Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Summer Reading!

Books! Books! Books!


I know. I love summer and I love reading. Amen.

Okay, not Amen. Not yet. I've been reading like a crazy person lately. It might have something to do with camping in East Jesus Nowhere for a few days, and with not having any functioning electronics and/or way to contact the outside world, and with trying to get ahead on my crazy reading for fall quarter, and with trying to avoid writing anything. (Avoidance behavior is just about the only way I get things done.) But really, in the weeks before we were gone I was pretty happy to lay on my bed or the chaise in my mom's backyard and read, read, read. Summer time is reading time. I've been assigning summer reading to my students for years--years!--but I am convinced that exactly none of them enjoy it as much as I do. That's too bad. There's some good stuff to be had when you crack a book in the summer time.

And no, I'm not talking about Fifty Shades of Crap. If you're thinking of reading that, please do your brain a favor and go here first.

Anyway, to the books:

Birds of a Lesser Paradise by Megan Mayhew Bergman

Am I biased because I met Megan Mayhew Bergman in June at Residency and she was A) a great lecturer, B) sweet as pie, and C) helpful and caring when she sat down to talk to me? SURE I AM! But. This is a great book. And no, I'm not saying that because she signed it for me. The words inside on the pages were, like, interesting. And good.

BOLP is a compilation of short stories, most of them involving people who are a little strange and who are, in some way, connected to animals. Bergman's husband is a vet, and you can tell she's been around animals (and animal people) through what she writes. Though each is a stand-alone story, they each exemplify what Ms. Bergman spoke to us about at our residency, actually, they each contain something strange, and something beautiful. Bergman takes her readers into unusual worlds and makes them seem fragile, tragic, intriguing, and familiar. I admire her prose. As someone who is endeavoring to write short stories, there was a lot to learn from this book.

My recommendation: This is a good one to read when you don't have a lot of time. Pick it up, read a story or two, and put it back down. Each short story will draw you in and each one will leave you with enough to think about. I loved this book.

Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail by Cheryl Strayed

I've said it before: I hate reading things just because Oprah tells me to. But dammit, I should just admit that sometimes the Great O is right. This is another case where Oprah is going to get to say "I told you so." So you win, Oprah. You win.

Cheryl Strayed's Wild is about her ill-prepared hike through California on the Pacific Crest Trail. Strayed starts with a pack that's too heavy and boots that are too small, and no backpacking experience. She gets on the trail, and she doesn't stop until she's in Oregon. Surprisingly, she meets mostly friendly people along the trail, and not surprisingly, she encounters elements of the natural world that are much, much greater than she could have anticipated. She's on the hike to deal with the loss of her mother and the end of her marriage, but rather than spending large chunks of time dealing with her emotional turmoil, she's pulled into the immediacy of the experience.

I can't relate to a months-long hiking trip, but I can say that I connected in a small way with the idea that training for or participating in an endurance sport changes you. Though my own attempt at marathoning was poor, the months I spent alone training for it changed me emotionally. And not in the way you'd think, that I spent hours and hours on running trails contemplating my existence. But the act of enduring something difficult for a long time is itself a kind of meditation, I think. That came through in Strayed's book.

My recommendation: Just admit that Oprah was right and go buy it. This is a very good book. It's bound to be a movie, so when it comes out you can feel smarter than all of your friends because you know what parts they left out.

Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ's Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore

This book isn't for everybody. There are some people in my life (people that I love) who I know don't take kindly to joking about religion, theirs in particular. So if that's you, I love you and I respect your views and I am telling you that you should not under any circumstances read this book. You will just read it and get mad.

Fortunately, I am not one of those people. I'm okay with laughing at my own beliefs. And I'm also okay with the F-word and a host (see! Christian jargon!) of other inappropriate words and ideas. So when this book was recommended to me, I read it. And I'll be frank (hi, Frank!)--some of this I didn't think was that good. And other parts I did.

Anyhoodle, Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff is Christopher Moore's take on the 30-or-so years of Jesus' life that don't show up in the Gospels. So he creates this best friend of Jesus (called Joshua in the book), Biff. And Biff is back along with Maggie (Mary Magdalene) in about the year 2000 in order to sit down and write the true stuff that didn't show up in the other books. Hilarity ensues. This is a Monty Python-ish, funny book about two teenage (and older) boys getting into trouble. At times, the funny stuff actually bothered me. Not because it offended my delicate Christian sensibilities, but because it just wasn't funny. Sometimes it felt like Moore was trying too hard for a joke. That bugged me.  But there were several scenes (I'm thinking in particular of Biff helping Jesus compose the Beatitudes) that were actually, quite funny. You can't win 'em all, I guess, but Moore got a few genuine laughs out of me.

The surprising thing about this book was how Moore wove together different religious traditions and though it was a stretch, his ideas about Jesus spending those years searching out the wise men who had visited him were actually kind of interesting. Moore goes for a link between faiths or at least to show how one could arrive at Christianity by taking the best parts (or reacting to the worst) of other belief systems.

My recommendation: Like I said, not for everyone. But funny. And there's some stuff to think about here. I won't be super gluing The Book of Biff into my Bible or anything, but it was a fun read.

March by Geraldine Brooks

March is a book suggested to me because I'm reading books for school that are companion pieces, continuations or retelling of classics. March is about the father of the girls in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott, a father who is largely absent from the action of that story. Brooks uses the context of LW as a framework and then invents the character of Peter March and imagines a plot that runs parallel to that of the original.

March is a chaplain and then becomes a schoolteacher to freed slaves. He has lost his fortune by giving money to John Brown (man, was I glad as I read this book that I paid attention to the whole Harper's Ferry thing in 11th grade). His contemporaries are Emerson and Thoreau. He is a vegetarian. He and his wife are ardent abolitionists.

I wanted to like this book more than I did. There's a different filter I read things through if they are old, allowing for content that would be considered racist by today's standards. In this case, that filter didn't work and some of it seemed kind of off. Other parts were just too much of a stretch, as though Brooks wanted March to be the best possible kind of human. Being a vegetarian in the time of the Civil War, as an example, just seemed to me to be idiotic. But as Brooks says in her afterword, she modeled March on Alcott's actual father, as Alcott herself modeled the characters of the girls on herself and her sisters. I've said before that I'm not a fan of author's reconstructing plot by taking details from an author's life. I'm not sure why it doesn't work for me, but for some reason it doesn't. It seems like too much of a stretch.

But as much as I had problems with this book I eventually got sucked into it enough that I wanted to see how it would end. It wasn't a bad book, but when I think about it, I'm not a Little Women superfan, either. That, perhaps, has colored how I feel about March.

My recommendation: If you're really into Little Women, you probably want to read this book. It's an interesting idea, filling the gaps in another story. Not one of my favorites, but also not a bad thing to read on a warm summer day in the campground.


Anybody else reading something good? I'd love to know what it is. Anybody? Bueller? Bueller?


  1. Christopher Lamb? I picked up a bunch of stuff on the weekend, but it's mostly "smart stuff" like Crime and Punishment because I have no idea why. I also grabbed The Shining and a Walking Dead novel. I haven't read something I really enjoyed since the first dragon tattoo book.

  2. C&P is the book I faked reading my senior year of high school. I find the Russians mostly kind of boring. But I've been thinking of trying it again since Anna Karenina didn't kill me last year. Let me know how it goes!