Monday, September 10, 2012

Dispatch From The Field: Farmer Joe's Summer Reading

It's been a long time since I've been able to get out a review. I could blame it on the death of my computer, or trying to juggle a full-time job with a full-time garden (& now trying to salvage the seemingly endless harvest...), or I could blame it on the heat of the summer. But one thing I can't blame it on is the books... I've read some amazing books this summer. So here is my long-delayed Summer of Reading List:

The first book I read this summer was In One Person by John Irving. Honestly, it's been a while since I read John Irving, and after reading this one, I don't think I'll wait too long to go back and revisit him. This first-person tale of Billy, who tells the reader the story of his life. Billy went to private, boarding schools in New England, grew up in academia and the theater, and was something of a sexual outlaw, being on the surface bisexual. But since this is John Irving, it's not really that cut-and-dry. This is a fascinating story told in such a living voice I am still thinking about some of the situations in the book, almost as if they happened to a friend of mine. There are truly unforgettable characters in this book: the librarian, first and foremost. Kittredge, the boyhood crush of many, who even as an adult still titillates and frustrates. Elaine, the girlfriend turned best friend. And Billy's Grandpa, who runs a lumber mill during the day, and acts in the community theater by night - as a woman. This is a novel that tackles issues of gender, and our perception of those who do not fit in as we might think they should. This is a novel of small-town America, and how those in larger cities might discount as being parochial and backward. This is a book about the love of books and theater... Humorous, melancholic, and touching, this book is also about growing older and learning to embrace, without apology, who we truly are.

The next book on my list was Victory by Linda Hirshman. It's subtitled "The Triumphant Gay Revolution - How a Despised Minority Pushed Back, Beat Death, Found Love, and Changed America for Everyone." As the title suggests, this is a generally positive, incredibly fascinating look at the Gay Revolution. She traces it from it's infancy around World War II through late last year, and the mixed gains on the Marriage Equality front. While much of this history has been written about before, I don't think I've read such a widely-scoped approach to it. Hirshman really shows how this despised minority banded together, pulled in allies, paid attention to other civil rights movements, and kept on fighting. She also shows that the gay movement has not always been a unified movement of gays, lesbians and their allies. She discusses the conflicting thoughts within the movement, between assimilation and flaunting their otherness. The dramas between women and men, and the inclusion of bisexuals, transgendered, and allies. On top of all that, there were racial and class tensions, and still the differences between city folk and rural folks. Not only is this a thorough and readable history of GLBT America, it's ultimately a breathtakingly hopeful book... A must read!

The next book I had was something like my vacation book. Only I read it during my lunch hours, and every free moment I had otherwise, because I just couldn't put it down. Beautiful Ruins is one of those books that is the ideal vacation book... not necessarily to read while on vacation, but perhaps to read in lieu of vacation... But that's minimizing it. This book blew me away, made me laugh out loud, made me clap. Yes, actually clap with excitement while sitting on a park bench reading it one day this summer. If you are a friend of mine and happened to run into me while I was reading it, there was a 100% chance I was going to be reading you something from this book. Jess Walter has written what I think is an absolute masterpiece. Gripping, funny, sad, true-to-life, elegantly written, vivid... I couldn't get enough of it and really had a debate with myself once I finished it whether to just start it over again. Beautiful Ruins is a story that starts in 1962 in essentially a backwater Italian town when an American movie star comes to town, saying she's dying. The keeper of the inn where she stays becomes involved in her life, bringing us to modern day Hollywood, where we enter the world of screenwriters and producers... Trust me, it's going to suck you in. You're going to love every single word of it, and you're not going to want it to end. Even writing about it makes me want to sit back down and delve back into the incredible worlds Walter brings alive. I think it's going to be hard for another book to top this one this year for me.

Which brings us to Capital by John Lanchester. I started this book while I was actually on vacation, which coincided with the start of the Summer Games in London. Capital takes place in the City of London a few years ago. Specifically, the bulk of the action takes place on Pepys Road, one street in London, whose residents have been receiving increasingly disturbing postcards, dvd's and letters saying "We Want What You Have" and each being a photograph of the recipient's home. John Lanchester tells this story through the lives of each of his main characters, a cast of about a dozen. It's actually quite easy to keep track of these characters, as Lanchester does an amazing job of telling the story through their own voices.  It's a big book, and thankfully so... there's so much more to the story than the blurb on the back suggests... Truly a wonderful novel.


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