Since it’s hotter than Hades in New England this summer, I have spent a majority of the season hidden in my one room with air conditioning–the bedroom. We only have one television, in the living room, so I decided to dust off the “must read” list I kept during three years of grad school and visit my local library.
Wow, I forgot how much I love the library! It’s like participating in the summer reading program all over again! Although the Rhode Island library system is strong, I’m having a hard time finding some of the LGBT, feminist, and independent work I want to read (I’ve sent in suggestions!), but I’ve been lucky with newer novels, books about blogging, writing, and other pieces of nonfiction. I finally realize that I do not need to own every book I fancy, especially fiction (since I rarely go back and reread it). During the month of July, I read the following pieces of fiction that I want to share with you:
The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb (B-)
Wally Lamb’s latest novel, a behemoth of 700+ pages, was sold as a story about the shootings at Columbine, but it’s not really a focal point. Although there are some chapters about the event itself, Columbine is more of a catalyst for the main characters. This is not Lamb’s strongest character work, but he does make smart and entertaining commentary about grief, trauma, the industry of American psychotherapy, substance abuse, the power of generational secrets, how we define family, redemption and faith.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett (B)
Over the past year or so, I’d witnessed many conversations between co-workers, friends, and family that went a little something like this:
Person A: Did you read The Help?
Person B: (with big eyes) Oh yes! The best novel ________ (I’ve read this year/this decade/of all time)!
Person A: I agree…it was so good!
Besides all of this general excitement, I didn’t have any knowledge about the premise of The Help but I picked it up on the 7 day shelf at the library. And I agree…I was entertained by the novel. However, there were some pieces that didn’t sit well with me (in terms of the novel’s portrayal of race, gender, the author’s use of southern vernacular, etc.) and I plan to seek out some critical readings of The Help. I may write more about this soon.
The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver (A-)
I love and own all of Kingsolver’s work, so it pained me to wait this long to read The Lacuna (available about a year ago). This historical fiction, set in the early to mid 20th century during the Mexican Revolution and the Communist scare in the United States, uses journal entries, letters, and press coverage to tell the story of the main character Harrison William Shepherd. Harrison, a writer with dual Mexican and American citizenship, comes of age while working at the home of Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera. He also befriends Leon Trotsky, during his exhile in Mexico, and is a witness to his assassination. Kingsolver again develops engrossing characters (even the real ones like Kahlo and Trotsky) and detailed settings that transport the reader back in time. After I finished the novel, I found myself researching and reading about the Mexican Revolution, Frida Kahlo, the Aztecs, McCarthyism, and Russian history.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides (A+)
I purchased Middlesex shortly after it became popular in 2007 (althought it was published in 2002) and it sat patiently on my bookshelf until I devoured it a few weeks ago. I truly loved this novel and I found myself having strong emotional reactions to Eugenides’ work; over the course of 544 pages, I laughed, I sobbed, I cringed. Middlesex, a multigenerational story about a Greek family who emigrates and grows in the suburbs of Detroit, resonated with me personally because of my own eccentric Greek family. (We too had a Yai Yai that insisted she was on death’s door and wore black after her husband’s death for 20+ years). The coming of age story of the main character, Calliope/Cal, is further complicated by the discovery that he is intersex. Eugenides tied so many interesting topics together (gender identity, incest, ethnicity, race relations, etc.) with complex characters that I would gladly read a sequel…please make this happen!