Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Hunger Games

Ravenous for a good read? Here are some books I enjoyed in 2015:

Two sisters are searching for a new husband – a Man at the Helm – for their newly divorced mother who is prone to popping pills and writing odd little plays instead of taking care of her three children. A master of wit, author Nina Stibbe brings her story to a thoroughly satisfying end that’s a lot like raspberry jam – sweet but full of sharp little seeds.

In A God in Ruins, Kate Atkinson revisits the Todd family, who appeared in her 2014 Life After Life. This time she focuses on Teddy, a supremely decent man who bombs German towns (and the people in them) during World War II. Atkinson so clearly describes all of the details of being up in a Halifax on a horrific mission that I found it hard to believe she was not a bomber pilot in another life.

Eleanor and Park by Rainbow Rowell is one of those books – yet another story about teens with an improbable load of depressing problems. Eleanor is poor, despised at school, and overweight. To top it all off, her mother is living with an abusive man who becomes an increasing threat to Eleanor with every page. Park is a slight, sensitive, half-Korean boy who stays chummy with the school bullies to keep himself safe. I didn’t expect to like this book, but I was quickly hooked by the hidden sweetness and humanity of these two kids and the story of how their slowly developing affection keeps them both afloat in a horrible sea of teen and adult cruelty.

The Chapel by Michael Downing – To be honest, I didn’t always get what this book was driving at, with its hefty discussions about the 14th century Italian artist Giotto and Dante’s Divine Comedy. But the banter between its two main characters (a depressed widow in her fifties and a silver-haired smoothy she meets in Italy) is pretty divine itself. Like all great writing, these sections show (don’t tell) us about the tremendous warmth and need beneath the characters’ snappy wit.

Far from the Madding Crowd by Thomas Hardy – “Why do we have to read this?” many high schoolers automatically complain when their lit teachers assign a classic. In this case, I would respond by saying that Far From is just plain great. It’s the tale of a young woman who becomes the boss of a big farm in a day when women didn’t do such things. She’s hilarious and also heartbreaking – a living, breathing character who makes some devastating mistakes. Sure, there are some boring parts to get through (particularly the long conversations written to reflect a rural English dialect), but you can always skim over those and get on to the good parts, like when Miss Everdene (Bathsheba, not Katniss) lies back on her horse in order to ride under some low branches and then rises again in one smooth, lithe motion.

Meghan Daum comes off as a cranky, wise-cracking aunt who isn’t afraid to tell you how she really feels in her collection of essays entitled Unspeakable. In a piece called “On Not Being a Foodie,” she reveals that she hates buying and cooking food. In “Honorary Dyke,” she bemoans a culture that reveres makeovers and diets and elaborate wedding showers. She also confesses in “Not What It Used to Be” that she feels no nostalgia for her college days, and, in fact, spent her time in school longing for the shenanigans to be over so that she could get on with her life. Sometimes people who are known for “telling it like it is” can come off as being insensitive or rude. Daum’s truths, however, feel like a brisk, refreshing breeze ruffling the pages of more socially-pleasing views.