Where's the book?

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The great and the not-so-great

#21 Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel
The graphic memoir is the sequel to Fun Home, and it disappoints. The first was emotionally gripping, a painful and personal examination of Bechdel's troubled childhood, her coming out as a lesbian in college, and her relationship with her father, who revealed his own homosexuality shortly after Alison did, and then committed suicide. And, of course, the book was made into the wonderful, beautiful, moving musical of the same name.

The second book is an examination of her relationship with her distant mother. It is far more clinical, much less emotionally involving, and sometimes even boring. Maybe Bechdel was intimated into her emotional remove by the fact that her mother, a pretty damn chilly gal herself, is still alive. She spends a good chunk of the book reporting on her therapy over the years, and her research into infant and child psychology, her reading of various experts in the field, and reporting on their theories. It doesn't make for much of a story grabber, more like reading a text, with pictures. The book ends up as cold, and clinical, and distant as her mother is. 

#22 The News from Spain, by Joan Wickersham
I read Joan Wickersham's The Suicide Index a couple of years ago and loved it. This book is more recent, and very different from that memoir of loss. It's a collection of short stories, each one titled "The News from Spain," and each one featuring the phrase in a different way. The book's subtitle is "Seven Variations on a Love Story," and each story tells of a different type of love, between different types of people. That probably all sounds like some sort of silly writing challenge, like writing a whole book without an "e" or without using an adverb. But this book feels completely organic, and beautiful, and every one of the stories was moving and wonderful. I have to read more from this terrific writer. 

#23 On the Move, by Oliver Sacks. 
I have always enjoyed Dr. Sacks's non-fiction writing about his work as a neurologist. I wish I could say I enjoyed this, his memoir, as much. I did find out a lot more about him. I never knew he was British, or Jewish (a cousin of Abba Eban, whose real name was Aubdrey!), or gay. His childhood, the son of a fascinating and accomplished family (his father was a physician, his mother one of the first female surgeons in Britain), and his early years in the US, were moderately interesting. But he tends to write clinically, like the scientist he is, and the lack of emotional content became frustrating. He writes about hinting to his parents as a boy that he had different feelings towards other boys. His mother responds by saying she wishes he were never born, which had to have been devastating, but he can't seem to bring himself to express it. He mentions later that he goes without sex for 35 years. But he never says why, or what that meant to him. The last quarter of the book starts to feel like a long list of scientific endeavors and achievements, and I nearly started to skim. Dr. Sacks has had a fascinating, accomplished, unusual life, but maybe he's not the best one to chronicle it. I look forward to the gripping biography someone will someday write. 

#24 The Turner House, by Angela Flournoy.
A beautifully-written debut novel (thank you, E.) about a large African-American family who have lived in Detroit for 50 years. The Turners have 13 children, and its a real testament to Flournoy's powers that you never get them mixed up. The book does not parse out its attention equally, thank goodness, but the family members who are in the spotlight are well drawn and very interesting -- and she manages to make the secondary characters colorful and clear as well. It's also a wonderful portrait of a city in decline, and what ends up happening to the people who stay behind. It's a very ambitious book, and kudos to Flournoy for pulling it off. 

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