Saturday, January 31, 2015

The Month in Books (January)

I'm doing something new this year, as far as talking about books goes. Every year, I make a goal to read 52 books, and then I write a really long blog entry where I talk about all of the books I read this year. The problem is that I don't actually talk about them. Instead, because I've consistently read more than 52 books for the last few years, I post the quick paragraph or so that I have about them in my notes and then immediately move on to the next one so that I can get the whole list posted. It takes hours to write up, and probably takes other people hours to read. It's probably not as helpful as it could be and it's cumbersome to write, and by the end of the entry it's just a blurry wall of words for reader and writer both.

So we're not doing that anymore.

Instead, I'm going to write about the books that I read each month, while they are still fresh in my mind and while people can read what I thought without having to leave the computer for food halfway through the list because they are dizzy and weak with hunger. At the end of the year, I'll do a "best books of 2015", or something like that, but in the meantime, here are all the books I read in January:

1) Jack Neely's Secret History II, a collection of his history columns from one of the local newspapers, was entertaining and informative. Most of the history here takes place before the Great Depression, but it's fascinating as a person who lives in Knoxville today to learn about people who are buried in the Old Gray cemetery, what some of the statues and fountains around town mean, and about the basic character of the city and how it hasn't really changed over the centuries. This is a great read for local people, but may not mean as much to people who do not or have not lived in Knoxville, as it makes a lot of very specific local references and assumes that the reader gets them, too.

What I liked most about reading this is that it made me want to get out and see some more of the city, both to see things I've already seen with new eyes and a new sense of context and to go see things I haven't seen and didn't know were important. While I get around town a lot, I really only know a small section of it well, so it's exciting to think that after nine years here there are still new places to visit and new things to learn.

2) I read A Gronking to Remember, an erotic novella about Rob Gronkowski, and don't really have a lot to say about it because I already wrote a whole entry about the experience. Thinking about this book, especially with Gronk constantly on TV lately due to the Superbowl tomorrow, still makes me laugh. The whole thing was just so absurd and weird, and you should see the books that Amazon was recommending to me for about a week after I purchased that. My reading tastes are eclectic as it is, but that probably completely destroyed whatever algorithm is saved in their system for me.

Especially since I did not take Amazon's repeated recommendation that I also purchase The Babysitter Only Rings Once.

Amazon was really committed to recommending that one, for some reason.

I did learn a valuable lesson from this book, besides "footballs shouldn't touch that part of your body like that": Kindle purchases are not instant. I decided to read that, purchased it (if my mom is reading this, she probably just figured out that I spent three dollars of my Christmas Amazon gift certificate from her and Dad on football porn), and then had to wait. And wait. And wait. It took several minutes for Amazon to confirm the purchase and then download it to my Kindle, and here's why that's a problem: I only read my Kindle on the treadmill, and sometimes if I'm knocking out a few miles at a time I might finish one book in the middle and need to pause and download another book before continuing. If I'm in my zone, pausing for more than a minute or two can knock me out of it, and it takes several minutes for me to get back into it, and I hate that, so now when I start a new book on my Kindle I immediately purchase one, so that it's already downloaded and ready to go when I finish the book I just started.

Thank you, Gronk, for this valuable lesson.

3) Joyce Carol Oates' A Fair Maiden tells the short story of Katya, a young summer nanny at the Jersey shore, and the strange wealthy man that she meets while out with the children one day. She isn't sure what to make of Mr. Kidder, assuming he is just an old man who wants to sleep with her when he invites her to his home, but then she notices his name on books at the library, and on the library itself, and on all sorts of other things across the small summer town. His house is the nicest, richest home she has ever been in, and he wants to draw and paint her, and pay her to be his model for the summer. Is that all he wants? Katya isn't sure, but her suspicions grow even as the summer wanes, and it turns out that the charming Mr. Kidder wants Katya for something else entirely, something with deadly consequences. This was a fast read, but the ending seemed almost like a non-ending. The emotional plot came to a rapid conclusion, but the rest of it seemed slightly unresolved.

This book touched on a lot of heavy themes, but I feel like it didn't really explore any of them in as much depth as they deserved, and many of the characters were just cyphers. Mr. Kidder didn't get nearly enough examination, and his staff, the driver and the housekeeper, are mysterious and motiveless even though they are key to the finale. A friend who also read this said, "It's too short for Oates to really delve into a lot of that," but I don't think that's entirely the problem. I've had the same issue with plots not feeling fully resolved at the end of some of her longer novels; Carthage, which I read last year, definitely left me thinking, "That's it? What about this character? And this one? How is that part resolved?" so it may just be a matter of this being part of Oates' style.

4) Lynn Peril's College Girls is a history of female higher education in the United States, and a fascinating read. The subtitle promises "then and now", but while there is extensive educational and entertaining reading about "then", "now" stops at about the mid 1990's, which means it misses out on some of the more recent controversies and issues that I remember from my college years and my current employment on campus. It was a good read, though, and I recommended it to another friend who works on campus.

I also watched Mona Lisa Smile once while reading, because it put me in that mood. The movie remains both accurate and inaccurate at the same time, but I still like it.

5) Five days after graduating from Yale, Marina Keegan was killed in a car wreck, and her family and a few of her teachers collaborated to publish The Opposite of Loneliness, a collection of her work. When it came out, a lot of people on my social media were raving about this lost young talent and voice of her generation and all of the things that people usually say about dead upper-middle class white honor students with gluten allergies, so I added this to my wish list and read it on my Kindle. There are some interesting ideas in the fiction section, but many of the stories end abruptly. For the most part, my main thought while reading this is that most of this work wouldn't have been deemed worthy of publication if she was still alive. I realize that probably sounds a little harsh, but the honest truth is that this book wasn't actually that good (there's a reason so many people raved about it and then so few people listed it on their end of the year "best of" lists), and initial readers and reviewers were blinded by the tragic loss of youthful potential.

It reminds me of something terrible and rather cynical that I learned in high school: every dead kid is suddenly an honor student. Those kids who got killed in a car wreck when I was a sophomore or junior? Suddenly they were the nicest, kindest people with hundreds of friends whose tragic loss most of the student body would never recover from. I'm sure they actually were nice, but they weren't saints. That girl who was stabbed to death in the woods by my house by four classmates? Suddenly she was going to change the world, and we were all doomed to live without her gifts. Very few of the newspaper articles at the time mentioned that she was failing every class, had exceeded the number of allowed absences for the year, and was meeting those four guys in the woods to exchange sex with all four of them for drugs. I don't think you deserve to die for any of those things (unlike jaywalkers, who I should be allowed to run over), but I also think the communal outpouring of grief and the football players writing letters to the editor dedicating the rest of their football playing careers to her memory are a little over the top. There is a tendency to immediately canonize and romanticize the loss of youth because it's also a loss of potential, and I think that's what happened in the case of this book.

Or I'm just a terrible, coldly cynical person inside. That's also possible.

6) Being married to Earnest Hemingway was, according to Naomi Wood's Mrs. Hemingway, both rewarding and devastating. In this novel all four Mrs. Hemingways tell their story, one after another, explaining how she fell in love and how she lost him. The book moves from Paris in the Roaring 20's to Key West to the war in Spain to WWII Paris to Idaho to Cuba and in and out of the lives of women who became friends by being members of a very elite club, the wives of Earnest Hemingway. It was an interesting, entertaining read, and seemed to be well researched according to the notes at the end, but a lot of the time I was left with the same questions I had last year when I read Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald last year: how much of it is actually real? Wondering about that didn't jerk me out of the story as many times during this one as it did during that one, but the question is still there, and is probably the danger of reading any fictionalized book about real people.

I also decided while reading that Earnest Hemingway must have had some kind of tremendous personal charisma, because he doesn't seem nearly as hot as all these ladies raved about, not even when he was younger. I wouldn't kick young Earnest out of bed or anything, but he's no F. Scott Fitzgerald.

7) I heard Justin Lee speak on campus last year and put Torn, his book about being gay and being Christian, on my wish list immediately after, but it took me this long to get to reading it. Part autobiography and part spiritual debate, Lee argues that Christians have made a mistake and turned away from Christ by their treatment of gay people, and that there is a path to being in committed gay relationships and to staying true to the teachings of Christ. I'm not sure many Christians will actually read this, but it sort of made me want to go give church a try again. That didn't actually happen, but for about a week there I did give serious thought to it, so that should be a sign of how well-written this was.

8) Did you ever read Flowers in the Attic and wish there was another version of the same story where Cathy's brother, Christopher, mansplained everything to you? If so, Christopher's Diary: Secrets of Foxworth is the book for you! High schooler Kristin, a distant cousin of the Foxworth family, has grown up hearing creepy stories of the attic children for her entire life, but thought they were just exaggerated rumors until she found a locked strongbox in the rubble of burned down Foxworth Hall. Opening it, she discovers Christopher's diary, a day by day account of the years Christopher and his children spent locked in the attic of Foxworth Hall, tortured by their religious grandmother and abandoned and poisoned by their mother. As she reads the diary, Kristin becomes more and more obsessed with Christopher, falling in love with the long-deceased cousin and imagining that she sees him following her, beckoning to her, and, eventually she begins pretending that her boyfriend is Christopher. Her boyfriend, Kane, agrees that they should pretend to be Christopher and Cathy, and our story ends with the two of them heading up to Kristin's attic to read more of Christopher's diary, because attics turn Kristin on now.

I'm not kidding. They're going to the attic so they can feel more into the story, but they're getting to the part of the story where Christopher and Cathy had sex, so I think we kind of all know where things are going in the sequel, which I have already purchased.

I was expecting trash, and wasn't disappointed. I was glad that it was the good, entertaining kind of trash, though.

9) Certain things might come to mind when you think of Shirley Jackson: author, writer, wife, mother... murderer? In Shirley, Susan Scarf Merrell transforms Shirley Jackson into a character in a Shirley Jackson book: moody, sinister, and possibly not what she seems, but also possibly entirely normal and only sinister in the narrator's imagination. When Fred, a young student professor finishing his dissertation, and Rose, his pregnant wife, come to stay with the Jacksons, it's supposed to be only temporary, until they find a place of their own in the Vermont college town. As the days turn into weeks, their move seems to become permanent, absorbing them into the Jackson household and leaving Rose with questions: Does Stanley cheat on Shirley? Is Shirley a witch who can read minds and cast spells? And did Shirley have anything to do with the disappearance of a pretty young student from the college?

This was a tense, interesting read, and I enjoyed it. The difference between this and the Hemingway book was that this is clearly not aiming to be biographical fiction, so I hope no one is reading it that way. Some of it may be based on Jackson's letters, writing, and biographies, but the rest is just a good, spooky story. Shirley Jackson probably would have liked it.

10) I know that at least some of what I eat comes from pretty far away, but until I read Alissa Hamilton's Squeezed, I never realized that my orange juice was probably shipped to me on a giant multimillion gallon tanker from Brazil, like crude oil, after spending up to a year sitting in sterile tanks and then getting enhanced with a "flavor pack" whose ingredients and production aren't entirely known to federal inspection agencies so that it would taste fresh again. While this is a book about orange juice, it's actually a book about the dangers of big business informing government policy, about marketing, about the global food economy, and about the importance of myths about food in our culture. I feel kind of dumb now for thinking that my Tropicana was actually recently squeezed in Florida, but Hamilton does a good job of explaining why I think that and how the government helped shape that belief.

So, those are the books I read in January. I'm halfway through two others at the moment, and I guess it's possible that I might finish one or the other before midnight, but if so I'll just count it in February.

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