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

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.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

"A Visit from the Goon Squad" by Jennifer Egan

My feelings about this one changed as I was reading it, from weary cynicism to excited wonder. I can't remember how I first heard about Goon Squad - I just knew that it was critically acclaimed. After reading the first two chapters, though, I was convinced that all that praise was just the usual empty hype. The writing seemed unremarkable to me, the tone that of the usual bored irony, the characters and themes tired, almost generic. A young kleptomaniac woman talking to her shrink; a divorced, middle-aged record producer with erectile problems and a difficult relationship with his son, who also has a shrink and is bothered by the cleanness and precision of digitally recorded music... None of this struck me as fresh or original or interesting, just a lukewarm rehash of David Foster Wallace, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers, and a dozen other contemporary, quasi po-mo American authors.

But, as it went on, the book veered off at unexpected tangents, suddenly reversing twenty years into the record producer's past - an episode narrated by a girl with a crush on him - and then into the even deeper past of the record producer's mentor... The chapters are actually short stories, and you could read them on their own, or in any order you like, but their arrangement here gives each and every one of them added depth and allusiveness. Which is, I think, why the book improves as it goes along: because what Egan is creating here is not the usual flat, linear tapestry of narrative, but a sort of multi-dimensional sculpture, with tunnels and lenses and mirrors, characters and events magnified and reflected and inverted by the episodes that come before and after.

Somehow the writing seems to improve as it goes along too, although that may have been my imagination. Maybe I just got used to Egan's style, or maybe I realized to what extent her prose mirrored the characters whose viewpoints we were sharing? In any case, the real star of the show is not the book's style, but its structure. Which might sound boring, but isn't. In fact, I found it really thrilling. The usual metaphor for chronologically mixed-up narratives - a jigsaw puzzle - is inadequate here. Goon Squad is more like the three-dimensional chess that they used to play in Star Trek (and The Big Bang Theory). I found myself wanting to chart the characters' relationships and the timeline on a graph, the way one of the characters (a twelve-year-old boy with slight autism) charts the length and position of pauses in rock songs.

I didn't, of course, because I'm not that anal, and life is too short. But maybe Kathy will do it, when she reads the book? Or, more likely, she'll google it and find a chart that someone else has made. I'm too lazy to even bother doing that. I loved this book, though, and will definitely look out for other fiction by Jennifer Egan.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

"White Oleander" by Janet Fitch

I don't know why I'm hesitating to say I loved this book. Maybe it's the fact that my copy was endorsed by Oprah's Book Club? I watched the movie more than four years ago and thought it was great, and I must admit I really enjoyed the reading experience. (Also, this may be one of those rare cases where the book and the movie are both equally amazing!)

White Oleander tells the story of a teenage girl's odyssey through the foster care system of southern California. Astrid Magnussen is a blank slate who is strongly influenced by her ever-changing environment. Chameleon-like, she adapts externally to fit in at each new foster home in the series she endures. It's not until the end, when Astrid has developed her own sense of self, that I realized she took a part of each home with her as she went; that little bits of all the disparate elements of her life can be seen in the person she has become. Which I suppose is true for everyone, but many people don't have such varied experiences.

Speaking of which . . . I had a thought at the end of the book that kind of ruined the experience for me just a little bit. After all the things that Astrid went through, I couldn't help but think it seemed more like a compilation of Foster Daughters' Incidents of Peril than the story of one girl. It almost defied belief that one person would have had such a run of bad luck. On the other hand, the story reminded me of The Glass Castle--though Astrid's life was actually slightly less horrifying--and I had no trouble believing that Jeannette Walls' childhood was real. But it's probably a good thing that I found Astrid's story to be a bit beyond belief.  Though it felt plausible (in parts if not as a whole) and immediate, I subconsciously retained the comfortable knowledge that it was safely in the realm of fiction.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

"The Secret Keeper" by Kate Morton

You know that rule I made for myself in order to keep my blog current and avoid a backlog? The one where I can't start reading a new book until I blog about the previous one? That rule has been torture this past week. Blame it on bad timing. I didn't finish reading this book until the part of the week where so much is crammed into my days between waking and sleeping, I hardly have time to take an extra breath, let alone sit down and write a blog post. I mean, I could have squeezed in some reading here and there (if I'd allowed myself to break my rule), but there was certainly no time for writing. SO I have been bookless, reading nothing, for the first time in memory. And I have hated it.

Last night Sam convinced me it would be OK to break my rule just this once. It is my rule, after all. I suppose he was looking out for my best interests and helping to retain my sanity (and, by extension, his). It was such a relief to crack open a fresh book, even if I only had the time to dip in my little pinkie toe. (Addicted to books much?) And now I have a brief opportunity to write about the previous book, so my rule isn't too broken.

Once upon a time I expressed my opinion that Kate Morton's books are great, big, thick bundles of awesomeness. I now feel obligated to admit my assessment might have been premature. Yes, I loved The House at Riverton; I was sure I would love The Forgotten Garden, but unfortunately I had to settle for Liking It A Lot. Now, somehow, I haven't even read The Distant Hours yet. (What? I bought a hardcover copy because I couldn't wait for the paperback! Obviously I *could* have waited for the paperback, which came out in 2011.) And somehow I completely missed the publication of The Secret Keeper. It flew under my radar until I was Christmas shopping last month and found it at my home away from home, Target. It didn't take me long to decide that someone needed to give it to me for Christmas, and that someone needed to be me.

So, almost a month after Christmas, the story of The Secret Keepers is behind me rather than before me. The riddles are revealed, the mysteries made known, the secrets spilled. Laurel Nicolson, English character actress in her golden years, has unearthed all the answers to the question of who her aging mother was in the years before marrying and having children. And, in keeping with my awesomeness assessment adjustment, I enjoyed this book, but it did not rise above entertainment. Not that I have a problem with entertainment! Fun is one of my most favorite things to have! But it's always a bonus when a book offers something more. The Secret Keeper didn't amaze me or cause me to think new things. At least I didn't feel like I was killing off brain cells, I didn't want to re-write half of it or find any mistakes to correct (that I recall), and I didn't scoff at it. And I did appreciate a good twist towards the end (which I won't reveal, out of the kindness of my heart).

New Kate Morton assessment: bundles of fun. There are worse things!


Monday, January 12, 2015

"Strangers on a Train" by Patricia Highsmith

I saw the Hitchcock movie of this book (and loved it) years and years ago, without even realizing it was based on a novel. Then, much more recently, I saw two other movies based on Patricia Highsmith novels: The Two Faces of January and The Talented Mr Ripley. They were both really dark, tense and compelling, but also oddly funny, in a twisted way, which was also true of the Hitchcock movie. When I found out one writer was behind all these stories, I knew I had to read her.

So, Kathy bought me this novel plus three of the Ripley series for Christmas. I chose to read Strangers on a Train first because it was Highsmith's debut. I don't remember many details about the film version, but in my mind it is a lighter, cleaner, neater story than the one in the book.

Highsmith's prose is good - elegant without being overwritten, taut without being clichéd - but I think it's her psychology, rather than her sentence-making, that really lifts her above the average thriller/noir crowd. You inhabit the skulls and lives of two very different characters in this book - one of them a psychopath, the other not - and yet it's what happens to the non-psychopath that fills you with dread, that makes you think: 'there but for a twist of fate...'

Strangers on a Train reminded me of two of my favorite novels: Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment and Donna Tartt's The Secret History. Like both those books, it is essentially about the thousand tiny, banal pressures and fears and desires that might lead a sane, intelligent person to murder another human being, and - most of all - about the horrifying, life-staining guilt they feel afterwards.

Kathy asked me just now if I enjoyed it, and I said 'Maybe enjoy isn't the word I'd choose, but it's really good'. Perhaps it seemed even darker than it was due to my state of mind last week, in the wake of the Paris shootings, but I think even on a beach vacation this is a book that would worm its way into the depths of your mind, would unsettle and disturb you. It was never less than compelling, but I must admit I feel a certain relief at having come to the end of it. It was more twisted and less funny than any of those three
movies.

All the same, I am excited to have discovered a major writer with a huge body of work, almost all of which is new to me. This is similar to how I felt after reading my first Ellroy novel, or my first Philip K. Dick novel. With one difference: I am not going to plunge myself into a Highsmith binge - not right now, anyway. I think I'll wait till the days are longer and the air is warmer and the grass is greener. I need something less bleak to get me through the winter.


POSTSCRIPT: We watched the Hitchcock movie version of this a couple of nights ago, and it was not as good as I remembered. Either that, or it just suffered in comparison to the book. It certainly seemed far more dated than the book: a superficial melodrama, where the book was a naturalistic thought-experiment. And, crucially, it chickened out of the central question: why a normal, intelligent, 'good' person would murder an innocent stranger and how they would feel afterward. So, despite the fact that it was directed by one of the greatest directors of all time and the screenplay co-written by a noir legend (Raymond Chandler), if I were Patricia Highsmith, I would have been pretty upset by this adaptation (though, apparently, she praised it when it first came out). The good news, very recently announced, is that David Fincher is to make a movie version of the book - and I really hope that's what it will be, rather than a remake of the original movie - entitled simply Strangers. I have great expectations for that film, as Fincher did not flinch from screening the darkest, subtlest elements of Gone Girl. I can also totally imagine Ben Affleck as Guy Haines.

Sunday, December 28, 2014

"Bring Up the Bodies" by Hilary Mantel

This is the third historical novel I've read by Hilary Mantel. The first was her little-known novel about the French Revolution, A Place of Greater Safety, which I LOVED and have read three or four times. The second was the Booker Prize-winning and bestselling Wolf Hall, about Thomas Cromwell and the rise of Anne Boleyn, which I found a little disappointing. For me, Bring Up the Bodies - the sequel to the latter, about Thomas Cromwell and the fall of Anne Boleyn - is somewhere in between those two books: definitely better than Wolf Hall, but not quite as exciting and involving as Greater Safety.

Though I prefer her historical fiction to her contemporary fiction, Mantel's writing is invariably excellent: sharply observed, psychologically acute, lightfootedly poetic and darkly witty. She clearly has a fascination with infamous men: both her Cromwell and her Robespierre are sympathetically portrayed, far more human and complex than the usual sinister cameos. I think what distinguishes her best work, for me, from her lesser work is that, in A Place of Greater Safety and in the second half of this book, I felt as if I were on the inside, as if I might have known the people involved. Wolf Hall was doubtless more authentic, certainly in its language and possibly in its history, than Greater Safety, but it was a much more distant reading experience; I felt frustrated rather than enthralled by its perfectly worked prose. The authenticity gave it a veneer of dust that, in spite of the present tense employed throughout, separated me from the immediacy of the characters' actions and thoughts and feelings.

I don't know what happened in Bring Up the Bodies to change that feeling - maybe it was just the story itself that was more obviously compelling (the climax being death rather than merely exile and annulment) than Wolf Hall, or maybe Mantel relaxed more into the telling - but either way I found myself speeding through it, inhabiting Cromwell's cold-eyed, calculating (but also at times compassionate/haunted/wryly amused) mind, breathing the same stale air as the novel's characters.

I also love the way Mantel, who looks so inoffensively hamster-like in all her bookjacket pictures, never flinches - and sometimes even seems to linger with pleasure - on sex and violence and profanity. Bring Up the Bodies, for all its Booker-winning, BBC-adapted respectability, is full of 'splayed cunts' and 'wet quims' and hints of dark perversion. I think my favorite line of all was Lady Rochford's description of her womanizing husband George Boleyn: 'No man as godly as George, the only fault he finds with God is that he made folk with too few orifices. If George could meet a woman with a quinny under her armpit, he would call out "Glory be" and set her up in a house and visit her every day, until the novelty wore off.'

Now that's what I call characterization!

Saturday, December 27, 2014

"The Magicians" by Lev Grossman

I ruined this book for myself by falling for unrealistically high expectations. It's touted as a Harry Potter-esque fantasy for adults, and is also favorably compared to the Chronicles of Narnia and The Secret History. All of the quotes of praise in the first few pages told me I would love this book, and would not be able to put it down.

So I was quite disappointed when I found it to be a pastiche, strongly influenced by superior sources: the obvious ones mentioned above, as well as a few others (like The Mysterious Benedict Society, and maybe even Charlie Bone). And the parts that seemed to be original weren't especially inspired.

My opinion, halfway through the book, was that the story was too loosely plotted, and many events were skimmed over so briefly that I wondered why they were even included. The overall effect was dissatisfying, and my opinion remained unchanged throughout the remainder of the story.

It's not as if I didn't enjoy the book at all, though. (Miserable and bitter teenage genius Quentin Coldwater is offered the chance to study at Brakebills, the only magical university in the United States; he jumps at the chance to attend, though he's never heard of the place, and it must be kept a secret from his parents.) The story was entertaining, and it held my interest, but I was frustrated by the knowledge that it could have been so great . . . and it wasn't.