Sunday, January 01, 2017

In Which I Try to Remember What I Read in December

No, I'm kidding. My December reading was fantastic. Mostly.

1. Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsberg - Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik. (Nonfiction)  An energetic, ardent look at our second female (and first coolest!) United States Supreme Court justice. From the time RBG graduated from law school, (where she and the other female students were made to feel guilty for taking a spot that a male student could have had) she worked tirelessly to eliminate discrimination towards both women and men. As I read about her career, my admiration grew by leaps and bounds. Her lifelong romance with her husband and fellow lawyer, Marty, made me tear up. Her strong feelings about legal writing being crystal clear, her obsession with opera, her ability to do push-ups in her ninth decade had me completely in her thrall. When my son asked me to give him a list for my birthday/Christmas, I included a Notorious RBG t-shirt. And I got it! Great read. I'm not sure I absorbed all its goodness the first time, so I have plans for a reread.

2. Hillbilly Elegy - J.D. Vance. (Nonfiction, memoir)  Vance is a former Marine and a Yale Law School graduate and is light-years from his troubling upbringing in the Rust Belt. He grew up in a poor, depressed area and his mother had problems with drug abuse. After his parents divorced, his mother brought in several stepfather figures who didn't stick around long. His life seemed to be going down a similarly bad path until he moved in with his maternal grandmother. Vance often appears stunned that he made it out of that background, and rigorously examines not only his own experience, but the collective experience of the culture he refers to as hillbilly. The triangulation he uses to make sense of everything lifts this book beyond the standard memoir. I was totally engrossed and could not stop reading Hillbilly Elegy.  Highly recommended.

3. The Maid's Version - Daniel Woodrell. (Novel) After Hillbilly Elegy, I had a reading hangover that left me hungry for more stories of that kind, so I thought about rereading Winter's Bone as a complement, but instead settled on another Daniel Woodrell novel, The Maid's Version. This short novel, set in the late 1920s, packs a hell of a wallop.  It's both myth and mystery -- the story of a dance hall fire in a small Missouri town. The maid in the title is the narrator's grandmother, an old woman half-crazed by the death of her sister in that fire. All during a summer when the narrator visits her as a 12-year-old boy, she serves up southern cooking and seemingly unconnected vignettes. She's like the Ancient Mariner (floor-length gray hair instead of an albatross) with a whiff of Chaucer. The language is distinctly Ozarkian, but the early 20th century slang lends to that aura of myth. Woodrell is madly brilliant. He says more in a half of a page than many writers say in several chapters.  I'm so glad I finally read this book. I'm grateful to my reading buddy, Pablo, for introducing me to Woodrell's writing in the first place.

4. Meat: A Love Story - Susan Bourette. Bourette, a Canadian reporter, went undercover as a worker in a pork processing plant. After a couple of days of slicing hog cheeks, she understandably fled the job and intended to live out the rest of her days as a vegetarian. She lasted only a few weeks before stumbling into a diner and ordering everything meat on the menu. The rest of the book details her quest to find the perfect meat meal. Her travels take her to Alaska to hunt and eat whale, to a steakhouse in Texas, to an upscale butcher shop in New York City and game-hunting. All of her adventures were interesting, but her writing didn't draw me in very much. Her style seems perfunctory and as a reader, I felt at a cool arm's length. The subtitle, "A Love Story" implies more heat than is present. I really wanted to like this book more than I did.

The end of 2016 found me working on two books:

 The very long and involving Parade's End by Ford Madox Ford. This is actually an omnibus of four novels Ford wrote from 1924-28 about English society pre-, during, and post-WWI as observed through one character, Christopher Tietjens. I have a bit of a lovehate hatelove relationship with this book and often wonder what in God's name I've gotten myself into. Ford Madox Ford wrote in that modern stream-of-consciousness style, but he often seems uncomfortable and ham-handed with it. Or maybe it's me that's uncomfortable; I'm listening to the audiobook, and when Tietjens goes off on tangent after tangent, I'm worried that I'm going to lose the whole thread because I'm also concentrating on my driving. The narrator of the book, Steven Crossley, is wonderful and probably the force that keeps me going.

 Her Again, a biography about the early life and career of Meryl Streep.  What a pleasurable reading experience! I've followed her whole career, and I've always found her mesmerizing.  One of my fantasies is to have an uninterrupted week in which I watch or re-watch every Streep movie. If there were a Meryl Streep t-shirt, I'd wear it.

Next up:

I'll look back at what I read in 2016, revisit my biblio resolutions for that year then proceed to make new ones for 2017.

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