Tag Archives: Books Read in 2007

12: Prodigal Summer

Prodigal Summer by Barbara Kingsolver

Prodigal Summer

I read Kingsolver’s epic, The Poisonwood Bible, around the time it first came out (summer of 2000, I think). I recall that it was a good read, but I certainly didn’t have that “best. book. ever!” response that so many people seemed to have at the time. Then there was the time that someone told me a writing prompt response I wrote sounded like Prodigal Summer (having now read PS, I don’t see the connection). That was years ago too. I guess I wasn’t enthralled enough with TPB to immediately seek out PS upon hearing this comment, but I did remember it when I saw the book on the shelf at The Bookshop last summer. And then it sat on my shelf for a year…

But when I finally picked it up, I read it in a couple days; it was a quick read. I think I liked it better than TPB. I say I think because TPB is a bit vague for me, plotwise, but going on gut reaction. PS immediately hooked me in a way that TPB didn’t. I read it in big gulps. And it was funny, reading PS right after writing this:

(The fact that I read the TNITL for fun should in itself have been a strong indication that I should have majored in English, but I was too busy cutting off my nose to spite my face at the time to realize this.)

because PS is the type of book that makes me happy that I majored in biology. You know, because a degree in something other than writing/English gives me something to write about. Also, it makes for quirky cocktail conversation. Like so:

Acquaintance: What’s your undergrad in?

Me: Biology.

Acquaintance: !!!

Or, alternatively: Me too! (Yes, apparently I am not alone in my weirdness.)

But I digress. PS starts out as three separate stories, but as the book progresses, we find out that all three are more or less connected. In Predators, we meet Deanna, who has parlayed her master’s degree into a job for the Forest Service (essentially discouraging hunters from poaching wildlife). In Moth Love, we have Lusa, who gave up her postdoctoral grant to marry tobacco farmer Cole and is struggling to adjust to life as an outsider in a small community. And finally, in Old Chestnuts, we have retired schoolteacher Garnett and his neighbor/nemesis Nannie. Deanna’s thing is coyotes, Lusa loves moths, Garnett’s trying to revive the American chestnut, and Nannie grows organic apples.

The book is all about sex, not in the porn sense, but in the cycle-of-life sense. The story functions as a polemic for Kingsolver. Characters frequently launch into long “as you know, Bob” monologues on the evils of hunting or pesticides or tobacco farming. If you’re a left-coasty granola (*cough*), this is pretty standard stuff, but where the story’s set (Appalachia), her views are probably less de rigueur.

I liked that the secondary characters always remained a bit of mystery (as people do) and that everything wasn’t tied up neatly in a bow at the end (life goes on…). Initially I wasn’t sure about the headhopping between chapters—just when you get hooked on Deanna’s story, it leaps to Lusa, etc. and at first I found myself reading fast so I could get back to the first storyline (and then the second & so on) because at first it’s like three separate stories. But as the three stories became entwined, the headhopping starts to make sense—they’re three different PoVs within the same setting. So in the end, I thought the strategy worked.

11: The Moon is Always Female

The Moon is Always Female by Marge Piercy

The Moon is Always Female

Ack. I actually finished reading this ages ago. It’s been sitting on my desk looking at me for most of the summer, as a reminder to write a post about it. Meanwhile, I’ve been otherwise occupied reading books for my directed reading course (and by extension, my thesis). But that project is nearing completion, and it’s time for some just-for-fun reading to finish off the summer. Before starting something new, here are my two cents on The Moon is Always Female.

Marge Piercy is one of the poets I first came into contact with when reading The Norton Introduction to Literature when undoubtedly I should have been doing something else. Like reading that Poli Sci textbook I never realized I owned until an hour before the final exam. (The fact that I read the TNITL for fun should in itself have been a strong indication that I should have majored in English, but I was too busy cutting off my nose to spite my face at the time to realize this.) The poem was “To have without holding.” The first stanza (p. 40):

Learning to love differently is hard,
love with the hands wide open, love
with the doors banging on their hinges,
the cupboard unlocked, the wind
roaring and whimpering in the rooms
rustling the sheets and snapping the blinds
that thwack like rubber bands
in an open palm.

Heh. I just noticed the first comment under “Most Helpful Customer Reviews” at Amazon is from my close personal friend Eden. How apropos, since I picked this up when I saw it at my favorite used bookstore last summer because of the many times she’s mentioned it. Let’s see what she had to say:

Piercy’s poems in this collection touch my every emotion. They make me laugh, cry, consider, ache, scream and everything in the spaces between. I “had” to read this for a contemporary lit course in college over ten years ago. Problem was, I couldn’t stop reading it. It was the first book I couldn’t bring myself to sell back. It’s exceptional, from the words on the pages to the typeface itself. Favorite include: “For the young who want to” “For strong women” “Poetry festival lover” and of course “The moon is always female.” After reading it, you will feel like you know Piercy. And you will also better know yourself.

Hmm, thanks for doing my work for me, E! I’d also add that it’s the kind of collection that it’s nice to leave out where you can pick it up and randomly re-read a poem or two when the mood strikes you. “For the young who want to” is one of my favorite poems (by any poet) and I never tire of re-reading it. The last stanza (p. 85):

The real writer is one
who really writes. Talent
is an invention like phlogiston
after the fact of fire.
Work is its own cure. You have to
like it better than being loved.

10: Anonymous Lawyer

Anonymous Lawyer by Jeremy Blachman

Anonymous Lawyer

I started reading Jeremy’s eponymous law school blog sometime in 2003. It was one of only two law school blogs that I read to the very end (the other was Sua Sponte). The two blogs were pretty much polar opposites. JCA at Sua Sponte was serious, earnest, ever-stressed. Jeremy was funny, irreverent, and seemingly unfazed by anything. His was the law school blog I wish I could have written.

In 2004, Jeremy started writing the Anonymous Lawyer blog, anonymously. I read it for a while (I don’t remember where I saw the link–I was reading a lot of law blogs at the time). There was a lot of speculation in the comments as to who Anonymous Lawyer was. A lot of people thought AL was a real person (despite the “fictional” disclaimer). I thought that the writer was a law student (based on the content). It had that “just enough knowledge” feel, you know? It was funny, but after a while, the schtick got a bit repetitive and I stopped reading it. A few months later, there was an article in the NY Times “outing” Jeremy as the writer behind AL. I wasn’t surprised.

Fast forward: Jeremy gets a book deal, graduates, passes the bar (even though he didn’t study, or so he claims), writes book. Book is published. Book signings ‘n’ stuff. Book is optioned. Jeremy goes to LA to work on pilot. etc. etc.

So, right, the book. Well, it’s been out for a while, but I waited for the paperback. I really bought it because of Jeremy’s personal blog, not the AL blog. I think AL the book is better than AL the blog. It has a plot. It’s funny. And it’s just long enough. It’s a fluffy, quick read. I think it could make a funny TV series. I’d watch. The pilot, at least 😉

9: Contemporary Verse 2 (Winter 2005)

Contemporary Verse 2: The Canadian Journal of Poetry and Critical Writing, 27.3 (Winter 2005) “The Poetics of Space: Where Poetry Lives”*

CV 2 (Winter 2005)

*I realize an issue of CV2 is not actually a book.

This is another thing I picked up at the VPL book sale last fall. CV2 is exclusively a poetry journal. The first part of the issue is interviews with several poets. Each interview is followed by poems by that author. The remainder of the issue is miscellaneous poems.

The interview format is interesting and I think gives the journal a more general appeal, i.e. anyone interested in the writing process might enjoy the interviews. It’s like a poetry lesson in a way since the interview is followed by a selection of the poems that have been discussed.

My favorite of the interviewees’ poems were Fiona Tinwei Lam’s. Her selections were from Intimate Distances. (Love that title.)

From “beach” (p. 59):

I try to tempt you there with castles carefully
tipped out of plastic buckets,
festoon the grainy cakes with twigs and pebbles—
but you topple them all
then trudge away.

I also liked Julia McCarthy’s prose poem, “Out of the Ordinary,” which starts:

Everyday I pray for boredom, for nothing to happen. I want a dull life as though underwater, but even there things are sharper and the greenery, sublime. (p. 70)

This was one of the journals that really impressed me back in the day. Reading this issue now, it made me happy to realize that the poetry we publish in TC is just as good as much of the work here.

Random fact: Dorothy Livesay, the founder of CV2, lived at the long-term care facility where I worked for a time. I was enough of a creative writing nerd to be thrilled by being in her presence. Every time I saw her I was like, “Squee! Dorothy Livesay!” I don’t know if anyone else knew who she was.

8: The Journal Project

The Journal Project: Dialogues and Conversations Inside Women’s Studies edited by Dana Putnam, Dorothy Kidd, Elaine Dornan & Patty Moore

The Journal Project

This was another VPL Booksale find. It’s a collection of journal entries from Women’s Studies classes at Langara College.

I found it interesting from a public/private space perspective. On the one hand, the journals were kept as a class assignment (for completion marks, not grades); the entries were written with the understanding that the instructor would read them. On the other hand, the idea of publishing them as an anthology came after the fact, so a wider audience was not anticipated. In this sense, I guess you could say they were more comparable to letters than to traditional diary entries in that the writers knew for certain that at least one person would be reading their words.

One thing that I found problematic with the selection of pieces is that the majority of them seemed to be written by women who had suffered physical/sexual/emotional abuse. My difficulty with this is that emphasizing worst-case scenarios makes it easy for those women who have not experienced such extreme discrimination to distance themselves and deny that there’s a problem with patriarchy. But just because you haven’t personally been abused or no one’s ever told you that you’re stupid or you’ve never faced extreme poverty (or whatever) doesn’t mean that there aren’t systemic problems with society. I would have liked to have seen more pieces like the one by the woman who was told that she couldn’t be the “head of household” because she was a SAHM. That’s the kind of systemic discrimination that you’ll probably never even be aware exists until it happens to you. It will never be a cause du jour. Yet, it’s addressing those kinds of issues, the ones that seem trivial (but aren’t), that leads to real change.

The Journal Project was published in 1995. The journals were traditional paper notebooks. It was interesting, in the context of my research, to read what they thought journals had the power to do.

[J]ournal writing itself assists social change. When our thoughts are spoken or recorded, they become part of the revolution. Writing it down is powerful and dangerous. –Dana Putnam

I wonder if any of the women are still journaling. I wonder if any of them are blogging.

7: Grasshopper

Grasshopper by Barbara Vine

Grasshopper

I picked this up at Pulpfiction Books, a cool new/used bookstore at Main & Broadway.

Once upon a time, I was in a writing class where the instructor insisted that only murder was high stakes enough for mysteries & suspense novels. It was a silly thing to say and I recall scoffing when she said it. This memory resurfaced as I finished Grasshopper and contemplated what I would write about it. I was going to say that there’s no murder in Grasshopper, but technically there is. However, it’s just a mcguffin.

The reviews at Amazon are mixed. Some people hated this book. A lot said it wasn’t a “typical” Barbara Vine book. I’m not sure what they were expecting. None of the BV books I’ve read would be what I’d call typical mysteries. They’re more “regular” stories with suspenseful elements to them. Which is why I like them. I was tired of formulaic whodunnits. The people who seemed most disappointed seemed to expect a “shocking twist” ending. I guess it would be a let down if that’s what you expected.

BV’s books tend to be dark, psychological explorations, rather than thrillers. I think she’s interested in what motivates people to do the things they do. This one, I think, was less dark than others I’ve read, perhaps because it was clear from the outset that the ending would be a (mostly) happy one. The ending doesn’t tie up all the loose ends, though, which is good.

It definitely kept me turning the pages and, when I got to the last page, I experienced that little pang of sadness that you do when you’ve become attached to the characters in a book and you have to let them go. That kind of surprised me because none of the characters were particularly likable. But I suppose that was precisely it; their unpleasant qualities made them seem like real human beings and I got used to them being around.

So, to sum up: no murder(s) to speak of and no particularly likable characters. And yet, I quite enjoyed it.

6: Star Gazing

Star Gazing: Charting Feminist Literary Criticism by Andrea Lebowitz

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This was mentioned in my Methods class. At only 69 pages, it’s closer to a booklet than a book, but as far as the yearly book tally goes, it counts!

I got a few good ideas for my thesis from it.

On collaborative work:

[A]nother constant of feminist literary criticism is the success of collaborative work. Feminist literary criticism has put to rest the cliche that good writing must be the work of one person. (p. 6)

And the Other:

[F]eminists have questioned the binary opposites of our culture which see so many things as opposed and mutually exclusive … This type of thinking sees one thing as ‘other’ and inferior to its binary opposite. (p. 7)

Oh, and interestingly: Lebowitz writes that “the two most important precursors” to feminist literary criticism are Virginia Woolf and Simone de Beauvoir. A Room of One’s Own and The Second Sex “have formed the basis of feminist literary critics’ thinking about gender and writing.” (p. 11) I guess this is not particularly surprising, but what’s interesting about it is that I went through that whole de Beauvoir / Woolf phase and I’ve read AROOO and parts of TSS (it’s long!). I mean, it’s sort of vindicating that some of the stuff I read during that time fits with what I’m doing now. Now that everything is starting to tie together, it feels like there really is a point to it all.

Once I wrote up a list of “books that changed my life.” Meet the Austins (the book that hooked me on Madeleine L’Engle) was on it, as was Writing Down the Bones (the book that got me started writing again). Also on the list: de Beauvoir’s Memoirs of a Dutiful Daughter.

But I digress. On alternative/indie press:

[Feminists] have created alternative publishing and distribution networks and have founded many presses, journals and magazines. Some of these address an academic audience, while others speak for and from alternative cultural spaces. (p. 15)

On the novel:

[A]re there limits to what stories the novel can tell? … Does its structure, plot, narrative and closure keep women from writing stories other than the old familiar plots? (p. 19)

vs. “sub-literary” forms:

[L]etters, diaries, journals, sketches … have been widely used by women … studies into secondary forms have raised another fundamental question about evaluation. Why are some forms seen as superior? Conversely what makes a form inferior? (p. 20)

[I]dentity is not determined and fixed once and for all, but is rather in process. More fluid and fragmentary forms may offer ways of expressing this condition. … In autobiography and life writing more generally, the author is often not expressing a life already shaped and complete as she is using the writing as a way to express and make a life. (p. 21)

[I]t is not sufficient to use the old forms for new knowledge. We cannot simply reverse male stories, literary forms or critical criteria. Rather, language and form have become places for revision and experimentation. Most notably the private, fragmentary and intimate forms of expression have found a place alongside the public, completed and logical modes of expression. (p. 41)

Ooh. Well, that gives me something to chew on for a while.

5: Reasons for Moving

Reasons for Moving (manuscript) by Stephanie Eden Lenz

Reasons for Moving

This is the second novel my close personal friend* and co-editor Eden has completed.

She finished her first novel, Whited Sepulchers, in July 2000 (that date makes me =-O). She started RFM shortly thereafter and she was also shopping WS around for a while, but then she had two kids and the books went on the backburner.

Lately she’s been re-editing WS in preparation for sending it out again. In January, she picked up RFM and finished the first draft in 16 days. 60+k in just over two weeks. Bravo! It’s so good to see her writing fiction again. She’s going to write an editorial about the experience for the March issue of TC.

I need to re-read WS (it’s on my List), but from what I recall, RFM is very different in content and style.

RFM is set in the early ’90s in a college town in Pennsylvania. The narrator, Seth, who is 20 at the time of the story, was an abused child who left home after a traumatic event some three years earlier. Since then, he’s been hitchhiking around the country and doing what he has to to get by. He winds up on this college campus and, finding he blends in with the students, starts following them to classes. It’s winter and basically he’s looking for a warm place to hang out. He ends up following a girl to a small poetry writing seminar where the instructor spots him before he can escape. Soon he’s writing poetry, rooming with the classmate he followed that first day, and perhaps most surprisingly, setting down some roots. Through both the poetry and the personal connections he makes, he finally starts to work through his traumatic past, stop the destructive cycle he’s been on since he left home, and begins to look toward the future for the first time in his life.

*Is that phrase trademarked yet? 😉

4: The Orchid Thief

The Orchid Thief: A True Story of Beauty and Obsession by Susan Orlean

The Orchid Thief

I picked this up at the VPL Book Sale (for $1, I think). It’s the book that the movie Adaptation was based on. Adaptation is a weird and wonderful movie, so I was curious about the book.

As the sub-title indicates, this is a true story, an expansion of an earlier New Yorker article. Of course, the book has none of the meta-ness of the movie (which is all about the difficulty in adapting the book to a screenplay). The story starts out being about John Laroche—the orchid thief—who is on trial for taking endangered orchids from a state preserve, but grows into a story about Florida orchid enthusiasts in general and their passion for the plants. Passion is the overarching theme.

I have to say this is a rare instance where I liked the movie better than the book.

Orlean’s a really good writer—her descriptions are vivid—and this is the type of New Yorker article that I’d really enjoy, but the book gets a bit wandery. It’s like she wanted to include every orchid and every character she met and I started to suffer from sensory overload about midway through the book.

The movie has more of a cohesive narrative—but, heh, now I can see where the difficulty in adapting it to a screenplay came from. So, haha, ironically, reading the book will probably make my next watching of the movie even more entertaining! So I guess it was pretty awesome on that level.

3: The Namesake

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri

The Namesake

Another book picked up at The Book Shop last summer. Interestingly, once I started reading it, I realized I’d read part of this as an excerpt in The New Yorker in the summer of 2003 and remembered how much I’d liked it.

This book was awesome. I loved it.

I mean, the main metaphor throughout the book is the main character’s name. Heh. So an obsession with names can be turned into a book. 😉 Another interesting detail: it’s written in present tense, which I noticed on some level but didn’t consciously think about until I was about halfway through the book. And then I sort of went, “Hmm, this pretty much disproves the theory that you can’t carry off present tense in a novel.” So there, haters.

What else? Her descriptions are amazing. Don’t read this book when you’re hungry. What sucked me in right from the beginning, I think, was that this book begins the month/year I was born—the MC’s lifespan exactly matches my own. I guess we’re getting into an era now where I’m going to see this more often, as writers who are my age become established, but it stood out because I’m so used to reading books by older authors (who tend to write about their own generations).

What was unexpected (given the emphasis on the first/second generation immigrant aspect of the story in reviews & such) was how much I identified with the circumstances of the book. I also grew up the child of parents who moved far away from where they grew up. In their case, it was only cross-continent, but our visits were even more infrequent (and shorter) than the ones in this story, so I get that whole tenuous relationship with relatives who are really just names to you, turning friends into family, trying to figure out what/where “home” really is thing.

This book doesn’t have a traditional plot so it isn’t something that’s going to appeal to everyone. I glanced at the Amazon reviews and a lot of the more negative reviews were comments along the lines of “nothing happens,” which is true in a way, but I think misses the point. I will definitely be checking out her collection of short stories, Interpreter of Maladies.