Thursday, September 29, 2016

The 32-Hour Book and Other September Achievements

Last night I told my older son (a computer engineer who's not much of a reader) that I had finished the 32-hour book recommended by my younger son (the soon-to-be literary scholar). His response: "Is that the title?" Well, no, it's how long the audio book of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell is! Given its length and the fact that my iPod refused to play the last 5 hours, finishing it was my major September achievement. . . but there were other good reading moments as well.

The Jewel of Paradise, by Donna Leon

This may be a first--a month in which I read only one mystery. Sadly, the story of a Venetian musicologist investigating the contents of two trunks of ephemera left by a composer is boring and barely a mystery at all. (Note this is not one of what is evidently a very popular Leon series about a character named Commissario Brunetti.)

Landline, by Rainbow Rowell
Carthage, by Joyce Carol Oates
Miller's Valley, by Anna Quindlen
Clara and Mr. Tiffany, by Susan Vreeland
The Hopefuls, by Jennifer Close
The Book of Unknown Americans, by Cristina Henriquez
Slade House, by David Mitchell
The Japanese Lover, by Isabel Allende
Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell, by Susanna Clarke
Commonwealth, by Ann Patchett

I don't know why I decided to read Landline, since I had just read another Rainbow Rowell book and found it to be essentially silly. The same can be said of Landline, which includes a fantastical element--when the protagonist, who has stayed at home to work over Christmas while her husband and children have traveled to visit the grandparents, calls her husband on the landline, they are transported back to an earlier period in their relationship when they almost broke up. Rowell is clearly interested in the effects of technology on human relationships, but her books are too lightweight to actually advance our understanding of those effects.

Carthage has three parts that feel almost like three separate novels. The first is the story of a family whose somewhat strange younger daughter suddenly goes missing and the impact of the disappearance on the family and on the family of the Iraq War veteran suspected of harming her. The second (SPOILER) is the story of what happened to the daughter, written without naming her, as she works with a researcher studying the death penalty. The third reveals what happens--to herself, her family, and the man serving time for "killing" her--when she returns to her home. It's a peculiar combination and the ending does not seem realistic, but I still somewhat inexplicably enjoyed the book.

Sadly, the same can not be said of Miller's Valley, which is the story of Mimi Miller, whose somewhat dysfunctional family has lived on their Pennsylvania farm for generations. Development and the proposed construction of a dam threaten that existence; at first it feels like the book is going to be about this economic/environmental issue, but then it seems to switch focus to the difficulty of escaping the rural/working class poor life (and the draw that life can still have once you've escaped). A big disappointment from Anna Quindlen.

Clara and Mr. Tiffany is interesting--the fictionalized story of the real female artist who developed many of the ideas for glasswork that brought Louis Tiffany his fame. The account of women's struggle for any sort of recognition and even for their jobs, when male workers became jealous of the women's success, is fascinating. The story of Clara's personal life is less engaging, but the book is worth reading, particularly for those interested in art and/or women's history.

The Hopefuls is the story of a young couple that brings their idealism and ambition to Washington, DC, when the husband gets a job in the nascent Obama administration. Wife Beth hates DC while husband Matt grows frustrated with his lack of upward mobility; he therefore jumps at the chance to run his friend Jimmy's campaign--for a minor office in Texas. Beth and Matt decamp for Texas with Jimmy and his wife Ashleigh, and their marriage suffers. I found the book interesting while focused on their life in Washington (although I was annoyed that the author referred to the Education Department as the DOE, which is the designation for the Department of Energy--I know it's a small thing, but if you're writing a book as a Washington insider, you should get these details right!) and soap opera-ish when they end up in Texas.

The Book of Unknown Americans focuses on the largely immigrant population of a rundown apartment building in Delaware. Two families are particularly important to the story--the Riveras, who have recently come from Mexico to seek treatment for their daughter Maribel, who sustained a brain injury in a fall, and the Toros, who fled Panama 15 years earlier, The Toros' son Mayor and Maribel form a friendship that is good for both of them but eventually causes a rift between the families. While tragedy strikes one family, there is still an optimistic tone--people care for and help each other and believe that good will eventually come to them. Even for a cynic such as myself, The Book of Unknown Americans is a rewarding read.

Slade House is, according to other reviews, a follow-up to David Mitchell's The Bone Clocks, which I tried to read but could not get into. One does not need to have read that book, however, to follow the (soon predictable) pattern of Slade House. Every nine years, someone disappears into an alley in London, never to be seen again. A mother and son are followed by a police officer looking into their case, a young woman who is part of a paranormal investigatory team, that young woman's sister, etc, They have become prey of a pair of centuries-old twins who require fresh souls to renew themselves. The first couple of chapters are entertaining, but I quickly found the book predictable and rather tedious. Cloud Atlas this is not.

I am not a fan of Isabel Allende but downloaded the audio book of The Japanese Lover because it was available on a day when I couldn't find anything else--and a friend had told me she enjoyed the book. It's the story of Alma, an elderly doyen of San Francisco's upper crust who was sent to live with relatives in California when her parents began to see the path of Nazism in Poland; Ichimei, her lifelong friend and the son of the Japanese gardener for Alma's relatives; and Irina, a young immigrant from Moldova who suffered hideous abuse from her stepfather but has become a beloved care-giver at the idyllic retirement home to which Alma has decamped. Allende jumps around in time to give us these characters' backstories, but none of the characters come alive, even when terrible things happen to them--and a broad array of social ills befall them. Definitely my last Allende--and I mean it!

My son Kevin described Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell as "the greatest stand-alone work of fantasy of our time." I must take his word for this, as he is a voracious reader in this genre, while I am not. I did, however, find it an imaginative and complex work that held my interest for 32 hours! It is set in the early 1800s, when British magic was apparently dead. Theoretical magicians talked about and studied magic--but did not practice it. The one exception was Mr. Norrell, who not only could perform impressive magic but intended that he be the only magician in England. Enter Jonathan Strange, a much younger, more vibrant, and more sociable man who convinced Norrell to take him on as a student. I cannot possibly describe what happens in the book, but suffice it to say it is complicated, dark, and not always fast-reading (there are numerous footnotes!) or -moving. I enjoyed the book, but I am not sure what to make of it now that I am done . . . so I guess I can say it has me thinking, which is always a good thing.

In the past, I have liked Ann Patchett's books with more exotic settings and themes (Bel Canto, State of Wonder) better than her more domestic works. But I loved Commonwealth, which is the story of two families--the Keatings and the Cousins--whose lives become entangled as the result of Bert Cousins' decision to attend a christening at the Keatings simply to get away from his wife and children on a Sunday afternoon. Three of the four parents seem to be largely unscathed by the upheaval in the two families, but the six children are scarred, in ways large and small. And yet they persevere--and we come to admire and respect them. Patchett's work covers some of the same ground as the novels of Jonathan Franzen and is equal to, if not better than, those more-lauded books. Commonwealth is definitely recommended.

Breakfast at Tiffany's, by Truman Capote
Animal Farm, by George Orwell

I feel like I could not possibly have anything original to say about either of these novellas, both widely read and written about--but I'll give a couple of personal reactions nonetheless. Having never read or seen the film of Breakfast at Tiffany's, I was surprised to find Holly Golightly a rather crude character. While I enjoyed Capote's writing and the narration of Michael C. Hall, I was not taken with Holly or the story. I had, of course, read Animal Farm in high school, but I had forgotten how disturbingly violent it is. While the removal of the fear of Communism might suggest the book is no longer relevant, I find its depiction of human/animal nature as timely and accurate as ever.

Men Explain Things to Me, by Rebecca Solnit
The Folded Click, by Heidi Julavits
In Other Words, by Jhumpa Lahiri

Men Explain Things to Me begins with an anecdote that will resonate with virtually every woman who has ever had a conversation with a man. She is at a party and a man asks her what she does. She responds that she is a writer. He asks what she has written and she begins to describe her most recent book. He interrupts her to tell her about the "very important new book" on the same topic. After some minutes, Solnit's friend must interrupt the man to tell him he is describing Solnit's book, which, of course, he has not actually read--he has only read a review! This story introduces the title essay in the collection, which is a scathing look at the silencing of women. It is followed by an essay on violence against women that should be required reading for people of all genders. In another essay, Solnit recasts objections to the marriage equality movement as having less to do with same sex marriage than the thought that women might become equal within the marriage relationship; I'm not so sure about that assertion but it is interesting reading. Less interesting to me was her piece on Virginia Wolfe. I generally liked this slim volume, though I found Solnit to be a little overly self-referential, which may have been at least in part a result of the essays having been published individually first. Still, some editing might easily have eliminated repetitive references to what she included in earlier works.

When you have established a journal that eschews snarkiness and includes only positive reviews, as Heidi Julavits has, critiquing your work puts a reviewer in an uncomfortable situation, especially when looking at a work like The Folded Clock, which invites snarkiness. Why do I say it invites snarkiness? First some background. Julavits found her old diaries and hoped they would show she was destined to be a writer (she seems to be spend considerable time looking for signs), but instead finds them banal. She decides to keep a diary—although The Folded Clock is hardly an actual diary (even though every entry begins with “Today I”).  The entries are not provided in chronological order, bouncing around in a two-year period in which Julavits wrote the reflections or essays (rather than entries). While other reviewers have been enchanted, I found myself wondering if she was intending to be funny because the problems she obsesses about are so shallow. They are the definition of first world problems—her consternation when she turns up at her therapist’s and the therapist doesn’t answer the door, her fear of sharks, her jealousy of the doctor who invented the diet her husband is on to improve his health.  She lives in Maine and Manhattan, she swans around Europe, she very deliberately does not name drop—but she does mention knowing a lot of famous actors,theater people, writers, artists, etc. She uses men in her life to develop her sense of self. It's really quite annoying. And--in the theme of small errors that rankle--she refers to the Dewey Decimal system and then gives a call number in the Library of Congress classification system. Didn't anyone edit this thing? 

In Other Words is a memoir that Indian American author Jhumpa Lahiri wrote in Italian while living for three years in Italy. (It also includes two short stories written in Italian.) The English edition includes Italian on the verso, English on the recto--an arrangement that is not enlightening to most of us non-Italian-speaking Americans. Lahiri recounts her love affair with Italian, as well as her ruminations on why Italian calls to her more strongly than English or Bengali (her parents' native language) and the challenges and rewards of writing in a new language. I admire Lahiri's previous work and think it’s interesting that she is drawn to Italian and attributes it to not feeling truly at home in Bengali or English. Some of what she writes about writing is very interesting and beautifully stated. But much of the book feels like self-analysis; perhaps instead of writing a book, she might have crafted a very fine article and taken a trip to a therapist to talk about her many irritations and her angst.  (And, yes, I know I have descended into complete snarkiness here.)

Pick of the Litter: Commonwealth 

Favorite Passages 
A conversation involves a sort of collaboration and, often, an act of forgiveness. When I speak I can make mistakes, but I’m somehow able to make myself understood. On the page I am alone. The spoken language is a kind of antechamber with respect to the written, which has a stricter, more elusive logic.

Why do I write? To investigate the mystery of existence. To tolerate myself. To get closer to everything that is outside of me.

If I want to understand what moves me, what confuses me, what pains me—everything that makes me react, in short—I have to put it into words. Writing is my only way of absorbing and organizing life. Otherwise it would terrify me, it would upset me too much.

Jhumpa Lahiri, In Other Words

Every woman knows what I'm talking about. It's the presumption that makes it hard, at times, for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and from being heard when they dare; that crushes young women into silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self-limitation just as it exercises men's unsupported overconfidence.

Rebecca Solnit, Men Explain Things to Me