Neshama’s Choices for October 25th

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Beauty Queens

The cover telegraphs the wild absurdity of this teen book: over the bikini is slung a bandolier loaded with lipsticks instead of bullets. When their plane crashes on a desert island, the contestants who survive fear their dreams will crash as well. What are the chances they’ll be rescued in time for the Miss Teen Dream Pageant? Turns out they will have to save themselves, and some of the skills they’ve parlayed as talents come in handy. They manage to round up food and shelter and ultimately thwart a covert operation hidden on the island. The humor is as broad as it gets (for instance, dictator MoMo B. Cha Cha dresses like Elvis) but there’s a snarky feminist thread throughout. A big dose of fun, sorely needed these days. 

Grief

The protagonist, gay, has been taking care of his mother for years.  After her death, he’s unmoored emotionally and takes a temporary part-time teaching position in DC.  In his room, rented from an eccentric friend of a friend, he finds a copy of Mary Todd Lincoln’s letters. (She certainly knows about the nature of grief.) He prowls the streets all over town, tuned to the drumbeat of history around every corner, turning over his own dark thoughts. Subtle, haunting, with flashes of wit. 

Private Lessons

Claire has considerable talent, a legacy from her dead father. This could get her a scholarship for college. A sought-after piano teacher, Paul, takes her on and grooms her for competitions—and more, unfortunately. This trauma almost scuttles her plans but she comes through, though it’s heavy lifting. Another weight is her otherness, caught between American and Filipino cultures, not fully accepted in either. I recommend this teen book to anyone interested in the lyricism and power of music and tumultuous teenage emotions which the author conveys with equal eloquence. 

The Sound of A Wild Snail Eating

Who knew that a very small gastropod could be a source of great entertainment and comfort?  When said snail hitched a ride on a potted plant and ended up next to the author’s bed, that’s what happened. Bailey was stuck with a mysterious, debilitating condition, barely able to move, so this little critter became the focus of her attention. What to feed it? Mushrooms, especially welcome. Where to house it? In a terrarium that friends supplied with material from its forest habitat. Bailey started to find out more about the object of her attention (and affection) and shares lore and quotes galore, including Japanese haiku. A charming little book, full of surprises. 

We Keep the Dead Close

Subtitled A Murder at Harvard and a Half Century of Silence. Journalist Cooper kept the victim, Jane Britton, really close ever since she stumbled on the story in 2009 when she herself was a Junior at Harvard.  So many loose ends, botched procedures, and rampant but ignored misogyny in academia. Obsessed, Cooper quit her job at The New Yorker, moved back to Cambridge, and followed every possible trail she could find. Jane was a graduate student in anthropology, with an adventurous, challenging spirit. The denouement is surprising and the overall tone of the book is melancholic, sometimes dogged, but interspersed with fascinating anecdotes. I listened to this on CD; the author’s voice conveys her dedication to the story.  It’s quite long and sometimes sounded circular as Cooper rehashes the material when she gets new evidence. Still, quite a journey! 


Back next week.

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