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).
Loving Frank: I am always fascinated by stories that have been overlooked by history,  and Mamah Cheney’s passionate affair with Frank Lloyd Wright is a great subject. Cheney left her husband and children for Wright, and became the scandal du jour in the process.  In telling Cheney’s story, author Nancy Horan finds a tale that might resonate with contemporary readers: Cheney chose between her love for her children and her love for another man, who offered her the opportunity of self-fulfillment and self-definition.  The novel isn’t entirely satisfying—Cheney whines, and Wright comes across as almost a parody of a self-involved genius—but it does create an interesting portrait of women’s lives in the early 20th century.  There is a shocking twist in the book’s final pages, which makes it all the more surprising that the Cheney-Wright story isn’t more well known.

The Paris Wife is another piece of overlooked history: the story of Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, the woman he brought to Paris and then left behind. But unlike Nancy Horan, Paula McLain seems overwhelmed by her subject and—whether knowingly or not—affects an almost Hemingway-like prose to tell her story.  And let’s face it, Hemingway is the only person who should write like Hemingway—and sometimes even he shouldn’t write like that. The Hemingway-esque terseness and the clunky insert-real-historical-figure-here narrative style became so distracting that I couldn’t keep reading. I returned the book before Hadley and Hem even got to Paris. My mother is always horrified that I leave books unfinished, but I decided long ago that life was too short to read bad books.

Luckily, after putting down The Paris Wife, I picked Andre Agassi’s memoir, Open, which turns out to have been ghost-written by JR Moehringer, who went on to write his own memoir, The Tender Bar. When Open first came out, everyone buzzed about Agassi’s admission of drug use but I was more interested in hearing him talk about the loneliness of a tennis match and his own deeply ambivalent feelings about the sport that made him rich. Growing up, I was a Sampras fan (I thought Agassi was a brat), but I finished the book deep in Camp Andre: not only for his honesty, but also for the devotion in his voice when he talks about his family and for the educational foundation he’s created for underprivileged kids in Las Vegas

I just finished Blood, Bones & Butter, the memoir by Gabrielle Hamilton, the chef and owner Manhattan’s Prune restaurant. I wrote a review of the book for Blogcritics, which you can read here, so I won’t repeat myself, other than to say that it’s probably one of the best books I’ve read this year.

A Day of Honey is also about food. And war. And the Middle East. Also love, family, and journalism.  Annia Ciezadlo, a foreign correspondent living in New York, married Mohamad Bazi, the bureau chief for Newsday and their stories–both their own and those they’re covering–take them from Baghdad to Beirut to Brooklyn and back again, a journey that Ciezadlo traces not only in war terms but in terms of what people ate. “Saying a country has no cuisine seemed like saying it had no culture, no civil society,” she writes. “I decided to go out and find it.”  Tucked into the back of the book are recipes from friends and family members, including a recipe for Lebanese fattoush that is as delicious as it is fun to say.  Ciezadlo’s book offers an intimate and unusual perspective on a part of the world that many of us in the US only know through scary front-page news stories about bombs and violence.  Read this book for what it says about Middle Eastern culture … but don’t read it on an empty stomach because the descriptions of meal-time will leave you salivating.

So you’re raised a Mennonite: no drinking, dancing, singing, no sex before marriage. You flee this religious upbringing, get a PhD in literature, marry a devilishly handsome “bad boy” artist, get a teaching job. You’re all set. Then after fifteen years, your husband leaves you (and your mortgage) for a man he met on gay.com and you’re in a terrible car crash. You have no choice but to move back to your parents’ Mennonite household while you recover. That’s the true-life backstory to Rhoda Janzen’s memoir about “going home again.” Mennonite in a Little Black Dress made me laugh out loud, but not at the Mennonites, whom Janzen describes with great compassion.  She laughs at herself and her sometimes stunningly bad choices, even as she is engaged in some serious soul searching.  Reading this book, I felt like I was having coffee with a wise and funny friend; I missed her voice when the book was through. but the book also but the humor is mixed withreflections about marriage and but the book is also introspectiveeven as she —she never laughs at the customs with which she grew up.  She laughs at herself, even as she also examines the reasons she stayed in her marriage and the reasons she left home.  I think that this book is funnier–and more thoughtful–than Tina Fey’s Bossypants. I know, I know, we all love Tina and so do I, but if you’re spending money in a bookstore, buy Mennonite and then go watch reruns of “30 Rock.”

I loves me a good thriller but Trinity Six, by Charles Cumming, isn’t one of them. Cumming takes as his premise that in there was a sixth “Cambridge spy,” the group of well-educated men who spied for the Soviet Union in the years after WWII.  An unsuspecting academic stumbles onto this secret, which of course, rattles the cages of those in the upper reaches of various governments.  The story is nicely complicated, with a body count substantial enough to convey the high stakes game being played but Cumming shifts the narrative perspective so that we always know what the “bad guys” are doing—there’s almost no suspense. Trinity Six gives too much away too soon and as a result the novel’s final third becomes a rather dull process of filling in the blanks.  Instead of reading Trinity Six, go re-read early Le Carre, or Daniel Silva, or even Lee Childs, and see what true “on the edge of your seat” reading is all about.

The Tiger’s Wife, by Tea Obreht, has gotten a great deal of press, sparked in part, I think, by the fact that Tea is a beautiful blonde twenty-five year old, who may well become a “major” writer. At the moment, though, she’s still writing like someone in a fiction-writing class. Lots of Portent and Significant Events that don’t quite add up to a compelling narrative.  The novel is set in a fictional country that is a lot like Obreht’s native Croatia and the narrative flashes back and forth between a civil war and its aftermath. Natalia Stefanovi, the book’s heroine, searches for the truth about her grandfather’s death while she is working in a small village to establish a children’s medical clinic. Natalia recollects her grandfather’s tales about the “tiger’s wife,” an abused woman who bonds with a tiger escaped from the city zoo. I’m sure the story of the tiger’s wife is an allegory for something, but the pieces never came together, other than in a generic “war is bad” sort of fashion.

See you at the beach!

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6 Responses to Summer Reading, Analog Style

  1. KSB June 8, 2011 at 9:58 am #

    Nooooooooo~ did you see my status update today? I pretty much need to sign over my next paycheck to Amazon as it is, so don’t give me more book recs! (At least not till next payday.) You know I’ll go buy books! May go barefoot and starve if necessary, but cannot pass on books. ;D

    Thanks for the recs–already added them to “the list.” (Which never seems to get shorter, no matter how many paychecks I may fork over to Amazon and other bookstores.) And, by the way, I’m with you on the loving actual books and shunning electronic readers, Kindle et al. 100%. There’s just something magical about having a book in your hand.

  2. joan June 8, 2011 at 10:13 am #

    I hated Loving Frank–but maybe that’s because i already knew the story… just read a good memoir, Outrageous Good Fortune–but it made me cry many times and it may not be a good pick for someone about to go abroad with two small boys… The Uncoupling was good–and would be good for the beach…

    i finally broke down and got a kindle and love it for travel ( although I still spend a lot of time at the library…)

  3. Kim June 8, 2011 at 3:24 pm #

    I used to pride myself on finishing every book I started, no matter how bad. And then, like you, I decided that life’s too short. If a book doesn’t catch my interest within the first few chapters, I don’t bother with the rest. (I may skip to read the last chapter, but only if I’m not completely disgusted with the book.) There are too many good, engaging books out there to read!

  4. Stasha June 9, 2011 at 11:23 pm #

    There is something about turning pages on the beach that makes it a vacation. Kindle just wont do.

  5. Melissa June 10, 2011 at 12:43 pm #

    Thanks for all these hot tips! You are inspiring me to read again. I actually just picked up “Autobiography of a Face” by Lucy Grealy. Not a new work, but it jumped out at me at a stoop sale, and I’d heard a lot about it. Really beautifully written. Keep letting us know what you’re reading!

  6. anna ~ random handprints June 13, 2011 at 12:16 pm #

    these all sound great, but since my lifestyle (even on vacation) means i read about 4 books a year, i think i will have to read mennonite in a black dress. thanks for the recs!

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