Smooth Criminals: A Reading Challenge

Ben over at Dead End Follies is hosting the Smooth Criminals Reading Challenge: it includes eight different categories, all related to crime, in an effort to bridge the gap between literary and crime. I think it's a great project and since there are so many acclaimed novels in this genre that I am unfamiliar with, I signed up right away.

After much deliberation, my choices for each category are as follows:

1. Hardboiled Classic: Raymond Chandler/ The Big Sleep

2. Noir Classic: James M. Cain/ The Postman Always Rings Twice

3. Prison Book: Margaret Atwood/ Alias Grace

4. Book written by a writer who did time: Jean Genet/ Our Lady of the Flowers

5. Book with psychopath protagonist: Joyce Carol Oates/ Zombie

6. Gothic Novel: Shirley Jackson/ We Have Always Lived in a Castle

7. Classic where the plot revolves around a crime: Richard Wright / Native Son

8. The "Why the hell am I doing this to myself?" book: Fyodor Dostoyevsky/ Crime and Punishment

If you are interested in a challenge that may help you diversify your reading diet, head over to Dead End Follies to read the rules and sign up.

    The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

    I had my eye on this one every since Nymth reviewed it earlier this summer. Then I saw the trailer for the movie and knew I wanted to read it before the movie was released. The book itself is quite unique; it combines the novel with a picture book and scenes from old French movies. Even though it's over 500 pages, it's actually a fast read because pages alternate from traditional text to illustrations. Each do their part to tell the story of Hugo Cabret, an orphaned boy who lives in the walls of a Parisian train station, winding the station's clocks every night and working to fix a broken automaton, which he believes holds a message from his deceased father.

    What interested me most about this book was not Hugo himself, but the way it paid homage to early 20th century French film. I went abroad to study French film in college, so I found the references to the films and filmmakers most captivating. The novel really captures the magic and excitement that early film evoked. Further, Selznick's illustrations are placed carefully within the book so that when the reader turns the pages, they almost read like a black and white movie. The arrangement of pages and the act of turning them are significant to the telling of the narrative. While I wasn't completely blown away by the overall plot, the medium of the book is so innovative, I think this one is worth checking out.

    In a related note, Martin Scorsese directed the film "Hugo", based on this novel. It looks like it has the potential to be awesome. You can watch the trailer here.

    Publisher: Scholastic, 2007

    Books at the top of my TBR for winter

    Winter is my favorite season for reading. I live in the Midwest and it gets pretty cold, so it's easy to cuddle up in a blanket with a book and read for hours without feeling guilty. Like a lot of people, I tend to gravitate toward larger tomes around this time of year. Below is a list of books that are on the top of my TBR for winter.

    1. How To Read The Air/ Dinaw Mengestu: I've had my eye on this one for awhile and I found it a couple of weeks ago at Half Price Books. It follows two generations of Ethiopians living in America.

    2. The Art of Feilding/ Chad Harbach: This was among one of the many books I received for my birthday. Everyone seems to love it, and I plan on picking it up this winter.

    3. Alias Grace/ Margaret Atwood: This has been dubbed the most satisfying of Atwood's work since The Handmaid's Tale. I'm pretty pumped for this one.

    4. A Man Without a Country/ Kurt Vonnegut: A collection of essays, A Man Without a Country is Vonnegut's last published work.

    5. In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror and an American Family in Hitler's Berlin/ Erik Larson: Another book that I received for my birthday, it chronicles the life of William Dodd. It's already rumored that Tom Hanks plans to turn it into a movie.

    6. Native Son/ Richard Wright: I've had this on my TBR for about a year - it's one of those classics I've always wanted to read but haven't yet.

    7. Love in the Time of Cholera/ Gabriel Garcia Marquez: I read Memories of My Melancholy Whores awhile back and liked it a lot. Cholera is the next one I'd like to tackle since I read this Reading Pathways via BookRiot.

    8. A Garden of Earthly Delights/ Joyce Carol Oates: I picked this one up at Half Price Books last week, when I was smack in the middle of them and loving it. A Garden of Earthly Delights is the first book in the Oates' Wonderland Quartet.

    9. 11/22/63/ Stephen King: So I don't actually own this one yet, but I would like to soon. At nearly 1,000 pages it's a pretty fat one, but the premise is just so tempting.

    10. The Remains of the Day/ Kzauo Ishiguro: I've been saving this one for a time when I want to read something a little slower. I've heard it's amazing, and I don't want to pick it up until I'm ready to savor it.

    Top Ten Tuesday is hosted by The Broke and the Bookish.
    image via weheartit


    The Unnamed by Joshua Ferris

    I read and adored Joshua Ferris' debut novel Then We Came To An End last year. Upon finishing it, I couldn't wait to pick up his latest The Unnamed. The two books are very different, which is great. There is nothing worse than an author who writes a different version of the same book. However, I'm sorry to report that in the end, The Unnamed was a disappointment. I enjoyed the first hundred or so pages of the novel, but then it became so dragged out. The same thing kept happening again and again, without much purpose, and the novel as a whole began to feel underdeveloped.

    The protagonist of the novel, Tim, is a successful lawyer living in a suburb of New York City. His family, like most, is not without their problems. But, one day Tim walks out of his office and is unable to stop. Doctors can not discern why Tim can't stop walking; his condition is unnamed. What unfolds is the story of a man whose life falls apart one day at a time. I should say the book wasn't all bad. There were certain passages and notions conveyed that were notable, though somewhat clichéd; the importance of appreciating the little things in life and the idea that one shouldn't take their family and loved ones for granted. But these moments were too far and few between to make this a worthwhile read.

    Publisher: Reagan Arthur Books, 2010


    On 1001 Books

    Last Christmas my wonderful sister gifted me one of my favorite books I own; 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. The book lists and reviews the best 1001 books ever written - which of course is never set in stone and in this case, the list is determined by the authors of this book. Then I signed up for the 1001 Books Challenge hosted by Pub Writes, in which I set a goal to read at least 16 more books from the books listed on the 1001 books list.

    Well, I managed to knock out 20 (21 after I finish them) out of the 54 books I have read so far this year. I was on a roll at the start of the year and then waned a little, mostly because I started to read more new releases. Prior to January 2011, I had read 60 books total on the list. Ben from Dead End Follies encouraged me to bring that number up to 100 by the end of 2011 and clearly, that won't be happening. But, I'm happy to have completed my goal of 16 and then some.

    The list of completed books for this challenge:

    Paul Auster/ The New York Trilogy
    D.H. Lawrence/ Lady Chatterley's Lover
    Maya Angelou/ I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings
    Jhumpa Lariri/ The Namesake
    Edith Wharton/ The Age of Innocence
    Jonathon Safran Foer/ Everything is Illuminated
    Joyce Carol Oates/ Black Water
    Ernest Hemingway/ The Old Man and The Sea
    Don DeLillo/ Falling Man
    Kurt Vonnegut/ Slaughterhouse-Five
    Emile Zola/ Therese Raquin
    Margaret Atwood/ Cat's Eye
    Jeffrey Eugenides/ Middlesex
    Moshin Hamid/ The Reluctant Fundamentalist
    Louisa May Alcott/ Little Women
    Sylvia Plath/ The Bell Jar
    E.M. Forster/ Howards End
    Zadie Smith/ On Beauty
    John Fowles/ The Collector
    Jim Thompson/ The Killer Inside Me
    Joyce Carol Oates/ them

    Total books read from the list is now 81. (Sorry, Ben.) I'll continue to read titles from 1001 books. If I can average 20 a year, it will take me another 46 years to complete the list. So, if I'm lucky, I'll finish the whole list by the time I'm 72. (I don't actually plan on reading them all - there are a few on the list I have no interest in reading.)

    So there you have it. I'll check back in next year!


    The Thieves of Manhattan by Adam Langer

    "Writing a book can be a profoundly optimistic act; expecting someone to read, buy and publish it is always a phenomenally presumptuous one."

    I didn't know much about this book before I started to read it, except that after I reviewed How I Became a Famous Novelist, Greg from The New Dork Review of Books suggested I read The Thieves of Manhattan. Well, I'm happy I listened to Greg once again, because this book was awesome. However, most of the fun that came along with reading this book was that I didn't know where it would take me, so I'm not going to give too much away.

    The Thieves of Manhattan is essentially a riff on the publishing industry's literary fakes and hoaxers (James Frey, anyone?). It follows a down-and-out aspiring short story writer and the web of lies in which he becomes tangled. It's equal parts funny, thrilling and snarky. Aside from the exceedingly suspenseful story line (I read this book in one day), I especially enjoyed the plethora of literary slang Langer threw into the novel. A handy glossary in the back of the book clarified each and every one. For example:
    kowalski n. A sleeveless white T-shirt of the sort favored by the character Stanley Kowalski in Tennessee William's A Streetcar Named Desire, in which he is depicted by the playwrite in one instance as wearing "an undershirt and grease-stained seersucker pants."
    daisies n. Dollars, from Daisy Buchanan, a character in F. scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, about whom Jay Gatsby remarks, "Her voice is full of money."
    salinger v. To live in seclusion, after the reclusive author J. D. Salinger
    This is a book for book lovers. Although this novel explores the lives of those who lie to get ahead, it is a testament to the modern human condition and just how far we will go to achieve success. Truly a page-turner, The Thieves of Manhattan is fun, smart, and I can't recommend it enough.

    Publisher: Spiegel & Grau, 2010


    The Classics Challenge is Back!

    I usually participate one or two challenges a year and one of my favorite challenges that debuted last year, The Back to the Classics Challenge, is back again for it's second year! Hosted by Sarah at Sarah Reads Too Much, the Classics Challenge 2012 will be a little different than it was this year. It will run January 1st through December 31st.

    Last year I read eight classics in six months for the Classics Challenge, and next year it will be 9 classics over a year. Below are the categories and my tentative selections for each:

    Any 19th Century Classic: Wilkie Collins, The Woman in White (1859)*

    Any 20th Century Classic: John Steinbeck, East of Eden (1952)

    Reread a classic of your choice: Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale (1985)*

    A Classic Play: Arthur Miller, The Crucible (1953)

    Classic Mystery/Horror/Crime Fiction: Daphne du Maurier/ Rebecca (1938)

    Classic Romance: Bernhard Schlink, The Reader (1997)
    Classic Literature in Translation: Elie Wiesel, Night (1960)*

    Classic Award Winner: Eudora Welty, The Optimist's Daughter (1973)*

    Read a Classic set in a Country that you will not visit during your lifetime: Gabriel Garcia Marquez, One Hundred Years of Solitude (1967)*

    I'll probably end up switching on or two titles, but I do own a good handful of these and have been meaning to read them for awhile. I tried my best to work in books that I already own. If you are interested in joining the challenge, you can sign up over at Sarah Reads Too Much.

    *I already own these titles


    Surfacing by Margaret Atwood

    I'll admit that while Surfacing was slow going and a tad mundane by Atwood standards, this is one of those books that I appreciated more after I finished it and gave it some thought. Surfacing is Atwood's second novel, a mystery and physiological thriller of sorts, one that examines the paranoia, displacement and weaknesses that result from isolation and fear. Our unnamed narrator ventures back to her birthplace, a remote island near Quebec, with her boyfriend and a married couple to search for her missing father whom everyone believes to be dead. What ensues is a story of one woman's regression into a fragmented self and her struggle to uncover her true identity.

    Descriptions of rural Canada and it's industrialization and commercialization parallel the decline of our unnamed narrator's sanity in a way that makes the setting seem like a character in itself. Per usual Atwood, the book is occupied with feminist themes; how our bodies and our gender confine us and create boundaries. Surfacing also explores how our past continually permeates our present and how our memory of the past can dilute and corrupt over time, allowing our subconscious to create alternate memories and emotions.
    I have to be more careful about my memories. I have to be sure they’re my own and not the memories of other people telling me what I felt, how I acted, what I said: if the events are wrong the feelings I remember about them will be wrong too, I’ll start inventing them
    I'm making it a personal goal to read all of Atwood's published fiction, and this marks my seventh (of thirteen). I'm not rushing myself, because I don't want it to be over. If you are interested in reading Atwood, I wouldn't suggest starting with this one. I'd recommend Cat's Eye, The Handmaids Tale or Oryx and Crake over Surfacing. The thing that bothered me most about the book is that even there was a lot going on, the majority of the time I was reading it I felt like nothing ever happened. Again, this is one of those instances when I enjoyed the book more after thinking about it than I did when I was actually reading it.

    Publisher: Anchor, 1972


    Cover Art Match-Up: US vs. UK

    Judge a book by its cover: we all do it. After Ben from Dead End Follies posted about the French edition of 1Q84 and how it's "one of the ugliest pieces of lazy design" we started to discuss cover design on Twitter and the differences between, what Ben called, the "eccentric" US covers and what I believed to the the more "artistic" UK covers. It got me thinking whether or not UK covers were actually more aesthetically pleasing than the US covers, or if we just want what we don't have.

    I decided to do a little comparison of US and UK cover art, choosing five new releases that each had a distinctly different cover design and were selected from the article in which the The Millions detailed their most anticipated books for the second half of the year, with a focus of those released in September and October, to help me decide if the UK are really better or if I just want what I can't have. The US editions will be pictured on the left, UK editions on the right.

    This little experiment is just for fun and is by no means something I consider to be a grand comparison of book covers. It's only five books, people. With that being said, let's get to it.

    First: Murakami's 1Q84

    Verdict: I typically veer away from cover art that features photographs of sorts. There is something about it that makes it feel mass-market. I've always preferred more artistic cover art; that of the painting and drawing variety. So, for my sheer prejudice against covers with photographs, I learn more toward the UK cover art. I also identify more with the feeling the UK edition evokes with its errie full moon and dark tree branches, than I do with a young girl staring at me through a set of numbers and letters.
    One point to the UK

    Second: Chad Harbach's The Art of Fielding

    Verdict: I should confess that I own the US edition of this book, so I may be partial, but I prefer the UK edition (thereby perhaps proving we want what we don't have). I like that the UK edition is three dimentional and it focuses more on the school aspect of the book rather than the subject of baseball. Of course, this makes sense becuse the UK doesn't have baseball, so there is no reason to market toward baseball fans, but as a woman who doesn't follow much baseball much, I do prefer the emphasis of the chalk board, portraying a university feel. With that being said, I do know this book was mainly marketed toward men, so I may be the odd woman out on this one.
    One point to the UK.

    Third: The Forgotten Waltz by

    Verdict: At first glance, I am more drawn to the US edition pictured on the left than I am with the landscape the UK edition features, which reminds me of a trade paperback from the 80's. The US edition makes me wonder why those two chairs are empty and what exactly this woman is looking at through the window. Overall, it interests me more.
    One point to the US.

    Fourth: Cango's Beads and Two-Tone Shoes by William Kennedy

    Verdict: First I'd like to mention what an interesting title this one has. If I just saw the spine of this book shelved somewhere and read the title, I'd pick it up to read more. With that said, I prefer the UK cover art to the US. The US cover art doesn't really catch my eye and if it did, I would pass it by for something else. The UK edition is a little more upbeat and draws me in more than the first.
    One point to the UK.

    Fifth: I Married You for Happiness by Lily Tuck

    Verdict: Not suprisingly at this point, I've got to lean toward the UK edition. I like the block letters that are centered on the cover and the image of a man in a button down cardigan holding someones hand. Though the US cover is intriguing, I would opt for the UK edition if I had the choice.
    One point to the UK.

    Final Tally:

    UK - 4, US - 1
    Those Brits can rock a cover design.


    Maus I: A Survivor's Tale by Art Speigelman

    I'm sure you've heard of it. Maus is the story of a Jewish survivor, Vladek, in Hitler's Poland as told by Vladek's son, Art, a cartoonist. The complete Maus won the Pulitzer Prize Special Award in 1992. The structure of the novel weaves together two storylines: that of the modern day life that Vladek and Art experience and that of Jews living in WWII Nazi regime. This narrative framework is remarkable, as it places the reader inside of a unique story line; we learn of the narrator's father's tale of survival as he recounts it to his son, who takes notes for the book he is writing. The product is a heartbreaking and captivating graphic memoir in which the Jews are portrayed as mice, and the Nazis as cats.

    I read this book in one sitting, which isn't a feat considering it's a 160 page graphic novel. Regardless, I didn't want to put it down and I'm upset I didn't just go ahead and buy Maus II along with the first. Those tricky publishers should have released them as one novel in the first place. But I digress, what makes this such a memorable novel that it's not only about WWII, it's also about history itself; how it's told, how it's remembered and how it effects generations to come. It also examines the complicated nature of families and the uniqueness of father/son relationships; the generational differences that ultimately cause tension and the difficulties of understanding one another.

    Maus has been critiqued for portraying such a horrific and monstrous period in history in a unsympathetic medium, therefore downplaying the enormity of the Nazi regeme. However, I would argue that instead of belittling the subject matter, it actually portrays it in a haunting manner, expressing ideas and emotions that sometimes only pictures and illustrations can evoke.

    Since Maus I ends quite abruptly, I plan on reading Maus II very soon.

    Publisher: Pantheon Books, 1986


    RIP Challenge: Complete

    Halloween has come and gone and with that, I read some fantastically dark and suspenseful book for the R.I.P Challenge VI. I particpated in Peril the First: Read four books, any length, that you feel fits my very broad definition of scary. It could be Stephen King or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Ian Fleming or Edgar Allan Poe…or anyone in between. I read five, because I especially love dark books this time of the year:

    The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman (2008): Set in a delightfully macabre atmosphere we follow Nobody Owens, Bod for short, a human boy raised by ghosts in a graveyard. Bod is taught all of the things that the dead know and learns how to move around the graveyard just as a ghost does. He is granted freedom of the graveyard, visits the world of the ghouls, and befriends a dead witch who lives on unconsecrated ground.

    The Collector by John Fowles (1963): The Collector explores the darkest of human behavior and obsessive love in a unique and compelling psychological thriller. I'd recommend this to anyone looking for a novel that examines love, human nature and obsession at it's darkest.

    The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern (2011): I've heard people say that if you chose to read one book this year, you should read The Night Circus. Well, I wouldn't go that far, but I will say this is a highly entertaining literary work of magical realism. Morgenstern's descriptions of the night circus go beyond imaginative; they are beautiful portrayals of a mesmerizing world.

    The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson (1952): The Killer Inside Me falls under the roman noir genre, translated as "black novel". Functioning sociopath: check. Cheap woman: check. Unassuming victims: check. The Killer Inside Me is the first person account of a man conflicted between the person he thinks he should be and the killer he actually is. This book is not for the faint of heart.

    Surfacing by Margaret Atwood (1972, review coming soon): "Part detective novel, part psychological thriller, Surfacing is the story of a young woman who returns to northern Quebec, to the remote island of her childhood, with her lover and two friends, to investigate the mysterious disappearance of her father." Synopsis from the back of the book.

    There it is. I'd have to say my two favorites were The Collector and The Night Circus.

    Did you participate in the R.I.P. challenge? What did you read?