Sunday, November 11, 2012

2011 Top 10: We Need to Talk About Kevin

Final in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2011 -- and the sole novel in the group.

We Need to Talk About Kevin by Lionel Shriver, ©2003

The fictional biography of a family whose teen son carries out a school shooting, written as a series of letters from his mother to the husband from whom she’s now separated.

It’s a perfect storm of nature (a boy who’s a seeming sociopath from birth) and nurture (an incongruent mother; a permissive father in denial) combining to create a nightmare. Fascinating, disturbing, outstanding.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

2011 Top 10: Unbroken

[Resuming here as if ten months hasn’t passed…]

Ninth in a series of my 10 favorite books read in 2011, presented in alphabetical order.

Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, ©2010

The biography of Louis Zamperini -- juvenile near-delinquent, Olympic runner, WWII prisoner of war ... inspiring human. A painful and wonderful observation of the truth of post-traumatic stress: that “trauma” refers as much (or more) to our disabling responses when we’re finally safe, as it does to our survival in the moment of danger. I listened on audio, read reassuringly by the fabulous Edward Herrmann. This was recommended to me as “uplifting” by numerous friends, and it is, absolutely.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

2011 Top 10: Radioactive

Eighth in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2011, presented in alphabetical order.

Radioactive by Lauren Redniss, ©2011

In Radioactive, Lauren Redniss uses art (primarily illustrations created through a process of “cyanotype printing” that evokes negative images and glowing radiation) to present a biography of Marie Curie ... and of radiation itself, from Roentgen to Hiroshima to Spider-man.

Even the words are art, in a font (developed by the author) that looks like delicate hand printing, arranged interestingly on the pages. I enjoyed seeing the personal side of Marie Curie, loved learning that Roentgen “dubbed the invisible light an ‘X’ ray, X for unknown,” and can understand how, at the turn of the century, the piling-up of discoveries of so many invisible forces (electricity, radio, telegraph, x-ray, radioactivity) “blurred the boundary between science and magic.”

It’s a part-linear, part segue-filled slideshow. Lovely.

Friday, January 13, 2012

2011 Top 10: My Own Country

Seventh in a series of my 10 favorite books read in 2011, presented in alphabetical order.

My Own Country by Abraham Verghese, ©1994

A fascinating, moving memoir of a doctor treating (more accurately, devoting his life to) early AIDS patients in small-town Tennessee. It's a startling reminder of how much more closeted gays were in the late 1980s and how much a death sentence AIDS was then. The last hundred pages are just sad with loss, which is exactly how it was.

Jan 14 edit: Fortuitous timing -- just came upon this TED Talk by Abraham Verghese on the importance of touch; it concludes with a moment that could have been in this book.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

2011 Top 10: Boys of My Youth

Sixth in a series of reviews of my 10 favorite books read in 2011, presented in alphabetical order.

The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard, ©1998
My mother is sewing a button on my father’s shirt while he’s still wearing it. “I was having this terrible feeling,” she says, “that she’d be this forty-year-old woman, going around telling people that we took her d-o-l-l away from her.” She leans down to bite off the thread. My father tests his new button and it works perfectly. “In three days she won’t remember she even knew that d-o-l-l,” he predicts.
But of course Beard remembers, and tells, in this non-linear collection of linked personal essays. They’re coming-of-age essays, where growing up is as likely to occur at thirty as at thirteen or three. Each age is rendered perfectly, as are the characters and the 1970s-80s period details of small-town Midwest.

Among the boys of Beard’s youth are Hal, that beloved d-o-l-l her mother’s oldest sister bullies her mother into throwing away; teenage boys who mostly ignore her at backwoods parties; her father who drinks and disappears for weeks at a time; Eric: boyfriend, husband, …; and a school-shooter in the University of Iowa physics department on a day Beard has gone home early to care for her aging dog. There are girls, too -- aunts and cousins; her older, nemesis sister; her mother who smokes on every page; a lifelong best friend she consults while writing these essays.

I love these people and their settings, love Beard’s writing and want more. I've also read her new novel In Zanesville, the first half of which feels exactly like these essays. I'm still scouring the Internet for anything else she's written.