Reading got real in December. When the goal is in sight, I've got eyeballs and I am not afraid to use them.
1. Insomnia - Stephen King. (novel) This book is now firmly ensconced in my shelf of Stephen King favorites. Sleep and death are so often compared; King takes this conceit and turns it inside out. An unusual and attractive element of this novel is an action hero who is 70 years old! I hope this is made into a movie or TV series.
2. The Paris Architect - Charles Belfoure. (novel) Lucien Bernard is an architect living in Nazi-occupied Paris who gets caught up in the scheme of building hiding places for Jews, although he really has no empathy for them. I enjoyed Belfoure's hardboiled style and his rat-a-tat dialogue. He reminds me of Ken Follett. Again, I would like to see a movie version.
3. Mrs. Mike - Benedict and Nancy Freedman. (novel) 16-year-old Katherine Mary O'Fallon goes from her home in Boston up to her uncle's home in Calgary, Canada to improve her health. After a short time, she meets and marries Royal Canadian Mounted Policeman Mike Flanigan. Soon after the marriage, he is reassigned to a far northern region. Parts of this book, with its gritty descriptions of life in these remote outposts, appealed to me, but the narrative conventions of the 1940s as well as some of the plot devices have not helped the book to age as gracefully as it might have.
4. Marbles - Ellen Forney. (graphic novel) Forney's story of her several-years' struggle to find a workable balance of medication for her bipolar symptoms. I love her artwork; it reminds me of Alison Bechdel's, except with these madly delightful flourishes.
5. Touching the Void - Joe Simpson. (memoir) In 1985, while hiking in the Peruvian Andes, Simpson and his climbing partner, Simon Yates, met with an accident in which Yates presumed Simpson had died, and cut the rope that bound them together on their climb. Simpson was still alive however, with a badly broken leg. Although the story is dramatic and riveting, it was a difficult read. I have trouble relating to the need to conquer a mountain of ice. Also, the book was heavy with mountaineering jargon.
6. Lila - Marilynne Robinson. (novel) A sequel to Robinson's earlier novel, Gilead, which is told in letters written by Lila's much-older husband, Reverend John Ames. Lila is about the title character's odd childhood with a band of drifters in 1920s and 30s America, and how she eventually met and married "that old man". Robinson's descriptions of this hardscrabble life hearken back to Steinbeck, but also resonate clearly with a modern reader's sensibilities. Because Lila's upbringing was unconventional and her education limited, her responses to things are also unconventional. I read a review in which she was referred to as "a Faulknerian idiot", which is just not true. Perhaps the reviewer only meant to show his or her erudition. Unfortunately, they ended up showing something else. Lila reminds me of the Bible; every sort of language you could wish for is in this novel to be pondered and savored. I wouldn't be surprised if Robinson snags herself another Pulitzer.
7. Cardboard - Doug TenNapel. (graphic novel) Cam's father can't find carpentry work anywhere. He brings home an empty cardboard box for his son's birthday, and creates a figure for him. The cardboard is magic and the figure comes to life. Things get out of hand because of a rotten neighbor kid, Marcus, and Cam has to save the day. All the characters feel real, which gives the story a good base for the magical stuff. I imagine the ideal reader for this book as a boy in 4th-6th grade.
8. A Girl From Yamhill - Beverly Cleary. (memoir) The author of the Ramona books details her childhood in 1920s and early 1930s Oregon until she departs for college in California. She was an only child and her parents, perhaps because of their own disappointments, were emotionally distant, especially her mother. This information surprised me and made my heart ache for her, but although Cleary relays the frustration she felt at the time, she doesn't wallow in self-pity.
9. My Own Two Feet - Beverly Cleary. (memoir) Cleary takes up her life story again from her college days during the Depression, through WWII, when she worked as a hospital librarian on an army post, and ends with her as a newly-minted children's author. Cleary's parents become more overbearing as they oppose her romance with Clarence Cleary because he's Catholic. Both of these books are straightforward and entertaining. It was a treat to read both volumes, one after the other.
10. Can't We Talk About Something More Pleasant? - Roz Chast. (graphic novel/memoir) After years of not "having to deal", Roz Chast finds herself faced with two parents well over 90 years old who can't live unassisted any more, but they aren't accepting the fact gracefully. Scary look at the costs of elder care in America and the implications of lingering illnesses and the shifting relationships as parents become helpless and Chast, an only child, is faced with making decisions about their lives and finances. As the only daughter and eldest child of a mother in her late 70s in increasingly perilous health, this book had a profoundly disturbing effect on me.
11. Poor Cow - Nell Dunn. (novel) Written in 1967 and set in London, the "poor cow" of the title is Joy, who is married with a new baby. She has a genius for making bad choices: Her husband makes his living as a thief, and is sent to prison. She then falls in love with his partner in crime (who is a good sort, otherwise) who also ends up in the clink. Joy tries to stay faithful, but she's beautiful and young and swinging 60s London beckons. The novel is like a documentary filmed with three different cameras: There's the omniscient author, commenting on the squalid state of things, but generally protective of her characters; there's Joy's dreamy, stream-of-consciousness thought; and there's the badly spelled letters Joy writes to her lover, Dave in prison. Brilliant with slice-of-life and atmosphere, but I could never escape the feeling that Dunn was merely slumming.
12. Tom's Wife - Alana Cash. (novel) I didn't realize that this 2011 novel first breathed life as an indie film about ten years before. Depression-era Arkansas. Annie is married to Tom, who alternately abuses and neglects her. Not my favorite read for the month, but props to Cash for the authentic feel for time and setting. Now I want to find the movie.
13. What's Living in My Knickers? - Valerie Hamer. (nonfiction) Tales from expats living in Asia about their medical and dental mishaps, often due to cultural differences. I've been in South Korea ten years, and I thought I'd heard almost everything, but this book was an education. I nearly missed my subway stop. Both hilarious and horrifying.
14. Euphoria - Lily King. (novel) Based loosely on anthropologist Margaret Mead and her second and third husbands during the time all three were in New Guinea, this is an incredible story about making sense of cultures so different from one's own, the excitement of discovery, and feelings of jealousy, both personal and professional. I finished it a few days ago, and it hasn't settled with me yet. I just keep walking around going, WOW and Wow. Thanks to Susan at Pages Turned for recommending this one. I'm going to call it now: If Lila doesn't get the 2015 Pulitzer Prize for fiction, it will go to Lily King for Euphoria.
15. Daddy Needs a Drink - Robert Wilder. (humor, essays) I shied away from this book for a while, thinking it was just going to be a bunch of poopy diaper anecdotes, but Wilder can actually write. He keeps it real in beautifully crafted essays.
16. Gridlock - Matt Gaffney (nonfiction) This book about the world of crossword puzzle makers and competitors was a fun read. Gridlock reminded me of Word Freak, the book about Scrabble competitions and competitors. I fell under its influence and now I've started doing crossword puzzles online every day. A little gem of a book that I plucked from the shelves at the Busan English Library.