All the Light We Cannot See, by Anthony Doerr

I will admit that I usually stay away from WWII stories. At some point the horror of it all just got overwhelming and I wondered what good it does to keep putting more pictures about that time into my head. But then, Genna recommended the Guernsey Literary and Sweet Potato Peel Pie Society and it was so charming and life-affirming. Add that everyone, everywhere, it seems, has been talking about Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See and that In the same week my request for this title came in at the library, a copy arrived in the mail from a friend who sometimes just sends me a book out of the blue, and I felt like the universe was saying, “It’s time to read this book!” In the end, I listened to it. I listen to a lot of audio books, but I will say that this one is very well done. Sometimes drastic time shifts can be confusing in an audio book, but this one, where the story makes great jumps forward and backward in time, flowed well owing to the author’s ability to offer a place-holder to show us when we are where, and make it all come together. This is the kind of grand love story that takes your breath away because 1) it’s not just about two people in love, but about the love that swirls all around us all the time, even if we don’t know it, and 2) because all along you can see that the lives of the two main characters are meant to come together. But when they do, there is no collision, only a slipping past each other, the physical weight of the meeting like a feather in an avalanche. It is perfect. It is the ripples we make. It is how we change each other only by being who we are. A stunningly beautiful book bringing humanity and reason into a time when both of those things seemed in imminently short supply. Read it. Listen to it. Talk about it. This book will stick around.

Redeployment, by Phil Klay

Phil Klay has created a series of stories that make what is, for most of us, an abstract series of flashes on the TV screen or words on the radio or in the newspaper, real. He brings to life the personal repercussions of what it means to be in military service at this moment in time. What it means to come “home” to a place that may not make sense any more, where you want to fit, but things are irrevocably changed inside of you, inside your understandings of yourself. Wherever you might stand on the politics of the wars of this generation, Klay brings us to the reality of the individual lives of the people employed in the business of protecting a nation. I read this one with the book group and there wasn't a person who attended the discussion who didn't appreciate the perspective Phil Klay brings to life here. One person said this should be required reading for anyone holding political office and I agree. We could sit back and close our eyes to what is happening to our troops, but no matter what any one of us might think about the politics of these wars, let’s not.

Ask the Passengers, by A.S. King

This young adult coming of age novel started off a little slow for me and it took a minute to get clear on the “ask the passengers” conceit - the main character was talking to the passengers on the planes passing over because she couldn’t figure out how to talk to the people right there in her own world. And here and there were snippets of the lives of the passengers; charming enough. After a while, I grew to like Astrid who is a teenager figuring out who she likes and how to show it, and all the messiness that ensues. Since it’s been a month or so since I finished and I got behind on writing this report, here are a few quick snapshots of what I remember: parents who don’t get it, perfect siblings who are not really perfect, but sad; first times at a gay dance club where you finally seem to fit (yay!); kissing the wrong person and trying to figure out why you did; and wow - a lot of de-veining of shrimp happens in this book. As lesbian coming of age novels go, this one was sweet and not too pushy and not too perfect. It’s worth an afternoon of reading.

The Days of Anna Madrigal, by Armistead Maupin

This is the last book in a long Tales of the City series Armistead Maupin started back in 1978. I discovered them in the early 1990’s and, once I’d caught up, was excited to see each new volume. Episodic, full of movement and life, and with no holding back on up-to-the-minute issues in the LGBTQ world, The Days of Anna Madrigal was just as fun and fulfilling as the rest of the series. I will say though, if you plan to read any volume, start from the beginning; it’s so much more fun that way - a kind of thirty-five-year soap opera, except you’re spending time with people you’d actually really like to call friends. (For extra fun, I recommend the Tales of the City TV miniseries from 1994, starring Olympia Dukakis and Laura Linney among many fantastic others.)

Spence & Lila, by Bobbie Ann Mason

This short novel found me a couple of weeks ago when I was visiting family in Denver. Wandering around downtown Boulder’s Pearl Street Mall, my cousin and I went in a little, used bookstore, packed floor to ceiling. Out of all of those spines, I spotted this one. When I asked to buy it, the bookseller pointed out that this volume had been on the shelf for more than 20 years, so it really should have been priced higher - this was on the old pricing system. (I contend that when a book hasn’t moved from the shelf in more years than my grown-up cousin has been alive, that’s not cause for a mark-up.) I mean no slight to this book or its author, only that this particular tattered copy must have been waiting there for me. On Sunday morning, I cracked the cover to read for a little while and ended up devoting the day to Spence & Lila. This is the kind of quiet novel that makes you feel like you’re spending time in an honest-to-goodness reality with honest-to-goodness people. The the plot and place are wholly imagined, the heart of the book feels emotionally true, and the characters are just like me and not like me at all. I’ve stumbled onto a new favorite writer. I can’t imagine how I’ve never read Bobbie Ann Mason before and feel grateful that I get to read her other books now. In a time when I’m trying to clear out my bookshelves, Bobbie is gonna get plenty of space.

Station Eleven, by Emily St. John Mandel

I’ve been hearing about this book for a while now and it certainly lived up to the hype. Maybe hitting the 9-months post-chemo mark and starting a new job added to the effect, but I have to say that I spent the week or so it took me to listen to this audiobook questioning everything. Experiencing this splendidly executed depiction of the end of the world as we know it really makes you look at the inanity and frivolity of how we live now. Emily St. John Mandel had me wanting to stop everything and gather all the people I love together because you never know what’s going to happen to the world you’re in. (Again, see aforementioned cancer.) Anyway, this book has amazingly well-explored characters all webbed together in a way that is both surprising and inevitable. It’s a page-turner (or disc-changer) with literary prowess that very subtly allows the reader to think about the world in new ways. I highly recommend it. 


The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, by Annie Barrows and Mary Ann Shaffer

My literary reader powerhouse young cousin took me to a bookstore and handed this book to me, aghast that I hadn’t read it before. The next Saturday, I read the whole thing cover to cover. It’s that kind of book - the kind that flows one section to the next; it feels smooth and seamless and you care. The epistolary format often evokes this sort of commitment in me; when it’s done right the style makes space for the characters to feel real as real can be, and ending one “letter” makes you anxious to start the next. Though one section where we switch from reading letters to reading a journal feels a little clunky, the writers of this novel do some really interesting work in voice and structure, keeping things entertaining and poignant in respect to the historical context. My cuz was right to tell me to read this, and being with these characters - in the despair that comes with trauma and the sweetness we can sometimes find in the aftermath - was an enchanting way to spend a weekend.

Fangirl, by Rainbow Rowell

I am a new Rainbow Rowell fangirl. It started with Eleanor and Park, then Attachments, and this one has sealed the deal. I will admit that it took me a little bit to warm up to Cather. She felt too distant for a while, but once things got rolling, I was in love. With Cather, with Levi, with Cather and Wren’s dad, with Simon and with Baz. Rainbow (I’m going to pretend we’re on a first-name basis) has this ability to create lusciously fulfilling nerdy-girl romances, making her nerdy-girl reader feel like: Oh-my-god - this could happen to me too! Seriously, a beautiful shaggy-haired raised-on-a-farm boyfriend who only wants to listen to Cather read her fiction aloud to him? Levi = best dream-boat book-boy. The best YA takes us to the sweet purity of youth (even when it’s messed up and lacks what people like to think of as sweet and pure) and what it means to be figuring so many things out for the first time and all at once. Rainbow, she gets it.

Say What You Will, by Cammie McGovern

I listened to this book the first time through and was engrossed. I’d sit in the car in front of my apartment so I could keep listening. As soon as I finished, I started listening again. Sometimes I get lost in the plot of an audio book and don’t pay much attention to whether it’s actually well-written. I wondered if a second listen would prove that I’d only been in this novel for the story. I enjoyed the second time through just as much. This is a book featuring characters who are real and full and honest, but whose lives are unlike those we usually see in the all-American YA love story. Even though the plot becomes operatic at one point (in maybe a bit of a tv-movie way), this novel is utterly entertaining and it feels life affirming to see these two kids make it through.

Story of A Girl, by Sara Zarr

In Story of a Girl, Sara Zarr builds a character whose world is so real and inner mind so clearly imagined that readers feel like we may have pressed pause our own lives and zoomed into a close-up of the girl behind the counter at the pizza joint. The one who looks like something’s wrong, but we’ll never know what. Here, we get to know. And the story we zoom into is rich and layered and depicts one of those crucial moments when a person becomes something different than what she’s been. That’s what I love about YA, the simple unabashedness of becoming.