Butterfly in the Sky

It's been a while since I've written an entry for the Books category, but that isn't because I've taken a break from reading. Far from it, actually - I've been tearing through library books at a pretty good clip. There are the usual recent (or at least relatively so) titles that I managed to snag, of course, but there were also one of those cast-off books I'll deal with at the end of the year, and a childhood favorite that I was curious to revisit.

Let's start with that last one, which was Secrets of the Shopping Mall, written by Richard Peck, and originally published in 1979. I'm sure I read it in the early or mid-'80s at my sister's behest. She's also the one who put it back in my head a few weeks ago. All I remembered was that it was about a couple of runaway kids who hide out in a mall, and discover that the mannequins come to life at night. The only one I remember by name was Betty, who liked to cattily gossip about everyone else. It's no wonder she's the one I gravitated to. The story surprised me on the re-read; it's a lot more bleak than I remember. The protagonists are dealing with bullies at school, and with absolutely no protective presence at home, decide to just take off and live in a department store. Spoiler alert: They stay there, happily. Forever. The living mannequins are also runaways who somehow magically acquired the ability to freeze into dummies during the day, though how ostensibly normal kids learned how to do this is never addressed. And that's not even getting into the gang of other children who hang out in the parking lot, and go to war with the mannequin gang. I can see why I liked this book so much as a kid, but I can also see why "You can't go home again" is such a pervasive phrase. This story is definitely of its time.

I rejoined the 21st century by mixing it up with a novel, a collection of short stories, and some non-fiction. The novel was Karen Thompson Walker's 2012 book, The Age of Miracles. As I'm sure I've mentioned, I like books that have an interesting gimmick of taking the world and changing one important facet of it. In this case, it's that the Earth's rotation is starting to slow, making both days and nights longer, and having catastrophic effects on things like crops and power grids. But rather than an omniscient narrator relating what's going on, Walker makes the smart decision to tell this story through the eyes of a pre-teen girl. Sure, the entire world is changing, but her entire world is changing anyway. What the boy down the street thinks about her is as important as endangered foods, if not more so. If there's a big flaw in the story, it's a rushed subplot about societal tears that take place between people who follow the clock and people who follow the sun. Sure, humans will find any excuse to fight, but if your characters are going to exact mob justice against a woman who has the nerve to garden when the sun is out, you're going to have to justify it with something better than an assumption that such a thing would happen.

Up next was Simon Rich's 2013 collection of short stories, The Last Girlfriend on Earth - And Other Love Stories. You know you're in for a fun ride when the first story is told from the point of view of a condom a teenaged boy has stuffed in his wallet. And you know you're in for a good read when that same story manages to pull off a lot of emotional resonance. The other stories are similarly off-the-wall in all the best ways. "I Love Girl" peeks in on a relationship between a caveman and one of the half dozen females he's aware of. In "Center of the Universe", even God himself cannot free himself from relationship drama. There isn't a disappointing story in the whole bunch, and overall, it was a really delightful, clever book. I highly recommend it.

I rounded out this reading binge with Mary Roach's Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal. I've heartily enjoyed Roach's explorations of how we deal with dead bodies (Stiff), ghosts (Spook), and sex (Bonk), though I haven't read Packing for Mars yet. It is the title with more than one word that's throwing me? Get your shit together, Roach! Speaking of shit, I was anxious to dive into her latest book, which is all about the glories of our digestive systems, from chewing to pooping. I'm not easily grossed out (at least when things are handled academically rather than for horror effect), so I found passages about fistulated stomachs and the stretch capacity of a rectum fascinating rather than off-putting. Roach is a funny writer, and her breezy style is well-suited to the topic. She makes jokes, but she never condescends. She has a respectful, but frank curiosity about things like the stool hardness scale and the ability to taste differences in various olive oils, and makes for a pretty good read. It perhaps wasn't as good as her earlier books, but that's purely a matter of personal taste. Ha! Taste! See what I did there?

Secrets of the Shopping Mall: B (Averaging the A- I'd give this as a kid, and the C+ I'd give it if I read it for the first time as an adult.)
The Age of Miracles: B
The Last Girlfriend on Earth - And Other Love Stories: A
Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal: B


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