How has it been this long since I’ve written about books?! It’s certainly not because I haven’t been reading—I’ve read quite a few books since my last post about them. So, time to remedy that by doing a Katie Recommends about books.
Maine is J. Courtney Sullivan’s second novel—the first was Commencement, which I’ve already written about. Like Commencement, this book alternates between four different viewpoints, but this time, they’re the voices of four different women in different generations of the same Irish Catholic family: the alcoholic octogenarian matriarch, the outspoken family black sheep, the desperate housewife lamenting the current state of her family, and the thirty-two-year-old unexpectedly pregnant by her immature boyfriend. As the book continues, we learn a lot about the family backstory and what makes these women the way they are. Meanwhile, family conflicts play out as these four women convene at their family vacation house in Maine.
On a personal note, I loved the recognition I found in a lot of things—I have vacationed several times on the southern coast of Maine and knew a lot of the places they referred to, and I’m also from a large, Irish Catholic, Bostonian family. Little things made me laugh, too, like the obituaries being referred to as the “Irish sports page” (my Irish great-grandmother apparently used to pick up the paper and say, “Let’s see who’s dead now.”). But even if you don’t have that personal connection, the characters are very easy to relate to, and there’s both a lot of humor and some very emotional moments.
Usually when I do a “Katie Recommends” post, I throw in some things that I don’t like, but it’s been so long since I’ve written about books that I’m just going to stick with the best books I’ve read. So, for other books I’ve been reading lately:
Sing Them Home by Stephanie Kallos
I read a positive review for this book in the Globe, put it on my Goodreads “To Read” list, and kind of forgot about it until I was running out of ideas for what to read. So I bought this book last year before I went to Aruba along with three others, and this was the last one I read. My expectations weren’t that high, but oh.my.God. This book is amazing. It’s about three siblings from Nebraska who lost their mother, Hope, as children. Hope, who suffered from multiple sclerosis, disappeared when she was swept up in a tornado. The siblings are now in their thirties. Larken is an overweight professor struggling with fear and unrequited love. Gaelan is a promiscuous TV weatherman whose relationships are all very superficial. Bonnie is a quirky townie who works odd jobs and searches the garbage left behind after storms. When their father is killed by lightning, they travel back to their Welsh-American hometown of Emlyn Springs, Nebraska to observe old Welsh funeral customs and confront the truth about their mother’s disappearance, which we learn about through Hope’s old diary entries. The characters are so sympathetic and real, and the writing is just lovely. There are some wonderful lines in which Kallos gives us insight to the minds of the dead: what they see, what they want, what they feel.
Broken For You by Stephanie Kallos
Since I loved Sing Them Home so much, of course I had to read Stephanie Kallos’s first book, Broken For You. Both books are very warm, sad, and occasionally funny, with quirky, imperfect, lovable characters. This one is about Margaret, a divorced septuagenarian dying of brain cancer who decides to take a boarder into her Seattle mansion. Wanda, a young stage manager reeling from a difficult breakup, answers the ad, and moves in not knowing about Margaret’s illness. Both women have heartache in their past: Margaret’s divorce followed the death of her son, and her house is haunted by the ghost of her difficult mother. Wanda was abandoned by her parents as a child and is secretly trying to track down the boyfriend who broke her heart. Margaret also struggles with the knowledge that the beautiful antique china she owns was stolen by her father from European Jewish families during World War II—until she responds by breaking the china with Wanda, who then turns it into beautiful mosaic art. While I did like Sing Them Home better—this book’s plot relies a bit too much on coincidence—it’s still a beautiful, highly enjoyable novel. I can’t wait for Stephanie Kallos to write another book.
The Nobodies Album by Carolyn Parkhurst
This is Carolyn Parkhurst’s third novel. I’ve read the other two, and this one makes her 3 for 3 with me. In fact, I like this one even better than The Dogs of Babel and Lost and Found. The protagonist, Octavia Frost, is a middle-aged novelist whose latest project is a book that rewrites all of the last chapters of her novels so that they no longer end tragically or reveal the pieces of her life, which has included the deaths of her husband and young daughter years ago in an accident, that have found their way into the books. As she’s about to turn in her final draft, she hears on the news that her estranged son, a famous rock star, has been arrested for the murder of his girlfriend. As she sets out to reconnect with the son she hasn’t spoken to in years, she discovers a lot of secrets about his life and starts to piece together how and why the murder happened. This book not only has a very original, suspenseful plot, but also includes the final chapters of Octavia’s books, both the original and rewritten versions. A lot of them sound like really good books—I kind of hope that Carolyn Parkhurst writes them for real!
Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal by Christopher Moore
This must have been an incredibly difficult book to write. It’s a comedic book that follows the life of Jesus Christ from childhood to crucifixion from the perspective of his made-up best friend that stays pretty close to the Bible story. And somehow, it’s funny and irreverent but also respectful of Christianity and the historical Jesus. A lot of the plot concentrates on the years before Jesus starts his ministry, of which the Bible says nothing. According to this book, Jesus spent those years traveling through Asia meeting the three kings who came to the manger where he was born. Biff’s personality can get a little irritating at times—he has a tendency to act like a 1st-century frat boy—but overall this was a fun, hilarious read.
The Virgin Suicides by Jeffrey Eugenides
Normally, very poetic language doesn’t do much for me, but the language used in this book is just gorgeous. Which is strange, because it’s a book about five sisters who all kill themselves. It’s written in the collective “we,” similar to Joshua Ferris’s Then We Came to the End or Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily,” as the young boys of the town describe the sheltered but fascinating Lisbon sisters, aged 13-17, who become all the more mysterious and beautiful to them after the youngest sister takes her own life. The title pretty much gives away the tragic nature of the story, but it’s a wonderful book that manages to make the story beautiful without romanticizing suicide.
Middlesex by Jeffrey Eugenides
I’ve had a bad run of luck with Pulitzer Prize winners—didn’t like The Road or The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, was meh on Tinkers and March, and liked but didn’t love Olive Kitteridge. But Middlesex, which won the Pulitzer in 2003? This I loved. It takes some serious talent to create an epic family saga with sympathetic and unforgettable characters that’s centered around consentual incest and intersexuality. Narrated like a Greek tragedy (it even starts out, “Tell me, O Muse,”) by Cal/Callie, a young man with a rare form of intersexuality that caused him to appear and be raised as a female during his childhood, it follows Cal’s grandparents as they immigrate to Michigan from Greece and start a family, all while hiding the secret of how their relationship began. This is just an amazingly well-written book—I can’t wait for Eugenides’s next novel.
A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole
Kyley gave me this book for my birthday, and it is HILARIOUS. It takes place in 1960s New Orleans and follows Ignatius J. Reilly, an obese, oddly-dressed thirty-year-old man who lives with his long-suffering mother and, despite his master’s degree and tendency to use multisyllabic words, is oblivious to the way the world works and will bellow at and berate anyone who gets in his way. After a car accident that puts his mother in debt, he is forced to go out and find a job and, in doing so, meets some quirky characters almost as crazy as he, plus causes a lot of chaos.
The Help by Kathryn Stockett
I read this book just in time for the movie, which I’m planning on seeing. I know everyone and their second cousin’s dog has read this book, but you know what? Usually when a book becomes that popular, it’s because a lot of people liked it. And I am one of them. It’s narrated in different chapters by Skeeter, a white, struggling, single, twenty-something writer (like me!) in 1960s Jackson, Mississippi (or not so much like me at all), and two black maids, Aibileen and Minny. After discovering that the maid who raised her has left, which her family refuses to talk about, and rapidly tiring of her racist housewife friends, Skeeter gets the idea to interview the maids in Jackson for an anonymous book detailing their experiences. Although the maids are risking their jobs and even their lives as civil rights-era violence spreads through Mississippi, they decide that their stories need to be told. While the book certainly isn’t perfect, the characters are very well-written and the plot is, to use a cliché, a page-turner, with a lot of humor thrown into a story with serious subject matter.