Thursday, July 14, 2022

When the Fiction Reader Encounters Great Nonfiction

 

I may be losing my credibility as a reader who prefers fiction, but I keep finding memoirs and other clever nonfiction books landing on my stack and completely capturing my focus. Of course, I've been an Ann Patchett fan since I read Bel Canto. Since moving to Nashville where I can drop by Parnassus Books, which she co-owns with Karen Hayes, I find more reasons to admire her work and her advocacy for books and for authors. I bought her latest collection of essays These Precious Days (evoking "September Song") as soon as it came out, but for some reason delayed beginning. I know that when it's time, a book finds me. By sharing her own life, she opens up a world to readers. Asked which is my favorite, the answer would change on any given day.

She writes about her "three fathers," her home, books and authors she loves. One particularly tender story is the account of the time Tom Hanks' assistant moved into Patchett's house during COVID while undergoing a cancer trial. I also suspect that I am not the only person who finishes this book with a longer "to read next" list.

By no coincidence, I read Mary Laura Philpott's latest memoir Bomb Shelter, after hearing her speak at a Parnassus event. Rather than focusing on book sales, she took the time to raise awareness of the good work of Vanderbilt's Monroe Carrell Children's Hospital, where her son was treated after the sudden onset of epileptic seizures.

At the event, I also had the opportunity of meeting Dr. Jay Wellons, a pediatric neurosurgeon at Vanderbilt, whose first book All That Moves Us was released this month and merits a review all its own.


In a completely different vein, I have been recommending A. J. Jacobs' The Puzzler to anyone who, like me is obsessed with puzzles and word play. Jacobs, who may be best known for his earlier work of nonfiction The Year of Living Biblically, goes chapter-by-chapter through all types of puzzles. He starts with crossword puzzles, then discusses the New York Times' Spelling Bee, which has a surprising number of people waking in the wee hours and starting on the newest bee, published daily at 3 am EST. He also discusses the Rubik's cube, jigsaw puzzles, logic problems, and so much more. The writing is clever and the audiobook, which he reads himself, offers a pdf of the puzzles from the book that are difficult to translate into words. (He also includes some special puzzles at the end of each chapter specifically for audiobook listeners.) Since I blame crossword puzzles for slipping to third place in the 6th grade race for class rank and since I must admit that if I get up to use the restroom in the middle of the night, I check the spelling bee, this book spoke my language.

The End of Average by Todd Rose was recommended by a colleague who is ahead of me in our doctoral studies. For someone who is statistically challenged, this book was a reassuring consideration of how averages can be misused, to the detriment of students, work productivity, and even pilot error. 

Rose uses stories that are both interesting and true to draw attention to ways that an obsession with average has its drawbacks. This book served as a perfect companion to my favorite nonfiction book of the year Range by David Epstein. Rose, like Epstein, isn't ready to dismantle academic research, but her encourages readers to consider different perspectives. After all, he points out, no one is average.

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Sea of Tranquility by Emily St. John Mandel

 

One of the few disadvantages of reading voraciously is analogous to eating a many-course gourmet meal: it's difficult to savor one because of the conflicting details. That's a small lingering regret after finishing Emily St. John Mandel's latest novel Sea of Tranquility. With so many--and such varied--books I have read this summer, I feel the need to sit with this one a little longer.

Like Trust by Hernan Diaz, which I discussed in an earlier post, this novel makes me envious of the writer's sheer ability to weave and order a story like this. With the many characters over centuries, the author plays with historical fiction, time travel, and the impact of technology. From 1912 to the 23rd century, from Europe to the  New World to the second colony on the moon, Emily St. John Mandel pulls together a shared paranormal experience, plagues, book tours, and avant-garde film, without dropping a single stitch.

I confess that although I read (and loved) The Glass Hotel, I completely missed that the character Vincent in Sea of Tranquility was a character in the earlier novel. Perhaps this is good justification for literature tests asking students to remember names, dates, and places. When Jennifer Egan pulled a similar sleight of hand in Candy House and when Stephen King planted little details from The Shining in Billy Summers, (and should I mention David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas and The Bone Clocks?) I was gratified to recognize the connection. Somehow, though, I want to re-read--or at least review--the original novel.

I've seen people ask on reading sites whether it's important to read The Glass Hotel first; I'd say, no. Honestly, it might be interesting to read it second to see if personal literary time travel works just as well. If only my list of what to read next weren't so long, I might do just that.


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Wednesday, June 15, 2022

My Reading Statistics

 Okay, so the title is a ruse. I was trying to figure the best way to introduce my constant dilemma this summer, since I am taking Quantitative Research Methods, a six-hour statistics course. I have to decide whether to read for pleasure or to read for homework. I've learned to tackle a statistics assignment and then reward myself by reading something fun. The motivation and the payoff work for me.

TJ Klune's The House in the Cerulean Sea was a recommendation from a reading friend. The protagonist Linus Baker, an employee of the Department In Charge of Magical Youth, lives an ordinary life--if you can call it that--as a caseworker, inspecting orphanages that provide housing for quite extraordinary children. Then he receives an assignment that takes him to an island by the sea--which he has never seen before. His first glimpse at the children's files is enough to make him faint. While there, he learns to champion others who don't quite fit the norm--from a garden gnome to a phoenix. 

When Linus decides to take the children on a field trip to the mainland, where he knows to expect resistance, I was reminded of Pat Conroy, in The Water Is Wide, taking the children he taught to trick or treat and then to visit D.C. I also recalled the second Harry Potter book when Dumbledore explained to Harry that one doesn't have to carry around the weight of the "sins of the father." Klune's tale also shows that how we become family doesn't always follow the expected path.
                                                                                                                                Having read Euphoria and Writers & Lovers, I knew I would want to read Five Tuesdays in Winter, Lily King's latest book. This one is a collection of short stories that really deliver. From the first story, I couldn't stop reading. The first story drew me in. The second, the title story, set in a small bookstore, was a particular favorite. Many of the protagonists are young people  --or adults reflecting on events that happened when they were younger. Sometimes, the point of view shifts a little--and always in a satisfying way. The writing is clever, and the literary references are never gratuitous. I suspect I will be thinking about some of King's characters for a long time.

Hernan Diaz's novel Trust is one of those rare reads that had me recommending it to others  before I was even finished because I knew I would want to talk about it. Diaz starts with a beautifully written story, but then he shifts to what at first seems a disconnected narrative--until it doesn't. The shift from one perspective to another, from one writing style to another, completes a story, leaving the reader with the challenge of figuring out what is true. 

The center of the narrative is the stock market crash of 1929 and those who may have manipulated trading. This is the story of a marriage or more than one story of what may be the same marriage. It is also the story of a woman charged with ghost-writing the tale, leading her to search for the full story. 

The narrative structure feels less like a gimmick and more like a puzzle, as the reader follows the threads toward the truth.

Anne Tyler's novel French Braid follows three generations (at least) of a Baltimore family. Beginning with an encounter in a train station between Serena and her cousin Nicholas, Tyler tells most of the story as a flashback. She begins in the 1950s with a family trip to a lake cabin, where readers get to know the three children of Robin and Mercy, who will go on to make up the bulk of the story. As I read, I kept wondering about Tyler's title. Although the reference is brief, its significance is a powerful observation of the way our families are always a part of us. 

The characters that populate the novel are quirky and believable. As Tyler lets them grow older, then old, they become more of themselves. The  conflicts of the novel are subtle--sibling rivalry, imperfect marriages, awkward parent-child relationships--and always mitigated by love.

I think the likelihood of my continuing to read for pleasure this summer (and all year long) is statistically significant. 






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Thursday, May 26, 2022

Nonfiction Choices of the Summer Reading List

I never deliberately balance my nonfiction reading with fiction, but I find that I work my way through more nonfiction these days than in the past. One book that drew my attention was The Betrayal of Anne Frank: A Cold Case Investigation. I find that the diary itself holds up to re-reading every few years, and I have also read a number of books that fill in some of the blanks about the short life of this child whose writing was evidence of such a bright mind. I even enjoyed the novel The Boy Who Loved Anne Frank, based on the false premise that Peter actually survived the war and lived to adulthood, keeping his past a secret in the U.S. Sullivan goes into some detail about the actual experience in that attic space, but goes further as a modern team followed up leads, using up to date technology, to determine who might have informed the authorities about their hiding place. While the conclusions are not absolute, the author and the team of investigators put forth substantial evidence about the guilty party. They also suggest that Otto Frank and Miep Gies also knew of the identity but ever revealed the information out of an instinct to protect the family of the person responsible.

 In a totally different vein, I enjoyed Carole King's memoir A Natural Woman, which follows her life, tracing her success as a songwriter and singer, as well as detailing her personal life. I am always shocked to be reminded just how young she and Gerry Goffin were when they began penning their mega-hits. Rather than a tell-all in which she spills the dirt on others whose paths crossed her, this book is usually generous to other she knew but sometimes painfully honest about her own life choices. Details of her performance as part of James Taylor's band was a stunning reminder of all the talented musical arts who supported one another during their heyday. The book begs for a companion playlist. 

Michelle Zauner's memoir Crying in H Mart, which began as a New Yorker essay explores the complicated dynamics between mother and daughter, compounded by culture. Zauner, the Korean-American lead singer of the indie rockers, Japanese Breakfast, particularly explores the strong sensory connection between familial ties and food. For book clubs that pair meals with books, this memoir provides a perfect culinary opportunity. After reading Lisa See's Island of the Sea Women and The Girl with Seven Names by Lee Hyena-seo, one fiction and the other non-fiction, I am beginning to crave kimchi.




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Saturday, May 21, 2022

Summer Reading--While It's Still Spring

 Living on a school schedule, I love that my summer break starts in early May. I've always made an effort not to let my work get in the way of reading for pleasure, but summer always gives me a little more opportunity to whittle down my book stack.


Jason Mott's novel Hell of a Book alternates between the story of a Black writer (of a novel called, no coincidence, Hell of a Book) during his book tour, involving many strange encounters, including one he calls The Kid. In a parallel narrative thread, another young boy called Soot by bullies because of the comparative darkness of his skin, deals with school conflict and then witnesses his father's death. The narrative keeps readers speculating about the connection between the two stories. The story is both unsettling and originally told.


Jennifer Egan's Candy House lives up to expectations for anyone who read her 2011 Pulitzer Prize-winning A Visit from the Goon Squad. The first novel certainly proved to be prophetic in the way technology would begin to eliminate our privacy--even of our thoughts. In this new novel, a scientific discovery is coopted by Bix Bouton for his company Mandala, offering people the opportunity to "own your own consciousness." Realizing that characters from the earlier book make an appearance in this one has me considering re-reading Goon Squad for continuity and to see just how much of what seemed far-fetched then is our reality now.

These are just a sampling of my fiction reading so far. Stay tuned for the nonfiction picks.


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Thursday, March 31, 2022

Range by David Epstein: Good News for Generalists

 

I get the best book recommendations from people who know me well. Since I've started my new journey toward an Ed.D in Educational Leadership, I am reading a disproportionate number of academic texts. I love fiction. I love a good story. Somehow I must find a way to satisfy that urge too.

Recently, a friend I've kept up with who is also in higher education recommended David Epstein's book Range: Why Generalists Triumph in a Specialize World. I was barely into the book before I wanted to write a letter to the author and started thinking who needed to read the book along with me. 

I am an unapologetic universalist. (Well, I do apologize a little.) It says a lot that I have an undergraduate degree in accounting but have taught English for more than 30 years (not counting the time I spent teaching Lamaze childbirth and aerobics and selling real estate.) Even now, knee deep in my dissertation process, I find myself pursuing all my other interests. I'm still going to concerts, listening to great music, and writing about it. I mentor a student teacher, three young moms, and a thirty-something single who lets me borrow her cool jackets. I still sew, particularly handwork. 

Epstein opens the book Range with a side-by-side comparison of Tiger Woods and Roger Federer. Woods was primed for his golf career practically from birth; Federer tried out lots of sports. Things worked out well for both.

The book is full of stories that confirm what I've suspected all along. The best decisions are made, the toughest problems are solved with a variety of minds working together. Austin Kleon's books (such as Steal Like a Genius) would be perfect companion reads to this book.

Epstein reassures me that quantitative research alone cannot, should not rule the world. Ask those NASA scientists with "In God We Trust; Everyone Else Must Show Data" on the wall--and the Space Shuttle disaster on their resumes. 

What I loved most about this book is the opportunity to talk further about it. There are so many implications for the classroom, for example. I look forward to lots of ripe conversations as soon as my book people indulge me and check it out for themselves.


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Monday, January 24, 2022

The School for Good Mothers: Amy Tan Meets Margaret Atwood

 

Even though some of the reviews had prepared me for the futuristic turn in Jessamine Chan's novel The School for Good Mothers. The author does not delay throwing the reader into the story on 39-year-old Frida Liu's "bad day," in which she leaves her fussy toddler daughter Harriet home alone to run for coffee, turning into a two-hour diversion. When the neighbors hear the girl crying and call the authority, the child is taken into protective custody and turned over to her father, Harriet's ex-husband and Susanna, the young Pilates instructor for whom he left Frida. Working with the same lawyer who represented her in the divorce, Frida meets challenges arranging chaperoned visits with her daughter with the social worker. She has to endure cameras placed throughout her apartment, part of a new program being test-piloted in the Philadelphia area. 

Even with the Big Brother atmosphere established before the court date, readers will still be shocked when Frida not only doesn't regain custody but is sent to a training camp for "bad mothers" on a former college campus. The women there are forced to chant, "I am a bad mother, but I am learning to be good." The manipulation by the pink-uniformed attendants is unnerving, but when the women are issued robotic children simulating their own children for their re-education, the story takes a heart-wrenching turn for the creepy. 

Frida's interaction with the other women takes on the feel of women's prison, and her growing tenderness toward the "doll" child she calls Emmanuelle is testament to her yearning to be reunited with her own daughter. The difference in age and ethnicity plays a role in the dynamics. As the only Asian mother in the school, Frida is often odd woman out. 

In light of the current less-than-ideal system caring for child welfare, Chan's novel shows what can go wrong when the pendulum swings too far in the other direction and experimentation ignores human realities.


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