October was very much Booktober for me! I started the month feeling oh-so-nonfictiony, but when I got to the middle, I went on a novel reading binge that still seems insatiable.
My "bridge book" that took me out of October and into November is a novel I've been wanting to read for several years, Hangover Square by Patrick Hamilton. Now that I've gotten past that ponderous spoiler of an introduction by J.B. Priestley, I'm enjoying Hamilton's precise, slightly chilly prose.
I'm stalled with the van Gogh biography. Vincent practically jumps off the page as presented by his biographers, Naifeh and Smith, but to modern eyes, it's obvious that he was bipolar and it's painful to watch him crash through life. I needed a rest.
I'm also experiencing slow engagement with Stephen King's Insomnia, although I have no complaints about his writing. It's not you, Uncle Stevie. It's me.
Getting all caught up in the Kathleen Hale brouhaha that broke out full-force the weekend of the Readathon, I noticed on Goodreads that the author she cited as her main influence was Louise Fitzhugh. I got all excited and was primed to break out my copy of Harriet the Spy and do a line by line reading which would "explain" Hale. Luckily for you, I took a deep breath and the feeling passed.
I've committed myself to doing NaNoWriMo. If I don't try to write a novel at this time in my life when I have almost no distractions, I don't know if I ever will. I've built up a lot of anxiety about this and I hope I can use that energy to be productive. If done properly, my reading for the month should go down considerably. Maybe not, though. I'll still keep my subway commute time and pre-sleep time for reading.
So, anyway. Here's what I read in Booktober. Got off to a rocky start, then things improved like crazy:
1. You Are What You Wear - Jennifer Baumgartner. Nonfiction. Initially, I was pretty harsh about this book. I wanted it to be another Lost Art of Dress or Alison Lurie's The Language of Clothes and was disappointed when it wasn't. Lesson learned: Don't go overboard with reading expectations. Still, for it to have been written by a Ph.D., it seems awfully slight.
2. At Home with Madame Chic - Jennifer L. Scott. Nonfiction. I first discovered Jennifer L. Scott on YouTube through my love of minimalism and admiration of the French way of living. I liked it that she edited her videos tightly until the last "um" was bleached out, and seemed to be able to stick with a chosen topic. Her first book, Lessons From Madame Chic is about how her 6 months as an exchange student in Paris living with a French family changed her life. In the latest book, Scott builds from that foundation and discusses how to live a high-quality life at home, no matter what your income level. She has many helpful examples and suggestions that can be adapted to one's own lifestyle. A generosity of spirit and intelligent, clear thinking pervades these pages. My favorite part is where Scott and her husband have a knee-jerk reaction that they must move after having children and accumulating more stuff, even though they had perceived that location as their dream home only a few short years before. Thoughtfully and carefully, they sit down and figure out a way to fall in love with their current home all over again. Since Scott has young children, this book is geared towards young mothers, but older readers such as myself will find things to love about At Home with Madame Chic.
3. The Storm in the Barn - Matt Phelan. Graphic novel. A young boy growing up in the Dust Bowl America of the 1930s struggles to make sense (largely through myth) of the land's desolation and find his place on a farm where there are no crops and no chores. The use of dull dirt colors and empty panels will make readers feel choked and parched and hopeless. The jackrabbit hunt is bloody and graphic, but Phelan imposes a control on the violence that makes the event seem even more shocking. I thought it was interesting that Dad looks like Henry Fonda as Tom Joad.
4. That Was Then, This is Now - S.E. Hinton. YA novel. If this novel were to be written today, I believe Mark would be the POV character, and rightfully so. He's much more interesting than his lifelong friend and foster brother Bryon, who narrates That Was Then.... Mark is edgy and flawed, and the only thing about this novel that doesn't seem dated. I keep thinking of the iconic quote from Hinton's first novel, The Outsiders, "Stay gold...". In That Was Then... much is made of Mark's golden aura -- his hair, his eyes, his easy manner, but his gold is corrupt, tainted, tarnished. I don't know if Hinton intended to extend her gold metaphor, or if fans have perceived it continuing from the first book to the second book, but it is there and I'm sure more than one reader has been left with a feeling of uneasiness although they may not know exactly why.
5. The Disreputable History of Frankie Landau-Banks - E. Lockhart. YA novel. I love how E. Lockhart took the formulaic stories of a boarding school girl, a high achiever, Cinderella year, brains and beauty, popular boyfriend and shook them all up and slammed them down on their ears. Frankie, who at 15, has just grown from gawky adolescent to stunner has a boyfriend who is in a secret fraternity, but she can't join because she's a girl. Annoyed beyond reason (her father was in the fraternity, so she could have been a legacy), but with marvelous precision to her method and madness, she finds a window of opportunity to anonymously take over and shows the guys, whose legendary hoaxes were actually quite lame, how it's really done. I love the feminist subtext, but even better, Frankie is such a great evil genius.
6. A Life of Barbara Stanwyck: Steel-True 1907-1940 - Victoria Wilson. Biography. I understand that a biographical subject doesn't exist in a vacuum; they were part of a larger world. But I also think there's a recent trend in biography to cast the net too wide. It doesn't come across as the author being learned; it comes across as the author not wanting to waste any of his or her research. I enjoyed reading about Barbara Stanwyck (a lifelong bookworm! A book a day!) and her world: Brooklyn, Broadway and finally, Hollywood. I even enjoyed the in-depth looks at her directors and co-stars, husbands and lovers. The transition from pre-Code to Code pictures was interesting, as well as filmmakers' attempts to circumvent the Code. I understand that Stanwyck had strong beliefs about politics, but the pages and pages (and pages) about American politics got to be mind-numbing. That's not why I picked up this book. In spite of the tendency of this project to be a tad overstuffed, I am very much looking forward to the next volume of Stanwyck's biography.
7. Dispatches From the Edge - Anderson Cooper. Memoir. Cooper writes movingly about losing his father and then his older brother at an early age. He also discusses his struggle to outdistance his pain by always traveling and looking for news to cover in places of suffering like Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and war and famine in Somalia. A short memoir, but even though it's brief, it packs a lot of punch.
8. The Homesman - Glendon Swarthout. Novel. Set in 1800s Nebraska, a small community has had several incidents of pioneer women losing their minds over a variety of arduous conditions. The circuit minister has set up a system for helping these women by appointing a "homesman" to escort them across the Missouri River to Iowa, where they can be sent farther on home to their families. When the current group of husbands prove to be unwilling or unfit to take the women back east, lone female homesteader Mary Bee Cuddy steps up and volunteers for the job. She soon realizes that she can't manage the women and the danger alone, and finds a dubious assistant in the unlikeliest of places. Entertaining read and a slightly different take on the western genre. The movie version of this movie is going to be released soon. I. CANNOT. WAIT.
9. Stoner - John Edward Williams. Novel. In a novel that spans the first half of the 20th century, William Stoner goes to the University of Missouri to study agriculture with his father's encouragement and somehow finds his destiny as a literature professor while bumbling through a required freshman English class. His life, both in and out of work is constantly going wrong, and the girl he marries without really getting to know her is all of the battiest females in 20th century literature all rolled up into one. Depressing, but beautifully written. Extra points for recognizable Missouri landmarks.
10. The Girls - Lori Lansens. Novel. What really struck me about this novel was not that it was about cojoined twins, but the Canadian-ness of it. I liked The Girls a lot more than I thought I would. Lori Lansens is like Miriam Toews, but with more substance.
11. Best American Comics 2012 - Francoise Mouly, editor. Graphic novel anthology. Francoise Mouly should edit this series every year. Her turn as guest editor produced the sharpest, most attractive volume ever.
12. Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float Before He Stole My Ma - Kerry Hudson. Novel. Gritty novel about growing up in council housing in and around Aberdeen, Scotland. Hudson makes an interesting narrative choice is having Janie Ryan narrate what she observes around her from the very moment she emerges from the womb. According to Janie, who is descended from fishwives, the first words she hears are part of a profanity-laden, end-of-labor invective. Hudson's writing is compelling and a little rough around the edges. Certain sections of the novel seem less developed than others, and a good deal of energy leaves the book when Janie's ma is not present. But I would absolutely and emphatically hate it if these flaws were removed; I don't think the novel would have the same power and impact. I can't wait to read Kerry Hudson's follow up novel, Thirst. If you're a fan of The Barrytown Trilogy by Roddy Doyle, you'll appreciate Tony Hogan Bought Me an Ice-Cream Float...
13. Lost Memory of Skin - Russell Banks. Novel. The Kid's story is a sad one, with generous helpings of absurdity. A novel that dares to pose the uncomfortable question: Where can registered sex offenders make their homes if they can't live within a certain radius of children, schools or any other place where there might be minors? Are justice and common sense sometimes in conflict? What is the line that must be crossed for a person to be truly declared a sex offender? Fans of The Sweet Hereafter will be pleased to see Delores Driscoll make an appearance in this book.
14. The Sweet Hereafter - Russell Banks. Novel. Banks' 1991 novel about a small community in upstate New York that is changed forever when a school bus accident kills several children. Different characters take turns with the narrative. Banks is brilliant, but bleak. Two of his novels in a row made me want to hide under my desk with a blanket over me. The movie based on this book is supposed to be even better than the novel.