Empire Falls by Richard Russo
You guys. This book. It was the weirdest mixed bag of WTFery and blah and intrigue that I’ve read in a long time. It was deeply confusing to read, and I experienced a lot of conflicting emotions (anger, boredom, anger, fear, bemusement) while reading. Let’s dig in, shall we?
Miles Roby is a good ole American guy in the working class of Empire Falls, a Massachusetts hamlet that has seen its industries fading away until only the town stalwarts are left. Miles runs the Empire Grill, a greasy spoon that was supposed to be promised him by the town matriarch, Francine Whiting, as compensation for leaving college before finishing his degree. Obviously, he does not get the Grill. Miles is also impotent, self-conscious, and infatuated with Charlene, a waitress at the restaurant. Basically, you can play white man bingo and hit all the marks with Miles. His almost-ex-wife Janine has just discovered her orgasm with another man and is definitely interested in a divorce. His daughter Tick (derived from Christina, because apparently Russo thought Tina was too basic a nickname…?) is a sensitive artist who is on the outs of her high school’s inner circle. Add to this several rumblings of discontent and you have a rather shocking conflict at the end.
This was a genuinely interesting story, but Russo has no clue about female sexuality. I mean, the way Janine rhapsodizes about finding her orgasm at 42? And her G-Spot? And talking continually about her G-Spot? WE GET IT, RUSSO. Janine Roby has a G-Spot.
Apparently, Richard Russo consulted old issues of Cosmopolitan before writing those sections. Sigh.
The Desire of Ages by Ellen G. White
Last year, I began making my way through a series of books that have been instructional in my faith community and reading them during my devotional time. I didn’t find the first two books to be terribly exciting or innovative, but I was and am willing to make my way through the rest. It’s been rather interesting to read a series that people at church absolutely love and find myself not enthralled in the way they are. I am beginning to piece that apart.
The Desire of Ages focuses on the life and teachings of Jesus Christ, a historical figure believed to be the Son of God by Christians everywhere. Ellen White delves into behind-the-scenes stories in Jesus’ ministry, and she makes relevant his teachings for Christians a few millennia later. She begins with Old Testament prophecies of his arrival (which is a carryover from her previous book, Prophets and Kings, not at all like the failed ABC show) and ends with Jesus’ death, resurrection, and ascension into heaven with the promise of the Holy Spirit to His disciples.
It feels kind of mean to be critical of something that I overall agree with in spirit, but I think that presentation was kind of an issue for me. White delves very specifically into certain well-known stories, but her exegesis is not real crisp. This sounds rather snobbish of me, but I really want a more scholarly approach to supposedly ground-breaking works about the Bible and God, especially in regards to methodology and approach. But then again, a work written in the late 1800s by someone who acknowledged her limited education and divine inspiration is probably not going to be the same as a scholarly religious monograph written today, right?
Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe
Many years ago, back when I still thought I was going to be an 18th-century scholar (and over the next few months, I will repeat this refrain when I sift through more unread books that I collected), I purchased Robinson Crusoe and then ran from it in fear, because I’d heard that it was a slog. Finally, I conquered my fear and just read the damn thing already. It’s hefty, but I feel like a conqueror! I read Robinson Crusoe!
Robinson Crusoe is a major idiot, let’s just start with that. He goes to sea against his parents’ wishes and promptly gets into trouble on the west coast of Africa (the Barbary coast, if I’m not mistaken). And by that, I mean enslaved. Through his trickery and abuse of an African’s kindness, he gets out of that scrape and travels to South America, where he builds a highly prosperous plantation, and then is bored with success. So he takes a ship that promptly wrecks and washes him up on an uninhabited island for something like the next 27 years. He has to build a life for himself from the ground up, from shelter to finding food. Defoe details this process proficiently, but then it gets a little melodramatic when it comes to the cannibalistic indigenous people on the island.
To say I was bored is an overstatement, because there are several entertaining and interesting parts. If you’ve read The Martian and enjoyed Mark Watney’s MacGyvering of materials on Mars, this has similar appeal. There are also hilariously melodramatic and xenophobic aspects which I place firmly within the time period in which this book was written. In her Goodreads review, narfna points out that you can totally tell that this book is one of the first novels ever written. She’s totally right. I don’t think this is a waste of time, but it’s certainly a mixed bag.
Polishing Your Prose by Steven M. Cahn and Victor L. Cahn
As an instructor of composition and rhetoric, I often get emails and offers from academic publishers wanting to know if I would be interested in exam copies or discounted copies of their books, especially if I consider implementing them in my classroom. About two years ago, I received an offer for a free copy of Polishing Your Prose, which I thought might be a great way to discuss the revising and editing process with my students. As it turns out, it’s helpful to more than just undergrads.
Steven M. Cahn and Victor L. Cahn are both those old-school professors who are particular about prose. But their philosophy is far less pedantic and far more practical. They provide rules for thinking about clear, crisp writing and examples to practice on. Seriously, my college students need this. They often think that “more is more,” when less is quote enough, thank you. Plus, the Cahn brothers move into actually working on whole passages to improve the writing and demonstrate the process that goes into tightening one’s prose. I found it helpful.
The collection is only marred by the personal essays at the end. One of the brothers writes about a professor who told him he was amaaaaazing, and raved about all his essays for all the classes he took. I totally get that he’s probably sincere about this encouragement leading him to get the PhD, but c’mon. As someone who went down this route, it’s not that easy and it’s not that fairytale for everyone. I wrote an essay for the man who would become my dissertation director, and his feedback? Was that I had interesting ideas but lacked an argument. Frankly, this was the very thing I needed to hear. My crappy essay helped me turn my ideas into a productive dissertation that will, I hope, help me write a much better book. Writing is a long and arduous process, and encouragement from a professor is one piece, but it’s no magic wand. We will not discuss the self-importance of the other essay. We. Will. Not.
Like I said, the handbook aspects are terrific, but the personal essays at the end are very much worth skipping.
The Bassoon King: My Life in Art, Faith, and Idiocy by Rainn Wilson
I watched the British version of The Office when it was released to DVD, and I enjoyed it. Then, I grew to love its American counterpart once it had grown into itself a bit (Season 3 was my entrance to the show). While I was never a huge Dwight fan, I appreciate the complexity and nuance with which Rainn Wilson imbued the character. So I was delighted to see the audiobook version of his memoir The Bassoon King at my local library last month. The Chancellor and I took it on a roadtrip and have finally finished it, thanks to Spring Break!
Wilson’s is a colorful and interesting life. The Bassoon King chronicles his fractured family and childhood, his forays into acting and music in high school, and his decision to become an actor. He talks about the struggle of “making it” in a vicious industry, the problems with drug and alcohol abuse in his twenties, and falling in love with his wife and their son. He explores the role his Baha’i faith has played in his life and philosophy. And yes, he dishes on The Office, which was truly, truly delightful. He describes his instant acting chemistry with John Krasinski, especially in improvising their lines, and I squeed internally.
Seriously. So. Great.
I deeply appreciate the insight with which Wilson approaches his life, his acting profession, and his faith. I enjoyed his book, but I definitely thought that his own voice reading his audiobook was an added delight. If you want to check this out, you can’t go wrong with the audiobook. His foreword as Dwight K. Schrute is especially hysterical when you hear it, as opposed to reading it.
In Other Words by Jhumpa Lahiri
When I was a child, my mom took my sister and me to Spanish lessons each week for something like a year or two (I honestly don’t remember). She was determined that we would grow up to be bilingual. Well, after Spanish lessons as a child, Spanish 1 and 2 in high school, and Intermediate Spanish in College, I’m still not bilingual. I’ve had trouble explaining to my mom why that is, especially since I spent a summer with my best friend’s family, who is Hispanic. After marrying The Chancellor (who majored in Spanish in college and is bilingual) and reading this book, I definitely understand why. Language is nuanced and complex.
Jhumpa Lahiri has been one of my favorite authors since I was in college. Her short story collection Interpreter of Maladies and novel The Namesake are absolutely my favorite works by her. So when I heard she was coming out with a memoir, I was delighted. When I heard it was a memoir translated from Italian, I was bewildered. What? Jhumpa Lahiri speaks Italian? That’s crazy-awesome. This memoir is less about her life and more about her life process learning to become fluent in Italian. Lahiri writes in Italian and does not translate herself, because she wishes to remain immersed in the process for which she has fought. And I deeply admire this determination.
If you are a lover of languages or have tried to become fluent in another that is not your native tongue, you will probably appreciate this memoir as much as I did. Or, if you are a Lahiri fan, you will probably also appreciate it. A note of warning, though: if you are new to Lahiri, this is not the place to start! Go with The Namesake or Interpreter of Maladies.
The Canning Season by Polly Horvath
Back when I took a Children’s Literature course in college, my wonderful professor had a raffle every week, and one week, I won this copy of Polly Horvath’s The Canning Season. My prof had read Everything on a Waffle and loved it, and wanted to know how this book would be. Now that I’ve finally read it, I can tell her.
I’m still processing what I just finished reading. I’m not even really sure I understood everything. As I said in my Goodreads review, I feel like Polly Horvath wrote up a Mad Libs and then published it in this book. That’s how random and bizarre and thrown-together this book feels. Maybe writing about it will help me unpack it some more.
Ratchet Clark has had a rough life. Living with a neglectful and uncaring mother in a basement apartment in Pensacola, Florida, Ratchet is used to a patched-up and lonely life. So she is startled to find out that her mother is packing her up to send her off to Maine for the summer, to live with distant relatives, the ancient twins Tilly and Penpen. They are odd, unique, and completely offbeat. Plus, Ratchet has a defect on her shoulder, referred only as That Thing by herself and her mother. Slowly, the events of the summer help her bring her into herself and discover a life she never even thought she could have.
I’m coating this as well as I can, because this book is just random. Meals are had at random times, Tilly and Penpen are eccentric and crazy, and Ratchet sort of follows along with everything. There were some moments that reminded me of Marilynne Robinson’s Housekeeping, and I have this weird aversion to bad housekeeping in books. I think the family stories were interesting (and a little dark, especially when Tilly and Penpen discuss their mother’s suicide), but I’ve read better versions of those in other books. Also, this is not a children’s book for children. If you like children’s and YA fiction that is dark (along the veins of Lemony Snicket), then you might like this better than I did. But that’s not my style.