Happy Halloween! Today marks the end of another month. Are you ready for my October Book Reviews?
Three of the books I read in October (Mariette in Ecstasy, The Namesake, and The Virgin Suicides) were part of a five-week Survey of Fiction class I attended through OLLI at University of Arkansas. Okiehomeland was my book club’s official October selection. I listened to Young Jane Young via Hoopla and chose it mainly because of the cover. (Sometimes my choices are as simple as that.)
These books take us to—a rural New York convent at the turn of the century; India as we immigrate to America; on a great Nebraska wheat harvest adventure; from a political campaign in Florida to a mayoral race in Maine; to the suburbs of Detroit and into the home of a family in rapid deterioration.
The books included in my October book reviews include some of the best I’ve read in a great while.
That’s saying something!
October Book Reviews:
Mariette in Ecstasy
by Ron Hansen
The Sisters of the Crucifixion live an austere and disciplined existence. Each day and night is spent in routine with prayer, farm work, daily devotion, and silence. Enter young, beautiful, extremely devout Mariette to the cloistered convent. Mariette, who according to her father is “too high-strung” for the convent, is prone to visions and trances. When she wakes with bleeding palms, the sisters (most of them) question whether or not she is a hoax. The idea that the most faithful of all cry foul when Mariette is left with a stigmata raises issues about hypocritical behavior in religion. The sisters seek Christ yet deny evidence of Him? And, oh the jealousy they feel for Mariette. Turns out nuns can be as petty as the next woman.
Hansen has written an incredibly deep story in poetic prose style. He plays with extremes in his descriptions of lush nature surrounding the convent and the simple lives of the nuns. He weaves in subtext and asks the reader to trust and follow along in this stimulating story that has been called Catholic erotic fiction. Is this book for everyone? Probably not. It’s certainly not a light, fun read. But if you want something to sink your teeth into on a cold, fall day, I say give Mariette in Ecstasy a read. It’s a work of art.
This book made me: I don’t know. Amazed. Astonished. No, really.
My favorite line: And Christ still sends me roses. We try to be formed and held and kept by him, but instead he offers us freedom. And now when I try to know his will, his kindness floods me, his great love overwhelms me, and I hear him whisper, Surprise me.
Young Jane Young
by Gabrielle Zevin
If you’re looking for something timely and smart to read this fall, Young Jane Young is entertaining and quick. This is the story of Aviva Grossman, a young promising intern who (oops!) has an affair with her married congressman boss. Yes, her life is destroyed while the congressman carries on in typical successful fashion. Double standard much? Aviva will remind you of Monica Lewinsky or Chandra Levy, but she is her own person, and this is a work of fiction. Aviva moves from Florida, changes her name to Jane Young, and reinvents herself while raising a daughter alone in Maine. The story is told in sections from different point of views (including second person) which at first feels unsettling but overall turns out to be a good way to develop character.
This book made me: wonder what Monica Lewinsky has been up to and hope she’s been able to move on.
My favorite line: “Why are you so quiet?” he asks. Because, you want to say, I am a person with an interior world that you know nothing about.”
The Virgin Suicides
by Jeffrey Eugenides
The five Lisbon sisters are beautiful, eccentric, otherworldly. They stick together and move in a pack through the halls of their school. And in that way hormones fuel infatuation, they intrigue the neighborhood boys simply by being. When one sister commits suicide by “hurling herself out of the world,” the surviving girls seem bound by some unwritten, unseen tie to all follow suit. This is a story about tragedy and how it affects everyone, even those who bear witness from afar. The author’s word choices reinforce the demise of the family as the house is no longer kept up, the neighborhood elm trees are dying, society in general is declining. The story is nostalgically told as the narrator (one of the neighborhood boys) looks back years later on his involvement with the Lisbon girls. Think The Wonder Years with a dark, remorseful side. I’m not giving away spoilers here. We learn of the suicides not only from the title but also in the first few paragraphs of the book. Eugenides is a masterful storyteller. He builds tension and intrigue even though the ending is known from the get go.
This book made me: want to watch the movie (which I’ve never seen).
My favorite line: We felt the imprisonment of being a girl, the way it made your mind active and dreamy, and how you ended up knowing which colors went together.
by Mitch Terry
How about a summer job harvesting wheat? That’s the basis for this male coming-of-age story about two best friends, Sonny and Junior. Written by Arkansas author, Mitch Terry, (he’s a native of Oklahoma) the story is fictional yet authentic because he drew from real life experience in 1971. And I always appreciate a book set in the seventies. Okiehomeland is a fast, fun romp through Nebraska behind the wheel of a grain truck. Terry accurately captures that special period of time just after high school graduation and before college and “real” jobs begin. He depicts the spirit of early friendships. Read it now, during harvest season, unless you are a farmer. Then, wait until winter when you actually have a few minutes to breathe.
This book made me: compare 1971 to today and think about what a great loss of innocence we have experienced as a society.
My favorite line: The hardest part was not letting your mind wander and keeping the header full, but I managed to keep it in the wheat.
by Jhumpa Lahiri
I read The Namesake when it first came out in 2004 and re-read it two weeks ago for class. In The Namesake, Lahiri describes one Bengali family’s immigrant experience by skillfully depicting generational struggle and clash between cultures. The Namesake meanders through a thirty-plus year period, and while there aren’t any earth-shattering, mind-blowing events, I found myself completely absorbed in the family, unable to put the book down. This is a story about expectations—those we have for ourselves and others. It’s about identity and trying to fit in, something we all likely find real and relatable. Lahiri is a thoughtful author who makes the common idea flow like quiet verse.
This book made me: excited to read The Lowland by Lahiri which I realize I have on my bookshelf. And I want to re-read Interpreter of Maladies.
My favorite line: He hates that his name is both absurd and obscure, that it has nothing to do with who he is, that it is neither Indian nor American but of all things Russian. He hates having to live with it, with a pet name turned good name, day after day, second after second… At times his name, an entity shapeless and weightless, manages nevertheless to distress him physically, like the scratchy tag of a shirt he has been forced permanently to wear.
October is a wrap. On to November reading!
Grace Grits and Gardening
Farm. Food. Garden. Life.
A Dream Goes On Forever, Todd Rundgren