The Rules Do Not Apply: A Memoir by Ariel Levy. This is a phenomenal book. I’ve long been a fan of Levy’s writing in The New Yorker, but this was even better and I couldn’t put it down. It is about her professional and personal life leading up to when she had a miscarriage at five-months pregnant in Mongolia. She wrote about (and won awards) for this in The New Yorker, but it is about so much more than that though – it’s about choices and expectations, and coming to terms with the realization that things might not be okay. At 43, Levy has certainly had an impressive writing career, but it’s the little things that are so good in this book. Her writing is so on the mark and insightful and funny and brusque. She tells stories about things that can be very run of the mill, yet she makes them fascinating. I am hugely impressed.
My Name Is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout. I really like Elizabeth’s Strout’s writing, although I can see how it might not be for everyone. The style of this book, too, ends up being all of her writing quirks in the forefront. She writes from one person’s point of view and circuitously and goes over and over the same thing. Those are the drawbacks. They are outweighed by the good things, though, which primarily are that you get immediately drawn into the life of the main character and feel you know her. She is so talented at creating an atmosphere and choosing important, yet small, revelatory details. In this novel, Lucy is looking back to a nine-week stint she had at a hospital after a routine appendectomy. She had an infection and was there for a long time, and her mother – her abusive mother from whom she was more or less estranged – comes to stay for five days. Lucy grew up very poor in a small farming town in Illinois, and is now a writer living in New York City. Her mother has basically never left the small town, so it is amazing that she flew to NYC and is there in the hospital. As the story unfolds, you learn of Lucy’s poverty and abuse growing up, and how she was able to escape by getting a scholarship to college. She is now married with two young daughters. She and her mother don’t talk about the important things – or don’t do so directly. Her mother distracts her with talk of people in the hometown, what’s happened to them and what they are doing. There’s a really well-done moment where it is in the future and Lucy is going to a writer’s workshop and hands in to the teacher the excerpt which will become the book we are reading; the teacher loves the excerpt and points out exactly what the mother is doing when she talks about what she talks about. It’s a meta moment in the middle of the book that works really well.
The Tiger Rising by Kate DiCamillo. This is a child’s chapter book which Owen inherited and I was curious about because I’ve read some of her other books. It’s a very simple story. I like that her writing is sparse and stripped down, although the story itself is so bare bones that one gets a bit knocked about by all that isn’t fleshed out. A 12 year-old boy, Robert, has moved to the backwoods of Florida with his father once his mother dies. He is miserable, and on his way to school one day comes across a tiger in a cage in the middle of the woods. He meets Sistine, a new girl at school, whose parents have just separated and who is also miserable. Rob and Sistine end up helping each other with what they need most, and set about figuring out how to free the tiger.
Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. This is basically a book of short stories, but the people in them intersect, and almost all are people that Lucy Barton’s mother mentions in My Name Is Lucy Barton (and Lucy herself appears in some). All lived at one point in the small farming town of Amgash, Il. Strout’s writing is wonderful, for the most part, and I will happily read any of her books. And I liked hearing about a character in several stories and then coming across that character as the starring voice in the next. Such a style has its drawbacks too though – you just get snippets of a character’s life, so you feel like you never quite hear as much as you want to. Also, so much of the stories are depressing – realistically so, but still. It was a very compelling read, but looking back on it as a whole, I’m a little more doubtful about it.
The Importance of Being Little by Erika Christakis. This is a book primarily about the education of preschoolers and how we are so often failing our kids. It was well written, persuasive, and logical. Her point is mainly that kids are too often condescended to, and that they have a real need for play time, outdoor time, and one on one interactions with teachers/adults that aren’t proscribed by curriculum. She goes into how the failures of our education system encroach on the preschool set. Curriculum is becoming test oriented and doesn’t allow for the main way that children of that age learn, which is more a meandering give and take: you have to follow where the interests and conversation of the child leads. She also talks of how the terrible salaries of preschool teachers and caregivers mean of course that often those with the less skills end up doing the work. Until we pay good salaries, this isn’t going to change. It was an interesting book. It was especially useful when Christakis would set side-by-side a lesson following some bad curriculum, versus a lesson from an experienced teacher who could use the children’s responses in her teaching, instead of corralling them back to The Leaf, or The Thanksgiving Hand Turkey. She does also address how often children of a certain class in the U.S. are overscheduled and overwatched.
And The Dark Sacred Night by Julia Glass. I think Julia Glass writes wonderfully and I will happily read anything she writes. This novel begins with Kit Noonan, a man in his early forties who is having a crisis of sorts. He is an academic without a job, and he has reached the point in his job search where he is no longer searching. He lives with his wife, Sandra, and nine year-old twins, and his wife reaches her breaking point with Kit’s despondency. She suggests he set about finding out the truth about the identity of his missing father; she thinks that is the root of his problems. Kit then goes to Vermont to visit his stepfather, Jasper, a ski instructor/dog sled trainer/outdoorsman. Kit’s mother is no longer married to Jasper, but Kit believes it is Jasper who is more likely to tell him about his past. Jasper is a very entertaining character, and this was probably my favorite section of the book. We then start learning about Kit’s biological family, and the viewpoint switches to them. The third section of the book is from the viewpoint of Fenno McLeod, a character from Glass’s first novel, The Three Junes. There is a tenuous reason why Glass would do this, although I do think it weakened the structure of the book. I was glad enough to see Fenno again, but it puts the reader on the outside of Kit’s story looking in, and that was frustrating. So on the whole, the novel is a bit meandering, and a bit structurally off; having said that, the writing is a treat to read and the characters are all interesting and entertaining.
Saints for All Occasions by J. Courtney Sullivan. This is Sullivan’s fourth novel and each one has been better than the next. This one is excellent—I couldn’t put it down. She writes of two Irish sisters, Nora and Theresa, who travel to the U.S. from Ireland in the fifties. Nora becomes the head of a large family in Dorchester outside Boston, and Theresa ends up becoming a nun in Vermont. When the book begins, the sisters have not spoken for thirty years, and a death is about to bring them together. Sullivan is excellent at moving back and forth from the past to the present. She does so skillfully so it doesn’t feel like a gimmick. She writes from the point of view of several of Nora’s adult children too, John, Bridget, and Brian, and the different relationships they have with their mother. It’s a novel about family, but also about secrets, and who knows what and how both keeping a secret and revealing it can damage. I recommend!