Only 9 books this month, and my reading was all over the place. March always feels like a month in which I can't get going properly. Blame it on the changing season, blame it on
1. Cannery Row - John Steinbeck. "Cannery Row is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream." Who could resist an opening sentence like that? I love Steinbeck best when he's that strange combination of clear-eyed and lyrical and goofy. There is a quality of light over this novel and I felt comfortably suspended in it with Mack, Eddie, Hazel, Dora, Lee Chong and especially Doc. I'm so glad that I can return to this world with Sweet Thursday, the sequel to Cannery Row, but at the same time, I'm reluctant, because I'm not in a hurry to face a future in which I have no more unread Steinbeck novels on my shelf. Read for the TBR Challenge.
2. Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy - Eric Metaxas. Incredible biography, disturbing biographer. Reviewed here. I have now started reading God Is Not Great by Christopher Hitchens, and now I understand why Metaxas was so eager to strap Bonhoeffer to the Religious Right's version of Procrustes' bed: In the first few pages of God Is Not Great, Hitchens credits Bonhoeffer with being one of the few sane, intelligent humanist voices in the history of religion. It's a shame to fight over him and his legacy. Bonhoeffer was too magnificent for that sort of thing. Read for Lent and for the TBR Challenge.
3. The Dead Zone - Stephen King. I saw an episode of the TV show and decided to try the 1979 book. John Smith cracks his head on the ice when he's a little kid, then 20 years later, he's in a car wreck and ends up in a coma for four years. When he wakes up, he's got the ability to tell the future when he touches someone's hand. This isn't really a horror novel; Stephen King seems almost subdued here. What I'll remember, besides the climactic scene in which the evil politician reveals himself damnably, is that it feels like a time capsule -- steeped in references to the 1970s, which reminded me of the richness of detail one finds in Updike's "Rabbit" quartet. Read for the TBR Challenge.
4. Daughter of Darkness - J.R. Lowell. I was eager to revisit this horror novel from my middle school years, and it stood the test of time successfully. The horror element, especially where Willie is being haunted, was so well-done; it was as if the authors (Jan and Richard Lowell were a husband-and-wife writing team) had carefully studied Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House and taken notes. I'd forgotten some things, like the Gertrude Stein poem Willie loves and the Fan-Shaped Destiny spell that family friend Jonathan uses on Willie to try and keep her in check. Daughter of Darkness might seem a little restrained to modern readers, but that's not a bad thing.
5. Damned - Chuck Palahniuk. My Cracked Spinz book group had Chuck Palahniuk night. It was pretty surreal and included a reading of "Guts" from Haunted. (No one fainted.) I chose Damned, a book about a 13-year-old girl who dies and goes to Hell. Every chapter starts out "Are you there, Satan? It's me, Madison." Chuck Palahniuk describes his own book better than I ever could: "It's like Shawshank and The Lovely Bones had a baby and gave it to Judy Blume to raise." There's also a Breakfast Club subplot where Madison, the jock, the beauty queen, the rebel and the nerd manage to subdue a giant female demon thanks to Madison's having read The Color Purple while she was still alive. Our group had mixed reactions to Palahniuk, but I'm more in love with him than ever since I found out that he counts Breece D'J Pancake as one of his influences. Cracked Spinz book group reading.
6. At Large and At Small - Anne Fadiman. Fadiman's "familiar essays" in which the personal and intellectual are combined. She discusses among other things, Arctic explorers, ice cream, coffee, and butterfly collecting. Great stuff. Like Ex Libris, I'm sure that this is a collection I'll be returning to again and again to study and enjoy. It makes me want to try this form myself and possibly teach it to my students.
7. Ex Libris - Anne Fadiman. I re-read this book about Fadiman's lifelong love affair with books, based on her column "A Common Reader" in Civilization while I was sick with last week's 3-day sleep/fever nonsense. It was the only reading I could tolerate. It slipped down so easily, like Meg's blancmange.
8. Crap Chronicles: When IBS Strikes In All The Wrong Places - Diana Estill. A short e-book about a family who keeps getting caught short during their travels -- mostly because they like to play Russian roulette with their food. Having had similar experiences, I was reading this in line at the bank, murmuring in sympathy. Once or twice, I felt my stomach try to start its own conversation. Put it out of your mind, I told it grimly. Estill's recollections are hilarious and since the book is short, she manages to keep it fresh, for lack of a better phrase.
9. The Story of Charlotte's Web - Michael Sims. Since I'm teaching Charlotte's Web again in my Children's Literature class, I was all over this short nonfiction narrative of all the forces that shaped E.B. White's writing of his classic novel. I also added to my reading list by checking out Sims' excellent bibliography, including Roger Angell's (E.B. White's stepson) memoir, Let Me Finish.