You may have been wondering about my November book club update, or lack thereof. The shameful truth is that I haven’t been reading over the past month. I climb into bed with heavy lids, and, now that mini is no longer nursing, I find myself with less time over the course of a day to sneak in 10 or 15 minutes of reading. Which is sad, because books give me life. They color my perception of the world. They mediate experiences for me, and not in a negative way, as though I’m living through second-hand experience — rather, they give me the words and frameworks to interpret and understand. And when I’ve gone too long without a good book, I find myself less attuned to the enchantment of the world around me. Books are good at disciplining me into tending to details, wondering at expressions on the faces of salesclerks, musing over fragments of narratives I’ve picked up, bric a brac style — that snatch of conversation about how “Jerry is so sadistic, but you know me…” overheard on a park bench in Central Park, the smell of Korean cooking in the back of the dry cleaner’s (by whom? for whom? is there a kitchen?), the nail technician fussing over the buttons on an elderly woman’s coat: “No, but it’s cold outside, Ms. James, you need to –” “No, I just live around the corner, don’t be silly,” “Yes, you have to button up.”
Books tend to unlock these moments for me.
But, I didn’t get through all of the books selected for October, and now we’re at the end of November. So, I’ll share my thoughts on each of the books I did read and hope that I finish just two books by the end of December, which I’ll share at the bottom.
Book Club Pick No. 1: Upstream by Mary Oliver
Five stars. Excellent, crisp, lyrical writing interrogating the relationship between Man and Nature, which are more or less shorthand for Her Theory Of Life. Upstream is a collection of reflective essays whose occasionally didactic tone can be forgiven once one realizes that the authoress is 81, sharp as a tack, and with an impressive opus of work to her name. Basically, she’s earned her right to lecture if she wants to lecture. But she’s not cloying about it, as her wide-eyed observationism speaks of a fetching humility and wonderment at the world around her. If we want to talk about a writer attuned to the details, look no further than Mary Oliver: there’s a chapter entirely devoted to her tracking of the life of a spider that lives in her house.
Oliver makes me want to live a more reflective life. Maybe buy a journal (I’d use one of these, which I use to keep notes for work, projects, etc.) and take the time to fill it out — although, I suppose, that’s what I’ve been doing here on this little blogletta, isn’t it?
Still, I bow down to the raptness of her attention to the minutaie of the world that turns around her.
Book Club Pick No. 2: A Stranger in the House by Shari LaPena
Four stars. A great beach read thriller. I could eat these by the dozen — such a guilty pleasure. Just as delicious as her first, The Couple Next Door, and just as impervious to serious literary scrutiny. All of these books tug at marital relationship dynamics, but there’s not a whole lot else to say about them, and that’s fine by me. Sometimes we are looking for pure entertainment value.
Which reminds me that many of our friends have gotten into long and protracted debates with us over the “five point scale” Mr. Magpie and I use to rate movies, and I’m using here to rate books. Some say five points don’t offer enough granularity since we don’t permit half-points. (I guess we’re purists on this point?) Others say it’s ridiculous that we can assign the same score to movies as frivolous as A Million Ways to Die in the West (four stars — a truly stupid movie, but we love its kitsch and have watched it at least half a dozen times) as we do to more serious films, like an excellent but incredibly traumatic movie we just watched, Wind River. But our opinion there is that you’re comparing comedies to other comedies along the five point scale and dramas to other dramas along the five point scale, not lining them all up and saying Wind River = A Million Ways to Die. And so, compared to other chick lit beach reads, The Couple Next Door is a 4/5. (My other favorite beach reads.) But it’s not to say that I would consider it anywhere in the neighborhood of craftsmanship to some of the other heftier, more literary books I’ve given four stars to.
Book Club Pick No. 3: Cooking for Mr. Latte by Amanda Hesser
Four stars. Funny, well-written, and easy to read. My one gripe with it is the marketing of the book, which is overly chick-lit-ish. Even the title made me think I was in for a Sex and the City style fluff piece. But Hesser is a talented writer and a serious and well-respected member of the foodie scene. She talks about 9/11 in the book. She draws serious conclusions about the role of food in our lives. She talks about being blue, and getting through it. She is not friendly or girlish: she’s mature, sophisticated, sharp-witted, and even testy at times. She does not suffer fools kindly, and she’s frankly a snob when it comes to food. In short, this is not the cutesy fare the title and cover styling suggest. The marketers behind the book clearly made these decisions with intention, but I take issue with them and think they dumbed down the overall effect. Mr. Magpie would love this book, but I guarantee he never would have picked it up if it weren’t for my coaxing and effusive recommendation. And even still, I’m sure he won’t be reading it on a park bench in Central Park…
Also, full of great recipes and useful cooking tips, and there are many dog-eared corners I intend to return to. (This may be the first book I’ve read a physical copy of since the start of the year!)
December Book Club Picks.
+Finally going to get through this, which I think has been on my list since September?
+Watch Me Disappear by Janelle Brown. A thriller billed as the perfect find for fans of Big Little Lies that will hopefully fill the LaPena void, recommended by one of you lovely readers!
+It’s Messy by Amanda de Cadenet. My girlpower book for the month. Known for her edgy interview series The Conversation, in which she speaks with various powerful women, this memoir gives us a closer look at the woman behind the microphone, where she shares her own story, including “a portrait of childhood fame, a stint in juvie, teen motherhood, a high-profile marriage (and divorce), and the sexism that threatened to end her career–all before she turned nineteen.”
P.S. No book club is complete without a lot of wine (Mr. Magpie referred to my old book club as “wine night”), and I was surprised to find that this was one of the most popular items I’ve featured on my blog in months!