february 2011 reading

Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos — This is this year’s selection for All Iowa Reads, and so I’ll be doing a book discussion for it sometime later this year. It’s a very book-discussiony book (albeit a long one), full of family issues and small town issues and social issues and that sort of thing. Between the length and the number of issues, it almost seemed like there was almost too much, as if the novel were both crammed full and sprawling. But the characters are wonderful, and having recently moved from a town of 351 people, I loved how well Kallos got small towns and how they are both very private and not private at all.

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley — This was the choice for this month’s mystery book discussion at the library. There is almost nothing to discuss in Bradley’s very sweet, very enjoyable tale about an 11 year old girl who is an aspiring chemist and accidental sleuth in rural England in 1950, but we managed to eke some conversation out of the setting and the degree to which a willing suspension of disbelief was required.

[listen] The Gin Closet by Leslie Jamison — I’m doing my best to use our library’s downloadable eaudiobooks. Since I’m a Mac user with an older iPod Touch and since Overdrive only lets one person check out a digital file at a time, my selection is generally somewhat limited (I don’t listen to books enough to make placing holds practical). I was quite pleased with this selection. There are two narrators (done in slightly different voices by the same woman on the audio version), Stella, a woman in her twenties who is lost in a sort of twentysomething Manhattanite way, and Tillie, her aunt, who is lost in an alcoholic living in a trailer park in the desert kind of way. The novel deals with how they come to learn of each other’s existence. It is not a happy story, but it is a good one.

The Neighbors are Watching by Debra Ginsberg — There ain’t no fun like making fun of suburbanites, so if you like that sort of thing, you will probably like this book about how a suburban San Diego neighborhood is sent into a tizzy when the pregnant daughter of one of its residents shows up on his doorstep and is greeted by his wife, who had no idea he even had a daughter.

Twenty Thousand Roads: The Ballad of Gram Parsons and His Cosmic American Music by David N. Meyer — I have loved biographies of rock stars ever since the day I happened upon the 781s at the Iowa City Public Library as a high school freshman. This one is my favorite kind — long, overwrought, filled with music trivia, drenched in more music knowledge and snobbery than the clerks in High Fidelity (I mean, this author hates the Eagles, hates them*), and incredibly snarky. Of course, since it’s about Gram Parsons, it’s also incredibly sad or completely overwrought, depending on your feelings about musicians who die of drug overdoses in general and Parsons in particular. I’m a fan, so I liked it.

How to Be Lost by Amanda Eyre Ward — I picked this up off a donation pile sitting in my office one day when I had forgotten my book. It was blurbed by someone as being “like The Lovely Bones,” which I guess it is in that it involves the disappearance of a young girl from a suburban home. I guess they also both require some willing suspension of disbelief — but accepting that a dead girl is narrating a story makes for a riveting and interesting book in Sebold’s case, whereas accepting the broad series of contrived coincidences just makes for annoyance on this reader’s part in Ward’s. Oh well. I did finish it, but I don’t recommend it.

Daughter’s Keeper by Ayelet Waldman — I love a book where the Amazon reviews ricochet back and forth between “best writing I’ve ever read” and “can’t write her way out of a slush pile.” I think neither of these things. It’s very clearly a first (literary) novel sort of a novel, but I admire a book that manages to portray a naive young political activist in a way I don’t find totally offensive. Said young activist comes back from Mexico and goes to live among the poor in Oakland, and then the guy she’d been seeing in Mexico shows up on her doorstep, so she takes him in. Of course, he is an illegal alien and thus can’t get much in the way of work, and thus he gets involved in a drug deal in which he gets her marginally involved, too, and then the forces of law and order sweep in and everyone gets caught up in the travesties of mandatory minimums for drug sentencing. It’s a novel about a white girl, and thus it is a little bit the Hallmark version of mandatory minimums. In that regard, I look forward to reading Orange is the New Black, which sounds like it might be similar.

* “The Eagles were and remain the most consistently contemptible stadium band in rock. Gram famously referred to their music as ‘a plastic dry-fuck.’ He bore the Eagles a special loathing, as any sane listener might.” p. 366

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