A lot of what passes for reality today seems made-up, so why not just bury ourselves in some good novels and hope for better days. Ten to consider:
The Bell Jar: A Novel
by Syliva Plath
Published 1963 (England)
Kindle, 288 pages
This is another “Angie made me read it”. I think this was my third re-read of this book and my hot take is how different my perspective was on it reading it as an old lady versus as a young woman. Dewy-eyed ingenue writer goes to find her fortune writing for Mademoiselle magazine in 1950’s New York City.
First time around, oh so romantic, oh so tragic. Third time around, Plath (because this book is only ever so thinly disguised as fiction) just strikes me as being irritably self-centered and – per today’s buzz word – “privileged”. Still and all, it’s a classic and of course a textbook timeline of clinical depression and the literary prologue to Plath’s suicide. 3 stars.
Paris in the Present Tense: A Novel
by Mark Helprin
Kindle, 400 pages
Mark Helprin is a majestic writer. I haven’t yet read his popular Winter’s Tale but A Soldier of the Great War is an absolutely towering achievement. So the fact that I didn’t adore this novel reflects more on my shortcomings than his. My impression was that it was more of a philosophical sketch than a novel. It felt hurriedly conceived.
An aging protagonist is trying to make a final bargain for good, discovers that disillusionment of the past and the betrayal of friends has no expiration date. He falls in love. He commits a crime which may or may not be justified, depending on one’s concept of justice. I thought the May-December romance was clumsy and perhaps an aging novelist’s wishful thinking. But still! Even at his less-than-great, Helprin is great. This quote: “Having an aging body is like living in a big house. Something is always going wrong, and by the time it’s fixed, something else follows. Very old age is when the things that go wrong cause other things to go wrong, until, like sparks racing up a fuse, they finally reach a pack of dynamite.” 3 stars.
by Leif Enger
Audiobook, 320 pages (10 hours 37 minutes) narrated by MacLeod Andrews
Like Helprin, Enger is worth reading even when it is not his best work.
Small-town guy in small-town Minnesota wakes up after plunging his car over a guardrail (possibly intentionally?) and finds he is not at all the same person he was. “The previous tenant”, as he refers to his former self.
The first half of the book was incandescent, verging on the miraculous. “It’s a new Winesburg Ohio”, I mused after this line: “Greenstone was full of people who could make you sad just by strolling into view.”. Then something changed. The whole thing went off the rails, or – more apt to the plot – over the guardrail. I wonder if someone told the author he needed to juice up the plot for a movie deal. I still have to recommend it, although if you are only going to read one of Enger’s books, let it be Peace Like a River. Favorite quote: “Existence is great, but don’t read so much into it.” 3 stars.
The Dutch House: A Novel
by Ann Patchett
Kindle, 352 pages
I am so often on the wrong side of Ann Patchett. I am the only person on the planet who didn’t love Bel Canto so you have to take me with a grain of salt. Commonwealth I liked, grudgingly, State of Wonder more so. As I sank in to The Dutch House I had a feeling that Patchett and I were finally going to make our peace.
She writes masterful dialogue. She redefines the iconic brother-sister relationship in this book. She creates the most wicked of stepmothers you could ever hope for. This is a very readable book – with one glaring dealbreaker for me. The entire underpinning of the book depends upon accepting that a loving, capable, financially secure mother could abandon her children and saunter back into their lives many decades later. Patchett herself does not have children so perhaps the impossibility did not trouble her. Read it and decide if it works for you. 3.5 stars.
Watership Down: A Novel
by Richard Adams
Kindle, 458 pages
This was a re-read for me. The catalyst was a brainstorm that it would make a good family read as the March quarantine descended upon us. I think Tina and I were the only ones who followed through, both glad we did. I’m still trying to talk the CE into reading it – “You will never look at bunnies the same way once you’ve read it!” I tell him. A sweet story, edging on the profound. Classic. 5 stars.
The Night Watchman: A Novel
by Louise Erdrich
Audiobook, 624 pages ( 13 hours 32 minutes) narrated by the author
Erdrich is a truly gifted writer. Sly and deft, she introduces subjects through the back door and then fleshes them out thoughtfully as she goes along. This book was a labor of love for her, a fictionalized remembrance of her grandfather, who was the tribal chairman of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians in North Dakota. I find her writing more engaging than I did the story. Her take is political, as the destiny of the Chippewa tribe was in the hands of politicians. But I was more than a little surprised by what appeared to be her almost celebratory recounting of the 1954 U.S. Capitol incident when Puerto Rican nationalists opened fire on a session of Congress and injured five people. Gifted writer, yes, but perhaps not the most reliable of narrators. 3 stars.
The Fortune of War
by Patrick O’Brian
Kindle, 280 pages
This is the sixth in the long and gratifying series of O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels, the best known of which (although not the best book in the series) is Master and Commander. The story progresses against the backdrop of the War of 1812 from Indonesia to Cape Town and beyond, and O’Brian even manages to insinuate his heroes into the 1812 battle between the USS Constitution and HMS Java. There is plenty of intrigue and the story culminates with the 1813 surrender of USS Chesapeake to HMS Shannon in the Battle of Boston Harbor. You don’t have to be interested in either ships or war to enjoy these books, which the New York Times called “the best historical novels ever written”. 4 stars.
The Spectator Bird
by Wallace Stegner
Audiobook, 224 pages (7 hours 52 minutes) narrated by Edward Herrmann
Wallace Stegner is the colossus of the fiction of the American West. Not western, as in cowboys, but the chronicling of lives lived in Western states. The land, the history and the destiny – manifest and otherwise – are rich themes in his work, which is generally superb. If you’re only going to read one, Angle of Repose would be it, although The Big Rock Candy Mountain is also a contender. I would call The Spectator Bird a lesser work, although not shabby given that it won the National Book Award for Fiction in 1977. The story is told from the point of view and remembrance of things past by the aging Joe Allston who is “just killing time till time gets around to killing me”. There are numerous backward glances, many of them rueful and some tragic: “The lessons of life amount not to wisdom, but to scar tissue and callouses.” 4 stars.
The Joy Luck Club
by Amy Tan
Audiobook, 288 pages (9 hours 5 minutes) narrated by Gwendoline Yeo
Yes, I was quite late to this party, but better late than never. I downloaded this as what I expected to be a “beach read”. It exceeded all expectations. A truly exceptionally told story of three generations of Chinese families and the tension between the way of the ancestors in China and the pull of modern American life in San Francisco. Nothing but praise for this book. I thoroughly enjoyed it. 4 stars.
A World Lost: A Novel
by Wendell Berry
Audiobook, 112 pages (4 hours 2 minutes), narrated by Michael Kramer
I’ve been meaning for a long time to sidle up to Wendell Berry and start making my way through his work, all of which is set in the fictional town of Port William, Kentucky. I decided to start small with this one, which felt almost more like a vignette than a novel, although an admittedly powerful vignette. Kirkus reviews aptly called it “an elegiac celebration of the end of innocence”. Protagonist Andy Catlett, now 60, recalls the day when he was nine years old and his idolized Uncle Andrew was shot and killed. The adult Andy sifts through memories in an ongoing effort to square the events and relationships of his childhood that led up to that cataclysmic loss. “The truth about us, though it must exist, though it must lie all around us every day, is mostly hidden from us, like bird’s nests in the woods.” 4 stars.
Next week: ten more.