october, november, and december reading

The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart — A great puzzle-solving book in which kids have to figure out how to get along in order to save the world.

R Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt — I loved this book when I was a kid, and I got sucked into rereading it while I was doing some prep work for book talks for the 6th grade. It’s fascinating to me how some of these older books bridge the categories we now call “juvenile” and “young adult.” Julie, the heroine of this book, starts out as a kid and finishes high school by the end of the book. As a result, there are both things that you identify strongly with when you’re a kid, and things that you completely miss, at least if you’re me. I don’t think I picked up on what was going on with the girl who dated the bad boy and was sent off to live with a never-heard-of-before aunt in Idaho.

L The Golden Compass by Philip Pullman, read by Pullman and a full cast — The movie was disappointing. The audio version rocks.

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah — Listening to The Darling, in which the main character’s sons become soldiers in Liberia’s civil wars made me more curious about child soldiers (again, look–fiction can teach you things!), so since Beah’s account of being a child soldier in Sierra Leone was sitting right there on the shelf, I decided to pick it up. Often when I read books in which people make really bad decisions, I have a hard time understanding their choices. (But why, oh why, Elizabeth Wurzel, did you think becoming a cocaine addict would be a good idea? Okay, I know, addiction isn’t exactly a choice, but. . . .) In this case, though, you can see why Beah became a soldier. It was kill or be killed, and certainly the “don’t you want to avenge your family?” argument could be quite seductive. It’s harder to understand how exactly Beah’s rehabilitation worked, but there is, I suppose, a limit to what writing can do.

Virgin River by Robyn Carr — This is a romance novel in which a recently widowed woman moves to an isolated town in northern California and finds love with a local handyman. I believe that I read another novel with exactly this plot some years ago.

L The Subtle Knife by Philip Pullman — The audio version continues to be brilliant. I’ve been listening to audio books as a way to fall asleep, but this one turned out to be kind of bad for that. It’s suspenseful enough that it kept me up, and when I did fall asleep, I kept having nightmares resembling situations in the book. I count that as a point in the book’s favor, though.

Run by Ann Patchett — Whenever I read the book jacket copy on one of Patchett’s novels, I think I don’t really want to read it, but whenever I actually start one, I’m hooked. This was no different.
My Last Best Friend by Julie Bowe — A cute middle grade novel about a girl whose best friend moves away and who swears she’s never going to have another one.

Addicted to Danger by Jim Wickwire and Dorothy Bullitt — I have no desire to scale the world’s 8000 meter peaks, but I love reading about alpine climbing. Even with help from Bullitt, one gets the impression that Wickwire is a better climber than he is a writer. Not reccommended unless, like me, you can’t get enough of this sort of thing.

Not That You Asked by Steve Almond — I read this after seeing it mentioned over on NonAnon. I offer one passage that should pretty much explain just why I loved this book:

I can’t remember the last time I heard an investigative report on NPR. Like about, say, the sitting president launching a war based on bogus intelligence, or the vice president inviting lobbyists to rewrite our environmental laws, or the Speaker of the House turning Capitol Hill into a gold brick factory. Instead, NPR waits until these scandals have become conventional wisdom, then calls in Terry Gross for mop-up.

I used to spend a lot of time at WBUR, the Boston NPR affiliate. The staffers I met there were intelligent and hardworking. They were also tragically demoralized. That’s what happens when your job is to cover the most corrupt, incompetent administration in history, and every day you churn out timid drivel.

Freak by Marcella Pixley — Normaly reading YA literature is not particularly disturbing to me, because the experiences the characters have are enough removed from my own that I can empathize with them without feeling that I’m reliving my own experience. Not so with Pixley’s book. If your high school experience was less about sex and drugs and more about bullying and about not understanding how everyone’s interests suddenly shifted or completely disappeared, this slim book will, I am afraid, take you right back there.

–Or Not by Brian Mandabach — I had high hopes for a book about an anti-war teenager who doesn’t shave her legs, but I was disappointed in Mandabach’s novel. It contains those elements but lacks many of the chief things that make a story work.

I Feel Bad About My Neck by Nora Ephron — I tried listening to the audio version of this, which is read by Ephron, and found that her voice is not to my taste. Reading her essays, though, is great. “Serial Monogamy: A Memoir” was, if possible, even funnier than when I first read it in the New Yorker. Ephron’s concerns are largely foreign to me (despite my recent hair infatuation, I can’t imagine going to get my hair done twice a week), but her writing is so good it doesn’t seem to matter.

Dragonhaven by Robin McKinley — I feel about Robin McKinley much as I do about Ani Difranco: while I support and encourage their efforts to expand and explore new things, I can’t help but love their earlier work more than I do their current efforts. This was a particularly odd book for McKinley in that the narrator is male–a teenage boy who lives in a fictitious national park somewhere in the west. (Cheyenne is listed as being the nearest city of any size.) Smokehill harbors some of the last of the dragons, which were largely eradicated as civilization–and ranching–moved west. McKinley now lives in England, and I’m not sure she’s ever spent a significant amount of time in the West, but the way that this novel echoes Western land use issues and endangered species controversies is uncanny. Substitute “wolves” for “dragons” in the text and you could easily see people trying to ban the book in Wyoming.

Letters from the Inside by Brian Marsden — A book with a laudatory blurb from Robert Cormier is likely to be a grim affair, and Marsden’s novel doesn’t disappoint. The whole thing is a novel-in-letters between two Australian teenagers, one of whom turns out to be not quite what her penpal thought. The teen’s voices are full of slang, which I suspect makes them authentic, but it’s funny to read slang from another country. You’re never sure whether saying “fair dinkum” makes you sound cool or whether it’s like using the word “awesome” during periods when that term is not in vogue.

R My Ántonia by Willa Cather — Thirteen Wyoming county library systems particpated in The Big Read, which is an NEA-sponsored endeavor to get people reading. I am deeply skeptical about the NEA, their statistics on reading (the 2004 “Reading at Risk” study [PDF], for instance, counted only novels as “reading”–John McPhee? Sorry, that’s not reading. Poetry? Not reading. Plays? Not reading), and their overall agenda (the NEA used to sponsor people like Robert Mapplethorpe; now they do Shakespearean productions and dead writers), but My Ántonia is, I am happy to say, still a good book. (Mind you, there’s nothing wrong with dead writers, but I’d like to see some support for contemporary and emerging arts. Art is something people still make; not something that died in 1930.)

A Match to the Heart by Gretel Ehrlich — Ehrlich’s account of being struck by lightning. Not as good as The Solace of Open Spaces, but then, that’s a hard act to follow. (Incidentally, “Wyoming — Intellectual life — 20th century” is my new favorite subject heading.)

R The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald — Gatsby was another Big Read selection, but we read it for our second book discussion this year outside of the context of the program. I remember being underwhelmed by Gatsby when I first read it, but it seems to grow on me with each reading. “. . . there was something gorgeous about him, some heightened sensitivity to the promises of life, as if he were related to one of those intricate machines that register earthquakes ten thousand miles away.” Wow.

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver — We tend to say that reading broadens the mind, but in some instances, I think, it simply fine-tunes it. At any rate, I do take a certain amount of pleasure in reading books whose premises I already agree with, and Kingsolver’s latest was one of those. I am not generally a fan of Kingsolver’s writing, which I find is often a bit too quaint and clever, and this book didn’t change that, but I did enjoy reading gentle screeds about the environmental impact of food and the importance of being connected to the land. Also, did you know that it’s apparently really easy to make cheese? So says Kingsolver, so I’m going to try it.

Clapton: The Autobiography by Eric Clapton — I lay the blame for my fondness for rock musician biographies squarely at the feet of the Iowa City Public Library, which in my youth shelved the 781s right at the end of one of the stacks on the second floor, where their flashy covers could easily catch my eye. My love of Eric Clapton I lay squarely at the feet of the guys who did “Sunshine of Your Love” as a special act at a swing show my freshman year of high school. One does leave this memoir with the decided sense that there may be a dichotomy between sobriety and guitar-playing prowess, and, as several reviews have mentioned, it’s a little weird to read Eric Clapton going on about the joys of pheasant hunting, but if you like this sort of thing, it’s a pretty good read.

L The Amber Spyglass by Philip Pullman — Still good!

Deep Economy by Bill McKibben — This is another one of those “it’s so great to read more about things I already think” books, and, like most of McKibben’s work, suffers from a sort of weird balance between personal experience and reportage, but it’s filled with fascinating details of various forms of sustainable local economies around the world, including the community-run Merc in Powell, Wyoming, just about an hour from here.

In all, I read about 80 books in 2007. I say “about” because there were 79 books on my list, but I’m pretty sure I’ve forgotten a few, and I did also start a lot of books I didn’t finish. I’m trying to get better about dropping books that just aren’t doing it for me. This whole full-time job thing already cuts too deeply into my reading time, damn it.