Tuesday, October 03, 2023

Everything I Read in September, 2023 (in brief)


107. If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin - My first fictional work by James Baldwin is a heartbreaker. Fonny and Tish have been together forever, first as friends and then gradually they fell in love. Fonny is in jail and Tish has brought him the news that they're expecting a baby, that her family is working hard to get him out of jail for a crime he didn't commit. Then, the storyline goes back to the beginning of their friendship and you get to know Fonny and Tish's characters and friendship, the unique quirks of their family members (for better or worse), how their relationship developed, and how Fonny came to be accused of a crime he didn't commit. A distressingly realistic tale of poverty and the consequences that can come of being Black, even when one has done everything right. This story will definitely stick with me for a long time. Incredible writing and character development for a book of just under 200 pages. Published in 1974.

108. The House Next Door by Anne Rivers Siddons - My first creepy read for Readers Imbibing Peril, Colquitt and Walter live in a quiet, upscale Georgia subdivision. Next door, there is a forested lot that they've been told is not suitable for building. So, they're surprised when it's sold and a modern house slowly takes shape. They become friends with the architect but weird things begin happening during the building. After a quick succession of families occupy and leave the house, all under tragic circumstances, the architect decides the house is evil. When Col and Walter decide he's right, is it too late to keep the evil from spreading? Published in 1978, I feel like I've just taken a trip from the poor side of the 70s to the upscale and wow, what a contrast. In the James Baldwin, the era inserted itself mostly through language; clothing certainly wasn't a priority. In The House Next Door, it was architecture and fashion that asserted themselves as icons of the time period. Humorously, as I'm writing this, I'm reading another book published in 1978. Back to the book, I thought it was a bit overlong and heavy-handed, but I enjoyed it and I'm glad I stuck it out because the ending was perfect.

109. Breaking Away (aka, French Leave) by Anna Gavalda - I was well into Breaking Away when I looked up a particular detail, apparently fictionalized, and found out that this book was also published under the name French Leave. I hadn't heard of Breaking Away, but I knew I'd heard of French Leave. 3 siblings ditch the rest of their family at a wedding so that they can go visit the brother who didn't show up. A very shallow read in which nothing much happens . . . about family, growing up, hope for the future, nostalgia for the past, and knowing a special day will never come around again. Breaking Away is sweet, puerile but also uppity in a very French way, as in "If you have an extra 5 pounds on you we're laughing about how fat you are and heavens, boxed wine is so lower class." It's kind of cringe-inducing. But, it was also a refreshing change of pace for me. As it turns out, I read the Europa version under the title French Leave, 10 years ago. I didn't remember that till I saw the cover and checked the blog to make certain I'd read it. I did not love it, the first time. I didn't love it this time, either, but I enjoyed it and related in some oblique way that I didn't before. Timing is everything.

110. The Chelsea Girls by Fiona Davis - A story told in three acts, like a play, The Chelsea Girls is about Hazel and Maxine. In the first act, they become friends and work together both in the USO and writing a radio show during the last months of WWII in Italy. They go their separate ways and the next act takes place during the Red Scare, when they're both caught up in the House Un-American Committee's hunt for Communists and one of them, we find, has a secret. The two women are then separated for a long time and the final act takes place in 1967. Throughout the second act, the Chelsea Hotel has become a bit of a character in and of itself as you get to know the history of the hotel as a haven for artists of all sorts and how they often traded their art for rent. In the third act, one of the women is still living in the hotel and the other has become famous. What will happen when they're forced to reunite? Loved this story for the history. I do find the relationships and writing a bit on the stylistically fluffy side but Davis does a deep dive into her subject matter and it shows. I loved the history lessons I got from reading The Chelsea Girls

111. The Mirror by Marlys Millhiser - In 1978 in Boulder, Colorado, Shay is preparing to marry, while in 1900 her grandmother, Brandy, is doing the same. Both are given a family heirloom, a hideous old mirror, although neither is aware that it's cursed and has already killed many people. It doesn't kill Shay and Brandy, but it does switch them into each other's bodies. Shay is shocked to find that, as Brandy, she's being forced into marriage when in 1978 marriage is by choice. Life becomes even more unexpected when she's taken to her new husband's home in Nederland, Colorado and she finds it's no more than a shack and because she talks confidently about the future she's considered crazy. In 1978, Brandy is mortified by the way people dress and behave, as well as the missing sense of community. Everything smells like nothing and tastes bland. Like Shay, Brandy is considered crazy. Will Shay and Brandy ever be able to return to their own time periods? I guess that's a spoiler so I won't answer it but I can tell you that the mirror continues to assert itself (mostly by killing people) throughout the novel and the historical parts are utterly fascinating. I was absolutely mesmerized by The Mirror. This was a great choice for fall reading.

112. The Bird King: An Artist's Notebook by Shaun Tan - This book is a peek into Shaun Tan's process, how he gets inspiration by putting pen to paper and seeing where it takes him: "taking a line for a walk" as Paul Klee says in a quote Tan put in the book. Well worth the money to just sit and stare at his sketches, marveling at Tan's imagination but it's also a nice peek into how he got some of the ideas for books he's written (and films, he says, although I haven't seen any of those). 

113. The Little Island by Margaret Wise Brown (writing as Golden McDonald) and Leonard Weisgard - Beginning with a description of an island, the weather and changing seasons, The Little Island is written in Margaret Wise Brown's typically lyrical prose. Then, it gets a little weird. A kitten sails up and disembarks. There, it makes a wisecrack about the island, the island replies, and the kitten doesn't believe the island is attached to land, as it has said. So, the kitten catches a fish and threatens to eat it if it doesn't tell her the truth. What a strange turn. The kitten is satisfied and leaves, then the story returns to things like the lovely fog and the colorful leaves turning and the waves washing ashore, etc. So, not her best but I like kittens and the illustrations are phenomenal so I loved it, anyway, although I could have done without the kitten threatening the fish. A children's picture book. 

114. Poetry for Kids: Carl Sandburg by Ed. by Kate Benzel, Illus. by Robert Crawford - The best thing about this book, like the others I've read that were published by Sterling, is that words are defined in their written context and then, at the back of the book, there is an explanation about each of the poems and what the author was thinking at the time he wrote them. I found that I misunderstood quite a few of them, so reading it is quite an education in poetry and the use of words. I had several favorites but I particularly liked the poem about laborers and how they work so hard for the fat cats who end up with buckets of money. I neglected to write the title but it feels particularly relevant during a time in which labor unions are on an upswing and people are fed up with CEOs making ridiculous salaries but not sharing the profits equitably. 

115. Paper Son: The Inspiring Story of Immigrant and Artist Tyrus Wong by Julie Leung and Chris Sasaki - A perfect book for Asian America and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, Paper Son tells the story of artist Tyrus Wong (his Americanized name), a Chinese-American who is probably best known as the artist who came up with the concept for the background images in Bambi. It tells of his boat ride to the United States with his father, using forged documents, and how difficult it was to enter the U.S. at the time (especially for Chinese immigrants). The author then talks about how Wong was able to get into art school, got a job at Disney and then was not credited for his idea but only as one of the art team, and eventually was fired. He went on to paint other things like scarves and in his later years made elaborate kites. A wonderful story of immigration, determination, and skill. Another children's picture book! 

116. Charlie Thorne and the Lost City by Stuart Gibbs - The second in the Charlie Thorne series begins with Charlie hiding out in the Galapagos Islands and doing a little volunteer work. She is a fugitive, both from the CIA and anyone who wants the secret she carries in her mind. Then, one day people begin showing up. The CIA is looking into yet another genius's secret, this time Charles Darwin, who spent 4 years in South America during his voyage on the Beagle. A journey from the Galapagos to the Amazon takes Charlie on a dangerous trail of clues. But, what did Charles Darwin find and then hide from the world? It's fiction, of course, so the secret's made up, but there are plenty of interesting details that are true. I've read Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle, so I enjoyed the references to the book and what Darwin did on his long journey. And, you just can't beat one of Stuart Gibbs' middle grade books for adventure. I absolutely love them. 

117. What Kind of Woman by Kate Baer - Ohmygoodness, I absolutely love this book of poetry. And, in fact, even the author's note at the end is wonderful. A book of poems that are fictional except when they're not and which might be written for revenge, or something of that nature, I can't imagine a woman who doesn't see herself somewhere in this slim book. My favorites were all apparently the most common favorites as they're all discussed on the book's cover blurb, but if I had to choose one favorite poem it would be "Things My Girlfriends Teach Me". Read this if you're female. You deserve it. 

118. A Man and His Cat, Vol 6 by Umi Sakurai - In this 6th volume of A Man and His Cat (unfortunately, the last one I own and will be reading as I'm now on a book-buying ban), Mr. Kanda's friend and friendly rival goes on tour with his band and asks Mr. Kanda to cat-sit his kitty, who is Fukumaru's sibling. While the cats happily play and compete for the best spot on Mr. Kanda's lap or the bed, disaster strikes for Kanda's friend when his band doesn't show up. But, Kanda and others save the day and then everyone is back to trying to convince Mr. Kanda to return to performing on the piano and attending concerts. He's improving, slowly, but it's still difficult for Kanda, who associates piano with the memory of his wife's death. Not my favorite but I love this series and would read on if I had access to more.

119. In the Lives of Puppets by T. J. Klune - An old man named Gio who isn't actually a human goes into the forest and finds a ruined house. He says it will do, then he rebuilds the house and up in the trees he builds a series of labs and other rooms connected by rope ladders. Then, he raises a child named Victor in the forest, teaches him how to build things, and Victor manages to eventually put together two robot friends. All is well until the day that everything changes, when Victor finds some decommissioned robots in the Scrap Yard and one of them looks like it might be repairable. Why did Gio go to the forest to live alone? Is he telling Victor the truth about where Victor came from? And, what will happen when The Authority (aka, the bad guys) finds Gio's home? I'm trying to be vague because there are some plot points best left to unveil as one is reading but this is a super weird book and I liked it but it occasionally made me squirm. It wasn't at all what I expected. I guess because of the whimsical covers, I thought Klune's books were middle grade or maybe YA. This one is actually quite adult. 

120. Less by Andrew Sean Greer - When author Arthur Less receives a wedding invitation from his former partner, Freddy, he decides there's no way he can bear to go the wedding. So, he accepts absolutely every writerly invitation he's received and leaves on a world tour. As he travels around the world, he finds a temporary lover and flirts with a few other men, comes close to accidentally plunging to his death when he gets locked out of his room, cringes as his birthday nears, and reevaluates how he feels about love at the age of 50. Less started out as one of my stationary bike reads but every time I biked, I couldn't stand it and would read at least a chapter or two. Then, I finally gave in and finished it off. One of those rare books that made me literally laugh out loud and shed tears. Occasionally, this book made me feel kind of stupid (this guy's writing is way out of my league) so I deducted a point for making me feel dim, but I really loved this story. It's sweet, funny, and touching. 

September was a fabulous month! I know I write this repeatedly but I seldom read any duds because I'm so quick to ditch anything that's not working for me and that means all were liked or loved, as usual. Learning to give up on a book is one of the best things that has ever happened to me. There was a single book that I started and then set aside in September, but it wasn't a DNF because I didn't get far enough to call it that. Instead, it was an "eh, I'll read this another time," when it didn't grab me on the first page. If I had to choose one favorite from this month, it would be The Mirror, which I found utterly engrossing and delightfully creepy. 

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