Saturday, December 31, 2016

Wrapping up December's Books

December was a crazy month both because of work and the holidays and my reading was somewhat curtailed--but there were still some definite highlights.

Still Missing, by Chevy Stevens
Random Acts, by J.A. Jance

The narrative of Still Missing is told as a series of sessions in which Annie O'Sullivan tells her therapist--without interruption from the therapist--about her abduction; year-long captivity in which she was terrorized, raped, and gave birth; her escape; and the effort to find out who her captor was and what his motives were. What she eventually learns is as horrifying as her experiences in captivity. I can understand why the author chose this device--it provides a specific purpose for the telling of the victim's story--sadly, I don't think it really works. The story has some similarities to Room, but lacks the nuance and redemptive power of that superior book.

Random Acts is a novella in which J.A. Jance once again brings two of her characters--Ali Reynolds and Joanna Brady. It's very thin in terms of actual mystery--but the author does kill off Brady's mother and stepfather. Who is going to be around to annoy Joanna now?

The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln, by Stephen Carter
The Versions of Us, by Laura Barnett
Nobody's Fool, by Richard Russo
Rules of Civility, by Amor Toles
Faithful, by Alice Hoffman
Spectator Bird, by Wallace Stegner
Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett

Stephen Carter asks us to imagine that Abraham Lincoln survived the assassination attempt by John Wilkes Booth (Andrew Johnson was instead killed) and went on to face impeachment. That's the context, but the center of the story is Abigail Canner, a young African American woman who has recently graduated from Oberlin and has returned to her home town of Washington, DC, to pursue a career as an attorney. She finds herself as a valuable and also manipulated law clerk at the firm defending Lincoln. The plot is extremely complicated and the writing occasionally flawed, but The Impeachment of Abraham Lincoln is interesting for its exploration of racial, gender, and, well, politics of all types.

Until a few years ago, I'm not sure I had ever read a book that presented different futures for a cast of characters, depending on some relatively minor decision early on in the story; lately such books have proliferated. The Versions of Us is the latest and it adds another layer of complexity by tracing three story lines in the lives of Jim, Eva, and David, students at Cambridge in the late 1950s, Because there are events that cross all three versions of the story, I occasionally found myself struggling to remember which version I was in, who was married to whom in that version, who the children belonged to, and where the characters were in their lives and careers. Nonetheless, I enjoyed following how decisions about family, love, and career evolved and changed subsequent events.

Richard Russo published a sequel to Nobody's Fool and, given its stellar reviews, I decided I should read Nobody's Fool (despite having been in a book group that had a bit of a Russo obsession, I had not read this one) as preparation for Everybody's Fool. If you haven't seen the movie starring Paul Newman (recommended), Nobody's Fool is the story of Sully, a 60-something ne'er-do-very-well who lives in a retired teacher's upstairs apartment in small-town New York. Sully hides his caring under a facade of obnoxiousness and minor criminal behavior. Still, he is the heart of a constructed "family" of the type of oddballs who populate Russo novels. Looking forward to the sequel.

Rules of Civility feels like Edith Wharton's House of Mirth set in the late 1930s. It's the story of Katey Kontent, a young working woman in New York City who by chance becomes involved with a group of upper class New Yorkers. Katey fares better than Lily Bart (perhaps the 30 years difference in the setting made the difference), but the descriptions of the city and the cultural mores of the various social groups were Whartonesque. An enjoyable read.

I am not a huge fan of Alice Hoffman, in large part because of the magical realism aspects of her books. Faithful is the story of Shelby, whose life fell apart when she was in a car accident that left her best friend in a persistent vegetative state. When Hoffman started describing how pilgrims came to the friend's home because they believed she had healing powers, I thought I was going to have to stop reading. But that story line just fizzled out (thankfully) and what Hoffman does in the rest of the book is demonstrate how a broken person can put herself back together. The details may not be all that original, but Shelby's story moved me.

Spectator Bird is, to my mind, one of Wallace Stegner's minor book. In it, retired literary agent Joe Allston is basically waiting to die in his lovely home in the hills above Palo Alto, much as his career was about waiting to retire. Then suddenly he receives a postcard from a Danish woman he and his wife met on a European trip decades earlier. Prompted by the card, his wife prevails on him to read his journals from the trip to her as "bedtime reading," both knowing that they will eventually get to the point where Joe was attracted to the "Countess," as they called her. The Countess' story is sordid and sad, but why both Joe and his wife should be harboring dark feelings they have never discussed is somewhat inexplicable. Still, Stegner's incredible writing makes the book worthwhile.

Historical novels set in 12th century England are not exactly my cup of tea, but when I read The End of Your Life Book Club a few years ago, I wrote down the books that author Will Schwalbe and his mother read together, and The Pillars of the Earth was one.  In a prologue, author Ken Follett describes his long fascination with old churches and cathedrals and how that obsession led to writing a book so different from his usual genre (suspense). The book is about the building of the cathedral at Knightsbridge, England--and the tangled lives of the people involved. The stuff about architecture is interesting, but the rest is just a soap opera, with a bit too much relish for scenes of violence, particularly sexual violence. The writing is also flawed (e.g., Follett uses vocabulary that is out of place in the time in which the book is set). Given that the book is over 900 pages, I feel like Will Schwalbe owes me one!

Young Adult
Side Effects May Vary, by Julie Murphy

Alice is a not-too-lovable teenager who, when diagnosed with leukemia, decides to wreak revenge on everyone who has ever wronged her. Then, a year later, she is in remission and having to deal with the fallout of her revenge bucket-list. Alice is not a sympathetic character and the off again/on again relationship with her friend Harvey is beyond my ken (perhaps I am just too old).

My Favorite Things, by Maira Kalman
Everybody's Got Something, by Robin Roberts

My Favorite Things has been rapturously reviewed--here is an example sentence from one: "From Maira Kalman . . . comes this beautiful pictorial and narrative exploration of the significance of objects in our lives, drawn from her personal artifacts, recollections and selections from the collection of the Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum." Sounds delightful, right? Sadly (oops, that word keeps reappearing), the book did not move me in the least. In fact, it felt like the author/artist was trying too hard to delight. I wish I could have liked the book as much as other people did.

Everybody's Got Something is Robin Roberts' account of the life-threatening illness brought on by the chemotherapy she underwent after a breast cancer diagnosis. Her ability to fight through another terrible illness and grueling treatment while maintaining a positive spirit is truly admirable, but the book is not really worthy of her story. She is sometimes just too smarmy about her circle of beloved friends, family, and colleagues, and she repeats maxims from her parents over and over. I listed to the audio book, which Roberts narrates herself, and her delivery is overacted (though not sure how you can overact your own story). Perhaps the book would be  uplifting for someone going through a similar experience, but I was disappointed.

Pick of the Litter:  Faithful 

Favorite Passage 
As for Joe Allston, he has been a wisecracking fellow traveler in the lives of other people, and a tourist in his own. There has not been one significant event in his life that he planned. He has gone downstream like a stick, getting hung up in eddies and getting flushed out again, only half understanding what he floated past, and understanding less with every year.
Wallace Stegner in The Spectator Bird (Joe Allston describing himself)

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