Reading List 2011 (9/158)

Recent reading:

  • Pink Brain, Blue Brain, Lise Eliot
  • What You Can Change … And What You Can’t, Martin Seligman
  • St. Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves, Karen Russell
  • The Silent Land, Graham Joyce
  • No Excuses: Nine Ways We Can Change How Women Think About Power, Gloria Feldt
  • So Cold the River, Michael Koryta
  • Turn of Mind, Alice LaPlante
  • The Frozen Sky, Jeff Carlson
  • Stories for Nighttime and Some for the Day, Ben Loory

I’ve been busy with lots of Very Exciting Projects, which means I’ve fallen way behind on my book blogging. On the bright side, it makes it rather easy to decide which books to mention in my posts: let’s just say they’re not all equally memorable.

The most gripping, memorable read from this batch would be Joyce’s The Silent Land. After a young married couple survive an avalanche, they find themselves in a strange alternate version of their ski resort. The book is full of haunting imagery and unfolds with a wonderful sense of tension. Each time the characters discover some new oddity, you feel their sense of dislocation increase. The real star of the novel, though, is how Joyce portrays their relationship and how it unfolds under stress. Somehow he manages to avoid the Scylla of sentimentality and the Charybdis of unlikeability; their marriage reads as loving, real, and sustaining, even as the stresses they experience push the protagonists apart and together again. Highly recommended.

I’d also recommend the Russell stories. Like Joyce, her stories take place in a skewed version of reality. However, where Joyce’s alternate world is spare and haunting, hers is at once brash and mysterious, coarse and beautiful, vital and surging with a particularly American sensibility. My favorite story – other than the title story, which every woman past the age of puberty should be required to read – features a minotaur heading west with a wagon train, told from the perspective of the minotaur’s child. That’s the kind of book it is: a strange, visionary, left-handed take on America, using childhood and its immediacy of experience to anchor the strangeness in emotional truth. Wonderful.

The Loory stories, too, were haunting and thought-provoking – but I must admit I had to go back and flip through the book before my brain would cough up any details. This is not because the stories are bad, but because the collection does such a good job of building up this atmosphere of beauty and compassion and dread. It’s a short book and I recommend gulping it down in one sitting. You probably won’t be able to recall any of the individual stories later, but you won’t forget the way you’ll feel when you’re done. Just writing this post is making me want to read it again so I can get the feeling back.

I thought Pink Brain, Blue Brain would be a reasonable look at the neurobiology of gender differences, but frankly, Eliot isn’t nearly critical enough about her topic. Not worth reading if you can get your hands on Delusions of Gender instead, which is a much more intelligent analysis of the same material.

Conversely, I expected the Seligman book to be not-so-great, but I found it to be really compelling, both in approach and in content. Seligman looks at common human problems – from depression to quitting smoking – and asks whether they are best solved by medical or non-medical interventions. On the whole, he argues, therapeutic interventions are relatively cheap, effective and low-risk, compared to drugs. However, he seems (based on my understanding of the literature) to be quite fair-minded about admitting when drugs are really necessary to achieve any kind of lasting change. In fact, each chapter closes with a review of the advantages and disadvantages of the treatment approaches he reviews, so you can judge what best fits your own situation. This may not be of interest to anyone without a personal or professional reason to investigate the topic, but I thought it was both readable and engaging.

No Excuses could be ground-breaking to the right reader, but that reader wasn’t me. I found myself reading the book waiting for her to say something I didn’t already know. Between my research on gender and my interest in psychology, I had a lot of it covered! On the other hand, this book could make a fabulous gift for the young feminist in your life.

So Cold the River was a reasonably good horror novel involving grand old hotels, bodily possession, and some approximation of the fountain of youth. I didn’t love it, mostly because the main character kept being an utter idiot, but it was good enough to get me to read more Koryta – and his other books are far better. Watch this space for a review of The Cypress House, or you could just go read it right now.

Turn of Mind was a high-concept murder mystery: the main character has Alzheimer’s, and may or may not have murdered her best friend. You get the backstory of their lives together, as well as hints to the murder, filtered through her slowly deteriorating mind. Don’t read this one for the plot – read it for LaPlante’s amazing handling of character and point of view. (Though the plot isn’t bad either!)

Finally, The Frozen Sky let Carlson try his hand at high-action hard sci-fi, where first contact goes horribly wrong. (The aliens spend most of their time trying to kill the protagonist.) He does a nice job of evoking the “sensawunda” while at the same time making you empathize with the protagonist’s growing despair – but the ending is quite unsatisfying. On the whole, I prefer his post-apocalyptic stuff. Then again, I’ve always enjoyed reading about the end of the world.

Happy reading!

One comment

  1. Jenn E. says:

    Seligman is one of the individuals I’m using in my thesis work. His work is fantastic and really interesting, especially his recent development with the military and work with PTSD.

    I think I’ll read that Russell book. Thanks!

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