Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Top 5 of 2015

It’s time to celebrate the beginning of a new reading year. That celebration requires a toast to all the pages turned over the past 12 months.

2015 was a year of books that were BREATHTAKINGLY SAD and BACK-BREAKINGLY LONG. My reading aspirations for 2016 include finding books that have fewer than 500 pages and that don’t crush my soul.

I also tried to read more diversely, incorporating a wider variety of voices and experiences through The Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Bingo Challenge. My update on that challenge is forthcoming.

It's hard for me to rank books, because I look for different things at different moments. But here are the five books that made the biggest impression on me this past year:

#5 A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara

I know. This doesn’t make sense. This book wrecked me, and I spent the rest of the year getting over it. It was devastating to read, and I am still haunted. However, its lasting impact on me earns it a place on this list.

#4 A Man Called Ove by Fredrik Backman

This book restored my faith in humanity after finishing A Little Life. It was funny and charming and had fewer than 500 pages. Win!

#3 Citizen: An American Lyric by Claudia Rankine

This multi-form (poetry, prose, photography) exploration of race and citizenship was gripping.

#2 All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr

This book hardly needs more discussion after the year it has had. It is a beautiful fairy tale and a horror novel, all in one. I was riveted.

I was captivated by this debut novel about immigration, dislocation, and belonging. It was an easy-to-read family saga AND a book filled with weighty ideas. I couldn't put it down.

Of course, there were so many other books worth mentioning. I enjoyed (but was deeply depressed by) Dale Russakoff’s education reporting in The Prize. Erin Malone’s new collection of poetry, Hover, made me think about motherhood in new ways. Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel surprised me and pushed me to consider what kinds of things might endure if the world as we know it ceased to exist. And The Turner House by Angela Flournoy was a terrific debut about family, community, and urban change.

Happy New Year to all of you! Thank you so much for being a part of my reading life.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Review of The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora

I’m not the biggest fan of short stories, because I always feel cheated by their shortness. Just at the point where I’ve come to invest in a character, the story ends. Happily, The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora is an exception, largely because characters recur throughout the collection.

Also, the subject matter of this book hits me right in my nerd zone. I’m a sucker for an exploration of dysfunctional suburbia. Each of the stories focuses on a different household in the fictional town of Old Cranbury (Connecticut?). Behind the stately houses lie relationships in disarray. In some cases, the houses themselves reflect the human crumbling within. In other cases, no one but the reader could imagine that things are not what they seem. The themes are many: the tension between old and new; the tension between fantasy and reality; the tension between image and truth.

I think I like books about dysfunctional suburbia for a couple of reasons. For one, my own suburban childhood was full of families like those portrayed in these stories. I only saw the polished side – the manicured lawns, the made-up faces. Stories like these let me open the doors the houses I never got to enter. I also think that there’s something reassuring about witnessing all of these fictional dirty little secrets. Maybe money doesn’t ensure “The Good Life” after all.

I’m not sure that Acampora breaks new ground here, but I had a surprisingly enjoyable time getting to know the various families she creates. I’m looking forward to more from this author!

Here’s Bustle’s list of the top 10 portrayals of suburbia in fiction.  Do you have a favorite?

(Goodreads has a giveaway of this book in January! Free stuff is always fun.)

Monday, December 28, 2015

It's Monday! And the Cookies Are All Gone!

I am officially full of nog. Nogged out. It was a lovely holiday, though, and check out my book haul!

My 2016 stack now includes the following:

The Secret Wisdom of the Earth by Christopher Scotton

The Bookshop Book by Jen Campbell

The Dorito Effect by Mark Schatzker

Kitchens of the Great Midwest by J. Ryan Stradal

Thank you to all the Santas in my life!

As promised, I read just one book last week – The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora. It ended up being an interesting-but-not-too-taxing read, and my review is forthcoming. I also posted a review of Kent Haruf’s Our Souls At Night. This week I plan to post my “Best of 2015” list and a recap of my progress on my 2015 Diversity Bingo Challenge (which I am losing).

Speaking of diversity, I plan to finish one more book before the year ends: Ghettoside by Jill Leovy. This piece of narrative nonfiction has been discussed as an interesting pairing with Between the World and Me by Ta’Nehisi Coates. I’ve started it, and it’s really good so far.

I hope you all are recuperating nicely from your various celebrations. I’m getting excited for the reading year ahead.

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

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Review of Our Souls At Night by Kent Haruf

I’ve mentioned before that my mother is in search of good portrayals of older characters. This is a difficult quest, because most characters are under 40. Any older characters that do exist are usually experiencing dementia or reinforcing stereotypes by being grumpy or adorable, or both.

My favorite portrayal of an older character this year was Ove in Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove (though he is grumpy and adorable). However, it turns out that Ove is not even 60 years old. Perhaps this is a case of a much younger writer imagining old age (Backman is 34), where anything over 50 is ancient.

Kent Haruf’s Our Souls At Night has two things going for it. One, Haruf himself was in his 70s when he wrote it, so the main characters are presumably rooted in real experience. And second, the older characters are fully functional people, living real lives. They do not exist to be the butt of a joke or an exploration of the process of illness or decoration in a family-gets-together-for-the-holidays drama.

The novel – or novella, or short story with very wide margins – follows two characters, Addie and Louis, who are both widowed and living in the same small Colorado town. Addie proposes a unique arrangement – that Louis come sleep (literally) with her at night. The setting is largely Addie’s bedroom, where the two talk and get to know each other and find companionship.

The reader gets to experience the development of a second chapter in these characters’ lives, one that is created after the traditional narrative ends (born, grow up, get married, have kids). We also get to see other people in their families and in the small town grapple with this second chapter (hint: not everyone thinks it’s so great).

I liked this story quite a bit, but I didn’t like the ending. This is the third book in a row where I’ve had this problem, which makes me think that there’s something going on with ME rather than the books I’m reading. In this case, I was disappointed in the novel’s abrupt turn.

Our Souls At Night was published after Haruf’s 2014 death. He reportedly finished it just days before he died. His obituary in the New York Times explains his writing process (e.g. pulling a hat over his eyes to better imagine Addie and Louis’ world).

Sunday, December 20, 2015

It's Monday! And the Jingle Bells Are Ringing!

It’s been a few weeks since I did a Monday update. But my winter break week has finally arrived, now that I’ve completed grading a sleigh-load of student papers. I haven’t been blogging much these past couple of weeks (due to an endless leaning stack of work), but I did post two reviews: In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward and The Lake House by Kate Morton. I also posted a new entry in my ongoing series, Dear Corn Syrup.  This one involved figuring out how to manage family holiday celebrations when you don’t like one of your family members. Also, just last night I finished Kent Haruf’s Our Souls at Night and will post a review soon.

I want to give a shout-out to my TBTB Secret Santa, Lois Johnson, for adding a few new titles to my leaning stack: The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce and Packing for Mars by Mary Roach.  

Also thank you to poet Erin Malone, author of Hover, for making these fabulous bloggish bookmarks:

I am grateful to all of you on the interwebs for bringing me ideas for such fun reading material these past few weeks. I love seeing everyone’s book wishlists and best-of-the-year lists. My very favorite thing to read this time of year is The Millions’ A Year In Reading series. My gift to you is a journey down this festive rabbit hole. Check it out!

Given that I have so much holiday cheer left to spread this week, I’m planning to read just one book. I’ve decided it’s going to be The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora. Here’s the description on Goodreads:

In her stunning debut collection, The Wonder Garden, Lauren Acampora brings to the page with enchanting realism the myriad lives of a suburban town and lays them bare. These linked stories take a trenchant look at the flawed people of Old Cranbury, incisive tales that reveal at each turn the unseen battles we play out behind drawn blinds, the creeping truths from which we distract ourselves, and the massive dreams we haul quietly with us and hold close.

Hopefully I’ll update one more time before the end of the week, but I don’t have a great track record these days. May your days be merry and bright!

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

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Review of In Bitter Chill By Sarah Ward

No, I have not fallen down the chimney. I have just been deeply sidetracked by non-bookish things. End of quarter grading, holiday shopping, egg nog…

I just finished In Bitter Chill by Sarah Ward. It’s a debut police procedural that has all the elements of the genre that I love – a brooding-but-kind lead detective, a scrappy young new detective, and a glimmer of flirtation between them. It was ALMOST a perfect escape.

The premise is that two girls were kidnapped in 1978, but only one returned – with no memory of what happened to her or to her friend. Now, decades later, two mysterious deaths bring the old case to the surface, unearthing (ahem) family secrets.

What I love about this book is that it is a genuine crime novel – not a story about a missing teapot or a lost dog. But it is not filled with the intense violence that marks so many mystery/thrillers these days. I was able to get the heart-pounding kick of a good mystery without having to go to therapy afterward.

But I have to say that the ending of this book is terrible, and there is really nothing more annoying than investing  good reading time in a book that ultimately lets me down. I’ll probably read this author’s next book, but I’ll be hoping for a more plausible wrap-up. 

My thoughts about my 2015 reading year will be coming soon!

Friday, December 4, 2015

Review of The Lake House by Kate Morton

I love Thanksgiving food. In the month preceding the holiday, my mouth begins to water at the very thought of our particular traditional dishes. And there’s a reason for that expectation – every dish is chock full of sugar and butter and cream. My cranberries? 2 full cups of sugar! My yams? Sugar and butter and then more sugar! I make a spinach gratin dish that involves butter and milk and cream and cheese! It’s a once-a-year system overload of the bad things that make food delicious.

Once I sank into my post-meal food coma, I also sank into The Lake House by Kate Morton. This book has been the darling of the blogging community, so I ignored the goofball cover and jumped in.

(The face on the cover of The Lake House reminded me of this type of 80s cover. Nice outfit, Dude!)
And you know what? This is a great book to read if you don’t want to work hard and if you want to be transported to a different time and place. It was full of literary sugar. Full of it! Brimming over, in fact, and then drizzled with butter and cream and more sugar.

The novel strikes me as a mashup of a cozy mystery and a gothic romance. There are several story lines running alongside each other, and the narrative jumps back and forth in time as the reader tries to figure out two separate mystery arcs. At the center of both is a detective named Sadie Sparrow, who is on leave from her job in 2003 after acting as a leak in an investigation. That investigation involves a woman who disappears and leaves her small child at home alone. The police department concludes that the woman vanished on her own terms; Sadie thinks foul play was involved.  On her break from work, she stays with her grandfather in the country. While there, she stumbles upon an abandoned estate that (miraculously) has been left exactly as it was in the 1930s. Sadie finds herself trying to solve the many decades old mystery of a baby who went missing at the house.

(Here's a creepy abandoned estate I stumbled upon in Ireland. I did not uncover any mysteries, unfortunately.)
If you like non-violent who-dunnits or books about crumbling mansions with hidden passageways and even more hidden secrets, this book is definitely for you. However, this is one of those novels where I had to constantly remind myself not to overthink things. There were so many convenient developments that pushed this plot along – e.g. a crime scene virtually untouched after 70 years and characters that helpfully write everything down in letters to be discovered later. I felt pulled away from the vibrant historical world each time Sadie got unrealistically lucky.

But I suppose you shouldn’t turn to a gothic romance-y mystery if what you’re looking for is realism. Morton gives the reader exactly what she promises, and for me, it was an entertaining holiday indulgence.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

Dear Corn Syrup: Advice For the Holiday Book Exchange?

Dear Corn Syrup,

Please help! My family is doing a book exchange this Christmas. Each person drew a name out of a hat, and I picked my new brother-in-law. There are three problems with this. First, I don’t really know anything about him except that he likes beer and offensive jokes. Second, I don’t like beer or offensive jokes. And third, I don’t think that he’s a good fit for my sister, and I wish she didn’t marry him. Any suggestions about a good book to give? Price limit is $30.


The Grinch

Dear Grinch,

How awesome is it that your family has a book exchange!? That fact alone tells me that you come from good people. I certainly understand your impulse to protect your book-loving family and its groovy bookish traditions from a tasteless newcomer.

Giving a book to someone you don’t know (and maybe don’t like) is a problem that a lot of us face. The fact that you’re dealing with this issue at a holiday family gathering makes your predicament all the more complicated. Holiday celebrations usually bring out the worst in every family, even families of readers! All of our lingering grudges about unfairness and stolen possessions and parental favoritism rise like curdled clumps in our eggnog.  So my first piece of advice would be to treat the book-giving occasion with the same caution you’d give to a conversation over the holiday meal: no religion, no politics (and in your case, perhaps avoid fiction about sisters who marry evil men). Avoid, at all costs, any book whose title might inspire a showdown between your Uncle Trump and your patchouli-scented cousin who loudly opposes the use of wrapping paper.

But clearly, Grinch, your question is not just about finding the perfect gift for someone you don't know well. You want things to go back to the way they were before your brother-in-law spilled his beer on your family holidays. And, unfortunately, there’s no kind of Christmas magic that can do that. What is in your hands, however, is this fabulous opportunity to give your SISTER a gift this season, the gift of opening yourself up to a friendship with her husband.

Here’s how a book could help you do that. Since you don’t know much about your brother in law, go buy one of those “Best American…” anthologies. There's The Best American Short Stories of 2015The Best American Essays, The Best American Comics, The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy and others. Go get one. But don’t just give the book to him. You need to read it first, and pick a favorite story within it (remember – no politics, no religion). When you give him the book, tell him that you especially love one particular story, and then tell him you want to discuss it with him. Over beer.

Who knows if he’ll take you up on the offer, but at the very least, you’ll have the knowledge that you handled yourself with grace. It’s also truly possible that this book will inspire a real conversation between the two of you. And wouldn’t that be amazing? Perhaps you’ll find that your heart grows three sizes that day. 

Happy holidays,

Corn Syrup

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

It's Tuesday! And I'm Hungry!

OK, I’m late with this “It’s Monday!” post. I’m late with everything these days. The good news is that I’m off from work for the rest of the week, and I have this crazy idea that I might actually get some leisure reading done. Am I a turkey for believing in this possibility?

My reading week wasn't actually that bad, despite my busy-ness. My half-baked attempt at doing Nonfiction November brought me to some interesting books about race and education. So even though I didn’t play along with other bloggers, it was still a win for me. You can read my review of Beyond Measure by Vicki Abeles and also my combined discussion/review of The Prize by Dale Russakoff and Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates. I can always count on Nonfiction November to fill my head up with ideas.

On Thursday, I will be turning my attention to filling up my belly.  With that in mind, I hope to lighten up my reading a bit.  I’m planning to tackle The Lake House by Kate Morton and My Grandmother Asked Me To Tell You She’s Sorry by Fredrik Backman. Hopefully I can keep my eyes open long enough to get through at least one of them. Here are the descriptions from Goodreads:

The Lake House by Kate Morton

Living on her family’s idyllic lakeside estate in Cornwall, England, Alice Edevane is a bright, inquisitive, innocent, and precociously talented sixteen-year-old who loves to write stories. But the mysteries she pens are no match for the one her family is about to endure…

One midsummer’s eve, after a beautiful party drawing hundreds of guests to the estate has ended, the Edevanes discover that their youngest child, eleven-month-old Theo, has vanished without a trace. What follows is a tragedy that tears the family apart in ways they never imagined.

Decades later, Alice is living in London, having enjoyed a long successful career as an author. Theo’s case has never been solved, though Alice still harbors a suspicion as to the culprit. Miles away, Sadie Sparrow, a young detective in the London police force, is staying at her grandfather’s house in Cornwall. While out walking one day, she stumbles upon the old estate—now crumbling and covered with vines, clearly abandoned long ago. Her curiosity is sparked, setting off a series of events that will bring her and Alice together and reveal shocking truths about a past long gone...yet more present than ever.

Elsa is seven years old and different. Her grandmother is seventy-seven years old and crazy, standing-on-the-balcony-firing-paintball-guns-at-men-who-want-to-talk-about-Jesus-crazy. She is also Elsa's best, and only, friend. At night Elsa takes refuge in her grandmother's stories, in the Land of Almost-Awake and the Kingdom of Miamas where everybody is different and nobody needs to be normal.

When Elsa's grandmother dies and leaves behind a series of letters apologizing to people she has wronged, Elsa's greatest adventure begins. Her grandmother's letters lead her to an apartment building full of drunks, monsters, attack dogs, and totally ordinary old crones, but also to the truth about fairytales and kingdoms and a grandmother like no other.

One final note before I start cooking those carbs – this Saturday is Small Business Saturday.  What an awesome opportunity to support your favorite independent bookstore! For those of you in Seattle, many bookstores will have authors on hand as volunteer booksellers. Here’s a list of participating authors and bookstores. And check out this site to find events around the country.

Have a great holiday, Bloggitos. I’m thankful for all of you!

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

P.S. If you're coming from The Leaning Stack of Books Facebook Page, the answer is "Fangs-giving." I know you clicked the link just to find out.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Thoughts on The Prize and Between the World and Me, Together

I read two (deeply depressing) nonfiction books this week, and they ended up working together in an interesting way.  I was excited to read The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools by Dale Russakoff, because it looked, on the surface, like the kind of book I’d assign in my classes. This journalistic account of the reform effort in Newark, NJ focuses in on the players and politics that were involved in Mark Zuckerberg’s $100 million dollar gift to the Newark Public Schools and the changes that the gift inspired (hint about the outcome: the Newark schools still struggle).

Now that I’ve read the book, I won’t be assigning it in my classes – not because it’s not excellent (it is!), but because it is so profoundly dispiriting. Russakoff’s research reveals the flaws of a strategy that imposes outsiders’ ideas onto an unfamiliar context. It also reveals the flaws of a strategy that fails to meaningfully engage community members in considering the value (if there is any) of those ideas. 

The fact that corporate reform hasn’t been successful isn’t news, but Russakoff’s storytelling helps us understand why. Zuckerberg and his alliance of reformers truly believed that the linchpin of Newark’s problem was the teacher contract, and the bulk of his philanthropic project went to dismantling and rebuilding this element of the Newark school system. But Russakoff gets into the schools and walks alongside the “good teachers.”  She finds that the problems involved in teaching are much more complex than just evaluation and tenure. There are questions of how many teachers should be in a classroom. There are questions of social supports and psychological need and supplies and programs. The failure to direct money toward those issues crippled the reformers’ efforts to change the teaching landscape in the city.  

Russakoff also looks at the resistance of community members to reformers’ ideas. This resistance persisted even in the face of the schools’ repeated and ongoing failure to prepare kids for graduation. In some cases, the resistance existed for its own sake – ideas were rejected only because they came from an outsider.  Zuckerberg ultimately turned his attention to different projects – perhaps with greater wisdom, but away, decisively, from Newark.

With heavy heart, I picked up  Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me, which just won the National Book Award for Nonfiction. Coates begins this letter to his teenaged son by suggesting that there is no “hope” that can be pulled from his writing. His intent is not to give the reader hope; rather, it’s to expose the way that violence against African Americans is built into the very fabric of American values. He suggests that if your idea of justice involves working toward a more perfect set of democratic relationships between groups of people, you are ignoring the fact that the American foundational idea of democracy was built upon owning and exploiting African Americans’ bodies. It is impossible to work for justice through an ideal that incorporates that ownership and exploitation.

Truthfully, I need to read this book again. I think it will take me more than a single pass to fully absorb Coates’ ideas. But one thing that reading this book did for me was to give me a new way to look at The Prize. Russakoff is most interested in the political tangle in Newark. (Whose money? Whose turf? Whose ideas?) But what if we were to look at this school reform episode with Coates’ discussion of violence in mind? What if we were to insert the words “white and black” for “insiders and outsiders?”

The Newark school project aimed to “shake up” a failing system. The effects of that shake up – closing neighborhood schools, removing teachers, switching leaders – were all changes that were “done to” African American residents by external (and mostly white) hands. The reformers struggled to understand why community members would want to send their kids to schools that repeatedly failed them. Perhaps black community members experienced the “shake up” as just another act of violence against their children, another way to impose physical control. Would looking at school reform in Newark as an act of violence change what we can take away from the project?

It’s nearing the end of Nonfiction November, and one thing I’ve noticed about good nonfiction is that it opens me up to conversations I wouldn’t ordinarily have. Both of these books gave me the opportunity to think about my own assumptions about race and social change in new ways.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Review of Beyond Measure by Vicki Abeles

I want to start off by saying that I love it when ordinary citizens take action around a topic they care deeply about. I felt that immediately when I saw Vicki Abeles’ film, Race to Nowhere, as part of a school screening/conversation in 2011. Abeles’ wants us to challenge – and change --  the “achievement culture” that pushes children to aggressively build resumes on their path to a narrowly defined version of success.

Abeles has followed up that initial film with a second one – Beyond Measure – which I haven’t yet seen. I did, however, read the companion book with the same name.  Abeles, who lives in the Bay area, describes the constant scheduling of young children, the endless hours of homework, and the pressure for kids build a deep and broad, multidimensional resume to get into the very best colleges. This pressure, she writes, takes away from family time, diminishes the capacity for exploration, and leads to a whole host of stress-related problems. And she points to a hysterical competitive culture as the culprit – a treadmill of fear-driven expectations that stems in equal measure from institutions and parents and peers.

As much as I love Abeles’ activism, one thing about her work consistently bugs me: She collapses the experiences of low income kids and the experiences of middle/upper class kids into one “epidemic.” But the bulk of what Abeles is interested in concerns the choices that affluent families make – signing kids up for multiple elite sports teams and activities so that they can get into good colleges (regardless of how far into the future college lies); sending them to schools that foster that achievement culture and that assign multiple hours of homework nightly; hiring tutors to follow up after school activities with SAT preparation, and anxiously worrying so much about their kids’ performance that the family’s entire life revolves around it. And for that behavior, Abeles has some clear advice: STOP IT. And really, if you live in this type of community and in a family that has the means to live in this type of community, STOPPING IT is well within your power. Tell your kid she can only play one sport after school. Tell him to go to the park and hang out. Tell her to go to bed even if there’s more homework to do, because he’s ten years old, and who cares whether he gets a B in homework? Move to a different town that values different things. Find a different school. Change it if you want to, because you can. (Oh yeah, and those standardized tests? Opt out. ).

The school related pressures that face low income kids can be different, however, and Abeles isn’t interested in exploring this nuance.  In many schools in struggling neighborhoods, the pressure to demonstrate growth on state standardized tests is extreme. Remember that the ultimate “sanction” we level against schools that don’t demonstrate adequate yearly progress on standardized measures after five years is closure. As a result, many such schools relentlessly test prep all year long, which can lead to soulless, uncreative, thin educational experiences. There are fewer resources and time for art, music, drama, and recess as everyone is geared toward a standardized outcome.
On top of that, many parents in these communities don’t have the resources available to them to move, to take their kids out of school, and to navigate bureaucracy. And the stresses that many of these communities face are more profound than helping Johnny manage all of his activities so he can get into Harvard.  Kids and schools have to navigate violence, health care, housing, lack of food. These problems are the social issues we should all rally around. These are the ones that really need a film and a cry of urgency.

So, on the one hand, I’m on board with the idea of creating a larger conversation about achievement culture, health, and sanity. But we also have to get real about what constitutes an epidemic and what kinds of problems demand our outcry.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

A Review of Two Books With Pink Covers

A few weeks ago, I was at the bookstore with a friend. We were looking at the vast array of new books, and I said, “I really need something easy and straightforward. I need a book with a beginning, middle, and end. I don’t want a twist. I don’t want any ghosts or dragons or unreliable narrators.”

When I’m in that kind of mood, I drift toward family dramas. But I have to be careful. I don’t really like family dramas that involve serious illnesses (e.g. the kind where the clan gets together for Thanksgiving and grandma reveals that she’s going to die shortly). I’m also not crazy about family dramas where the problem at the center is too mundane (e.g. the reason that the siblings don’t get along is that Susie always got the last piece of chicken at family dinners), or where the only problem is a misunderstanding (e.g. Sally thought that Mary excluded her from some big event, but Mary was really out planning Sally’s surprise party). And then, there’s the problem with the pink covers.

I have written before about my issues with women’s fiction. On the one hand, I gravitate toward women’s fiction like it’s a bowl of leftover Halloween candy in November. On the other hand, I tend to get so deeply annoyed when I think that the author is pandering to a gender stereotype (A bowl full of kisses and kittens!). And wait – there’s a third hand! I also get annoyed when female characters are ridiculously mean and underhanded just to serve some gendered idea of a “cat fight.”

You’d think – with so many concerns and red flags and possible complaints – that I’d steer clear of any book with a pink cover.  But these past couple of weeks, I read two books with pink covers, back to back. And I got my wish: no ghosts, no dragons, no unreliable narrators. But neither book completely satisfied me, either.

Love and Biology At the Center of the Universe by Jennie Shortridge has been on my shelf for almost a decade. Shortridge is a local (to me) author, and this book features a glimpse into a vanishing version of Seattle – a time when a person could afford to rent an apartment in a fun neighborhood while working as a barista.  The main character, Mira, flees her life in small town Oregon when her husband of several decades tells her that he’s unhappy. She lands in Seattle, rents an apartment above an adorable coffee shop, and begins a new life as a middle-aged woman on her own. She makes new friends, finds a couple of cute men to romance, and untangles her true self from others’ expectations. (Note to the protagonist: Answer your flip phone! Listen to your messages! Some misunderstandings might be cleared up!)

I’m not sure why this book languished on my shelf, but I’m actually glad I didn’t read it earlier. Perhaps I should have waited even longer. This is NOT a book that should be read by younger women. Certainly, one of the benefits of having older, vibrant female characters is that younger people get to see that women don’t disappear at age 30. However, in an effort to be funny, Shortridge brings too many (very) awkward elements of aging to the table. I kept thinking that Mira’s…er…private moments should be more private. Ack! I would definitely put a warning sticker on this one: PG-50.

Shortly after I finished the Shortridge book, Eight Hundred Grapes by Laura Dave showed up for me at the library. This book received press this summer as a “Great Summer Read,” but true to my luck, I couldn’t get my hands on it until November. This is one of those books that seems like a screenplay-in-the-making, kind of like a family-centered, literary version of the film, Sideways. And lo and behold, it is being turned into a movie! In it, a young woman, Georgia, discovers that her fiancé has a Big Secret. And rather than deal with the dishonesty, she retreats to her family home in Sonoma. When she gets there, she discovers that her parents also have secrets! And her brothers have secrets! And no one is dealing with those secrets. Plus, her father has sold the family vineyard to a large corporation. What a mess!

And now I’m going to say something that will seem odd given my previous discussion. I don’t think that Georgia’s relationship problems and coming-to-adulthood should be the focus of the book. Instead, I’d like to see MORE attention given to the relationship and romance between her aging (like a fine wine) parents. The vineyard and all of its symbolism of commitment and loss should be THEIR story. But my hunch is that this book needed a young narrator with a gorgeous fiancé to be considered a Great Summer Read, and it will certainly need those elements to translate into a blockbuster movie.

I’m guessing that I will be writing this post again and again throughout my blogging career. I find my way to these pink books with eyes wide open. Then I get mad, storm off, vow to never return. But I do return, like a daughter in a dysfunctional family full of secrets, hoping the family will be different this time.

Monday, November 9, 2015

It's Monday! And I'm Making Nonfiction Plans!

This post is another addition to my new series, Chronicles of a Delinquent Blogger. I spent so much time working on my disguise for my Amazon Bookstore field trip last week that I didn’t get around to posting the reviews of the two books I read: Love and Biology at the Center of the Universe by Jennie Shortridge and Beyond Measure: Rescuing An Overscheduled, Overtested, Underestimated Generation by Vicki Abeles. The good news is that I have a day off work this week (Hip Hip Hooray!), so hopefully I’ll get those posted soon.

I’ve had a couple of requests for the Big Reveal of the Blogoversary Book (i.e. My favorite book from October 2014 to October 2015). It was The Sleepwalker’s Guide To Dancing by Mira Jacob! I will be doing a “Best of 2015” list in December, so the question will be whether any book can unseat that champion in the next couple of months.

I had grand intentions to participate this year in Nonfiction November. I already know that I will not be able to manage doing the special weekly posts involved in this event. However, I do have a stack of nonfiction that is sitting here waiting for me. I hope to get to all of these this month – or at least soon!

Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates

This is the book that everyone’s talking about this year, and Coates won a MacArthur Genius Award following its publication.

From Goodreads: In a profound work that pivots from the biggest questions about American history and ideals to the most intimate concerns of a father for his son, Ta-Nehisi Coates offers a powerful new framework for understanding our nation’s history and current crisis. Americans have built an empire on the idea of “race,” a falsehood that damages us all but falls most heavily on the bodies of black women and men—bodies exploited through slavery and segregation, and, today, threatened, locked up, and murdered out of all proportion. What is it like to inhabit a black body and find a way to live within it? And how can we all honestly reckon with this fraught history and free ourselves from its burden?

Ghettoside by Jill Leovy

This book could be an interesting pairing with the Coates book. It could provide entry into a conversation about authorship and race, given that it’s written by a white author and focuses on a white detective  -- and tackles the issue of crime in an African American neighborhood.

From Goodreads: On a warm spring evening in South Los Angeles, a young man was shot and killed on a sidewalk minutes away from his home, one of hundreds of young men slain in LA every year. His assailant ran down the street, jumped into an SUV, and vanished, hoping to join the vast majority of killers in American cities who are never arrested for their crimes. But as soon as the case was assigned to Detective John Skaggs, the odds shifted. Here is the kaleidoscopic story of the quintessential American murder--one young black man slaying another--and a determined crew of detectives whose creed was to pursue justice at all costs for its forgotten victims. Ghettoside is a fast-paced narrative of a devastating crime, an intimate portrait of detectives and a community bonded in tragedy, and a surprising new lens into the great subject of murder in America--why it happens and how the plague of killings might yet be stopped.

I have a (eat, pray) love/hate relationship with Gilbert’s writing. However, I went to her talk about this book when she was in town, and it was pretty inspirational. (As a side note, I never knew how many middle aged women carrying pretty journals and wearing knee-high leather boots from Nordstrom could fit in a single auditorium!) I will definitely need to tackle this one when I’m in the right mood.

From Goodreads: Readers of all ages and walks of life have drawn inspiration and empowerment from Elizabeth Gilbert’s books for years. Now this beloved author digs deep into her own generative process to share her wisdom and unique perspective about creativity. With profound empathy and radiant generosity, she offers potent insights into the mysterious nature of inspiration. She asks us to embrace our curiosity and let go of needless suffering. She shows us how to tackle what we most love, and how to face down what we most fear. She discusses the attitudes, approaches, and habits we need in order to live our most creative lives. Balancing between soulful spirituality and cheerful pragmatism, Gilbert encourages us to uncover the “strange jewels” that are hidden within each of us. Whether we are looking to write a book, make art, find new ways to address challenges in our work,  embark on a dream long deferred, or simply infuse our everyday lives with more mindfulness and passion, Big Magic cracks open a world of wonder and joy.


I love Lawson’s blog, The Bloggess, but I have to admit that I have rarely loved books that come from blogs.  I wasn’t that crazy about her first one, Let’s Pretend This Never Happened. But still, I’m going to give this one a whirl, since her 2011 post, “And That’s Why You Should Learn To Pick Your Battles,” was one of the funniest things I’ve ever read.

From Goodreads: In Let’s Pretend This Never Happened, Jenny Lawson baffled readers with stories about growing up the daughter of a taxidermist. In her new book, Furiously Happy, Jenny explores her lifelong battle with mental illness. A hysterical, ridiculous book about crippling depression and anxiety? That sounds like a terrible idea. And terrible ideas are what Jenny does best.

Happy reading week, everyone! Please let me know if you're reading any good nonfiction these days.

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