The Best Books I Read This Month
Mrs. Bridge, by Evan S. Connell. Set in Kansas City in the 1930s, Mrs. Bridge is the story of a well-to-do woman who lives as an appendage to her husband and children. In a series of vignettes, we see her go to the club; interact with her children, husband, friends, and household help with little apparent insight into their wants or needs; judge others for their clothes and their children's behavior (while fearing that others are judging her). Her life is essentially meaningless, and at some level she knows and regrets this. The book has a flat tone but still manages to be funny (the family's attempts to engage a chauffeur, for example), insightful, and sad.
The Bell Jar, by Sylvia Plath. I read this book in my late teens or early twenties and found the story of Esther Greenwood, a college student whose mental health breaks down over the course of a summer, devastating. While it doesn't have quite the same emotional resonance when read at 67, it's still a wonderfully written (semi-autobiographical) novel that provides a window into how depression colors every part of life and insights into gender relations as seen through the eyes of a young woman. The book is doubly sad because of our knowledge of the author's own life.
Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner. I also read this book some time ago (probably in my 40s), but it was well worth a second look. Angle of Repose operates on two levels: it is simultaneously the story of retired and wheelchair-bound historian Lyman Ward, who is writing a family history focused on his grandparents (especially his grandmother), who lived in the West in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and the family history that he writes. Ward's grandfather, Oliver Ward, was a mining engineer and inventor who worked at various locations around the West, often being screwed over by the mine owners and investors. His grandmother, Susan Ward, was an Easterner, disappointed in love when the refined man she wanted married her best friend; she brings to her Western life with her rough-around-the-edges husband a rather stiff and judgmental point of view. Yet she perseveres, even in light of tragedies and numerous setbacks. As he constructs Susan and Oliver's story, largely from Susan's letters to her best friend, he reconsiders his own life. The book works on both levels and is beautifully written, though those who don't like kind of a iterative style may not enjoy it as much as I did. I also think the title is one of the best ever, since it has both a geological meaning and a metaphorical one and is, to me, beautiful.
The Woman in the Window, by A.J. Finn. First I have to say I am happy A.J. Finn did not call this The Girl in the Window (I am heartily sick of titles that use the term "girl" to describe a woman in peril). The book is about a woman suffering from agoraphobia who spends her days observing the people in her neighborhood and posting on a webpage for agoraphobics. Things start to get strange when a new family moves into the neighborhood. I don't want to give away too much, so I'll just say the book is very "twisty" and I was surprised by several developments throughout the novel. Not perfect, but it kept me interested!
The View from Mount Joy, by Lorna Landvik, I read Landvik's Patty Jane's House of Curl 20 years ago and thought it was hilarious but have been disappointed by subsequent books until The View from Mount Joy. Joe Andreson is a budding hockey star who moves to Minneapolis with his widowed mother. He becomes enamored with the high school's "hot girl," Kristi Casey, who manages to keep his attention for 30 years. At the same time, however, he makes lifelong friends in the quirky Darva and Kristi's brother Kirk. As Joe and Kristi grow into adulthood, their paths diverge (Joe becomes a grocer whose store is a community in itself, Kristi becomes an evangelist) but always seem to "re-tangle." The book is funny and a bit corny, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.
Sunburn, by Laura Lippmann. Sunburn is one of Lippmann's stand-alone mystery/thrillers and it's a pretty good one. I enjoyed it primarily because I didn't see the twists coming. The characters are a pretty despicable lot. Basic plot outline: a PI (he's not so much despicable as stupid) is hired to find out where a woman has hidden money his client regards as rightfully his; the PI and his subject become involved. As more is revealed about the woman's past, he begins to question whether he can stay with her--but he can't make himself leave. Things end badly--but not for everyone.
Letters to a Young Writer, by Colum McCann. I have enjoyed Colum McCann's work, but this was more a collection of one-line encouragements than deep advice about writing. If you love an Irish accent, however, the author's voice reading his work on the audiobook edition will be enough to satisfy.
Midnight at the Bright Ideas Bookstore, by Matthew Sullivan. Because it was written by a former employee of the Tattered Cover, I wanted to enjoy this mystery, but it was rather pedestrian.
Running Blind, by Lee Child. My first and last Jack Reacher.
Look for Me, by Lisa Gardner. Okay mystery featuring both D.D. Warren and Flora Dane--but the guilty person was obvious long before the end.
Tips for Living, by Renee Safransky. A ridiculous mystery with a potentially fun device (the protagonist writes an advice column) that isn't used in any meaningful or entertaining way.
All Dressed in White, by Mary Higgins Clark and Alafair Burke. Dumb, just dumb.
Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, by Rhoda Janzen. Funny memoir focused on a period of the author's life after her husband left her for a man and she returned to her parents' home to recover from a car accident. I wish she hadn't made quite so much fun of her mother, who I thought was charming (perhaps this is the defensive mother in me reacting).
M Train, by Patti Smith. Random thoughts and accounts that bored me silly (sorry to the many people who love Patti Smith's work). The author's recording of the book was nominated for a Grammy but I thought it was as monotonic, mostly good for falling asleep to.
The Song of the Lark, by Willa Cather. It took me years to finish this book and I was unmoved by the story of Thea Kronberg, her musical talent, and her (to me) inexplicable ability to get adult men to fall in love with her while still a child.
For a while after their marriage she was in such demand that it was not unpleasant when he fell asleep. Presently, however, he began sleeping all night, and it was then she awoke more frequently, an dlooked into the darkness, wondering about the nature of men, doubtful of the future, until at last there came a night when she shook her husband awake and spoke of her own desire. Affably he placed one of his long white arms around her waist; she turned to him then, contentedly, expectantly, and secure. However, nothing else occurred, and in a few minutes he had gone back to sleep.
This was the night Mrs. Bridge concluded that while marriage might be an equitable affair, love itself was not.
Evan Connell, Mrs. Bridge
I thought it sounded just like the sort of drug a man would invent. Here was a woman in terrible pain, obviously feeling every bit of it or she wouldn't groan like that, and she would go straight home and start another baby, because the drug would make her forget how bad the pain had been, when all the time, in some secret part of her, that long, blind, doorless and windowless corridor of pain was waiting to open up and shut her in again.
To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.
Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar
Home is a notion that only nations of the homeless fully appreciate and only the uprooted comprehend.
I wonder if ever again Americans can have that experience of returning to a home place so intimately known, profoundly felt, deeply loved, and absolutely submitted to. It is not quite true that you can't go home again. I have done it, combing back here. But it gets less likely. We have had too many divorces, we have consumed too much transportation, we have lived too shallowly in too many places.
Wallace Stegner, Angle of Repose
It was one of those still days of intense light, when every particle of mica in the soil flashed like a little mirror, and the glare from the plain below seemed more intense than the rays from above. The sand ridges ran glittering gold out to where the mirage licked them up, shining and steaming like a lake in the tropics. The sky looked like blue lava, forever incapable of clouds—a turquoise bowl that was the lid of the desert. And yet within Mrs. Kohler’s green patch the water dripped, the beds had all been hosed, and the air was fresh with rapidly evaporating moisture.
Willa Cather, Song of the Lark