Battleborn: Stories by Claire Vaye Watkins – When I saw the list of publications in her bio – One Story, Ploughshares, The Paris Review, Glimmer Train - I knew I needed to pick it up. Though I did like some stories more than others, it was on the whole a very satisfying and extremely well-written collection. My favorites were “The Past Perfect, The Past Continuous, The Simple Past”, “Man-O-War”, and “The Diggings”.
The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker – I love the premise: one day the world suddenly begins to rotate more slowly, and every day after that it becomes more extreme, affecting everything from wildlife, crops, energy consumption, and solar radiation, to a division in society between those on “clock time” and those on “real time”. It had an element of sci-fi to it, but was not really a genre piece. The main character, Julia, is a 6th grader whose life continues despite the horrific changes going on in the world. She is shunned by her best friend, experiences first love, and deals with her father’s adultery. Loved it.
The Land of Decoration by Grace McCleen – I seem to be gravitating toward books with child narrators lately. This one is told from the perspective of Judith, who lives with her father in England. They belong to a cult that believes the end of days in imminent and they spend their weekends knocking on the doors of their neighbors to convince them of this belief. Judith is bullied at school and her father has trouble with the union at the factory where he works because he refuses to go on strike. Judith begins to act out scenarios in the land of decoration, a play world made of garbage in her room. As her plays become reality, she begins to believe that she can make miracles happen and speak to God. The plot is far more complex than I can convey in this short paragraph; I highly recommend it.
Charlotte au Chocolat: Memoirs of a Restaurant Girlhood by Charlotte Silver – This was a short memoir of a girl whose mother owned “Upstairs at the Pudding”, a restaurant located above Harvard’s Hasty Pudding Club. The reminisces about the crazy characters who worked at the restaurant, the famous people who patronized it, and the quirks of Harvard square. The book was full of physical description of the restaurant decor and furnishings, the author’s party dresses, the food served, and the difference between front people and kitchen people. It was a light read with a few moments of tenderness. The author did begin to repeat herself; it may have been more suited as an article.
The Newlyweds by Neil Freudenberger – This novel concerns a marriage between an American man from Rochester NY, George, and a Muslim woman, Amina, from Bangladesh. Each has a past love that didn’t work out. They meet on the internet, George visits and proposes, and Amina joins him in the US where they are married. It is told from Amina’s perspective. It held my attention until Amina returns to Bangladesh, where the narrative began to drag. She spends too much time visiting with relatives and pining for her lost love, Nasir. I found the subplot about her father’s troubles with his criminal family uninteresting and drawn-out. Cutting 30 pages in the last third of the book would tighten things up nicely. I liked Amina’s character very much, but once the ending seemed inevitable I was ready for the book to be over and it kept on.
The Sense of an Ending by Julian Barnes – At only 163 pages, this was a very quick read. It is told from the perspective of an elderly retired man who reflects on the nature of memory in regards to a school friend, Adrian, and an ex-girlfriend, Veronica. His memory of the end of their friendship is far different than the reality, and his actions affected his friends’ lives in ways he never knows until the end of the book. The novel was very well structured.
Maps and Legends: Reading & Writing Along the Borderlands by Michael Chabon – An amusing collection of essays about comic books, genre fiction, and the author’s own life and writing process.
This is How by Augusten Burroughs – This was not at all what I expected. I find Burroughs’ books hilarious and was looking forward to this new one. Instead of a collection of funny yet heartbreaking essays, I found more of a manifesto and guide-to-life. Burroughs writes about addiction being a choice. He thinks therapy is a crock (which I largely agree with). He addresses suicide, illness, and victimhood. My favorite quote: “The truth behind the truth is this: even if you are a victim, you must never be a victim. Even if you deserve to be one. Because while you wait for somebody to come along and set things right, life has moved forward without you (59)”. I definitely know a few people who would do well to take his advice.
Are You My Mother? A Comic Drama by Alison Bechdel – This sounded interesting: a woman has deep issues with her mother and their past, and, like Virginia Woolf, decides to work them out by writing the story of their relationship in comic book form. What I found, however, was a memoir of therapy. The majority of the panels take place inside a therapist’s office, with the author rehashing her childhood traumas. There were some funny moments, but I find therapy tiring and self-indulgent, and was ultimately disappointed in this book.
Bound by Antonya Nelson – This is the first novel I have ever read by the author, though I have read her stories in The New Yorker. I love the way she masterfully jumps between characters, creating a true panorama of the action. The story begins when Misty drives off a cliff accidentally and is killed. Cattie, her daughter, is at boarding school. Because they are in the habit of not speaking for days or weeks at a time, she does not realize that her mother is missing. Eventually she is told and Cattie runs away from school. Catherine was Misty’s friend in high school and is listed in her will as Cattie’s guardian, despite the fact that Misty and Catherine haven’t spoken in many years. The way they come together is very well done.
Farther Away: Essays by Jonathan Franzen – This is an eclectic collection, with topics ranging from grammar to birdwatching. The most memorable essay was about a trip to Cyprus. Franzen accompanies bird conservationists as they attempt to save songbirds from being trapped by poachers. They are a delicacy on Cyprus, though they are illegal. Because migratory birds from many parts of Europe pass through Cyprus, their numbers have been severely impacted by this mass killing. Poachers use sticks with glue on them to trap the birds, and kill those that are of the wrong species even if they are rare or endangered. Poaching is considered a rite of passage for young men and though the European Union required a ban, local authorities do not actively enforce it. I also liked Franzen’s essay on the use of “comma then”. He argues that one should always use “and then”. “Then” alone sounds like a story that has been over workshopped, not like a person actually speaking English. He has made my hyper-aware of this is my own writing.
Bright Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich – I picked this book up at the public library without any real idea of what it was about; I needed an audio book and had already heard most of the others (that aren’t mysteries or romances) in the small selection at my town library. The author begins with her diagnosis with breast cancer and subsequent distaste for the infantilizing pink ribbon and positive support group view of cancer. She outlines the beginnings of positive thinking in America and how it has taken hold of so many aspects of our culture. Perhaps most troubling of all, she blames the financial collapse of 2008 on the new business culture that began in the 1980s. Everyone is expected to be positive and optimistic and to believe that anything can be achieved if one wants it badly enough. Ehrenreich also investigates modern mega-churches and concludes that the preachers’ messages stray far from doctrine, instead focusing on motivational speeches and positive affirmations. It is healthy to be realistic, not blindfolded by optimism.
In the Basement of the Ivory Tower: Confessions of an Accidental Academic by Professor X – This memoir is told from the perspective of a community college professor. He believes that the attitude toward higher education in this country is over inflated. Many jobs that do not truly require skills one would learn at college require that their employees hold bachelors or associate degrees. this forces woefully unprepared students into his 101 and 102 classes. From his descriptions, it seems like many of his students have fewer writing skills than a middle-schooler. He acts as gatekeeper: if the students do not improve, he fails them so they cannot move onto other college classes for which they aren’t prepared. Student apathy is one of the biggest problems – they put in no effort and hand in crap.
Girlchild by Tupelo Hassman – The narrative structure of this novel was very different. There were many short chapters, none longer than a few pages. The main character is Rory Dawn, a girl who ages from 8 to 16 over the course of the book. She lives in a trailer park outside of Reno, NV. Her mother is a bartender at a truck stop. Rory has a complicated family history; she has four older brothers from a different father who are grown and rarely come around. Her mother is an alcoholic. Rory is raped by a man her mother trusts to watch her. The story is told in short vignettes mixed with social services reports. The author did an excellent job shaping Rory’s voice; the character is incredibly intelligent, possibly a child genius.
Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking by Susan Cain – This book helped to validate some of my own tendencies to need quiet time alone to pursue my own projects. It delved into how best to work with an introvert in an office setting, or if you are an introvert, how to be successful by setting up your schedule and environment. An open office plan does not help introverts get work done. The chapters about teaching and parenting were especially enlightening. The comparison between Asian and American cultures was intriguing – in Asia, people strive not to take up the valuable time of others by talking too much, while in American only those who talk a lot and loudly are listened to.
The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, & Mockingjay by Suzanne Collins – My students have been reading these for years, so I finally decided to read them when the movie came out because I knew the plot would be ruined by all of the publicity. The series was certainly a page-turner, and more political than I imagined. The love story was a bit drawn out and became tiresome, and the first two books were too similar in plot and structure. Unlike other popular YA books like Twilight or Harry Potter, many important characters die and there is no fairytale ending. I like that very much about Collins’ work. However, book 3 in particular needs a good red pen.