Thursday, November 30, 2017

Back from the Brink: The Best Books I Read This Month

The extreme ennui brought on by October's reading has passed, but I have decided to focus on the books I really liked and to simply list the rest with no more than a one-sentence comment (neither section in any particular order other than what I read early in the month and what I read later). Luckily, I read a number of interesting books this month. Read on . . .

The Best Books I Read This Month

Hourglass: Time, Memory, Marriage, by Dani Shapiro. As I was reading Shapiro's story of her marriage, I kept asking myself: "Is this book really brave or a betrayal of the intimacy she shares with her husband?" Assuming that she had her husband's permission, I guess it was the former. Shapiro intersperses excerpts from the journal she kept on her honeymoon (interestingly, the last journal she ever kept--despite having been a lifelong diarist); quotes from philosophy, poetry, and theology (she is also a keeper of commonplace books--collections of quotations) with reflections on and anecdotes from her long marriage. The effect is almost collage-like, building ideas from numerous small pieces. Particularly interesting to me are her reflections on whether she made the right decision in getting married and becoming a family person and who she (and her husband) might have been if they had made difference decisions--similar to the questions asked by the fictional protagonist of our One Book One Broomfield 2017 book Dark Matter. Beautifully written and thought-provoking, even for a long-time divorcee like me!

Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley. I'm embarrassed to admit I had never read this classic dystopian novel describing a society based on Henry Ford's concept of the assembly line; mass production (including of people), homogeneity within a rigid class structure, and consumption of disposable goods are hallmarks of the culture. When vacationers bring back a "savage" raised in a different culture, he is treated as a celebrity and has trouble adapting to the ways of the World State. This synopsis just hints at the complexity of Huxley's work, which remains relevant nearly a century after it was written.

The Plot Against America, by Philip Roth. Roth imagines what the world would have been like for a young Jewish boy named Philip Roth if Charles Lindbergh had been elected president in 1940. It's a frightening prospect--and one that feels scarily apropos to some of what we are observing under our current president. I was a little disappointed with the ending, which wrapped things up very quickly and neatly after building dramatic tension over the course of the book, but the novel is still well worth reading. As always with Roth, his brilliance is tempered by his need to include some gross sexual content--here young Philip's fantasizing about nuns and his aunt--but somehow with Roth I manage to get past this.

Suite Francaise, by Irene Nemirovsky -- This book presents two parts of what the author intended to be a five-part "suite," but tragically, she died in Auschwitz in 1942. Her manuscript languished in suitcases for decades until being published in 2006. Both parts of the book deal with aspects of the defeat and Occupation of France that I knew almost nothing about. The first part focuses on the chaotic mass exodus from Paris in 1940 when the Nazis were about to enter the city; Parisians of all classes/incomes evacuated, suffering a variety of physical and emotional deprivations. The second section of the book looks at how the life of a small town is affected when German soldiers occupy their town for an extended period of time, often living in their very homes. Some of the villagers resist, while others try to get along with the Germans; a few even fall in love with their occupiers. For me, a very different look at World War II.

Society's Child, by Janis Ian -- I was never a particular fan of Janis Ian, though it seems like I should have been (that was the type of music I liked and sang). However, I am a big fan of her autobiography, which is well written and provides insight into the music business and the creative process. It must also be said that Ian had a lot of bad luck and faced a lot of prejudice--but it all makes for an interesting story. The audio version is enhanced by Ian singing a snippet of at least one song per chapter, which brings the discussion of music and composing to life.

Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, by Alfred Lansing -- Not at all my usual type of book, but the unbelievably grueling nature of what Shackleton and his men went through is riveting.

Voracious: A Hungry Reader Cooks Her Way Through Great Books, by Cara Nicoletti -- Voracious is yet another food-related blog that has been turned into a book--but don't hold that against it. The author is obsessed with food scenes in books and what they mean. She talks about food in a wide array of works, from Little House in the Big Woods to If You Give a Mouse a Cookie, Lord of the Flies, Middlesex, and The Odyssey. For each work she discusses, she also provides a recipe that, to her, reflects the role of food in the book--pea and bacon soup for Charlotte's Web, biscuits with molasses butter for To Kill a Mockingbird, and a perfect soft-boiled egg for Emma. It's fun and just migh tmake you pay a little more attention when a character in a novel is eating!

Also Read

Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert -- an early and very dark example of realism
Chaos, by Patricia Cornwell -- mediocre
A Taste for Murder, by Claudia Bishop -- very silly
Deep Freeze, by John Sandford -- latest Virgil Flowers, of whom I am growing weary
The Good Girl, by Mary Kubica -- one of Audible's 20th-anniversary freebies; has a twist at the end that I didn't see coming, and yet I also didn't care
The Color of Fear, by Marcia Muller -- meh
My Mad Fat Diary, by Rae Earl -- the author's late 80s diary about teen life in the UK is scary!
Dignity, by Donna Hicks -- a friend described reading this book as a "gift to yourself," but, while I think Hicks makes valid points about how humans should interact with one another, I found myself unmoved.
The Memory Watcher, by Minka Kent -- another mystery with a twist that you really don't care about.
Me Before You, by JoJo Moyes -- I don't understand why this author is so popular.

Favorite Passages

It was as if an internal axis had been jarred and titled downward; words and images slipped through a chute into a dim, murky pool from which I could not retried them.

The future you're capable of imagining is already a thing of the past.

Dani Shapiro, Hourglass

Words can be like X-rays if you use them properly--they'll go through anything. You read and you're pierced.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World

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