I learned early in life that sometimes when people ask a question they are just trying to be polite. They are not interested in any answer over three words in length. For example, "How are you doing?" Most people inquiring about your well-being want a fast and positive answer. "Fine", "never better," or "hanging in there" will suffice allowing everyone to feel good about the exchange. They don't want to hear all about the tricky knee, the carpal tunnel, the bad family vacation, the school outbreak of lice that came home to roost in your youngest child's head, or the strange intestine problem plaguing the beloved pet. Go beyond a three-word answer and one will notice a look of panic cross over the other person's face. Launch into a sentence more and perhaps their eyes will glaze over as well. Unless they are a close friend or an immediate family member, the person inquiring about your well-being is looking for a brief two word summary in response. Indeed, the mark of a true conversational genius is seen in the answer that includes a question about the other person, "Fine thanks, you?" And if it can all be done in three words or less, kudos!
Thanks to diligent parents and grandparents, I was taught how to politely answer many different questions with enough information to be interesting and polite while taking into consideration the other person. Basically, you can take me places and I won't be that person people are trying to conversationally escape from all evening.
However, everyone has a weakness. And right now, I am being tested. It is summer and, in anticipation of vacation, people are picturing themselves beside a pool or at the beach, or curled up on a rainy day in some great rented place with some extra time on their hands. So they are asking, "What are you reading?"
To a voracious reader this question, when asked in casual conversation, is the equivalent of asking a hoarder what one thing, out of their overcrowded house, they want to keep. Suddenly everything seems uniquely important and indispensable. The old greasy waded up fast food wrapper is as important as the family photo album of someone else's family. The drugstore romance mystery is on par with the Pulitzer Prize winning novel. It's an illness.
When put on the spot, I try and take a quick read of the person standing before me to see if there is a discernible fiction or non-fiction predilection, a time constraint and page limit, an area of particular interest or a preference for only books that have appeared on a bestseller list. This has to happen in mere seconds as too long of a pause, in combination with my deer in the headlight expression, can incite doubt in my ability to answer any question at all.
But here, given the time for thought and distance, the question is easily answered. This month I have read some great books that I highly recommend.
The Goldfinch, is the Pulitzer Prize winning new novel by Donna Tartt. Theo Decker, a young man of thirteen accompanies his mother to an art museum and miraculously survives an accident that kills her. Abandoned by his father, he is taken in by a wealthy friend's family. While his life has been forever thrown off course, he clings to a small, captivating painting that seems to soothe the longing he has for his mother. But this beautiful little painting also takes him into the center of a dangerous world of self-destruction and corruption. The Goldfinch has critics and readers talking. Some feel that perhaps Tartt should not have been awarded the Pulitzer for this book, while others argue it's an honor well deserved and long overdue. At the very least, it's fun to have read the book that is the talk of the literary world at the moment. The novel has a Dickensian feel but keeps to a modern pace. Tartt has a gift for creating rich, complicated worlds in which readers can lose themselves. While the length of the book (almost eight hundred pages) may seem daunting at first, readers will ultimately revel in the fact that this epic story allows them to become totally invested in Theo's journey.
Untamed: The Wildest Woman in America and the Fight for Cumberland Island by Will Harlan is an interesting and addicting non-fiction read. Carol Ruckdeschel is known as the wildest woman in America. A self-taught scientist, she lives in a ramshackle cabin she built herself, eats road-kill, tries to save her beloved sea turtles from extinction, wrestles wild alligators and pigs when necessary, and has even killed a man (in self-defense). The heart of this book is about how this woman's life becomes so entangled with the wilds of Cumberland Island, the country's largest and most biologically diverse barrier island. Once owned by steel magnate Thomas Carnegie, the brother of Andrew Carnegie, it was transformed into a Gilded Age playground. But as times changed and heirs sold off parcels of land to the National Park Service, the island's future has become more complicated.
Harlan researched this book for almost twenty years and it is a testament to his abilities as a writer that he did not allow for all that knowledge to muddy the ultimate story of this woman's fight to save a place. Untamed is a book that while greatly entertaining is also deeply fascinating and informative.
Looking for a page-turner? Read Bittersweet by Miranda Beverly-Whittemore. Plain girl, Mabel Dagmar, attends a prestigious East Coast college on a scholarship and is delighted when her beautiful and wild, blue-blooded roommate, Genevra Winslow (Ev) befriends her. Mabel's world is changed forever when Ev invites her to spend the summer at her family's century old compound in Vermont. Mabel falls in love with the place and it's beauty. But as she becomes more of an insider throughout the summer, a few key discoveries lead her to some shocking revelations about the family. At first it may seem like a familiar tale, but the twists and turns of this novel are original and take this universally familiar story to new territory. It's a burn your muffins kind of book. For when you're reading it, the world around you falls away.
So that is what I am reading. Now, what are you reading and enjoying during these long, lovely, summer days? Really, I want to know.