Friday, August 6, 2010

What Have YOU Been Up to (I Mean Reading) This Summer?

Here is a list of what I've been reading (in chronological order) this past spring and current summer. I have actually read more than this, but some books I didn't bother to list (math books, books about web design, books about parenting). The books I've written about here are not necessarily new, though some are (and one isn't even out yet--"Dangerous Neigbors" by Beth Kephart!), but as we all have books on our bedside tables that we've been meaning to get to, I don't think "new" matters all that much. It's the reading that counts. Read everything you can and the world becomes so much smaller, and brighter.

Powerful, affecting, and stays with you for a long, long time.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins (the sequel)
I am so sorry to say that I found this novel to be not nearly as good as The Hunger Games, but if you loved that story, you will, of course, want to read the follow-up.

"Catching Fire" felt to me as all plot with few ideas/introspection--not like the original. My criticism is that there is far too much telling, not enough showing, but perhaps that is to be expected for a novel I assume was written under very tight deadline.

It's still a great story, and an entertaining, thought-provoking read for all ages. 

Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town by Elyssa East
I was impressed by the research and years of interviews and personal trips that went into this nonfiction homage to a creepy, wild, woody place in Massachusetts and the people who live there, though I don’t think there’s enough real story here. I kept reading, desperate to get to the big realization about Dogtown, the solution to the mystery, and....pffft.

Not enough actually happens over the course of the book to make the ending feel like a payoff…and it absolutely needed photos and reprints of artwork in order to make sense to the reader, especially since so much attention was paid to this history of art created in Dogtown and how that art inspired the author to explore Dogtown in the first place.

Still, if you are from MA, and you've ever heard of Dogtown (or the Salem witches, or anything of that ilk), you may be intrigued by this book. It's quite well written and engaging even though it leaves you wondering, "Huh?"

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo by Stieg Larsson
I had to read this novel. First, because it's a big part of pop culture right now, but also because I love the idea of the story. It spoke to me on a personal level (hah!): a journalist falsely accused of making someone look bad in his writing (even though it was well deserved and totally true, and he didn't really do anything wrong). 

But the actual words in the novel were boring, I thought (e.g.: "He made coffee. They drank coffee. They went to bed together"), which I attribute to a sub-par translation. Still, if you can deal with the flatness just to get the story, go for it. I personally won't buy any more books in this series because I had to (uncharacteristically) force myself to finish "Dragon Tattoo," though if they are lying around a beach house, I will surely pick them up. 

These stories beg to be films, even though I usually think books are  better than films. Because of the language barrier (Swedish to English), this is an exception...unless a Swedish-speaking American poet tries his or her hand at the next translation. Those poets always do an excellent job...

Just Don’t Call Me Ma’am by Anna Mitchael 
A cute memoir, but I am not the ideal reader for this book (about a young woman's traumatic breakup with her live-in lover, and her fears about becoming a cat woman). I am on a different wavelength, and I got married and had kids in my 20s, and I just felt this book was fluffy and sort of silly. Some people may absolutely love it, but I guess I'm too deep and serious, even though I certainly appreciate humor. You can see my review, which I hated to write because I never, ever want to be discouraging to anyone, on

The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie  
A very impressive, very accessible novel about a 14-year old Indian boy who leaves the rez in Washington state to attend the white kids' high school 22 miles away...and he has to hitchhike or walk there most of the time. This is what I think of as a guy’s book that young girls (and all readers) will love, as well. I read it to help one of my students with her summer reading, and although I initially looked at it and saw the National Book Award medallion and thought it might have been awarded for PC reasons, the voice and themes of this easy-to-appreciate novel--with fabulous cartoons!--will speak to readers of all ages. I read this book in about two hours. Pick it up!

Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
I will be honest: when I first read excerpts of this memoir in magazines a year or two ago, I thought to myself: I have no interest in reading some whiny story about a woman who doesn't want to have kids. I mean, I can understand that and even sympathize with it, but if the whole book was going to be about that, I didn't think I wanted to spend time reading that story. Then, I saw some of the big foodie part in Italy where the author bought three or four gelatos a day and ate two pizzas in one sitting, and it just make me think: "Lady, you are eating like an absolute pig. You need to watch it or you will quickly weigh 400 lbs." 

The sections on India and Bali redeemed the memoir for me. I came away--after finally reading it (and I don't think I will see the film for a while; Julia Roberts sort of annoys me)--quite impressed. I truly loved the spiritual section of the memoir and how the entire work was so artfully crafted. 

I also got something out of the spiritual petition Gilbert writes about, and I wrote my own. Hope I am as charmed and blessed as Gilbert clearly is. She is an interesting woman with a gift, and I do think this memoir is ultimately very important. If the film makes you pick up the book, so be it. It's also really inexpensive at Target right now...

Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin
Another memoir I have meant to read for quite a while, but my teaching (and needing to read other books for my work) long kept me from this true story about one man making a real difference, building schools for girls and undertaking other humanitarian projects in Pakistan and Afghanistan. 

I initially wanted to read this because the book's message is about how one person who cares can change the world. I thought that might be a good thing for students to read, but I don't think this memoir would appeal to them, in terms of its serious style. Still, it's so well written, so impeccably researched, so timely and resonant that I do think it should be required reading, perhaps in colleges. 

Many people talk about making a difference, but few people (such as Greg Mortenson) actually dedicate their lives to helping other people, at great personal sacrifice.  Mortenson shows by his example how the "war on terror" can only be won through education, and the message of "Three Cups of Tea" is important politically and spiritually. A must-read.

Making Toast by Roger Rosenblatt
I have been wanting to read this memoir for months, as I am about the same age as the author’s deceased daughter (who died, unexpectedly, of heart issues while using the treadmill).

Making Toast is the story of how two grandparents suddenly become parents again themselves, when they move to help to take care of their deceased daughter's young children. I didn’t want to buy it in the bookstore because it is thin and was priced at nearly $30.

I eventually got it from the library…the prose is economical (which is how I write, too); the tone is, I think, perfect (some may find it flat, but I understand that deeply emotional subjects actually demand a simple tone, lest they become maudlin and impossible to read). Also, I lived in Quogue, which is the home of the author; I know some of the people mentioned in the book. Loved it! A good gift for parents who are now grandparents...

Claiming Ground by Laura Bell
A damn gorgeous memoir that I found in my library about a woman who chooses a rugged, independent life and spends years communicating with dogs and horses, and the occasional drunk, off-duty cowboy, working as a shepherd up in Wyoming. I always think of shepherding as some long-lost art, some throwback to a simpler, possibly better way of life (but actually, it sounds hard and sometimes quite disgusting...wrapping orphaned lambs in the skins of other dead lambs, etc).

Claiming Ground is full of introspective, evocative word-spinning by a writer who very easily paints beautiful pictures in her readers' minds. Powerfully written by a true artist. It's a bit--just barely--of Brokeback Mountain without the homosexuality (and I thought Brokeback Mountain by E. Annie Proulx was excellent, so don't assume I am anti-gay; I am not.)

Dangerous Neighbors by Beth Kephart (release date: Aug 24!)
This lovely novel (and I'm not sure if it's YA because its protagonist is a teen, or if the audience shouldn't care about her age; I will go with the latter idea and deem it a cross-over) is chock full of beautiful, descriptive writing.

A sample: "Before Katherine lies the Bertholdi Fountain, a French fantasy of sea nymphs and frogs, cherubs, turtles, and fish. The nymphs hold a cast-iron basin above their heads, as if it weighs nothing, and Katherine envies their strength then looks beyond it--to the rising and falling of the Centennial acres, the glint and silks of the buildings, the fanning women who are being pushed about in their rolling chairs, and now the Centennial rail train has come in on its narrow-gauge tracks, not far from where Katherine is standing."

"Dangerous Neighbors" is an evocative, incredibly well researched novel about a teenager in Philadephia in 1867 (the backdrop is the Philadelphia Centennial Fair, as seen above) coping with the death of her twin and her own survivor's guilt. 

The author is a past finalist for the National Book Award, but I actually felt irritated, reading the galley of this novel (sent to me for review), that such beautiful prose would probably not see the light of day if not for this author's past awards and a publisher willing to take a risk, as so few seem to be nowadays (which is sad and horrible for all of us, actually).

I am not sure that Kephart's scintillating words will be properly appreciated or speak to a huge audience of contemporary readers, though I sincerely hope they will, and if there is adequate or skilled marketing/PR, it will happen. But "Dangerous Neighbors" should be read and hand-sold by booksellers, and sold by word of mouth promotion. It's very, very good, and this novel could definitely work well in a writing class--showing young writers what can be done with words.

Kephart is clearly a writing talent who not only deftly imagines but also really works at getting the details right.

The Elegance of the Hedgehog by Muriel Barbery
Wow! Lovely prose and profound philosophy (which is right up my alley as I originally intended to become a philosophy professor before I got burned out by the subject), great language and it’s a translation from the French.

(Whenever a translation is really well done, it lets me know that the original must have been mind-bogglingly brilliant, like anything by Nabokov, who knew English perfectly, I believe, or Dostoyevsky. Too bad my French isn't good enough for me to attempt to read the original. I always think I can read French, but I miss so much.)

All in all, this novel is practically perfect. Truly important. I'm going to read it again right now.

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay 
by Michael Chabon

Ten years after its publication (and I loved "Wonder Boys" by this author), I finally got the book. Chabon is so impressive, a real writer’s writer. He is at the top of his game with this Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, and it reminds me of the work of the young John Irving.  Excellent. I am still reading this one--hence the brief, non-review--and I realize I am incredibly late, but I am savoring every word...

Happy reading!


  1. Thanks for the list here. You've got a nice mix of the popular, with why we should or shouldn't bother reading those books, with some I'd never heard of but will certainly check out.

    By the way, you should be on television. You are quite good looking. I hope that doesn't embarrass you. It's meant as a sincere compliment.

    What could be better than an intelligent, thoughtful, beautiful woman? Not much.

  2. Oh boy, I'm on the waiting list for Stieg Larsson books and if it is as stilted as you say it is I don't know if I'll be able to read it.

    I just now finished the book Life As We Knew It by Susan Beth Pfeffer. It's a dystopian novel and it was really good. I don't know what to think about the ending yet. I also recommend several other YA novels I've read this summer:

    1. The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey
    2. Unwind by Neal Shusterman
    3. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness.

  3. I appreciate the compliments, believe me. Thanks very much!



  4. Liberality,

    Thanks so much for the novel recs. I will definitely check those out. I see that the authors are male...not that that matters, but I am wondering if there is something about the male YA author that lends something different to the work. Good writers can "do" both male and female voices, of course, but I wonder if there is something else?


  5. Wow--the entire premise of "Unwind" is unbelievable! That is so timely, so freaky. Going to read that one right now. Thanks again,


  6. Can I just say thank you? I only now discovered this, and I feel so honored and lucky to have you as a reader. It is always one reader at a time, when you write the sort of books that impel me. Thank you for being one of those.

  7. You are welcome, Ms. Kephart. It was my pleasure to read "Dangerous Minds."