The Books of September

Listened to:

The Night Circus: Erin Morgenstern -
This is a repeat. I loved the book and enjoyed lis­ten­ing to it a cou­ple of years ago. I revis­it­ed it on the morn­ing walks ear­ly in September. I still love it. Ms. Morgenstern has been some­what pub­licly work­ing on her next books for sev­er­al years. I hope to hell she’s not stuck with the sopho­more jinx. though she admits that Night Circus took her a long time and many sub­stan­tial revi­sions to get right.

The Name of the Rose: Umberto Eco -
I love Eco. This was the first of his nov­els that I read years ago and I remem­bered lik­ing it. Now, not so much. He’s as dis­cur­sive as Stephenson but the detours and expli­ca­tions of the here­sies of the 13th (?) cen­tu­ry sim­ply did not hold my atten­tion in the same way that Stephenson’s digres­sions on the nature of mon­ey and the bank­ing econ­o­my or the arcana of cryp­tog­ra­phy did. Clearly I skipped the dull parts when I read the book. That’s a test of how well a dis­cur­sive writer holds up their end of the author/reader bar­gain. Can you lis­ten to the work? Because when you’re lis­ten­ing all the parts get equal weight (time) and there is no way to skim the dull bits. A les­son to learn for writers.

Ready Player One: Ernest Cline / nar­ra­tor: Wil Wheaton -
A clas­sic in the genre that I’ve nev­er both­ered to read because I’m not a game play­er. The last games I played were the text adven­ture games when they were first played on ter­mi­nals con­nect­ed to big com­put­ers in the labs at school.
Likable char­ac­ters and a stroll down late 80’s mem­o­ry lane. It does­n’t hurt that Wheaton has a real love for the book and the 80’s. It comes through in the narration.


The Poisonwood Bible: Barbara Kingsolver -
A mis­sion­ary fam­i­ly go to the Belgian Congo in the ear­ly 1960’s as the colo­nial era ends. The nar­ra­tive is told in five voic­es, each of the women in the Price fam­i­ly get­ting to tell por­tions of the sto­ry. The voic­es are con­vinc­ing — though you’ll prob­a­bly hate read­ing (lis­ten­ing to) the old­est daughter.
I thought is was going to end at about 60% of the way through. When Mrs. Price and her three remain­ing daugh­ters (no, that is not a spoil­er you learn that one of the daugh­ters is “left in Africa” at the begin­ning of the book) escape the vil­lage and more impor­tant­ly the clutch­es of the hor­ri­ble mis­sion­ary Rev. Price. I think that the rest of the book is inter­est­ing, but it does­n’t have the nar­ra­tive impe­tus of the first half. There is too lit­tle inter­ac­tion between the remain­ing female mem­bers of the fam­i­ly. Through out the first half of the book the sto­ry was about the rela­tion­ship between those women. Then sec­ond half of the book the sto­ry is about the rela­tion­ship each woman has to her own past. Still… I sort of liked it. And I under­stand why it would be an Oprah pick. (Not all Oprah picks suck. Seriously. But you can count on them to be cen­tered on rela­tion­ships between women.)

Second Hand Souls: Christopher Moore -
A follow-up to A Dirty Job. More about the a lit­tle girl who is Death and her helpers. It’s not quite as fun­ny as A Dirty Job, but it’s worth an afternoon.

The Devil in the White City: Erik Larson -
A ser­i­al killer at the 1893 Columbia Exhibition in Chicago.
It’s a dull depic­tion of the killer and a pret­ty bor­ing retelling of the Fair as well. Of inter­est only in that you get to see FL Olmsted work­ing at the end of this life and the cre­ation of the Ferris Wheel.
There are bet­ter ser­i­al killer books (even from this peri­od of time) and there are bet­ter his­to­ries of the Columbia Exhibition.
It’s also incred­i­bly poor­ly writ­ten, to wit, the only depic­tion of the ser­i­al killers psy­chopa­thy is giv­en as “those eyes” over and over and over again.

Marie Antoinette’s Watch: John Biggs -
A love­ly thing for watch geeks, or any­one who finds the inter­sec­tion of his­to­ry and tech­nol­o­gy fas­ci­nat­ing. Recommended by William Gibson who is a bit of a watch nerd. This book traces the his­to­ry of the most famous of the Breguet watch­es, the 160, orig­i­nal­ly com­mis­sioned for the French Queen and fin­ished decades after her death. Stolen from a muse­um in Israel in 1983 and returned under mys­te­ri­ous cir­cum­stances in 2007.

Love Machine: Louise Erdrich -
A com­plex sto­ry about com­plex fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships set on the Chippewa reser­va­tion in North Dakota. A set of short sto­ries from mul­ti­ple points of view that show the rela­tion­ships between the char­ac­ters from dif­fer­ent points of view and let the read­er slow­ly come to under­stand more about the peo­ple and places involved. Perhaps more than the char­ac­ters them­selves know.

Life After Life: Kate Atkinson -
What that stu­pid movie Ground Hog day should real­ly have been about. We fol­low Ursula Todd, born on a win­ter’s night in 1910, through mul­ti­ple iter­a­tions of her life. In each one she makes a dif­fer­ent cru­cial deci­sion that either ends in her death or in a path that diverges from her pre­vi­ous life. I expect­ed to get bored by wan­der­ing along the same path so many times but Kate Atkinson man­ages to reit­er­ate the events of pre­vi­ous lives with­out retread­ing ground. Lives span the first and sec­ond world wars and on almost into the 21st cen­tu­ry. Only once did the sto­ry veer off into “no real­ly?” territory.

Tomcat in Love: Tim O’Brien -
Professor of lin­guis­tics, Thomas Chippering is a very unlik­able man. He thinks of him­self as a con­nois­seur of women. But also as faith­ful man who has been wronged all his life. The men­tal gym­nas­tics that goes through to main­tain his self-image are laugh­able. In a dark­ly com­ic way.
I like O’Brien’s writ­ing. I did­n’t like Chippering — you aren’t sup­posed to like him but you are sup­posed to empathize with his ongo­ing attempts to keep his self-image intact in the face of increas­ing evi­dence of his infi­deli­ties and respon­si­bil­i­ty for all of the mis­for­tunes that befall him. I could­n’t quite man­age it. The book is worth read­ing none the less for the writ­ing and the weird bits were the nar­ra­tor goes off on tan­gents about how indi­vid­ual words have come to have their mean­ings twist­ed for him.

Birds of America: Lorrie Moore -
Short sto­ries by one of America’s mas­ters. Realism, if you like that sort of thing you’ll like the book. She’s one of my models.


Middlesex: Jeffery Eugenides -
The first line of this book is:

I was born twice: first, as a baby girl, on a remark­ably smog­less Detroit day in January of 1960; and then again, as a teenage boy, in an emer­gency room near Petoskey, Michigan, in August of 1974.

What is the mean­ing of gen­der? Is it fixed at birth? Set by upbring­ing? Or flu­id through out our lives? Big ques­tions that are nev­er real­ly defin­i­tive­ly answered. Which is rather the point of the book. It’s also a sprawl­ing Greek saga of three gen­er­a­tions. With lots of enjoy­able char­ac­ters and well hid­den secrets.


I am still look­ing for a tran­scen­dent book. One that sur­pris­es me with both it’s writ­ing and it’s sto­ry. Haven’t got­ten there on any­thing late­ly except per­haps the Lorrie Moore short sto­ries and Middlesex — though nei­ther reach­es all the way to tran­scen­dent. Only close.