Sunday, January 03, 2021

The Reads of December

 For some reason-- holiday spirit? -- I was in an amiable reading mood during December. I met my goal of 59 books, then tacked on another one. 60 isn't a big number, but its roundness pleases me.

Also: I finished Ducks, Newburyport! Still can't thank Care enough for bringing this book to my immediate attention, and then...and then...she brought it to my mailbox!

So here's what I read in December. I'll do the numbering to reflect how many books I'd read so far:

56. Ducks, Newburyport - Lucy Ellmann. Novel. This is my favorite read of 2020. It just fit the zeitgeist so well.

57. Who Was Jules Verne? - James Buckley, Jr. Nonfiction. More and more, I'm fascinated with this series, especially the editing. What gets mentioned. What doesn't get mentioned. What kinda-sorta gets mentioned. Kinda-sorta showed up in Jules Verne's story and distracted me to no end. I ran to Google without stopping. Later in his life, Verne was enjoying the fruits of his successful writing career buying homes and building boats and hosting Nellie Bly as she was recreating a trip around the world in 80 days. Suddenly, Verne's nephew shows up in the book and shoots Uncle Jules in the leg. The pain and the recovery are addressed in full, but the nephew disappears, just as abruptly as he appeared. WHY? WHY DID HE SHOOT HIS UNCLE? Google revealed more: the nephew was apparently nuts, and put in a mental asylum. Also: he shot at Uncle Jules TWICE. He missed the first time, then the second shot got Verne in the leg. I don't see why this information couldn't have been shoehorned in. In addition, there was some read-between-the-lines stuff about Jules Verne's son being a disappointment to his father.

58. Who Was Bruce Lee? - Jim Gigliotti. Nonfiction. I liked this biography of Bruce Lee so much! I hardly knew anything about the martial arts master and actor who shattered Asian stereotypes on film.

59. Sometimes You Have to Lie: The Life and Times of Louise Fitzhugh, The Renegade Author of Harriet the Spy - Leslie Brody. Nonfiction. As soon as I found out this book was out, I was one big long red scream of WANT! Luckily, the planets aligned; my birthday was also in December, and my friend was casting about for ideas for a present. So many interesting revelations in this biography! Like Gloria Vanderbilt (at roughly the same time) Louise Fitzhugh was at the center of an acrimonious child custody battle in Memphis. She found out all the details as a teenager, when she worked a summer job at a newspaper. She fled the south as soon as she could, and went to New York City. She lived openly as a lesbian, and was remarkably well-connected in artistic and literary circles. My eyes nearly popped out when I read that one of her partners was Constance Ford, who played Ada on Another World for decades. In spite of the richness of detail and the thoroughness of Leslie Brody's research, Fitzhugh comes off as elusive -- there were no diaries, so the reader doesn't quite get intimacy, immediacy with this fascinating woman. Kudos to Leslie Brody for first-rate spy work.

60. The Autobiography of Malcolm X - Malcolm X/Alex Haley. Nonfiction. Based on interviews Alex Haley conducted with Malcolm X for about five years, Haley organized and edited his material into a cohesive autobiography, which he explains in an extended epilogue.  Both are fascinating: Haley's collaboration with Malcolm X, as well as the actual the story of Malcolm X, who rose from poverty in the south to being a hustler in the larger northern cities like Detroit and New York, then after he was arrested and sent to prison for ten years, turned from an embittered convict to an educated, eloquent follower of Elijah Muhammad, and upon his release from prison, a leader in the Black Muslim movement, then after being cast out, finding larger truths after a pilgrimage to Mecca, then returning to America and living as a marked man. He was constantly questioning and growing and evolving and Haley captures it all in the interviews. This book has motion. It fairly pulsates. 

Thursday, December 10, 2020

A Nod Back at November

 Way back in November, I plugged away at Ducks, Newburyport and completed four other books. I'm not going to finish Ducks by my birthday, but I'm on page 820, so I'm cruising into that last marathon mile. This novel will be part of my personal landscape forever.

Here's what else I read:

1. Who Was Nellie Bly? -Margaret Gurevich. Nonfiction. Nellie Bly died a little over a century ago, but judging by this biography, she'd be perfectly at home in 2020 and on social media and probably TikTok, too. She was brash, audacious and full of confidence, taking on assignments like getting herself admitted to a mental asylum, and traveling around the world in less than 80 days. But Bly wasn't just some feathery influencer. She got things done, like shining a merciless spotlight on the conditions in the mental asylum. I'm glad that she hasn't fallen into obscurity. On the contrary, author Margaret Gurevich writes so vividly that Nellie Bly fairly leaps out of the book at the reader.

2. Waterland - Graham Swift. Novel. I can't imagine what possessed me to read this book. Actually, I can. Paging Nancy Pearl! Everyone's favorite librarian has been tweeting out favorites from her backlist, and I've been avidly taking notes. It pains me to say so, but even Nancy sometimes comes up with a clunker. How to describe this book? It's like Hardy and Lawrence and Melville all got together and got drunk and decided to slop out a novel together, each taking a turn ham-fisting the quill pen. Then, that guy who wrote Goodbye, Mr. Chips dropped by and they invited him in for a pint. Oh God No. Just no.

3. The Queen's Gambit - Walter Tevis. Novel. My favorite read for the month. I was intrigued, seeing reviews of the Netflix series, and when I saw that the book was only 2 bucks on Kindle Amazon, I had to give it a go, and it did not disappoint. Just the opposite. It was a lovely mashup of Jane Eyre and The Lost Weekend and every great sports novel. Did I mention a bracing shot of feminism? The chess matches are described in detail, and I know almost nothing of the game, but Tevis makes readers feel as if they're quite knowledgeable. A quick, fluent read that delivers. I've been nagging people to read The Queen's Gambit. Consider yourself nagged. In return, you can nag me to binge watch the Netflix series.

4. Who was Theodore Roosevelt? - Michael Burgan. Nonfiction. Theodore Roosevelt was a larger-than-life character, and my admiration and sympathy goes out to author Michael Burgan who had to contain his life in the conventional 106 pages of this series. The reader can almost see the seams bursting. It's a lively read, but I was disappointed that because of the constraints, Roosevelt's near-fatal 1913 trip down the Amazon barely got two sentences. Oh well, it only makes me more determined to read River of Doubt by Candace Millard, which deals solely with the perilous journey. It's been on my wishlist for a couple of years now, ever since I audiobooked her fascinating book about James A. Garfield's assassination. 

Sunday, November 22, 2020

There You Go, October Part 2

 As I was saying in my last post, I read 5 books in October. There was also a DNF:

3. Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family - Robert Kolker. Nonfiction. I was fascinated by this book for the same reason I was drawn to The Devil in the White City.  I'm sure there's a proper name for this technique, but I call it "the two-track narrative". On one track, you have a large (12 children!) seemingly picture-perfect family living in Colorado. As the children (10 boys and 2 girls) get older, darkness begins to dominate this sunny portrait. Exactly half of the children, once they reach adolescence, begin to show signs of schizophrenia. Questions emerge. Blame is assigned. Ignorance and misinformation abound. Treatment is substandard and almost as injurious as the disease. On the other track, Kolker traces the origins of schizophrenia appearing in medical journals. Doctors and scientists struggle to understand the disease. Success happens in fits and starts, but understanding slowly lurches forward in time to help the surviving boys, now in their 60s and 70s. Kolker is an amazing journalist. His in-depth examination of the non-afflicted children, as well as their mother and father is poignant. He is also palpably sympathetic to the scientists going in the right direction, but facing roadblocks. Hidden Valley Road is packed with so much information, but the book is a clear, smooth, fairly fast read. Highly recommended.

4. The Able McLaughlins - Margaret Wilson. Novel. The 1924 Pulitzer Fiction winner hasn't aged as well as some of its contemporaries. The storyline seems stale and soap-opera-ish to modern readers, and has embarrassing notes of melodrama. There's one character/one chapter that is so well-done that it feels as if they were accidentally dropped into this clunker. The use of occasional flash-forwards is interesting, but awkward. I finally decided that the Pulitzer judges must've been drunk that year. 

5. Dust Tracks on a Road - Zora Neale Hurston. Memoir. Here's what I wrote on Goodreads:

Frustrating and fascinating. Dizzying mashup of lovely lyrical writing and sometimes starchy academic writing. Quicksilver. Can't be pinned down. Always a sense of playfulness. Alice Walker was right: Zora Neale Hurston was a genius of the South. Speaking of Walker, the last chapter of The Color Purple seem like a loving homage, an echo, a conversation with the last lines in Dust Tracks on a Road.

And... This is...this was? the DNF:

Everything is Figureoutable - Marie Forleo. Self-help. I can't help but feel a little sorry for self-help book writers. They happen onto a choice bit of advice, and it's so pure and pristine that it can be distilled down to one sleek and shining phrase. Then for some reason, they take this thing of beauty and decide to strrrrrrreeeeeeecchhhh it out into a whole book. Sometimes it works, as with Eat Stop Eat, Brad Pilon's book about intermittent fasting, and One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way by Robert Maurer, Ph.D. Sometimes, it very decidedly does not work as in Gary Keller's The One Thing and Marie Forleo's Everything is Figureoutable. Keller's book suffers from the stretch problem and not very good writing. Forleo's writing is also bad, but more than that, it feels dishonest, glib, and self-promotional. There's something about the tone in her writing that causes me to associate her with Rachel Hollis, and that's not a good thing. Anyway, my takeaway from Forleo's book is to just treasure her mom's sound advice (everything is figureoutable) and discard the rest.

Sunday, November 15, 2020

There You Go, October Part 1

 Five books in October. An okay month, but I'm still going to have to haul eyes to make my goal of 59 books by the end of the year.

1. Poets In Their Youth - Eileen Simpson. Memoir. Eileen Simpson was married to poet John Berryman, and they were acquainted with other poets, troubled in various degrees: Delmore Schwartz, Robert Lowell, Randall Jarrell and Theodore Roethke. Because Berryman couldn't/wouldn't agree to a normal family sort of life, Simpson gave up the idea of having children and trained to be a psychotherapist. Eventually, she left Berryman, but remained on civil terms with him and his friendly rivals. As a result, Poets In Their Youth is less a gossipy tell-all than a compassionate, forgiving examination with an extra remove of having been written well past the time that she and the poets of the title were acquainted. Although she wasn't a poet, novelist and short-story writer Jean Stafford, who was married to Robert Lowell, is a fascinating presence.

2. Who Is Ruth Bader Ginsburg? - Patricia Brennan Demuth. Biography. I sought this out and read it shortly after RBG's death, and it tore me up. Ended up reading it twice. I even had a dream in which I popped in on Marty Ginsburg, and he was composing the most beautiful sonnet for RBG for their anniversary. Even in dreams, everyone is ardent about Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and why not? She was ardent about people and expressed it so clearly and lucidly through changes she made in unjust laws, not just for women, but for everyone. It will be a long time -- but please, not too long -- before the law is in such good, capable hands again.

Saturday, October 10, 2020

The Good-Bad, Bad-Good Old Summertime Reading Part 2


Yes, I'm at home, but not *this* home. Too bad, because who doesn't need a checkered magnifying glass?

When I was riding in the car yesterday and watching the leaves fall, I thought maybe I'd pushed the limit of talking about summer reading a bit too far. Maybe. But I'll catch up. I'll talk fast.

So yeah, where were we? It was the middle of July.

What Were The Negro Leagues? - Varian Johnson. Nonfiction.

Who Were The Tuskegee Airmen? - Sherri L. Smith. Nonfiction.

The Answer is...: Reflections on My Life - Alex Trebek. Memoir.

What Was The Gold Rush? - Joan Holub. Nonfiction.

Then it was August. 

The Driver's Seat - Muriel Spark. Novel.

Who Was Charlie Chaplin? - Patricia Brennan Demuth. Nonfiction.

Devil in the Details - Jennifer Traig. Memoir.

Lamb in His Bosom - Caroline Miller. Novel. (re-read)

Wild Game: My Mother, Her Secret and Me - Adrienne Brodeur. Memoir. (This book's alternate title is Wild Game: My Mother, Her Lover, and Me)

Who Were The Wright Brothers? - James Buckley, Jr. Nonfiction.

Who Was Napoleon? - Jim Gigliotti. Nonfiction.

Oh, what the hell. It was summer in September, up to the third week. I finished my two (!) September books on the 2nd and the 12th.

Who Was Eleanor Roosevelt? - Gare Thompson. Nonfiction.

Farmer Boy - Laura Ingalls Wilder. Novel. (re-read)

October's been unseasonably warm, too. So there you go. The past just became the present.

Poets In Their Youth - Eileen Simpson. Memoir.

Who Is [sigh, tearing up over the verb] Ruth Bader Ginsburg? - Patricia Brennan Demuth. Nonfiction.

I'm seeing patterns. Addicted like crazy to the Who Was...? series. A couple of novel re-reads, both about pioneer life. Both the series and the novels seem to be comfort reads.

What will the rest of the year bring? I'm halfway through Ducks, Newburyport by Lucy Ellman. My glorious bookworm friend Care sent me a fresh new copy. I love this book but/and it tears at my heart and makes me feel anxious. I had to put it down for a couple of weeks, but the goal is to finish it by my birthday, December 11.

Speaking of fresh and new and glorious bookworm friends, Unruly Reader sent me my very own copy of  A Guide To The Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy by William B. Irvine. I read a library copy back in June, 2016 and loved it. I dip into this book at bedtime. More comfort reading. How can one oldish broad need so much comfort? It's kind of embarrassing.

If good books are good friends, then good friends who send good books must exponentially kick bookworm ass. Well, you know what I mean! I'm not a math person. Have mercy.

I'm also working on The Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley and Hidden Valley Road by Robert Kolker. There will be so much to talk about when I reappear here.

Edited to add: I tried to link Care's and Unruly's blogs, but Blogger told me they didn't exist. How rude! They most certainly do!

Edited to add: Success! Bookworm power just can't be denied.

Monday, September 07, 2020

What I Read Summer, 2020: In the Good, Bad, Bad, Good Old Summertime Part I

Okay, I'm just going to put this under a summer reading umbrella. I'm determined to get caught up!

June 2020

Only two books this month.

Red At The Bone - Jacqueline Woodson. Novel. 
Oh my God, this novel. If you haven't read it yet, go out and find it. A short novel, almost novella-sized, but it packs a punch. Tiny and fierce. I'm now a Jacqueline Woodson fan. Next stop: Woodson's memoir, Brown Girl Dreaming.

Shirley - Susan Scarf Merrell. Novel. 
I first read this book in 2013 or 2014, I think. Reread it right after watching Shirley on Hulu. Elisabeth Moss was perfect as Shirley Jackson. Someone give this woman an Oscar, already. The actor who played her husband, Stanley Edgar Hyman, was also well-cast.

July 2020

Came roaring back with 8 books! Of course, many of them were Who Was...? books. I have a weakness for this series. It's like a childhood dream of mine come true.

Not Without Laughter - Langston Hughes. Novel.
 I didn't even know that Langston Hughes wrote anything but poetry! I happily filled this gap in my ignorance with his 1930 autobiographical novel of growing up in Kansas around the turn of the century. A nearly-forgotten classic. Go find it. 

Promise Unfulfilled: The Brief Life and Bizarre Death of Actor Robert Morris - Vernon Gravely. Nonfiction. 
Robert Morris (1935-1960) started to achieve recognition as an actor in the late 1950s, appearing in Naked City and other TV shows of the time. He was blond, muscular -- in looks, he was a cross between Steve McQueen and Jon Voigt. As an actor, the few examples suggest a young Bo Hopkins. Sadly, Morris's health began to fail at the end of the 1950s, and he died under mysterious circumstances that none of the contemporaries Vernon Gravely interviewed could agree on. 

Who Was Milton Hershey? - James Buckley, Jr. Nonfiction.
One of my great-grandmothers' maiden name was Hershey, so I've always wondered if we were somehow related to Milton Hershey. After reading this book, I wish we could be. What a guy! Hershey was an artist and scientist with chocolate, and he built a beautiful town for the people who worked in his famous chocolate factory.

Too Much and Never Enough: How My Family Created the World's Most Dangerous Man - Mary L. Trump, Ph.D. Memoir.
I thought this was going to mainly be a hatchet job, but surprisingly, Too Much and Never Enough is beautifully written. 


Tuesday, August 04, 2020

May, 2020 Reads

With a bit of a calendar flip, you're into the time slip and nothing will ever be the same...

Here's what I read long, long ago in May, 2020:

 The Brooklyn Follies - Paul Auster. Novel.
This was the very last 2  books I bought while living in Korea. A new English used bookstore called Ebony & Ivory had opened in Cheonan, and I couldn't find it and couldn't find it. Complained to my bookworm buddy Paul Cunningham and he took me there. I picked up The Brooklyn Follies and he commented that it was decent. I also purchased Ride the Pink Horse by Dorothy Hughes. I was charmed by The Brooklyn Follies. It feels kind of Damon Runyonesque but more for 21st century sensibilities. A large portion of the book takes place in a bookshop in New York City. Brooklyn. I think the novel was probably meant as a valentine to the last days before 9/11.

 Songs for the Missing - Stewart O'Nan.  Novel.
The story is not new, unfortunately. A young woman, just weeks away from going off to college for her freshman year, goes missing. While heartbreaking and horrifying, O'Nan concentrates on the grim, practical tasks that fall to her family, then the endless waiting for closure. Told in a matter-of-fact, muted style. It was even more effective than if there had been outbursts of emotion on every page. I almost DNF'ed it. A difficult read, but very well done.

Who Was Abigail Adams? - True Kelley. Nonfiction/Biography.
Abigail Adams is most famous for being the wife and mother to two U.S. presidents, but the voluminous amount of correspondence with John Adams she left behind shows that she was so much more. She was considerably more forward-thinking than the Founding Fathers, for she opposed slavery and supported women's rights. Raise a glass to the first Second Lady as well as the second First Lady! Damn, I feel as if I need to go and listen to 1776 again.

The Lost Landscape - Joyce Carol Oates. Memoir.
Oates writes with great respect and affection about her mother and father, Carolina and Fred Oates, and the positive impact they had on her life. Except for an early chapter (bizarre, humorous) about a chicken that toddler Joyce was attached to, this doesn't feel like an Oates book. Love and sunlight seem to radiate from every page.

Home Work: A Memoir of My Hollywood Years - Julie Andrews. Memoir.
This second volume of Andrews's memoir picks up as she is pregnant with her daughter, Emma and on her way to meet with Walt Disney about Mary Poppins. Since Andrews is expecting, she tells Disney and figures she's out of the running. Disney tells her that it's okay, they'll wait. The rest is of course, Hollywood history. Home Work covers a large portion of her Hollywood career and meeting and falling in love with director Blake Edwards, and their blended families. Much of the book involves traveling from location to location and all their homes -- Julie makes it sound quite stressful. Also interesting were allusions about her slightly dysfunctional birth family that make me want to read Home, the first volume of her memoir. Also looking forward to volume 3.

Redhead By the Side of the Road - Anne Tyler. Novel.
How do I love Anne Tyler? Let me count the ways. I love that every novel takes place in or around Baltimore. I love her quirky main characters with their real hearts and hurts -- they aren't just billboards for quirk. I love the up-to-the-moment feel of each book. I love the messy warmth and confusion of her families when they get together. I love the sideways, gentle, homely and often spot-on way the characters speak. I love it when the main character ruminates, and I love the unexpected character who is often a foil for the main character. All of this and more showed up in Redhead By the Side of the Road, Tyler's latest novel. Micah Mortimer, 40ish, is a self-employed tech expert who goes through life at a slight remove, trying not to make any mistakes. (I loved his ongoing commentary with Traffic God. I could relate.) But it's never that simple in a Tyler novel. His girlfriend breaks up with him for a careless remark, and a young man (the son of an his college girlfriend) who's convinced that Micah's his father shows up at his door one day. Being in the Tylerverse is never a bad thing, but it was even better in 2020. Speaking of 2020, Will Anne Tyler produce a book set during this time?

My Dark Vanessa - Kate Elizabeth Russell. Novel.
Vanessa goes away to boarding school in 2000 when she's about 15, and is drawn into an inappropriate relationship with her English teacher. They continue to communicate years after high school, and his unhealthy influence over her life finally gets some much-needed cracks in it when another student (by now it's the twenty-teens) armed with better knowledge about predatory behavior and more support brought about by changing attitudes decides to bring charges against the teacher. Vanessa slowly begins to realize that the teacher manipulated her skill in interpreting literature, urging her to apply nuance to a situation that should not ever be nuanced at all. Although My Dark Vanessa was an uncomfortable and often infuriating read, I read it all in one sitting.

Next: June, 2020