ulyssesIt’s become a commonplace (how do things become commonplaces so quickly?) that in time of quarantine, the days flow into each other, and it’s hard to feel that anything’s really been accomplished when everything looks so much the same. Well, I have a real accomplishment: during this incredibly weird semester, a friend and colleague of mine pulled together a small reading group, and we traveled through Ulysses together.

I didn’t know much about it before I started, except that it took place in Dublin. If you don’t know much about it, either, a very sketchy outline of it is that it traces one (very) full day in the lives of two men, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus, as they go about their business in the small-but-overflowing city of Dublin on June 16, 1904.

It isn’t… exactly… a novel. T.S. Eliot said it was a reclamation of the epic, and that might be as close as I’d come to describing it. It was serialized when it came out, from 1918-1920, in an American journal, and then Sylvia Beach published it in its entirety in 1922. Our group read it as if it were serialized, one chapter a week, and I would really recommend that way of approaching it. I don’t know many people who could digest it in a lump. Eliot, maybe.

Here’s what I was expecting: it’s dazzling. It’s highly allusive, from the structure itself, which draws on the Odyssey, to motifs and through-lines about Shakespeare and Irish revolution and Catholic faith, to sentence-level allusions to pop culture and trashy songs and puns and advertisements, most of which certainly passed me by. It’s technically and formally stunning, and I loved reading it.

Here’s what I wasn’t expecting: it’s funny. There are moments of pathos and tenderness, and there are dirty jokes. It’s incredibly, scandalously physical — if you’re a person who’s ever watched a TV show and thought, these people have gone four days and never visited the bathroom, let me tell you, this book is for you. It addresses anti-Semitism and poverty and sexuality and jealousy and ambition and childbirth and death and hunger and faith and nationalism and a thousand other human things. Within the formal novelty, within the dazzle of the wordplay, there is a high boil of human life at work.

I really, really enjoyed reading the entire work — there are far too many pieces of it for me to pull out and look at here. (I probably should have blogged about it as I read it; that would have been a fun project, but most likely lots of people have done that before me, and better than I could have done it.) Each chapter is different from the next (which is why it works so well as a serial) : there’s one written with motifs of music, one written as a play script, one that’s full of journalistic headlines, one that’s question and answer like a catechism. But two things especially stand out to me. There’s a chapter in which Bloom and Stephen and a lot of other guys are drinking together, and Bloom is worrying about a woman in childbirth he’d heard about earlier in the book. The entire chapter, stylistically, is written as the history of the English language: it starts with latinate words, then Anglo-Saxon alliteration, then parodies of Malory, the King James Bible, Bunyan, Pepys, Defoe, and far more — all the way up to an almost incomprehensibly garbled international slang that signals the twentieth century. It’s just amazing, it’s a tour de force. Not only is it an absolute joy to read (and I’m certain I missed a third or more of the allusions), it’s deeper than it looks: the gestation of the language is linked to the gestation of the child and of the Irish people, through-lines that are woven into the entire book. It’s genius.

The last chapter, maybe one you’ve seen or read before, is in Molly Bloom’s voice. By the time we finally arrive at the end, we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about Molly, and hearing other people’s opinions about her, but this is the first time we’ve heard anything she had to say. The chapter has next to no punctuation and is a better representation of stream-of-consciousness writing than almost anything I’ve seen before. The thing that really stands out, though, is the warm humanity of her mind. She isn’t a token woman, she isn’t a two-dimensional wish-fulfillment. I’m not saying this well, but after an extremely long novel, it is so refreshing to be with Molly Bloom, falling asleep after a long day, thinking her own personal thoughts.

I don’t know how many of you have read this, or want to, but it was absolutely wonderful. Challenging sometimes, but not a chore to read at all. I really recommend reading it with a group if you can; my experience with faculty and students was so helpful, because often other people caught things I missed. (I think you’d have to read this several times to begin to catch details.) What I’ve written here is a tiny blep of a review, hardly anything at all, but if you’ve ever wondered about this book — keep it on your list for someday, or now.

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This summer (and who knows exactly what this summer will look like?) I plan to do a book club with my 12-year-old son. We’ve done this a couple of summers in a row, where I make a list of books we can choose from, often with his input, and we take turns choosing from it and then discussing the books, usually over a frappucino or a snack.

This time, I’d love some suggestions from you on books you think would go well on my list. Matthew loves to read, but prefers action and plot-driven books to meandering stories about world-building and internal politics. He enjoys humor but will read any sort of book, and likes nonfiction as well as fiction, especially if it’s about sports. He has read Harry Potter one meelion times. (As one does.) He is very willing to try new things.

Books that have been especially successful in the past: Kwame Alexander’s Crossover and Booked, The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz, A Long Walk to Water by Linda Sue Park, Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman, and the Hunger Games books.

I’m so looking forward to your suggestions! Have at it in the comments!

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Mary Anne

For Daphne du Maurier Reading Week, hosted by Ali, I turned to the only unread du Maurier novel on my bookcase, the 1954 novel Mary Anne, based on the life of the author’s great-grandmother. I’ve loved all of the du Maurier novels I’ve read in the past (Rebecca, My Cousin Rachel, Jamaica Inn, and The Parasites), but my reaction to this was much more mixed. At the beginning, it’s an exciting story of a woman living by her wits to get out of poverty and into a life of luxury, but then it becomes a nearly inscrutable legal drama, recovering slightly in the end as Mary Anne’s fate is revealed.

Mary Anne is born to a poor family, with a father who corrects printers’ proofs for a living, with Mary Anne’s secret (at first) help. Once her talent is revealed, her father’s employer offers to get her an education, and so she goes off to school, where she learns skills and manners that will eventually enable her to mix with more elegant society. That, on top of her natural cleverness, enables her, as an adult, to climb the social ladder as mistress to influential men. Eventually, she ends up in a relationship with the Duke of York, who sets her up in a home, takes care of her children from a previous marriage, and gives her an opportunity to grow her income by accepting bribes from those who want favors from the duke.

Mary Anne’s maneuverings are a bit shady, but she makes no secret of what she is doing. It’s exciting to watch her put all her past experiences and the talents she’s built up over the years to work to improve her status. The rise of a clever woman is a popular story for a reason. But when Mary Anne’s actions come back to bite her, the story itself comes to a grinding halt, turning into a not very dramatic courtroom drama.

I should make clear that I’m not sure how much of my problem with most of the last half of the book has to do with my own lack of understanding of the British political system of the early 19th century and how much has to do with du Maurier’s decision to act almost like a court reporter, detailing every bit of testimony. I suspect it’s a bit of both. If I understood the system better, I would have been less confused and wanted less direct explanation of who was who and what each turn in the proceedings meant. However, I’m not convinced that the level of detail presented was warranted or helpful.

As I said at the beginning, the book recovers a bit at the end, when Mary Anne’s ultimate destiny is revealed. There are moments of high emotion and drama here that are clear to anyone, whether or not they understand 19th-century law and politics. And it’s this human drama that interested me.

In the end, the good parts of the book are very good, but they constitute only about half of the novel. So a mixed bag for sure and nowhere near as good as her other books. My Cousin Rachel remains my personal favorite for its glorious ambiguity. If you haven’t read that, it’s the one I recommend most.

Posted in Classics, Fiction, Historical Fiction | 10 Comments

April Reading (a week into May)

April! Whew! A very strange month: I was teaching from home (something I hope not to have to do much of in the future, but WHO KNOWS), and keeping an eye on my teens, and strategizing about safe grocery shopping and household stuff, and with all that, I was much less able to focus on reading this month than last. In March, I read fourteen books. In April, I read five! But they were quality, so let’s look at them:

Normally, for my wonderful and thrice-blessed book club, we all choose a book together and read the same thing, as most book clubs do. But this month, I suggested that each member read a different novel that had to do with an epidemic/ pandemic, and return with a report on her readiing. For our meeting, I re-read Connie Willis’s marvelous Doomsday Book, one of her time-travel novels, in which Kivrin, a historian traveling to the Middle Ages, accidentally travels to a plague year. Her supervisor, Dr. Dunworthy, works frantically to find out what the accident was and to retrieve her before the worst happens, but there is a virulent plague attacking Oxford on his end of the timeline as well. This is a book about plague, of course, and the horror that it is when illness and death surround you on every side. But it is also a book about friendship and community and doing the right thing in the face of overwhelming reasons not to. I read this when I’d been having real trouble focusing on reading other than in short bursts, and I read it in two days. It’s wonderful. (Other books my friends read included Love in the Time of Cholera, They Came Like Swallows, Pale Horse, Pale Rider, Station Eleven, and Journal of the Plague Year.)

Another book that saved my concentration-deprived brain was Grace Paley’s collected short stories. I’ve heard Paley’s name mentioned many times over the years, but I’ve never read anything she’s written. Reading all of her stories at once in this collection was like taking a deep breath. More than anything else, she is an impresario of voice: her stories are full of human thought, full of dynamic energy, full of… empathy, I guess, in some kind of synergystic way that lets us into her characters’ heads (or Paley’s own head) for a while. The stories are witty and political and closely-observed. They have turns of phrase that open up whole new worlds for a minute and linger and then close them, because this story is already enough. How about this: “If you said the word ‘city’ to Edie, or even the cool adjective ‘municipal,’ specific children usually sitting at the back of the room appeared before her eyes and refused to answer when she called on them.” (“Ruthie and Edie”) Where have these stories been all my life? (New York.) They were perfect for this time and this place; they let us see and love the world a little better.

I also read The Peregrine by J.A. Baker. I’m a lover of good nature writing, and this is a classic I’ve been meaning to get around to for years. Baker observed mating pairs of peregrines in his English valley, about 10 miles long by 4 miles wide, over a decade, and recorded his observations in prose that is deep and dazzling. He writes about their bloody predatory slaughter, the heart-catching beauty of their flight, their plummeting fall through thousands of feet of sky onto smaller birds, their ruffled, sullen shoulders in the rain as they sleep, their habit of bathing in running streams, their bones made fragile by pesticides. There is nothing he does not know. He is half peregrine himself. This book was difficult to read; it’s repetitive (because nature is repetitive) and dense. But every word is worship, and it’s both fascinating and brilliant without being purple or sentimental in the slightest.

I’m going to save a discussion for the last two books — the first two of the Ibis trilogy by Amitav Ghosh — for next month, because I’m going to finish up the last book in a couple of days and I can write about all three at that point. I’ll say that the first two were wonderful, just as wonderful as I remembered. I’m looking forward to seeing how the third concludes.

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April Reading in Review

So. April. The first full month of isolation at home. I’ve been working at home since mid-March, leaving only for (almost) daily walks, weekly-ish trips for food, one vet appointment for Natasha (important blood work to monitor her post-treatment FIP status), and monthly-ish shifts at my church’s food pantry.

I’m a homebody at heart, so I mostly haven’t minded staying put, but last night I got a huge desire to see a movie in a movie theater. Watching movies at home just isn’t the same. And I can’t bring myself to think for very long about how long it’ll be before I can see a live play. The three theatres I go to have more or less cancelled their remaining season, although in its last communication, one of them hoped to still be able to put on Hair this summer, just a bit later than planned. I’m skeptical. Even if businesses are opened up by summer, large gatherings like that might not yet be feasible.

But I said I’m trying not to think about that.

And like just about everyone, I’m fretting about the short- and long-term effects of the pandemic, on people’s physical and mental health, on jobs for myself and others, on schools, on people’s housing and food, on churches, on arts organizations, on … all the things.

It’s a lot. But at least I have a bookcase full of books if I can quiet all the worrying enough to read. I had somewhat better success at that this month than in March. So here’s what I read.

The Mirror and The Light by Hilary Mantel: The final book in Mantel’s Cromwell trilogy was (of course) brilliant. It took me a little while to get fully immersed into it. But once I got into it, I was pretty hooked. And it gets better and better as it goes. The sense of doom!

The Good Lord Bird by James McBride: This novel is the story of Onion, a young black man who gets wrapped up in John’s Brown’s mission to end slavery (all while disguised as a girl). The sort of irreverent style of Onion’s storytelling was not exactly my thing, but I liked it better as I got used to Onion’s voice and the story reached Harper’s Ferry. I read it because it’s one of the contenders in the TOB Tournament of Champions this fall (and I’d been wanting to read it anyway). It won’t be at the top of my list to win, but I can see why others would root for it.

Black Rock by Amanda Smythe: The Good Lord Bird was the last library book I checked out before my local library closed. So I’m using the time to read books that have been on my bookcase for ages. This is a pretty good book about a girl from Tobago who flees to Trinidad to escape abuse. It takes some predictable turns, but overall, it’s a solid read.

Mother Teresa: Come Be My Light by Brian Kolodiejchuk: My Lenten reading. The book draws on Mother Teresa’s letters to show her struggle with spiritual darkness throughout her life. I could appreciate reading about her struggle to feel loved while also continuing to serve, but honestly, it felt like a shallow treatment. I think Kolodiejchuk’s purpose is to pay tribute to Mother Teresa, and there is value in that, but, for myself, I would have appreciated a more analytical approach, putting her struggles in context of others’ similar struggles and general theology of God’s presence and love in spite of one’s personal feelings.

The Book of the People: How to Read the Bible by A.N. Wilson: This is a strange book. It’s not so much about the Bible and how to read it but about Wilson’s relationship with a friend writing a book about the Bible and how to read it. Along the way, Wilson presents a compelling vision of the Bible as an imaginative and transformative work that is more powerful than the fundamentalist vision of the Bible as literally true. I also appreciated his point that both Christians and atheists (at least some of them) read the Bible in a fundamentalist way and end up missing the point.

Seed to Harvest by Octavia Butler: I reviewed this already, so I’ll just say here that I enjoyed this series, although it’s not at the top of my list of great books by Butler.

Cluny Brown by Margery Sharp: I reviewed this already. It’s just such a nice book. And my edition had the most wonderful historical artifact on its flyleaf.

Cool Water by Dianne Warren: Also published under the title of Juliet in August, this quiet novel follows a day in the lives of the people in a small Saskatchewan town. It’s beautifully written and so sympathetic to everyone’s day-to-day quandaries, big and small. It reminded me very much of Kent Haruf’s Plainsong.

The Murderbot Diaries by Martha Wells: I read the four novellas in this series (All Systems Red, Artificial Condition, Rogue Protocol, and Exit Strategy) last weekend. The main character, who calls itself Murderbot, is a security android who has gained control of its own actions. Now, instead of murdering, what it really wants to do is watch its shows and be left alone, but it keeps getting drawn into the problems of those annoying humans. The plot gets a little convoluted at times, but getting to know Murderbot is such a joy. I’m looking forward to the full-length, Network Effect, coming out next week.

The Watery Part of the World by Michael Parker. This was the one book I couldn’t finish this month. It’s the story of an island off the coast of North Carolina. One timeline, set in the 1810s, follows Theodosia Burr, daughter of Aaron Burr, who ends up stranded on the island. The other, set in the 1970s, follows the island’s sole three remaining residents, two white descendants of Theodosia and a black man. The writing style and the slow pace didn’t really work for me. But I think it could appeal to others who enjoy books with a strong sense of place and florid language.

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Cluny Brown

This 1944 novel by Margery Sharp is so pleasant. The conflict and drama are minimal, but significant to those experiencing it. The people are decent, but not perfect. There’s a recognition of the wider world beyond the story. And there are some surprising turns along the way.

At age 20, Cluny Brown is described as “good-tempered, willing, as much sense as most girls —” yet her uncle, a London plumber named Mr. Porritt, can’t figure out how to “handle” her because “she doesn’t seem to know her place.” I know that Mr. Porritt sounds terrible, but he really just wants to help Cluny live a life that’s safe and secure. He’s not mean-spirited; he just doesn’t get Cluny’s willingness to do the unexpected, like have tea at the Ritz or go out to resolve a plumbing problem when her uncle can’t be reached. Cluny acts in the moment in ways that make sense to her, without much thought for social convention. And that’s the root of the problem.

Mr. Porritt decides that life in service would be good for Cluny, so he arranges for her to take a position as a parlour-maid in a country house called Friars Carmel. There, she does well enough to retain her job but doesn’t go out of her way to excel. And she continues to break convention by, for example, taking the neighbor’s dog out for walks.

As Cluny adjusts to her new life in the country, the family at Friars Carmel is adjusting to the presence of a new guest, a writer from Germany who has left to evade the Nazis. This is, of course, a potentially serious story line, but Sharp treats it with a light touch, focusing on the personalities involved, rather than the peril, which remains theoretical and distant.

Much of the novel focuses on Cluny and the family’s daily dramas, but those dramas are not without weight because so many of the characters are on the cusp of making monumental decisions about where to live, whom to marry, and what sort of person to be. And the choices they make are sometimes predictable and sometimes surprising — one in particular just about took my breath away it was so unexpected, but in the end it seemed entirely right.

I also have to share the wonderful fragment in my copy of the book. I found this for a couple of dollars at a local thrift store. It was missing the original paper cover, but I’m so happy that this back flyleaf was preserved and remained inside the book. What a wonderful piece of history!

Paper fragment of book flyleaf explaining that the book was printed using methods intended to save paper because of wartime rationing.As for the actual printing of the book, it didn’t seem particularly substandard to me, but perhaps that speaks to the typical condition of modern book printing. The paper is slightly more yellow than I’m used to, although some of that is due to age. The print is clear and readable, and the margins are sufficient. The text doesn’t feel at all crowded on the page, nor does the paper feel particularly thin. It makes me wonder how it would have looked a year or two earlier! As it is, I found this pleasantly light and enjoyable to read, both in print quality and story quality.

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Seed to Harvest: The Patternist Series

Octavia Butler’s Patternist series is a series of Octavia Butler’s earliest novels (although she wrote Kindred as a standalone during the time these books were published). Four of the novels that make up the series were published in a single edition titled Seed to Harvest, and this is the version of the series that I read.

The Seed to Harvest version of the series presents the books in chronological order, rather than publishing order, and  leaves out the 1978 novel Survivor, which Butler disavowed. Although I liked the series a lot, I think the publication order might have been more enjoyable, as the final book — Patternmaster, which was Butler’s first published novel — felt sort of simplistic after the complex setup of the earlier books. Then again, maybe I would have been less enthusiastic to read more after reading Patternmaster. At any rate, I read them as presented in Seed to Harvest, and I was happy to read them.

The first novel, Wild Seed (1980) is the story of two people with supernatural powers caught up in a battle of wills. Doro, who can live forever, taking on the form of those he kills, is attempting to create a society of others with special powers. When he meets the healer and shapeshifter Anyanwu, he wants to make her part of his family. He convinces her to come with him from Africa to America, but she refuses to give in to him entirely.

In Mind of My Mind (1977), Doro and Anyanwu have achieved a sort of balance between them, but Doro continues to build his family of mind readers and healers (Patternists) by breeding those with potential together. Now in the present day, a latent telepath named Mary comes into her power and gathers a family of her own.

Set in the near future, Clay’s Ark (1984) appears to have no connection at all to the earlier books. It involves a father and his daughters who encounter an isolated community that has been infected with an alien virus. They’ve build a society where the virus can continue to survive without reaching the wider population, but they must periodically bring in new members who will themselves become infected and produce mutant children.

Patternmaster (1976) brings the Claysark mutants and the Patternists together in an even more distant future. The book’s main character, Teray, is a Patternist who is just out of school and preparing to start his own household. But he’s perceived as a threat to a fellow Patternist. And the Claysark mutants are a constant threat to the Patternists.

I read this series while also rewatching Agents of Shield, and the story of the Inhumans echoed that of the Patternists in some interesting ways. In the first two books in particular, you have an immortal Patternist trying to control the fate of all those who come after him, but his motivation is murky, not unlike that of Jiaying on Agents of Shield. And not all of the Patternists are going to go along with Doro’s ideas, no matter how compelling a case he can make. Perhaps the Patternists are better off listening to him, but why? Doro asserts his authority, but he does nothing to earn anyone’s trust. It’s just power and magnetism that keeps him in place.

The whole series, particularly the books about the Patternists, tosses around ideas of power and submission and free will. The Patternmasters and heads of households and families maintain their power with a mix of convincing and outright coercion, sometimes even convincing people to become mentally enslaved, voluntarily giving up their free will. There’s some degree of choice, but it’s a choice to give up choice. It reminded me of ideas that I think Butler develops with more sophistication in Fledgling, where vampires develop a symbiotic relationship with humans.

As for Clay’s Ark, there’s a power situation there, too. Eli Doyle, the astronaut who brought the virus to Earth, had to transmit the virus in order to survive, and the family he infects and builds had no choice but to be infected. And now they have no choice but to stay with him if they don’t want to infect the whole planet. Plus, the virus itself wants to survive and procreate, bringing new mutant babies into the world and filling the parents with the instinct to care for them. Mostly, though, this book just struck me because of its relevance to the time we’re in right now. One of the characters explains it this way:

We’re infectious for as much as two weeks before we start to show symptoms — except for people like you who won’t have two weeks between infection and symptoms. How many people do you think the average person could infect in two weeks of city life? How many could his victims infect?

Infection is always a peril. At least our COVID-19 doesn’t drive people to spread it. Let’s hope our pandemic of ignorance stays at bay enough to keep us safe.

Posted in Fiction, Speculative Fiction | 5 Comments

March Reading in Review

So, we’re three days into April and the beginning of March feels like another world, doesn’t it? Yet despite it seeming like the longest month ever, I ended up doing very little reading, and when I did read, the results were not great. The call for self-isolation hasn’t really put much more time in my hands because I’ve been working at home on my normal schedule, but with more to fret about.

My March books were ones that in a different time, when my mind was less overwhelmed, I might have liked better. But right now, I think a strong narrative and absorbing story was more necessary that I realized. And the less concentration required, the better. By the end of the month, I was spending my time watching an old season of Project Runway—OMG, the twins!—and movies I’d seen before. And my favorite book of the month was a reread.


The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. This is a fascinating account of the medical history of a Hmong girl in California who developed epilepsy at a young age and the medical establishment that couldn’t navigate the language and cultural barriers. Fadiman is both generous where people were making honest mistakes but trying their best and critical where people were letting stereotypes get in the way of giving good care.

The Odd Woman and the City by Vivian Gornick. Vivian Gornick’s memoir of her life in New York City is a book that I might have liked better if I’d read it at a different time. As it was, the meandering style failed to really draw me in. I liked bits and pieces of it, but it hasn’t stuck with me at all.

The Sisters Brothers by Patrick deWitt. The first part of this western was a little too episodic for me (again with the wanting a strong narrative arc), but it got much better toward the end, when the brothers finally meet the man they’re supposed to kill.


A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan. This may be the biggest disappointment of the month, only because I could imagine liking it so much more than I did. But, as it was, each story that made up this novel in stories wasn’t quite exciting enough on its own, and my brain was too distracted to hold onto the connections between the characters so that I could see how it all fit together — and I think that the novel’s brilliance is in how the pieces fit together. I did think the story in PowerPoint was clever and surprisingly moving. Thinking about this in comparison to Girl Woman Other, I can see where Evaristo succeeds in making a novel where each individual story is great on its own and the connections are fun to pick out. For me, Egan only succeeds on the latter front, and I was simply unable to appreciate that aspect of it.

Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel. This was my second time reading Mantel’s second book in the Thomas Cromwell series, and it’s just as good as it was the first time. One of the things I love in this series is how portentous every supposedly triumphant moment is. In Wolf Hall, we saw Anne Boleyn’s rise alongside plenty of clues that it wouldn’t last. Now we see her fall, as Cromwell’s rise that began in Wolf Hall continues. And Anne’s arc is full of portent for Cromwell himself. These are such delicious books.

As for April, I received my copy of The Mirror and the Light from my local indie, which is relatively new to the neighborhood and now struggling after having to close for COVID-19. I’ll probably finish reading it today. I’m also continuing to read Come Be My Light, about Mother Teresa as my Lenten book. I managed to get to the local library the day before it closed and pick up The Good Lord Bird, which I had on hold. That will be my last library book for a while, unless I decide to borrow some ebooks.

Natasha, one month into FIP remission

I hope to do more reading in March. My work schedule has changed, giving me more time off, and I’ll probably take a full week later in the month. As worrying as this time is, in a lot of ways, I’m very lucky. I have a comfortable home and a cuddly cat who herself is in remission from a bout with FIP, a mutated version of a feline coronavirus that was previously fatal. (If she makes it to the end of May, she’ll be considered cured.) I have a whole bookcase full of books and plenty of entertainment to stream. And social media makes it possible to reach out in a way that would have been inconceivable 20 years ago. As it happens, my mood this month has swung between really appreciating social media and really wanting nothing to do with any of it. But I’m glad the option is there.

I hope all of you are doing well in these strange and difficult times. Stay safe and healthy everyone.

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March Reading

Hi everyone! It’s been so long since I’ve been here that I hesitate even to greet you; I looked back and I find that I took a “break” in August 2018 (too depressed by politics to blog) and kept telling myself that I’d come back in a little while. But I’ve been wanting to write about some of the things I’ve been reading (I was reading, just not blogging!), so here’s a start.

Before I start, though, I want to extend my very warmest wishes to you in the pandemic. I hope all of you are well — healthy and safe — and that your loved ones are safe too. I hope you have enough supplies and that your anxiety is at a manageable level. It would seem as if readers would be excellently suited to our present time, but I am finding that my concentration span isn’t very good, and I read in short bursts. Much love and care to all of you and those you love.

I thought I’d start whatever return this is going to be, by doing a March roundup. It was a good reading month for me:


I’ll just hit the highlights! The biggest standout for me was Daniel Defoe’s A Journal of the Plague Year. I didn’t read this book on purpose because of our situation — it was just next on the TBR list, because I try to read at least one pre-20th century book a month. But as I read it, I was blown away by how interesting, touching, and above all relevant it is. Defoe wrote the book in 1722 as a faux “memoir” of the 1665 year of plague in London. It was eighty years before anyone realized it was a fake, because it was so realistic and because he drew from historical sources to make it ring true. But even though I don’t know much of the history myself, it still rings true: the difficulty of quarantining people, the way an epidemic weighs harder on the poor than on the rich, the hoarding and the panic, the fear and grief, the way leadership matters. I can’t recommend this more strongly.

Other Jenny has been recommending Rumer Godden as long as I can remember, and I absolutely loved In This House of Brede. The practical view of life in an abbey — the reality of a vocation, and the highs and lows of life with the other nuns, and the issues of administration — it was so well written and satisfying. I didn’t know anything about Godden, but it turns out she was almost exactly a contemporary of my grandmother, who also grew up in India (the daughter of a Scottish missionary) until she was sixteen, and then came to the US. I wonder if my grandmother knew and loved Rumer Godden; it seems like the kind of book she’d have adored.

Zora Neale Hurston’s Hitting a Straight Lick With a Crooked Stick blew me away. A colleague of mine loaned me this book of Hurston’s short stories, some of which have been “lost” for many years. Some of these stories are tragic, some are hilarious, some show Hurston’s anthropological background as she observes her community. I enjoyed every single one. Have any of you read Barracoon?

Bend Sinister is the ninth book of Nabokov’s I’ve read, and it’s the most overt: this is a book about being trapped in a nightmarish dictatorship, and how that changes, and eventually crushes, everything worth while. Nabokov was equally against fascism and Stalinism, and this book is a sort of mashup of the two; Adam Krug, the philosopher at the center of the story, is a heavy-set, hairy man, but he’s still like one of Nabokov’s beloved butterflies as he tries to escape the impossible. It sounds depressing (and in many ways it is sad, though no great book can be really depressing), but it’s also funny, and dazzling, and even hopeful.

I’ll stop now, before I review every book I read this month! If you have questions or thoughts about other ones, let me know in the comments! There was only one book this month I did not like, so I’m just leaving off before this gets too long, not because I didn’t enjoy the other ones. And… it feels good to be back.

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February Reading in Review

I hadn’t intended to read all of the 2020 Tournament of Books contenders, but once I’d read most of them, I couldn’t help myself and ended up finishing the list. Alas the TOB brackets have my favorites (Girl Woman Other, Mary Toft,  and Nothing to See Here) clustered together, alongside Lost Children Archive, beloved by many readers, even though it didn’t exactly work for me. I still haven’t filled out my bracket, but I’m rooting for any of the three favorites or Your House Will Pay to take the rooster this year. And those all seem fairly well liked, so they have a chance.

As for the rest of my February reading, I caught up on a lot of newish books that I’ve been meaning to read for ages and got started on the books for the TOB Tournament of Champions, which happens to include a bunch of books I’ve been wanting to read anyway.

We Cast a Shadow by Maurice Carlos Ruffin: For TOB. A really smart satire about future in which people of color can escape the effects of racism by undergoing a medical procedure to turn themselves white. The father at the center of the story will go to any (sometimes humiliating) lengths to get this treatment for his biracial son, even though the son and his white mother want nothing to do with it. There were some terrific and uncomfortable scenes in this, but I didn’t end up loving the whole of it. There was, for me, too much going on and little time to rest in the ideas presented. (I do think this is the best book in the TOB play-in round, although I enjoyed Golden State more.)

Saudade by Suneeta Peres da Costa: For TOB. A short book about a young woman living in Angola in the 1960s. It was fine, but I think I didn’t know enough about the history to really get it. However, it made me curious, so that’s a good thing!

A Grave Talent by Laurie King: The first in King’s Kate Martinelli series. I started and gave up on this decades ago because I was annoyed by the obvious trick King was playing in introducing Lee, a major character in this series. But the trick only applies to this book, and I love King in general, so I finally got around to trying again. It’s a solid crime novel about a series of child murders that takes place in a closed community. I like Kate as a character, so I’ll certainly read more.

Nothing to See Here by Kevin Wilson: For TOB. This was a delight about an unlikely caretaker to a pair of kids who happen to catch on fire. See my full review for more.

Come Closer by Sara Gran: A short novel in which a woman comes to suspect that she is possessed. Very creepy!

On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous by Ocean Vuong: For TOB. A very sad story of abuse and first love and trauma. Told non-sequentially and in fragments, it was a little too pretty for me.

Heaven My Home by Attica Locke: This is the second in Locke’s Highway 59 series, about black Texas Ranger Darren Matthews. The central mystery involves the disappearance of a 9-year-old boy whose family is linked to a white supremacist group. This is good, but I didn’t like it quite as much as Bluebird Bluebird. Sometimes Locke’s mysteries get too intricate, and that was the case here. But Matthews is a character I want to keep following.

Plainsong by Kent Haruf: This was a beautiful book about people in small-town Colorado, all adjusting to massive changes in their previously uncomplicated lives. It’s the kind of story where not much happens, but everything happens. I absolutely loved it and expect to read Eventide, the next in the series, very soon.

Cloud Atlas by David Mitchell: Ingeniously structured, but it took me a while to get into it. I think it suffered a bit from the hype for me, as I just couldn’t get into the individual pieces as much as I’d like. It only really became great when I stepped back and looked at the whole.

All This Could Be Yours by Jami Attenberg: For TOB. A family drama about a dysfunctional family awaiting the impending death of its patriarch, a crime boss and abuser. Lots of terrible people in this book, but Attenberg manages to make at least some of them sympathetic. I appreciated her effort to draw in members of New Orleans community that surrounds the family, but those scenes felt thrown in. I didn’t mind reading this book, but I also didn’t care about it much.

The Accidental by Ali Smith: I normally love Ali Smith, so I was looking forward to this but ended up not loving it as much as I hoped. The story is basically about a mysterious woman who turns up at a family’s vacation home one summer and throws each of their lives in disarray. I think I would have liked it better if it had dove deep on the mom, whose arc is the most interesting. The father and son are particularly shallow and unpleasant, and not in a way that I could bring myself to care about.

For March, my library stack contains The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman, The Odd Woman and the City by Vivian Gornick, and The Sisters Brothers by Patrick DeWitt. I also hope to read Bring Up the Bodies in anticipation of the release of The Mirror and the Light. I’m also reading Mother Teresa’s Come Be My Light for Lent. I want to get back into reading from my shelves, particularly some of the older books there, but we’ll see if that happens.

Posted in Contemporary, Fiction, Mysteries/Crime | 16 Comments