Last Month’s Reading: June 2017

June was a busy month for our family,  with meetings, farewells, travels, and celebrations, and thus a light month for reading. I did manage to squeeze in these books:

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, by Neil deGrasse Tyson (not pictured; library e-book): I actually did read this one in a hurry, finishing it just a half an hour before it was automatically returned (no overdue finds for e-books, I guess). In these short essays, many revised from previous publication, Neil deGrasse Tyson covers a wide range of topics in astronomy and astrophysics (think dark energy or the Big Bang) for the layperson. It’s a cosmological amuse-bouche, if you will.

House of Names, by Colm Tóibín (not pictured; returned to library): House of Names is an unsettling take on the miseries of the mythological House of Atreus, presenting the perspectives of Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Electra to suggest how everything went terribly wrong. Mythology gives readers a wide sweep, archetype and theme; Mr. Tóibín offers grim detail, whispers in the dark. Read this—the first line is “I have been acquainted with the smell of death.”—and you’ll never again look at your copy of Edith Hamilton without a shudder.

One Day We’ll All Be Dead and None of This Will Matter, by Scaachi Koul:  I remember reading, in Buzzfeed a couple years ago, “Hunting Season,” Ms. Koul’s essay about the dynamics of men watching women while they drink. It was so smart, so spot-on, so scary. You’ll find it in this collection of essays that’s undergirded by Ms. Koul’s experience as a woman of color in Canada (her parents moved to Canada from India before she was born). Despite its bleak title and serious themes, this collection is often hilarious—her boyfriend is called Hamhock—since Ms. Koul uses humiliating-yet-funny experiences (a dressing room incident in which a skirt refuses to budge, for example, or feeling absolutely terrified about flying) from her own life to illuminate larger questions about identity and culture. A winner.

Letters to a Young Writer, by Colum McCann: Bite-size pieces of advice to beginning writers, with a focus on empathy and perseverance. Excellent epigraphs. Chances are you’ve heard versions of this advice if you’ve read around in the genre, but still, this is a warm and welcoming read.

Wedding Toasts I’ll Never Give*, by Ada Calhoun: I don’t think I’ve ever read a non-fiction book about marriage before, but such is the power of a purple cover and Ms. Calhoun’s funny introduction. These toasts are essays on the pleasures and problems of staying married (when she asks her mother for advice on the subject, her mother replies, “You don’t get divorced.”). While not everything in the book spoke to me—there’s quite a bit about infidelity, and I would have liked more LGBTQ-inclusive examples and language—I laughed often and appreciated its realistic attitude, neither “the institution of marriage is doomed” nor “marriage is the happily ever after.”
*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration.

Duende, by Tracy K. Smith: I cheered out loud when I saw that Tracy K. Smith had been named the new poet laureate, and to celebrate I bought this 2007 collection. It’s beautiful and technically accomplished, of course, and I was so impressed by the way Ms. Smith brings histories of violence to life and into the realm of the particular body. She’s an absolutely phenomenal poet.

Human Chain, by Seamus Heaney: The last of the Irish writers I read this month (an unintentional grouping). There’s nothing quite like reading Seamus Heaney to deflate one’s pride; in Human Chain I found a poem about a pen (“The Conway Stewart”) that’s better than anything I’ve ever written or will ever write. And in “The Door Was Open and the House Was Dark” I found the poem I would have read at my dear grandpa‘s memorial service. A beautiful, moving collection.

By the Way, Meet Vera Stark, by Lynn Nottage: I loved this play by Ms. Nottage, two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize for Drama. In 1930s Los Angeles, Vera Stark is an aspiring actress who works as a maid for a difficult screen star (with whom she shares a secret common history). This comedy-drama is witty, fast-paced, and incisive as it considers racism in Hollywood and how modern critics and theorists analyze it. Brilliant, and highly recommended. (P. S. If you’ve read this, can we talk about the Imitation of Life and All About Eve references?)

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Books, Boston, October

Well, Dear Readers, I’ve had quite the literary month, getting out and about much more than I usually do in my quiet life. Perhaps you’d like the rundown? If so:

Hamlet: Yes, that one. I thought, London travel not exactly in my budget, that Benedict Cumberbatch as the brooding Dane was not a performance I’d be able to see. And then by chance I heard it was going to show in movie theaters, after which I promptly bought the last two tickets for that showing.

Verdict: Very good. Mr. Cumberbatch was intense, thrilling, athletic, funny, outshining most of the cast with the exception of the fabulous Ciarán Hinds (aka Frederick Wentworth in the only film adaptation of Persuasion you need to see) as Claudius. I wasn’t sold on this production’s take on Ophelia (played a bit unhinged before Polonius’s death), but her final exit was remarkably well done. I agree with the review my husband told me about later that suggested the play was overproduced after intermission. Still, nice set design, and I liked the costuming, which seemed like a bit of an homage to various earlier interpretations of the play. Funniest Rosencrantz (or was it Guildenstern?) I’ve ever seen.

I hear it’s coming back to theaters; if so, do go.

Nick Offerman: Okay, technically he was doing his humorist act (sans spouse Megan Mullally, sigh), but I’m calling this literary since he’s written two books (one of which is waiting on my nightstand/bookshelf to be read) and he’s in rehearsals for a Boston theatrical adaptation of A Confederacy of Dunces.

Verdict: Very Good. Funny (of course), with ridiculous songs, anecdotes, life advice, talk of woodworking, etc. Basically, it was like watching an alternate-universe version of Ron Swanson who actually enjoys the company of others. Best moment: He didn’t mention Parks & Rec until the very end (and you know how much I love that show, right?), but then had the entire audience singing along to “Bye, Bye Lil’ Sebastian.” Yeah, it was amazing.

Boston Book Festival

This is the first year I’ve been able to spend more than ten minutes at the BBF, and I’m very glad I did, though I din’t see much of the vendors (magazines, small presses, etc.) since they tore down pretty early on Saturday evening (just after 5). However . . .

Margaret Atwood in conversation with Kelly Link: So happy I got tickets this summer, because the crowd was huge (and appreciative).

Verdict: Excellent. Margaret Atwood is hilarious–just truly, wickedly funny, and Kelly Link was understatedly comic as she asked really interesting questions. I was expecting the conversation to focus mostly on The Heart Goes Last, Ms. Atwood’s most recent book, but instead it ranged over her childhood reading habits, how she approaches writing (like going into a dark wood, and with a character or scene in mind, not a message), reading the Victorians, and more. Wonderful. And bonus: both writers did a signing afterward, and Ms. Atwood signed my 1970 copy of an early book of poems (yes, I did tell her that I liked her Milton references in the new book, and she said “I’m glad.” Swoon).

James Wood: Mr. Wood is a professor at Harvard and a literary critic for the New Yorker; some would argue (and have) that he’s the foremost literary critic writing in English. His approach is aesthetic rather than, say, historical or psychological.

Verdict: Very good. I haven’t heard an academic talk in quite some time, and this one was geared toward a wide audience, but one that would understand references to Flaubert and Nabokov, for instance. Mr. Wood talked about detail in fiction—why details stick with us after we read, how they function, why they function. Fascinating (and just when I was starting to worry that he wasn’t going to mention any woman writers, he referred to nearly half a dozen). He also did a signing at the end of the event, which was delightful since I’d just picked up his new book (The Nearest Thing to Life).

Colum McCann in conversation with Claire Messud: Amazingly, given how popular these two authors are, this event wasn’t ticketed, but there was once more a lively and interested crowd (great job by the BBF organizers in making sure the audio was top-notch). Colum McCann’s most lauded book to date is probably Let the Great World Spin (I haven’t read it, but loved Everything in This Country Must). Claire Messud is an acclaimed novelist, most recently of The Woman Upstairs (she also happens to be married to James Wood, who spoke just before this event).

Verdict: Good. The writers are friends and former colleaugues, which made for a relaxed rapport. Mr. McCann read from his new book (Thirteen Ways of Looking), and while his reading was very well done and affecting, I though it slowed down the pace of the conversation. I was interested to learn about the charity called Narrative 4 that he works co-founded, and saddened to hear of a terrible incident in which he was brutally beaten for trying to stop a man from beating his wife.

Amanda Palmer interviewed by Neil Gaiman: I’ll be honest with you, Dear Readers: I came for Neil Gaiman, one of the most reliably readable authors working today. And charming and philanthropic and all that good stuff. To be honest, I had, before hearing this talk, almost no opinion on Amanda Palmer (Mr. Gaiman is her husband), though I know she provokes Feelings of all sorts in various people (generally love or hate, from what I can tell).

Verdict: Very good. Ms. Palmer talked about the process of writing her memoir, The Art of Asking, and seemed no more self-indulgent than anyone else who’s interested in writing a memoir. She was genuine, honest (as far as this listener could tell), amusing, and shared a charming rapport with Mr. Gaiman. At the end of the talk, I decided I’d rather like to read her book, so well done there. Bonus: An appearance by Maria Popova (of Brain Pickings, which I commend to you; Ms. Popova has every metaphysician/Jeopardy nerd’s dream job), tempered slightly by I think a too-rosy view of Thoreau. Bonus 2: Ms. Palmer sang, and I loved her voice, which I was hearing for the first time (yes, your friendly neighborhood blogger was not cool enough to be listening to the Dresden Dolls in high school).

[Boston book blogging friends: Meet up next year at the 2016 Boston Book Festival?]

Whew. And that’s all she wrote. For now.

Summer Reading, Two Ways

Long ago, when the world was still getting used to Pierce Brosnan was James Bond, I started reading Ian Fleming’s novels at my grandmother’s house, where the slim paperbacks, spines emblazoned with the title and the minimalist “/Fleming” had been left behind by my uncles. (Thankfully, I didn’t start with The Spy Who Loved Me.)

Since then, I’ve had a fondness for both short books and spy novels, which, despite their content, tend to make me think of open windows, box fans, and tomato sandwiches eaten with one hand. They’re summer books, at least for me, serving as quick palate cleansers between heavier main courses.

IMG_4137And so I was happy to zip through Daniel Silva’s The English Spy*, which is, I learned, the latest installment in a long series of best-selling novels (which appear most summers) featuring Gabriel Allon, an Israeli spy and art restorer. I should note here that I haven’t read any of Mr. Silva’s previous novels, but I had no trouble jumping into the story and getting a sense of the characters, so don’t let prior unfamiliarity stop you from picking up the book.

The book opens when a skilled assassin sinks the yacht carrying a certain (unnamed) English former princess; Gabriel is called in to help find the killer, and he recruits an old friend to help him. Together they track the bomber, who has ties to an ultra-violent faction of the IRA and various terrorist organizations. And of course, as in any good espionage thriller, there’s always a bigger fish.

The English Spy features plenty of action and twists, memorable minor characters, and solid writing. It’s violent, but not unusually so for a spy novel, and features far fewer adult shenanigans or gadgets and far more politics than your average James Bond book (or movie, for that matter). More Patriot Games than Goldfinger. It’s a fun, fast read.

Now, I promised summer reading two ways. There’s quick-reading genre fiction, like The English Spy, and then, at least for me, short, serious fiction.

IMG_4138Colum McCann’s Everything in This Country Must (2001) is the latter, a mini-collection of two short stories and a novella. All three take place in Northern Ireland during the “troubles” (which made me pick it up after The English Spy‘s focus on the IRA), and all three feature young people and their parents trying to negotiate the uncertain world they find themselves in. In the title story, a girl and her father try to save their horse, unwillingly helped by British soldiers. In the second short story, a boy conceals his involvement in helping his mother make supplies for the Protestant marches. In the novella, Hunger Strike, a boy and his mother move to a small trailer in a new town, and the boy flounders in his anger as they live out the days of his uncle’s hunger strike.

The writing is just gorgeous, simple with impeccably-placed figurative language. These are bruising, brilliant stories; the book is a small masterpiece. Highly recommended.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my review.