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Archive for August, 2009

Books Read in August

“Certain Girls” a novel by Jennifer Weiner
When I was a kid, our small-town paper published wedding announcements, with descriptions of the ceremonies and dresses and pictures of the brides.

We meet Cannie Shapiro again after her debut novel, loosely (or maybe not) based on her life became a huge success. That success sent her scurrying out of the limelight and into a quiet life as mother to Joy, wife to Peter and the writer of science fiction books under a pseudonym.  The chapters alternate between Cannie and Joy as they attempt to navigate the natural pulling away between mother and teenage daughter. Joy, feeling her mother is hiding a huge part of her life, sets out to discover what she is hiding. As the mother of two teenage daughters, I was surprised to find myself with a lot of empathy for Joy. Cannie’s overprotectiveness felt stifling and I didn’t always get where it came from. I won’t spoil the ending but when I got near the end I was so surprised (and maybe a little annoyed) by what happened. But it kept me up past midnight so I could finish it and when I did I realized that it had to happen.

“The Slippery Year- A Meditation on Happily Ever After” a memoir by Melanie Gideon
One day when I was sitting in the carpool line waiting to pick up my son from school, it occurred to me that I had been sleepwalking through my life.

Okay, so I think she wrote my memoir. So many similarities: we are both 44, married for 20 years, moms, on a quest for a new mattress. (Like her, I was considering the tempurpedic but now, not much) Like her, I also have this low-grade (sometimes not so low) anxiety that thrums beneath the surface of my really blessed life. I keep waiting for the Bad thing to happen. We also have the same relationship to camping, liking it in theory more than in reality. She explores the angst of letting her nine-year-old son go to camp. This summer I have had to let my 15 year-old-daughter go several hundred miles away as a mother’s helper for six and half weeks. I think a good book reminds us that we are not alone even in our darkest most neurotic hours, and Gideon does precisely that.

“Home Safe” a novel by Elizabeth Berg
One Saturday when she was nine years old, Helen Ames went into the basement, sat at the card table her mother used for folding laundry, and began writing.

Yes, I am always a sucker for a book about writing. I devoured this one in less than twenty-four hours. Berg is always immensely readable. It’s like she’s dropped by for a brief visit to fill you in on what’s been happening to some people she knows. In this case, it’s the life of Helen Ames who has been recently widowed. In the midst of her grief she finds herself unable to write and extremely dependent on her twenty-seven year-old daughter, Tessa. When she makes the shocking discovery that her husband withdrew most of their retirement saving shortly before he died without her knowledge, everything she thought she knew about herself, her husband and her marriage is up for grabs.

“The Lair’s Club” a memoir by Mary Karr
My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.

How did I not read this before now? I’ve heard about it. I’ve seen it. It blew me away. Karr does this tricky thing with memory and tense that absolutely works. Most of the memoir is told in past tense except when we are in the midst of some harrowing memory then it is in present and we are right there with her as she tries to piece it together. This is also one of the few memoirs I’ve read that talks so openly about memory, admitting that it’s often unreliable, letting the reader know that she is struggling to remember what she remembers but is quick to point out hat perhaps her sister might see it another way, polar opposite of what she just wrote. As dark as the story is, it is also laugh out loud funny. It is never maudlin or melodramatic. The tension is pitch perfect, taut all the way through. Amazing, truly.

“My Stroke of Insight- a Brain Scientist’s Personal Journey” by Jill Bolte Taylor, Ph.D.
Every brain has a story and this is mine.

My sister showed me this clip and I knew immediately that I had to read Taylor’s book. I borrowed it from the library but now realize that I will have to buy my own copy to refer to again and again as well as be able to underline passages that speak to me. Jill Bolte Taylor was a thirty-seven-year-old brain scientist when she experienced a massive stroke that obliterated her left brain on December 10, 1996. It took eight years to fully recover but as you will read, what does recover truly mean? She explores and explains what happened to her brain during the stroke and subsequent recovery in terms that are not only easy to understand but also fascinating. I joked that if I had a do-over I would seriously consider going into brain research. She shares the insight she had about how we can all access a true inner peace, feel at one with the universe and how we always have a choice about how we respond to any situation. Did you know that an emotion such as anger takes 90 seconds to physiologically course through your body? After ninety seconds, it’s done. If you are still angry, you are choosing to stay angry. This is a book that everyone should read. It’s invaluable to those who may know somebody who has had a stroke but also to any person wishing to have more insight to this beautiful creation we house in our head called a brain.

I also read some great short stories from the current issue of “The Missouri Review” as well as “The Atlantic Fiction 2009”. I am eagerly waiting for the BASS 2009, edited this year by Alice Sebold.

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“Why I’m Like This” true stories by Cynthia Kaplan
There was always one girl at camp whom everyone hated.

Kaplan has been described as a cross between David Sedaris and Anna Quindlen. Her true stories delve into a therapist from hell, bizarre grandmothers and the rest of her family and friends. The book is both hilarious and heart-breaking.

“If I Stay” a YA novel by Gayle Forman
Everything thinks it was because of the snow.

This is Mia’s story, recounted after a devastating accident. She is not dead, yet. She is able to observe what is going on around her, see her family and friends gathering at her bedside, at the hospital. Woven in are bits of her life, before the accident and the realization that she has the ultimate decision to make. A fast, engrossing read.

“Matrimony” a novel by Joshua Henkin
Out! Out! Out!” The first words Julian Wainwright ever spoke, according to his father, Richard Wainwright III, graduate of Yale and grand lubricator of the economic machinery, and Julian’s mother, Constance Wainwright, Wellesley graduate and descendant of a long family of Pennsylvania Republicans.

I’ve always loved learning what goes on behind the scenes. This novel gives us access to a marriage as well as the writing life. We follow Julian from his days at Graymont College, where students could receive comments instead of grades from the professors, to a post-college life that involves his college love, Mia, and Carter with whom he has a strong but strained friendship. One of the things I really admired about this book is Henkin’s skill at creating scenes that move seamlessly in and out of the past and present. An absorbing portrait of a marriage and a creative life, both of which I found rich and textured.

“The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society” a novel by Mary Ann Shaffer and Annie Barrows
Dear Sidney, Susan Scott is a wonder. We sold over forty copies of the book, which was very pleasant, but much more thrilling from my standpoint was the food.

Shaffer spent twenty years writing this book. Once it was accepted for publication she was too ill to finish the revisions so she asked her niece, Barrows to do it for her.  The novel is told in letters from various characters and reveals the story of the German Occupation of the island of Guernsey. It’s a charming tale the shines a light on an obscure (to me anyway) piece of WWII history.

“Florida” a novel by Christine Schutt
She was on her knees and rubbing her back against parts of the house and backing into corners and sliding our from under curtains, rump polishing the floor, and she was saying, “Sit with me, Alice.”

A powerful novel of a mother and daughter told in sparse but precise and intense vignettes. It almost reads like a prose poem.

“The Next Thing on My List” a novel by Jill Smolinski
Next on the list: kiss a stranger.

So starts June Parker’s mission to complete the to-do list of Marissa, a passenger who is killed in a car accident while June was giving her a ride home. The tasks range from the mundane (eat ice cream in public) to the profound (change someone’s life). It’s a quick, delightful read that got me thinking about my own list of things I want to do in my life.

“The Wednesday Sisters” a novel by Meg Waite Clayton
The Wednesday Sisters look like the kind of women who might meet at those fancy coffee shops on University– we do look that way– but we’re not one bit  fancy, and we’re not sisters, either.

The open notebook filled with writing on the cover is what drew me in. I’m a sucker for any book that features writing or writers. This particular book features five women who meet as young mothers in the late sixties and form a writing group. We follow them through their personal creative struggles, relationships, medical issues as well as the changing world around them.

“Real Life & Liars” a novel by Kristina Riggle
My tea tastes so fresh and this joint is so fine, I might melt right into the red velvet cushion and run down the walls into a silvery pool on the floor.

Once I was able to get past the fact that this was written by somebody I actually know, I slipped right into the Zielinski’s family life. One thing I appreciated as a writer is how the novel is focused on one particular weekend, a 35th anniversary party. It made me consider the structure of some of my longer projects. Also, the chapters are told in alternating points of view: the mother is in first person while the three adult children are in third. I also enjoyed reading a story that takes place in a setting I am familiar with- northern Michigan. An engaging story of family and how we continue to bump up against each other throughout our lives.

“Do Not Deny Me” short stories by Jean Thompson
The heat in Penrose’s office had not worked properly all fall.

Jean Thompson is one of my favorite short story writers. Her collection “ Who Do You Love” is on my permanent writer’s bookshelf. This latest one will also occupy a space there. Some of the perfectly drawn characters we encounter are a young woman whose boyfriend unexpectedly dies, a couple in dire financial straits and a man trapped by his stroke. This is a book I will read again and again, this time with a pen in hand.

“The Angel’s Game” a novel by Carlos Ruiz Zafón
A writer never forgets the first time he accepted a few coins or a word of praise in exchange for a story.

Yes, it is another story featuring a writer but so much more happens in this intricate world he has created in these 532 pages. We are drawn into the world of publishing, art versus commercial, mysterious benefactors whose motives are questionable to say the least, love triangles, murders, arson, theft, police corruption, magic. This book has it all. The plot is as ornate and intricate as the intriguing city of Barcelona where the novel is set. If you’re looking for a lush story to sink into and lose yourself, then this is it.

Plus you get little gems of writing advice: “Routine is the housekeeper of inspiration. Only forty-eight hours after the establishment of the new regime, I discovered that I was beginning to recover the discipline of my most productive years. The hours of being locked up in the study crystallized into pages and more pages in which, not without some anxiety, I began to see the work taking shape, reaching the point at which it stopped being an idea and became a reality.”

“Both Ways Is the Only Way I Want It” stories by Maile Meloy
Chet Morgan grew up in Logan, Montana, at a time when kids weren’t supposed to get polio anymore.

I strive to write stories as vast and precise as these.  Each one feels staggeringly unique even as they explore familiar themes of grief, yearning, fraternal rivalry. I could not put this book down. It was like eating potato chips– just one more. Okay, one more.  And I was so disappointed when I read the last one. I would love to take a writing workshop with her but in the meantime her stories have so much to teach me.

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