Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Book journal

Yesterday I realized that my library doesn't keep records of my borrowing history. I was relieved, because that means no fodder for those snoopy FBI agents. On the other hand, I knew it meant I had to start writing down what I've read.

After racking my brain, I came up with 27 books in 2005 so far. To be honest, I only finished 25; one book had to go back to the library before I could get very far into it, and the other one was so godawful it threatened to rip a hole in the space-time continuum.

(I'll never tell what it was; I don't snark on authors unless they're either dead or so famous they wouldn't care. So for the record, I hate Aristophanes. Two millenia later, fart jokes still not funny.)

I felt it was important to include the books I didn't finish, because one purpose of this book journal is to force me to read with a critical eye: what I liked and didn't like about it, what worked and didn't and why.

I have a terrible time enunciating positive responses to books or movies. For instance, I adored The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. Why? It was cool and made me laugh. Beyond that, I can't tell you.

However, when a book or movie doesn't work for me, I can usually pinpoint why. When a novel scene is too slow-paced, I know it's because of too much rumination/narration/description between lines of dialogue, or because the scene started too early or ended too late, or because the scene takes place in an otherwise uninteresting situation like the characters eating dinner (again) and simply dicussing the facts they've picked up since their last meeting.

As a writer, I can learn more from other writers' mistakes than from their excellence. When I read a truly phenomenal work, I start to shrivel up inside, thinking, "I'll never imagine a world so original," or "I'll never write a wisecrack that funny," or "I'll never be able to describe a toaster in such an insightful way."

Want to see my list? Not today: need to save my typing fingers for actual writing. But I'll pick out the top five books on it and insist you read them.

A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L'Engle. This book is third in the Time Quartet, which begins with the classic young adult science fiction novel, A Wrinkle in Time. If you've only read Wrinkle, I encourage you to try the other three, because they're even better. I read Planet in one evening, only stopping for bathroom breaks. One of the characters travels through time and space to change history and prevent a nuclear war in the present. Gripping, mind-blowing, and oh so human. I plan to read more L'Engle, but I'm sad that reading the Time Quartet for the first time is already in my past. It should be in your future.

Bloodsucking Fiends by Christopher Moore. The best vampire novel I've ever read, and one of the funniest novels, period. Check out Moore's blog on my blogroll to the right. He's funnier than Terry Pratchett by several miles, yet he never disrespects any of his characters for the sake of a joke. I'm told this isn't even his best book. He's someone I could OD on and not get sick, which is saying a lot.

Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dunbar. Back when I wanted to be an economist, this was the kind of life I imagined: using data to answer real questions like, "Why did the crime rate fall in the 90s?" and "What makes a great parent?" and "Why do so many drug dealers live with their mothers?" Unfortunately, the field of economics doesn't encourage actual relevance, so I changed my mind quickly. Steven Levitt showed it can be done. This book is so readable, I picked it up to glance at the table of contents and three hours later it was finished. Witty, incisive and sometimes disturbing, Freakonomics is a great read for anyone who wants to know the "Why?" behind everything.

Dead Witch Walking by Kim Harrison. Harrison creates a fully-fleshed alternate world where humans and paranormal beings share society (rather uneasily) after a virus wipes out half the human population. She doesn't waste time up front explaining it to us but rather lets us discover the details of this world as the action takes us through the story. A writer who respects readers' intelligence--Hallelujah! She put together a fantastic ensemble cast of vampires, pixies, werecreatures, witches, and much, much more. There's a new delight on every page. She's in the same league quality-wise as authors like Jim Butcher and Neil Gaiman, and word is the two followups to Dead Witch Walking are even better, so let's hope she's here to stay.

Loving Soren by Caroline Coleman O'Neill. A novel based on the true story of Regina Olsen's love affair with Christian existentialist (yes, there is such a thing!) philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. It was the most emotionally honest book I've read in a long time. Both Kierkegaard and Olsen's father were depressives (the former was most likely bipolar). Even though the disease was understood as such at the time, Regina still fell into the trap of wanting to be the one person who could make Soren happy. The book didn't delve much into his philosophy, but did show the emotional seeds of it, so whether you've read Kierkegaard or not is irrelevant to the enjoyment of the book. The only criticism I have is that it teetered at the edge of piety towards the end, and I think ultimately fell over that cliff on the last page. At a different time, when religion wasn't being used as a political bludgeon, it might not have bothered me.

Hmm, now I realize that just typing the list of 27 would have been a lot faster. Oh well.


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Jeri Smith-Ready is a Maryland author of books for teens and adults.

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