What I Read in May – Part Uno

Yes, I know. It’s July – practically August – and I’m just getting to What I Read in May. But it is still July, and I intend to get June done before August as well. And maybe if I just do a little blurb on each of these books, I can stop feeling so behind (or not).

I’ve broken May into two parts – Neil Gaiman and Not Neil Gaiman. I’ll give you the Not while I’m finishing up the other.  Even a short blurb on 16 books was getting a bit long, and some turned out to be not-so-short.

The Summer We Fell Apart by Robin Antalek. Discussed here. Loved it.

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert. Discussed here. Liked it a lot. Can’t really see Julia Roberts playing her, but that’s cool. Glad I read it already.

The Candy Shop War by Brandon Mull. I like to encourage kids to read, so when my friend’s son was excited about this book and wanted me to read it, I gave it a shot. Unfortunately, some children’s books are great books that happen to be read by children (Harry Potter, Chronicles of Narnia) and some are just children’s books. I got bored pretty quickly, so I didn’t finish it. Turns out, the boy didn’t finish it either! Guess he was more excited talking about it that actually reading it.

Chocolat by Joanne Harris. I read this one because a) I loved the movie and b) I have since liked everything else I’ve read by Harris and c) I wanted to be able to speak intelligently about the book, not just the film. The book is a little different in tone and detail from the film (the romance is less prominent in the book, the Comte and Vienne both more nuanced) but I felt like the film was a faithful representation of the story here.  Love Harris.

Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology, ed. Hilary & Steven Rose. I read an article/editorial in the New York Times (I think) by Hilary Rose, and that’s where I heard about this book. It is really aimed at scientists in the fields of Psychology, Sociology and Biology, so it was a big of a slog at times. Their purpose was to refute the recent trend to discuss evolutionary psychology as a science, when really what’s being talked about most is more of a simplistic metaphor to help explain behavior. What is useful as a heuristic is being presented as scientifically-based – and the scientists in this book would like those people to knock it off. Much of it was interesting, but I didn’t retain much.

Alabaster by Caitlan R Kiernan. Discussed here. Loved this one.

Cemetery Road by Gar Anthony Haywood. This is a book I picked up at the PLA convention (same source as The Lonely Polygamist). I’ll confess – I mostly picked it up because I met the author briefly, and he was nice and very attractive. The book is a suspense/detective kind of thing. I started off not terribly impressed – and then realized it was 5am and I’d finished it. A short, fast read, in which the main character knows more than he’s telling us as he tries to figure out the strange death of a childhood friend. I was never bored, and I bore easily. In my notes, I called it ‘deceptively seductive.’

Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich. A great book about how ignoring painful truths is (duh) counter-productive. This one will get its own post. No really, I’m not just saying that.

Father of the Rain by Lily King. I reviewed this book for BookBrowse, loved it. Similar to The Summer We Fell Apart, it is the story of a charismatic, alcoholic father from the viewpoint of his 11-year-old daughter. It follows her until she’s an adult with a family of her own, as she tries to rid herself of the pain and learn new ways to trust people. The writing is fabulous, the details ring true, and I just wanted to reach into the book and give that girl a hug.

The Girl Who Stopped Swimming and Between, Georgia, both by Joshilyn Jackson. Both of these I listened to as audiobooks.  I found Jackson last year at my sister’s house – she had gods of Alabama, and then I found Between, Georgia on a sale rack. Jackson has a clear voice and a talent for description that makes her characters vibrant, interesting and convincingly human. I listened to The Girl Who Stopped Swimming, on a road trip a few months ago and was even more impressed with this third novel – and the audiobooks are read by the author, who is a great reader. All three books take place in modern-day southern United States, with a female protagonist that feels like a neighbor you’d like to be friends with. All three focus on the pains and joys of families with skeletons in the closet that just won’t stop rattling. I’ve got her new one, Backseat Saints, on hold at the library.

There was much to love this month – which is probably why I got through 16 (well, 15 ¼)  books, some of them pretty long. Up next, Neil Gaiman in May, then What I Read in June. Stay tuned.

Albinos, spiders, eBooks and love – Alabaster & Silk, both by Caitlin R. Kiernan

Alabaster by Caitlin R. Kiernan is a book of short stories about Dancy Flammarion (what a terrific name!), an albino girl who’s been tapped by some mystical/alien/supernatural forces to fight for the good guys – but this is no fairy tale or super-hero yarn. She’s a young girl who has lost her family, and wanders the world with a big knife in her duffel bag, waiting for the ‘angel’ to tell her where to go next, which monster she has to kill. Meanwhile, she doesn’t know where her next meal is coming from and may have to walk that 100 miles to the next town.

Kiernan is incredible. Her descriptions are spare on physical details and heavy in emotional weight. She sketches a separate universe in convincing broad stroke simply for the sake of hinting at (but by no means explaining) why Dancy has been tapped by these angels for the ugly job she’s had thrust upon her. I read Alabaster in May, and loved her writing so much I put some of Kiernan’s other novels on hold.

Silk is a frightening novel of strange deaths and creepy things hiding in the shadows – oh yeah, and spiders.  I feel like the book needs a warning label: DANGER: Reading this book may cause you to become arachnophobic, and arachnophobes may require hospitalization.

Horror really isn’t my genre any longer, but Kiernan’s writing is so fantastic I loved it anyway. I think – for me at least – the haunting comes from her writing, not from the plot. I was hooked to the end, and had figured out just enough of what was going on (this lady does not spoon-feed her readers, no sir) that I had to stick around and find out the rest. And while the plot was basic, Kiernan’s treatment of it was a perfect blend of detail and broad strokes.

Phrases like this one describing Savannah, Georgia:

the old city laid out wide and flat where the Savannah River runs finally into the patient, hungry sea. The end of Sherman’s March, and this swampy gem was spared the Yankee torches, saved by gracious women and their soiree seductions, and in 1864 the whole city made a grand Christmas gift to Abraham Lincoln.

reach out and smack you without interfering with the pace of the story. Me, of course, I stop and read it over a few times, letting it dance around my head and make pictures, teasing me with the idea that writing phrases like that is a goal I could live with.

I admit, most of the evocative phrases (that come immediately to mind) deal with darkness and what hides inside – and doesn’t always stay safely hidden – so her books are not recommended for those who can’t watch scary movies for fear of nightmares. I imagine her stories would have the same effect – as much for what she refuses to describe as for what she paints so tangibly for you.

I think I liked the short stories better because they were more about the language than the plot. Without the need to carry the story for more than a few thousand words, the focus is on making each word do the job of three, and the result (in Kiernan’s capable hands) is a joy to behold. I think that Chabon was the last writer whose dexterity I felt so impressed by, though they have little else in common. I also enjoyed getting to know Dancy over the course of those stories, and cared about her more than I did the characters in Silk, though I liked them well enough.

Alabaster is sometimes considered Young Adult fiction since Dancy is somewhere around 15, but Silk is definitely adult fiction (due to the inclusion of some ugly drug use and one sex scene that’s more than just hinted at – and I guess some [idiots] would say because that sex scene is between two women).

I found Kiernan via Neil Gaiman (what, you’re surprised? He has a real thing for the horror genre done well), but I think she’s my favorite recommendation so far. It’s funny, but many of the books/writers that Gaiman recommends… well, they really aren’t my thing. And I feel guilty for not loving them.  Which is ridiculous, of course. I don’t even love everything he’s done (least fave – Anansi Boys), why would I love every single book he’s ever liked? And of course, he’s let me off the hook – he also thinks it’s silly to expect everyone to like the same things all the time (he said so many times in his blog, no instance of which can I find right this minute so as to link to it). However, many of his other recommendations (artists and musicians, mostly) I’ve adored (Lisa Snellings!  – I must own a poppet).

Footnote: as I was writing this entry, I went looking for a copy of Alabaster I could call my own (having read a library copy) and was dismayed to see it out of print, with the least expensive copy being a used hardback for $60. However, my anger soon turned to joy when I found a $5 eBook copy and had it on my PC & my iPod in less than 10 minutes – and that while having to choose formats, download an app and figure out how to work it. And if my computer crashes or whatever, I can always download it again. I’ll never give up my paper books, but who can argue with that?

Alone in a Crowd – The Lonely Polygamist by Brady Udall

The Lonely Polygamist is a strange sort of book. And I mean that in a good way. A man with four wives, part of a Mormon-offshoot sect, who is ineffectual and bumbling. And falling in love with a woman who is not (one of) his wives. Oh yeah, and lonely. Udall treats this “alternative lifestyle” with delicacy and respect (ha! am loving the opportunity to lump this old-style Mormon cult in w/the LGBT community!).  In the end, we are all just humans, shaped and damaged by our upbringing and trying to find peace and happiness in our lives.

I liked a lot of things about this book, and I really liked the way it ended. I did think it went on a bit longer than necessary in some sections.  I loved that we got to know the title character, Golden, as well as one wife, and one child (not of that wife) closely, to give a well-rounded picture of the family dynamics, and some of the many ways you can be lonely in a family w/more than 30 people in it. Because, as we’ve all heard before, it is sometimes lonelier to be with people than it is to be alone.

The Lonely Polygamist also has something to say about the rewards (and possible risks) of taking initiative, owning your responsibilities and pursuing your dreams (not your impulses). The picture of a chaotic family home (whether you have one mom or four) rings true and brings humor to the sometimes-depressing narrative of a man who (of course) must hit bottom before he can see his way clear to make a better choice.

The book made me bawl like a baby at one point (near the end, I won’t spoil it for ya) though in my defense, it was 2 am. If it had been earlier, I may have just bawled like a woman in her 40s.

This book includes a lot of info about nuclear bomb testing in the Utah/New Mexico area for a decade in the 50s/early 60s.  I admit I’d heard of these tests but knew very little about the details. This book shocked me with some of the (google-search verified) historically accurate details regarding the fall-out of above-ground nuclear (!) testing near populated areas. (I was going to say ‘on U.S. soil’, but exactly who’s soil would it be ‘ok’ to test this stuff on?!). Golden’s father made it big by finding uranium in Utah, and several of the main characters were injured in one big test gone bad.

I should probably add – I was thrilled to finish the book, because I’d picked up Absolute Sandman #1 by Neil Gaiman at the library and COULD NOT WAIT to read it.  And it was awesome, and too short (only 20 issues? 9 of which I’d read before? Where is Absolute Sandman #2 already!?).

What I read in April

The River Where Blood is Born by Sandra Jackson-Opoku – this is a multi-generational book, complete with gods and tricksters looking on. Much like some of my favorite Alice Walker (yes, this one starts in Africa as well). This will get a full review soon.

Best European Ficition 2010, which I reviewed for BookBrowse.com (I did like it, despite my avoidance maneuvers).

The Final Solution by Michael Chabon– this book was recently returned to me from a friend who had borrowed it. A novella of Sherlock Holmes’s final investigation. Chabon never disappoints, and I don’t even like Sherlock Holmes.

Madonnas of Leningrad by Debra Dean – the story of a woman who survived some of WWII by living (with the rest of the employees & their families) in a museum in the USSR. The story bounces back and forth between her current life in the U.S. Pacific NW – while she is suffering from Alzheimer’s – and her memories of that war-torn winter in… Leningrad, naturally. Lots of interesting questions about memory and what is real, and the power of the human spirit to survive just about anything, and the way myth and art assist in that survival.

My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme– I read this because I loved the Julia Child portions of the Julie & Julia film, and this book did not disappoint. The film clearly captured her exuberance and passion for food, France and her husband that shines through this book. Takes us from their arrival in France through the second edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and the creation of her television show. Co-written by Child and her grand-nephew.

Paradise of the Blind by Duong Thu Huong– which I reviewed here.

A Disobedient Girl by Ru Freeman. This is the story of an Indian girl…. that I didn’t finish. I got through maybe two chapters, and it just wasn’t working for me. I don’t entirely blame the book – the character was mildly interesting up to the point where I stopped reading. But it was not capturing my interests enough to hang onto it (this was about the time I started reading Neil Gaiman’s blog, so I blame him at least partially for my distraction).  It was a library book, so I returned it without finishing it.

Good Omens by Terry Pratchett & Neil Gaiman.  This is the book I read instead of A Disobedient Girl. Neil was blogging about the audio book or something, so I had to go re-read my copy. Pratchett is a witty, fantastically funny author, and I’ve already told you how much I adore Gaiman. I remember finding this book and being thrilled – I’d only read Neverwhere by Gaiman at that point, but I’d read at least half dozen Pratchett Discworld books (Small Gods was my favorite at that point, and still in the top three) and was excited to see the two of them together. My only complaint in this otherwise hilarious comic romp through the apocalypse is the rather anticlimactic ending. Funny, funny, funny book. I can remember feeling compelled to read parts of it to friends because I needed them to know that I wasn’t imagining things, it really was that crazy.

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Looks like I only finished seven books in April.  Seems like a slow month (especially since I’ve already read eight in May, and it’s only the 19th). What was I doing? Oh right, I was avoiding Best European Fiction 2010. Also, I read a year’s worth of Neil Gaiman’s blog. I’m not proud of it, but it does indicate how much free time I had on my hands.

pasta, meditation, nookie

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert was a huge bestseller a few years ago. Everyone seemed to be reading it or talking about it. By everyone, of course, I mean people who read. Not really everyone, since there are people who don’t read. Not that they can’t, you understand. They just don’t. Truly. They are out there.

Because of this hoopla, I didn’t read it. Too many people gushing about how it was wonderful/life-affirming/mind-altering blah blah blah.

Not that it didn’t look like a good book, you understand. I just didn’t want to be a part of the crowd, following blindly behind whoever was telling me it was a ‘must-read’.  (I hear some of you laughing at my predictable reaction – stop that!).

Not that I never intended to read it, I just wasn’t going out of my way. I mean, the story of a woman who tries to find spiritual happiness by travelling the world and eating lots of pasta (among other things) – it sounds like a book I would chose to read. So, now that the furor has died – and it was on the sale rack at a certain fantastic local bookstore – I picked it up.

There are a hundred reviews out there to tell you who, what and where, and probably how fantastic/trite/incredible/mind-numbing it is.  But here’s why I liked it:

It reads like a memoir, the retelling of an interesting year in the life of Elizabeth Gilbert. I love memoirs.

It’s written by a master observer of the human race, who is fearless in revealing her own failures while refusing to go for the easy shocking-anecdote.

It emphasizes the spiritual exploration as a personal journey, not a beaten path.  Even if you believe (for instance) that Jesus Christ is the only path to God and salvation, you cannot argue that everyone finds/invests/believes/comes to that truth in a very particular and individual way.

It contains the perfect explanation of how I often see the world that I’d never articulated before. Gilbert talks about the differences between her and her sister, and while her sister is a master of detail, she is always only interested in the story of a person, place or thing.  So – like me – she wouldn’t notice that maybe her bathroom contains 6 different colors, none of which really go together. So, while I’ll probably notice if the bathroom is decorated nicely vs. not, it won’t occur to me that it matters. I only notice if – for instance – all the sinks are hand-painted porcelain and the bathroom stalls are labeled with the names of poker hands (royal flush, full house, etc.. Real Example) – then I’ll want to know the story of why they did that. And if it’s a good story, I’ll never forget it.

It does not try to tell you that you can revamp your whole world in one year, as long as you do this, that, and the other. The book covers a particular year in Gilbert’s life, but she was laying the foundation for her experiences for years before she embarked on this adventure. And she’d done many things to heal after her painful divorce, each of which helped her get to the place where she was ready to jump in with both feet like she did.  There are no quick fixes, there is no perfect answer. Pertinent quote:

You have to participate relentlessly in the manifestations of your own blessings.

She’s not blind to the instances where what she experienced sounds like a cliché, but neither does she shy away from it. Rather, she treats it with both seriousness and humor.

I wish half the things I’ve read about improving your life and finding happiness were so credible and entertaining.