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

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