Two Years of Reading, in Snapshots

So Jill and I are in the Vacaville Panera again, contemplating blogging. For a while, reviewing every book I read felt perfectly natural, but that has changed. But she had a great idea: let’s go back through all the books we haven’t reviewed and write one sentence about each one – whatever we remember about the book now, however many months or years later.

I thought it was a great idea – so it begins. This list covers late 2016 through September of 2017, right around the time that I started teaching full time again and my reading schedule declined. You’ll see that I gave up on the one-sentence rule after while, but I still manage to keep them brief. I’ll most more later on.

And also, here is a picture of my enormous 7-month-old kitten, otherwise known as The Reason I No Longer Knit:

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Maria Semple’s Where’d You Go, Bernadette? I loved the satire of modern-day liberal affluent parenting and progressive education; also there was something about Antarctica.

Richard Yates’ A Good School. A boarding school novel like many others; I barely remember the details.

Lena Dunham’s Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells You What She’s “Learned.” When I was originally planning a review of this book in early 2017, I wrote the following on the back of a receipt: “Her PARENTS had cell phones. When she was a KID.”

Blake Crouch, Dark Matter. Fun with quantum physics; I remember wondering if Crouch meant it to be a re-telling of The Odyssey (because whether or not he meant it that way, that’s what it is).

Margaret Peterson Haddix, Found. Compelling story for the preteen set, capitalizes on kids’ fears that they were secretly adopted. The dialogue is terrible.

Pat Conroy, A Lowcountry Heart: Reflections on a Writing Life. It pains me to condense this to a single sentence, but here goes: at one point he implies that he singlehandedly brokered the peace between the U.K. and the I.R.A. while peeing at a urinal next to Gerry Adams. That is all.

Erskine Caldwell, Tobacco Road. As mortifying and compelling as God’s Little Acre, but with less beauty. I hated the human race after I read this book, but in a good way.

Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower. A fantastic dystopian quest novel in which a band of survivors leaves Los Angeles after the walls around their neighborhood are breached and travels north along the California coast, building a small community with other migrants they meet on the road. A futuristic Grapes of Wrath. I seem to recall that the protagonist has magical powers of some kind, though I don’t remember what they are. Highly recommended.

Zilpha Keatley Snyder, The Egypt Game. A decent story for elementary school readers about imaginative play and female friendship. I got the impression that this book was meant to seem quite edgy when it was published in 1968 because one character is African American – and that this edginess may be the sole reason the book was written. It feels not at all edgy now.

Jacqueline Woodson’s Brown Girl Dreaming. Narrative poem cycles for preteens are not usually my favorite thing, but this one was good. Excellent, actually.

Jonathan Gottschall, The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human. So in one of my alternate lives, I am a professor of evolutionary narratology, or literary Darwinism, or one of the many other names used to describe the idea that the development of fictive language (talking about things that are not strictly “real”) was of the primary factors that led human beings to evolve into their dominant role. In real life, I just read books about this topic sometimes. And this one was good.

Roxane Gay, An Untamed State. Jill and I read this book as part of a blog challenge of some kind, but then neither of us wrote about it. I remember admiring this book and being totally engrossed by it, in spite of the brutal rape and captivity scenes. Not an easy read, but a very well-written novel.

Lewis Carroll, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. There’s a white rabbit in it, and I’m pretty sure it’s secretly about math. That is all.

John Steinbeck, The Red Pony. I read this book on the advice of an old guy I met at an alumni event at the school where my dad taught. Just stepping into his old elementary school at the age of 70-ish shot him right back in time to his fourth-grade classroom, when he was introduced to The Red Pony. On his recommendation, I read it and loved it. The long first story is perfect – an absolutely flawless example of traditional narration. The ending of the final story, and therefore the book, is odd and not very satisfying. Last year I read it with my 4thand 5thgraders, though I secretly suspected it would be over the heads of many of them. It wasn’t. They loved it, reading way ahead beyond their nightly assignments. They recommend it and so do I.

Julie Otsuka, When the Emperor Was Divine. This is a slim, spare novel about Japanese internment, told in five longish chapters, each from a different point of view. I remember admiring this book’s artistry without really liking it. It makes effective use of the strategic lacuna, as I recall.

Sherman Alexie, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I read this book in one afternoon and evening, right after I quit a job as a summer camp because the place was so poorly structured that I became overcome with anxiety that there would be some catastrophe and it would be my fault. I was mortified (though grateful) that I had done this and remained in sort of a hyper-alert anxiety state while I read this book. I liked it. It was beautiful and sad.

Scott O’Dell, Island of the Blue Dolphins. A compelling imaginative retelling of the San Nicolas Island Genocide, meant for elementary school readers. Like Castaway without the volleyball.

Roxane Gay, Hunger. I read this book in one sitting – an absolutely brutal examination about how a brutal rape at age twelve led Roxane Gay both to self-loathing and also to a sort of courageous self-protection that took the form of overeating until she weighed over four hundred pounds. Gay sees her body as a fortress that no enemy will ever want to overtake again, and there is a sad but impeccable logic in this. Recommended, but don’t make any plans for the weekend while you’re reading it. You’ll want some time to yourself when you finish it.

Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev. This marks a central turning point in my reading life: it’s the first book I finished after I returned to teaching full-time. Overall this has been a positive change in my life, but it has not been great for my blogging career. My Name is Asher Lev has long been a favorite of mine, and I enjoyed reading it with my eighth graders. Even the kid who hated me liked it. I thought about doing a related art assignment where I had the kids paint pictures of their mothers being crucified like the protagonist in the novel, but I chickened out. I may or may not have actually purchased canvases for this project. And they may or may not still be in the trunk of my car.

More snapshots to come…

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