Friday, January 29, 2016

Review of Days of Awe by Lauren Fox

I broke a serious reading resolution last week. I followed up Elizabeth Strout’s My Name is Lucy Barton, which was SadSadSad, with Lauren Fox’s Days of Awe, which ended up being SadSadSad. Remember how I was going to stay away from literary despair in 2016? Oh well. I’ve already lost that battle. I seem to be drawn to depressing stories in the same way that I am to containers of Nutella (I polished off a full tub yesterday. So sorry, arteries).

Days of Awe is a novel about the way that grief can crack the entire foundation of your life. Isabel is a middle-aged woman whose best friend dies suddenly. Isabel’s grief winds like a tendril around her marriage and her relationship with her daughter, and she can’t quite fit all the pieces of her life back together again. Moreover, she sabotages herself left and right, because she is SadSadSad.

The author has made her name as a writer of women’s fiction, and her snappy prose certainly makes her a good fit for that genre. In fact, the strength of this novel is that the hilarious writing can fool the reader into thinking that this book isn’t a tragedy. But be forewarned: this is NOT a beach book, unless you are looking for a way to draw some heavy, dripping clouds to your sunny days.

That said, there are some scenes at a middle school that are genuinely laugh-out-loud funny. Isabel is a teacher, and in addition to her grief, she has to navigate workplace politics, mean girls, and field trips. It made me wish for a companion novel that focuses exclusively on the people at the school.

This is a worthwhile book, with some great elements. I’m “glad” I read it, and I bet that I will continue to follow this author in the future. It’s a difficult novel to recommend, however, since I’m not sure who would be the right audience. Readers who like their Nutella with a side of tears, maybe?

Monday, January 25, 2016

UPDATE: The Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Challenge Bingo

This Monday entry will be slightly different than my usual update. I really need to discuss my 2015 Diversity Challenge Bingo Game, because it’s already the end of January. How did that happen? Plus, my traditional update would let you know that I am in the middle of a string of novels about sad white people (My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout; Days of Awe by Lauren Fox (review forthcoming); and I just started Early Warning by Jane Smiley). That, in its own way, is the perfect segue into a recap of my attempt last year to diversify my reading.

If you remember, I was interested in expanding my reading repertoire to include a wider variety of authors and points of view. At the end of 2014, I tallied up the books I read over the course of the year and found that only 8% of those books were by authors of color, and 3% had a main character that was a person of color. My “natural” book selection pattern – which was to choose books by whim alone – led to a lot of reading by and about white people.

My goal was to more intentionally – but in a fun way – improve those numbers. I truly believe that I am a better person when I experience the lives of people unlike myself through books and reading. So I created a bingo card for myself:

And I made myself a drinking game! The rule was that every time I filled a row, I had to take a drink and holler, “Blogtastic!” I’m really cool, can’t you tell? There is truly nothing more brag-worthy than being a lady who plays bookish games by herself and shouts weird things while drinking alone.

But in all seriousness, I did learn a little bit about the limits of my own intentionality. Don’t get me wrong, my reading choices were more diverse in 2015. 19% of all the books I read had authors of color. Of the fiction I read, 20% had a main character of color. 43% of the nonfiction I tackled centered on race or the racial dimensions of a problem.

However, I honestly thought that I was going to fill my bingo card. And while I certainly created a robust scattershot card and was proud of that, I was only able to officially fill one row. That meant that I was a pretty sober blogger in 2015. My “intentionality” did not make me a bingo winner in any real sense of the word.

I learned that true intentionality around reading and diversity requires a bigger commitment on my part. I need to think more deliberately and choose more critically if I want to broaden my reading life in a big way. So this year, I plan to take on this bingo card again, just as it is, and I would love for you all to join me. Imagine us all raising our glasses and shrieking in unison!

My winning row is below:

And the books are (from left to right):

A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara
The Turner House by Angela Flournoy
God Help the Child by Toni Morrison
Brown Girl Dreaming by Jacqueline Woodson
The Girl Who Fell From the Sky by Heidi W. Durrow

Friday, January 22, 2016

Review of My Name Is Lucy Barton By Elizabeth Strout

My Name Is Lucy Barton by Pulitzer Prize-winning Elizabeth Strout is not a typical novel. I kept waiting for the gimmick that would make this fit some genre or category I’d recognize, but the gimmick never came. I guess I’d call it a novella, but it also feels a bit like a journal. In any case, the book is a reminder that families can be sources of epic, lifelong pain – or, really, that they are the sources of everything.

The book starts when Lucy is in the hospital, suffering from an infection. Her estranged mother shows up to be with her. I thought, “Mom’s a ghost! This is going to be a ghost story!" Then I thought, “Lucy is really dead! She’s on her way to heaven!” And then I thought, “Lucy’s really in a psychiatric hospital!” None of these things is true. She is really in the hospital with an infection, and her mom is really there.

The reader sits at Lucy’s bedside with her mother and gets glimpses of the deep poverty and abuse and neglect that characterized Lucy’s childhood. Strout only gives us little flashes of this past, however, and her restraint somehow makes reading about Lucy’s experiences all the more difficult.

The mother sits at the center of the back story, and it is devastating to watch Lucy --as an adult-- keep asking, “Do you love me? Do you love me?” We also get to watch Lucy’s relationships with her own daughters and her acknowledgment that she can (and does) cause THEM the kind of pain they will carry forever, too. 

The promotional material for this novel calls it a book about mothers and daughters, but it is not the kind of book that will turn into a Hallmark Channel movie of the week . Note that the cover of the book does not feature flowers! The father in the story is also key, as are siblings and partners and children. I think that ultimately this is a book that intends to remind us that family permanently shapes us, and what happens to us in our families becomes, as Lucy learns, our one and only story to tell.

You can find an interesting article about Strout here.

Monday, January 18, 2016

A Review of Some Luck By Jane Smiley

A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley is one of those books that pulled me out of myself. I read it when I was 23 and on my first cross-country road trip. I don’t remember many of the details of that novel, but I remember the fact that the world on the page and world outside my car window blurred together.

Despite being a big Smiley fan, It took me a over a year to get to Some Luck, the first in her trilogy about a farm family. I think I put it off because its size was intimidating (and I guess that means that I have already broken my resolution to read only short books in 2016). It is over 400 pages and written in the tiniest font imaginable.

But now that I’ve read it, I also know that Some Luck is really a 1200 page novel broken into thirds. Talk about a long book! It’s Smiley’s joke on me -- Now I’m on the hook for reading another 800 pages to find out “what happens” to the Langford family, a regular farm family in Iowa. Some Luck follows every family member from the 1920s to the 1950s, and each of the next books in the trilogy takes on a new thirty year time period.

I was completely captivated by this first book in the series, but it is not the kind of book that will appeal to everyone. In a way, nothing really happens in the story. People grow up and die. Dinners get made and cleared. People get married, and babies are born. There’s a matter-of-factness about the family’s experience, evoking a culture of survival and restraint. Of course, as the family makes dinner and plants the crops, the reader also experiences two World Wars, the Great Depression, and the McCarthy Era through the eyes of typical people. Smiley’s writing is subtly brilliant.

But, to enjoy this novel, you have to appreciate subtly. There is not much flash and bang. There’s no zombie apocalypse. You will not find this book under the heading, “Page Turner” or “A Book That Will Keep You Up All Night.” This is a book about small, quiet changes -- the stuff, really, of every day life.

Doesn't it seem like “every day life” literature is on the wane? I first noticed it when my kids were in elementary school. The books of my childhood were all largely “realistic fiction,” but my kids had a steady diet of dragons and evil and the imminent end of the world. Has our expectation of what makes for a good story changed over the decades?  Does it take more “action” to captivate us? And if so, why?

You can find good interviews with Smiley here and here.

Monday, January 11, 2016

It's Monday! And I Fell Down a Rabbit Hole!

Oh, the blog posts that are left undone! It was the first week of the quarter, and somehow I found myself buried in problems and projects unrelated to this blog. But I’m not going to dwell. It’s a new week!

I did put out one post, a review of Laurie Colwin's A Big Storm Knocked It Over. Actually, it's less a review and more a consideration of re-reading.

Thanks to all of you for your curiosity about The Leaning Stack of Books Diversity Bingo Game Challenge. I said that I would write my 2015 update last week, but I haven’t done it yet. It’s coming! It’s coming!

I  finished Weightless by Sarah Bannan last week. We’re discussing it in my book club this month. We’ll be meeting at the end of January, so I won’t be posting a review until then. I find that sometimes my thoughts change through dialogue. I’m also about half way through Jane Smiley’s Some Luck, so hopefully I’ll have something to say about that book soon.

In the exciting news category, My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout just arrived for me from the library. I’ve been looking forward to it, even though I wasn’t a big fan of The Burgess Boys, Strout’s previous novel. As a special bonus to me, it’s a short book! As I mentioned in my Top 5 of 2015 post, my new reading year is all about short!

The other thing that I did last week was fall down a deep rabbit hole. I recently read in Brain Pickings about the collaborative book, Hurry Up and Wait, by artist Maira Kalman and author Daniel Handler. I had seen Kalman’s art on the cover of various New Yorker magazines, but I hadn’t really explored it. I checked out Hurry Up and Wait from the library and just loved it. It’s a hybrid book, containing Kalman’s paintings, photography from the Museum of Modern Art, and Handler’s text. It’s kind of a weird meditation on rushing and waiting.

My library has a bunch of books by Kalman, so I checked out a few, including another one in the MOMA series, Girls Standing On Lawns. This book considers all the snapshots people take (think: first day of school), where they are just posing on the lawn in front of their house. In the postscript to the book, the Photography Curator at MOMA writes that the photography in the book is “vernacular,” meaning “the messy diversity of objects created without artistic ambition.” Kalman and Handler play around with the idea that these posed snapshots make people permanent, freezing them forever in a moment of significance, though the significance becomes unclear over time.

Finally, my favorite of the Kalman book bundle I received from the library is My Favorite Things, which is both memoir and reflection on beloved objects, using the collection at the Cooper-Hewett National Design Museum as inspiration and guide.

Do you ever get lost on a weird reading tangent? I’d love to hear about it!

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

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Thoughts About Re-Reading and The Big Storm Knocked It Over by Laurie Colwin

Once upon a time, I had just finished a round of interviews for graduate school and was struggling with the unsettled feeling that only comes when I stand on the edge of a life-bending decision. I was lost metaphorically as well as physically, with only a paper map to get me around a strange new city (I know that some of you are asking, “What’s a paper map?”).

I went looking for a coffee shop so I could think about the choices that were in front of me. This was a time when there wasn’t a Starbucks on every corner, and most coffee shops were unique, with their own character. On the way, I passed a used bookstore, one with appropriately scholarly Ivy on the brick exterior. I couldn’t resist a visit.

When I came out, I had acquired Laurie Colwin’s A Big Storm Knocked It Over.  At the time, I knew nothing about this author’s long catalog of cooking-related books or about her early death. Imagine being without a smart phone to look at reviews before purchasing!  All I knew is that I couldn’t walk out of a bookstore without a book in my hand, and this one was cheap ($1.50!) and a family drama (my favorite!).

At the coffee shop, I started reading the book and found it boring. I remember being disappointed that a book that looked so promising was so slow and plotless. I finished the novel, but if Goodreads had existed, I would have given it only 2 stars.

Last summer, my family and I went to New York City, and I was swept away by the noise and the people and the constant action. Of course I went to The Strand, and of course I had to buy books. I ended up picking several that had a Manhattan setting, and one of them was, once again, Colwin’s A Big Storm Knocked It Over. I wondered if the issue I had years ago was that I wasn’t old enough yet to imagine the feelings of the main character, a woman who married “late” and was worried about all the things that were involved with becoming a couple and a mother after being single for so long. It seemed worth a second shot. Plus, the book was cheap ($6!), and it was a family drama (my favorite, still!).

A Big Storm Knocked It Over is my first read of 2016, and it turns out that sometimes a boring book is just boring, no matter where you are in your life when you read it. At first, the story feels a little bit like a slightly more dated version of Sex in the City – if Carrie and the Gang did nothing at all except for sit at a restaurant and talk about how weird it is to be them. The main character, Jane Louise, gets married and then gets pregnant. And she thinks about that. Sometimes she talks about it with her best friend. Sometimes she tries to talk about it with her husband, but he doesn't really like to analyze things. Her smarmy boss wants to talk about it, but she tries to avoid him. The end.

I don’t like to dwell on unsatisfying books, but this experience made me think about re-reading. I don’t usually re-read, because I am worried about falling out of love with my favorites. But in this case, I tried to revisit a book that I felt wasn’t quite ready for me all those years ago. And it’s still not right, even though I have changed so much as a reader.

What about you? Are you a re-reader? What kinds of books draw you back?

Monday, January 4, 2016

It's Monday! And I Have To Get Out Of My Pajamas!

The decorations are down, and things are back to normal in my house. I spent much of last week in my pajamas, and I was kind of disoriented when the alarm went off this morning. Everything just starts again? How can that be happening already?

I have not made a 2016 reading resolution, nor have I joined any challenges (yet). The big one I joined last year – the Roof Beam Reader 2015 TBR Pile Challenge – was a disaster for me. It turns out that the reason why I don’t read many of the books on my leaning stack is that I don’t really want to. I suppose that’s good to know! And with that, I just came up with my resolution: I’m going to read what I feel like reading all year long.

(The one caveat is that I’m going to continue with my own Diversity Challenge Bingo. A post on that is coming soon.)

Last week I posted two reviews – one for The Wonder Garden by Lauren Acampora and another for Ghettoside by Jill Leovy. I also posted my Top 5 of 2015. I finished Laurie Colwin’s A Big Storm Knocked It Over, and my review for that book is upcoming.

Also last week I had seven books arrive for me at the library. I hate it when that happens. Now I have a difficult decision to make about which books to read and which to return untouched. 

I’m going to start by FINALLY reading the now-not-so-new Jane Smiley trilogy. Some Luck is one of the books that arrived from the library, and for the fourth time. I keep getting it and sending it back. Some of you have recommended it highly, and you know that I love a good intergenerational family story.

How about you? What’s the first book you’re going to read (or have already read) this year? Do you make reading resolutions?

(It’s Monday! What Are You Reading? Is hosted by Book Date. Now that Bill Gates is an official book blogger, do you think he’ll participate?)

Sunday, January 3, 2016

Review of Ghettoside by Jill Leovy

There’s nothing like a book about murder to send 2015 out with a bang.

Los Angeles Times Journalist Jill Leovy chronicled every murder in that city over the course of a single year.  She wrote Ghettoside after noting that the media does not cover most of the deaths of young, African-American men and boys. And with that lack of attention comes the lack of resources to solve those crimes or to push them through the justice system.

In her book, Leovy focuses tightly on one particular crime – the seemingly random shooting of a detective’s son in a Los Angeles neighborhood with a particularly high murder rate. We get to know the victim and the victim’s family. We get to know the police division that serves this neighborhood and different detectives’ relationships with the community they serve. And specifically, Leovy introduces the lead detective on the case, and that detective is white. 

The case -- as Leovy reported it in the Los Angeles Times. The red dots represent other murders in the same area.

Ghettoside is a timely book, given our current grappling with relationships between the police and African-American communities across the country. This account is different than others, because it is not focusing on explicit police violence against citizens. We do, however, get to see how the police are still part of the story of “black on black violence,” the kind of violence that so rarely makes the news. Different police divisions do or do not receive priority funds to tackle these often difficult-to-solve cases. Different police officers do or do not come to know and care about the neighborhoods they serve. Different police officers do or do not believe that crimes against black men are as important as any other crimes.

Leovy comes to the conclusion that the problem that this neighborhood faces is that the American justice system does not really operate there. In the absence of a fair legal system, a different set of rules and a different logic of justice took root. The failure is not, she contends, a failure of individual morals or a consequence of poverty; rather, we as Americans have distributed justice, and the means to get there, unequally.

It is worthwhile to think about this book alongside two others that have addressed similar themes last year: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me.  It would be interesting to discuss whether people think that it matters – or how it matters --  that the author is white or that the “hero” in the book is white. One thing that Leovy herself suggests is that race is never neutral.

I do think that Ghettoside is most devastating when Leovy simply lists murders. The names go on and on. The book could be reduced to a single essay with just those lists and make as much of an impact on me as this entire work of narrative nonfiction.

You can find a good interview with Leovy here.