Sunday, March 03, 2013

What I Talk About When I Talk About What I Read During February

I have words to say about these books. Wordy words, because it was an excellent reading month, both quantity and quality-wise. However, I'm feeling a little stressed about starting the new job (not because it's hard or strange or even that different, but because that's the way I process change, or any type of being and becoming) so I can't concentrate enough to make consistently well-designed paragraphs.  I can turn out the slaphappy variety, so let's do that:

1. Cathedral - Raymond Carver.  This collection includes my favorite Carver story "A Small, Good Thing". It was also the first I ever read, and for at least 3 years after that, Raymond Carver was the only star in my author firmament. When I read Cathedral this time, I was mainly struck by how it so clearly belongs to another era.  People get up and down to turn the TV off and on and change channels.  One of the characters  talks about someone having a color TV.

2. Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life - Carol Sklenicka.  I was glad that Raymond Carver was able to shake off both his drinking problem and Gordon Lish, but I felt dreadfully sorry for his first wife, Maryann. Raymond and Maryann married as teenagers, and she supported him and sacrificed for his talent with a superhuman effort, only to be on the outside looking in when he finally he gained the long-awaited money and fame.

3. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian - Marina Lewycka.  Two middle-aged sisters are aghast when their 84-year-old dad announces that he's marrying a 36-year-old woman to rescue her from life in the Ukraine, where he immigrated from decades before. When the story moves away from this plotline, it seems a little awkward, and the excerpts from the father's book, which shares its name with the title of the novel are laborious reading after a short while.

4. Sharp Objects - Gillian Flynn.  A Chicago reporter goes back to her hometown in rural Missouri to get a scoop about the murder of two young girls there.  A real page-turner with tons of unlikable characters.  I read her novels in reverse, so it's interesting to see how Flynn has developed as a novelist.  I hope she'll publish another one soon.

5. The Language Instinct: How The Mind Creates Language - Steven Pinker. I already gushed over this book in an earlier post.  Buffalo buffalo buffalo...!

6. 344 Pounds: How I Lost 125 Pounds By Counting Calories - Shawn Weeks.  When Shawn Weeks decided to vanquish his lifelong weight problem once and for all, he created a blog in which he periodically photographed himself shirtless, then went and hit the gym. He ate what he liked, but tried to burn more calories than he consumed, or "erase" the ones he over-consumed.  His story is a familiar one, and he tells it plainly and honestly. His message is more about getting real than it is about a bunch of facile diet tips.

7. Swamplandia! - Karen Russell. After Ava Bigtree's mother, the star gator-wrestler of the family amusement park Swamplandia! dies, the family and the family business comes apart. Grandpa's in a nursing home.The father goes off with the gauziest of explanations.  Ava's sister, Osceola, elopes with a ghost. Her brother, Kiwi,  goes off to work at a rival amusement park in the area with a satanic theme.  Ava is left to draw her own erroneous conclusions.  Swamplandia! reminds me a little of Geek Love and Kiwi's descriptions (the Kiwi sections were my favorite part of the book) of The World of Darkness remind me of Chuck Palahniuk's Damned.

8. Founding Mothers - Cokie Roberts.  I spent most of Presidents' Day listening to this book. Cokie Roberts gives American history a fresh perspective by discussing what the wives and mothers of the Founding Fathers had to contend with in the years prior, during and after the American Revolution. Martha Washington and Abigail Adams are prominently featured, and we're also introduced to powerhouse Eliza Pinckney, long-suffering Deborah Read Franklin, scribe Mercy Warren and there's even some juicy scandal.  Cokie Roberts' dry and highly opinionated commentary is really funny.

9. Where'd You Go, Bernadette - Maria Semple.  This epistolary novel feels like a screwball comedy and I kept getting huge, enjoyable whiffs of Arrested Development.  I mean all of the above with the greatest admiration and respect I can muster.  Bernadette Fox is a madly brilliant creation. I'm now a Maria Semple fan.  I want to go back and read her first novel.

10. English Teacher Guide to Teaching Abroad - English Teacher X.  He's foul-mouthed and often unkind, but English Teacher X knows his stuff about teaching English abroad.  He covers the whole spectrum, from how to teach a conversation class successfully and play the stupid games in "McEnglish" schools around the world to giving dodgy but sage and explicit advice on how to do a "runner" properly if this particular career path isn't working out.  I laughed and shook my head in recognition on practically every page.

11. American Scream: The Bill Hicks Story - Cynthia True.  I don't like overly scholarly and stiff biographies, but this one suffered from a too-slight writing style.  No pictures, either, which is my pet peeve. It feels like it was quickly cobbled together after Hicks died in 1994, but it actually came out almost 10 years later.  I hope a more accomplished biographer will decide to research and write a more studious and compelling account of comedian Bill Hicks' short life and career.

12. L'Assommoir - Emile Zola. The title is usually translated as "The Dram Shop", but according to Wikipedia, an Assommoir is a place where people go for the express purpose of getting hammered as cheaply as possible.  Zola details the slow yet inevitable slide of a family into poverty and alcoholism with the kind of thoroughness one associates with crime scenes or autopsies. Although I read Nana years ago, this book, which features Nana's parents, is the one that got me interested in the Rougon-Macquart series, so my plan is to go back and read all 20 of them in order.

13. Therese Raquin - Emile Zola. It's a hardboiled novel well ahead of its time. Zola unflinchingly explores what guilt can do to twisted and superstitious minds. Dark stuff.  Even the setting becomes a kind of malevolent character.  There's one of the most wildly satisfying karma payouts I've ever seen in literature.

14. Medium Raw - Anthony Bourdain.  Bourdain talks about his life in the 10 years since Kitchen Confidential became a bestseller, profiles a couple of young and interesting chefs, names his heroes and villains of the culinary world, shares some food porn from his feasts around the world and alludes to one of the Zola novels in the Rougon-Macquart cycle. Strange coincidence, that.  My son, a big fan of Kitchen Confidential, was not enthusiastic about Medium Raw, but I enjoyed it.


Vasilly said...

Wow! You had an amazing reading month! I once read that the bio on Carver is so personal, almost too personal. Did you feel that way? I love Carver's poetry collection, All of Us. Have you read it?

I'm the same way about change too. I need to get ready way before time to wrap my mind around it.

Bybee said...

Yes, it felt very personal, almost to the point of pain.

I've never read anything but snippets of Carver's poetry.

Ryan said...

I love Bill Hicks but this doesn't sound like the right biography. I'll wait for something better.

Kathleen said...

I really liked Sharp Objects but my book club just recently discussed it and most gave it a 1 on a scale of 5 being the highest and 1 being the lowest. I'm glad to hear you liked it as well. I left the book club meeting thinking I was really out of step with people.