january 2012 reading

State of Wonder by Ann Patchett — Unlike my beloved Citizen Reader, I loved Patchett’s latest novel. I didn’t feel the plot was lacking in action (although since my mother claims I only like books with no plots, you may want to take that with a grain of salt or three), and I loved the main character’s bafflement at being confronted with a series of alien cultures — first the city where she stays for the first part of her trip to Brazil and the expats who live there, then the village up the river in the jungle, then the secret world of the scientists who work there. The premise of the novel is that a drug company has scientists working in the field in Brazil to discover why the women in a particular tribe there are able to have babies into their 70s and to try to make a fertility drug using their secret. Having now experienced 39 weeks of pregnancy, I’m not sure why anyone would want to go through it at age 70, but I was captivated by the book nonetheless.

The Submission by Amy Waldman — Waldman imagines what would happen if there were a contest to design the 9/11 memorial and the person who won it turned out to be a Muslim American. I feel there must be a term for this sort of literature — books that introduce a societal shakeup and then show you how a variety of representative characters react to it (in this case, a wealthy liberal victim’s wife, a working class victim’s brother, an illegal Muslim immigrant, an activist lawyer, a banker, the governor, etc.) — but I don’t know what it would be. But in any case, I enjoyed following Waldman’s speculations.

The Informationist by Taylor Stevens — The January pick for the library’s mystery group. I believe Stevens’s claim that she did not base her character on Lisbeth Salander, but then I wasn’t much more impressed with this book than I was with Stieg Larsson’s. It seems like a fairly standard thriller to me — engrossing if you can suspend a certain amount of disbelief — but the only part I really liked was the setting. Most of the book takes place in Equatorial Guineau in western Africa. Stevens lived there for a couple of years, and you can tell.

Once Upon a River by Bonnie Jo Campbell — I’ve only read four books in 2012 so far, but I can tell already that this one is going to be a strong contender for the best book I read all year. Margo, fifteen when the book starts out, lives with her father near her extended but somewhat estranged family on a river in central Michigan circa 1979. The list of bad things that happen to her rivals that of Jude the Obscure (she gets raped by her uncle; her cousin kills her father; she ends up homeless on the river because she wants to avoid the child welfare people), but it’s somehow not a depressing book, or at any rate it’s so compelling, and Margo is such a strong actor in her own story, that you forget about being nothing but depressed.

To Hell With All That by Caitlin Flanaghan — Caitlin Flanaghan is a very stylish writer who makes insane generalizations and has apparently no understanding of what constitutes data or evidence. She is thus exactly the kind of writer whom I love to hate, and in the last week or so of pregnancy I was incredibly grouchy, and the idea of reading a book about which I could grouch at great length was very appealing and was indeed quite satisfying. It was almost as good as the arguments I used to have with Ronald Reagan (in my head) when I was a kid.

Love Works Like This by Lauren Slater — I am very fond of Lauren Slater’s books, but I hadn’t realized until I stumbled across this at the library that she’d written one about pregnancy and motherhood. Like Slater, although to a lesser degree, I have a long history of mental illness and I took a lot of antidepressants during pregnancy. I was less worried about the chemical soup my baby was swimming in than she was (my theory being that while the studies on antidepressants and pregnancy are inconclusive, the studies on maternal depression during pregnancy are very, very solid, and it’s a very bad thing, and so I chose the unknown risk over the certain one), and I had a different set of challenging experiences during the months I was pregnant, and a very different birth experience, but it was good to read a book that so explicitly dealt with pregnancy not as a time of sunshine and roses and high expectation.