Mid-Year Reading Stats (and Book #9 of 20 Books of Summer)

We are well into July so it’s time for a mid-year look at my reading stats and progress on reading goals for the year. Reading is generally is going pretty well for me right now, although the deep concentration I enjoyed during my furlough period, when I was a reading machine, is much lessened by time constraints. I have to dip in and out of books in small doses, which is what I mostly did pre-pandemic, but somehow the quality of my attention is more fragmented. I guess considering everything that’s going on, I’m doing fairly well. 

Books read: 66

Fiction: 52

Nonfiction: 14

Adult/YA: 45

Middle Grade (mostly read with my son:) 21

Male Authors: 23

Female Authors: 43

Authors of Color: 16 (24%)

Genres: Classics (10) Literary Fiction (9) Mystery (8) Memoir/Biography (7) General Nonfiction/Essay/Self-Help (7) Romance (3) Short Stories (1)

Favorites So Far:

Favorites Read With My Son:

READING GOALS:

1. Read 20 Nonfiction Titles. On track!

2. Reread Four Books I Own. On track! Just one more to go.

3. Read 12 Titles From Classics Club List. On track! I’ve read 7 so far. I have 27 more to go in total before the deadline of February 2023.

4. Read More Authors of Color. On track! Last year’s paltry 18% gave me a low bar to clear. I’m hoping to hit at least 30% for this year.

In other news, my ninth book of the 20 Books of Summer challenge is Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926.) I had high expectations for this one, but something prevented me from connecting to the story fully. I can’t quite pin down what was amiss. It could just be reader’s frame of mind here, because so many people count this one as a favorite. Hercules Poirot is our detective, and he’s as charming and astute as ever. Maybe I missed his frequent sidekick, Captain Hastings. I didn’t warm to the narrator of the tale, Dr. Sheppard. He was devoid of personality so perhaps that’s what kept me at a remove.

51DcQZO7VMLOne of the wealthiest and most well-liked people in the small village of King’s Abbot, Roger Ackroyd, is found murdered in his study. Of course there are many suspects who’ve been in or near the estate at the time of the murder. Ackroyd’s niece, Flora, engages Hercule Poirot to assist the police and clear the name of her fiancé, Ralph Paton. Poirot is in town attempting to relax in retirement (which struck me as funny since this is only the 4th book in a series that would stretch to more than 40 titles.) He even says at one point, “In all probability this is the last case I shall ever investigate.”

I did enjoy the number of suspects, and there are lots of subplots and intrigues to follow and try to work out. As usual I didn’t guess the murderer until very late in the game. I can see why this was a seminal work of mystery, in that the innovative twist is clever and controversial. While I did enjoy it overall, I can’t say it’s one of my favorites. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

So how are you doing with your own 2020 reading goals? Let me know below.

 

 

 

Five-Sentence Reviews for 20 Books of Summer

Hi friends. How’s your week been? I’ve had a good day off today… I got doughnuts from my favorite local doughnut place this morning and I spent a solid hour and a half finishing up my eighth book for 20 Books of Summer, so it’s been a solidly good day! Since I plan on watching the film of the Broadway musical Hamilton tonight on Disney+ (which I got JUST so I could watch Hamilton!) I’m going to “review” these two four-star reads with some quick five-sentence reviews. Gotta get dinner done, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Leslie Odom, Jr. are calling!

Book 7 of the Challenge: The Reckoning by Jane Casey (Maeve Kerrigan series #2). Having read the first in the series FOUR years ago apparently didn’t diminish my enjoyment of the second installment at all. Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan is a wonderful character, smart and strong, but also trying to navigate being a young and attractive woman in a heavily male-dominated field. She’s newly partnered with the maddening and chauvinistic DI Josh Derwent, who’s a bit of a loose cannon and who got on my nerves at times. They’re tracking a killer (or killers) going after pedophiles, and Maeve is determined to see that the killers are brought to justice. This was an enthralling, intricate police procedural and the romance between Maeve and her fellow detective Rob is believable and smartly written. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Book 8 of the Challenge: Swimming Lessons by Claire Fuller. Just a gut-punch of a novel, but one I absolutely couldn’t put down. Told partly in letters written 25 years ago, partly a contemporary story, this broke my heart. Two adult sisters, Nan and Flora, deal with the impending death of their father, the famous writer Gil Coleman. Alternating with that time period are letters to Gil written by their mother, Ingrid, who disappeared in 1992; she stuck the letters in various books all over the house. Page-turning literary fiction about grief, motherhood, family secrets, and infidelity, with the mystery of what happened to Ingrid at its core. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

I’m still reading Ijeoma Oluo’s So You Want to Talk About Race and I’m not sure what will be next from my 20 Books of Summer stack. I’m thrilled to be on track so far with my reading and reviewing for the challenge! Six books for the rest of this month and next is definitely doable. If you’re participating, how are you faring? What books are you diving into this weekend? Are you watching Hamilton on Disney+? This will be my first time, never having gotten to travel to see the show in person. I’m such a huge fan of the music and of the original cast members ( I was slated to see Leslie Odom, Jr. perform in concert in Atlanta back in April… then the pandemic hit 😫.)

Anyway, have a good weekend, book dragons!

A Contemporary Romance and a Classic: 20 Books of Summer # 5 & #6

Another Friday! We made it through another week, although to be honest time is still a slippery concept for me even though I’m working again. Just living in America right now is mentally exhausting, watching the virus case numbers explode again and seeing half of the people out there disregard others and public health by not wearing masks. I am angry every day. Thank God for books to keep me sane and help me escape. Fridays seem to be my only day for blog posting at the moment, so freshly fueled by Oreos, almonds, and a cup of white tea, let me tell you about books 5 & 6 for 20 Books of Summer!

First up, The Right Swipe by Alisha Rai (2019.) I’m still kinda new to the romance genre. I’m still not sure if I actually like the romance genre. (How many books do you need to read in a genre to know if you like it? Do you even need to say that you like a genre or is it enough to just like a book? Is genre an outdated notion anyway? That’s something to ponder, please tell me if you have an answer.) Anyway. This was… okay. There were things about it that I liked, main characters of color, an interesting subplot about CTE (brain damage caused by repeated concussions on the football field,) and the steam factor was pretty steamy! But it felt overly long and kinda boring. And the female lead did that thing that a lot of romance characters do, which is talk to herself about how much she liked the male lead but how she had been burned in the past and didn’t want to trust him, I mean, it happened a LOT. And I was like, “Yes, I get it, you have TRUST ISSUES.” So I don’t know, plenty of people have liked this more than I did, so maybe it was just not for me. I finished it, which means that I didn’t hate it. It was engaging enough for me to finish pretty quickly. ⭐ ⭐ 1/2

Next up, a real winner! Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym (1977.) Some of you mentioned that it was a melancholy read but honestly I found it refreshing and often hilarious. I found myself thinking about the characters for days after I finished, wondering what they were up to, wishing I could be in their company again. We have four 60-something office mates, working at a nondescript job, but we’re later told that when they retire no one will replace them, so it’s obviously something a computer could be doing. And anytime we’re in the office they’re talking about going out to lunch or having a snack so honestly I haven’t a clue what they do! Marcia and Letty are set to retire first, with Norman and Edwin sometime later. They’re all single, and Edwin, a widower, is the only one to have married. Edwin is obsessed with the church and the various holy days of the saints, visiting different churches on different days. Norman is the grouchiest one and doesn’t seem to have much going for a social life, although he does have a brother-in-law, the husband of his late sister, to see on holidays. Letty is supposed to go live in the country with a friend when she retires, but her friend surprises her with a change of plans. And Marcia… well, Marcia was the one character that did make me sad. I guess she is suffering from some sort of dementia or mental illness at the beginning of the book, because she lives in deliberate squalor and hordes things like plastic bags and milk bottles. Her situation deteriorates rapidly throughout the book, but the other three don’t seem to understand how bad off she is until it’s too late. These characters aren’t what I would call friends but seem perpetually on the verge of making a deeper connection with one another and just missing the timing.

When I write it down it does sound depressing and you probably won’t believe me when I say that really it wasn’t. Pym’s sly humor cuts through what could be rather gloomy situations. I laughed out loud many times, for example this unexpected exchange in a conversation between Letty, her friend, Marjorie, and Marjorie’s new beau, Father Lydell.

‘Ah, London…’ Was the sigh too extravagant?

‘Of course David is here for his health,’ said Marjorie, coming back into the room and entering eagerly into the conversation.

‘Do you find the country is doing you good?’ Letty asked.

‘I’ve had diarrhoea all this week,’ came the disconcerting reply.

There was a momentary- perhaps no more than a split second’s – pause, but if the women had been temporarily take aback, they were by no means at a loss.

‘Diarrhoea,’ Letty repeated, in a clear, thoughtful tone. She was never certain hot to spell the word, but felt that such a trivial admission was lacking in proper seriousness so she said no more.

This did feel darker than her earlier novels, and it is one of her last books before her death in 1980. I believe she had had health problems too when she wrote this. So the perspective of older people contemplating the last quarter of their lives makes sense. I also think that 60-something meant something different in 1977 than it does today, perhaps. These characters feel more sedate and stuck in their ways than today’s 60-somethings tend to be. Outdated gender roles also have something to do with it, as women without a partner or children today seem to have more options for income, social connections, and independent pursuits. In any case, I found this book thoroughly delightful and entertaining, with a small ray of hope at the end and a little corner of the world that I didn’t want to leave. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ Also, this is a book from my Classics Club list so I killed two birds with one stone!

What books or TV shows have you been able to escape into these days? How are your various yearly reading goals doing? I’m currently reading books 7 & 8 for the challenge, The Reckoning by Jane Casey and So You Want to Talk About Race? by Ijeoma Oluo. I really should do some sort of halfway through the year look at my reading goals but I’ll save that for another time. I hope you are all well and relatively sane in this maddening time. ❤️ 

How We Fight For Our Lives and The Secret Adversary: 20 Books of Summer, Books #3 & #4

61386777268__a9b5ee01-86d3-421b-9d93-e6cd106df7e6How We Fight For Our Lives is a 190-page memoir by poet Saeed Jones that is electric and unflinching. I read it in one day because I found it so compelling. It’s a coming of age story about being a Black gay boy and later young man from Texas, as well as an incredibly moving account of his mother’s untimely death from heart failure. (Get those tissues ready, readers.) I had enjoyed Jones’s poetry before, which is what attracted me to this memoir. Also, I follow him on Twitter and find him insightful and entertaining. He’s a lyrical and vivid writer. He doesn’t shy away from the uglier parts of his journey, such as when a man he has a sexual encounter with attempts to beat him to death because he can’t deal with his own internalized homophobia. His account of his maternal grandmother’s fundamentalist religion, where at one point her preacher asks God to “put every ailment, every disease on (Saeed’s Buddhist mother) until she breaks under the weight of the Holy Spirit,” is harrowing and tragic, especially in light of his mother’s heart condition.

I made myself a promise: even if it meant becoming a stranger to my loved ones, even if it meant keeping secrets, I would have a life of my own.

Maybe she had been right about me after all. Worldly: “concerned with material values or ordinary life rather than a spiritual existence.” Worldly: “experienced and sophisticated.”

Of course I wanted to see the world, to experience its fullness. I wanted to be a real part of it, rather than the passing shadow I so often felt like. I wanted to devour the world.

I sat there ablaze, struggling to apprehend a new, darkly radiant sense of self. I felt dangerous, evil even.

If this feeling was what my grandmother meant, I wasn’t sure I would survive it after all.

But I couldn’t turn to her now – not anymore – to name whatever was having it’s way with me. So we drove on, an old woman and her grandson, alone together, making their way through one last gorgeous summer evening in Memphis.

A haunting, at times hard to read but so compelling that I couldn’t stop reading, memoir. (This was my first of five “off the list” picks for the 20 Books of Summer challenge.) ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

A 180-degree turn now to my fourth challenge pick, Agatha Christie’s The Secret Adversary (1922.) Fiction Fan put this one on my radar and I’m grateful! It was very good fun, what I’d call a real romp. It features the terrific twosome of Tommy Beresford and Prudence “Tuppence” Crowley, childhood friends who reconnected during the First World War, when Tuppence was a hospital volunteer and Tommy was recovering from an injury. A few years later, both young and broke, they run into one another on the street and hatch a plan to run an advertisement and become adventurers for hire.

“Now I’ll read it straight through. ‘Two young adventurers for hire. Willing to do anything, go anywhere. Pay must be good. No unreasonable offer refused.’ How would that strike you if you read it?”

“It would strike me as either being a hoax, or else written by a lunatic.”

They soon become embroiled in a caper involving some very sensitive and important documents that were passed to a young lady named Jane Finn on the ship Lusitania as it sank. The papers and the young woman are both missing, and it’s vital that the “good guys” find both before the “bad guys,” who are a shadowy international crime syndicate with Bolshevik leanings led by the mysterious and sinister Mr. Brown. They want to destabilize the government which is already under pressure from Labour unrest. Tommy and Tuppence get themselves into one tight spot after another and it’s very entertaining watching them use their wits to dig themselves out. This novel had a zippy pace and energy that I haven’t encountered in the Poirot and Marple mysteries I’ve read so far. I was completely dumbfounded by the twist ending, suspecting the entirely wrong person of malfeasance. Christie is once again the queen of misdirection. I will definitely read more of the Tommy and Tuppence mysteries! ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

Have you read either of these? Do they appeal? How is your 20 Books of Summer Challenge going, if you’re participating? I’m on my fifth book, which I hope to finish tonight.

How To Be An Antiracist and New Waves: 20 Books of Summer #1 & #2

There is no in-between safe space of “not racist.” The claim of “not racist” neutrality is a mask for racism. This may seem harsh, but it’s important at the outset that we apply one of the core principles of antiracism, which is to return the word “racist” itself back to its proper usage. “Racist” is not – as Richard Spencer argues – a pejorative. It is not the worst word in the English language; it is not the equivalent of a slur. It is descriptive, and the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it – and then dismantle it. The attempt to turn this usefully descriptive term into an almost unusable slur is, of course, designed to do the opposite: to freeze us into inaction.

I honestly feel like I don’t know how to best review How To Be An Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi. It’s the kind of book that can change minds and lives. I feel like I need to read it again and make sure I’ve really absorbed what I’ve read. I will probably do so. I could have quoted two-thirds of the book here in this space, because there are so many salient and persuasive points. Here’s another:

Incorrect conceptions of race as a social construct (as opposed to a power construct), of racial history as a single march of racial progress (as opposed to a duel of antiracist and racist progress), of the race problem as rooted in ignorance and hate (as opposed to powerful self-interest) – all come together to produce solutions bound to fail. Terms and sayings like “I’m not racist” and “race neutral” and “post-racial” and “color-blind” and “only one race, the human race” and “only racists speak about race” and “Black people can’t be racist” and “White peoples are evil” are bound to fail in identifying and eliminating racist power and policy.

There is a lot to digest in Kendi’s ideas but this book is very readable and approachable. He brilliantly starts and ends each chapter with a story from his own life, starting in childhood and all the way to the present, where he confronts his own racist, sexist, and homophobic ideas, thereby showing a personal example of how people can learn and grow in becoming antiracist. It’s a very disarming approach and made me consider the ways in which I have been marinating in our toxic racist, classist, sexist, homophobic culture and absorbing ideas, consciously or unconsciously. I now consider antiracism work to be about power and policy, not just about hearts and minds. I feel like this book can be a game-changer. I can’t recommend it highly enough. I have not yet read his National Book Award-winning book Stamped From the Beginning, but I definitely will. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

img_5740New Waves by Kevin Nguyen is an interesting novel. It’s contemporary literary fiction that feels all at once breezy and melancholy. The two main characters, Lucas, an Asian customer service rep at a tech startup, and Margo, a Black programmer tired of being taken for granted, are best friends who “met” virtually years ago on a music pirating server. Margo’s specialty was obscure Japanese pop and Lucas’s was obscure Bossa Nova. They conspire to steal the startup’s user database and get away with it. But soon after, Margo is hit by a car and dies. (The reader knows this from the first chapter and the book jacket so it’s not a spoiler.) Lucas ends up with her laptop and discovers that he didn’t know his best friend as well as he thought he did. This book skillfully examines technology and ethics, friendship, grief, and love. Lucas doesn’t always make the best choices but he was a sympathetic character anyway, and I felt invested in his story. Another interesting thing about this book is that Margo wrote science fiction short stories, and every now and then one is interspersed into the narrative. Despite the melancholy tone this book made me feel hopeful at the end, and I think it’s one I won’t soon forget. I will definitely look out for Nguyen’s next novel. ⭐ ⭐ ⭐ ⭐

How is your 20 Books of Summer journey going? My reading pace is slow because I’m too tired after work to read much so I have to save it all for the weekends. Next up: The Secret Adversary by Agatha Christie.

My 20 Books of Summer List

I love that Cathy keeps the rules for her annual challenge on the loose side; it fits my Mood Reader personality. And as an mentioned in my last post, I’m back to work, so my reading time is definitely cut short. In fact, since the last time I posted, I’ve read only 100 pages of Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women – all week! My brain feels like oatmeal with all the new procedures and spatial configurations that our library is enacting in the name of safety. On my work breaks, when I would normally read, I’m watching episodes of Bosch on my phone.

But I’m gonna trust that eventually I will get back on track, so I’m putting out my 20 Books of Summer list. I have fifteen hard copies on hand right now, and I’m gonna leave my last five books open, so I can choose some at whim. (I do have a list of options made, of course!) I’m fairly certain one of my extra five will be Michael Connelly’s latest book, Fair Warning, which is not a Bosch book but is about reporter Jack McEvoy instead.

Here we go.

  1. The Secret Adversary – Agatha Christie
  2. Poirot Investigate – Agatha Christie
  3. Weather -Jenny Offill
  4. Quartet in Autumn-Barbara Pym
  5. The Right Swipe – Alisha Rai
  6. A Murder is Announced – Agatha Christie
  7. The Blue Castle – L.M. Montgomery
  8. The Reckoning – Jane Casey
  9. Swimming Lessons – Claire Fuller
  10. How to Be An Antiracist – Ibram X. Kendi
  11. The Murder of Roger Ackroyd – Agatha Christie
  12. The Chalk Pit – Elly Griffiths
  13. New Waves – Kevin Nguyen
  14. The Blackhouse – Peter May
  15. A Dark and Twisted Tide – Sharon Bolton
  16. TBD
  17. TBD
  18. TBD
  19. TBD
  20. TBD

I have some romances on my TBR but just don’t have physical copies of them so I will probably choose many of those to round out the list. I’d like to read The Bromance Book Club, A Hope Divided, The Unhoneymooners, and Get A Life, Chloe Brown.

Since the aim of this challenge is to clear a bunch of books from your TBR, then I will win no matter how many of these I actually finish. Good luck with your list if you’re participating, and let me know if you’ve read any of the books I’ve listed. Have a good weekend and Happy Reading!

The Summer of Romance and Mystery

The only constant in life is change, right? My library system will be reopening to the public next Friday. At least half the branches and the main library, anyway. I’m still a bit in shock and not really happy with the pace of it, but I’m not in charge (even our director is not in charge; it’s the county mayor’s decision.) But as I must work, I will be there. The virus in our part of the country is not as sweeping as in other places, but it’s still around. So I will wear a mask, sit behind plexiglass desk shields, point to the six feet markers on the floor, wash my hands a million times, and do the best I can. To begin we won’t have any public computer use, and that’s a good thing (less people sitting in the building for a length of time.) No programs or story times indefinitely. I’m nervous, and know that with our nearest branch being closed, we will be doubly busy. But I will be be very glad to see my coworkers and my lovely library regulars.

As to how this will affect my reading, it’s hard to say. I imagine I will be tired and possibly frazzled, so I don’t plan on any heavy reading for a while. I’m calling this summer THE SUMMER OF ROMANCE AND MYSTERY! I had planned to participate in Cathy’s 20 Books of Summer event, and I am still going to give it a go – with the lightest, fluffiest books I can find. My “light and fluffy” still includes lots of murder mysteries, by the way. I’m thinking of knocking out a lot of Agatha Christie this summer, as I have an unofficial goal to eventually read all of her novels. I will post my list for 20 Books of Summer next weekend.

img_5695So for a bit I won’t be around WordPress as much as I have been this spring. I hope to post once a week, on weekends, and catch up on your blogs as much as I can in between. Please send some good thoughts my way and to all library workers as they begin to reopen libraries. I knew I’d eventually go back, but the furlough wasn’t supposed to end for another month, so it’s an adjustment. I hope you are all safe and well, and fully stocked with engaging books. I’m currently rereading one of my all-time favorite books: Excellent Women by Barbara Pym. A delicious and smart comfort read if there ever was one. Till next time, read on, friends!

CivilWarLand in Bad Decline by George Saunders (20 Books of Summer #17)

51QARZbRoHL._SX334_BO1,204,203,200_My final book completed for 20 Books of Summer was a good one. I’ve been a fan of George Saunders for years, since I read his 2013 short story collection Tenth of December.  His first novel, Lincoln in the Bardo, completely blew me away. His first short story collection, CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, had lingered on my Goodreads TBR list since 2014. I’m glad I finally read it – it’s so interesting to see how a favorite writer hones his skills over time.

This 1996 collection is made up of six short stories and one novella. They are a motley, twisted assortment of near-future/slightly dystopian settings in which affable but morally skewed men and women toil away at low-wage menial jobs and screw up over and over again. America is basically a disintegrating theme park, beset by racial strife, class warfare, and environmental degradation, but somehow Saunders injects just enough notes of dark humor and decency to keep the reader from flinging the book away in despair.

My favorite story and one I think ranks with the best stories I’ve read is “Offloading For Mrs. Schwartz.” A man grieving the death of his wife Elizabeth, beset by guilt over the fight they had right before she was killed, tries to atone for his sins, both actual and perceived. He owns a franchise of something called “personal interactive holography” – basically a space in which people can pay to experience an intense virtual reality of their choosing. He’s got just a few regular customers who either can’t afford to pay him or pick rather disturbing virtual realities. But his “regular job, penance, albatross” is visiting an old, bed-ridden widow on the bad side of town with one of his headset modules and letting her temporarily experience happiness, both remembered and made-up.

In the early days of my grief Father Luther told me to lose myself in service by contacting Elder Aid, Inc. I got Mrs. Ken Schwartz. Mrs. Ken Schwartz lives in Rockettown remembering Mr. Ken Schwartz and cursing him for staying so late at Menlo’s Ten Pin on nights when she forgets he’s been dead eighteen years. Mrs. Ken Schwartz likes me and my happy modules. Especially she likes Viennese Waltz. Boy does she. She’s bedridden and lonely and sometimes in her excitement bruises her arms on her headboard when the orchestra starts to play. 

One night when he stops back by the store to pick up a module for a school group visit the next day (“Hop Hop the Bunny Masters Fractions”) he walks in on a robbery. After he subdues his attacker he scans his brain with his console and finds out that he’s named Hank, a WWII veteran who saw horrible things at Iwo Jima and never was quite right after. But something goes wrong with the scan, and our narrator realizes that he’s lifting memories from Hank, taking them out of his brain and depositing them in the module. Hank leaves the store carefree now that the horrors of war (and the first twenty years of his life) are gone from his memory. Our narrator has a brainstorm – why not edit Hank’s memories to give the schoolkids an immersive history lesson on what it was like to live in the 1930’s and ’40’s?

I won’t spoil the rest of the story, but I’ll just say that this one moved me like no other in the collection. Here I recognized the Saunders I’d already read, who is one of the most compassionate and humane writers living today. He has a knack for making the reader care about some questionable, flawed characters and celebrating what is most central to the human experience – loving and being loved.

If you’ve never read Saunders before I wouldn’t start with this. While each story certainly has his trademark black humor and originality, they weren’t as moving or polished as the stories in Tenth of December. And he has mellowed with age, treating his characters just a bit more gently in the later collection. Some of the violence and language in a few of these stories were a bit hard to stomach. I feel like his later writing is more hopeful somehow, while these stories feel harder and more cynical. Still, it was a very good collection and worth borrowing from the library for “Offloading For Mrs. Schwartz” alone. However, I would recommend reading one story at a time and then setting the book down for a day in between so they don’t run together.

So that’s it for another 20 Books of Summer challenge. I’m proud of myself for managing to read and write about 17 books from my list. It’s a new personal record. I may not participate again next year, though – sticking to a set list, even one that I create, starts to rub the wrong way about half-way through. All the others books out there start looking ever so much more appealing. (Mood reader!) But I have loved being in such good company with my fellow 20 Books people, and am grateful to Cathy at 746 Books for organizing the event again.

The Bird’s Nest by Shirley Jackson (20 Books of Summer #16/Classics Club #7)

The Bird’s Nest is the Shirley Jackson’s third novel, published in 1954, and it is just as quirky and oddball as you might expect if you’ve ever read her before. It’s the fifth one I’ve read by her so far and it is my least favorite, but still it is more thought-provoking and entertaining than many novels published today. Jackson has a way of describing human relationships and the human mind that is deliciously off-kilter and insightful. In this tale of a young woman’s deepening mental illness Jackson explores what it means to download (1)be human and how trauma can affect the mind.

Elizabeth Richmond had a corner of an office on the third floor; it was the section of the museum closest , as it were, to the surface, that section where correspondence with the large world outside was carried on freely, where least shelter was offered to cringing scholarly souls. At Elizabeth’s desk on the highest floor of the building, in the most western corner of the office, she sat daily answering letters offering the museum collections of pressed flowers, or old sea-chests brought back from Cathay. It is not proven that Elizabeth’s person equilibrium was set off balance by the slant of the office floor, nor could it be proven that if was Elizabeth who pushed the building off its foundations, but it is undeniable that the began to slip at about the same time.

Living with her aunt Morgen and working in a hum-drum job at a museum, Elizabeth starts experiencing perplexing and frightening symptoms, like losing gaps of time and horrendous headaches and backaches. She also starts receiving threatening notes at the museum. Her aunt takes her to a doctor, who recommends a psychiatrist, Dr. Wright. Dr. Wright suggests hypnosis to try and get at the root of the problem, as “Miss R” (the doctor’s initial name for Elizabeth) insists there’s nothing wrong with her. When he puts her under hypnosis for the first time, Dr. Wright sees something that leaves him shaken:

…I wonder, though, how I ever thought her handsome. Because she was not, I saw, at all handsome, and as I watched her in horror, the smile upon her soft lips coarsened, and became sensual and gross, her eyelids fluttered in an attempt to open, her hands twisted together violently, and she laughed, evilly and roughly, throwing her head back and shouting, and I, seeing a devil’s mask where a moment before I had seen Miss R.’s soft face, thought only, it cannot be Miss R.; this is not she.

Little by little the hypnosis starts revealing that Elizabeth’s personality has split into four distinct personas: Elizabeth, Betsy, Beth, and Bess. There is a hinted trauma in Elizabeth’s past involving her mother, which Dr. Wright thinks is perhaps the origin of her mental illness. One section of the book is narrated by Betsy, who is the most lively and interesting personality. She takes off for New York City trying to find her mother. This was one of my favorite parts of the book because I had no clue where the story was going, and Betsy experiencing total freedom and control of the other personalities was entertaining, like a naive child out in the world for the first time.

I won’t spoil any more of the plot but I’ll just mention that Dr. Wright himself occupies a large share of the book, and he’s really not the most interesting character. He likes to hear himself talk and Jackson gives him too much of the book’s real estate. He’s not malevolent but instead self-important and irritating. Betsy aptly calls him “Dr. Wrong.”

If you’ve never read Jackson before I wouldn’t start with this one. It could use a bit of editing and Jackson honed her craft as she wrote more, becoming better at characterization and narrative drive. However, if you are already a Jackson fan and want to read everything she’s written, you will probably enjoy this, if for nothing else than to see the ways in which her skills developed over time. It is a strange exploration of identity and I liked it.

Elizabeth spoke very slowly, feeling her way. “What he’s going to have when he’s through is a new Elizabeth Richmond, with her mind. She will think and eat and hear and walk and take baths. Not me. I’ll maybe be a part of her, but I won’t know it – she will.”

“I don’t get it,” said Morgen.

“Well,” said Elizabeth, “when she does all the thinking and knowing, won’t I be… dead?”

“Oh, now, look,” said Morgen, and then sat helplessly, facing the definition of annihilation.

(This is the 16th book from my 20 Books of Summer list and the 7th book from my Classics Club list. I know that today – Labor Day in the U.S. – marks the official end to 20 Books of Summer, but I have one more review to post. Expect my thoughts on George Saunders’s short story collection CivilWarLand in Decline sometime later this week.)

Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin (Classics Club #5)

I scarcely know how to describe that room. It became, in a way, every room I had ever been in and every room I find myself in hereafter will remind me of Giovanni’s room. I did not really stay there very long – we met before the spring began and I left there during the summer – but it still seems to me that I spent a lifetime there. Life in that room seemed to be occurring underwater, as I say, and it is certain that I underwent a sea change there.

81IceqICE0LI’ve been putting off writing this review for weeks now because I feel intimidated, almost unqualified to write about this book. It was a five-star read for me, one that I feel like I could pick up again just a few weeks later and read all over again, losing myself in the quality of the lush prose and the haunting ideas and emotions. Giovanni’s Room is stunning, and even though I have only now read two of Baldwin’s books (this and The Fire Next Time) I have to put him among my favorite authors. I must read everything else he’s written. Published in 1956, this is a story of a man at war with himself, his inner turmoil spilling over and also scarring anyone who comes close enough to care about him.

David is a young white man in Paris in the 1950s, staying at a rented country house outside the city, reflecting on his life and recent events as the novel begins. He is melancholy and alone – his fiancée Hella has left him to return to America and someone named Giovanni (we don’t initially know his significance in David’s life) is “about to perish, sometime between this night and this morning, on the guillotine.”  He then recounts a long-buried sensual experience as a teenager with a male friend named Joey and the reader knows this is someone who is afraid to truly acknowledge his sexuality.

We had our arms around each other. It was like holding in my hand some rare, exhausted, nearly doomed bird which I had miraculously happened to find. I was very frightened; I am sure he was frightened too, and we shut our eyes. To remember it so clearly, so painfully tonight tells me that I have never for an instant truly forgotten it. 

Later on in the first chapter David says, “I had decided to allow no room in the universe for something which shamed and frightened me.”

And this sets the stage for the main action of the novel, where we find that David, broke817TxalnT7L and having proposed to Hella, waiting for her answer, (she has gone to Spain to travel and think about it) meets a young Italian waiter named Giovanni. He has been spending much of his time with people who were, “as Parisians put it, of le milieu, and while this milieu was certainly anxious enough to claim me, I was intent on proving, to them and to myself, that I was not of their company.” These older, wealthier gay men don’t seem to mind David’s condescension and continue to lend him money. The new waiter at the local bar causes a sensation among the regular patrons, but it is David who he ends up chatting with in sparkling and lightly flirtatious conversation, a fact which doesn’t escape the notice of everyone there. Jacques, one of the older men who seems much wiser than David in the ways of the heart, pointedly tells him, “Confusion is a luxury which only the very very young  can possibly afford and you are not that young anymore.”

I don’t want to go further and spoil anything else because this is a novel which deserves the designation “classic” and one that is so readable that modern readers will find a treasure trove of beautiful, philosophical lines to relish. As David and Giovanni become closer and Hella finally reenters the picture David is forced to make some hard choices about the path his life is going to take. No one is left unscathed by the outcome. As the reader already knows from the third page that Giovanni has done something that has caused him to be sentenced to death, it will come as no surprise that this novel is a sad one. Hella’s heartache when David finally opens up is also terribly moving. But as an exploration of the human heart and a man wrestling with his own shame this novel is a must-read.

(This book is also the 13th book from my 20 Books of Summer list.)