Books: What I Read in May

Hey, I kinda read a lot in May. I mean, I think so, at least. Is five books, one of them a graphic novel, a lot? It seemed like a lot, and as if I was onto a new book every week. Let’s review:

Dept. of Speculation by Jenny Offil

Dept. of Speculation was a strange little book. Short and fragmentary, it traces the beginning and break down of a marriage. A woman and a man fall in love, get married, have a child, get bedbugs, have or contemplate affairs, move out of the city.

Each of the book’s short paragraphs is a concise observation. It reminded me of the books of Buddhist proverbs my partner has. I’d read one of the paragraphs, think, oh that was profound, forget what it was, and not be able to find it again.

Although it was a quick read, there was depth to the book. It was more about the sum of the short paragraphs than each of them on their own. Reading about the couple’s baby daughter, for example, you get the impression that the wife finds her annoying. But, keep reading, and it becomes clear that despite the baby’s irritating behavior, the mother has nothing but love for her.

Dept. of Speculation doesn’t develop its characters in a realistic, fully fleshed out way. We get only the mother/wife’s perspective, we only see snippets of other people in her life. If you’re looking for a quick read that’s moving and heartbreaking, I’d recommend the Dept. of Speculation.

All the Single Ladies by Rebecca Traister

People are getting married later and later (if at all). Despite that, people still associate the beginning of adulthood with marriage and children. All the Single Ladies, by Rebecca Traister, takes a close look at the evolution of the single woman in recent decades, using statistics and interviews to paint a full picture of what life is like for women and what the postponement of marriage means for society over all, and how society should respond.

Don’t let the title (taken from a Beyonce song) fool you. This is not a light read. It’s informative and engaging, but it’s packed full of facts. All the Single Ladies looks at women on both ends of the financial/economic spectrum. It includes stories from those who are wealthy and from those who aren’t so wealthy. It discusses portrayals of single women in the media and how those portrayals have influenced people’s thoughts and feelings about women. Think Murphy Brown in the 1980/1990s, Sex in the City in the late 1990s, Cathy the comic strip. It includes opinions from people who look disapprovingly on women who don’t get married. More importantly, it includes opinions and feelings from real women who are single or not exactly chomping at the bit to get married any time soon.

Get married, have babies isn’t where the story ends (or even where the story goes) for many women today. But, it’s taking a long time for people to realize that.

Patience by Daniel Clowes

I read Patience in one sitting. Which is what I think you’re supposed to do with graphic novels, but I’m never sure. I know I’m not one to focus much on the actual graphics of the book. I don’t study each frame or image carefully, but instead of pay attention to the story.

But, Patience has graphics that demand attention. It’s a sci-fi time-travel tale about a man, Jack who goes back in time to save his wife, Patience, who was murdered in their home. This being a time traveling tale, there are twists and unexpected jumps throughout. It’s stuff along the lines of “what if you go back in time and cause the thing you’re trying to prevent?”

The effects of time travel on Jack’s body are frighteningly and graphically portrayed by the imagery. The panels in Patience are bright, vivid, and grotesque. They jump between being realistic cartoons (is that a thing?) and being technicolor nightmares come true.

First Bite by Bee Wilson

I thought Bee Wilson’s first book, Consider the Fork, about how the development of utensils changed the way we eat, was interesting, so when I saw First Bite sitting on the shelf at the library, I decided to pick it up. First Bite examines how people learn to eat and what influences shape their tastes and preferences, from early childhood to adulthood.

She argues that our tastes aren’t set in stone. Once we decide that we like (or dislike) something, we’re not stuck with it forever. Instead, the book relies on a lot of research and data to suggest that our tastes and preferences can, and do change with time and effort. You can teach yourself to like spinach and kale, even if you grew up on a diet of French fries and pasta.

As with any book that comes out about food, the author touches on her own personal struggles with eating as younger person and there’s a chapter on disordered eating. It’s not all about bulimia and anorexia, though. The chapter brings up adults who are so picky as to have severely limited diets. People who are so picky as to avoid eating in social situations because they aren’t sure they’ll find something that’s on their acceptable list or because they are worried how others will perceive them.

One of the more fascinating sections of the book concerned Japan. Nutritionists and health experts often point to Japan as having a fantastically healthy diet. Japanese live longer because of their healthy diets, right? But guess what — that Japanese way of eating is relatively¬† new. Before the 20th century, the nation’s diet didn’t primarily consist of fish and vegetables. It was carb-heavy and not so healthy. The point being that, yes, you can get yourself to eat better, and yes, you can eventually get yourself to eat so well that you (and everyone around you) completely forgets that once upon a time, your diet was primarily junk food.

The Nest by Cynthia D’Aprix Sweeney

The central premise of the The Nest is “Don’t count your chickens before they are hatched.” It’s a novel about four siblings who are waiting (eagerly) to inherit their trust fund. Their father created the Nest for them, not thinking it would be that big. But, a series of smart investment dramatically inflated its value. That is, until Leo Plumb, the oldest, gets in an accident. To buy the silence of the teenage passenger injured in the crash,¬† their mother uses most of the fund’s money.

The Nest is one of those novels with overlapping story lines, family resentment and dysfunction, and ultimately, a happy(ish) ending. Things work out for the characters. Not because they become good people, necessarily, but because they find a way to work through their issues or move on.

I felt that the novel’s seams showed through a bit too much at times. (Oh really, there’s are two characters, a man and a woman, who perfectly¬† match the damaged Rodin statue that one of the other characters has hidden in his apartment?) But all in all, it was a fun, engaging read.

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