Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Change of Direction

After six-plus years of writing mini-reviews of books, I have wearied of the format (or perhaps mostly wearied of my own natterings), so I have decided to change directions. Inspired by Nick Hornby's "Stuff I've Been Reading" column for The Believer, I am going to write on a monthly (or maybe slightly more often) basis about the stuff I've been reading (although I lay no claim to be either as funny or insightful as Hornby). So here's what I've been reading since I last posted.

Red Mist, by Patricia Cornwell
Speaking in Bones, by Kathy Reichs
14th Deadly Sin, by James Patterson

I gave up on Patricia Cornwell several years ago, but found myself listening to Red Mist because I couldn't see anything else on OverDrive (service for downloading audio books through your local library) that appealed and I found it quite a bit better than the last few of her books I had read--not great, mind you, but entertaining enough. In contrast, James Patterson's latest in the Women's Murder Club series has prompted me to scratch that series off my list (the Alex Cross series was scratched off several titles ago). Books that are no more than a set-up for the sequel should be banned!

My Kitchen Wars, by Betty Fussell
Yes, Please, by Amy Poehler

As you know if you have read much of my blog, I am not a fan of memoirs, but I keep reading them--especially chef/cook's memoirs. Betty Fussell's memoir is about food and her marriage--and the stories are interrelated. It's interesting to see how the food she was cooking and the ways in which she and her academic husband entertained evolved over the course of their 20-year union (1949-1971), reflecting changes in the culture. Once they divorced, Fussell's career as a food writer took off, although that piece of her life seems almost an afterthought in My Kitchen Wars. Didn't quite live up to my hopes, but enjoyable enough.

Amy Poehler's memoir is what you would expect from the comedian--funny and charming and a testament to her courage and essential niceness (she is unfailingly kind and loving about her former husband). I enjoyed it more than Tina Fey's similar work--and I think it may be because I listened to Yes, Please while I read Bossypants--humor that feels forced on the printed page comes across better when presented orally. The humorous memoir may be a genre best presented in audiobook.

Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis

I feel virtuous whenever I fill in one of the gaping holes in my reading history, so I am feeling virtuous this morning, having just finished Lewis's scathing satire of small town Midwestern life; his portrayal of the young woman who wants to reform Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, is equally biting. I noted to my son that I often feel like the classics I read could have benefited from a good editor but that I was unsure whether it's because I'm old and don't have time to waste on overlong books or have been corrupted by modern technology that shortens attention span or they are actually just too long. My son pointed out that listening to an audiobook, as I did with Main Street, prevents skimming. So perhaps the classics are not the genre for listening.

Stella Bain, by Anita Shreve
We Never Asked for Wings, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Stella Bain seems to be two separate books forced into one;  the first half is about a Red Cross volunteer in World War I who loses her memory, the second about her child custody battle once she regains her memory. Each could be the basis of a good book, but together they don't work.

We Never Asked for Wings is the second novel from Vanessa Diffenbaugh, whose first, The Language of Flowers, was a runaway bestseller. Diffenbaugh seems to be developing a formula--choose a colorful metaphor (flowers, feathers), create a female character so deeply flawed she could be friends with Amy Dunne, and then send good people who want to help her find her way out of her self-induced misery. Not working for me!

Margaret Atwood is an author I have never taken to--I think Alias Grace is the only one of her books I had previously made it through. I did make it through The Heart Goes Last, a dystopic novel in which people agree to live every other month in prison in exchange for security and free room and board the rest of the time. Although I do not read that much dystopic fiction, The Heart Goes Last seemed unoriginal and contrived to me, and its late-chapters descent into slapstick involving Elvis impersonators did not add to my enjoyment. Margaret Atwood remains on my list of "Highly Regarded Authors I Have Little Fondness for"--and I feel slightly less guilty that she resides there.

And now something I actually liked:  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's much-lauded novel Americanah is a window into Nigeria and the Nigerian diaspora. Ifemelu is the heart of Americanah; we meet her when she is at the hair-braiding salon preparing to return to Nigeria after 13 years in the United States. We then meet the love of her adolescent years, Obinze, who is now a wealthy and unhappily married real estate mogul in Nigeria. As Adichie builds their back stories, she educates us about life in Nigeria and the experiences of African immigrants in the UK (where Obinze lives for several years) and the United States. The story is cleverly enhanced with entries from Ifemelu's popular blog, in which she comments on racial matters from the perspective of a "Non-American Black." While I was disappointed with the ending, I recommend Americanah highly.

Felicity, by Mary Oliver
The Flick, by Annie Baker

Felicity is Mary Oliver's latest poetry collection, celebrating nature and romantic love. As always, Oliver's poems are very accessible and at least some resonate deeply. Recommended if you like poetry or just think you should.

The Flick is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Set in a run-down theater, The Flick features three characters--a female projectionist and two male employees who clean the theater between shows. Most of the dialogue is the kind of random conversation that occurs between co-workers, sometimes interspersed with long silences (not painful when reading but potentially so when watching the play performed). Yet we also get a sense of the emotional anguish lurking beneath the surface. An enjoyable change of pace.

Pick of the Litter: Americanah

Favorite Passage: 
"I don’t want to lose a single thread

From the intricate brocade of this happiness. . . ."
--From "I Don't Want to Lose," by Mary Oliver

Monday, October 12, 2015

Baking Cakes in Kigali, by Gaile Parkin

Baking Cakes in Kigali is the story of Angel Tungaraza, a Tanzanian woman living in Rwanda, where her husband teaches at a university and the two are raising their five grandchildren because both of their children are "late." Angel is a baker, a creator of fantastic cakes that reflect the individuality of the people they honor. She is also the center of her community, serving as a resource to people with a variety of needs/problems and bringing people together.

Angel's interactions in the community involve her in a variety of significant problems--discrimination against people with "the virus," the aftermath of genocide, crazy government officials, poverty, and more. She deals with each--even as it impinges on her own family--with good cheer and practical advice.

Angel is a delightful character and the book is optimistic--but I actually found that to be a problem in terms of my enjoyment of the book. If Africa's problems could be solved by a good-natured pastry chef, the world would be a better place.  Somehow, however, that just seems like science fiction.

Sunday, October 11, 2015

All the Difference, by Leah Ferguson

Molly is a 30-year-old PR maven living in a house she loves in Philadelphia when she discovers she is pregnant by her handsome and wealthy--but immature--boyfriend Scott. Before she can break the news to Scott, he proposes. The book then progresses in chapters alternating between what will happen if she says Yes and what will happen if she says No. The structure is akin to that of the film Sliding Doors but the book unfortunately is not as clever as the film. Developments in both nraratives are predictable and, in some cases, ridiculous.  Would even the most despicable mother-in-law actually say "I thought only poor people and vegetarians breast feed"?  If so, I guess I must count myself lucky because I haven't known anyone who would say something so ridiculous and insulting. Not recommended.

Sunday, October 4, 2015

Housebreaking, by Dan Pope

Audrey Martin, her husband Andrew Murray, and teenage daughter Emily have recently moved to a long-empty farmhouse around which a suburban development has grown.  The Martin-Murrays have fled to this suburban outpost of Hartford, CT, from their previous life in a more upscale suburb of New York in an effort to assuage the grief of losing their son in a car accident. But the move is ultimately disastrous for the family.

We learn the basic outline of the family's move in a prologue. The first section of the book then focuses on the Mandelbaums, neighbors of the Martin-Murrays. Leonard is a widower in his 80s; his son 40-something Benjamin moves in when his wife throws him out. Leonard is set up with a widow; doing push-ups to see if he is fit enough to qualify for a Viagra prescription, Leonard has a stroke. With an empty house available for shenanigans, Benjamin quickly starts an affair with Audrey, with whom he went to high school.  Meanwhile, a series of break-ins plagues the neighborhood. When Emily shows up at Benjamin's house with evidence that she might be involved in the break-ins and acting completely out of control, the book's tone switches (or at least I began to feel apprehension about what was coming).

The narrative then switches to the Martin-Murrays, covering the same time period from the perspectives of the different family members. It becomes clear fairly quickly that Audrey's affair with Benjamin is the least of the family's problems. At his new job in the Hartford office of his law firm, Andrew begins making a series of bad decisions. Paralleling his downward spiral is that of Emily, who (she is a teenager after all) is furious about having to move before her senior year in high school. She, too, makes increasingly terrible decisions, leading to a family crisis.

While the hidden dysfunction in neat suburban communities is hardly a new idea (I have lived in the suburbs for 38 years!), Housebreaking (the title clearly has layers of meaning) held my attention. I really enjoyed Leonard's story, which brought the process of recovering from a stroke to life. When the focus shifted to Andrew and Emily, the book became almost painful (some of the actions/thoughts of male characters, teenage, and adult, made me cringe), yet I wanted to know how they might work their way through their problems. The ending was odd, combining a long-range "wrapped up neatly" conclusion for Emily, a  couple of short-range "wrapped up less neatly" scenes for Audrey, Benjamin, and Leonard, and one offhand phrase about Andrew's future.

Favorite passage:
As he pushed the shopping card down the narrow aisles [of Whole Foods] he noted two distinct types: the wild-haired bohemians who worked there and the middle-aged yuppies who shopped there. Organic food was healthy, yes? So how to explain the unsightly appearance of the patrons--their sallow complexions, their thin and frizzled hair, their shuffling gaits. Many looked like recent victims of accident or disease, limping and wheezing, loading their carts with every sort of vitamin known to the natural world. In Benjamin's opinion they would do better getting a steak and some frozen peas at the Stop & Shop down the street.

The Golden Notebook, by Doris Lessing

Anna Wulf is a Londoner, the author of one fairly successful novel (but who cannot or will not write another book), a divorcee, the mother of a little girl, a Communist, and with her friend Molly a "free woman."  "Free Women" is the title of one section of the narrative, in which Anna's story is told in a more-or-less straightforward manner. The other sections of the narrative are based on the four notebooks that Anna keeps as part of her writing process--the black notebook includes accounts of Anna's life in Southern Rhodesia prior to and during World War II (on which her novel was based); the red notebook recounts her experiences as a member of the Communist Party; the yellow notebook is the text of a novel she is writing, a fictionalized account of an unhappy love affair; and the blue notebook is a conglomeration of notes, dreams, and reflections. At the end of the book, she attempts to bring her writings and her life together in the golden notebook.

The Golden Notebook deals with topics that were not generally spoken of in 1962 when it was published--women's sexuality and menstruation to name just few. While Anna's sexual freedom might lead one to label the book an early feminist novel, I think this would be a mistake, because despite being sexually liberated and a Communist, many of Anna's ideas and habits are in act quite conservative. She hangs a great deal of her mental and emotional health on having a relationship with a man, plays a secondary role in the relationships that seem most important to her, and disdains her homosexual lodgers.

I have read comments from numerous women saying that The Golden Notebook was an important book in their lives. Perhaps because I am reading the book at such a remove from when it was written, I found myself unmoved. I did appreciate the innovative structure, but the actual golden notebook, which I was anticipating would reveal  Anna to some kind of remarkable insight, was disappointing and even confusing. Nonetheless, I feel I am probably not doing The Golden Notebook justice, so I'll include this link to a series of brief reflections on the novel printed to mark its 50th anniversary:

Favorite passage:
I am a person who continually destroys the possibilities of a future because of the numbers of alternative viewpoints I can focus on the present.

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Find the Good: Unexpected Life Lessons from a Small-Town Obituary Writer, by Heather Lende

Heather Lende is a writer who lives in Haines, Alaska. One of her jobs is writing obituaries for the local newspaper, experience she drew on when asked to write an essay providing "a piece of wisdom to live by." Turning that essay into this little book--you can read it in an hour or two--she reflects on the lives of people whose obituaries she has written and on episodes in her own life to illustrate the life lesson: find the good, in your life, in the people you know, in the community in which you live, in everything.

The stories Lende tells are funny and moving, covering such events in her own life as her youngest daughter's unplanned premarital pregnancy to her sister's styling of Heather for their father's retirement party in New York. The people whose obituaries she has written represent the kind of people you would expect to find in a small town, with perhaps an added twist of eccentricity found only in Alaska.

While the point Lende makes may not be the most original or philosophically complex, it is certainly worth considering, all the more so because finding the good is not something she came to easily herself. Find the Good is an easy read, but the challenge it lays out may be difficult: find the positive, turn away from the critical, savor your life no matter how big or small.

Favorite passages:
I believe gratitude comes from a place in your soul that knows the story could ahve ended differently, and often does . . .

There is no good in missing someone so badly you can't even hum.

We may not be able to control when children throw up or a spouse leaves us or when one of the altos has a stroke between morning worship and the evening church potluck and won't ever be returning for the dress shoes she left by the coatrack when she pulled on her snow boots. . . . but we can keep on singing. This is how we give each other a little lift on low notes, and a smile on the high ones, or share the effort in those places where staggered breathing is the only way to make it to the end of the day.