August 7, 2023

July Reading Recap

I got through a wide variety of books in July:

THE OTHER MOTHER by Rachel M. Harper: Jenry is thrilled to arrive in Providence for his first year at Brown University, not so much because he's excited for college but because he might finally learn more about his father. All he really knows is that his parents met while students at Brown, that Jasper went on to become a famous dancer, and that he died when Jenry was two. His mother has been reluctant to share any further details about Jenry's early life in Providence, before they moved to Miami following Jasper's death. So Jenry is astonished to discover that Jasper's father is a retired professor who still has an office on campus. And then his world is blown apart when his new-found grandfather reveals the truth of Jenry's parentage: Jasper was merely a sperm donor helping out his sister, who is Jenry's other mother, a figure never before mentioned.

From the revelation of this initial long-held family secret, the novel unfolds in sections that each focus on a different family member and uncover a new layer of secrets and misunderstandings. This accumulation makes the book increasingly more compelling as the story grows more complicated, so it took me some time to be pulled in, but then I was eager to see the full picture. The premise is great and original, and the different pieces of the story are woven together cleverly. Certain plot events hinge on extreme character reactions that I didn't always find believable, but overall the characters are well drawn.

LAST NIGHT IN MONTREAL by Emily St. John Mandel: All Lilia ever does is leave. It's how she was raised, ever since her father showed up to spirit her away from her mother's house when Lilia was seven. She grew up on the road, changing names as frequently as motel rooms, fleeing a past she barely remembered and a detective seemingly always on her trail. Now an adult, Lilia has tried staying in one city and forming relationships, but she always feels pulled to leave again. When Lilia leaves Eli behind in Brooklyn, he's bereft over the loss of their new love, and after receiving a mysterious postcard, he goes looking for her in Montreal.

I'm a big fan of Mandel's work from STATION ELEVEN on, but I hadn't read her first three novels. In this debut, her writing style is already well established, and I immediately felt comfortable in the atmospheric sentences, carefully rendered characters, and nonlinear structure. The plot is compelling and a bit strange, as Mandel's stories generally are. I was delighted by the different character perspectives that appear as events unfold, and I enjoyed watching the pieces come together.

I KNOW WHY THE CAGED BIRD SINGS by Maya Angelou is the first in a series of autobiographies she published between 1969 and 2013. This book recounts Angelou's youth, starting with her parents sending 3-year old Maya and her brother to live with their grandmother in rural Arkansas during the 1930s. As a child in a highly segregated Southern town, Maya grows up in a world of Black people. She possesses some understanding of the strange power held by "whitefolks" but has little early contact with "these others, the strange pale creatures that lived in their alien unlife." Later, she directly experiences the humiliation and violence of racism. For a time, Maya is reunited with her mother, but after a brutal sexual assault, she returns to the relative safety of her grandmother's home until her teen years.

In this beautifully written memoir, Angelou impressively recaptures her limited childhood perspective on experiences and surroundings. This often makes the book's many distressing episodes even more emotionally wrenching. The narrative proceeds chronologically, portraying the consequential events of Angelou's life along with vignettes that represent more typical times. I found the significant scenes fascinating, though usually painful. I'll admit that during more mundane sections, I was sometimes bored. I don't usually choose to read memoir because I prefer the crafted plots of novels to stories constrained by real events, but I'm glad my book club led me to this interesting classic.

ROMANTIC COMEDY by Curtis Sittenfeld: Sally loves her job writing for a late night sketch comedy show (Saturday Night Live, but with a different name). The hectic pace of putting together a live show every week leaves no time for romance, and that's mostly fine with her, because she's skeptical about the concept of falling in love. One week in 2018, the show's guest host as well as musical guest is the handsome pop star Noah, who Sally is glad to discover is less vapid than she expected. In the course of working together to develop and rehearse sketches, Sally finds there's a lot about Noah that's surprising and intriguing. She even wonders at times if he's flirting with her, but considers it unlikely since she's not young or hot or particularly famous. After that strange week, Sally and Noah don't talk for two years, until several months into the pandemic, when he emails her out of the blue.

I was looking forward to a clever and amusing read after several glowing reviews, but this novel disappointed me on most fronts. I didn't think much of the writing, and I hardly ever found the jokes funny. This was especially frustrating because in an early scene, Sally walks us through her editing process for punching up lines and cutting unnecessary material from sketches, which left me imagining edits throughout the rest of the book. I did enjoy the behind-the-scenes details of how SNL operates, yet even there I wanted to edit, because sometimes there was so much detail that it seemed like research dumped on the page. Sally and Noah and their romance are decently developed, but nothing is a huge departure from romance tropes.

I haven't read anything else by Sittenfeld, though I've also heard good things about her previous books, so I'm unsure whether this is a typical example of her writing or an outlier.

Good Stuff Out There:

→ At Literary Hub, Michelle Wildgen celebrates the joys of food-centered fiction: "This love for food-related reading goes all the way back to my childhood. One of my early favorite books was a picture book by Russell Hoban called Bread and Jam for Frances, which is the story of a picky little badger who scorns everything except the titular sandwich. Sick of trying to persuade her to eat anything else, Frances's mother finally obliges and serves her bread and jam while the family eats a wide variety of appetizing meals and her friends unpack the most glorious little lunches involving tiny salt and pepper shakers and hard boiled eggs and cookies and clusters of grapes and so on. (Eventually Frances realizes variety is better than monotony.) I was not a picky eater, so for me the lesson of this book was that I needed to get my hands on tiny salt and pepper shakers for my school lunches."

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