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

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

“Snow” by John Banville

If you were cynical, and you were reading a book about a priest who was one of the people in charge of a school for wayward boys, would you guess what that priest did with those boys (or at least some of them)? Yes, yes you would. And you would be right, and you would be disgusted. 

And that right there was me reading Snow. And I just can't get past that aspect of it. 

It was a murder mystery, and I like murder mysteries. It was well written and suspenseful, and I enjoy well-written suspense. It was atmospheric, and really, Snow was the perfect name for it--the story really evoked the wintry and cold ambience. But also  . . . it was just . . . sordid. Agatha Christie would never have written about a pedophile who (albeit deservedly) had his junk removed in the throes of death.

This one is going back to Half Price Books.  

Saturday, February 10, 2024

“Rules of Civility” by Amor Towles

Any time a book I read completely absorbs me, the book that follows is going to suffer in comparison. And there's no doubt that's what happened to Rules of Civility

But even if I hadn't read this immediately following The Guest, I'm not sure I would have known what to make of it. It's mainly the story of one year in the life of Katey Kontent, an independent young twenty-something in 1938 Manhattan who talks like a hard-boiled detective in film noir. I don’t know why, but I expected Katey to turn out to be a Russian spy. Thant unmet expectation threw me off for quite a ways through the book. 

I liked it but didn't love it. I enjoyed the reading experience but wasn't swept away by it. The characters were interesting enough but I didn't live their lives with them. And it took me nine days to finish this blog post . . . 

Monday, January 29, 2024

“The Guest” by Emma Cline

Is it almost a cliché to read an Emma Cline book at this point? I feel a little behind the times.

I let Sam pick my next read, and this was it. He'd already read both The Guest and The Girls, and he said this was the better of the two. I did have a brief momentary doubt--shouldn't I read the less good one first, saving the best for last? I can't help but want to read the other one, but I also kind of dread its not-as-goodness. 

Speaking of dread...

Reading The Guest was an intensely uncomfortable experience, from quite early on. When I mentioned this to Sam, he laughed and said, "Yeah, it's like that the whole way through. You just have to remember--she's not you. And then you can see the humor in it." And he was right--I had been living this book as if I were Alex. It felt dangerous, unhealthy, and a little bit dirty. But even after the reminder that this was not my life, I'm not sure what I was seeing (as I mentally cringed and snuck peeks through my fingers) could be called humor.

This is going to be a weird comparison, but this book reminded me of The Nanny Diaries, only dark and edgy. (And Alex is definitely not a nanny.) Alex is a vaguely beautiful 22-year-old who has most recently been living in New York City. She's some combination of escort and prostitute and leech, who has attached herself to the older and (much) wealthier Simon for a late summer month in the Hamptons. Just when Alex is thinking maybe everything in life has become exactly what it always should have been, it begins to devolve into exactly what it always has been. But Alex has an unsettling way of simultaneously settling for and denying the existence of reality. 

I was sucked into this story just as quickly as Alex was almost sucked out to sea (that is, within the first three pages). Yes, I read the whole book in two days. Yes, this is despite the fact that I have a full-time job. I enjoyed the reading experience (if in a slightly bewildered way) but my overwhelming feeling as I turned the last page was one of exceeding relief that it was over.

Saturday, January 27, 2024

“The Patron Saint of Liars” by Ann Patchett

This was Ann Patchett's very first novel. It was published while I was in college, though I wouldn't even become aware of it until years later. And it's the second to last book of hers that I've read. If I'd thought about it ahead of time, I would have read this first one last, but it’s too late for that neat symmetry now. 

This is the story of St Elizabeth's, formerly a grand old hotel but now a home where unwed girls hide unwanted pregnancies. The hotel was first built near the site of a miraculous spring reputed to have healing powers, but when the spring dried up, eventually the hotel's clientele did as well, and the hotel was gifted to the Catholic church. 

All of that information is laid out prior to the first chapter of the book, and at that point I wasn't sure if I was really going to enjoy reading it. (But it's by Ann Patchett! There's always hope when it's Ann Patchett.) And then Rose was introduced, and I was even less sure that I was going to enjoy reading.

I did not like Rose. She was cruel and alien. I didn’t understand her or identify with her. She also vaguely reminded me of Sabine from The Magicians Assistant, a character I could never really grasp. But I kept powering forward. And I can tell you exactly when I realized I was hooked: after Sister Evangeline met Angie, and Rose knew the truth but Angie did not. (Sorry, I know that sentence is meaningless to you if you haven't read the book, but it is meaningful to me.) From then on I was invested. And by the time I was about a third of the way through it, I was further rewarded when I found out that the entire book is not from Rose's point of view. 

Despite a somewhat rocky start, I ended up loving this story. Especially the ending--mostly the very last paragraph, right down to the last sentence--which I think is unusual. How often is the end of a book a slight letdown, a slight disappointment? It either tells too much or not enough, it's either to sweet or too banal, it's either too sudden (with a feeling like the author figured "this has got to end somewhere" and thus randomly decided to just cut off the narrative) or too drawn out, blathering on and on, wrapping things up and then wrapping up the wrapping ad nauseum

I want to make a statement, but first you have to promise me one thing: you will never just go read the last paragraph of this book without reading the rest of it first. I don't think it will work that way. But now that you've promised, here is my statement: This book may have the most perfect ending I've ever read. 

Wednesday, January 17, 2024

“The Berry Pickers” by Amanda Peters

Everybody is talking about this book. 

That's exactly what the emailed newsletter from Strand in NYC said, so how could I not buy this book? I wanted to know what everyone was talking about. Plus it was almost my birthday, so why not give myself a little present?

When the book arrived, I loved the beautiful cover (it's one of those really soft-feeling ones, somehow like slick velvet) but I must admit that the synopsis did not draw me in. I started reading anyway, because whaddayagonna do, but it did not grab me. And then Sam gave me all those Miss Marple books! So The Berry Pickers was laid aside and I did not touch it for a couple of months. 

Last weekend I decided it was finally time to finish what I'd started. I was surprised to see I'd only made it to page 8 the first time around! I went ahead and started over at the beginning, because you know me and my memory. I didn't want to forget something important from those first few pages. And this time I got into it. Maybe around page 11? If only I had persevered the first time around. 

This is a split story: an indigenous family from Nova Scotia whose 4-year-old daughter goes missing in 1962, a girl named Norma growing up an only child in Maine, a middle-aged man named Joe dying of lung cancer, and the links between them all. The synopsis doesn't come right out and say this, but it's pretty obvious throughout the entire book so I don't feel like it's a terrible spoiler to say this: Norma is the daughter who went missing, and Joe is her older brother. But there is so much more to the story than that, and the characters are very vivid and real-seeming. 

My only complaint (other than finding the beginning a bit meh when I first tried to read it) was the last long chapter. Somehow it seemed superfluous. It wasn't too happy; it was more bittersweet, and that was fine. It just seemed to say too much when it could have been more effective to leave some things unsaid.

Tuesday, January 16, 2024

“This Is Climate Change: A Visual Guide to the Facts” by David Nelles and Christian Serber

I had a really annoying conversation about climate change with my parents over Christmas, where I felt sure my parents were wrong but I didn't have enough information to prove it. My mom magnanimously agreed that the climate is "currently in a warming trend" but she simpered with condescension as she stated humans have no control over the climate. My dad went off on a tangent about dendroclimatology (reading the climate records in tree rings). Sam got so mad that he walked away. I felt helpless.

After stewing about it overnight, first thing next morning I decided it was time for me to arm myself with information. I searched online for books that I hoped would provide unbiased facts, and ended up ordering four. 

This is Climate Change (which, ugh, I can't help singing to the Nightmare Before Christmas theme!!) is the one I chose to read first, since it seemed it would give me a brief but broad overview and promised to be easy to understand--and it delivered. Best of all, it clearly refuted some of the "facts" that my parents had spouted. I hate that my memory is terrible and that the information in this book can't just reside in my head, but I've got the next best thing--the book itself. I'm definitely going to keep it to use as a reference. 

I think this book does a really good job of showing that the rise in greenhouse gases is unquestionably caused by human activity. It starts by explaining that greenhouse gases have always existed, and have always naturally varied, but several different charts make it clear that the sharp increase and current trajectory clearly started with industrialization. Let me stop for a second and mention, via principle of charity: maybe, as well as also believing that the climate is in a warming cycle, my mom also believes its rate of warming is influenced by human activity and she just doesn't believe there's anything we can do about it? (I was too irritated to clarify this during our conversation.) But the book also makes it clear which human activities contribute to this rise, and that a decrease in these activities will result in a decrease of anthropogenic greenhouse gases.

My dad claims that attributing global warming to increase in atmospheric CO2 is "old science" and that recently the focus has been on methane. I said (even before reading this book!) I didn't think that was true, and that while methane was also important, it had less of an effect because it didn't hang around as long. My dad countered that methane and CO2 have a similar half-life, which I thought was completely wrong, but I wasn't sure, so I let it drop. Well, guess what? Atmospheric lifetime of CO2 is up to a million years; atmospheric lifetime of methane is 12.4 years. (Disclaimer: I don't actually know if this might have something to do with the amounts of each gas that are present. The concentration of CO2, measured in parts per million or ppm, is much higher than the concentration of methane, which is measured in parts per billion or ppb. Plus it's possible we were talking at cross-purposes and were both right: my "hanging around" time might not mean the same thing as "half-life." My knowledge doesn't run deep enough to answer these questions.)

My mom thinks that the recent rise in CO2 levels is "majorly impacted by the great increase in huge forest fires, and the solution is to plant more trees." The truth is that 85% of global CO2 emissions are from the burning of fossil fuels, 5% is from cement production, and 10% is from land use (slash-and-burn clearance of rain forests, and I would assume we can include forest fires in this category). Majorly impacted? Sure. The majority of impact? No. Plant more trees? Sure. This will solve everything? No. 

The jury is still out on dendroclimatology. My dad says that the visitor's center at Petrified Forest National Park has a chart showing spikes in greenhouse gases in past millennia to levels that are just as high as those we see today. This book does not address dendroclimatology, but it does cover ice core samples, which show this: Over the past 800,000 years, concentrations of CO2 have gone up and down, staying between 160ppm and 310ppm, until human activity became a factor. When this book was written in 2021, CO2 was up to 404ppm. I googled it just now, and the most up-to-date figure is 419.07ppm. Methane concentrations have varied from 330ppb to 750ppb in the past, but were up to 1,843ppb when this book was published, and were 1,902ppb in 2023. Nutshell version: atmospheric CO2 and methane concentrations are at the highest they've ever been, and getting higher. I wonder if the dendroclimatology chart at PFNP does not extend to modern measurements? If the chart is based solely on tree ring data from petrified wood, it would not be surprising if the chart does not include recent data. Anyway, maybe someday I'll be able to see it myself to find out.

My parents didn't say anything about this in our climate discussion, but I've definitely seen this sort of thing posted online: "Melting ice won't raise the sea level. Displacement! I can science!" What these people are missing is knowledge of the difference between sea ice and land ice. It is true that melting sea ice will not cause a rise in sea levels, but melting land ice (specifically the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica) definitely will--and already has. And just because melting sea ice doesn't contribute to rising sea levels doesn't mean it isn't a problem, because it does contribute to a feedback loop that accelerates global warming (see "ice-albedo feedback"). 

So that's all I have to say about that. This is a really helpful book and I highly recommend it. I would be super interested to hear how a climate-change-denier reacts to it, but *only* if they actually read the whole thing and take the time to understand it, and *only* if they're not allowed to arbitrarily decide that the facts that don't fit their worldview must not be true. (This book has tons of sources that can be reached through an online bibliography here.) Here's one more little interesting tidbit which I did not even realize until I reached the end of the book: it was originally written in German by two university students who wanted to "find a book that explained the nuts and bolts of climate change and presented the scientific evidence in a way that was concise and enjoyable to read" but they found that book didn't exist . . . so they wrote it themselves! It was great to have the opportunity to read this book without having to write it first. 

Saturday, January 13, 2024

“The Words That Remain” by Stênio Gardel

Here's the book that won the 2023 National Book Award for Translated Literature. When I first started reading, it was more out of a sense of duty than anything else (tempered a bit by curiosity). I wanted to compare it to Sam's translation and decide for myself which one should have won. 

If I had judged only by the first few pages, I would have given this book a strong thumbs down based on the commas alone. OMG, the commas. There were WAY too many of them. (But, oof, what do you do when you've met the author and the translator, even if very briefly, and they both seemed like such sweet and kind people? Well, I'll tell you what I do. First, I tell myself they'll probably never come across this blog post anyway. Second, I tell myself . . . they won the National Book Award. That should more than make up for anything negative I might have to say about their book!) 

Anyway, commas: I know that French writing seems to aggressively overuse commas and has far fewer periods (and thus longer sentences) than English writing. My guess would be that Portuguese is the same way. And my first instinct was to assume that the translator adhered far too faithfully to the Portuguese syntax when translating this book into English, making for awkward reading. Not to mention there was a sprinkling of what had to have been typos, and some awkward, foreign-seeming word choices. (Yes, life in Brazil is foreign to me, but this book was about Brazilians living in Brazil and they shouldn't sound foreign to each other.)

However, soon it did not matter. The story was very intense, full of sadness and tragedy, and by about halfway through it was really very compelling. It starts when Raimundo is an old man who has finally learned how to read and write. Now, at long last, he is able to read the letter that his young lover, Cicero, had written to him decades earlier. But first we go back to Raimundo's teenaged life, so that we can grow up with him. I found the story very evocative of the experience of a gay man in a time and place when finding acceptance was difficult, even impossible. The shame he is made to bear is in conflict with his internal feelings: how can something that feels so pure and right be something to be ashamed of?

And I got used to all the commas. It came to seem integral to the story, told in a breathless, fervent way, and if I tried to imagine shorter sentences I couldn't. It would have been a very different book, and I'm not sure I can say it would have been a better one.

Spoiler alert: we never get to read the letter! I can understand this choice, though. Most obviously, the letter was private. If  Raimundo never let anyone in his life read the letter, why should he allow me, a total stranger, to read it? But also--I feel like no matter what the letter said it would have been some sort of disappointment or letdown. One step further, though: it is not clear to me that Raimundo even reads the letter. He definitely opens the envelope. He definitely could have read the letter. But did he?

Monday, January 1, 2024

“Baumgartner” by Paul Auster

I found this little gem in Collected Works last month. (I've told you about them before, but in case you don't remember--it's a great little bookstore in Santa Fe, and you should totally check them out if you ever get the chance.) 

It was exciting to spy this book on the shelf. I didn't even know Paul Auster had had a new book published! I've only read his New York Trilogy, but I really loved that. When I saw this one I grabbed it, made it past that depressing and weirdly stark cover photo, and for some reason didn't do my usual dip test (reading a random selection from somewhere in the middle of the book). Instead I started reading at the very beginning. And I read, and I read, and I kept on reading, standing right there in the bookstore. I don't remember exactly how long I stood there, or exactly how many pages I read, but it was obvious I just needed to buy the book. So I did.

This is the story of some old guy named Sy Baumgartner, a retired professor who lost his beloved wife, Anna, nine years ago. He is still grieving, but he is also living his life as best he knows how. The story itself is a weird mix of mundane daily life or throwbacks to the past, and the profound thoughts of an intelligent soul. One of my favorite sections discusses the idea that losing a loved one is like becoming an amputee. You eventually end up with a prosthesis, but you will never be free from the phantom limb pain. 

I really liked this book. It didn't hurt that it was quite short; I'm not sure I would have enjoyed it so much if it was a huge chunk, but as it was, I took my time with it, savoring it, and still didn't spend ages reading it. I wasn't quite sure what to make of the ending--not that it was inscrutable, but it was surprisingly if quietly tense for a little bit; though, I guess, why not go out with a bit of a bang instead of a whimper? And I found it odd that the cover photo wasn’t taken anywhere near where the novel takes place (which, by the way, was on the periphery of my old stomping grounds, so that was kind of fun). But overall, definitely two thumbs up from me.

Saturday, December 23, 2023

“Miss Marple’s Final Cases” by Agatha Christie

Here lies the end of Jane Marple. (Don't worry, she doesn't actually die, you know.) She had a good run! And a book of short stories is a nice place to ease my way out. I'm certainly glad that Nemesis wasn't the last Miss Marple book I read. 

Two of these stories ('The Dressmaker's Doll" and "In a Glass Darkly") don't actually have Miss Marple in them, and are tales of the supernatural rather than straightforward, solvable mysteries. Which is fine--I still enjoyed reading them--though they seemed a bit out of place in a book titled Miss Marple's Final Cases. And two of the stories, surprisingly, don't involve murder! "Strange Jest" is basically about buried treasure and "The Case of the Perfect Maid" is about theft. The other five stories, of course, have all the Marple and murders one can expect. 

It's been a nice, cozy six weeks. Bye, Miss Marple!

Wednesday, December 20, 2023

“Sleeping Murder” by Agatha Christie

I hope you're not getting bored of reading about Agatha Christie novels. I certainly am not getting bored of reading them! I'm even a little bit sad that I only have one Miss Marple book of short stories remaining. On the other hand . . . I'm not sad to the point of wanting to binge Christie's other 52 books. I am looking forward to a bit more variety in my reading diet in the near future.

So, Sleeping Murder. I’ve definitely read this one before, and I even remembered (correctly) who the murderer was. So I didn’t  have the fun of guessing this time, but that didn't matter, because I really love this story. I think my favorite part about it is the slow reveal about the house. It’s so deliciously suspenseful and intriguing. Gwenda buys a house and it feels like home and she makes discovery after discovery about it . . . if I hadn't already known the truth, I wonder if I might have guessed it?

While chronologically this was the last Miss Marple book published, I understand now why it was sold in the first of three boxed sets. This book actually takes place before The Mirror Crack'd From Side to Side. I have deduced this based on two facts. In that book, Colonel Bantry has already passed away, and Miss Marple has aged enough that her doctor has told her she must stop gardening, whereas in Sleeping Murder, Colonel Bantry makes a brief appearance (because he is still alive, not because he is a ghost!) and Miss Marple spends quite a bit of time pulling weeds (and this is not because she is given to ignoring her doctor's orders). The interesting explanation for this temporal discrepancy is explained by Wikipedia: Agatha Christie wrote this book in the 1940s but it was not published until after her death.

Monday, December 18, 2023

"Nemesis" by Agatha Christie

There's no question that this is my least favorite Miss Marple book. Not like I hated it or anything, but if I were to rank them, this one would be at the bottom. (Yes, I know I have not finished all of them yet, but I'm already halfway through the last novel and my current impression is that it may actually be my most favorite; then there's one more book of short stories, which I can't imagine being either my least favorite or my most.)

The annoying thing about Nemesis is that Miss Marple (and, thus, the reader) is so in the dark throughout the entire thing. Not only is there a mystery, but it is a mystery as to what the mystery is. (Even typing that makes me want to roll my eyes.) I found it quite frustrating. It somehow made it feel boring without actually being boring.

Mr Jason Rafiel (Miss Marple's partner in crime-detection from A Caribbean Mystery) has passed on (no, he wasn't murdered!) and has left Miss Marple a mystery to solve. But he refused to leave her any information as to the nature of that mystery. It's all up to Jane to figure it out. Little bits of information drift her way, and she's got to sort through them  and determine what may be significant. After a few days of wondering, she's told Mr Rafiel had paid for Miss Marple to go on a tour of famous English houses and gardens. Maybe the mystery involves one of the other guests on the tour? Then she is invited to spend a few days at the house of three sisters who knew Mr Rafiel. Maybe the mystery involves one of the sisters? 

I didn't really guess what the mystery was (it's all so vague, right up until the time it's actually explained) but by page 242 (out of 265 . . . so, with no time to spare!) I almost guessed whodunnit. I was off by one degree of separation as to the who, but I knew the what and the where before it was made plain.

Friday, December 15, 2023

“At Bertram’s Hotel” by Agatha Christie

Bertram's Hotel is tucked away in a quiet corner of London. It's so utterly proper and demurely luxurious, beautifully restored, with impeccable service and upstanding elderly clientele. It's like a time capsule, preserved from the memories of youth, and there isn't anywhere else like it. But, really, how could it be so perfect? 

That's what Jane Marple begins to wonder as she observes her fellow guests and the staff serving them. And when Canon Pennyfather disappears, Miss Marple once again has a mystery on her hands (though, surprisingly, not a murder--yet!)

At first, the main question is whether Bertram's Hotel (and its cast of characters) is exactly what it seems. It becomes more serious when death makes an appearance. 

I had a guess as to the truth about Bertram's Hotel on page 120. I was partially right but mostly wrong. I corrected my guess on 142 (out of 265) and was right. I also managed to guess correctly about the identity of the eventual murderer!