Where's the book?

Friday, April 29, 2016

A mixed bag

Books 7, 8, 9, and 10 have nothing in common other than the fact that I read them all.

Two novels: one sunshine and warm, one dark and nasty. A memoir. And a classic children's book.

#7 The Sex Lives of Siamese Twins by Irvine Welsh. I have to admit that I bought this one because of the title. That name just jumped off the bookshelf and into my hand. Who doesn't want to know more about the sex lives of siamese twins? But it was a bit of a bait and switch, unfortunately. The book isn't about Siamese twins, much less their sex lives. The twins are just a background, a story that's on the news during the time the actual story of the novel takes place. The book is about a personal trainer in South Beach, Florida, one of the ugliest characters I've ever encountered in a book (or movie or any other work), a woman who rants, continuously, about her fat lazy pig clients and the whole fat lazy pig world. Only my language is far kinder than hers. It was hard getting though the book, I felt at times like I was swimming through sewage, and probably not worth the pain. But I have a hard time putting a book down once I've started, and luckily it wasn't too long (after War and Peace I can get through anything!), so I finished. And I have to report that the sweet and sunshine-y ending did nothing to help wash the ugliness away. Beware of this one -- you'll feel like you need a shower after ever chapter.

#8 The Vacationers by Emma Straub. An upper-west-side family (magazine editor dad, journalist mom, recent high school grad daughter, adult son, and adult son's age-inappropriate girlfriend) plus two friends head to Mallorca on a family vacation. There are secrets, marital problems, money problems, and more complications. The jacket promised brilliance and smarts, but despite the gorgeous locale, and the gorgeous Spanish tutor hired to work with the daughter, there was not much of either. The whole thing felt kind of drippy, like those holiday movies with all sorts of complications that get magically resolved by final curtain. Not one character felt fully realized or at all compelling and the pages just passed by without a whole lot of interest. And then it ended.

#9 Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris. How to make grammar a whole lot of fun. Norris is the longtime copy editor of The New Yorker (kind of like being a gold medalist) and in her first book, a sort-of memoir, she interlaces stories of her Ohio youth (she was a milkman!) with the story of her career at the famous magazine (three decades and counting) and the right way to use pronouns and commas. It's a fun read even if you aren't a word nerd, and you might just learn something.

#10 Tuck Everlasting by Natalie Babbit. I thought I had read every children's classic book, either in my own childhood or to my kids. But somehow, I missed this one. And since I am going to see the new musical based on this story, I thought I should read the book itself first. It's a remarkably simple tale: a young girl meets a family that is either blessed or cursed with eternal life.  They have sipped from a magic stream, and the girl helps them outwit the man who has discovered it and intends to get rich by marketing its contents. It reads like a fairy tale, with a simultaneously happy and sad ending. It's short, and has lots and lots of description, which made it even shorter for me, since I tend to race past long paragraphs about green, dark woods and hot, steamy weather. It weaves a spell, though, and I wish I had read it aloud to my kids. Maybe they'll let me do it now.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Stopping to play

Number 6 is something different: two plays, which I'm counting as one since they don't take as long to read as even the shortest book.

Saoirse Ronan and Ben Whishaw in The Crucible
Two wonderful plays, I should say: The Crucible by Arthur Miller and The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams. I'd read Crucible before, and seen it on stage a couple of times, but in preparation for seeing it again on Broadway (a powerful new production with Ben be-still-my-heart Whishaw, Sophie Okenado, Saoirse Ronan (again!), and Ciaran Hinds), I decided to read it again.

Every time I read it, I am awed by it, and all its many insights into human nature and life. I know it was written as Miller's response to McCarthyism, but it's just as relevant to the crazy presidential race going on right now. And it's eternally relevant in its understanding of people, their desires, their relationships, and their flaws.

Laura and her Gentleman Caller
I'd never read or seen The Glass Menagerie, but I knew that it was Williams's reflections on his own family: his sensitive and withdrawn sister, absent father, and determined, aspirational, and near-delusional mother. I was surprised at how modern the many uses of visuals felt--Williams was experimenting with form, looking for visual representations of inner thoughts psychological states. And I was also surprised at how unexpected the turns of the simple story are. I did not expect to find myself gasping and then weeping over a play I've heard so much about over so many decades. Great art surprises! Great art survives!

Monday, April 25, 2016

Heading to Brooklyn for #5

The old Brooklyn, that is. As in Colm Toibin's beautiful Brooklyn, the story of a young Irish immigrant who comes to the borough in the 1950s. Eilis Lacey is quiet, intelligent, and charming, and so is her story. That tale is told in such a gentle, calm manner that it seems almost nothing has happened. Yet everything has happened: a young woman has upended her life, left her small town and her family (who, in those days of sea voyages, she may never see again) to create an entirely new existence in a strange and overwhelming new place. There is love, tragedy, sex, death -- all the drama of life -- yet it is expressed so simply and directly that you find yourself weeping and then wondering why you're crying. The book packs a subtle, powerful punch. And the movie is equally wonderful, with a different ending that, although I felt the book to be perfect, is even more satisfying. The characters are drawn so effortlessly yet so perfectly that you feel like you've met them all before. You will find yourself thinking of these people and this story often. It sticks with you like all great art.