Fresh Starts & the End-of-Year Reading Review

Though there’s been a lull in my posts, that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading.  Here, in sequential order, are the past seven books I’ve toted around: four of which were worth my while and their weight; one was abandoned, another vaporized, and one a bore.

7) Wonderstruck by Brian Selznick

Brian Selznick’s second illustrated novel was one of my favorite reads of the past year.  His books are an experience that rely on sensory cues as much as they do on words.  I can remember being blown away by his first novel, The Invention of Hugo Cabret, having never before read something that so seamlessly incorporated text, illustration, and photographs to tell a story.  Wonderstruck also interweaves illustrations and text, but it does not attempt to follow the same formula as Hugo.  It is very much its own story, proving that Selznick is a skilled craftsman, not merely a one-hit-wonder.

Wonderstruck intertwines the narratives of two deaf children living in different time periods through their shared wonder of the American Museum of Natural History in New York City: one story told in pictures, the other in words.  Selznick does a fantastic job of allowing the reader to experience the world as his characters would, and in doing so, he brings to life New York in the 1970s and the 1920s in a unique and powerful way.  His love of museums shines through, and there are many nods to From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler made along the way as Ben and Rose explore the museum’s mysteries in search of meaning and family.

While Hugo resonated with me more, I loved every minute I spent devouring Wonderstruck.  Pick up a copy from your local bookstore or zip on over to IndieBound.  You’ll want this one in your personal library, I promise.  You can explore the museum as well on this virtual tour with Brian Selznick.

6) Fantomas: The Exploits of Juve (also Juve Contre Fantomas) by Pierre Souvestre & Marcel Allain

While not as gripping as his first adventure, I found this second installment in the Fantomas series enjoyable nonetheless.  Political intrigue, spies, and gruesome deaths litter its pages in classic Fantomas style, as Inspector Juve and his journalist friend, Fandor, try once more to bring the Parisian terror to justice.  For a complete summary, visit the Fantomas Website. It’s best not to cling tightly to logic or precise details in these books, as Souvestre and Allain were cracking them out at an incredible rate.  If you are looking to be entertained on the train, however, this will do the job nicely.

5) The Phantom Tollbooth by Norton Juster

I’m not sure how this book passed me by.  It was one of those old classics I was used to stocking in the bookstore but knew nothing about.  Then, in celebration of its 50th anniversary this past year, an article by Adam Gopnik appeared in The New Yorker that caught my attention.  I’ll read most anything Gopnik has to say, and when I saw that he was writing on The Phantom Tollbooth, I hunkered down to see what all the fuss was about regarding Norton Juster.  I was immediately captivated by what sounded like an incredible novel.  How had I been so ignorant of something Gopnik describes as, “the closest thing that American literature has to an “Alice in Wonderland” of its own…”?  Additionally, this seemed to be one of those novels that makes such an impact on children that, even as adults, they can remember the their first time reading it and the feelings it inspired.  Clearly I was missing out on something, so when my boyfriend called me from Barnes and Noble the following week, I asked him to scoop up a copy for me while he was there.  He told me that the cashier stopped scanning when he’d gotten to the little blue paperback and looked up saying, “Great book, man.”  My fingers itched to get ahold of it.

And so I dived headlong into a world thick with puns and rampant with wordplay, alongside one of the most laid-back protagonists I have ever encountered.  It was an utter delight.  The comparison to Alice in Wonderland is very apt; however, Norton’s novel does not carry the the same off-putting weirdness of Carroll’s work.  Yes, the dark and strange do occupy its pages, but not to the same unsettling degree.  I feel almost traitorous in confessing that I could never get into the Alice books.  I love their imagery and many of the scenes, but as a whole they leave me alternately with the the feeling of being trapped in a bizarrely shifting nightmare or of gazing in on one.  Alice is among of the few books that I would rather see as a movie.  The Phantom Tollbooth, on the other hand, is imbued with a bit more hope, levity, and sense of purpose.  There is a quest, after all!  And a watch dog.  And a humbug.  It is the best book I read in 2011.  Keep you eyes peeled for the upcoming documentary on this children’s classic.

4) The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I’m not usually one for sci-fi, but this book was hilarious and much of its commentary strangely pertinent to modern life and politics–and ebooks, for that matter.  I’m definitely glad to have read it and will most likely try to find the rest of Adams’ trilogy.

3) A Game of Thrones: A Song of Fire and Ice (Book 1) by George R.R. Martin

This was the book that vaporized.  Actually, I had downloaded the audio version from the library but managed to erase it from my iPhone.  It seems that you are not permitted to have audio files from two different music libraries on your phone at the same time.  And why, pray tell, was I using multiple music libraries?  Because this particular book was not compatible with macs, save for Apple MP3 players, so I had to install Overdrive on my boyfriend’s PC, download the book there (which I’d been on a waiting list to get), and then transfer it to my phone–for some reason it wouldn’t load on my little iPod shuffle.  It was quite a process for the sake of digital convenience.

After all this rigmarole I finally began listening and was immediately struck  by how much it ripped off J.R.R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Rings series, even down to the author’s name, Mr. G.R.R. Martin.  Still it was engaging, and I found myself enjoying Martin’s epic tale and the gentleman reader performing it for me.  Then, tragedy struck as I plugged my phone into my computer, subsequently erasing its former iTunes offerings.  Could I have gotten my audio book once more from my boyfriend’s computer?  Yes, but the thing was, I was in a hurry and I had no idea where in the book I was.  It’s a lengthy novel and all the chapter headings are character names–about six of them repeated over and over.  So, I put it off and my lending period ended, along with the book’s existence on any technological device in our apartment.  Even though I liked listening to Martin’s book, I doubt I will be compelled to read it.  The writing was not particularly good and I feel would get as much out of watching the HBO series.  Feel free to correct me on this score.

2) The Tragedy of Arthur by Arthur Phillips

Much to my dismay, this is the one I abandoned.  I had been so excited for this book to come out because its premise was deliciously dorky: a new Shakespeare play is discovered, authenticated, and included in this (fictional) book’s pages.  The story is presented as the play’s introduction, and here lies my problem with Phillip’s novel.  His “introduction” would never have been published with a new Shakespeare work.  It is too informal, too meandering, and it gives far too many personal details, which have only the most remote connection to the play or its discovery.  Yes, Phillips makes the statement that this is probably the only edition of the play that will contain his introduction, that it was permitted mostly as a gesture of gratitude for bringing this forgotten work to light; however, editing would have most definitely occurred.  But editing did not occur.  I confess that I only gave the book about 70 pages before giving in to my exasperation, but I’d had enough.  I had read nothing up to this point to buoy up his flimsy conceit, so I took it to my mother’s and asked her to let me know if she has any better luck with it.

1) The Mistress of Nothing by Kate Pullinger

And finally, we come to the last novel I read, a work of historic fiction entitled The Mistress of Nothing.  It begins in Victorian England, from which a sickly woman and her maid must journey to the healing climate of Egypt.  By all accounts I should have loved this book, seeing as I adore all things Egypt and the Amelia Peabody mysteries rank among my favorite book series.  Unfortunately, however, I found this book rather boring.  It is told from the perspective of the lady’s maid, Sally, who is essentially cast off by the ailing Lady Duff Gordon for having a child with the Egyptian dragoman.  The problem here is that Sally’s position as servant–and an ostracized one at that–and foreigner leave her very ignorant of what is going on around her.  You get the slightest of glimpses of the political unrest making its way through the country, and through hearsay you learn of her lady’s health and temperament; but overall the narration consists of interior monologue and ample supposition.  Sally makes guesses as to the state of Egypt, Lady Duff Gordon’s disposition, and her lover’s desires.  She wonders and dreams while sequestered in her room with her child.  The story is not without interest, I just wish it was not so passive in its telling.  It seems a strange contradiction to be given two strong women as central figures in a book, but to feel its narrative lacks the same strength and passion driving them.  The book was based largely on the letters and writings of Lady Duff Gordon, so by choosing to make her maid the tale’s narrator, Pullinger had to fill in an awful lot of gaps with literary spackle when what she needed was a load-bearing wall. To conclude, I’ll say that while this was not a bad book, I found myself wanting to get through it so I could move on to something new.

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