November News/Month(s) of Books 2018

I last posted in early October, and even then I was two months behind in reporting on my book consumption. The days since have slipped through my fingers like water. I promise I have not been sitting around eating bon-bons (although I did go to London in October for eight wonderful days). What I have been doing is: writing and reading; getting my running program back on track (with a small blip or two); and preparing for the onslaught of the holidays, in the middle of which is scheduled son Jay’s wedding.

The latter two activities bore fruit in two essays. On November 28, Broad Street Review published my essay on coping with the pressure cooker that has been the holidays. Earlier in the fall, Humor Outcasts ran my essay on running in the rain. You can read them at these links: Overbooked for the Holidays and Have a Nice Trip

As for my reading…since the end of July I have read twelve books. (I took a little hiatus in October while I was traveling, resulting in my monthly average falling from four books a month to only three books a month. A slacker, I know.) In a ploy to get caught up, with the hope that come January I will be back on track, I am going to give quick summaries only of the books.

NOVELS

Julian Barnes, The Only Story (2018): Elegant, Barnes-ian prose and classic three-part dramatic structure, but ultimately it left me feeling sad.

Leah Franqui, America for Beginners (2018): Debut novel about three strangers brought together for a cross-country road-trip. She takes a little too long to get everyone into the same car, but it’s a sweet story in the vein of Anne Tyler. (Full disclosure: Leah is the daughter of one of my high school classmates and she went to school with my children. I’m starting to get jealous of all these youngsters I know getting published!)

Anne Tyler (herself), Clock Dance (2018): Much better than her last two — A Spool of Blue Thread and Vinegar Girl (part of the “Hogarth Shakespeare” project). I like settling in with an Anne Tyler. I know what I am going to get — but that may be faint praise.

Margaret Atwood, The Heart Goes Last (2015): Saw Atwood at a Free Library of Philadelphia Author Event and found her to be highly entertaining. I somehow missed this sense of humor in the handful of Atwood books I had read previously. It is definitely in fine form in this satire of a young couple, crushed in the economic downturn, “volunteering” for a planned community that purports to have the solution to all economic and societal ills. The current of wry humor runs through the whole book. I loved it.

Gary Shteyngart, Lake Success (2018): Shteyngart was also very entertaining during his Free Library of Philadelphia appearance (though in ways quite distinct from Margaret Atwood) and a copy of this book came with the tickets. I read it first, and it was not my cup of tea. Described as “a penetrating exploration of the ultra-rich .1%, [it] follows a billionaire hedge-fund manager who flees New York by bus in search of simpler life.” Even though I saw what the humor was, I just couldn’t get over that the protagonist was a clueless jerk who should have had his mouth washed out with soap. Having said that, Jon read it after I did and really enjoyed it. (Female vs. male perspective when reading? That’s for a different discussion!)

Louise Penny, Kingdom of the Blind (2018): I am a fan of cozy village murder mysteries, especially when they come in a series and I get to know all the principals over the course of years and years. Louise Penny is the queen of producing cozy (Canadian) village murder mysteries (with high octane plots). This is #14 of the Armand Gamache stories and is right up there with her best. (I will note, however, that this is the first time that I guessed the crux of one of the major plot lines as soon as it was introduced.)

NON-FICTION

Adam Gopnik, The Table Comes First (2011): A classic Adam Gopnik book, combining erudite learning (in this case, the history of restaurants) and personal Gopnik lore (his love of cooking). Not everyone is a Gopnik fan, and I appreciate their reasons. Having said that, I am a long-time Gopnik fan whose appreciation of him was deepened last summer. By chance he and I were in the back of a church in Wellfleet on Cape Cod, awaiting the start of a Schubert concert. Recognizing him from various book jacket headshots, I screwed up my courage and went over to him. He was a delight. Personable, open and chatty. We had a short conversation about his books, the Cape Cod Chamber Music Festival and our mutual affection for Cape Cod in general. Now I can hear his voice in my head when I read him.

Nell Stevens, Bleaker House (2017): Fun memoir, especially for English majors. Stevens, who already had a PhD in Victorian literature, was an MFA candidate who won a grant to go anywhere in the world to work on writing a novel. Of all places, she picked Bleaker Island in the Falklands, practically a wasteland. She fails to write her novel, but comes to realize, among many other things, that she really should be doing non-fiction. She now has two more non-fiction books out as well as credits in the New York Times. And she’s only 32…

The Best American Travel Essays 2011, Sloane Crossley, guest editor: I don’t usually buy the “best travel” collection, sticking to the plain old “Best American Essays” series. But a number of years ago I picked up this one because Sloane Crossley was the guest editor. Not surprisingly, each year’s collection tends to reflect the temperament of the guest editor. This edition was no different. I enjoyed almost every one of the picks that Crossley made, even the ones that weren’t overtly “humor pieces.”

Hope Jahren, Lab Girl (2016): Widely recognized as a leader among today’s geochemists and geobiologists, Hope Jahren has produced an extraordinary memoir that is also a science textbook. Her writing is lyrical as she intertwines her growth as a scientist with the growth of the very plants and trees she studies. Even in the 1990s, it was not easy to be “a girl” among men in her various scientific and academic communities, yet she surmounted every challenge. Her fierce determination and dedication to her calling are almost unfathomable to someone like me, an English major who has skipped around all over the place. But I couldn’t put the book down, it is such a compelling story. If you read only one book from this list of mine, read this book.

The other two books were the equivalent of junk food: Peter Mayle’s last book, My Twenty-Five Years in Provence, which must have been pulled together quickly just before his death and deserved better editing, and A Time of Love and Tartan, one of the five gazillion books that Alexander McCall Smith has pumped out from his writing desk in Edinburgh. The two really shouldn’t count, but they did keep me distracted through a very bumpy four hours on the second half of our flight home from London.

And now, I am off to a wedding…

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