Reading Round-Up, 7/17/2016

I finished two books this week, both of them very good. First, Teju Cole’s forthcoming essay collection Known and Strange Things. So many of the pieces here are truly excellent — on James Baldwin, photography, Instagram, W.G. Sebald, Obama, his own brush with blindness, and a lot more. Some of the essays are good but not necessarily of interest to everyone — reviews of particular writers or photographers, for example, where the interest depends on one’s knowledge of the subject. But there are many essays here, and so many of them are so rich, that the collection as a whole is a memorable one. I love Cole’s quiet, thoughtful voice and his way of communicating feeling and deep thought both. He strikes me as a good guide through some of our contemporary predicaments, especially racial and cultural tensions. I learned a lot about photography and about contemporary travel. Anyone who likes a good essay will appreciate this book, especially if you’re a James Baldwin fan or if you liked Cole’s novel Open City.

The other book is The Light of the World by Elizabeth Alexander, a memoir about the death of her husband Ficre. It’s beautiful. Alexander is a poet, and this shows in her sentences. She captures her happiness with her husband and her life in New Haven, as well as her grief at her husband’s sudden death. It follows a fairly standard grief memoir format: telling the story of the death, filling in the background of how they met and fell in love, describing her attempts to respond to loss, her first steps toward recovery. But it does all these things with such grace that the book stands out. There’s something joyous about the entire thing, which feels like a strange thing to say about a grief memoir, but it’s true. Alexander fully expresses her grief, to the extent that’s possible, but the emphasis is on celebrating Ficre’s life and their time together.

Now I’m in the middle of The Art of Waiting by Belle Boggs, which is coming out this fall, and also Jesmyn Ward’s edited collection The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race. I’m liking both so far. I hope you have a good reading week ahead of you!

3 Comments

Filed under Books

Reading Round-Up, 7/10/2016

Since I wrote here last, I’ve finished Nicola Barker’s new novel The Cauliflower. I’m wondering whether this was the best place to start with Barker, because I didn’t like this novel very much, but I suspect, from things I’ve heard, that I might like her earlier books. I have Darkmans in mind in particular, a book I remember hearing raves about. Either I’m wrong about this, or The Cauliflower isn’t representative of her other books, and I’m hoping it’s the latter. The novel started out fine: it has an energetic, entertaining, self-aware voice of the sort I tend to like. It’s clearly about fiction as much as it is about anything else, as well as about representation and entertainment generally. But after a while, the voice — or voices, I should say, as there are multiple narrators — started to lose their appeal and interest. The story didn’t go anywhere particularly interesting. It’s set in 19th-century India and tells the story of the guru Sri Ramakrishna and his nephew Hriday who cares for him. The novel is largely about their relationship and the sacrifices that caring for a spiritual master — a highly eccentric, troubled one in particular — requires. I generally am for playfulness, metafictional elements, and formal variety, all of which this novel has, but this one didn’t come together into a coherent — or interesting — whole for me. It was disappointing, but I’m not giving up on Barker yet.

The other novel I finished was Amara Lakhous’s Dispute Over a Very Italian Piglet, which I liked a lot. I read it for my mystery book group, which met last evening, and it provoked a good discussion, a large part of which was about whether this was really a mystery or not. Looking at the Goodreads description of the book, I see they call it a mystery, but I think of it in my mind as an anti-mystery, because instead of conducting an investigation into the series of murders that have hit Turin, Italy, where the novel is set, the journalist protagonist just makes up stories to publish in his newspaper. There’s also the question of the titular piglet, who stirs up controversy when it gets filmed wandering through a mosque. The protagonist takes this story a little more seriously, but still, he does little productive or helpful, and instead lets others do his work. The only work he does is trying to make his made-up stories believable. All this is fun, but the novel is also about matters of nationality, immigration, identity, and cultural and religious conflicts. It’s a lighthearted approach to very serious — and timely — issues. It’s a very quick read, but it has a surprising amount of depth packed in.

Leave a comment

Filed under Books

Reading Round-Up, 6/30/2016

Happy (early) Fourth of July to my fellow Americans! I’ll be heading off to Vermont for a long weekend, and I hope everyone, from the U.S. or not, has a good weekend lined up. My weekend will be…fun, for sure, but also probably relative sleepless, as traveling with a 3-year-old has its challenges. But that’s okay.

As for recent reading, one of the highlights is Brian Blanchfield’s essay collection Proxies: Essays Near Knowing. It’s a short collection but one to read slowly: it’s rich and meaty and repays close attention. It’s hard to describe. Each essay has a theme, but they range widely, taking the reader to unexpected places before bringing the reader back to the theme again. They fit the classic definition of what an essay can be: experimental, probing, associative, voice-driven. They play with language a lot. They aren’t for every reader — they require a willingness to dwell in complex thought and language — but are beautiful and rewarding.

I also read and loved Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl, a memoir about life in science. Jahren studies plants, and she writes about plants from their point of view, or at least she tries to, attempting to look at the world as a plant might, with its own concerns and interests. It’s impossible to know, of course, but it feels like she really knows how a plant thinks (or “thinks”). She describes her struggles as a beginning scientist and what it’s like to establish one’s own lab, fight for funding, and establish a reputation. She writes about her struggles with mental illness as well. It’s really great, definitely one to read for anyone who is interested in science, but good for any reader of memoir as well.

Right now I’m reading an essay collection by Teju Cole, Known and Strange Things, a novel by Nicola Barker, The Cauliflower, and a memoir by Elizabeth Alexander, The Light of the World. More on those books later!

3 Comments

Filed under Books

Shadow Notes, by Laurel Peterson

Shadow Notes cover I enjoyed reading Shadow Notes by Laurel Peterson for a whole bunch of reasons, one of which is that it’s a great mystery novel. But more on that in a minute. I also loved it because it’s written by a friend, and I love having accomplished novelist friends. And in this case, she’s also an accomplished poet, and just got appointed Poet Laureate of Norwalk, Connecticut. I also loved reading this book because it’s set in a small town in southern Fairfield County in a part of Connecticut I live near and am familiar with, and it’s so fun to read about places I know.

But about my first reason for liking this book so much: it’s an exciting story with some of my favorite elements. It has a complicated mother/daughter relationship, it’s about a woman returning to her home after a long time away and trying to fit back in, it’s about the trials of the rich and privileged, and it has a satisfyingly troubled and complex main character. The novel tells the story of Clara Montague, a woman in her 30s who has been living in Europe to escape her mother, who is cold and distant. Clara has always had intuitive dreams, and she has just had one telling her her mother may be in trouble. So she returns home.

But soon after she gets back, her mother’s therapist gets murdered, and Clara gets caught up in the effort to figure out what happened to him. She also learns more about her mother’s life as a young woman and then desperately wants to discover the rest of the story and how it shaped her own upbringing. Along the way, she meets an entertaining cast of characters — scheming socialites, corrupt politicians, suspiciously charming, attractive young men. And she has to figure out what she wants to do with her life. She has inherited a landscaping business from her father, and she feels like she should take it over, but she’s afraid of being tied to her hometown and just wants to escape to Paris. I don’t have the inheritance or the money Clara has, but I can identify with this feeling anyway.

It’s such a fun read, a very satisfying mystery, and it offers the promise of another book in the series. I can’t wait to read the next installment!

Leave a comment

Filed under Books

Reading Round-Up, 6/5/2016

Ah, summer. Time for some rest and relaxation! And also teaching three online summer session classes, taking care of a three-year-old, finishing up writing projects and starting new ones, attending family weddings, going on play dates, attending children’s birthday parties, and on and on. So, yeah, not must rest actually.

Since I last posted here, I have published a bunch of new Book Riot posts, all of which you can see here. Some of my favorites are my list of 100 must-read essay collections, a post about my reading anxieties, a reading list for mother’s day, and a round-up of books about writing.

As for recent reading, I just finished Pamela Erens’s novel Eleven Hours, which was really good, although really, really not the book one wants to read while pregnant. It takes places in a hospital where the main character is giving birth. Except for flashbacks, all the action is in the hospital, and it’s riveting. I love it that there’s a novel out there entirely about childbirth, and that it’s so good.

On the theme of motherhood, I also read Rivka Galchen’s Little Labors (and picked it as the best book I read in May for the Book Riot Round-up). It’s a short book, made up of short essays/vignettes/anecdotes/whatevers about the experience of being a new mother and about motherhood and children in literature. It’s funny in places, thoughtful, moving, interesting. One of the best parts is a list of famous authors, men and women, and whether they had children and at what point in their lives they did, and at what point in their lives their literary career began. It’s pretty enlightening.

So much reading in the last two months! Other recent highlights include Sallie Tisdale’s essay collection Violation (so, so good — Tisdale deserves a much broader audience), Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White (for my mystery book group — excellent and a great reread), Jhumpa Lahiri’s In Other Words (about her experiences learning Italian — written in Italian! The book includes both the original Italian and an English translation), Kaitlyn Greenidge’s We Love You, Charlie Freeman (a good read, but also a disturbing novel about the history of race and racism in America– but also a coming-of-age story and a bunch of other things), and Vera Caspary’s Laura (for my mystery book group — fun mid-century noir, satisfying).

I hope you have had a good reading weekend and an excellent week ahead!

5 Comments

Filed under Books

Reading Round-Up, 3/4/2016

First of all, in writing news, I now have three posts up on Book Riot, and I will be writing for them regularly. I’m excited about this! I’ll be reviewing books for other sites as well, so I’ll be busy writing, writing, writing. It should be fun. I wrote one post on teaching and not “getting” books (my students and me), one post on Jane Austen’s contemporaries, and one on how to approach the work of Maggie Nelson. I have some thoughts about what I want to do next, but we’ll see!

As for reading, I’ve read the forthcoming reissue of Maggie Nelson’s The Red Parts, originally published in 2009, and I reread her 2007 book Jane: A Murder because those two books cover some of the same material. I love both of these and you should be hearing more about The Red Parts from me soon.

I also read a memoir by Alain Mabanckou called The Lights of Pointe-Noire. I had mixed feels about this one and rushed through the last 40 pages or so because I wasn’t loving it. Mabanckou was born in the Congo, and this book tells the story of his return after many years away. It describes his meetings with people from the town and the town itself, and it offers an interesting glimpse of the life and culture of Pointe-Noire. Mabanckou tells stories from his childhood as well. There were some very engaging moments as Mabanckou describes his interactions with family members and townspeople, but I thought it was a little too meandering and could have used more forward momentum. The book includes photographs of some of the people he writes about, and those I liked very much.

I also read Leila Aboulela’s The Kindness of Enemies, which I thought was very good, and which you will be hearing more about from me soon.

Now I’m beginning Wrapped in Rainbows, a biography of Zora Neale Hurston, which I’m reading as a member of the Women’s Lives Club, started by the writer Rachel Syme. I found out about it from Rachel’s tweets and joined immediately, although I wasn’t and still am not sure I can read every book they choose. Last month they read Janet Malcolm’s book The Silent Woman, which I’ve read before and loved. I would have loved to read it again, but had no time for it. But I’m giving this month’s book a go. It’s a fabulous club and anybody who wants to is welcome to join.

And next week the Tournament of Books begins! So much to do, so much to read.

 

4 Comments

Filed under Books

Chris Offutt’s My Father, the Pornographer: A Memoir

Chris Offutt’s memoir certainly has a catchy title: My Father, the Pornographer. It’s a very good book too. It’s a fairly typical memoir in a lot of ways, about an unhappy childhood and the writer’s vexed relationship with his father, and to a lesser extent with his mother. It’s about coming to terms with that childhood and, as he grew older, learning to see his father from an adult perspective and coming to understand how his father helped shape the person he is today. The book stands out because of its powerful writing; it’s simply and clearly written, catching in its straightforwardness and bluntness the force of his father’s personality and his own terror and anger in response.

His father was an obsessive writer; he produced hundreds of books, mostly pornographic novels, but also science fiction. Offutt’s parents became regulars at science fiction conventions, and his father collaborated with other well-known authors of his time. But he was a volatile man and ended up alienating most people he knew. He was verbally abusive to his family, and made his house a difficult place to be in once he quit his day job and began writing full time.

Much of the book is about Offutt’s efforts to clean out his father’s study, which contained a vast collection of pornographic writing, and to read and make sense of the work he produced. The story is as much about Offutt’s struggles through his task and his recovery afterwards as it is about his childhood — a childhood he spent roaming the woods of Kentucky to keep a safe distance away from his father.

I don’t think this book takes the memoir genre in a new direction, really, but to have produced a very good example of a story we are familiar with, at least in its rough outlines, is certainly an accomplishment. And Offutt’s father is a character who has lingered in my mind, a testament to Offutt’s skill with language.

6 Comments

Filed under Books