Books: June-July 2017

Eight books in two months. Six fiction (including one YA), one creative/motivational, and one feminist manifesto. Seven female authors, one male; one Nigerian and one Swede.

What are you reading?

BeartownBeartown by Fredrik Backman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Backman’s fans will come to Beartown expecting Ove and Britt-Marie, but they will not be found here. Beartown itself will remind readers of Borg, the town in which Britt-Marie discovered a love for soccer through her unexpected affection for those who played it, but in Beartown Backman has diverged from his old, odd characters to focus on a youth hockey team coming of age under pressure of a town that has all its hopes pinned to them.

Despite Backman’s clever writing and insight into human nature at its worst (and occasionally, best) I almost put this one down. Be warned: for those sensitive to the politics that rage around the issue of rape, this is not the book for you. The story is nuanced but for me the end didn’t justify the means.

“Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes much easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard. It makes demands. Hate is simple.
“So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that’s easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe–comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy. There are many ways of doing that, but none is easier than taking her name away from her” (273).

The Pull of The MoonThe Pull of The Moon by Elizabeth Berg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A 50-year-old woman leaves husband and grown daughter behind as she drives away from her life. Except, she doesn’t. Oh, she drives. But she keeps her loved ones with her as she writes letters to him and journals for herself. She calls her daughter once, and writes about that, too. As she moves forward in the present, she reflects on the past, another way of moving into the future. And while it may outwardly look like she’s running (driving) away from her life, she’s truly reconnecting with herself in order to return to it, renewed, more fully whole than ever before.

In Wild, Cheryl Strayed hiked herself into the woman her mother raised her to be. In Moon, Nan drives herself into the woman she wants to be. I wonder if any woman of a certain age could read this book and not recognize something of herself.

It’s so humiliating, she told me. It’s like you’re being punished for something and you’ve no idea what you’ve done wrong except age. She didn’t really hear what she said, she didn’t hear the natural acceptance in her voice of the idea that aging is a crime. But I did. And when I heard it in her, I saw it in me” (104-105).

“And now, in my own stillness, I hear something. ‘Where have you been?’ my inside body whispers to my outside one. Its sense of outrage is present, but dulled by the grief of abandonment. ‘I had ideas. There were things to do. Where did you go?’
“What can I answer? Oh, I had some errands to run. I had a few things to do. I needed to get married and have a child and go underground for twenty-five years, be pleasantly suffocated. I meant to come back. But the bread crumbs got blown away.” (125)

The Most Dangerous Place on EarthThe Most Dangerous Place on Earth by Lindsey Lee Johnson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

“I hate careless people,” declares Jordan in The Great Gatsby, quoted by Calista in her first paper for Miss Nicoll’s Mill Valley High School junior English class.

Every character in this novel is careless. All of them: students, parents, teachers, administrators. Even the ones who begin with a care deal with them carelessly: drugs, alcohol, parties, escapism, suicide.

Johnson’s writing style is crisp, with clearly-developed characters. Set in an affluent San Francisco Bay neighborhood, anyone who lives in an affluent neighborhood knows people just like these: the sporty pretty boy; the beautiful and introverted loner; the too-smart-for-school kid who takes his smarts to the street; the too-sensitive special needs kid; the popular A-student who can’t scratch the surface; the parents (all of them), abusive in their attention and neglect; the idealistic young teacher; the jaded administrator.

The problem is, her characters are all stereotypes, and Johnson puts each into worst-case scenarios. Stereotypes are stereotypes for a reason, because they are recognizable. I so wanted this book to take a new look, a different angle, provide new insight. Sadly, no. And here’s the real catch: in any one class, in one mesh of overlapping friend-groups in one high school graduating class, you won’t have this many significant tragedies.

By the last few chapters, I just felt depressed. Who wants to spend novel-length time with careless, contemptible people? I’m certain that was to Johnson’s point, that money has the power to hide the warts and sins, but she took it too far. Her writing style commends her (hence the two stars), but this story doesn’t.

The MuseThe Muse by Jessie Burton
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A unique take on the “Haves and Have Nots: Wealth, Power, Talent” theme, set alternately in London in the late-60’s and Spain in the late-30’s. Odelle, a young woman from the Caribbean, moves with her best friend to London. She has no wealth or power, but she has talent, makes some good decisions, and in the process makes life-changing connections. Her friend shows her a spectacular painting which belonged to his late mother that he might want to sell at auction, and this moment connects them to the story set in Spain in the 30’s. Teresa has nothing but her wits; her brother Isaac wields some power but lacks talent; the daughter of their new employer, Olive, has wealth and talent but no power beyond the relationship she dangerously winds around the siblings.

Initially this book felt a little slow, but then I read the entire second half in a day. I just wish I could also have seen the paintings, because Burton did such a beautiful job describing them that I know they would be breathtaking.

“This is what she taught me: you have to be ready in order to be lucky. You have to put your pieces into play” (p5).

Writers may relate: “I knew it was true that I had stalled again on my writing. For once, I was too caught up with actually living my life to stop and turn it into words. People like Lawrie–who never wrote a single line of prose, as far as I knew–seemed to want those who did to walk around with a pad and pencil hanging round their neck, jotting down the whole thing, turning it into a book for their own pleasure” (364-365).

The NestThe Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Over the last year, The Nest kept popping into view. I’d pick it up, reread the book jacket, and put it back down. Dysfunctional family? I have my own, which is more than enough. Thanks, but no thanks. But when my neighbor shoved it in my hands, saying she’d just finished and really enjoyed it, and I had to read it before returning it to the library, I gave in.

So glad I did! This is not my family. Thankfully. But I totally relate to each one in all their mess and love them the more for it. Start to finish, I found this a completely satisfying–and entirely too quick–read. One of my favorite things about it was its structure, batting back and forth between the four siblings, but then also between everyone who over the period of this year intersects with them: spouses and children, of course, but also coworkers and friends and neighbors and enemies. What seemed at first like diversions actually intensified my desire to keep reading, because who knew what would happen next?

The Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your PassionThe Crossroads of Should and Must: Find and Follow Your Passion by Elle Luna
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is my new favorite book for anyone creative, anyone who longs to tap into their creativity, or anyone feeling at a crossroad in life. Through words written and painted, through paintings and photographs, through quotes from some of history’s greats, Luna nudges us to find our unique Must, to dialogue with the Shoulds holding us back, face our fears, and take one new action to honor our calling TODAY.

“All too often, we feel that we are not living the fullness of our lives because we are not expressing the fullness of our gifts” (ix).

Swimming LessonsSwimming Lessons by Claire Fuller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

“What could go wrong?” the characters ask each other, repeatedly.

When careless people rush in, without honest and caring communication, a lot can go terribly wrong. Several lives filled to the brim with heartache can be the consequences.

Fuller’s writing is precise and beautiful. She gives us a story in which not a lot happens while emotions seethe beneath the surface as each character moves forward through the mistakes they and those before them have made.

So much can go wrong. And yet, life does goes on.

Dear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen SuggestionsDear Ijeawele, or a Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Quick, thought-provoking read. To me, most of it seems common sense, except I know her fifteen suggestions are not ‘common’ enough. I wish all new parents, all middle schoolers, and all high school seniors (three critically life-changing junctures) could read and discuss this book–how society could be different!

Suggestion #1: Be a full person. How many women lose themselves in motherhood, signing their kids up and carting them from one activity to another while forgetting that their own life is worth something, too.
Suggestion #5: Teach her to read. Parents, teach all your kids to read, and help them read widely. If you don’t like to read, find something you will like to read. Reading is essential!

And so many of the other suggestions stem from here: reading gives one words, language, and ability to question, to consider the significance of assumptions that show up in our language, to communicate with ourselves, others, the world.

Words matter. They help shape our worldview. We need to talk with our children, to help them understand their lives and their place in the world. This book can help to lead the discussion.

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