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I’ve been keeping lists of the books I read for four years now, and I have to admit that doing so awakens a certain competitive spark.  Right now, at just about eight weeks from the end of the freakin’ year (happens EVERY YEAR, and yet EVERY YEAR I am taken aback by the swift passage of time) I have already surpassed my Total Books Read for 2012 (which was 64, btw), and am close to topping my all-time high since I’ve been counting (77 books in 2011 …while I was unemployed for nearly a year).

I’m feeling rather smug.

Maybe you’ve noticed that the number of books I’ve read so far in no way approaches the number of reviews I write.  The fact is, when you read a lot of books, you just don’t have a strong reaction to all of them, because most books are only okay. Still other books are objectively good, but not provoking to me personally.  And then some, like the ones I write capsule reviews about, are ones that I have a mere blip of a reaction to, enough to to write about but not at length. That, or my feelings about them are very simple and don’t require much explanation.

dustFor example, Hugh Howey’s finale to his excellent Silo series, which began in 2011 with a series of shorter works that were compiled into Wool.  This finale, Dust, is one I suspect most fans will not find cause to complain about, because it gives the reader just about everything she could want. It’s a recurrent fault of Howey’s that he also tends to give the reader quite a bit more than she might want. Fans will be very satisfied with the attention given to Juliette, Solo, and Donald’s stories (and sidebar, it was an interesting experience to see Donald become the most interesting character in the series considering Juliette’s blazing debut in Wool), but perhaps stymied by the energy wasted on several characters, some of whom are new to the story and serve essentially as plot devices.

Another detractor is, ironically, Howey’s rich imagination and ability to create a layered world. He can’t seem to help himself when it comes to showing the reader as much of this world as he possibly can, even when a more streamlined approach would benefit his book more. But this is really a quibble. If you liked the rest of the series, you’ll be pleased with Dust, not least because it gives an actual sense of finality, unlike so many other abrupt or ambiguous or out-of-left-field endings.

lifeAnother note about 2013: it must be the year in which I have read the most books that have made me cry in public. Most recently, I was crying at my desk during my lunch break while finishing Julian Barnes’ Levels of Life. It’s a very short (200 pages about, I think) series of three essays, the last of which discusses Barnes’ grief in the aftermath of his wife’s death. This is an example of a book I had a very uncomplicated reaction to. It’s a beautiful writer describing things beautifully. You don’t read such a book to criticize its technical shortcomings; you read it because you know the author has the power to make you feel something real. I suppose for the sake of comparison, I’ll add that his Booker prize-winning The Sense of an Ending was a superior piece of literature, but we’re talking about ranking works that all reside in the same supreme tier. Just let the prose wash over you and alter your consciousness. You’ll wake up two hours later heartbroken and not knowing quite where you are, which sounds like a bad LSD trip, but trust me, it’s worth it.

 

 

wife

This one goes into the “Reactional Blip” pile.  It’s enjoyable and a page-turner for sure, but somehow unsatisfying. It’s being compared to both Room and Before I Go to Sleep, but I would add that it also draws influence from Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper”.  Protagonist Marta Bjornstad spends her days cleaning her already spotless house and waiting for her husband, Hector, to come home from teaching his university courses. But lately, she hasn’t been taking her pills, and she’s starting to see things: a little girl in a dirty nightgown. Strands of blonde hair in the trashcan, though her own hair is brown. We quickly realize that we and Marta are both unsure whether she is more sane off her pills than on them.

Anyway, it has the suspense of Room without that book’s more novel technical execution, and a similar message to “The Yellow Wallpaper” without any additional complexity or depth to account for the 100+ years since Gilman’s story was first published.  Of the three, it’s most like Before I Go to Sleep, in both its good and flawed aspects, which is to say that it’s well written and lots of fun, but some of the main character’s actions are illogical and the ending could use a bit more work. It is one of the few books I’ve read in which sustained present-tense narration actually makes sense. And you’ll read it in a few hours, so even if you don’t like it you won’t have wasted much time! But if you enjoyed its predecessors, you’ll likely have some fun with How to Be a Good Wife.

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