Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Finishing Anna Karenina . . . and Other Late January Achievements

Well, to be honest, there weren't many other late January achievements, as I didn't get too much reading done while traveling the last week of the month. However, finishing Anna Karenina was a high point!

Mysteries
Tricky 22, by Janet Evanovich
In a Dark, Dark Wood, by Ruth Ware

I had planned never to read another Stephanie Plum mystery, as they have become tedious (how often can a blown-up car be funny?), but this one was available as an audiobook via OverDrive and I fell for it. Shouldn't have!

In a Dark, Dark Wood has gotten a lot of ink--treated as a successor to Gone Girl and Girl on a Train. Unfortunately, it doesn't deserve that attention, as the plotting is not as creative or tight as in either of those books, the structure is not as interesting, and the suspense is lukewarm (and I say this not being the biggest fan of Flynn's and Hawkins' books). The protagonist of In a Dark, Dark Wood, Leonora, is invited to a "hen weekend" (British version of a bachelorette party) for a childhood friend she has not spoken to in a decade--and she hasn't been invited to the wedding, meaning she doesn't know who Clare is marrying, a fact that turns out to be important. The weekend is being held in a remote lodge in a forest--where there is no cell service and, as a number of weird things start happening, the landline stops working too. So why would Nora go to this weekend? And why would she stay when things got ugly and contact with the outside world was impossible? And why are people, including me, reading this book? Those are the real mysteries.

Classics
Anna Karenina, by Leo Tolstoy

The first surprise in Anna Karenina--besides the recognition of just how long it is (almost 1000 pages)--was that Anna did not actually appear until quite a ways into the book. I had foolishly expected her to be the sole focal point of the book--but it is a Russian novel after all. As the novel opens, we learn she will be arriving in Moscow soon to intervene with her brother Stepan Oblonsky's wife Dolly, who has learned of his affair with the family's governess and is in a state. We also meet the character who turns out to be an equal to Anna in importance in the book--Konstantin Levin, a landowner who is in love with Dolly's sister Kitty. Kitty, however, is in love with Count Vronsky, who will eventually become Anna's lover, for whom she will leave her husband and eventually ruin her life. While Anna Karenina, like the few other Russian novels I have read, has many characters, these six are central and it is through their lives that Tolstoy explores his themes of hypocrisy, jealousy, fidelity, family/marriage, social and political change (the changing role of the peasant, education reform, changes in women's roles and marriage law), and the contrast between rural and urban lifestyles. Despite the many characters, themes, and topics, I still found Anna's story the most affecting part of the novel. In the section of the novel when she has been rejected by society, she is cut off from her son, and her relationship with Vronsky is troubled, Tolstoy uses an almost stream-of-consciousness style to convey Anna's breakdown, leading to her suicide. While the discussions of political and social issues are interesting, Anna's tragic end--brought on by a combination of her own bad decisions and a rigid society--is what lingers after the last page is turned. I don't find this the "best novel ever written" as William Faulkner did (and he was way more qualified to make such a judgment), but I'm glad I finally read it. On to War and Peace?

Fiction
Recipes for a Perfect Marriage, by Kate Kerrigan

I thought this book sounded good because it was described as being the story of a bride using her grandmother's recipes to work on her marriage--and I'm a sucker for a novel with recipes. However, the bride is an obnoxious character and her grandmother, whom she idolized as having a perfect marriage, is her own kind of pain in the butt. If that sentence isn't enough to convey that I didn't enjoy this book, then I'll just say it: not recommended!

Other
Letter to My Daughter, by Maya Angelou

Here, too, I had a misconception about this book--I thought it would actually be a letter, written to all the young women who looked up to Angelou. Instead, it is a collection of largely autobiographical essays and poems, many previously published. Overall, the collection fell flat for me, though I did enjoy the pieces on Fannie Lou Hamer and on poetry.

Pick of the Litter:  Anna Karenina

Favorite Passages: 

Rummaging in our souls, we often dig up something that ought to have lain there unnoticed.

All the variety, all the charm, all the beauty of life is made up of light and shadow.

From Anna Karenina

Thomas Wolfe warned in the title of America's great novel that You Can't Go Home Again. I enjoyed the book but I never agreed with the title. I believe that one can never leave home. I believe that one carries the shadows, the dreams, the fears and dragons of home under one's skin, at the extreme corners of one's eyes and possibly in the gristle of the earlobe.

From Letter to My Daughter



Saturday, January 16, 2016

Thirteen Ways of Looking . . . and Other Early January Reading

So I've decided to change my approach again--posting semi-monthly instead of monthly (I forget too much in a month's time . . . sad).

The year got off to a good start with Thirteen Ways of Looking by Colum McCann, a volume that includes a novella and three short stories. The title novella is the story of an elderly widower, formerly a judge, who goes out to lunch and is killed. Alternating chapters present (1) his internal monologue about the indignities of aging, the frustration of dealing with his son (whom he loves and dislikes in equal measure), and other matters and (2) the investigation into his death--but in a manner unlike any other crime story. Investigating a crime is compared to writing poetry, and these chapters include many lovely set pieces, including an wonderful riff on snow.

The three stories that make up the rest of the book are varied. "What Time Is It Now, Where You Are?" is written from the perspective of a writer who has an assignment to write about New Year's Eve and wants to do something that breaks the mold. He thinks he'll write a story set in Afghanistan, with a woman alone in a post, waiting to call her partner and her partner’s son at midnight. "Sh’khol" (a Hebrew word for a parent who has lost a child--no comparable word exists in English) is the haunting story of a woman who adopts a deaf-mute six-year-old from Russia. She buys him a wetsuit for Christmas. The next morning, he puts on the wetsuit and disappears for 48 hours. When he returns, she realizes she’ll never know what happened in those two days. What will happen when he grows older and stronger is a frightening prospect for her and the reader. The final story is "Treaty," in which a nun sees the man who raped and tortured her on the news 37 years later and travels across the Atlantic to confront him

The book also has an interesting back story--it was written before and after McCann was assaulted on the street in New Haven while trying to assist a woman. I thought for sure the novella was written after that event--but it turns out I was wrong. So the effects of the incident aren't necessarily obvious, but they are there.

Definitely recommended.


And more from the first half of the month . . .

Mysteries
Playing with Fire, by Tess Gerritsen

Gerritsen is the author of the Rizzoli and Isles mystery series, but here she branches out with a stand-alone thriller (not her first) that combines the contemporary story of a violinist whose toddler has suddenly become violent with a parallel story of a young violinist in World War II Venice whose family is sent to a concentration camp. Gerritsen is trying for something meaningful, but it falls flat.

Memoirs
Fiction Ruined My Family, by Jeanne Darst.

Fiction didn't ruin Darst's family . . . alcohol and bad decisions did. Just another tale of a sad childhood leading to young adult dysfunction. I've read enough of those.

Classics
Adam Bede, by George Eliot

George Eliot's first novel is the story of two highly moral characters, carpenter Adam and the Methodist evangelist Dinah; two morally compromised characters, Adam's beloved Hetty and the local squire Arthur; and a host of villagers, including several very annoying mothers/aunts who plague the younger people in their families. Adam Bede is a morality play in which the righteous, after pain and suffering, find a happy ending while the sinners pay the piper. Questions of class, religion, and women's roles play a part in the story as well. As a newcomer to Eliot, I found Adam Bede less complex and rewarding than Middlemarch but interesting nonetheless.

Fiction
Small Blessings, by Martha Woodroof
The Bookseller, Cynthia Swanson

Small Blessings reminded me in its general outline of The Storied Life of AJ Fikry--a bookish man is brought out of his shell by gaining sudden responsibility for a child, whose presence also brings an engaging woman into the man's life. But Woodroof's plot is less believable than Zevin's and, even though our book group didn't think The Storied Life was particularly deep, the comparison shows Zevin's greater care and concern for the realities of parenting and the relationships people have with literature. So if you're choosing, read The Storied Life of AJ Fikry instead of Small Blessings.

Set in 1962-1963 Denver, The Bookseller is the story of a 38-year-old woman who suddenly begins to dream an alternative life in which, instead of being a single bookstore owner, she is the married stay-at-home mother of triplets, one of whom is autistic. At first she enjoys the dreams, but gradually she faces serious challenges in both her dream and real lives. There's a twist at the end that actually did surprise me, which is fairly unusual, so hats off to the author for that. I especially enjoyed the description of our city in a period of transition (every period in Denver seems to be a period of transition).

Our library had a Local Author Fair today, and Cynthia Swanson was the keynote speaker. She mentioned that the book has been compared to the film Sliding Doors (to which I recently compared the not-so-successful All the Difference). Swanson does the alternative futures scenario in a way that makes the book more psychologically complex--because it's a dream, we assume, the married-with-children-scenario is wish fulfillment for the author; thus, when it starts to be a source of stress rather than enjoyment, we look to her emotions--rather than an external source--for an explanation. I think this is a good complication.

I asked Swanson about the title of the book, which I did not find to be evocative of the story (I didn't say that). She shared that she had been through several titles (one was Life at This Moment, which I prefer), but her editor at Harper Collins felt that the title needed to convey that the book was about someone who owned a bookstore. Ergo . . .

The Bookseller is cleverly plotted and an enjoyable read.

Other
Erratic Facts, by Kay Ryan
The Book Club Cookbook, by Judy Colman and Vicki Levy Krupp

I had previously only read a couple of poems by Kay Ryan and had enjoyed them. This collection of terse pieces left me cold, however. Since Ryan is a highly regarded poet, I'm sure others might enjoy Erratic Facts, but it definitely wasn't for me.

The Book Club Cookbook is a book you can imagine two friends taking on as a fun project. The book includes brief synopses of more than 100 books; each is accompanied by one or more recipes for food either eaten by characters in the book or representative of the type of food they would have eaten. Occasionally, these recipes were even provided by the authors of the books being discussed. For each book, there is also a description of one or more book groups that have discussed that particular title along with their way of wedding book talk and food. I was surprised at how many book groups seem to make food related to the books a part of their experience and found the descriptions of how the book groups operate interesting. If I were starting a new book group, I would consider a lot of ideas from this book (though probably not the heavy emphasis on food). The recipes did not tempt me to try them out (and I'm a person who regularly tries out recipes), so the book failed as a cookbook but succeeded as an examination of book groups. My favorite part of the entire book was a brief story about food and writing sent to Colman and Krupp by Julia Glass, an author I really enjoy. The fact that her story ends with the following sentence just topped it off beautifully: "We ate every bit of it [a wonderful meal based on one served in her book Three Junes], we talked and laughed and drank wine, and then I read from my book. I stood up before a crowd of happily sated readers under the comforting beams of that fine old creaky house and I thought, You need not always be careful what you wish for." I'm probably going to hang on to this book just for this story.

Pick of the Litter:  Thirteen Ways of Looking 

Favorite passages:

Poets, like detectives, know the truth is laborious: it doesn’t occur by accident, rather it is chiseled and worked into being, the product of time and distance and graft. The poet must be open to the possibility that she has to go a long way before a word rises, or a sentence holds, or a rhythm opens, and even then nothing is assured, not even the words that have staked their original claim or meaning.


He looked as if he had dressed himself in the third person.

[Both from Thirteen Ways of Looking, from which I might have chosen many other passages.]

Thursday, January 14, 2016

What Is Novel Conversations Reading?

So, I have recently stepped back from facilitating the Novel Conversations group; nonetheless, I can report on their slate of upcoming books:

--February: Persian Pickle Club by Sandra Dallas
--March: Amsterdam by Ian McEwan
--April: A Man Called Ove by Frederik Backman
--May: Restless by William Boyd

--June: Five Quarters of the Orange by Joanne Harris

Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Best of 2015

It's always fun to see how the year started and ended; 2015 started with J.A. Jance (somewhat frighteningly, I read more J.A. Jance than anyone else this year) and ended with Toni Morrison. In between were sufficient good books to make me happy to be able to access books in so many forms. I read 159 books this year but was undoubtedly proudest when I finished Middlemarch; I'm currently working on Anna Karenina and anticipate feeling equally puffed up by my own achievements when I finish it.

Anyway, here are the books I liked best in 2015.

Best Novels
A God in Ruins, by Kate Atkinson. Two years ago, I picked Kate Atkinson books as the best of the year in two different categories and she came through again this year with a follow-up to Life After Life focusing on Teddy, the beloved brother of that novel's heroine Ursula. Again, she experiments with form and challenges the reader to think about their assumptions about fiction, while educating us (or at least me) about pilots in World War II--since my dad was one, this is a fascinating topic for me--and giving us insight into human relationships.

Our Souls at Night, by Kent Haruf. This novella tells the story of two older residents of Haruf's fictional Holt, Colorado, who begin sleeping together to assuage their loneliness (and, at first, it's just sleeping and talking). It's a lovely reflection on friendship, aging, and, indeed, humanity that is also sad, a sadness deepened by the fact that Haruf wrote it as he was dying. There won't be another story from Holt or more passages like this: "I do love this physical world. I love this physical life with you. And the air and the country. The backyard, the gravel in the back alley. The grass. The cool nights. Lying in bed talking with you in the dark."  That is a loss for all readers.

Honorable Mention: The History of the World in 10-1/2 Chapters, by Julian Barnes

Best Short Stories
Redeployment, by Phil Klay. These stories about the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars and the psychological damage done to those who fought them should be required reading for those of us who supported or opposed those wars but were safe at home all the while.

Best Mystery
The Skeleton Road, by Val McDermid. This is a double mystery (who killed the person whose skeleton was found on the roof of an abandoned building in Edinburgh and who is the vigilante killing Balkan war criminals?) but it is also a history lesson about the wars in the Balkans in the 1990s. Definitely not a perfect mystery, but the best of the year by a large margin.

Best Nonfiction
Being Mortal, by Atul Gawande. I'm 65 and my mother is 91, so books about aging and dying have resonance. Being Mortal is a clear-eyed examination of the disservices our culture--particularly medical culture--does to the elderly and the terminally ill. This passage from the book is one of my favorites from the year: "In the end, people don't view their life as merely the average of all its moments--which, after all, is mostly nothing much plus some sleep. For human beings, life is meaningful because it is a story. A story has a sense of a whole, and its arc is determined by the significant moments, the ones where something happens. Measurements of people's minute-by-minute levels of pleasure and pain miss this fundamental aspect of human existence. A seemingly happy life may be empty. A seemingly difficult life may be devoted to a great cause. We have purposes larger than ourselves."

Missoula, by Jon Krakauer. This examination of rape in one college town is one of the most frightening books I have read in a long time. If you can read this book and still deny there is a problem with rape on college campuses--a problem fueled by alcohol, a sense of male entitlement, and inadequate education for police officers, prosecutors, and young men and women--I have serious doubts about your rationality.

Honorable Mention: The Light of the World, by Elizabeth Alexander (Michelle Obama's favorite book of the year)

Best Poetry
Citizen, by Claudia Rankine. I don't think Citizen is actually classified as poetry, but to me its language was poetic. Take, for example, this passage: "The world is wrong. You can't put the past behind you. It's buried in you; it's turned your flesh into its own cupboard. Not everything remembered is useful but it all comes from the world to be stored in you."  Even with Rankine's wonderful language, reading this material is painful. Rankine forces our attention to everyday racism--the thoughtless remark, the refusal to sit next to an African American on the bus, the easy judgments about prominent African Americans who, for one moment, lose their equanimity. But she also looks at the larger problems of race in our society, including police killings of African Americans.


December's Reading

December was definitely an interesting reading month, with some definite highs, unfortunately not in the first category.

Mysteries
The Unbidden Truth, by Kate Wilhelm
The Short Drop, by Matthew FitzSimmons
Dance of the Bones, by J.A. Jance

I wouldn't recommend any of these mysteries--Dance of the Bones was an especially disappointing offering from the usually reliable J.A. Jance.

Memoirs
Glitter and Glue, by Kelly Corrigan

A few years ago, Corrigan penned a memoir about her relationship with her father. Glitter and Glue is  purportedly about how she came to appreciate her mother, with whom she had a more distant relationship. Unfortunately, it focuses mostly on the author herself, offering little real insight into the mother-daughter relationship. Corrigan exemplifies why I don't care greatly for memoirs--she thinks her life is interesting and meaningful in some way that should engage others (and, to be fair, she has many fans), but I think her life to be about as memorable as mine--i.e., she's just a regular person and her efforts to make her life into some kind of metaphor fall flat.

Fiction
The State We're In, by Ann Beattie
The Buried Giant, by Kazuo Ishigura
Revolutionary Road, by Richard Yates
The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry, by Gabrielle Zevin
Kitchens of the Great Midwest, by J. Ryan Stradal
Redeployment, by Phil Klay
God Help the Child, by Toni Morrison

Sometimes I wonder why I continue to read short stories (and memoirs for that matter) when I rarely like them. Ann Beattie is a well-regarded practitioner of the form but the Maine stories in The State We're In mostly left me cold. My favorites were three stories that featured teenager Jocelyn, sent to live with a peculiar aunt and uncle while her mother recovers from surgery; Jocelyn is taking an English course in summer school, a course requiring her to consider such topics as "What Magical Realism Would Be." While the other stories do convey a sense of place, I was not enthralled.

And speaking of not enthralled, I could not figure out what Kazuo Ishigura was trying to achieve with The Buried Giant--unless he's just trying to prove he can write in many different genres. This book is a historic fantasy, in essence an exercise in myth-making. It recounts the journey of an elderly couple seeking to find their son; they cannot remember much about their pasts, allegedly because of a mist that lies across the English countryside. On their quest, they encounter knights, monks, strange animals, a dragon, magical children, and more; the two appear to be devoted to one another, but as they begin to remember troubling incidents in their past, that devotion is called into question. While I appreciate Ishigura's versatility and creativity, The Buried Giant was too obscure and quasi-allegorical for my taste.

Revolutionary Road, in contrast, is the realistic story of a young couple starting a family and moving to suburbia in the post-World War II years. While veteran Frank Wheeler believes he is somehow superior to others and destined for unspecified intellectual achievements, his girlfriend April gets pregnant, they marry, he takes a dead-end, do-nothing job at the same company where his father worked, and they move to the suburbs. As they sink into conformity, they still long for another life; they even go so far as to plan a move to Paris, where Frank can find the niche where he will excel. Instead, April becomes pregnant with their third child, and their marriage, deprived of the dream that propelled it, begins to collapse. It's a story of self-delusion, isolation, and conformity and, though the characters really have only themselves to blame for their problems, a tragedy nonetheless. Highly recommended.

The Storied Life of AJ Fikry, Novel Conversation's selection for January, is much more upbeat. It's the story of widower AJ Fikry, who lives above his small bookstore in a tourist town on an island off the Massachusetts coast. He drinks too much, carries only books he likes (he's not a fan of David Foster Wallace), and doesn't really like most of his customers. But then someone leaves a baby in the store and soon he's raising the child, dating a book rep, organizing a book group for police officers, and hosting author events. The book talk/gossip is fun and, although there are some sad moments in the book, overall it leaves the reader feeling positive about humanity. Also highly recommended.

Kitchens of the Great Midwest is another quirky book, this time featuring a Minnesota girl, Eva Thorvald, who has the finest palate of her generation. The book follows Eva from her birth, through difficult family circumstances, to a teen-age dating experience, to success as a chef who creates exquisite dining experiences that people wait years to gain entry to. The chapters are like vignettes, many telling the story of how she met someone who would later become part of her "constructed" family. I wanted to like this book more than I did, and I can't really explain why I didn't find it as entertaining as The Storied Life of A.J. Fikry.

Iraq war veteran Phil Klay won the National Book Award for Redeployment, a collection of 12 short stories that depict the physical and psychological effects of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan on those who fought them. The characters range from a recently returned Marine struggling to figure out how to reestablish himself in life stateside to a chaplain, a serviceman who served on corpse detail, and an Arab-American college student who tries to explain his service in psychological operations to a fellow student. Through the stories, Klay portrays the psychological damage and dislocation that the war has wreaked on those who have fought it. It's impossible to say I enjoyed this book--and I wouldn't have chosen it as the best book of 2014--but those who want to understand the wars of the past decade plus should add it to their reading lists.

God Help the Child is more contemporary than most of Toni Morrison's work. It is the story of Bride, a successful young woman whose mother disliked her because of her extremely dark skin. As the book opens, Bride's lover has left her with no real explanation, and she is devastated. At the same time, she is planning to meet a woman she testified against as a child as the woman leaves prison; when the woman beats her within an inch of her life, Off work while she recuperates from her injuries, Bride begins to deteriorate in other ways, apparently morphing back into the little black girl she once was. She decides to take a road trip to find her ersatz lover Booker, who has deep-seated issues of his own. She crashes her Jaguar and spends weeks recuperating with a hippy couple who stole a child off the street. When she does find Booker, yet another tragedy occurs. While Bride and, to a lesser extent, Booker are the primary characters, others also have a chance to narrate sections of the book; these include Bride's friend Brooklyn, whom Bride trusts completely but is actually plotting to take her job; Sweetness, Bride's delusional mother; the woman whom Bride accused of child abuse; and others. Bride, Booker, and others were affected by child abuse/neglect and the one character who seemed to reach out to  child--Booker's aunt Queen--neglected her own children. God Help the Child is as sad as the title suggests and it's not entirely satisfying, but it's still worth reading. After all, it's Toni Morrison!

Other
Gratitude, by Oliver Sacks
The Best American Poetry 2015, edited by Sherman Alexie

Gratitude is a slim collection of four essays by Oliver Sacks written in the last two years of his life. Focusing on age, illness, and death, they reveal Sacks to have been an amazing human being who provides a compelling model of what it means to face death with dignity and courage.

It can surprise no one that Sherman Alexie has more sophisticated taste in poetry than I. On first reading, I found many of the poems opaque, but enjoyed Madelyn Garner's reflections on dementia in "The Garden in August," James Galvin's poem about a "Wedding Dress" for sale at a thrift store, and Rebecca Hazelton's lovely "My Husband," which celebrates the beauty of the mundane.  I started to enjoy this collection more when I got to the author notes, which included many interesting discussions of the poets' work--how one compelling rhyme can morph into a series that create the base for a poem, how experimenting with form drives some poets' work, how a poet found the raw stuff of her poem on Craig's List. Reading the poems again in conjunction with the notes led me to greater appreciation of the poems. While I feel certain most readers will not like all of these poems, I feel equally certain they will like some of them and will learn something from reading the notes.

Pick of the Litter
Revolutionary Road, The Storied Life of AJ Fikry, and Gratitude.

Favorite Passages
I cannot pretend that I am without fear. But my predominant feeling is one of gratitude. I have loved and been loved; I have been given much and I have given something in return; I have read and traveled and thought and written. I have had an intercourse with the world, the special intercourse of writers and readers. Above all, I have been a sentient being, a thinking animal, on this beautiful planet, and that in itself has been an enormous privilege and adventure.  
--Oliver Sacks, Gratitude 

How resigned she seems
to the eviction notices her body is receiving.
--Madelyn Garner, "The Garden in August"

The less-than-distinguished GOP field for a DiCaprio biopic: Leo, Revealed.
A brand new wok for Lou Brock
--Cody Walker, "Trades I Would Make" (hilariously silly)

Monday, November 30, 2015

November's Reading

I didn't get much read this month--just a tad too much work (being a consultant/freelancer can mean periods of excessively long hours intermixed with times with nothing to do but read), but here's what I did read in November.

Mysteries
Career of Evil, by Robert Galbreath (J.K. Rowling)
Fatal Grace, by Louise Penny

Both of these mysteries were moderately enjoyable, though both also had irritating aspects. Career of Evil, the third of J.K. Rowling's Cormoran Strike series, annoyed me by stringing out the supposed attraction between Cormoran and his assistant/business partner Robin. It's Maddie and David in Moonlighting but with much less clever dialogue. We pick up the series to read a mystery, not a romance novel, so just knock it off already! Fatal Grace is the second Inspector Gamache book (there are many more--I am late to this party); I've already forgotten the plot if that gives you an idea of how compelling it is. But what was really annoying was Penny's habit of giving Gamache a flash of insight (Suddenly, he knew where to look . . . or who did it . . . or whatever) without telling us what it was. She's certainly not the only mystery author who uses this technique, but its commonality makes it no less irritating.

Classics
A Room with a View, by E. M. Forster

I listened to A Room with a View last year, but the narration by Frederick Davidson (also known as David Case--avoid at all costs!) was so awful that I couldn't actually focus on the story of an Edwardian girl's rebellion against society's mores. Ergo, I decided to give it a try in print, and I did indeed find it more enjoyable though not deeply affecting. Perhaps I am too old to be moved by a young woman's search for true love in the face of narrow-mindedness and bigotry. Now I am thinking that seeing the Merchant-Ivory movie might be the way to understand why this book is regarded as a classic.

Fiction
Early Warning, by Jane Smiley
Fates and Furies, by Lauren Groff
Did You Ever Have a Family? by Bill Clegg
Go Set a Watchman, by Harper Lee

Early Warning is the second title in Jane Smiley's trilogy about the Langdons, an Iowa farm family--though most  family members have now moved away from the farm. As in the first volume, the family somehow is involved in every major event that occurs during the period in which this installment is set--1953-1986. A child dies in Viet Nam, another becomes involved with Reverend Jim Jones's organization, a family member contracts AIDS in the early years of the epidemic, another has breast cancer but is in denial. While the complicated plot held my interest, I found myself disappointed that this second volume resembled the first (Some Luck) in its lack of depth. While we may have been privy to a bit more of the Langdons' interior lives, the emotional impact of the many tragedies the family suffered is muted.

Fates and Furies, shortlisted for the National Book Award and recipient of much admiration, also disappointed. The book is the portrait of a marriage, as seen by its two participants, Lotto and Mathilde. The first half of the book is told from Lotto's perspective, starting before he was born. Lotto longs to be an actor but, after years of failure, stumbles into a career as a playwright, a career in which he experiences some success. Throughout his life, he struggles with an estrangement from his mother, both overconfidence and deep insecurity, and homoerotic yearnings. The second half of the book is Mathilde's and, through her story, we learn that the marriage is not as Lotto perceived it to be. Although some reviewers have found Mathilde the most interesting character, I must admit that I found them both to be hollow. As for the notion that a relationship may be completely different when viewed from opposite sides, Showtime's The Affair (I'm in the midst of season 2 right now) does it better.

But now for some good news--Did You Ever Have a Family? is a memorable book. While it seems to be the story of a woman, June, whose daughter, prospective son-in-law, boyfriend, and ex-husband are killed in a house fire on the eve of the daughter's wedding. Distraught, June starts driving West, looking for some respite. But Clegg does not always focus directly on Ruth, choosing instead to "get to the heart of [the story] by circling [it] with other voices and perspectives." Some of the other voices are critical--the mother of June's boyfriend, the father of the daughter's fiance. Others seem much more tangential--a man whose mother made the wedding cake, the co-owner of a hotel where June stays at the end of her headlong flight. Together, however, they build a web of connections that seems to me to be the point of the book. There's a mystery element that isn't really very mysterious but nonetheless adds to the emotional texture of the book by allowing Clegg to examine from multiple viewpoints the toxic nature of guilt. Definitely recommended.

I had not intended to read Go Set a Watchman because I felt sure that Harper Lee if in full possession of her faculties would not want it published. However, when the audiobook (read well by Reese Witherspoon) became available for checkout from OverDrive, I caved. The book probably shouldn't have been published--it's not a very good novel although sections when Jean Louise (aka Scout) flashes back to her youth are quite lovely. What was so interesting to me was how unshocking I found Atticus's racism--this is how many people in the South thought (and some still think) despite the fact that they knew intellectually that they were wrong. Perhaps too many people were too invested in the Gregory Peck version of Atticus, which was (in my opinion) a sanitized version of the more flawed Atticus in Mockingbird.  I wouldn't recommend the book, but I am glad I listened to it.

Short Stories
You Won't Remember This, by Kate Blackwell

Sadly, the title is prophetic, as I read this book early in the month and only remember fleeting moments from the short stories it contains (perhaps a downfall of my new approach to the blog). I do recollect that the stories generally feature Southern women. Sorry--that's pretty much it. Note to self: Make some notes next time.

Nonfiction
What the Dog Saw, by Malcolm Gladwell

What the Dog Saw is a several-years-old collection of Gladwell's articles from the New Yorker. I'm a huge Gladwell fan and the articles have some of the same ingenious connecting of ideas that I find so rewarding in Gladwell's work. However, because they are short and, to some extent, dated, I would recommend his longer works (Outliers, Blink, David and Goliath) if you are not yet familiar with his writing/thinking.

Pick of the Litter:  Did You Ever Have a Family?


Favorite Passage

". . . wounds can sing a beguiling song."

From Did You Ever Have a Family? by Bill Clegg

Saturday, October 31, 2015

A Change of Direction

After six-plus years of writing mini-reviews of books, I have wearied of the format (or perhaps mostly wearied of my own natterings), so I have decided to change directions. Inspired by Nick Hornby's "Stuff I've Been Reading" column for The Believer, I am going to write on a monthly (or maybe slightly more often) basis about the stuff I've been reading (although I lay no claim to be either as funny or insightful as Hornby). So here's what I've been reading since I last posted.

Mysteries
Red Mist, by Patricia Cornwell
Speaking in Bones, by Kathy Reichs
14th Deadly Sin, by James Patterson

I gave up on Patricia Cornwell several years ago, but found myself listening to Red Mist because I couldn't see anything else on OverDrive (service for downloading audio books through your local library) that appealed and I found it quite a bit better than the last few of her books I had read--not great, mind you, but entertaining enough. In contrast, James Patterson's latest in the Women's Murder Club series has prompted me to scratch that series off my list (the Alex Cross series was scratched off several titles ago). Books that are no more than a set-up for the sequel should be banned!

Memoirs
My Kitchen Wars, by Betty Fussell
Yes, Please, by Amy Poehler

As you know if you have read much of my blog, I am not a fan of memoirs, but I keep reading them--especially chef/cook's memoirs. Betty Fussell's memoir is about food and her marriage--and the stories are interrelated. It's interesting to see how the food she was cooking and the ways in which she and her academic husband entertained evolved over the course of their 20-year union (1949-1971), reflecting changes in the culture. Once they divorced, Fussell's career as a food writer took off, although that piece of her life seems almost an afterthought in My Kitchen Wars. Didn't quite live up to my hopes, but enjoyable enough.

Amy Poehler's memoir is what you would expect from the comedian--funny and charming and a testament to her courage and essential niceness (she is unfailingly kind and loving about her former husband). I enjoyed it more than Tina Fey's similar work--and I think it may be because I listened to Yes, Please while I read Bossypants--humor that feels forced on the printed page comes across better when presented orally. The humorous memoir may be a genre best presented in audiobook.

Classics 
Main Street, by Sinclair Lewis

I feel virtuous whenever I fill in one of the gaping holes in my reading history, so I am feeling virtuous this morning, having just finished Lewis's scathing satire of small town Midwestern life; his portrayal of the young woman who wants to reform Gopher Prairie, Minnesota, is equally biting. I noted to my son that I often feel like the classics I read could have benefited from a good editor but that I was unsure whether it's because I'm old and don't have time to waste on overlong books or have been corrupted by modern technology that shortens attention span or they are actually just too long. My son pointed out that listening to an audiobook, as I did with Main Street, prevents skimming. So perhaps the classics are not the genre for listening.


Fiction
Stella Bain, by Anita Shreve
We Never Asked for Wings, by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
The Heart Goes Last, by Margaret Atwood
Americanah, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Stella Bain seems to be two separate books forced into one;  the first half is about a Red Cross volunteer in World War I who loses her memory, the second about her child custody battle once she regains her memory. Each could be the basis of a good book, but together they don't work.

We Never Asked for Wings is the second novel from Vanessa Diffenbaugh, whose first, The Language of Flowers, was a runaway bestseller. Diffenbaugh seems to be developing a formula--choose a colorful metaphor (flowers, feathers), create a female character so deeply flawed she could be friends with Amy Dunne, and then send good people who want to help her find her way out of her self-induced misery. Not working for me!

Margaret Atwood is an author I have never taken to--I think Alias Grace is the only one of her books I had previously made it through. I did make it through The Heart Goes Last, a dystopic novel in which people agree to live every other month in prison in exchange for security and free room and board the rest of the time. Although I do not read that much dystopic fiction, The Heart Goes Last seemed unoriginal and contrived to me, and its late-chapters descent into slapstick involving Elvis impersonators did not add to my enjoyment. Margaret Atwood remains on my list of "Highly Regarded Authors I Have Little Fondness for"--and I feel slightly less guilty that she resides there.

And now something I actually liked:  Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's much-lauded novel Americanah is a window into Nigeria and the Nigerian diaspora. Ifemelu is the heart of Americanah; we meet her when she is at the hair-braiding salon preparing to return to Nigeria after 13 years in the United States. We then meet the love of her adolescent years, Obinze, who is now a wealthy and unhappily married real estate mogul in Nigeria. As Adichie builds their back stories, she educates us about life in Nigeria and the experiences of African immigrants in the UK (where Obinze lives for several years) and the United States. The story is cleverly enhanced with entries from Ifemelu's popular blog, in which she comments on racial matters from the perspective of a "Non-American Black." While I was disappointed with the ending, I recommend Americanah highly.

Other
Felicity, by Mary Oliver
The Flick, by Annie Baker

Felicity is Mary Oliver's latest poetry collection, celebrating nature and romantic love. As always, Oliver's poems are very accessible and at least some resonate deeply. Recommended if you like poetry or just think you should.

The Flick is a Pulitzer Prize-winning play. Set in a run-down theater, The Flick features three characters--a female projectionist and two male employees who clean the theater between shows. Most of the dialogue is the kind of random conversation that occurs between co-workers, sometimes interspersed with long silences (not painful when reading but potentially so when watching the play performed). Yet we also get a sense of the emotional anguish lurking beneath the surface. An enjoyable change of pace.

Pick of the Litter: Americanah

Favorite Passage: 
"I don’t want to lose a single thread

From the intricate brocade of this happiness. . . ."
--From "I Don't Want to Lose," by Mary Oliver