What I’ve Been Reading Lately

Having finished all the books I got for Christmas, I acquired a bunch more for my birthday!  Not only did I receive some books as gifts, but I found lots of low-priced books at the Regent Square Yard Sale, I bought a few books at Balticon, and after reading one of the titles below I swapped it for one of the others at a Little Free Library in my neighborhood.  I’ve got enough new-to-me books to last all summer!  Here are the highlights of my past month’s reading:

Back When We Were Grownups by Anne Tyler

This is a classic Anne Tyler novel: A bunch of quirky characters form a family in Baltimore, someone goes through some self-evaluation and yearning, there’s an off-and-on romance involving misunderstandings, somebody runs an unusual business, and there are some gems like these:

“That first night you telephoned, I had just about hit bottom.  It was so incredibly providential that you called me when you did, Rebecca.”  He reached across the table and gripped one of her hands.  Unfortunately, it was the hand that held her scrunched-up napkin.  Also, she felt an instantaneous, nearly overwhelming urge to wriggle her fingers frantically, like some kind of undersea creature.

It seemed shocking–a scandal, an atrocity–that such a thin, gray, warm-ankled person might just stop being, as easily as that.

“The ceremony was Catholic, or maybe just High Episcopal.  This cousin wasn’t quite sure.  She said there was a lot of kneeling going on.  When Will was defining what a homophone was, he used feted and fetid as his examples.”

“Why was he defining a homophone at his wedding?” Rebecca asked.

“Oh, you know how these subjects come up . . . I really couldn’t say.”

It wasn’t raining anymore, although a thick mist still hung like veils.  The air was soft and mild, a kind of non-temperature against her skin.

Rebecca is 53 years old when she suddenly starts to feel like she’s living the wrong life.  Long ago, she dropped out of college to marry a divorced man with three daughters who ran a business hosting parties in a beautiful old house.  In the process, she broke up with the boyfriend she’d known since childhood and became a more outgoing, less intellectual person.  She took on her husband’s family and had a daughter of her own, but then her husband died young.  Now she’s running his business, living with his uncle who’s about to turn 100, and keeping the extended family together with determined cheerfulness.  She feels like nobody really sees her and she might not be her true self.  Should she get back together with that old boyfriend?

The story was just fine, and I enjoyed reading it once, but it isn’t unique enough for me to read over and over again.  Anne Tyler’s great writing and compelling characterization made it (just barely) possible for me to enjoy this book despite the number of main characters who have irritating nicknames!  Biddy, Patch, Jeep, NoNo, Min Foo (who is not Chinese), and Poppy all in one book–seriously?!  Gaaahhh.

Kick Me by Paul Feig

This memoir of growing up geeky in 1970s suburbia is a striking combination of hilarious, insightful, and really very disturbing, particularly the accounts of institutionalized bullying that bordered on sexual abuse.  Feig chronicles his childhood of being called Fig Newton (with references to the ridiculous Big Fig television commercials of the era) and his sudden transition into adolescence when his classmates realized that Feig sounds like “fag” if you try–and those kids were indeed trying hard to detect signs of homosexuality in everyone else to deflect their own insecurities, which is the kind of thing a smart kid may be able to figure out but had better not verbalize!

Anyone who was an intelligent and/or non-conformist kid at around the same time in America will relate to many of these stories.  The question is whether you’ll enjoy laughing at the situation in retrospect, feel grateful that Feig had it worse than you did, or feel triggered to remember all the awful things that happened to you.  I did some of each, but overall I enjoyed the book.  My favorite story was the one in which Feig’s parents attempted to make him an elf costume for the Christmas play, using only items from his father’s army-surplus store.

Trigger warnings: Graphic descriptions of bullying.  Sexual references.  Profanity.

The Color of Magic by Terry Pratchett

I’m still trying to figure out why I didn’t like this book more.  A wizard-school dropout and a clueless tourist explore the Discworld, a flat planet supported by four elephants standing on a space-swimming turtle, and have adventures involving exotic cultures, unusual species, and an incredibly persistent piece of luggage with teeth.  Magic is prevalent and involves a special eighth color of light–but science as we know it doesn’t quite exist; things that would be done with science on Earth, such as photography, are done with magic on Discworld, and if anyone has a scientific idea it’s treated with skepticism.  The narration and dialogue are filled with clever lines that reminded me of Douglas Adams.  Yet somehow this book never really grabbed me.  I read all of it and appreciated most of the scenes, but when I wasn’t reading I would forget what had been happening.  Maybe it was just the wrong stage of life for me to read this book.

So, I’m going to recommend it to anyone who likes silly-ish, imaginative science fiction/fantasy.  It’s not too scary and would be suitable for most kids 10 and older.

Big Little Lies by Liane Moriarty

This funny novel of suburban kindergarten parents and their dramas is also a very well-done murder mystery!  I was kept guessing about the identities of both the victim and the killer until the very last moment.  It’s the kind of long story of highly-detailed characters that I really enjoy sinking into.

Jane is a young single mother who’s been taking a different apartment every six months, but she’s hoping to settle down now that her son Ziggy is starting kindergarten, and she’s chosen the Pirriwee Peninsula, a seaside suburb of Sydney, Australia.  Madeline is struggling to get her youngest child to kindergarten orientation on her own fortieth birthday, while worrying about her daughter from a previous marriage who seems to prefer her father (who abandoned her for ten years) and stepmother (an annoyingly serene vegan) to her dedicated mother.  Celeste is rich and beautiful and adores her husband, but they have a terrible secret.  These three are the main characters in a cast of many parents who attended the school’s fateful Trivia Night.  Each chapter brings us a little closer to Trivia Night and begins and ends with quotes from assorted parents’ police interviews, in which they explain tiny bits of what happened while also giving us their opinions on all the other parents.

I enjoyed the foreign culture of Australia combined with very familiar attitudes and conflicts of 21st-century parenting.  Some of the background characters are stereotypes you love to hate (those Blond Bobs who run the school fundraisers are perfectly done!), but other characters are very complex.  You get right into the minds of the three main characters and really see others as they see them, yet they manage to keep secrets from you.  In the end, they all learn and grow in ways that seem realistic.  The final resolution of Celeste’s problem is a bit heavy-handed and even feels like an extra chapter, but for most of her story the layers of gray and the difficulties of making a clear decision are masterfully portrayed.  All of the conflicts are unique stories involving individual people, not flavor-of-the-month Issues.

This book reminded me in some ways of The Ladies’ Auxiliary by Tova Mirvis (reviewed here), in which the story of a newcomer to a close-knit neighborhood is interspersed with narration from the ladies native to the community explaining how “we” do things and how “we” felt about what happened.  The interesting thing about Big Little Lies is that Jane perceives Pirriwee as a community in which she’s a naive outsider, but in fact most of the so-called adults don’t entirely know what they’re doing, and the Blond Bobs are so stressed because “we” are not a fully dominant group in this array of parents with their earnest arguments, judgments, work-life balancing acts, and worries about their individual kids.

Trigger warnings: Physical abuse.  Sexual coercion.  Mothers thinking unmotherly thoughts.

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3 thoughts on “What I’ve Been Reading Lately

  1. I’d strongly recommend that you give Terry Pratchett another shot- the Color of Magic was the first Discworld book, and it’s also among my least favorite. There’s around 50 now, and they do not need to be read sequentially, though some spoilers will pop up. But almost every book can be read as a standalone novel. I’m happy to make specific recommendations of you’re interested!

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