Book Read List - 2001

These are short descriptions of the books I read during 2001, with my rankings on a scale of '+', '0', and '-' and links to full reviews where I have written them.

60 books total
Rating distribution: 44 '+'s, 12 '0's, 4 '-'s
11 read for Books&Cooks reading group
9 re-reads of books read in previous years

Favorites of the Year:
The Blind Assassin; Margaret Atwood
Ender's Shadow; Orson Scott Card
The Beekeeper's Apprentice; Laurie R. King
Lord of the Rings series; J.R.R. Tolkien

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The Blind Assassin; Margaret Atwood
Atwood's latest novel interlaces the stories of the elderly sister of a controversial writer who died young, their childhood together as daughters in their small Canadian town's founding family, and chapters from the younger sister's book. As you would expect from Atwood, childhood experiences are remembered to explain or interpret adult behavior, and a mystery is traced across these initially disjoint stories. One of her better books, and very enjoyable - a '+'.
Mansfield Park; Jane Austen (May Books&Cooks)(reread)
Northanger Abbey; Jane Austen (reread)
Persuasion; Jane Austen (reread)
All three of these Austen novels are re-reads for me, and I still rate them all a '+', though these are probably the weakest of her novels. Mansfield Park is the most typical Austen novel of the three, telling the story of a girl from the poor branch of a family who is raised by her wealthy aunt and uncle and is pulled between maintaining that lifestyle and maintaining her principles. This is probably my least favorite of her books; it was also made into a high-profile movie recently which offered an unusual interpretation. Persuasion also tells the story of a young woman who, during the course of the story, finds and loses (and regains...) love. However, it is a more somber novel, with the protagonist being slightly older and more mature. Northhanger Abbey is a satire of the gothic novels of Austen's time and afun book for Austen fans, but not recommended as a first novel to read by her.
The Juvenilia of Jane Austen and Charlotte Bronte; Frances Beer, ed.
As a fan of both Austen and the Bronte sisters, and having read all of their books, it was fun to trace the origins of their styles and even characters into their youthful writings, unskilled though they were. A '+' for the enjoyment I got out of a fine collection of writings from these authors, though as a stand alone work probably not worth more than a '0'.
A Diplomatic History of the American People, 10th edition; Thomas A. Bailey
From colonization through the start of the Carter administration, this tome, left over from my high school AP history days, covers the highlights of American history from a diplomatic perspective. Organized with a short chapter on each five to ten year time span, the book gives an overview of the changing relationship between the United States and its peer nations. Perfect for reading a chapter a night, but a little overlong - a strong '0' to weak '+'.
Silk; Alessandro Baricco (February Books&Cooks selection)
This short book tells the story of a French silk farmer who travels to China to purchase silk worms and falls in love with the wife of an influencial Chinese man he meets. It was a pleasant read but somewhat shallow, so I rate it a weak '+'.
Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil; John Berendt
One of the few cases where I saw the movie before I read the book, this is part courtroom drama and part collection of character sketches. I enjoyed the style as well as the story - a '+'.
Against Our Will: Men, Women and Rape; Susan Brownmiller
A historical, biological, and strongly feminist discussion of the place of rape in gender relations that argues against it being a biological inevitablity and speculating on the societal changes necessary to curb this crime. A decent summary, though an old enough book that anyone well-read on this topic won't find too much new. A weak '+'.
Ender's Shadow; Orson Scott Card
Another entry in the Ender series, this book returns to the themes of children's intelligence, cruelty and resourcefulness, retelling the story in Ender's Game from the perspective of Bean. A very good book - a strong '+'.
Shadow of the Hegemon; Orson Scott Card
This sequel to Ender's Shadow shows what happened to the children from battle school after they returned to Earth. Like most of the other sequels, it isn't as strong a book. If I hadn't been given it as a gift, I probably wouldn't have bothered reading it, but I don't absolutely regret the time spent on it either. A '0'.
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay; Michael Chabon (October Books&Cooks)
This is the story of a boy, Sammy, growing up in New York City and his cousin, Joe, who comes to live with him after escaping from Poland at the start of WWII. Joe lends his artistic skill and knowledge of escape artistry to Sammy's storytelling and familiarity with comic books to create their own comic and eventually entire line of comics. The book extends beyond this, though, as Joe tries to help the rest of his famly escape to America and deal with his own guilt over having escaped himself, and Sammy struggles to balance his responsibility to others and to his artistry. Written with occasional departures into comic book style itself, this is a fun book which rates only a moderate '+' because of its sometimes excessive (though often amusing) digressions.
The Big Sleep; Raymond Chandler (June Books&Cooks)
One of the first "hard-boiled" mystery novels, and a decently written and developed one at that, this is a gripping example of the genre. A '+'.
Girl With a Pearl Earring; Tracy Chevalier (August Books&Cooks)
The book speculates the story of a Dutch girl employed as a maid in Vermeer's household who assists him in his studio and eventually becomes the subject of one of his paintings. While I didn't agree with all of the girl's actions, I was drawn in by the balancing act she is forced to maintain between the different identities she has to assume for the range of people she is introduced to as part of Vermeer's household and an object of his own interest. A '+'.
Fifth Business, Book One of The Deptford Trilogy; Robertson Davies (March Books&Cooks)
The Manticore, Book Two of The Deptford Trilogy; Robertson Davies
World of Wonders, Book Three of The Deptford Trilogy; Robertson Davies
This triology of loosely connected books begins as the story of a boy who grew up in a small Canadian town and lives on the fringes of others' lives without distinguishing himself. In Fifth Business, he looks back on the life of a boyhood rival as he achieves success and then dies under suspicious circumstances. Later books introduce psychotherapy, magic, and further mysteries. I would rate the first book a '+', but the later two have less discernable plot and rate '0's.
Quieter Than Sleep; Joanne Dobson
Another book in the mystery-novel with a gimmick genre, this one about an English professor at a New England liberal arts college who has to solve the mystery behind a supposed Emily Dickinson manuscript to solve the more conventional mystery of who killed the head of her department. A fun escapist read - '+'.
The City of God; E.L. Doctorow (November Books&Cooks)
This a multi-threaded book explores religion, life purpose, love, nature, and the creative process in a structure which is not quite up to the challenge. While the writing is good, there is no coherent plot or even theme to the work. It reads like an established author indulging themself with a notebook style novel, which it very possibly is. A '-'.
The Loving Spirit; Daphne duMaurier
A poorly executed romance novel based around the gimic that the love between a couple was so strong as to be passed down to couples between their families through the ages. A '-'.
Silas Marner; George Eliot
A story of a reclusive weaver who suffers a crisis of faith after being wrongly expelled from his church and then reconnects with society after finding an abandoned baby on his doorstep, this is a sweet story. I like English novels of this era, so a '+' from me.
The Hamlet; William Faulkner
Another typical Faulkner novel, and the one that has convinced me it is enough to read Light in August and Sound and the Fury and be done with him. A '0'.
Bridget Jones's Diary; Helen Fielding (reread)
This fun diary style novel held up to a rereading. Still a '+'.
A Passage to India; E.M. Forster (July Books&Cooks)
I think I would have gotten more about this book if I knew more about India. It describes the inability of the English to understand or interact with local culture during their occupation of India, using as an example a young woman brought to India by her fiancee. With it also going on a little longer than it had to, even though it is well written and an interesting story I give this a weak '+'.
The Women's Room; Marilyn French
A 1970's novel of a woman who stops being a housewife to pursue a graduate degree and a life on her own in search of self-fulfillment. An interesting historical perspective, though a weak novel, so I rate it a '0'.
The UNIX-HATERS Handbook; Simson Garfinkel, Daniel Weise & Steven Strassmann, ed.
A compellation of posts to the UNIX-HATERS mailing list about why not to use UNIX that I read while teaching a class on my favorite OS. Fun to skim, but not much more than you can find on a web site. A '0'.
'C' is for Corpse; Sue Grafton
'D' is for Deadbeat; Sue Grafton
'E' is for Evidence; Sue Grafton
'F' is for Fugitive; Sue Grafton
The next four books in the Kinsey Milhone mystery series I am reading when I find cheap, used copies. All of similar quality - light, non-graphic, and a protagonist I enjoy. A '+' for what they are.
The Book of Ruth; Jane Hamilton (January Books&Cooks)
Probably my favorite Books&Cooks selection from the past year, a story of three generations of women ending with the daughter with a missing memory from her childhood. A '+'.
Plainsong; Kent Haruf (April Books&Cooks)
Interlocking character studies of the inhabitants of a Midwestern town as the find and lose each other. Good, but forgettable - a moderate '+'.
The Ambassadors; Henry James
Like all other Henry James novels, at least that I've read, this is a story of what it takes to enter and stay in the "right" society, and the differences between doing so in America and Europe in the early 1900's. In this case, friends and family are sent to fetch an American entrepreneur back from Europe before he loses his American respectability. The style is different than James's other books, with most of the action being described in a small series of conversations between characters rather than being shown directly, and even at the end it was slightly unclear what had happened - this is either a weak '+' or a strong '0'.
The Beekeeper's Apprentice; Laurie R. King
The start of the Mary Russell series, we watch as Mary befriends the now retired Sherlock Holmes, becomes his apprentice, and eventually partners with him to solve a major case. I love Sherlock Holmes, and this book fit in while having a more modern feel. A definite '+'.
A Monstrous Regiment of Women; Laurie R. King
A continuation of the Mary Russell series, Mary and Holmes continue to work together, this time to explore a women’s church whose wealthy members have a tendency to die off after bequeathing their money to the church. Another '+'.
A Letter of Mary; Laurie R. King
The third book in King's Mary Russell series, Mary and Sherlock Holmes investigate the death of a friend and a papyrus alleged to identify Mary Magdalene as the 13th apostle. A '+', with much fun puzzle solving and more development of King's interesting perspective on Holmes' personal life.
A Wizard of Earthsea; Ursula LeGuin
I've seen the Earthsea trilogy mentioned in too many lists of classic fantasy not to give it a try, but from just reading this first book, it doesn't stand out from other fantasy works for me. I give this basic "boy grows into powerful wizard and quests against evil" story a '0'.
Hackers; Steven Levy
Stories of the growth of the modern computer, from the perspective of the people who shaped the development of computer by the way they used them. Levy idolizes his subjects more than I would, but he tells good and interesting stories. A '+'.
Insanely Great: The Life and Times of Macintosh, the Computer that Changed Everything; Steven Levy
Levy tells about the people who build the Macintosh and the philosophy they were following, as well as how this new computer meshed into the ongoing computer market with a marked affection towards these machines. A '+'.
Understanding Comics; Scott McCloud (reread)
A classic book on what makes comics art, and how artistry is integrated into comics, this is a great book even for those who don't read comics but are curious what the fuss is - a '+'.
Reinventing Comics; Scott McCloud
The sequel to Understanding Comics, McCloud identifies contemporary revolutions in comics, particularly due to computer-generation and computer-publication of comics, and discusses how they fit into the overall form. Less good than his first book on the topic, I give this a weak '+'.
A Canticle for Leibowitz; Walter M. Miller Jr.
I hate post-apocaliptic stories because I find them depressing, and I found this book rather depressing too, but the story behind it was creative and well executed enough I'll still give this a '+' even though I don't want to read it again. After nuclear war has decimated civilization, groups of monks hunt for what little writing is left and hand copy and pass it on through the ages until the world slowly works its way back towards modernity and, at the same time, the same risks of nuclear destruction.
The Poetical Works of John Milton; H.C. Beaching, ed.
Milton's poetry is easy to read even if you aren't used to poetry, and Paradise Lost is actually an interesting read, though the descriptions of hell's horrors get over the top at times. I'm glad I read this, so I'll give it a '+'.
The Fountainhead; Ayn Rand
This was an overly long, overly pedantic book with a protagonist I disliked from page one and too many strawman arguments to debate seriously - a '-', and I don't intend to bother with any of Rand's other novels.
Wide Sargasso Sea; Jean Rhys
The story of the woman who marries Mr. Rochester (of Jane Eyre fame), and her slow descent into insanity. Fun as a speculation for the back-story to Bronte's novel, but not much worth on its own - a weak '+'.
Even Cowgirls Get the Blues; Tom Robbins
The adventures of a girl born to hitchhike - literally, due to her abnormally large thumbs - and her encounters with the various men who are drawn to her and a farm of rebellious cowgirls on a women-only ranch. Fun at points, but a tad too counter-cultural for my taste. A '0'.
The Age of Reason; Jean-Paul Sartre
A professor who believes himself to have a strong philosophy of independence from others is faced with a pregnant mistress, a hysterical student, and a nagging feeling that his philosophy won't hold up when it is tested. But, this is Sartre, so it is all accompanied by many speeches and long mental arguments - a '0'.
The Two Gentlemen of Verona; William Shakespeare
This absolutely unremarkable Shakespeare comedy about two gentlemen who are separated from their loves and contrive through various tricks and stratagems to be reunited with them only rates a '0'.
The Religions of Man; Huston Smith
A very nice survey of the major world religions - a '+'.
Robert Kennedy: His Life; Evan Thomas
A biography of Robert Kennedy from childhood through his entire life, I rate it a '+'.
The Hobbit; J.R.R. Tolkien (reread)
The Fellowship of the Ring; J.R.R. Tolkien (reread)
The Two Towers; J.R.R. Tolkien (reread)
The Return of the King; J.R.R. Tolkien (reread)
I reread these in preparation for the Lord of the Rings movies, and they are just as good as every previous reading - all '+'s. I still like Fellowship the best, but the later two are growing on me more.
A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again; David Foster Wallace (September Books&Cooks)
This collection of essays varies in quality (and in length), though in all of them Wallace's writing style remains consistently enjoyable, and he's the type of author that I will read just for his writing though he certainly won't be to everybody's taste. This is probably a better place to start with him than one of his immense books, particularly if you don't mind skipping the essays that don't personally grab you. I give it a '+'.
Letters to Alice on First Reading Jane Austen; Fay Weldon
Not much of a book, this is a collection of essays from an author to her niece telling her why she shouldn't give up on her English classes or on reading Jane Austen. Part literary criticism and part advice on writing, this incredibly quick read is a fun little book for Austen fans with their own thoughts of writing - a '+' from me.
The Custom of the Country; Edith Wharton
More social intrigue of the early 1900's, this is the story of an upwardly mobile young lady who marries herself into a higher level of society only to find that no matter who you are, there always seems to be a social circle one higher than yours. A well executed example of the genre, I enjoyed it as escapist reading and give it a middling '+'.
Tailchaser's Song; Tad Williams
Watership Down with cats, and much weaker storytelling, this is only worth a '0'.
The Beauty Myth: How Images of Beauty Are Used Against Women; Naomi Wolf
An excellent survey of how expectations of beauty affect women, personally and as a group, though if you're already reasonably read on the topic this probably won't offer much new beyond a collection of theories and facts into one volume. A '+'.
Orlando; Virginia Woolf
Probably Woolf's weirdest book, a Duke find purpose in writing poetry, though wavers in this purpose through the difficulties of being an ambassador and turning into a woman. I can come up with theories about what it is supposed to mean, but I didn't end up caring. A '-', but almost a '0' for the bizarreness and imagining the response to it when it was first published.
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