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

Monday, September 23, 2019

"The Den" by Abi Maxwell

This was another good one! It's one of those books that tells two stories from different times, linked only by their setting. The Den of story one is the old stone foundation of a ruined house where the main character from story two used to live.

Story one is about two sisters, one twelve and one fifteen, and it's kind of a suspenseful coming-of-age story. They've heard the legends about the family who used to live in The Den--and how on one bitterly cold day, all five of them disappeared and were replaced by five coyotes. Each story has its own mysteries.

I'm glad I picked this book up despite its terrible title font. I don't feel like the cover photo really matches the story; it makes it look like a ghost story (which was a draw for me), though it turned out it wasn't one. The synopsis intrigued me, and my random dip into the book revealed writing that did not suck, so it met my qualifications.

Shout out to Half Price Books, where I bought The Den. I've been to two of their Dallas locations and they're great. Bursting to the seams with treasures . . . that are half price!!

Monday, September 2, 2019

"The 7 1/2 Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle" by Stuart Turton

 I enjoyed reading this book. It's like a really messy puzzle. I'm not sure all the pieces actually fit (they probably do, but it would be far too much effort to confirm this) but it was lots of fun to put it together.

This is a murder mystery with a magical twist. The main character wakes up with no memory other than the name Anna. He's a guest at Blackheath, a large English manor past its prime, and finds he has eight days--actually the same day eight times--to solve a murder that won't look like a murder.

It's not really a book that makes you think about anything beyond the plot, but that's fine. The plot is complex enough that there really isn't time for deep contemplation. And strangely enough, I was able to get my bearings every time I picked it up, which enhanced my reading experience. In fact, I didn't want the book to end--not because it was one of those I wanted to keep reading forever, but because it fit into my life so well and there's no guarantee my next book will . . .

Monday, August 5, 2019

"The Versions of Us" by Laura Barnett

This is a heartbreak story, and a life story, and a love story. It's about Jim Taylor and Eva Edelstein and the three different routes their lives might have taken from the day they met onward.

I took notes on this book from the beginning: not because it contained profound thoughts that I wanted to remember, but because Sam read it before I did, and he warned me that it could be tricky keeping the three different versions straight. (He was right. And this is by no means evidence that either of us is remotely stupid.) However, after a while (and with my notes to refer to) it became somewhat easier to keep the threads untangled. Though I still found I frequently had to stop reading and look at the top of the page and remind myself of the current story.

As the years went by, it got to a point where there were just too many marriages, too many deaths, too many affairs, too many children. Though I was able to keep the right ones matched up with the right stories, it was all just too much. My last note reads "P 181: I am getting bored, and it's only halfway over," if that tells you anything. And it was too depressing! Not in the sob-inducing cathartic way, but in the mildly annoying way. One or another of the characters was always mucking everything up, making choices that prevented Jim and Eva from being together, and I kind of reached a point where I figured, you know what? Maybe they're not meant to be together. Rooting for them felt like too much effort.

Remember, though, reading love stories is generally not my thing. Obviously this book was not the one to change my mind.

Saturday, August 3, 2019

"Kafka on the Shore" by Haruki Murakami

Notice the location of the photo? 
I can sum up this book in one quote: "I never get bored when I'm with you. All kinds of off-the-wall things happen, but that much I can say for sure--being with you's never boring."

This was my first Murakami book, which for some reason I expected to be a difficult slog, but it was nothing of the sort. As Sam says, reading Murakami is like eating candy--easy and enjoyable. There's always something happening to keep your interest.

This is the story of the toughest fifteen-year-old in the world who runs away from home and ends up working in a small library. It's also the story of a simple-minded man who can talk to cats. And there's a cameo by Johnny Walker, and Colonel Sanders, and women who may or may not be the mother or sister of the runaway. It's on the bizarre side, but in a good way.

I think between Sam's take and my experience I have come to the conclusion that reading Murakami can be as difficult as you make it. I probably should have thought about this book more deeply than I did; I'm sure there are all kinds of layers I could have peeled back, because it's full of metaphors and symbolism. But it's not a reading requirement, and I was on vacation, so I took the easy route.

Sam (who has read at least three of them) thinks it's really only necessary to read one Murakami book. Agree or disagree?


"Imposture" by Benjamin Markovits

I broke my rule and read two more books before I blogged about this one and now I'm struggling to think what I might have said about it when it was fresh on my mind. I know that I enjoyed reading this book, with its old-fashioned writing and good story, but if there was anything profound on my mind after reading it, it's gone now.

This is a story about Doctor John Polidori, who was a personal physician to Lord Byron for about three years, and who wrote the short work of fiction The Vampyre as a result of the same challenge that produced Frankenstein. I liked it and you should read it.

Man, short blog post.

Sunday, July 21, 2019

"Juliet, Naked" by Nick Hornby

I came to this book with low-ish expectations. I've never read a book by Nick Hornby (though I'm pretty sure I've watched at least two movie adaptations of his work) and I guess I expected the written equivalent of a rom-com. I thought it might be more witty and less sappy than your typical Nicholas Sparks book, but would probably be comparable to something by Marc Levy. I didn't think I would hate it, but I didn't think I would be impressed by it.

It's kind of a weird feeling for a book to match my expectations. I've come to books with high expectations and ended up disappointed; I've come to books with moderate expectations and been either more impressed or more let down than I thought possible; I've come to books with low or no expectations and found them to be among my favorites. But it seems pretty unusual for me to assume a book will be a certain way, and then find out I'm right.

To be fair, this book didn't explicitly match my preconceived notions in its entirety. There were points where it rose above, but equal points where it dropped below, so on average it was just what I had assumed it would be.

Juliet, Naked is about Duncan and Annie, an almost-middle-aged couple living a boring old life in a boring old seaside town in England. The main focus of Duncan's spare time is Tucker Crowe, a once (semi-?) famous American musician who suddenly and mysteriously left the public eye in June 1986 and hadn't been heard from since. Duncan considers himself a "Crowologist" who has listened to and dissected every recorded version of every song Crowe ever sang, and who also scours the Internet for any possible scrap of information about Crowe's life. And Annie is just awakening to the fact that their childless and unchanging existence seems to have wasted the last fifteen years of her life.

The book rose slightly above my expectations about a third of the way through, as the complexities of the characters' personalities were slowly revealed (Duncan wasn't just dull, Annie wasn't just bored and lost). The book dipped into disappointing territory when Tucker showed up in London and the story seemed to founder. And the most promising premise (an English girl writes a review of an American artist and posts it online; the American artist reads the review and writes an e-mail to the English girl, sparking a correspondence) ultimately fell a bit flat, as one would have to be unbelievably lucky for something like that to work out well and have a miraculously happy ending. Overall, though, it was a fun book, if not something I would re-read.

Thursday, July 18, 2019

"Asymmetry" by Lisa Halliday

I really enjoyed reading this perfect little book. It's so well-written, seeming genuine and immediate without any of the boring bits that are inevitable in real life.

The book is written with two main parts. The first part is about Alice Dodge, a young editor in New York City who forms an unexpected relationship with a famous old writer. It felt so authentic that I couldn't help but wonder if it were a bit autobiographical (not the entire thing, but a lot of the minutiae). But then the next part was about an Iraqui-American who is detained at Heathrow, which felt just as amazingly authentic. I knew, based on the tiny bio about the author, that it couldn't be autobiographical, but it was so real that it seemed like the narrator must have told this story to the author and she just wrote it down. So (assuming this wasn't the case) I was, in a word, impressed.

The book ends with a brief (if slightly tangential) return to the first story, and I wondered if it would tie in to the second story, but (unless I missed something) it didn't. So I am left feeling a little bit baffled and a little bit stupid as I try to understand why these two stories are bound together. I suppose it could be as simple as the fact that the author wrote two perfect gems which, alone, were too short to publish successfully, but that solution is a little bit disappointing. The stories do explore similar themes (made obvious by the book's title), and I want to believe that the author intended to link the two stories from the start, but I find myself wishing there had been more of an overlap between the plots or characters or even just the locations. I wouldn't want it to be too blatant, or forced, but . . . I guess I was just left craving a bit of symmetry.

Sunday, July 7, 2019

"Swimming Lessons" by Claire Fuller

Good book, great writing (and cool cover!) but . . . are you one of those people who can really invest in a book, finding a character you identify with (even if they're nothing like you) so that you almost become a part of the story as you read? Imagine this, and imagine that the main character's husband reminds you of your own husband, and their love reminds you of your love, and then imagine that the main character finds her husband with another woman. Imagine that, and you will know what my reading experience was like.

Setting the odd literary devastation aside, this book was cleverly written, intertwining the early days of love (starting in 1976) with the days when it was too late (1992) and present day when lost love (and their children) are putting together the memories of the past.

I think now I will be on the lookout for Our Endless Numbered Days.

Friday, June 21, 2019

"A Life's Work: On Becoming a Mother" by Rachel Cusk

This book is just as well-written and honest as Cusk's other books, but for some reason I didn't feel compelled to read it. I finally did finish it, but I'm pretty sure it was weeks between the time that I first picked it up and the time that I finally finished reading (and it's a tiny little book, so I didn't spend much time on it in between).

This book should not be read by the childless. Those who want to remain childless probably wouldn't be interested; those who plan to have children in the future would probably either be scared into the want-to-remain-childless camp, or would blow it off as hysterical over-exaggeration.

It's been a minute since I was a first-time mother, but the book still resonated with me. I distinctly remember the confusion and loneliness and lack of confidence that Cusk describes. What is more difficult for me to remember--or determine--is whether those feelings were more a function of being new to motherhood, or of lacking a supportive partner. My experience with my youngest child (and a supportive partner) was completely different. (In a good way, obvs.)

Saturday, May 18, 2019

"Surfacing" by Margaret Atwood

I definitely picked up this book based solely on the author's name. There are a handful of writers whose books I would probably give a shot even if the cover were ugly or the premise sounded boring or the blurb rubbed me the wrong way, and Margaret Atwood is one of them. I associate a kind of "you can't go wrong, or even if you do, you don't go very wrong" with her. (Now I am daydreaming about a blog post listing all the other authors in that category.) (Now I am taking a break from blogging and actually writing a list of all the other authors in that category.)

Moving on . . . Atwood did not disappoint with Surfacing. (Good thing! One unworthy book is enough to knock you off The List.) It started with the same sort of otherworldly struggle to find my feet (where am I? who are these people? what is going on??) that I remember from The Handmaid's Tale. Even as the pieces began to fit together, the story retained a sense of mystery and suspense.

Surfacing was first published in 1972. The unnamed narrator is a young Canadian woman traveling back to the remote island where she grew up. She's in the company of Joe, her sort-of boyfriend, and Anna & David, a not-especially-happily-married couple who are kind of friends of theirs. Narrator's father seems to have disappeared from the island and she vaguely wants to figure out what has happened to him, and David and Joe are tagging along to film an arty mishmash of random vignettes.

The narrator, numb and empty and detached (though none of these are recent developments), is definitely what one might call unreliable. Events from her past slowly bubble up . . . and then later reemerge as something somewhat different. By the end I'm not sure I could say with any certainty what did and didn't happen. (I mean, I think I know, but maybe I'm just a trusting fool.) While on one hand I had the sense that attitudes in the book (which is just slightly older than I am) are old-fashioned and somewhat dated, on the other hand it's still a good read that stands the test of time and has the ability to make a reader think.

Sunday, May 5, 2019

"Bitter Orange" by Claire Fuller

I loved everything about this book, inside out, with its beautiful cover and its intriguing story. It was strange and mysterious and suspenseful and enticing and I didn't want it to end but I raced to finish it anyway.

Bitter Orange tells the story of Frances Jellico, a self-taught surveyor of garden architecture who has been hired to catalogue the grounds of a decaying English manor over the summer of 1969. No longer young, she's at loose ends after the death of her invalid mother who she'd spent most of her adult life caring for. Her arrival at Lyntons introduces her to Cara and Peter, who are there to catalogue the house's interior, and Frances--who has never really experienced true friendship--is drawn into what, at first, seems to be their warm and welcoming circle . . . but, of course, it turns out to be more of a triangle. And it's all just deliciously complex and tense and ominous.

Not only that, but the bookstore where I bought Bitter Orange falls in the category of Best Bookstores Ever. If you are ever in Santa Fe, NM, you have to check out Collected Works on the corner of Galisteo and W Water Street, because I think it may be magical. It's a cozy little nook with a little coffee bar, and it gave me the sense that it is fully curated (unlike the big box stores that will sell anything and everything made of paper). It gets extra points because we were there in the wintertime and they had a warm fire roaring in their fireplace, and we could see snow flurries drifting past the windows . . .

Saturday, April 27, 2019

"The Philosopher and the Wolf: Lessons from the Wild on Love, Death and Happiness" by Mark Rowlands

This is a book written by a philosophy professor about the period in his life when he owned a full-blood wolf as a pet. It goes deeper than memoir, however; Rowlands explores many varied lines of thought related to his experiences with Brenin.

My mom picked this book up at the FOL bookstore in Los Alamos, read it, and passed it on to me. Normally I don't take book recommendations from my mom very seriously, but she didn't say she loved it and didn't push me strongly to read it (which means she didn't push me away from it), and the themes immediately made me think of a friend of mine--I thought I ought to read it to see if that friend might like it.

Reading the book confirmed my hunch. As I read, I alternated between marveling that my friend might have written exactly what I was reading and wondering at the fact that my friend hadn't already read or heard of this book. Well, it's on its way to her now . . . I hope she loves it.

I wish I had something interesting to say about my experience with the book but they don't call me the Literary Amnesiac for nothing. I enjoyed thinking through Rowlands' philosophical meanderings as I read, but unfortunately I didn't retain anything.