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March 17, 2016

Barbados Book Report

IMG_20160301_145915I promise that I am nearly finished writing blog posts about Barbados, but I haven’t talked about the books yet. We brought so many books to Barbados, twelve or so, books for me and books for Stuart, and it made our suitcase quite heavy and wondered if it was really wise to travel with more books than sunscreen, but my intuition than it was indeed turned out to be correct. Because there was so much time to read, and even enough time that there was enough time to read…and also do other things besides reading. (I am also not sorry that we brought twelve physical books with us, a few of them hardcovers, because on the journey home I found a forgotten Kindle in the pocket of the seat in front of me, belonging to someone called Pat who’d lost more than 100 books all that once. If I’d forgotten a book in an airplane [which, by the way, would never ever ever happen] I’d still have eleven more available for my reading pleasure. There is nothing I’d rather carry more than books. And I would rather carry books than nothing any time.)

IMG_20160227_114010My first book was Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay, the third book in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels series. As I’ve said, it’s a series I’m not mad for, but am intrigued by, and I’ve enjoyed each subsequent book more than the previous (which makes sense—I’m perpetually bored by stories of childhood and adolescence). And this was the one I’ve been most looking forward to, for the characters are mothers now and Lena is a writer, and these storylines compel me. And they did. I read most of this on the 5 hour flight, dipping in and out of Carolyn Smart’s collection of Bonnie and Clyde poems, Careen, for diversion. I enjoyed it so much, and was most struck by the tension between the two friends when Lena becomes pregnant and is determined to do pregnancy and motherhood properly, to prove her friend’s struggles with it had been personal failings rather than circumstance. And there are even a few days where it seems possible, until the whole thing goes to pieces, and she loses herself as so many women do (not knowing too that all this is such a temporary situation—she imagines motherhood as a fixed state). This was the first Ferrante books I seemingly devoured in that way one is meant to. I really really liked it.

IMG_20160228_134156Next up was My Name is Lucy Barton, by Elizabeth Strout, which Ann Patchett and others had proclaimed as Strout’s best book yet. I’d come belatedly to Olive Kitteridge, but really liked it, and had been looking forward to this one, but it kind of disappointed me. I mean not entirely, because it was interesting and also short, a consideration which meant my investment was not overwhelming. But this was also problematic because I bought the book in hardback, paid $30+ for it and felt I’d paid a lot of money for something slight and unfinished. Which was inherent to the project, I supposed, but I was never able to quite figure out how, or what the point was, or why this wasn’t a novel proper. Though it being short, I think I will go back and explore it again, see what I missed. It did actually seem an uncanny read after reading Ferrante, echoes of one with the other. The very premise of Lucy Barton reminded me of the part in The Story of a New Name in which Lena’s mother comes to Pisa to care for her when she is ill, an anomaly in the story of their relationship, as it was for Lucy and her mother, and so too the circumstance of each woman’s positioning against her past and her family, and the insurmountable nature of class.

IMG_20160229_105956After that, I read The Sunken Cathedral, by Kate Walbert, whose A Short History of Women I’d enjoyed so much a few years ago, and it came recommended by Nancy Jo at Book City. It also seemed like a strange choice following My Name is Lucy Barton, also set in New York City, delving into ideas of motherhood, art, and friendship. Although I felt I wasn’t quite in the right mindset for it. It’s even more fragmented than Lucy Barton but less annoying so—the pieces are so disparate that it makes the project seem like more instead of less. All the same though, I couldn’t make the pieces (each of them compelling in their own rights) fit together to mean something greater than the parts. Was I reading it wrong, I wondered? Why couldn’t I focus enough to have the whole thing make sense? And then I found this New York Times book review that kind of confirmed by feelings and suggesting the problem wasn’t entirely me, and I liked the book better after that, accepting it on its own terms.

IMG_20160301_103825And then I read Diary of a Mad Housewife, which I was absolutely mad for. I’d ordered it after reading Laura Miller’s article on the resurgence of the housewife novel, which interested me because I think Mitzi Bytes fits into the genre. And it was fantastic. How can this book be out of print? It’s funny, sharp, and a marvellous exercise in narrative voice. I’ve never seen the award-winning film, but now I’d like to. As the introduction indicated in my edition, this 1967 anticipated books like Bridget Jones Diary and Candice Bushnall’s Sex and the City columns, and fits well into the genre of Betty Draper books I kind of love, which includes Margaret Laurence’s The Fire Dwellers, The Torontonians by Phyllis Brett Young, and the obligatory Betty Friedan. I appreciate that it’s a book about marriage and motherhood that does necessarily think marriage or motherhood is the singular problem, but that the problems go deeper than that. Also seemed an extension of The Sunken Cathedral in its considerations of New York and motherhood. These novels were continuing to speak to one another.

IMG_20160302_110316Following that, I read The Hundred Year House, by Rebecca Mekkai, which is our book club selection for this month and as I’d read online that it was a bit of a beach read, it seemed fitting to bring with us. It was a strange book that I didn’t entirely understand until I was further into it, and also not until I’d read about her first novel, The Borrower, which was rich with references to classic children’s books including The Westing Game, by Ellen Raskin, and the suddenly it all made sense, that this book is similarly a puzzle mystery but for grown-ups. The story moves backwards over the twentieth century to reveal the secrets behind a house, the eccentric family that owned it, and the visitors at an artists’ colony housed there for several decades. On the whole, it was a bit forgettable, but I enjoyed it. Curious echoes between it and Mad Housewife as well—both have characters who are hit in the face by mean men called George.

IMG_20160303_103218I had to take the dust jacket off for the next book, because my friend loaned it to me and then I took it to the beach, which puts books in perilous situations. The book is The Faithful Place, by Tana French, whose books I adore. My third Tana French, and perhaps my favourite. (I am reading them in order; each book is narrated by a minor character from the previous one. And I was so thrilled to discover a new one is forthcoming in August!) I don’t recall connections between this one and others I was reading, but I was so entirely absorbed in the novel that I wasn’t thinking about anything else. It’s about a Dublin detective, Frank Mackey, who returns to his estranged family when a suitcase is discovered in an abandoned house on their street. The suitcase belongs to his first love, a girl who jilted him on the night they were meant to run away together. And now maybe it turns out that he wasn’t jilted, and that someone close to both of them actually killed her.

IMG_20160304_103834The Pumpkin Eater, by Penelope Mortimer, was after that, the fourth book I’ve read by Mortimer, although it reminded me much more of Our Spoons Came From Woolworths, by Barbara Comyns, in being a rather devastated telling of the realities behind fancy bohemian lives. These poor women. (Both novels are autobiographical as well.) It’s about a wife who has been as partial to philandering as she is to bearing children, but when her umpteenth husband starts cheating on her, it’s all quite different. It’s a spare novel, much of it dialogue and we don’t even know the main character’s name. I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’ve enjoyed later novels by Mortimer—I liked My Friend Says It’s Bullet-Proof and Home, novels written after this one and Daddy’s Gone a Hunting. But I also think it’s far from a beach read and one perhaps not best appreciated under the influence of a daiquiri. And so I’m going to be reading it again.

IMG_20160305_100107And finally, my bonus book (for it was from Stuart’s stack). The Cuckoo’s Calling, by Robert Galbraith i.e. J.K. Rowling, her foray into detective fiction, the first in a trilogy. And I loved it. For me, I’ve always connected J.K. Rowling (whose work I’ve not read before, apart from a read aloud of the first Harry Potter a couple of years ago) with Kate Atkinson, both of their career successes undertaking similar trajectories, and so it seemed fitting that this book reminded me so much of Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels (although Galbraith’s is much lighter in tone, less brutal and violent). Anyway, The Cuckoo’s Calling was great, and I look forward to following its characters through the other books in the series.

Since returning, I’ve been immersed in great Spring 2016 books, and I have a few really good ones I look forward to telling you about.

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