Fifty Books

It didn’t start out as a challenge exactly. I just had a lot of time on my hands and after participating in a few memes of the “how many of these books have you read” sort, was appalled to find out how little I’d actually read. So I got some books. Lots of books. I joined Library Thing and started cataloging all the books I’d read in my life—less than 300 so far, though in fairness there are many I simply forgot about. Still, a drop in the bucket compared to those members with catalogs numbering in the thousand—25,564 is the record holder so far. Whether they’ve actually read all of them or not isn’t quite clear. They must hire librarians to look after their vast collections because who else has time to catalog them all when you’re busy reading 24/7? I have no such aspirations. I just want to read a bunch of good books. To guide me in my reading choices, I made a list of “must-reads” based on critiques, award winner, classics and so on. 

Here is my year 2008 in fifty books (more or less in the order in which I read them):

My ratings:
✩ : I hated

★ : I disliked

★★ : It was ok
★★★ : Worth Reading
★★★★ : I liked
★★★★★ : Loved

  1. Ten Thousand Lovers by Edeet Ravel
    A story about a man and a woman falling in love and dealing with some of the harsh realities of living in Israel. ★★★★ I liked.
  2. Sputnik Sweetheart by Haruki Murakami
    I’ve read several of Murakami’s books and usually enjoy his offbeat characters who carry dark secrets in a world turned on it’s head. This one wasn’t my favorite. ★★★ Still worth the read.
  3. Empire Falls by Richard Russo
    This story about a small town well-past it’s days of glory kept me hooked, although reading the back cover wasn’t promising. My first book by Russo. There will be more. ★★★ A nice discovery.
  4. The Black Book by Orhan Pamuk
    I couldn’t finish it. It was a difficult read and the story so convoluted that it made me feel that I wasn’t intelligent enough to understand. ★ Not quite my cup of tea.
  5. Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke
    An imaginative story about competing magicians who actually had the talent to make ‘real’ magic happen. A long book but engrossing. ★★★ Entertaining.
  6. The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood
    I had read this book when it came out and was impressed with Atwood’s intricate story of a book within a book. The second read lacked the element of surprise, but was interesting nonetheless. ★★★1/2 I may read it again eventually.
  7. Water for Elephants: A Novel by Sara Gruen
    Easily my favorite book of the year and definitely one of my favorites of all time. I was enthralled with the story of this traveling circus from the start and then when Rosie the elephant made her appearance I was truly infatuated. ★★★★★ 1/2 A memorable story with a fascinating cast of characters.
  8. The Brooklyn follies by Paul Auster
    An interesting story which I only truly started appreciating after I finished the book. ★★ 1/2 It was better than ok.
  9. My Name Is Red by Orhan Pamuk
    This story delivered more than I expected. There was intrigue and murder and art and a story very well told with multiple narratives. Not an easy read, but well worth it. ★★★★ Glad I gave Pamuk another try.
  10. Women Who Run with the Wolves by Clarissa Pinkola Estes
    Tried to read this book before and always ended up abandoning it along the way. I know it’s a good book objectively, but ultimately it fails to keep my interest. ★★★ Didn’t finish it this time either.
  11. Naked by David Sedaris
    My first time reading David Sedaris. Every review emphasizes how funny, nay, HILARIOUS and what a laugh-out-loud-till-you-split-a-gut reading experience it provided. So okay, the stories were a little loopy. ★★ I chuckled just once and that’s about it.
  12. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon
    There are those who use words like Genius and Brilliant, and Fantastic and those who don’t agree. I tend to be in the first camp. It was truly fascinating to enter Christopher’s world and see everyday life through the eyes of a highly functioning autistic person. ★★★★1/2 I liked it A LOT.
  13. The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini
    I was sure all the hype I’d read about it would ruin it, but quickly got sucked into this story of childhood innocence lost in a place entirely foreign to me: the Afghanistan of Communists and the Taliban. ★★★★★ Great. Looking forward to reading his other book—Thousand Splendid Suns.
  14. The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald
    Had seen the movie several times and was definitely a fan (a young Mia Farrow and Robert Redford? Oh yeah!). As I was reading the book I couldn’t help but see the movie in my mind all over again since it was obviously true to the original story. ★★★★★ What’s there not to like?
  15. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon
    As I was reading it, I discovered that I can’t stand Michael Chabon. I cringed at his use of French expressions thrown in here and there to make himself seem wordly—some of them out of context, I should add. The story had all the elements of a great saga but I was too caught up in hating Chabon to enjoy any of it. ★ I would never have given it a Pulitzer Prize.
  16. Motherless Brooklyn by Jonathan Lethem
    Heard a lot of good things about this book and it’s Touretic main character. All true. ★★★★ 1/2 Recommended.
  17. Baltasar and Blimunda by Jose Saramago
    It’s been months since I’ve read it but I’m still not quite sure whether I liked this story of not. Wanted to read Saramago, but felt too intimidated to start with Blindness for some reason. ★★ I should have read Blindness first.
  18. A Portrait of the Artist As a Young Man by James Joyce
    I know it’s a great classic, which is why I read it. But can I just say that I could barely understand what was going on through the whole book without sounding like a complete idiot? ★★ I had been planning on reading Ulysses but maybe not.
  19. The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy
    I had seen this book so many times since it’s come out and finally took the plunge this year. Because of the title I was expecting something more along the lines of Paolo Coelho or Deepak Chopra and of course was very surprised to find something so gritty instead. ★★★ A great book which I probably didn’t appreciate as much as I should have.
  20. Quiet Days in Clichy by Henry Miller
    For some reason the only thing I remember about this book is the fact that Henry Miller was a horny toad. ★★1/2 I still want to read Tropic of Cancer & Tropic of Capricorn.
  21. Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro
    Can I use the word ‘disliked’ for a book that has gotten so much acclaim? It’s on loads of ‘best of’ lists but I was seriously underwhelmed. 1/2 now that I’ve gotten this one out of the way I’ll be able to move on to ‘Remains of the Day’.
  22. A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway
    Loved, loved, loved this book. On a warm summer afternoon started reading it on my back porch and stayed there well past sunset and into the night so I could finish it in one sitting. It’s set in the 1920’s, and Paris seems much more exciting then than it is today. ★★★★★ Will read again.
  23. Runaway : Stories by Alice Munro
    It was alright. Part of the curriculum since Munro is touted as one of the best Canadian writers along with Atwood and Davies. I remember thinking the stories were good, but can’t really remember any of it. ★★ Unmemorable.
  24. The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst
    I. Hated. This. Book. I kept reading it only because it has won the Man Booker prize and I wanted to understand why. I was like watching a train wreck. Which in retrospect probably was the point what with a politician, a gay man, sex and drugs and Margaret Thatcher in the mix. ✩ Maybe it’s the fact that the story seemed culled from a bunch of tabloid items that garnered it attention.
  25. A Venetian Affair: A True Tale of Forbidden Love in the 18th Century by Andrea Di Robilant
    ‘Forbidden Love’ had me hooked. And it sounded so great in the description. It was mostly set in Venice, so that was nice, but otherwise I shouldn’t have wasted my time finishing it. ★ Yawn.
  26. One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez
    Second reading of this book. The first time was a revelation. Discovering Marquez’s surreal world of magic and folk tales as a young woman was almost overpowering. Now: I didn’t remember that it was set during a revolution. All that fighting doesn’t do anything for me. ★★★ He’s still a genius and I’ll keep on reading him.
  27. Baudelaire: Selected Poems by Charles Baudelaire
    One gem after another. The funny thing for me is that I’m fluent in French and I got this book in English. ★★★★1/2 the translations were great, so I can’t wait to read it in the original French.
  28. Kafka Americana: Fiction by Jonathan Lethem
    A quick and satisfying read. Lethem has a fantastic imagination. ★★★
  29. Men and Cartoons by Jonathan Lethem
    As much as I enjoyed Motherless Brooklyn, it was fun to see Lethem taking off in all these different tangents in this collection of short stories. Was almost like watching him riff. ★★★★ Short and sweet.
  30. The Confessions of Max Tivoli by Andrew Sean Greer
    This book came especially recommended by Jonas, and as soon as I read the synopsis, I was hooked. A baby who is born looking like an old man and keeps getting younger with age? Sounds like a great story right? In many ways it was. ★★★1/2 Maybe my head was elsewhere.
  31. The Secret Book of Grazia dei Rossi by Jacqueline Park
    This one also came highly recommended by a prominent critic. It’s got lots of elements that appeal; Italy in the renaissance, judaism in anti-semitic times, a young girl too smart for her own good, etc etc. I think too much praise kind of ruined it for me, and something about the writing bothered me. ★★★1/2 I almost liked it, but not quite. Still worth the read.
  32. Cat People by Margaret and Michael Korda
    Just a little book I picked up on sale about this couple that has been helping outdoor cats and taking in as many as they could find space for and their description of life with each of those cats. ★★★1/2 Great if you love cats, otherwise don’t bother.
  33. In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway
    I believe this is a collection of stories from Hemingway’s beginnings as a writer. There were a few moments, but overall I’d say it’s probably not his best work. ★★★ Still, I’m sure there is no such thing as ‘bad’ Hemingway so it’s well worth the read.
  34. In the Company of the Courtesan by Sarah Dunant
    Last year I read her other book The Birth of Venus which I couldn’t put down. I knew this one wasn’t quite as good, but looked forward to plunging into the world of Renaissance Italy and the riches to rags back to riches story of this courtesan. ★★★★ Delivered just what I was hoping for and no more.
  35. Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie
    This one is like a thorn in my foot. It was a good story. It was a great story even. And it’s RUSHDIE. And I’d never read any of his work before. And I really, really really wanted to finish it, but it was just becoming too hard to keep picking it up. ★★★ I got a taste, but eventually I had to move on.
  36. Death at La Fenice: A Commissario Guido Brunetti Mystery by Donna Leon
    Pure brain candy. I used to devour Agatha Christie mysteries as a young girl. Like a distant relative of Christie’s, Donna Leon does a whole series with this Commissario Guido Brunetti character. ★★★★ This was the first in the series and my first Donna Leon, but something tells me there’ll be many others.
  37. The Pearl by John Steinbeck
    This one truly is a gem. I could describe it but I won’t. ★★★★★ One of those stories that everybody should read, now more than ever.
  38. Martin Dressler: The Tale of an American Dreamer by Steven Millhause
    I wanted to like this story. Very much so. It had a lot going for it for half the book, but then it just became repetitive and ultimately disappointing. ★★★ Still glad I read it. Now I have another Pulitzer under my belt. :-)
  39. Palace Walk (Cairo Trilogy) by Naguib Mahfouz
  40. Palace of Desire (Cairo Trilogy II) by Naguib Mahfouz
  41. Sugar Street (The Cairo Trilogy III) by Naguib Mahfouz
    The first one was fascinating. A plunge into Cairo right after WWI. Discovering a family and their dynamic with a completely submissive wife and a cruel and overbearing father. Through this family we are discovering Egypt throughout the 20th century. The 2nd book didn’t captivate me as much, and I forced myself to finish the 3rd. Mahfouz, a Nobel Prize laureate, truly is a great thinker and if anything I’m glad to have plunged into his world for a while. ★★★★ Truly worth reading.
  42. Les Cerfs-Volants by Romain Gary
    My first Romain Gary, read in the original French version. A young man in a small French town just before and during WWII, a love story, the resistance and throughout, these kites in hundreds of different shapes and colors. ★★★★1/2 Un Chef D’Oeuvre (in English: A Masterpiece).
  43. We Bought a Zoo: The Amazing True Story of a Young Family, a Broken Down Zoo, and the 200 Wild Animals That Change Their Lives Forever by Benjamin Mee
    Well the title says it all doesn’t it? I just wanted something light and possibly funny, to read about how they did it and get a bunch of anecdotes about the animals. Mee delivered there, but he also delivered a very sad account of his wife’s struggle with brain cancer. ★★★ I did get plenty of animal accounts and I did get this book for free as an Early Reviewer, so what more can I ask for?
  44. A Confederacy of Dunces by John Toole
    Didn’t like the main character. Didn’t think he, or any of the situations he got into were funny. Was grossed out for the better part of the book. ★1/2 Why did I finish it? Pulitzer Prize of course!
  45. Then We Came to the End by Joshua Ferris
    Couldn’t get past the 2nd chapter. Got my money back. Need I say more? ✩ The last thing I need is a book stressing me out as much as this one did.
  46. Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress by Dai Sijie
    A wonderful and unexpected discovery. I wanted to read it in the original French but found the English version at the second hand shop. The story is so great that it probably doesn’t matter what language you read it in. ★★★★★1/2 I fell in love yet another time.
  47. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Díaz
    I kept reading and kept reading and kept reading and just couldn’t stand it. I only figured out who the narrator was when I was about 3/4 of the way through. And yes I finished it. And yes, it’s a Pulitzer Prize. ★1/2
  48. Beloved by Toni Morrison
    This is a complex and very disturbing story which deals with slavery and racism and ghosts, lost souls, death and rebirth. It’s a brilliant book, but it was almost painful to read it. ★★★ It felt like a very long and difficult journey, but I’m glad I read it.
  49. The White Tiger by Aravind Adiga
    Ah! For once a book that I feel well deserved it’s prize (the Man Booker Prize)! The narrator, who describes himself as an Indian Entrepreneur, delivers a series of talks to the President of China, in which he reveals how he came to be successful. ★★★★★ Quite a ride. Literally.
  50. The People of the Book by Geraldine Brooks
    I don’t know if I should include this one because I haven’t finished it yet, and not sure I’ll finish it during 2008 at the pace I’m going with it. Another book within a book. A Haggadah dating from the 15th century and the people who helped determine it’s fate throughout the ages. It’s a great story, truly. But again, came with much too much acclaim. ★★★★ Can’t say I fell in love, but I would strongly recommend it.



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