Months and Months of Books (12/2018 to 4/2019)

What I have done since I last posted:

  • Celebrated Christmas 2018, New Year’s 2019, and two weddings (one of them my son’s).
  • Published my tale of woe about backyard birds: Bye, Bye Birdies.
  • Signed up for Medicare Part B.
  • Traveled to Hollidaysburg, PA (my hometown), once.
  • Traveled to New York City twice, for The Lehman Trilogy at the Park Avenue Armory and the Tolkien exhibit at the Morgan Library.
  • Attended a play, two operas, and an open rehearsal of the Philadelphia Orchestra.
  • Saw in person the following writers at various venues: David Sedaris, Dani Shapiro, Jennifer Egan, Roz Chast and Patricia Marx (together), Dave Barry, Michael Ondaatje, Adam Gopnik.
  • Churned out 10 alumni profiles for Princeton.
  • Read 20 books.

What I have not done since I last posted:

  • Written anything about those 20 books.

I am going to change that now. To make it easier for all of us, my comments will be brief. Below is the list of the 18 books that I read between December through April in the order that I read them, with title (F for fiction, NF for non-fiction), author, and my reaction. (I am determined to get back on track and will cover the May books in a June post.)

Unsheltered (F), Barbara Kingsolver: Another disappointing Kingsolver novel. Stick figure characters for Kingsolver’s soapbox. Her novels peaked at The Poisonwood Bible. Not Recommended

Almost Perfect Christmas (NF), Nina Stibbe: Seasonal essays by author of the very funny collection Love, Nina: A Nanny Writes Home. This one is fun, too. Recommended.

Calypso (NF), David Sedaris: I love David Sedaris’s essays. If you don’t, or haven’t read any, this is a good book to start with. Yes, there’s some snark, but also more compassion, generosity and humanity than in previous collections. Still lots of laughter. Highly Recommended.

Night of Camp David (F), Fletcher Knebel: A political thriller first published in 1965 following the ratification of the 25th amendment. A Senator believes that the president is insane and works to get him out of the White House. Vintage (strategically) reissued it in 2018. I learned a lot about Congress and its procedures. Recommended, but only as a novelty.

 My Life in Middlemarch (NF), Rebecca Mead: An elegant book by long-time New Yorker staff writer combining literary criticism and biography of George Eliot, with a little bit of Mead memoir thrown in. Highly recommended, especially for English majors.

The Victorian and the Romantic (NF), Nell Stevens: Using the same construct that Mead did, Stevens combines literary criticism and biography of Mary Gaskell with Stevens’ memoir thrown in. Too much speculation about a lesser author and too much memoir by a lesser writer. I like Stevens (see Bleaker House in my November News/Month of Books), but this book falls short. Not recommended.

The Master Bedroom (F), Tessa Hadley: An early (2007) Hadley novel with what have become classic elements for her: a large house that is falling apart and a dysfunctional family also falling apart. The characters are sympathetic, even when going wrong, and the story is wholly original, with surprising conclusions. Recommended.

 Manhattan Beach (F), Jennifer Egan: I confess that I was not a fan of A Visit from the Goon Squad, but I loved this book. It’s a good, old-fashioned character- and plot-driven novel, primarily set during World War II at the Brooklyn Naval Yard. Strong female lead, with gangsters and sailors and family mysteries. Highly Recommended.

Transcription (F), Kate Atkinson: At the time I read it, her most recent novel. (She now has a new Jackson Brodie novel out.) The story of an MI5 office in World War II London with a cast of characters differing from the usual spy novels. The book is enthralling, amusing, and so clever I almost started it all over again, just to figure out how Atkinson had pulled it off. Highly Recommended.

Theft by Finding: Diaries 1977-2002, (NF), David Sedaris: I chose to read this after I had seen David Sedaris live in early January. The early years are pretty tough going. Drugs. Promiscuity. Living rough. But it was in a way thrilling to read his “wishful thinking” in his 1980s entries, and then to “watch” as he works very hard at his career and acquires the very fame that he had hoped for along with a stable romantic partner. Recommended to existing Sedaris fans. (Others may be put off by those early years.)

Best American Essays 2018 (NF), guest ed. Hilton Als: I mentioned in an earlier post that these collections reflect the tastes of the guest editors. I could appreciate why Als chose the essays that he did, but reading them felt like homework. Not recommended.

The Library Book (NF), Susan Orlean: The story of the terrible Los Angeles Library fire in 1986. Orlean weaves in characters from the library’s past and present as well as information about libraries in general. Another Orlean book that combines extraordinary research and reporting with her impressive command of language and style. A great read. Highly recommended.

The Faraway Nearby (NF), Rebecca Solnit: Solnit is a columnist at Harper’s and is known for her “famously lyrical prose,” so I thought I ought to read something by her. This book is part memoir during her mother’s decline and death and part travel journalism. There were many exquisite passages, but I wasn’t committed enough to appreciate all of her complexity of style and format (e.g., a crawl that ran at the bottom of the pages throughout the book). The fault was mine, not hers. Others may be more up to the task. Recommended, with reservation.

Bowlaway (F), Elizabeth McCracken: I don’t know how I missed Elizabeth McCracken before this novel, though she has written other novels, short story collections, and a memoir. I’m going to have to catch up, because this book was terrific fun. Set in a small Massachusetts town at the turn of the 20th century, it’s a bit of a picaresque family saga with a matriarch who arrived in town out of nowhere and opened up a bowling alley. Things get even wilder after that, for a couple generations. Highly recommended.

Middle England (F), Jonathan Coe: The Guardian calls this “a bittersweet Brexit novel.” A group of close, now middle-aged, friends and their families live through the seemingly sudden cultural shift in England that leads to Brexit. The action takes place around Birmingham (the middle of England) and London. Coe writes with sharp humor and soft heart. The book is completely engaging, with its political satire balancing his affection for his characters caught in events. (This is the third of a trilogy about the same group of friends, but you don’t need to have read the earlier two books. I hadn’t read them.) Highly recommended.

Duck Season: Eating, Drinking, and Other Adventures in Gascony (NF), David McAninch: McAninch had a stint as editor at Saveur, but this was still only a “B” version of the “Hey family, let’s go live in France for a Year” genre. Its only distinction was that the area was Gascony rather than one of the more popular regions. Not Recommended.

Lessons from Lucy: The Simple Joys of an Old, Happy Dog (NF), Dave Barry: I bought this book at the library event that featured Dave Barry. He was great in person, but I was a bit disappointed by the book. Not only had he covered many of the stories during his talk, the premise felt trite: dog teaches man how to live better. (Shades of Marley and Me.) Barry is clearly shaken by being on the other side of 70 (even though he still looks 15), and this comes through, making the book more poignant than punchy. Just not your typical Barry book. Not recommended.

The Incomplete Book of Running (NF), Peter Sagal: This book was a very big disappointment. It is billed as a memoir about how running has been helping Sagal (of “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me” fame) through some tough times since he was a kid, most recently through a painful divorce. I was prepared to be both sympathetic and amused. Instead, I found his mean-spirited harping about his ex-wife and daughters off-putting. I ended up being sympathetic for them, not him! And the book needed a good development editor: no discernible structure governing the chapters and we really didn’t have to hear about each of his bathroom breaks in his many marathons and training runs. Frankly, it’s a second-rate book that got published only because he’s the host of a funny NPR show. Not recommended.





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