“There is no friend as loyal as a book.” — Ernest Hemingway

It’s that time again, the last twenty books I’ve read countdown.  Majority of these books have been read in 2011 (and therefore most are fresh in my memory) unless I dragged my mind through them slowly like a cigarette.  I most prefer books I can inhale like a large (maybe even foot-long) hot dog.  These are my twenty-three-year-old opinions on these books.  I’ve included quotes I’ve marked, or ones I’ve found on goodreads.com that I think may illuminate some sort of hint at what the book is trying to do, or what it means in the universe, or just something that I found quite juicy.  I’m sure we’ve been through this one before, you’ve read my last forty books, so this is topping off at sixty.  Most of these books happened in two countries (Australia and America) or over the whistling salt of oceans.  (Something my father wants to give up for lent). Maybe over a few countries I didn’t stop in as well, like Hawaii.  Unfortunately, I didn’t really try to read any books based on the land I was in (well actually I read a John Marsden young adult novel about Australia and a fake-war so I guess that counts).  I have recommendations on Australia waiting, from my lovely friend Chris(tina).  But, without further ado, here are my last twenty book reviews, take them with a grain of salt, or quite literally and pour your heart and soul into each book, I’d appreciate it, so would the author and amazon.com (where you will inevitably go to find it cheaper).

1. Facts About the Moon-Dorianne Laux

So, she was my poetry professor three times at NCSU.  I basically wrote my personal statement about standing in the haze of her smoke outside of Caldwell hall for another two years, in order for people grading my application to see that I pay attention to my surroundings.  I should have read this book two years ago.  Dorianne has a way of slicing open her chest and vagina, exposing you to every innerd vein, and then sewing herself up again for the next person who will slide each stitch out of her naked skin.  Was that too graphic?  I mean…if I could write poems about the various sex, romance, love I’ve had in my life like this woman writes about just one boyfriend in the hospital, I’d think my life was pretty complete.  Just one, please.  Not only are her books 238947-dimensional, but she’s pulled poems out of my ass that I never knew I had.  So, yes, it’s safe to say I’d recommend anything you can ever find by her, even if you’re not into poetry.  She’s poetry of the common people, of the common woman laying belly up on a mattress with broken springs, where she hasn’t been before…but still plans to walk out proudly, with her shirt mis-buttoned, onto the sidewalk and continue her day afterwards.

Quote: “If trees could speak they wouldn’t”
— Dorianne Laux (Facts About the Moon: Poems)

2. Girl Trouble – Holly-Goddard Jones 

I’m pretty sure I’ve recommended this book to around four-thousand people since I found it in a discount mall in a giant cardboard box (that probably once housed a large animal like a cougar or something) in Australia.  It’s written by a UNCG fiction professor and so I was like, “Hey, I should probably read stuff by the professor’s I want to have for my MFA” and just picked it up and bought it for five bucks along with about ten Roary the Racing Car books for my nephew.  It took me probably a day to finish the entire book (and I may have cried at one point or another).  I’m also told that my cousin’s girlfriend recommended this book to her pregnant friend who was absolutely hysterical after reading a few of the stories (a bit of it is quite graphic, especially the dorm fire, and the dog dying).   Anytime I want to write a short story (did I mention it’s a book of short stories?) I’m going to reference this book for how it’s done.  Goddard-Jones is a Goddess, seriously, the woman can rip out your heart and spit on it and then put it back in again and make you want to hug an old man who can’t drive in front of you.  This book is impeccable, it’s up there with God Shaped Hole and How to Kill a Rockstar for me.  If you don’t read this book based on this recommendation, you can go rot in a slow moving bathtub of salsa.  Just as a sidenote: this book has a “PS” which is a facet of Harper Perenial, and I’ve never read a bad book with these “PS” things.

3. Into the Wild-Jon Kraukner 

We all know I love Jon.  I’m pretty sure I’ve exclaimed my love for him on more than one occasion.  Into the Wild wasn’t one of my favorite books by him (Under the Banner of Heaven was much more fast paced, as well as Into Thin Air), but what can you do really?  It’s still a Jon Kraukner novel and therefore, it’s still genius.  I’m trying to start reading Where Men Win Glory soon so hopefully it’ll be up there with all his other novels.  Jon Kraukner, in Into the Wild (and most of his other books) really gives you the sense of the person he’s describing.  It’s like that person is someone in your graduating high school class and you faintly remember them but they kind of kept to themselves.  They may have sat near you in freshman bio.  But then, they’re dead, and you’re shocked and you have this need to shake hands with their weeping mother at the funeral and see their little sister win her championships.  That’s how I felt after reading Into the Wild.  And when I had only twenty pages left, my dad sort of stole the book out of my apartment so I had to go find the book in the library and sit there to finish the book so I could get that feeling of completeness and feel like I really gave Chris what he deserved.  Although I personally think Chris had mental issues, he’s like every character that you want in a fiction novel, complete depth (this could be because he’s actual a real person, who died).  You don’t necessarilly find out his motives, but you realize that he has good and bad qualities because he’s human.  I recommend all Kraukner’s novels.

4. Fieldwork – Mischa Berlinski (.5)

The entire time I was reading this book I thought it was non-fiction.  I’m freaking out over the main woman character being killed and why, and about the missionaries who didn’t make much sense, but were still compassionate.  And then the very last page said “this is a work of fiction.”  I mean this book is totally written from the standpoint of most nonfiction writing.  It’s statement-oriented rather than fluffy.  It’s factual (even though the tribes and townspeople are totally made-up), it’s just everything non-fiction should be, but it came out of someone’s imagination.  In fact, I think I might actually still believe pieces of this story to be true, just because it was written for me to really care about everyone in the novel as if they were actually alive, or had been alive.  As a murder mystery, it sucks though.  It goes way into detailed history, and details of the tribe and the people’s family histories and the murder mystery loses steam.  I’m still reelin’ from this one I guess.  I picked it up because it was a “Barnes and Noble – Discover New Writers” and I’ve never had a bad book off of that shelf, and so I thought why not, I’ll try this.  If you like non-fiction, it’s worth the read.

5.  The Imperfectionists – Tom Rachman 

This book was liked by so many people that I thought, I can’t not like it right?  The cover had a really neat typography type-a-thing going on and so I was like, let’s just get it at the library and see where it goes.  (I hardly ever read novels that everyone else likes and this novel is a perfect example).  Most of the time I really love books set from different character viewpoints every other chapter (See my review of Olive Kittridge) but for some reason I hated it in this book, which is a first for me.  I think maybe the characters connected to the page, but not to the reader.  I think since the characters were constantly changing and so the perspective on the paper (the common denominator) was changing, I couldn’t get a grip on who each of these people were.  My favorite scene was definitely Abby riding the plane with the man she just fired because it was uncomfortable, awkward, and unexpected.  I got a feeling for who each person was – finally a feeling that I knew one of the characters like a good friend telling me a story.  Otherwise, it’s just a novel of miscellaneous shit.  I wouldn’t recommend it.

6. The Selected Larry Levis 

I love him, that’s most of what I can say.  I have pages in my notebook filled with quotes from the poems in this book.  He’s a genius with the written word and a long-sentence-long-lined poetry genius.  For someone who tends to write prose poems or poetic paragraphs like me, he’s like…a mentor.  Larry Levis can take nine lines and make them into any kind of poem; short, long, obtruse, tall, skinny, shaped, womanly, masculine.  I mean he’s just a poetry father, that’s all there is to it.  I will eat any of his writings any day of the week.  I’m not even going to put a quote here because I want you to go get this book immediately and feel what it feels like to find identity, or try to, or what it feels like to lose your father.

7. Olive Kitteridge – Elizabeth Strout  (.5)

This won the Pulitzer.  It’s a pretty big deal.  And I like books of short stories that are actually forming into one big story, you just don’t see that until the end.  I can’t say that I really got through these stories easy, there are a lot of hidden details, and people (everyone in this town) and there’s people you love who are narrating and people who you really don’t care about as well.  Some chapters fly by and some chapters loll on.  This may be my personal preference of younger narrators (most of the time, not so in some novels) or it just might be that this is how most people see the book.  I’m thinking this book may be for old women, possibly for a Red Hat Book Club Meeting.  I’ll happily serve them tea just to hear their thoughts on the book to see if they liked it more than I, possibly because of their age.  I don’t really know if I recommend this.  I guess I recommend any book that won a Pulitzer if you’re a writer so that you can know what you have to do to be great.

Quote: “What young people didn’t know, she thought, lying down beside this man, his hand on her shoulder, her arm; oh, what young people did not know. They did not know that lumpy, aged, and wrinkled bodies were as needy as their own young, firm ones, that love was not to be tossed away carelessly . . . No, if love was available, one chose it, or didn’t chose it. And if her platter had been full with the goodness of Henry and she had found it burdensome, had flicked it off crumbs at a time, it was because she had not know what one should know: that day after day was unconsciously squandered. . . . But here they were, and Olive pictured two slices of Swiss cheese pressed together, such holes they brought to this union–what pieces life took out of you.”
— Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge)

“It’s just that I’m the kind of person,’ Rebecca continued, ‘that thinks if you took a map of the whole world and put a pin in it for every person, there wouldn’t be a pin for me.”
— Elizabeth Strout (Olive Kitteridge)

8.  Live Through This – Debra Gwartney 

I often don’t read books with mother narrators, especially struggling mothers.  I am not yet a mother.  I am not yet a wife.  I do not yet have children.  As a woman I can relate to this narrator, but just because you have a vagina doesn’t mean you’ll see eye to eye with someone.  Cassie’s words of advice.  I think this book was inevitably sad because this mother struggled so much with her two runaway teen daughters.  I would have liked to see more of the setting, the description of Washington or Oregon or where the girls ended up living with foster parents for a while.  I would like to see the book written from the dad-who-remarried-a-hotter-younger-woman perspective.  I think what’s missing is that we get how the mother was feeling, and what her children looked like and her assumptions on who they hung out with and what drugs they were doing, but we really get no sense of her children at all.  And maybe this is the whole point because she doesn’t know her children, and this is what she claims to be the reason for all her struggles – she wasn’t paying them attention.  I think we need that development of the daughters to know if it was all her fault, or if they were rotten apples, or other various reasons.  I don’t recommend this book because it didn’t change me after reading.

9.  Story of a Girl – Sara Zarr 

This book was free on ebook I think.  So, I of course was like, oh why not?!  Uhh…now we know.  It’s pretty much the story of a girl dubbed “the school slut” for sleeping with a boy, in his car, when she’s only thirteen.  She continues to do a few other stupid things, her father really can’t even look at her, and she sabotages friendships along the way.  This is NOT the story of a girl.  I really thought that maybe this book would bounce off the song “Story of a girl, cried a river and drowned the whole world,” but I was mistaken.  It’s not worth the read, maybe it should have been marketed as a young adult novel.

10. Hunter G’s Novella 

I read this in a day.  It’s unpublished.  I had to push myself a little, but as a first time writer, my friend from camp actually had me going for a bit.  His characters were developed, a few motives were left out, but for the most part, the dude can write.  High five!

11.  Intrusions – Ursula Hegi 

This book is not for the A.D.D. or A.D.H.D seeing as how she literally intrudes on her novel with her own personal life.  If I could write a book, this would be the book that would come out of me at this point in my life and therefore I can’t help but recommend it.  My copy is filled with sticky notes everywhere marking quotes that I love.  I also love the author’s name since I’m such a Disney Queen.  There’s not many bad things I can say about this book.  While writing the novel, Hegi is constantly being interrupted by her children and husband and normal daily tasks and therefore it makes the novel seem actual, and a relief because you realize authors (other than stupid Jodi Picoult) can’t just pop books out of their ass and expect them to be a hit.  They struggle as well.  Sometimes her characters even intrude on sections and rewrite them how they want them to go instead of how the author has them.  It’s like, boring-open the inside of the writing process.  Or, in a more graphic term, letting all your guts hang out. (or imagination, all out on the page, naked, in front of millions).

11. Three Cups of Tea – Greg Morteson  (.5)

This book was just extraordinary.  I’m not saying I finished it in a few days, it took me a while to read and I really pushed myself because my book pile was backing up.  It’s a little too-detailed at times and goes more into it then anyone really cared to know, but I guess Greg just wanted everyone to know the entire story.  It explains things about 9/11 and George Bush that I wish now I never really knew.  It explains the selflessness of people in Pakistan and the reason why we can’t judge them before even giving them a chance.  I really liked this book (it honestly has nothing to do with tea), but I think it just proves the power of one person setting out to make a difference.  I haven’t started the second one yet, but I might try soon.  One was quite a lot to digest.

Quote: “Educate a boy, and your educate and individual. Educate a girl, and you educate a community.”
-African proverb via Greg Mortensen
— Greg Mortenson

12. Alice I have Been – Melanie Benjamin 

I wanted to die after I read this book.  I am…a HUGE, like giant, haggard, massive, Wooly Mammoth size, Alice in Wonderland fan.  I will gladly outfit myself in that white and blue petticoat for the rest of my life it it means I get to sit at that rectangular dining table and sing “Twinkle, Twinkle” and drink tea.   I own the miniature tea set.  I buy all the notebooks and books that are at all related to Alice, I mean I’m a huge fan.  Only to find out through Benjamin’s book that Lewis Carroll was possibly a pedophile who never married, and may or may not have had inappropriate affairs with the real Alice, who by the way died alone and earlier had been married to someone she may have not loved.   To look back now and think Alice’s Adventures were thought up to get her into a bed before the age of twelve, pretty much just disgusts me.  Not only that, but it makes me picture Lewis Carroll in an ice cream truck (aka a big white van) coaxing children with sticky lips inside.  I’d recommend this book, not because it’s fast-paced, or it was really moving or the imagery was stunning, but because if you like Alice, you just need to read it.

13. The Thirteenth Tale – Diane Setterfield 

Probably the most spectacular fantasy book on this list.  I was IN this book.  I ignored everything around me a solid afternoon and lived inside the heads of these characters.  It takes a lot for me to be completely transported into a book where it’s like I’m sleep-dreaming, but this book has the power to do that.  I was so obsessed with this book after I finished that I googled all over for the author to see if she’d even just written an essay after this book and not just stopped after this one.  It’s wonderful.  It has more sticky notes then any other book I’ve ever read (other than The Journals of Sylvia Plath) and I recommend it to anyone who wants to sit in their favorite rocking chair and get lost for a few days.

14. Lark and Termite – Jayne Anne Phillips 

This book took me a while, but it was moving and worth it.  I picked it up because the cover had a clothesline on it and for some reason clotheslines make me think of my family…or home, or something.  I think in a past life I had a clothesline, but that’s beside the point.  This book was just everything I want a book to be I guess.  It was engrossing, the characters were interesting, there were quotes that really made me think and situations that you had to figure out all throughout.  It’s painfully beautiful, I guess is the best way to describe it.  I really felt something from most of the characters.  It’s also written from different character’s perspectives every other chapter, but it works this time, don’t you worry.

Quote: “Nonie says never let a man inside you unless you want him around forever, because you can’t get rid of him after that, no matter how many times he leaves you or you leave him.”

“I don’t think my mother ever owned anything.  I think she got pulled apart.  Too many people owned a piece of her.”

“She drops her forehead onto his palm and a pulse in her temple beats like a minnow holding still.”  (I’m pretty sure that is one of the most beautiful images or metaphors I’ve ever read).

15. The Reader – Bernhard Schlink (English Translation) 

I read this book in a day.  It’s easy.  It’s also horribly depressing.  It’s about a kid who loses his virginity and has an affair with a much older woman.  She tells him nothing really about herself and disappears one day and they meet back again when she is on trial for being a Nazi soldier.  It’s definitely a moving book, I think the reader is kept at a “stand-back” from the story though.  There’s really no full-on emotional moments, or really emotions at all that make the reader feel what the characters are feeling.  I think I’d really like this book written from the older woman’s perspective and then we’d get all the feelings and all of the emotions that are drawn out from affairs and wrong-doing and her hidden secret.  It was a good book though, well-worth reading.  I just need to see the movie now!

16.  The History of Love – Nicole Krauss 

As soon as I’m done writing these, I’m starting one of her husband’s books.  This book was recommended to me and for some reason I really believed it was going to move me the same way that The Feast of Love did.  But, it didn’t.  I thought it was too long and too complicated for what it was really trying to do.  The old man and his best friend don’t make sense until the very end and it rapidly switches between olden times and the present.  The chapters of the book inside the book, are very strange and don’t make much sense until you read them four or five times and they rarely fit with the story at all.  My favorite character is obviously Leo, who has such a ridiculous outlook on his life and thinks he’s going to die any minute.  He’s such my father, or someone I know very well, who’s old.  What can I say, I love grouchy old men who still hold onto their first love…I guess I just hate that this novel really never came together for me. (Sorry Nat).  I will read her next book though because she can obviously write, this was just a mess of a book.

Quotes: “Once upon a time there was a boy who loved a girl, and her laughter was a question he wanted to spend his whole life answering.”
— Nicole Krauss (The History of Love)

“…there are two types of people in the world: those who prefer to be sad among others, and those who prefer to be sad alone.”
— Nicole Krauss (The History of Love)

“Holding hands, for example, is a way to remember how it feels to say nothing together.”
— Nicole Krauss

17. On Beauty – Zadie Smith  (.5)

I wanted to like this book, I really, truly wanted to love it.  I kept reading it in the hope that my heart would just flip around and everything would become clear and this book would have some sort of cosmic/horoscope-like/tarot-reader-recommendation purpose in my life.  But, alas, none of these things happened and when I finally completed it, I sat there and wondered why I didn’t just quit after the first fifty pages when I realized it was going nowhere.  Damn, Zadie Smith, I want to like you and I want to read you, but you make yourself so unappealing.  This book had SO many damn things going on, it was like following a very small rodent through the springs in your mattress, while you were shrunken to be the size of a pea.  It was VERY hard to just sit back and relax with this book because I was constantly wondering when it was going to have a plot.  And this really frustrates me because I’m horrible at plot, wonderful with character development and so when I see other people clearly struggling with where they’re going in a novel, it makes me feel like a stump.  Literally, like a stump, stuck in the middle of nowhere, that can’t be pushed or dug up or helped.  Stranded in quicksand.  So, I can’t really recommend this book because I would have no idea why I was recommending it to you.  As I figure that out, maybe I will.

Quotes: “She wore her sexuality with an older woman’s ease, and not like an awkward purse, never knowing how to hold it, where to hang it, or when to just put it down.”
— Zadie Smith

“The past is always tense, the future perfect.”
— Zadie Smith

“The greatest lie ever told about love is that it sets you free.”
— Zadie Smith (On Beauty)

18. Downtown Owl – Chuck Klosterman (.5)

WTF. That is all.

19. Walks with Men – Ann Beattie  (.5)

This is the shortest, one-hour-reading-time novella.  It’s easy, it has a lot of emotion packed into an hour. It’s like a good sitcom of someone’s life except not really that funny.  It’s Beattie so it’s bound to be great, but really it’s just something to read on a train or on your lunch break to give you that breath of fresh air from you life.  I really enjoyed this little novella because I wasn’t trying to figure anything out, I was just listening to the voices of the characters and going through each page with ease and patience.  Beattie gives you the freedom to just love her books, without thinking about how that love works and I think that’s really powerful.  I’d definitely recommend this book.

Quote: “Clouds are poems, and the most moving poems linger on the blackboard so long, written in cursive so lovely, they also exist inside our fingertips. We never really erase them at the end of the lesson.”
— Ann Beattie (Walks With Men)

And so we’ll stop at 19, so we can go from 20-40 in this next round.  I hope these are somewhat helpful, to someone out there in the internet abyss.  I’m going to go start “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” and it’ll be on the next list.  Have a good, bookish day now. (In my best Paula Deen accent).

One thought on ““There is no friend as loyal as a book.” — Ernest Hemingway

  1. bea mannes says:

    I really wish some of the people who read these reviews would comment back, that the review made them buy the book, or go to the library, or even avoid a bad book, something. I say this because I enjoy reading these reviews as much as I have enjoyed reading some books. The reviews are insightful and often times hilarious. Keep reading Cassie, and keep reviewing too!

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