Room (Little, Brown and Company) By Emma Donaghue

I’d been hearing good things about Emma Donoghue’s book for a while and actually tried to get it as an audio book when Robin and I were driving cross-country last October, but since it is told completely through the voice of a five-year-old who has never been outside a small storage shed-like room, the audio book option wasn’t really feasible (an adult actor doing a kid voice for nine hours just won’t cut it when driving across the plains). But, reading this story, which is loosely based on this gruesome real-life incident, was really entertaining and educational. Donoghue really gets the kid’s voice down, but there is this amazing escape scene in the middle of the book that I literally read over and over to learn about pacing, plot and storytelling. I’m kindof bummed that she didn’t win the Orange Prize.

Bunner Sisters (Free e-book) By Edith Wharton

I’ve been working on this one short story for, literally, years, and recently it ballooned from like 4000 words to 20,000 words and I was wondering if it might not be a long short story, or gasp, a novella. After a quick poll on Facebook, I got some good suggestions and, from this brilliant writer, found Edith Wharton’s Bunner Sisters as a free download that I transferred to my Kindle. I mean, I know a bit about Edith Wharton, Ethan Fromme’s heartbreaking and horrfying end has always stuck in my mind, but this story was especially swift and powerful. Crushing, really—how the sisters’ lives fall apart so quickly and how their earlier lonely widowed days seemed so perfect when looking back at the end. Another great lesson in pacing and significant details.

The Blind Assassin (Anchor Books) By Margaret Atwood

I got all excited about 1Book140 when it was being promoted and thought it would be awesome to read a book in a virtual book club and have assigned reading dates, but then in actuality, I didn’t really feel like engaging so much on Twitter. In fact, the whole experience reminded me of when I first got to a college English class and just wanted everybody to shut up. It was weird, but I did enjoy the crazy puzzle of the book. I was really into Margaret Atwood back in the 80s. In fact, she was the author of some of the first adult books I read like The Handmaid’s Tale and Cat’s Eye, which I remember I had in that kind of pulp paperback form that is small and thick. The Blind Assassin’s strengths are it’s structure—it is a story within a story, plus a story and a mystery unrevealed. It also digs into wartime Canada and pulp science fiction and class and sex (lots of illicit sex) and bad Gothically-evil husbands and an equally evil sister-in-law. The book is daring in many ways, one of which is that the narrator is a crotchety old woman—and it was fun to try and unravel who was who and what was what, though the mystery becomes clear mid-way through the book. There were parts that were a bit slow, but the mystery pulls you a long through it. And it’s such a good feeling, isn’t it, being in the middle of a long, slowly-resolving novel with a mystery at it’s core?

Jeff in Venice, death in Varanasi (Pantheon Books) By Geoff Dyer

I wouldn’t say this book was exactly a lesson in plot, but perhaps in structure. The much-hyped book was published in 2009 and I had marked but not read the publicity around it, or anything else by Dyer. But we spent a few days among Varanasi’s famous touts, boats and corpses in the Spring, and I was thinking of setting a short story I was working on there, so I decided I should read this one first. Dyer’s amazingly funny and achingly clever, so this novel ends up being two long short stories, loosely connected, about a writer first sent to Venice to cover the Biennale, during which he (and everyone else) drinks endless glasses of bellinis and then the Jeff of the story, meets an American girl from LA, who he woos, does copious amounts of cocaine with and some vigorous coupling. Meanwhile, the girl is often mentioning Varanasi and how Venice reminds her of it, kind of. In the second part, the same Jeff (or maybe another, in a different universe) ends up in Varanasi on a writing gig, and then decides to stay and “drop out,” though his dropping out involves staying at the Hotel Ganges View, one of the nicest hotels in town. I was in love with the first part of the book: it was hilarious, sending up tourists and pretensious art-types and everything in between. Dyer manages to be extremely sarcastic and then, also, kind of sincere, in his descriptions of both the art and his small, enjoyable fling. More than anything, it rang true and entertaining—and was beautifully descriptive, so at the end, I felt like I had been to the Biennale swilling bellinis and doing cocaine on yachts, and then getting up early to go see tons of art. In the same sense, I was a bit disappointed in the Varanasi section, since Jeff is just a Western tourist who writes about the traffic and diarreah and trying an failing to understand Hindu spirituality. Again, his descriptions of the grotesque, this time, as opposed to the golden beauty of Venice, are arresting, but it didn’t feel as new and fresh as the Venice section. But maybe it is hard to be new about one of the oldest living cities in the world? All in all, this book left me wanting to read everything Dyer has ever written, and nothing by him ever again. I think that means I love him.

Less Than Zero (Vintage) By Bret Easton Ellis

I started reading this when I was at the Sri Ram Ashram with my mom back in February. I don’t know why, but sometimes my reading material needs to be the exact opposite of what I am doing. Shortly after, Ellis wrote this brilliant essay for The Daily Beast about Charlie Sheen and the Hollywood Empire, which is probably one of the most interesting culture pieces I’ve read all year. I’ve seen the movie version of Less Than Zero, of course, but it is actually nothing like the book—way tamer. The book is disjointed and makes L.A. seem vapid and futuristic and incredibly weird, but it is an amazing piece of writing nonetheless. If you’ve only seen the movie, you should definitely read the book. It made me feel the same horrified way as when I saw Kids for the first time, which is that I recognized some small part of my own youth and identity in what Ellis was holding up in this cracked cocaine mirror of a book.

Free Food for Millionaires (Warner Books) By Min Jin Lee

I am such a sucker. Junot Diaz recommended this book on the New Yorker’s Book Bench at the beginning of the summer, so I read it. I remember when it first came out and got all these big reviews, but some of them likened the novel to Chick Lit, and I decided to stay away at the time. In one way, it was really satisfying to read a long novel about Asian American characters that had such a large cast. The book is obviously modeled on 19th century novels, with it’s focus on social mores and breaking tradition, family and money, but I have to say I really didn’t like or relate to any of the characters—especially the tough-as-nails main character Casey Han. There was way too much stuff about fashion, banking and ivy leagues for my taste. Plus, the sex was described in a way that I felt like no one was enjoying it, except one couple, who are totally the villains of the novel, which made me realize that I need the people I read to either enjoy having sex or not have it (a good lesson for my writing, too). An ambitious project, that seems to lose it’s resolve before the end—but maybe just leaving room for a sequel? I’ll say this, if this novel was a television show, I’d probably watch it when it came on Netflix Streaming.