Monday, April 6, 2009


If you know me, it's no secret that I love to read. I love books in general; the way they feel, their solid shape is a comfort and anticipation of another time and place. I love the way the pages sound, and the way books smell and the way their spines make that interesting creaky sound. I have previously blogged about how much I love reading, and that I typically have a book with me, no matter where I go. I have been known to read while stopped in traffic at a red light, and when I am on the back of Stefan's Harley, I often have a book then, too.

I have recently run into a whole load of good fortune concerning books, and I am reading several at once. I'm often asked, "What are you reading now?" or "Is that a good book? What is it about?" And as much as I love to read, I find these difficult questions to answer. Without sounding ridiculous, how do I tell you that this book, above all the others, "spoke to me" on the shelf or from the screen of my computer? What made it appealing to me doesn't necessarily mean it will be appealing to others, and many times I have tried to detail the plot of a story or explain why I enjoy reading the memoir genre, the descriptions fall flat and sound just so-so to my own ears. How, then, must they sound to others? Hmmm. Well, here are some the titles I am currently reading or have checked out from the library (libraries, by the way, are the best deal in society). All of the descriptions come from Amazon...

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout
Thirteen linked tales from Strout present a heart-wrenching, penetrating portrait of ordinary coastal Mainers living lives of quiet grief intermingled with flashes of human connection. The opening Pharmacy focuses on terse, dry junior high-school teacher Olive Kitteridge and her gregarious pharmacist husband, Henry, both of whom have survived the loss of a psychologically damaged parent, and both of whom suffer painful attractions to co-workers. Their son, Christopher, takes center stage in A Little Burst, which describes his wedding in humorous, somewhat disturbing detail, and in Security, where Olive, in her 70s, visits Christopher and his family in New York. Strout's fiction showcases her ability to reveal through familiar details—the mother-of-the-groom's wedding dress, a grandmother's disapproving observations of how her grandchildren are raised—the seeds of tragedy. Themes of suicide, depression, bad communication, aging and love, run through these stories, none more vivid or touching than Incoming Tide, where Olive chats with former student Kevin Coulson as they watch waitress Patty Howe by the seashore, all three struggling with their own misgivings about life. Like this story, the collection is easy to read and impossible to forget. Its literary craft and emotional power will surprise readers unfamiliar with Strout.

Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
Set in 1955, the novel focuses on the hopes and aspirations of Frank and April Wheeler, self-assured Connecticut suburbanites who see themselves as very different from their neighbors in the Revolutionary Hill Estates. Seeking to break out of their suburban rut, April convinces Frank they should move to Paris, where she will work and support him while he realizes his vague ambition to be something other than an office worker. Unfortunately, Frank (from whose point of view most of the novel is told) is a weak reed, doing the minimum to get by at work without developing any alternative self, in contrast with April's taking concrete steps to accomplish their move. When April conceives their third child, their plan to leave America crumbles, not least because Frank is flattered by praise from his supervisors at work and beginning to identify with his mundane job. April realizes that she doesn't know herself any more and that she doesn't love Frank; she tries to abort their child herself, but botches the attempt and dies in her effort to fight the forces keeping her in her suburban housewife lifestyle. Frank grieves, but soon becomes absorbed by the work he had once despised, and "dies" an inward death.

One Good Turn by Kate Atkinson
Having won a wide following for her first crime novel (and fifth book), Case Histories (2004), Atkinson sends Det. Jackson Brodie to Edinburgh while girlfriend Julia performs in a Fringe Festival play. When incognito thug "Paul Bradley" is rear-ended by a Honda driver who gets out and bashes Bradley unconscious with a baseball bat, the now-retired Jackson is a reluctant witness. Other bystanders include crime novelist Martin Canning, a valiant milquetoast who saves Bradley's life, and tart-tongued Gloria Hatter, who's plotting to end her 39-year marriage to a shady real estate developer. Jackson walks away from the incident, but keeps running into trouble, including a corpse, the Honda man and sexy, tight-lipped inspector Louise Monroe. Everyone's burdened by a secret—infidelity, unprofessional behavior, murder—adding depth and many diversions. After Martin misses a visit from the Honda man (Martin's wonderfully annoying houseguest isn't so lucky), he enlists Jackson as a bodyguard, pulling the characters into closer orbit before they collide on Gloria Hatter's lawn. Along the way, pieces of plot fall through the cracks between repeatedly shifting points of view, and the final cataclysm feels forced. But crackling one-liners, spot-on set pieces and full-blooded cameos help make this another absorbing character study from the versatile, effervescent Atkinson.

An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination: A Memoir by Elizabeth McCracken
In Elizabeth McCracken’s heartrending memoir—a love letter to the child she lost and the devoted husband who suffered alongside her—McCracken displays her many talents. Her warmth, candor, crystalline prose, lovely imagery, and attention to detail bring her painful story to life. McCracken’s dark sense of humor ensnares unwitting readers, belying the sadness with which she writes, and she shows very little patience for self-pity and sentimentality. Critics praised her clear-eyed account in a genre replete with syrupy, self-aggrandizing books, though some expressed doubts that its subject matter would have wide appeal. “I’m not ready for my first child to fade into history,” explains McCracken. With this heartbreaking account of his life, there’s little chance of that.

When Will There be Good News? by Kate Atkinson
In Atkinson's stellar third novel to feature ex-cop turned PI Jackson Brodie (after One Good Turn), unrelated characters and plot lines collide with momentous results. On a country road, six-year-old Joanna Mason is the only survivor of a knife attack that leaves her mother and two siblings dead. Thirty years later, after boarding the wrong train in Yorkshire, Brodie is almost killed when the train crashes. He's saved by 16-year-old Regina Reggie Chase, the nanny of Dr. Joanna Hunter, née Mason. In the chaos following the crash, Brodie ends up with the wallet of Andrew Decker, the recently released man convicted of murdering the Mason family. Enter DCI Louise Monroe, Brodie's former love interest, who's tracking Decker because of a recent case involving a similar family and crime. When Dr. Hunter disappears, Reggie is convinced she's been kidnapped and enlists the reluctant Brodie to track her down. A lesser author would buckle under so many story lines, but Atkinson juggles them brilliantly, simultaneously tying up loose ends from Turn and opening new doors for further Brodie misadventures.

Ask Again Later: A Novel by Jill A. Davis
When her mother is diagnosed with cancer, New Yorker Emily Rhode ditches her too-perfect boyfriend and far from perfect legal career to become her mother's primary caregiver. At the same time, she reconciles with her estranged father, who left when she was five. When he offers her a job as a receptionist at his law firm, complete with Friday martini lunch dates and father-daughter cab rides to work, Emily agrees, and jokey family bonding follows as mom skates through treatment and dad proves to be more of a teddy bear than an iceman. Davis, author of Girls' Poker Night and a former writer for The Late Show with David Letterman, loads the narrative with one-liner asides and funny riffs (there's a particularly good bit about espresso machines), though she's less adept at sizing up Emily's inner turmoil, notably her fear of committing to smart, patient and loving boyfriend Sam. Though soft-focused (taking care of cancer-stricken mom mostly consists of watching TV and playing board games), Davis's book leavens regret and tragedy with a light-handed wit.

So, that's it, folks. Yes, I am reading all of them right now, but only the beginnings. Once I decide my favorite, I will abandon all others for that particular one, and then I will finish them off one by one in the next three weeks (because all of them are due at the library, except Ask Again Later, which is mine.)

Go find yourself a book to enjoy!

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