Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Winter Blues and Literary Remedies

"He felt like something in a jar."
-Cormac McCarthy
No Country for Old Men

T.S. Eliot claims that "April is the cruellest month," but I'm going to contest that and say that February is basically the worst. January and February are my least favorite months, and there should be no need for explanation on that, particularly with the weather we've been having this year. I'm ready for baseball and outdoor beers and sunshine and Vitamin D and not having to walk hunched over on myself because it's too cold to stand up straight. You know what I'm saying?

And though these two months are often the worst, they often bring about the best reading. I don't know if my instincts are naturally sharper when I'm winter-depressed or if the gods take pity on me and hurl good reading my way, but either way, I'm thankful. I tend to rely on a good story more during this time of year than any, and 2014 has not yet let me down.

So, I thought I'd debrief you all on what I've been reading to keep my meager spirits up during snow, ice, and frigidity in hopes that you will find something that will get you through until Spring (if it ever gets here).

Here's what I've been reading since January 1:

S. by J.J. Abrams and Dough Dorst: I asked for this for Christmas and I was lucky enough to get it and have a nice long Christmas Break to read it over. I was so intrigued by the concept: the actual "novel" is a book called "The Ship of Theseus" which is written by the (fictional) mysterious author V.M. Straka in 1949. But that's only part of it. There is a whole other storyline going on in the margins of the book as two present-day graduate students try to decode the messages and mysteries of the book. The pages are full of their marginalia and ephemera like newspaper clippings and photographs and postcards that give them clues as they try to figure out who Straka (and his translator) really are. I'm not doing this book justice, I know. But I will say this--if you love books and the history of books, you should read it. I will warn you--it's a book you should probably read at home and keep there. The chances of things falling from the pages are pretty good, and I was so engrossed in it on the train one day that I missed my stop. There seem to be lots of theories on how to read it (some say read the novel all the way through then go back and read the marginalia from the grad students), but I just read it all at the same time. So as I read the novel, I was reading the notes. I may go back and re-read it to see if it's better doing it novel then notes. As you can expect from J.J. Abrams, it's a great journey with a lot of head-scratching but satisfaction.

Eleanor & Park by Rainbow Rowell: This was on a lot of "best of" lists for 2013, so I wanted to try it and see. It's a young adult book but every review I've seen claimed that you should overlook that moniker and just read it and they are right. Eleanor is an awkward-looking girl living in a broken home and having to fend for herself for most of what she needs. Park is a comic-book loving boy who is initially embarrassed to have to sit next to Eleanor on the bus. The two eventually strike up a friendship that turns to love. Though complications arise (of course), the story is believable and makes you look back on that first overwhelming, obsessive love you had. Short and quick, this novel encompasses the reality of being "different" in high school and what it's like to find someone who likes you just the same. (If you like anything by John Green like The Fault in Our Stars pick this one up too.)

The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout: The Burgess kids are all grown up and trying to deal with life. After witnessing and being part of their father's death when they were kids certainly didn't bring the three siblings closer together, yet it binds them in a way that only a tragedy can. Brothers Jim and Bob moved from their small Maine hometown to New York  and are called back to help their sister Susan's son who pulled a pretty serious prank. In the course of helping their nephew, the brothers learn things about each other and come to some realizations about themselves in the process as does Susan. I think it captures the crazy nature of siblings really well, even though the circumstances are not typical. I liked this more than Olive Kitteridge and about on the same level as Amy and Isabelle.

The Weight of a Human Heart by Ryan O'Neill: Sometimes, you just need a break from a novel and a good short story collection. If that's the case, then I recommend this one. Though the stories tend to be a little heavy (many take place in war-torn Africa and other such locales), O'Neill infuses his stories with a sense of hope and wonder. One story that stuck with me is the one where a woman's relationship with her mother is examined. Her mother is a writer and often uses her daughter's life as inspiration for her works and their relationship is extremely strained. It (like the other stories) is well told and emotionally gripping.

The Goldfinch by Dana Tartt: Stop what you're doing and get this book. I know, I know, it looks daunting with it's 800-something pages, but I DEVOURED this book and everyone I've talked to about it said they did too. The story takes place in New York City where a boy, Theo, is on his way to a school counseling session with his mother when they get caught in the rain and go to the art museum as a detour. While they are there admiring the painting "The Goldfinch" by Carel Fabritius, an explosion hits the museum and in the melee, Theo comforts an old, dying man and takes the painting from the museum. No one notices that Theo has taken the painting, but this is the impetus for the crazy turn his life takes as he tries to deal with losing his mother, the strange return of his father, the kindliness of strangers, and the draw of drugs and escapism, all while keeping the stolen painting close and safe, holding on to it as though it's all he has left. Another book that I was completely engrossed in, I absolutely recommend this no matter what you like to read--it's got a little of everything.

The Dog Stars by Peter Heller: The second I picked this up, I almost immediately put it down, mainly because I hadn't realized what it was about until I started reading it. It had been a big read a few years ago and I randomly saw it at the library and just picked it up. I'm not really one for thinking about the apocalypse or doomsday, so I almost put it down, but I'm glad I didn't. The story begins a few years after most of the human population has been annihilated by the flu and there are very few survivors, one of whom is Hig, our narrator, who lives with his dog  and in the vicinity of a kind of crazy neighbor. They reside near an airplane hangar where Hig can fly his plane to get supplies and take a respite from the shelled out life he lives. When a voice comes over the radio one day, he decides to pursue it, and is shot down as he passes a farm on his way. Though he doesn't find what he thought he would at the end, a renewed hope is born and he continues to survive. It's brusquely but poignantly written and one that really makes you think.

Coincidence by J.W. Ironmonger: Take this title to heart--it perfectly describes the theme of the book. Coincidence is at the heart of the story of Azalea who as a child was left at a carnival with no parents. She is adopted and eventually raised in Uganda by a missionary which ends tragically, as one can imagine. Throughout her life, Azalea is overwhelmed by the amount of coincidences she sees as guiding her life: her birth mother and adoptive mother and father die on the same day. As other stars collide in her story, she is convinced that her death is written in fate. After reading an article about him, she seeks out Thomas, who is an expert in coincidences. Though the two become romantically involved, they can't agree on the idea of coincidence and destiny, which causes turmoil and a big act to be taken. As Thomas relays the story of Azalea's lifetime of coincidences, I started to wonder about fate and destiny, and it took me on some interesting paths. A good book to pick up if you want an intriguing story that keeps you guessing from page to page.

So that's what I've been reading (and a few others, but I think I'll save them until next time), and I hope you find something there that can help you through March! As always, I love your recommendations, so please tell me what you've been reading. I'm fearing a dry spell soon as I've had such good luck lately!

Thank goodness for good books on wintry days.

Happy Reading,