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.

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.

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.

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.

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