Publishers Still Hate You, But They Want to Look Nice

I’m really glad that Simon & Schuster has agreed to make “an exception to their current national eBook sales policy for libraries” for my humble little state so we can have ebooks of the selection for this coming year’s statewide reading program.

I’m a lot less glad that there’s a policy Simon & Schuster needs to make an exception to at all. As American Library Association President Maureen Sullivan put it, “It’s a rare thing in a free market when a customer is refused the ability to buy a company’s product and is told its money is ‘no good here.'”

The Iowa librarians who persuaded Simon & Schuster to make this exception had, apparently, quite a bit of persuading to do:

Simpson and Martin provided answers to a series of questions asked by S&S such as the history of the AIR [All Iowa Reads] program (now in its 11th year), how many Iowans read the AIR selection, how many copies are sold, names of past AIR titles, circulation numbers. “We gave the data we have,” said Martin. “While we don’t know the exact number of circulations of our selections, we do know that Iowa libraries own a total of 300 to 400 copies of each of the previous AIR titles.

The rest of the press release from the Iowa Center for the Book has a similarly librarianly, conciliatory tone. I don’t feel conciliatory. My gratitude toward Simon & Schuster is real, but it is neither wide nor deep. It shouldn’t be necessary to supply data to a publishing company to demonstrate that libraries buy books and patrons read them. We’ve been buying books from publishers for centuries now. It shouldn’t be necessary to beg, as a publicly-funded institution, to buy something that is freely available on the open market. Publishers ought to care about readers all the time, not just when someone begs them to make an exception.

I’m a librarian, and, as one of my library school professors said, librarianship is not a refuge. I’m a fighter, not a begger. Who’s with me?

january 2012 reading

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett — Unlike my beloved Citizen Reader, I loved Patchett’s latest novel. I didn’t feel the plot was lacking in action (although since my mother claims I only like books with no plots, you may want to take that with a grain of salt or three), and I loved the main character’s bafflement at being confronted with a series of alien cultures — first the city where she stays for the first part of her trip to Brazil and the expats who live there, then the village up the river in the jungle, then the secret world of the scientists who work there. The premise of the novel is that a drug company has scientists working in the field in Brazil to discover why the women in a particular tribe there are able to have babies into their 70s and to try to make a fertility drug using their secret. Having now experienced 39 weeks of pregnancy, I’m not sure why anyone would want to go through it at age 70, but I was captivated by the book nonetheless.

The Submission by Amy Waldman — Waldman imagines what would happen if there were a contest to design the 9/11 memorial and the person who won it turned out to be a Muslim American. I feel there must be a term for this sort of literature — books that introduce a societal shakeup and then show you how a variety of representative characters react to it (in this case, a wealthy liberal victim’s wife, a working class victim’s brother, an illegal Muslim immigrant, an activist lawyer, a banker, the governor, etc.) — but I don’t know what it would be. But in any case, I enjoyed following Waldman’s speculations.

The Informationist by Taylor Stevens — The January pick for the library’s mystery group. I believe Stevens’s claim that she did not base her character on Lisbeth Salander, but then I wasn’t much more impressed with this book than I was with Stieg Larsson’s. It seems like a fairly standard thriller to me — engrossing if you can suspend a certain amount of disbelief — but the only part I really liked was the setting. Most of the book takes place in Equatorial Guineau in western Africa. Stevens lived there for a couple of years, and you can tell.

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell — I’ve only read four books in 2012 so far, but I can tell already that this one is going to be a strong contender for the best book I read all year. Margo, fifteen when the book starts out, lives with her father near her extended but somewhat estranged family on a river in central Michigan circa 1979. The list of bad things that happen to her rivals that of Jude the Obscure (she gets raped by her uncle; her cousin kills her father; she ends up homeless on the river because she wants to avoid the child welfare people), but it’s somehow not a depressing book, or at any rate it’s so compelling, and Margo is such a strong actor in her own story, that you forget about being nothing but depressed.

To Hell With All That by Caitlin Flanaghan — Caitlin Flanaghan is a very stylish writer who makes insane generalizations and has apparently no understanding of what constitutes data or evidence. She is thus exactly the kind of writer whom I love to hate, and in the last week or so of pregnancy I was incredibly grouchy, and the idea of reading a book about which I could grouch at great length was very appealing and was indeed quite satisfying. It was almost as good as the arguments I used to have with Ronald Reagan (in my head) when I was a kid.

Love Works Like This by Lauren Slater — I am very fond of Lauren Slater’s books, but I hadn’t realized until I stumbled across this at the library that she’d written one about pregnancy and motherhood. Like Slater, although to a lesser degree, I have a long history of mental illness and I took a lot of antidepressants during pregnancy. I was less worried about the chemical soup my baby was swimming in than she was (my theory being that while the studies on antidepressants and pregnancy are inconclusive, the studies on maternal depression during pregnancy are very, very solid, and it’s a very bad thing, and so I chose the unknown risk over the certain one), and I had a different set of challenging experiences during the months I was pregnant, and a very different birth experience, but it was good to read a book that so explicitly dealt with pregnancy not as a time of sunshine and roses and high expectation.

november-december 2011 reading

Portobello by Ruth Rendell — The November mystery group selection. My group had a fine time explaining to me that this was Not a Mystery, which it’s not, by classical definitions, but I enjoyed reading it. I was never a mystery reader before, and leading this group hasn’t turned me into one, but it has led me to a lot of books I would never otherwise have read, and I’ve enjoyed more of them than I thought I would.

Learning to Drive by Katha Pollitt — I have loved Katha Pollitt’s writing since I first got a subscription to The Nation when I was sixteen. A couple of these essays first appeared in The New Yorker, and stylistically, they are the best of the bunch, but despite some unevenness, I loved the whole collection. If you’ve lived most of your life on the Left, it’s kind of great to get to read a book where people belong to Marxist study groups and have parents who were Communists and who generally write about the world you live in.

The Uncertain Places by Lisa Goldstein — I love fantasy novels that take place in the real world and rely on fairy tales, so I had very high hopes for this novel that takes its inspiration from an unknown Grimm’s fairy tale. It starts out in Berkeley in the 1960s, with two best friends dating two sisters who live with their eccentric — and, as it turns out, haunted — family in a sprawling, multi-style house up in wine country. Sadly, the rest of the book wasn’t quite as good as the first fifty pages or so, but I still enjoyed it.

The Case of the Lost Boy by Dori Hillestad Butler — December’s mystery selection. Dori Butler is the current president of our Friends of the Library group and the author of a number of children’s books. This one won the Edgar for best children’s mystery last year. It is narrated by a dog, and it’s both funny and sad, as dog stories often are.

Cherry by Mary Karr — I’ve read or listened to all of Karr’s memoirs out of order, but they seem to work that way. Someday perhaps I’ll go back and reread them in order and see if I have a favorite. I do love the opening line here: “No road offers more mystery than the first one you mount from the town you were born to, the first time you mount it of your own volition. . . ”

White Ghost Girls by Alice Greenaway — I actually read this sometime earlier in the year; I’ve forgotten just when, but it was wonderful, so I wanted to be sure to include it in the list. It’s about two girls with a photojournalist father during the Vietnam War. They’re living with their mother in Southeast Asia while he comes and goes, and they’re trying to figure out the war and growing up and their parents and the world.

L Too Big To Fail by Andrew Ross Sorkin — I may be the only person in the world who finds financial journalism both fascinating and soporific. As a result, I have listened to almost every Planet Money podcast several times, and so I was looking for something new and hit upon this one night whilst browsing my library’s eaudiobook collection. It’s sort of an odd book, being one of those nonfiction tomes with unspecified sources that nonetheless pretends to know what is going through Hank Paulson’s head at any given moment. But it served its purpose well enough.

Silver Sparrow by Tayari Jones — If I were into making top ten lists, this book would be on one for sure. A man steps out on his wife and fathers a child with his mistress, whom he secretly marries. Then his wife has a girl just a few months later. The secret wife and child know all about the “real” family, but the real family knows nothing about the secret. The girls grow up in 1980s Atlanta, and of course, eventually, they meet. Searing and impossible to put down.

In addition to regular books, I also spent a good chunk of the second half of this year reading books on pregnancy and childbirth. Most of them are terrible — at least terrible if you are not an upper-middle class heterosexual married white person. Judging by the census data on births, relatively few mothers-to-be fall into that category these days. And yet in pregnancy book land, everyone has a committed husband and is just dying to buy pink or blue items to outfit their nursery. It’s astounding. It’s like some weird form of time travel. The book that contained the sentence, “If you have no knight in shining armor to change your kitty litter. . .” I nearly threw across the room. (It was a library book, so of course I didn’t. I just took it back the next day, as I did with a number of the books I checked out.)

For the record, though, there are a few that I made it through, so I’ll make some notes about them here.

Our Bodies, Ourselves: Pregnancy and Birth by the Boston Women’s Health Collective — This is the only book I read that I would actually recommend unreservedly. Given that I grew up with Our Bodies, Ourselves on display in many of my friends’ houses (oddly, I didn’t get my own copy until after college) and given my general proclivities, it is perhaps not surprising that I loved this book so much. But still. It is the only book I read that was consistently inclusive of single women, lesbians, women of color, women in unhealthy relationships, women who’ve suffered abuse, women with mental or physical health problems — in other words, the only book I read that seemed like it was about ordinary women. It also gets big points for being informative but not judgmental and for including a whole chapter (actually, a couple of chapters) on advocating for better care for pregnant women, babies, and new mothers.

Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth by Ina May Gaskin — If you really want the full on whacky hippie homebirth reading experience, you check out Spiritual Midwifery, which is charming in the way of all handlettered books from the 1970s. Gaskin clearly decided, however, that she needed to write something for slightly more mainstream audiences, and I was quite pleased with the result. The first half of the book is childbirth stories, which I actually find get kind of repetitive after awhile. The second half is a nice overview of the actual process of childbirth, which I found informative and reassuring. Of course, I haven’t actually given birth yet, so my mind may yet change.

Understanding Your Moods When You’re Expecting by Lucy J. Puryear — I had high hopes for this book, as it seemed to promise to focus on mental health issues (of which I have some) and pregnancy. It does, but it also falls very much into the trap of the happily married well to do pregnant woman who is happy to be having a baby. I would think that such a book might also want to address the emotions of single mothers, people who find themselves unexpectedly pregnant, people who are disadvantaged. Sigh.

The Womanly Art of Breastfeeding by La Leche League International — Hands down the most judgmental book I picked up in the course of perusing the shelves. A friend of mine saw me reading it and said, “That book was nearly responsible for the death of my first son.” I am not quite sure why I keep reading it, except that it’s full of such astounding hubris, like the quotation from the doctor who says that nobody deserves a full night’s sleep, and that after all, he gets up in the middle of the night to help his patients without, so a mother should get up in the middle of the night to help her own baby with joy. (My mother says, “Yes. Of course he gets PAID to get up in the middle of the night.”) In addition to thinking that (of course) anything other than full-time breastfeeding is bad, the book also thinks daycare is bad, working mothers are bad, and single-parent families are bad. I’ve just been reading it in the past month, which may explain why I find all of this hilarious rather than offensive — earlier on I think I would have found it much more upsetting.

Altogether, that brings me to 56 books for 2011. People keep telling me I will never read again after I have a baby, I will never read again, but I find this hard to believe. Stay tuned this time next year to find out how I fare.

[some of] august-october 2011 reading

I say some of because, truly, I’ve lost track of a lot of books I’ve read in the past few months. I moved on August 9 and have taken three weekend trips in the past three months, and, oh, there’s the whole pregnancy thing, so, you know, who knows? Anyway, here are the ones I can remember.

Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter by Tom Franklin — August’s mystery selection. As I’m not a mystery reader by nature, the group is always interested in whether or not I liked a particular book. Almost everyone liked this one, including me, although I liked it because it’s as much a book about boys in the South and race relations as it is a mystery. I’m not generally inclined to compare things to To Kill a Mockingbird, but Franklin’s book does have a bit of that feel.

Ten Thousand Saints by Eleanor Henderson — I am hoping that Jenna will read this sometime so she can tell me if she thinks the Lower East Side is portrayed well in it. The novel concerns a group of kids who migrate from being drug users in Vermont to being straight-edge punks who get caught up in the scene in 1980s New York City and are even around for the Tompkins Square Park Riot.

An American Radical: Political Prisoner in My Own Country by Susan Rosenberg — I ran across this too late to include it as one of the readings for the Women in Prison section of the library’s new nonfiction book discussion group, but I figured I’d read it anyway just for more background. Rosenberg was one of a number of radicals — the kind who supported armed revolution — who got caught (usually as a result of stockpiling weapons or stealing large sums of money) and imprisoned for incredibly long periods of time. Such prisoners have, according to Rosenberg’s account, not only been imprisoned for longer than their crimes would usually merit but have also been treated radically differently from “ordinary” prisoners. Not that ordinary prisoners are treated well, mind you (as she’d be the first to acknowledge).

Gone, Baby, Gone by Dennis Lehane — September’s mystery selection. I told the group that halfway through this book I realized what I don’t really like about mysteries and thrillers — I always know how they’re going to end. Oh, I don’t mean I know who done it — I just mean that if, halfway through the book, we’re in the middle of what seems like a climactic scene, I know perfectly well that it’s not going to be the climax, because there are 200 pages left in the novel, and no mystery denouement takes that long.

Flying Close to the Sun by Cathy Wilkerson — Having read Rosenberg’s book, I was on a sixties radicals memoir kick, so I decided to pick up this one from a few years back. I still think Growing Up Underground is the best book I’ve read in this genre, but there were some worthwhile moments in Wilkerson’s book. I was (not surprisingly) most touched by her descriptions of getting pregnant and having her daughter while still living underground.

Witch Way to Murder? by Shirley Damsgaard — October’s mystery selection. About as serious as it sounds. Bleah.

Madness by Marya Hornbacher — I’ve never been able to make it through Hornbacher’s first book, Wasted, because reading about eating disorders always makes me feel ill, but I was interested to run across this memoir and learn that her primary diagnosis turned out to be not anorexia but bipolar illness (and its frequent attendant, alcoholism). Hornbacher’s style can be distracting to read, but it’s a pretty good approximation of what mania sounds like.

Maine by J. Courtney Sullivan — A novel narrated by three generations of women while visiting their family’s Maine summer home. Sullivan manages a minor miracle in handling shifting perceptions — the character I started out liking the best was the one I was most irked with by the end, and the character I was most annoyed with at the start was the one I most sympathized with by the end.

Life on the Outside: The Prison Odyssey of Elaine Bartlett by Jennifer Gonnerman — Elaine Bartlett was arrested (as part of a sting operation) with just enough cocaine to kick in a mandatory minimum sentence of 20 years. She received clemency after 17 years, but, not surprisingly, life was not much easier outside of prison than it was inside. Gonnerman, a journalist for the Village Voice, followed Elaine for her first year out and tells her story. We read this for the Women in Prison discussion, but it would also pair well with Random Family (my review).

Resistance Behind Bars: The Struggles of Incarcerated Women by Victoria Law — The final book for the Women in Prison discussion. Law documents the largely undocumented work that women in prison have done to organize for their own betterment, whether through forming peer education groups (surprisingly, these are often frowned upon by prison administrators — God forbid prisoners teach each other about HIV!) or going on hunger strikes. Very revealing.

 

may-july 2011 reading

Reading My Father by Alexandra Styron — Depressed people are hell to live with, although probably not quite as hellish for everyone else as they are to themselves. Alexandra Styron is the youngest daughter of William Styron, author of Sophie’s Choice and several other novels as well as Darkness Visible, a memoir about what turned out to be only his first bout with depression. His daughter’s book is interesting primarily I think if you’ve read Darkness Visible, which ends with Styron coming out of his depression and once again beholding the stars, which is a nice way to end a book (thanks, Dante!) but not, sadly, as it turns out, a true one. You might also enjoy it if you like reading about the sort of crazy lives of ridiculously wealthy people.

What Happened to Goodbye by Sarah Dessen — I look forward to a new Sarah Dessen novel the way a kid looks forward to a holiday involving candy. So sweet, so yummy, so something you shouldn’t probably overdose on.

R Hard Laughter by Anne Lamott — I reread early Anne Lamott novels whenever I’m having a hard time, and her splendid nutty northern California families always, always make me feel better. Hard Laughter is a funny book about a woman whose father is dying from cancer. I am not kidding.

Through the Cracks by Barbara Fister — Our June mystery selection. As soon as I heard I was going to be in charge of a mystery book discussion group, I knew we’d read one of Barbara Fister’s novels. This one has a terrific setting mostly on Chicago’s west side, a kick-ass protagonist, and enough social justice content to make me happy.

R All New People by Anne Lamott — I think this is my very favorite of her novels. It’s framed with the story of a woman going back to her hometown, but the novel itself is her recollection of childhood, and of growing up in a time when suddenly people’s parents were divorcing and kids were doing drugs, and everyone has a messy and complicated but somehow wonderful life.

The Poacher’s Son by Paul Doiron — As I’ve noted, I’m not a mystery reader by nature, but I’m often surprised by how much I end up liking the books for our mystery book discussion. This one, about a game warden in Maine with an estranged alcoholic father now suspected of murder was great.

R Operating Instructions by Anne Lamott — I read this a long time ago before I ever even thought of being a mother. Now that I am going to be one, I thought I ought to reread it. You will probably like it even if you are not, like me, a Jesus freak who loathes George Bush (this book takes place during the reign of the first one) because it is so very funny.

Black and White by Dani Shapiro — I have, rather astoundingly, read three novels based on the lives of people who had a photographer parent or friend of a parent who took photos of them that are either artistic or pornographic, depending on your point of view. The others are Miranda Beverly-Whittmore’s The Effects of Light and Kathryn Harrison’s Exposure. Harrison’s differs from the other two in that the photographer is a father, not a mother or a woman, but all three deal with grown women attempting to come to terms with having had a childhood and coming of age that was intensely private made into very public art. One would think there would eventually be a limit to the amount of psychological territory one could explore in such a story, but I’ve enjoyed all three books and would happily read any of them again.

Wrecker by Summer Woods — A three year old boy goes to live with his uncle up in far northern California after his mom is busted and sent to prison, but he ends up being raised by a bunch of people on a commune next door. There’s an underdeveloped plotline wherein his uncle is a logger and one of the commune dwellers goes off to be a tree spiker, and I was hoping for more of that story, but even without it, it’s a pretty good book.

The Suicide Index by Joan Wickersham — I was interested in this memoir for both personal (my father killed himself, too) and writerly (how would a book written as an annotated index work?) reasons. I think Ann Marlowe did more interesting things with the index concept in How to Stop Time: Heroin from A to Z, but it also works well for these sort of differently written mini essays that attempt to sort out unanswerable questions.

The Three Weissmanns of Westport by Cathleen Schine — Sort of an update of Sense and Sensibility: a New York City matron is divorced by her husband and unceremoniously dumped from their apartment, and so she and her two adult daughters (one sensible, one silly) go to live in a rundown beach cottage in Connecticut. I laughed and laughed.

some kinds of help

I read The Help a few years ago. I’d like to say I purchased it for the library because I knew it was going to be big, but I suspect it had more to do with my interest in reading about the Civil Rights era and wondering how a southern white woman would handle the topic. I haven’t seen the movie and probably won’t — I rarely see movies at all, and I tend to stay far, far away from anything the entire rest of the world is talking about (and oh, how our patrons are talking about it).

I have, however, been reading with great interest the reviews of the movie that my friend Cecily has been posting, because they both confirm what I thought — that this is a movie designed in large part to allow white people to feel good about themselves — but also add to my understanding of the vast gaps in my understanding of race and what it means and how it feels.

Any time I’m at a conference or something that offers a diversity workshop or session or training, I go. I don’t do this to get accolades (oh, who am I kidding? I always want accolades — I don’t know any white person who doesn’t want to be cool like that) — but I do it also because I’m endlessly fascinated by the ways in which we fail to perceive the experience of others and how that failure has consequences for so many people.

Yesterday in the mystery book discussion group I run here at the library, we were talking about Tom Franklin’s book Crooked Letter, Crooked Letter. It’s about a white boy and a black boy who are secretly friends for a brief time as teenagers and who then grow up — the black man to be a local baseball star turned town constable; the white man to be a recluse whom everyone suspects of murder. Of course everyone talked about how it’s so unexpected to have those roles reversed. Sigh. Sigh that we think of them as “roles,” sigh that we so automatically have an idea of who should be cast in which part, sigh that we think our noticing that we have that expectation means we are enlightened people.

And everyone wanted to talk about The Help, which almost everyone had read and everyone was planning to see. Everyone who had read it liked it — hell, I liked it well enough — it’s a good story, it’s got likeable characters and some that you just love to hate, and, as I mentioned, if you’re white, it’s exactly the sort of book that lets you feel really good about yourself. So when someone asked what I thought, that’s what I said. That it was a story that worried me a bit because it was too easy to dismiss as a story. That it’s like the narrative of the Civil Rights Movement that says “Rosa Parks wouldn’t give up her seat and Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream and now everything is better!” That it was a little sad that in 2011, we were all going to see black actresses play domestic workers.

And that got us into a bit of a discussion of current problems — of the cabdriver someone had who said no, he couldn’t make a right on red, of the coworker someone else had who wasn’t allowed in a gated community. At moments like these I always wish I had an endless supply of copies of Peggy Macintosh’s White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, and then I think what a total snob I am for thinking that I’m doing a better job at humanity just because I’ve read the thing so many times.

I love to read about the Civil Rights era because it was so complicated. It’s like the line in Matthew about “I come not to bring peace but a sword.” Some days I’m all about Gandhian nonviolence and some days I’m down with by any means necessary. Some days I get furious at the black kids in SNCC for kicking the white kids out, and some days I think it was completely necessary. And I think about how Dr. King’s dream was Malcolm X’s experience when he went to Mecca, but how pretty much none of us live in that world most of the time. And then I read and think some more, and some more, and try to live my days with grace.

april 2011 reading

The Ask by Sam Lipsyte — The Ask is supposed to be this hilarious novel about an aging Gen-Xer trying to fight his way back into his disappointing job doing fundraising for a school in Manhattan he calls Mediocre University. The writing is clever, and I enjoyed the descriptions of the place the protagonist lives in college, The House of Drinking and Smoking, but I can’t say I actually enjoyed the book, which seemed to challenge my willing suspension of disbelief without doing enough to reward it.

The Scent of Rain and Lightning by Nancy Pickard — The mystery book discussion book for this month. Everyone else loved it; I was bored to tears by it, although it did help out my insomnia several nights running.

The Mother Knot by Kathryn Harrison — A very slim, nearly throwaway volume by Kathryn Harrison (whom I adore) about coming to terms with her mother. A lot of people looked down on The Kiss as writing-as-therapy, but it’s much too artful a book for that. This one feels a little more like that, but if you like Harrison, it’s worth the hour it’ll take to read it.

The Emperor’s Children by Claire Messud — This is in some ways two books — a satirical look at the lives of socially privileged not-quite-so-young people in Manhattan in 2001 and a book about 9/11. But the second book wouldn’t exist without the first. The first is hilarious, at least if you like novel of manners sorts of books, but what I particularly liked about the second book was the way it showed how major traumatic events derail everyone’s lives in unexpected ways, and how some of those are ways they can never talk about because the tragedy of them pales next to the tragedy of the main event, and so you are left numb twice over, and you feel worse when everyone assumes your numbness is the same as everyone else’s.

I also read lots of poems, especially by Aliki Barnstone and Robert Pinsky, whom I had the great pleasure of hearing read on April 23.

march 2011 reading

Half in Love by Linda Gray Sexton — Sexton’s mother was the poet Anne Sexton. The younger Sexton has already written one book about dealing with her mother’s death, so a second might seem unnecessary, but if you are interested in the way that suicide plays itself out in families over time, this is worth a look.

Poser: My Life in 23 Yoga Poses by Claire Dederer — Half the reviews I’ve read of this call it a yoga memoir and the other half call it a mommy memoir. I might be inclined to call it a recollection of your parents splitting up memoir, if I were to call it anything, but I very much enjoyed it. If you do yoga, you’ll like the funny parts about the sort of ridiculous nature of yoga. If you have kids, I would guess you might enjoy the parts about the inanity of raising kids in a time of über-politically correct parenting. And if you’re interested in the changing demographics of families and how one thoughtful person thinks about them, you will certainly like it.

[reread] The Cold Dish by Craig Johnson — My first selection for our mystery book discussion group. I’m not generally much of a mystery reader, which makes for an interesting time now that I’m in charge of a mystery book discussion. Since I’ve just moved from Wyoming, I thought I’d give the group a little taste of what it’s like there. They seemed to enjoy it.

Bad Mother by Ayelet Waldman — This is sort of a book-length response to the people who were trying to flagellate Waldman after her 2005 essay about loving her husband more than her children appeared in the New York Times. It’s occasionally tedious, as collections of essays that end up being a bit repetitive sometimes are, but it’s also hysterically funny. Well. At least it is hysterically funny if, like me, you fall off the sofa when you read “It is kind of remarkable how little housework the men who marched next to me at the Take Back the Night vigils have ended up doing.”

Among Others by Jo Walton — My favorite novel of this year so far. It’s about a fifteen year old girl from Wales who is in boarding school and reads a lot of science fiction and tries to find a karass. Wonderful. I’ve read maybe 10% of the books she talks about, and even that little bit gave me shivers of remembering what reading them was like. If you’ve read more, the effect could only be intensified.

Orange is the New Black by Piper Kerman — I’ve been wanting to check this out ever since reading about it over at Jenna’s place. Actually, just go read her review, which says pretty much everything I would want to.

Happy Trails to You by Julie Hecht — I picked up The Unprofessionals by Julie Hecht at the La Grange Public Library some years back because it had a nice looking cover. I started reading it and was hooked immediately by the voice and later by the story. I’ve been saving her latest collection of stories for just the right occasion, and apparently that occasion was now. The narrator — the same in all her work — is a cranky, misanthropic devotee of Dr. Andrew Weil who is sort of anti-immigration, and yet somehow she still manages to make me want to hang out with her. That seems like an accomplishment in of itself.

[reread] Fire and Hemlock by Diana Wynne Jones — RIP, Diana Wynn Jones.

thank you, ms. jones

It’s odd to me how much news now comes to me via my RSS reader, and how much more quickly I thus learn of things than I might otherwise. Just now I learned from Monica Edinger that Diana Wynne Jones has died. I never got around to writing her a letter to tell her how grateful I am to her work, and thus, as so often happens, I am doing so now, after her death.

What’s funniest in a way is that I’ve actually read very little of her. She was was prolific — books and series and more books and books tangentially related to various series and their worlds — but I have read only a handful of them. But those few are books I have come back to again and again and again.

My grandmother gave me a copy of Charmed Life once when I was sick. I was sick quite a lot as a kid, and I was home by myself all day and would grow terribly bored. Any book that could pull me out of that into another world was a charm indeed, and that book I particularly loved — the setting of the old castle, the jewelry that screamed its enchantment, the sense of trying to shield people from a fate that can’t be denied — it was all wonderful.

A year or so later, my mother and I picked up a copy of Fire and Hemlock from B. Dalton, of all places, which had a huge display of the paperback. It had the most garishly godawful cover — at some point I folded a piece of math homework around it to make a cover for the thing because I was so sick of looking at it. And I looked at it a lot, because I reread this book all the time. I read it every finals week during junior high, and those are perhaps my clearest and best memories of times with it. I was the in the midst of the ages that Polly is in the book then, and I was living in a place I hated, and the people I liked best in the world were musicians, as the other most important character in the book is. And I loved my grandmother more than almost anyone else in the world, and I loved the grandmother in the book, too.

It’s a retelling of Tam Lin (and oh how I love retellings of Tam Lin), and it is about magic and friendship and love and good and evil and spells. It’s got a lot going for it, then, if you like that sort of thing. But the scene I always looked forward to the most, and that I still replay in my head from time to time, is one where Polly is lost in the streets of Bristol, having been dropped off at the train station by her father, who hasn’t bothered to see if she has money for a ticket home. She has, perhaps magically, been drawn to a building where a quartet is rehearsing — her friend Thomas Lynn, and the three other members, and they take her in and give her food and coffee and then, apologetically, go on with their rehearsal, but they don’t need to apologize, because really it is a private concert, just for her.

“If you could hear lime juice, it would sound like violins,” Polly thinks. I can see that basement as surely as if I’d been there, and I go there in memory the way I go to places I’ve really been. But of course I have really been there: that is what books do. And I will remain grateful to Diana Wynne Jones for providing me with such a place for as long as I live.

february 2011 reading

Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos — This is this year’s selection for All Iowa Reads, and so I’ll be doing a book discussion for it sometime later this year. It’s a very book-discussiony book (albeit a long one), full of family issues and small town issues and social issues and that sort of thing. Between the length and the number of issues, it almost seemed like there was almost too much, as if the novel were both crammed full and sprawling. But the characters are wonderful, and having recently moved from a town of 351 people, I loved how well Kallos got small towns and how they are both very private and not private at all.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley — This was the choice for this month’s mystery book discussion at the library. There is almost nothing to discuss in Bradley’s very sweet, very enjoyable tale about an 11 year old girl who is an aspiring chemist and accidental sleuth in rural England in 1950, but we managed to eke some conversation out of the setting and the degree to which a willing suspension of disbelief was required.

[listen] The Gin Closet by Leslie Jamison — I’m doing my best to use our library’s downloadable eaudiobooks. Since I’m a Mac user with an older iPod Touch and since Overdrive only lets one person check out a digital file at a time, my selection is generally somewhat limited (I don’t listen to books enough to make placing holds practical). I was quite pleased with this selection. There are two narrators (done in slightly different voices by the same woman on the audio version), Stella, a woman in her twenties who is lost in a sort of twentysomething Manhattanite way, and Tillie, her aunt, who is lost in an alcoholic living in a trailer park in the desert kind of way. The novel deals with how they come to learn of each other’s existence. It is not a happy story, but it is a good one.

The Neighbors are Watching by Debra Ginsberg — There ain’t no fun like making fun of suburbanites, so if you like that sort of thing, you will probably like this book about how a suburban San Diego neighborhood is sent into a tizzy when the pregnant daughter of one of its residents shows up on his doorstep and is greeted by his wife, who had no idea he even had a daughter.

Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music by David N. Meyer — I have loved biographies of rock stars ever since the day I happened upon the 781s at the Iowa City Public Library as a high school freshman. This one is my favorite kind — long, overwrought, filled with music trivia, drenched in more music knowledge and snobbery than the clerks in High Fidelity (I mean, this author hates the Eagles, hates them*), and incredibly snarky. Of course, since it’s about Gram Parsons, it’s also incredibly sad or completely overwrought, depending on your feelings about musicians who die of drug overdoses in general and Parsons in particular. I’m a fan, so I liked it.

How to Be Lost by Amanda Eyre Ward — I picked this up off a donation pile sitting in my office one day when I had forgotten my book. It was blurbed by someone as being “like The Lovely Bones,” which I guess it is in that it involves the disappearance of a young girl from a suburban home. I guess they also both require some willing suspension of disbelief — but accepting that a dead girl is narrating a story makes for a riveting and interesting book in Sebold’s case, whereas accepting the broad series of contrived coincidences just makes for annoyance on this reader’s part in Ward’s. Oh well. I did finish it, but I don’t recommend it.

Daughter’s Keeper by Ayelet Waldman — I love a book where the Amazon reviews ricochet back and forth between “best writing I’ve ever read” and “can’t write her way out of a slush pile.” I think neither of these things. It’s very clearly a first (literary) novel sort of a novel, but I admire a book that manages to portray a naive young political activist in a way I don’t find totally offensive. Said young activist comes back from Mexico and goes to live among the poor in Oakland, and then the guy she’d been seeing in Mexico shows up on her doorstep, so she takes him in. Of course, he is an illegal alien and thus can’t get much in the way of work, and thus he gets involved in a drug deal in which he gets her marginally involved, too, and then the forces of law and order sweep in and everyone gets caught up in the travesties of mandatory minimums for drug sentencing. It’s a novel about a white girl, and thus it is a little bit the Hallmark version of mandatory minimums. In that regard, I look forward to reading Orange is the New Black, which sounds like it might be similar.

* “The Eagles were and remain the most consistently contemptible stadium band in rock. Gram famously referred to their music as ‘a plastic dry-fuck.’ He bore the Eagles a special loathing, as any sane listener might.” p. 366