Books Read in December

“All These things I’ve Done” a YA novel by Gabrielle Zevin

The night before junior year – I was sixteen, barely– Gable Arsley said he wanted to sleep with me.

I’ve loved all of Zevin’s novels and this one didn’t disappoint. It’s set in a future NYC where chocolate and caffeine are illegal. And if you’ve followed this blog at all you know that those future type novels completely intrigue me. In addition, paper is scarce, water rare and crime has risen along with poverty. Anya is the daughter of the city’s most notorious crime boss who was killed in their home. She lives with her dying grandmother, younger sister and older brother who suffered a severe head injury that left him unable to be the caregiver, a job that Anya has stepped into and takes very seriously. This story has a little bit of everything including an engaging narrator, a love story and a mystery not to mention the details of a world set far in the future but which Zevin makes feel entirely too plausible.

What I learned: That what really draws me into a story is the voice of the narrator.

 “History of a Suicide – My Sister’s unfinished Life” a memoir by Jill Bialosky

On a cold day in the autumn of 1998, eight years after my sister died, I went back to Cleveland to visit her grave with my husband, David.

Let me start by saying how disconcerting it was to read about a woman with my name who committed suicide. Once I got past that, I really couldn’t put it down even though it was very hard to read at times given that I am so close to my own sisters. Bialosky does an amazing job of not only revealing her own story map of grief, but she also lovingly yet realistically  reveals her sister through memory and bits of her sister’s journal as well as documents from the police.

My favorite line:

Formulating our own words about our lives translates our interior hieroglyphics into the stories we tell ourselves to make events from our pasts more understandable, give them shape and meaning, organize the chaos of the unconscious where we most often dwell.

What I learned: That the above quote articulates why I write much more eloquently than I have ever been able to write myself, which is one of the reasons I love to read.

“Turn of Mind” a novel by Alice LaPlante

Something has happened.

This book… all I can say is “Wow.” Seriously. I think I even said the word ”wow” out loud as I closed the book. I don’t know how she did it. She gets so deep into the fractured mind of Dr. Jennifer White, a widow, mother and retired surgeon, that I felt I had a glimpse of what it must be like to live with Alzheimer’s. The story is told completely through the prism of what she knows, what she remembers and what she forgets. It’s just an amazing story.

What I learned: That pure beauty can emerge when you write so close within the mind of your character.

“What Alice Forgot” a novel by Liane Moriarty

She was floating, arms outstretched, water lapping her body, breathing in a summery fragrance of slat and coconut.

Alice wakes up on the floor of her gym after hitting her head and believes it is ten years earlier. She believes she is pregnant with their first child, that she is twenty-nine and blissfully married to Nick. In reality, Alice is thirty-nine, has three children and her marriage is anything but blissful. The novel explores the myth of who we are and who we think we are and who others think we are. It really made me think about how we change, especially within the context of our most intimate relationships and how a slightly different perspective can make all the difference in how we behave and how we feel.

What I learned: This story reiterated my fascination with any story that involves lifting yourself out of the story of your life and seeing it differently whether that involves any kind of time travel or memory travel.

“State of Wonder” a novel by Ann Patchett

The news of Anders Eckman’s death came by way of Aerogram, a piece of bright blue airmail paper that served as both the stationary and, when folded over and sealed along the edges, the envelope.

I just finished reading this and all I can say (again) is  “Wow.” I feel like I am emerging from the dark heart of the Amazon jungle, squinting my eyes at the brightness of the world around me. The story pulls you in deeper and deeper with every page, deeper in the histories of the characters, their relationships, their decisions and the consequences of those decisions, not to mention deeper into the lush and dangerous landscape of the jungle. The novel is a great escape but not in a mindless way. No, there is much to think about as Patchett covers everything from cannibalism to big pharma, from medical ethics to poisoned arrows.

What I learned: How essential place can be to the heart of a story.

“My American Unhappiness” a novel by Dean Bakapolous

Nine years ago, in the summer of 1999, I was hired to be the director of the great Midwestern Humanities Initiative (GMHI), a federally funded program designed “to foster a greater sense of community, increase public literacy, and strengthen levels of civic engagement in the American heartland.”

Zeke Pappas is determined to find a wife this year in order to keep his two orphaned nieces with him. The problem is that he isn’t exactly dating anyone at the moment. Desperate he turns to a women’s magazine article and lines up four “prospects”: his separated next door neighbor, his longtime assistant, a barista at the local Starbucks and Sophia Coppola who he is sure will be just as enamored of his project chronicling the unhappiness of ordinary Americans as he is. Zeke is one of the most engaging, charmingly unreliable narrators I’ve come across. Watching his life unfold based on bad choice after bad choice is akin to watching a train wreck, you are both mesmerized and horrified. I, for one, could not stop reading this story that balances cynicism with hope.

What I learned: How important it is that your character wants something desperately.

“The Secret Lives of Wives- Women Share What it Really Takes to Stay Married” by Iris Krasnow

“Who needs marriage?” screams a scary headline in two-inch red letters on the cover of a recent Time magazine.

Apparently most of us do. According to Krasnow close to ninety percent of Americans will get married at some point. But getting married and staying married are two completely different things. This book is all about the latter. Krasnow spent several years interviewing women who have been married for twenty years or more, exploring what makes a marriage tick. The answer? Well, it’s different for everyone. No two marriages are alike and you never ever know what really goes on between two people as some of the stories in this book show. Every married woman should read this book and then give it to their daughters.

What I learned: The trick to staying married is not getting divorced and the key to not getting divorced is not depending on your husband for your own happiness.

 

 

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Books Read in November

“The Leftovers” a novel by Tom Perrotta

Laurie Garvey hadn’t been raised to believe in the Rapture. She hadn’t been raised to believe in much of anything, except the foolishness of belief itself.

What happens when neighbors, classmates, wives, husbands, children, celebrities simply vanish one day? October 14 to be exact. This Rapture-like event is dubbed the “Sudden Departure” The novel focuses on the small town of Mapleton and its residents who choose to either go on with their lives in this new world, or change the world or demonize those who were taken in an attempt to prove that it wasn’t the Rapture. It’s an amazing premise that Perrotta bring to life, making it seem entirely plausible.

What I learned: that any premise can be portrayed as plausible if you focus on the characters and their inner lives.

 “In Zanesville” a novel by Jo Ann Beard

We can’t believe the house is on fire.

With that first line, this novel’s fourteen-year-old narrator hooked me. Set in a small Midwestern town in the 1970’s, “In Zanesville” explores that precarious moment in adolescence and friendship when everything tips and suddenly the balance of everything is in question. I loved how the novel is strung like a strand of beads, each scene beautiful and marred, funny and heartbreaking.

What I learned: That I absolutely love a good strong adolescent voice.

“Paper Covers Rock” a YA novel by Jenny Hubbard

When my dad gave me this journal two years ago and said “Fill it with your impressions,” I imagine he had a more idyllic portrait of boarding school life in mind.

After lying about details of an accident in which a fellow classmate dies, Alex seeks refuge in a journal inspired by “Moby Dick.” The first entry is titled “Call Me Is Male.” Glenn, also a witness to the accident and one of the more popular boys at boarding school, aligns himself with Alex, convinced that someone else was at the river that day. When the young female English teacher takes a special interest in Alex’s writing, recognizing his talent as well as the pain or guilt driving it, Glenn is sure that she knows more about the accident than she’s let on and is trying to trap the boys. The voice hooked me from the first sentence as well as the literary references and the story kept me turning the pages until I finished the book in about a day.

What I learned: That a unique structure adds depth to the story.

“Long drive Home” a novel by Will Allison

Dear Sara,

It’s hard for me to imagine the person you’ll be when you read this – probably on your way to college and a life of your own.

This story was hard to read because it hits at one of my big fears- those split-second decisions that people make that end in tragedy. Glen Bauer is driving his daughter home when he encounters a reckless driver. In an instant he decides to jerk the wheel, intending to scare him but what happens is much worse. In another impulsive act, Glen chooses to lie about what actually happened, to the police, his daughter, his wife. Woven throughout the story is a letter he writes to his daughter, for her to read when she is older, trying to tell the truth to her, a confession of sorts.

What I learned: That whatever emotion is buried within the character guides the plot since it guides his actions. So it’s essential as a writer to know what deep feelings your character harbors.

“Forgotten” a YA novel by Cat Patrick

Aren’t Fridays supposed to be good?

London Lane is a sixteen-year-old high school student whose memory is erased every night. She wakes up not knowing what happened the day before and relies on lists she makes before going to sleep, reminding her of what she wore to school, what homework she has and what social interactions she needs to be aware of. Not only does she not remember her past, but she has flashes of her future and those around her. Her mother and best friend are the only people who know her secret. London has set up a structure that works for her, but when a new boy starts at her school, things get complicated. Could not put this book down. Pretty sure I devoured it in one day. My kids think I’m crazy.

 What I learned: how much I adore a quirky premise made plausible, in this case the idea of remembering the future but not the past.

“Displacement” a YA novel by Thalia Chaltas

Miracle Whip on white,

American cheese,

A crunchy tomato slab.

The desert’s veggie sandwich.

Eager to shed the life she left behind, Vera finds herself in a tiny, out of the way mining desert town with an eclectic group of neighbors. She finds a job, a house to live in but is unable to find peace as she realizes that her memories followed her out into the desert. Told in an amazing series of prose poems in Vera’s completely engaging voice, the story is both deeply felt and heartbreaking. Another one that I couldn’t put down. Read it in less than a day.

What I learned: Because of the prose poem structure, I noticed how every single word matters and how the breaking down of those sentences matters just as much.

“Jumping Off Swings” a YA novel by Jo Knowles

I can still feel a trace of his warm lips against mine as he slips away from me and fumbles for the door to his father’s van.

Ellie yearns for a real boyfriend, and each time she hooks up with a boy she is sure it will different. Well, this time it is different. Not the boy, but the consequence. She ends up pregnant. Told in alternating points of view between, Ellie; the boy, Josh; her best friend Corrine and Josh’s friend, Caleb we see how a teen pregnancy not only effects the two teens and their families but also their friends. It is a compelling look at teenage sexuality and pregnancy, one that compelled me to keep turning the pages.

What I learned: That such a universal story needs to be grounded in details of actual characters.

“Turn- The Journal of an Artist” by Anne Truitt

Our rented holiday cottage sits lightly on sand, from which harsh grasses stick up raggedly and prick our bare feet.

While working in a hospital in clinical psychology, Truitt enrolled in a night class to study sculpture. It was her first experience with visual art and it fit her. Instead of furthering her career in medicine, she pursued a life in art. Gutsy,yes? I picked up her first journal years, (perhaps even decades?) ago.  In this journal she is coming to terms with old age and the limitations as well as freedom that it brings. Her children are grown and thus their relationship must grow as well. She details her days and the world and people around her with a careful eye, delving into the sensuousness of the world but also digging deeper into her own creative process. She reminds of a cross between May Sarton and Vivian Swift (minus the charming illustrations) both of whom I also highly recommend.

What I learned: That the tension required for creative work is similar no matter what the form. Writing of a sculpture in process: “”The large sculpture I am working on is at once strange to me because I do not know its heart, except as a tremble in my own, and familiar because it looks to me like mine. As I work on it, I scarcely dare breathe lest the tension between me and it will break.” I feel that same way with writing a new story, the difference is that it tends to scare me away whereas she seems to embrace it as an inevitable part of the process.