Sunday, December 31, 2017

Best of 2017

Who would have thought that I would read two zombie/vampire books in 2017 or that I would take up more science fiction than ever before or that I wouldn't read a single mystery I thought was worthy of the "Best of" designation? Still, there were some worthy books:

Best Novel(s)
Anything Is Possible, by Elizabeth Strout. With this book, Strout returns to the form she so successfully employed in Olive Kittredge--creating a set of interlinked narratives about individuals with a connection to a central character, in this case Lucy Barton, one of the few Amgash, Illinois, residents who has "escaped" and become successful (but not without scars). The stories are sad, funny, and ultimately redemptive.

Lincoln in the Bardo, by George Saunders. Saunders' novel won the Mann Booker and made more "best books of 2017" lists (22!) than any other book this year. It's innovative in form and content--Willie Lincoln, son of President and Mrs. Lincoln dies and, after the funeral, the President visits the crypt where his body lies as an entire community of dead but not departed spirits observe, comment, and attempt to influence; interspersed with the story are accounts of historical events constructed from primary sources. It's odd and enthralling.

Honorable Mention: A House among the Trees, by Julia Glass; Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel; The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson (for a newcomer to science fiction, I feel it would be presumptuous for me to have a "Best of Science Fiction/Speculative Fiction" category, but the latter two books would be on it if I did have such a category!)

Best Short Stories
The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen. I didn't read that many short story collections this year, but this one would be worthy of a "best of" designation even if I had read dozens. The stories depict the lives of refugees from Vietnam, including struggles unique to their experience as well as universal human challenges. Nguyen just received a MacArthur fellowship and I have no trouble granting that he deserves the genius designation often associated with that award.

Best Nonfiction
You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, by Sherman Alexie. This memoir combining prose and poetry and featuring a complex structure is filled with rage, pain, love, and humor. I thought it was fantastic.

Honorable Mention: Light the Dark, edited by Joe Fassler

Surprisingly (for me), I read a number of memoirs that I admired this year. They included: Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage, by Danie Shapiro; Society's Child, by Janis Ian; Hunger, by Roxane Gay; The Bright Hour, by Nina Riggs; Brain on Fire, by Susan Cahalan; and Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken (yes, I am sad just typing this).

Favorite Passages
Last year, a lot of my favorite quotes were about truth. This year my theme seemed to be writing and story--maybe it's a sign I'll be writing a novel in 2018 (ha!).

I think it demonstrates why we need poetry, why we need songs--to say the things tha can only be expressed in this kind of elegant, inexplicable way. Things that, if you could explain them straightforwardly, you wouldn't have to have poetry, you wouldn't have to have songs.

Jeff Tweedy, quoted in Light the Dark

It is supposed that a writer writes what he knows about and knows well. It is not necessarily so. A writer's subject may just as well, if nor more likely, be what he writer longs for and dreams about, in an unquenchable dream, in lush detail and harsh honesty.

Mary Oliver, Upstream

She thought how for years onstage she had used the image of walking up the dirt road holding her father's hand, the snow-covered fields spread around them, the woods in the distance, joy spilling through her--how she had used this scene to have tears immediately come to her eyes, for the happiness of it, and the loss of it. And now she wondered if it had even happened, if the road had ever been narrow and dirt, if her father had ever held her hand and said that his family was the most important thing to him.

Elizabeth Strout, Anything Is Possible

Saturday, December 30, 2017

Why We Need Poetry: The Best Books I Read This Month

It's an unusual month for me when my two favorite books were nonfiction, but such is the case for December. Still, Louise Erdrich kept fiction from being totally disgraced!

The Best Books I Read This Month

The Hate U Give, by Angie Thomas
Light the Dark: Writers on Creativity, Inspiration, and the Artistic Process, edited by Joe Fassler
Future Home of the Living God, by Louise Erdrich
Soldier Girls: The Battles of Three Women at Home and at War, by Helen Thorpe

The Hate U Give has been something of a sensation as a young adult novel inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement. While author Angie Thomas is clearly outraged by the police killings of black men, the novel is not a diatribe; rather, it's a complex look at how teenager Starr Carter reacts when her friend Khalil is killed by a police officer in her presence. The decisions she must make about what to tell people, including her white friends at the suburban private school she attends, whether to take a public role in speaking out about the killing, and how to speak up on Khalil's behalf are problems are young people should not have to face. While some characters seem constructed to represent a point of view (Starr's police officer uncle), the book still works and would be a great stimulant to conversation with young people.

Light the Dark is a collection of essays put together by Joe Fassler, who interviews writers for the "By Heart" column in The Atlantic.  The focus is on what inspires writers and how that inspiration affects their creative work. Among the authors represented: Elizabeth Gilbert, Amy Tan, Junot Diaz, Marilynne Robinson, Michael Chabon, Stephen King, Roxane Gay, Jonathan Franzen, Claire Messud, Edwidge Danticat, Khalid Hosseini--the list goes on and on. The authors' processes and views of literature are incredibly diverse, as is what they value--narrative, truth, language, communicating with a reader, finding the voice, writing an opening line that works. Considering how they read their "inspirations" is a model for reading, interesting to me as both a reader and a writer. Two odd things I can't keep myself from sharing: Hanna Yanagihara is inspired by Lolita but has never read past the first 100 pages--for her it's all about Nabokov's language. She seems to actively resist the narrative and the characters. Jeff Tweedy, a songwriter, mumbles sounds while he sings his melodies; he lays tracks over each other, so that his mumbles rest on top of each other. But then he listens to what he has recorded and "hears" actual words and ideas in the mumbling, which then become lyrics?!?   Highly recommended.

Future Home of the Living God is a dystopic novel, set in the near future when climate change has continued, with many negative consequences, and evolution has reversed itself, with women giving birth to babies that have regressed on the evolutionary scale (i.e., become more monkey-like). The first part of the narrative seems to be an almost comic story about Cedar Hawk Songmaker finding her biological family; Cedar Hawk is Native American but was adopted by an Anglo couple despite the laws that discourage such adoptions but wants to find her birth family for a variety of reasons (they do not have the special powers she hoped they would). But then the narrative shifts and becomes the story of Cedar Hawk's attempts to elude the powers that are imprisoning pregnant women for nefarious purposes. Much about the book was confusing to me and I don't think it is Erdrich's best work--but it's still worth reading and pondering. It may even merit a second read.

I resisted Helen Thorpe's first book for a long time but really liked it when I finally read it. Then I repeated the pattern with Soldier Girls, a look at three Indiana women who served in the National Guard, with deployments to Afghanistan (all three) and Iraq (two of the three). Much about their stories was interesting, but I was particularly struck by two points: (1) how difficult the readjustment to civilian society is whether you saw combat or not, whether you come home injured or not and (2) the extent to which we do actually have what Thorpe refers to as "the economic draft"--two of the three women are in the Guard because their financial circumstances made it one of their few options (the third had more enthusiasm for the military but still had financial issues as well). Thorpe raises the issue of whether, given the potential damage to children,  mothers should serve overseas (interestingly, I read an interview with her when the book was published, in which she said she had not gone to Afghanistan or Iraq as part of her reporting because she had a young child and she didn't want to take the risk); personally, I would raise a similar question about fathers (and sons and daughters and husbands and wives). I also would question the title, though I get the reference to the Shirelles song (or I assume that's the reference)--these are women, not girls. All of that notwithstanding, Soldier Girls is well worth reading.

Also Read

Gustav Sonata, by Rose Tremain--a story full of pain not redeemed by what feels like an inauthentic happy ending.
Go Tell It on the Mountain, by James Baldwin--Baldwin was a gifted writer and observer of society, but this autobiographical novel did not, for some reason, move me.
I Am Legend, by Richard Matheson--Since I hadn't seen the movie, I didn't know this was another zombie/vampire book, but it was free from Audible!
Meet Me at the Morgue, by Ross McDonald--Classic noir.
I Know a Secret, by Tess Gerritsen--I've already forgotten the plot of the latest Rizzoli and Isles mystery.
Gray Mountain, by John Grisham--a screed against coal mining and strip mining particularly masquerading as a novel.
Deadfall, by Linda Fairstein
Absolute Power, by David Baldacci
16th Seduction, by James Patterson

Resolution for 2018: Read fewer mediocre mysteries.

Favorite Passage

Intentions always look better on paper than in reality.

Angie Thomas, The Hate U Give

We forget as readers of long form fiction that at one time we didn't know how to do that--we had to acquire the skill through cultural education.

William Gibson, quoted in Light the Dark

I think it demonstrates why we need poetry, why we need songs--to say the things that can only be expressed in this kind of elegant, inexplicable way. Things that, if you could explain them straightforwardly, you wouldn't have to have poetry, you wouldn't have to have songs.

Jeff Tweedy, quoted in Light the Dark

. . . there's a degree to which literature's means and methods are unknowable. We don't know what's happening when somebody reads a poem. We know that even if a writer labors and labors to make a precise text, much will be lost in translation--we'll have no real idea, even, how much gets through. It gives me tremendous respect for the difficulty and variety of language.

Ben Marcus, quoted in Light the Dark

Thursday, November 30, 2017

Back from the Brink: The Best Books I Read This Month

The extreme ennui brought on by October's reading has passed, but I have decided to focus on the books I really liked and to simply list the rest with no more than a one-sentence comment (neither section in any particular order other than what I read early in the month and what I read later). Luckily, I read a number of interesting books this month. Read on . . .

The Best Books I Read This Month

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage, by Dani Shapiro. As I was reading Shapiro's story of her marriage, I kept asking myself: "Is this book really brave or a betrayal of the intimacy she shares with her husband?" Assuming that she had her husband's permission, I guess it was the former. Shapiro intersperses excerpts from the journal she kept on her honeymoon (interestingly, the last journal she ever kept--despite having been a lifelong diarist); quotes from philosophy, poetry, and theology (she is also a keeper of commonplace books--collections of quotations) with reflections on and anecdotes from her long marriage. The effect is almost collage-like, building ideas from numerous small pieces. Particularly interesting to me are her reflections on whether she made the right decision in getting married and becoming a family person and who she (and her husband) might have been if they had made difference decisions--similar to the questions asked by the fictional protagonist of our One Book One Broomfield 2017 book Dark Matter. Beautifully written and thought-provoking, even for a long-time divorcee like me!

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. I'm embarrassed to admit I had never read this classic dystopian novel describing a society based on Henry Ford's concept of the assembly line; mass production (including of people), homogeneity within a rigid class structure, and consumption of disposable goods are hallmarks of the culture. When vacationers bring back a "savage" raised in a different culture, he is treated as a celebrity and has trouble adapting to the ways of the World State. This synopsis just hints at the complexity of Huxley's work, which remains relevant nearly a century after it was written.

The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth. Roth imagines what the world would have been like for a young Jewish boy named Philip Roth if Charles Lindbergh had been elected president in 1940. It's a frightening prospect--and one that feels scarily apropos to some of what we are observing under our current president. I was a little disappointed with the ending, which wrapped things up very quickly and neatly after building dramatic tension over the course of the book, but the novel is still well worth reading. As always with Roth, his brilliance is tempered by his need to include some gross sexual content--here young Philip's fantasizing about nuns and his aunt--but somehow with Roth I manage to get past this.

Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky -- This book presents two parts of what the author intended to be a five-part "suite," but tragically, she died in Auschwitz in 1942. Her manuscript languished in suitcases for decades until being published in 2006. Both parts of the book deal with aspects of the defeat and Occupation of France that I knew almost nothing about. The first part focuses on the chaotic mass exodus from Paris in 1940 when the Nazis were about to enter the city; Parisians of all classes/incomes evacuated, suffering a variety of physical and emotional deprivations. The second section of the book looks at how the life of a small town is affected when German soldiers occupy their town for an extended period of time, often living in their very homes. Some of the villagers resist, while others try to get along with the Germans; a few even fall in love with their occupiers. For me, a very different look at World War II.

Society's Child, by Janis Ian -- I was never a particular fan of Janis Ian, though it seems like I should have been (that was the type of music I liked and sang). However, I am a big fan of her autobiography, which is well written and provides insight into the music business and the creative process. It must also be said that Ian had a lot of bad luck and faced a lot of prejudice--but it all makes for an interesting story. The audio version is enhanced by Ian singing a snippet of at least one song per chapter, which brings the discussion of music and composing to life.

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing -- Not at all my usual type of book, but the unbelievably grueling nature of what Shackleton and his men went through is riveting.

Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books, by Cara Nicoletti -- Voracious is yet another food-related blog that has been turned into a book--but don't hold that against it. The author is obsessed with food scenes in books and what they mean. She talks about food in a wide array of works, from Little House in the Big Woods to If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, Lord of the Flies, Middlesex, and The Odyssey. For each work she discusses, she also provides a recipe that, to her, reflects the role of food in the book--pea and bacon soup for Charlotte's Web, biscuits with molasses butter for To Kill a Mockingbird, and a perfect soft-boiled egg for Emma. It's fun and just migh tmake you pay a little more attention when a character in a novel is eating!

Also Read

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert -- an early and very dark example of realism
Chaos, by Patricia Cornwell -- mediocre
A Taste for Murder, by Claudia Bishop -- very silly
Deep Freeze, by John Sandford -- latest Virgil Flowers, of whom I am growing weary
The Good Girl, by Mary Kubica -- one of Audible's 20th-anniversary freebies; has a twist at the end that I didn't see coming, and yet I also didn't care
The Color of Fear, by Marcia Muller -- meh
My Mad Fat Diary, by Rae Earl -- the author's late 80s diary about teen life in the UK is scary!
Dignity, by Donna Hicks -- a friend described reading this book as a "gift to yourself," but, while I think Hicks makes valid points about how humans should interact with one another, I found myself unmoved.
The Memory Watcher, by Minka Kent -- another mystery with a twist that you really don't care about.
Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes -- I don't understand why this author is so popular.

Favorite Passages

It was as if an internal axis had been jarred and titled downward; words and images slipped through a chute into a dim, murky pool from which I could not retried them.

The future you're capable of imagining is already a thing of the past.

Dani Shapiro, Hourglass

Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly--they'll go through anything. You read and you're pierced.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

Friday, November 3, 2017

Reading (or Posting) Ennui

As I sit here looking at the (rather short) list of books I read in October, I really have very little to say about any of them. Whether it's because I didn't read anything I truly liked for an entire month, I'm suffering from post-vacation fatigue (aren't vacations supposed to be restful?), or I don't want to post any more, I don't know. But I'm just going to list the books here and then contemplate whether to continue the blog, once again change direction, or gracefully retire from blogging.

The Girl Before, by J.P. Delaney
The Three, by Sarah Lotz
Celine, by Peter Heller
Please Don't Tell, by Elizabeth Adler
Cryptonomicon, by Neal Stephenson
The Graybar Hotel, by Curtis Dawkins
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, by Maya Angelous
The Girl with Seven Names, by Hyeonseo Lee
Gift from the Sea, by Anne Morrow Lindberg

Sunday, October 1, 2017

Starting Serious Fall Reading

I don't think my fall reading is, in fact, more serious than my summer reading, but perhaps suggesting that it is will guilt me into abandoning mysteries (and bad memoirs!) and focusing on works of serious literary merit. Yeah, right. . .

Red Ribbons, by Louise Phillips
Y Is for Yesterday, by Sue Grafton
Proof of Life, by J.A. Jance
Boar Island, by Nevada Barr
The 14th Colony, by Steve Berry

Red Ribbons was the first in a series that now has additional numbers. It features Dr. Kate Pearson, a psychologist and profiler who is brought into what appears to be a case involving serial murder of young girls. The story is told from Kate's perspective, as well as those of the killer (quite creepily portrayed) and a woman who has been in a mental hospital for more than a decade because she is believed to have killed her daughter. Even the noncriminal characters are not very sympathetic, perhaps because they do so many stupid things. Doubt I will give book 2 of the series a try.

Y Is for Yesterday (Kinsey Milhone) and Proof of Life (J.P. Beaumont) are the latest titles in long-running series. Both are okay but not the best of their respective series--still better than most series after 20 or so books! Boar Island is also part of a lengthy series (Anna Pigeon), but not one that I have regularly read. I read a couple of the early titles in the series, set in different national parks, but didn't really care for them; I just picked this one up because I couldn't find anything else on Overdrive--and I didn't care for it either.

I didn't care too much for The 14th Colony either (sometimes I'm just hard to please), but it did seem relevant to current events, since it deals with Russian interference in U.S. politics (interference may be too tame a word for what happens in the book, but I'm going with it anyway) and questions having to do with the 20th Amendment and succession in the event of a mass murder at inauguration. Although the 25th Amendment would be even more relevant (perhaps wishful thinking), the constitutional twist was interesting to me, as my sister, who mentioned the book to me, thought it might be.

Moshi, Moshi, by Banana Yoshimoto
The Chalk Artist, by Allegra Goodman
Longbourn, by Jo Baker
Class Mom, by Laurie Gelman
New People, by Danzy Senna
The Refugees, by Viet Thanh Nguyen
Love and Other Consolation Prizes, by Jamie Ford
And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer, by Fredrik Backman

The set-up for Moshi, Moshi is intriguing: Yoshie is a 20-something whose musician father has died in an apparent suicide pact with a mysterious woman. She struggles to deal with her grief and the shocking circumstances, which to her are unbelievable. As Yoshie finds some comfort in learning the restaurant business and moves out of her parents' upscale condo, she comes home one day to find that her mother has moved in with her. She acquiesces with this new living situation, recognizing that her mother is struggling as well, and she tentatively builds a relationship as she investigates the woman who died with her father. I didn't find the book's ending entirely satisfying, I take responsibility for not fully understanding the Japanese perspective.

The Chalk Artist is a love story set among millennials in a video game world. The main characters are Collin, the title character whose life seems as aimless as you might expect from someone whose medium is transitory, and Nina, an inadequately prepared high school teacher struggling to reach her students. Nina's father also happens to be the head of a cutting-edge video game company and she decides to "help" Collin by getting him a job at her father's company. Disillusionment, a break-up, and way too much description of video games ensue. Disappointing.

Also disappointing was Longbourn, about which I had recently read some very positive comments. Baker tells the story of servants at the Bennett family home (in case you are like my older son, who claims Pride and Prejudice ruined his reading life, these are the people in P&P). It was eye-opening to read about the amount of work that went in to keeping such a household going but the story made even the most far-fetched soap opera twists of Downton Abbey seem believable.

Satirical treatments of millennial and Gen X parents are popular of late, and Class Mom is another entry in that vein. As her third, much younger child enters kindergarten, Jen Dixon isn't about to be the perfect class mom that the other parents expect. The book offers some laughs but lacks both the bite and the warmth of, say, Liane Moriarty's Big Little Lies.

As the mother of biracial children, I have found Danzy Senna's exploration of related issues in Caucasia and You Are Free both uncomfortable and insightful. Consequently, I was looking forward to New People. and found that the discomfort outweighed the insight. At the center of the book are Maria and Khalil, an engaged couple who met at Stanford and were "the same shade of beige." They now live in New York, where Khalil is busy with professional concerns while Maria works on her dissertation about music in Jonestown. They have been chosen to be among the subjects of a documentary on racially ambiguous people; meanwhile, plans for their wedding are proceeding as Maria tries to convince herself that good sex isn't so important and she can tolerate Khalil's dreams for their future, despite their being antithetical to her notions of the life she wants. While all of this is happening, Maria is also stalking a poet and getting into increasingly strange and potentially dangerous situations. Is her breakdown caused by the expectations placed on a woman of her background, her struggles to figure out who she is, racially and intellectually, or her bad decisions? I don't know--and, frankly, I care more about the injustice to Khalil, which I doubt is what Senna intended.

The Refugees is a collection of eight short stories by Pulitzer Prize winner Viet Thanh Nguyen, The stories depict the lives of refugees from Vietnam, including struggles unique to their experience and universal challenges. A woman, a ghostwriter of autobiographies about scandalous lives, is haunted by the ghost of her brother, who died in the escape (by boat) from Vietnam. Another woman tries to deal with her professor-husband's dementia, as he mistakes her for someone she gradually surmises was the real love of his life. A man has two sets of children--one of which escaped to the United States with their mother, the others, to whom he gives the same names as the first set, lives in Vietnam. When the American daughter Phuong visits the Vietnamese daughter Phuong, secrets will out. An orphaned boy is adopted by a gay couple in San Francisco, experiencing multifaceted culture shock. Even this short story skeptic found these stories evocative and well worth reading.

At the heart of Love and Other Consolation Prizes is a shocking story--the raffling of a Chinese immigrant orphan at the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition held in Seattle in 1909. That boy--Ernest Young--is recalling the events that led to and followed from that moment as Seattle celebrates another World's Fair in 1962. Ford weaves in details about the experience of coming to the United States in steerage, working in the red light district, the crusade against prostitution, and much more as he weaves a story of a young man who loves two girls and what happens when he chooses one. An enjoyable read.

Since And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer is a novella, the title seems overly long, but the work is a sweet reflection on the relationship between a boy and his widowed grandfather as the grandfather's mind slowly deteriorates. I haven't read any of Backman's much-hyped longer works, but this lovely piece convinced me that I should.

Science Fiction/Fantasy
Anathem, by Neal Stephenson

Anathem is my second book by Neal Stephenson, an author who creates complex worlds populated by interesting characters. His books are difficult to synopsize, but this one is about a young man, Fraa Erasmas, who lives in a concent, similar to a monastery, but for mathematicians rather than the religious. His generally peaceful life comes to a crashing halt when the world (not Earth) is threatened by interplanetary forces. Some parts of the book were a little too philosophical and mathematical for me, and I somewhat regretted that I was listening to it rather than reading it, since Stephenson engages in a lot of word play that I felt I would have appreciated more in print. Nonetheless, I found the book entertaining.

Murder in the Cathedral, by T.S. Eliot

Murder in the Cathedral is a classic, a dramatization in verse of the assassination of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Beckett. To be honest (and I'm 100% sure the problem is mine and not Eliot's), I found it difficult, although it started to make more sense when I read it aloud.

God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, by Christopher Hitchens
It's Always Something, by Gilda Radner
Book of Days, by Emily Fox Gordon

Christopher Hitchens' detailed argument against religion seems, to me, to be a book without an audience. Those who agree with him do not need his close reading of texts and analysis of the ways in which religion, a man-made phenomenon has been destructive in human history. Those who disagree with him will be unmoved by his arguments--faith is unlikely to be shaken by logic, reasoning, or science. Without even mentioning in which camp I fall, I found the book tedious.

Gilda Radner was a brilliant comedian, and her book is sometimes funny. But mostly it is terribly sad description of her illness, her treatment, her relationships with various doctors as well as with her husband, and her efforts to help others through the Wellness Community. Knowing that she died about a month after recording the audio version of the book (which I listened to), her effort to be optimistic is truly heart-breaking.

Last month I read several memoirs that were well worth the time. This month, I encountered a memoir that reaffirmed for me while I have traditionally had little respect for the genre and its writers. Emily Fox Gordon spent her early adult years apparently doing very little, which she regarded as preparation for finding her metier as a memoirist (she calls her works "personal essays," according to her an essentially modest form compared to the grandiosity of memoir--yet she refers to herself as a memoirist). To me, that would seem to give a person little to write about, but this doesn't stop Gordon. I found her "personal essays" empty of interesting or meaningful content and found myself highly annoyed by her condescending attitude. She found herself a faculty wife by default--but she was a faculty wife because she was married to a professor, just like all faculty wives (or spouses). Because she didn't want to think of herself as a faculty wife does not exempt her from that descriptor. Her husband is a philosopher, long possessed of a university appointment and widely published (by her own description)--yet she dismisses him as not being a scholar. Perhaps most damning (for me) is her statement that "For the essay, the equivalent of plot and characterization is thought." Please!! Good fiction requires so much more thought than bad memoir, I can't even stand it.

Pick of the Litter: The Refugees (somehow I feel it's wrong to pick a brief novella, but And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer was wonderful)

Favorite Passages

We shared a passion for words, but I preferred the silence of writing while she loved to talk.

Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Refugees

If life is a process of accumulating more and more things you simply can’t bring yourself to make peace with, well, my feelings about this are vast and deep enough for an entire lifetime’s worth of hang-ups.

Banana Yoshimoto, Moshi Moshi

That's why we get the chance to spoil our grandchildren, because by doing that we're apologizing to our children. 

Fredrik Backman, And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer

Saturday, September 2, 2017

"My Profanity Has an Aesthetic"

"My profanity has an aesthetic," from Sherman Alexie's excellent memoir, may be my favorite line of the year. I actually read several memoirs that I found interesting in August, plus some very good fiction and a couple of books recommended by my granddaughter.


Bone Box, by Faye Kellerman
Bury the Lead, by David Rosenfelt
Do Not Become Alarmed, by Maile Malloy
Her Every Fear, by Peter Swanson

Bone Box is the most interesting book in the series since Faye Kellerman moved Peter and Rina Decker to New York. Not great--but readable.

I hadn't read any of David Rosenfelt's books about attorney Andy Carpenter before, but somehow I did not enjoy the combination of goofy humor and mutilated bodies. Maybe I'm losing my sense of humor in my old age, but I won't be reading any more of the series.

Do Not Become Alarmed should perhaps not be in the mysteries section, as a number of reviews have treated it as serious fiction. However, I could not take the story of three families on vacation in Nicaragua seriously. The actions of the parents (particularly the mothers) seem unrealistic--I'm not saying that it's impossible for parents and children to become separated, it just seems unlikely to happen as described here. Nor do the experiences of the children after they drift down river and become separated from their mothers seem believable to me. A disappointment.

If your every fear revolves around the plethora of creepy men in the world, then don't read Her Every Fear because you'll never sleep again. The protagonist, Englishwoman Kate, has survived an attack by a crazed ex-boyfriend and is now venturing back into the world by trading apartments for six months with her cousin Corbin, a Bostonian. Corbin's life, it turns out, is ground zero for problematic men--Peter Swanson makes the situation seem unendurable. Men . . .

Mrs. Fletcher, by Tom Perrotta
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
Standard Deviation, by Katherine Heiny
The Wide Circumference of Love, by Marita Golden
Barkskins, by Annie Proulx

Tom Perrotta has a gift for creating characters who seem average but have some dark or bizarre secret--and he puts it to good use in Mrs. Fletcher, whose title character seems like a typical suburban divorcee, overmothering her only child as he heads off to college. But, in her newly empty nest, she becomes addicted to Internet porn and becomes involved in a potentially inappropriate relationship with an employee at the senior center she directs. Meanwhile her son is struggling at college, both academically and socially. The story kept me interested and ended with a twist that really did surprise. Recommended.

I hadn't read Jane Eyre since my teen years and I was surprised at how much I had forgotten--pretty much everything before Jane arrived at Thornfield Hall. I actually enjoyed that part of this classic novel, but once she got to Thornfield, despite Jane's alleged proto-feminist character, I found the novel's gothic turn less than compelling. I guess I understand why it's a classic, but there won't ever be a third reading for me.

Standard Deviation is an interesting book. The main character is middle-aged Graham, who finds himself wondering why he divorced his first wife Elspeth, so much better suited to his nature, to marry Audra, a younger, irrepressible, and seemingly shallow woman. And yet, Audra is also the dedicated mother of a challenging son on the spectrum, a role she handles admirably. It's an interesting and entertaining look at what makes marriage work, what constitutes a "good" person, and more. Occasionally, the characters are annoying, but overall I enjoyed the book.

My sister recommended The Wide Circumference of Love, an exploration of a successful African American couple's experience with the husband Gregory's Alzheimer's disease. Although I found the writing a bit stilted, I thought it was a good exploration of the effects of this terrible disease on wife Diane and the couple's two adult children, Lauren and Sean. I also enjoyed the character of the milliner who sets her sights on Gregory when Diane moves him to a memory care facility--she knows what she wants and she gets it, creating an even more painful situation for Diane.

Barkskins . . .  what to say about this book that made many "best of" lists in 2016? It's an epic--Proulx traces two families, both descended from indentured French immigrants to North America, from the late 18th century to the 21st century. Her goal seems to be political--to demonstrate the short-sighted use of the continent's forests, primarily by white settlers. Fine--I salute the research Proulx must have done to gain the encyclopedic knowledge of the forest over centuries. But I found the book boring and choppy--just as you might get interested in a character's story, Proulx jumped to another person, location, and (sometimes) time. Sadly, not recommended.

Young Adult

Big Bad Detective Agency, by Bruce Hale
Fantastic Mr. Fox, by Roald Dahl

These two books were both recommended by my granddaughter, and they were both amusing animal tales. Big Bad Detective Agency is similar to the fractured fairy tales that have been written for younger readers--it was silly fun, but I hope Hale doesn't plan to make it a series; I don't think the conceits he uses could stand up to repetition. Roald Dahl, of course, is a master, and Fantastic Mr. Fox is great fun.


The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank
You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, by Sherman Alexie
Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, by Roxane Gay
The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying, by Nina Riggs

I can't believe I had never read Anne Frank's diary, but I hadn't. What I found so refreshing about it was not her bravery or optimism in the face of dire circumstances, but the fact that she was really just a girl, exploring her emerging sexuality, struggling with living in close quarters with people who were annoying her (particularly her mother), and questioning what her future might hold. Obviously a classic.

You Don't Have to Say You Love Me, Sherman Alexie's recent memoir, comprised of an equal number of poems and prose pieces, is filled with grief, rage, and humor. There are sections of the book that are painful to read--when, for example, he compares the treatment meted out to Indian children by his second-grade teacher to the torture practiced at Abu Ghraib or when he mourns the fact that his mother, believing English would be his most powerful tool, did not teach him their native language, which he regrets and yet acknowledges was his mother's way of protecting him and his siblings from a grave responsibility.  He argues convincingly for a museum of the Native American genocide, pointing out how fond Americans are of Holocaust museums and memorials while not acknowledging our own sings. Alexie's mother quilted, and the book feels like a quilt, put together of many pieces, sometimes repeating ("Great pain is repetitive. Grief is repetitive"). Alexie's work isn't for everyone, but I loved this book.

Also filled with pain is Hunger, by Roxane Gay. If you aren't familiar with Gay's work, she is a brilliant writer of fiction and essays who is also a very large woman--both tall and obese. She was gang-raped as a child and ate to create a shell that would protect her, make her safe. I think most women can understand this, even if they do not share Gay's experience. What was eye-opening to me, probably because I had never stopped to think about it, was the all-encompassing pain that her body has caused her--pain that is physical and emotional/psychological. She describes humiliating situations that most people cannot even imagine. Reading the book is emotionally exhausting--I several times wished it was shorter--but I feel the better for having read it.

And, to round out the painful memoir trifecta, we have The Bright Hour, the surprisingly joyful story of Nina Riggs's diagnosis with terminal cancer when she was in her late 30s and the mother of two young children. The great-great-great granddaughter of Ralph Waldo Emerson, Riggs brings the writings of the transcendentalist--and Montaigne, her favorite philosopher--to bear on her dilemma: how to live well when one will not live long. Of course, The Bright Hour is sad, but it's also quite lovely.

Pick of the Litter: You Don't Have to Say You Love Me

Favorite Passages:

It took me a long time, but I prefer “victim” to “survivor” now. I don’t want to diminish the gravity of what happened. I don’t want to pretend I’m on some triumphant, uplifting journey. I don’t want to pretend that everything is okay. I’m living with what happened, moving forward without forgetting, moving forward without pretending I am unscarred.

 --Roxane Gay, Hunger

My profanity has an aesthetic.

This is who I am. This is who I have always been. I am in pain. I am always in pain. But I always find my way to the story. And I always find my way home.

--Sherman Alexie, You Don't Have to Say You Love Me (and I could have picked many other passages)

Sunday, July 30, 2017

A Bit of a Mystery Binge

If you have been reading this blog for a while, you know that I occasionally go on mystery-reading binges . . . and it's not usually rewarding, as this month once again proves. In fact, the month's reading was only redeemed by Al Franken's latest. Hoping for a better month in August!


Death Match, by Lincoln Child
Most Wanted, by Lisa Scottoline
Memory Man, by David Baldacci
Killer Look, by Linda Fairstein
Ill Will, by Dan Chaon
He Said/She Said, by Erin Kelly
Heartbreak Hotel, by Jonathan Kellerman
Late Show, by Michael Connolly

There's not one of these books I would actually recommend. Several were especially terrible or annoying but none are worth a synopsis.


Upstate, by Kalisha Buckhanon
Men Without Women, by Haruki Murakami
Never Again So Close, by Claudia Serrano
The Vegetarian, by Han Kang

Upstate was an interesting book that I listened to because I couldn't find anything else I wanted on Overdrive. It's an epistolary novel featuring letters between two teenagers--Antonio, who is in jail, accused of killing his father, and his girlfriend Natasha, who believes he will be acquitted and their lives will return to normal. After Antonio's conviction, their lives diverge--Natasha goes to college and then to law school--but they continue writing to each other. Some of the letters are rather crude (remember, they're teenagers in love), but the emotion feels authentic and the ending is hopeful. The book is categorized as YA, but I would say it's only suitable for older teenagers. Not a great book, but I didn't kick myself for the time spent reading it (as I did with the mysteries!!).

Like the Hemingway work of the same name, Men Without Women is a collection of short stories. Murakami's men are not only without women--they seem to be without the ability to build connections. Given those characteristics, loneliness is a predominant theme in the collection. Some of the men reach out in strange ways--one befriends his late wife's last lover, while another tries to convince a friend to date the girl he likes. Characters disappear--a plastic surgeon essentially starves himself because he is lovesick, a bartender is told to leave town and does. In perhaps the most unusual story, Gregor Samsa (of Kafka's Metamorphosis) returns to human form in the midst of political upheaval in Prague. I certainly did not love this collection (it takes a lot for me to love a short story collection), but I found it engaging.

Never Again So Close was one of the free book options from Amazon Prime some months ago. It's the story of a young writer Antonia who gets involved with an older, more sophisticated and detached man named Vittorio. Her love causes her to put her own work on hold in a doomed attempt to build a long-lasting relationship with Vittorio. Their inevitably unhappy story is interspersed with excerpts from Antonia's book about a young girl with Down's syndrome and vignettes about Antonio baking. Although the author's writing (and the translation) is often lovely and poetic, overall the book fell flat--perhaps because I am jaded and wanted to yell at Antonia "Wise up!"

The Vegetarian was written more than a decade ago but was just released in English in 2016. It appeared on several "Best of 2016" lists; despite being perhaps the only Korean novel I have ever read, it wouldn't even appear on my "Best Korean Novels" list. It's the story of how people react when a woman decides to stop eating meat because of a dream; the book is narrated by her husband, her brother-in-law, and her sister. It's bizarre and sometimes graphic and distasteful. The section narrated by her brother-in-law is most disturbing; he is an artist who becomes obsessed with painting the woman's body and then filming her having sex. If I were able to glean some meaning from the book, I would have liked it better, but I somehow missed the message, or the message was just not for me (the NYT reviewer called it a "death-affirming" book). So not recommended.


Becoming Grandma, by Lesley Stahl
Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken

Lesley Stahl became a grandmother, loved it, and, as a journalist, decided to cover grandparenthood as a story. She recounts her own experiences and draws "lessons" from them, but also interviews many other grandparents and examines the research on grandparenting. To someone who also loves being a grandmother, the book is somewhat interesting but not terribly insightful.

For anyone who has wondered how and why Al Franken became so serious and unfunny after his election to the Senate--his staff made him do it! Most of Giant of the Senate focuses on his decision to run, the campaign and disputed election, and his service in the Senate--it's educational for us noninsiders and also funny. My favorite chapter is the one devoted to Ted Cruz, who Franken claims to like more than most of their Senate colleagues do--and Franken hates Cruz, for what seem to be good reasons: he's a narcissistic liar who is impossible to work with. Franken comes across as a really smart guy, who's also a good man (and funny). Recommended!

Pick of the Litter: Giant of the Senate, by Al Franken

Favorite Passages:

At one time I believed that love was a gift. Instead, you pay for everything, piece by piece.

Claudia Serrano, Never Again So Close

. . . if we don't start caring about whether people tell the truth or not, it's going to be literally impossible to restore anything approaching a reasonable political discourse. Politicians have always shaded the truth. But if you can say something that is provably false, and no one cares, then you can't have a real debate about anything.

Al Franken, Giant of the Senate