Reading life review: August

Books read this month: 26
Books read in 2011: 87

The Time Machine (H.G. Wells)
Classic science fiction. With the Misses. Followed up with the 1960 film starring Rod Taylor. Both the book and the movie hold up under repeated re-reading, -watching.
"It is a law of nature we overlook, that intellectual versatility is the compensation for change, danger, and trouble. An animal perfectly in harmony with its environment is a perfect mechanism. Nature never appeals to intelligence until habit and instinct are useless. There is no intelligence where there is no change and no need of change. Only those animals partake of intelligence that have to meet a huge variety of needs and dangers."
Umbrella Summer (Lia Graff)
Juvenile fiction. Following the aftermath of her brother's unexpected death, Annie fears everything, from bee stings to ebola. Graff gently and sensitively explores death and loss through the eyes of her Junie B. Jones-inspired protagonist, but I think she utterly missed the mark with Annie's clueless parents. The Misses shared my concern. What are they thinking? we exclaimed several times.

Sarah's Key (Tatiana de Rosay)
Fiction. This fictionalized account of Rafle du Vel' d'Hiv might have been a worthy addition to Holocaust literature had it not been so badly (awfully, terribly) written. Not only is the resolution of the book's central mystery and horror apparent by the middle of the third chapter, but the compelling story of Sarah and her family is sandwiched between dull, predictable bits about a middle-aged American journalist growing weary of her cheating French husband. Not recommended.

Never Look Away (Linwood Barclay)
Fiction. As I've mentioned before (here and here), Barclay's novels are beach books: capably written, entertaining, and not too easy to piece together halfway through. Perhaps this one strained credulity more than the others I've swallowed whole this summer, but that might just be the stitches talking. Heh, heh, heh.

Blank Confession (Pete Hautman)
YA fiction. I've read a number of Hautman's books. Godless was one pretty terrific read, as was Invisible. Rash? Meh. But this? Solid. And timely. The hook -- a teen has walked into a police station to confess to a murder -- is well employed, and the narrative hums and clicks along, even as it explores bullying and drug use among teens. Recommended.

Joy for Beginners (Erica Bauermeister)
Fiction. File this one under "reading like a girl" -- or "perfect for bed rest." Kate has survived cancer. Accepting the challenge to go on white-rafting trip to celebrate her victory, she, in turn, issues each of her friends a life challenge. What could have been predictable and trite ended up being warm and life-affirming.

Boy Heaven (Laura Kasischke)
Feathered (Laura Kasischke)
YA fiction. Speaking of reading like a girl... I picked up several Kasischke novels after enjoying The Raising and The Life Before Her Eyes in May. Boy Heaven is an urban legend framed as a ghost story, and this is just the sort of story my fifteen-year-old self would have loved, although I think my fifteen-year-old self would have been rather perplexed by Feathered. My forty-seven-year-old thought both were pretty terrific, and I'll now be tempted to urge any teen who murmurs, "Spring break," in my presence to read the latter. Carefully.

Daytripper (Gabriel Ba and Fabio Moon)
Graphic novel. From a Publisher's Weekly review earlier this year:
A stunning, moving story about one man's life and all the possibilities to be realized or lost along the way. Brothers Bá and Moon take readers through the life of a man named Brás de Oliva Domingos, selecting a series of individual events of great significance to Brás, showing each as if it could be the day Brás dies, and in so doing creating an examination of family, friendship, love, art, life, and death that urges the reader to turn the same careful inspection on their own life.
Beautiful art and beautiful writing. I loved this book.

In a Perfect World (Laura Kasischke)
Fiction. As much as I've been enjoying my whirlwind tour of Kasischke's oeuvre, I was fairly certain she could no longer surprise me. I was wrong. In a Perfect World coyly misleads an inattentive reader into thinking that it will be a beautifully written exploration of otherwise mundane subjects: a doomed marriage and an equally doomed foray into step-motherhood. And then it blossoms into a melancholy meditation on the end of the world as we know it and how we might become our most authentic selves when it all falls apart. If my previous recommendations haven't persuaded you to give a Kasischke a try, let this one do so. Good, good stuff here, folks.

The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction (Alan Jacobs)
Non-fiction. Highly recommended. Chapbook entry here; two other related entries here and here.

One Day (David Nicholls)
Fiction. Nicholls writes so well that it almost saddens me to admit how much this silly book annoyed me. I will tell you that I started and stopped and skipped ahead so many times that when I finally returned to it this month I was essentially rereading the entire book (which, I'm sure, added to my annoyance because who would willingly reread this?). Perhaps I was also annoyed by the cloying advertisements for the opening of what will likely be a heavy-handed adaptation of the book starring Anne Hathaway as the -- SPOILER ALERT! -- doomed-from-the-moment-she-met-'im Emma.

The Idle Parent (Tom Hodgkinson)
Non-fiction. Apparently just as it took me a year to finish One Day, it took me a year to finish The Idle Parent. I was thinking about reading it in July and then acquired it later that month. I must have begun reading it because I quoted from it in August. And then? Nothing. It was tucked away with a bookmark, and as I did with One Day, I returned to it during my recovery this month -- though with much happier results. I must admit that Hodgkinson's tra-la-la paean to benignly neglectful parenting is probably best read in snippets because reading it all at once might put one in mind of Polonius' collection of platitudes masquerading as wisdom. Chapbook entry here and another related entry here.

Drawing Birds (John Busby)
Non-fiction. Highly recommended. Chapbook entry here.

Be Mine (Laura Kasischke)
Suspicion River (Laura Kasischke)
White Bird in a Blizzard (Laura Kasischke)
Fiction. Suspicion River and White Bird in a Blizzard were Kasischke's first two novels; Be Mine was published in 2007. That I didn't care for River or Mine is my own fault; I should have read the descriptions more carefully, instead of letting my unbridled enthusiasm for In a Perfect World lead me to acquire Kasisichke's remaining novels. Just... grimly explicit and not my cuppa. And White Bird? Meh. Also pretty graphic and dark; more, I saw the conclusion coming.

Want to Go Private? (Sarah Littman)
YA fiction. An honors student on the social fringes begins high school with some fear, but soon after connecting with an older boy in a teen chat room, she finds a friend in whom she can confide her concerns. His attention makes her feel compelling -- even attractive. This book's frank treatment of a young girl's seduction by an online predator was so lurid that it can only be described as an R-rated "Afterschool Special."

Mid-Life (Joe Ollmann)
Graphic novel. Promising but, in the end, not one of my best encounters with this genre. I found the pages too "heavy" -- too dense and dark with image and text. And really? The protagonist is not at all likeable.

A Hope in the Unseen (Ron Suskind)
Non-fiction. Suskind won the Pulitzer Prize in 1995 for the series of articles that grew into A Hope in the Unseen, the chronicle of Cedric Lavar Jennings' journey from an impoverished and dangerous Washington, D.C., public high school to Brown University. Subtitled "An American Odyssey from the Inner City to the Ivy League," Unseen unflinchingly and repeatedly points out that Jennings didn't graduate from Brown (and later, Harvard and the University of Michigan, according the afterword in this revised and updated edition) because of extraordinary academic gifts; he succeeded through hard work alone -- the grueling, single-minded study of a "headstrong monk." I was transfixed by the story, a result of its compelling subject as well as Suskind's assured narrative style. Highly recommended.

A New Culture of Learning (Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown)
Non-fiction. Chapbook entry here.

The Accident (Linwood Barclay)
Fiction. And with this, I had my fill of Barclay. It was fun while it lasted.

The Hypnotist (Lars Kepler)
Fiction. It seems as if I've had a bookmark in this for most of the summer. It finally captured my imagination -- in the way a particularly implausible but generally riveting episode of "Criminal Minds" will -- late on the last Saturday of the month. Twenty-four hours later, I set it aside with satisfaction. A gruesome, sordid, and suspenseful exploration of human weakness, frailty, and, yes, evil -- as I said, not unlike an episode of "Criminal Minds."

This Beautiful Life (Helen Schulman)
Fiction. What was the author thinking, invoking The Great Gatsby -- perhaps the original wealthy-Americans-experience-angst-too story -- at the mid-point of this overwrought novel? The comparison only made This Beautiful Life seem... more baldly less than. Sure, I'm a bit tetchy as I write this, but seriously? I finished with two thoughts: (1) I'll never get that afternoon back; and (2) Another book with unlikeable characters behaving stupidly -- bleah. Maria Russo (NYT, July 28) loved it, by the way. Did we read the same book?

Beginner's Guide to Traditional Archery (Brian Sorrells)
Non-fiction. Because I cannot WAIT to use my new bow!

This Girl Is Different (J.J. Johnson)
YA fiction. A mostly predictable YA treatment of the "homeschooled kid decides to attend public high school -- and change the world!" story -- although I did appreciate the strong, intelligent protagonist.


Staci Thomas said...

I COMPLETELY agree with your comments about Sarah's Key. It was horribly written and the journalist's part of the story was completely unnecessary.

I was getting ready to pick up This Beautiful Life. I may revisit, now. Thank you.

And thank you for A Hope in the Unseen recommendation. That one sounds fabulous.

Hoping you are fully recovered. And, as always, you rock!

Sherry said...

Wow! You've been putting away the books this month. I had Sarah's Key on my TBR list, but I may take it off after reading your evaluation thereof.

Sheila Beaumont said...

I love your "Reading life review" posts.

The two YAs by Kasischke sound like books I might enjoy. Also the Hautman.

I haven't had my fill of Linwood Barclay yet, and I doubt I ever will. I've ordered The Accident. I'll believe just about anything while I'm reading a thriller, so strained credulity isn't much of a problem.

Kepler's The Hypnotist is another book I've ordered and am looking forward to.

I've downloaded Alan Jacobs' The Pleasures of Reading in an Age of Distraction onto my Kindle, and I'll be reading it concurrently with my mysteries, thrillers, YA fiction, etc.

Anonymous said...

I liked Sarah's Key. I hope people who read your reviews decide to read it and come up with their own opinions.

Mental multivitamin said...

@Staci: Yes, pick up A Hope in the Unseen.

@Sherry: I was recovering from surgery for the last three weeks of the month. I don't expect such big numbers from September. (*grin*)

@Sheila: Thanks! I love these entries, too, because they help me see how I make my way from one book to the next.

@Anonymous: We can't all like the same books.

ChristineMM said...

Wow had totally forgotten "afterschool special" until you mentioned it. A tidbit from my life that my brain had put in a dusty corner long forgotten. Perhaps some mental moths fluttered as that memory resurfaced.

Just had to share that. LOL