Thursday, July 24, 2008

Summer Reading and a PSA

One of the things I love most about summer is having the time to read what I want to read.

During the school year, I have a great deal of reading to do for the lit. classes that I teach, and while I love those classics, I like being able to choose based on whim, rather than sequence.

After school was out in May, I began devouring books, and while I've slowed down a bit, (simply because there are school and other obligations creeping into the summer), I'm still happily reading, reading, reading.

We're blessed with a wonderful library system in Ann Arbor, and while you might have to wait a while for a book (my record was waiting five months for a copy of The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova), you can usually get what you want.

For those in the U.S. with much smaller libraries, keep in mind that most states have wonderful interlibrary loan systems.

Okay, so here are a few of the books I've been reading, with completely subjective reviews:

Lush Life by Richard Price. I found out about this book through a post by Karen Olson on First Offenders. She raved about it, and since I love the books that Karen herself has written (Sacred Cows, Second Hand Smoke, Dead of the Day) I figured this was high praise. As it turns out, it was accurate praise. This is a truly extraordinary book, maybe destined to become a modern classic. It's not easy to read. I don't mean in terms of the prose or plot, both of which are rich and complex but not dense, but it's hard emotionally. The story concerns a murder in a section of the Lower East Side of Manhattan, which is currently populated by a mix of various low-income groups, some recent immigrants, some not, and the kind of up-and-coming, young artist-types that are portrayed in Rent. The themes are huge - life, family, redemption, stepping up and survival. The book doesn't feel in the least bit heavy handed. The beginning sections are a bit slow going, but once the police team of Matty Clark and Yolonda Hernandez come into the picture, the entire novel pops, and sucks you in through the last pages. If you can handle raw, harsh (but beautifully-written) material, this one's for you. Amazing.

Don Quixote by Miguel Cervantes. Okay, so I am reading this for work. This 1200-page classic, by a contemporary of Shakespeare's is full of surprises. I haven't dipped into it in many, many years. The humor is sly and Shakespearean and the chapters read like miniature episodes. There's some incredibly bawdy and gross stuff, but in general, the humor tends to poke fun at Spanish society in the early 1600s, which is why some of it is going to slide right by us. My main objection is that there is a sameness to the chapters, but since I'm only about a quarter of the way through, I'm hoping there will be a stronger story arc for our hero eventually.

A Year in the Merde by Stephen Clarke. Funny, funny, funny, if a bit off-color. This is about the adventures of a mild, British business man, who just wants to drink a reasonably-sized cup of coffee and get laid during his year in Paris setting up British tea rooms for a French business concern. He finds that he's not a perfect cultural match, or perhaps any match, for his Parisian colleagues, who seem to live a life of incomprehensible rules and delights. If you've ever lived in Paris, gone to France, loved someone who is French, hated someone who is French or are either a Francophile or Francophobe (or all of the above), this is a very funny read.

The Namesake by Jhumpa Lahiri. I was really disappointed by this one. There are some great insights on growing up caught between two cultures, which is definitely an interest of mine, but I couldn't ultimately find a character who I was excited about, and the main character, Gogol, seemed fairly morally bereft in a way that I couldn't become involved with him. I was fascinated with the early story of his mother, Ashima, but then she was just left in the dust, only to make very brief appearances later in the story. Lahiri's prose is crystal and gorgeous, but the characters left me cold, and I guess it's a good character that draws me in more than anything else.

Well, enough of this for now. I'll post on a few more shortly.

What have you been reading this summer?

PSA: “Do you know anyone who has Pulmonary Haemosiderosis?”

Marie, a friend of Jo Beaufoix's has been diagnosed with this extremely rare disease. If you know of anyone who's had this, who has information on this disease, or who knows of support networks for this disease, please contact Jo. You can read her post here.

Thanks to Lilac Specs for spreading the word.


Anonymous said...

I didn't like the Namesake, either. We are in the minority on this one, I think!

I've read a bunch of stuff too, but the one that sticks out is called The Worst Hard Time, which is about the dustbowl and the Depression. What those folks went through is unbelievable. Dirt was on everything for almost 10 years. Homes were buried in dirt. People were stuck in homes that were dug into the hillside and literally had to dig out to get to the outhouse. All in 100+ degree heat.

It's interesting to read how humans caused the dustbowl by unsustainable farming practices. I think it should serve as a cautionary tale....

glamah16 said...

I heard of this A Year in The Merde.I have to check it out.

Jen said...

I've heard of The Worst Hard Time, Patti. Cautionary tale, indeed. There are many incidents from history that point out the dangers of treating mother Earth badly for agricultural practices.

Glamah, I think you'd like it... the guy is a bit of a pig, but oh my goodness it's funny, and with your French experiences, I think you'd enjoy it.

anno said...

Just FYI, I am coveting my daughter's reading list this year. Unfortunately, I think I have to wait for her to finish them before I'll get my chance, so no Don Quixote for me for a while. In the meantime, though, the Year in the Merde and Lush Life sound pretty interesting... Thanks for the recommendations!

Jen said...

Anno, as I said to Glamah, just keep in mind the guy is a bit of a pig. Lush Life is amazing, but gritty, gritty.

April said...

I've had to take a break from The Audacity of Hope with the move, but by far, my favorite summer read yet!

Jen said...

I really need to put that on my list, April - thanks for the reminder.

thailandchani said...

As for the Namesake, it felt exactly as you said.. rather morally bereft. I didn't feel like the parents did much to impress Gogol with the cultural history or values of his ancestors. They let it all slip away while being kind of dumbstruck, as though they couldn't influence their own children. While I didn't mind reading it and did feel like it presented a positive view of arranged marriage, it felt rather banal otherwise.

I'll be sure to pick up Lush Life.


Brittany | the Home Ground said...

I'm taking an english class this summer, Survey of World Literature with Laura Bernstein at CCS. First, I love her (I've had her before) and love her teaching style. I was so excited about a "world" reading list, as almost all of my lit. experience in school has been "western." We've read awesome stuff!

Lots of Magical Realist Fiction. Completely bizarre, amazing stuff. Many Latin American authors. Short stories, mostly.

Axolotl, Julio Cortazar
My Life With the Wave, Octavio Paz
The Wardrobe, Thoman Mann
Aura, Carlos Fuentes
The Very Old Man With Enormous Wings, Gabriel Garcia Marquez
Jesus Christ's Half Brother is Alive and Well on the Spokane Indian Reservation, Sherman Alexie


Marianne Arkins said...

I read your list and feel remarkably shallow, lol. I read romances, and a few YAs. I also squeezed in "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" and am in the middle of "A Year Without Made In China".

Oh well, guess I AM shallow :-)

But I'm happy!

Jen said...

Chani, I hope you'll like it. It's really a fascinating read.

Brittany - I'm teaching "The Man with Enormous Wings" and Borges's "The Garden of the Forking Paths" for my magical realism choices. It sounds like you have an amazing reading list. Since I work with high school students, I have to tone down some of my choices, which is always a hardship for me.

Marianne, don't be silly! LOL... Meg Cabot and Twilight are on my next list of reviews. ;-) Shallow is fun! These were just the recent reads - I've been reading all over the map.

Sarabeth said...

I read Don Quixote in my late teens. I remember liking it, but back then I would read a book of any length no matter how well/badly written. Honestly, Tolkien's worlds are fabulous, his writing? Oy! When I re-read the the Ring trilogy before the movies, I couldn't believe how confusing some bits were.

As for what I am reading, it's easiest to point you to my Shelfari site.

Dru said...

I read mysteries, the latest being The Broken Window by Jeffery Deaver. I also read romantic suspense as well. I put Lush Life on my TBR list.

Anonymous said...

OOOH..I love learning about new books! Thanks for the list!

Anonymous said...

I am looking for several light and easy BEACH reads...for the amount of professional reading (HEAVY reading) that I have to do all year, I want numbingly easy for the beach. Got any ideas? (I read all of the Harry Potter books on the beach; read a load of Jonathan and Faye Kellerman; one Michael Chabon; a couple Mary Higgins get my drift)..any suggestions would be mah-ve-lous!

Jen said...

Sarabeth, I really should get more active on shelfari - you've got quite a selection there and I agree with you on most of your ratings. ;-)

Dru, you are truly a reader's reader, as I've said before.

Ashley, I'm glad this was helpful - thanks for stopping by! Do you have a blog where you can be found?

Hotmama - for beach reading, have you read any of the Janet Evanovich books? Her numbered series, especially the earlier ones, are really funny and good. I also loved The Jane Eyre Affaire by Jasper Fforde, The Shakespeare mysteries by Charlaine Harris, John Grisham, although he can get heavy, but again, the earlier books are good beach reads.

Karen Olson said...

So glad you enjoyed LUSH LIFE as I did, Jen! It isn't an easy read, but it's so well done in so many ways.

Loved DON QUIXOTE. Read it in college. But not sure I'd try it again...

I think you should see THE NAMESAKE on DVD. I saw the film first, then read the book. I got a lot more out of the book after seeing the movie than I think I would've before. The movie is quite good.

Summer reads: I'm in the middle of Victor Gischler's GO-GO GIRLS OF THE APOCALYPSE, and it's a funny, fast, violent story about Mortimer Tate's descent down the mountain nine years after chaos has descended on the earth. The scary thing is that the scenario Gischler paints is one that's all too feasible. Gischler's crime novels are great, but this one is in its own league.

I'm compiling a pile of books to take with me on vacation next month: Vicki Lane's IN A DARK SEASON; David Corbett's BLOOD OF PARADISE; Anthony Neil Smith's YELLOW MEDICINE; JD Rhoades' BREAKING COVER.

Anonymous said...

I've been updating and revising my syllabus for the Fall so much of my reading has been geared toward class. I've been wanting to read The Worst Hard Time and The Historian is currently in my To Be Read Pile. It sounds as if I have a lovely weekend of pleasure reading ahead of me!

Oh, and put me on the short-list of people not impressed with The Namesake. In fact, it's one of the few books I didn't finish reading.

Jen said...

Karen, Go-Go Girls of the Apocalypse sounds right up my alley, and thanks again for recommending Lush Life - D is loving it right now, too. I've also been meaning to read J.D. Rhoades. It seems like there's always so many books, so little time! Also, I think I may well watch The Namesake - I was intrigued by the visuals on the movie website and I love Mira Nair.

Dingo, if you didn't like The Namesake, you might find issue with The Historian, too. I was SO excited to read it, but it read more like a travelogue than anything else. Lovely prose, but the first half of the book was tight and wonderful and then it just kind of drifted off... and the climax... wasn't. But that's just MHO. If you do read it, I'd love to get your take on it. AND... I'd love to see your syllabus - I don't read much horror. (I'm a wimp).

Unknown said...

Lush Life, yeah, what a book. Elmore Leonard gets a lot of attention for his dialog, but I think Richard Price kicks ass in that department.

Jen said...

I totally agree, Greg. I like Leonard, too, but this was a whole 'nother league.

Anonymous said...

I wish I had more time to read. I have a nice library at home, but I find that I have little time to indulge. I was in English Lit major in college and DID A LOT OF READING!!
I have a list now of about 5 books I'd like to get started on. How about 4 others I need to finish.

Maybe when I got o Mexico in two weeks, I take 3 books and really commit to reading them all. Especially since I'm not going on a press tour.

PS: what browser are you on so I can tell my developer you were having an issue. Was everything okay for you today? Thanks for the heads up... I've not known of any problems to date.

Jo Beaufoix said...

Hi Jen. Thanks so much for the heads up on pulmonary haemosiderosis. The further it goes the more chance we have of finding someone or some more information.

I love me a bit of Shakespeare but I'm also just reading a contemporary novel called the Shakespeare Secret which mentions Don Quixote a lot so I'll have to put it on my reading list. Have a fab week. :D

Jen said...

Hi Bren, I was on Firefox. I hope you can fit some reading time in - I know your schedule is crazy!

Hi Jo, you're the third person I know reading Shakespeare's Secret right now! I believe my son read it, and I think I'm going to have to put it on my list. I love me some Shakespeare, too!

Korie said...

Thanks for mentioning Marie and Jo in your post.
I'm working on The Gathering by Anne Enright (ok, but sort of obsessed with sex)
The Forrest by Edward Rutherford(good, but unlike his others I'm able to put it down more often)
and The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett (completely has become my bathroom reading)

Jen said...

Thanks for the Pillars of Earth review, Lilac - that was on a list of "should" reads, but I wasn't excited about it. I'm must going to remove it. Which era/place is The Forest about? I've loved some of Edward Rutherford's books, especially Russka and Sarum.

Goofball said...

wow no wonder you are less online. You surely have had a high rate of reading.

I spent almsot 3 months reading my first John Irving (hotel new hampshire) and didn't truly like it. In the last 2 weeks I finished "The nanny diaries" which was funny.

Recently saw in the bookstores that Isabel Allenda has a new book out that is a bit a sequel to Paula. That's definately on my "to read" list!

Alex Elliot said...

I love book recommendations! I have to say I read the Other Boleyn Girl for book club and was surprised by how much I really enjoyed it.

Jen said...

Goofball, I'm not a fan of John Irving, either, although I liked him when I was just out of college. I also really couldn't handle the Nanny Diaries - I couldn't stand what happened to the little boy at the end. There were definitely funny parts, though!

I've been wanting to read that, Alex. I liked one of the other books by that author.

Thistlemoon said...

Wow, I have not read any of these except for The Historian, which I really loved! My library is very small and has nothing, so I have to get everything through inter library loan! But then I can never renew anything, because someone always wants it! LOL! I had to read World Without End in 2 installments a month apart - man did that suck!!!

Momisodes said...

You really have been devouring some books :) That's wonderful! I loved reading your reviews. I haven't been as productive. I'm still on the same book I checked out last month :(

I have not heard much about Pulmonary Haemosiderosis before. I'm very sorry to hear your friend has been diagnosed with this. I will keep my eyes and ears peeled.

Jen said...

Oh, Jenn, I would find that so frustrating! Is it your branch that's small or the whole system?

If you hear of anything, Sandy, just let Jo know, please. Also, there's nothing wrong with reading slowly enough to savor!

painted maypole said...

ha. i remember reading don quixote in college. i just finished eat, pray, love and am also reading Letters to a Young Artist, which i bought over a year ago and am just now getting around to

Jen said...

I wasn't able to finish Eat, Pray, Love - I was one of the few who wasn't a fan.

Flower Child said...

A Year in the Merdre - and all the books following it - were recommended to me by people living in France. The tips on how to order coffee are very helpful!

I saw the movie version of The Namesake and liked it - I really liked the mother. Can't say if it's true to the novel but definitely enjoyable.

I'm trying to finish up Smilla's Sense of Snow which is good but doesn't keep me engaged for very long at a time.

I also was reading Stealing Buddha's Dinner which you would love as it involves food! It's the story (autobiography) of a Vietnamese immigrant girl's life growing up encountering midwestern food - really sweet.

Anonymous said...

I have to agree with flower child that the movie of The Namesake was pretty good. In fact, it was much better than the book because it did take time to develop the characters--especially the parents--in ways that the book did not.

I think you would enjoy Stealing Buddha's Dinner though many in my book club felt it was much too focused on food. It is set in Grand Rapids.

I am mostly reading juvenile ficition these days since I had to spend a huge chunk of my budget at the end of the school year or lose it and ended up buying about 200 new books. Lucky kids coming back but a lot of pressure for me to get reading.

Jen said...

FC and Linda, I read Stealing Buddha's Dinner this spring and I absolutely loved it. I thought the prose was lovely and the family was pretty engaging. D didn't like Smilla's Sense of Snow, so I didn't read it. I think I'll have to see The Namesake, because there seems to be a lot of consensus on that.

Linda, there's a lot of great juvenile fiction out there, but OTOH, it would be nice to have some time to read GROWN-UP books.

Sister Sassy said...

I have an idea... I need to email you about it. :) Its a reading idea, kind of like Flat Stanley.

Monster Paperbag said...

I actually like The Namesake. I guess I can relate to Gogol.

Núria said...

Hey Thanks so much for your book's advise and suggestions! Summer time is my favorite time for diving into stories.

I can't believe you are reading El Quijote!!!!!! I haven't done so yet! Nothing to be proud of, because I should, but can't find when. There are supposed to be some antique spanish recipes there, or a mention... Don't know where I heard that :D

Can I recommend you one? Sarah Waters is a GREAT writer and my fav. is: Fingersmith. Not a new book but fascinating!!!

nyc/caribbean ragazza said...

jen - Lush Life is on my list to read. Richard Price is one of my favorite authors.

I just read a Year in the Merde. I agree with you. off-color but funny.

Re: the Namesake, Gogol's mom was my favorite character. To me she was the center of the book. Same with the movie.

Mae Travels said...

I just read "Zen and Japanese Culture" by D.T.Suzuki -- reviewed it at

Last week I read Linda Grant's "The Clothes on their Backs" which was immediately afterwards longlisted for the Booker prize. This author really takes on challenging subjects! (It's not published in the US yet, but the library had a copy.)

I'm off to the beach with "Team of Rivals," "The Sushi Economy," and a couple others.

La delirante said...

The have just reminded me of my first months living in Malta when I got hold of a copy :) "A year in the merde" sounds cool...I have to check it out ;)