Monday, February 28, 2011

Books Before the Blog: Mini-Reviews

Nobody really knows how much influence book bloggers have in the publishing world. It's not nothing, but how much exactly is indeterminable. On a more micro scale, though, influence is often easier to tell — and more satisfying. For instance, last week, I got an email from a friend who said she'd gotten a lot of great ideas for books from reading this blog. I didn't even know she read the blog. It made my freakin' day. But it also made me think about all the books I've read before this blog that I greatly enjoyed, and that others might too. So, here's a top 5 pre-New Dork Review of Books list.

1) The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud — I read this book in October, 2006, and when I finished I wrote "This may have been the best book I’ve read this year – complex, literary, funny, fast-moving, beautifully written and just generally a joy to read." It's about three young New Yorkers struggling to find their way just prior to 9/11. It didn't get many great reviews (it only averages 2.5 stars among 266 reviews on Amazon), which is absurd to me, because I agree with the blurber who called Messud a "writer of near-miraculous perfection." Sometimes it's fun that you like something everyone else hated, right?

2. Zeitoun & What Is The What, by David Eggers — Zeitoun is the most rage-inducing book I think I've ever read. Told in sparse, unadorned prose, the tale of a Syrian immigrant mistreated in the wake of Hurricane Katrina spotlights how wrong things can go when common sense fails. It's simply brilliant. What Is The What is Eggers' story about a Sudanese refugee named Valentino Achak Deng escaping the country's civil war. It's based on a real person, but tells the collective story of the Sudanese "Lost Boys" who come to American and try to remake their lives. Eggers is one of my all-time favorite writers.

3. Beautiful Children, by Charles Bock — I'm going deep cut here. This is a great story (which I read in February, 2008 before a trip to Vegas) of the Las Vegas tourists or conventioneers never see. But it's also the story of failed marriages and flawed characters. The characters' stories are told separately, but all intersect in surprising ways. As interesting as these stories are, Bock is at his best when he's simply describing the absurdity of Las Vegas — his hometown. This is the debut novel by a writer I can't to wait to read more of. 

4. The Secret History, by Donna Tartt — This novel, which I read in December 2003, absolutely blew me away. I wrote: "These were some of the most vivid, graphic, intense scenes I have read in any literature." The story's about a group of New England college students and a secret society. This is one of the very few novels I've actually ever stayed up until dawn to finish.

5. Netherland, by Joseph O'Neill — I finished this book in March 2009, and wrote that O'Neill's style reminded me of an Irish Philip Roth. I'm still not 100 percent sure I "got" this novel, but I know I really liked it. The story itself revolves around a Dutch immigrant trying to start a cricket league in New York City post-9/11 as his marriage unravels. It's a novel about safety and fear, about the immigrant experience in American, and about how easy it is to lose your moral compass. It's not beach reading, exactly, but very, very good.

Have you read any of these? Thoughts?

Do you have novels like these mentally queued up when friends ask you for recommendations?


  1. I usually just direct people to a particular author (Moore, Fforde, Bryson) but I like the idea of having a particular list thought out. My problem is always recommending a book I think an individual will like, rather than just the books i love.

  2. The only one of these I've read is The Secret History, and my experience did not mirror yours. My exact words in my journal were "Not at all a terrible read but not at the top of any lists either." For me, some recent but still pre-blogging books that mattered to me are Possession by Byatt, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Kingsolver, Family Matters and A Fine Balance by Mistry. The Messud is on my wishlist, so I'll hope to enjoy it as much as you did.

  3. Zeitoun was my favorite book read last year. A lot of these others are on my shelves. I started Netherland, but got distracted by something else and never finished. I really like the idea of highlighting some of the great books you read before the blog. I might do a similar post myself (I'll be sure to link to yours).

  4. Ooh I have What Is The What here on my shelves! I found it at a book sale for 50 cents! I snagged it before anyone else could. That reminds me that I MUST read it now.

    Similarly, I do have books that I will rattle off when a friend asks me for a recommendation. I have them divided in my head based on genre and reading level (since I read a little of everything)so that I can cater to the friends taste.

  5. I agree with you about Claire Messud. I loved this one, too. I think it was on my list of favorite reads that year. I enjoyed Netherland though I would not recommend it if a friend asked me for five titles. I hated Zeitun and The Secret History. Secret History much more though.

    So there you are. Now what should I do about Beautiful Children? ;-)

  6. Well, when I visited Chicago and went to my tried and true Sandmeyer's, the owner convinced me to get What Is the What (and not Zeitoun), so I have it, just haven't read it.

  7. I've only read the Dave Eggers books and really enjoyed them. I thought Zeitoun was marvelous, he told that story in such an calm, understated way that it just increased my rage. Has anyone read his autobiographical book Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius?

  8. I felt exactly the same way about Netherland. But Beautiful Children just left me cold. I listened to it on CD and wondered at the time if I would have liked it better if I read it.

  9. I haven't read any of them but I do like to try out books whose authors I have never heard of or even those whose reviews are just so-so. Thanks for the list.

  10. I got Netherland a few weeks ago but haven't read it I have to admit - not so sure I will prioritise it although it sounds interesting. I would love to read Zeitoun

  11. I have What is the what and I really want to read Zeitoun. I think the time has come for me to get on with it!! I got What is the What for book club but it was voted off the island for being too disturbing. We'd just has a run of disturbing books at that stage and I think people had had enough. Shame really but I have a copy. Will shuffle it up to the top of the TBR.

    I always have a pile of books in my mind ready to recommend to people when they ask, its always shifting and changing to include books I read recently and loved but has a few that stay there no matter what (Oryx and Crake being one of them) - thanks for sharing yours!

  12. @Red - Yeah, it's a fine. Did you see the conversation between The Reading Ape and Rachel (at Home Between the Pages) had last year about their Swiss Army 10? ( and ) I guess this list is sort of a de facto Swiss Army 5 - I think a lot of different types of readers would like these books. But you're right, when you know the person, it's easier to recommend something you think they'd like.

    Sara C - Hope you'll enjoy the Messud, too. She's great! I really need to read Possession, but I'm scared of it. Is it difficult?

    LBC - I'd definitely recommend trying Netherland again. I remember it starting a bit slow, and it's a bit confusing at the beginning, too. But overall, it's a very rewarding reading experience. Thanks in advance for the linkage!

    @Jamie - I like your Top 10 Tuesday list this week - read Infinite Jest! It's scary, but so worth it! ;)

    @CB - Why did you hate Zeitoun? That's a little like hating Bambi! ;)

    @Sandy - Hmm...I live in Chicago and have never been to Sandmeyer's. Thanks for the recommendation! This is why I love this blog - never know what you're going to learn.

  13. @Kathy - Yeah, I read A Heartbreaking Work about 10 years ago in college, and loved it! It's definitely the work of a still-raw writer, but it's easy to see the talent.

    @Lisa - Yeah, the reviews of Beautiful Children were pretty mixed too, so I'm not surprised to find folks who didn't like it. I have to go to Vegas pretty often for work, so I really enjoyed it from the standpoint of reading about the Vegas you never see.

    @Mystica - Wow, a Sri Linkan commenter! Thanks for reading - yes, it's fun to find something you love about a book that other reviewers discard.

    @Becky - I'd prioritize Zeitoun ahead of Netherland - will give you a go insight into what's wrong with this country! ;)

    @Kath - What Is The What can be disturbing at times - but that could also be described as powerful, jarring and eye-opening. I need to shuffle Oryx and Crake up to the top of my list - people love that book!

  14. Afraid I haven't read any of the books on your list,Greg(altho I have heard of them)but it's a pretty interesting collection there.

    A few of my pre-blog favorites are:

    The Crimson Petal and the White by Michel Faber-I picked up this book at a BEA a couple of years ago and totally fell in love with this story of Victorian society and an ambitious lady of the evening named Sugar who is more savvier than she seems. The novel is being adapted into a BBC miniseries starring Romola Garai and should make quite a splash.

    Mammoth Cheese by Sheri Holman-An all American tale about how a small town hopes to revive it's image by recreating the presentation of a giant wheel of cheese to Thomas Jefferson. Nice multi-character narrative served up with a sharp slice of social satire.

    All is Vanity by Christina Schwarz-The concept of "frenemies" is well examined here,as a would be writer encourages a life long gal pal down the path of financial ruin in order to have something to write about. This may sound like a soap opera/made for TV movie story but it really takes a good look at talent vs. potential and the consequences of not knowing or wanting to know the difference.

  15. Thanks for the links! I'm off to check off those 2 posts

  16. Greg, I love this post - great idea to highlight your favorites pre-blogging. Zeitoun is a book I often recommend. I've pushed my copy on everyone in my family and certain friends as well. But I wasn't as big of a fan of What is the What. Other than that I haven't read any on your list, but I've just added Netherland to my TBR.

  17. Great little blurbs! I've got Zeitoun on my shelf now, and I think I'll pick up What is the What as well. The one I am really intrigued by is Te Secret History. What is it about secret societies that interest us so?

  18. I listened to the audio of Zeitoun and it blew me away too. You're so right that common sense failed terribly.

    The Emperor's Children and Netherland are on my to-read at some point list. I've heard positive things about both.

  19. The Secret History is my favourite book of all time too. I haven't read the others but have been curious about Dave Eggers for a while. And 'Sometimes it's fun that you like something everyone else hated, right?' Absolutely!