Summer Reading: Pairs Event

In which I pair three books read this summer with three books read before this summer that have similar themes but are in some way opposite. It’s a scientific process, people.


IMG_4256Summer Reading: The Gracekeepers,* by Kirsty Logan, takes place in a watery future world (I haven’t seen Waterworld, so I can’t tell you how it compares. Sorry about that). All land is inhabited by landlockers, who jealously guard their island holdings; some of them have returned to earth worship. Everyone else lives at sea. These damplings include scavengers, revivalists who live on converted cruise ships (no pun intended there), messengers, and the crew of the Excalibur, a tiny floating circus. North is the circus’s bear girl, who, like her parents before her, dances with a bear to entertain landlockers in the hope of earning dinner. One night a storm sends the circus crew into the path of Callanish, a gracekeeper—a person in charge of arranging damplings’ burials at sea. North and Callanish exchange secrets and part ways, but they can’t stop wondering about each other, and about the possibility that there’s a way to be of both the land and the sea.

The main characters aren’t as fleshed out as I would have liked, but The Gracekeepers is worth picking up for the atmosphere, the world-building, and the supporting characters.

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Pair it with: Emmi Itäranta’s Memory of Water,* another novel set in the future after some kind of environmental disaster—though this time, one that causes a scarcity of water. Memory of Water also features a pair of young women trying to make the best of a dangerous existence while hiding secrets.

IMG_3428Summer Reading: Bill Bryson’s In a Sunburned Country is a hilarious tour through Australia. He talks to almost invariably friendly Australians, gets quite drunk and draws naughty cartoons on a napkin, lists the continent’s unrelentingly deadly wildlife, and doesn’t see too many kangaroos, among other exploits. I can’t say the book makes me want to visit Australia—though Mr. Bryson enthusiastically hopes that you will—but it definitely made me want to visit with Bill Bryson. The book’s one drawback: Mr. Bryson’s failure to write significantly or at any length about Australia’s Aboriginal population; as far as I could tell, he did not speak with a single Aboriginal person.

Still, if you’re one of the people who’s just discovering Mr. Bryson thanks to the press surrounding the upcoming movie version of A Walk in the Woods (which I highly recommend), I recommend reading this one.

photo 3Pair it with: A very different take on Australia, by an Australian. Christos Tsiolkas’s Barracuda* is a book with teeth, and a lot more anger than laughs. As I wrote in my review, “Danny is an teenage Australian swimmer who dreams of making it to the Olympics; thankfully, there’s no swelling inspirational music in this tightly-plotted, intricately structured novel.”

FullSizeRenderSummer Reading: Mark Forsyth’s The Etymologicon is a circular perambulation through the odd origins of English words. You could pick up the book, flip to any page, and have yourself a laugh reading any entry, but each entry connects in some way to its predecessor and successor, so I think it’d be more entertaining to read it start to (sort of) finish. Mr. Forsyth is the man behind the popular blog The Inky Fool, and The Etymologicon draws heavily from the blog’s content. Though it’s erudite and full of arcane trivia (Starbucks gets its name from the Pequod‘s first mate, whose name was drawn from a prominent whaling family, but the name itself came from a Viking word for an English stream. Really.), but also surprisingly snarky and scatological. Highly entertaining. But what else would you expect from an author whose biography begins, “Mark Forysth is a writer, journalist, proofreader, ghostwriter, and pedant”?

photo (34)Pair it with:  Erin Moore’s That’s Not English,* which I called “a beach read for nerds” in my review. Like The Etymologicon, it’s a funny read about words, but it’s less about etymology than it is about culture.

What bookish pairings have you found this summer, Dear Readers?

*I received a copy of these books from the publishers for review consideration, which did not affect the content of my reviews.

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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.

Recommended Reading: The Arsonist, by Sue Miller

photo (102)Sue Miller’s The Arsonist* is a work of exceedingly careful observation, so careful that for me the novel had an almost gauzy quality, as if the narrator, like an officer at a barricade, had removed me several paces back from the action. This is not to denigrate the novel by any means; The Arsonist is a thoughtful meditation on how people find and understand their places in the world even as that world is constantly in flux.

It’s the late 1990s, and Frankie Rowley has left East Africa to visit her parents in New Hampshire at what was once their summer home, but is now their full-time residence. After many years in aid work, Frankie wonders what good she’s really done, and if, maybe, it’s time to seek a permanent home back in America, with all that ‘home’ entails — partner and family included. As she thinks about what to do, she’s drawn back into her parents’ orbit, witnessing Alfie’s decline into dementia and her Sylvia’s struggles to care for him.

On the night she arrives, one of the summer houses — empty — is set ablaze, and in the following weeks the small town of Pomeroy is set on edge my more and more burnings. All the burned houses belong to the summer folk, and the arsons reveal the long-simmering tensions between the town’s year-round residents and the wealthy summer people: Between the two groups stands Bud, owner and chief reporter of the local paper, a transplant from Washington, D.C. who’s working out his place in Pomeroy:

[. . . ] the fires were somehow framing a question he needed to answer for himself about whose home Pomeroy was, whose experience defined it–the chatty, self-assured summer people or the observant, perhaps resentful, year-round folks. A question about who owned the town and who merely used it. (93)

Bud falls hard and fast for Frankie. Their relationship rests on uncertain ground as the fires rage, Frankie’s father gets worse, and Frankie resists making a decision about her future.

The Arsonist is a sensitive, thoughtful book, despite the lurid suggestion of its title, far more concerned with character than with pyrotechnics. Take this passage on the meaning of home:

Maybe, Frankie thought, home–what felt like home–was just a way of being in the world that felt Alfie-like to him, like being the person he’d been before the changes that were slowly turning him into someone else began. Maybe by home he meant the time when he felt whole, when he felt like himself. The time–and perhaps one of the places–where the world seemed to recognize him in some deep way, seemed to say, Come in, we’ve been expecting you. Exactly you. (271)

This is the perfect novel for summer — it’s set in summer, long enough ago to feel  both fresh and nostalgic (remember when not everyone had a cell phone), and engaged with questions we all think about, even when, thankfully, our towns aren’t on fire.

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Recommended Reading: Wool, by Hugh Howey

Each year, our town library chooses an all-town summer reading book, and then hosts events related to the book in the fall. I love summer reading, and I love talking about books with other people, so I’ve been looking forward to checking out this summer’s book.  Two years ago the book was Rocket Boys, by Homer Hickam (a great memoir, which later became October Sky, one of my favorite movies), and last year the town read To Kill a Mockingbird.

This year, I’d never heard of the book, but only a few display copies were left out, so I asked a reference librarian about it. She said the seventy-five copies the library had ordered flew off the shelves so fast that they’d had to buy another thirty, of which only six were left the next day.

The book is Wool, by Hugh Howey. Here’s part of what Jill, a reference librarian at the WFPL, has to say about it:

Why have you probably never heard of it?  Because it was a self-published work by an unknown author. That means it was not in most libraries or bookstores, there were no print ads for it in magazines, and review attention was sparse at best.  Yet this novel managed to gather an army of loyal readers who passed it on, one copy at a time, to family, friends, and co-workers, slowly building it into a New York Times bestseller.  That all of this took place outside the confines of the traditional publishing model is testament to the direct relationship that now exists between the writer and the reader.

I was a little skeptical at first, but I liked the title, liked the idea of reading some sci-fi, and liked the heft of the paperback (I love paperbacks), so I started it that night.

Holy cow. This book is scary.

I had to force myself not to read ahead: that’s how suspenseful Wool can be. Howey’s pacing is spot-on, the short chapters enhancing the uneasiness of the frightening world he’s created. No spoilers, as usual, but praise is due to Howey for his tough, and admirable, female characters. Highly recommended, whether or not you’re a fan of sci-fi.