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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