Les livres de 2010, round 4

Once in a while when we're bored with hanging around the house, Chris and I will wander over to Book Court to visit the books. I like looking at the Staff Picks and last night was no exception; as I perused the new fiction shelves, I couldn't help noticing that many of the books I picked up were written by MFA students. Cue total motivation to write.

One of the other things that hit me last night is the sheer number of books I've picked up this year that I have wanted to read for every reason but the best one: a really good story. Whenever I recommend books to friends, I go back to a few gems that I read about five years ago; they all had wonderful plot and characters, an element of love, and a genius for storytelling.

Last night I swore to Chris that I would start only reading books that I was swept away by, which allowed me to start my 12th book of the year last night and finish it just a few moments ago. Without further ado, the fourth installation of book reviews this year:

9. The Declaration of Independence by Stephanie Schwartz Driver
I'm almost done watching the awesome HBO series John Adams and a few weeks ago, I became obsessed with reading the actual Declaration of Independence. For about 5 minutes, I considered memorizing it and then I thought I should get over myself. This book feels like a little bit of a cheat since it's kind of a glorified pamphlet, but I actually learned quite a bit from it. I don't know if I'd recommend seeking it out unless you also have a dying need to read the founding father's work, but it was worth it to me at the time.

10. An Exact Replica of a Figment of My Imagination by Elizabeth McCracken
I read this memoir in about two hours. The story was so tragic (married couple is pregnant with their first child and living in France when she gives birth to a stillborn baby) and I had no business reading it. All it did was make me even more anxious about things like fate and death and babies.

But I do not regret reading it for a second. Elizabeth McCracken's story is tragic because of the facts, true, but the way she wrote, so raw and so honest, drew me in and held me there in the eye of the storm. I totally recommend this book if you need a good cry or have an evening to dedicate to an engrossing and complex life story.

It was also fascinating to hear this American woman recount how France has now become a place where she can never return. The wounds are that deep. And while I've never lost a baby in another country, I do know what she's getting at: physical spaces can retain the memories (good or bad) of the events that took place in them.

Here's a particularly eloquent passage:

Perhaps it goes without saying that I believe in the geographic cure. Of course you can't out-travel sadness. You will find it has smuggled itself along in your suitcase. It coats the camera lens, it flavors the local cuisine. In that different sunlight, it stands out, awkward, yours, honking in the brash vowels of your native tongue in otherwise quiet restaurants. You may even feel proud of its stubbornness as it follows you up the bell towers and monuments, as it pants in your ear while you take in the view. I travel not get away from my troubles but to see how they look in front of famous buildings or on deserted beaches. I take them for walks. Sometimes I get them drunk. Back at home we generally understand each other better. (p.132)

11. The Thing Around Your Neck by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I asked for this book for Christmas and my Mom came through. I'd read two of Ngozi Adichie's books last fall after I saw her at the New Yorker festival, where she was simply stunning. I knew that I would fall in love with her collection of short stories and I kept it on my bookshelf since the winter, safe for a rainy day when I needed a good read.

Last night's moment in Book Court convinced me it was time to bring this one down.

All of the stories are Nigeria-centric and they are fascinating. Arranged marriages and post-war families, Nigerians living in America without Green Cards. Each is quiet and simple and powerful whether you know tons or nothing about her home country. My favorite story was the one she read at the festival, the title piece, The Thing Around Your Neck. I remembered her reading it as I read it at home last night, the way she pronounced some of the words and the way her voice commanded the story.

Here's the opening passage to that story. It's funny and complicated, no?

You thought everybody in America had a car and a gun; your uncles and aunts and cousins thought so, too. Right after you won the American visa lottery, they told you: In a month, you will have a big car. Soon, a big house. But don't buy a gun like those Americans.

So onwards and upwards with this reading list. I am going to stop reading as much non-fiction because it never flies like I want it to. And I would love to hear what books have reminded you of the power of stories... because I am back in the market.

P.S. One of my New Year's Resolutions was to read 15 books this year. I'm excited to say that I'm only 3 books away from that goal... and I still have half the year left! Re-dedicating myself to reading books this year makes me happy.


Anonymous said...

Hi Jen,
This is totally unrelated to your great post but....I have a friend who is trying to get the chaine des puys, here in Auvergne, recognised as a world heritage site. She's putting together a brochure for the official 'plaquette grand public' and she's looking for photos of other sites, including the Taj Mahal. Her problem is that she's having major copyright issues so she's looking for friends (or friends of friends of friends!) who might have some photos she could use....I thought of you and the Taj Mahal. If you could help, her email is Cecile Olive cecileolive at hotmail dot fr The only thing is that she was given the put-together-a-brochure project on Friday and it has to be finished by tonight.... If you read this today and want to help out please get in touch with her - she'd be very grateful!!
Thanks, Ciara

Jen said...

C- I emailed her a minute ago with a link to my Flickr pix... let me know if there's anything else I can do!

Jen :)