Many’s the time I’ve been admonished that reading fiction is an indulgence, a waste of time. I see the point. But there’s the rub, I might say (and keep in mind whom I quote). You miss some things along the way if you overlook literature, as MSNBC talking head Andrea Mitchell learned this week.
Mitchell went after Texas Senator Ted Cruz for attributing a quote to Shakespeare and mocked him for all to see on Twitter. Cruz had cited Shakespeare in referring to impeachment trial: the sequel as being “full of sound and fury, and yet signifying nothing,” “No. That’s Faulkner”, said Mitchell, and legions of blue checkmarks instantly rose up in her support.
But, um, they were wrong. She was wrong. Apparently Ted Cruz got a better education at Princeton than she did at U Penn. The title of Faulkner’s magnum opus, The Sound and the Fury, is borrowed from Shakespeare’s Macbeth. And while I knew from whence the quote came, I was reminded that I have never actually read Macbeth, so I’m queueing it up as a 2021 read. Maybe Andrea would like to read it with me.
So, hopefully, a bit more respect for fiction going forward. Here are ten more of my 2020 reads in that category:
by William Faulkner
Kindle, 432 pages
Ah, yes, the great William Faulkner. this was my sole read from him last year. I set out to read the entire Snopes trilogy at the urging of the CE, who has read and re-read everything Faulkner has written. By the time I finished the first in the series, I needed a break. The Snopes family is as prolific as it is detestable and I had to come up for air. It’s bad enough that the sultry Eula Varner ends up marrying Flem Snopes but then there’s Ike Snopes, who falls in love with a cow and the grubbing Armstid who digs and digs and digs in the night for riches he will never find. I will go on to The Town and The Mansion in due time because once you’ve discovered Faulkner, you can’t stay away from Yoknapatawpha County for long. 5 stars, because, you know, Faulkner.
The Weight of Ink
by Rachel Kadish
Audiobook, 592 pages (23 hours 19 minutes) read by Carrie James
I kept seeing recommendations for this book and dragged my feet a bit. Was I really up for 592 pages of Jewish history? For the first 100 pages, the answer was nope, nope, nope. The prim history professor, Helen Watt, on whom the story turns, is dull and drab and woeful. But ever so gradually I was drawn into a tale that encompassed the Inquisition and subsequent dispersal of Sephardic Jews to Amsterdam and then to seventeenth century London. The story is fascinating, and in the end, so is Helen Watt. Highly recommended. 4 stars.
by Jeanine Cummins
Audiobook, 400 pages (16 hours 43 minutes) read by Yareli Arizmendi
Here’s a book that came un-recommended. There was quite a kerfuffle when it was published – accusations of cultural appropriation because the author, lacking Hispanic heritage, was seen as unworthy. I shrugged at that, but tend to steer clear of the latest shiny thing in fiction. So I groaned inwardly when it was chosen for a book club read. Long story short, middle-class Lydia and her young son, Luca, are not your typical refugees but they end up in the crosshairs of a drug cartel and must flee Mexico via La Bestia, the perilous train route taken by the most desperate immigrants. And, long story short – I ended up liking it! Yes, the reader is required to accept Lydia’s unlikely acquaintance with a drug lord and the almost preternatural precocity of son, Luca, which not every reader will. But I found it to be a page-turner. Recommended. 3.5 stars.
What Maisie Knew
by Henry James
Audiobook, 352 pages (11 hours 10 minutes) read by Juliet Stevenson
This is a remarkably contemporary story given that Henry James was just a breath away from being a Victorian. The insufferable and supercilious Ida and Beale Farange divorce and Maisie is “the little feathered shuttlecock they could fiercely keep flying between them”. A classic cautionary Jamesian tale told with his usual barbs for all the foolish adults but with genuine empathy for young Maisie. 3.5 stars
City of Thieves
by David Benioff
Audiobook, 258 pages (8 hours 28 minutes) narrated by Ron Perlman
This was a re-read and I loved it just as much the second time around. Except for the odd moment of horror. When I recommended it to my very proper friends as a book club read, I remembered it for the historical setting -siege of Leningrad during World War II – and for the buddy story between the male characters and for the laugh out loud humor. But I completely forgot about the incessant talk about sex, sex, sex and the incessant cursing and, um, well, that little passage about cannibalism. Thank goodness my friends are good sports and forgave me. Some of them even liked it. Fabulous, page-turning story by the co-creator of the Game of Thrones series and Perlman’s narration is superb. 4 stars
We Were the Lucky Ones
by Georgia Hunter
Audiobook, 418 pages (15 hours 36 minutes) read by Kathleen Gati and Robert Fass
Georgia Hunter does a more than creditable job weaving the story of her family’s harrowing experiences as Polish Jews during World War II. It brought to mind for me Julie Orringer’s The Invisible Bridge in which she fictionalized the World War II experience of her Hungarian Jewish grandfather. Orringer’s book is more literary, but Hunter’s, while perhaps more simply told, is apt and powerful in its own way. Each member of the Kurc family experience the war differently but all are called upon to exhibit tremendous courage in the face of Nazis, who annihilated 90% of Poland’s three million Jews. 3.5 stars
The Island of Sea Women: A Novel
by Lisa See
Kindle, 384 pages
I had never before heard of Jeju Island or of the haenyeo, the matriarchal “sea women” who dive to depths of up to twenty meters with no oxygen supply to catch seafood, collect seaweed and find pearls. The characters are fictional but the history is real, punctuated by the Japanese occupation of Korea, the Korean War and the post-war unrest with an American occupation determined to quash a nascent Communist movement in South Korea. It’s a place and a period of history that was a complete blank for me. Worth the read. 3 stars
Dear Ann: A Novel
by Bobbie Ann Mason
Audiobook, 352 pages (8 hours 20 minutes), read by Janet Metzger
This was a quirky read, sort of a literary love letter to the 60’s. Academia, The Beatles and the Vietnam War, told against a Kentuckian backdrop and seen in the rear view mirror by a woman considering her present and past grief. I liked it. Quote: “You could slow down a day; make it timeless. Each moment is only now; the only now.” Bobbie Ann Mason is a very, very accomplished writer. 3.5 stars
What Are You Going Through: A Novel
by Sigrid Nuñez
Audiobook, 224 pages (5 hours 36 minutes) narrated by Hillary Huber
Sigrid Nuñez can do no wrong as a writer. That said, I didn’t love this book quite as much as The Friend, her 2018 winner of the National Book Award for Fiction. The tone here is similar, unflinching in the face of every disappointment life can throw at you, including the final one, which is death. She explores the ultimate act of friendship, agreeing to serve as a witness for another woman who prepares to take her life in her last days with terminal cancer. The title is taken from a quote by Simone Weil: “The love of our neighbor in all its fullness simply means being able to say, ‘What are you going through’?” I’ll read anything Nuñez writes. 4 stars
The Heart’s Invisible Furies
by John Boyne
Audiobook, 592 pages (21 hours 10 minutes), read by Stephen Hogan
This is meant to be a sweeping epic of a novel. Its very close focus on the gay experience in 20th century Ireland limits the sweep a bit and while Boyne is a very gifted writer (The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas), his primal scream of all the considerable damage done by the hypocrisy of church and state could perhaps have stood just a bit more editing. His memorably drawn characters have a somewhat fantastic knack for showing up at exact places and times in history to play a part, sometimes tragically, in its unfolding, to wit, the 1966 IRA bombing of Dublin’s Pillar of Lord Nelson and the 1980’s AIDS crisis in New York City. Running gags about the unsuitability of protagonist Cyril’s adoptive parents ran just a bit thin for me but then. Boyne would probably say that if you don’t laugh you would have to cry at the challenges a gay man faced in those times. 3 stars
Next week: nonfiction only!