Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Language of Flowers

Lately, I've read a lot of things I don't love. Some I haven't even finished. Perhaps it's my attention span (distracted by moving and Christmas, etc.), or maybe there's some stuff out there that just isn't that great.

There are two exceptions to my ho-hums: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh was beautiful and painful and haunting and believable and lovely. It's been out a while, but I hadn't ever read it. Diffenbaugh has a new book out recently that I might pick up...although I fear being disappointed.

I've also recently read Joyce Carol Oates' memoir The Lost Landscape. I adore Oates' writing and, as my husband says, if she wrote the phone book I'd probably say it was brilliant. But this really is a beautifully written look at how a writer becomes a writer. It isn't, as far as I'm concerned, overly writerly or overly sentimental. It is just Oates with her quirky sentences and sometimes meandering thoughts. They way she draws a picture that is at once calm and troubling. The way she says something once and leaves the reader with a haunting reverberation.

I'm currently reading Megan Mayhew Bergman's Almost Famous Women which I'm finding has more hits than misses. The stories are strong and well-crafted and most of them hit that just-right balance of quirky and sane.

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Life After Life

Kate Atkinson's Life After Life plays with structure in a way I found riveting. The story centers around Ursula Todd, a woman born in the early 1900's who lives her life over and over again in order to right some of the wrong choices she has made. Atkinson boldly begins the story from the beginning over and over again. Sounds boring and tedious? And yet, it isn't. Because she adds layer after complicated layer, more and more details, shifting points of view. And then, several chapters in, we begin over in a later spot in Ursula's life, she des later, we begin again. This book felt like a very complicated puzzle but one I was happy to stay with because the characters were so compelling and familiar yet interesting. This is not a case where the unusual structure is a gimmick. It serves the story by creating the feeling of reinvention. And Atkinson deftly keeps it interesting by, magician-like, revealing another angle, another facet, another possibility. This is not the novel for the reader who wants a straight narrative. You might finish this novel and be not-quite-sure what happened, really. I adored it.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Station Eleven

This book took my breath away. Do not go by the flap copy of Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel. Trust me, and Kathleen, who recommended it to me. Yes, this is a post-apocalyptic book and yes, it is by it's very nature gloomy at times. But it isn't all doom and gloom and people looting and murdering. Yes, there IS that, but there are so many moments of beauty, of quiet, of reflection. This is a book about love and hope. This is a book with characters you will not soon forget. I think this would be a book that parents could read with their teenagers. There's much to talk about but the "message" isn't stilted or heavy. It is wrapped neatly in some plot. But mostly those characters. Back and forth through time, the story takes us in and out of a post-plague world, connecting lives and thoughts. It is so good.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

I know it's been a few years since everyone was talking about Ben Fountain's Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk but I finally got around to reading it this week. It lived up to the hype (which so often doesn't happen that I expect it to not happen). This novel is funny, and sweet, and irreverent, and nasty, and honest, and disturbing, and ultimately hopeful. While Billy Lynn and his Bravo troop are home on leave from a tour in Iraq, they are "treated" to a Dallas Cowboys game that is at once hilarious and pathetic. Fountain uses extremes and uses them well--the poverty Billy comes from, the excess of American football and Americans in general, the equal parts love and hate we have of war and by extension the soldiers who fight in those wars, our mad desire for success at any cost. Our desire to hear that everything, always, is going to be all right. And, to make the novel even more unbelievable, there is a movie executive hanging around the Bravos, promising to tell their story on the big screen. But, as unbelievable and excessive as it all is, it's totally, heartbreakingly believable. 

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Summer Reading

I've been listening to a fair amount of books on CD in my car (right now a novel by David Liss whom I'd never heard of...I'm quite liking it...more on that later). A few weeks ago, I picked up Helene Wecker's The Golum and the Jinni on CD and popped it in my car on the way to work. It was so immediately enchanting that I drove around the block once, twice, reluctant to go in and start my day and leave this fantastical world. I'm not usually one for straight out fantasy or science fiction novels (although sometimes I am) but this book is deeply anchored in universal human experiences. The immigration experience runs as subtext (perhaps not just subtext) throughout the novel, but also the feelings of isolation, oddness, loss, fear, friendship, love, forgiveness of self and others. It's a big book, both literally and emotionally, and a few years ago I'd picked it up to read and couldn't get into it. But, the audio book swept me up and swept me away in exactly the way I want from a book that is part fairy tale, part something else entirely.

As I've said before, I love a good mystery. And summer is the perfect time to sit outside with one. These last few months, it seems people at the library where I work have been all kinds of crazy about Tana French. I'd never read her before, but I picked up The Secret Place and really enjoyed it. This particular novel is set in a girls' boarding school in Ireland. There are the usual cast of characters--a detective usually assigned to Cold Cases, a newish female detective, a protective Matron. And they're all well-drawn and interesting. But the girls are where the novel really crackles and spits. They're teenagers, yes, but French has a handle on how they see the world. These are not innocents. I particularly loved how French uses language to get the reader into a story--pointed sentences, word choice, changing points of view...I found this book captivating.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Wonder Garden

Thanks to a recommendation from my friend Kathleen, I had the immense pleasure of reading Lauren Acampora's The Wonder Garden. When I asked Kathleen if it was a novel or short stories she said "both." I might say "neither." It doesn't really matter. We could argue as to whether each story is a story or a chapter, but why bother. I'd rather talk about this strange suburban town, these wonderfully off-center characters, the somewhat (and sometimes not somewhat) creepy things they do. Acampora's characters are honest, even when they are pretending not to notice cracks in the fa├žade. They are charming, even when they are doing bad things. Maybe Old Cranbury isn't a town you'd want to visit, but for me it felt like places I've known, and that makes the characters who inhabit it all the more strange and wonderful. For me, this book felt like a cross between Olive Kitteridge and Kissing in Manhattan. A palpable place inhabited by familiar people doing odd things. If you are looking for a world in which every thread is neatly tied into a bow at the end, this book is probably not for you. Acampora leaves room for the reader to imagine the fates of characters we meet once, and then again, and then sometimes again. I was charmed and delighted by them all.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The Girl on the Train

I'm always skeptical of books that get a lot of attention because I wonder if they're really good, or if everyone just doesn't want to be the first person to say "eh. Not that good." But, one of my coworkers said she enjoyed listening to Paula Hawkins's The Girl on the Train so I figured I give it a go.

I know a book is good when I can't wait to get in my car. When I drive around a parking lot a few extra times. When I make up errands just so I can drive more. This was that kind of book.

I'm a sucker for deeply flawed characters anyway and this novel, with the three women at the center, each caustically telling her own story, certainly fits that criteria. These are not necessarily women you'd want to be friends with, and some may say they are hard to root for. But I was deeply fascinated by each one of them--of their honestly, their self-deprecation, their failure to act when action would have been a very good thing.

The story itself is not one that we haven't heard before but it's a mystery, tried and true. And, I thought, well done.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Is it already June?

In May, I listened to The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. I don't know why I always fluffed that book aside--possibly because I'd heard it was "political," or maybe, shamefully, because it's so long and, even though I love to read, it seemed like too big of a commitment. I can't speak to any other of Kingsolver's books, but I found this one delightful. I loved this family, and yes, it was political, but not in an unpalatable way. The voice of each character was so strong, quirky, moving. I did think the book got a tad long a the end, but still it was an excellent listen.

And then, vacation came. Between the pre-vacation getting ready, the vacation itself (which didn't allow for much reading time) and the post-vacation laundry, I haven't read much. But I did read Cara Hoffman's Be Safe I Love You. This novel, about a returning female soldier, is amazing. It's beautifully written with characters easy to love and root for, even though they are real and humanly flawed. Lauren, battle-scarred and weary, returns home and tries to pretend everything is ok. Her father, brother, boyfriend, best friend, and others all try to do the same. Until they can't anymore. Hoffman does the almost impossible by keeping this novel from becoming over-sentimental. She has a very light touch, even with this very heavy issue. An excellent read.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

So far this month...

I've been listening to audio books more than I've been reading, which speaks to how much time I've spent in the car lately. It is not safe to read while driving. Thank goodness for audio books! I started the month with The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. Sweet, humble Harold sets off to right an old wrong by walking over 500 miles to see a dying friend and along the way he contemplates his marriage, his life, and the mistakes he has made. While there is a lot of rumination in this story, it is balanced with Harold's fumbling interactions with the people he meets along the way. What started out as a sweet story took a turn into darker, more serious territory that I didn't anticipate but which I found right and satisfying.

Then I picked up Still Alice by Lisa Genova. I have spent a good deal of my life in nursing homes, first with a grandmother who had dementia and then as a Activities Coordinator/Director. And I will say that this book absolutely captures the feeling of Alzheimer's. This is such a beautiful, haunting, humane story--everyone should read it and be reminded of the person beneath the diagnosis, amongst the confusion. I will say that perhaps this is not the book to read on your way into work. I arrived weeping on two separate days, although I am prone to crying for characters. At least make sure you pack tissues.

Finally, because I am sad that I am no longer a graduate student, and because I will forever want to learn, I picked up Verlyn Klinkenborg's Several Short Sentences About Writing. This is an excellent craft book that has caused me to slow down and think about what I'm trying to say, and what my words actually say. At first, this process tripped me up a bit. I started to fumble around in my early drafts, scared of how loose and unwieldy my writing was. But then I took a step back and decided that Klinkenborg's advice--for me at least--will be best used during revision. Which, as he says, is an ongoing process.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

The Happiest People in the World

I don't believe in writer's block. That said, I seem to have some form of it. I generally hand out platitudes like "butt in the chair," and "put in the hours," etc. Good advice. Which I have not been taking. I seem to have hit some kind of creative wall or, um, block. All my stories seem miles away from finished. Perhaps hardly even started. The new novel-ish thing I thought I possibly started seems honestly like just too much work. And the finished-ish novel is floating around out there, hoping for an agent. So, again, I've been reading.

But, I have been reading with diversity in mind. Trying to find the thing that will make me dash to the keyboard or pen and paper and start writing. So far, I'm just enjoying the reading and thinking that everyone else is already doing such a good job of it, maybe I should just be a professional reader.

I'll get over it.

Meanwhile, I just finished Brock Clark's The Happiest People in the World. This past semester at Stonecoast, I had the immense pleasure of hearing Brock read from this novel. If you ever get the chance to do so, you should. Hilarious is not an overstatement. The novel, even if you read it quietly to yourself, is very funny. Brock's reading of it makes it even funnier. But, this is not funny in a lighthearted way. This is the kind of funny that is really sad. About a Danish cartoonist who finds his life at risk because of a cartoon that offends many, the book has the feel of a mad-cap spy novel. And then, as you read on, there's also so much humanity in these characters who cannot seem to get it right, no matter how easy it seems, that you can't help feeling miserable and uncomfortable while still laughing a little. It's that kind of book.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

All the Light We Cannot See

All the Light We Cannot See: ohhhh.....it's beautiful. Set in Germany and France during World War II, this is a book with substance, heart, and no easy answers. The characters are complicated, fully rendered human beings, whom I rooted for even when young Werner was loosing his soul, and young Marie-Laure seemed trapped in her blindness. The novel slides and slips through time and place--I'd be interested to hear from people who have read it if they found it confusing at all--in a way I found beautiful and right for the story. Memory plays such a bog role in this novel that it made sense to me that time is not fixed. Last night, a friend asked me if I thought Doerr used too many descriptions. Maybe in the technical sense he could have cut back. But the effect of piles and piles of descriptions is a world I could see, touch, smell, hear. It felt full, even cluttered at times, but I think that was the point. I love the shifting points of view, and the non-linear timeline, and the questions of morality and goodness this book raises. The only thing I didn't love was that it ended. For the first time in a very long time, I feel like I cold have kept right on living with these characters for another two hundred pages (maybe even more). Read this book. It isn't over-hyped. It's wonderful. 

Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Perils of Working at a Library

So, I love my new job. Everyone who knows me already knows that because I haven't stopped saying how much I love it for the past 5 months. I get to work in our fabulous local library. It's like owning a bookstore (which I did for five years) only without the stress of paying the bills. Books all day. Books for miles (almost). So, so many books. And so, I have a stack of six hardcover novels plus two books on tape waiting for me. At least I resisted taking home a few magazines this weekend. Oh, and I borrowed the DVD of the HBO miniseries Olive Kitteridge. The problem with my new job is that I don't really have time to work there because of all the books I keep coming across that I want to read...

Last week I finished Miranda July's short story collection No One Belongs Here More Than You and this week I read B.J. Novak's One More Thing: Stories and Other Stories. I hadn't necessarily planned to read this on the heels of one another, but it turned out they fit together pretty well. Both collections are funny, sarcastic, irreverent, honest, and a little shocking. Both peel back the formalities of polite society and poke fun at the way we live and the things we value. Miranda July's stories made me squirm and think and then squirm more. B.J. Novak's stories made me laugh out loud in places. In fact, so overtaken was I that I read some of his stories out loud to my husband (which I never do).

Last night I started All the Light We Cannot See, which is a total departure and so far is enchanting and delightful.

I love my new job.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Birds of a Lesser Paradise

I was thrilled when I picked up Megan Mayhew Bergman's Birds of a Lesser Paradise and read and recognized the first story. It's been a while since I read "Housewifely Arts" and I can't even remember where I first read it (possibly Ploughshares?) but I loved it the first time I read it and I loved it even more the second time. And then, to have the pleasure of reading the rest of this collection, and a snowy day on which to read them...sheer delight.

These stories are full of characters for whom we root, even though we see the inevitable, and then we mourn a little, even though we know we've been told the truth. Megan Mayhew Berman shows us the natural world and the characters who inhabit it with unflinching honesty and excellent craftsmanship.
These are the kind of stories that make me want to keep writing stories.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Still Reading....

I'm writing slightly more these days (and by slightly, I mean very slightly) but I'm still reading more than I'm writing. This morning, I finished Jenny Offill's Dept. of Speculation. Slim, spare, poetic, engaging, sad, funny, heartfelt. The novel looks and feels like flash fiction segments. Each piece, alone and then together, creates a powerful whole. This is not a novel that weaves the reader a seamless story. But the joy is in the seams. The joy is in connecting, holding the threads, doing the work and then reaping the reward. This book does something.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Reading to Soothe the Writing Blahs

Since childhood, I have always used reading as a balm. Hungry, tired, angry, sad, scared, shy--whenever I was feeling something that could not be easily identified or remedied, I read. And I find that the habit of self-soothing with other worlds and other problems has not diminished now that I've reached adulthood.

I graduated on January 17 with by MFA. Yay, me. I really am excited and proud. And I say I'm happy to be free of packet deadlines and expectations. I can write whatever I want! Whenever I want! Which means I have been doing a whole lot of looking at Facebook.

And, I'm terrified.

So, I've been on a reading bender. I just finished Anthony Marra's A Constellation of Vital Phenomena. This book takes its readers across the world to Chechnya and across decades. I glimpsed a world I was not at all familiar with, through characters who were real, imperfect humans I couldn't help but root for. This story--so intricately woven--will take your breath away.

Up next: Garth Stein's new book A Sudden Light. Will it be as good as The Art of Racing in the Rain? For me, I always feel a little terrible comparing a book I loved to the author's next book because I feel like it's doomed to not be as good, even if it's really good. We'll see.

I'm hoping that all this reading will make me remember what I love about writing. Until then, I'll read on.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Reading Books by People You Know

Aaron Hamburger was one of the smartest, most precise mentors I had the privilege of working with during my time in the Stonecoast MFA program. I adored him and his teaching abilities but I had never read anything he'd written. This was deliberate. I tried not to read anything by anyone I might work with at Stonecoast. Someone once gave me the advice that it was better to evaluate teaching based on teaching, not teaching based on writing. In other words, just because I might like or dislike the writing doesn't mean the author wouldn't be able to teach me a thing or two. Style is separate from craft.

Which is all to say that I hadn't read Aaron Hamburger's The View From Stalin's Head until last week. And, not only is Aaron a great teacher, the guy can really write.

These stories are smart and funny and so human I felt like I knew every one of his characters, and cared about them even when they were doing foolish things (possibly because they were doing foolish things). Set in Prague in the 1990s, every one of these stories is impeccably crafted to create the feeling of foreignness (in many ways), of trying to fit in, of wanting to be part of a bigger whole.

Character, place, desire--all of the things Aaron tried to teach me are here on the page