Pulp Picks

June 30, 2011

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Beach Reading

Image by aafromaa via Flickr


I know many people look for beach and vacation reading during the summer so it seems like a good time for my first — and, let’s be honest, probably my last — edition of Pulp Picks.

Personally, I am most excited for Ann Patchett’s latest, State of Wonder. I loved Bel Canto and Truth and Beauty, and even her less stellar efforts, like Run, kept me hooked. I am, in fact, so excited about State of Wonder that I keep putting it off; I guess I don’t want to have the best book of the summer completed by early July. So, here’s what I’ve been reading in the meantime:

This Life Is in Your Hands: One Family, Sixty Acres and a Life Undone, by Melissa Coleman

This Life is a memoir that recounts the author’s life growing up on a farm in northern Maine in the 1970s. Her parents basically went “off the grid” right after they were married, and lived the homesteading life — they grew and sold their own (organic) food and lived in a small cottage built by her father, where their mother canned food for the long winters and made yogurt from their goats’ milk. You get the picture. Given the recent interest in small farms and CSAs and such, I thought it would be interesting to hear about a couple who, along with their role models, Helen and Scott Nearing, pioneered the movement back when it just sounded crazy.

The bad news is that I didn’t find all the homesteading stuff that interesting on its own; it turns out I don’t really want to read about the specifics of the nutrients that need to be added to soil blah blah blah. The good news is that the story of a young family dealing with loss (even though the back of the book tells you who dies, I don’t feel like saying it), and ultimately coming unravelled is sad and fascinating and profound. Although the writing is often lovely and poetic, I actually wished that it was simpler, but that’s just me. Sometimes I just don’t like all them flowery werds. Grade: B

Before that, I read Orange is the New Black: My Year in a Women’s Prison, by Piper Kerman. I’ve never really understood the whole concept of “beach reading” — why would you want to read a crappy book just because you’re at the beach? — but I guess this is the kind of l-i-t-e stuff that fits into that genre.

Piper Kerman was 34 -years-old and a Smith College graduate when she self-surrendered and was sentenced to 15 months in prison for some weird money laundering stuff she got caught up in after college — it’s not explained all that well. But it was intriguing to me because Kerman seems like someone I would have known in college — or, hell, like ME in college — and I know I would flip if I had to go to jail. No joke; I would freak the hell out.

The thing about Kerman is that she doesn’t freak out. She is a self-described stoic and, while I’m sure that came in handy while she was incarcerated, it’s maybe not the best characteristic of a memoir writer. Her lessons are basic, and we know all of them without reading the book: Prison sucks, it doesn’t make sense as a way to make people act better, and there are good and bad people in prison, as there are everywhere else. Now you can go back to staring at the ocean. Grade: C+

In stark contrast with the above memoir, Townie: A Memoir, by Andre Dubus III, is the real deal, and I’m not just saying that because Dubus’ kids go to the same school as my kid, or because the setting of the memoir is the same area where I’ve lived for much of my life.

Townie is essentially a coming-of-age story and I know we’ve all been there before, so what makes it different? The details, and the brutal honesty. There’s a lot of violence in the story, mostly fights among young men, but the most violent incident involves his sister and he paints a picture I won’t soon forget. As with This Life, this is ultimately the story of a family and how they handle what’s thrown at them. It’s not pretty, but it’s real. And also, you should buy it soon, before they make it into a movie and you can only get the copy with the movie’s star on the cover. I hate that. Grade: A-

And, lastly, a quick mention of The Summer Guest, by Justin Cronin, the only book on here that’s not recent (it was published in 2004). I read this because I’d heard such great things about Cronin but I simply could not stomach his most recent book, The Passage. Simply put, I do not do vampires. Period. (Or zombies, just so you know.) I figured I’d check out one of his previous books and I LOVED The Summer Guest. I was so sad when it ended that I had to immediately jump into Mary and O’Neil, which also was lovely, but I’m not reviewing it here, so please stop asking me about it. That’s just rude.

Anyway, for some reason, I don’t really feel like talking much about the plot of The Summer Guest. It takes place mostly at a rustic camp in Maine, a place where wealthy people come for fishing vacations. It’s one of those books where each chapter is about a different character and it takes a while to figure out how it’s all going to come together. The writing is deeee-licious. I’ll leave it at that; if you agree with any of my other reviews than you should just believe me and read one of these two books by Cronin. Grade for each: A-

Speaking of books that weren’t written recently, my book group is reading A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith, this summer. How I’ve never read this before is beyond me, but it’s in the queue now. It will have to wait until after State of Wonder, of course, as will anything else I read.

Okay, I’m done. What are you reading this summer?



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