Monday, December 31, 2012

Favorite Books of 2012

Another year where my reading has been done in the shadow of one big book. Last year it took me a long time to shake off my extreme dislike of Swamplandia! This year I got bogged down in Wolf Hall's pronoun swamp. That the book is brilliant is undeniable--and the reason I didn't quit--but I really would like to have a little chat with the Hilary Mantel. (Since she rarely referred to her protagonist, Thomas Cromwell, as anything but "he," I got my own back by calling him Cornball in my head, which, admittedly, made it difficult for me to talk about the book after a glass or two of wine without sounding like an idiot.)

Anyway, WH doesn't make my list of favorite books this year (all chosen because I would happily read them again)--these do:

1. The News from Spain by Joan Wickersham -- My favorite short story collection of the year. Every variation on love is also connected by a deeper acknowledgment that you can never quite tell, or remember, or understand a real love story--in other words, they are all "News from Spain."

2. The Solitude of Prime Numbers by Paulo Giordano -- Oh my, how I loved this almost-love story about two fundamenally damaged people. If books could be images, this one would be an ice castle: chilly, beautiful, crystal-blue.  

3. The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt -- It's too bad the Coen brothers have already made a western, because this book was tailor-made for them.

4. The World Below by Sue Miller -- Subtle and smart. I generally dislike intergenerational stories, but Sue Miller knows from women.

5. The Year We Left Home by Jean Thompson -- This book, which follows an Iowa family over three generations, seems to invite comparisons. One reviewer said it is cast in the mold of Evan Connell's Mr. Bridge and Mrs. Bridge--now that's some bold talk. Another reviewer said it rivals (and I'd say it surpasses) Richard Russo's work for dark humor. However you look at it, this is a fine, fine, fine example of literary fiction.

6. Arcadia by Lauren Groff -- Beautiful writing, warm-hearted characters; this is a book almost anyone could love.

7. Townie by Andre Dubus III -- My favorite memoir of the year. Which surprised me, because I'm such a fan of Andre Dubus, the author's father, and this book pretty much defrocks him. Still, it feels fair and generous. And insightful, especially about how troubled children need something to focus on--in AD3's case it was boxing--to stay afloat in the world.

8. Brooklyn by Colm Toibin -- So much is familiar here: the shopgirl story, the Irish immigrant story, but it is so convincingly told, and with the laser preciseness of a short story, that I was completely and absolutely won over.

9. River of Smoke by Amitav Ghosh -- Armchair travel of the best kind. I love to get lost in this author's fictions.

10. Mildred Pierce by James M. Cain -- an oldie but flawed goodie. It shifts, without warning and not at all seamlessly, from Depression-era social realism to Shakespearian-level tragedy, but it is a book that made me think.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

I Make Mary Laugh and She Makes Me Laugh

I'm picking Mary up after cheerleading practice. We're heading to her house, where I'll help her with her homework.

She gets in the car, fastens her seatbelt. Leans into the dash to change the radio station from NPR to something much much further down the dial. Sighs and flops back in her seat. Tells me about her day. Most of her fellow cheerleaders are annoying. School was boring. She fell asleep in social studies.

Cee Lo comes on the radio. Hey, I say, my cousin went to the Grammys with him.

Really? she says, impressed. (Impressed that I have a cousin who went to the Grammys? Or impressed that I know who Cee Lo is?)

Yeah, I say, my mom told me about it. My cousin's a musician, and my mom said he went to the Grammys with Silo or maybe Solo. But I'm pretty sure she meant Cee Lo.

Mary laughs and laughs.

We have a boy in our class who looks like Cee Lo, she offers.

Really? I say. Spittin' image?

Yeah, she says, you wouldn't believe it, Ms. Stephanie. He looks exactly like him.

We ponder the luck of this. Then, after a bit, Mary shrugs.

His name is Roger.

Friday, February 24, 2012

My Father's Taxes, the Aftermath of Divorce, and Other Things

My father called the other day, worried about his taxes. He recently moved to a  new "home" and the tax people don't have his address. Would I mind picking up some forms and sending them to him? He can't do it because he doesn't have a car. (He totalled his car last month.)

I could do that, I said, but don't the activities people organize trips to the library? You could pick forms up there.

Those trips to the library cost $7 a pop, he said. It's cheaper for you to send me the forms.

Of course it is.

I said okay, though, because I wanted off the subject. I did his taxes last year and all I can say is never ever ever again. He may not have all his faculties intact, but he can argue.

That's not the only reason I called, my father said. You know I've got a lot of bills right now.

I know, I said. (He's been hospitalized three times in as many months.)

So I was thinking I'd give your mother a call. She owes me something, don't you think? Can you give me her number?

Dad, I said, it's been five years. Let it go.

The people here don't think I should be paying alimony in my condition.

But you don't pay alimony, I reminded him.

A long pause. Okay, he said. I didn't think that would work. What about you? You got any money?

No, I said, I don't. I really really don't.

So how is that book coming? my father asked slyly.

I said what I always say, have been saying for years: It's coming.

Well, my father sighed, I guess you'll just be a one book author.

My Mother's Taxes, the Aftermath of Divorce, and Other Things

My mother called the other day, worried about her taxes. She didn't think she could do that Turbo thing and the H&R people were expensive last year. Would I consider doing them? She'd pay me.

I said okay, then asked what else was going on in her life.

Her car broke down.

That's too bad, I said. I do hate it when that happens.

No, she said, it was good.

Good? I asked.

Yes, she said proudly, I handled it really well. Five years ago, after the divorce, I wouldn't have been able to do it. I would have fallen apart. But this time I said to myself, You can do this. You are capable of handling this. It's not the end of the world.

Great, I said. That's the attitude. Where'd you break down?

In the church parking lot.

Saturday, January 7, 2012

R.I.P. Dinah, 1999-2012

Scrappy, loyal, and yes, demanding ... You were loved.

Every now and then, in my conversations with Somali refugees, the subject of pets comes up. The way we treat our animals, and even invite them into our homes, amuses them.

A few years ago, when I was teaching ESL, I took two days off and drove 1800 miles to say goodbye to a beloved cat.

When I returned to the classroom, my students were astounded. They understood I was sad, and told me how sorry they were. But they also thought it was funny.

I don't always feel the need to defend American culture, but I wanted to tell them that--except when taken to Paris Hilton-like extremes--this is one of the good things about Americans. Imagine the additional dysfunction that would be unleashed upon the world if we Americans didn't have loving pets standing between us and the abyss! That's what I wanted to say, but it was, after all, an ESL class.

Amina may have heard some of what I wasn't saying, though. I like it, she said.

Americans are very kind to animals. Africans are not kind to animals.

Africans, she added with unusual candor, are not kind to people.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Favorite Books of 2011

For me, this was a strange reading year. Some of the most highly praised books of 2011 were among my least favorites. One, though beautifully written, slipped out of my hands and landed on the other side of the room. Weird. I don't think I'm the only one to feel this way, though. In conversations with book friends, references to  It's a Mad Mad Mad World keep coming up.

I originally had only five titles, but I've decided that I must have been in a bad mood the day I made the list. So here are my revised ten:

1. The Echo Maker by Richard Powers. This novel, about a young man who suffers brain trauma and subsequently mis-recognizes the people closest to him, may have struck a chord with me because of my father's cognitive losses. But I think I would have liked it whatever my circumstances. He had me at sandhill cranes.

2. True Grit by Charles Portis. Another great book overshadowed by its movie adaptation(s).

3. We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver. This book, about a Columbine-like school shooter, stayed with me like a black mood for days. I suppose that's a certain kind of recommendation.

4. The Lake Shore Limited by Sue Miller. I admire this author more and more every year.

5. The Adventures of Augie March by Saul Bellow. The problem I have with picaresques is that they're so easy to put down. And I did. Put it down. But Bellow's voice kept me coming back even after long breaks.

6. In Zanesville by Jo Ann Beard. Maybe it's a little too much like her memoir, The Boys of My Youth,  but I've waited so long for something from this author that it's okay. She knows what it's like to be a teenage girl.

7. The Paper Anniversary by Joan Wickersham. A really well-observed Crazy, Stupid Love for twenty-somethings. 

8. The Submission by Amy Waldman. A thought-provoking look at what might happen if a Muslim designed the 9/11 memorial. I could tell she'd done her research.

9. Veronica by Mary Gaitskill. A beautiful but hard-to-read meditation on death and facing death.

10. The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake by Aimee Bender. Not weighty, but the prose is lovely and there's too little magic realism in the world. 

Friday, December 30, 2011


Over the years I've argued that it's fruitless to compare iterations of a story, especially when crossing forms (book to movie, etc). Better to take each on its own terms, I say. My converts are few, even among my own family. There seems to be a natural tendency to select a version and deem it authoritative. It's not always the original.

This week, at a family gathering, I told my brother-in-law that the book I most enjoyed this year was True Grit. It's great, I told him, maybe even a masterpiece. Economy, voice, plotting, characters. All done superbly. And it's funny. In the best way, because the humor is so embedded in the characterization.

I don't know, my brother-in-law said. I picked it up in the book store, but there didn't seem to much there that wasn't in the movie. (I think he was referring to the recent Coen Brothers adaptation.)

Exactly, I said. All of the best lines and situations are there in the book. Plus, you get Mattie's voice.

Not enough value added, he said.

Later that day I went to see the American version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo with my father. Or, as he calls it, The Girl with the Purple Parrot (see previous post).

At various times during the movie he leaned over to say, That's not how it happened, you know.

As if the Swedish movie (he hasn't read the book) is real life and the American movie is loosely fictionalized.

He was particularly disturbed by the ending, which conflated two characters and ended on the wrong continent. I agreed that it seemed muddled and tacked on, as if the filmmakers suddenly remembered they had a mystery to solve.

And it's just not true, my father huffed.