Sunday, August 17, 2008

Read Any Good Books Lately?

Since I have been such a voracious reader this summer, I decided it was time to pare down the "What I've Been Reading" sidebar. Clean it out and start fresh for fall. I did not want to do so, however, without taking a moment or two to talk about the books that have kept me company this summer.

Books I Learned Something From
This summer I indulged in a lot of fun learning.

I read Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers , Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, and Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex all by Mary Roach. I had heard Ms. Roach speak on NPR a couple years ago - when Stiff was first released. I knew then that I wanted to read her, but I just never found the opportunity. I am so glad I finally did. All three are brilliantly researched and chock full of interesting facts. They never even for a paragraph become dry, despite presenting some pretty heady scientific data, because Ms. Roach's humor and human-ness are in constant evidence. I highly recommend all of these books. Mary Roach has a gift.

I also read Quantum Wellness: A Practical and Spiritual Guide to Health and Happiness by Kathy Freston. I was less than blown away by this one. I took a few points from it, but I guess it just wasn't really my cup of tea. All the Oprah endorsements should have been a tip-off. It did provide Tom and I with a line we brushed off several times throughout Festival Season, though: "Ribs! From the backs! Of babies!" (her actual line was: "Ribs from a babies back?" p. 109)

More my speed was The Omnivore's Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals by Michael Pollan. This book was really thought provoking. It got a little dry (for my taste) on occasion, but the payoff was worth it. I learned a lot about the food industry that I didn't know and reinforced a lot of what I did know. I wish I could tell you it completely changed the way I eat/view food. It didn't, but it has certainly made me more conscientious.

Tom recommended This is Your Brain on Music: The Science of a Human Obsession by Daniel J. Levitin and, while it took me a while to get through it, I would recommend it to anyone with an interest in brain development, music, or both. Mr. Levitin has a great style and he is very knowledgeable. He referenced a lot of music to make his points and I think I might have benefited from a companion CD. I learned a lot about the various effects music has on the brain and some of the findings are probably things I will utilize in my teaching. Some remarkably interesting stuff.

Biographies, Autobiographies and Memoirs

I read several biographies and autobiographies this summer and I'm not sure why. When I choose to read in this genre, it is usually because I want to know more about someone I admire (or am, at least, curious about). More often than not I'm disappointed.

Case in point:
A Boy Named Shel: The Life and Times of Shel Silverstein by Lisa Rogak. Now, who doesn't love Shel Silverstein? Our author clearly liked and admired him. But he was just - not such a swell guy. I didn't want to know that. I probably shouldn't have informed you, either. Sorry.

I didn't go into Losing It: and Gaining My Life Back One Pound at a Time by Valerie Bertinelli with high expectations, and that's a good thing. I took it out of the library, though, because I thought it would be a fun little read. I'd watched her do the talk show circuit, and I was expecting a juicy summer read full of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. While all of those elements were present, they were all just mentioned. There weren't a lot of anecdotes. When she did see fit to provide an anecdote or two, in my opinion, that's when the story got interesting. Our little Barbara Cooper. Sigh.

Born Standing Up by Steve Martin was an easy little read. I'd read Mr. Martin's fiction, so I knew I enjoyed his writing style. It was fun to see a little deeper inside this "wild and crazy guy" to see what made/makes him tick. Did you know he dated the daughter of Dalton Trumbo? Well he did. He also shares a lot of wonderful photos.

I've included Armageddon in Retrospect by Kurt Vonnegut in this section, although it might more accurately be cataloged in the "essays" section. I love Mr. Vonnegut and am enjoying working my way through his books. I still have a way to go, but I find his work to be so thought provoking that I need a little break in between each one to fully digest it before moving on to another. "Armageddon" was published posthumously and is a collection of fiction and non-fiction short stories punctuated by his deceptively simple drawings. The usual themes are presented: War, peace, love, hate. Not too deep...

Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon by Chuck Palahniuk might not really belong in this category either, but I couldn't decide where else to put it. It is a weird little travelogue of Portland Oregon and Mr. Palahniuk (who shall hereafter be referred to as Fucked Up Chuck) says it's as close to an autobiography as he's likely to get. It's an offbeat little book which includes phone numbers, directions, and even recipes.

I've saved the best memoirs for last. When You Are Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris was everything I've come to expect from arguably my favorite essayist. (hmmm - maybe this should have been listed under essays? Nah, they always feel like memoirs to me. And I'm the boss of this post.) I laughed out loud (all by myself on my deck) more than once reading this volume. But then, that is, as previously stated, exactly what I expect.


This section is ruled by the previously mentioned "Fucked Up Chuck", the incomparable Chuck Palahniuk. Tom and I started referring to him as that after reading a couple of his books a year or two ago. His books always leave me wanting a little something to cleanse my palate when I'm done with them, so I didn't read these all in one big lump. The social statements that he makes, also, generally leave me wanting to take a little while to think before jumping immediately to the next. In no particular order this summer, I read:
Choke, Invisible Monsters, Fight Club , Snuff, Survivor, and Haunted. I cannot believe Fight Club was his first novel. Wow. Survivor, another favorite of mine, was actually written before Fight Club, but published after. I really enjoyed Choke. It is being made into a movie which is looking at a late September release. I believe Tom and I will be there opening night - something we usually reserve for Harry Potter or anything Christopher Guest has had a hand in. I'll look forward to it. I'm usually disappointed when novels I like/love are made into movies, but Fight Club was awesome in both mediums, so I'll remain guardedly optimistic. Also, both the green band and red band trailers tickled me silly. Snuff wasn't my favorite, but it definitely wasn't a waste of my time. If you're new to Mr. Pahlahniuk's (I mean, fucked up Chuck's) work, I wouldn't start with it. Invisible Monsters started slowly for me, but just past the middle it became impossible for me to put down. I'd figured out one or two of the many twists, but nowhere close to all of them. I'd figured out one of the twists in Snuff, too. Tom hadn't. He ALWAYS figures things out before me, so it made me a little nervous. I'm starting to think like Chuck... It's hard to say much about any of these books because there is just so darn much going on - it works in novel form but I could picture it becoming pretty hard to follow pretty darn fast in blog form without revealing major spoilers. I won't even attempt.

Someday this Pain will be Useful to You by Peter Cameron was my obligatory YA book this summer. It was a really well done character development story. Sometimes I think I like YA books better than I like adult fiction. Does that say something about me I wouldn't want to hear? The narrator of this story is a young, affluent, gay male. These are four things that I am not, yet I found him to be very relatable. Though very different from me on a superficial level, I found a lot of common ground.

I loved The Kite Runner, so I was very anxious to read A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini. These books have truly been eye-opening. It's nice to sort of cocoon ourselves and pretend events such as those presented in these books happened long ago and far away. Far away? Check. Long ago? Not so much. Highly recommend.

Tom had heard good things about The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time by Mark Haddon so when I happened upon a copy on the library bookshelf I snatched it up without a thought. I didn't really know what to expect, and I was so pleasantly surprised! What a lovely little read! This novella is written in the voice of a young autistic boy. Mr. Haddon handles it in a way that is neither pitying nor mocking. It is warm and funny and just generally lovely.

Short Stories/Essays

I read Wild Ducks Flying Backward by Tom Robbins because I thought I'd read everything he'd ever written, and was surprised to find this in a search. Turns out I do prefer my Robbins in novel form, but this was far from a disappointment. I laughed out loud a couple times and grinned like an idiot most of the way through. Let's face it, I love his style so much I'd read it if he wrote a review of breakfast cereal. So, um, yeah. I might have a little bias.

The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted: And Other Small Acts of Liberation by Elizabeth Berg was the other collection of short stories I indulged in this summer. Total chic-lit, but I'm not above that from time to time. I found many of these stories almost uncomfortably easy to relate to. A few, I believe, will stick with me for awhile.

Chuck makes his way into this category, too, with Stranger Than Fiction - a collection of short stories and essays. It was a neat read for a fan of Mr. Palahniuk, because he gives us a tiny little glimpse inside and allows us to see from whence some of his ideas germinated. I'll warn the more gentle reader that this one starts off in particularly nasty graphic territory, but it calms down.

Coming Attractions

What's on tap for fall? I've been craving a little more Vonnegut, so I think I'll start there. But I am so very very very open to suggestions! What absolutely needs to go on my fall reading list?


Bass Is Life said...

I didn't know you finished "Haunted" and "This Is Your Brain On Music". We need to talk.

As for "Snuff", I remember you suggested that, with all of the sex in the novel, I may have been blinded by my third eye as to the plot twist. You may be right about that. Sex can do that to a guy.

I so wish I could have kept up with you this summer, but you're a much faster reader than I. My lips don't move that fast.

Tammy said...

Well, there was the little factor of me being completely unemployed for 3 months and unable to even do housework for 2 of them - that may have contributed to the length of my summer reading list (ya think?)

I don't think the fall list will be as impressive - at least not in quantity. But I'm hoping for quality, anyway.

robin_titan said...

I really need to read more Chuck Palahniuk. I really like his writing and stories they are just SO creative.

I had no idea Survivor was written before Fight Club. Good to know. :)