Monday, August 8, 2016

Review of The Past by Tessa Hadley

On the good news front, I enthusiastically read and finished The Past by Tessa Hadley. It has been quite a while since I was able to get into a zone while reading. And oddly, I think that in any other year I would have complained that this book did not have enough plot to carry it along. But somehow this story of a British extended family gathering at their crumbling summer home hit the spot for me at a time when no other book has been able to satisfy me.

I do like books where siblings or old friends reunite after a time away, and I also like books about secrets (as long as the secrets aren’t too terrible). In this story, four adult siblings, a few children, and a couple of “outsiders” converge at the old family summer estate to decide whether to sell it. While there, they find that they are forever impacted by their past and yet transitioning beyond it. And beneath this family’s story, there is a larger commentary on the way that Britain itself is changing (via immigration, urbanization, etc.).

This is what I pictured. It was featured in an article about dirt-cheap "doer-uppers" in Britain.
I really enjoyed these characters, and I enjoyed the author’s easy prose. Mostly, I appreciated being able to sink into another world after so many weeks of ennui. It didn’t hurt that I had a nice, long weekend away from the tension and traffic of my everyday life. This was the view from my vacation deck, where I spent several hours with my book and a gin and tonic:

For the first time in a long while, I feel optimistic about my reading life.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

Summer Reading Sloggery: An Update
I pilfered the above photo from some course materials about geology. The presentation is called “Mass Wasting,” and that title is so fitting for my reading life right now.

I guess 2016 is doomed to be the Year of The Reading Slump. Things haven’t improved much since I last wrote. And in fact, I’m not sure if I’m not loving the things I read because of the slump, or if the slump is due to not finding the right things to read. I do appreciate all of your recommendations!

I did read Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín for my book club, and it was disappointing. I really liked Tóibín's Nora Webster, and I also love immigration stories. However, all the grit of classic immigration stories was missing for me in this one, and the plot points seemed forced.

I also read My Brilliant Friend, the first in the Neopolitan series by Elena Ferrante. I know the whole world loved it, but I thought it was simply ok.  I read it in a couple of sittings. But Ferrante kept me at a distance from these characters, and I never fully lost myself in the world. (Will I keep going, though? Yes! Damn cliffhangers.).

In the good news department, I am half way through The Past by Tessa Hadley. This is a very readable family story – and a kind that I generally like (siblings getting together for a holiday; old secrets). So far, so good.

I am still trying to get my reading mojo back. I just put a few upcoming new releases on hold at the library in the hope of generating some excitement:

Another Brooklyn by Jacqueline Woodson, due out August 9
Today Will Be Different by Maria Semple, due out October 4
Trespasser by Tana French, due out October 4
Swing Time by Zadie Smith, due out November 15

So wish me luck. I am plodding along.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Review of Modern Lovers By Emma Straub

Two summers ago, I read The Vacationers by Emma Straub and was underwhelmed. I think I was underwhelmed because it was aggressively hyped as the ultimate “summer read.”  At the time, I compared it to a margarita at Applebees.  It looked like it was going to be a sharp cocktail of a book, but instead it was lemony water in a pretty glass.

With Straub’s new Modern Lovers, I just bought a second weak margarita. Don’t get me wrong, this book was completely pleasant. I did indeed read it on vacation, and it certainly got me from here to there and back. But maybe I’m just getting to the point in my life where I want to be moved in some way by what I read – I want to be deeply intrigued, or brought to tears or hearty laughter. I want to be able to say to a friend, “You have to read THIS.”

Modern Lovers is a book about mid-life crises. The main characters were members of a band in the early 1990s – and thus were “cool” and poised to live zesty lives. But marriage and kids happened, and they made compromises. Suddenly they had all sorts of questions about whether life was supposed to turn out so beige. There are several plot trails – a movie is going to be made about a band mate who died, and secrets emerge; the kids of the two main couples get together and face their own questions about what it means to live authentically; there’s a sketchy new age guru who moves to the neighborhood and offers new hope to one of the characters.

But here’s the thing – for a book that should be dripping in emotion, there is very little fire at the heart of it. Mid-life crises are usually pretty harrowing, right? Modern Lovers is a sweet story, and it’s difficult to do sweet and harrowing at the same time.

So, readers, please tell me – what are some books that really grabbed you? I’m looking for a little more tequila in my next summer read.

Monday, June 27, 2016

Review of Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. Twenty-four Books That Can Change Lives by David Denby

We bookish types tend to do a lot of hand wringing about the future of reading. I have read two such pieces lately by David Denby – a New Yorker article titled, “Do Teens Read Seriously Anymore?” and his new book, Lit Up: One Reporter. Three Schools. 24 Books That Can Change Lives.  In both cases, his premise is that the kids are definitely not alright.

Their problem, Denby claims, is technology. Kids’ desire to be tethered to a device 24/7 has put a tragic dent in what he calls “serious reading.” He’s on a bit of a slippery slope, because he’s really talking about The Canon, with maybe several notable works by writers of color sprinkled in (e.g. Ellison). He contends that the Canon provides opportunities for serious reading, because those works provide complicated moral questions that young people should be considering. They’re “hard,” because life’s questions are hard. And they take determination and time and a willingness to focus for longer than it requires to “like” your best friend’s selfie.

In Lit Up, he looks at three schools, following some terrific high school English teachers as they teach “serious books.” He spends most of his time at a selective school in Manhattan, but adds on some briefer descriptions of teaching at an affluent suburban school and a urban school that serves low income students. His takeaway is that the kind of reading and thinking he worries about IS possible with deep commitment. His book is supposed to be a feel-good exploration, and he almost succeeds.

However, Denby has this way of coming off as an old man who screams, “Get off my lawn!” at neighborhood hooligans. He might be right that technology changes attention spans or that it changes how and where and when people read. But anchoring a discussion of reading in this way feels like a “remember the good old days” argument, the kind that never excites or motivates or persuades young people to listen.

I think there’s another (better) argument to be made. Denby’s focus is on good teachers, ones who meet kids where they’re at and pull them to more sophisticated places. The teachers he profiles use books to motivate and inspire and push and encourage. A more meaningful question might be why many kids don’t get this kind of opportunity. My guess is that it’s not a lack of special English teachers; rather, it’s a policy focus that stresses “proficiency” in “skills” rather than meaningful engagement with big ideas. In other words, who cares what kids read as long as they can perform well on a Common Core exam?

And if that’s the case, it might be more politically purposeful to stop barking about the pesky internet and start instead pushing for an educational shift. The kids might just join you in that!

Monday, June 13, 2016

It's Monday! And I'm Back At It!

Well, hello.

It turns out that I took a three month hiatus from my blog. I can’t really explain it. It started with a struggle to find a good book to read, and then that struggle spread into writing. Suddenly, I couldn’t put words to paper. Thinking about the blog made me feel badly, and reading everyone else’s blogs made me feel even worse.

So I un-blogged for a while, but the need to start again has been tormenting me like an itch on the bottom of my foot. I can’t ignore it any more.

Here’s a list of some of the things I read during my hiatus. There are no reviews up for any of these, and there might never be. I do hope to go back and discuss them, but I’m also wary of getting stuck in the past.

Stoner by John Edward Williams (a character portrait of an academic that I liked more than I thought I would!)

Golden Age by Jane Smiley (I eagerly read this last book in the trilogy but felt it needed momentum and suspense, just like the others)

Class Reunion by Rona Jaffe (read this and loved it in high school; now I think it’s terrible)

The Smell of Other People’s Houses by Bonnie-Sue Hitchcock (compelling YA that works well for adult readers)

I’ll Give You The Sun by Jandy Nelson (compelling YA that drips with adolescent angst)

Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld (shockingly entertaining given how little I enjoy Jane Austen. It’s a modern re-do of Pride and Prejudice)

How To Raise An Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims (this would be a great book to discuss with other parents, assuming everyone is willing to be self-reflective)

Britt-Marie Was Here by Frederik Backman (the charming quality of A Man Called Ove turns sticky sweet in this one)

Happy Family by Tracy Barone (deeply depressing subject matter but such engaging writing)

In the spirit of moving forward, here’s what I’m reading right now:

Here’s the description from Goodreads:

Can teenagers be turned on to serious reading? What kind of teachers can do it, and what books? To find out, Denby sat in on a tenth-grade English class in a demanding New York public school for an entire academic year, and made frequent visits to a troubled inner-city public school in New Haven and to a respected public school in Westchester county. He read all the stories, poems, plays, and novels that the kids were reading, and creates an impassioned portrait of charismatic teachers at work, classroom dramas large and small, and fresh and inspiring encounters with the books themselves, including The Scarlet Letter, Brave New World, 1984, Slaughterhouse-Five, Notes From Underground, Long Way Gone and many more. Lit Up is a dramatic narrative that traces awkward and baffled beginnings but also exciting breakthroughs and the emergence of pleasure in reading. In a sea of bad news about education and the fate of the book, Denby reaffirms the power of great teachers and the importance and inspiration of great books.

And after that, I’ll be reading Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín for my book club.

Here’s the description from Goodreads:

Eilis Lacey has come of age in small-town Ireland in the hard years following World War Two. When an Irish priest from Brooklyn offers to sponsor Eilis in America -- to live and work in a Brooklyn neighborhood "just like Ireland" -- she decides she must go, leaving her fragile mother and her charismatic sister behind.

Eilis finds work in a department store on Fulton Street, and when she least expects it, finds love. Tony, who loves the Dodgers and his big Italian family, slowly wins her over with patient charm. But just as Eilis begins to fall in love with Tony, devastating news from Ireland threatens the promise of her future.

I’ve missed you all! Thanks for sticking with me.

(It's Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Date)

Monday, March 14, 2016

Review of The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie

The Portable Veblen has all the hallmarks of a book that I would ordinarily devour: quirky characters, a deep social critique, and moments of laugh-out-loud hilarity.  But in this case, there is just too much of everything – to much quirk, too many critiques, and too much humor that only sometimes lands on the right note.

One quirky thing is the placement of little photos in the text
The story involves a couple in Palo Alto, California that recently became engaged. But the reader soon learns that not all is not perfect between the two main characters, as exemplified by the fact that squirrels can be heard in the walls of the house they share. And while the husband-to-be abhors squirrels and tries to trap and kill them, the bride-to-be loves them. In fact, she talks to them, and they talk back.

The fact that one of the main characters in this book is a talking squirrel might represent one of the novel’s themes: the struggle between nature and progress. But there so many other themes: the struggle between tradition and innovation; the seduction of fame and money; the uneasy and often blurry lines between science for the social good and science as commodity; and my favorite --  families are hard.  If you asked me to tell you what this book is “about,” I’d have trouble giving a clear answer, because the author takes on so much here.

Another quirky photo
The main character’s name is Veblen, named after the economist Thorstein Veblen, who is famous for discussing “conspicuous consumption” and for critiquing the idea of production for profit. Veblen the character is kind of a free-spirit and loves the “old” Palo Alto. Her fiancée, Paul, is more representative of the “new” Palo Alto and is trying to market the medical device he created. As the characters try to resolve their differences, the reader gets to meet their family members, many of whom have different versions of mental illness.  Why, exactly, they are all struggling with mental illness is kind of unclear, and I’m not fully sure if this is part of a critique or if it is supposed to be funny (it isn’t).  Perhaps it has something to do with what the meaning of insane is – is that another theme? Gah!

Ultimately, I finished this book feeling confused and somewhat dissatisfied. However, I get the sense that this author will have a bright future. There is something so smart about this book, even as I came away feeling like I just ate an entire pie when a single slice would have sufficed.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

It's Monday! And I'm Back!

So what in the world happened to me?

I don’t really have an answer for you. I just suddenly Two weeks went by, and I didn’t look at a single book. It wasn’t really a slump – it was a stop.

Today I picked up, once again, The Portable Veblen by Elizabeth McKenzie. This is the book that I have been carrying around all this time and not reading. And guess what? I blew through several hundred pages this afternoon, and I feel almost like I have reading momentum again. The novel features a talking squirrel and lots of relationship drama. How could I resist?

So my goal for this week is simply to keep reading – because let me tell you, I don’t really know who I am if I don’t have a book in my hand.

( It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? is hosted by Book Date.)