Fiction

Let’s Talk about Manhattan Beach

Manhattan BeachI finished Jennifer Egan’s Manhattan Beach yesterday, and I wish I had someone to talk to about it, spoilers and all. I’ve seen lots of lower-than-expected ratings for this book, but I generally thought they were due to most people only having read her Pulitzer Prize-winning novel A Visit from the Goon Squad. As a work of historical fiction, Manhattan Beach is vastly different from Goon Squad, a book I admit I did not love as much as everyone else did.

Anna Kerrigan lives with her father, mother, and severely disabled sister Lydia in Brooklyn. At the beginning of the novel she’s 11, and running an errand with her father, to whom she is clearly very close. In a borrowed car (that used to be his own—he had to sell it after the Crash), he takes her to a large, well-appointed house that overlooks the sea. It’s here that she first meets Dexter Styles, a gangster her father is trying to get in good with, although she knows none of this at the time. Left on her own with Styles’s children, she finds herself drawn to the ocean. Eight years later, Anna’s father has been missing for several years, and goes to work at the Brooklyn Naval Yard to support the war effort (and her family), and she will find herself desiring to become a diver, going into the depths to clear wreckage and to perform repairs on docked ships. She will also meet Dexter Styles again.

Now, Egan clearly did a lot of research for this book, and I certainly cannot fault the book’s atmosphere. If anything, she’s just over the line of too much detail, but not so much that it gets in the way of the story. The characters are well-developed and interesting, especially Anna…at least until about two-thirds of the way through the book, when she makes a decision that simply doesn’t ring true for her character, and that one decision breaks the book—or at least it did for me. Why? Because after that point, I felt like I could predict so much of what was coming, because the plot becomes standard issue. If you’ve read enough fairly decent literary fiction or seen enough movies, I imagine the same thing will happen for you. You’ll find yourself thinking, “Please, please don’t let her [fill in the blank]…,” and then she does [fill in the blank]. And if I’m being honest, one can go all the way back to the beginning, when Anna first meets Dexter Styles, and see much of the setup. I did, but I hoped against hope it wouldn’t take the easy direction. It did.

In my opinion, the book’s other big flaw is a scene that takes place about three-quarters of the way through that just seems so far-fetched and preposterous and out of character that…well, it made me almost not finish the book.

And so that’s that. Not much of a review—really more of a complaint. Egan has said in numerous interviews that this book took her nine years to write and tremendous effort to wrangle the story into its current shape. She clearly took a lot of care in her research, but I do wish that she’d found a way to make the story less pedestrian. I don’t mean for that to sound unkind, although I suppose it does. I can’t imagine what a huge task it must have been to pull everything together. The thing that bothers me the most is that all that needed to happen to make the story less ordinary was to have Anna make a few different choices.

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Reader’s Journal: Norwegian by Night

Norwegian by NightAt the age of 82, Sheldon Horowitz has been transplanted from Manhattan to Oslo, Norway. Sheldon’s granddaughter Rhea brings Sheldon to Oslo to live with her and her husband Lars after the death of her grandmother, Mabel. Rhea believes, as did the late Mabel, that Sheldon is suffering from dementia that started when his son Saul (Rhea’s father) was killed in Vietnam in in 1975 and has slowly continued to worsen over the years. Sheldon insists, for example, that he was a Marine sniper during the Korean War, rather than the file clerk they believed him to be, and he continues to see the enemy everywhere—around corners, behind trees. He thinks they are always watching, waiting to get revenge.

But the truth is more complicated than that. And that sentence, in fact, could sum up this entirely wonderful, perfectly paced thriller, Norwegian by Night. Sheldon is hapless and guilty. He believes he owes American his allegiance for helping to liberate Europe from the Nazis. As a young Jewish American, he was too young to join the war against the Nazis, so instead he volunteered during the Korean War, joining the Marines. When Saul joins the Navy and heads off to Vietnam, Sheldon is proud of his patriotism, but when Saul returns from his first tour of duty physically unharmed but mentally distressed and wanting to talk about the horrors he experienced, Sheldon tells him to set it behind him and move on with his life. Saul signs on for a second tour and is killed shortly after returning to Vietnam, and Sheldon believes he is responsible for his own son’s death.

But the truth is more complicated than that. One afternoon when Rhea and Lars are out of the apartment and Sheldon is home alone, he hears a violent altercation between a man and a woman in an upstairs apartment. The argument escalates, and he hears the woman leave the apartment. Peering out the peephole in the front door, he sees the woman stop. In his mind, he faces a test: will he refuse entry for someone who has nowhere else to go? Will he sit silently behind the door the way so many Europeans did when they knew their Jewish neighbors and friends needed a place to hide? Sheldon’s actions will send him on a tour of Norway with a small boy in tow.

But the truth is more complicated than that. The man, Enver, who was involved in the altercation is the boy’s father. He’s a refugee from Kosovo, where he fought bravely and brutally against the Serbs for independence. With the war ended and the Kosovo freed, he wants to take his son and return to his home. He’ll stop at nothing. As he pursues Sheldon and the boy, Enver is pursued by Sigrid, a Police Chief Inspector for her district in Oslo.

But the truth is…Okay, I’ll stop doing that. But. The truth is this story is humorous and sweet, melancholy and tragic, fast-paced and thrilling. Derek B. Miller masterfully navigates this third-person narrative told from alternating points of view, presenting at one time a novel that’s both personal and political. The weight of history—family history, national history, religious history—weighs on every character, informs every action. The pride and loneliness of people who are forced to wander, the way they carry their stories and the stories of the people they love, are at the center of this beautiful novel. I long to tell you more, but I don’t want to spoil it. Miller has done such a terrific job at revealing details that move the story forward at just the right moments that to know too much could spoil the pleasure in turning the page. I had a tough time putting it down, and I hope that you will, too.

A Few Favorite Books of 2017 (So Far)

I have long been meaning to get back to this blog. Every book I read, I think, “This is a good one…so much to say!” And then I say nothing at all, just move on to the next book. I think part of my lack of drive has to do that I’ve almost dropped social media entirely. The only things I look at with any regularity are Goodreads and Instagram, and because I’m not very good at capturing moments in photos, I rarely post anything on the latter. Being away from social media also means being away from the book discussions, something I greatly miss. I keep telling myself that’s a good reason to get back to blogging, but then again, can one blog without participating heavily in social media? A discussion for another time, perhaps.

Because I’ve been out of the fray and therefore away from influence, I’ve been meandering from book to book. I’ve had a surprisingly good reading year so far, with no slumps to date and only one book I completely abandoned halfway through, The Story Hour by Thrity Urmigar. The characters were flat, and the plot was completely contrived, and that’s all I’ve got to say about that because I’m not here to talk about the bad stuff. I’m here to talk about just a few of my favorites (so far).

The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great MigrationThe Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migrations by Isabel Wilkerson is an absolute must-read, especially during our current climate. I wish I could shove this book into the hands of so many people I know who continue to make assumptions about African Americans based on a lot of propaganda circulated in the early Twentieth century. Wilkerson follows the journey of three African Americans from the South to the North during three decades, the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. Interwoven with these stories Wilkerson uncovers the bigger picture of this migration of African Americans from the South to the North that took place over the course of six decades, from 1915 to 1970, debunking myths along the way that have continued to perpetuate negative stereotypes. It was fascinating and infuriating and difficult to put down.

The Sport of KingsThe Sport of Kings by C.E. Morgan completely blew me away. Oh, how I hate to write plot synopses, and trying to write one for this epic novel feels nearly impossible, so I’m going to let the publisher’s blurb do the talking:

Hellsmouth, an indomitable thoroughbred with the blood of Triple Crown winners in her veins, runs for the glory of the Forge family, one of Kentucky’s oldest and most powerful dynasties. Henry Forge has partnered with his daughter, Henrietta, in an endeavor of raw obsession: to breed the next superhorse, the next Secretariat. But when Allmon Shaughnessy, an ambitious young black man, comes to work on their farm after a stint in prison, the violence of the Forges’ history and the exigencies of appetite are brought starkly into view. Entangled by fear, prejudice, and lust, the three tether their personal dreams of glory to the speed and grace of Hellsmouth.

Morgan’s prose has an abundance, a lushness, that is rare in these days of pragmatic, minimalist prose or the nudge, nudge, wink wink of irony that’s become all too common. I’m not kidding when I say I felt like I was reading The Great American Novel. All at once it reminded me of Steinbeck and felt like something completely new. That’s not to say it doesn’t have its flaws, but the overall effect is so powerful they simply don’t matter. I plan to read this one again soon, so maybe next time I’ll get around to writing a dedicated post.

Anything Is PossibleMy husband surprised me with a copy of Anything Is Possible by Elizabeth Strout. These connected stories cover the lives of people that Lucy Barton and her mother gossip about in Strout’s previous novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. I was planning to read Lucy Barton first, but I was so excited I started this one immediately. Although I loved Olive Kitteridge, the last book I read by Strout was The Burgess Boys, and it left me feeling underwhelmed. Not so with Anything Is Possible. She brings the same detail and care to her small-town Illinois characters as she did in Olive Kitteridge. At her best, Strout reminds me of Kent Haruf in the way she writes about regular people going about their quiet lives. I loved it so much that I decided to read My Name Is Lucy Barton right away…and was disappointed.

The ThicketOne of my favorite books of all time is True Grit by Charles Portis. I also happen to love a good Western. Because of this, Joe R. Lansdale’s novels kept popping up in my recommendations on Amazon and Goodreads. I chose to start with The Thicket, and I was not disappointed. When Jack Parker loses his parents to smallpox, his grandfather comes to take him and his sister Lula to live with their uncle. Along the way, they meet with a rough group of bandits who kill Jack’s grandfather and kidnap his sister. Jack is alone until he hooks up with a pair of bounty hunters, a freed slave named Eustace and a dwarf named Shorty, who offer to help him track the gang and find his sister in exchange for the land he inherited from his parents. As tragic as it all sounds, this book is laugh-out-loud funny and sharply written, with well-developed characters and a perfectly paced plot.

Usually I could pull together ten titles for this list. Going back through the forty-two titles I’ve read this year, I have plenty more four- and five-star reads in the list, but all in all these are the only ones that really stand out for me. It’s strange to have a pretty good reading year but feel so meh.

That said, I re-read both Ann  Patchett’s Commonwealth and Patti Smith’s Just Kids this year, and they were both just as stunning as they were the first time around. It didn’t seem fair to include them in the favorites so far list, though. I also started two new series that I am very much enjoying: Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series and Donna Leon’s Commissario Brunetti series. I read a couple of J. Courtney Sullivan’s books, Saints for All Occasions (her latest) and Maine and greatly enjoyed them both. I picked up the former on a whim because The Washington Post‘s Ron Charles gave it such a glowing review; I read her first novel Commencement when it was published and thought it was only so-so, but she’s developed quite a bit as a writer, so I’ll be looking forward to whatever she writes next. I was also pleasantly surprised by two very different books about the art world, Molly Prentiss’s self-assured, impressive debut Tuesday Nights in 1980 and Dominic Smith’s The Last Painting of Sarah de Vos.

Okay, so maybe it’s not all as meh as I thought.

I should also mention War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam, which includes nine first-person accounts from women who were some of the first to cover combat. This would be a great companion read if you’re planning to watch Ken Burns’s series on Vietnam (I am!).

Outside of books, the best (and most troubling) thing I experienced this year was the original Netflix series The Keepers, about how the unsolved mystery of the murder of Sister Cathy Cesnik in November 1967 uncovered a horrifying web of abuse and conspiracy between the Catholic diocese of Baltimore and the Baltimore city government to cover up any number of allegations. The women at the heart of this story are absolute heroes. It’s very difficult to watch but absolutely gripping, and I’m so happy for these women that they’ve been given a platform to tell their story. Of course, a little justice would be nice. Or a lot.

How about you? How’s you’re reading year so far? If you read any of these, please share!

 

 

Reader’s Journal: The Seas

The SeasSometimes I feel like a mystery even to myself. When I went to the library a few weeks ago to pick up a bunch of holds, I thought for sure that the one book I had waited for the longest would knock my socks off (turns out I was wrong). If anything, I was probably most dubious about Samantha Hunt’s The Seas. Her most recent novel, Mr. Splitfoot, is one of the more unusual books I’ve read, and it was one of my favorites last year. I was kicking around the idea of re-reading that one when I decided to put The Seas, her debut novel, on hold at the library. The book jacket probably has the shortest description I’ve ever seen:

A lovesick and awkward young woman, haunted by the ocean that her father disappeared into years before, convinces herself she is a mermaid to escape her dreary, small town life and find her true identity.

It’s short, but it smacks of the fantastical. It practically screams EXPERIMENTAL. From that description, you probably would expect at least a few sections with run-on sentences that go on for several pages at a time. After all, nothing says EXPERIMENTAL like stream-of-consciousness, amirite? She convinces herself she’s a mermaid…why did I check this out again? I’m not a big fan of fantasy, after all.

Here’s how it begins:

The highway only goes south from here. That’s how far north we live. There aren’t many roads out of town, which explains why so few people ever leave. Things that are unfamiliar are a long way off and there is no direct route to these things. Rather it’s a street to a street to a road across a causeway to a road across a bridge to a road to another road before you reach the highway.

The narrator is nineteen, living in a house with her mother and paternal grandfather. Her father disappeared into the ocean when she was eight. Before he left, at the breakfast table, he told her she was a mermaid. She believes now he was telling her they were from the ocean, and she awaits his return:

People often suggest that it would be better if we knew for certain whether or not my father is dead rather than just disappeared. That to me seems cruel, as if they want me to abandon all hope. That is how dreary people try to keep things here on dry land.

Despite them, I remain hopeful. Even though the way I remember my father and these things he once said is becoming more and more like the way a page of paper yellows with time or the way a dream slips ahead of the waking dreamer or the way people get hard-skinned with age and use that hard skin like a file to toughen up their children. Am I mermaid? I once was certain. But now the older I get, the vaguer things become.

She loves a man named Jude, and Iraq war veteran who is fourteen years older than she is, but although Jude cares for her he does not return her romantic feelings. The thing about this book, about Hunt’s writing, is that she normalizes the fantastical. The narrator—who is isolated and lonely, with no friends her own age—for a good portion of the story seems simply quirky and naïve, a young woman who has held on too long to childhood because she’s unsure how to become an adult, especially in a place with so few opportunities for her, so few models to follow. With little else to occupy her time, she thinks about Jude. She follows him around town. The shifts are subtle. She’s quirky. And then maybe she’s depressed. And then when things take a turn the full reality becomes apparent to the reader, who is maybe just invested enough to wonder: what part is real, and what part is a fantasy? In hindsight, everything seems clear. But in the telling, not so much.

Hunt has said she wrote The Seas originally as a book of poems. She said in a Powell’s interview, “I learned to write by hanging out with poets, and I’ve never abandoned the idea that every word should be handled and adored. Making the world from 26 letters is my delight.” I love that so much: every word should be handled and adored. What a difference that is from taking words, shoving them into cheap, shiny gowns, painting their faces, and then pushing them onto a stage and forcing them to perform.

When I finished The Seas, overall I thought it was pretty good for a debut novel. But in the few days since I finished it, and then sitting down to write this post, I am starting to realize just how well-crafted this novel really is. When I was about two-thirds through the novel, I had written in my notebook, “Fever dream?” But by the end I realized that was wrong. Hunt has clear empathy for the narrator. I suppose what I mean is this: the best stories about madness show us that madness isn’t really absence of reason; it’s just that the reasons don’t make sense to the outside world. Hunt makes us see the sense. And she has this talent not just in fiction—just consider this from her 2015 article on One Direction:

Tonight the mass of girls before me in the arena, swarming like insects, raises a question of economy. How many waitressing shifts, humid summer jobs, and hours babysitting does it take to hold these five boys aloft, to lard the fiefdom? How better might these girls’ energies be spent in humanitarian projects and education? And how best to understand their mania without dismissing it as a fault of their youth or gender?

I think I have a new favorite author for my list.

Those Books I Cannot Deny

Top Ten Tuesday (hosted by The Broke and The Bookish) this week asks us to list the top ten things that will make us instantly want to read a book. This is a tough one—I think next week’s topic about what makes us NOT want to pick up a book is easier—but I’ll give it a shot.

RunawayIt’s by a favorite author. Okay, that’s such a no-brainer, right? Obviously, we all look forward to books from favorite authors, but maybe we get to some a bit faster than others. As much as I love Lorrie Moore—and even though I had preordered a copy—it took me almost a year to read her most recent story collection. And I love Mary Gaitskill but haven’t read The Mare yet. But a new Alice Munro, Tana French, Donna Tartt, or Marisha Pessl? I want that book in my hands on pub day, if not before.

It’s a campus novel. I’m a huge sucker for any book set at a boarding school or a university. I blame The Official Preppy Handbook, which was published when I was in seventh grade. It’s the source of all my fantasies about wearing blue blazers and knee socks and carrying a beat-up leather messenger bag and driving an old Volvo station wagon and attending classes in grey-stone buildings covered with ivy. What? Oh, right, like you don’t have a dream. The Secret History, Prep, The Headmaster’s Wife, Skippy Dies

It’s set west of the Mississippi. Hello, Larry McMurtry. Hello, Kent Haruf. Hello, Wallace Stegner. Wait…those were all men. Hello, Louise Erdrich. Hello, Molly Gloss. Hello, Willa Cather.

LandfallsIt involves any sort of seafaring. I’m fascinated by the Dutch East India Trading Company, the age of exploration, the migration of people….as long as it’s happening on a ship. For someone who’s terrified of the ocean, I have enough books about sailing the wide open seas on my TBR list that you’d never guess. Landfalls, Ship Fever, Servants of the Map, Master and Commander

It involves cowboys/pioneers/people settling the Western US. Technically this could be considered a subset of number three, I guess, but it’s a particular one that always draws me. The Jump-Off Creek, The Son, Lonesome Dove, The News of the West

It features a WASPy New York family. You can keep your navel-gazing Brooklyn hipsters who all want to write books about being writers. I’m way more interested in the Upper East Side, particularly if the book is set before, say, 1970. The Rules of Civility, The Swans of Fifth Avenue, The Catcher in the Rye, The Nest

It’s compared favorably (by someone I trust) to a book/writer I love. No, not looking at you, Gone Girl. You’re over your limit. But if a book is compared to, say, The Secret History, The Goldfinch, Commonwealth, Empire Falls, The Likeness…Somebody stop me before I list all my favorite books. You get the picture. Although sometimes these comparisons make me leary (still not looking at you, Gone Girl). I’m sorry, but if I saw a book that said, “For readers who love Alice Munro,” I might be afraid I was going to get a cheap imitation, because honestly, who can compare?

Seating ArrangementsIt’s set anywhere from coastal New England up to Newfoundland. I’m talking rocky coast, sea spray, the Atlantic, whales, fishermen, creaky old cottages with worn shingles, lighthouses—the whole shebang. So anything from Seating Arrangements to Olive Kitteridge to Sweetland to The Shipping News. The gamut of the northern US/Canadian East Coast, if you will.

It involves a clever twist. I’ve gotten a bit more wary about this one. (Okay, Gone Girl, I’m looking at you now.) Still, I do like a good twist. I really thought Gone Girl was masterfully done. And Sarah Waters’s Fingersmith (who’s twisting who?). John Fowles’s The Magus (twisty involving teacher at secluded Greek boarding school). E. Lockhart’s We Were Liars (twisty/New England combo).

So, where do we line up? Any recommendations? Where do we differ? (I’d love to hear from you if you have a real comment! If you are just here to spam your own link, move on.)

Sometimes I Just Can’t

Last Friday I picked up a book from the library that I put on hold five months ago. I was surprised to find it in my stack. (I may or may not have done a small fist pump of victory as I was leaving the library. I’m not a sporting person, so fist pumps go for things like scoring books and the first day of summer that my favorite Mediterranean restaurant has gazpacho on the menu.) In November and December of last year, everyone seemed to be raving about this impressive debut novel. It was all over favorite and best-of lists.

When I got home I didn’t start the novel right away because I wanted to read Carrie Brownstein’s memoir first, but on Sunday night I tucked myself in and opened it to the first page. Not going to lie, I wasn’t crazy about the first-person narrator’s voice, mainly because it didn’t sound like a voice. It sounded like someone writing a voice. And then, on page five (page five!), I got to this:

“The man wheezing behind the counter masticated me with his eyes.”

No, I thought. I can’t. I can’t spend another 347 pages with this person. But I tried. I made it all the way to page 12, and then I closed the book and set it aside.

To masticate is to chew food. So the man chewed the narrator (a female, if that helps for context) with his eyes. And so, “He chewed me up with his eyes.” As metaphors go, it’s a bit of a stretch but not too bad. It’s the word masticate that stops me. It sounds like writing, not like telling. There’s something visceral about the word chew; masticate sounds…medical, like palpate instead of touch. And maybe it’s the former writing teacher in me, but all I can picture is the author going through the manuscript with a thesaurus and making the prose sound writerly. You know, like people who say utilize instead of use because they think it makes them sound more intelligent or important. (It doesn’t. Stop doing that.) I wondered, is it the first-person thing that bothers me? That it just doesn’t sound like a female from the Midwest in her early 20s on her way to a big city would say that someone masticated her with his eyes? Not that I want a generic sound for that, but maybe I just don’t know enough about this narrator yet to know why she’d use the word masticate instead of chew? But do I want to find out?

And then I wondered, is this style what people who typically read for plot think of as literary? And when does writing become over-writing? Do we all have our limits? A lot of people would accuse Donna Tartt of overwriting—I’m not one of them. To me her first-person narratives sound like they come from actual people (that she has made up), not direct from her own brain. So is over-writing when it sounds like what we’re really hearing is the author pretending to be a character? I don’t know. But I know this: the words matter. At least they do for me.

I cannot question why so many people loved this book because I didn’t read it. I won’t be giving it some crappy review on Goodreads (“I gave it one star but really it barely deserves HALF A STAR!!!!!!”) like people who take it rather personally when a book is just not right for them, as opposed to being a bad book. “Is there a difference?” you might wonder. I think so. I don’t know if this is a bad book or a good book. I just know that I would not be able to turn off the editor in my head, and I’d probably have a severe headache from constantly rolling my eyes. Maybe I’m just a bitch, maybe I’m just picky (or maybe both). I guess certain voices, like certain people, just rub me the wrong way. And so the book goes back to the library, and I have quietly removed it from my TBR shelf.

How about you? I know a lot of people set aside books because they’re too boring, slow, or violent, but have you ever set aside a book because the words just didn’t ring true for you? I’m curious to know if I’m the only one!

January Reading Wrap-Up

Over the last few years, January has been one of my better months for blogging. This year, even though I’ve been reading steadily, the idea of sitting down and writing about books has seemed kind of pointless. Many other book bloggers have expressed this same anxiety and heart-heaviness and wonder about the use of it all, so I know I’m not alone. For myself, I find avoiding Twitter and Facebook helps. For a while scrolling and scrolling made me feel connected, but it started to take on a life of its own, and I’d reach the end of the day with nothing accomplished—no work, no exercise, nothing. The only reason I read as much as I did was because I made it a point to get up in the morning and NOT to look at any headlines or social media but to open my book instead.

Alys, AlwaysI picked up Hope Jahren’s Lab Girl on New Year’s Eve and finished it quickly. You can read my thoughts about it here, or you can just trust me when I say I highly recommend it and you should get to it sooner rather than later. I’m doing the TBR Dare again this year, but in December I had also put a bunch of books on hold at the library that came available that first week of January: Version Control by Dexter Palmer, Tomorrow Will Be Different by Maria Semple, The Summer That Melted Everything by Tiffany McDaniel, and Alys, Always by Harriet Lane. The only one I managed to read was Alys, Always. It’s a dark little book, with a wry, somewhat sociopathic heroine who carefully inserts herself into the lives of a famous writer and his family after she witnesses a tragic accident. I tried with all the others, but I just wasn’t hooked and decided not to force it.

Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of PunkInstead, I moved on to Please Kill Me: The Uncensored History of Punk by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain. I’ve always liked punk rock (you would never know it to look at me, now or then), the raw energy and the cheek of it. Please Kill Me focuses primarily on the New York scene, which was heavily influenced by The Velvet Underground, but also by the MC5 and Iggy Pop and the Stooges out of Detroit. It’s basically an anthology of collected interviews with people on the scene (including Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, David Johansen of the New York Dolls, the Ramones, Debbie Harry, Richard Hell from Television, along with artists and journalists and other folks on the scene), arranged chronologically and by topic. It was interesting to read this book from a sociological standpoint at this point in time. The rise of punk followed the decline of utopian hippie idealism and the rise of economic instability. A lot of these kids were blue collar; they were disillusioned and disaffected. Very few of them had any musical training at all. Serious drug addiction, especially heroin addiction, was rampant. I think if you transported a lot of these people into the here and now, they would be like a lot of people who voted in our current president: angry and overlooked, with a lot of uncertainty about the country. They saw no easy future, they saw their friends dying in Vietnam, they saw all the institutions they had previously trusted as corrupt. That said, the music wasn’t a political statement—it was an escape, and in a weird way a highly romantic one at that. If you’re not familiar with much punk music, or at least the kind coming out of New York in the early 1970s, you might not know how much of it was influenced by the rock and roll of the late 1950s and the early 1960s. They hated all the commercial, progressive rock, the long guitar solos, the post-hippie syrup. In a lot of ways they were children. The one thing they all agreed on: Patti Smith was the real deal, the true queen of punk, always true to herself and her vision (and for the record, not a drug addict). If you’re interested in music history at all, it’s an interesting read, and it’s amazing to consider their influence all these years later. So many of them died too young, some long before they got to understand what a profound influence they had.

What with Please Kill Me and all the bad news in my Twitter feed, I decided next I needed something light to read, so I picked up the first book in Louise Penny’s Inspector Gamache series, Still Life. I found it well-paced, smart, and surprisingly funny. I don’t often commit to reading series, but as soon as the TBR Dare is over I’m putting these on hold at the library. Brain candy, with all-natural ingredients.

The Atomic Weight of LoveAfter Still Life, I picked up The Atomic Weight of Love by Elizabeth J. Church. Not going to kid you, the cover attracted me. It’s the story of a woman who marries a scientist involved in the Manhattan project, and how his life takes over her own plans and ambitions, and how she finds love and life in Los Alamos. Overall I really enjoyed it. The writing was beautiful, although I had some weird quibbles with it while I was reading that I had ultimately let go by the end. For one thing, the main character, Meri, goes to the University of Chicago to study science, but all of the conversations she has with her professor and things she thinks about come across as elementary. Another strange quirk I noticed was that almost all the female characters were described in terms of their weight (“ a red-headed woman with a thickened waist”; “Anorexic Peggy Hilson dressed only in Beatnik black”; “the crisp presentation of the fat-free stewardesses”). Silly things, I know, but sometimes it’s like having a tiny rock in your shoe, one that’s not really worth it to dig out but bothers you from time to time just the same.

Most recently I started reading a book a publisher sent me back in 2010 (ouch) called Power Trip: From Oil Wells to Solar Cells–Our Ride to the Renewable Future. I’m sorry I didn’t read it sooner, because the author Amanda Little takes a close look at how incredibly dependent we are on petroleum products and what sort of alternative energy sources might help us break that dependence. It’s crazy to think, but some of the book is already dated (the Nissan Leaf and the Tesla were not then on the market, for example). On the other hand, since we’re about to see massive deregulation and drilling and fracking…well, I’m just going to stop here. This one really deserves its own post.

And finally, I had a few more books on my hold list come up at the library: Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, which I’m reading now, and The Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America’s Great Migration by Isabel Wilkerson, about the migration of black Americans from the South to North from 1915 to 1970, which I plan to read next. After that I may pick up more non-fiction, because it’s just seemed more appealing lately, but we’ll see.

Wow, that was a long one! Going forward I’ll manage all this through individual posts or a weekly wrap-up. Stay safe out there, stay strong, #resist, and tell me what you’re reading!