Monday, August 25, 2008

Books I Read in July 2008

Here it is, nearly the end of August and I’ve yet to post the books I read in July.

Inglorious, by Joanna Kavenna was another ARE I received from LibraryThing and I really looked forward to reading it.

Her mother’s death and a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the superficiality of her life are the catalysts for thirty-five year old Rosa to impulsively quit her job as a successful journalist for a London newspaper and enter a painfully long meltdown. Rosa has no prospects or plans and her life rapidly disintegrates. A decade-long live-in relationship with her handsome, but vapid boyfriend abruptly ends and she moves in with a friend. She soon finds out that her ex and her closest friend are about to be married. Without income or job prospects (she’s not really looking), her debt mounts and she wears out one and then another friend’s hospitality. She’s reduced her assets down to a few changes of clothes and a copy of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman and the complete works of Shakespeare as the train wreck continues in painful slow motion.

You can read the rest of my review at The Book Book here. This was a tough book for me to write about because I was obligated to review it and I wanted to love it. Joanna Kavenna is a very talented author and I will read her next book because I think she’s got incredible promise.

A Three Dog Life, A Memoir by Abigail Thomas was an optional reading assignment for the Grand Lake Retreat. I’m not a huge fan of memoir, but you can’t keep me out of a book discussion, so I read it and I liked it a lot. Abigail Thomas’s husband was hit by a car and suffered profound brain injury. He was conscious, but severely brain damaged, to the point that she had to put him in an institution. The memoir is really a series of separate essays, rather than a linear story and in fact, several of the chapters were published as stand-alone pieces. I found it interesting that most of the people who read the book were disappointed because they felt that the author didn’t reveal herself and seemed too detached. I liked her for that, I suppose because I tend to be that way myself in a crisis situation. She was pragmatic about her situation, and yet she remains loyal to her husband, visits him often and continues on with her life, changed as it is.

“I remember sitting in the little office with the head of the program. I liked her very much. We had grown to know each other well over the past year. ‘What options do we have?’ I asked. She looked uncomfortable. I could look for a nursing home with a locked unit, she said, although she knew of no place offhand, or I could take him home. Take him home? I was terrified. What would happen to us? Where would my life go? I wouldn’t be Rich’s wife; I would be his jailor and my own. This was a sacrifice that made no sense, I couldn’t do it. It has taken me almost five years to accept this about myself. What kind of woman was I? What about my wedding vows? Who was I that keeping hold of my own life was more important than taking care of my husband? I kept forgetting the fact that I actually couldn’t take care of him, no two people could have taken care of a man in Rich’s condition. Why then did I feel so ashamed? What standard do we women hold ourselves to? After all these years I can finally say the words I want to live my life without feeling unnatural, selfish, cowardly. The social worker didn’t last long."

Migration Patterns, Stories by Gary Schanbacher is a beautiful collection of eight short stories and a novella. Many of the stories are linked, and many of the characters reflect the migratory nature of those living in between what was wild and what’s now developed, or developing.

The book was also one we discussed at Grand Lake and Gary Schanbacher is a Colorado writer who workshopped most of these stories with Lighthouse, over the course of about eight years. His journey to publication is somewhat of a Cinderella story that I hope to tell in an upcoming Q&A with him.

One final note of serendipity – Ernest Hebert, one of my favorite authors emailed me just before I bought the book and he recommended it. He was of the PEN/Hemingway judges and Migration Patterns was a 2007 finalist.

This is from the novella, The Sea in These Hills:

“In the distance, the mountains slowly grew from the horizon like huge ocean swells. July, and snow still capped the peaks. Clayton recognized that they could swallow up a man and knew he would travel straight into the middle of them. He came up on the city of Denver, a hazy oddity of office towers and stockyards and converging rail tracks planted at the very edge of the foothills. The owner of the Cadillac slept on, so Clayton continued driving west, past hogbacks that reminded him of the armor plates of a stegosaurus, then, downshifting, up into the mountains. Even in July, the air was cool, and the sleeping man unconsciously crossed his arms and snorted once. An hour into high country, the road pleated into a series of switchbacks that traversed the side of a mountain. Clayton’s progress was slowed by a logging truck creeping uphill. The whining of the truck’s engine finally woke the sleeping man, who sat up in his seat, massaged his temples with his thumb and forefinger, and looked about him in temporary confusion.”

Tethered, A Novel by Amy MacKinnon. I have delayed this posting, largely because I wanted to write something that would do justice to this book. It deserves its own post and it will have one soon. Many of you know Amy from The Writers' Group. Amy has been a wonderful friend and a generous blogger who has shared her journey to publication in her posts.

Larramie, at Seize a Daisy did an absolutely fantastic post about Tethered here and I urge you to read it:

“Although there have been many fiction and non-fiction works presented here at Seize a Daisy over the past twenty-two months, Amy MacKinnon and her debut novel, Tethered, hold a unique and fascinating distinction. For unlike all the other authors -- who had already completed/sold and were anxiously awaiting their book's publication date --, Amy shared her real-time journey through these stages in her weekly Tuesday posts at The Writers' Group. And those of us who have followed her feel an extra sense of pride and excitement about next Tuesday, August 12th, when Tethered is released and Amy MacKinnon officially becomes a novelist.” Continue reading this fine post here.

I have read many debuts. I have loved many of them. Tethered is the most powerful that I’ve read. Amy tells a rich, textured story through characters with depth and heart. It is honest and real and true. Tethered is a must-read. Amy MacKinnon is the real thing.

How Fiction Works, by James Wood is a fascinating study of the elements of fiction, written by one of the most well known literary critics of our time. I dog-earred this book and will read it many times. It’s written much in the tradition of E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel and fair warning, this is a book geared toward what I would characterize as “serious fiction”. Wood uses many examples to illustrate his points, from Cervantes to Dickens to Tolstoy to Ian McEwan, Iris Murdoch and Philip Roth.

He has this to say on character:

“A great deal of nonsense is written every day about characters in fiction – from the side of those who believe too much in character and from the side of those who believe too little. Those who believe too much have an iron set of prejudices about what characters are: we should get to ‘know’ them; they should not be ‘stereotypes’; they should have an ‘inside’ as well as an outside, depth as well as surface; they should ‘grow’ and ‘develop’; pretty much like us. In The New York Times, a critic complains that the ‘decrepit womanizer’ played by the septuagenarian Peter O’Toole in the film Venus (written by Hanif Kureishi) and Hector, the elderly teacher ‘who gropes his male students’ in The History Boys (written by Alan Bennett), are meant to be relatively ‘benign’, but instead their actual behavior makes them seem ‘venal and self-deluding.’ There is what she calls ‘a significant ick factor’ in watching such elderly people ‘stalking’ their young victims. But, she argues, instead of portraying these characters as the predators they really are, the filmmakers seem to want us to sympathize with, even applaud such behavior. The problem with The History Boys is that it ‘assumes that the audience will embrace its lecherous hero as fully as the film’s creators do.’

In other words, artists should not ask us to try to understand characters we cannot approve of – or not until after they have firmly and unequivocally condemned them. The idea that we might feel that ‘ick factor’ and simultaneously see life through the eyes of these two aging and lecherous men, and that this moving out of ourselves into realms beyond our daily experience might be a moral and sympathetic education of its own kind, seems beyond this particular commentator, of whom all one can say is that she is unlikely to be so unforgiving when she herself has reached seventy. But there is nothing egregious about this article. A glance at the thousands of foolish ‘reader reviews’ on, with their complaints about ‘dislikeable characters’, confirms a contagion of moralizing niceness.”

This book is not going to appeal to every writer. I think it will appeal to any writer who enjoys the classics and who enjoys "serious fiction" -- it sounds pretentious to even write it, but I think everyone knows what I mean by the term. I think that regardless of what you write, if you do have an appreciation for serious fiction, there are some excellent observations in this book.

Catching Genius, A Novel by Kristy Kiernan is a novel I waited far too long to read. With my stubborn resistance to reading books that everyone seems to be reading and talking about, I deprived myself of this smart, beautifully written book for over eighteen months. Once again, Larramie at Seize a Daisy, a debut novelist’s fairy godmother had this to say in February of 2007:

Presenting Debutante Kristy Kiernan with

Catching Genius

Reviews for Catching Genius

BookPage: “stunning debut,” “mesmerizing,” and “a must read…”

Publisher’s Weekly: “a moving novel about forgiveness and the fragility of family,”

Harriet Klausner, online book reviewer: “a delightful look at how childhood relationships make the adults…readers will appreciate Kiernan’s poignant look at the changing relationship between two sisters.”

If Kristy Kiernan's name sounds familiar, you have a good memory. Introduced in the January 8, 2007 post, An Invitation to the Debutante Ball, Kristy explained her intention for the grog: "I wanted to bring fresh voices together and present them to readers in a one-stop shop format and let them get to know about us and our novels in a unique way before they had to search for us in a bookstore full of the same authors they've seen for years and years." Until now, she has shared the weekly spotlight with her fellow five Debs, but Kristy will soon garner individual attention when her novel, Catching Genius is released on Tuesday, March 6th.

Since that date is only a week and a day away, it's time for you to get to know her better. In the bio posted at The Debutante Ball, you would read:

"Kristy Kiernan was raised in Florida as one of the beach-rats she often writes about and dreaming of writing a novel. But the exciting life of serving Manhattans and pot stickers at a trendy, striped-shirt establishment beckoned, and Kristy answered the siren song, fetchingly bedecked in suspenders with pithy buttons and WOW pins (WOW stood for: we really should give you some money for working the past 72 hours; how ’bout this shiny PIN instead?!), and tres chic hats trailing polka-dot ribbons. She often wore matching polka-dot shoelaces.

This glamorous life couldn’t last long, and before Kristy knew it she was married to renowned art-dealer hunk, Richard, and working in the construction industry as a purchasing agent. No more WOW pins or hats, but she occasionally tried to sneak out of the house in those polka-dot shoelaces. Luckily, she was stopped by previously mentioned hunk.

Alas, the construction industry didn’t keep Kristy’s creative side happy (really, who could tame her?!), and Richard, never one to sit idly by while his love was pining for an outlet, encouraged her to follow her dream (actually, he told her to write a book or stop whining about it). The journey has a happy ending. Kristy’s first novel, Catching Genius, will be published by Berkley Books in March of 2007."

Friendly, a bit glib and ever imaginative, that might be your first impression of this Deb; but check out her website, Kristy Kiernan, and you'll find more revealing insights:

"Kristy was born in Tennessee and raised on the beaches of southwest Florida, where she learned to read by watching her mother draw letters in the sand. The day she discovered that the letters formed words she knew she wanted to write. "Though I don't remember it," Kiernan says, "my mother told me that when I was five I suddenly stopped building my sandcastle, squinted up at her and declared, 'When I'm done with all the grown-up stuff, I'm going to be a writer.' I'm not sure I'm done with all the grown-up stuff, but at least I fulfilled the writing prophecy.""

That debut writing prophecy is fulfilled in Catching Genius and here's a brief synopsis:

"As children, Connie and Estella were best friends -- until Estella was discovered to be a math prodigy, which led to the sisters' estrangement. Now, years later, they are forced to reunite on the Gulf Coast of Florida as they pack up their childhood home and ready it for sale. The reunion comes at a time when both Connie and Estella must come to terms with painful revelations and devastating consequences in their own lives. And once again, her sister's genius may alter Connie's life in ways she cannot control."

You can read the rest of Larramie's post here.

I started reading this fascinating book and finished it in two days. I could not put it down. Matters of Faith, Kristy Kiernan's second novel was released earlier this month and now sits on my TBR stack.

* * *

Once again, it's taken a long time to write this post and yet I feel my meager comments about these books have been woefully inadequate.

Writing has been good. Ever since I've forced myself to cut down on the time I spend on line, I've continued to make steady forward progress on "The Foundling Wheel". Word count today stands at 38,430. I'm not tearing through it, but I'm happy with where I am. I have resisted most urges to go back and fiddle with what I have and I'm hoping that with a little luck, I'll have that finished first shitty draft by the end of the year. By then, I'll have something I can rewrite and with any luck, it may turn into something I can revise. If it turns out to be simply a learning tool and I decide to bury the whole thing in the back yard, I'll be happy with that too.

I did start another book in July and I'm still not finished with it because it's an audio book. I never cared much for audio books before because I found that if I tried to listen to them while driving, or doing anything else, my mind wandered. I started to listen to Haruki Murakami's Kafka on the Shore at night when I was finished reading whatever "real" book was was working on and I found that lying in the dark with no distractions, I really like being read to. Unfortunately, it's the perfect solution to my hyperactive mind and in this case, the two English narrators have the most soothing, delightful voices that I'm usually asleep within fifteen or twenty minutes. Tendency toward insomnia: solved; however, it's taking me a very long time to finish and I've listened to most of the book at least twice. Murakami is a genius.

What have you been reading lately? Do you listen to audio books? What do you think of the experience? How's your writing going?


Patti said...

after several people insisted i read it, i picked up the shack. i am midway thru and thinking.

Charles Gramlich said...

I definitely want to read a couple of these, especially "How fiction works."

Yogamum said...

I love audiobooks since I spend a lot of time in the car, driving the kids back and forth. I also find that I remember the audiobooks better because I can't race through them!

Shauna Roberts said...

I only finished two books in July, and one was on my Kindle and I got that reading done in doctors' and vets' offices.

August has been much less frustrating, with five books finished so far (one on the Kindle and, again, read while waiting for appointments) and Amy MacKinnon's Tethered scheduled to show up today or tomorrow.

Günter said...

I always enjoy "Books I Read" posts.

I truly let my reading pile get out of control this month. I'm halfway through eight books, including Migration Patterns. The one I keep going back to, though, the one that keeps cutting in line, is Dead Boys, by Richard Lange. I think you would like it: drunks and pill-poppers in a decidedly non-glitzy L.A. The story I just finished features extended sequences with a phantasmal Scarlett Johansson.

You can actually read one of the stories at Five Chapters.

I listen to audio books all the time. I'm an Audible subscriber. Normally - in my real life, I guess - I think audiobooks are too slow-moving, but they're perfect for the kind of work I do, which occupies my hands while my mind is (almost, basically) free. I just finished listening to Stacy Keach read The Old Man and the Sea and thought it was great.

Keep up the good work with your internet embargo. I've been writing longhand and clattering away at the typewriter for the last few days and it's definitely helping me, no question.

Günter said...

Better yet, look here for the Lange story.

Lisa said...

Patti, Ooh that's one of those spiritual ones, isn't it?

Charles, I think you'll find it interesting, but be forewarned from whence it comes. Wood definitely provides some examples of how "commercial fiction" works and what "doesn't work" about it. There is a lot that I wasn't able to necessarily follow because I haven't read all of the references that he uses, but nothing is sacred -- he praises and faults quite a few very well known works with pretty rational, logical explanations. I'll be very interested in what you think. It really comes from some pretty academic ideas about the evolution of the novel as a form.

Yogamum, That's a really good point. I often have to tell myself to slow down when I'm reading and hearing words at the spoken rate definitely helps. It also helps if you like the reader's style. I could have English people read to me all day long!

Shauna, I know what you mean and I just realized that I finished the last book I listed in August, not July, so August is going to be a little "light" in comparison. Some months it's just hard to get any reading done and some books just take much longer to finish than others. I think I tend to intentionally dope my reading with a few fast reads on purpose. I'm such an ass!

G, I wish you'd do them! Of course I know what a perfectionist you are and I'll bet you can't be sloppy about it like I am :) I'm tempted to find links to reviews and articles I especially like and just include them and say, "yeah, what she said" sometimes.

Love the story! Drunks and pill-poppers -- you've got my number. I'm almost done with a collection of Mary Gaitskill short stories and I love it.

My step-mother just sent me a link to an Audible book too -- I'm going to have to check it out. That means I'll have to quit being such a luddite and download stuff to my hardly-used iPod. I think you guys (people who are in their 20's) are much more adept at mental multi-tasking than people -- okay, me. For a few years, I was one of those driving while emailing on my Blackberry while talking on the phone while putting on mascara kinds of people, but I lately refuse to multi-task. I won't do anything else while I'm on the phone (unless it's a conference call and I'm ignoring everybody). I'm trying to be more fully present with what I do. Or I say that since I can't seem to do two things at once anymore ;)

Good for you on the writing! So you ended up with a typewriter after all...that'll force you to slow down a little, huh?

Too late -- I already read the Lange on the first link you said -- and registered to win a free book! Thanks.

Steve Malley said...

Whoo! You *have* been busy! And 38k, that low-internet thing is DEFINITELY working! Congratulations!!

To answer your questions:

John D. McDonald, Stephen King, Laurie King, Duane Swierczynski, James Lee Burke.

Though I like them, no, not so much.

Quite pleasant, though I have had the occasional laughably bad one!

21k, thanks for asking. :-)

Lisa said...

Steve, I wouldn't say I'm tearing it up with writing, but it's moving along -- yes, the low(er) internet thing is definitely working for me. Oddly, I feel more relaxed when I stay away too although I don't know why. 21K!!! You've been working on this book for like two weeks -- you are a rock star! Go Steve go!!!

Usman said...

Read THE POST AMERICAN WORLD by Fareed Zakaria.
TETHERED....Amy Mckinnon.
THe Law of our fathers...scott turrow.
The English Patient.
Some more, I can't remember.

Denis said...

Jeez it would take me a month to read the reviews you write about the books you read!

Riss said...

again, you put me to shame. (c: I haven't read anything new this month...or much of last month honestly. I re-read Wicked for the third time. Still love that story and it still pulls me apart every time I read it. I dunno. It's good. I have only listened to one audio book and it was "The E-Myth Revisited" which actually was really nice. I wouldn't mind doing it again. I like being read to, too. The writing is going but I've been brain fried the past few weeks so I walked away for a bit. I just realized the copy I sent you included Chapter 6..which has this huuuuuuuuge gap in it bridged by the word "later" if you're confused, that's why. It's not done. It's not even going to stay the way it is.

Lisa said...

Usman, You got some good ones in!

Denis, Yeah -- I'm going to have to make the August list a little more pithy.

Riss, No worries on your chapters! I just need to get reading now. Some months reading just isn't in the cards for me either. Right now my eyes are about to fall out of my head -- work has been nuts this week!

Sustenance Scout said...

WOW can't wait to see what you've read in August. Some terrific suggestions here. I've recently read Paulo Coelho's The Alchemist, Masha Hamilton's The Camel Bookmobile, Sara Gruen's Water for Elephants, Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart, and I just finished the ARE from Carleen for Bonnie Glover's Going Down South. Of those my favorite was The Alchemist. Loved it. K.

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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