Books Read in July

“The Name of the World” a novel by Denis Johnson

Since my early teens I’ve associated everything to do with college, the “academjc life”, with certain images borne toward me, I suppose, from the TV screen, in particular from the films of the 1930’s they used to broadcast relentlessly when I was a boy, and especially from a single scene: Fresh-faced young people come in from an autumn night to stand around the fireplace in the home of a beloved professor.

Don’t be deceived by the slender width of this novel. Set against the backdrop of academia, in a mere 129 pages Johnson propels us gracefully through a man’s journey to live again after an unimaginable grief.

 What I learned: That I need to allow myself to follow my characters instead of leading them where I think they should go.

“Seductress- Women who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of Love” by Betsy Prioleau

 The seductress. She’s a scarlet inkblot, a Rorschach of our deepest sexual fears and fantasies.

I found this book via my book club, which is a good thing since I don’t think I would’ve ever stumbled upon it on my own. It is not just about sex. It’s about the power of women and their passion and their bold confidence. Prioleau leads us on a fantastic journey through the ages, introducing to women we may have heard of and others who are more obscure but no less powerful.

What I learned: That powerful women have always been scorned and feared by men and, sadly, women alike. That these women wouldn’t even understand the concept of low self-esteem or self-help books.

 “Poser- my life in twetny-three yoga poses” by Claire Dederer

Taking up yoga in the middle of your life is like having someone hand you a dossier about yourself. A dossier full of information you’re not really sure you want.

Dederer does an amazing job of structuring her memoir around twenty-three yoga poses, weaving in her actual practice with her marriage, parenthood as well as her childhood.  l laughed out loud and nodded my head in commiseration as I read.

 What I learned: My new life motto: “You didn’t have to worry about changing everything about yourself, or fixing the fear, or being someone new. you just acted like the person you wanted to be, when and if you could.” How liberating is that?!

 “Side Effects” a YA novel by Amy Goldman Koss

The overhead light snapped on and my shoulder got one quick shake.

This is the story of fifteen-year-old Izzy who wakes one morning with swollen glands. By that night she is checked into the children’s hospital diagnosed with cancer. It sounds like quite a downer, right? Well, trust me, Izzy’s voice is incredibly engaging as as navigates the treatments, her mother’s tears, her father’s battle to stay positive and strong, her brother’s refreshing honesty, her classmate’s faux concern while also dealing with normal teenage issues like best friends and liking boys. I read it in an afternoon and laughed and cried while doing so.

 What I learned: That the reason patients lose hair and get mouth sores during chemo is because cancers cells are fast growing so the chemo goes after ALL fast growing cells including hair and mouth cells.

 “Bound” a novel by Antonya Nelson

The dog had two impulses. One was to stay with the car, container of civilization, and the other was to climb through the ruined window into the wild. Wait with the woman, or dash toward the distant rushing water?

Catherine is Oliver’s third wife. She takes satisfaction that their marriage has lasted the longest even though she is closer in age to his estranged daughter than Oliver. When she learns that her long lost best friend from high school has died, and that not only did she have a daughter that she named after Catherine but that Catherine has been  appointed guardian of this girl who was now missing, her life is scattered into many different directions. Her teenage self resurfaces in memories as does the notorious BTK serial killer, another relic from her teenage years, muddying her ability to make decisions in her present life. Nelson is brilliant at giving everyone, including the dog, a voice in this story. Her close observations allow us to learn about the characters as they learn about themselves.

 What I learned: That I wish I had her amazing skill at voice and point of view. And to learn to braid several strands together to create a richly textured story.

“After” a YA novel by Amy Efaw

The TV’s on, some lame morning show.

We’ve all heard the stories about babies abandoned in dumpsters, about girls or even grown women who claim to have been unaware that they were even pregnant before actually giving birth. “After” goes deep into the psyche of this phenomenen, which at its heart is not merely a shocking news headline but the story of a girl. Devon had it all “before”. She was a great student who took AP chemistry, she excelled at soccer. Then after that night everything changed.. Who she thought she was, who she wanted to be and who she was now. When her world collapses around her, Devon is left to sift through the rubble to discover what, if anything, is left. The storytelling is gripping and emotional.

What I learned: That you can write a story “ripped from the headlines” only if you care deeply about it and go deeply into the character with curiosity and compassion.