Give me books, fruit, french wine and fine weather and a little music out of doors. --John Keats

Friday, August 28, 2015

"Waterland" by Graham Swift

Waterland was my first introduction to Graham Swift. My sweet and thoughtful husband bought a copy for me about six months ago when he saw it at a secondhand bookstore (and I believe him, even if I have no memory of this) because, having read it about fifteen years ago, he knew I would like it. And, as usual, he was right.

This story takes place in the Fenlands (basically reclaimed swamps) of England. It is full of secrets and mysteries (just my thing!), both from the present and from various times past. It's as if everything is hidden under a heavy cloth. As the story unfolds, the narrator gives us glimpses under this corner and that, gradually allowing the outline of what's hidden to be seen. (Have I used that analogy before, in describing another book? I feel like I must have. But I don't care, because it works nicely, and preserves the effect of reading this novel.)

The narrator is a history teacher who finds himself following tangents during his lectures. He ends up relating his personal history rather than what would be expected from the syllabus. There's death (or murder?), war, kidnapping, insanity, really strong ale, incest, a potatohead, and emerging sexuality. And eels. Can't forget the eels. But it's not at all maudlin or melodramatic, as such a list might suggest; it's all treated with subtlety and suspense.

I'm somewhat surprised I was previously unfamiliar with Swift, who has had nine novels published over the past 3 1/2 decades. I'll definitely want to try another one of his books at some point. And I think I know which one will be next: Last Orders. Not only did it win the Booker Prize in 1996, but my copy of Waterland includes it in the same volume. Can't beat that kind of convenience.

Saturday, August 8, 2015

"The Scapegoat" by Daphne du Maurier

I feel like I've been on a bit of a Daphne du Maurier binge recently. Though I guess it hasn't been as excessive as all that, encompassing only two books: The Scapegoat and a (not very short) story collection entitled Don't Look Now. (I'm actually not even finished with the stories yet--it's our current bedtime read.)

It's been an enjoyable time, as binges go. I have loved du Maurier ever since reading Rebecca in high school, though I haven't made it very far through her body of work. I find her writing suspenseful in an understated and subtle way. In general.

The Scapegoat is the story of an English man--a perfect French speaker--who happens to run into his exact double in France (one of a small handful of unlikely plot devices, but I was able to forgive it with a little effort). John and Jean spend a drunken evening discussing their shock and amazement and joking about the possibility of switching lives . . . or, John thought they were joking, anyway. He wakes the next morning with a hangover, all of Jean's belongings, and none of his own. Half bewildered and half outraged, John slides into Jean's life, missing every opportunity to rectify the situation.

Don't Look Now includes one of du Maurier's more famous short stories, "The Birds." Having read it, I'm now almost certain that I've never seen the Hitchcock movie based on the story, and I have no idea how that happened. Hasn't everyone seen it? On the other hand, as the owner of two parakeets, I'm not sure I want to see it . . .

So, everything considered, good times were had by all. My only problem with du Maurier is that I feel like she can't always pull off the ending. I'm not sure I was on board with the way things were left between Jean and John. The end of the eponymous story in Don't Look Now was almost silly. And "The Birds" left things completely unresolved . . . although I suppose that gives the reader the ability to ponder what might happen next, and why it happened at all.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

"The House of Velvet and Glass" by Katherine Howe

Here's a book that looked as if it ought to have reached critical mass but sadly never did. Several things on the back cover grabbed my attention: the way the Titanic is woven into the story without being its main focus (that ship captured my imagination from the first time I heard about it, long before Jack and Rose); the mention of a medium's scrying glass (how would this sort of thing be treated outside of Harry Potter?); and the reference to "a final shocking twist that will leave readers breathless."

Well, there was nothing wrong with this book. I don't have complaints about the writing, or the characters, or the plot. It wasn't boring, and I didn't have to force myself to read it (although I was never especially eager to read it, either). All the same, it was disappointing.

This is the story of grieving Sibyl Allston of Boston. I'm not sure if her age is ever mentioned but I would guess she was in her early 20s when her mother and younger sister were lost on the Titanic. Her father is remote and seems emotionless; her younger brother has made a mess of his life, as is evident when Harvard kicks him out just before graduation. Sibyl feels guilty (she'd been jealous about her sister's trip; now she can't help but feel relieved that she didn't get to go) and deals with this by trying to contact her dearly departed with the help of a medium.

I enjoyed reading the scenes that took place on the Titanic (although I couldn't help but picture the movie instead of being guided through my own imagination) and the treatment of the occult satisfied my curiosity. But I'm oddly left wondering what the "shocking twist" was supposed to be. I can think of a few small surprises at the end, but not one major one. And none of them affected my breathing in the least.

I feel like there are people out there who must have loved this book, and I wish I were one of them. Instead, because it was lukewarm--neither hot nor cold--I will spit it out of my mouth.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Two books by Janet DeLee

I hardly ever accept review requests. This is partly because I prefer to spend my limited time reading books of my own choosing, but mainly because I'm rarely sent a synopsis that piques my interest. And of course there's always the sad but true point that an unknown book carries a higher risk of increased suck factor.

However, for once, a review request caught my eye: the story of a group of dreamers in an Ideal Life Club, meeting to encourage each other towards their goals, with a few ghosts thrown in. I liked the cover photo (if not the title font), too. So I decided to take a leap and accept the request. AND just after replying in the affirmative, I looked DeLee up on Amazon and found she lives 3 hours away from me, she loves Italy and gardening, and this book is her second with the same main character. So I quickly emailed again and greedily requested a copy of her first book too. She replied and said she would send both as long as I read the new one first.

As promised, I read Taking Leaps & Finding Ghosts before Creating an Ideal Life. Though the writing style of TL&FG did not jive with my preferences, I still found myself engaged by the experiences of the characters. And I liked the suggested method of working towards making dreams reality:
1. Write a visualization of your goal. 
2. Write a statement of affirmation. 
3. Write at least one step towards actualization. (And, of course, take the steps you commit to.)

I almost didn't read Creating an Ideal Life immediately afterwards, but we're on vacation and I only brought one other book with me. I picked up the other book (du Maurier short stories) and had only read a few pages before Sam reminded me that I'd promised to read that one with him. So Creating an Ideal Life it was! The writing style was slightly more in line with my tastes, but the best thing about the book was that most of it detailed the main character's solitary travels in Italy, mirroring my own experience of six years ago. Though our trips were not identical (we did not visit all of the same places, and my trip was much shorter than the one in the book), it was similar enough to bring back great memories. But I think I would have enjoyed the vicarious armchair trip even if I hadn't had a similar holiday of my own. 

Thursday, June 25, 2015

"Gut" by Giulia Enders

For this book, I should get the "Why Are You Surprised?" award. It's a book about the workings of the gastrointestinal system, and I didn't really enjoy it. (I was tempted to say it was crap, but it wasn't that bad.)

Part of my problem with this book was its tone. I wasn't prepared for the silliness. A bit of irreverence, sure--that's to be expected in a book about the production of poop--but this was something other than irreverence. I assume the goal was humor and clarity for the layman; the result was a book crowded with euphemisms, the entire thing seeming more suited for children than directed at adults. Of course I'm not suggesting it would be improved if it were more dry and dull (I'm not that old and boring), but perhaps my slightly scientific mind was a bit insulted by passages like this, regarding food poisoning by Salmonella:

"...It is better for the gut to flatly refuse entry to Salmonella, however rude that may seem. After a visit to the toilet or a retching session into a sick bag, you should not take them by the hand and show them what life is like in the outside world. They should be given the cold shoulder by washing with very hot water and soap to let them know: it's not you, it's me--I just can't deal with your clinging personality." 

I don't know. Maybe I just don't have a sense of humor. 

It's not like reading it was a complete waste of time, though. I did learn a few things, my favorites of which I have noted below:

1. Olive oil should be kept in the fridge. What?? I've never done that, and my olive oil has never gone bad. I even checked our current bottle in use and the label doesn't say a thing about refrigeration after opening. However, refrigeration of olive oil isn't to keep it from going bad: according to this book, it's to limit the number of free radicals it captures. (A side note: I also need a "You're Doing It Wrong" award. Olive oil should not be used for frying! Fine oils are too sensitive and are chemically altered by high heat.) No plans to change my beloved olive oil habits at this point but I am filing this info away just in case.

2. When you vomit, you might not only be expelling the contents of your stomach; the emesis could be composed of slush from the small intestine as well.  Too gross for you? Come on, you had to expect to hear a few disgusting things, given the subject matter.

3. Speaking of disgusting things: fish and birds can vomit (there's a pretty picture), mice and horses can't.

And that's it... the end.

The final illustration of the book.
THIS is the type of irreverence I can get on board with.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

"The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing" by Marie Kondo

I first came across this book at Books-A-Million (of course). The peaceful cover and pleasing size caught my eye, as well as the lovely words in the title. (Magic, decluttering and organizing. Harry Potter for neat freaks!) I picked it up and caressed it just a little bit, and then read half of it while standing in the middle of the store.

Ultimately I decided not to buy it. Probably solely because it was $17 and I was trying to save money. But I kept thinking about it and thinking about it and thinking about it and finally, weeks later, I gave in. I wanted to own the magic. As someone who LOVES the state of being tidy, if not the action of doing the tidying, I want to know The Best Way to Get Tidy and Stay That Way.

After reading TLCMOTU, I find myself left with oddly conflicting opinions. Somehow I simultaneously loved the book while disagreeing with almost everything the author wrote. Kondo's approach to tidying is two-pronged: first, get rid of almost everything you own. Second, put it all away and keep it tidy. (OK, so she goes into a little more detail than that.) But the amount of discarding she suggests sounds so wasteful. And she wanted me to begin organizing by piling everything up in the middle of the room? Ugh, sounds too much like packing and unpacking, which I HATE. Empty my purse every night and re-fill it every morning? Ditto. Plus, ain't nobody got time for that! Speak frequently to your clothes and belongings to thank them for their service? Weird. Remove everything from the shower after each use (and dry it all off before storing it in a cabinet)? Insane!! The moment you first encounter a book is the right time to read it? OK, so I grudgingly admit that this is probably correct, but I encounter too many books and have too little time to follow this rule.

However. You should SEE my T-shirt drawer now. I am so proud of it. I would post a picture except I'm not going to. AND I have a wonderful new ability to get rid of useless junk, although certainly not to the extent that Marie would suggest . . . and I still feel guilty for giving my younger daughter's zebra-striped fedora to the little girl next door. (Hey, I warned her if she wouldn't put her things away I would give them away . . . ) Final verdict? I think this book would be more helpful for someone in a teeny tiny apartment.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

"The Virgin Blue" by Tracy Chevalier

I've now finished my fourth Chevalier. (Three to go . . . eventually. You know how it is.) As expected, I can't fault the writing (not that I ever want to, but with some books I just can't help it) and enjoyed the reading.

This is a dual story about the lives of Ella Turner, contemporary American living in France for the first time after a very recent move, and Isabelle du Moulin, a young French woman of the 16th century. The book follows Ella as she researches her genealogy and navigates the relationships in her life, and spins the story of Isabelle's marriage, while revealing links (a number of which rely on magical realism) between the two women.

The Virgin Blue is not Chevalier's strongest book, and unlike some books where I'm not sure whether they would be too girly for my husband, I'm sure about this one. It would be. But I've certainly read worse.

Saturday, March 28, 2015

"After the Crash" by Michel Bussi

This certainly wasn't the most amazing book I've ever read. I could pick apart the characters (which were flat and uninteresting--and, in some cases, difficult to relate to), or the plot (which was generally predictable, though I was pleased to find myself surprised by a few details), but that feels like it would take too much effort to be worth the trouble. After all, this book isn't even masquerading as great literature. It is what it set out to be: a thriller to entertain the masses. Something fun to read when you want nothing more than to allow your whole self--brain as well as body--to relax and unwind.

And it did entertain me. It kept me reading. This was a sort of murder mystery. It takes place in 1998, though frequently the reader is taken back 18 years to uncover the details of a plane crash in the French Alps in 1980. As you can see from the book's cover, all of the plane's passengers died except for a baby girl. Only problem is, there had been two baby girls on the plane, and no one can prove the identity of the surviving baby.

The only other thing I can think to say is that it was slightly surreal to hear about the Germanwings crash that occurred in the French Alps as I was reading this book . . .

Sunday, March 15, 2015

"The Paris Wife" by Paula McLain

I've read an embarrassingly small number of Hemingway's works. If I remember right, I haven't gotten beyond A Farewell to Arms (which I loved, and which broke my heart) and The Old Man and the Sea (which was simple and powerful, though I found it slightly less absorbing). After reading The Paris Wife, I'm definitely adding the following to my TBR: The Sun Also Rises (the one about watching bullfighting in Pamplona) and In Our Time (a collection of short stories), both of which were written while Hemingway was married to his "Paris wife"; and A Moveable Feast, a posthumously-published memoir of his Paris years.

But Hemingway's writing was not the focus of The Paris Wife. Of course, writing was a major part of Hemingway's life, and Hemingway was a major character in this book. But the book is narrated by Hemingway's first wife, Hadley Richardson, and though the formation of several of his major works looms large in the background, the core of the book is their marriage: its birth, five years of ups and downs, and its sad, slow strangulation and death.

This book paints a fascinating portrait of the glittering literary circles found in 1920s Paris, touching on the Hemingways' friendships with the likes of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein, but all of that is just the landscape behind the story of Ernest and Hadley's doomed marriage. Hemingway, unsurprisingly, lives large and lives intensely, and it's his desire to Have It All which drives their relationship to destruction. It was really kind of agonizing to watch its unraveling in the pages of this book.

Saturday, March 7, 2015

"The History of History" by Ida Hattemer-Higgins

Shortest blog post ever:

When I first heard about The History of History, I told my husband it sounded like "our kind of book." Several years later, I've finally read it and found that I was right, but I'm going to be lazy and direct you here instead of describing the story to you in my own words. (I don't think I can improve upon Greg's post.) Now, please excuse me so I may continue feeling haunted.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

"Light Years" by James Salter

I finished reading this on a plane ride. During the same trip, I watched the movie Boyhood. I mention this fact because the two narratives were in some ways very similar: meandering, lifelike, oddly compelling, encompassing the changes that happen to people over years, through childhood and also parenthood/adulthood. But they were also very different, and the biggest difference was probably the overall feel: Boyhood, while bleak or upsetting in parts, is basically optimistic, cheerful. Light Years, though studded with moments of sweetness and glory, is essentially a downward spiral. Age, it says, strips away everything, leaving you without children, without love, without hope. It's hard for me to express just how strongly I disagree with this view of life.

In spite of this philosophical flaw, however, I really enjoyed large parts of Light Years. James Salter is not a particularly famous name, but apparently he was one of John Updike's favorite writers, and it is easy to see why. His prose here is deeply sensual and evocative, and in the early chapters I felt as if I were living with Viri and Nedra and their daughters in the large, old, perfectly described house by the Hudson River in New York State. And what a pleasant life it was: endless summer days, delicious meals, champagne, intellectual conversations, interesting friends...

Certainly, the characters in Light Years move in a social circle several strata above those in Boyhood (and above mine, for that matter). But maybe this is precisely why they descend so quickly and inexorably into existential gloom? It has to be either that or the era, I think (1950s to 1970s: Light Years was published in '75), unless Salter was simply a depressive man. Certainly, the absence of financial worries and - in Nedra's case - work, does seem to leave them a little too free to make a gigantic, steaming mess of their perfect lives.

Nedra, the central protagonist, is a very difficult character to like. At the end of the second chapter, two visitors to the house talk about her on their way home. 'She's a very generous woman,' says the husband. 'Generous?' queries the wife. 'She's the most selfish woman on earth.'

Turns out they're both right. Nedra is certainly generous in her affections, physical and otherwise (and one of the novel's greatest strengths is the precisely evoked - and, frankly, very hot - sensuality of her bedroom adventures), but she also seems utterly indifferent to the effects her actions have on anyone else. Curiously, this is presented in the novel as some sort of triumph - how free she is, how courageous! - though I did wonder whether the author meant all of this ironically, whether the portrait of Nedra was in fact a sly character assassination of a cheating wife.

Either way, my fascination and pleasure in the novel were gradually dimmed as it went along. And in the end, for all of its stylishness and intelligence, Light Years left me cold.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

"The End of the Affair" by Graham Greene

I'm in the habit of reading books cover-to-cover, beginning to end, including all quotes and introductions preceding the actual text. Nerdy of me, I know, but it satisfies my completist bent. No matter how many times the intro has spoiled a book for me, it stupidly had never crossed my mind to change my habit (how can I *not* read the intro??) until I whined to Sam about the spoiler before this book. (Never mind what information is "given in the first chapter": I don't want it until I read it in the book!!) Sam's simple but brilliant advice? "Why don't you read introductions after you've read the book?" Once I'd gotten over my shock at this suggestion ("But they put it at the beginning!") I quickly began to see the wisdom of it, and I'm eager to try the new plan next time. (I just hope I remember it.)

Other than my intro/spoiler rant, I must admit that I knew even as I read that I probably wouldn't come up with much to say about this novella. It's not as if I didn't enjoy it--the story was interesting and thought-provoking and engrossing--but it was a bit of a downer that made me feel quiet and introspective. It told of an author, Maurice Bendrix, whose affair with Sarah Miles had ended abruptly two years before. His obsession with her, rather than titillating, was depressing and destructive.

This was my first foray in to Greene, and I appreciated his way with words and his unconventional perspective. His use of religious themes reminded me of Chesterton's The Man Who Was Thursday (although I don't recall any further similarities). I am drawn (though not in a chomping-at-the-bit way) to try more of Greene's works.

Note: the book cover pictured doesn't match that of the copy I read, but #1, I couldn't find a picture of this copy; #2, I was too lazy to take a photo myself; and #3, I like the cover pictured here better anyway.