I have never entered a blog reading challenge before. I don't like to feel constrained in deciding what I am going to read next, and I don't get to enough books that I feel like I can join challenges that have deadlines and expectations about how many books you have to finish. At any given moment, there are a lot of compelling challenges happening around the book blogosphere, but I just haven't been tempted to join one.
How exciting to revisit some of those YA books that I treasured and dogeared as a young reader in the 70s! (OK, and early 80s). I scanned through the table of contents (I haven't read the book yet, but I do have it thanks to HarperCollins (hi FTC!)), and there are so many to choose from.
Should I read one of the books that I read OVER AND OVER again as a kid, that I have practically memorized? Like Harriet the Spy or The Westing Game or All of a Kind Family? My daughters have been listening to All of a Kind Family on tape in the car, and I swear I can recite what happens in The Westing Game from memory. I think I will add Harriet the Spy to the list - I just bought it for my daughters a few months ago. Maybe we will read it together.
How about the ones about being a teenage girl that I read 30 years ago, but which I don't really remember that well... like The Cat Ate My Jumpsuit or Deenie or Jacob Have I Loved or Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself?
Then there are the really sad ones, like Bridge to Terabithia (which I LOVED), or Island of the Blue Dolphins or Summer of My German Soldier?
Or I could go for the sci-fi books I loved when I read, but which I would never read now? Like A Wrinkle In Time or Ghosts I Have Been?
The rules of the challenge say that I have to choose 6 books now, but I can always revise the list as the challenge goes on. (And, of course, I am not limited to 6!). So, here is my initial list, which I am sure will change after I read Shelf Discovery:
1. The Cat Ate My Jumpsuit, by Paula Danziger (I remember loving this one).
2. Forever, by Judy Blume, which I don't think I ever read all the way through, only the dirty parts at summer camp when the counselors weren't looking.
3. Ghosts I Have Been, by Richard Peck, which I don't think I read.
4. Jacob Have I Loved, by Katherine Paterson, which I know I read, and which is about twins, and because I don't think I can stomach Bridge to Terabithia.
5. Summer of My German Soldier, by Bette Greene, which I never read.
6. Harriet the Spy, by Louise Fitzhugh.
I am excited for this challenge! Click over to Booking Mama's post to see who else is participating - and consider joining it yourself! (You don't have to have a blog to participate.) You can also follow the tweets at @bookingmama, #shelfdiscovery.
I am always fascinated by the topic of what happens when writers write about their family members, either outright, or through characters in novels. A few months ago, author Joyce Maynard wrote an essay that was published in The New York Times'' "Modern Love" column about a time many years ago when she snooped in her daughter's email and learned something very private about something her daughter was going through. Maynard had been racked with guilt ever since about invading her daughter's privacy. Yesterday, her daughter, Audrey Bethel, posted her side of the story at DoubleX in a feature called "Modern Love Revenge". (How cool that this blog has launched a column for people discussed in the Sunday Styles column to have their say?) I thought Bethel's post was really well-written. How mature to think this way: "I tried to keep reminding myself that it was her story, and her emotions to resolve, so that I could make peace with what she wrote, rather than allow myself to view it as a not-so-necessary exposé in which I am the main character." I imagine that it was difficult to be so gracious!
Finally, thank you Literary License for pointing me to this L.A. Times essay by David Ulin called "The Lost Art of Reading." Ulin talks about how reading is like meditation, and that with all of our competing activities these days - television, email, the internet - it's hard to settle down to read. Ulin writes, "What I'm struggling with is the encroachment of the buzz, the sense that there is something out there that merits my attention, when in fact it's mostly just a series of disconnected riffs and fragments that add up to the anxiety of the age." I really relate to this. There are so many things that take me away from reading these days - work, book blogs (!), social networking, that I am reading less and less. It does take a concerted effort to shut out the clutter and focus on escaping into a book.
How do you stay focused on reading when there are so many other things demanding your attention?
I am in a book lull right now. I am not enjoying the book I am reading... it's not drawing me in, and I don't look forward to reading it. I think I am going to set it aside, which is something I rarely do, and move on to something else.
I circled a book in BookPage a few weeks ago called Home Safe by Elizabeth Berg. Berg is one of those authors that I always see in bookstores, but I've never read anything by her. Home Safe looked good: a successful novelist tries to cope with the death of her husband while she learns some secrets about him and tries to make sense of them. BookPage calls Home Safe "a perceptive and sensitively written novel - a compassionate, illuminating narrative that examines the nature of love and the process of grieving."
EDIWTB reader Nancy West wrote a guest review of Home Safe for the blog - here it is! Thanks, Nancy!
I can’t think of a novel with a nicer protagonist than Home Safe by Elizabeth Berg. Helen Ames is simply one of the kindest, most well-meaning characters ever to serve as centerpiece of a work of fiction. Here’s my favorite example out of many: struggling with a difficult relationship with her 27-year-old daughter, frustrated by writer’s block and heading into her first holiday season as a widow, Helen looks out a train window as she travels through the dark en route to her parents’ home for Christmas. “Every now and then, there is a house with a light on. She strains to see the people there, and across what seems a vast distance, she wishes them all well.” She wishes them all well? All the strangers whose houses are visible from the train tracks between Chicago and St. Paul? But yes, that’s just the kind of person Helen is. Blessed with personal happiness and creative success, she seems to have no greater priority than the general well-being of all of mankind.
A successful novelist living in the Chicago suburbs, Helen has enjoyed a wonderful marriage to a dear man who dies suddenly of a heart attack when Helen is 59. His loss reveals to her just how much she feels incompetent at managing, from personal finances to home repairs to effectively parenting the couple’s one child. And although it hasn’t been all that long – less than a year, when the novel begins – her friends and daughter are already expressing their concern that she isn’t bouncing back as quickly as she should. It doesn’t help that writer’s block is clouding a previously successful career or that none of the prompts that previously inspired her writing are working for her anymore. (The insider’s view of a novelist’s work life, including her rivalries with colleagues, her feelings about teaching, and how it feels to fail miserably at a speaking engagement, are an added attraction to the story.)
Though she doesn’t use the term, we can imagine Helen identifying herself as part of the sandwich generation, worrying about her 20-something daughter – a single magazine editor whom Helen would dearly like to see settled down with a husband – and her elderly parents, always a source of succor but gradually experiencing declines in their own health. What everyone except Helen seems to realize, though, is that the people Helen worries about are all managing their lives much better than she is; she would be better off tending to her own emotions than assuming they need her ministries.
Into the situation falls a bit of a mystery: Helen’s accountant calls to say that the retirement account that she believed held nearly a million dollars is nearly empty. Helen is bewildered as she contemplates all the possible ways her husband could have spent $850,000 before his death without telling her. Though she acknowledges all the tawdry possibilities – bigamy, blackmail, gambling – none of them seem likely to her. Soon enough, the mystery is solved for her, but it only serves to open up a new sphere of questions and decisions to ponder – even as the healing process gradually begins and Helen meets new friends, contemplates life changes and tries to return to her writing.
First - exciting news for Lionel Shriver fans - she has a new book coming out next spring. According to BookPage, Shriver's new book, So Much For That, is "a searing, deeply humane new novel about the tragic costs of the American healthcare system." That probably wouldn't be my first choice of topic to read about, but Shriver could write about the tax code and I would probably read it.
It's not the shoes, the scarves, or the lipstick that gives French women their allure. It's this: French women don't give a damn. They don't expect men to understand them. They don't care about being liked or being like everyone else. They generally reject notions of packaged beauty. They accept the passage of time, celebrate the immediacy of pleasure, like to break rules, embrace ambiguity and imperfection, and prefer having a life to making a living. They are, in other words, completely unlike us.
Ollivier goes beyond familiar ooh-la-la stereotypes about French women, challenging cherished notions about sex, love, dating, marriage, motherhood, raising children, body politics, seduction, and flirtation. Less a how-to and more a how-not-to, What French Women Know offers a refreshing counterpoint to the stale love dogma of our times.
Thanks to G. P. Putman's Sons (visit their Facebook page), I have three copies of this book to give away to EDIWTB readers. To enter, leave me a comment below with your email address. I will pick three names on Friday, October 30th.
Ok, this book doesn't take me anywhere outside my domestic fiction comfort zone, but I read about Bird in Hand, by Christina Baker Kline, in More magazine and thought it was worth a look. From Amazon:
In her fourth novel Kline traces the construction and collapse of two long-term relationships. On her way home to New Jersey after an awkward party for her lifelong friend Claire's highly autobiographical first novel, Alison gets into a car accident that kills a boy in the other car. Even though the accident wasn't her fault, Allison, a mother of two young children, is wracked with grief and guilt. Her husband, Charlie, also struggles with the impulse to blame his wife, especially as he longs for any excuse to escalate his nascent affair with Claire and end his marriage. Episodes detailing the inevitable collapse of Alison and Charlie's marriage, as well as Claire's marriage to her well-meaning husband, Ben, are interspersed with vignettes revealing the four friends' 10-plus–year history together. Shifting perspectives and thoughtful interior monologues reveal just how isolated, and in some cases misguided, the characters are. Kline's unflinching gaze and lovely prose sets Kline's novel apart from the herd of infidelity/marital ennui novels. It's well-done, thoughtful and thought provoking.
Book Club Girl has a guest post from Christina Baker Kline this week about her two book clubs. She lives in Montclair, NJ (where I am actually headed this weekend - my brother and his family live there too), which allegedly has the highest concentration of novelists of any city in the U.S. Here is a New York Times article about Montclair and why so many novelists live there.
Would love to hear from EDIWTB readers who have read Bird in Hand.
Last year, I started seeing The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein, everywhere. Most notably, it seemed to be in every Starbucks I set foot in. I admit that I am a bit of a book snob - if I see a book in too many places, I lose interest in reading it. I am sure that this tendency is detrimental, and that I have rejected a lot of great books simply for being too popular.
Earlier this summer, I was contacted by a book publicity company on behalf of Garth Stein. FTC DISCLOSURE They offered me a copy of The Art of Racing in the Rain on the eve of the paperback version hitting stores. I was impressed that they were reaching out to bloggers, especially about what appeared to have been such a popular book, and they also offered me the chance to interview the author and do a giveaway on my site. I am still working on the interview and giveaway, but I did finally get to the book, and I am glad that I did.
The Art of Racing in the Rain is told from the point of view of a dog, Enzo. Denny, Enzo's owner, is a race car driver who goes through a particularly difficult stretch - his wife dies rather suddenly of brain cancer, his in-laws sue him for custody of his daughter, and he faces criminal charges for a crime he didn't commit -- all in the space of about a year. This annus horribilis is relayed by Enzo, who can think and analyze and emote, but can't speak.
Denny's story is relentlessly sad, and a bit unrealistic - it's hard to imagine that this poor man would realistically be forced to endure what he went through. And there are elements left underdeveloped, such as Denny's relationship with his daughter and the impact that her mother's death had on her, as well as his relationship with his parents. The end, too, was a bit Hollywood-ized.
BUT... here's what I really liked about this book. As a dog owner, I always wonder, "What does my dog think about? What goes through her mind, and does she have the emotions and thoughts I like to attribute to her?" The Art of Racing in the Rain takes on those questions. Enzo knows he's a dog, and he appreciates and accepts his role and his limitations. But he is a keen observer, both of human interaction and of how humans treat him, and his canine actions are explained and justified. I loved thinking about how the world appears, from a dog's perspective.
I am curious to know what kind of research Garth Stein did into animal psychology, and whether there are studies that back up his depiction of Enzo as a complex thinking, emotional creature. I found it very satisfying to think of Denny's companion as being the loyal, (usually) happy creature that he was, one that was satisfied with the attention and comforts usually afforded to dogs. Of course, I wonder, am I projecting my own guilt about dogs, and the way we sometimes treat them, onto Enzo and using his fictional happiness as a way to assuage that guilt? Is the book just wishful thinking?
I wish my dog Allie could read this book and tell me how realistic it is.
The Art of Racing in the Rain was an easy and satisfying read. The story was a bit thin at times, but I loved its originality and the new perspective it gave me. I've looked at my dog differently ever since I opened it.
For today, a collection of interesting book-related links. Check them out...
Here is a list of the Top 10 Coolest Independent Bookstores in the U.S. Of the list, I've been to Powell's, The Tattered Cover Bookstore, The Strand, the Elliott Bay Book Company and City Lights.
Did you read about the woman who reads a book every day? According to The New York Times, Nina Sankovitch, author of the Read All Day blog, has read a book every day this year. (Wow.) Her blog has some lovely pictures of her reading, and a list of all of the books read so far in 2009, linked to her reviews. She has some great choices on the list.
Unwittingly, I read two books in a row that have a lot in common: Olive Kitteridge, by Elizabeth Strout, and Cost, by Roxana Robinson (reviewed here). Both books are set along the Maine coast and center around a middle-aged female protagonist. Both books make short jaunts to Brooklyn. Both deal with painful mother-son relationships, as well as aging, infidelity, and other family dynamics. And both books explore terribly sad topics.
But that's where the similarities end, because in many ways these two books could not be more different. While Cost essentially follows four days in a family's life over the course of 300 pages, Olive Kitteridge is a loosely connected collection of stories about a town in Maine, with each chapter focusing on a different storyline and taking place over thirty or more years. Roxana Robinson is an incredibly detailed writer, while Elizabeth Strout is the master of understatement. Her writing is so spare, so economical, that if you inadvertently miss a sentence, you might miss an entire plot development.
I was a little late to the Olive Kitteridge bandwagon. While I have had the book for quite a while (FTC disclosure: I think it was a review copy, though I can't remember), I just didn't get to it until now. And of course, in the interim, it won the 2009 Pulitzer Prize for literature. But now that I've read it, I am really glad that I did. I don't always love short story collections, because I find them somewhat unsatisfying and often forgettable. But Olive Kitteridge avoids that pitfall, mostly because of the title character. She is a thread running through each of the stories, even the ones in which she appears only briefly. But she offers context and somehow makes the book cohere in a way that short story collections often don't.
I also love the way Strout tells stories. Her spare writing, combined with her slow teasing out of plot, makes Olive Kitteridge a very compelling read. I felt myself wanting to forge ahead, to start the next chapter, just to see what was going to happen. While there is a lot of tragedy in Olive Kitteridge (something terrible happens to someone in pretty much every chapter), it's not a horribly depressing book. It's realistic, and sad in its commentary about the passages of life, but it's still a very good book.
I think what I liked most about Olive Kitteridge is that Strout writes without judgment, accepting her characters as they are and, in the process, making her readers sympathetic to them, flaws and all. Her book is ultimately about the human condition and its fragility, and the moments that make up - and end - lives.
The October EDIWTB book club selection was Cost, by Roxana Robinson. It's an intense novel about a family - mom Julia Lambert, her ex-husband Wendell, and their two grown sons Jack and Steven. Jack, the younger son, is addicted to heroin, and the book takes place mostly over four days when the family learns of the addiction and tries to figure out how to deal with it, including staging an intervention and hiring an addiction counselor.
I found Cost to be an engaging read, albeit difficult at times.The subject matter is terrifying. As a parent, what do you do when your child is under the influence of a ravaging, relentless chemical that renders him completely unfamiliar? To what lengths will you go to bring him back? Robinson explores, in great detail, what each member of Jack's family goes through to come to terms with his situation. She gives the greatest attention to Julia, but her narration weaves in and out of several other characters' heads, ultimately painting a very detailed, thorough picture of this family's tragedy.
This book is so incredibly detailed that you can almost go on autopilot as a reader. Robinson leaves nothing vague or unexplored in Cost. This isn't meant as criticism, at all - it's just a particular style of writing, and one that I do enjoy. The fact that time was so compressed in this book, combined with the carefully detailed storytelling, made reading it almost claustrophobic at times. I have to believe this was intentional, for that's what the characters must have felt as things passed from bad to worse.
Here is a great passage that conveys the intensity of Julia's feelings during Jack's addiction:
Someday this would all be over. In twenty years, ten, it would be over; somehow it would be resolved, but how? There were moments when she thought she could not bear it any longer, she could not bear it, but she could not stop it. Jack and heroin made that relentless bass line, that terrible thudding constant in her consciousness. There was nothing else so strong, nothing she could do to stop it. Her cell phone was always on, and each time it rang, her heart lurched with dread.
I found my heart lurching with dread, a bit, too, as I read Cost.
The Q&A at the end of the paperback version of Cost reveals that Robinson did meticulous research into the world of heroin addiction, talking to addicts, families, doctors, counselors, and policemen before she wrote the book. Her research paid off - her book is an impressive exploration of a world with which many people may be unfamiliar. It is also a powerful examination of family dynamics (many of which have nothing to do with addiction), told from many perspectives.
I highly recommend Cost, and am so glad that I read it. I know that it will stay with me for a long time.
I'd love to hear from the other participants in the Cost book club. Please share your thoughts about the book. And if you have questions you'd like Roxanna Robinson to answer, leave them in your comment or email them to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.