Tag Archives | Books

Books! (Part II)

I read a lot. I read for my job, I read to my kids, I read at the gym, before bed, and sometimes (if the book is really good) I read while I’m cooking: stir the pot, read a page; add the spices, read a page. This habit may be while things often get served “cajun style” but hey. A story about the earth slowing in its rotation is vastly more interesting than making chicken tacos for dinner.

Karen Walker’s The Age of Miracles is the book that made me burn dinner. It didn’t make a lot of “year’s best” lists that I saw, but it’s a wonderful book that combines an adolescent coming-of-age story, the flavor of a California suburb, and an incredible it-could-almost-be-true tale of apocalypse: the earth begins to slow in its orbit and no one knows why, or what the consequences will be.  Julia is eleven when “the slowing” begins and most of the novel’s story takes place during the first summer; she narrates the chilling final chapter when she is twenty-three. This book will make you burn your tacos, too.

The Age of Miracles

If you missed Ashley Norton’s The Chocolate Money when it came out last spring, give yourself a lift during the bleak February months and pick up a copy. She mixes some conventional elements–bitchy mother, cynical, sharp-tongued daughter, boarding school, huge family fortunes–into a very unconventional story. It’s a funny, smart debut novel; I’m hoping we don’t have to wait too long for her second book. (Read my full review here.)

Chocolate Money cover

booksideI read some  fantastic memoirs this year, two of which are road trips, of a sort. One is Father’s Day, Buzz Bissinger’s moving and frequently profound story of driving cross-country with his son Zach, a 24 year old who suffered brain damage at birth and who functions at about the level of a 9 year old. Bissinger talks unsparingly about being the father of a special needs son; Zach doesn’t change much during their journey but Bissinger finishes the trip a changed man.

Cheryl Strayed’s journey is a bit more unconventional: to cure her bad break-up, drug addiction, and sense of general malaise, she decides to hike the Pacific Crest Trail from beginning to end–about eleven hundred miles. She has no hiking experience and no companion on her trip; it’s a solo flight and the results are by turns funny, moving, and hair-raising. After reading about her exploits in Wild, my own whining about bad drivers in Abu Dhabi seemed utterly, completely lame. Boot_jkt-330


7445Continuing in the “your life really doesn’t suck by comparison” theme is  The Glass Castle, by Jeannette Walls, which I read in one sitting. Granted, I had jet lag, so my inner clock thought it was still early evening even though it was well past midnight, but it’s really that good. Unbelievable, harrowing, astonishing, brutal, compassionate–all those things, frequently in the span of a paragraph. Jeannette and her two, then three siblings, live with their parents in trailers, the backs of cars, decrepit adobe houses, termite-ridden shacks in Appalachia; there is rarely enough food, lots of drinking, some theft, a soupcon of gambling, and narrow escapes from social services and the law.



13602426I don’t know about you, but the last few novels by Louise Erdrich have been sort of…noble failures. I read them out of a sense of duty because she is an Important Woman Writer, but nothing has come close to the brilliance and pleasure of Love Medicine, Tracks, The Beet Queen. Then this year, she publishes The Round House and bam! she knocks it out of the park. Not only does she perfectly channel the voice of a teen-age boy, she gives us one of the best portraits of a marriage I’ve seen and an unflinching look at contemporary life “on the rez.” Starting with a brutal crime and ending with an affirmation of unshakeable family affection, it’s all that a novel should be: it’s Important, true, but it wears its importance lightly. You are instead swept along on story and only later do you realize that the novel’s ideas have been on your mind for days.



Here’s a readerly failure: I wanted to read Behind the Beautiful Forevers, Katherine Boo’s account of lives in a Mumbai slum but I couldn’t do it. I tried, and I admired her prose, and her ability to capture the personalities of the people she encountered, but ultimately it was too painful, too brutal–and the state of life for these people seemed too permanent. I stopped when a woman deliberately set herself on fire to get her neighbors in trouble. I’d like for someone else to read it and tell me that somehow there’s a happy ending… boo11869272

And now my big finale: a book I actually read just the other day, but it was published in 2012, so I’m including it here; Alif the Unseen, by Willow Wilson. Sean, over at Big Poppa Eats, passed this book along to me and it blew me away. (Sean’s blog reflects that he also has great taste in New York food, as well as books) Alif is an Arab-Indian hacker who lives at home until a program he write attracts the attention of the government. Then Alif, his next-door neighbor Dina, and a djinn named Vikram the Vampire find themselves on the run. Their journey wends through several unnamed Middle Easter cities, into the desert of the Empty Quarter, and into various magical cities populated by all manner of otherworldly characters. When Alif asks the djinn why they live in the Empty Quarter, the djinn tells him that djinn like abandoned places, with few humans around. “Detroit is very popular,” he says. The book talks about Islam, about writing code, about freedom and belief, about 1001 Nights, about love and language; and it ends with something that looks a lot like Arab Spring.  I loved it and then I gave it to Liam, who was fascinated by the idea of hackers–and deeply disappointed to realize that hacking was mostly illegal. alif13239822

And you? what did you read in 2012? What are you looking forward to in 2013?  What did your kids read? (And did you know that you click on the titles in this post to go right to Amazon? Or if you’re lucky enough to live in a place with a library, get busy with your reserve list…!)

Continue Reading · on January 11, 2013 in Books

Tim Riggins, Buzz Bissinger, and Father’s Day

Buzz Bissinger wrote the book Friday Night Lights, which got made into a movie and then a television show that introduced us to Taylor Kitsch, in the role of Tim Riggins.  For that reason alone, we all owe Buzz a debt of gratitude and should buy his latest book, a memoir about a road trip he took with his brain-damaged son Zachary. Father’s Day is Bissinger’s first swing at a memoir and–to shift from football to baseball–he hits the ball out of the park.

In an effort to connect with his twenty-four year old son, Bissinger decides the two of them should drive (because Zach hates to fly) from Philadelphia to Los Angeles, re-visiting all the places they’ve lived, places that Zach remembers with pinpoint accuracy. Zach is the “family’s human GPS” as Bissinger tells us, despite the fact that he will never himself be able to drive–or to live alone, or to fully comprehend the plot of “Friday Night Lights.  Zach and his brother were born thirteen weeks early, but Zach came three minutes after his brother and in that crucial three minutes, his brain was deprived of necessary oxygen. Zach’s twin, Greg, is now a graduate student planning a career as a teacher; Zach has a steady job bagging groceries.

Bissinger’s twins were more premature than my son Liam (born at 32 1/2 weeks), but Liam weighed less than they did. Zach was one pound, eleven ounces, his brother slightly more; Liam was one pound, ten ounces. The dire predictions that came true for Zach were possibilities for Liam’s future, but, amazingly, Liam’s only preemie legacy is that he’s still the shortest seventh grader on two continents. The feelings that Bissinger describes when his sons were born called up all my painful memories of the NICU: my baby wasn’t supposed to be surrounded by a clutch of masked doctors and nurses; my baby wasn’t supposed to be plugged into an infinite number of clicking, whirring machines; my baby wasn’t supposed to be wrapped up tight in a plastic box with a tube down his throat; my baby wasn’t supposed to spend the first months of his life in a hospital ward.

Eventually, Zach comes home from the hospital and his parents confront the fact that brain damage had “settled like patchy mist, some places forever abandoned, and yet some places heightened and magnified.”  Zach is a savant, who is filled with love and optimism, but he is not, as Bissinger admits with painful clarity, “the son he wanted.”  Father’s Day begins as the story of Bissinger’s efforts to know his son more closely, but it is also the story of Bissinger struggling to come to terms with the reality, not only of his son’s life, but his own.

Memoirs are often praised for their “brutal honesty,” but of all the memoirs I’ve read, only Father’s Day demonstrates the full power of that phrase. Bissinger lays himself bare, gives us a full monty of his flaws: professional jealousy, marital failure, profound insecurity, fraught relationships with his own parents. Mostly, however, Bissinger scrutinizes his relationship with Zach–or rather, what he regards as the lack of a relationship with Zach. In talking about Zach, Bissinger runs the risk of alienating his readers because he gives voice to those dark thoughts that I think all parents have, but rarely admit–even to themselves. We wonder with dismay why we got the kid we did; why little Dakota can do back flips while our kid balks at somersaults; why diligent Jayden gets straight As and works hard while our kid stares at the fish-tank and refuses to bathe. Perhaps we protest a little too much that State U offers a great education, even as we stare wistfully at the Harvard bumper-sticker on our neighbor’s car, or maybe it’s just the minor-league networking we do to land our kid the “good” summer job as opposed to the job scooping ice cream.  Bissinger says “I wanted [my kids] to succeed. I wanted them to make me proud…[and] grocery bagging was beyond humbling for a father awash in ambition.”

The arc of this narrative moves Bissinger from anger and frustration at his son’s situation to a place of peace (or as peaceful as someone like Bissinger can get), and so in that regard, the endpoint of the book does not come as a huge surprise. The surprises occur along the journey, as the two men see parts of America that don’t usually make it into the public eye (Tulsa, anyone?) and as Bissinger explores the history of Zachary’s life, which necessitates an exploration of American attitudes towards special needs kids. In order for Zach to get his disability check from Social Security, for instance, he is required to take an aptitude test every two years, “as if he might transform into a member of Mensa when he cannot drive or cook on a stove or add two-digit numbers.”  The system, Bissinger argues, is “despicable….It is our moral obligation to make [people like Zach] into productive citizens. But without the assistance they deserve, they will always live … on the bare fringes of the world.”

Zach, it is clear, is one of the lucky ones, because he has parents who can afford to integrate him into the world as fully as possible; what Bissinger comes to realize is that his perspective on Zach’s life is not Zach’s perspective on his life. Zach does not see himself on the fringes of the world; Zach loves his routines, his co-workers, his friends; he loves his family and his memories.  As the two men drive cross-country, their roles, ironically, begin to reverse. It is Bissinger who locks himself out of hotel rooms, not Zach; it is Zach who reads the map, not his father; it is Zach who stays calm when they’re lost or tired or when his father has an anxiety attack. And it is Zach, in fact, who helps Bissinger come to closure about the deaths of his parents, some years earlier.

Bissinger writes so eloquently about what he learns from his son on their journey that I finished the book with a haze of tears in my eyes.  That is not to say that the book ends in roses and sunshine; it’s not a “pretty little package with a tidy bow,” as Bissinger says. Despite Zach’s growth–he tells his father that he wants to come with the family when they go visit Zach’s step-brother in South Africa, a twenty-hour flight–Bissinger still fears for his son’s future once his parents are no longer around to intercede on his behalf.  But, Bissinger adds, he sees Zach as the most fearless man he knows, who has restored “the faith of a father in all that can be.”

So yeah, Bissinger brought us Tim Riggins, and that’s a fine, fine thing. But in Father’s Day, Bissinger brings us a brilliant narrative about the painful joy of being a parent–and he brings us Zach, who is better than an entire season’s worth of Rigginses. Whether or not you have sons, whether or not you’re the parent of a special needs child, whether or not you’re a father, you owe it to yourself to read Father’s Day.


book jacket photo source here


Continue Reading · on August 21, 2012 in birth, Books, Children, family, growing up, Kids, preemies

Reading Late Into the Night: Three Books, Three Genres

The semester ended a few weeks ago, which is when I dig into the books that have been on my “when summer comes” list.  Truth be told, reading right now is a productive procrastination strategy – let’s read instead of doing all that pesky writing you’re supposed to be doing, my brain says.  But I’m turning over a new leaf, if you’ll pardon the book-related pun:  Here in Abu Dhabi, the week begins today – Sunday – and with that, my newly made resolutions will kick into effect. I can’t mention those resolutions out loud for fear of jinxing myself (or sending you into paroxysms of laughter at my unrealistic goals) but suffice it to say, threats have been made, bribes incentivizing structures have been put into place, and pleasure reading will have to wait until I’m visiting the wilds of Indiana later this summer.

Before I read and wrote about the books listed here, I read Lauren Groff’s wild and wonderful novel about a commune, which I reviewed for The National.  You can read that review here, and then do the newspaper a favor, and go all social media on them: twitter, like, recommend, use all those cute buttons at the bottom of the article.  Thanks.

Back to our regularly scheduled programming:

I. Non-fiction

Probably you already read Half the Sky, which Sheryl WuDunn wrote with her husband, Nicholas Kristof, and so you already know that the book puts you on a pendulum that swings from outrage to exhilaration, often in the span of a short paragraph.  The statistics WuDunn and Kristof present seem impossible, incomprehensible: more girls have been killed in the last fifty years than men were killed in all the wars of the twentieth century; in sub-Saharan Africa, a woman stands a 1-in-22 chance of dying in childbirth; in India there are 2 to 3 million prostitutes (many of whom are young girls and/or women who are little more than slaves)…the list of horrors is endless.

If the book were just a statistical compilation of the ways in which women are systematically beaten down, however, it would not be so powerful. What WuDunn and Kristof bring equally alive can only be called the triumph of the human spirit: women who have crawled, begged, fought, and screamed their way into better situations – women who have, basically, refused to die.  There are women who escape from sexual slavery to start safe houses for other runaways; women who use micro-loans to start tiny businesses that provide enough income that a daughter can go to school; a woman in the US who wrote a letter asking people to donate a dollar to the US Committee for UNFPA, after Bush II cut the funding and eventually raised more than 4 million dollars….The list of triumphs also goes on and on – it’s easy to say that a book is “inspiring,” but there are very few books I’ve read where I actually got chills as I read about what these people have accomplished for themselves and for others.

Half the Sky isn’t all rosy-eyed about NGOs and governmental intervention; WuDunn and Kristof offer a candid assessment of well-intentioned Samaritans. The book offers pragmatic advice – lists, websites, addresses – for anyone who wants to get involved on the ground or for anyone who wants to make donations to worthy causes. You owe it to yourself to spend some time with the women in these pages. Their stories need to be heard.

II. Fiction: dysfunctional families, and a smattering of witches

The Lunatic Parlor brought to mind a joke that I heard from a comedian a long time ago – it’s a perfect joke and for me separates the wheat from the chaff: if you laugh at this joke, we’re probably going to be friends. If you look at me with a slightly furrowed brow and a “wha…?” on your face, then it’s going to take us a while to click.  So the joke goes like this: “I just started therapy…” long sigh, head shake, pursed lips.  “…because I come from a family.”

Get it? Get it?

Eggzackly. Everyone’s family has something, but the family in this novel has a whole lotta something: two alcoholic parents, termites (a lot of termites), unwanted pregnancy, prescription drugs, OCD, really bad parenting, inappropriate boyfriends, Elvis impersonators, and suicide. And it’s funny, funny, funny. The kind of funny that bubbles up from those dark moments when it’s either laugh or crawl into a hole and block up the exits. Continue Reading →

Continue Reading · on June 10, 2012 in Books

The Ruins of Us – Book Review

My first book review appears today in The National, the Emirates English language newspaper. The Ruins of Us, by Keija Parssinen, is a great debut novel set in Saudi Arabia.  You should read it, download it, PDF it…however it is that you read these days.

Click here for The National review.


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Continue Reading · on April 6, 2012 in Abu Dhabi, Books

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