I read more this month than I thought I would. It was not a month of War and Peace type books, but some intriguing stuff, nonetheless.
We Need to Talk, by Celeste Headlee
I met Headlee in the speaker's lounge at the Texas Conference for Women. We were introduced by Jess Lahey (author of The Gift of Failure) who was also there. While Celeste and I were talking, Jess disappeared and in total connector style, reappeared in the room 10 minutes later with copies of both of our books (which she had purchased in the conference book store), which she then gave to the two of us to sign for each other. I read Headlee's book on the plane home from Austin, and quite enjoyed it. The art of civil conversation seems to be dwindling, but Headlee, whose career has mostly been in public radio, believes we can rescue it. One key insight: good conversationalists are good listeners. That seems obvious, but few people practice it. Try observing yourself. When someone is telling you a story, are you searching your brain for an example of a similar thing that happened to you, so you can jump in and tell your story? Try not doing that next time. Focus on what the other person is telling you. Ask questions to explore the story and feelings that the person is telling you about. This is hard, and goes against human nature (we all think we are the most interesting people in the world!), but the payoff can be incredible.
Devotions, by Mary Oliver
This collection of Mary Oliver poems spans the past half century of her career. I was really hoping I would find some new poems of hers that I loved. Like many readers, I enjoyed The Summer Day (you know the "wild and precious life" line) and When Death Comes ("I look upon time as no more than an idea…") but I soon realized that a lot of her poems are quite similar in style: here is some thing I've observed in nature, and here is how it relates to humanity. There is nothing wrong with that, but when I read hundreds of them in a row, they lost some impact. My take-away: a book of poetry is probably not something one reads straight through. The better approach is to dip in and out, using it as a reference book. This is a valuable lesson to learn as a reader, so I'm glad to have figured that out.
Sourdough, by Robin Sloan
This one surprised me. Lois, a young midwestern-born computer programmer, goes to work for a robotics start-up in California. She feels adrift until she meets two chefs who give her their sourdough starter when they need to leave the country suddenly. Lois turns into quite the baker, and this is no ordinary sourdough. Sloan's characters are delightfully quirky, and his satire of start-up life (many of Lois's male colleagues take to drinking a sludge called Slurry as a meal replacement, not unlike Soylent) rings true. I may have especially enjoyed it since my little brother spent years working for Google in California, and developing an obsession with Tartine, but there's a lot to like here for others as well. More intriguingly: I think Sloan (who is male) has created a believably female narrator. So many male authors have trouble with female characters (see below). I appreciate seeing such things work.
A Circle of Quiet, by Madeleine L'Engle
This was one of the "writers on writing" suggestions from last month. It was all right. It's part memoir and part thoughts on the process. L'Engle writes a lot about her failures that preceded A Wrinkle in Time, which I guess is encouraging to writers struggling with the question of whether they'll ever achieve what they wish. This is one of four books written from her "Crosswicks Journals" — we’ll see if I wind up picking up the others. I may reread A Wrinkle in Time at some point though I have been warned that it loses something when you read it as an adult (which may explain why it had trouble finding a publishing home, though clearly there was a huge market for it).
The Art of Screen Time, by Anya Kamenetz
This book will be out in January; I was sent an early copy. Kamenetz, a reporter and mother of two young children, examines the evidence on screens and children. Her verdict: there may be some downsides, but they are probably not as awful as the hype you read in the more self-righteous of parenting literature. Advancing the narrative beyond the usual battles, she offers suggestions on how to incorporate screens positively into your family life. I appreciate this as the mother of one little boy in particular who loves his video games, and loves to play them with friends. It's one of the ways they interact and enjoy each other, and simply seeing it as "bad" misses a lot of the nuance.
A Little House Christmas Treasury, by Laura Ingalls Wilder
I bought this for our literary Advent calendar last year, but my kids didn't seem that interested. I will try again this year. I always loved the Little House on the Prairie books, and Laura in particular (we share a name!). This collection of Christmas stories from the series celebrates the fine art of making do with whatever you have.
Norwegian Wood, by Haruki Murakami
This novel rocketed Murakami to great fame, both in Japan and in the English-speaking world. Toru, a student in Tokyo, falls in love with a childhood friend who suffers from severe depression, while simultaneously developing an interest in a very forward fellow student who always keeps him guessing. It is a novel of being young, and confused, and of living in 1969, when all was changing. I enjoyed this novel, and tore through it in two days. There is a certain conjuring of teenage longing that can make anyone feel nostalgic, though the novel has its flaws. I have felt in many Murakami novels that the female characters are somehow off. One example: they talk about their periods a lot. I have been menstruating for a great many years, and I don't think I've discussed the topic as much in those decades as his female characters do in an average conversation. But there is enough that is lyrical and wistful in this to make up for many issues.
A Christmas Carol, by Charles Dickens
A great seasonal read. I have seen many movie/TV versions of this classic tale of Ebenezer Scrooge's Christmas Eve rebirth into the human family, but if I have read the book before (and I am not sure I have), it has been a while. Dickens' prose is sharp, and evokes 19th century London in a way that perhaps a thousand pictures cannot. He drifts a bit at times (The Ghost of Christmas Present sees a lot of things that get cut out of the TV versions) but such is writing when you don't have the quick editing tools of modern word processing. Definitely worth a read during the holiday season if you haven't picked it up. (And short: you can read it in an evening).
Tortilla Flat, by John Steinbeck
These stories about Monterey's paisanos (mixed race Californians of Spanish and Indian ancestry) are modeled on tales of King Arthur's Knights of the Round Table. It's quite the mash-up as the drifter heroes address each other in old English prose. Almost all their capers involve Prohibition-era wine, and getting money and then exchanging it for more gallons of wine. These tales are fun as these things go, and it's Steinbeck, so Tortilla Flat is more literary than your average drunken romp, but probably not Steinbeck's best.
Christmas with Anne of Green Gables, by L.M. Montgomery
This collection of L.M. Montgomery Christmas stories is good for the season, if overly precious at times. The title is misleading though. Only two of the stories are actually about Anne — the others are from various other L.M. Montgomery books.
Crossing to Safety, by Wallace Stegner
I picked this up because Sarah had mentioned reading it and enjoying it. It took me about 50 pages to get into it, because the narrator (academic/writer Larry Morgan) didn't seem all that compelling at first. So the beginning dragged (oddly, so does the end). But when Stegner got into the back story of Sid and Charity, the larger-than-life couple who befriend the Morgans, the pace picked up a lot. The prose is mesmerizing, and the characters well drawn, particularly in their disappointments when life does not turn out quite as one might wish. I found myself so wanting a home like the Langs' place in Vermont, situated on a lake, where extended family gather to sit on the porch with their sherry.
So that's November! I have a bunch of great recommendations for December, though I'm currently working on another writer-on-writing book, Virginia Woolf's A Writer's Diary. More on that next month...
What have you been reading lately?
Photo: The book pile next to my office book shelf is getting out of control again...