My blog has been quiet most of the summer, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t been reading. These days my reading is driven by whim. Since the death of my sister in March, my concentration has waxed and waned. I’ve needed time to nurture my soul. I’ve tried to streamline my life a bit so I don’t feel overwhelmed. For a long time, I couldn’t read. I just had a hard time sitting down with a book and concentrating. But sometime in the middle of the summer, I got a little bit back in the groove and being spontaneous has helped.
So with no further ado, here are some of the books I read and my thoughts about them. First the ones I loved and can recommend:
Natchez Burning by Greg Iles (Harper, 865 pages)
For once the stone hits the surface of the pond, the ripples never really stop. The waves diminish, and all seems to return to its previous state, but that’s an illusion. Disturbed fish change their patterns, a snake slides off the muddy bank into the water, a deer bolts into the open to be shot. And the stone remains on the slimy bottom, out of sight but inarguably there, dense and permanent, sediment settling over it, turtles and catfish prodding it, the sun heating it through all the layers of water until that far-off day when, whether lifted by the fingers of a curious boy diving fifty years after it was cast or uncovered by a bone-dumb farmer draining the pond to plant another half acre of cotton, that stone finds its way back up to the light. – from the Prologue of Natchez Burning –
Set in rural Mississippi, Iles’ dense and satisfying novel centers around Penn Cage, the son of doctor Tom Cage who stands accused of murdering his nurse who worked for him in the 1960s. Iles weaves his story by moving back and forth in time. Part historical novel and part contemporary thriller, Natchez Burning held my attention with themes like family loyalty, racism, and the corruption of power. This is the first in a trilogy and I have the second novel (published this spring), The Bone Tree, waiting on my bedside table.
The Paying Guests by Sarah Waters (Riverhead Books, 566 pages)
And that was all it took. They smiled at each other across the table, and some sort of shift occurred between them. There was a quickening, a livening- Frances could think of nothing to compare it to save some culinary process. It was like the white of an egg growing pearly in hot water, a milk sauce thickening in the pan. It was as subtle yet as tangible as that. -from The Paying Guests-
I have read pretty much everything that Sarah Waters has written and so it was a no-brainer to pick up her latest novel set in 1922 London. Financially struggling Francis Wray and her widowed mother find themselves forced to accept boarders. When Lilian and Leonard Barber move in, Frances finds herself drawn to the lively Lilian in a way she could never imagine. The Paying Guests engages the reader with romance that results in tragedy. As with her previous fiction, Waters explores the themes of sexuality and the impact of war on her characters. She spins an atmospheric tale that examines societal pressures on women during the early part of the 20th century, a fascinating exploration of of time and place that resonates with current issues we are facing today.
A Spool of Blue Thread by Anne Tyler (Knopf, 358 pages)
“The trouble with dying,” she’d told Jeannie once, “is that you don’t get to see how everything turns out. You won’t know the ending.”- from A Spool of Blue Thread –
Anne Tyler is another of my favorite author. In her latest novel, she once again takes on family dynamics with the Whitshank family beginning in 1959 Baltimore and moving through the decades as they share laughter, disappointment, celebrations and tragedy. The Whitlocks are hiding secrets and jealousies which are unearthed as the novel progresses. Abby, the matriarch is the central character, a loving mother and wife who has her own private secrets that she holds close to the heart. I thoroughly enjoyed this novel with its quirky, lovable characters…until the end. As with many Tyler books, this one leaves the reader with some loose ends which I felt oddly unsatisfying.
A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara (Doubleday, 720 pages)
Why wasn’t friendship as good as a relationship? Why wasn’t it even better? It was two people who remained together, day after day, bound not by sex or physical attraction or money or children or property, but only by the shared agreement to keep going, the mutual dedication to a union that could never be codified. Friendship was witnessing another’s slow drip of miseries, and long bouts of boredom, and occasional triumphs. It was feeling honored by the privilege of getting to be present for another person’s most dismal moments, and knowing that you could be dismal around him in return. – from A Little Life –
How do I even begin to review this richly rendered, profoundly affecting novel? Hanya Yanagihara has created a modern classic which begins in Massachusetts and moves to contemporary New York City. The characters, four male friends, are deeply complex – Willem, an aspiring actor; JB, a painter who can sometimes be cruel; Malcolm, an architect who struggles with his racial identity; and Jude, a damaged attorney who somehow anchors and connects all the others. A Little Life takes the reader through decades of these characters’ lives – their triumphs, tragedies, disappointments and joy. It goes to very dark places, and then lifts the reader into the light. It is a story about friendship, identity, and the very real struggles of living life day by day. Jude is a brilliant character with a bleak past who manages to survive his nightmares and connect with others against all the odds. A Little Life is a tribute to love and survival. I should alert sensitive readers that Yanagihara explores difficult themes and there are graphic descriptions of certain events which might upset some. But her writing is so pure, so extraordinary and so transcendent that this novel comes highly recommended. Loved it.
Although I read some great books this summer, there were two I did not finish and therefore can not give a strong recommendation:
Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore by Robin Sloan (Picador, 288 pages – I read 100 before quitting the book)
Clay Jannon is a former web-designer who comes to work at Mr. Penumbra’s bookstore because he is desperate for work. The bookstore is unusual – hardly any customers come to buy anything, but those who frequent the store borrow huge books in the back stacks which are written in code. What begins as a simple job turns into a mystery for Clay and his friends who decide to unravel the secrets behind the store. The writing in this book was okay, but I quickly grew bored with Clay and was not motivated to uncover the mystery. There is a bit of a fantasy element in the book, and perhaps this was where it lost me. Readers who enjoy the digital, fast paced world of technology will probably find much to like. It just wasn’t for me.
The Mountain Story by Lori Lansens (Simon and Schuster, 312 pages, I read to page 100 before putting it aside)
Wolf Truly is a displaced kid who decides to climb the local mountain and commit suicide on his 18th birthday. But his plans are interrupted by a trio of woman who are also on the mountain that day. When the four hikers become lost, it is clear they must depend on each other for survival. I was excited to read this book as it seemed to have all the elements I enjoy: a natural setting, transformation, getting lost and being found…but I quickly lost interest. The characters felt cardboard to me – I just could not relate to them and ultimately stopped caring what happened to them. Despite my complaints about this book, it seems that many readers have enjoyed it. So perhaps this one will work for you!
I just last week finished reading Our Souls at Night by Kent Haruf – an amazing, spare little book that explores aging, love and taking risks. I loved it and will write a review on that one soon.