Mini Reading Reviews

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I’ve been reading, as per usual, but not with the usual abandon, I’m afraid. My injured eye is *still* bothering me, and I’ve been ending the day resting it more than usual. It’s really been rather a bane to my existence, but in the big scheme of things, it’s manageable in the end. Plus – my doc and I are making progress, so I’m hopeful that this is temporary.

Anyway, so life has been moving a bit slowly, but the vision issue combined with the lassitude of late summer makes for not many blog entries about books read. For the two that I have recently finished up, they were good reads, but not astonishingly fascinating enough to write book reviews. To wit, here are two mini reading reviews. As always, these tiny review-lettes don’t necessarily mean that the titles were bad. Sometimes, you can have a good read and still end up with not much to say, so they fall into that category.

Mrs_ MiniverMrs. Miniver – Jan Struthers (1939)

This was a reread to get another title into the ongoing Century of Books and was quite fun. It’s a collection of newspaper columns written by Struthers and describing life for her and her family during the outbreak of World War II in England. Fairly lightweight covering topics such as buying a diary and going to dinner parties, this was more a palate cleanser than anything. If you have a Monkey Mind and need something to read that you can pick up and put down with ease, this would fit the bill. This was a good read, despite the gamble of rereading, and did remind me of how hard life would have been at that time and how easy life is nowadays. Plus – epistolary. Swoon.

Here’s a paragraph from Mrs. Miniver which mirrors my own attitude towards learning:

The structure of our life — based as it is on the ever-present contingency of war — is lamentably wrong: but its texture, oddly enough, is pleasant. There is a freshness about, a kind of rejuvenation: and this is largely because almost everybody you meet is busy learning something. Whereas in ordinary times the majority of grown-up people never try to acquire any new skill at all, either mental or physical: which is why they are apt to seem, and feel, so old.

Moving on…

still-life-with-breadcrumbs-tpStill Life with Bread Crumbs – Anna Quindlen

A domestic novel that’s fairly straightforward in its narrative arc, this was a fun non-challenging read. (Plus – off the TBR.) It’s about a female fine art photographer who leaves NYC to live in a rural village, rents a slightly tumble-down shack, meets village residents, and a bloke, and it all runs smoothly from there. Nothing too strenuous, but just a nice fairly easy (I might say even cosy in a way) read.

I’m also in the middle of some pretty funny essays collected together in a book called “I See You Made an Effort” by comedian Annabelle Gurwitch. Gathered around the theme of aging and reaching the milestone birthday of 50, it’s an entertaining E-Z read that has some sly wit in it every now and again.

Another reread gamble, but this one paid off, for the most part. Good if you like your humor sly and quick-witted, and you’ll be able to relate to her essays if you’re now a woman of a certain age. 🙂 (I do recommend that you read this in bits and pieces, as opposed to solid front-to-back. It can get a little same-y after a while if you do it solidly. Still fun, but just not as good a reading experience.)

So nothing too mind-blowing. More of just pottering around, really. Life is good… I hope yours is as well.

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The Limit – Ada Leverson (1911)

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Owing a review to the great Mike Walmer who had sent me a copy of Ada Leverson’s The Limit last weekend, I read this title. Mike is an excellent promoter of under-estimated and under-read authors, had sent an irresistible taste of this novel, and although I wasn’t familiar with either the title or the author, I plucked it off the pile at the end of last week. And what a fun read!

Leverson was a British writer who is known for her friendship with Oscar Wilde and as a turn-of-the-century witty novelist. Her friendship with Oscar Wilde was tested when he was accused of being gay (at the time, a crime) and when no hotel or inn would accept Wilde as a guest, Leverson and her husband opened up their home as a place to stay, a generous gesture which would lead to “serious challenges” for the Leversons’ other friendships in the future.

So – to the plot: Valentia and Romer are a happily married couple, but Valentia is slightly dismayed that Romer isn’t quite as interesting as she had hoped he would be. For excitement, she turns to Harry de Freyne, her dashing artist cousin, much to the consternation of others in her social circle. Daphne, Valentia’s younger sister, needs to find a husband and a visiting American millionaire seems to fit the bill for the family, but Daphne would much rather marry a young professional soldier. And then there’s Miss Luscombe, Mrs. Wyburn, Miss Westbury, and a young man covered in tattoos with a hobby of collecting theater programs.

So – tons of characters to keep track off, but as with any social commentary in the vein of Jane Austen, you get the hang of who is who and after whom, and by the midway point, you can clearly follow the various machinations of the social system in this small world.

I mentioned Jane Austen, and this narrative is reminiscent of her characters and their struggles to meet and marry the right people. I did at times get a tad confused, but a quick check of the back cover sorted that out in a jiffy. Lots of rather funny repartee between the characters, and loads of strong description of life in London at the fin-de-siècle, this was a quick and rather fun read.

Thank you to Mike!

Carol – Patricia Highsmith (1952)

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I was pondering what to read next when I remembered that I had seen the movie, “Carol”, when it was released earlier in the year and loved that so therefore was interested in reading the book itself. I wasn’t disappointed as it was a very good read.

It’s the story of a young shop girl in 1950’s New York City who meets an older richer woman and how their relationship develops. It’s pegged as an early lesbian book, but after reading it, I would argue that the story covers human relationships more than a lesbian one. However, as it was written in 1952 when same-sex issues were extremely undercover (out of necessity) and seen as morally wrong, there’s no denying that the two women have to have a more complicated relationship than would otherwise be seen in those times. (Ahhh. Those judgy 1950’s, 1960’s, 1970’s….)

Anyhow, the two women are attracted to each other, but is it authentic? Or is one more authentic than the other? And then who’s to say, anyway?

patricia highsmithThere are other issues involved as well: One of the women is older, more experienced, and very rich (the other the opposite in those ways). One of the women is married with a child (and the other is not), and so there is a lot at stake here if the relationship went public (e.g. probable loss of parental rights, loss of money/support etc.) It’s the 1950’s when women still were seen as property (culturally speaking) – women didn’t tend to work (so no $$), property was probably in husband’s name (so women had few assets) and all that jazz. Divorce is frowned upon and if you add in a same-sex relationship, you end up with an explosive mix.

Plus – who is in love with whom? Is the relationship equal in terms of how one feels for the other or there other reasons involved? And there’s the power issues…

It’s a complex novel (as you can tell), but it reads very quickly. It’s one of those books where you read it and then do most of your thinking about it after you’ve finished it. I loved it.

It’s interesting that I think the novel’s complexity also reflects the author’s own complexity as, according to several people, she could be a rude and misanthropic person who preferred animals (particularly snails*) to people. There were also addiction issues, and her personal life was a bit rocky, relationship-wise. (She had an unsettling childhood life as well which probably played a role.) Add to this the fact that she refused to let people put her into any categories of any kind (at a time when *everyone* was put into a category of one sort or another), and you have one very interesting person.

Regardless of how you pin this novel genre-wise, it’s well regarded and Highsmith described it as one of the first same-sex relationship novels where the protagonist and the lover had not killed themselves by the end due to being gay in a homophobic culture. (The two women in this novel are not happy per se in this story, but at least they are alive and breathing at the end. Baby steps, people.)

Anyway, this was a fascinating read for both the narrative and the cultural meaning that surrounded it at the time so I do recommend it. It’s a passionate love story but then it’s also so much more. I really enjoyed it (especially in combination with the film of the same name) and I think you’d like it.

(Highsmith is well known for her other novels including The Talented Mr. Ripley and Strangers on the Train (neither of which I’ve read yet). Has anyone else read anything by her? What did you think?)

Extra for you: An interesting article from The Guardian (05/13/15) about more background behind the book and film.

* Highsmith once took a handbag full of 100 snails and some lettuce to a dinner party. I’m not sure what to say about that, apart from perhaps it reflects her view of being true to herself. Go her. If you want to bring a  bag o’ snails to a dinner party, then you bring them. More power to you.

Monday Check-In…

 

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It’s been really H-O-T in Texas lately (which is fairly par for the course around here in August), so when it’s this hot, I’m either at the lazy river (doing exactly what it implies) or indoors doing something (like working out or reading etc.)

I’ve been really sucked into Mary Roach’s new book, Grunt: The Curious Science of Humans at War. Mary Roach, as you may or may not know, is one of the great non-fiction science writers around and whatever the topic, she ends up asking the experts questions which are exactly the type of questions you (or maybe just I) would ask.

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This volume covers the science behind the world of the military (primarily the US Army so far but I think Navy come in at some point). As the book jackets states, “Grunt tackles the science behind some of a soldier’s most challenging adversaries – panic, exhaustion, heat, noise – and introduces us to the scientists who conquer them.” And regardless of how you feel about the ethics of war, one still has to consider the equipment and reactions of the young soldiers who are put into that position. To me, it’s fascinating.

(If you haven’t read or heard of Mary Roach, get thee to the library right now. She’s funny, inquisitive, delightful, clever, and if we knew each other, I just know that we’d be best friends (in a non-creepy fashion). 🙂 ) Her books include Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Spook: Science Tackles the After-Life, Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, Packing for Mars: The Curious Science of Life in the Void, and Gulp: Adventures on the Alimentary Canal, and they’re all at least a 7/10 in my book (usually higher for the most part).

I know that I’m usually reading more than one book, but my right eye is *still* bothering me from that surgery I had in April and due to the nerve damage, it feels like fireworks going off in my eyeball and face a lot of the time. A bit distracting at the best of the times, so that’s slowed me down a bit. That, combined with the lassitude of late summer, means lots of lying around á la Victorian heroine and not actually being very productive.

However, over the weekend, I actually did some of those things that were in the “Some Day…” category in the To-Do List. I ordered a new ink pen (this time with a fine nib) along with some cool new ink in a new color, and, of course, a very modish pencil case to go along with this. If you’re curious about the pen, it’s a new Pilot Metropolitan in gold and I’m strangely super-excited to see how this writes. (No doubt there will be updates on here once it’s come in and I’ve tried it. Hold your hats on as I know you’re excited as well.)

As I work on an academic calendar, it was time to get a new planner for the year (and I don’t know about you but I adore office and school supplies) so spent a pleasant hour choosing the right one. And then another pleasant hour filling it in with appointments and meetings with the result that I feel super-organized and hot-to-trot. Bliss.

My twin came out to say hi which was really fun, and then hubby and I are planning our trip to England in Oct/November time to say hello to family and then see some of England itself. I grew up there, but I seemed to spend a lot of time dreaming about coming to America or in a swimming pool training so missed a lot of the sights. (Isn’t that usually the case when you live somewhere cool? You’re busy living life so you don’t do the stuff that tourists do.)

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And BIG NEWS (for us – maybe not for you): We have signed up for Blue Apron, the meal delivery service where you order the ingredients for a meal, they deliver them to you and then you cook it. No shopping! No finding a recipe! No finding out halfway through that you don’t have something vital and now you’re going to have to go to the shop… etc. It’s a pretty foodie thing, but so far the recipes have been doable (with some prep time) and I am learning my way around the kitchen as a sous chef. (Superhero is the [bossy] chef.) The end result is that we’re out of the “Food is Boring” trap and now eating stuff you’d never think to try. Yummy. We’ve had both vegetarian and non-veg options and they’ve all great. (And I’m a picky eater.) So recommend this if you’re interested. Worth it.

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Oh, and Nova Dog is coming along. She has a few issues but then don’t we all? Here is an example of her latest craft project (above): whittling the wires that come out of my reading lamp but now fixed by Superhero. (Skillsz!) (And yes, the lamp was unplugged so she and her tongue are ok.)

And who, in god’s name, needs SparkNotes for Harry Potter? ….

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The Nether World – George Gissing (1889)

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The Nether World is a Victorian perspective on the underground world of those mired in poverty and for whom there is little to no way out of their precarious situations. It’s not a happy read at all, and in fact, it’s rather hard to keep going at times as the sheer grind of hopelessness and filth never ever ends. However, I imagine that this is a more realistic depiction of how life was for the Victorian underclass of London and other large cities. Dickens also covered these lives of the unlucky masses, but at least he would tip the scales every now and then with some levity. Gissing – not so much.

It’s also a tale of intrigue covering, as it does, the possibility of inherited wealth from an elderly man, but as immediate wealth tends to do, it leads to unhappiness for many of those who believe that they may be in line to receive it. The world that Gissing’s characters inhabit is unrelenting in its tough life for each of the characters; there is no future to look forward to, just the day-to-day needs of food, water, and a roof over your head, and despite how grinding these descriptions were, I think it was actually these pictures that pulls you as the reader into the lives of these unfortunate people. Most of the characters have not done anything to deserve these hard lives – it was just an unlucky twist of birth and geography that seems to have thrown the majority of the people into these situations.

Still, despite the oppressiveness of this lack of resources, families still stick together (not always happily), and most people work and continue to live their lives even if they do end up living at the bottom of the financial pile with few options to escape out of their worlds.

Gissing was a naturalistic writer (i.e. didn’t sugar-coat things and has a strong sense of location), and this is demonstrated by the way that the entire book is set in this dark poor world. No one escapes to the world of money. People dream of doing so, but their dreams end up thwarted, and I imagine that this POV echoes reality of the time: how does someone born into poverty escape it without getting money for education, useful work experience, knowing the right people? (Not so different from nowadays, one could argue…)

As a rather long book for me (404 pages), this title clearly falls into the Scary Big Book category but as I have learned to read huge-page-count projects on my ancient Kindle (as opposed to a physical copy), it wasn’t nearly as overwhelming as it might have been. (I tend to get rather intimidated by large page numbers – not by the content, just the numbers. Nutty, I know.) If I’m honest though, I must admit that the middle bit was rather b-o-r-i-n-g and the number of characters was a bit confusing at times. Uncertain whether to blame the author or me about that!

So – a rather glum read overall. I’ve read other Gissing’s (New Grub Street and The Odd Women), but I think I might be done with him now…

Six American Plays for Today – Bennet Cerf (1961)

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When I was at the library the other day (shocking, I know), I was searching for a copy of Lorraine Hansberry’s play “A Raisin in the Sun.” I’m still trying to read classics every now and then, and (at the same time) fill in some holes in my ongoing Century of Books project (which now has its own page, btw), and so thought this would do the trick in several ways.

Additionally, I’ve been dying to go to a live community play here in town, but the choices have been slim pickings lately…

So, having difficulty finding a copy of the Hansberry play on the shelves, I got to taking down copies of other similar books that might have had the play contained inside, and thus, this rather old edition of “Six American Plays for Today” (when “today” was 50 years ago) leaped into my hands.

plays_index_revI don’t really have a really deep background in drama or plays, and so it’s almost guaranteed that almost any play that I pick up is going to be one with which I am unfamiliar (apart from the usual school syllabus ones). So, I opened this book and bingo, it had an unadulterated copy of the Hansberry play along with five other plays, none of which I’d ever heard about. Undaunted, I checked it out.

This was an interesting read in several ways, one of which was that a number of these plays are a product of their time (unsurprisingly). When this edition was released, “A Raisin in the Sun” had recently been published in 1959 at the height of the U. S. Civil Rights movement and the script has a very much “in the present moment” feel of it as it covers housing discrimination, racial relations, and other hard-hitting topics. (See review of “A Raisin in the Sun” here.)

The other plays were ones with which I was not familiar. I had heard of Tennessee Williams and his “A Streetcar Named Desire” but had not read any of his work (or this one, Camino Real), but the other playwrights were new to me. So, I just worked my way forward through the book, and had a fine time, really.

However, I have to say that in retrospect that these plays aren’t really that memorable apart from Dore Shary’s Sunrise at Campobello (about the life of FDR) and Lillian Helman’s Toys in the Attic (although upon reflection, I have no idea why it’s called that title…) Perhaps it would be a different experience to see these plays live in a stage setting. (I bet it would.)

Despite that rather pallid review, this made a nice change in pace…

New Book Pile to Peruse…

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As happens in life, I happened to perhaps/maybe/might have got a *little* busy with the One-Click option and so these particular titles have shown up in my postbox – lots of new titles to choose from this summer and beyond…

To sum up (bottom to top):

  • My Planet – Mary Roach (NF science/nature writing)
  • The Button Box – Lynn Knight (NF social history)
  • The Making of Home – Judith Flanders (NF social history)
  • The Best American Science and Nature Writing (2011) – ed. Mary Roach
  • Between You and Me – Mary Norris (NF – writing/editing memoir)
  • At the Edge of the Orchard – Tracey Chevalier (F)
  • The New Jim Crow – Michelle Alexander (NF Af-Am history/sociology)

And then one extra title that didn’t make it in the pic as it only just arrived today: Love Nina: A Nanny Writes Home – Nine Stibbe (NF).

Hmm. Mostly nonfiction, I see. I’m into facts right now. 🙂

Any reccies to start with?

<Rubs my hands with glee at thought of lots of good reading this summer>

A Raisin in the Sun – Lorraine Hansberry (1959)

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Wow. What a powerful play this was to read. I can only imagine what it’s like to experience as live theater.

A Raisin in the Sun* is a play (and then film) published in 1959 which sees the lives of an African-American family in Southside Chicago as they try and decide which of several potential directions their family could take in the near future.

I’d heard of this play and the film, but never seen either of them, and, in the mood for a play-reading of some description, this came to the surface. Read in the twenty-first century, this was an intense read (especially towards the end of the final act), so I can only imagine how powerful this message was when it was presented on stage. It certainly took my breath away, let me tell you.

A_Raisin_in_the_Sun_1959Hansberry was awarded the New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play of the Year for this work, which was notable for a boatload of reasons: she was the youngest playwright to receive this award, the first black writer, the fifth woman, and although it’s a hard-hitting play, it was met with really good critical acclaim (apart from that award) and Hansberry was recognized for being one of the first American playwrights to realistically portray the African-American experience on stage.

Set in the 1950’s, the play focuses on the Younger family, a working class family who are just about to receive a large check from the life insurance of one of the family’s patriarchs. As money easily can do, the idea of the large financial check has each family member thinking about s/he would like to spend it leading, naturally, to conflict that reflects American life and values during the 1950’s. Does the family sort out this situation? You’ll have to read it to find out.

And it’s this conflict, which arises in the very first scene, that threads throughout the play spanning a wide range of topics from housing, discrimination, employment, addiction to hope, optimism, and being true to yourself. I’m wondering if this is a literary work that’s read in a lot of high schools and if so, do the students really appreciate the strength of the narrative arc?

Very curious about seeing the film with Sydney Poitier (1961)  now…

* The title of the play comes from poem by Langston Hughes (“A Dream Deferred”):

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up

Like a raisin in the sun?

Or fester like a sore –

And then run?

Does it stink like rotten meat?

Or crust and sugar over –

Like a syrupy sweet?

Maybe it just sags

Like a heavy load.

Or does it explode?

Happenstance – Carol Shields (1980)

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Another reread (and another gamble — totally not like me at all to reread titles but there you go. Life is not for sissies.) So, this was a reread kept in the TBR pile because obvs I enjoyed it the first time around. However, this time around, it’s not quite that same level of excellence (and I’m being pretty generous here in how I describe that). It was published in 1980, which means, probably, that it was written during the 1970’s and goodness me, how the time seems to have been a dreadful decade for writing novels. I don’t know what was going then that novel writing seems to have been so impacted by Free Love and all that hippy stuff during the previous two decades but when it’s viewed through the perspective of the 21st century eyes, it’s makes me cringe rather.

So this novel is very very dated in things which made it rather a challenge to pick up and enjoy. (Again, we’re back to the “why didn’t I put it down and just move on to another title” question but we’ll leave that discussion for another day.)

The novel’s structure is divided into two to reflect the two views of the two people involved in the marriage which is at the heart of the story. The husband and wife are two fairly ordinary middle class people living in Canada during the 1970’s and the book is written so that there is no wrong way to start the text. Either way (whether you start with the husband’s or the wife’s perspective) will worked in this case.

The couple involved are very “normal” – no weird sex proclivities (which seems to be a common theme in this era’s novels) but they have different views of the same events that have happened to both of them. It reminded me of a rather unsuccessful homage to the books “Mr. Bridge” and “Mrs. Bridge”  except set in the hackneyed 1970’s era. Perhaps I have become more immune to things (or the world in general has) but this whole storyline of sexual permissiveness and experimentation, of “open” marriages and free-range parenting seems rather hackneyed now. Perhaps it was really edgy and fresh when it was published 30 years ago….

So – this was a very meh book for me and one that I will happily donate to FoL for their book sale and to the next reader. (Another point to consider is that this may have suffered following the excellent read of “Brooklyn”…) I know now that I am officially done with Carol Shields’ work. (See review of “A Celibate Season” here.) Sigh. Oh, to have that time back
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Moving on, what’s up next? That, my fellow reading friends, is what we have to find out…

French Milk – Lucy Knisley (2007)

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Another good graphic novel title from Lucy Knisley written with the same trademark sense of humor and feel as her other autobiographical books. This particular title covered Lucy’s trip to France with her mom when they both rented an apartment close to the center of Paris. (Who are these people who do such things? Do they not have to work? Are they independently wealthy?)

Anyway, it was a pretty fun light-weight read one evening (although there were times when I wanted to bonk Lucy on the head for complaining about things every now and then. Appreciate what you have, my friend.) I do adore her artwork and am looking forward to whatever she publishes next. (That’s the sign of a good author!)

If you like Knisley, try her other reads here: