Welcome, gentle readers. I know you’re all just burning with curiosity to know what I’ve been reading this year as opposed to last year. Well, let’s start with the beginning. Start with January and February, anyway. First, the sublime. Later, the ridiculous.
Saving Alex by Alex Cooper with Joanna Brooks
The subtitle to this book is “When I Was Fifteen I Told My Mormon Parents I Was Gay, and That’s When My Nightmare Began.” Which is a very informative subtitle. I may not even need to tell you what the rest of the book is about, but I will anyway. She starts her story by describing her Mormon upbringing; she was the youngest of several children, with several years separating her and her older siblings, so she was sort of like an only child. She got into the usual sort of teenage trouble–a little pot-smoking here and there, skipping school and whatnot–but her parents, basically decent people, really freaked out when they discovered that she was lying to them and staying out all night to be with her girlfriend. They felt Alex was out of control, so in desperation they sent her to an unlicensed “residential treatment program” in Utah, where she was held captive against her will and abused physically and psychologically. This is not a long book, and it’s not a super-profound book. It is documentation of the kind of rejection and abuse suffered by many gay and lesbian teens, and Alex’s personal story is compelling. 3/5 stars
They Shall Not Have Me by Jean Helion
French artist Jean Helion’s memoir of his two years in a Nazi prisoner-of-war camp paints (figuratively!) vivid pictures of life in captivity, of the prisoners and their Nazi captors. There are poignant and humorous anecdotes, and some harrowing ones as well. Since Helion spoke German, he was able to work as a translator for the camp and enjoyed some relative privilege as a prisoner; from his position he got to know his Nazi guards as men. It is a very interesting read, and the story of his escape had me very nervous right up to the end, even though I knew how it turned out–which is the mark of a good storyteller. 4/5 stars
Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race by Margot Lee Shetterly
If you’ve seen the movie or the movie trailers, you know that this book is about the African-American women who worked as computers for NASA, starting in the 1940s (when it was still NACA and they were just building planes and jets) and up through the height of the space program. It focuses on four women particularly: Dorothy Vaughn, Mary Jackson, Katherine Gobel Johnson, and Christine Darden. I saw the movie after reading the book; I would have seen the movie in any case because it has Janelle Monae in it, and come on. I did think the movie was great, but I recommend reading the book because it goes into much more detail about the women’s work and their lives. 4/5 stars
Mr. Splitfoot by Samantha Hunt
Ruth and Nat are teenage orphans, raised in a group home by a religious fanatic. Nat, apparently, can talk to the dead, and when an enterprising stranger talks them into monetizing his gift, Ruth joins the act. That’s one storyline in this book. The other takes place about 20 years later and is about Ruth’s niece, Cora, who finds herself dealing with an unplanned pregnancy when Aunt Ruth (whom she hasn’t seen in years) shows up out of nowhere; Ruth is mysteriously mute, but she obviously wants Cora to follow her, wherever she’s going. Together they embark on a long journey by foot. Where? That’s for Ruth to know and Cora to find out.
The Cora-walking story is interspersed with the Ruth-and-Nat-when-Ruth-could-talk flashbacks, and it’s hard to tell where any of it is going. It’s basically one freak show after another, and that was my main problem with the book. I don’t mind a good freak show, but I felt very removed from all the characters, who never seemed quite real to me. It’s not a bad story, though, and I liked the handling of the supernatural elements. It was the mundanity of the freak show that got to me. 3/5 stars
My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry by Frederick Backman
Backman wrote A Man Called Ove, which was one of my favorite books I read last year. This book is told from the perspective of a highly precocious seven-year-old, Elsa, whose grandmother dies, leaving Elsa with the task of delivering some mysterious letters. In the process of delivering these various apologies to people her grandmother has wronged, Elsa figures out that the fairy-tale stories her grandmother used to tell her correspond to real-life events in people in her grandmother’s and Elsa’s own life.
There are quirky characters galore, and I did enjoy the story, though not as much as I did A Man Called Ove. I liked how everything came together in the end, although it was a bit neat, but you know what, who cares? 3.5/5 stars
Shirley: A Novel by Susan Scarf Merrell
As a Shirley Jackson fan, I couldn’t resist this (fictional) story about a young married couple who live with Jackson and her husband, literary critic and Bennington professor Stanley Edgar Hyman, for a term and get swept up in the older couple’s marital drama plus an old scandal involving a Bennington coed who mysteriously disappeared 20 years previous. It’s pretty creepy, in a Shirley Jackson-esque way. Despite the fact that it’s not a terribly flattering portrait of her persona, I think Jackson would be flattered by Merrell’s homage to her oeuvre. It’s a fairly quick read, too, so bonus. 4/5 stars
And that concludes part one of this installment of Mad’s Book Club. Part two is Psycho Killers!