Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011: The Year in Books

This year, I managed to hit my general reading goal of 60+ books. Once again, the book salon warred with the book challenge, and the salon won. I really didn’t do very well on The Great Unread challenge, although I made a valiant attempt in the final hours when a transcontinental Christmas flight with a two-hour fog delay tacked on the end allowed me to read big chunks of Giant and The Grapes of Wrath. Still many of the books were fairly short and I don’t feel the sense of accomplishment I did last year. I also haven’t been as good about immediately writing up reviews on Goodreads and that’s something I definitely want to be better about in 2012.

Top Ten of 2011
The Book of Illusions (Paul Auster)
Brat Farrar (Josephine Tey)
The Daughter of Time (Josephine Tey)
The Invisible Bridge (Julie Orringer)
Possession (A.S. Byatt)
Richard III (William Shakespeare)
Suite Française (Irène Némirovsky)
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (John Le Carré)
Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand)
Water for Elephants (Sara Gruen)

And now the awards!

Best Discovery: Josephine Tey (1896-1952), a Scottish mystery novelist. My love of royals and history would put her Daughter of Time at the top of my personal list, but I’d recommend starting with Brat Farrar. I love her language and the atmosphere she creates as well as how all of her mysteries are distinct from one another. If you like Agatha Christie or are an Anglophile in any way, you will like Tey.

The Book I Feel Everybody Should Read: Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand. This true story is extraordinary in its depiction of both the barbarism and heroism of war. A gripping tale of one man’s journey from the heights of Olympic glory to the depths of a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Even if you think you don’t want to read more about World War II, you do, you really do. Hillenbrand is an amazing storyteller, deftly melding one man’s story with epic historical events. If you liked how she handled Seabiscuit, try this one out.

Longest: The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer (602 pages). I really enjoyed this book, despite taking forever to finish it. In fact, the story was so vivid that I could pick it up months later and continue reading where I left off without feeling like I had to go back and reread (which is extremely unusual for me). Obviously, I could totally relate to the main character's student life in Paris, but, more importantly, I also learned a tremendous amount about life in Hungary before and during the war, something I previously knew nothing about. It is a bit long, but totally worth it.

Biggest Accomplishment: Possession by A.S. Byatt. The start of this novel moves very slowly (mostly because the poetry bogs it down) and therefore it took multiple attempts over the years to get through it. However, when the mystery picks up, it becomes really thrilling and I couldn’t wait to see how it was going to be resolved. And, for once, I really liked the ending. I will definitely be keeping this one on the shelf so that I can go back and reread at some point knowing how the mystery unfolds.

Biggest Surprise: One Day by David Nicholls. When I first heard about this book while visiting friends in London, I misunderstood the premise, thinking it was about a couple who meet up on the same day every year (sort of an extended Before Sunrise, a movie that I hated). Instead, the structure of the book, glimpses into an ongoing relationship over time, really worked well. It gets a bit maudlin at the end, and the characters aren’t necessarily very sympathetic; however, that does add to the realism of it. Of course, for me, that also may have been helped by the fact that these characters graduate university about the same time I did.

The Book I Most Regret Reading: Paris, France by Gertrude Stein. Sorry, “there’s no there there.” I absolutely hated the style and attitude of this book. Completely pointless. Glad I got it off my shelves.

Favorite Young Adult Series: Matched by Ally Condie. The first volume, Matched, was a fun read with pretty good world-building, prompting an immediate re-read. As good as The Hunger Games? Not quite, but it has believably written characters and some promising loose ends to tie up as the series continues. I didn’t love the dual narrative of the second volume, Crossed, but agree that it made sense for the story told in that book. Similar to The Giver, but a more complete, realistic set-up with more relatable characters. This is tailor-made for Hollywood, so watch for it to be “coming soon” to a theater near you.

Most Useful Non-Fiction: The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life by Twyla Tharp. This book is fabulous. It is much more than a study about creativity because it focuses on the perspiration part of the process rather than the inspiration part. As Tharp says, “before you can think out of the box, you have to start with a box.” While it focuses on the arts (especially dance, musical composition, and writing), much of her discussion of discipline, organization, and habits could apply to the business world as well. There are lots of inspiring anecdotes and self-improvement exercises scattered throughout. Runner-up: Keep the Change: A Clueless Tipper’s Quest to Become the Guru of the Gratuity by Steve Dublanica.

Most Common Theme: World War II. I don’t know whether it was in the air or just on my radar, but a good chunk of my reading involved the war. In rough order of preference: the aforementioned Unbroken and The Invisible Bridge, Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky, Sarah’s Key by Tatiana de Rosnay, The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer, Skeletons at the Feast by Chris Bohjalian, Winter Garden by Kristin Hannah, Pictures at an Exhibition by Sara Houghteling, The Reader by Bernhard Schlink.

Most Disappointing: Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury. I was looking forward to reading this classic for our “Disturbing Dystopias” book salon, but was barely able to finish it—and it’s short! Given the concept, I should have liked this, but I absolutely hated the writing style and just couldn't get past the fact that half the time I wasn't sure what was going on or what Bradbury’s real message is. It didn’t help that he seems to be a bit of an ass in the epilogue. Runner-up: Revolution by Jennifer Donnelly.

Hardest to Finish: Any Human Heart (William Boyd). So hard that I still haven’t. (Actually I like what I read but it’s just one of those things. I’ll get back to it eventually—right after Wolf Hall.)

Favorite Audiobook: Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, read by B.J. Harrison of The Classic Tales podcast. Harrison reads a lot of adventure stories in his free short story podcast, so I bought a few full-length books for our “Classic Boys Adventures” book salon to support his work. He does a really good job with this one. 

Special Mention: Two friends came out with young adult books this year and they deserve special mention for 1) being generally awesome, 2) writing beautifully, and 3) getting me out of my comfort zone. I probably wouldn’t have picked up a book about the supernatural on my own, or one in verse, but I highly recommend both Cold Kiss by Amy Garvey and Audition by Stasia Ward Kehoe for being incredibly relatable stories about the sacrifices and choices we have to make and live with in our teen years (and beyond).

What was your favorite book of the year? And, if you haven’t already voted, what should I read next year?

Monday, December 26, 2011

2012 Book Challenge: Reader’s Choice

Happy Boxing Day!

After my relative lack of success in focusing on this past year’s self-imposed book challenge (The Great Unread), I’ve decided to let you, the reader, select the books for this year’s attempt.

The following are books I've started and put down, feel I should read, or just want to read full stop:

Any Human Heart (William Boyd)
Crime and Punishment (Fyodor Dostoyevsky)
Fingersmith (Sarah Waters)
Gaudy Night (Dorothy L. Sayers)
Gilead (Marilynne Robinson)
Lolita (Vladimir Nabokov)
Midnight’s Children (Salman Rushdie)
The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov)
Middlemarch (George Eliot)
Les Misérables (Victor Hugo)
Never Let Me Go (Kazuo Ishiguro)
Oliver Twist (Charles Dickens)
Oryx and Crake (Margaret Atwood)
A Prayer for Owen Meany (John Irving)
Regeneration (Pat Barker)
Sea of Poppies (Amitav Ghosh)
The Sense of an Ending (Julian Barnes)
The Shadow of the Wind (Carlos Ruiz Zafon)
The Thirteenth Tale (Diane Setterfield)
To The Lighthouse (Virginia Woolf)
Les Trois Mousquetaires (Alexandre Dumas)
War and Peace (Leo Tolstoy)
The White Tiger (Aravind Adiga)
Wolf Hall (Hilary Mantel)
The Woman in White (Wilkie Collins)

If you would recommend any of these, please choose your favorite and vote in the poll in the sidebar. Then, tell me why I should read your selection in the comments below.

I will read at least the three top vote-getters as well as the three books with the most compelling comments. Results to follow in the New Year.

This is my most desperate hour. Help me, readers, you're my only hope.

Sunday, December 25, 2011

Ballet 101—Nutcracker

“Little girls dream of the party scene,
Older ones a chance to dance with the corps
Behind the Dew Drop Fairy,
Or perhaps be featured as an exotic candy
In the Land of Sweets.”
Audition by Stasia Ward Kehoe

I wish I had made The Nutcracker my first Ballet 101 post. After all, I did see it last year and it is the ballet to end all ballets: the one most aspiring ballerinas have been in and the one most people have seen. But for some reason, I didn’t have time to blog about it immediately afterwards and so, after a couple of days had passed, I decided not to. Now, after such a crazy fall, when I seemed barely able to post about anything but opera, a few days seem like nothing. Plus, in San Francisco, The Nutcracker marks the transition from opera season to ballet season at the War Memorial Opera House so it seems only right to mark that passage here.

I don’t necessarily see The Nutcracker every Christmas, but I do usually try to see at least one Christmas-related performance during the month of December and it often shows up in the rotation if I’m not into Messiah that year. La Belle Chantal loves it, so it’s always a great excuse for us to hit the town.

Plus, I have a thing for nutcrackers since a tree-trimming party years ago when my boyfriend at the time gave me two beautiful wooden nutcracker ornaments. Which eventually led to this madness:

Yes, there are 40+ nutcrackers on that tree.

Drosselmeyer nutcracker
The one that started it all

And, yes, I bought two more ornaments at the performance itself. I ask you, how could I not get the pink “Kingdom of the Sweets” one?

And that’s what I love about this ballet. Dolls, toys, and candy come alive? Being taken away to a magical snowy wonderland full of tasty treats where people perform just for you? Sign me up.

The San Francisco Ballet sets this particular production in San Francisco during the 1915 World’s Fair so there is a bit of local color as well. I don’t love everything about the production (notably that Clara is played by a young child and is transformed into another dancer for the pas de deux), but they set up the story well and there are a number of standout pieces, especially the “Waltz of the Snowflakes” (it is truly a spectacular feat that they are able to dance in the near-blizzard conditions on stage) and the coffee, tea, and trepak divertissement dances.

In this year’s production, two dancers stood out for me, Koto Ishihara, who played the mechanical doll in the party scene, and Frances Chung, who danced the “Grand Pas de Deux.” Of course, the casting changes from night to night, so going on a different night may mean a very different cast. However, I can’t imagine not enjoying this on any night, if only for all the little girls you will see in the audience, playing dress up and watching their dreams unfold before their very eyes.

Merry Christmas everyone and may all your dreams come true!