Tag Archives | reading

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

Monday Listicles: A booklist mashup

It seems fitting that as I sit down to write Stasha’s list (on, er, Tuesday night), my kids are mewling please please just ten more minutes…but they’re not begging for more screen time (although they have been known to hourly occasionally do that too).  They’re begging to have the light left on for just a few more minutes of reading time.  Liam is reading something called Divergent (thanks for the suggestion, Karen!) and Caleb…well, Caleb has discovered that Harry Potter is better in print than on the screen. He’s lost somewhere early in Book Six.

How to make a list of ten books? Books that I love to teach? Hate to teach? Books my kids love, books my kids loved but I hate (hellooo Thomas the goddamn Train), books I return to again and again? Books that “Everyone” loves but I hate (Franzen, Franzen, Franzen, let me count the ways). So many ways to make a list of books.

If I were going to make a list of books I loved as a kid…

1. Betsy-Tacy-Tib, by Maud Hart Lovelace. Set in the midwest in the early 1900s, these stories start when Betsy befriends Tacy, and they in turn befriend Tib. They have Big Adventures for little girls who are only six – they go over the Big Hill, they put on a show, glamorous relatives visit from the “big city” (aka Milwaukee), and Betsy, from the beginning of the series, wants to be a writer. The girls’ friendship remains the key through the entire series, which goes through to adulthood, marriage, and the beginnings of World War I. I loved that these characters grew up, unlike Nancy Drew, who I also loved but whose permanent high-school-hood eventually made me quite suspicious.

2. Maida’s Little Shop, Inez Haynes Irwin. Irwin was a radical character- a journalist who spent time at the turn of the 20th century reporting on revolutions in Europe – and who belonged to a feminist group called Heterodoxy, which met monthly in Greenwich Village to talk about suffrage (gasp!), birth control (horrors!), equal rights for African Americans (double gasp) – and, even more shockingly, to offer support for women who kept their own names after marriage. I know – can you imagine? But anyway. Maida is a sick little girl, finally recovered from a long illness, who is surprise surprise, also beautiful and the daughter of a bazillionaire, who sets her up in a little rickety storefront in Boston and tells her to make a go of it. So she does -and meets all kinds of kids from the working-class neighborhood she would never otherwise encounter.  This book is the first in a series of Maida’s adventures (all funded by her father, “Buffalo” Westabrook), and all of them (especially the first few) are wonderful illustrations of Irwin’s progressive, radical-for-her-era politics.

If I were to make a list about books I loved when I was a little older than young – a “tween,” I guess you’d call it, although back when I was a tween they just called it “awkward:” Continue Reading →

Continue Reading · on April 24, 2012 in Books, Monday Listicle

The Original Bossypants and other things you might want to read

My ipad is now crowded with books. I think I have to accept that, in this land of no lending library, I have become an e-reading person. I’m not happy about this fact, but what to do? The nearest bookstore is a car-drive-traffic-park-mall away (and expensive), while amazon can just magically e-zap to me whatever I want. I figure it’s only a matter of time until Wille Wonka’s vision of TV dinners comes true: I’ll order a bathing suit from amazon, it will appear on my ipad, I will pluck it off the screen and it will become a three dimensional object in my hand (and make me look five pounds thinner, but that’s a post for another time).

Anyway. E-reading.

I just finished the amazing new biography of Catherine the Great. I don’t read a lot of non-fiction, I think because I live in non-fiction; I read to spend time in other peoples’ imaginations.  But my friend Karen convinced to get this book and I’m glad I did. It would take a prodigious imagination to come up with a story that resembles Catherine’s –  stage a bloodless coup to oust your husband from the throne, take twelve lovers (probably not simultaneously), build an art collection that became the cornerstone of the Hermitage Museum. Plus expanding the national boundaries, attempt to re-write the legal code to be more equitable, introduce Englightenment ideals to an entire country…Let’s face it: Catherine is the original bossypants. The only thing I didn’t find out is whether there’s any truth to the legend about Catherine and her horse. If you know what I’m talking about, don’t look to this book for answers. If you don’t know what I’m talking about, that’s probably for the best.

Less highfalutin but still compelling is Stephen King’s latest tome, 11/22/63. Yes, that’s the date Kennedy was shot. It’s a pretty good story about time-travel and consequences and love–but you know what? Stephen King needs an editor. It’s a good novel but it clocks in at 849 pages.  That’s only slightly shorter than War and Peace, for god’s sake.  When I was reading King’s book, my e-reader made me very happy: carrying around the actual book would count as weight lifting. I could’ve used the book to do bicep curls. And it’s hard to read when you’re doing bicep curls.  The book captures the era of the early 1960s perfectly, but the plot sags under its own weight, literally and metaphorically.

Two other writers just came out with new books that don’t quite match their best work, although their best work is so good I shouldn’t quibble, I guess. Usually I loves me some Lee Childs–his Jack Reacher books have been responsible for many a late night as I read just one more page and then suddenly it’s 3AM. But his latest, The Affair, seemed a kind of generic go-by-the-numbers Reacher. Maybe Childs feels as glum as I do that Tom Cruise (a small but mighty fellow) is going to play Reacher, a supposedly massive fellow, in a movie version of One Shot. I can’t remember the plot of The Affair, but it was a serviceable thriller if you find yourself stuck in the terminal at O’Hare with a dead phone battery and nothing else to do.  James Lee Burke’s latest detective story, Feast Day of Fools, features Hackberry Holland, who we first met in Rain Gods, a few years back.  The novel packs in border politics, illegal immigration, religion, several gruesome murders, and a few torture scenes for good measure–but the gruesomeness feels forced and the plot spirals all over the place. If you’re new to Burke, do yourself a favor and start with his great Dave Robicheaux novels, set in Baton Rouge. The one thing I gleaned from Burke’s book? His novel  The Lost Get-Back Boogie was rejected one hundred and eleven times over a period of nine years. Then it won a Pulitzer. For those of us with a drawerful of “thanks but no…” letters from agents and publishers, that’s an encouraging tidbit. Continue Reading →

Continue Reading · on February 5, 2012 in Books

Summer Reading, Analog Style

Before we head off on our Middle Eastern adventure, we’re going to spend some family time in an even more exotic locale: we’re going “down the shore.” Snooki-ville, here we come.

I’m bringing this cool thing with me for the beach: it’s totally portable, doesn’t need any kind of power source, and isn’t affected by the glare of the sun. I can toss it on the towel while I go make sand castles with the boys and not worry that someone is going to steal it.  It’s a product that I think might really catch on.

Have you heard of this thing? It’s called a book. It has pages that actually turn and usually comes with a picture on the front cover.

It’s true, folks. Despite being miss social media, as Husband calls me (fondly, I think), I haven’t  switched to a digital reader.  Husband, who worships at the iAltar, tries to convert me: I can carry around lots of “books” without breaking my back; I can keep books I love without having to find more shelf space for them; I can enlarge the print (which is becoming increasingly and depressingly important now that I’ve entered the bifocal years).  I remain unconvinced. My books come to me from that modern miracle, the library. I read them and send them back. It’s a fabulous system.

But. In Abu Dhabi, there is no lending library. Which means I’m either going to bankrupt myself buying new books or I’m going to have to become a Kindelite.

Until that day, however, here’s a list of books I’ve been reading, old-style, turning the pages with greater or lesser interest, depending.  If I see you down the shore with your Snooki pouf bent over a digital reader, I promise not to judge. (And of course, you should feel free to order your copies–real or digital–from Amazon, using that there amazon window, just to the right). Continue Reading →

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Continue Reading · on June 8, 2011 in Abu Dhabi, tech life

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