Summer Smorgasboard

I like my reading habit best when it’s varied.   I think of my reading like cooking – mostly things I know I like, a few challenging ingredients tossed in from time to time, a bit of chocolate, some quinoa.  Above all, fuel to keep moving forward in life.

So here’s a memoir, a bunch of fiction, Chaucer in Middle English, a fantasy/horror/sci-fi/etc. (might as well just say Gaiman), and a middle grades offering.  (In specific, Priestdaddy, Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, The Wife of Bath, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, No One is Coming to Save Us, American Gods, and Armstrong and Charlie.)   Bon appétit!

Priestdaddy, Patricia Lockwood

I wasn’t sure I wanted to read this until I realized Lockwood is the poet who wrote “Rape Joke,” and then I became panicked someone else would have checked it out of the library before I could get to it.  Fate was on my side, and the book did not disappoint.  Lockwood is a keen observer, and so very darkly funny.  This book helps explain how she became both of these things.

Lockwood’s father is a Catholic priest, and the contradictions and challenges of growing up in a rectory run through the text.  Her family is large, unpredictable, and funny, and her path with and without them is fascinating.  Truly a poet’s memoir, in the best possible way.  Her father looms, boxer-shorted and loud, in her imagination and then in yours.

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine, Gail Honeyman

This book is so utterly charming.  At its start, we have a quirky and strong-minded female narrator (the titular Eleanor) who lacks basic social skills.  So you think, okay, she will gradually learn to open up and get along with others.  The voice is enough to propel you, and Honeyman makes you just ache for Eleanor.

Few people are naturally as awkward as Eleanor, and so as the tale progresses, we get more of her story.  We realize that much is hidden from Eleanor, by Eleanor.  There are tantalizing hints, but the final twist is a well-earned surprise.  The writing is gorgeous and now I need to move to Scotland.  Cheers.

The Wife of Bath, Geoffrey Chaucer, Ed. Peter G. Beidler

If you’ve never ventured into Middle English (the language), let me recommend this foray. Middle English (which happened after Old English, before Shakespearian English) is a fun challenge, especially if you enjoy etymology.  Most mystery words can be translated simply by reading them aloud, as they sound like their modern counterparts, or by thinking through synonyms, like a crossword clue.  And if you get stuck, this version has most troubling words glossed in the margins as well as copious explanatory footnotes.

If you’ve read The Canterbury Tales in translation, you are in for a delight with Chaucer’s original language, rhyme and rhythm.  Since this book contains only the Wife of Bath’s tale, it’s manageable and approachable.  And really, The Canterbury Tales loses so very much in the translation.

I adore this tale and it’s especially interesting in the current political climate.  A knight, having committed a grave crime, is spared his life if he can figure out the answer to a question that was old even in Chaucer’s time: what do women want?  The humor, the crudity (so very, very dirty), the language.  It’s gorgeous.  Also included in Beidler’s version are several helpful critical takes on the tale, as well as of course the Prologue to the tale.

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness, Arundhati Roy

The beginning of this epic novel was brilliant beyond brilliant, a letter-perfect first few chapters.  The language was so gorgeous I read most of it aloud, gushing about it to whoever wandered into the room where I sat.  After the first few introductory bits, the reader follows a fascinating group of characters through the gritty, dangerous streets of India.

And then you move forward, backward, time becomes confusing.  The novel travels to Kashmir, to Pakistan, and to new characters, some of whom are so tangential that I never did figure out why they were included.  Then there are some text features!  And then we’re into lots of war crimes and explicit torture!  I would have been happier with a smaller story, but perhaps that is the point?  Certainly a book as vast and contradictory as India itself.

No One is Coming to Save Us, Stephanie Powell Watts

What would The Great Gatsby be like if instead of starring wealthy white New Yorkers, it focused on poor black southerners?  This book is your answer, although to cast it as a retelling is to do Ms. Powell Watts a disservice.  There is much to enjoy here – sparkling, magical description, characters so seated in themselves you feel you know them.

There are a number of brilliant insights into race, poverty, motherhood, and life in general.  Women are the focus here, much more so than in Gatsby, and that shifts us as readers while feeling like a natural fit.  The plot diverges a few points from Gatsby, in thoughtful and interesting directions.  That said, sections that felt a bit unpolished – some dialogue, a few jumps in time or space that were disorienting.  But these are minor matters, and I love that the space in my brain for Gatsby now has a new, wealthy neighbor.

American Gods, Neil Gaiman

Somehow I missed this canonical Gaiman work; I blame college, where I was when it came out.  Recently I set out to rectify the error, given the hype about the new television production.  Honestly it was a bit of a curmudgeonly outrage along the lines of, how dare these Johnny come latelys think they love Gaiman more than I love Gaiman?

What I love most about Gaiman’s writing is its seeming straight-forwardness, with humor and beauty and surprises thrown in.  I think it’s why he writes so successfully across a wide variety of genres.  His work just always strikes me as painstakingly honest.  American Gods is the story of Gaiman’s attempt to understand America, part road trip, part discourse on what makes America America.  What happens, he wonders, to all of the old gods, pantheons, and belief systems immigrants bring with them?  They live here, of course, but as his character Shadow will tell you, it’s a bad place for gods.  The myths are the thing here, and they are beautiful.  I can’t speak to the show, although it’s on my watch list, but the book is more than worth the hype.

Armstrong and Charlie, Steven B. Frank

This mid-grades fiction (the main characters are in 6th grade, I’d say it’s pitched to upper elementary/middle school) is taking on a lot.  Busing, school desegregation, racism, a dead brother whose death is recent and unresolved, and lots of crushes and kissing.  Luckily, it takes this on with aplomb and everything works to gently weave a story.

Told from the two boys’ points of view, with comic relief from the playground monitor, the boys go through a fairly predictable relationship from enemies to friends.  My one critique is that the sheer number of terrible things that happen to these kids felt a bit overkill once or twice.  But I’d imagine most fifth through eighth graders will find little at fault there, and instead revel in the detailed worlds these boys rocket through.  Reminds me a bit of New Boy, but for kids.

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