Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Books I Read in April 2008

I got quite a bit of reading done in April, but I’m not sure that’s a good thing.


Writing was hard. That’s not exactly true either. I got almost no writing done on my WIP, The Foundling Wheel this month, but that’s about to change.

Part of the problem was a lack of time because of work, part of it was the intrusion of some noisy and long home improvement projects, but most of the problem was my lack of upfront planning when I started to write.

I knew that there was an incident that would define the start of the story and serve to influence everything the characters would do, but I was never entirely sure where I was going to go once I got past the incident. It really wasn’t until I’d read back to back posts at Steve Malley’s and at Candy Harris’s blogs that I realized that I hadn’t defined the basic premise of the novel before I started.

To use Candy’s formula, I couldn’t definitively say, “This is a story about a __________________ who wants __________________ because ____________. But can she succeed when ____________________?”

After a lot of sleepless nights, I think I’m almost there.

I would love nothing more than to write up fascinating and insightful observations about all the books I read in April, but that would only serve to feed my penchant for procrastination about Chapter 12, so I’ve got links to Amazon that will give you the gist of what each book is all about and I’ll tell you something about how I came to read the book and my general thoughts on them.

The Price of Salt, by Patricia Highsmith. One of the best sources for book recommendations I’ve found in the past year is Head Butler. I get daily book, music, film and product recommendations via my email subscription and Jesse Kornbluth’s book recommendations have all been right up my alley. I just blogged about this particular selection on Friday, so for more on this gem, read this.

Nina: Adolescence, by Amy Hassinger. The story begins with the tragic accidental drowning of eleven year old Nina’s four year old brother. Nina’s mother, a portrait artist begins painting nude studies of Nina. This happens as Nina approaches and enters adolescence, and during this time Nina’s father retreats into alcohol. The nude series of paintings mark the re-entry of Nina’s mother into the art world after an extended absence. They also mark the introduction of escalating problems in the family. The book is beautifully written and is a fascinating exploration of the emotion of adolescence, of grief, of guilt and of family secrets. I can’t remember how I stumbled on this, but I had it for nearly a year before I picked it up. Amy Hassinger is a graduate of The Iowa Writer’s Workshop.

Desperate Characters, by Paula Fox. Another excellent recommendation from The Head Butler and also blogger Patti Abott’s Friday Overlooked Book choice last week.

John Lennon and the Mercy Street Café, by William Hammett. This was one of the most delightful books I’ve read all year. Blogger William “Billy” Hammett’s story is set in present day New York City and begins with an encounter with John Lennon, playing guitar in a small Greenwich Village Café. It is humor and magical realism at its best. If you like Kurt Vonnegut, Tim Robbins, and if you loved The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, you’ll want to read this book. William Hammett did several things that surprised me. His lead character is a woman, and I will give him his propers – I was convinced. He incorporates all kinds of Beatles lore, historical events, current events and time travel and he does it with simple, lovely prose. If you’ve read his blog and his poetry, you know what a talented writer he is. Underneath this seemingly simple tale, there are some pretty heavy ideas and themes that will keep you thinking.

Paris to the Moon, by Adam Gopnik. One of my fellow Dickens Challengers recommended this series of essays. Adam Gopnik, his wife and infant son chose to move to Paris for five years in the late 1990s. They had a number of reasons, not least of which was because they didn’t want their son exposed to Barney the purple dinosaur! Lots of great stuff in these essays and lots of thoughtful commentary on the French, on Americans and how we’re similar, but different. This quote from Gopnik’s wife, Martha sums their experience up nicely. “We had a beautiful existence in Paris, but not a full life. And in New York we have a full life and an unbeautiful existence.”

The Empanada Brotherhood, by John Nichols. Nichols is the author of The Milagro Beanfield Wars and many other novels. This is a story set in New York’s Greenwich Village in the early 1960’s and it’s told from the first person perspective of the only non-Latino character, who we know only as “Blondie”. Blondie is, of course a writer. I enjoyed this one.

How the Dead Dream, by Lydia Millet. I’d run across discussions on this new release several times and was intrigued. What an excellent book! The story is about a man who has focused on generating wealth and who is strangely disconnected from other people and other living things for most of his life. He’s a wealthy real estate developer by his early twenties and then a series of tragic events get him thinking about the extinction of species. There are lots of reviews out there on this one, so I won’t attempt my own, but I tore through this one. Lots of big philosophical ideas that really made me think.

Now, Discover Your Strengths, by Marcus Buckingham & Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D. This is a book I read under semi-duress. The president of my company read this and decided to send a copy to all the employees so that we could take the on line “strength finder” test and we could all maximize the use of our innate talents. I’ve read dozens of leadership, management, sales and marketing books and was not looking forward to spending my precious reading time with this one. As it turns out, it wasn’t bad. The basic idea of the book is that most career development methodologies place an emphasis on identifying and addressing weaknesses, rather than identifying and capitalizing on strengths. This book identifies 34 individual themes or strengths, and an online test (accessible only through the use of a code that comes with the book) provides a report that tells you what your five defining strengths are. Naturally, I’ve been trying to decide if the test results support the idea of me becoming a published novelist and I haven’t given much thought to what they mean within the context of my paying job.

One Sister’s Song, by Karen Degroot Carter. I’m delighted to say that I read and loved friend and blogger Karen Degroot Carter’s wonderful novel. After the death of her sister, Audrey moves from the bustle of DC and a job she loves to her small, depressed upstate New York hometown to raise her thirteen year old nephew. Audrey’s mother is white and her father was black, and the story deals with race from the perspective of the biracial characters and from the perspectives of both black and white characters. Since Audrey is returning to the town where she grew up, she has to face some unresolved family and relationship issues. In addition to the multi-generational family stories that unfold, the book incorporates some fascinating historical information about the Underground Railroad and valuable insights about race in our culture. Karen is more recognizable here in the blogosphere as Sustenance Scout and regularly posts on issues related to diversity and tolerance at Beyond Understanding.


Here's to hoping I don't read nearly as much in May and that I nail down that premise and unstick my writing.

What great books have you read lately?

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

You read 9 books in a month? Good grief! I really admire your use of time!

I feel like such a pokey reader now.

susan @ spinning

Judy Merrill Larsen said...

My TBR pile grows daily, but right now I'm loving "The Painter from Shanghai" by Jennifer Cody Epstein.

Good luck with the writing!

Sustenance Scout said...

Well didn't you just add some sunshine to an otherwise cloudy (and snowy?!!) Denver day! Thanks so much! It's always great to hear someone has enjoyed One Sister's Song but it means an extra bit to hear you liked it, Lisa. I swear you're the most prolific reader I know. What a list for just one month! I just finished Carleen's Age Ain't Nothing but a Number and LOVED it; there are a few pieces I plan to go back to and a few new authors from it I look forward to researching. Right now I'm reading agent Betsy Lerner's The Forest for the Trees in preparation for her Lighthouse visit at the June LitFest. So many books....! Thanks again for reading OSS! K.

Shauna Roberts said...

Sounds like you hit the jackpot this month with books you liked AND that made you think.

I just got a Kindle and downloaded some free and cheapo books. It fits easily in my purse and I can carry it with me. So this week while waiting at doctors' offices and the vet I'm reading Oscar Wilde's The Picture of Dorian Gray, and at home while on the exercise machine I'm reading June Shaw's Relative Danger in preparation for interviewing her for my blog.

kristenspina said...

I'm reading so slowly and inconsistently these days, but I'm loving Old School, by Tobias Wolff.

I actually can't believe how long I'm taking to read it, considering how slim the volume is, but I am savoring every word. (And I have you to thank!!!)

Billy said...

Lisa, thank you sooooo much for the wonderful review of my novel. Most of my MCs are female (patting myself on the back :) I am so glad you enjoyed it, and really appreciate taking the time and space to comment on it on your blog!

Larramie said...

Time for me to sign up again at Head Butler. Yes, Lisa, I did so immediately upon your recommendation and never received one email! Hmm...?

Charles Gramlich said...

The best book I read recently was "All the Pretty Horses" by McCarthy. I just finished a pretty good book by DAvid gemmell called "The Last Guardian," and started a good one so far by James REasoner called "Texas Wind."

I'm going for a walk now to start plotting on my own upcoming book.

Julie Layne said...

Sounds like you and I are on about the same reading schedule, Lisa, but April was a slow month for me!

I'm trying to "catch up" on some classics I somehow missed in the past this year, and I have been slowly making my way through Jane Austen's Mansfield Park this month. I also finished Kate Chopin's Awakening, and I'm not sure how I ever missed that one. Also taking my time reading Pat Conroy's Beach Music. The detail work in this book is breathtaking, but it's a lot to take in, so I'm not rushing.

As far as nonfiction, Thaisa Frank and Dorothy Wall's older book called Finding Your Writer's Voice was a great choice for me in April, and I'm still working on it, too.

The Nina book sounds like something I need to find and read soon.

Sustenance Scout said...

...and because you have so much time on your hands, you've been tagged with Carleen's quirky meme. :) K.

Patti said...

i read soemthing last month yet cannot for the life of me recall.

~sigh~

Shauna Roberts said...

Lisa, you may want to take a look at this short post of Leon's:

http://pvleon.blogspot.com/2008/04/another-connolly.html

I immediately thought of you and your youthful offender work.

Carleen Brice said...

In April I read, Seen it All and Done the Rest by Pearl Cleage, The Fiction Class by Susan Breen and the rest of them I can't remember because...I put them away! :) But no way was there 9 of them!

steve said...

Lisa, I promised Tim Hallinan I'd do a list of books, though I'm embarrassed to do it, especially after reading yours. Just so I won't appear too pathetic, I'm going to include a Modern Scholar course-on-CD. (Alan Dershowitz's "Fundamental Cases."

P.S. Chapter 18 of "Things Done and Left Undone" will be delayed a week, as I'm going to Chicago for training the 5th 6th and 7th, and I hope to do some research at the Harold Washington Library as well.

Lisa said...

Susan, Well don't! I enjoy your posts on books as you read them so much that it makes me feel guilty that I don't spend more time with them. I especially love the chapter by chapter commentary you provide as you go along. There were 9 this month, but I have some titles looming on my TBR stack that will definitely cut the total numbers down a lot -- I have some that I don't think I'll be able to finish in a month.

Judy, There's one I'm not familiar with. I'll have to check it out. And thanks for the good luck :)

Karen, Well thank you for writing ONE SISTER'S SONG. You did a lot of really interesting things with an important topic and you set it in an unexpected setting. I'm only sorry it took me as long as it did to read it.

Shauna, I think I did. Ooooh, good for you. I have to confess, I got a Kindle a while back, but my TBR stack is so backlogged with "real" books that I haven't played with it much. I have decided though that I need to start buying the new books that I do as ebooks. Think of how much more environmentally friendly it is. No need for the paper, the shipping supplies or the fuel to deliver them!

Kristen, It's probably good that you're reading slowly because I'll bet that means you are writing up a storm. I really loved that book and I feel really lucky that I got to tell Tobias Wolff how much I loved it right to his face! Matter of fact, I met him the same night I met Carleen.

Billy, I really did love it and I've got your first novel here and waiting to be read. I just love your style and your voice and I was enchanted with everything about JOHN LENNON AND THE MERCY STREET CAFE. Simple on the surface, ,but with lots of heavy ideas holding it up.

Larramie, Something must be glitched with his subscription service -- I looked today and it's a third party service. You should try again. Every one I get is just full of cool stuff.

Charles, I have got to read more McCarthy. The only one of his I've read is THE ROAD, and everyone tells me it is their least favorite of his. I like the sound of "I'm going to a walk now to start plotting". If you don't finish the sentence, it sounds sinister!

Julie, I have to confess (and recently did to my friend Yogamum) that I've never read any Jane Austen or any of either Bronte sister. I've heard good things about AWAKENING so I'm anxious to hear what you think. I've also had BEACH MUSIC on my wish list for a while too. You know, none of the books I read this month were overly demanding. I really make myself slow down when a book needs me to also. I definitely recommend NINA: ADOLESCENCE. I'd call it an overlooked book.

Karen -- oh wow -- I'd better check it out and get to work. And I have 60 pages to critique before Saturday morning -- eek!

Patti, I'll bet you will remember it on your next run :)

Shauna, Hey, that was a good post and an interesting blog. How did you find him?

Carleen, I'll bet you read a lot of excerpts from ORANGE MINT & HONEY in April! I keep seeing SEEN IT ALL AND DONE THE REST lately -- I'm thinking that means it wants me to read it.

Steve, Holy Cow, don't be embarrassed! You're always reading really heavy stuff. Case in point your Modern Scholar courses! Believe me, I have a few tomes I need to tackle and when I do, the list is going to read "books I read in _________: the first 300 pages of ____________".

The trip to Chicago ought to be great for you. What a perfect opportunity to write in the book's setting. Looking forward to chapter 18.

Greg said...

you are a machine, young lady

Sustenance Scout said...

No worries on the meme timing, Lisa!

I love Candy's premise formula...it goes just a step beyond what I've learned and helps a lot. K.

Josephine Damian said...

Oooh, lots of OLD SCHOOL fans I see. I loved that book.

Head Butler has some cool suggestions - thanks for turning me on to it.

Interesting that you read so many books written by blogging authors.

Ello said...

I can't read anything right now because of finals. But when I'm done, I've got a month where I am going to work on my book and read. Heaven!

Lisa said...

Greg, I suspect it's an avoidance/procrastination mechanism. Hopefully, May's list will look pretty pathetic in comparison. I have gone back to some of my basic writing craft books for the moment to figure out how to write my way out of the dilemma I've created.

Karen, I will definitely get to that meme this week.

Josie, I think OLD SCHOOL is a real novelist's novel. Glad you liked Head Butler -- I have to learn to ignore him sometimes because he has way too many cool suggestions far too often. Yep -- I like to read books by bloggers I know. I'll be in the front of the line to read yours for sure.

Ello, Woohoo! A month of breathing room. It sounds like heaven to me.

Günter said...

Desperate Characters, nice.

My wife works for Gallup and they're big on the Clifton books, discovering your strengths and what-all. I can never remember mine according to the Strengths Finder book. I took the test. The problem, of course, is that I can easily be persuaded that any personality test is accurate. "You are very ambitious, blah blah blah." Yeah, okay. "You have a desire to be well-liked." Sure! "You have the qualities of a leader but prefer to be part of a team." Sounds good.

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Literary Quote

It is worth mentioning, for future reference, that the creative power which bubbles so pleasantly in beginning a new book quiets down after a time, and one goes on more steadily. Doubts creep in. Then one becomes resigned. Determination not to give in, and the sense of an impending shape keep one at it more than anything.


Virginia Woolf