Tag Archives: 20 Books of Summer

10 Books of Summer Challenge: Update

22 Aug

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Here’s an update on my progress on #20booksofsummer:


  1. My Sister Life, by Maria Flook

2. Rethinking Normal, A Memoir in Transition by Katie Rain Hill

3. The Rules of Inheritance, by Claire Bidwell Smith

4. Simians, Cyborgs and Women, by Donna J. Haraway

5. Animal Sanctuary, by Sarah Faulkner

6. Omon Ra, by Victor Pelevin

7. Mermaid in Chelsea Creek, by Michelle Tea

8. The Crooning Wind, Three Greenlandic Poets

9. Woman Rebel, The Margaret Sanger Story, by Peter Bagge

10. Hunger, by Knut Hamsun

11. I Love Dick, by Chris Kraus

To recap, I took the first 11 books on my to-read shelf, from the organized part in the beginning (not the stacks of more-recent arrivals piled in front of the organized part), which, as fixtures on the to-read, are all books that I’ve been passing over or haven’t felt in the mood for in quite some time. Years, in some cases. I don’t think any one of these books had been on the shelf for less than a year, and one at least has been there for three-and-a-half.

What I have learned from this experiment is that books are great even when I don’t like them. At least, the kind of books that wind up on my to-read shelf are. Despite harboring doubts about every book on this list, I have loved reading through them. Even the ones I didn’t “like” were thought-provoking. My reading this summer has been richer and more interesting than when I have the freedom to choose what book I’m in the mood for.

It’s hard not to buy books (though I’ve done OK this summer; I think I’ve added only three to the shelf, which might be a personal record (usually I add many more)), but I plan to keep doing this. My new goal is to read entirely through the to-read shelf, emptying it out for good. When the summer is over I’ll take a new random-ten books. I’m really looking forward to it.

I guess the conclusion is up with challenge and down with personal preference. :)


30. The Rules of Inheritance, by Claire Bidwell Smith

11 Jul

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Oh, this book is lovely.

Claire Bidwell Smith’s story of losing her parents to cancer, a few years apart, in her late teens and early 20s is moving and beautiful, infused through its pages with what good, nice, wonderful people they all were. Despite the teenaged Claire’s tattoos and anger that her parents were sick, the book is rich with how much they loved each other. You don’t read much about happy families, you know? And Smith’s was unlikely. Her father was 55, with grown children, two divorces and a second career as a steel magnate when he met her mother, a Manhttan food stylist (years ago, before it was a rom-com staple!) in her late 30s, also twice-divorced, and in her turn convinced she’d never have children. Claire was adored. “Even at eighteen I already know that she poured all her energy into raising me,” she writes of her mother.

And oh, this book is so heartbreaking.

The Rules of Inheritance came out in 2012, and I bought it new in hard-cover but haven’t read it because I know the author. I had a brief, intense friendship with her during the period that the book covers, a friendship that was interrupted by her several moves and her career change. I think I’ve always been afraid of how painful it would be to read. I knew that though the book is a tribute to Smith’s mother and father, it’s also, mostly, about the terrible grief and loss that she lived with during the time I knew her, a shadow-life I never really saw. “Grief is like another country…. It’s a place,” she writes. In her grief, she drank too much and threw herself into bad relationships and lied to her friends and sometimes went home to hide in the footwell of her desk to sob. She had a car accident, and no one to call afterwards. In her own words, she “can’t shake the feeling that there should be someone else here… some adult, someone more qualified and responsible than me, should show up and take over. But there is no one.” She did dangerous, terrible things because in some magical way she imagined they would bring her mother back. She’s articulate and full-hearted and she brings the reader along in her sorrow.

Here’s a beautiful passage:

Finally I realized that twenty-eight was ten years since my mother died.

I realized that when I was eighteen, it wasn’t just my mother who died but a part of me as well. … It was like, without my mother I couldn’t possibly go on. I couldn’t grow up, become a woman, do things that she would never know about, go places she’d never been, think things I couldn’t tell her. So even right now, there is a part of me that refuses to believe that I am the woman I have become. Except every so often I catch a glimpse. I see it in a passing glance in the mirror, hear it in an accidental laugh. … Suddenly there are these two parts of me, then and now, staring back at each other, wondering where the other came from.

The Rules of Inheritance was such a difficult read, but I think it would be a wonderful book to give anyone confronting the death of a loved one. I also read it with interest as a mother because it was so revealing about the teenage daughter’s psychology in a crisis.

Despite Smith’s losses and her painful years dealing with them it’s always obvious to the reader—though not to her at the time—that she will rebuild herself, make a life, survive beautifully. And she does.

28. My Sister Life, by Maria Flook

6 Jul

My Sister LIfe

My Sister Life by Maria Flook is number one on my list in my 20 Books of Summer challenge, inspired by Cathy at 746 Books. I’ve been avoiding this one for a few reasons. One, it has a depressing subject matter: It’s a memoir about how the author’s sister’s disappearance as a young teenager. Two, it was a little unclear from the cover copy what kind of book it was, since it seemed that the sister’s story would also be told. I wasn’t sure if it was a true memoir or a fiction hybrid, which gave me an off-feeling about it. And Three, a shallow reason to not read something: I’ve been avoiding Amazon by getting used books through Powell’s, and this was a particularly yellowing and unattractive book. A fancy design conceit where there was a hole in the front cover to indicate the sister’s absence looked vandalized and disturbing.

But how wrong I was to hesitate! This book was enthralling from the get-go, when, in chapter two, I realized that this would be a bad-mother memoir. In her first scene, the mother is getting dressed for a cocktail party, trekking “back and forth from her bureau to the closet dressed only in her strapless bra and panties.” She applies her “French Jean Patou perfume, pinching the rubber bulb of a cut-crystal atomizer. Next, she stooped before the full-length mirror to adjust her seamed stockings,” which she does “with insulated palms” wearing her short, white-cotton gloves for church. These details add up, gorgeously, until Flook explains that:

“Families take pride in their piety or in their prosperity, rejoicing in a father-and-son business venture, in a gifted child’s scholarship or in a prized commission in the military. But in our household Veronica’s enterprising sexuality overwhelmed our individual goals and spilled into family matters. Her erotic aspect emerged in her every routine and came more naturally to her than maternal duty.”

Flook’s thesis is simple but powerful. This cold, narcissistic woman did not provide love to her daughters and prevented their spineless father from doing so, either. The oldest sister, Karen, became promiscuous and ran away at age fourteen, to become a child prostitute. She lived in a trailer park with an abusive older ‘boyfriend’ named James and his other girlfriend, a woman named Ruth, who also ran a whorehouse where Karen soon started working. Amazingly, Karen preferred life with Ruth and James to the one at home with her well-off but frigid and mentally abusive parents. She left the world of luxury cruises and European vacations for the trailer park and prostitution without regret. Pitifully, she responds to Ruth and James’s affection and interest in her. James helps her steal a winter coat. They go out for ice cream and let her keep some of her earnings from prostitution. It’s extremely sad, but in Flook’s hands feels psychologically plausible.

Maria, the youngest child, also became a juvenile delinquent though a slightly more functional one. Her sister’s disappearance and the years where the family didn’t know if Karen was alive or dead turned Maria into a writer. She becomes morbid and obsessed with accidents and death, which she describes as “just keeping my eyes open.”

The book is powerfully written, full of subtle, sneaky metaphors for loss, and startling images that the writer uses to try to understand her experience.In one place she writes:

When one child goes missing, the remaining child is left untethered. I have seen a dog pull free of its collar and in its sudden freedom shudder, as if any connection it had had to the world remained in the coil of leather.

In another passage she recalls a childhood moment with Karen (as she does frequently) when little Maria has half-blinded herself with chlorine and her sister gives her a lollipop.

“I stared at the sucker” she writes. “Its glassy red bauble twinkled, exaggerated in my half-blind state. The candy warped the light with a kaleidoscope effect and it was just too beautiful to eat. ‘Aren’t you going to taste that?’ Karen asked me. Karen’s eyes weren’t blurred by the chlorine and she didn’t see the miraculous gift she had given me.”

Karen’s loss is a curse but it endows Maria with unusual powers.

I’ve written recently about terrible-stories-about-girls books, and how they unsatisfyingly present the drugs, promiscuity, abortions, etc., without seeming to delve into why. Flook delves. She may lay too much blame on her parents—the section where she explains that her mother bought her a pony to get her to spend more time away from home feels a little self-serving. But at least she’s looking for answers, making a powerful and articulate case for how she understands the forces that formed herself and her sister.

The second half of the book when Karen reappears and the sisters have some opportunities to be reunited but never really reconnect was less satisfying, especially since it brought up the same questions that made me hesitate over reading My Sister Life in the first place. How much of Maria’s startlingly clear retelling of Karen’s experiences is real? Karen doesn’t seem like she’d trust her sister enough to entrust such detailed recollections. One of the most unusual aspects of the book is that it does delve into the details and emotions of Karen’s experience  as a child prostitute so tenderly—Flook is retelling from a distance, and she doesn’t have the flatness of affect, anger, or defensiveness that often clouds such material when the author has been through it. The central question that kept me reading became How does she know? How did Flook and her sister heal the breach between them well enough to create this book? Frustratingly, that question was not answered.