What Are You Reading?

Books

It’s time for another round of What Are You Reading! I’m sure many of you got something to read – a book, an ebook – for Christmas. Mike gave me the fourth book in the Game of Thrones series – A Feast for Crows. I’m excited to read it, but I already started The Hobbit and feel like I have to finish that. To be honest, it’s boring me a bit, but on the off chance that I actually go see the movie when it comes out (right! like I ever go to the movies anymore), it will be more fun to have recently read the book.

I’m going to be plundering Suburban Prairie‘s book lists to create a reading to-do list via the library. I usually just grab whatever looks interesting in the 2.5 seconds I have to peruse books with a toddler in tow, but I would like to try reading some things that I want to read in the next few months! If you haven’t checked out Kristine’s Twelve Days of Christmas book reviews, you really should. So many good ideas for bookworms.

Here’s what I’ve read in the last month or so:

Favorite Wife: Escape From Polygamy by Susan Ray Schmidt. This memoir of a former polygamist wife was surprisingly complex and fascinating; I was impressed by the writing, which read more like a novel than an autobiography. Not all memoirs can pull off the trick of bringing you into the headspace of the author as they were then and letting you draw out most of the insights and lessons yourself, but Schmidt is incredibly deft at this. She became the 6th wife of Verlan LeBaron, a Mormon fundamentalist living in Mexico in the 60s and 70s, when she was only 15 years old. Raised in the polygamist cult founded by Verlan’s brother Joel, Schmidt takes responsibility for her own role in her life story – she chose Verlan as her spouse – while showing the reader how the adults (especially adult men, of course) in the cult gave young girls the illusion of choice and manipulated them into miserable lives as polygamist wives.

Verlan eventually had 10 wives and 58 children, all of them living in squalor and seeing him only a handful of times a year – just long enough for the wives to get pregnant again – as he gave all his money and time to the church. This is NOT an episode of Big Love; most of the wives were not friends and some did not speak to each other at all. They lived in utter poverty, at times borderline starvation, and were socially isolated in harsh Mexican landscapes without even the barest minimum of modern conveniences. The idea of being pregnant with young children and having to HAUL WATER and use an outhouse makes me shiver. In a crazy twist to this intimate story, Verlan’s other brother Ervil, the EVIL brother, ended up splitting off into a fringe cult that went on a killing spree among Mormons and polygamists in the Southwest in the 70s, eventually getting caught and dying in prison. Another side note: one of Schmidt’s sister wives, Irene Spencer, also wrote a memoir of her polygamist life called Shattered Dreams.

Electroboy: A Memoir of Mania by Andy Behrman. Another random grab at the library, I felt conflicted about this memoir of manic depression all the way through, and many reviews I’ve seen have said exactly what I thought about it – the element of schadenfreude fuels the readability of this book but ultimately leaves you feeling a little icky. Behrman went undiagnosed (or improperly diagnosed as depressed) for many years in which he indulged in risky sex with strangers and prostitutes, binged on drugs and alcohol, cheated and stole during his career as (mostly) a PR rep, committed an art fraud for which he was tried and convicted, and resorted to electroshock therapy but quit when he realized he was addicted to the treatments. All of these insane episodes are recounted in the book, but despite some lip service to the pain his mental illness caused to himself and others, it’s not at all clear that Behrman is capable of any true self-reflection in the end. I have seen a review that remarked on the “flat” aspect of the narration, which is cleverly observed: the happy ending (he now lives a normal life on an ever-changing combo of meds) is strangely hollow and I couldn’t help but feel that Behrman seems to have a “sorry I got caught” attitude about his life story. After all the unethical things he had done in the PR industry – which he turned into a con game more than public relations – he ends up back in PR at the end of his journey (and is now a consultant to people with mental illness, whatever that means!). Without a convincing redemption at the conclusion, I just felt that I had been taken on a voyeuristic ride and a bit conned myself.

How the World Makes Love: and What it Taught a Jilted Groom by Franz Wisner. This memoir was almost the opposite of Electroboy, in that the reading of it was dull beyond belief, but the story was rather nice and heartwarming. Wisner has a previous book called Honeymoon With My Brother, which was about a time he was jilted at the altar and went on his honeymoon anyway, taking his brother with him on an extended world tour. In this one he attempts to play his 15 minutes out a little further by again embarking on a worldwide journey with his brother, this time to investigate how people across the world do love; meanwhile he falls in love with and eventually marries a D list actress back home in LA. There is a bit of interesting information in it about different wedding and marriage customs, but not of it really hangs together, drives the story, or seems terribly meaningful. It all feels a bit amateurish as he neatly but boringly executes this facile structure of Facts About Love! interspersed with Personal Love Story!. Aaand they all lived Happily Ever After, who cares, the end.

The Beginners by Rebecca Wolff. Oh man, I was on a roll of duds this past month, wasn’t I? Here was another book I just didn’t like very much, this one a novel about a teenager (Ginger) who becomes enmeshed in the strange relationship of a young adult couple (the Motherwells) who move to a small town for mysterious purposes. I wanted to like this all the way through, because it is intriguing and the writing at times is beautiful. But it was all very writer’s workshoppy – trying waaayyy too hard to be deep, obscuring its lack of plot or character development with a whole lot of pretty words and evocative scenes. Apparently Wolff is better known as a poet, which makes sense, as she is definitely going for imagery over realism – some of the imagery, though, is heavy handed and a little obvious. Crows? And the crows by themselves aren’t clear enough, you have to later explicitly compare the Motherwells to a pair of crows? While things do actually happen in the course of the story, it all ultimately feels like a dream (which, I’m sure not coincidentally, is a prominent motif) – it’s weird and creepy and makes you want it to mean something but just feels random and kind of pointless.

 

What Are You Reading?

Books

I have had less time to read lately and more things I want to read, which means I end up cruising through a lot of light reads and skipping things that are more attention-consuming. Ironically now that Miles sleeps through the night pretty reliably, I read less, because instead of just lounging with a book after I put him down, I feel compelled to Be Productive and either draw or just putz around online telling myself I am Being Productive.

When not slurping down Charlaine Harris mystery novels, I have been reading:

Exploiting My Baby by Teresa Strasser. I stumbled across her blog when I was pregnant and although she doesn’t post that often I enjoyed her writing, so when I saw her book at the library I had to grab it. Pregnancy/new baby memoirs are all kinda similar, but I like Strasser’s voice and her sense of humor. She’s self-deprecating and sarcastic and neurotic, but still manages to be genuine and sweet and honest. She’s good at poking holes in the sometimes holier-than-thou mommy culture without being bitchy about it. If you are a worrywart with a sense of humor you will probably enjoy Strasser’s book and her blog.

The Social Animal by David Brooks. Yes, The David Brooks, the conservative NYT columnist whom liberals love to love. This is a fascinating pop psychology nonfiction work with a unique construction: Brooks invents a fictional couple, Harold and Erica, and follows them from pre-conception through life as a way of examining and explaining many different aspects of human nature and the mind. His premise is that the unconscious is a much bigger force in determining one’s life choices and outcomes than the conscious mind, but so much is packed into this intriguing book that it’s hard to even summarize well. Unfortunately since it’s a bestseller our library has it on loan for $1/week and I don’t have enough time to read it fast enough… so I had to return it after a few chapters, but I’m definitely going to pick it up again later.

The Pale King by David Foster Wallace. I haven’t read this yet but I have it out from the library. I was on the waiting list for months and it arrived with poor timing… since Mike has been begging me to start Game of Thrones and talk about those books with him. I loved Infinite Jest 10 years ago (and I want to reread that soon), so although I have very mixed feelings about posthumous works (Wallace, sadly, committed suicide in 2008), I just have to read Pale King.

A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin. As previously mentioned, I am reading this at my dear husband’s request. It’s always fun when we can read something at roughly the same time, and it doesn’t happen often, so I started this one a few days ago and he’s on the second book. I’m not a fantasy fan but I am a literary omnivore so I’m finding it enjoyable so far, and of course I will watch the HBO series at some point… whenever I manage to find time to squeeze an hour of television into a day!

What I’m Reading

Books

I’m only halfway through this book but I can already tell you, you MUST read it (if you’re into non-fiction I suppose): Bright-Sided: How the Relentless Promotion of Positive Thinking Has Undermined America by Barbara Ehrenreich. Ehrenreich is one of my favorite social critics, and if you haven’t read Nickel and Dimed: On (Not) Getting By in America you really need to RUN to the library right this minute and start reading. It was first published in 2001 but sadly is more relevant than ever.

Bright-Sided is unexpectedly fascinating, a book that I picked up in a hurry through the stacks mostly because of the author and not because (I thought) I was especially interested in the topic. But she delivers piercing insights on so many aspects of American culture it has been a surprisingly informative read… from The Secret to downsizing to the origins of Christian Science to Calvinism to motivational speaking. Ehrenreich’s talent is in producing these pretty information-dense books in a thoroughly engaging way: she writes with a strong narrative voice that is wry, skeptical, and critical, but with a delightful dry sense of humor that keeps some of the grimmest critiques from sounding dour.

On a lighter note, I devoured Tina Fey’s Bossypants in two days. I once heard some scientist type on NPR claiming that since laughter is a social cue, people never laugh when alone… I know definitively that is not true because I laughed out loud many times while reading this. It’s hard to review an author who is funnier AND smarter than me so I’ll quit while I’m behind.

I also finished a book by another of my idols, Things I Learned About My Dad (In Therapy): Humorous and Heartfelt Essays edited by Heather B. Armstrong. I asked for it for Mother’s Day even though it’s a collection of essays about fatherhood – about being a father, having a father, being married to the father of your children, etc. Interesting to me that the strongest writing came from bloggers who I’ve already heard of and followed – which is not to say that I’m totally hip but that the really famous ones have earned their fame by writing well. If you’d rather just read their blogs… my favorites came from Heather of course, Jon Armstrong,Alice BradleyJames GriffioenDoug French, and Eden Kennedy.

What Are You Reading?

Books

Seems like it’s been a little while since I did one of these. My pace of reading has slowed since I’m now spending a chunk of my post-baby-bedtime time on Twitter and reading blogs (part of my work… I tell myself) instead of reading. I still read every night, but have less time.

So I have just finished The Private Patient by PD James. It’s a funny thing about mysteries. I enjoy them every now and then, but the ending is always anticlimactic. Isn’t it? On that same note, I was thinking of buying my 10 year old sister a copy ofThe Westing Game for her birthday, which I remember I loved at that age… but I also remember the ending was disappointing. I’m thinking probably not a flaw in the book but in my mind. Or just a flaw in the mystery genre. Like how everyone hated the ending of Lost. All that buildup… the big reveal can never match the thrill of the mystery.

Anyway.

I’m still reading Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat by Hal Herzog. It’s the book that I read when I’m just puttering around and Miles is puttering around, so… oh, 3 minutes a day? It’s a great book (although, side note, worst copy editing ever… there is a typo on every other page) and I think would be interesting to most people, certainly anyone who has a pet. He presents facts and scientific findings about the relationships between animals and people, so he’s certainly not arguing a “side” on any issue, but does point out some of the oddness and inconsistency in the way we relate to animals.

I just checked out a book called Red Flags or Red Herrings? Predicting Who Your Child Will Become by developmental psychologist Susan Engel. I’ve only read the introduction but it’s already gripped my interest. Will hopefully be able to post some kind of review somewhat soon.

And I would be remiss if I didn’t cop to my guilty pleasure: Charlaine Harris. I read all of the Sookie Stackhouse books and I loved them. It wasn’t long ago that I would have turned up my nose at this sort of book but I won’t now. I finished all of the Sookie books to date so I just borrowed the first of the Grave series, Grave SightA bit of a risky move since it’s unlikely I will enjoy them nearly as much as the Sookie books, but we’ll give it a go.

What Are You Reading?

Books

Today was our weekly visit to Storytime. Miss Nancy was out last week but back today; in the past Miles has always been standoffish with her but today he LIT UP when he saw her. I think the little man’s got his first crush. And I don’t blame him, Miss Nancy rules.

Unless I have the foresight to request and hold books, which is often not the case, it’s hard for me to pick out something to read with Miles in tow. He will usually just pull one book off the shelves and tote it around happily but I have to keep a constant eye out for sudden library rampages.

I finished Eating Animals (awesome) and Black Out (ok), still working on Martha Rules. Also have on deck:

Deadly Spin by Wendell Potter. A tell all by a former health insurance exec turned whistle blower.

Mother On Fire by Sandra Tsing Log. Some kind of funny parenting memoir. For some reason I keep seeing it at every library branch so I grabbed it.

The Private Patient by PD James. A quick selection by a British mystery writer I’ve enjoyed before.

What Are You Reading?

Books

Eating Animals by Jonathan Safran Foer. I am one of those annoying people who are vegetarian because they don’t want to eat animals, but don’t worry, I don’t preach about it. In this book, Foer (previously an on-again off-again vegetarian) decided he wanted to make an informed choice about whether or not to raise his baby son vegetarian, so he researched what goes into making animals into food. This is probably one of those books you only read if you are interested in being veg or already are… so I enjoy it, but if you love bacon, you might not.

The Language of Trees by Ilie Ruby. I started this novel but just can’t get into it. It’s about a guy who went through a breakup, and a boy ghost, and an old girlfriend, and the Fingerlakes… ahh I don’t know. It’s just not what I’m into right now.

Black Out by Lisa Unger. A thriller set in Florida that keeps making me think ofCape Fear… has something to do with a killer coming back from the past to get revenge on the victim-who-got-away. I just started it last night and it’s pretty entertaining so far.

The Martha Rules by Martha Stewart. This one probably looks like an odd choice but comes recommended by Lasertron for its inspirational message about starting a business around your passion in life. Also just started this and like it so far.

What Are You Reading?

Books

*Because I Said So ed. Kate Moses and Camille Peri. Finished this… it was good. Not amazing, but solid. The standouts for me were “The Scarlet Letter Z” by Asra Q. Nomani about being a Muslim single mother, the piece by Mariane Pearl about losing her husband, “Natural Mother” by Lisa Teasley about facing prejudice in NYC as an interracial family, the totally heartbreaking piece by a pseudonymous Mexican mother who left her children to escape domestic abuse, and “Mother of the World” by editor Kate Moses. I have to admit the last one is not usually my style as I have a weird aversion to travel writing sometimes, but Moses is a truly gifted prose writer.

*Griftopia by Matt Taibbi. Holy change of pace and subject matter, I know. But this book is seriously awesome. I kind of think everyone should read this book, since the Great Recession has affected us all, but barring that you should read it if you have even the slightest interest in what went down with the housing bubble and bank bailout. Taibbi does a good job of making dry financial jargon into an actual page-turner of a narrative. He is definitely a political progressive but I don’tthink (admittedly not sure) this would turn off conservatives, because he is just as hard on liberals and thinks the whole thing was pretty much a bipartisan scam.

*The Witches by Roald DahlYes, this was an eclectic week for me. Haha. I randomly decided to work my way through his whole body of work, gradually, because I have fond memories of being read The BFG in 4th grade. I can’t wait to read these to Miles someday, they are such great stories. And this is probably the only children’s book that uses the word “asinine” in a sentence.

*Wintering: A Novel of Sylvia Plath by Kate Moses. I’m struggling to get through this. Not because it’s bad. It’s good. But it’s slow and quiet and kind of heavy… I think Moses does a beautiful job of rendering a first person narrative of Plath’s life. The feeling it gives me is so close to how I felt reading Plath’s actual journals it’s remarkable. But I don’t know, maybe I’m just not in the mood for it right now. I’m probably going to end up returning it to the library unfinished.

*The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin. This is a little more my speed at the moment (although I do still need a nice fat work of fiction to dive into – I like to read one novel and one nonfiction book at the same time). Rubin is so much like me personality-wise it’s eerie at times. I’m a few chapters in at the moment and I’m contemplating doing a Happiness Project and blogging about it but… this sounds arrogant probably but I’m not sure I need it? At least not right now. Also I am not fond of resolutions. Because then you have to keep them and that’s no fun.