Sunday, March 29, 2015

An Unusual Month, For the Most Part

I spent a lot of time this month working on editing my husband's book.  It's a slow process.  (one chapter averages 45 minutes, and I had 25/35 to do)  I'm a tough editor, and Sean had given me a first draft that needed a lot of attention.  As a consequence, I didn't have quite as much time and energy for my regular reading as I usually do.  I also didn't want to pull my focus away by getting into the big novels I'm drawn to right now.  I found myself instead turning towards books on my reading list that are a bit unusual for me - short stories, memoirs and essays. 

Just as a point of fact - most of these were pretty short books.  (I consider audio under 12 hours and print of under 300 pages to be short)  Thus, the larger number of completed books this month.  I also utilized the library for more than half of them, so there was some incentive for getting through them before the digital loan was up. 

In order to better talk about these books, I'm going to do something a bit different this month.  Rather than go through the books in the order I read them, I'm going to first list them in order and then group them by type for my comments. 

The books:
  1.  Almost Famous Women, (audio), Megan Mayhew Bergman
  2. The Killing Moon, N.K. Jemisin
  3. Trigger Warnings, Neil Gaiman
  4. Doc (audio), Mary Doria Russell
  5. It's What I Do, Lynsey Addario
  6. Bettyville, George Hodgman
  7. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See
  8. Wolf in White Van, John Darnielle
  9. Queen Victoria's Book of Spells, ed. by Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling
  10. Ex Libiris: Confessions of a Common Reader, Anne Fadiman
  11. The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit
  12. H is For Hawk, (audio), Helen MacDonald

Short Stories:

1.  Almost Famous Women, Megan Mayhew Bergman (audio) - This is a new publication that is getting a LOT of buzz right now.  B's first book was a bit of a literary sensation, and the reviews on this, her second, book are sensational.  I was really intrigued by the concept - short stories about women who are close to, but not quite famous.  Some are relatives of famous people, some almost, but not quite, got there on their own.  I was delighted when I found this book available through my library's streaming service, especially as I really do enjoy consuming short stories in audio better than print.*  I have two small quibbles about the audio for this particular book, though.  The reader's voice was almost too soothing and too sweet.  I think the stories lost a bit of punch because of that.  Also, the break between stories was very short, and at times wasn't quite obvious enough. I lost track a couple of times, and had go to the book sample I'd downloaded to check the page of contents.  As to the stories themselves...honestly, I was disappointed.  They very much were more of a 'slice of life' style of story rather than fully fleshed out stories with a beginning, middle and end.  Yes, they were beautifully written, and yes, the women were fascinating.  I just wanted more...oh so more.  It was not truly a satisfying read.

2.  Trigger Warnings, Neil Gaiman - Part of the problem with Almost Famous Women is that I was listening to it at the same time that I was starting to read my eagerly anticipated copy of Neil Gaiman's latest story collection.  No, it's not truly fair to compare two such different writers, but I did....and Berman lost by a mile.  Gaiman is able to create a beautifully complete, tightly written, fully plotted, and emotionally impactful story that leaves you haunted for days...in only a few pages. This is a gorgeous, gorgeous collection.  I have a feeling I'll be coming back to it time and time again.  (Bonus points for the introduction, which is signature Gaiman, and for the little blurbs about each book.)

3.  Queen Victoria's Book of Spells - I've actually had this for a long, long time, but had only read a few. It's edited by the magical Ellen Datlow and Terri Windling, who's work I've followed and admired for years and years and years.  Those two have an amazing gift for putting together story collections, and I have many of their books on my shelves.  This particular collection is an anthology of Gaslamp Fantasy - by definition "historical fantasy set in a magical version of the nineteenth century" - which is right up my alley, even if I'm not into the subgenre of steampunk.  I absolutely enjoyed this book, although I will admit that there were several stories I wound up skimming/not finishing because they just weren't my thing...that's fair in an anthology.  Of course, one of the best parts about an anthology like this is the recommended reading list in the back....my wish list runneth over!

Memoirs:

1.  It's What I Do: A Photographer's Life of Love and War, Lynsey Addario - I put myself on the library wait list for this book just as soon as I heard Addario's riveting interview with Terry Gross for NPR's Fresh Air.  It didn't disappoint.  (And as a side note:  It was available in both digital print and audio.  You must actually read the print version because Addario includes some of her photographs, which are truly amazing.)  When I was finally able to check it out, I devoured this book in two days, staying up way too late on a school night to finish it. Not only does Addario have an amazing story to tell, but as a woman in a largely male field she's someone to look up to.  One thing I really admire is Addario's ability to find the humanity of both sides of a conflict.  Also, she may admit to fear, but she's one of the bravest women I've ever read about. 

2.  Bettyville, George Hodgman - I snagged this book from the library digital services within hours of downloading Hodgman's Fresh Air episode, based solely on the short description of that episode.  A gay man moves home to Paris, MO to take care of his ailing mother?  Gotta read that.  I know all about small town Missouri!  I did listen to his interview before reading the book, and while it did give me a few more spoilers than I would have liked, I nonetheless very much enjoyed this reading experience.  Hodgman writes with both humor and warmth, and it was a truly delightful read.  I kind of wish I knew him so that I could sit down and have a cup of coffee with him sometime. 

3.  H is for Hawk, Helen MacDonald (audio) - This was one of those books that started popping up on recommendation lists all over the place, so I had to check it out.  I fell in love within minutes.  MacDonald turns out to be the sort of writer who is the perfect reader for her book, with a quiet calm voice that draws you in.  And her story...wow.  After the sudden death of her father, MacDonald, an experienced falconer, decided she wanted to train the notoriously difficult goshawk.  I knew absolutely nothing about the art of falconing, much less about goshawks, and it is always a treat to be introduced to someone else's passion in such a beautiful way.  MacDonald connects her story with that of the writer T.H. White, again introducing me to a piece of literary history I knew nothing about.  This was the most literary of the memoirs I read this month, and is the one I would like to purchase a copy of for myself.  It's another gorgeous book. 

Essays:

1.  Ex-Libris, Anne Fadiman - 18 short essays about books!  By someone who loves reading as much as I do!  Yay!  I will say, though, that Fadiman confesses in multiple essays that she's someone who loves writing in books, and is generally ok with abusing them horribly...and I cringed every single time that came up.  Sigh.  This book was almost enough to make me long for the days when I read paper books...almost. 

2.  The Faraway Nearby, Rebecca Solnit - I started this the same day that I finished Ex-Libris, and oh my goodness....it's fabulous.  Ex-Libris is totally a light-weight book in comparison.  Where it is a fun ode to the love of books, The Faraway Nearby is an exploration into the power and importance of story.  (I started reading it the same day that I saw the new live action Cinderella, driving to the theater just after reading Solnit's beautiful words about the importance of fairy tale.)  Each of the essays is connected, and there are themes and stories that run throughout the entire book.  I know I keep using the word gorgeous this month, but this truly was.  I'll be buying a copy hardcover, to sit on my shelf next to Jane Yolen's Touch Magic, and I now want to read everything else Solnit has ever written. 

Novels:

1.  The Killing Moon, N.K. Jemisin - Not going to lie, it took me a long while to get into this book.  Like maybe 100 pages.  Like, if it had been any other writer, and if I hadn't bought both books, I might have given up by then.  This particular fantasy world is modeled somewhat after Ancient Egypt...and that's just not my thing.  Fortunately the characters were enough to keep me going.  Jemisin is one of the best new fantasy writers I've found in a long while, and even her lesser novels are still worth more than many others. 

2.  Doc, Mary Doria Russell (audio, read by Mark Bramhall) - Silly Kristin.  Russell is one of my favorite writers.  Her book, The Sparrow, is in my top 10 all time favorites, and her WWII novel is one of the most heartbreakingly beautiful books I've ever read.  One of the things I love about Russell is that all of her books are different.  She's someone who LOVES to switch up genres, so you never know quite what to expect...except you know it's going to be great.  Despite all of that, I hadn't read Doc because I have no interest in Westerns or in Wyatt Earp or Doc Holiday.  Silly Kristin.  Russell just published a second novel about the OK Corral, Epitaph, and when one of the hosts of BOTNS mentioned that he'd listened to Doc so that he could go back to that world before reading the newest I had a bit of a eureka moment.  To my delight my library had the audio available for immediate download.  I mention the reader's name because he was perfect.  Bramhall sounds like an easygoing old cowboy, which is just exactly what you want for this type of Western, and he does amazing voices for all of the characters.  This is a book with depth, heart and a cast of amazing experiences.  In audio it was just about the best storytelling experience I've ever had. 

3.  Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Lisa See (audio) - This was on my wish list for a long while, but I had removed it at some point.  Happened to stumble across it while browsing the library's audio, and thought I would give it a try.  I very much admire See for bringing to life a culture which is very unfamiliar to me...as brutal as it can be at times.  (The foot binding parts were really, really tough to take.)  I have some minor quibbles with the pacing of the story, and I'm not sure I actually like any of the characters.  See did her job so well that the women she portrays are thoroughly of their time, and therefor beyond my ability to relate.  However, I'm very glad I listened to this book.  I think it's important to expose ourselves to other cultures!

4.  Wolf in White Van, John Darnielle - I happened to snag this one from the library right after listening to a Literary Disco episode based on it.  I had seen it on a bunch of 'best of' type lists, but hadn't really had much interest.  Now, I will say that I love Literary Disco, and I find a lot of their commentary to be pretty spot on....but I don't always actually enjoy their recommendations because my taste does not line up very well with theirs.  I'm not sorry I read this book, but I can't say that I really enjoyed it either.  It's beautifully written, the main character is compelling, and the plot is centered around the type of gaming stuff I've been around for a long while because of friends and loved ones.  At the end of the day, though, I'm glad I didn't pay for it, and I'm glad it was pretty short.

1 comment:

Karen said...

The Sparrow is one of my top 10, too. I read Doc back when it came out, but I haven't been drawn to her new one yet.
I'm getting ready to read Bettyville. I heard Hodgman on Fresh Air and I read the sample pages on e-book. I strolled into Barnes and Noble yesterday, just hours after he'd been there signing books. If only I'd known. I picked up an autographed copy and it's up next.
I enjoy your reviews. Thanks for sharing them.