Thursday, August 26, 2010

Women on the page

I've been a terrible reader the past several months. I have several nonfiction books beside the bed, all half-plowed through. I have a stack of untouched magazines that I've carried with me on no less than three separate weekend getaways in hopes of reading, to no avail. I just recycled a huge pile of newspapers that went unread last week. Sure, last week was nuts, but still - enough is enough. The harsh truth of it is, as busy or as scatter-brained as I may be from time to time, nothing is as bad for my reading habits as the Internet. I have the power and ability to be a better reader than I've been the last six months, I fully acknowledge that. I am my own worst reading enemy, and I vow here and now to turn over a new leaf in September.

On that note, here are two books I did manage to finish recently. They're both breezy and engaging, and they both recount the lives of two fantastic women.

First up, the famously reclusive Harper Lee, in Mockingbird: A Portrait of Harper Lee by Charles Shields.

I received this book as a gift years ago, and forgot it was on the shelf until I read about a remarkable letter that Ms. Lee wrote to author Alice Randall regarding the legal dispute surrounding Randall's The Wind Done Gone, as featured in Garden & Gun.

The book is not so much a revelation of Ms. Lee as it is an overview of her life thus far, much of which I didn't know. I read this book picturing Catherine Keener in her Truman performance, wry and warm and handsome. Not a rigorous biography by any means, Shields gives us a gentle look into the places she lived and the people she knew - many of whom were told by Ms. Lee herself not to cooperate. I learned the frame of her life, got to know the stage, but I'm still wondering much about the woman herself. It seems incomprehensible at times to connect the social awkwardness and often rude sensibilities of the younger Lee with the woman who went on to charm a small Kansas town and publish a masterpiece, then again to withdraw and give up on ever writing again. Harper Lee is a mystery. This book, while delightfully written, only adds to that mystery. That said, spending time with Ms. Lee's sense of humor, Southern sensibilities, and earnest justice was time well spent.

Next up, the infamous "Insatiable Critic" herself, Gael Greene. I've already waxed poetic about Gael's status as one of my favorite Tweeters, so I knew I'd enjoy this book, which my pal H kindly loaned me. In a way, one could consider Gael's "more is more" approach the antithesis of Harper Lee's "less is more" life lesson. What can I say... I tend to favor more myself. Here's what I wrote about Insatiable on Goodreads* last night, where I couldn't help but make another comparison:

I'm sure it's easy to dislike Gael Greene. Too visceral, too confessional, too... much. Me, though? I can't help but like her. I like her breeze and her boldness and, well, her balls. She resides on the opposite side of my heart from Ruth Reichl. She's less a cook and more a show-woman than Ruth. She's less about where the rest of us eat, and more about where we should eat. Ruth is my everywoman, but I have some Gael in there, too ... no question about it. We shouldn't have to choose between Ruth or Gael. That we can have both women on our bookshelves, our televisions, and our twitter feeds is in itself a modern miracle. "Insatiable" is too long a book, and the quick-hit reports of restaurant happenings over a decade are unnecessary - there are other and better books for that. This book is at its best when Gael tells her story the way that only she can, with that unmistakable voice, that gorgeous sentence structure, and that openness that is shockingly rare these days, and incredibly alluring to follow. She is a class act, and to this woman whose most quoted line is "the two greatest discoveries of the 20th century were the Cuisinart and the clitoris" ... well, I will forever salute that.

I'm stocking my Goodreads "To Read" folder with goodies this afternoon. Tell me, what else should I add?

*By the way, are you on Goodreads? Find me!

1 comment:

  1. Interesting reads! I will have to pick them up and put them on my ever-growing list.

    My suggestions:

    The entire Hunger Games trilogy. Yes, they are meant as YA books but truly engaging literature with depth and personality. I just finished Mockingjay yesterday and am still processing it. They are books that stay with you long after you leave them.

    The Book Thief. This book will change your life. It is a beautiful story about the Holocaust and the power of literature. It is narrated by Death. Truly one of the best- written, most moving books I have ever read.

    I'm Down. A fascinating memoir about a young girl growing up in an African-American community. Not only is it an interesting study/commentary on racial identity but the author is hilarious. I love her writer's voice.


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