A Whole Lotta Books, Recapped.

I’ve been back from Maine a sad many months now, so I suppose it’s well past time for me to discuss the books I read while sitting on the beach  for a week — I mean, I still have to tell you about the books I read in Spain, and Spain itself, and Thanksgiving… But first: I told you I’d get to these books, so here we go, in the order I read them.

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I’ve seen Blade Runner more times than I can count, and yet I’d never read the book it was adapted from, Philip K. Dick‘s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? Now, if you like science fiction, be it in book or film form, I really think you should put this at the top of your library queue — assuming you’re like me and haven’t already read it.

As in Blade Runner, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? is set in a dystopian near-future in which protagonist Rick Deckard is an android hunter.  As with most novel-to-film adaptations, a lot of the original thematic elements were jettisoned  and never appeared on the big screen; while I do love me some Blade Runner, these elements are what make the novel so interesting.  Deckard ponders religion, struggles with his humanity, questions what I can only classify as substance addiction and has an extramarital affair.  All of that is fascinating stuff, and when Mr. Dick includes commentary on status, materialism and Life Itself, it’s like whoa*.

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I really wanted to love The Gastronomy of a Marriage: A Memoir of Food and Love by Michelle Maisto.  I mean, it’s about food and love; it says so right in the title, and I happen to enjoy food and am in love…  Seems like a perfect fit, no?  So why did I feel like it was more about food and, well — the phrase that comes to mind is passive-aggressiveness

Here’s the premise: Ms. Maisto and her fiancé Rich are getting married.  She’s a pescatarian Italian who loves rich meals; he’s a meat-eating Chinese who favors more delicate flavors.  She’s casual about food.  He’s fastidious.   She likes her peanut butter chunky.  He likes his smooth.  They must compromise.

I’m lucky to live with someone who doesn’t care where I keep the ketchup (in the fridge, though Rich prefers the pantry), but that doesn’t mean compromise isn’t part of my daily life.  It is, of course.  But is it worthy of a memoir?  Yes, there is more to this book that just compromise, but only barely, and not enough to give any sort of readerly satisfaction at its conclusion.  Not to mention Ms. Maisto’s description of Rich isn’t the most flattering — he comes across as condescending and belittling, especially when it comes to preparing dinner — and while I doubt that was her intent, I wasn’t able to look past it.

I do like the cover, though.

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It’s been a while since I’ve read a debut novel as cinematic as Daryl Gregory‘s Pandemonium.  I’ll get to the storyline in a bit; I just want to take a moment to reiterate how visual the writing is, and how clearly Mr. Gregory paints the proverbial picture.

Del Pierce lives in a world where demons exist.  There’s the Artist, who uses whatever materials there are at hand to depict the same country scene.  There’s the Truth, hunting malfeasants with his .45s and fedora.  There’s also the Hellion, who likes to possess young boys, and who last surfaced about fifteen years ago in a young blond boy…

Did I mention Del is blond?

To say Mr. Gregory is an ambitious storyteller is the most incredible understatement.  To say that he’s a writer with a dark sense of humor is an oversimplification.  He’s all of these things, undeniably, but he is, most importantly, clever — which is why this novel stays entertaining to the very end.

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I don’t know how I ended up borrowing  Friday Night Knitting Club by Kate Jacobs from the library, I really don’t.  Certainly no one I know recommended it to me.  Perhaps it sounded a bit more interesting than it was?  I honestly can’t remember.  What I do remember, unfortunately, is the plot; since I wouldn’t suggest this book to anyone ever, I’m going to basically ruin the entire storyline for you here:

A single mother who is jaw-droppingly beautiful but doesn’t know it runs a yarn shop on the Upper West Side.  She has an unrealistically and irritatingly precocious preteen and a lot of friends.  They all knit.  Her babydaddy reappears, having had an epiphany and realizing that he can’t live without her or his bastard child.   They fall back in love.  Her life finally feels complete.  Then she suddenly contracts cancer and dies.  Everyone is sad.  The end.

I wish I could say I made that all up, but alas.  Do not read this book under any circumstances, including duress.  You will never get that time back.

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I so enjoyed Pandemonium, which was from Keith’s pile of books, that I picked up The Devil’s Alphabet as soon as he put it down.

In his second novel, Mr. Gregory’s protagonist is the seemingly-normal Pax, who lives and works in Chicago at a restaurant job he’s not too psyched on.  When he receives word that his childhood best friend has committed suicide, Pax returns to the hometown he fled at fifteen.  His is not the everyday small-town-boy-running-away-to-the-big-city story, of course; Mr. Gregory is far too creative for that.  No, turns out Pax left the backwoods of Tennessee because, one strange day, almost all of his town’s inhabitants were struck by a strange disease which caused them to change.  Some became impossibly-huge “Argos,” some hairless magenta-skinned “Betas,” some incredibly obese “Charlies.”  Pax, on the other hand, became a rare “skip,” one of the few townspeople who were unchanged and soon skipped town.

What could’ve simply been a unique spin on a you-can’t-go-home-again story changes (ha ha) into a mash-up of genres sci-fi, mystery and political thriller, to name a few.  Mr. Gregory doesn’t stop there, throwing in some commentary on religious zealots, drug use and the father-son relationship.  It all sounds crazy, I know, but what’s really crazy is that it all works.

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While Marcella’s been trying to get me to read Dan Chaon for what seems like years, I never remembered to check any of his books out of the library until recently.  Let me warn you of something, before you too go out and borrow Await Your Reply:  this is a bleak story.  Do not read it if you are in search of something uplifting, or happy, or have trouble being depressed.  If you are one of those people, this book is not for you.

If you’re not… go for it.

(Oh, I should add that if you have an aversion to violence, try another novel.  The first few pages of this one heavily features a severed hand, and the young man it belongs to.)

Await Your Reply is the story of three stories.  One follows a high school senior who leaves town with her enigmatic history teacher.  Another follows a loser of a guy in search of his mentally-ill twin brother (who may or may not have killed their mother and her husband).  The third, of course, follows the owner of the severed hand.

If these three plotlines seem incredibly disparate, it’s because they are.  You can try to sort out how they interconnect, but if you do, forget about things like continuity and time periods; Chaon jumps all over the place.  What’s kind of amazing, though, is that it all makes sense in the end, and that the three stories tie together in a way that’s almost ingenious.  Depressing, but ingenious.

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I actually got a little tired of being depressed — who’d’a thunk it? — so to lighten things up, I turned to some adolescent fiction with The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate by Jacqueline Kelly.  It’s actually a really cute story, one which could’ve easily been a run of the mill girl-doesn’t-fit-in-with-her-family-and/or-town plotline.  Instead, Ms. Kelly threw in some historical and science-related twists into her novel; these details are what made Calpurnia and her story interesting.

Callie — who got stuck with the trickier name, Calpurnia in 1890s Texas, or me in 1980s/1990s New York suburbia? — has a hard time living with her prim-and-proper mother as the only other female in a house full of boys.  One of eight children, she’d rather spend her time with her naturalist grandfather than cooking, doing needlework and practicing other genteel arts.  When Callie and her grandfather make a discovery, she gets the feeling that her life is going to change…  but does it?

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I love crime.

I like cops, I like thieves, I like con artists, I like people who pull heists, and as weird as it sounds I like serial killers.  I hope to never have to interact with anyone from the criminal world, cops included — I’ve never even gotten a speeding ticket and I plan on keeping it that way — but give me an interesting, well-written story about them and I’m hooked.  Which leads me to John Heidenry’s Zero at the Bone: The Playboy, the Prostitute, and the Murder of Bobby Greenlease.  The book follows the 1953 kidnapping of six-year-old Bobby Greenlease, the son of an extremely wealthy Midwestern family and whose $600,000 ransom was the highest paid in American history up to that point.  Mr. Heidenry tells the story in a very straightforward, journalistic manner; it would have been so easy to pulp it up — grifters, mobsters, femme fetales… so noir — but Zero at the Bone is so dark and bleak that relying upon stylistic crutches would have cheapened it entirely.

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I’m a huge fan of the multi-character narrative, so I really appreciated that Liza Ketchum incorporated it into Where the Great Hawk Flies, a adult novel that takes place in 1780s Vermont.

In the book’s recent past, a British-fueled Indian** attack sent Hiram Coombs and his family running for safety and eventual resettlement in Connecticut, while Daniel Tucker and his family hid in a nearby cave; after the raid, they returned to rebuild their home.  After the Coombs decide to move back to Vermont, Hiram soon clashes with Daniel.  The root of the problem is heritage — Daniel, and his sister, are half Indian.  It doesn’t matter that the Tucker children are part-Pequot, considering that the ransacking tribespeople were Caughnawagas; Hiram and his mother openly fear and disdain the Tuckers regardless.

As someone who’s half-this and half-that, I like reading stories (fiction and non-fiction) about people dealing with  determining their cultural identities a bit more than most.  What I found incredibly interesting is that Where the Great Hawk Flies comes across a new story, and one that hasn’t been told, which is a pretty neat trick.

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This summer I took a pretty fantastic Grub Street class with the excellent Christopher Boginski called “Six Weeks, Six Essays.”  Not only did we write an essay a week, we also read a selection of essays whose themes we responded to in our work.  One of those essays was the truly amazing “Weekend” by Amy Hempel — if you can find a copy, you must read it — compelled me to pick up At the Gates of the Animal Kingdom, an anthology of her works.  Some of these pieces can be called stories, others essays, and others yet I’d classify as musings.  Regardless, what Ms. Hempel can do with words is unfathomable.  “In the Animal Shelter,” barely a page, will break your heart.

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In case it hasn’t been made ridiculously clear by my “What I’ve Read” lists over on the sidebar, I like adolescent fiction.  I also like fantasy, so it makes sense that I would like The Lost Conspiracy by Frances Hardinge.

Ms. Hardinge accomplishes something with this book that I truly admire: she creates not only an entirely new world, but one that has its own complex set of rules.  On that world is the island of Gullstruck, where a tribe of people are keeping a dangerous secret behind inscrutable smiles.  This tribe is the Lace, and what they’re hiding is a girl.  She’s said to be a Lost, an oracle, and her young sister Hathin is her fiercest protector.  The tricky thing is, and there must be a tricky thing, that this oracle is a fake prophet, one the tribe has invented as a form of protection.  When this sham is put to the test, Hathin has to fight to save herself, her sister and her tribe.

It’s pretty intense stuff.

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On the day before Lulu’s tenth birthday, her father shoots her mother, stabs her sister Merry and tries to kill himself.  Their father imprisoned, the girls are sent to live with one family member to the other until an aunt, tired of the sisters, deposits them in a group home for orphans.  The sisters eventually come to live in a foster home, but their lives don’t get any easier.  Lulu does all she can to separate herself from her murderer father, refusing to visit him or acknowledge the fact that he lived; as an adult, she doesn’t even tell her own daughters that he’s alive.  Merry, on the other hand, does all she can to make her father’s life easier, visiting whenever she can and trying to persuade Lulu to do the same.

Randy Susan Meyers‘s The Murderer’s Daughters sounds like a huge downer of a novel, but there are interesting and even uplifting parts.  The narrative switches between the sisters, something I personally enjoy but know irritates some readers (Keith), but it really works here.  The alternating narration gives insight as to how each young sister grew into the women they are, which I think is interesting regardless of whether such evolution is fictional or real.

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So there you have it, the twelve books I read in seven August days.  Of course, now it’s December, and I’ve read something like twenty-five additional books since then, some of which I’ll be telling you about soon.  So please check back in later.

Coming up… my trip to Spain, and what I did there.

* Yeah, I just quoted Black Rob.  So?
** I have no idea what the correct term is here.  Indian?  Native American?  Aboriginals?
It’s actually a really cute story, one which could’ve easily been a run of the mill girl-doesn’t-fit-in-with-her-family-and/or-town story.  Instead it was

On a Bit of a YA Kick.

When it comes down to it, I think I’m a cross between a thirteen-year-old boy and a sixty-something woman.  Here’s why:

  • I read comics;
  • I quilt;
  • I like zombies;
  • I own tons of moisturizers and creams;
  • I watch action movies;
  • I love BBC America and costume dramas.

I could go on and on, but regardless of my proclivities, my point is that in between reading “grown-up books,” I’ve been binging on adolescent fiction.  I can’t think of a better word than binging, because I do crave reading young adult books; once I read one, I hungrily reach for more.

The Invention of Hugo Cabret My most recent YA spree started with The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick.  It’s the story of twelve-year-old orphan Hugo, who lives in 1930s Paris.  Actually, to be more specific, Hugo lives in Gare Montparnasse, one of the city’s busiest train stations.  There Hugo secretly works as the keeper of the clocks, a position that technically belongs to his uncle and guardian, who has gone missing.  Hugo has no other relatives with whom he can live — his father died in a fire — and because he is scared of being sent away, he continues his uncle’s work within the station walls.  After he’s caught stealing from the cart of a toy vendor, Hugo finds himself in the middle of a mystery that will change his life.

I can’t say much more without giving everything within the book away, but I will say these two things: The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a must-read for lovers of film history, as well as anyone who appreciates detailed pencil drawings.  See, Selznick tells his tale in a somewhat unconventional manner, alternating between illustrations, text and photographs; by doing so, he facilitates a reader-friendly introduction to one of film’s most influential innovators.

The Hunger GamesAfter The Invention of Hugo Cabret, my picks in adolescent fiction definitely veered towards the dark and depressing, particularly with Suzanne Collins‘s novel The Hunger Games — which I immediately re-read upon completion, so engrossed by it was I.  It’s impossible not to get hooked by Collins’s absorbing writing style and likable protagonist, not to mention the story’s incredibly captivating plot.

The Hunger Games takes place in the future, one in which North America no longer exists.  The remaining pockets of civilization has been divided into districts serving a wealthier, more powerful capitol who each year reminds and punishes its chattel of their lower standing and previous rebellion by coercing one boy and one girl from each district to participate in a televised survival game.  The novel’s main character Katniss is from District 12, the poorest of the bunch; when her twelve-year-old sister is selected to take part in the Hunger Games, Katniss quickly takes her place as the district’s tribute.  Soon Katniss and Peeta, the male tribute from District 12, on are their way to the Capitol for makeovers, interviews and training before literately fighting for their lives in the bloody, gruesome games.

A few final notes:  The Hunger Games is book one of a trilogy; part two, Catching Fire, is set for a September first release.  While the plot is indeed fascinating, as is its social commentary, it is also very graphic.  Children, after all, are not only being killed, but they are also killing each other in extremely explicit ways.  I’m interested to see how the novel’s brutality will translate to the screen; Collins is adapting her book to film .

Thirteen Reasons WhyEven after The Hunger Games, I was still in the mood for something on the bleak side — who wants to read only happy stories?  I want the characters I’m investing in to work for their happiness, as opposed to having it just handed it to them.

I thought Jay Asher‘s Thirteen Reasons Why would fit my sad little bill perfectly; after all, it’s about a girl who, before committing suicide, records her reasons why on a series of cassette tapes, which she organizes to have sent around to her classmates after her death.  One of the recipients of the box of tapes also happens to have harbored a secret, not-acted-upon love for the girl.  Doesn’t this all sound riveting?

Unfortunately, it wasn’t.  Our suicidal narrator Hannah has a strong voice, and yet she is utterly unbelievable as a character.  What she relates via cassette tape is tragic… but ultimately so very contrived.  The boys in her school rank her ass on a widely-circulated list, for example, a scene taken right out of an episode of My So-Called Life*.  Lamentably, Asher tackles way too much, and the end result is confusing, frustrating and all over the place.

If I StaySince Thirteen Reasons Why didn’t satisfy my craving for sad story, I turned to If I Stay by Gayle Forman to push me over the edge.  It definitely did the trick — I kept on pushing the book off my lap distressfully, only to pull it back on again.  You try reading about Mia’s close-knit family without getting torn up.  It won’t happen.

Raised in Oregon by punky, unconventional parents, Mia rebels in her own way by choosing to play classical cello.  Her skill is so great, she’s had a successful Julliard audition and is awaiting to hear if she’ll be New York bound in the fall when she goes for a ride with her parents and young brother.  Their car is hit by another vehicle; Mia’s parents are killed upon impact, her brother is gravely injured and Mia, surprisingly, finds herself outside her own critically wounded body.  As she follows herself through surgeries and intensive care, Mia looks back on her life and must decide what she wants to do, live or die.

It sounds so terribly hokey, doesn’t it?  Trust me when I say If I Stay is not.  Forman could so easily succumb to schmaltz and sentimentality, but she doesn’t.  Instead, she allows Mia to grieve first her parents’ deaths, then her younger brother Teddy’s, without any sense of melodrama.  Forman essentially trusts the reader with a heartbreaking story — something, unfortunately, that not all writers are able to do.

So is this the end of my adolescent fiction fever?  That’s highly doubtful.  Even though I’m currently reading  an “adult” book, I’ve got a list of my next-reads at the ready.  Some of them might even be somewhat cheerful.

Then again, they might not.

* Episode 5, “The Zit.”