Thursday, April 29, 2010

What to Read?

NOTE: I just realized that the Intense Debate comments weren't showing up in the blog, even though I was getting them in email, so I uninstalled it, and lost all of the comments from the last three posts (thanks for commenting everyone!) Let me know if you have further comment problems. Maybe I'll try something fancy in the future, but for now I'll stick with the Blogger standard comment thingy.

I'm trying to read more contemporary fiction; since I want to write fiction, I suppose I should read it, right? The only trouble is, I don't know how to choose books. For some reason, I have no problem picking up a work of nonfiction and knowing instantly whether I want to read it or not, but with fiction I'll browse the new book section of the book store or library, turning volumes over, reading the back, putting them down, just not knowing whether I'm going to like something.

Lately, whenever I read a review of a book that sounds good, I go instantly to interlibrary loan and order a copy (if one is to be had in Maine, which is not always the case), this has worked out pretty well for me, but I want to know more. What works of fiction have you read lately that I should read?

Here's a sampling of the novels I've read (or tried to read) in the last few months:

Sky Bridge by Laura Pritchett. When I was at AWP, I rode the 16th Street Mall shuttle with a woman from the conference, named Laura, who mentioned she had a panel the next morning. She also said she freelances for magazines for a living, and writes fiction "in the mornings," which I figured meant like the way I write fiction--quietly scribbling bad stories and character sketches that will never see the light of day. When I got back to my sister's apartment, in stalker-like fashion, I looked up in the conference catalog panels for the next morning and saw that one had a panelist named Laura Pritchett, who had been spoken of very highly at a panel I had been to that day. When I flipped to the bio page, I saw that she had two published books. In further stalker behavior, I checked out her webpage when I got home, and saw that she has a PhD, 100s of articles, essays and stories to her credit and has edited a number of anthologies as well. And, the final blow, when I ordered her book through ILL, the library credit page listed her year of birth, which is only two years before mine. Wow. I better get to work. Anyway, I just got the book Tuesday, and I love it so far. It's the story of a young woman living on a ranch in eastern Colorado whose sister gives birth, then takes off, leaving her with the baby.

The Mysteries of Pittsburgh by Michael Chabon. After hearing Chabon speak, I was determined to love this book, but I can't get past chapter 2. I guess I'm just not that interested in the coming of age story of a Jewish son of a gangster in the early 1980s (am guessing at this date). This is Chabon's first novel (I only chose it because it was the shortest one of his on the library shelf); maybe I should read something more recent.

In the Year of Long Division by Dawn Raffel. This is such a strange book. It's a book of short stories that are more like poems, and, like poems, I have no freakin' clue what's going on, but the language is lovely. I ran out of time to finish this before it was due back at the library, but I'd be interested in reading more of Raffel's work.

The Fiction Class by Susan Breen. I was really excited about this book--there are writing exercises at the ends of some of the chapters. But the characters are not that well-developed and it mentions god, angels and church a bit much for my taste (this is the same reason I can't get past page 10 of an Anne Lamott novel). I think I'll let my checkout time run out before I finish it.

Borderline by Nevada Barr. I used to gobble up Barr's Anna Pigeon, Park Ranger mysteries, but the last couple I read had really excessively disturbing bad guys, so I quit reading her books. But for my flight home from Denver, I wanted to read something light (not the pile of Sun magazines I had crammed into my carry-on in hopes of catching up), so I bought this in the airport. Quick and fun read about a raft trip in Big Bend that goes seriously wrong, and much less psycho murderer than previous books (plus, Pigeon's latent maternal instincts get stirred up a bit).

Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout. I keep this book in my car for emergency waiting room episodes. I like how this character and life in this small town in Maine is portrayed from different points of view. Well-developed characters and for the most part avoids sentimentalizing the quaint Maine seacoast town, which I appreciate. I'm afraid I'm getting to the sad(der) part, though.

Bridget Jones's Diary and Bridget Jones: The Edge of Reason by Helen Fielding. Hurrah! These were both re-reads (possibly for the second time) in a fit of needing something light. I forgot how funny both books are! I found myself on the couch, wrapped in a blanket at midnight laughing my a** off. I needed that in March in Maine. It may need to be an annual tradition.

East Hope by Katharine Davis. The parallel stories of two characters who find themselves in a small town on the coast of Maine. One is a woman whose husband dies, has a son in college who's growing distant, is pregnant from a one-night-stand with a neighbor and goes to Maine to claim a cottage inherited from her husband's aunt; the other is a college professor falsely accused of sexual harassment whose marriage is falling apart and who takes a summer job running a used bookstore. I liked the surprising twists this storyline takes, though the book does fall into the sentimentalized "quaint Maine village" trap.

A Bird in Hand by Christina Baker Kline. A woman is involved in a car accident in which a child dies; while it's not exactly her fault, it infuses her with guilt and adds bumps to an already rocky marriage. If you're interested in writing, read Kline's blog, A Writing Life.

Shadow Tag by Louise Erdrich. Wow. This book was amazing. I couldn't read it fast enough. It's the story of a woman trapped in an abusive relationship with her husband. It shows all the complexities of such a life in ways I had never considered before--that you can go from one moment fearing for your life to the next minute discussing what's for dinner. You can't help but wonder how much of the story comes from Erdrich's relationship with Michael Dorris. It's written from three points of view--the blue diary (which the woman keeps in her home office), the red diary (which she keeps in a safe deposit box at the bank) and a third-person narrator whose identity you only learn in the last couple of pages.

Moonspender by Jonathan Gash. C and I had been watching a lot of the early TV series of Lovejoy, so I had to check out one of the books. Lovejoy is a lovable chauvinist; an antique dealer, sometimes-forger and "divvy" (one who can tell on sight if an antique is real or fake). The book's written in East Anglian slang, so I only understood about every fourth word and I started saying things like "kip," "knackered," and "ta."

What have you been reading, or trying to read, or not reading lately?


  1. I just finished Remarkable Creatures by Tracey Chevalier (not sure about spelling). The author is the same who wrote that Girl With The Pearl earring book which I read but thought was sort of so-so - I don't usually like the more mainstream bestsellers, really. I liked this one because it is historical fiction about Mary Anning and I really find her fascinating. The book's style was not really my style but I liked the subject enough that I really enjoyed it. Quite some time ago, I read The Empress of Mars, a not-too-old sci-fi book that I loved immensely.

  2. Also, recenty read a wonderful YA novel by my favorite poet Naomi Shihab Nye called Going, Going..

    - about a teen who tries to stick with local, independent businesses instead of chains.

  3. I liked Olive Kitteredge too (and, yes, the Bridget Jones books - surprisingly hilarious). Recently read Louise Erdrich's Love Medicine, which was beautifully written and very satisfying.

    I've been reading mostly non-fiction lately and I'm sad that a fiction recommendation doesn't leap to mind. Usually fiction is my preferred medium. Probably the best contemporary fiction I read last year was Jhumpa Lahiri's most recent short story collection, Unaccustomed Earth. I think she's the contemporary master of the form.

  4. Susan Wittig Albert has a new China Bayles out and I think a new Beatrix Potter although I have not found it yet. Louise Penny is someone I found last fall. Her books take place in Quebec and she is really good! As you know I am working my way through Van Reid and he is Delightful!! These are three of my top six authors with Elizabeth Peters, Deborah Crombie, and Aaron Elkins rounding them out. I started a book in first person, which was supposed to be by Daphne Du Maurier, but she could not begin to write as well as Daphne could so I did not finish it.

  5. Wow, this is an amazing list. Thank you for sharing

  6. I'm kind of embarassed to say that I've mostly been reading parenting books and books about kids' activities. Those and craft/sewing books, but I haven't had that much time to actually DO the sewing...

    Both my BA and MA are in English literature, and I used to read fiction nonstop. I really need to get back into it! A previous commenter mentioned an author whose books take place in Quebec. I'm going to look her up since I'm a new arrival to Quebec (having moved here a year and a half ago).

    Thanks for your list!

  7. I recently read Olive Kitteridge. I loved it, although I hear mixed reviews. She is a strong character, no doubt.

    I'm reading The Help right now.


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