Archives for category: Books

This novel has the slow steady pace of country life:

Drury

A few big events puncture the narrative but mostly you get more than three hundred pages of small-town life. The sheriff and his deputies. Some townie lowlifes. A few good people trying to make a respectable living. It’s a good book. Maybe you’ve heard of it and passed it over. Maybe this is the first. Don’t pass it up. It’s a nice summer read.

I happened to read half of this book in the north-eastern corner of Iowa where this book seems to be set. Maybe that’s one reason I felt such comfort settling into this weighty novel. Tom Drury never explicitly places a pin in a map but he leaves some strong clues. The nearby Minnesota border. The long stretches of corn and gravel between towns.

This part of the country is beautiful. Perhaps most beautiful to those raised here. Even those of us who grew up in town and never lived the hard-working farm life, feel the pull of those fields and that horizon line. The comfort and awe of seeing weather work its way across the land. A thunderhead building and bubbling up lightening.

The wife and the poodle watch a summer storm churn towards us:

summer15

Writing is built on reading. I better get back to it.

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I’ve read three books in the last two months at wildly different paces. While the pacing can occasionally be blamed on the authors, it’s mostly my fault. If you don’t feel like reading my rambling let me start by saying you should read all three of these books. They’re good. I promise.

Anyway, here’s the breakdown:

Wave by Sonali Deraniyagala (four days):

wave deraniyagala

Sonali Deraniyagala lost everything in the tsunami that hit Sri Lanka in 2004 – her husband, two sons and parents. Her grief is palpable if blessedly unreachable. This book should be read quickly. As quickly as one can stomach this much grief.

Simply flipping through this book one can see the pages are spare, the margins wide. Page layout encourages a quick read. If not for the sheer devastation within, I would have finished this book in a single day.

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson (one week):

life after life - atkinson

I’m a sucker for a historical novel. Set it during WWII and I’m double sold. Atkinson delivers a lovely piece of the past with a bit of a mystical spin. Our protagonist, sweet Ursula Todd, dies over and over until she gets life right. At least I think that’s the moral of the story. I enjoyed the book even though I’m not exactly sure what I was supposed to “learn” from it. Maybe there isn’t a moral. Maybe it’s just a book.

Despite the heft (560pages) the chapters passed quickly for me once I found a rhythm. There is a special kind of satisfaction to eating a book this quickly. That’s kind of why I’m writing this blog. That satisfaction makes me want to brag a bit. It makes me want to big up another 500 page book and finish it over the weekend. (I won’t. This is hubris. But still, it feels good)

White Teeth by Zadie Smith (one month):

white teeth smith

Yes, I just read this. I’m slow. That’s the point of the damn blog. If you haven’t read it, I’d recommend it. A book like this gets talked about for a reason. It’s good.

When I reached the end of this novel, I wish I’d read faster. After twisting ever forward, through generations and friendships, Smith swings around at the end to reference the initial sections of the book. I saw it happening. I saw my slow progress coming back to bite me in the ass. While I understood the moment was significant I had no recollection of the initial scene. Damn you procrastination!

Just read. Fast. Slow. It doesn’t make a difference. Reading is fun.

Weather like this can be a hidden blessing. After inching through Elizabeth Strout’s first novel for weeks I finally ate the last hundred pages:

amyisabelle

For years I avoided Elizabeth Strout’s work. First passively, I had a long list of things to read after all. I’m busy reader when I want to be. Then, steadily over time, my avoidance became a bit more purposeful. Who cares about the upper Northeast? Why would I read a novel about such a place? Such people? Excuses, excuses.

Really though I was worried about disagreeing with my wife. Now don’t get me wrong. We disagree on normal topics just fine. What toppings belong on a hamburger? What TV show we should watch? Is it important to empty your pockets before putting your jeans in the wash? But something felt different about the possibility of disliking a book.

The book is a nerd’s heart. The author, our hero. I didn’t want to disagree with her hero. I should have known though, she was right. Strout’s simple prose is near perfect: “How unpleasant can it be?” Amy asked unpleasantly.

She kills me!

Moral of the story: Read this book, or this one. You won’t regret a single sentence of Elizabeth Strout’s work.

Also, always trust your wife.

This is a bit embarrassing but I figure I might as well start off the new year with honesty. I, Elizabeth Merritt Abbott, could not finish a book. Specifically, I could not finish this book:

bobcat

Don’t get me wrong, Bobcat by Rebecca Lee is well written. The sentences are lovely. Lee draws a portrait of the Midwest college campus unlike any I’ve seen before, both loving and critical.

But that’s where the topics and settings stagnate. Each protagonist is either professor or student or administer in a 1980s Midwestern college campus. I spend my week days on these college campuses, I don’t want to spend my reading hours there too.

Putting a book down isn’t as traumatic for me as it once was. I don’t feel like I’ve wasted my time with the first 141 page and I feel no longing for final 67 pages. We simply didn’t click, this book and I. That’s ok.

Happy New Year, dear ones.

I moved into this book for the duration of my honeymoon:

May_Forgive

AM Homes has a dark and somewhat frantic sensibility, one that may not seem conducive for a relaxing beach-read, but I beg to differ. This novel is at once a page turner and a character study, as one might argue her other novels have been (please see This Book Will Save Your Life and for reference).

I like this style. As a reader I’m kept just enough off balance to be forced to pay attention. I can settle in with the characters but I know the calm won’t last. Reading a Homes book is like walking a tight rope, walking it and never quite falling off. I have just enough balance to keep my grounding. I understand the character’s problem, I am familiar with the world in which they live, but occasionally that rope swings. I’m snapped awake. There is a fight or an unstable child or a tiger on the loose. It’s goddamn brilliant.

Whew, that got a little more theoretical than I intended. Sorry about that.

Let’s make this simple: it’s a good book and you should read it.

I ate this book in a week.

AM Homes-Music

What is it about? It’s not about music. (There may not be a single reference to music in the whole novel, not one I can recall at least.) It’s not as much about torching as you might think after the first thirty pages. It’s about suburbia and infidelity and love and fear and marriage and remodeling and asthma and, and, and….

The book covers one week. And it really covers that week. Our dear characters wake up, they eat breakfast, they go to work, many things happen through the day, then they come home and eat dinner. I didn’t realize exactly how linear it was while I was reading it. Maybe that’s a good sign. I wanted to know what happened next. Those little details were beautiful not routine.

If you’ve never read A.M. Homes before you’re missing out. I read This Book Will Save Your Life a few years ago and I’m not sure why I waited so long to read another. I know she’s written a new one. Fine, I’ll jump down the author hole.

One extra joy of being married to a fiction writer is you inherit their bookshelf. That’s how I came upon this gem:

that night

The novel, as the title suggests, is grounded in one summer night . One fight between teenage boys and middle-aged fathers. It’s the story of a neighborhood, of young love and youth, of childhood, of summer. It’s really beautiful, as simple as that. From the sentences to the larger structure, I swooned.

As I sit back and think about this, I’m struggling with how to describe this book without the use of hand gestures. I want to tell you how the narrative wraps around this center, swooping from days before the event to years later but always remaining grounded. You don’t often see a novel’s structure so artfully crafted. Such large swings made with such a deft hand. It’s really a joy to encounter.

Let’s try this – bear with me now. The narrative reminds me of the Army’s tents in Kuwait:

tent2

See how the tie-down straps leave circles and arches on the canvas? When a sandstorm rolls in the ties flail in the wind and beat themselves against the canvas. That isn’t just a line in the dust. Those arcs are forever etched into canvas. The ties have left their mark. That’s exactly how I felt the narrative worked. Give it a read and you’ll see what I mean.

I’m really not sure what made me pick up this book – the sparse style, the width, the beautiful cover art, the title – but I’m glad I did.

let's take

Let’s Take the Long Way Home is a memoir of friendship and grief. More friendship than grief until the last forty pages. Specifically, Caldwell has written the story of her friendship with the writer Caroline Knapp (author of Drinking: A Love Story). By the hundredth page it’s clear Caldwell can’t bring herself to write of her friend’s death. Maybe if she doesn’t put it on the page it won’t be true. It’s easier to focus their love of dogs and rowing and writing. Anything but death.

When she finally gets around to writing about Caroline’s death (“Grief is fundamentally a selfish business.”) she does so as eloquently as writer before her. If found Joan Didion’s Year of Magical Thinking useful/enjoyable you’ll like this.

Near the end of the book, after Caroline’s death, Caldwell’s dog is attacked by two pit bulls. She survives, don’t worry. But all I could think was how would I save my sweet little poodle? She pulled me back in. When the grief has pulled me down a sudden urgency returned to the narrative. Like a gulp of fresh air after staying under water too long. That’s the real joy of memoirs. Sometimes life gives us these plot points that wouldn’t seem believable in a novel.

I love nonfiction.

Olive Kitteridge is one of those books that has been on my radar since it was published in 2008 (and subsequently won the Pulitzer in 2009) but I never read it. I’m glad I waited.

The book is fucking delightful.

Olive-kitteridge_l

Olive Kitteridge sits as my central character and the small town of Crosby, Maine bustles around her. Olive is essentially unlikeable, yet compelling enough for it to be a joy when she returns to the page. Others might disagree but that’s why I feel grateful that I’ve waited so long to read this book. I like talking about books. Hell I’ll read any pulp novel on the shelf if there is the possibility I’ll get to discuss it with someone I like. On the other hand, sometimes, it’s nice to have a book (and a character) all to myself. That is Olive Kitteridge.

Little libraries spot my new neighborhood. Wooden hutches, or cupboards rather, filled with books. Free books. I hope you have these in your lives. I check them compulsively when I walk the dog – the three closest to my house. You’d be surprised the variety of titles people give up.

Just the other day I came across this:

DARK-PLACES_612x612

Luckily I was in need of a summer read and (after finishing the book in less than a week) I’d certainly recommend it. If you’re looking for a nice little summer page-turner, this ought to do just fine. If you’re looking for something a little deeper, this will do too. Flynn gives us a narrator that is wholly unlikeable, yet readable. These two often seem mutually exclusive but not here.

When I was done reading it, I took it back to the little library. Sent it back out into the world. When I checked the next day, it was gone. I hope my neighbor who came upon it next enjoyed it as much as I did.

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