Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Showers of May Books

I thought I was behind on work because I was busy this month, but now that I've looked at what I've read this month, I think it might be because I've been reading too much (is that even possible?).


Judgment Calls, by Alafair Burke
The Cruelest Month, by Louise Penney
The Bitter Season, by Tami Hoag
Try Not to Breathe, by Holly Sedden
Ripper, by Isabel Allende
A Kiss Before Dying, by Ira Levin

The first three titles listed here are series mysteries, okay but nothing to write home about. Try Not to Breathe, which is being hyped to fans of Gone Girl and Girl on a Train, lacks the suspense of those two books but does feature a rather unlikable protagonist, in this case alcoholic journalist Alex Dale. Alex happens onto Amy Stephenson, a young woman who has been in a vegetative state for 15 years following a brutal beating at the hands of a mystery assailant. Alex sets out to solve the case and does--though it's pretty hard to believe that someone who drinks to the point that she wets the bed could actually accomplish such a feat. Not recommended.

Also not recommended is renowned author Isabel Allende's attempt at a mystery. Allende weaves in numerous hot topics--child abuse, transgender issues, online gaming, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and their effects on veterans. But the story takes way too long to develop and frankly makes very little sense.

A Kiss Before Dying was Ira Levin's first novel, written in the early 1950s. It's the story of a young WWII veteran determined to be successful, by marrying a wealthy woman if necessary. In that pursuit, he works his way through the three daughters of a wealthy industrialist. While not as creepy as, say, Rosemary's Baby, A Kiss Before Dying is a frightening (though somewhat dated) portrait of a sociopath.


Herzog, by Saul Bellow
The Optimist's Daughter, by Eudora Welty

May was a bad month for me and classics (one might say most months could be described thusly). Left by his second wife, Saul Bellow's Moses Herzog, a failed academic philosopher, reflects on his life, and what a long and painfully narcissistic journey I found it. Laurel, Eudora Welty's heroine, is also dealing with a second wife, in this case the vulgar second wife of her father, Judge McKelva. Following the judge's death, Laurel confronts her memories and ponders why her husband married a woman so inferior to Laurel's mother. Neither of these "masterpieces" held any appeal to me. I am open to reeducation.


American Housewife, by Helen Ellis
Among the Imposters and Among the Betrayed, by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Foreign Affairs, by Alison Lurie
The Quickening, by Michelle Hoover
Boston Girl, by Anita Diamant
Under the Influence, by Joyce Maynard
Alice and Oliver, by Charles Bock

American Housewife is a collection of satirical short fiction about the lifeways of American women of a certain ilk. One gets a sense of the tone from the titles: "How to Be a Grown-Ass Lady," "How to Be a Patron of the Arts," and "What do Do All Day." One of my favorites was "Hello, Welcome to Book Club"--in this book club, it turns out, new members are recruited to be surrogates for infertile members of the group. Not necessarily deep--but funny.

Among the Imposters and Among the Betrayed are the second and third books in the Shadow Children series beloved by my granddaughter. It's pretty amazing how complex the conspiracies in these books are--not sure I could have tracked them when I was a third-grader!

Foreign Affairs won the Pulitzer back in the 1980s and, though it's hard to believe it was the best novel of the year, it is a worthwhile look at two extremely different American academics doing research in the UK. Both are lonely and that loneliness may be the impetus of their two apparently unlikely love affairs. The examination of cultural differences between the US and UK and the curious relationships and pressures faced by academics were both interesting and amusing. I didn't love Foreign Affairs, but thought it was worth reading.

The Quickening and Boston Girl both feel like books I have read before--The Quickening is about the difficult lives of women on farms on the Northern Plains, Boston Girl about the difficult lives of immigrant women in the urban centers of the Northeast. Both are fine--but not fresh.

I should probably read every other book that Joyce Maynard writes, as I seem to only like alternate Maynard works. Under the Influence was one I didn't like--it's packed with annoying people and unbelievable situations and I don't really want to say any more about it.

I knew Alice and Oliver was a book about a marriage affected by the wife's illness. I didn't realize that the wife's illness was the same type of leukemia that a friend's husband is currently being treated for. Luckily, my friend's husband is handling the treatment more easily than the character Alice, because the description of what happens to Alice is horrific. Equally interesting and moving is the way in which author Charles Bock (whose first wife died of leukemia) talks about the stresses on the marriage and the long-term effects on the family. Recommended (but with a warning that it is harrowing).


Between the World and Me, by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Becoming Nicole, by Amy Ellis Nutt
This Town, by Mark Leibovich
Columbine, by Dave Cullen

Between the World and Me, winner of the National Book Award, is an essay about race, written in the form of a letter to the author's teenage son. It is in many ways a sad book (see quotes below), as Coates sees racism in America as so pervasive as to change the minds and threaten the bodies of young people of color, as compared to young people whose parents "think they are white." As a mother who thinks she is white and her sons are biracial, I did not find the content surprising or offensive (as many reader-reviewers evidently did). Although the book is fairly short, I did find it repetitive at some points. That flaw notwithstanding, it is worth reading--if you can do so with an open mind.

A friend gave me Becoming Nicole with the caution that she didn't think it was that good (now that I think about it, she's said that as she's given me several books--hmmm).  It may not be a great book--it's written in a very unemotional journalistic tone--but it's an interesting look into the experience of an "average" family dealing with the fallout of having a transgender child. I felt particular empathy with Nicole's twin brother, but the entire family conducted themselves admirably as they sought to have their daughter treated fairly in her school and community.

Mark Leibovich uses Tim Russert's funeral as a launching point for his "expose" of the stew of self-aggrandizement, influence-peddling, and sucking up characteristic of the politicians, political consultants/advisors, lobbyists, and media that forms the culture of Washington, DC. From time to time, the book is quite amusing, but I started to feel uncomfortable when I recognized to what extent  Leibovich is bound up with the culture he is mocking.

I had never intended to read Columbine, but when a friend told me she was reading it and was learning that a lot of what she believed had been proved wrong, I decided I'd give it a try. Perhaps because she lives in Chicago and I live in Denver, I discovered that I had known the myths were untrue for a long time. So it's interesting to me that people in other areas still believe some of the myths that were perpetuated by the media in the days and weeks following the tragedy. I did learn that the Jeffco officials were even more dishonest and unethical than I had known and was interested to read that the author found the Rocky Mountain News (now defunct) provided much more accurate coverage than the Denver Post. Worth reading.

Pick of the Litter: Alice and Oliver

Favorite Passages: 

My understanding of the universe was physical, and its moral arc bent toward chaos then concluded in a box.

I have raised you to respect every human being as singular, and you must extend that same respect into the past. Slavery is not an indefinable mass of flesh. It is a particular, specific enslaved woman, whose mind is active as your own, whose range of feeling is as vast as your own; who prefers the way the light falls in one particular spot in the woods who enjoys fishing where the water eddies in a nearby stream, who loves her mother in her own complicated way, thinks her sister talks too loud, has a favorite cousin, a favorite season, who excels at dress-making and knows, inside herself, that she is as intelligent and capable as anyone.

The galaxy belonged to them [white parents], and as terror was communicated to our children, I saw mastery communicated to theirs.

All from Between the World and Me

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