Mini Reviews: Barbara Pym, Jess Walter, Cristina Henriquez

My reading has been far outpacing my blog writing lately.  I feel like maybe I’m in a blogging funk.  The past couple of weeks I either want to spend my evenings (after the kiddo goes to bed) reading, zoning out with television, or sleeping.  I hope to find my blogging vigor again soon!  I’m pretty sure it’s a phase.

But before I get too far behind, I thought I’d play catch-up with a few mini-reviews.

18899436I adore Barbara Pym.  I’m slowly making my way through all of her books.  A Few Green Leaves is my eighth Pym novel, leaving five more works to go.  Published in 1980, it was her last completed novel.  Not quite as sharp in focus as some of her earlier works, it still contains many elements of Pym-ish goodness:  British small village life, clueless but well-meaning and unfailingly polite characters, romantic misunderstandings.  Our heroine is Emma, an unmarried anthropologist in her 30’s, coming to the village to get some peace and quiet to work on her notes.  We also meet the rector Tom, who lives in the too-large rectory with his sister Daphne.  Daphne swooped in to help Tom after his wife died some years ago, and is now chafing at her life in the village, dreaming of moving to Greece, where she vacations annually.  Pym portrays traditional gender roles in a changing time with subtle skill –  men are usually oblivious and self-centered and women are ambivalent about their unappreciated efforts.  Country doctors, elderly spinsters, people behaving incredibly politely to one another while thinking something else entirely… the rambling cast of characters circle around one another throughout the novel, and nothing much happens but the stuff of life  – conversations, garden walks, “hunger lunches,” a few halfhearted romantic assignations.

A Few Green Leaves was delightful.  It’s not my favorite Pym ever, but it’s a worthwhile, most enjoyable read.  If you’ve never read Pym before, I wouldn’t recommend that you start with this one; I’d pick Excellent Women or Jane and Prudence.  Still, if you’ve read a Pym or two and you’d like to continue, feel safe that this one will provide you hours of intelligent, amusing, entertainment.

51crAY8ox2L._SX327_BO1,204,203,200_I don’t even know how to begin to describe The Zero by Jess Walter.  The jacket blurbs mention satire many times, and Kafka and Heller are referenced twice.  Jess Walter is another of my very favorite authors, and he has a terrific gift not only for scathingly funny black humor, but he also portrays his characters with a genuine compassion and humanity – even when they’re not “nice”  people.  This is a book about 9/11, published in 2006, with a reverent eye on the tragedy and an irreverent one on America’s response.  Brian Remy is a New York City cop who was among the first on the scene of the Twin Towers falling.  He now is experiencing alarming gaps in his memory, waking up in the middle of scenes and acts that he has no idea how he got into.  No one seems to want to hear about his problem, or they think he’s being funny when he tries to tell them about it.  So the reader is pulled along into this bizarre mystery/political satire, trying to piece together just what the heck Brian’s gotten himself into.  A shady secret government organization chasing paper scraps that flew out of the towers?  Infiltrating a terrorist cell?  His own son is pretending Brian died in the towers, and Brian’s just desperately trying to stay one step ahead of the other person living his life.  It was trippy, weird, dark, funny, sad, smart, and a page-turner.  Jess Walter does it again!  Seriously, this guy can do anything.

51pATEiEJnL._SX337_BO1,204,203,200_Last, but not least, my book group book for April was The Book of Unknown Americans by Cristina Henriquez.  It made for an excellent discussion last weekend.  Told from multiple points of view, this book highlights Latin American immigrants from various countries all living in one apartment complex in Delaware.  The main characters are the Riveras, a husband and wife and their teenager daughter,  Maribel.  Maribel sustained a traumatic brain injury in an accident in Mexico, and the Riveras are told that special education in America is the best hope of recovery for their daughter.  So Arturo gets a work visa for a mushroom farm, and the Riveras pack up everything they own.  The realities of living in a country where you don’t know the language, have no transportation, and face bigoted individuals is humanely portrayed by Henriquez.  She puts a human face on Latinx immigration in America. Others in the apartment complex have their own stories, from a Panamanian-American teenage boy named Mayor who falls in love with Maribel, to a Guatemalan man named Gustavo who’s working two jobs to send money to Mexico for his children’s education.  These strangers become like family to one another.  I empathized with them, and greatly appreciated Henriquez’s message.  These are voices we need to hear more of in America, now more then ever.  However,  there was something about the novel that didn’t work for me as much as I would have liked.  I felt like it was a bit heavy-handed at times, and Mayor’s actions towards a mentally compromised Maribel were problematic for me.  I cried, so obviously I was emotionally invested, but I couldn’t give it more than three stars.  Still, I would recommend it for book groups because it offers a lot to discuss, and I think it’s a book that deserves to be widely read on the strength of its message alone.  Plus, it’s a quick read.

Have you read, or do you plan to read, any of these books or authors?  Have you ever been in a blogging funk?  Have you ever read a book that you felt almost guilty for not liking better?  I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

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A Friend From England by Anita Brookner

After reading Colson Whitehead’s dazzling, sweeping novel The Underground Railroad, I was in the mood for something smaller and more intimate.  I have it in the back of my mind (but not on my stated reading goals for the year) to read some of the books I already own.  So I reached for Anita Brookner’s A Friend From England, which I purchased last year at a used bookstore for $.75.  (What a steal!)

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The most 80’s cover ever?

It was a good choice.  Anita Brookner (who passed away last year, sadly) is a British author I discovered about nine years ago at the recommendation of a friend.  I have read nine of her novels including this one, and I consider her to be among my favorite authors, but she’s definitely an acquired taste.  Her novels (the ones I’ve read anyway) often follow a pattern.  There’s the main character, often a single woman, who is independent, quiet, solitary.  She is thrust into contact with a person or group of people wholly unlike her – gregarious, loud, or with family entanglements, for instance – and the growing relationship forces her to reconsider her life.  It’s not always a happy comparison, and I’ve finished more than one of her novels kind of bummed out.  Yet I can’t stop reading her!

First of all, she’s just a phenomenal writer.  Her language is so precise, so thoughtfully rendered, it’s just a joy to read.  Second, she burrows so deep into the minds of her characters that it leaves me with a pleasurable claustrophobia that I sometimes crave in my reading.  I want to know the characters, I want to try to understand them even when they can’t seem to understand themselves.  I want to feel that their thoughts and motivations ring true, and Brookner knows how to convey that.  And third, these books are quiet books about ordinary people and the workings of modern relationships. They are not epic in scope save the scope of the human heart and its yearning for connection.

880698So I haven’t actually written anything about this particular book, have I?  Well, essentially the plot is this:  Rachel, a single 30-something London bookstore co-owner, orphaned at a young age, is swept into the fold of a wealthy family and asked to be their daughter’s mentor/friend.  Heather, the inscrutable spoiled only daughter, makes a disastrous marriage and complications ensue for the entire family.  See? Not much there plot-wise, really.  But Rachel’s ordered, quiet life is completely upset by Heather’s refusal to accept her advice on how to live as an independent woman.  Rachel is forced to look at her own life and question her choices.

“Some of us have to work,” I said.  “Stay buoyant.  Stay purposeful.  Stay smiling, and helpful, and solvent.  People like us are braver than people like you will ever be.  And, frankly, I think I am light years ahead of you.  I know what I need, to be all these things, and clear-headed, and useful.  Women don’t sit at home anymore, you know, dreaming of Prince Charming.  They don’t do it because they’ve found out that he doesn’t exist.  As you should have found out.  I live in the real world, the world of deceptions.  You live in the world of illusions.  That is one of the differences between us.  Another one is that I don’t choose to go public every five minutes.  What I do is my own affair and nobody else’s.  Of course it’s terrible,” I said with some passion. “But you see, I’ve found out that there are no easy options.”

This wasn’t my favorite of the Brookner novels I’ve read.  It was a bit too much of a slow burn, only truly coming alive in the last third.  And the reason that Heather’s marriage falls apart is weirdly jarring.  But I liked it, and it provided just the type of reading experience I wanted, a quiet, slightly melancholy character study.  If you’re curious about Ms. Brookner’s books and want to know where to begin, I’d start with either Look At Me, Hotel Du Lac (for which she won the Man-Booker Prize) or Incidents in the Rue Laugier.

Have you read anything by Anita Brookner before?  Do you enjoy quiet, character-driven novels or are you more of a plot-driven reader?  Do you read an author regularly who kinds of bums you out, but you can’t stop reading them?  (Okay, maybe that’s just me, ha ha!) Tell me in the comments.

The Wrong Side of Goodbye by Michael Connelly: a Mini-Review

29154543The Wrong Side of Goodbye is Michael Connelly’s twenty-first Harry Bosch book.  I’ve never before read a mystery series for this long.  Years ago I was into the Hamish Macbeth series by M.C. Beaton, but I think I stopped somewhere around the sixteenth book or so, because things just got too repetitive.  I used to read Martha Grimes’s Richard Jury series but decided to quit, coincidentally, after the 16th, mostly for the same reason (boredom) but also because that one involved investigating a snuff film with kids (NOPE NOPE NOPE!)  I’m still digging Ruth Rendell’s Inspector Wexford series, of which I’m on the fifteenth book.  But let’s face it, it’s Ruth freaking Rendell, the queen of smart psychological mysteries, and she’s a goddess in my book, so I think I’m safe there.   (Sadly, she passed away in 2015; I wrote a tribute to her here.)  The thing about series is, at some point they have to end, right?  I’m definitely hanging in with Detective Harry Bosch until the end, whenever that may be – and based on how much I enjoyed this one, I hope that’s not any time soon!

If you’ve never read a Bosch book before, let me get you up to speed.  They’re set in L.A. (with a few detours here and there to Vegas, Florida, and even once to China.)  Harry’s real name is Hieronymous (yes, like the 15th century painter!) His mom died when he was young, and he was put into foster care.  He’s a Vietnam vet, and flashbacks play a role in many of the novels.    He’s horrible at relationships, and as of this last book, he hasn’t found his one true love.  (I admit, the relationship plot lines are my least favorite and most cringe-worthy elements of the books.)  But he does have a daughter, and he manages to forge a pretty good relationship with her.  And his relationship with a half-brother, who he doesn’t discover until many books in, is really compelling (no spoilers!)

What I like about Harry is that he’s the guy fighting the system, fighting corrupt cops and politicians alike, always fighting for justice and the underdog.  He’s smart but he’s not perfect – he sometimes misses things and makes mistakes, and he’s got a bit of a hot temper.  He usually reads people well and is a good study of character.  I like how he will often think that something about a case is bothering him but he can’t quite make the connections, so he’ll let it sit and percolate, go about his business, and all of a sudden BAM! He’s cracked the case and it’s a mad race to see if he can save the next victim or catch the bad guy after all. Connelly’s plots are page-turners, but it’s really Bosch himself that keeps me coming back.

This one was a bit different because there were two cases being worked simultaneously.  Harry’s part-time now at the small San Fernando Police Department, since he’s no longer with the LAPD.  He’s also a private investigator on the side.  He’s working a serial rapist case for the department while also trying to find a potential heir to an ailing millionaire’s fortune. He gets so caught up in one case that he makes some crucial missteps in the other, possibly endangering someone he is close to.  It was a typically fast-paced Connelly thriller; I raced through it in two days, even willingly staying up way past my bedtime to finish it.

518cjmm-dxl-_sy344_bo1204203200_If you’re thinking about trying one of these books, I’ll tell you that the first three were solid three-star books for me.  It wasn’t until the fourth book  (The Last Coyote) that I knew that I was invested in the series for a while.  Harry is a capable, complicated, tough, caring, haunted man, and he made me want to keep coming back. Mysteries make great, entertaining palate-cleansers in between heavier literary fare, so if you’re game, I say give Michael Connelly a try!

 

RIP Challenge: The Sundial by Shirley Jackson

“I wish Aunt Fanny would stop babbling sacrilegious nonsense,” Mrs. Halloran said, and there was an ominous note in her voice.

“Call it nonsense, Orianna, say – as you have before – that Aunt Fanny is running in crazed spirits, but – although I am of course not permitted to threaten – all the regret will be yours.”

“I feel it already,” Mrs. Halloran said.

“The experiment with humanity is at an end,” Aunt Fanny said.

“Splendid,” Mrs. Halloran said.  “I was getting very tired of all of them.”

shirley-jackson-the-sundialYou know when you begin a novel with a grandmother matter-of-factly talking with her granddaughter about pushing the girl’s father down the stairs to his death that the usual rules of play don’t apply.  Shirley Jackson’s 1958 novel The Sundial, which I read as part of the 11th R.I.P. Challenge, was the the fourth of her books that I’ve read, and it was definitely the funniest, albeit in a bleak way.  The basic premise is that a group of awful people, some related and some not, trade witty barbs and gradually succumb to the apocalyptic visions of Aunt Fanny, in effect preparing for the end of the world.  Fanny’s vision says that everyone in the house will be spared and will perpetuate a fresh start for humankind. Everyone else is toast.

The imperious, controlling Mrs. Halloran (Orianna) has inherited the house (more like a mansion) after her son Lionel’s death.  Living with her are her mousy daughter-in-law, Maryjane, her granddaughter, the wickedly precocious Fancy, her husband Richard, who is wheelchair-bound and suffering from dementia, Fancy’s governess, Miss Ogilvie, a young man named Essex, who was supposedly hired to catalog the library, and Richard’s sister Fanny, who has the aformentioned vision while lost one night in the estate’s maze.  Add a distant cousin, a seventeen-year old named Gloria, an old friend of Orianna’s named Mrs. Willow and her two unmarried daughters, Julia and Arabella, and a stranger invited from the village basically because he’s a youngish (theoretically virile) man, whom they dub “The Captain.”

Oh, and along with the maze and a man-made lake, there’s an actual sundial on the lawn inscribed with the inscrutable phrase WHAT IS THIS WORLD?  No one really knows what it’s supposed to mean.

At first it seems like the members of the Halloran House are humoring Aunt Fanny by beginning to prepare for the end of the world, going along with her ideas about what to stock up on, even going so far as to burn the books in the library to make more room for provisions.  But as the story progresses, everyone seems to become more paranoid and fearful, and starts taking her predictions more seriously.  They even enlist Gloria to gaze into a mirror glazed with oil to see if she can more accurately predict the exact date of the apocalypse.  Once they’ve got a date, they throw a huge garden party for the poor, unsuspecting dopes of the nearby village, people they politely tolerated but never really intermingled with before these visions began.  Alcohol flows and shenanigans ensue.  The day after the party, a violent storm begins, and the Hallorans and their entourage make their final arrangments.

sunThe one character I felt sympathy for in the entire novel was young Fancy.  She’s really the only character who utters a lick of sense.  She’s been sheltered from the outside world for the entirety of her young life, and now she may never get to experience life outside the manor as an adult.  Here she talks with Gloria, questioning her about the wisdom of the adults and trying to understand things:

“Well,” Fancy said slowly, “you all want the whole world to be changed so you all will be different.  But I don’t suppose people get changed any by just a new world. And anyway, that world isn’t any more real than this one.”

“It is though.  You forget that I saw it in the mirror.”

“Maybe you’ll get onto the other side of that mirror in the new clean world. Maybe you’ll look through from the other side and see this world again and go around crying that you wish some big thing would happen and wipe out that one and send you back here.  Like I keep trying to tell you, it doesn’t matter which world you’re in.”

I’ve struggled to write about The Sundial since I finished it over a week ago.  It’s so…odd. I  don’t exactly know what to make of it.  It’s not scary, like The Haunting of Hill House, and it’s doesn’t have the pure beauty of language that We Have Always Lived in the Castle has.  Of the four Jackson novels I’ve read, it is my least favorite, but it’s still engaging and worth reading.  Shirley Jackson had such a brilliantly twisted mind, and her novels are so unusual, especially for the time period in which they were written.  I don’t know much about her biography, but I’m very much interested in how she was able to create such vividly strange stories in what I have always imagined to be a very stifling decade (while she raised kids!)  There is a new biography about her by Ruth Franklin called Shirley Jackson: A Rather Haunted Life, but I think I want to read all of her works before I delve into her biography. In any case, The Sundial was witty, bizarre, and entertaining as all get out, a solid choice for your October reading list.

 

 

Top Ten Tuesday: Favorite Bookish Twitter People

I love Twitter.  And I kind of hate it too.  I took it off of my phone during Lent, because I felt like I was wasting too much time on the internet and it wasn’t time well spent.  (I still occasionally checked it on my computer, but for some reason it’s not as addictive as on my phone.  Portability?)  I still haven’t put it back on my phone, and that’s okay, because if I check it once or twice a day that’s plenty.

But I do love it, because I follow some of the coolest people on earth, and they say some really funny, witty, insightful things. I find that authors and bookish people are very responsive on Twitter, which is cool. So this week’s The Broke and Bookish Top Ten Tuesday topic is a really fun one for me.  I want to share my favorite bookish Twitter people and I want to hear about yours!  I thought I’d share a random tweet from my picks just to give you a flavor of what you might be missing.

Me at lunch with my mom: “You know Twilight?” Her: “No.” Me: “Books, movies? Vampires?” Her: “No.” Me: “Girl loves a vampire?” Her: “No.”

Trump is insane! Cruz more terrifying every debate! And … and … and … ok, I’m not actually watching that shit, just guessing.

I literally just had to explain to an adult relative that just because something is on the internet doesn’t mean it’s true

I hate when you’re writing, typing away on your iPad, and your little muffin top rolls upwards and starts trying to get in on the act

gonna start responding to all comments calling me reverse racist with “nah”

These are all kind of goofy tweets, but that’s what I love about Twitter.  It’s a place where funny, smart people can shine.  I’m cutting off my list at five bookish people, but there are many others who I follow and enjoy, like Neil Gaiman, Stephen King, Mat Johnson, Celeste Ng, Saeed Jones, Maureen Johnson, Roxane Gay, and Megan Mayhew Bergman.  So, tell me – who else should I be following?  Do you use Twitter?  Or is there another social media platform you enjoy more?

 

A Glass of Blessings by Barbara Pym

London, late 1950s.  Wilmet Forsyth (that name!) has just turned 33 years old. She is married to her civil servant husband Rodney.  They met in Italy, during WWII, when she served as a Wren (Women’s Royal Naval Service) and he was a soldier. When A Glass of Blessings begins, Wilmet has started going to St. Luke’s church in London because her parish church services have become too Low for her.  (Unsure what that meant, I looked it up – it means that the services have a Protestant emphasis rather than a more ritualized Anglo-Catholic emphasis.)  Attending a lunch time service, she happens to meet Piers Longridge, the brother of a dear former Wren friend, Rowena.  She hasn’t seen him in quite a while, and she speculates that there’s something unsatisfactory about how he’s turned out – at least that’s the conventional wisdom.  Is it because he’s unmarried at the age of 35?  Is it his underemployment? They speak after the service ends, and Piers pays her a compliment.

“And women are so terrifying these days and seem to expect so much, really far more than one could possibly give.  Not that I would include you in my condemnation,” he added quickly.  “You look particularly charming today, Wilmet.” He smiled down at me in the provocative way I remembered…Rodney seldom commented on my appearance now and Piers had that engaging air of making me feel that he meant what he said.

41LojnPaQfL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Wilmet is bored.  She has no children (she doesn’t seem to want any – was this unusual for literature in the 1950s?) and doesn’t work outside the home.  She doesn’t seem to do much work inside the home either. She and her mother-in-law, Sydney (who is an avowed agnostic and a  hoot) decide to take Portuguese classes from Piers in the evenings.  She also decides to become more a part of the goings on at St. Luke’s.  Wilmet starts working with the rather dowdy fellow parishioner Mary Beamish, one of those single “excellent women” who devote their time to good works of the church.  Just associating with Mary seems to make Wilmet feel better about herself.  I found this passage hilarious:

…I remembered my promise to Mary Beamish to join the panel of blood donors.  I saw myself lying on a table, blood pouring from a vein in my arm into a bottle which, as soon as it was full, would be snatched away and rished to hospital to save somebody’s life.  There seemed at that moment no limit to what I could do.

With Rodney not paying her much attention, she experiences a sort of infatuation with Piers.  They have outings once in a while, but he plays hot and cold with Wilmet, which only seems to attract her more. ( There’s an incident with a Christmas gift that has no note – naturally Wilmet thinks it’s from Piers!)  Piers is an enigma, but meanwhile, Wilmet has to fend off the unwanted attentions of her friend Rowena’s husband Harry.  And then there’s a new youngish, attractive assistant priest joining St. Luke’s.

What follows is a story with a very small footprint, but an emotional impact greater than its size.  This is what I love best about Barbara Pym’s novels: they capture the full range of human emotion in seemingly ordinary, everyday small interactions.  They’re also terribly funny in that dry British way I love.  Where many of her novels feature spinsters, this one is told from the perspective of a married woman, and the novel portrays marriage rather realistically.  A Glass of Blessings is written in first person, so we get to know Wilmet well.  I find her a likeable character despite her self-centeredness and vanity.  She’s somehow endearing, and she becomes more mature and self-aware by the end of the book. ( Is she resigned?  Chagrined?  Maybe both.)  If you’ve never read Barbara Pym before, I’d say start with Excellent Women, and then maybe read this one, or Jane and Prudence.  You can’t go wrong!  I’ve not yet read all of her novels, but I know I’ll enjoy them!

 

A God in Ruins by Kate Atkinson

Kate Atkinson is a goddess.  Besides the inimitable Margaret Atwood and the delightful Jess Walter, she is my favorite living writer.  She’s a fearless risk-taker, smashing any sort of rule about what “literary” fiction can do.  Her Jackson Brodie novels (Case Histories, etc.) are some of the best mysteries around, although they’re not categorized as such in my library.  Her short stories in the collection Not the End of the World can be described as magical realism.  I wouldn’t be surprised if she attempted (and mastered) a science fiction novel next.

Saturday night I finished her latest book, A God in Ruins.  It’s a companion novel to 2013’s Life After Life.  While that one focused on Ursula Todd, and her many lives before, during, and after WWII, this one centers on her younger brother Teddy.

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It’s about love, death, duty, parents and children, aging, goodness, and the countless voices and lives that are silenced by war.  (“The dead are legion” is a recurring phrase.)  In her superb Author’s Note at the end, Atkinson says that the book is about two things:  fiction and the Fall.  (Of Man.  From grace.)

War is Man’s greatest fall from grace, of course, especially perhaps when we feel a moral imperative to fight it and find ourselves twisted into ethical knots… the bottom line is that war is savage.  For everyone.  Innocent or guilty.  This is a novel, not a polemic (and I am no historian) and I have accordingly left the doubts and ambiguities for the characters and the text to voice.

She may not be a historian, but reading this novel has given me a deeper grasp of the courage (in spite of any doubts) of the very young men and women who served in World War II in England.

And Teddy!  I adored Teddy.  He’s a truly good person, having made a promise that if he survived the war, he would live a good and kind life.  He has a poet’s soul, he loves nature, he’s a patient and loving father and grandfather, and he’s a steadfast and calm leader as pilot of his bomber crews.  (The scenes up in the air in the Halifax bombers he flies are truly exciting and interesting, by the way.)

I don’t think you necessarily have to have read Life After Life to appreciate A God in Ruins, but I think it adds an extra layer of enjoyment, seeing the same characters from another point of view.  Personally, I feel that I must re-read Life After Life.  While I loved and respected it, it was such a challenging book structurally that I feel like I just barely grasped it.  With this one, I FELT it.  I lived and breathed it.  I missed it when I had to put it down.  I could barely see the words as I read the last few pages, I was crying so hard.  It spoke to me on a deep level as a book that wrestles with life’s beauty and sadness, love and mortality.  I think (I hope!) that we will see this novel on many best-of and award-winning lists at the end of the year.  Put yourself on the hold list at your library – or better yet, give Kate Atkinson your money- NOW!