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

Saturday, March 27, 2021

"The Trick to Time" by Kit de Waal

This is not my kind of book.

I should have known better than to even try it. Sam bought our copy, mainly because everyone was talking about how great de Waal's first novel (My Name is Leon) was, but this one had a more interesting title. He tried to read it but found it boring and didn't get very far through it before he gave up ("it just goes on endlessly about dolls"). I thought maybe he was being unfair, and maybe he didn't give it long enough. Plus, it was published by Penguin! They're usually pretty good at picking books I like. 

Oh well. Not this time. 

This is the story of Mona the middle-aged Irish dollmaker. Actually there's a carpenter who makes the dolls, and Mona dresses them and paints faces on them. Mona's mundane life in her doll shop is interspersed with memories from forty years before, when she was newly married to William. At least there is some element of mystery that propels the reader to find out what happened in the intervening time.

So why was this book not a good match for me? Part of it is the overall general sense of the book. It seems to be a typical example of Women's Fiction (not to be confused with a Beach Read, though I am sure there is some overlap). There is something that bothers me about writing that is targeted to women readers. I want to read something that doesn't try to pigeonhole me.

Specifically, there were several other things that rubbed me the wrong way. I found the characters flat. And for the ones that were slightly more dimensional, their facets were incongruous. I think back to books I've read where the characters were utterly real. I can't pinpoint the difference between those and these, but there definitely is one. These characters were all acting parts, and not very good at it. Maybe I would have felt more drawn to the main character if I'd been through what she had; lucky for me, I have not. However, most really good books can make me feel the experience I'm reading about even if I've never experienced it myself. 

I thought at times the writing was quite cliched--of course the main character gets a new, short, chic haircut halfway through the book. And of course when her love interest sees her for the first time with her newly shorn locks, her hand immediately "flies up" to touch her new 'do. 

And yes, there's a trick to this book (not just to time), and yes I guessed the solution long before it was revealed. I blame the cover quote, which made me aware that the book has "one of those endings that makes you want to reread the whole book." That, put together with my tendency towards speculation, set me on the right track. But rather than a feeling of satisfaction when I found out I was right, it was disappointing. Not least because the ending certainly did *not* make me want to reread the whole book.

Sunday, March 21, 2021

"The Rise, The Fall, and The Rise" by Brix Smith Start

This was not a typical read for me, as a quick glance at the rest of my blog would tell you. I definitely gravitate more towards novels, and if I were to get a wild hair and want to read an autobiography or memoir, I would probably choose one by someone I've heard of before. But Sam, who has been a fan of The Fall since he was 14, idolized Brix Smith. He's the one who bought this book, and read it first, then told me he thought I should read it, because Start's is a pretty amazing story.

And he's right. It's pretty incredible, the circles Start has traveled in and the successes (and not just in one field) she has experienced. Although my initial impression of the book was that it was a bit disjointed and full of name-dropping, I'd say by the time she met Mark E. Smith she'd found her rhythm in writing and in relaying her memories, and even for someone like me (clueless about the history of The Fall) it was interesting to read. I wouldn't label it as a Must-Read for the random person in general, but I do think that anyone interested in The Fall would love it.

It's a bit disorienting, knowing that Sam actually interviewed Mark E Smith (twice!) and came away with the sense that he was a nice person ("almost avuncular," Sam says) when obviously, on the whole, he was pretty horrible to Brix and the other band members. Sam has also read Renegade: The Lives and Tales of Mark E Smith" and says Smith doesn't even mention Brix (they were married for five or six years!) and just glosses over the albums they created together, despite the fact that many think they're the best of The Fall's albums. 

Sunday, March 14, 2021

"Klara and the Sun" by Kazuo Ishiguro

My lovely husband surprised me with this book just over a week ago. Surprise books are the best! Especially when it's a beautiful brand new hardcover by a can't-miss author. I believe it was Marie Kondo who once said the time to read a book is as soon as you get it. And I think she's right. There are some unread books on my shelves that I've had for years, and I can't help but wonder if I'll ever actually get around to reading them. I think, unlike travel which is only enhanced by spending time looking forward to it, I am probably at peak excitement about a book when I first acquire it. Waiting to read something doesn't make me more eager to read it; it just makes it more likely that I'll come across something I'd rather read in the meantime. 

Anyway, in case you hadn't guessed, I wasted no time in diving into Klara and the Sun. The story is told from the point of view of an AF (Artificial Friend), which is basically a life-size solar-powered robotic companion doll (albeit one that is quite technologically sophisticated). Klara starts out in a store in the city, until she is purchased to live with a girl named Josie. 

To me the most interesting thing about this book is the exploration of the thoughts found in an artificial mind. Klara is not completely emotionless, but she does not experience feelings with true human intensity. She is very observant and can make logical connections based on her observations, but she doesn't necessarily understand everything she sees, and the reader is limited by the boundaries of Klara's realizations.

Overall the story had the feeling of a parable or a fable, as if what was on the surface was simple and straightforward but floating on top of deeper, hidden meanings. Though I must admit if there were deeper, hidden meanings . . . I did not get them. Did you?

Sunday, March 7, 2021

“Night Waking” by Sarah Moss

Sarah Moss is three for three with me. She is quickly becoming one of my favorite authors. And the great thing is that she has four more novels just waiting for me to read them! 

In Night Waking, Moss tells the story of Oxford history fellow Anne Bennett, inextricably trapped in motherhood and an exile of sorts on an isolated Scottish island. She never has enough time to work on her book (an academic work on the history of childhood), or enough sleep, or enough support from her husband whose priority is counting puffins, and (though she would never admit this or maybe even realize it) she is addicted to the extent of her young sons’ need for her. 

Anne’s story is interspersed with excerpts from her writing, quotes from people like Anna Freud whose works are referenced in her book, and the history of the (fictional) island of Colsay on which her family is living. Throw in a police investigation regarding the bones of an infant that turn up in the garden and you’ve got yourself a pretty intriguing mix. 

Though the book has elements of mystery that any good police investigation would indicate, the dominating force of this story is Anne’s fraught relationship with motherhood. And Moss’s writing is so intensely real that I had to remind myself I was not Anne, and that I had no cause to be irritated with my husband who (quite unlike Anne’s Giles) is a superstar of a husband and father and doesn’t care a lick about puffins.

I wonder why I am so partial to female authors? Though I have certainly enjoyed books written by men, my list of favorite authors is (with one obvious exception) almost exclusively female. I think it must be, as happened with this book, that a female writer is naturally more able to write in a way that connects with my female mind. 

Monday, March 1, 2021

"Leave the World Behind" by Rumaan Alam

Here's another book that my sweet husband gave to me for Christmas. I'd never heard of it, or the author, which I suppose means I didn't peruse any Best Books of 2020 lists. 

Clay and Amanda have temporarily left the bustle of New York City behind and rented a house in a quite part of Long Island where they plan to spend a relaxing week with their children. Late one night, not long into their stay, they are startled by a knock on the front door. It's G.H. and Ruth, who say they're the owners of the rental; they've fled Manhattan after a widespread and unexplained blackout. 

The book delves into tensions between the strangers, and their fears of the unknown; Ruth and G.H. don't bring much news with them, and due to the remote location of the house they are basically cut off from society, which means no news in the Information Age--though in this case, no news is almost certainly not good news.

The book is written from an omniscient point of view. With every line of dialogue, each character's unspoken thoughts are shared as well. The effect, to me, is the distinct opposite of subtle; but despite the lack of subtlety, the story is still mysterious and compelling. The omniscience does not give the reader a complete view of what is going on in the world; we get a bit more information than the frightened group at the vacation rental, but not much more.

There was a nice side effect to the anxiety induced by the book: when I finished reading, I felt a sense of relief as I returned to the real world. So, yeah, we're in a pandemic and America is divided politically, but things could be worse!

Does the cover art remind anyone else of the scene where Barb disappeared in Stranger Things? No? Just me?