No excuses for not posting except — and it’s a big except — I was gutted by the US election result and continue to writhe like an eel on a spike with every tweet, headline, and cabinet pick. When I can’t deal with reality, I escape to other worlds in books. So the good news is that I’ve been reading a lot in November and December. The bad news is that I’ve not been commenting much about those reads. This doesn’t bode well for my blogging life in 2017 either. People say they are glad to leave 2016 behind, but I’m afraid 2016 was only the beginning of scarier and sadder times ahead. I suppose I’ll get used to it, but I’ll confidently increase my reading goal next year nevertheless.
Still, I started this blog with the intent of keeping track of my reading and impressions. So here is a short list with “lite” (or simply shallow) commentary on what’s been keeping me away from the headlines and semi-sane for the past few weeks.
Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, Elena Ferrante
This is the third book in the Neapolitan quartet. We leap right back in with Lena and Lila, love and hate, friend and foe, push and pull. Lena publishes her novel, marries, and has children, all at a safe distance from Naples. Lila, on the other hand, barely survives her exile, finally moves back to the old neighborhood with Enzo, and even starts working for Michele Solara, a man she previously despised. It was an effortless, breathless read. I think I finished it in three evenings. I am reading the last book in the series right now to make good on my goal of finishing the whole shebang by the end of the year.
I love David Mitchell’s young male characters, and this one is all Japanese (as opposed to the English one in Black Swan Green). Eiji is about twenty when he leaves his home on one of the far southern islands of Japan (Yakushima! on my bucket list) to go to Tokyo in search of the identity of his father. His mother abandoned him and his sister, who died in a tragic accident, when they were children, and his father intentionally wished to have no contact or knowledge of his children. Eiji is scrappy, funny, and endearing as he searches for his identity, love, and resolution of loss, all while battling the occasional yakuza and his overly active imagination. Mitchell takes a tangent or two that irritated me (the goat writer tale), but overall it was fun times.
The Way West, A. B. Guthrie, Jr.
I loved The Big Sky, so I’m not sure what took me so long to pop open the sequel. We lost two of the three main character in TBS, but the third, Dick Summers, comes out of mountain man “retirement” after his wife dies on their Missouri farm and agrees to serve as guide for wagon train heading up the Oregon Trail to the Willamette Valley. Dick is the perfect wild western guide — wise, laconic, and tough as shit with a hidden big heart. The pioneers have all manner of trials: Indian attacks, dangerous river fords, deaths by snakebite and other misadventure, a clandestine pregnancy and a wedding with another guy to cover it up. To my mind, The Big Sky was more literary, but this winner of the Pulitzer was more accessible and straightforward in its themes. Also, there was a lot less (though some) use of the n-word. And there was a rather hilarious, to modern readers (or maybe just me), episode of high modesty between the sexes on collecting buffalo chips for fuel. Highly recommend.
The Exiles Return, Elisabeth de Waal
My October Persephone book (the Picador cover at left) was this gem by the grandmother of Edmund de Waal, author of the Hare with the Amber Eyes. Edmund’s story explains how his extremely wealthy Jewish family was forced to flee Vienna when the Nazi’s occupied, and how they lost it all — their grand palais, possessions, art, lifestyle, livelihood — all except, of course, for the remarkable collection of 300+ netsuke that Edmund bases his story around. Elisabeth grew up in that glittering lost world, but this novel is set in the aftermath of the war and deals with characters who return to the city and/or who try to create a meaningful lives out of the ruins of their old professional or aristocratic ones. The writing was lucid and smooth and the pacing wonderful, until the ending (that I don’t want to give away) which felt a bit abrupt and extreme. Perhaps she hadn’t fully resolved/finished it? Still, a very good novel and an interesting companion piece to her grandson’s nonfiction book.
Fidelity, Susan Glaspell
Now for my November Persephone book. With its Persephone publication, I hope Fidelity will get more attention as a stunner of an early feminist novel, alongside such work as Charlotte Perkins Gillman’s The Yellow Wallpaper. Fidelity tells the story of a young woman who dared to love a married man, and the devastating social, economic, and emotional consequences it has for her, her family, friends, and the relationship itself. The book is wonderfully titled — fidelity is the central issue on so many levels in this book. I found the writing a bit ruminating at times, particularly on love, but I think it was necessary to impress deeply on the reader the multifaceted consequences of this woman’s thought process and decisions. I’d love to see a modern version of this novel because while I think some social consequences would be less severe, others might show we’ve not come as far as we think. There are lots of conversations to be had around this book and its many themes.
Purple Hibiscus, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
I wasn’t sure if I could read this at first, especially in my current mode of avoiding painful realities. Told from the viewpoint of a teenage girl who lives under the regimented, violent, and abusive control of her über religious father, Purple Hibiscus is saved, just as the girl is, by her loving extended family, the discovery of her rich native culture and its spiritualism, and a hottie Catholic priest. I wish it were longer and I liked Americanah better, but Purple Hibiscus was a satisfying and mostly redemptive novel. Adichie is a writer that I can see happily reading any and everything she writes.
And one DNF: White Teeth, Zadie Smith
Normally, I don’t bother to comment much on my DNFs, but I need to talk about White Teeth for a minute, if only to resolve this for myself. From every blurb and review, I believed it would be a perfect novel for me. I’ve had a copy since it came out — a first edition no less. I’ve tried to read it three or four times, but always put it down and can’t be bothered to pick it up again until a few more years go by. There is something about the frenetic, jaunty voice of the writing that really leaves me flat. I don’t much care about these characters or what’s going to happen to them. I feel like Smith’s trying too hard to write quirky characters in an energetic way. My disappointment REALLY puzzles me because the only other book I’ve read by Smith, On Beauty, is one of my all-time favorites. I wish I loved this — I wish I even liked it — I wish I could find the perserverance to finish it, but I think it’s time for it to go to a new home. Sixteen or seventeen years in my house unread is enough. Thanks, I feel better now. I can let it go.