Crossing to Safety by Wallace Stegner (Classics Club & Buddy Read)

In that fine place, in the ripened Indian summer weather, those two once again choose us. In circumstances where smaller spirits might let envy corrode liking, they declare their generous pleasure in our company and our good luck. What we felt last night when we fell into a laughing bearhug and fused our frosty breaths outside their door, we feel again on this placid hill. We have been invited into their lives, from which we will never be evicted, or evict ourselves.

91Vq1lzeOaLHaving read and loved Stegner’s Angle of Repose years ago, I had high hopes for his 1987 novel Crossing to Safety. I also owned a copy so choosing it for my March Classics Club pick was a no-brainer. I’m happy to say my expectations were matched and I thoroughly enjoyed this reading experience. Augmenting my pleasure was doing a a Buddy Read with Pauline of Smithereens blog, and Rebecca of Bookish Beck. I don’t know that I provided any great contribution to our email and Twitter conversations, but I was grateful for the company and the added push to read it.

Stegner is a beautiful writer – thoughtful, measured, insightful about human nature. His detail for the natural world is also a delight, anchoring his characters in a very rich and real place. This novel centers on two young academic couples, Larry and Sally Morgan, and Sid and Charity Lang. The action takes place in both the Midwest of the Great Depression, in Madison, Wisconsin, and also forty-some years later in rural Vermont. We follow the two couples as they bond very quickly and go back and forth in time ultimately to their later years, as they gather at the end of one of the foursome’s life. The men are college English teachers trying to get published and promoted, with varying degrees of success. The women are housewives as was typical of the time period, and they do have children, although the kids are mostly an afterthought in the narrative until the end.

What drives the story is the beguiling and maddening character of Charity Lang. She is what you’d call a “force of nature,” a whirlwind of energy, spirit, and generosity. I admired her but didn’t entirely warm to her, although I suppose if she’d taken me under her wing as she did the Morgans, I would probably always be in her debt and her thrall. You see, the Morgans are poor, and the Langs are wealthy. But somehow that doesn’t really come between the two couples as much as you might think it would. There are equalizers, such as Larry Morgan’s more successful writing career. There is more conflict between Charity and Sid over his stalled career than there is any conflict between the couples.

This is a quiet novel, but rich in character and detail. Deep friendship and the complicated bonds of marriage are the themes, as well as a meditation on what makes a life well lived. Reading this in such a precarious, anxiety-inducing time as this was a balm to the soul. As Pauline astutely noted, the characters feel very far away from the cares of the world in the book, although serious events occur. If you’ve never tried Stegner before I would highly recommend this one, especially if you like character-driven, thoughtful, but not overly padded, novels.

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Format: owned paperback

See my Classics Club list here.

The Sweet Dove Died by Barbara Pym (Classics Club)

“You make me sound hardly human, like a kind of fossil,” Leonora protested.

“I didn’t mean that – it’s just that I never think of you as being ruffled or upset by anything. Not like me- that awful night when I burst in on you, whatever must you have thought!”

“People react in different ways. One may not show emotion, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that one doesn’t feel it.”

Barbara Pym is one of my favorites authors, but I’ve been saving some of her books I’ve not yet read. Not sure what I’m exactly saving them for, but I haven’t wanted to rush through all of them. I owned a copy of The Sweet Dove Died, purchased for $1.00 (!) at a local used bookstore, and decided this was the time to cross another Classics Club choice off the list. It’s short (just 208 pages) and typically charming and amusing – but for me it won’t jump to the top of her works.

19523620Written in 1978 (one of her later novels – she died in 1980,) the book’s main character is Leonora, an elegant woman of some means who’s in her early 50’s (I think, although it’s not exactly clear.) She meets twenty-four year old James and his uncle Henry, an antique dealer, at a book auction and immediately the three hit it off. Henry is taken with Leonora and she in turn has her heart set on James. But precisely what sort of relationship she wants with James is rather vague – she seems to just want his companionship and devotion, but not really anything physical.

Leonora liked to think of her life as calm of mind, all passion spent, or, more rarely, as emotion recollected in tranquility. But had there ever really been passion, or even emotion? One of two tearful scenes in bed – for she had never enjoyed that kind of thing – and now it was such a relief that one didn’t have to worry anymore. Her men friends were mostly elderly cultured people, who admired her elegance and asked no more than the pleasure of her company. Men not unlike a Henry Boyce, indeed.

As in many of Pym’s novels, not much happens, but simultaneously everything happens. James and Leonora grow closer, and then not one, but two people come into James’s life and threaten Leonora’s relationship with him. Meanwhile Henry is the odd person out.

I didn’t particularly like any of the characters, which is unusual for the Pym novels I’ve read – usually there’s at least one sympathetic character. Leonora is rather selfish and cold. But I was entertained and amused – Pym is always wryly funny and observant of human nature, even in an obtuse character. And as the novel went on I felt a little sympathy for her as she tried to hold on to her youth. I was also surprised by how modern the relationships felt, in that one of James’s paramours is a man. And it’s not something anyone in the novel bats their eyelashes at.

All in all, a gentle, intelligent, somewhat melancholy comedy of manners, full of repressed emotions and characters who aren’t terribly self aware. If you’ve never tried Barbara Pym I wouldn’t start with the one, but it makes for an entertaining and fast read if you’ve enjoyed her other books. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

(This is the 17th work read out of 51 classics on my Classics Club list.)

The Testaments by Margaret Atwood #MARM

It’s my second time participating in Naomi’s and Marcie’s annual Margaret Atwood Reading Month, or MARM. When I saw the announcement post it was serendipity because I was nearly at the top my my library’s holds queue for The Testaments. I went into the book with low/no expectations, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. Well, “enjoyed” is not quite the right word when it comes to a work describing a world as brutal and harrowing as Gilead. Immersed in? Entertained by? Both. I have not read The Handmaid’s Tale in ages. I keep meaning to, but the shiny new books keep catching my eye. I also do not watch the Hulu streaming adaptation, so I can’t compare this book to the vision there.

71x4baXyxvLThe book is narrated by three women: two young women, Agnes, raised in Gilead, and Daisy, raised in Canada, and Aunt Lydia, who is also prominently featured in The Handmaid’s Tale. The time is set fifteen years after the action of The Handmaid’s Tale, and there are signs that there is weakness in the regime. A resistance network within and without Gilead is helping more and more women escape. In Agnes’s chapters we get to see how the Wives are groomed and bred, and with Daisy’s chapters we see a bit more of how the outside world views Gilead.

Lydia’s chapters are much more compelling than the others, mostly because she is a more well-developed character. We get to see the psychological and physical torture she underwent in the days and weeks after the coup that birthed the Gilead regime. It certainly gave me a new understanding of her subsequent actions and choices as the most powerful member of the Aunts.

But there are three other reasons for my political longevity. First, the regime needs me. I control the women’s side of their enterprise with an iron fist in a leather glove in a woolen mitten, and I keep things orderly: like a harem eunuch, I am uniquely placed to do so. Second, I know too much about the leaders – too much dirt – and they are uncertain as to what I may have done with it in the way of documentation. If they string me up, will that dirt somehow be leaked? They might well suspect I’ve taken backup precautions, and they would be right.

What becomes clear as the novel progresses is that Lydia is certainly playing a very long game of revenge against the men in power.

Did I weep? Yes: tears came out of my two visible eyes, my moist weeping human eyes. But I had a third eye, in the middle of my forehead. I could feel it: it was cold, like a stone. It did not weep: it saw. And behind it someone was thinking: I will get you back for this. I don’t care how long it takes or how much shit I have to eat in the meantime, but I will do it.

And so I suppose I kept reading mostly to see how this thing played out, if Lydia indeed got some measure of revenge. Atwood is one of my favorite writers but I mostly prefer her earlier, more realistic fiction to her later dystopian books. I will continue to read anything she writes in the future because I do think she writes beautifully and very keenly about human nature. But I do not think this novel worthy of a major literary prize (it was co-winner of this year’s Booker Prize, sharing the prize with Girl, Woman, Other by Berardine Evaristo.) I do think it’s an entertaining, plot-driven peek into the inner workings of Gilead and opens a window on the mind of a fascinating character in Aunt Lydia. If you were captivated by the original book I would recommend The Testaments for that reason alone. But perhaps tamper down your expectations in terms of literary prowess and know that this is more of a plot-driven work.

I’m glad I read this and when I do eventually reread The Handmaid’s Tale it will be interesting to see how the two works compare. Oh, and I will also be eating cake to celebrate Atwood’s 80th birthday on Monday the 18th. Not that I need an excuse for cake, but it makes it more special!

The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal

When Edith was feeling low like this, baking a pie had never failed to make her happy. Like how some people talk about yoga or mountain climbing or music, it was how she lost herself and touched something else. It was her church away from church. It wouldn’t solve any problems, but it might make her and a few people forget them for a while, and that was something.

She stocked up on ingredients at Cub Foods. She took out the last of the canned rhubarb from Lucy, and used the fancy lard from Block’s Provisions, that expensive and tiny store on Hennepin. She felt the dry flour between her fingers, and thought about being a great-grandmother. She thought about it like how a tree in winter thinks about its leaves. She rolled this thought over the dough, and pressed it into its edges. The sun fell outside, and she didn’t reach for the lights. The pie baked in the dark, and she sat in her quiet kitchen and waited. She was good at that. She was seventy-seven years old, and she had all the time in the world.

51a2My+6uGLI’ve found my leading contender so far for favorite book of the year. I know there’s a lot of year left, so I’m leaving the door open for something else to come in and touch me more than J. Ryan Stradal’s second novel, The Lager Queen of Minnesota. But it had better be darn good, because I’d give this book more stars if Goodreads would let me.

Lager Queen is about sisters and pie, and yes, beer. It alternates points of view between three characters: sisters Edith and Helen, and Edith’s granddaughter, Diana. Helen is an unlikely sort of young woman in the 1960s, who figures out that she wants to make beer, and she knows she’d be good at it. Her older sister Edith is the settled one, the dependable one, the one who Helen says “putting cake frosting on a bran muffin” is her idea of fun. When their father gives all the money from the sale of the family farm to Helen to help start her beer making venture, Edith and her sister stop talking, and the silence only gets louder and louder over fifty years. Year later, Edith’s granddaughter, Diana, who Edith has to help finish raising after a terrible accident, exhibits both Helen’s fiery spirit and her grandmother’s practicality. But after getting caught making some very questionable choices, she is given a new opportunity to find something she’s good at, and it’s closer to her great-aunt’s path than she could ever guess.

This book just hummed with authentic characters and believable dialogue, two of my criteria for good fiction. J.Ryan Stradal has a gift for creating characters the reader cares about, people who aren’t perfect but are fully dimensional and whose actions are credible. And just like his first book, Kitchen of the Great Midwest (which I loved,) featured some killer foodie scenes, this one is filled with interesting and zingy writing about beer. I’m not a beer drinker but I almost wish I was reading these sentences.

The four examples of IPAs were meant to break Diana’s brain open about the possibilities of what an IPA can do, but these beers were too far beyond her comprehension.

Her first, second, and third impression of each IPA steamrolled her ignorant palate; drinking them was like losing a boxing match to become a better boxer. It’s unfair, she thought, that whatever the hell she’d made would be called beer, on a planet where these beers existed. They her feel terminally bewildered.

Other sentences I loved:

“Her grief was a forest with no trails, and she couldn’t guess how long her heart would walk through it, as her body walked other places.”

“It was like a man to scratch his name on the banister of history, but Helen had come to believe that it was better to be the stairs.”

All three women go through a lot over the course of the book, which feels like real life too, with loss, disappointments, and victories big and small over the years. By the time the end comes around you can feel all the threads coming together, only you’re not sure if it’s all going to end the way you want it to. I’ll say this: it’s one of the most satisfying endings I’ve read in a long time, and I totally bawled. It’s the kind of book I’m tempted to immediately read again, but I can’t because it’s a library copy and people are waiting on it! And then I had the thought that I need to buy Kitchens of the Great Midwest and read that again. So I guess I’m a J. Ryan Stradal-head now. This is one of those books that I am sure I can’t do justice to in a review, so I’ll just say that I wholeheartedly loved it.

⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

 

 

The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead

The capacity to suffer. Elwood – all the Nickel boys – existed in the capacity. Breathed in it, ate in it, dreamed in it. That was their lives now. Otherwise they would have perished. The beatings, the rapes, the unrelenting winnowing of themselves. They endured. But to love those who would have destroyed them? To make that leap? We will meet your physical force with soul force. Do to us what you will and we will still love you. 

Elwood shook his head. What a thing to ask. What an impossible thing.

71yP-dPa0mLIf a 225-page book takes me nine days to read, either I don’t like it or it’s really sad. The Nickel Boys by Colson Whitehead is decidedly sad. I didn’t cry, and I didn’t feel burdened by gratuitous descriptions of violence. Whitehead, mercifully,  writes sparingly but efficiently of the punishments given out by the mean-spirited men in charge of the fictional Nickel Academy. I just felt sad, heavy with the knowledge that these injustices happened to real boys in the 20th century at Florida’s Dozier School for Boys, the inspiration for Nickel. Heavy with the weight of our continued struggle with racism in the U.S. At the same time, I relished Whitehead’s characterization of the two young heroes in this story, Elwood and Turner. He is a phenomenal writer – not an emotional one, but one who nonetheless has the capacity to move me greatly.

It’s the early 1960’s and Elwood and Turner, the book’s main characters, stand in for hundreds of boys, black and white, who endured horrible conditions at the real life Dozier School. (You can read more about it here.) The boys at Nickel were either wards of the state that no one was sure what to do with or they were there as punishment for a “crime.” Elwood, an enterprising, bookish young man, inspired by recordings his grandma bought him of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., starts the book as the least likely boy to end up at a place like Nickel. But he’s soon caught up in a tragic mishap that lands him in the nightmarish facility, where he meets Turner, a low-key, cynical, but streetwise teen who has no family and is on his second stint at the school. Turner takes Elwood under his wing after Elwood makes the mistake of letting his ideals guide him in the murky social structure at Nickel.

I absolutely fell in love with these two characters, especially Elwood. The way he continues to struggle throughout the novel to reconcile his ideals, the ideals Dr. King showed him, and the reality of his situation, all the adults and kids who weren’t playing by the rules of love and justice and a higher purpose, this is the heart of the book for me. I have read some reviews of Whitehead’s works that fault him for being detached or unemotional. I agree with that characterization but for me it’s a good thing. The things he writes about, especially his last two books, have been about so much sadness and violence that I want a level of detachment from the author – it helps me, a sensitive person, not get overwhelmed by the subject matter. I can focus on the beauty, strength,  and economy of the writing and, here, delight in the characters.

The Nickel Boys is an achievement, a testament to the hell that real life boys endured for most of the 20th century. I think Colson Whitehead is a genius who can write just about any kind of book he wants to and I love the range of his work. I know this kind of book isn’t an easy sell, especially for sensitive readers. But I highly recommend it – if I, known shunner of heavy books, can handle it, you most likely can too! ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

 

Two Big Books of Summer

Recently I read two of the biggest books of the summer: Kate Atkinson’s Big Sky and Elizabeth Gilbert’s City of Girls. I LOVED one of them and liked the other. Let’s get to it.

img_4237I pre-ordered Big Sky a few months ago, something I rarely ever do – hello, library five days a week – but Atkinson is one of two authors I automatically make an exception for (the other is Jess Walter.) This is the fifth installment in her Jackson Brodie series, and I’ve loved every one of them so far. I didn’t know if she’d ever return to this beloved character. It’s been nine years since the previous one, Started Early, Took My Dog. I’m happy to report that this one satisfied my expectations and then some.

If you’ve never read one of these books, well, they’re hard to categorize. They’re not shelved in the mystery section of my library, even though they involve a private detective/ ex-policeman, Jackson Brodie. They’re multi-layered stories with lots of characters and threads that end up coming together eventually in unexpected ways. Atkinson has a talent for writing stories about very heavy and/or sad things but somehow letting the reader breathe a bit with dark humor, razor-sharp wit, and characters to root for.

It’s been so long since I’d read one that I’d kind of forgotten where we’d left off with Jackson. But Atkinson does a nice job giving us enough back story to catch us up.

Brodie Investigations was the latest incarnation of Jackson’s erstwhile private detective agency, although he tried not to use the term “private detective” – it had too many glamorous connotations (or sleazy, depending on how you looked at it.) Too Chandler-esque. It raised people’s expectations.

This one involves some very unsavory characters involved in sex trafficking – Jackson gets involved sort of obliquely because he saves a desperate man from throwing himself over a cliff. I hate to write too much about the plot because part of the joy of these books is piecing together how all these characters know one another and fit together. Suffice to say there is an underground of disgusting men taking advantage of young women and Jackson and an old friend, Reggie, who is now a policewoman, are investigating. What I loved about the book besides the puzzle was the characterization and the humor. Jackson is just a terrific character – he’s cynical and pessimistic but still got a good heart, loves his kids and his dog, and wants to help the vulnerable. In one of my favorite scenes he’s trying to counsel the chap he just saved from the cliff, and not doing a very good job:

“Sometimes you’re the windshield, Vince,” Jackson said, “sometimes you’re the bug.” That was what Mary Chapin Carpenter sang anyway, pace Dire Straights.

“I suppose,” Vince agreed, nodding slowly as he chewed on the last bit of toast. A good sign in Jackson’s book. People who were eating weren’t usually about to top themselves.

“And there’s no point in clinging on to things if they’re over,” Jackson continued. (Julia was right, perhaps counseling really wasn’t his forte.) “You know what they say” (or what Kenny Rogers would say), ” ‘you’ve got to know when to hold them and know when to fold them.’ ” This was better, Jackson thought, all he had to do was utilize the lyrics from country songs, they contained better advice than anything he could conjure up himself.

I loved it, and I am hopeful that there will be at least one more installment in this series.

Gilbert’s City of Girls is a big, exuberant historical fiction novel about a young woman named Vivian. Well, at the beginning she’s an old woman reflecting on her life at the prompting of the daughter of her great love, who has written Vivian to try and find out just what exactly she was to her late father. So the story is essentially Vivian’s long, winding, roundabout answer. Most of the action takes place in New York City in 1940-41. Vivian has flunked out of Vassar and been sent to live in the care of her colorful aunt Peg, who owns and lives above a struggling theater called The Lily Playhouse.

This is a very detailed portrayal of a time and place, a love letter to that specific New York City, and Gilbert does a great job of putting the reader right there in the setting. It felt real and made me jealous of Vivian, who got to experience that New York before the post-war modernization boom and subsequent grimy decay of the 60’s and 70’s. Also there is a lot of fashion in this novel – Vivian has a natural gift for sewing and crafting outfits from scraps of fabric, which makes her very popular with the showgirls at the theater. I liked Vivian, but the first 140 pages or so didn’t convince me of the necessity of the story. It was nice, kind of fun, but didn’t feel essential – until Aunt Peg’s erstwhile husband Billy shows up from Hollywood with a surefire hit of an idea to reinvigorate the theater and make everyone some money. Then things started to happen and I became more invested. As we get towards the end of the novel and the man who becomes Vivian’s great love comes into the story, I could hardly read fast enough. This part moved me greatly and I ended the novel in tears. I love how Gilbert’s books are all so different from one another, but one thing she consistently does well is make the reader feel the complexities of romantic relationships. Not everyone gets a fairy-tale ending, but that doesn’t mean that the love wasn’t real or valid. I also appreciated how Vivian came to own her sexuality over the course of the book. She became a woman who didn’t apologize for having a sex drive and that was refreshing, especially considering the time period.

…at some point in a woman’s life, she just gets tired of being ashamed all the time.

After that, she is free to become whoever she truly is.

This was good. A bit uneven for me, but it gained steam as it went along and I’m glad I read it.

Have you read these? What books published this year have you loved?

 

 

 

What I’ve Been Reading Lately

I’ve been reading some good stuff lately, y’all. These books probably deserve individual posts but I’m just trying to get back into the blogging groove, so here I am with a round-up. Let’s start with the most recently finished.

36300687French Exit by Patrick deWitt. I have a weakness for books about what I call “rich people problems.” You know, where urbanites with a lot of money and family squabbles get together and hash it all out. (Think The Nest or Seating Arrangements.) So I was immediately charmed and entertained by deWitt’s novel of a fractured family, mother Frances and her thirty-something son Malcolm. (They reminded me of Lucille and Buster Bluth from Arrested Development only not as ridiculous.) They are running out of money and are forced to make a serious life change. This novel was so witty, inventive, absurd, and went in a slightly darker direction than I had anticipated. And I loved every second of it, devouring it quickly. I’ve never read deWitt before. I’ve added his The Sisters Brothers to my TBR list.

Before that I gobbled up Ian Rankin’s Knots and Crosses, the first Detective Rebus 634407mystery. I’d been meaning to try this series for years now and I finally felt in the mood for a mystery. I have to say that Rebus is a very tortured detective, more so than I’m used to.  I’m not quite sure that I like him, but I’m willing to read another one to see if I do. In this one he has to deal with not only a brother that is doing something shady, but a deranged serial killer going after young girls in Edinburgh. His very deeply buried past experiences may hold the clue to catching the killer. This was a quick read and I’ve checked out the second one, Hide and Seek.

The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry was another book I’d been meaning to read for a while. Rachel Joyce had made a big impact on my with last year’s The Music Shop and I’d heard good things about Harold. I really liked it, and boy did it make me cry. Keep your tissues handy for this one if you’ve 9780812993295_p0_v1_s550x406not read it. Harold gets a letter from an old co-worker, Queenie Hennessy, who’s dying. Instead of posting his response in the nearest mailbox, as he sets out to do, he ends up walking hundreds of miles to see her, convinced that if he keeps walking she will live. I enjoyed the vicarious walk through England and getting to know both Harold and his wife, Maureen. They’ve gone through some things and not dealt with them very well, and as the book goes along it was lovely to see them both break out of old, destructive habits. This is a lovely, touching read. I added Joyce’s  The Love Song of Miss Queenie Hennessy to my TBR list.

The best read of the year so far for me has been Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge.51wuQJpliWL._AC_UL320_SR206,320_ Linked short stories, all directly about Olive or mentioning her in some capacity, this was tremendously moving and just gorgeously written. I think Strout is going on my favorite writers list, especially since in the last two years I’ve adored her My Name is Lucy Barton and Anything is Possible. The woman can write! Olive is a cranky, no-nonsense, but ultimately kind and more perceptive woman than she’s given credit for. She’s no saint, and Strout doesn’t shy away from letting the reader see her fully, warts and all. This novel provides a kaleidoscopic view not only of her but of a town full of people with secrets, dreams, broken hearts, disappointments, and hopes, and I found it masterful. I can see myself reading this again.

My February pick for the #UnreadShelfProject challenge on Instagram was American Street by Ibi Zoboi. It’s a YA novel about a young Haitian woman named Fabiola who americanstreet_wblurbcomes to the US with her mother to live with her aunt and cousins in Detroit. Only, her mother gets detained indefinitely in customs and she has to travel to Detroit without her. It’s a culture-clash novel, a coming of age novel, and a meditation on race and poverty with a heavy dose of magical realism. There’s a lot going on here. But it was absorbing and gave me a better picture of Haitian culture than I had before I read it. I didn’t love it, but I always keep in mind that YA novels aren’t really written for a 40-something woman. I think that a 14 year old could really get into this and learn a lot from it. I’m glad I finally read it and now it can find a good home at my library’s book sale in the Spring. Hooray for reading my own books!

So that’s what I’ve been reading lately (aside from The Count, of course. That reminds me, I need to start reading my next 100 pages.) Have you read any of my recent picks? What have you been reading lately?