2008 reading so far

Black Swan Green by David Mitchell — I read this on the recommendation of Steve Lawson, who had mentioned it being a good book and a dead-on portrait of being a kid in the early 1980s. I didn’t end up identifying so much with the protagonist, who is about thirteen and lives in a depressed, Thatcher-era village, although I couldn’t decide if that was because of a difference in gender and setting or if it was just that it was a little before my time. But, though the book didn’t give me the pleasure of recognition, it did give me the very great pleasure of watching a writer use language well–almost shockingly well at times.

Good Masters, Sweet Ladies! by Laura Amy Schlitz — The book that won the Newbery Medal this year. It’s essentially just what its subtitle says: voices from a medieval village, speaking in a series of interweaving monologues. It was written by a librarian for school children, and I have pressed it upon several teachers, because it’s pretty rare that you get something of literary quality that also fits so nicely in with classroom activities. That said, though, I wasn’t as blown away by it as many people seem to be, perhaps precisely because the usefulness grates on me.

Snow Falling on Cedars by David Guterson — The Meeteetse Museums are currently hosting an exhibit from the Smithsonian called Between Fences. We are the smallest town ever to host it, so it has been quite exciting, and we’ve had a full year of fence-related activities leading up to the exhibit’s opening last week. Among those is the “Between Fences” book discussion group sponsored by the Wyoming Humanities Council. This was the first book. Most people liked it. I felt more like I was reading a soap opera, albeit one with more diverse characters than one normally finds on daytime television.

Swallow the Ocean by Laura M. Flynn — A memoir about growing up with a mother with schizophrenia. I read almost anything that comes across my radar that deals with mental illness because at one point I was putting together an annontated bibliography of works about mental illness aimed at medical students and psychiatric residents (because, you know, they have so much spare reading time). Flynn’s book is fascinating as a portrait of an ill woman who refused treatment and who still managed to convince enough people that she was well that Flynn’s father had great difficulty getting custody of their daughters.

Animal Dreams by Barbara Kingsolver — I don’t actually really like Barbara Kingsolver, but since moving out here I’ve come to appreciate her books because they have people in them who do things like go to Nicaragua to help people do community agriculture. My world used to be full of that sort of thing, and sometimes I miss that constant background. I read about Animal Dreams in Jenna’s zine, so it seemed like the right one to pick.

The Tortilla Curtain by T.C. Boyle — The next book in the Between Fences discussion series. I read this a few years ago for my grandmother’s novel study group, and in rereading it, I noticed all sorts of patterns, since I was no longer concerned chiefly with the plot. My favorite pattern was tracing all the mentions of the words pilgrim and pilgrimage. That in turn led me to the OED, where I discoverd that one meaning was:

N. Amer. regional (chiefly west.) and colloq. (freq. depreciative). A recent immigrant, a tenderfoot; (of cattle) a newly imported or unseasoned animal. Now chiefly in weakened sense: a newcomer, a stranger.

I mentioned this during the discussion, and someone said, “Oh yeah, my dad always refered to people from out of town as pilgrims.” It’s so cool when the dictionary and real life mesh together.

The Alice Stories by Jesse Lee Kercheval — I’ve been reading Jesse Lee Kercheval’s stories and poems in literary journals for many years (although I never realized that she was a she, not a he), so it was a great pleasure to read this novel-in-stories. The main character is a woman who goes to graduate school and then teaches English in a community college in Madison, Wisconsin, and so it was also full of the traces of lives I used to live back when I was a graduate student and lived in a Midwestern college town.

The Senator’s Wife by Sue Miller — I don’t know why I enjoy reading Sue Miller’s books so much, but I always do. She’s kind of the quintessential women’s fiction writer (once, as I recall, referred to as the “doyenne of domesticity”), and I like a lot of things that fall into that genre. In any case, if you like her books, you’ll probably like this one, too. I remember someone complaining to me in high school that all of U2’s songs sound alike. That’s sort of true, but if you like the way they sound, that’s a good thing.

Someday This Pain Will Be Useful to You by Peter Cameron — You really can’t beat the title of this YA novel, which comes from Ovid. A lot of books get compared to The Catcher in the Rye (someone ought to do a study of this), and I have read a lot of them and been unmoved by the comparison, but in this case I think it’s valid. It has only the most superficial connections to Salinger’s book, plot-wise–young man in New York City mostly on his own–but the narrator’s quirks feel very Holden Caulfield-like–and that’s not a bad thing, in this case.

His Illegal Self by Peter Carey — I’ve never really thought I would like reading an e-book, but I had such a wish with this novel–particularly if it were an e-book with text that could be fiddled with with a text-editor so that I could put quotation marks around the dialogue.

My Sister’s Keeper by Jodi Picoult — When I am sick, I want melodrama, and so it seemed, when I got my yearly sinus infection, that it might be time to read one of these Jodi Picoult books that people are always checking out. It delivered. It even provides melodrama with different fonts for the different characters (again, I was wishing for a text editor). I wouldn’t recommend this as a book to read under normal circumstances, but when I was woozy with low-grade fever and cold medicine, it kept me occupied.

House of Sand and Fog by Andre Dubus III — The next in the Between Fences series and the one that I like best so far. It’s also the best example I’ve seen lately of a book described as tragic that actually is tragic in the literary sense–that is, it’s not just that bad things happen, it’s that bad things happen because otherwise good people make mistakes.

Her Last Death by Susanna Sonnenberg — This memoir read so much like an MFA project that I was suprised to learn that, although the author lives in Missoula, Montana, where there is a good nonfiction MFA program, she did not in fact attend it or any other MFA program. In any case, it’s a book about growing up with a mother who, had she not been rich, would, one imagines, be in the projects, or prison, and it’s written in vignettes, mostly chronologically, though it begins with the phone ringing in the author’s Montana home with the news that her mother is on her deathbed.

Trespass: Living on the Edge of the Promised Land by Amy Irvine — Three memoirs by women with difficult childhoods and/or lives are probably a few too many to have gotten in to the library in recent months, but I know they did all sound good. This one, though the least polished, was my favorite, in part because it deals with southern Utah, a place I love, and in part because it’s about how to figure out a way to belong to a place when circumstances conspire to keep you from it. The author was born and raised in Utah, which should have made residing in San Juan County fairly easy, but she was working for the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance, which made her about as popular in the canyon country as a civil rights worker was in Mississippi in 1964. One of the many things people outside the West don’t seem to understand is just how hated environmentalists are here. This book might give you some idea–though it will also lead you through Mormon history and the world of the Anasazi and the cultures that preceded and followed them and a miscarriage and a birth and a whole lot else.