1. The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach (5/5) – This book has gotten a lot of press, and it deserves it. It’s a little bit about baseball, but mostly about different kinds of love. All of the characters are wonderfully complex and human. Likable at times and ridiculous at other times. The last 250 pages are utterly timeless. Harbach deals carefully and beautifully with so many aspects of humanity that it’s impossible not to be awed by the beauty of this book. Sadly, the first 250 pages are filled with enough pop-culture references that the book is almost certain to feel dated in a few decades. This might prevent it from being remembered as one of the great books of our time, which – one moment of absurd predictability aside – it nearly is.
2. Rabbit Hole by David Lindsay-Abaire (5/5) – Reread this to teach it to my writing classes. I still enjoyed it a lot. Abaire’s dialogue is so loaded and so subtle. This is a perfectly told story. I love that he leaves it nicely messy and unresolved at the end.
3. Winseburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson (5/5) – I reread this every fall. I’ve already written a lot about it on this blog, and I won’t pretend that I have anything new to say. It always grounds me and reminds me what I love best about literature.
4. Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver (4/5) – This was the only one of Kingsolver’s novels I hadn’t read. I enjoyed it, but it didn’t blow me away. The story is interesting and compelling, but this is one of her early attempts to work social issues into her writing, and I found it a bit heavy-handed in spots. In her effort to make everyone reasonable, they all become too nice and she loses some believability. It’s a perfectly nice novel, but I’d read everything else of hers before trying this.
5. The Marriage Plot by Jeffrey Eugenides (2.5/5) – This might be the biggest disappointment of the year. I thought his last book, Middlesex, was fantastic, but this is utterly mediocre and rife with problems. One problem is the very idea of the marriage plot. I get that he is intentionally duplicating some 19th century tropes, but the result is a book that feels like you’ve read it before. Most troubling, however, is the omnipresent misogyny. Feminists in this book are treated like unsophisticated parrots incapable of thinking for themselves. The central character (Madeleine) is a woman, but she lacks agency – functioning instead as something for the male characters to worry about. And then there’s the sex. Nearly every sex scene functions as a reason for a man to think about his penis and Madeleine’s moment of greatest sexual pleasure comes when she is raped by her boyfriend. There is so much wrong with this book that I can’t believe it took him nine years to write it.
6. The Double Helix by James Watson (4.5/5) – This is a personal account form one of the scientists responsible for the discovery of the double helix DNA structure. The book lives somewhere between memoir and pop-sceince, but it still works very well. It’s nice to get a glimpse into the personalities of the scientists involved. Most important, the storyteller keeps his ego in check. Watson is very upfront about his failings and about the contributions of those around him. All of this makes for a very engaging read about an important moment in the history of science.
7. No Longer at Ease by Chinua Achebe (5/5) – After recently rereading Things Fall Apart to teach to my classes, I was reminded how much I like Achebe. Correspondingly, I thought it was time to explore some of his other work. This book is a sequel to TFA and follows Okonkwo’s grandson after his return from England where he was sent by his village to receive a university education. The education has lifted him into a new social class, but he still runs up against the racism of the colonizers and the expectations of his village. Thematically, it’s very similar to An American Tragedy in the way it deals with wealth and social privilege. Assuming his other works are of similar quality, Achebe deserves to be remembered for more than one book.
8. Powering the Future by Robert Laughlin (2.5/5) – This was an interesting but flawed text. Laughlin makes assumptions about human nature (we will always use the cheapest energy and never change our usage patterns) and climate change (it’s pointless to worry about) that may or may not prove valid. After making these assumptions, he goes forward to discuss various energy sources in a sort of cost-benefit analysis that gets old the fourth or fifth time he does it. I would have enjoyed more depth from his discussion of energy and fewer economic musings.
Fall/Winter Book Queue Update:
- For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Too Much Happiness by Alice Munro
- The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri
State of Wonder by Ann Patchett
- Netherlands by Joseph O’Neill
- Next by James Hynes
Pigs in Heaven by Barbara Kingsolver Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson
- The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
The Marriage Plot by Jeffery Eugenides