Later this summer we are headed to Maine. Typically our trips to Maine are all about reading, eating, scrabble, and jigsaw puzzles. But this year we are going to have 7 house guests one week and 5 the second week. How the hell am I going to have time to read anything? Really looking forward to seeing friends and family, but more often then not, it is just the two of us and Lucy.
So how many books do I need for such a vacation? Seventeen apparently. I went alphabetically through my shelves and picked out things that provided a lot of variety and seemed like something I was in the mood for. I happened to be in one of those “I want to read everything” kind of moods, so I was in the mood for everything.
I know I have picked way too many and I know I will by plying the used bookstores of mid-coast Maine–and there is always the chance of good books in the rental house–but hey, better safe than sorry. If I manage to get through at least seven of these in two weeks I will be very pleased. Anyone want to place any bets?
For the second time an audio book has helped me get into and through an enormous literary classic. The first time was Moby Dick. After trying to read the book numerous times and failing, doing a read/listen combo helped me finally get through it. Unfortunately, I can’t say that the experience turned out to be pleasant. Not the case, however, with my most recent read/listen attack on a hitherto impenetrable classic read.
Middlemarch by George Eliot
Twice I made it to about page 150 before giving up on Middlemarch. With the help of Nadia May’s narration, I was finally able to get past that mark and read/listen to the whole freaking 736 pages. On my previous attempts I didn’t dislike what I was reading, I actually kind of liked it, but something made me set it down and not want to pick it back up again. I’m glad I finally made it past that hump because I did thoroughly enjoy the rest of the novel.
I enjoyed Middlemarch in the same way I enjoy Trollope. Lots of characters and period detail and charming turns of phrase. But most importantly, lots of talk about how much money people have to live on. On the one hand I can see how money issues drove so many marital decisions at the time, but I also wonder whether it was a bit voyeuristic at the time. Surely a good number of contemporary readers of Middlemarch and Trollope must have been living below the socio-economic status of the main characters. Was it similar to our fascination with rich reality show characters?
I got into a bit of trouble on Twitter for tweeting spoilers about this 150-year old book so I am not sure how much I should say here. Certainly not worth trying to explain a plot that spans over 700 pages, but I am tempted to tell you who I liked and who I hated. There is at least one character who is redeemed in a away that I don’t think was very redeeming. In the end I feel like he was forgiven too much and only made good after everything was handed to him on a platter.
Unlike Moby Dick, I enjoyed Middlemarch and could see myself reading it again for the sake of the language and because I want to revisit the characters. Given everything else on my TBR, it may be a decade or two before I get around to that.
Reading kind of slowed down for me towards the end of June. I was worried I might be heading into a slump, but I managed to keep that at bay and things started to look up. Looking back at my Books Read list, my pace really didn’t slow down much but it just felt like things weren’t plugging along like they had been earlier in the year. I think the real problem was spending about 150 pages on a book that I decided not to finish. That always makes me feel like I am going backwards. However slow I think I might have been, I still have a backlog of six books I haven’t reviewed. So time to get cracking.
The Gattis and Lee have covers that deserve to be giant.
All Involved by Ryan Gattis
The story of various gang members and their families and friends in the days of the 1992 riots in Los Angeles. This was one of Simon’s five books that he put on his summer reading list on episode 155 of The Readers. My first thought was that it was going to be a festival of violence. In some ways it was, but after getting into the rhythm of the book, the characters and the circumstances of their existence transcended the depiction of violence. Gattis does something clever in that each chapter is written from point of view of a different character. The result is that we not only get dozens of individual stories and perspectives, but we see how they overlap and intertwine with each other. All these individual stories are like mini-plots that help advances that hand together quite well and help tell the overarching plot of the novel. Kudos to Simon for this one. It is certainly a novel I wouldn’t have picked up on my own. Particularly since I think the bookstore had it miscategorized in the crime/mystery section.
Stowaway to Mars by John Wyndham
A 1936 look at the future of space travel and the space race. Since there wasn’t really a space race or the technology to get to space and survive in 1936, it was quite a bit of fun to see what a sci-fi writer thought things would look like in the future. The author was particularly on point when he described a mission to the moon that took place in 1969–of course the year humans actually made it to the moon. Originally published under a pseudonym and the laughingly bad title Planet Plane. As far as Wynhdam goes, The Day of the Triffids, The Chrysalids, and Midwich Cuckoos are all places to start before you pick-up this one.
The Expatriates by Janice Y. K. Lee
Three American expatriate women of different ages and backgrounds living in Hong Kong. I bought this new hardcover book on a whim and expected it to be a bit on the fluffy side. Might have been the frilly cover font or maybe a jacket blurb that made it sound fluffy. In addition to the compelling personal stories I was fascinated by the description of expat life. It was particularly interesting to see how the English-speaking expats colonize Hong-Kong, especially the experience of the youngest of the expats who is a Korean-American. Somewhat to my surprise I liked this book, not because it was the kind of fluff I was expecting, but because it wasn’t. Much more substance than I expected but really readable. And a perfect summer read.
The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
I have finally read this modern classic that might be more of a cultural icon than it is a book people have actually read. Which, when you come to think of it is true for so many classics. Lots of people talking about books they haven’t read. I knew exactly two things about Plath before I read this: she was a poet, she committed suicide. There is plenty that is dark in The Bell Jar, so no surprise there, but I expected something more poetic–which to me often means dense and unreadable. But it really was a very readable novel that didn’t require special pools of literary understanding. A fascinating, feminist time capsule that had to have been an influence on Lena Dunham. Parts of it gave me a Mary McCarthy vibe as well.
Quesadillas by Juan Pablo Villalobos
I picked this up on a whim from the remainder table and knew nothing about it prior to reading it. It’s a story of poor family in Mexico dealing with the vagaries of of political and economic unrest and rarely having enough to eat. But rather than depress, it’s a comic novel in which the kids have named each kind of their mother’s quesadillas based on how much cheese is inside, there’s an inflationary quesadilla, a normal one, as well as deflationary, and poor man’s. In the poor man’s quesadilla “the presence of cheese was literary” with nothing on the inside but the word cheese written on the tortilla. The book is the kind of madcap that could go wrong if it feels like the author is working too hard at being madcap, but Villalobos makes it seem effortless and thus avoids my knee-jerk response to whimsy. Oh, did I mention alien abductions? Alien abductions.
Prairie Tales by Melissa Gilbert
This is perhaps an example of my newly re-discovered library browsing run amok. I remember Andy Cohen talking about how she really names names and in a way she does, but overall I found it a little boring. It would be nice to read a celebrity memoir that doesn’t include chemical dependency and recovery.
Lewis, Sinclair – The Godseeker Lewis, Sinclair – Bethel Merriday Lewis, Sinclair – Free Air Lewis, Sinclair – Gideon Planish (completed) Lewis, Sinclair – The Short Stories of Sinclair Lewis Lewis, Sinclair – Kingsblood Royal (completed) Lewis, Sinclair – The Prodigal Parents (completed) Lewis, Sinclair – Cass Timberlane (completed)
I had five more Lewis on my previous shelf. Until I recently re-read Main Street I had begun to wonder if my large collection of his novels might be a leftover from the days when I would collect books just to collect them. I had been a fan of his work for sure, but there was a part of me that thought I might have grown out of my Lewis phase. After my recent experience with Main Street I no longer worry about that. He wrote really great novels that were ahead of their time and many still wildly relevant.
Lind, Jakov – Soul of Wood
Lively, Penelope – Spiderweb Lively, Penelope – Consequences (completed) Lively, Penelope – Making It Up Lively, Penelope – According to Mark (completed) Lively, Penelope – Pack of Cards Lively, Penelope – The Road to Lichfield (completed) Lively, Penelope – How It All Began (completed) Lively, Penelope – Heatwave (completed) Lively, Penelope – City of the Mind Lively, Penelope – Judgement Day I’ve read a few more Lively novels than those on my shelf. Happily she wrote about 16 novels for adults and four short story collections. Not only has she won the Booker prize (for Moon Tiger) but has been a finalist two other times, including for her debut novel The Road to Lichfield. If you have never read Lively or find yourself lukewarm on her, I say read Consequences. I think it will make you a fan.
Lodge, David – Deaf Sentence Lodge, David – Thinks Lodge, David – Paradise News
I loved a few of Lodge’s comedic academic novels like Changing Places, but I shy away from calling myself a Lodge fan. Looking back I’ve read five of his novels so maybe I am. I think I need to dive into these to know for sure.
London, Jack – Martin Eden (completed)
One of my favorite books of all time. Martin is an aspiring writer in turn of the century San Francisco. Fascinating and extremely moving. This is a book that readers will love if they only take the time to read it. If you are curious you check out me waxing rhapsodic about it here.
Lovitt, Zane – The Midnight Promise
MacDonald, D.R. – Eyestone
Macaulay, Rose – Going Abroad Macaulay, Rose – Dangerous Ages (completed)
I loved Dangerous Ages, but I wasn’t a fan of Told By an Idiot and I didn’t enjoy the rather madcap Towers of Trebizond which I didn’t even finished. I recognize the latter as a good book, I just didn’t like it. The former was tedious in a way I can’t quite put my finger on.
MacLaverty, Bernard – A Time to Dance (completed) MacLaverty, Bernard – Lamb (completed) MacLaverty, Bernard – Grace Notes (completed)
I seem to like everything by MacLaverty that I have read. I bought Grace Notes on a whim one year in London when it was short listed for the Booker and the Booker was relatively new to me. I re-read it not too long ago and liked it even more than the first time I read it.He is a bit of a sleeper favorite of mine.
Manning, Olivia – The Play Room Manning, Olivia – The Doves of Venus
Mansfield, Katherine – The Short Stories of Katherine Mansfield
Markovitz, Benjamin – You Don’t Have to Live Like This
The Driver’s Seat by Muriel Spark
I’ve been wanting to re-read this short novel for some time now so I when I stumbled upon it at the library it seemed the time had come. This is easily one of Spark’s quirkier works. The story follows Lise as she is getting ready to go on holiday. I’m not sure how much more I can say about the plot without giving too much away. Let’s just say that Lise is complex and more than a little unhinged. But only certain authors are capable of writing unhinged characters this well. Spark does such amazing things with Lise that keeps readers constantly on our toes.
Lise crosses so many lines of sanity and responsibility that you would think it would make a rules-y, organized person like myself a little crazy. Instead I found myself relishing the insanity of this book and all the perils it contains.
There is rather old fashioned, hale and hearty kind of feeling to both Sinclair Lewis’s prose and his characters. God knows he loved an adverb and his dialog can feel a little ham-handed and out-of-date. And if we believe Garrison Keillor, Lewis’s brand of satire doesn’t age well. But what is amazing about much of Lewis’s output, is that it was remarkably ahead of its time and remains timeless and relevant.
Certainly Lewis’s name has popped up with some frequency in recent months as the rise of America’s small-handed, orange-faced, fascist has reminded people of Lewis’s 1935 novel It Can’t Happen Here. But many of his other novels have proven relevant decade after decade as well. It’s as if every televangelist read his 1927 novel Elmer Gantry as a how-to-guide for fleecing religious folk. It’s too bad the religious folk didn’t read it and heed it’s warnings. Babbitt takes on capitalism and Dodsworth takes on the suburbs. And no one can tell me that Ann Patchett wasn’t inspired, at least in part, by Lewis’s take on the medical/scientific establishment in Arrowsmith when writing her novel State of Wonder. Lewis’s look at race in America, Kingsblood Royal was published in 1940, eight years before President Truman desegregated the U.S. military and a good 20 years before To Kill a Mockingbird.
Nine years before Virginia Woolf published A Room of One’s Own, Lewis’s heroine Carol Kennicott asked for a room of her own in Main Street. Even though Main Street is seen a classic take down of small town America, I think it should be read as well as an early feminist classic.
Main Street by Sinclair Lewis
I first read Main Street sometime prior to when I started keeping track of my reading in 1994. Since knocking out his other marquee titles (Dodsworth, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry, and Arrowsmith) in 1996, I’ve collected his novels when I come across them and have read an additional three or four of them. Most recently and most surprisingly, a few years ago I began to read It Can’t Happen Here but decided not to finish it after about getting half way through. I just couldn’t get into the swing of it.
Since it had been so long since I read Main Street I thought I would reacquaint myself with the story by listening to the audio book. In fact it was one of the first books I bought when I joined Audible. It was also the reason I found out that Audible will give you your money back if you don’t like one of their recordings. But they have no way of actually taking the unwanted recording back, so it sits on the shelf in your Audible library in perpetuity. Flash forward a year or so and I decided to grit my teeth and listen to the horrible recording by Lloyd James. Despite how much I hate his reading and mispronunciation of the name “Bea”, I managed to get back into the swing of the book and succumb once again to its brilliance. About half way through it occurred to me that there might be a better version available on Audible. There was and so I bought it and enjoyed the second half waaaay more than the first.
In Main Street Carol Kennicott is a librarian who moves from the metropolis of St. Paul with her older, doctor husband Will to his hometown of Gopher Prairie. What she finds is boredom and parochialism and prejudice. In addition to the exploration of Carol’s plight, which is, as I alluded to earlier, as much about being a woman as it is about small town life, Lewis also deals with class, immigration, religion, education, and marriage, providing a fascinating snapshot of American life in early 20th century. A snapshot that is still relevant to the early part of the 21st century.
If you haven’t read Main Street before you might find the writing style a little hard to get into. It’s not difficult by any means, it’s more like the kind of shift you need to make when you read Victorian lit. Give yourself some time to get used to it. Like many of us do with the prose in Victorian novels you may even end up finding yourself reveling in the prose. Once you get into the swing of the story, I think you will find yourself compelled and moved. It is definitely one of those books you will be happy you decided to read and you will wonder why more people don’t do the same.
What is it about the breakdown of modern society that I am drawn to? The reality is that life would be infinitely harder for those in industrialized countries who survive. But I find reading about them oddly appealing. Before I go any further, I am not talking about political dystopia, like The Handmaid’s Tale, that is just scary from all angles. But Atwood’s MaddAddam dystopia with fantastic creatures and a planet trying to heal itself is so fascinating to me. Similarly, Eden Lepucki’s California was fascinating if not as well written as Atwood. And vintage R.C. Sheriff’s tale of the moon smashing into Earth in The Hopkin’s Manuscript, or John Wyndham’s equally vintage The Day of the Triffids.
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Much to the surprise of the social media universe, I loved, loved, loved this book. Twenty years after a global flu pandemic wipes out something like 99% of the population we follow a troupe of musicians and actors who traverse western Michigan performing for small, isolated settlements. (Extra credit points if you can figure out the pun in that sentence.) I’ve seen some reviewers say that Mandel doesn’t break any new ground in this genre and some other niggling complaints about the book, but I liked the milieu enough to not care if those things are true.
In particular I love the flashbacks to the time when the pandemic strikes and I especially loved to read the bits about how society as we know it came to an end. The end of planes, the end of electricity, the end of communications, the end of gas–apparently it goes stale after a few years. All fascinating stuff. As much as I love air travel, I love the idea of a sky with no planes. I may get in trouble for saying this, but in the days following 9/11/2001, the gorgeous fall days in Ithaca, New York were enhanced by a silent sky.
I know I would probably not survive, and if I did would probably be miserable, but I am so drawn to the romanticized world of the planet reverting to nature.
I will admit that there were lots of connections between characters who in reality would probably never have met up again. But, I am the kind of person who really likes closure so as unrealistic as some of those connections may have been, I liked how they tied somethings up with a bow.