Yes, gentle readers, it’s been entirely too long since I inundated you with a list of all the books I’ve been reading. I don’t know why I always put it off until it becomes such an onerous task I can hardly imagine performing it, but here we are again.
In my last book club post, I left off somewhere in the middle of October. In this post I shall begin to regale you with my reading pleasures (and displeasures) from the rest of October through December. We shall start with the non-fiction and highbrow (or at least non-genre) fiction.
Hillbilly Elegy by J.D. Vance
This was the book everyone was talking about to explain the rise of Trump. Yes, I know, it’s a painful subject. This memoir tells a story of growing up among the poor working class in Ohio. His grandparents had moved to escape poverty in their native Kentucky, built a reasonably good life for themselves in Ohio, where a local factory supported the economy, only to have it all go to hell in a generation or two. Vance’s mother was intermittently employed and struggled with addictions and the men in her life. Vance describes the long-term effects of his unstable childhood and how he was able to overcome the destructive habits of his culture and eventually graduate from Yale Law School. It’s a compelling story. It’s also very sad, because the truth is that Vance got lucky. He worked hard to succeed, of course, but along the way he had nurturing grandparents and mentors in the army and in college who taught him how to navigate the world he was trying to enter. (I guess you’d call it “middle-class success world.”) His book is more descriptive than prescriptive, but it’s a frank discussion of the obstacles created by a dysfunctional culture. 4/5 stars
The Ghost of Eternal Polygamy: Haunting the Hearts and Heaven of Mormon Women and Men by Carol Lynn Pearson
I wrote about this book extensively in a post at By Common Consent. The Reader’s Digest Condensed version is that Pearson has written a meditation on the cultural and theological implications of polygamy among contemporary Mormons. The institutional LDS church abandoned the practice of polygamy around the turn of the 20th century, but has never repudiated it; as a result it remains a theoretically viable principle that many Mormons have to come to terms with. (A lot of Mormons never think about it, of course; that remains the most attractive option.) Pearson is more poet than scholar. This makes her writing more accessible than that of a more academic bent, but it ranges from profound to painfully cheesy. The bottom line, though, is that this is the only book of its kind (that I know of), and that reason alone makes it important (and worth reading, if you are a Mormon; if you aren’t a Mormon, I imagine you wouldn’t give a crap one way or the other). 3.5/5 stars
Fiction (highbrow and perhaps middlingbrow)
Up the Down Staircase by Bel Kaufman
I kept reading about what a great book this was, what a classic, etc., so when it went on sale for Kindle, I bought it and read it, but to be honest, I was somewhat underwhelmed. I suppose when it was written, it was probably fresh and provocative, talking about all the problems faced by teachers and students in urban schools: poverty, violence, a paucity of resources, bureaucratic bullcrap, etc. Kaufman based the novel on her own experience as a public school teacher. There are some funny parts, and there are some sad parts. It’s not a bad little book, but neither did it set my world on fire. 3/5 stars
Married Sex: A Love Story by Jesse Kornbluth
This is another book I read on a whim. I don’t remember why. Maybe I was feeling saucy. I really can’t think of another reason I would read something called “Married Sex.” (Not even if it was called “The Viscount and the Debutante Have Married Sex.”) David and Blair have been married 20 years; their one child has gone off to college, and they are discovering the joys of being empty-nesters. Here’s where it gets kinky: they have a long-standing agreement that if either of them is tempted to cheat, they will invite this potential lover to engage in a threesome. I’m sure you see where this is going, and no, it does not end well. As I write this, I honestly can’t remember why I thought reading this book was a good idea. It doesn’t sound like the sort of thing I’d enjoy at all. But this book is neither romance nor erotica. It has moments of profound insight about marriage. But overall, I didn’t like these people, and threesomes are definitely not my kink. (Note: I don’t actually have a kink.) Content warning: Just about exactly what you’d expect. 2.5/5 stars
Eligible by Curtis Sittenfeld
A modern retelling of Pride and Prejudice. I had read two other Sittenfeld novels before this one, and to be honest, they had made me a bit wary. I enjoyed her writing very much, but Prep left me feeling depressed and hateful, and An American Wife frustrated me for reasons that are perhaps too complicated to get into here. Eligible is actually pretty clever, as modern retellings of Austen novels go. I don’t necessarily recommend it for die-hard Austen fans. Die-hard Austen fans should probably stick with Austen. But if you’re familiar with P&P and enjoy contemporary romances with a little (subtle) social commentary, go for it. 3.5/5 stars
The Darkest Hour by Caroline Tung Richmond
I picked up this YA book at my 11-year-old’s book fair because I don’t know how I’m supposed to resist a book about a 16-year-old American girl working as a spy and Nazi assassin during World War II. EXACTLY. At first Girlfriend was uninterested, but then she had me read it aloud to her, and let me tell you, it is exactly as exciting as it sounds. It’s pretty violent for an 11-year-old. I censored it a little bit for that reason, but it should be fine for most teenagers, I think. (Unless your young teenager is sensitive to violence, as my 11-year-old is.) We both enjoyed it. There is plenty of action, of course, and there are plot twists, and then there are PLOT TWISTS. I predict it will make a great movie someday. 4/5 stars
Carol (alternate title: The Price of Salt) by Patricia Highsmith
Another book I picked up on a whim because I didn’t feel like reading anything I already had on my Kindle, and this was available from the library. A young woman in the process of getting engaged meets a glamorous older woman who is in the process of getting a divorce. They become fast friends and decide to go on a cross-country road trip together. At some point they fall in love. Complications ensue. I’d never read any Highsmith before, and I have to tell you, this would not be the book I’d choose to sell somebody on her. It is perhaps the dullest story of the dullest lesbians in history. Carol (the older woman) remained more or less an enigma; the younger woman (whose name I can’t even remember) was a twit. I really can’t abide twits, lesbian or otherwise. It’s basically 300 pages of pure angst, interspersed with descriptions of hotels. Content warning: IT IS SUPER BORING. 2/5 stars
The Panopticon by Jenni Fagan
This book was on a couple “best books of 2015” (or something) lists, so when it went on sale for Kindle, I snatched it up. It’s about a 15-year-old girl who’s in state custody and potentially facing a murder charge for assaulting a police officer (or something). The book opens with her being taken into custody and she’s covered in this officer’s blood, only she says she didn’t do it. She meets a bunch of other kids who are also in state custody, and in retrospect, it’s unclear to me whether this was a facility for criminal youths or just youths without guardians (some of whom happen to be criminal maybe?)–it’s unclear because a) I don’t remember and b) it was all kind of confusing. It’s a sad story about dysfunctional young people, and it occasionally has some profound commentary about loneliness and, I dunno, dysfunction. There’s some sinister government action at work as well. I can’t say much of it stayed with me beyond the depressing stuff. I don’t know why anyone would call it a best book of any year, unless they really like depressing stories about surly teenagers. (Whatever happened with the potential murder charge? I have no idea. Possibly nothing.) I must have respected the craft involved because I gave it three stars on Goodreads, but…meh. Content warning: sexual violence. 3/5 stars (or is it really 2.5? How should I know?)
Collected Stories by Frank O’Connor
It took me a long time to finish reading this book because Frank O’Connor has written approximately 4,000 short stories. That’s what it seemed like to me, anyway. Fortunately, they are all good stories. I really don’t think there was a dud in the whole collection. Some were funny, others were sad. Some were funny and sad. The only one I’d seen before was “My Oedipus Complex,” which is a good story, but there are so many great ones here that I wondered how I hadn’t come across more of them. It’s almost like there are millions of books in the English language or something. As I recall, every story is set in Ireland. Themes of religion and family and politics recur. I recommend taking it in small doses–a story or two here, a story or two there–but read them all eventually. 5/5 stars
And that’s it for this part of this edition. Coming up next: Psycho killers!