This was going to be March and April only, but then suddenly it was June. I keep meaning to do these summaries more often, but clearly by “more often” I mean “well, once in a great while.” As usual, an L indicates a book I listened to and an R one I reread. My apologies for the length.
The Melting Season by Celeste Conway–I should really learn that when the reviews of a book are not very good, the book itself is also probably not very good, no matter how good it sounds. I had high hopes for this being a Madeleine L’Engle-ish novel about smart, artistic high school students with problems. It is about smart, artistic high school students with problems, and it’s not bad, but it’s not wonderful, either. But if you’re looking for something to read in that vein, you’ll probably like it well enough.
The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini–This was, by request, our March book discussion book. It’s a great book discussion book, and it’s a good read, but as a work of literature I found it somewhat disappointing.
Not Buying It: My Year Without Shopping by Judith Levine–like Walt, I don’t much like to buy things. That’s part of why I live in Meeteetse, Wyoming, where there is very little to buy. It’s often satisfying to look at other people’s buying habits and feel superior because of your greater frugality. Judith Levine, as you might imagine, does a bit of that in this book that documents how she and her companion tried not to buy anything but food and a few other essentials for a whole year. These year-in-the-life books are a popular genre, I think–I’ve read several in the past few years (The Know-it-All, in which the author tries to read all of the Encyclopaedia Britannica in a year; So Many Books, So Little Time, in which the author documents her reading for a year). Levine can get self-righteous with the best of us, but she makes up for it in passages like this one:
During our year without shopping, Paul and I had extra time, energy, and money to act as citizens. We also felt more personally the need to do so. Self-exiled from the shops and eateries, we had no place to hang out by the olde publick square. There we found much that was rich and surprising, but we also discovered that what our nation owns in common is in critically bad shape. Libraries, schools, and bridges are falling down; in 2004, the voting machines broke down again, all over the place.
I suppose you might find that self-righteous, too, but I think it’s right on.
Heir to the Glimmering World by Cynthia Ozick–I read this as a favor to my grandmother, because she was leading a discussion of it for her novel study group. I was expecting not to like it, because I can’t stand Ozick’s essays, but this novel was wonderful. It has very short chapters and a (mostly) first person narrator, an 18 year old orphan named Rose who goes to work for a crazy German family, and I’d recommend it to anyone looking for literary fiction that is both complex and easy to read.
Fallout by Trudy Krisher–another so-so YA novel. This one is full of imagery about hurricanes and fallout shelters and the cold war and how these all relate to high school in the early 1950s. Serious librarians will like it because it has a timeline, with, as I recall, source notes at the end.
Love and Other Impossible Pursuits by Ayelet Waldman–I took this book home because I remembered that there was some reason I wanted to read it, but I couldn’t remember what it was. The jacket flap left me unmoved, but I started the book and couldn’t put it down. If you get irked by reading about the psychological problems of wealthy people in New York, I would steer clear.
L Wait Until Midnight by Amanda Quick–I sometimes try to listen to things that are outside my normal reading patterns. I’ll grant you that historical mystery/romance is not very far outside my general reading patterns, but it still felt like a little stretch to me.
Cesar’s Way by Cesar Millan–Everybody at my library has been reading this. We got the book because the DVD is so popular. Before I became a librarian, I was a dog-walker (and before that I taught college–it’s been an up and down sort of career path–which are the ups and which are the downs I leave for you to decide). Millan’s book both confirmed some things I suspected and taught me a lot of new ones. If you’re at all interested in dogs, check it out.
The Uses of Enchantment by Heidi Julavits–a weird psychological novel about a girl who was either abducted when she was high school or who pretended she had been abducted. A decade or so later, she comes back to her hometown for her mother’s funeral. The story is told in three threads: one is the present day; one is notes from the therapist she was sent to after her abduction (or fake abduction); and one is a series of chapters called “What Might Have Happened,” which sketch out (as you might expect) what might have happened if she had been abducted (or what did happen when she was abducted–if nothing else, talking about this novel will refresh your memory on subjunctives and conditions). The tripartite narrative bogged me down for awhile, but if you stick with it, you get drawn into the complexities and the hints and the details.
The Nature of Jade by Deb Caletti–a YA novel about a girl with anxiety problems who’s a senior in high school and who gets a volunteer job at the zoo working with the elephants. She meets and starts dating a boy a few years older who has a baby (leading to such great lines as “He had a baby. I had a locker.”) Like many YA novels, this one is a bit implausible, but if you’re willing to let that go, there are some wonderful elephant descriptions, and the mystery of the boy with the baby keeps you reading.
Letters from Yellowstone by Diane Smith–This was the last book we discussed at the library this year. I had not read it before, but several people who had wanted to discuss it, so we did. I think six months of book discussion may be about the outer limit (for me, if not for everyone else). The turn out was small, and, possibly because of that and probably because I was unmoved by the book, we didn’t have much of a discussion. The whole book is, as you may imagine, written in letters, and it concerns a character called A.E. Bartram who applies to be part of a botany expedition in Yellowstone at the end of the 19th century. A.E. is accepted, though the rest of the party is somewhat shocked that A. turns out to stand for Amelia–they had not been expecting a woman. The expedition goes forward, with plenty of comic characters, and it’s enjoyable but not a book I loved. I would recommend it to anyone who liked Enchanted April–it has a similar feel, if not a similar topic.
My Latest Grievance by Elinor Lippman–I find Elinor Lippman delightful in perhaps somewhat the same way that those who liked Letters from Yellowstone found it delightful. Her latest novel concerns Fredericka, a faculty brat at a so-so eastern liberal arts college where her parents are both professors and house parents. The story takes place when she’s sixteen, and her father’s first wife arrives on campus to be a housemother at another dorm. Her father is unmoved by her presence, but the college president is not, and the tragi-comedy of manners picks up from there.
R Dakota: A Spiritual Geography by Kathleen Norris–I read this for the first time several years ago, when I was in graduate school in Iowa, and thought it was good. This time around it was like reading a whole new book. A few years ago, I read Norris’s account of life in Lemmon, South Dakota as an outsider. This time I read it as someone who has been, if not there, then somewhere similar. Meeteetse is smaller than Lemmon but much more connected to the outside world. The nearest town is 32 miles away, but it has an airport. Lemmon is over a hundred miles from one. Much of what Norris says about small towns–the good and the bad–is applicable to almost any small place, particularly those in out of the way corners of the country.
Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson–Since I hated high school, I’m not sure why I’m drawn to reading books about high school, but if the book in question is by Anderson, you can be sure that she will get the horrors of high school exactly right, and perhaps I just appreciate and recognize how dead on she is. She does so again here, although unlike her earlier books, this one is told from the point of view of a male main character. I read it in one sitting. (There’s some rule whereby all the authors I really love write very few books, whereas those I could care less about crank them out like so many pieces of popcorn–if you can crank popcorn–my metaphor is a bit off, I know.)
Without a Map by Meredith Hall–I read the first part of this memoir when it appeared in an anthology put out by Creative Nonfiction. Hall got pregnant in the mid-1960s, when she was sixteen years old. Her mother sent her away to her father’s house twenty miles away, where he and his wife told her to not to leave the house, at all, ever, lest the neighbors see, and of course she had to give the baby up for adoption. Like NonAnon, I find I don’t want to describe it much more than that, but it’s a fascinating (as well as heart-rending) look at what life was like before legalized abortion and before the kinds of programs designed for teen moms that existed in my town. It would probably be interesting to read this book in conjunction with The Girls Who Went Away (which Rick reviewed), though I haven’t read that book yet. And incidentally, if you just read Rick’s review via RSS, please click through to his site and read the comments. I don’t know how the stories that appear there end, if they have ended, but I hope they do end well.
L Microthrills: True Stories from a Life of Small Highs by Wendy Spero–I started listening to this in February, when I was moving into my house; I finally finished in May. I don’t have a CD player in my car, where I do most of my audiobook listening (largely on trips to and from Cody), but I thought I’d try listening to a CD book at home. It took me a long, long time. (I also tried listening to Nora Ephron’s I Feel Bad About My Neck, some of which I’d read in the New Yorker. I love her writing but not her voice.) Anyway, Spero is being pitched as sort of a female David Sedaris, I guess because she’s a humorous essayist with a quirky and ribald style. If you like Sedaris, you might well like her (and her day (er, night) job is doing stand up comedy, so she reads her work quite well).
Rules by Cynthia Lord–One of this year’s Newbery Honor Books. The main character is a girl, I think about twelve, who has a younger brother with autism. The novel is about how she deals with him, loves him, gets exasperated by him, and is embarrassed by him, often in rapid succession, or simultaneously. Lord does a good job of making kids with developmental disabilities seem like a regular part of life (as they are, or should be) without being didactic about it.
The Best Place to Be by Leslie Dormen–Another novel-in-stories, which seem to be a popular format these days, at least based on the book reviews I read. These stories revolve around a New York City woman from college to her mid-50s, with occasional flashbacks to her childhood. She was a relationship columnist for a women’s magazine, though she herself married late, and now she does freelance work. Other characters are her mother, her series of stepfathers, her best friend from college, and her husband, though as I recall he only shows up in the first story. This being NYC, she also has a therapist on the Upper East Side, though she is mostly referred to, not present. It is, as something I read the other day noted, a book concerned mostly with “first world problems” (or rather “second world”–Europe is the first, the US is the second, others follow in the order in which they “developed”), but it’s well enough written to inspire more admiration than jealousy, at least for me.
L A Great and Terrible Beauty by Libba Bray–a YA novel set at a girls’ boarding school in England late in the Victorian era, and involving magic, although most of the action takes place in this world. It’s sort of your basic Dead Poets Society wherein the cool teacher (English in the movie; art here) introduces students to a larger world and ends up being punished for it. Bray’s novel is more about the girls than the teacher, but the underlying premise is still there. Josephine Bailey, the narrator, was quite good.