Reading Round-Up: April 2019

Back in the reading saddle! But not in the blogging saddle, apparently, so here is April’s book list, better late than never. April was our transition month; we began it in one country and ended it in another, with a lot of packing, unpacking, cleaning, arranging, and etc. in between. Here’s what I read:

  1. The Complete Stories (Dorothy L. Sayers)
  2. Charity Girl (Georgette Heyer)
  3. Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven (Fannie Flagg)
  4. The Appeal (John Grisham)
  5. The Whole Town’s Talking (Fannie Flagg)
  6. Holly Farb and the Princess of the Galaxy (Gareth Wronski)
  7. As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto: Food, Friendship, and the Making of a Masterpiece (ed. Joan Reardon)
  8. Pride and Prejudice (Jane Austen)
  9. The Green and the Gray (Timothy Zahn)

As Always, Julia was featured in its own post.

Dorothy Sayers’s The Complete Stories was what I read over the actual week of our move, and it was probably the perfect choice; the book is seven hundred pages or so, so I wasn’t going to run out of material quickly, but the short length of the stories and the fact that they were not especially interconnected meant that it was easy for me to put it down and pick it up without having to keep track of very many threads. Or any, really. There was enough to keep track of already!

Pride and Prejudice — a perennial favourite of mine — was also a mid-move read, despite its position a little further down the list. I listened over the course of a few weeks to about the first forty chapters via a LibriVox recording, and then finished the rest in paperback form while I was waiting in all those places you need to wait after a move: government service centres, the auto shop for our provincial safety inspection, etc. This was the first audiobook I was able to stand listening to (ever), although it did take a few chapters to get the narrators’ voices out of my head once I did start reading the book myself. I’ll try LibriVox again.

I don’t have much to say about Charity Girl — I really read it back in March, mostly, but it was due back to the library at our old place right before we moved, and I didn’t get a chance to finish it then. So then after we moved I was able to get a copy from the new library, and finished the last couple of chapters… but so much had happened both in reading life and real life since then I had completely lost track of what was going on. I know I enjoyed what I read in March — I do like Georgette Heyer very much — but I will have to read it again sometime to be able to do it justice.

Speaking of the public library, I was tickled pink to find a copy of Holly Farb and the Princess of the Galaxy on display there on one of our first visits. I’d been hoping/meaning to to read it for a while; this is the debut novel of a former classmate of mine. Gareth and I had several classes together over the first two years of undergrad and so I was pretty excited, after losing touch for the better part of a decade, to see his name on the cover of a book. (Gareth, are you reading this? Hello!) This is a super-fun middle-grade space romp, narrated by a sarcastic storytelling robot who refers to the readers as sacks of meat… on page one. Also there are pirates. It was marvelous.

Also marvelous: Timothy Zahn’s The Green and the Gray. Zahn is a sci-fi writer I first encountered through the Star Wars extended universe novelizations. He writes a lot more than that, though! In The Green and the Gray, married couple Roger and Caroline are suddenly thrust into the middle of an ethnic war between two alien tribes who had (separately) fled to New York City — neither group knowing the other was there until a chance encounter awoke all the tensions they thought they had left behind. I nearly read this one through in a sitting; it’s that compelling a story-line.

I’m not sure what to say about The Appeal besides that John Grisham is John Grisham and the book ticked all of the expected boxes. Not super memorable, but good brain candy in the moment.

Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven and The Whole Town’s Talking are two loosely related novels — I wouldn’t quite characterize them as a series although they are thematically linked and share a number of characters — both set in the small town of Elmwood Springs, Missouri. Both are concerned with the question of what happens to us after we die. In Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven, senior citizen Elner Shimfissle falls out of a tree and is pronounced dead at the hospital — the book deals with the aftermath of her death among the residents of Elmwood Springs, alternating with Elner’s after-death experiences which include meeting her hero (Thomas Edison) and God (who takes the form of a married couple who used to be her neighbours). It’s a strange book, and sweet. The Whole Town’s Talking reaches back to Elmwood’s Springs’s founding, and tells the stories of its prominent inhabitants reaching forward to the present day. Most of the book is set in the town cemetery, where it appears that “resting” place is a bit of a misnomer as the plot concerns the dead as much as the living.

And that was it for April!

Reading Round-Up: March 2019

In February, I was busy and stressed, and so I only read two books. In March, I was busier and more stressed, so my switch flipped to compulsive escape reading. Here’s the list:

  1. To Say Nothing of the Dog (Connie Willis)
  2. The Street Lawyer (John Grisham)
  3. The King of Torts (John Grisham)
  4. Gray Mountain (John Grisham)
  5. The Associate (John Grisham)
  6. The Elephant in the Room (Tommy Tomlinson)
  7. The Alphabet of Grace (Frederick Buechner)
  8. The Final Beast (Frederick Buechner)
  9. Rogue Lawyer (John Grisham)
  10. Remember Me? (Sophie Kinsella)
  11. My (Not So) Perfect Life (Sophie Kinsella)
  12. Shopaholic and Sister (Sophie Kinsella)
  13. False Colours (Georgette Heyer)

You know what I love about John Grisham? No matter how much you read, there’s always more John Grisham. His back-catalogue is something like thirty titles. All of these were easy-reading page-turners, which was perfect for last month (and especially for some long car trips). Of the five I read in March I would call Gray Mountain the best of the lot; I note also that The Street Lawyer made me bawl at one point. The King of Torts seems to have disappeared from my memory entirely.

Connie Willis’s To Say Nothing of the Dog is a long-time favourite that I go back to every couple of years (last read sometime in 2016 I think). In this alternate universe, time travel exists, but its only real value is in academic historical study. In TSNotD, Oxford historian Ned Henry is sent to the Victorian era in a bid to find out what happened to the “Bishop’s bird stump,” needed for a replica of Coventry Cathedral (destroyed in the Blitz, a hundred years in the past from Ned’s native time). It’s a slightly madcap comedy of manners, plus time travel and chaos theory, plus a satisfying romance and homage to a lot of British literature and culture from the Victorian era through WWII. Oh, and it’s very, very funny.

The Elephant in the Room is about weight loss. Kind of. Saying that a book is “about” weight loss makes it sound like a diet book, or some other sort of gimmicky who-knows-what. It’s not; this is Tommy Tomlinson’s beautiful memoir about journalism, marriage, life in the American South, and his own struggles as a morbidly obese man in a rapidly fattening nation. His quest to lose weight is central to the book, but he also uses it as a jumping-off point to explore his past and present. A big strength of the book is his willingness to explore why he got as big as he did: not the too-many-calories bit (which is just math) but the personal reasons behind his overeating. I’m glad to have read this one.

It was interesting to notice some strong and similar themes in the three Sophie Kinsella books I read, most notably that of (attempted) self-reinvention. In MNSPL, farm girl Katie tries to remake herself for the sake of her hip branding job in London; in RM? Lexi is trying to understand the ways she has apparently changed after she wakes up in the hospital with no memory of the past three years; in S&S, Becky tries to change her money habits for the sake of her new husband, Luke. All of these were ultimately unsuccessful; Kinsella’s conclusion seems to be that reinvention is perhaps ultimately impossible, and not worth the damage it does to your authentic self (even when your “authentic self” is an insufferable twit, ahem, looking at you, Becky). Of the three, I think MNSPL was by far the strongest offering; it’s funny and charming.

The central idea of Remember Me? is a compelling one, but certain aspects of its execution left a bad taste in my mouth (spoilers upcoming). In the weeks following her discharge from the hospital, Lexi is horrified to realise that she has been having an adulterous affair with a man named Jon, one of her husband’s employees. She views herself as a fundamentally faithful person and can’t imagine how or why she would have changed so much in three years as to see that as acceptable. As the narrative progresses we find out that her marriage is an uncomfortable one (her husband is kind of weird and doesn’t particularly understand her); Lexi eventually leaves him and resumes her relationship with Jon, upending her pre-amnesiac convictions that cheating on her husband is morally wrong. Perhaps the marriage did need to end — but that was because of the damage done to it by Lexi, not her husband. The novel’s other subplots were engaging enough, but I found the romantic storyline troublesome and deeply unsatisfying.

Speaking of affairs, that’s what the whole town assumes is going on between a widowed young pastor and his pretty redheaded parishioner when they both disappear at the same time in Buechner’s 1965 novel The Final Beast. What’s actually going on is, of course, a lot more complicated than that. I think I liked this book (?) but it’s already mostly slipped out of my memory — that’s the trouble with escape reading, it often escapes you as well. Same thing with The Alphabet of Grace as well (I found that one a little difficult to read; Buechner’s prose is not always the clearest).

Last but not least, I finished off the month with Georgette’s Heyer’s Regency-era romance False Colours, which was a delightful romp centered on a twins-changing-places plot. Great fun.

Reading Round-Up: November 2018

November was a pretty good reading month for me — not as many books as I’ve hit on other occasions, but all high-caliber.

  1. The Best American Poetry 2018 (ed. Dana Gioia)
  2. Rules of Civility (Amor Towles)
  3. Southern Discomfort (Tena Clark)
  4. The Best American Poetry 2017 (ed. Natasha Tretheway)
  5. Possession (A. S. Byatt)
  6. The Reckoning (John Grisham)
  7. Stress Family Robinson (Adrian Plass)
  8. Out of the Silent Planet (C. S. Lewis)
  9. Perelandra (C. S. Lewis)

This is the time of year when my reading list starts getting a little repetitive; I have a few books that I read yearly, and generally in the colder months. In November I read A. S. Byatt’s Possession, which remains a top favourite and in which I am always finding new things at which to marvel. I wrote about it at a bit more length last year. This year, I found myself focusing most on the poetry that serves as epigraph for nearly every chapter; all of it is pertinent and it was interesting to go back and read after finishing each chapter, to better see the themes highlighted by each poem or snippet of poetry.

And speaking of poetry, I read two collections this past month, namely the two latest editions of The Best American Poetry. It was enjoyably different to read a few anthologies, as most of the poetry I’ve read in this past year has been collections by single authors. These two books had a tremendous amount of breadth in terms of style and subject, all the more so because they are picked and organized on a very simple principle: new poetry that best catches the eye of each edition’s guest editor. I slightly preferred, overall, 2018 to 2017 as a collection, but in each I found many wonderful things.

The only other non-fiction I read in November was Tena Clark’s memoir, Southern Discomfort, her account of growing up gay in the American South in the 1960s. Oh, and growing up white while being raised by the black women who worked for her family. And dealing with an alcoholic mother, and a bully of a father who essentially owned their town, and her own burning desires to a) play the drums and b) escape. (There’s a lot going on in this book.) It’s a heart-wrenching, tender, and engrossing read with a few major surprises along the way. Great stuff.

I put Rules of Civility — Amor Towles’s debut novel — on my library list after devouring his magnificent A Gentleman in Moscow (review). Rules of Civility is set in the glitzy inter-war period in New York City, following Katey Kontent, her roommate Eve, and roguish banker Tinker Grey in a novel about social climbing, aspirations and assumptions, truth and transformation.

My last post reviewed Grisham’s The Reckoning (major spoilers). And since that was such a downer, I turned to one of my pick-me-up standbys, Adrian Plass. Stress Family Robinson is a portrait of the chaotic and charming Robinson family (Mike and Kathy, teenage sons Jack and Mark, and six-year-old Felicity) as seen through the eyes of their dear friend Elizabeth ‘Dip’ Reynolds. As always, Plass is laugh-out-loud funny, with a generous dose of wisdom thrown in. I note that there’s a sequel, which I will have to look up one of these days.

Lastly, I started reading C. S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy, finishing Out of the Silent Planet and Perelandra in November (I just finished That Hideous Strength but that will have to wait for December’s round-up post). Technically this is a re-read for me — I read the whole trilogy perhaps ten years ago, and Perelandra for a class in grad school — but it had been so long since I encountered Out of the Silent Planet it was like reading it for the first time. I found myself completely entranced by Lewis’s cosmology. While it’s not exactly medieval it carries the same sort of flavour — it felt a bit like reading Dante — only with spaceships and things thrown in, of course! These are really fine examples of classic science fiction, in the imaginative mode that perhaps was more possible before we actually got to the moon. This series may have to find its own spot on my annual read list.

Story and structure

Note: this post is going to thoroughly spoil John Grisham’s latest novel, The Reckoning. If you intend to read the book, stop reading now!

Like millions of other people, I am a John Grisham fan. When I saw that his newest novel, The Reckoning, was coming out, I put it on my library holds list — and was number 437 in line. Fortunately for me, the county library system bought 250 copies of the book, so my wait was relatively short. It’s a compelling story and it kept me turning pages, and as I read I noticed that the structure of the novel was integral to its appeal. Grisham doesn’t tell the story straight through. There are multiple time-jumps within the novel that work both to keep us guessing about the plot, and to majorly serve the cause of his character development.

If you were to put the story of The Reckoning in strict chronological order, it would look something like this:

  1. It is 1925. Pete Banning, a West Point graduate, meets Liza, a debutante. They hit it off and elope after Liza falls pregnant. The Bannings get stationed in Germany which allows them to hide the date of their son Joel’s birth. Joel is soon followed by a daughter, Stella. Liza suffers several miscarriages and then a long infertility, leading her to assume that she is barren.
  2. It’s the 1930s. Pete inherits the family cotton farm and moves his family there. He remains in the Army reserve and is called up to fight in the Pacific in 1939.
  3. 1942: Pete is part of the Bataan Death March after U. S. forces surrender in the Philippines. He is reported missing, presumed dead to the Banning family (Liza and the children, and Pete’s sister, Florry). However, he survives. Pete spends some time as a POW and then escapes to fight the Japanese as a guerilla until the end of the war.
  4. Meanwhile, Liza has begun an affair with Jupe, a black farmhand who works on the Banning farm. She becomes pregnant by him, and gets an abortion in Memphis with the help of the Methodist pastor, Dexter Bell.
  5. 1945: Pete is rescued in the Philippines. After his return home, he becomes suspicious of Liza because she refuses sexual relations with him, citing a lingering infection after a miscarriage she had just after he shipped out. Pete knows that she wasn’t pregnant by him at that time because an injured back (on his side) prevented relations for a month or two before he left. He confronts her; she panics and names Dexter Bell as the father, in part to save Jupe from the lynching that would follow if their history was known.
  6. Pete commits Liza to the state mental institution. He shoots Dexter Bell, is tried, found guilty, and executed by the state. The night before his execution, he tells Florry he shot Dexter Bell because of Liza’s infidelity. Florry keeps mum.
  7. The Banning family is met by a wrongful death suit on behalf of Dexter Bell’s family.
  8. Liza escapes from the state mental hospital, confesses to Florry that Jupe was the father of her child, and commits suicide on Pete’s grave. Florry keeps mum.
  9. After various legal machinations, Joel and Stella lose the family farm.
  10. Florry has moved to New Orleans. Joel and Stella visit her on her deathbed, where she confesses the truth about Pete and Liza.
  11. Everything is tragic. The end.

Told straight, it’s a pretty depressing read and in some ways not especially interesting. (I will grant that it’s depressing either way.) But Grisham doesn’t tell it straight: the book begins with Item 6 above, the shooting of Dexter Bell. We know that Pete kills him but we don’t know why — in fact, nobody knows why, as Pete’s only (frequently repeated) comment is that he has nothing to say. Right before he’s shot, Dexter asks Pete if it’s “about Liza”. The question that keeps us reading is not what happened, but why.

From Item 6, we then pass to Item 7: Joel and Stella trying to deal with their father’s death and the threatened loss of their land. We still don’t know why Pete shot Dexter. Immediately after this, the story jumps back in time to Items 1-3 and we learn about Pete and Liza’s courtship, and his service in the war. Then we jump forwards in time again to Liza’s escape from the mental hospital and her suicide (8),  the loss of the family farm (9), and Florry’s deathbed confession (10, leading to 4 and 5). Then the book ends (11).

So instead of ordering the plot as 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11, Grisham gives it us as 6-7-1-2-3-8-9-10-4-5-11. It’s a masterful piece of story-craft that heightens the tragedy of the whole thing, especially since Grisham keeps violating our expectations about which characters are the ones we should be rooting for. At the beginning, we watch Pete shoot Dexter, but we don’t know him or necessarily like him. It’s only after his execution that Grisham shows us who Pete Banning is: his strengths and weaknesses, his grueling war experience, his loyalty to Liza and his brothers in arms, his incredible instinct to survive. Pete becomes a highly sympathetic character, all the more so because we know his end.

As a counter-example, we have Jackie Bell, Dexter’s young widow. We have immediate sympathy for Jackie: her husband was murdered at his desk, her children are suddenly fatherless. But our sympathies dry up as Jackie takes up with a greasy lawyer, sues the Banning estate, and wins the Banning farm and generational homestead. Should she get those things? Maybe so — maybe that is exactly a just recompense for the loss of her husband — but we don’t think so anymore, because Grisham has already taught us to like Pete, even though he has done her immeasurable wrong.

Then, of course, at the end we find out that Pete killed the wrong man; Dexter may have been guilty of helping Liza to facilitate a secrte abortion, but he certainly never slept with her. Liza commits suicide not because of her guilt over the affair with Jupe — remember, she was convinced that Pete had been killed in the Philippines — but because her naming Dexter as the father led to the death of an innocent man. Grisham is constantly overturning our understanding of the story and its characters as the plot gets fleshed out bit-by-bit.

As to the Jupe-vs-Dexter dilemma, I only noticed after I got to the end that Grisham had been hinting as to the real story all along the way. Various things make it obvious that Pete’s motive has to do with Liza and almost certainly has to do with her (real/perceived) sexual misconduct. We are prepared to accept that it was Dexter — it looks in many ways as if it was Dexter — but in a way it also looks too obvious. In retrospect, we can see the ways that Grisham tells us throughout the novel that Jupe, and not Dexter, was the real third party in the Banning marriage:

  1. Before Pete’s trial, a grand jury is convened to determine whether charges should be brought in several criminal cases, including Pete’s. There is a brief discussion of a case where a white man was caught in flagrante delicto with a black woman. A short interlude details Mississippi’s anti-miscegenation laws, noting that the law was much less concerned with the pairing of white men and black women than it was with white women and black men.
  2. Jupe serves as the farm’s driver as often drives for Florry, who doesn’t have a license. It is later mentioned in passing that Liza “hated to drive” as much or even more than Florry.
  3. Jupe disappears from the farm, sent north to Chicago by his grandparents. (We find out that he and Liza were spotted parked on one of their drives.)

On their own, none of these details add up to much — but when you put them together, they add up. Hearing that Liza was pregnant by Jupe surprises us, but only briefly, until the pattern rearranges itself in our minds and becomes obvious. The Reckoning is a tremendously good piece of storytelling, and I appreciate it all the more for having picked it apart a little.

Reading Round-Up: September 2018

Happy October! This is one of my favourite times of year — when it finally really starts to feel like fall. The weather is cooler, the leaves are starting to turn, we’ve got a string of family birthdays coming up… it’s a good time of year! I’m looking forward to some good reading this month — but first, here’s what I got to in September:

  1. Educated (Tara Westover)
  2. The Whistler (John Grisham)
  3. How to Think (Alan Jacobs)
  4. A Gentleman in Moscow (Amor Towles)
  5. From A to Bee (James Dearsley)
  6. Why Not Me? (Mindy Kaling)
  7. The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir (D. Watkins)
  8. China Dolls (Lisa See)
  9. Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave (Frederick Douglass)
  10. The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles (Julie Andrews Edwards)
  11. The Beast Side: Living and Dying While Black in America (D. Watkins)
  12. Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore (Robin Sloan)
  13. Sourdough (Robin Sloan)

This month was pretty heavy on memoir; it’s a genre I’ve really been enjoying these days. Human beings are endlessly fascinating! Now, some of these books were pretty heavy, and I wouldn’t necessarily recommend reading them as closely-spaced as I did; I found my mood plummeting after reading The Cook Up, and then China Dolls (not memoir, but saddish fiction), and then Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass all in a row. It was, how you say, a bummer. Worth reading… but not exactly uplifting.

Previous posts have touched on The Last of the Really Great Whangdoodles, A Gentleman in Moscow, and Narrative of the Life and The Beast Side.

Educated is Tara Westover’s memoir of growing up with survivalist, “sovereign citizen”-esque, anti-government Mormon parents in the Idaho mountains. She and her brothers were kept home from school, not vaccinated, and spent most of their time either working their father’s junkyard business or prepping for a government assault and/or the end of the world. She didn’t even get a birth certificate until she was nine years old. It’s really crazy stuff. But with the help of one of her older brothers, Tara made it out — she got accepted (by the skin of her teeth) to BYU, and later went on to complete a doctorate at Cambridge. It’s a powerful story, and I appreciate that she didn’t try to tie a neat bow on everything at the end. She is estranged from half her family; things are unresolved; it’s clear that her story has not ended.

Two memoirs on the fun side of things were James Dearsley’s From A to Bee and Mindy Kalings Why Not Me? Dearsley’s book is his account of his first year as a beekeeper; it’s clearly just a blog shoved between two covers, but it’s an interesting read and made me consider beekeeping as a possible future endeavour. (That lasted about fifteen minutes.) Why Not Me? is Mindy Kaling’s second book; this one is more personal, I think, than Is Everyone Hanging Out with Me? (And Other Concerns), looking at career and personal turning points in her early thirties. It’s a fun read. Oh, and she meets Bradley Cooper.

D. Watkins’s memoir The Cook Up was an incredible read, although not for the faint of heart: it opens with his brother Bip’s murder, and the going doesn’t get easier from there. The Cook Up is ultimately a story of redemption, of Watkins’s journey from a life of crime on the streets of East Baltimore to his current position as a college professor. I would recommend this book over The Beast Side if you want to start with Watkins; because the latter is a collection of essays it reads as fairly disjointed. The Cook Up shows Watkins’s skill as a storyteller; I’m sure this will not be his last book.

Alan Jacobs’s How to Think was the only other nonfiction I read this month. It’s a quick and insightful read. What I remember best is Jacobs’s point that thinking doesn’t happen in a vacuum; when we learn to think differently of something it’s usually because we are learning to think with different people. Similarly, when we say that someone has is “finally thinking for themselves” what we usually mean is that they’re “finally thinking like me.” He ends the book with what he calls “The Thinking Person’s Checklist”, which I abbreviate for you here as a useful resource:

  1. When faced with provocation to respond to what someone has said, give it five minutes.
  2. Value learning over debating.
  3. As best you can […] avoid the people who fan flames.
  4. Remember you don’t have to respond to what everyone else is responding to in order to signal your virtue and right-mindedness.
  5. If you do have to […] realize that it’s not a community but an Inner Ring.
  6. Gravitate … toward people who seem to value genuine community and can handle disagreement with equanimity.
  7. Seek out the best and fairest-minded of people whose views you disagree with.
  8. […] assess your repugnances.
  9. Sometimes the “ick factor” is telling; sometimes it’s a distraction from what matters.
  10. Be ware of metaphors and myths that do too much heavy cognitive lifting…
  11. Try to describe others’ positions in the language that they use…
  12. Be brave.

On to fiction! First on the list was The Whistler by John Grisham, which was pretty mediocre. I like Grisham, but this wasn’t anywhere near one of his stronger efforts. I’d give it a pass.

After reading The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane I knew I would want to read more from Lisa See, and so China Dolls was my second venture with her. The novel tells the story of three young Oriental women (as they were then called) working in San Francisco’s Chinese nightclubs in the years surrounding the Second World War. It’s a fascinating look at a world I never knew existed, exploring some big questions about friendship, race and nationalism, and loyalty.

Finally, we come to Robin Sloan. I had read Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore some years ago — long enough to just remember the broadest of outlines — and decided to re-read it after stumbling across something or other online that reminded me of his books. Mr. Penumbra’s is a super fun read about books and technology and secret societies and the quest for unending life. There are puzzles galore and his characters are satisfyingly quirky without going overboard. Sourdough is his second novel, following Lois Clary as she moves from to Michigan to California for a programming career, only to find her life turned upside down when she is gifted a (sentient?) sourdough starter and is drawn into the weird world of California food culture. There’s a lot about humanity vs. technology, what makes a culture, and microbiology (really). It’s super strange and super interesting, and I’ll definitely be reading it again one day.

Reading Round-Up: June 2018

June was a good reading month for me, unusually heavy on the non-fiction. I found that once I finally made my way through the massive … And Ladies of the Club, I was ready for a significant palate cleanse (although I did dip into fiction again towards the end of the month). I read a lot of poetry, and a fair amount of memoir, and it was deeply satisfying.

Here’s the final list:

  1. … And Ladies of the Club (Helen Hooven Santyer)
  2. Felicity (Mary Oliver)
  3. Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within (Natalie Goldberg)
  4. Upstream: Selected Essays (Mary Oliver)
  5. Mountains Beyond Mountains: The Quest of Dr. Paul Farmer, a Man Who Would Cure the World (Tracy Kidder)
  6. Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home (Natalie Goldberg)
  7. The Secret Keepers (Trenton Lee Stewart)
  8. A Phone Call to the Future (Mary Jo Salter)
  9. Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now (Jaron Lanier)
  10. Aimless Love (Billy Collins)
  11. One Beautiful Dream: The Rollicking Tale of Family Chaos, Personal Passions, and Saying Yes to Them Both (Jennifer Fulweiler)
  12. The Rooster Bar (John Grisham)
  13. Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good (Jan Karon)

A handful of these were already featured in their own posts: … And Ladies of the ClubWriting Down the Bones, One Beautiful Dream, and Ten Arguments for Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now. And I’ll take the rest on by genre this month:

Poetry: This month I greatly enjoyed reading a few new-to-me poets, Mary Oliver (Felicity; the other book by her was essays) and Mary Jo Salter, and also re-acquainting myself with the inimitable Billy Collins. I like all three of these poets very much, and I think there are a couple things they have in common: they write a lot about day-to-day living, they are very grounded in natural surroundings, and while their poetry is of an informal, contemporary style, it still has recognisable structure: stanzas, rhythm, occasional rhyme. Above all their work is clear: I don’t mind working at poetry a bit, but I dislike poetry that reads as if it’s obscure for obscurity’s sake. But Oliver, Salter, and Collins are all masters of clarity and I adore them for it.

Memoir: I read several books of memoir this month. Mountains Beyond Mountains is not quite memoir, I guess, because it’s biographical about Dr. Paul Farmer — but on the other hand, it’s also Tracy Kidder’s account of meeting Farmer, and so it’s memoir-ish as well. I accidentally read the dumbed-down-for-middle-schoolers version of the book, but it was still a fascinating account of Farmer’s work among the poor, chiefly in Haiti, focusing on infectious diseases such as TB. It’s an inspiring read — I don’t like using that word because it’s become such a cliché, but sometimes that’s all you can do — and a good spur to remind us that for Christians, caring for the poor is not an optional item.

On a very different note, Let the Whole World Come Thundering Home is a slim little book by Natalie Goldberg, remembering the year (or so?) when she and her partner were both diagnosed with cancer. When I flicked through it at the library I wasn’t sure that I would enjoy it, but it is a deep and tenderly-wrought book and I am glad to have read it.

Finally, Mary Oliver’s Upstream is also on the kinda-sorta memoir scale; it has some personal essays, but also some literary criticism and other things. I was particularly struck by Oliver’s accounts of how she came to treasure the natural world, and her take on Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, which is very influential on her own writing.

Fiction: It was mid-month before I cracked any fiction, but Trenton Lee Stewart’s The Secret Keepers was a great place to begin. I had previously read a few books in his Mysterious Benedict Society series; The Secret Keepers is a stand-alone novel that encompasses all of the same charm, following eleven-year-old Reuben after he discovers a powerful artifact that must, at all costs, be kept out of the hands of the sinister ruler of his city, known only as The Smoke. It’s great fun.

Striking a very different tone, I read The Rooster Bar, which is John Grisham’s latest-but-one, published in 2017. Although it tackles some compelling issues in America these days — including crushing student debt, for-profit law schools, and family deportation — I had a hard time rooting for the protagonists, who got away with what they were trying to do in the end (well, sort of) but made some bad mistakes that harmed people along the way. It felt as if the ends were meant to justify the means, but I’m not sure that they did.

And last in the fiction department as well as in the month, I picked up Jan Karon’s latest three Mitford novels, and finished Somewhere Safe with Somebody Good right at the tail-end of June. This is a long-running series following Fr. Tim Kavanagh, an evangelical Episcopalian priest serving in the small town of Mitford, North Carolina. They’re sweet books, funny but above all warm-hearted. Some people feel as if they have to apologize for liking the Mitford books because they’re not, you know, high literature — but I don’t. They’re some of my best go-to comfort reading and I love them.

And that was my month of reading! I hope that yours was equally satisfying.

 

Reading Round-Up: May 2018

Usually I wait until after the end of the month to post these, just in case I can squeeze one last book in under the line. There’s no way that’s happening this time; I’ve been making my way through Helen Hooven Santmyer‘s massive … And Ladies of the Club in the latter half of May (and yes, the ellipses are part of the title; I wasn’t just trying to build anticipation there) and I am nowhere close to finishing. And I do mean massive: I’m just over 900 pages in — but that still means another ~500 to go. Clocking in at 600,000 words, this beast of a novel is longer than The Lord of the Rings.

Anyway, besides the big slowdown for … And Ladies of the Club, this was a bit of a bumper month for me. We went away for a week and so I got some beach reading in (ok, well, beach house reading, anyway), and I haven’t been crocheting much lately which has freed up my eyes and hands for other things. Here’s what I read:

  1. The Client (John Grisham)
  2. Sestets: Poems (Charles Wright)
  3. So You Want to Talk About Race (Ijeoma Oluo)
  4. The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey (Trenton Lee Stewart)
  5. Revival (Stephen King)
  6. The Stone Diaries (Carol Shields)
  7. The Partner (John Grisham)
  8. Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult (Bruce Handy)
  9. Jesus Feminist (Sarah Bessey)
  10. Little Bee (Chris Cleave)
  11. Henry Huggins (Beverly Cleary)
  12. Unveiling Grace: The Story of How We Left the Mormon Church (Lynn K. Wilder)
  13. A Little Princess (Frances Hodgson Burnett)

For the most part, this was an enjoyable month. There were two big disappointments: Sestets: Poems by Charles Wright, and Stephen King’s Revival. As far as the Wright is concerned, I found the poems very dull on the whole, and often obscure in that way that feels like obscurity for obscurity’s sake. I don’t mind reading obscure poetry — I don’t always know what Seamus Heaney is talking about, but I love Seamus Heaney — but it has to have some other attractive quality. This didn’t. The other big disappointment was Revival. I tend to enjoy Stephen King, and Revival sucked me right in — I couldn’t figure out where it was going. And then I got the end and found out: it was going somewhere dumb. The ride along the way was great, but the ending was completely preposterous. I ended up leaving that one at the beach house since I’ll never bother reading it again.

The big highlight for me this month was Bruce Handy’s Wild Things: The Joy of Reading Children’s Literature as an Adult, which I picked up on impulse while looking for something else in the 800 section. What an informative, amusing, and deeply appreciative book! I love children’s literature, and Wild Things was a joy and a pleasure to read. Best of all, it spurred me to read a couple of kids’ books that had been languishing on my shelves: The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey, by Trenton Lee Stewart (an excellent sequel to The Mysterious Benedict Society); Henry Huggins, the story of a boy, his friends, and his dog, by the inimitable Beverly Cleary; and the classic A Little Princess, by Frances Hodgson Burnett.

On the adult fiction side of things, The Client and The Partner were two solid offerings by John Grisham; I’ve read a few clunkers of his (The Litigators comes to mind — I couldn’t even finish that one), but the ones that are good are really good and these two were no exception. For me, Grisham is perfect summer reading.

The Stone Diaries by Carol Shields was an impulse read; I realised that I hadn’t brought quite enough books to the beach house with me, and so chose it from one of the shelves there. I’m pretty sure I’ve read Shields before, in a CanLit class in university, but hadn’t encountered this particular novel. It follows the life of Daisy Goodwill Flett, from her birth on the Canadian prairie to her death as an old woman in Florida. I found it very moving and it made me want to do a lot better at keeping up with my own journaling.

Little Bee was the other novel I read in May. I won’t say much about it — indeed, its cover copy enjoins me not to ruin the surprise. But it was an engrossing, beautifully crafted, gutting read — you’ll just have to find out why for yourselves. (Seriously. This is one to pick up.) I’ll be reading more Chris Cleave books in the future.

Finally, two books of memoir/theology, the first of which was Sarah Bessey‘s Jesus Feminist. I actually had picked up Jesus Feminist back in March or April — I forget which — but ended up putting it down so that I could finish Winston Graham’s Poldark series (sorry, Sarah). I think it must have been April. So my reading of Jesus Feminist was a little scattered and I had some trouble picking up the threads when I determined to get it out of my to-read pile this month. But I liked it; I don’t agree with all of her theological positions (or resonate with a lot of her experiences) but it was a thoughtful and well-written book that I can see being pretty helpful to people, especially women who have been wounded by the church (in ways that I personally haven’t been, but others certainly have). Don’t let the F word in the title throw you off too much.

Finally we come to Lynn K. Wilder‘s Unveiling Grace: The Story of How We Left the Mormon Church. I’ve recently started to get to know a Mormon mom in my neighbourhood — we meet up at the playground from time to time — and I wanted to learn more about the LDS Church. This was a great resource and a compelling read. I’ve also picked up her slimmer Seven Reasons We Left Mormonism which is more theological and less memoir-y — that one will have to wait until June, though.

So You Want to Talk About Race was already treated in its own post.

And that’s it for May! Tune in next month to see if I manage to finish … And Ladies of the Club in anything approaching a reasonable amount of time!