30 Books in 30 Days: 8.29.11

Life on the Outside by Jennifer Gonnerman

I was riveted by this book.  Gonnerman’s reporting is excellent. She spent a year or two following the life of Elaine Bartlett, a woman who is freed from jail and then has to pick up the pieces once back in the real world.  Gonnerman’s premise for the book is that no one follows peoples’ lives once they are out of jail.  How do you repair a life and a family life that has been irrevocably splintered by time away?

Gonnerman shows Bartlett’s struggles to find employment and to keep her children together.  There is no sugar-coating in Gonnerman’s portrayal.  She doesn’t gloss over the mistakes that Bartlett makes nor does she hold back in her descriptions of the injustices that occur as a result of the justice system.  For a glimpse into the life of a woman who undergoes struggles that many in similar roles experience, pick up this book.

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.29.11

A Room of One’s Own by Virginia Woolf

This is one of the only books on the list that is more of a “classic” a.k.a. something we would find on a high school or college reading list.  But, I chose to write about it because it is one of my favorite books.  The reason I love it so much is not so much for its subject matter–important as that is.  Instead, my love for this book arises out of my complete regard for Woolf’s style of writing.  She covers an academic and political subject not through the use of a cold, factual academic prose, but rather through a blending of the personal and the political.  It is this kind of writing that not only is a pleasure for me to read but is also a more true reflection of what I think writing should be: an emulation of our experience as we move between the personal to the public.  It is something I strive to emulate in my own writing.  Indeed, Woolf’s book was empowering to me as a writer because it showed me that I too could strive to accomplish this melding of the personal and the public, the historical and artistic, the confessional with the expository.  I love the way Woolf’s prose seems to meander–in an almost casual, stream of consciousness style, when, really, she is completely measuredly making her point. She simply finds that stream of consciousness or diary-like style to be her best way of conveying that point.  And of course, what better way for her to forge new ground in the way people thinking about women’s roles than by forging new ground in her writing style.

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.28.11

Before You Know Kindness by Chris Bohjalian

The book starts with a shooting that interrupts the peaceful New Hampshire night.  We learn that the gun was fired by an adolescent girl and that the man who was hit suffers severe damage to his arm. After this opening, Bohjalian then takes us through the days leading up to this event.  He creates an absorbing narrative grounded in the setting of Franconia Notch New Hampshire and the summer-house where several generations of a family gather one summer. Nan Seton is the matriarch of this clan, and Bohjalian does a good job of differentiating between Nan’s stern and regal ways versus those of her children and even grandchildren.  This book, is, quite simply, relaxing to read.  I lost myself in the chapters, transported to this summer setting.  When this act of violence penetrates the night, Bohjalian examines its causes and effects from the points of view of all of the family members, showing characters’ underlying fears and prejudices that color their reaction to the events.

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.28.11

Mr. Maybe by Jane Green

Yup.  I am reading this book.  This book with a cover of a shirtless guy on the front.  Another chick-lit gem.  Enjoying it immensely.  The plot?  Pretty obvious from the title:  Our main character falls for a guy who just isn’t what she thought she’d been looking for.  Add to that the fact that he isn’t “ready” to be in a real relationship, and you can see that our main character is in a quandary.  Is this the guy for her?  Or, should she go for the other guy who enters the story half-way through, a man who fits all her requirements for prince charming.  Much like Green’s other books, it has elements of the Cinderella story.  Is that all chick-lit is?  Variations upon the Cinderella theme?  There is the inevitable ball where our main character gets dressed up to the nines in a killer ball gown and is, quite literally, the belle of the ball.  Whether or not she and the prince charming at this ball live happily ever after is something you’ll have to read the book in order to find out.


30 Books in 30 Days: 8.28.11

Townie by Andre Dubus III

This summer, I’ve been reading this memoir and living inside of Dubus’ gritty, violence-infused scenes.  This is a memoir that speaks directly from the New England town of Haverhill, where Dubus grew up with his brother and two sisters under the care of his mother.  Right across the way, living on the college campus of the local junior college, Dubus’ father enjoyed fame as adored writing professor and increasingly renowned short story writer.  While Dubus’ father did see his children once a week, he was far from involved in their lives.

Dubus provides rich descriptions of New England working class neighborhoods, bars, friendships, and codes of the street. Much of the book depicts Dubus’ building of a tough identity as a town fighter, A quiet and diminutive child, he became obsessed with proving himself physically.  But, while building up his physical body he also developed a fighting mentality where he learned to see past the humanity of people to fight them.  His discussion of how he learned to penetrate the membrane of humanity so that he could will himself to fight and be violent is interesting.

At times, I was overwhelmed with the numerous descriptions of fights in the book.  But then, perhaps that is the point.  Dubus was so immersed in fighting and violence that it was soul-deadening.  The violence wears the reader down much as it must have Dubus.

But then, about three-quarters of the way through this book, Dubus describes his emergence as a writer and his discovery that he could write.  This is where I find this book so valuable and moving.  It is often rare to hear a writer describe his birth as a writer.  From the ground up.  Much like everything in Dubus’ life, he had to forge his writing skills and identity himself.  He literally describes sitting down at a clear table, taking a pen to paper, and beginning to write.  I love this image, myself.  It makes me feel not so alone as a writer.  And, it also somehow captures the magic of the writing experience.  Spartan.  Simple.  Hardscrabble.  Life-giving.  Beautiful.

The amazing thing about this book is that Dubus resists the “tell-all” nature of a memoir which certainly talks a lot about the shortcomings of a famous writer, his father.  Instead, Dubus’ tone is straight-froward and truthful.  Yes, there is blame, but it’s not the type of blame where Dubus is exploiting his father’s neglectful parenting in order to gain readers’ sympathy or outrage.  Rather, it is the truth-telling of a son who both reveres his father while also being all too aware of the ways he was absent.  There is a note in the back of the book where Dubus quotes his father (I am paraphrasing here).  Dubus says, “To my father who told me not to wait until my parents were dead to start writing about my family.”  On the one hand, great writing advice from one writer to another.  On the other hand, I can’t decide if Dubus’s father  is gutsy or self-aggrandizing in this advice.

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.27.11

The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb

This book is a tome.  Something to read over a period of weeks or even months.  And yet, Lamb writes in such a simultaneously accessible and beautiful style that it doesn’t feel like a chore.  It is an elevating book.  One that makes you feel like you’ve grown as a person after reading it.

The book begins with a timely setting:  the shootings at Columbine.  That plot line alone is enough to rivet the reader.  But, Lamb merely starts here. In this way, the book is really a book for our times.  Taking the loss of innocence of our young men as a major premise, Lamb then moves from the tragedies in Columbine to the east coast where a teacher flees after these tragedies, seeking shelter in his family’s Connecticut land after these Colorado happenings.

I do feel a kinship with Lamb since he is a Connecticut writer.  Lamb’s main characters eek out a life in Connecticut despite their spiritual bankruptcy after the Columbine shootings.  At this point, Lamb brings in history as backdrop to these characters’ lives.  And then history even becomes something to interact with and comment upon these particular struggles of these modern-day characters who seem caught in a world where boys’ lives are squandered.  Lamb’s scholarship as well as fiction techniques are high level.  I recommend this book.  It is one of the best books I have read in recent years.

30 Books in 30 Days: 8.27.11

Truth and Beauty by Ann Patchett

Memoirs written by writers about friendship with another writer are a particular genre I’ve been fascinated by.  Another one that I have yet to read, perhaps because of its elegiac tone, is Gail Caldwell’s account of her friendship with the prolific writer, the late Carolyn Knapp, Let’s Take the Long Way Home .

Truth and Beauty, Ann Patchett’s moving memoir about her intense and loving friendship with fellow writer Lucy Grealy is a beautiful paean to all of the sides of friendship–its lows and highs.  Ann is able to evoke the nuances of a friendship marked by moments of intense connection, shared passions and even times of power struggles and even downright unhealthy dynamics.  Throughout it all, she moves through the stages of their friendship from the time they met as newcomers at the Iowa Writer’s Workshop to the time of Lucy’s death because of cancer.  Writing about any friendship is tough.  But writing about a friendship with a figure who is so well-known and also as enigmatic as Grealy is even tougher.  And yet, Patchett shows that it is Grealy’s very engaging and beguiling personality that makes her at once such a joy and love to be with as well as such an object of misunderstanding from those who knew her.  What I love most about reading this memoir of a writerly friendship is that Patchett inevitably writes about her own writing life during the periods of this relationship.  We learn about Patchett’s development as a writer, about the year she waits tables and composes her novel in her head as she is doing waitress station work.  We learn about her moments of competition with Grealy, as any friendship with two writers must be rife with.  We learn also about the ways that these two women seemed to understand each other intimately, complimenting each other with their very different personalities.  To read an account of Grealy’s life, take a look at her memoir, Autobiography of a Face.  I admit to not having read it because I have shied away from its painful subject matter.  Amongst other things, it tells about her bouts with cancer and the subsequent surgeries she has had upon her face.  Patchett’s memoir serves to immerse the reader in the multitudinous layers of friendship without shying away from its most thorny or controversial moments.  It too has its disturbing moments, and I admit to being both drawn in and repelled by Patchett’s accounts of Grealy’s behavior.  Regardless, the book lives up to its name.  A truly beautiful read.