Sunday, July 3, 2016

Midsummer Reading

It's not really midsummer yet, but for me the Fourth of July always feels like the point when the remaining days and weeks of summer are going to race by rapidly. Still, I am hoping those days and weeks bring some good books. In June, most of my reading was uninspiring, but Cormac McCarthy's The Road rose above the mundane. 


Angel's Tip, by Alafair Burke
Corrupted, by Lisa Scottoline

I have read some of Alafair Burke's books over the years but recently decided to give her Ellie Hatcher series a second try (I had apparently read the first title in the series years ago, though I remember very little about it). Ellie is a New York City homicide detective who has risen very quickly through the ranks, causing suspicion among her colleagues. But her partner, J.J. Rogan, a dapper African American detective, backs her up, even when she goes off in some odd directions while trying to solve the case of a murdered college girl on spring break in Manhattan. Okay but not a great mystery by any means.

I did not care for Corrupted, the latest entry in Scottoline's series about an all-female law firm in Philadelphia, a series I think I may have to abandon. While Scottoline brings in a current issue--corruption in sentencing juveniles to for-profit prisons--The Good Wife did the same topic better. The part of the story that focuses on a romance senior partner Benni had with the uncle of a young miscreant is utterly ridiculous. So not recommended.

Young Adult

Among the Barons, by Margaret Peterson Haddix
Belzhar, by Meg Wolitzer

Among the Barons is number 4 in the Shadow Children series recommended by my granddaughter. This one involves the hero of the series--Luke--being forced to become involved with the family of the young man whose identity he's assumed as a way of avoiding detection as an unlawful third child. The family has money (ergo "The Barons"), and Luke cannot figure out why they want him around. As usual, he doesn't know who to trust, evil deeds transpire, and you are as confused at the end of the book as when you started. My granddaughter claims that, by the seventh book, I will understand everything. I am forced to trust her.

I didn't realize Belzhar was a YA title when I downloaded it on OverDrive (I'm only familiar with Meg Wolitzer's adult novels). It's the story of five teenagers who've been sent to The Wooden Barn, a boarding school for "fragile" young people; they meet in a class, "Special Topics in English," that is focusing on the words of Sylvia Plath. Their teacher gives them antique journals in which to write during the semester and, when they write in them, they are transported back in time to before the trauma that sent them to The Wooden Barn. They call this "place," Belzhar (say it out loud and you'll understand how they got this name). As the end of the semester approaches, they must find a way to live in the present. I found the premise silly, but it's possible that kids in their early teens (there are numerous references to sex, so I wouldn't recommend it for younger kids) might find it engaging.


Catch-22, by Joseph Heller

I tried to read Catch-22 when I was in college, but I just couldn't get into it. Recently, my son and I exchanged some "favorite" book lists and this was on his list, so I decided to give it another try, this time in audio book format. I did succeed in finishing it, but I didn't really enjoy it. Yes, it's an on-point satire of war and the military bureaucracy. Yes, it is at times quite funny. But it goes on way too long, providing more evidence for my argument that satirical novels should be limited to around 300 pages (Catch-22 is over 500). And, as with other male writers of his era, Heller writes about women in a way that is degrading; of course, one can argue that he is only reflecting the attitudes of the male characters in the book but surely there could be a female character who wasn't simply a toy/foil for the men.  If an intrepid reader wants to give the book a try, I might recommend not going with the audio book--so much of the dialogue is shouted that listening to the book wore me down (and, on a side note, the reader makes Yossarian sound like Alan Arkin, who played the role in the movie, which I found somewhat odd).


The Dispossessed, by Ursula K. LeGuin
LaRose, by Louise Erdrich
The Road, by Cormac McCarthy
Patricia Highsmith: Selected Novels and Short Stories, by Patricia Highsmith
Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishigura
Vinegar Girl, by Anne Tyler
Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave

The Dispossessed was another of my son's recommendations, and I found it interesting if not exciting. The protagonist is a physicist named Shevek, who is seeking to develop a General Temporal Theory. He lives on Antarres, a planet inhabited by people who broke off from their twin planet Urras, led by the anarchist Odo. While Antarres purportedly has no government, but the waning of its revolutionary spirit has created a culture of conformity, and Shevek's research, which flies in the face of accepted thinking, is not well accepted. He therefore decides to travel to Urras--an unheard of decision--to continue his research and open scientific communication between the two societies. But he struggles on Urras as well. Alternate chapters detail Shevek's life on Antarres and his life on Urras, playing with time and the relationship of events in the two phases of his life. The novel is not at all plot-driven; rather, it is a novel of ideas--ideas about time, science, the structuring of society, human relationships, the environment, the effect of scarcity on society, and more. I'm sure I missed a lot of what LeGuin is saying, but I enjoyed the opportunity to think about these ideas.

I used to read a lot of Louise Erdrich, though I was always kind of scratching my head and wondering what exactly she was trying to say in her complicated tales about Native American life and mythology. So I stopped reading her for awhile; then I read her three most recent books (Shadow Tag, The Round House, and Plague of Doves) and found them much more firmly rooted in the present and ergo easier for me to grasp; I admired all three. I was therefore disappointed when LaRose fell flat for me. It's the story of two families the Ironses and the Ravitches (the wives are half-sisters). When Landreaux Irons accidentally kills five-year-old Dusty Ravitch, he and his wife decide they must give their five-year-old son LaRose to the Ravitches as reparation. Both sets of parents (and Dusty's sister) suffer as a result of these events, and their suffering is made worse by the actions of another man, whose son is being raised by the Irons family. Family history woven into the story reveals how boarding schools that separated Native American children from their families scarred the children, both mentally and physically. As I write this description, I am thinking "I should have been really engaged with these characters" . . . and yet I wasn't.

The Road is a grim depiction of a post-apocalyptic world in which a man and his young son are trekking across the American West, surviving on their wits and good luck. The man loves his son (their wife/mother committed suicide) and tells him they are "the good guys," but the son begins to question that description as his father uses violence against other survivors they encounter. As I was listening to the book, I told my son I was afraid the ending was going to be too devastating for me to handle, but instead it was almost too upbeat. Still, I really liked The Road both for McCarthy's gift for description and the depiction of two sad but somehow inspiring characters in the midst of ruin.

Included in the Patricia Highsmith collection are two novels--Strangers on a Train and The Price of Salt. I knew the general outline of Strangers on a Train but had never read it or seen the Hitchcock film based on it. Several things about the book surprised me--that the "strangers" had not really agreed to the plot, that the man who committed the first murder was so clearly deranged, that the story had homoerotic undertones--dark and suspenseful (though also dated). The Price of Salt is in some ways more interesting, as it is essentially a lesbian love story that Highsmith published under a pseudonym. I can see that this book would have been groundbreaking in the early 1950s, but, sadly, I found it as annoying as I would find a love story in which a much younger woman is emotionally abused by a man she loves (other readers don't seem to have found Carol as manipulative and abusive to Therese as I did but I thought she was despicable). I guess I will now watch the recent movie Carol that was based on the book--perhaps it will make me change my mind. The short stories included are varied--I enjoyed some, found others really strange, but then I'm not a short story person.

I saw the film Remains of the Day years ago and remember it as being a very sad depiction of a man whose emotional life was stunted by the role he had to play as a butler. Because my son described the book as "goofy," I decided to read it and, while I'm not sure that's the word I would have used, it definitely has a more comic/ironic tone. Stevens, the protagonist, has been the butler at Darlington Hall for decades, first serving Lord Darlington, now serving an American who has bought the estate and operates it with a much reduced staff. After receiving a letter from the former housekeeper, Stevens takes some time off to drive cross country to her home, hoping she has decided to leave her husband and might return to work at Darlington Hall. As he drives, he reflects on the meaning of the word dignity, an essential trait of a great butler in his view; on his relationship with his late father, also a butler, and Miss Kenton, the housekeeper; and on his experiences serving Lord Darlington. In his encounters with people on his trip, he several times denies having worked for Lord Darlington, whose reputation was sullied by his pro-German stance leading up to World War II; each time he feels guilty about doing so but cannot admit to strangers that he spent his life serving a man unworthy of the sacrifices he made. So, as this description should make clear, the book is about what I remember the theme of the movie being--but the tone is different (unless I am remembering the film incorrectly). I did enjoy the book and plan to rewatch the film to check my memory!

In 2015, Hogarth Press launched a project to have Shakespeare plays retold by modern authors (I'm not quite sure why someone would think that is a good idea). Vinegar Girl is purportedly a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew (which, sadly, I have neither read nor seen performed--and I took a semester of Shakespeare in college!), set, of course, in Baltimore. Our modern Kate is a college dropout, working as an assistant preschool teacher (she often acts about as mature as her students and is perpetually on probation) and taking care of her eccentric scientist father and obnoxious teenage sister, both of whom show little respect for Kate. Then her father has the idea to arrange a marriage between Kate and his colleague at the lab, whose visa is about to run out. The kinds of adventures you'd expect in an Anne Tyler novel ensue. Tyler does try to twist the sexism in The Taming of the Shrew on its head, but it didn't quite work for me. I feel about this book as I did about Curtis Sittenfield's retelling of Pride and Prejudice--amusing but essentially just light entertainment.

I loved Chris Cleave's Little Bee and liked Incendiary a lot; Gold, a story told in the arena of sports, fell flat.  Everyone Brave Is Forgiven moves back to looking at how people deal with violent conflict, in this case World War II. At the heart of the story is Mary, an 18-year-old girl from the privileged classes, who signs up at the War Office as soon as war is declared. She is assigned to be a teacher--but, when her students are evacuated, the head teacher tells her she is not needed or wanted in the country. With the help of the school district head, Tom, who becomes her lover, she gets her own class of students whom no one in the countryside will take in--disabled and black students. Through Tom, she and her friend Hilda meet Alistair, who is serving on the front. All four characters experience great trauma and loss (one of them is killed, while the other three are seriously injured and face numerous challenges--some of which they handle in ways that don't seem realistic), but the book ends on an upbeat note. While I was intrigued by the story of black entertainers and children in London during the War, the four main characters did not hold my attention. Perhaps there have just been too many World War II books lately. Or perhaps historical novels aren't Cleave's forte. Whatever the reason, I can't recommend Everyone Brave Is Forgiven.


When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalanithi

By any standard, Paul Kalanithi was a high achiever, his degrees in literature, medicine, and neuroscience so numerous and impressive as to be downright intimidating. In his mid-30s, he was chief neurosurgery resident at Stanford Hospital, about to embark on what would assuredly have been a remarkable career. Then he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer and decided to write a memoir; about half of the slim book is a recounting of his life before the diagnosis, half of his life as a doctor with cancer. An afterword by his wife tells of the rapid decline after two years of treatment and of his death. Kalanithi was a talented writer and his story is moving; while many reader reviewers have said they found inspiration in the book, I'm not sure I have taken anything from it other than profound sadness. Still, I would recommend the book.

Pick of the Litter: The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

Favorite passages:

No lists of things to be done. The day providential to itself. The hour. There is no later. This is later. All things of grade and beauty such that one holds them to one's heart have a common provenance in pain. Their birth in grief and ashes.

From The Road, by Cormac McCarthy

When he played his father's music, he was almost back home. But a tune had no fixed place in time. It was a city before the eternal. It was only ever a joint.

From Everyone Brave Is Forgiven, by Chris Cleave

When you come to one of the many moments in life when you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man's days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more, but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

From When Breath Becomes Air, by Paul Kalinithi (parting words addressed to his infant daughter)

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