Thursday, February 26, 2009

25 Most Influential Books of the Last 25 Years

So, a someone on a listserv I'm on posted to us all about an article in the most recent Mental Floss magazine about the 25 most influential books of the last 25 years. The list is...interesting. I thought you guys would want to see it and possibly to discuss. Here's the list:
  1. And The Band Played On - Randy Shilts
  2. Maus - Art Spiegelman
  3. Listening To Prozac - Peter D. Kramer
  4. Thinking In Pictures - Temple Grandin
  5. Nickel and Dimed - Barbara Ehrenreich
  6. Into Thin Air - Jon Krakauer
  7. The Satanic Verses - Salman Rushdie
  8. Middlesex - Jeffrey Eugenides
  9. The Alchemist - Paulo Coelho
  10. The Easy Way To Stop Smoking - Allen Carr
  11. A Perfect Spy - John le Carre
  12. What Is The What - Dave Eggers
  13. On Writing - Stephen King
  14. The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle - Haruki Murakami
  15. The Known World - Edward P. Jones
  16. Harry Potter and The Sorceror's (Philosopher's) Stone - J.K. Rowling
  17. How Proust Can Change Your Life - Alain de Botton
  18. The Bonfire of the Vanities - Tom Wolfe
  19. Infinite Jest - David Foster Wallace
  20. The Unbearable Lightness of Being - Milan Kundera
  21. Beloved - Toni Morrison
  22. The Handmaid's Tale - Margaret Atwood
  23. Freakonomics - Steven D. Levitt & Stephen J. Dubner
  24. Eats, Shoots & Leaves - Lynne Truss
  25. The Tipping Point - Malcolm Gladwell
I've read five of these, which is way fewer than I would have thought. For the curious, I've read Middlesex, Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, The Unbearable Lightness of Being, Beloved and Eats, Shoots & Leaves. And while I adore the Harry Potter books...really? Most influential of the last 25 years? I guess it inspired a lot of kids to read, and it's a long time since anything did that...and now all of those kids who cut their reading teeth on Harry Potter when it came out are obssessed with Twilight! And I've never met anyone else who's ever read Eats, Shoots and Leaves, so I'm not sure how powerful that one was either. It would be awesome if it had been though; maybe then I could go to a chain restaurant without seeing the heading "Wine's" on the wine list.

I guess I'm also sort of wondering what is meant by "influential." Influential on what? Popular culture? Academics? Other writers? I'm not sure. Some that I'm surprised are not on the list include Love in the Time of Cholera (Gabriel Garcia Marquez), The Joy Luck Club (Amy Tan), Memoirs of a Geisha (Arthur Golden), The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Klay (Michael Chabon), Watchmen (Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons), The Giver (Lois Lowry), The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro)...I could keep going. I would replace several of the books on the list above with these.

How many on the list have you guys read? Do you agree with the list? Are there others you would have included or any you'd remove? Remember, they have to have been published in the last 25 years, so from 1984 on!

Monday, February 23, 2009

I Thought It Sounded Ridiculous, but I Ended Up Loving It

Most people I've talked to who have read Bel Canto have loved it or hated it - if they finished it at all. Not much in between. For about the first two-thirds of this book, I thought I was going to be the first person who had ever felt lukewarm about it. By the end, I knew I was going to have to give it 5 stars.

The concept of the book sounds...well, to be honest, it sounds kind of stupid. I read the blurb off the back cover to my husband before I started the book, and we both started laughing as I read it. The story is essentially that a large party of international businessmen and diplomats in a small South American country are at the party to listen to a world-class opera soprano. The entire party is taken hostage by a band of terrorists. Demands are made and the government refuses to budge, the length of the hostage situation grows longer and longer...and the line between "hostage" and "terrorist" grows blurry as the group connects with one another, become friendly, maybe fall in love in some instances... Sounds kind of ridiculous, I know.

So I started reading a little bit warily. It took a little time for me to get invested in the characters. The first one that interested me was Gen, an (apparently amazing) translator who was there with Mr. Hosokawa, the Japanese businessman for whom the party was being thrown. Gen was an easy character to get to know because, being a translator in an extremely international hostage situation, he's in demand all the time for communications. Gradually, I also came to know Carmen and Beatriz (the two girl terrorist who everyone thought were boys at first), General Benjamin (the terrorist general who is actually personable and has bad shingles), Messner (the Swiss Red Cross negotiator who got dragged into this while he happened to be on vacation in this country), Roxanne Coss (the soprano), Mr. Hosokawa, and several other terrorists and hostages. I became attached to some of them, like the youngest terrorist, Ishmael, who taught himself how to play chess really well by watching Gen. Benjamin and Mr. Hosokawa play. And Cesar, the terrorist who turns out to have a natural vocal talent on par with the famous opera singer.

It was getting to know the characters that did me in. The more I learned about them all as people (because they became people to me, more than characters in a book), the more I was sucked in. I will not tell you how everything shakes out. I only realized that I loved the book after I finished it, when I cried uncontrollably for ten minutes.

I guess what I'm saying is...I'm one of the lovers of Bel Canto. And for anyone who hasn't read it, I'm asking you to stick with it until you're SURE you either love it or hate it. Don't give up on it just because you're lukewarm - give it a little more time.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Virginia Festival of the Book

Who knows about the Virginia Festival of the Book? Besides me? It was mentioned at my last book club meeting, and I was ASTOUNDED by how few people there had ever heard of it, even though it's been held right here, in the town we live in, for a long time. I can't find information on exactly how long from their website, but I know it's been at least 9 years because that's how long I've lived here, and it's been here every year I've lived here!

Despite the fact that I've known about it since I first moved here, I have never actually attended. Well, this year, that's going to change! Two authors I like quite a bit - Louis Bayard and Jayne Pupek - are going to be speaking on panels, and I have business cards for my proofreading and copyediting biz to hand out to the publishers and authors who will be there for the expo! The only thing that makes me unhappy is that it's the weekend of my mom's birthday, so I'll have to wait to go home and see her until Saturday around noon if I want to catch Louis Bayard's panel.

For those not in the know, VABook! spans several days, features lots of authors and agents and publishers talking about books and writing and getting published, and almost all of the events are free. There are some that cost money and are ticketed, but the vast majority are free and are first come, first served as far as seating. They are in various locations around Charlottesville, from downtown to Barnes & Noble to the UVA campus. And the website gives you the schedule and all of the authors, and even has this cool feature where you can add events to your "book bag," creating a schedule for yourself.

I've never actually been to a book show/festival before, and I'm really excited!

Tuesday, February 10, 2009

What turned you into a reader?

I've been thinking a lot lately about the books I read as a kid that turned me on to reading. I don't know why, but I've just been considering that. When I was at new-reader age, between the ages of 5 and 8, we didn't have a whole lot of money. My mom had just gone through a divorce, so she was paying the mortgage and all of the other bills for us by herself, often working three jobs to do it. Needless to say, the library figured greatly in our lives as a source for new books. The children's library in my hometown was really cool - it was in this old brick house, with all of the different rooms for different kinds of books, and off of the little kids' book room, there was an old bathroom with the door off the hinges that still had the original claw foot bathtub in it. They put all kinds of cushions and stuffed animals in it and we kids would climb in it to read or play while we were there.

As a kid, of course I started out with the usual great kid's books. I loved all of the Berenstein Bears books, and Dr. Seuss, etc. I started my love of mysteries early with Encyclopedia Brown, and as I got older, I checked out pretty much every Bobbsey Twins book in the library. I also read Little Women, Little Men and Jo's Boys approximately twice a year until I was at least 14. I still own every book L.M. Montgomery ever published and have read them all at least twice, and my copy of the entire Anne of Green Gables series is so well-read that pages are starting to fall out.

I got this great hard-cover set of classic children's books (that I still have) that I read and loved that included Black Beauty, Treasure Island, Heidi, Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass, and Tom Sawyer - I was particularly taken with the last three. I fell in love with Pollyanna, with Pippi Longstocking, with Hatchet and Island of the Blue Dolphins. A Wrinkle in Time introduced me to awesome science fiction. I discovered my love of fantasy and mythology when I went into my elementary school library and picked up the biggest book I could find, The Hounds of the Morrigan by Pat O'Shea. And my mom bought me this children's series of somewhat simplified classic literature, so I realized pretty early that even the "boring classics" have great characters and stories.

So how about you guys? What books turned you into lifelong bookworms?

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Why I Will Never Attempt to De-Bone a Duck

Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell. I wasn't sure about this one for about the first 100 pages. I mean, the idea is kind of fascinating - a woman (Julie) decides to cook her way through all 524 recipes in Julia Child's classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 in just 365 days. The rules are simple - she has to make every recipe in the book in a year, and she's blogging about it. But at first I just didn't understand WHY.

I thought she was whiny about everything: her job, her family, her stature, her crappy apartment, her relationship with her husband, and on and on and on. And then it dawned on me that she was having one of those just-before-30 crises that so many of my friends had. I don't think I had one - or if I did, I didn't realize it because I was so freakin' stressed out and busy at work - but a lot of people I know, my husband included, had a really really really hard time with turning 30. And after all, I may not have had an existential crisis with that particular timing, but I have definitely had more than one in my lifetime, so I could identify. Basically, Julie is not what she thought she'd be when she grew up, she's almost 30 and working a crappy temp secretarial job she hates, living in the outer outer outer reaches of what might even begin to be called NYC, having a bit of a rough patch with her husband...and she has a nervous breakdown. And this project is what she devises to keep her sane, even while it drives her to a different kind of insanity.

Once I got it, I loved it. She comes home from work every day with a cart full of obscure shit that no one should really ever have to eat (like bone marrow and kidneys and calves' brains) and she cooks it for dinner, which is usually ready to eat around 11:00 pm. And she starts to get good at parts (crepe-flipping and lobster-killing), and she inexorably fails at some things time and again (mayonnaise and all things gelatinous), and she keeps going through it all. She finds an audience, and a purpose, and her self-esteem (despite the 20 lbs. of butter weight she puts on). It's really a fascinating study of a number of things, like the advent of the blogosphere, and French cooking, and friendship, marriage and insanity (and how they all must dwell happily together).

By the end, I was sobbing with Julie when a reporter tells her (on the eve of the last day of the project) that he's just spoken with Ms. Child herself, and she hates the Julie/Julia project. I mean, it's ridiculous, and who gives a crap what a 91-year-old bat you've never met thinks, but at the same've just poured your heart and soul into this for nearly a year and she tells some reporter you're not serious enough or something? Crushing, and ridiculous. I got it. I ended up loving the book, and loving the author, and even loving wacky nut-job Julia Child. Though I still have NO desire to eat any kind of animal offal ever.

And yes, she does eventually conquer the mayonnaise.