Saturday, September 1, 2018

Book Reviews August 2018

Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver.  I read and enjoyed this ten years ago when it first came out, and decided to give it another go.  I like most of Kingsolver’s novels, but I think I like her nonfiction voice even more.  She is interesting and knowledgeable and funny.  The book is about a year in which Kingsolver and her family decide to eat mostly locally grown and sourced foods (they each have one thing they are allowed which is not local, like coffee and rice).  She writes about what they ate, why eating locally is better for the planet, and also about their prodigious farming and animal husbandry.  I found it just as fascinating the second time around.

My Ex-Life by Stephen McCauley.  This was a delightful read.  I was a fan of McCauley’s books in the nineties, but then he fell off my radar.  I saw a review of this book recently and remembered how much I enjoyed his writing, and this did not disappoint.  David Hedges, the main character, lives in San Francisco and works as a consultant helping students get into a college that is right for them.  When the book begins, he hears out of the blue from Julie, a woman he was married to briefly, before he realized he was gay.  Julie is living in a big house on the coast in Massachusetts, and is dealing with the dissolution of her second marriage.  She is trying to keep her big house, which her ex wants her to sell, and is also troubled by the recent antics of her teen-age daughter, Mandy.  McCauley switches deftly between David, Julie, and Mandy, and creates them accurately and with humor.  David and Julie are both funny and, more importantly, nice – although not at all dull in the way that word might conjure.  It’s a really good book about people in mid-life, and the problems and realizations that come with the age. 

Catastrophic Happiness: Finding Joy in Childhood’s Messy Years by Catherine Newman.  Catherine Newman is an excellent writer, and her earlier memoir, Waiting for Birdy, was one of the best books I read about infants and toddlers.  In this one, she continues writing about her children, Ben and Birdy, as they age from about 3 or 4 to mid-teens.  She is funny and honest and wise, and is quite good at doing what the title proclaims:  finding the good moments in the midst of the chaos.

Social Creature by Tara Isabella Burton.  I thought this was a good read, although since finishing it I’ve been seeing some unfavorable comparisons to A Talented Mr. Ripley.  But I’ve never read that!  So no comparisons to it here.  I thought it was well-done.  Louise, the main character, is a 29 year old trying to make it in New York city, and having trouble making ends meet.  She meets Lavinia, a high-society “It” girl, who sweeps Louise up into her circle in rather disturbing ways.  Louise starts living more and more beyond her means, and Lavinia manipulates the situation in unstable ways.  Eventually Louise gets in over her head and does what she feels she has to do to not retreat back to her small town.  The writing is nicely spare, and Burton is talented enough so that the reader gets swept up in Louise’s momentum, and wants her to succeed, while also taken aback by her actions.  I recommend.

Less by Andrew Sean Greer.  By the end of this book, I liked it, but it took me at least the first half of the book to get drawn in.  My problem with it is that it seemed like it was going to be about the slow dissolution of Arthur Less, who is turning fifty and is having all sorts of things suddenly not work out for him – he’s a writer who gets dropped by his publisher, his ex boyfriend is getting married, etc.  The narrator seemed to look at Less from a wry distance, and I was rather bored – and somewhat pained – at watching all the small injustices that Less has to suffer, even while recognizing the good writing and humor that described them.  However, I began to like the occasional narrator interruptions that occur:  the narrator is someone who at first seems to know Less from afar, and it was an interesting technique.  It is the excellent writing that won me over, but it took me a while to get there.  The first half is a comedy of errors, but it does become more than that by the end.

You’re On An Airplane by Parker Posey.  I loved this memoir.  I’m a fan of Posey’s work in movies, and throughout this book I could hear her distinctive voice speaking all the lines.  I’m not surprised that she is a good writer, but I was happily surprised by how smart and charming her writing is.  She tells stories from her life experiences, and of her experience as a woman in Hollywood, who didn’t necessarily fit into the usual roles.  After doing really well in independent movies in the nineties, she ended up getting bit parts in movies after that, and has very wry commentary on why she didn’t necessarily fit in.  There’s a lot of celebrities waltzing in and out of her stories – so that aspect is certainly fun – but her book is much more than that.  She is silly, sure, but also an astute observer of people and getting older and life.  It was better even than I thought it would be.

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