Here's a list of last month's books:
The Lacuna, Barbara Kingsolver.
A Plague of Doves, Louise Erdrich
Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
The Tenderness of Wolves, Stef Penney
It sucked and then I cried, Heather Armstrong
The Baby Whisperer, Tracy Hogg (note to Lani: this is a good one!)
The top amongst these was The Lacuna. Kingsolver always manages to surprise with the settings for her novels, the breadth of her cultural knowledge, and the complexity of each story that she chooses to tell. This one was excellent, a story spanning from Mexico City to North Carolina, following the experience of biracial Harrison Shepherd who is a cook and a writer. Even the structure of the book was interesting in that it reads as a novel, a diary and an archive. I couldn't get enough of the parts of the story where Shepherd is cook to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. The language was enticing and appetizing, the scenes were full of revolution, wartime sacrifices and Mexican archeology. There were so many lines, paragraphs and pages that I hope to remember for a long time to come.
Here are a couple of examples:
Dear Frida,I dreaded coming to the end of this lengthy novel not only because I didn't want the story to end, but also I didn't want to read what was going to happen to Shepherd hounded as he was by the charges laid out by the U.S. Government of being Un-American and Communist. Yet, the end did not disappoint. I cried, yes. But I was also left feeling immensely relieved and full of joy.
A glittering shower falls at a slant across my window. Some form of god has come to visit our dark autumn tunnel, like Zeus making himself a beam of light to impregnate Danae. In this case, it is not really glittering light but beech leaves. You've never seen anything as dramatic as these American trees, dying their thousand deaths. The giant beech next door intends to shiver off every hair of its pelt. The earth smells of smoke and rainstorms, calling everything to come back, lie down, submit to a quiet, moldly return to the cradle of origins (279).
"Mr Shepherd, if women feared knitting needles as men do, the world would go bare-naked." (234).
Chichen Itza looked completely different today....Traces of paint clung to the surface too: red, green, violet. In their time, all these buildings were brightly painted. What a shock to realize that, and how foolish to have been tricked earlier by the serenity of white limestone. Like looking at a skeleton and saying, "How quiet this man was, and how thin." Today Chichen Itza declared the truth of what it was: garish. Loud and bright, full of piss and jasmine, and why not? It was Mexico. Or rather, Mexico is still what this once was. (402-403)
With a couple of these books I almost dropped out in the middle. In fact, I did, but picked them up again when I finished reading whatever it was that had distracted me. I'm so glad I did, especially A Plague of Doves. I read quite a few of Louise Erdrich's books and find most of them interesting. This one was a bit different as it was a mystery which is not a genre I read often, although I have been making my way through the Sookie Stackhouse mysteries. Erdrich seemed to be working through a narrative style that resembles oral stories in that the narratives seemed to wander then wrap back around to the main mysterious, unresolved murderous event that took place off-reservation near a town in North Dakota. The question of who committed the murders almost left my mind until the very last few pages and the revelation made me flip back through the book to affirm what I had read and to savor the heartbreak.
The book is heartbreaking on several different levels: the frustrations of a young woman exploring her sexual identity, her writing ability and the limits of her mental sanity; a decades long love affair between a Native man and decidedly racist White woman that ends in the destruction of his life long home; another affair that ends in abduction, ransom and prison; the community torn and divided by the gruesome murder, forced to take actions that defy their personal values and yet taken because it upholds a racial order; a violin that first breaks apart two brothers but in a later generation shows up on the shoreline in a canoe, then later used to heal a broken heart. That's Erdrich for you - a writer and a woman unafraid to tell how love can be glorious and go horribly wrong all in one sigh. She can tell it good.
Purple Hibiscus was heartbreaking in an entirely different way. Adichie presents a story of Nigeria and that nation's attempt to reconcile the traditional and the modern, the corrupt and the faithful, the seasoned and the hopeful, all through the eyes of 15-year-old Kambili. It is story of domestic abuse and citizen abuse. And it's one of those stories where you hate to read the rather sad ending, but know that it couldn't have ended any other way. I had chills through this reading as Kambili's father reminded me much of my own father who was very strict with me about my studies, although not as violent as the father in the book. As I was reading, I felt grateful that I was raised here in this country where students are not ranked in their classrooms as no doubt I would have felt the pressure to rank number one like Kambili.
I sped through this book like I was trying to quench a thirst. I kept thinking of the Baby Lotus Bud and how I was going to break the cycle of parental abuse, learning about these things from my childhood that could be healed through my own parenting decisions.
The Tenderness of Wolves is set in Northern Canada during the late 1800's and in the time of fur trading. Another mystery had entered my list and it couldn't have happened at a better time. Here in Minnesota we had a stretch of 95+ degree days and I cannot stand the heat. It drives me nuts when people say they prefer the heat, then retreat into their air conditioned homes. I have no air conditioning, just some really good ceiling fans that suit me fine...up until there is a humid 98 degree day. I read Penney's book on one such day and truly the cold, winter setting of the novel cooled my blood. There wasn't much about wolves in this book and there wasn't much tenderness. Penney apparently has never been to Canada but her descriptions of a frigid wilderness were excellent and believable to this Minnesotan that knows a thing or two about cold and snow.
I looked forward to reading Armstrong's It Sucked and then I cried. Like many of the books I read this month, I waited through a 500 person waiting list from the library. I read Armstrong's blog Dooce daily, but did not find myself enjoying her book. Something seemed to be missing. Blogging is definitely the place where her ability to express excels. I wanted to find some truths about postpartum depression while reading this book, but did not find what my heart was yearning for. Although I did get a chuckle out of the fact that she stated that her baby's poop smelled like buttered popcorn. My baby's poop smells like buttered popcorn and when I tell people this, they dismiss my statement as an overly zealous mother who finds only good things in her baby. This is not a good thing. I can never eat buttered popcorn again.
Finally, I flew through The Baby Whisperer expecting to get all the answers as to how to get my baby to sleep through the night. And what do you know? It had many answers and I learned a lot. After three days of following Hogg's advise my baby is sleeping through the night. Did you hear me? My baby is sleeping through the night. In. Her. Own. Crib. Of course, there are nights where she will wake up after a 6 hour stretch, but she easily goes back to sleep. I have now reclaimed my bed and may be able to resume a love life with my husband. Hooray for Hogg!
The Baby Lotus Bud is feeding for shorter and shorter lengths of time, so my days of reading may be short lived. If this is the last month I get to leisurely read until she's in, what? high school? then I sure am glad I got through a bunch of really great books.
Hooray for Hogg! And Kingsolver. And Adichi and Erdrich. But mostly, Hooray for Hogg!