Summer Book Bingo (Blackout!) Book Reviews

Last week I finished the last square on the Seattle Public Library’s Summer Book Bingo card and turned it in with one whole reading day to spare! A delightful summer of both more and different reading than I’d have done without that impetus.

 

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Plus! apparently I have a 1 in 197 chance at winning that prize the SPL and Seattle Arts & Lectures folks will be drawing for this Tuesday— season tickets to SAL + a library of books by the speakers. (And 218 bingos are in for the drawing for a gift certificate to a local bookstore.) It is such a delight to be living in such a book-centric city.

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Here’s a quick rundown on the books I read, rated ◊ to ◊◊◊◊◊ (more, of course, is better):

Re-read: A is for Alibi by Sue Grafton◊◊◊◊◊
Checked Out From the Library: B is for Burglar by Sue Grafton◊◊◊◊◊
The Sue Grafton books are one of the first grown-up books that I read at the same time as my older sister and my mother, back in the very early 90s I guess it would have been, and I think I read through maybe H or J or so. (I can’t remember if I stopped the series because they weren’t as good anymore or if I just fell out of a mystery phase.) I  picked A is for Alibi to re-read because I saw that Grafton just came out with X, and it made me wonder how they hold up, considering the first was written in 1982.

Awesomely, it turns out. I am totally digging PI protagonist Kinsey Millhone’s voice and attitude (I’m up to F is for Fugitive now). These are my kinda mysteries, neither too breezy nor too dark-and-twisty, and really well written. It’s funny—funny infuriating not funny ha-ha—how early 80s female characters like Millhone, or like Kathleen Turner’s character in Romancing the Stone, are exactly the kind of awesome women we call for yet STILL don’t get that often in popular culture. And the world-building is so good the lack of quotidian technology is hardly noticeable.

From an Independent Bookstore: The Word Exchange by Alena Graedon ◊
Very few books make me say, “I really hope someone turns this into a movie and totally changes the ending.” The Word Exchange, described by the New York Times Book Review as “A nerdy, nervy dystopian thriller,” sounded like the perfect summer read for me. And it starts off great, but then totally sucks by the end, a victim of its own self-righteousness and an inability to recognize its own McGuffin as a McGuffin. However, the whole premise, if the end-of-book problems were fixed, would make a really great miniseries or TV show. (Hey Brits, get on that wouldya?)

Set in the NW: Ravens and Prophets by George Woodcock◊◊◊◊◊
I give this 1952 travelogue a 5, though I should note that rating does presuppose that you too have a fondness for that particular erudite, yet arch, style that 1950s authors of a professorial bent writing books for the layperson had. Which of course I do. I found it a rich and fascinating description of postwar British Columbia, and it introduced me to a number of delightful things I’d never heard of before, including the Cariboo Camels of the NW Gold Rush, and the fascinating Doukhobors sect.

#WeNeedDiverseBooks: Selected Poems, Gwendolyn Brooks ◊◊◊◊◊
It’s preposterous that Brooks isn’t better known, and that “We Real Cool” is the only poem you’re likely to have heard of if you’ve heard of her. She is SO. DAMN. GOOD. Her ability to portray other people in poems, her empathy and kindness towards all sorts of figures, is but one of the striking features of her poetry. Go read her. A lot. “[…] Since a man must bring / To music what his mother spanked him for / When he was two: bits of forgotten hate, / Devotion: whether or not his mattress hurts: […] “. 

Translated From Another Language: Nineteen Ways of Looking at Wang Wei, ed. Eliot Weinberger and Octavio Paz ◊◊◊◊
Definitely worth reading if you’re interested in translation, or read many translated books, it’s a short review of nineteen translations of a classic Chinese poem with an eye towards the ways the translators’ culture and era change the meaning.

Collection of Short Stories: Fools and Other Stories by Nhabulo Ndebele ◊◊◊◊
Well-written stories of men and boys set in a township near Johannesburg during apartheid, published in the early 1980s. I didn’t like the title story as much as the others but the lives and voices portrayed were all complex and compelling.

Out of Your Comfort Zone: Twilight by Stephenie Meyer
I really struggled with coming up with a book to read that would be out of my comfort zone, since I enjoy good writing about any old topic (heck, Scott Simon’s memoir even made me care about Michael Jordan’s career). A bookseller suggested that I should therefore read something bad. So! A really, really, really badly written book, and a super popular one to boot. Out of comfort zone bingo square conundrum solved. I will admit Meyer knows how to write a page-turning pace, but in all other regards, this book is just tremendously awful.

Set Somewhere You’ve Always Wanted to Visit: The Information Officer by Mark Mills ◊◊◊
A perfectly serviceable read-on-the-airplane-type thriller set in WW II Malta (which I have always wanted to visit for fairly inexplicable reasons, unless it’s because The Maltese Falcon was a movie I watched over and over as a kid?), but not one that made me rush out to get any other books by the author. I didn’t much like the sections from the killer’s POV.

Own But Have Never Read: Tender Buttons by Gertrude Stein ◊◊◊
I think it’s a bit of a cliche to be an English major/poet who has, but hasn’t ever read, this book (and it’s so slim even). But now I have! And am damn glad I did. “The sudden spoon is the same in no size. The sudden spoon is the wound in the decision.”

Prizewinner: Beasts of the Hill by Mark Neely ◊◊◊
Basically, the Field Poetry Prize is never, ever a miss. This is a very good book of contemporary poetry.

“This vale, this mother dragging child-
ren through the store, eyes cracked
like spoiled clams, hair piled on her
head, spine like a hanging whip. This
soil, this word we spin on, clutched
kernel burning under a greasy sun. […]”

Banned: Persepolis: The Story of Childhood by Marjane Satrapi  ◊◊◊
Graphic Novel: Persepolis 2: The Story of a Return by Marjane Satrapi  ◊◊
I am delighted that Summer Book Bingo made me get around to Persepolis, which I’ve been meaning to read since it came out (in 2002). Persepolis an excellent, gripping coming-of-age tale that everyone should read. The sequel, alas, tries to tell too many stories at once and, other than to find out what happened to her, isn’t so worth it. But I definitely recommend the first one.

Local Author: Reading Seattle: The City in Prose, eds. Peter Donahue and John Trombold ◊◊◊
If I had to pick just one, this’d be my top read of the summer. It’s a really excellently put-together anthology of writing about Seattle, fiction and non-fiction, with diverse writers from all along the twentieth century. The selections give vivid insight into different neighborhoods, eras, and communities of Seattle, and none of the excerpts are confusing or feel lacking even though most are taken from the middle of much longer works. Plus, I now have a great reading list of Seattle novels and memoirs to read this winter.

Author Under 30: selected unpublished blog posts of a mexican panda express employee by Megan Boyle ◊◊◊
As I said in my post suggesting poetry books to read for the Bingo squares, this book, all twenty-something self-absorbed angst, is one I’m not actually sure I’d really call poems as much as pieces, but it’s good writing. And it’ll keep you in touch with the kids these days. “worms are on the ground. worms come out when it’s raining because they think ‘sweet, the whole world is like ‘underground’ now, can’t wait to go out and live in my ultimate version of reality now,’ but then people step on them or the sun comes out and they dry up. is that sad?”

Turned Into a Movie: Wise Blood by Flannery O’Connor ◊◊◊
Flannery O’Connor’s first novel (turned into a movie by John Huston, which I haven’t seen yet) I recommend for Flannery O’Connor people, but if you haven’t read O’Connor yet a) what the hell have you been doing with your life! and b) I’d say start with one her classic short stories instead. (Though, having said that, you would kinda be missing out if you remained unaware of the idea of Hazel Motes and his attempt to lose his faith in God by founding The Church Without Christ.)

Collection of Poetry: Heavenly Questions by Gjertrud Schackenberg ◊◊◊
A technically and emotionally astonishing blank verse elegy that comes back and back like washing waves. “But if it did no good, then how could I / Have watched as toxins dripped how many times / Into his bluest veins from hanging tubes / With hypodermic fangs, and how could he / Have offered up his veins without a word, / Except to reassure me it’s all right / And never lose his confidence and wait / Throughout how many closed eternities, / Like Theseus bound to a chair with snakes.”

Young Adult Book: Trickster’s Choice by Tamora Pierce 
I was super disappointed in this one, because I loved (and recently re-read and still love) Pierce’s original Alanna books from the 1980s (The Song of the Lioness quartet), but this one, which follows Alanna’s daughter, was not so great, and its attempts to highlight racial problems in the medieval-ish fantasy landscape through the voice of the somewhat boring white narrator galled as the book went on—I’d have much rather heard the story from the perspective of one of the characters from whose oppression she was learning.

Memoir: My Animals and Other Family by Claire Balding◊◊◊
This was a recommendation from a Seattle Librarian (through their Your Next 5 thing) when I asked for a horse book for adults. Organized by chapters each centered around a different animal, it tells the story of the somewhat unusual upbringing of Claire Balding, whose father was a champion racehorse trainer (for the Queen’s horses, among others). I enjoyed it tremendously.

Published the Year You Were Born: Hannah’s Daughters: Six Generations of an American Family 1876-1976, Dorothy Gallagher 
This book I did not enjoy. It was intellectually and historically interesting and well put together, an oral history of 5 women in the same family, a 98 year old to a 20 year old, who lived for most of their lives in Washington state or Alaska, but I didn’t enjoy it. It was in some ways a history of the way women have been screwed over by lousy men and left to suffer the consequences, and pass those consequences onto their children with depressing results. Or a demonstration of how not very far poor-to-just-barely middle class women’s lives progressed in that 100 years. A good book to read for perspective. Not a good book to read for cheering up.

Recommended by a Friend: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald ◊◊◊
A dear friend texted me this spring and said, “Have you read H is for Hawk? If not don’t read anything about it I’ll send it to you!” It’s a wonderfully powerful book, part memoir and part literary biography, by a woman who, in the throes of grief after her father unexpectedly dies, bought and trained a goshawk. And it’s also about The Sword in the Stone author T.H. White, who was also a falconer. It nearly lost me a few chapters in, but then the book blew open and I was completely hooked until the end. Great stuff.

You’ve Been Meaning to Read: Any Other Name by Craig Johnson ◊◊
A solid Western mystery series, this, and one that makes me yearn to take a road trip to Wyoming every time I read one (or watch the TV show adapted from it, which is also good, though FYI reading and watching the two at the same time is very confusing because the character arcs are different). I had been on the list for this at the library in Portland but then I moved and forgot to put it in my queue at the Seattle Library until this square reminded me.

From Your Childhood: Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce ◊◊◊
I dithered for ages about which childhood book to re-read, but am very glad I chose this one, which I did partly to gauge if my nephew might like it soon. Tom’s Midnight Garden was both different and even better than I remembered. One of those timeless classics that should remain on young’un’s reading lists.

and last but not least, Read In A Day: The Spectators by Victor Hussenot ◊◊◊
This as the blurb says “poetic and philosophical introspection on the nature of man” graphic novel is phenomenally beautiful, visually, and just the right length for a “poetic and philosophical introspection on the nature of man” — long enough to be interesting, not so long that it makes you sigh. And the watercolor drawings are really, really cool.

That’s it! Thanks again to the Seattle Public Library and Seattle Arts and Lectures for coming up with this thing, and I really hope they do it again next year. (And I’ll let you know if I win that drawing…)

 

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