Friday, January 13, 2006

Comment & Review: Book-A-Week Challenge, Book #1

Now that my sinus thingy is slowly receding, I'm ready to get started on all that New Year-type stuff I haven't had the energy for in the first few weeks of January. So, it's time for a resolution. Bookdwarf drew my attention to a couple of different groups setting reading goals for the year: read 50 books, read 75 books, etc. My total for last year, according to my Book of Books Read, was a measly 45.

I feel like I've got a lot more books than that floating around in my head, though -- part of being a good bookseller is being informed about books you haven't had time to read, so you can hand them to the people who want to read them. Reading the Sunday NYTBR all the way through every week, listening to buzz and talking to other readers in real life mean that I could probably tell you the essence and appeal of say, 150 books from last year. And there is all that magazine and short story reading that doesn't add to the total. But I'm still a little embarrassed that I've read so few actual titles. Sometimes (often) the appeal of a morning nap on the subway is enough to keep me from opening the one I'm working on, and that's just shameful for a book nerd.

So I'm setting my own goal: 52 books in 2006, one a week (I've got some catchup to do already). I'm hoping increasing my intake will mean I get to more than that, but 52 is the baseline. And I'll post mini-reviews of each of them here on the blog. If anyone's interested in joining me in my quest, post your reviews as comments, or send me a link to the site where you're chronicling your own book challenge. Hooray for new books in the new year!

Book #1: THIS BOOK WILL SAVE YOUR LIFE by A.M. Homes (Viking, April)
I mentioned this book in my holiday roundup as a bit underwhelming, so here's the full take. Richard Novak, wealthy and divorced in L.A., wakes up one morning to an intense undefinable pain; confronted by his own mortality and realizing that he doesn't even have any loved ones to pick him up from the hospital, he starts to re-examine his life. Novak's housekeepr, masseuse, decorator, personal trainer, and nutritionist are concerned. His ex-wife in New York is (still) preoccupied with work and blase. His estranged son, Ben, is starting a road trip that will take him to L.A. and wary of his father's new interest in his life. A sinkhole in front of his house prompts the first of several acts of heroism. His new friends the donut shop owner, the wacko ex-famous writer, the nervous-breakdown housewife, and the local movie star are amazed at his kindness and his confusion. He breaks his diet, goes on a meditation retreat, tries Gyrotonics. Wildfires are threatening L.A. Ben turns out to be gay and very, very angry at his father. STUFF keeps happening. I had read some reviews of Homes' work, and it sounded promising: the magic surreality of daily life, though I was leery of one reviewer's hint that she might be telling the same old "life in the suburbs is all hypocrisy" story. This novel definitely offers that surreality, and I admit I was engrossed by the "and then, and then" momentum of the events of Richard's life. But it seemed like Homes said what she had to say in the first chapter -- something like "it is not good for a man to be alone" -- and I wasn't sure why she kept going after that. Richard's bewildered stabs at remaking his life seem almost like parody of the L.A. mythos: various magical cures to keep the rich young and healthy and happy. And his extravagant wealth and self-absorption (even as he begins to connect with others) makes it hard to identify with him. I guess the problem is I'm not sure how Homes meant for me to read Richard. Is he laudable or pathetic? And how, exactly, is this book supposed to save my life? By inspiring me to go on an $800 meditation retreat? Others may read the book differently, but my reaction to this is similar to my reaction to some of Updike: the author doesn't seem to realize what kind of character she has created. I'm sure I could still handsell it to someone looking for a beach read or an interesting take on L.A. life or a sentimental redemption story, but it's not going to make my favorites list. Oh well, the year's reading can only get better from here.

Next book to be reviewed: David Mitchell's BLACK SWAN GREEN