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Top Ten Tuesday: Character-Driven Novels

For today’s Tuesday Top 10 (hosted by The Broke and the Bookish), participants have been asked to list their favorite character-driven novels. Since character-driven novels are pretty much all I ever read, I could just point you to any of my year-end favorite posts and say, “Have at it,” but what fun would that be? It’s difficult for me to only pick ten, but I’ll give it a shot:

Benediction, Kent Haruf. All of Haruf’s works are character driven, and while my favorite of his is probably Plainsong, this particular novel really wrenched my heart.

Benediction Cover
Texasville, Larry McMurtry. This novel (part two of the Thalia Trilogy) revisits some of the cast of The Last Picture Show, 33 years later. Set during the 1980s Texas oil bust, it’s both funny and melancholy.

Texasville (Thalia Trilogy) Cover
In the Woods, Tana French. I could have picked any of French’s books, but I decided to pick her first one because it was the first one I read and it was also the first time I felt like everything I love about literary fiction had been married to everything that’s great about suspense.

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Straight Man, Richard Russo. Again, I could have picked any of Russo’s books, but this is one of my favorite books of all time. If you like books about father-son relationships or dry-witted academics (among other things), then pick it up ASAP.


Lamb, Bonnie Nadzam. This one is not for the faint of heart, but Nadzam does such an amazing job showing what’s going on inside the head of David Lamb that it’s both frightening and mesmerizing.

Lamb Cover
Canada, Richard Ford. When Dell Parson’s parents are arrested for robbing a bank, he is estranged from his twin sister and exiled to Canada, where he works for a man with a dark secret. I read this on a whim and loved every second of it.

CanadaNovel.jpg
The Sisters Brothers, Patrick deWitt. The Sisters brothers are assassins sent to kill a man who has invented a way to discover and steal gold from their boss. It’s a love story about two brothers, it’s a Western, and it’s darkly and awesomely funny.

Thesistersbrotherscover.jpg
You Are One of Them, Elliott Holt. What if your best friend disappeared? What if you had defined yourself around that disappearance, and then you learned it might not be true? This is an unusual coming-of-age story that I thoroughly intend to read again.

You Are One of Them Cover
Olive Kitteridge, Elizabeth Strout. this is more a novel in stories, all which center around the central character of Olive Kitteridge, who lives in Crosby, Maine. Her story is told mostly through the eyes of the relatives and townspeople who know her.

Olive-kitteridge l.jpg
The Dart League King, Keith Lee Morris. I’m big on stories about sad-sacks with big dreams. Russell Harmon is getting ready for his dart league to play its final championship game of the season, and he’s banking on more than a trophy if he wins. This book has so much more than meets the eye, and I wish I could get it into the hands of more people.

The Dart League King Cover

*images and links from powells.com and Wikipedia

Favorite Reads of 2013

Better late than never, I suppose, I’ve put together a list of my favorite books of 2013. I’ve noticed a lot of people have mentioned that 2013 was a particularly dry year for them, and a lot of prolific bloggers have confessed to reading fewer titles in 2013 than in years past. For me, 2013 was a particularly good year for reading. I only read 38 books, which shocks me, but this year I started a new job that hasn’t really left me with much of a life outside work–and what life I’ve had has been mostly filled with stressing out about…work. That’s something I am determined to change in 2014, so no point in spending a lot of time whining about it, but it may take me some time to get my reading mojo back.

Another weird thing happened at the end of the year: after I finished The Goldfinch and The Little Friend, both by Donna Tartt, I found it impossible to stick with any other novel I picked up. I started no less than ten different books only to find myself becoming restless and disinterested. I cannot fault any of the books I picked up, and I plan to finish all of them at some point, but I just couldn’t seem to keep things going (see above: stress). In November I got through two non-fiction books, though: Alan Sepinwall’s The Revolution Was Televised (which I recommend if you enjoy quality television–I haven’t seen all of the shows he discusses in the book, so I skipped those chapters, but I’ve seen most of them, and I follow Sepinwall’s reviews online pretty religiously for shows I watch) and Ann Patchett’s The Secret of a Happy Marriage. I enjoy the way Patchett writes and have always enjoyed her non-fiction, but…well, the truth is, this book of essays is probably best read in small doses if you want to keep liking Ann Patchett (and I do). Reading all of these essays together in almost one sitting, I thought she came off as both a bit smug and full of first-world problems. While I appreciate her for opening an independent bookstore, for example, she seems (ingenuously) unaware that the book store is probably a success both because her name is attached to it and because she has rather deep pockets to help keep it going (at one point in the book, she talks about writing a $130,000 check–I’m sure many independent bookstore owners across the country wish they had ready access to such capital).

Anyway, without further ado, below are my favorite reads of 2013. I’ve added links for books I wrote about, and added a few notes for books I never got around to reviewing.

A Fine Balance, Rohinton Mistry

American Salvage, Bonnie Jo Campbell

Benediction, Kent Haruf

Life After Life, Kate Atkinson

The Flamethrowers, Rachel Kushner. This made many big-name “Best of 2013″ lists this year, and I stand with those who think all praise is well-deserved. This book worked for me because I liked the narrator so much–she’s the quintessential quiet outsider who both longs to be a part of the art world and also sees the shallowness of both her longing and the art world itself.

Serena, Ron Rash. This dark, dark novel is set in western North Carolina at the start of the Depression. George Pemberton has brought his new bride Serena home to his timber camp. Serena is ruthless and ambitious, and George is completely under her spell. A dark twist on the idea that behind every great man, there’s a great woman, this novel has a Shakespearean quality that makes it both eloquent and gripping.

Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China, Paul French. Last year, The People Who Eat Darkness, the story of a young British woman who went missing in Japan, made my list of favorite reads. Midnight in Peking tells the true story of a young British woman found murdered in 1937. The mystery has never been solved, and the story is as chilling as any modern tale I can imagine.

Night Film, Marisha Pessl

Lamb, Bonnie Nadzam

Cartwheel, Jennifer DuBois

You Are One of Them, Elliott Holt

The Sisters Brothers, Patrick DeWitt

Open Secrets, Alice Munro. Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for Literature this year, and this book had been lingering on my shelves far too long. It’s Munro. Enough said.

The Little Friend, Donna Tartt. I did it! I finally read The Little Friend, after five or six attempts. I picked it up because I was anxiously awaiting the arrival of The Goldfinch and had handed over my copy of The Secret History to my husband to read. I thought I might as well give this one another shot, and I’m so happy that I did, because somehow it finally clicked for me. As a matter of fact, I was almost reluctant to set it aside when The Goldfinch arrived. Set in Alexandria, Mississippi in the 1970s, The Little Friend is the story of Harriet Cleve Dufresnes, a 12-year-old girl who decides that the death of her older brother Robin was no accident and sets out with her friend Hely to find his killer. What Tartt does so effectively in this book is paint a vivid and complex picture of life in the deep South. If you’re interested in novels about the South, and want a more accurate and less cliched (and funnier, deeper) portrayal of the racial and class inequalities that persist in small Southern towns than you might find in a book such as The Help, then pick up The Little Friend.

The Goldfinch, Donna Tartt. I am not going to say much about this one, because so much has already been said. I found it completely engrossing and enjoyable. Tartt is a world-builder, which I think is why she has lately been compared so often to Dickens. I’ve seen some reviewers who seem to want to pick apart the book–why, for example, would terrorists bomb an art gallery? I don’t know. Why, in reality, do they bomb discotheques? The book isn’t about terrorism. It’s about loneliness, isolation, friendship, and perhaps on some level the power of art to sustain us in the strangest ways.

Revisiting: The Secret History Soundtrack

secrethistoryNote: In honor of the official publication of Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch tomorrow, I though it would be fun and fitting to re-post this soundtrack for The Secret History that I originally posted March 3, 2009.  I’ve also updated the post below to include a  link to the soundtrack in Spotify. Happy listening!

Several weeks ago I came across a post on American Bibliophile that challenged readers to create a soundtrack for their favorite books. Immediately this was something I wanted to do, but little did I realize how difficult it might be. First, which book should I pick? I have many favorite novels: Plainsong, All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, The Bright Forever, Franny and Zooey, and Rabbit, Run, just to name a very few. I finally settled on The Secret History because I had certain songs I associated with that book from the very first time I read it. Still, that brought up another dilemma: What sort of soundtrack should I create? Should I stick to a certain time period (i.e., if the song wasn’t around when the book was published, should I be allowed to use it?) or to a certain mood? Should I create it as though it were a movie soundtrack or pick songs for each of the characters?

After thinking about it for well over a week, I decided to go with the mood (and songs that were around when or before the book was published), following the chronology of events in the book. Without further ado, I present for you my soundtrack for The Secret History. I hope you enjoy it! In fact, I hope you’ll join the challenge!

Updated:  I’ve created this playlist in Spotify. You can listen to it here.

“Blue Bell Knoll” – The Cocteau Twins. This song has opens with an ethereal beginning and moves into a swirling, windswept feel that grows in intensity through the end of the song. I think it fits the opening of the book, where Richard first quietly reveals Bunny’s murder and then backtracks to tell us the story of how he decided to go to Hampden College.

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of the situation.” (Note: This is NOT a spoiler; it’s the first sentence of the book.)

“Those first days before classes started I spent alone in my whitewashed room, in the bright meadows of Hampden. And I was happy in those first few days as really I’d never been before, roaming like a sleepwalker, stunned and drunk with beauty. A group of red-cheeked girls playing soccer, ponytails flying, their shouts and laughter carrying faintly over the velvety, twilit field. Trees creaking with apples, fallen apples red on the grass beneath, the heavy sweet smell of them rotting on the ground and the steady thrumming of wasps around them. Commons clock tower: ivied brick, white spire, spellbound in the hazy distance. The shock of first seeing a birch tree at night, rising up in the dark as cool and slim as a ghost. And the nights, bigger than imagining: black and gusty and enormous, disordered and wild with stars.”

“Three to Get Ready” – Dave Brubeck Quartet. This neat little jazz number makes me think of Richard watching the other Greek students on campus, and going to visit Julian, and realizing he wants to be a part of their world (as he imagines it). This song has the feeling of dappled sunlight and late fall afternoons, where there’s still a bit of warmth in the air, and everything in the world feels like a possibility.

“And what did I do in Hampden town? Frankly, I was too staggered by my good fortune to do much of anything. It was a glorious day; I was sick of being poor, so, before I thought the better of it, I went into an expensive men’s shop on the square and bought a couple of shirts. Then I went down to the Salvation Army and poked around in bins for a while and found a Harris tweed overcoat and a pair of brown wingtips that fit me, also some cufflinks and a funny old tie that had pictures of men hunting deer on it. When I came out of the store I was happy to find that I still had nearly a hundred dollars. Should I go to the bookstore? To the movies? Buy a bottle of Scotch? In the end, I was so swarmed by the great flock of possibilities drifted up murmuring and smiling to crowd about me on the bright autumn sidewalk that–like a farm boy flustered by a bevy of prostitutes–I brushed right through them, to the pay phone on the corner, to call a cab to take me to school.

Once in my room, I spread the clothes on my bed. The cufflinks were beaten up and had someone else’s initials on them, but they looked like real gold, glinting in the drowsy autumn sun which poured through the window and soaked in yellow pools on the oak floor–voluptuous, rich, intoxicating.”

“Symphony No. 4 in C Minor (‘Tragic’), D. 417: Adante” – Franz Schubert. This piece is so pretty, but it has an undertone of melancholy that befits this section. The time during fall leading up to Christmas, when Richard spends weekends with the others at Francis’s family home in the country, is the most idyllic time for Richard, but he’s already told us it’s not to last.

“It was dark and I couldn’t see a thing. My fingers finally closed on the door handle and only then, as I was climbing out of the car, the moon came out from behind a cloud and I saw the house. It was tremendous. I saw, in sharp, ink-black silhouette against the sky, turrets and pikes, a widow’s walk.”

“Prior to this first weekend in the country, my recollections of that fall are distant and blurry: from here on out, they come into a sharp, delightful focus. It is here that the stilted mannequins of my initial acquaintance begin to yawn and stretch and come to life. It was months before the gloss and mystery of newness, which kept me from seeing them with much objectivity, would wear entirely off…”

“The weekends at Francis’s house were the happiest times. The trees turned early that fall but the days stayed warm well into October, and in the country we spent most of our time outside. Apart from the occasional, half-hearted game of tennis…we never did anything very athletic; something about the place inspired a magnificent laziness I hadn’t known since childhood.”

“Road, River, and Rail” – The Cocteau Twins. This is one of the songs I’ve always associated with this book, mainly because the mood of the song fits so well (one good thing about The Cocteau Twins, half the time it’s impossible to know what she’s singing about, so no other meaning imposes itself on the song). Christmas break is approaching, the others are leaving, and Richard has nowhere to go, so he finds a place to stay in Hampden. This song evokes for me the feelings I think Richard has, being left behind.

“The last week of school was a flurry of packing, typing, plane reservations and phone calls home, for everybody but me. I had no need to finish my papers early because I had nowhere to go; I could pack at my leisure, after the dorms were empty.”

“I stood in the deserted street until I could no longer hear the sound of the motor, only the hiss of the powdery snow that the wind kicked up in little eddies on the ground. Then I started back to campus, hands deep in pockets and the crunch of my feet unbearably loud. The dorms were black and silent, and the big parking lot behind the tennis court was empty except for a few faculty cars and a lone green truck from Maintenance. In the dorm the hallways were littered with shoe boxes and coat hangers, doors ajar, everything dark and quiet as the grave.”

“Shipbuilding” – Elvis Costello. Without giving too much away, I’ll just say I picked this song because of the mood, and also because the whole idea of rumors and half-truths reflects the confusion Richard feels about what’s happening in his circle of friends. The ease that existed before Christmas has been replaced by a tension that cannot long be contained.

“I suppose if I had a moment of doubt at all it was then, as I stood in that cold, eerie stairwell looking back at the apartment from which I had come. Who were these people? How well did I know them? Could I trust any of them, really, when it came right down to it? Why, of all people, had they chosen to tell me?

It’s funny, thinking back on it now, I realize that this particular point in time, as I stood there blinking in the deserted hall, was the one point at which I might have chosen to do something very different from what I actually did.”

“Bunny, for all his appearance of amiable, callous stability, was actually a wildly erratic character…He sailed through the world guided only by the dim lights of impulse and habit, confident that his course would throw up no obstacles so large that they could not be plowed over with sheer force of momentum. But his instincts had failed him in the new set of circumstances presented…Now that the old trusted channel markers had, so to speak, been rearranged in the dark, the automatic pilot mechanism by which his psyche navigated was useless; decks awash, he floundered aimlessly, running on sandbars, veering off in all sorts of bizarre directions.”

“The Pan Piper” – Miles Davis. This song has the perfect sort of eerie feeling of being in the woods in the early spring: the dark, wet trees; the damp, musty earth. Richard and the others are in the woods to execute part of their plan to kill Bunny, when he happens upon them and fate takes its course.

“The woods were deathly still, more forbidding than I had ever seen them–green and black and stagnant, dark with the smells of mud and rot. There was no wind; no bird sang, not a leaf stirred. The dogwood blossoms were poised, white and surreal against the darkening sky, the heavy air.”

“Love Will Tear Us Apart” – Joy Division/ “True Faith” – New Order. I picked these songs for the sections where Richard and his friends are waiting for Bunny to be discovered, for the truth to be revealed–and once it is revealed, for the funeral. As time passes, they grow more irritable and unsure of each other.

“After what we’d been through in the previous weeks, it was no wonder we were all a little sick of one another. For the first few days we stayed pretty much to ourselves, except in class and in the dining halls; with Bun dead and buried, I suppose, there was much less to talk about, and no reason to stay up until four in the morning.”

“Phantasiestucke (Three Fantasy Pieces). Op. 73” – Robert Schumann. This longer piece works well as the group unravels further, as each person deals with the consequences of the murder.

“I was still trying to force back the blackest thought of all; the merest suggestion of it sent the rat’s feet of panic skittering up my spine. Had Henry intended to make me the patsy if his plan had fallen through? …so much of what I knew was only secondhand, so much of it was only what he’d told me; there was an awful lot, when you got right down to it, that I didn’t even know…I knew, from television, that there was no statute of limitations on murder. New evidence discovered. The case reopened. You read about these things all the time.”

“Mother of Pearl’ – Roxy Music. If I were making this soundtrack for a movie, I would edit out the first minute and thirty seconds to get to the heart of this song, which has the feeling of a fine party that has ended, a melancholy idea of what cannot be sustained: “I’ve been looking for something I’ve always wanted but was never mine/But now I see that something just out of reach growing very Holy Grail…” Many years later, Richard goes to meet with a few friends from that time, and finds it wrenching to part:

“Raindrops on the windshield, radio stations fading in and out. Cornfields bleak in all those gray, wide-open reaches. I had said goodbye to her once before, but it took everything I had to say goodbye to her then, again, for the last time, like poor Orpheus turning for a last backward glance at the ghost of his only love and in the same heartbeat losing her forever: hinc illae lacrimae, hence those tears.”

All Hail Alice Munro! All Hail the Short Story!

Unless you live under a rock or simply do not care about literature at all (why are you here, by the way?), then you probably know by now that Alice Munro was awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize in Literature. I heard the news this morning on NPR. I gave a whoop and started to cry; I was so happy to hear the news because Alice Munro is my favorite author, and I know I’m not alone!

“This is quite a wonderful thing for me. It’s a wonderful thing for the short story.”—Alice Munro

But another reason to be happy is that this is such a significant award given to a writer dedicated to the short story form. I did not know, until I started this blog and became acquainted with other book bloggers, how many readers–even readers of ‘serious’ literature–have an aversion to the short story. I’ve often wondered why that is, but the attitude is not an uncommon one, even if the reasons are singular and unique.

“Because I work in the short story form, this is a special thing, to get this recognition.” —Alice Munro

Earlier this year, an article on Gawker took American writer George Saunders to task for never having written a novel. The premise? Real writers write novels…enough playing at all this short story business. Short stories are for MFA theses. They are for dallying and tinkering with between writing real books. They are not serious literature. That story garnered quite a bit of criticism when it was published, but hopefully now we can begin to put the debate to rest (or at least lock it in a closet where we can’t hear the muffled cries of outrage).

In honor of Ms. Munro being awarded the prize, I thought I would share a list of some of my favorite short story collections.  I hope you find something you like here.

Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Love, Marriage, by Alice Munro (Favorite stories: “Post and Beam” and the title story, soon to be a movie starring Kristin Wiig. Candian actress, director, and activist Sarah Polley also made the film Away from Her, which was based on “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” the last story in this collection.)

Rare and Endangered Species, by Richard Bausch

Birds of America, by Lorrie Moore

Paris Stories, by Mavis Gallant

Cowboys Are My Weakness, by Pam Houston

American Salvage, by Bonnie Jo Campbell

After Rain, by William Trevor

Ship Fever, by Andrea Barrett

The Collected Stories, Flannery O’Connor

Wonders of the Invisible World, by David Gates

A Relative Stranger, by Charles Baxter

Monogamy, by Marly Swick

Bad Behavior, by Mary Gaitskill

An Amateur’s Guide to the Night Sky, Mary Robison

Female Trouble, by Antonia Nelson

In the Garden of North American Martyrs, by Tobias Wolff

Delicate, Edible Birds, by Lauren Groff

“Well I hope [the prize brings a new readership], and I would hope this would happen not just for me but for the short story in general, because it’s often sort of brushed off you know as something people do before they write their first novel, and I would like it to come to the fore without any strings attached sort of. It doesn’t have to be a novel.” —Alice Munro

*Alice Munro quotes from her telephone interview today with Nobel member Adam Smith. You can listen to the call in its entirety here.

**Image from The New York Times

***Updated 10/14/2013 to add link for short story, “The Bear Came over the Mountain,” now available on The New Yorker site.

Re-Reading in 2013

I had hoped to share New Books, New Year Part 2 with you today, but books that were scheduled for delivery have not yet arrived. Instead, I thought I’d share a side project I’ve created for myself this year to re-read some of my favorite books. The list mostly includes books I’ve only read one or two times but that have stayed with me over the years. Others I’ve re-read multiple time, but not in recent years. I’m anxious to see what still speaks to me now.

If you’d like to join me in re-reading some of your favorite books, I’ve posted a tab above for easy access through 2013. On that page you can leave a list of books you’d like to re-read in 2013, or links to any reviews you post. Also feel free to share on Twitter with the hashtag #rereading2013. Again, this isn’t a formal challenge, so you do not need to commit to any specific books or number of books. It’s just a way to share!

Below is my current list; I decided to stick with novels:

  • All My Friends Are Going to Be Strangers, Larry McMurtry. One of his  “Houston” novels, which include Terms of Endearment. Not exactly a series, these novels deal with the same group of characters. I’d like to read all of them eventually.
  • Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry. I read this over 20 years ago. One thing you might not guess about me: I have a thing for westerns, particularly if they are well-written.
  • In the Lake of the Woods, Tim O’Brien. It seems like the obvious choice with O’Brien would be The Things They Carried, which is already a classic and which I’ve read many times, although not in several years. I remember finding this book particularly haunting when I read it in the winter of 1995.
  • Housekeeping, Marilynne Robinson. I was stunned by this book the first–and only–time I read it, and I instantly counted it as a favorite. I don’t expect that to change!
  • You Remind Me of Me, Dan Chaon. I read this book on an airplane flight from Las Vegas to Atlanta in 2005. It was the first book by Chaon that I read and made me anxios to seek out his other work. Like a lot of books in this list, it’s a melancholy book.
  • True Grit, Charles Portis. Mattie Ross is one of my all-time favorite heroines, and the book has more dry wit than either of the movies (although I loved the Coen brothers’ version in 2010.). I read this book as a little girl and again as an adult. I have two new Portis novels on their way to me, but I want to re-read this one as well.
  • Diary of a Mad Housewife, Sue Kaufman. If you are a fan of the show Mad Men, I suggest you read this book. It’s wickedly funny and sad.
  • Straight Man, Richard Russo. Speaking of funny and sad…I had a hard time choosing between this one and Empire Falls. Whole truth: I chose this one because it’s shorter. And funnier.
  • GeniusPatrick Dennis. Patrick Dennis is mostly famous for having written the novel Auntie Mame, on which the wonderful movie starring Rosalind Russell was based. Genius is the continuation of Patrick and Pegeen’s story, wherein Patrick gets roped into writing a screenplay for a screwball movie director named Leander Starr. If you can get your hands on this, I suggest you do. It’s funnier than Auntie Mame. Sorry for no link to the book, but it’s out of print. You can find it on eBay.
  • I Capture the Castle, Dodie Smith. I don’t have to explain this one to a bunch of book bloggers.
  • Motherless Brooklyn, Jonathan Lethem. I read this in 1999 just after it was published. It’s about a guy with Tourette syndrome who works for a detective agency. Lots of humor and a bit of mystery is what I remember about this one.
  • Special Topics in Calamity Physics, Marisha Pessl. I hated this book the first time I picked it up. The second time I picked it up, I could not put it down. In fact, when I reached the end I turned back to the beginning and read it again. How will attempt number four fare?
  • Plainsong, Kent Haruf
  • Eventide, Kent Haruf. I’m reading both of these for one simple reason: I love them, and his third book, Benediction, in this loosely-termed “series” is coming out at the end of February. I have already ordered it.

Let me know if you think you might like to re-read some old favorites in 2013!