july and august reading

Claiming Ground by Laura Bell — Because I grew up in Iowa City (and later attended graduate school there), home of the Iowa Writers Workshop, I have heard a lot of authors talk and read from their books, and I have read a great many books and stories set in my hometown or some place very like it. It’s sort of a game, really — seeing how quickly you can figure out which bar the characters are meeting up at, or deducing what apartment someone lived in during the time their memoir takes place, or whatever. Reading Laura Bell’s book was my first real experience of that in Wyoming (there are other books about this part of the world — Gretel Ehrlich’s The Solace of Open Spaces and Mark Spragg’s Where Rivers Change Direction spring to mind first — but this is the first one I read while living here). Reading it brought the particular delight recognizing people and places that I know, or know of, but it is also a good read as a memoir by a woman trying to figure out how to belong to a place she is not from.

Illyria by Elizabeth Hand — A good but peculiar young adult novel about theatrically and romantically inclined cousins. I say peculiar because the book is told by a first person adult narrator about her young adulthood, and it ends with the narrator as an adult, which made it seem like an old-fashioned book in many ways (my unscientific perception being that the adult narrator looking back was more common in children’s and YA books of the earlier parts of the 20th century, before the YA explosion of recent years). The story is told by Maddy and is about growing up in what had been a large extended theatrical family that was merely now a large extended rather complacent family, except for Maddy and her cousin Rogan, who were theatre mad and also in love. The main part of the story deals with their high school’s production of Twelfth Night, in which they both star, and of what happens to them afterward, and what eventually reunites them.

The Magicians by Lev Grossman — I loved this book, and then I got taken to task by my very smart friends for not questioning why the gay character must be a tortured youth aspect and for not recognizing that the main female character is not really allowed to be much of a character. I will cop to that. I still loved the idea of magic in this book — that it’s not really actually all that good for anything — and so you have all these with a lot of skills and really no actual purpose in life. Given that that’s pretty much exactly how I felt upon finishing my fancy liberal arts college, I suppose it makes sense that I related to the book. I also found it wickedly funny, and if you’re a fan of children’s fantasy literature in general and Narnia in particular, you’ll have a great time picking out all the references.

A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan — I love the New York Times reviewer who began his review this way:

If you’re like me, you tend to regard plot summaries as a necessary boredom at best. They’re the flyover country between a reviewer’s landing strips of judgment, revealing almost nothing about the way a book actually works, almost nothing about why it succeeds or fails. . . . At least this is how I felt until I read Jennifer Egan’s remarkable new fiction.

He then proceeds to try to summarize the plot (I’ll let you click through for it), which is crazy and both epic and quotidian. I loved Egan’s first novel, The Invisible Circus, so much that I sort of keep hoping she’ll write it again. She never has, and her subsequent novels are so very different from that one that I always think I’m not really going to like them, but then I read them and I do. This one, in particular, reminds me of what my grandmother once told me: that you never really know when someone is going to show up in your life. A Visit from the Goon Squad is that in literature, writ large.

R Exposure by Kathryn Harrison — Something I read online somewhere made me think I should reread this, but I can no longer remember what. In any case, I love Kathryn Harrison, and this one was worth revisiting.

Father of the Rain by Lily King — One of the best and most satisfying novels I’ve read in a long time. It’s decidedly one where describing the plot — which deals with Daley growing up with her alcoholic father, leaving him, and going back to try to help him — doesn’t do it justice at all.

Let’s Take the Long Way Home: A Memoir of Friendship by Gail Caldwell — Caldwell’s memoir about her friendship with Caroline Knapp (author, most famously, of Drinking: A Love Story) is about dogs and rowing and dealing with death and grief and being a recovering alcoholic and various other things, but the parts that interested me most were those that dealt with being a single woman. Not single in a Bridget Jones/Sex and the City/constantly on the lookout for the next guy, if not The One kind of a way, but single in a living by yourself and having your life and being happy kind of a way. There’s not enough of that narrative in the world.

Cash by Johnny Cash — Our first book for this year’s book discussion group. I made everyone watch the video of Hurt, but what was most interesting to me was hearing from people — our group ranges from age 34 to age 76 — about their experiences listening to Cash over the years, and their sense of how he was talked about in their youth.

Will Grayson, Will Grayson by John Green and David Levithan — I knew going into this story told by two high school students named Will Grayson from two very different Chicago suburbs that I would love it, and I was not disappointed. As with many of John Green’s books, I found the ending a wee bit over the top, but I sort of don’t care, because a) it’s fiction and b) the characters and the writing and the dialogue are so wonderful and funny. Actually, b) is the far more important point. I often say that I know I really, really love a book when I find myself punching the sofa during particularly good bits. This book and Father of the Rain were the big couch punching books this summer.

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