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

Sunday, February 23, 2020

"The Clockmaker's Daughter" by Kate Morton

Did you know that Sam only gave me one book for Christmas because he noticed it was taking me so long to get through all the other books he had gifted to me on previous birthdays and Christmases? I feel like I'm being punished. But it's good incentive to prioritize the books he has given to me. I think this one was from my last birthday.

The Clockmaker's Daughter is very much in the same vein as the other Kate Morton books I've read: great story, secrets and mysteries, blending of past and present, multiple viewpoints, and generally fun to read. It's not unique enough to be mind-blowing, but I enjoyed reading it.

It's the story of a special house situated in a bend in the upper Thames, told by a number of characters with ties to the house. At the beginning I thought the narration would come from only two perspectives: that of Birdie, who was in the house when tragedy struck in 1862, and that of Elodie, an archivist who comes across the sketchbook of the house's former owner, Edward Radcliffe. But the farther in I got, the more narrators chimed in, each with their own secrets to reveal.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020

"Topics of Conversation" by Miranda Popkey

We spent this past week out of town, and I only brought two books with me. When Sam noticed that I was already almost finished with New Boy, he suggested we might want to find a bookstore so I didn't run out of reading material before we got home. (Just one of the many reasons he's so sweet and I love him! And he was right, because by the time we returned home I ended up finishing the two books I'd packed plus the one I'm going to tell you about.)

I chose this book at Writers Block Bookstore in Winter Park, Florida (which is a fun little shop to browse in, if you're ever in the area). I loved the pretty aqua color of the spine, and the title caught my eye (seems this is the third book I've read recently with "conversation" in the title!) and inside the dust jacket the writing is compared to Rachel Cusk's. The book passed my dip test (actually I didn't open to a random section this time; I just read the first few paragraphs and was satisfied). And it's a lovely compact size, perfect for travel.

Topics of Conversation feels a little like a book of short stories (in a good way), each chapter strong enough to stand alone, but also firmly linked by sharing the same narrator throughout. It's a series of vignettes, each focusing on a brief period in the narrator's life, with a very autobiographical feel (though I have no idea how much is fact--if any!--and how much is fiction).

I love the natural way Popkey writes conversations. I can imagine the characters actually speaking exactly like that, with the pauses and digressions and stream-of-consciousness jumps. This book definitely reminded me of Outline and Transit by Rachel Cusk, and also of Lisa Halliday (Asymmetry).

Weirdly (I mention this because of the cover art) I don't recall a single part of this book taking place in a swimming pool.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

"New Boy" by Tracy Chevalier

This was another Half Price Books find. I have enjoyed a number of other books by Tracy Chevalier; she's one of a small handful of authors I am automatically drawn to as they consistently write high-quality books.

New Boy is part of a series by various authors, each book based on a work by Shakespeare--this one a retelling of Othello, with the twist that the main characters are children on the playground of an elementary school in 1970s suburban Washington, DC.

I was unfortunately not familiar with the plot of Othello, beyond the knowledge that the title character was a lone black man surrounded by white characters. In New Boy, Osei (Othello) has just moved to the area. On his first day of school, he befriends Dee (Desdemona) and they quickly become enamored of one another. But Ian (Iago), playground bully and puppet master, sets out to destroy their happiness by planting and carefully tending seeds of jealousy until they sprout and grow, monstrous and destructive.

I found as I read that I wished I knew the story of Othello better, although New Boy can certainly stand on its own. There were also parts of the book where I wished the conversations seemed more natural (usually during a cacophony of voices on the playground) and I figured those sections might have been based on Shakespeare's chorus. These minor detriments aside, I enjoyed the read.

It did cross my mind, though, to wonder if retellings such as these are necessary. Do they add anything to the original work? Or do they have a value all their own? My personal opinion (after reading the plot summary of Othello on wikipedia) is that New Boy seems more relatable and realistic to me. It's definitely more similar to the life I have lived, and the smaller-scale tragedies seem like something that could happen any day.

Monday, February 3, 2020

"Ulysses" by James Joyce

I did it. I'm done with Ulysses. It's been a long, long journey. Hundreds of miles, uphill in the snow in the dead of night. And now that I'm at the end, I'm wondering . . . did I really go anywhere at all?

My journey with Ulysses was a winding one. I don't remember when I started reading it, but it was literally years ago. Nearly ten, I would guess. When I first started, about once a week I would pick it up and read a few pages. (Well, it was on my Kindle, so there was that annoying thing where I really didn't know how many pages I'd read since it measures percent read rather than showing page numbers.) After two months I'd read about 20% of it, which was maybe 100 pages.

One hundred pages and most of it made no sense to me. Every now and then a beautiful moment of clarity would break through, but that didn't happen anywhere near often enough. Half of me was thinking maybe I needed some kind of guidebook, and the other half of me was thinking . . . if I can't read a book on its own then what good is it?

And then my Kindle broke. I have a feeling one of my many children stepped on it. My fault, of course, for leaving it in a step-on-able place. This was my second broken Kindle, and (unlike the first time) my luck (and my warranty) had run out, and I decided not to replace it. Despite the free-ness of all books in the public domain, I think I'll just never love electronic reading the way I love real paper books--maybe that's another blog post for another time. For now, back to Ulysses.

Newly Kindle-less, I did not want to give up on Ulysses, so I decided to continue reading it using the Kindle app on my phone. But, curses! The app did not know where I had stopped reading, and neither did I. (I actually tried to find my place! But failed miserably. It all seemed like unfamiliar territory!) So I did the only thing there was to do, and started over again at the beginning.

I tried to be smarter about it this time. I tried to actually follow what I was reading, and I even took some notes which I will reproduce for you here:

  1. Some guys who live in a tower by the Irish seaside eat breakfast.
  2. They swim.
  3. One of them (Stephen Dedalus) teaches schoolboys. He helps one of the more stupid ones with his sums, then talks with an older professor who hates Jews and who wants to make known a cure for hoof and mouth disease. 
  4. A bunch of gobbledygook nonsense, then Dedalus visits his uncle, then more nonsense.
  5. Did someone just pull a dead body from the sea? The possibility has been mentioned a few times before, but maybe now it's actually happening. I'm not sure, though.
  6. Some lady is in bed. Someone is going to Patrick Dignam's funeral but first cooks a kidney and then takes a crap. He is Flower or Bloom. Leopold Bloom? He snitched a letter from the lady because she was hiding it from him.
  7. Nope, he was hiding it from her. It was from his lover. He buys her a bar of soap and puts it in his pocket.
  8. Several men take a carriage to the funeral. It's possible that Dignam was the body from #5.
  9. "Far away a donkey brayed." Ha! Usually it's a dog barking in the distance.
  10. Someone (Dedalus Bloom? Is that even a character's name or am I mixing two of them up?) takes out an ad in the paper.
  11. A whole conversation at or about the newspaper just went right over my head.
  12. Did I just read a bunch of pages in which a handful of men sat around in a pub and had a conversation that made no sense to me? I'm not quite sure.
  13. Father Conmee leaves the pub (maybe?) and asks some boys to post a letter for him.
  14. Now it's skipping around to all these people I've never heard of before. 
  15. Some sort of Alice in Wonderland trial.
  16. A woman speaks for pages and pages without once pausing. This must be a record for the longest sentence ever written. (Yep, it is. I checked.)
  17. The end. 

I really have no idea whether I am pointing out the emperor's lack of clothing, or if I am just a plebeian swine, but I did not find this book worth reading. Though I'm not sure I can actually truly say I read it. Did I look at every single word in sequential order? Yes. Did it make sense to me? No. Am I glad I did it? Yes, but only because it was a challenge and I have accomplished what I set out to do.

I am sure there are people in the world who love this book (though that number of people is probably quite a bit smaller than the number of people who merely *say* they love this book). I am sure there are people in the world who are smarter than I am, who were able to read this book and make sense of it. I am sure there are people in the world who have devoted their whole lives to reading Joyce's works, as the author himself apparently once demanded. I am not one of those people. I'm just the person who thinks . . . it took seven years to write this book???

This may be the only book that takes longer to read than it took to write. And I'm not sure whether that says more about the writer or the reader.

Sunday, February 2, 2020

"Little Fires Everywhere" by Celeste Ng

It's been a long time since I read a good story! I started off really enjoying this one . . . and then suddenly on Friday evening I realized this book was making me grumpy. I no longer sympathized with a single character. Weirdly, the things that made the characters unsympathetic were exactly the things that made them realistic and complex, which I would normally love. Not this time, though. I left the book alone for a little while after this epiphany. But tonight (since obviously I would rather read than watch football) I relented and we made up.

Little Fires Everywhere is a story of families and of mother-child relationships and of restriction and freedom and honesty and secrets and art and change. The conventional Richardsons are the central family, in the sense that every thread comes back to them, but Pearl and her mother Mia are truly the the ones the book revolves around. The storyline is complicated enough that I feel daunted by the thought of summarizing it, but at least I can say that the lives of these two families become so entwined that, by the end of the book, few are unaffected. 

However, if that's all I say, I'll be disappointed when my literary amnesia takes over and I want to return to this post to refresh my memory on the plot. So I will add that Mia is a free-spirited and semi-nomadic photographer who has rented a house from small-town journalist Elena Richardson, mother to four Shaker Heights high-schoolers, each of whom forms their own unique bond with Mia or Pearl (or both).

I was surprised to realize after reading that the setting of Shaker Heights (which was almost like a character in the book) is a real live town in Ohio--where the author grew up! That little tidbit almost made the book feel like historical fiction.