20 Books of Summer 3 & 4

I am already being very flaky about how strictly I follow the rules of the 20 books of summer. I’ve added in two books not on my list (Train Dreams and Exit West). And  I said I was going to read In the Wet by Nevil Shute, but I opted for his Pastoral instead.

Pastoral2Pastoral is romance  set during WWII. At first I found the writing, especially the dialogue, stilted in that old movie way and it turned me off. But slowly I warmed to the story itself.

Both the main characters, Gervase and Peter, serve in the British military. She is a WAAF section officer and he is the highly capable captain of a bomber running raids with his devoted crew  over targets on the continent. Some of the best parts of the book are the fighting episodes when Robert and his flight crew get into trouble and barely make it home. I’m not a huge war novel fan or plane buff, but I was completely engaged. Continue reading

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Two train rides

The first train I took in my summer reading was the M Train by Patti Smith. I just listened to a podcast interview with her and learned that the M stands for “mind,” like follow your train of thought.

Unlike her earlier book, Just Kids, which traces her relationship with Robert Mapplethorpe, M Train is a meditation on writing and life. More than anything, I got a sense of who Patti is as a person, her day-to-day habits and routines,  and how she works, crossing over genres of music, writing, photography. She is an artist in what I think of as the truest sense: she takes her thoughts and interests seriously and follows them obsessively in all her various mediums.  Some of the things I learned about Patti:

  1. She drinks a lot of coffee. The book could have easily been called the M train with a large black to go.
  2. She is a creature of comfort habits. Eats and drinks the same coffee and plain toast with olive oil every day at the same place and same table, wears the same uniform of white shirts, black ‘”dungarees,” a watch cap, “bee” socks, and a black coat day in and out.
  3. She travels far and wide to take photographs of objects or places that people who inspire her have touched or lived in. Frida Kahlo’s bed, Virginia Woolf’s cane, Sylvia Plath’s grave (a lot of graves, actually) and so on. Sometimes she gets to touch these objects and places, too, as if there is a transmitted energy of the previous owner’s energy and genius vibrating within. Somehow, I get this. It’s why I like historic places and artifacts, imagining the feet, hands, heart, and lives lived with the object.
  4. She writes obsessively. And often on napkins, receipts and other scraps of paper which she stuffs into pockets.
  5. She wings it. A lot. Particularly speeches and performances.
  6. She is obsessed with detective TV shows, particularly British ones. She seems to find in them the same level of quality and inspiration that she does famous novels or poetry. She likes them enough expressly to fly to London, check herself into a hotel and watch TV for days.
  7. She binge reads. She describes becoming obsessed with Murakami’s The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, reading it over and over and over. She obsessively researched Tokyo trying to figure out where the novel was set because she wanted to go there. Then she lost her copy and forgot to go to the site when she visited Tokyo. Her behavior reminds me of how, say, churches or temples fall into ruin or sacred ceremonies are lost.
  8. She doesn’t open her mail for months, but replies quick-as-a-wink once she finds a letter of interest.
  9. She keeps cats. Possibly too many cats.

Patti’s lifestyle and her thoughts takes me back to my early twenties, when I was living the post-college ragtag artist life, traveling, writing, painting, drinking coffee by the gallon, reading French existentialist writers, hanging out in cafes–and listening to Patti Smith. I love that she’s still doing it. I’ll read anything that Patti publishes. She’s fascinating.

The other train  I took was the novella Train Dreams by Denis Johnson. This book was not originally on my 20 Books of Summer list, but it is now. The book flap describes it as an “epic in miniature,” which is pretty perfect.

It’s the story of Robert Grainer in the early years of the twentieth century, which are also the final years of the changes wrought to West in the nineteenth. Robert’s small story of love and loss is intertwined with his experiences with the iconic and often stereotyped aspects of the old West: the railroad and its “Chinamen” builders, logging, raising a cabin, wildfires, wise old Indians, and so on. It feels like much more than its 119 pages.

I read both of these books as part of my 20 Books of Summer challenge — or 19 + the rest of Middlemarch. Seventeen plus 200 pages of Middlemarch to go.

M Train
4/5
personal copy

Train Dreams
3/5
library copy

Pulitzer 1965: The Keepers of the House

the keepers of the houseI’d say that 1965 was a very good year for the Pulitzer prize in literature. It was awarded to Shirley Ann Grau for The Keepers of the House,  a morally complex novel about racism, family, and gender set in the deep south.

Abigail Howland is the seventh generation heir to the Howland family estate in rural Alabama. Her great-great-great-great grandfather established the farm in 1815, and by the time Abigail inherits from her grandfather, William, the Howlands are deeply respected members of the state and county, not in the least because they own most of it.

William’s story is fascinating — his wife dies and he lives alone until he meets a young black woman, Margaret, who becomes his housekeeper and also bears him five children. Everybody in the town/county seem to know about his children, but as has been done for generations, they turn a blind eye to his “woods colts.” The children, who are so light-skinned they can pass for white, are sent off to boarding schools at puberty, never to return. The eldest, Robert, is the same age as William’s white granddaughter, Abigail. Continue reading

The 19 books of summer + Middlemarch

Some of the 20 books of summer 2017 (the rest are ebooks)

Considering all that I’ve got going on (a new job, a stream of house guests, and an ambitious overseas trip), I think I may crazy participating in Cathy at 746 Books summer read-along, the 20 Books of Summer. But I’m going to try anyway and see how I do. I may toss out some as stinkers or get distracted, but here goes:

  1. Heat Lightning, Helen Hull (in progress)
  2. A Kind of Anger, Eric Ambler
  3. Homegoing, Yaa Gyasi
  4. Death Comes for the Archbishop, Willa Cather
  5. Attachments, Rainbow Rowell
  6. Imperium, Robert Harris
  7. The Marquise of O and Other Stories, Heinrich von Kleist
  8. Behind the Scenes at the Museum, Kate Atkinson
  9. Cleopatra’s Sister, Penelope Lively
  10. Ready Player One, Ernest Cline
  11. In the Wet, Nevil Shute
  12. The Sympathizer, Viet Thanh Nguyen
  13. Embers, Sandor Marai
  14. M Train, Patti Smith
  15. Citizen Vince, Jess Walters
  16. Real People, Alison Lurie
  17. Little Big Man, Thomas Burger
  18. Z,  Theresa Ann Fowler
  19. Japanese Pilgrimage, Oliver Statler
  20. the rest of Middlemarch, George Eliot

Wish me luck!

20-books

Shazam! The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay

I feel like the world is divided into those who love comic books and those who don’t much care. Other than reading a few Archie and Josie and the Pussycats comics in my girl days, I was one of those who never much cared. It kind of surprises me, because I loved (and love) drawing and art. And while I can now appreciate some of the cheesy appeal of the genre, I have always preferred immersing myself in a novel and letting the author’s word spin my own unique images of the characters and action in my mind’s eye.

Perhaps my disinterest in comic books is why it took me over ten years and three tries to finally read The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon. Despite a complete lack of illustrations anywhere in its 636 pages, I can picture the Escapist, Luna Moth, and other creations of the two main characters, Joe Kavalier and Sammy Clay, two Jewish cousins breaking into and developing the comic book genre in the early twentieth century. Continue reading

Stories of sadness: Olive Kitteridge

There was a certain point in Olive Kitteridge when I was mentally adding it to my best-books-ever list. While it’s still a contender, it’s not quite lingering with me in the way those books do. But I don’t want to give the impression that Olive Kitteridge (henceforth OK) is disappointing or lacking in some way. It’s really brilliant, but also unrelentingly sad.

OK has an interesting construction. Is it a novel or a collection of short stories? Each chapter is a unique stand-alone story, but all the stories are about people in the same small Maine town. Olive herself appears in every story, but sometimes only as a mention. Other times, she is the main character of the chapter/story. To me the book reads more like a novel mainly because the stories begin in the past, but move forward in time. Also, there is progression and change in the characters, including Olive herself.

The first story introduces Olive through a story about her husband, Henry, and his unrequited love for one of his employees. By the end of the book, we have learned from various stories that Henry has had a stroke and has been left completely incapacitated in nursing home. Finally, in another story we learn that he has passed away. The book is a bit like being privy to all the best (and saddest) small town gossip. Continue reading

In the middle of Middlemarch

I’m keeping up with one of my 2017 reading resolutions — that is, to read one book of  Middlemarch a month. Today I finished Book IV: Three Love Problems, which puts my bookmark right in the middle.

As I’ve been reading, I’ve thought about how I might or might not want to comment here in my blog. I think with Middlemarch, as with many famous and classic novels, the world doesn’t really need any more reviews, so this is more a scattershot of some thoughts and impressions. And they might only make sense if you’ve read Middlemarch — or even a part of it.

I find reading Middlemarch that I have to give my utmost concentration to the writing. There are sections of dialogue and storytelling when I can read along with ease, but when the narrator steps in, as she so often does, I have to really slow down and parse the train of thought. Honestly, sometimes I don’t know what the hell she’s talking about. It tempts me to describe the narrator’s style as turgid, but I think it’s really the opposite. Eliot’s use of language is so precise and dense with meaning that it often demands my full engagement to reckon the complexity of the idea she’s putting across — and/or it exceeds my ability. But when I do get it, most of the time, the narrator’s ideas seem to express human truth in a fresh way: Continue reading