also not a heavy conflict in these novels, but provides a gentle backdrop from time to time.

Precious Ramotswe soon takes on an assistant, Grace Makutsi, and the conversations that they have reflect much of how we should look at life. Smith creates a world that gives a wonderfully balanced view from both a female and male perspective, as well as showing us the beautiful daily life of a country he clearly loves. These novels have a beautifully easy flow to them and never fail in making me smile throughout. [UPDATE: Just realized I never actually gave a description of this particular installment… but feel like understanding the series as a whole is a pretty good descriptor of each individual book.]

Certain Girls, by Jennifer WeinerCertain Girls by Jennifer Weiner

This novel gave me a new reference point for my own that I am trying to sell. If you like this one, you’ll probably like mine. 😉

This story follows a dual-narrative of mother and daughter. The mother (Cannie) is an author – currently ghost-writing a popular sci-fi/fantasy series, but originally had her moment of fame with a semi-autobiographical novel that hit the bestseller list not long after her daughter (Joy) was born. Cannie marries a different man who serves quite well as primary father figure to Joy. This is not the conflict. Rather, the conflict is Joy’s discovery of her mother’s debut novel and the uncertainty of what is truth in the novel and what is not.

The dual narrative threw me – as Joy’s chapters were written more Young Adult style.  If you don’t read young adult fiction, this distinction may not make as much sense, but this tone is what separates adult fiction that covers teen years and young adult fiction that covers the same material. As such, if the novel were written all through Joy’s eyes, I would have had a great deal more empathy for her situation than I actually did. I would have enjoyed this novel even more if it had simply been all through Cannie’s eyes. I have since discovered that this novel is essentially a sequel to Good in Bed, but it definitely does not read as one, meaning I never felt I was missing any key details. Aside from the alternative narratives, I did enjoy this book and would read more of her work.


The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman AlexieThe Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, by Alexie Sherman

This book did not meet my criteria for a light and easy read – even though the back of the book indicated laughter. However, it was a good read. Heartbreaking mostly, but poignantly so. Arnold Spirit is a bright kid about to enter the reservation high school. He is convinced by a teacher to go to the next town over for school, instead – as a way to potentially leave the reservation, to break free from the mold and maximize his potential. Arnold’s narrative gives a wonderful perspective of the strong community ties he has with his reservation family and opens his eyes to the challenges that face him being the only American Indian in a rural, all-white school.

It’s a peek into the unique experience of straddling two cultures, which often leaves that person feeling like a pariah in both. Arnold shows us what it’s like, and why he persists.

Inheritance (The Vault of Souls), by Christopher PaoliniInheritance by Christopher Paolini

My thoughts and feelings on this novel and the series as a whole could probably warrant it’s own individual post, but I will try to condense somewhat (a little unsuccessfully).

I started this book one weekend, then immersed myself in it the following weekend to finish. And when I do that, the book is sure to make a mark. This book was the final installment of a 4-book series – by the guy who started writing the first one when he was only 15 and published it at 19.  Amazing, no? I’ve always thought so. I call this series the McCaffery meets Rowling meets Tolkien saga. Of course, my fantasy realm is not quite as complete as others, so this may be a more limited comparison, but I think it still works. Eragon, while hunting in the forest, comes upon an egg, which turns out to be a dragon egg. It hatches, and Eragon and the dragon become bonded to one another.

The saga then follows with Eragon reintroducing what used to be a strong force of Dragon Riders, who once helped keep the peace, but had long since been disbanded and nearly eliminated due to a power-hungry Dragon Rider who takes over the surrounding fealties of Alagaësia. Eragon, of course, becomes the primary hope for all of Alagaësia.

With the exception of the second book, Eldest, this series – this story – is strong. (Eldest, like many “middle” books in what was originally slated to be a trilogy, held necessary storylines, but read slower than the other three books.) While I feel that the story, as a whole, strengthened as it reached its culmination, and characters consistently grew within their boundaries, I confess to being a little disappointed that Paolini’s writing itself did not grow as much as I might have anticipated. (At least one comparative example in which I saw tremendous growth of an author’s writing within a series: J.K. Rowling. Book 4 in the Harry Potter series marked a true turning point for tight and graceful writing.) I remember reading Brisingr and being impressed with the much improved pacing of the story; however, I ran into many random bits of writing that did not fit within the tone of the story. This same sort of thing occurred in Inheritance in which I’d come across 1-2 line paragraphs that would be descriptive in such a way – and set apart – and I’d be expecting them to have some sort of symbolic or foreshadowing meaning, only to find they did not. At least once there was an allusion so striking that I was surprised that it had no bearing on anything. The ending was overlong… I remember saying out loud to my 12-year old, who had already read it, “this is the longest ending in the history of endings”. As writer, I understood Paolini’s desire to tie up all loose ends in a very complete way, but as a reader (and as a writer who already learned this lesson from critique readers of my own novel – albeit unpublished, of course, so really, what do I know), it was too much.

Did all of this take away from my overall enjoyment to this final book in the series? No. This series is not one that automatically makes my re-read list, but there is something sad and beautiful about ending something so BIG. I cannot imagine the sense of loss that Paolini must first have felt when he finished writing it, and I continue to be in awe of this fantastic accomplishment of his, with so much more to come in his future.

And that is my month.

(By the way, I recently followed a very interesting re-opening of an old conversation about the imbalance of New York Times reviewed novels… numbers leaned heavier on male authors than female authors. It all started in 2010 , when Franzen’s Freedom was released, and the dialogue was opened by Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Weiner. I must have sublimated the whole thing this month as it all got re-hashed in the past couple of weeks and I just so happened to have read about 2 of the authors in question. Here is a follow up article posted this month.)

More importantly: what are YOU reading? What should I be reading next?

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8 Responses to Recent Reads and Recs: January 2012 Edition

  1. Steph says:

    Thanks for the review of Christopher Paolini! I have the first book in the series, but haven’t read it yet…sounds like I need to start! 🙂


    • ProfeJMarie (Janet) says:

      Yes! You will definitely see a sophistication change in story from Eragon to Eldest. With Eragon, I continually felt like there were so many instances of “borrowing” from other writers (although Paolini does, of course, have his own unique story), but the story definitely holds its own after that point.


  2. G-chyle says:

    I liked the politics in Freedom…that was much of why I liked it. I never new that about the warblers and outdoor cats, never knew they were evil! I am half way through the second hunger games, and ready to give up. I hate it, now. Because there’s not “adult themes,” maybe.


    • ProfeJMarie (Janet) says:

      Oh yes – I can get that. In fact, I am sure that is one of many reasons why it received so much acclaim. And it is and intelligent novel, which I appreciate. And the section you just mentioned? I did enjoy that part. Of course, maybe that was only because I knew I was finally almost done with the book. Hmm. 😉

      Re: Hunger Games… I love YA novels, so I tore through those books rapidly. However, if you are struggling through the second one, you will likely never get through the third. Usually the middle book is the one that drags (as it seems to be for you -haha!), but in this case, I found the last one, Mockingjay, to be weakest — and VERY young adult in tone. Maybe you could just find out from someone how it ends… or read the last 3 chapters of it. 😛


  3. I’m glad you enjoyed the Jennifer Weiner novel. She’s my go-to when I need a light, satisfying read. I still can’t decide whether or not to read a Franzen novel. You used the magic word- “over-explained”- which has me leaning toward not. I love when you do these posts!


    • ProfeJMarie (Janet) says:

      Hard to say… you might like it. Although, I don’t know where you stand on the environment or on overpopulation. Those are 2 political hot buttons in it. I think you’d struggle with the late-to-the-game side and back stories that show up. Our tastes do not always match up, which is why I am appearing a little wishy washy in this comment. I will, however, firmly stand by the “over-explained/over-written” opinion. 🙂


  4. I can’t believe you read that many books in a month. It takes me over a month to finish ONE! Although I am usually reading 5 at a time so maybe it all averages out? And yes, I can attest that Janet would read every single poster, every single sign to the point that I wanted to grab her hand and drag her to class. “HURRY UP!” I would say and she would say “But I am not done reading that!” It will be there tomorrow and you can read it then!


  5. Pingback: Recent Reads and Recs: February 2012 Edition | It'll All Work Out

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