Last Week’s Reading: March 19-25

American Gods, by Neil Gaiman: Last week was novel-less, so I treated myself to a re-read of American Gods while recovering from a cold (handy, since the TV show based on the book debuts later this spring). I read the original version eight or ten years ago, and honestly  couldn’t tell you where the 12,000 additional words of the “Author’s Preferred Text” were spliced in. It’s still a rollicking, gory, fun and desperately sad read; I wanted to give Shadow a big hug at the end.

Building Raised Beds, Fern Bradley Marshall: Okay, so this isn’t the most scintillating book I’ve read lately, but it was a decent primer on how to garden using raised beds. I very much want to start a vegetable garden, but I’m not feeling confident about my ability to a) build a raised bed or b) keep my plants alive . . . so maybe I should stick with container gardening? I don’t know. Tell me your favorite gardening books, please.

Is Everyone Hanging Out Without Me? (And Other Concerns), by Mindy Kaling [not pictured because I read it as an e-book]: A light, fun memoir/essay/list hybrid from writer/director/producer Mindy Kaling, who played Kelly Kapoor on The Office and wrote some of its funniest episodes. Though this book doesn’t delve as deep as, say, Amy Poehler’s Yes Please, it’s warm-hearted, self-deprecating, and endearing; if I were going to get a celebrity memoir for my youngest sister (see below), this is the one I’d choose. (Also, to file under “Other Concerns”: I really want to know what Mindy’s best friend Brenda is up to these days—ohmygod I just looked her up and she was Brenda on The Office! But that was like ten years ago so I’m still in the dark.)

Macbeth, by William Shakespeare: I am so very proud of my youngest sister, who just starred as Lady Macbeth in her high school production of the Scottish play. I was totally bummed to miss the performance, so I re-read Macbeth to cheer myself up. (If you’d like to know how it fared in my ranking of all Shakespeare’s plays, you’re in luck.)

Another Brooklyn, by Jacqueline Woodson: I loved this short, beautiful novel about black girls growing up in 1970s Brooklyn. August, the narrator, returns home to bury her father, dredging up memories of her formative years with her best friends Gigi, Angela, and Sylvia. The story is told in fragments and vignettes (to mimic memory, I think), but the novel flows smoothly and feels focused. I closed the book wishing to read more about August, her brother, and August’s work as a cultural anthropologist who studies death. (Sidebar: If you know Ms. Woodson’s children’s books, would you recommend your favorites to me?)

Bright Dead Things, by Ada Limón: Oh goodness, I loved this collection—I don’t know how I missed it in 2015. The voice in these poems struck me—conversational, witty, tough, and tender by turns. I especially liked the sequence dealing with the poet’s stepmother’s final days that focuses on the difficulties of caring for dying people (“The Riveter,” for example, is a gut-punch), but I found poems to love in each of the four sections. Poems about Kentucky and California, Brooklyn and Montana, friendship and lovers, owls and herons, racehorses and dead horses. Highly recommended.

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Last Week’s Reading: February 5 – February 11

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Pachinko, by Min Jin Lee: I loved this family saga about Korean immigrants in twentieth-century Japan. You can read my full review here.

The Lion in Winter, by James Goldman: I grew up watching the film adaptation (starring Peter O’Toole, Katharine Hepburn, Anthony Hopkins, and Timothy Dalton) of this 1966 play, and I was delighted to find that the screenplay matches the script almost exactly. It’s a firecracker of a play about Henry II, Eleanor of Aquitaine, and their scheming sons, brought to life with some of the wittiest, cruelest banter you’ve ever read. My copy, which I found at Loganberry Books in Cleveland, is a first edition, and it includes stills from the first production–imagine my surprise at seeing a very, very young Christopher Walken in these pages! Perfect escapist reading.

Thrall, by Natasha Trethewey: This 2012 collection by former Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey is brilliant. Thrall takes as its focus the poet’s interracial background, interrogating classic paintings that depict mixed-race people and themes and exploring the poet’s relationship with her white father. Two of my favorites from this beautiful, necessary, American collection: “Rotation” and “Enlightenment.”

Norse Mythology, by Neil Gaiman: I’ve been looking forward to this book for months, and Neil Gaiman did not disappoint. In these tales, he brings the Norse gods to life—wise but fallible Odin, hulking Thor, dangerous Loki (and he points out that much of what must have been passed down about goddesses and other female figures has been, alas, lost—hence the disproportionate number of myths about male figures). A gifted storyteller and fascinating legends makes for a classic combination. Gorgeous cover, too.

A Pale View of Hills, by Kazuo Ishiguro: A subtle, unnerving novel about a woman, Etsuko, who recalls one hot, eventful summer in post-war Nagasaki decades later, after she’s moved to England. Her older daughter has recently committed suicide, and her younger daughter comes to visit Etsuko at her country home. The writing is atmospheric and outwardly serene, but malaise creeps beneath the surface. I’m amazed at Mr. Ishiguro’s skill in showing how characters mean exactly the opposite of what they say. Even more amazing is that A Pale View of Hills was his first novel. Recommended.

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.

Recommended Reading: Trigger Warning, by Neil Gaiman

photo (26)The first book of Neil Gaiman’s that I read was Smoke and Mirrors, a long, long time ago, and so I’m used to to thinking of him as a short-story writer; Trigger Warning was a bit like getting reacquainted with an old friend (don’t get me wrong: I love American Gods as much as the next Gaiman fan).

Trigger Warning (the subtitle is Short Fictions and Disturbances) is a wildly varied collection. In it you’ll find poems, a fairy tale or two, a story set in the world of Dr. Who (comprehensible even to me, who’s never seen the show), a novelette, small horror stories, a Sherlock Holmes mystery, a story that brings back Shadow, the protagonist of American Gods, and more.

Not all readers will love every piece; I found some stronger than others, but no piece left me cold (chilled, in some cases, by creepiness). The standouts for me were varied, and included “Jerusalem,” “The Man Who Forgot Ray Bradbury” (among other things, it’s a meditation on language and memory and literature), “A Calendar of Tales” (itself widely varied), “My Last Landlady” (a poem that’s a fabulous twist on Browning’s “My Last Duchess”), and “The Sleeper and the Spindle” (best. fairytale. ever.).

Essentially, if you like Neil Gaiman’s writing, you’ll find something to like in this collection.

And I have to say, as someone who always reads introductions, forewords, acknowledgments, and rights listings (yes, really), that this is one of my favorite introductions of the last five years. Mr. Gaiman talks about why he called the book Trigger Warning (a tricky concept that he approaches with attentiveness), his own feelings about and history with disturbing fiction, and, delightfully, the background of each of the book’s pieces. I love having that kind of information, and Mr. Gaiman’s generosity of spirit shows in the way he tips his hat to friends and fellow writers.

Recommended Reading: The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Unless you’ve been insensate for the last ten years or so, you know that Mr. Gaiman is a book world superstar with novels, short stories, and children’s books to his credit. I loved American Gods and Smoke and Mirrors, so I knew I was in for a treat when I picked up The Ocean at the End of the Lane. It’s received amazing press and Mr. Gaiman commands round-the-block lines whenever he reads at a local bookstore. photo (26)

Now, I found American Gods suspenseful, and Smoke and Mirrors occasionally chilling, but The Ocean At the End of the Lane is downright terrifying. It’s a tribute to Mr. Gaiman’s storytelling that I kept reading, because the whole novel turns around big time child endangerment, which is almost always a book-closer for me. I went into this one not knowing anything about the plot, though, so I wasn’t really prepared for how frightening the book would become.

To say much about the plot would make me feel like a thief in the night, so I’ll refrain.

But you should read this. You’re going to fall in love with the Hempstock family.