Catching up on the six books I’ve read since my last bookblog. What these reads have in common was having been recommended by either IRL lit pals or virtual/bloggy/TwitLit types or by nominating committees. I listened to what they said. And here we are, going.
It was September 27th when last I book blogged and Ann Patchett’s Commonwealth [click here] had left me sated but worried; after one has been pleasured by the gifts of a brilliant author, pity the rebound books to which one turns saying, “Well, they’re not Ann Patchett, but a person’s got to read something.”
This time my strategy was to begin by heading to my backlist, those books published at least a decade ago which have been recommended to be but to which I’ve not gotten round. I also thought it would be wise to switch from the literary fiction genre and, too, to cross the pond, thereby starting with a British mystery originally published in 1944.
THE CASE OF THE GILDED FLY, Edmund Crispin, hardback, originally published 1944, 237 pages This is the first in a series of what have been called “classic murder mysteries” featuring the Oxford don Gervase Fen, an erudite, sardonic amateur detective, sort of Miss Marple on steroids and gin. Edmund Crispin is a pseudonym used by Robert Bruce Montgomery, a composer who wrote film scores including ones for the comedic Carry On series and the inexplicable The Brides of Fu Manchu. It was short and fast and quite self-consciously clever, terribly wink and sniggle, aren’t we all witty, wink, wink, let’s have a quick tipple what say? It’s clear Crispin enjoyed having the genre and readers on. Plot: theatre company. Not nice actress murdered. Everyone had a reason. Locked room sort of vibe. But the plot was its own sort of in-joke and I did have a bit of trouble keeping the many characters clear, and I had to look up quite a few unfamiliar words and references, which always delights me. That said, I read it over three days and wish I’d saved it for a snowy afternoon, I think it would have gone down more smoothly that way. Will I read another in the series? Good question. I think if I could find used library copies I might add them to my Great Sphinx of Giza sized TBR wonder-pile, but getting them plucked from there and into my hands? Not sure.
WILDE LAKE, Laura Lipman, Hardcover, 368 pages, William Morrow So, Crispin was good, but didn’t get me over Patchett. Clearly I needed to keep trying. Enough with the backlist, I had a pile of library holds I was going to lose if I didn’t get to them. So, from a classic murder mystery to one of the most skilled practitioners of the modern crime novel/mystery-thriller. There is much-muchness going on in this stand-alone novel and if Crispin is having fun with the genre, Lippman is chocking it so full of itself it almost explodes. One after another secret revealed, multiple twists, perhaps stretching the bounds of credulity. Luisa Brant is elected state’s attorney — like her father once was — and her first murder trial digs up ghosts and childhood traumas “Lu” thought had been left behind or, about which she never even knew to do with her deceased mother, her “took the life of another in self-defense” brother, his friends, her lover, and — well, a lot. All that, and still, fast read. Very. And well done, even if, over-so. Still missing Ms. Patchett.
THE DARKEST SECRET, Alex Marwood, Paperback, 390 pages, Penguin Books Okay, well, Laura Lippman and Stephen King blurbed this one and I feel sure they wouldn’t have done so had they not actually liked it; it’s not as if they’d need the favor returned. It starts with witness statements and proceeds to a story — two stories, full of time jumps — populated by unpleasant people doing unpleasant things, most of which I thought completely predictable and not too interesting. It just didn’t do it for me. But it did it for Lippman and King, so, what do I know? I know I still want a book that can make me stop yearning so much for Ann Patchett. Hmm, okay, back to literary fiction.
NUTSHELL, Ian McEwan, Hardcover, 197 pages, Nan A. Talese Too bad I picked this one. This was a good idea for a short story. A tale narrated by a foetus (McEwan is British, back off) about its awful parents and their awful doings. I loved McEwan’s Atonement fifteen years ago and I guess it’s my flaw that I have found everything he’s written since to be less moving, less in touch and less than involving. This one in particular felt like an exercise, an etude by a very gifted artist when what one wishes for is an original symphony. You know, the kind Ann Patchett writes? Well, this was awfully short, maybe I needed something longer and more involving. Many people and blogs and reviewers have brought the next one to my attention.
A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW, Amor Towles, Hardcover, 462 pages, Viking Count Alexander Ilyich Rostov is a “former person” sentenced by the Bolsheviks to confinement for life in reduced quarters in the garret of Moscow’s Metropol Hotel under promise of death should he exit its doors. This novel began my healing, ending my rebounding from the glories of Ann Patchett and filling me with appreciation for Balzacian detail and story-spinning. Full of idiosyncratic characters, intrigues, and charm to spare, what I loved most about this novel is that it took what was in many ways a tragedy and found in it the plus sides; The Count is an intellectual and an optimist (mostly) who makes the best life out of the limitations by which he is constrained. It made me want to be a better person, to whine less and love and imagine more, and honestly, with all the dark, dismal, dystopian literary fiction being foist upon us nowadays, a novel with an optimistic, positive outlook was not just welcomed, but embraced. Thank you, Count. It was a pleasure spending time with you at the Metropol. You made me feel like there just might be life (and reading) after Ann Patchett. So, let’s stay in the literary fiction lane.
THE WONDER, Emma Donoghue, hardcover, 304 pages, Little, Brown and Company Finally, this. In 1850’s Ireland, Lib, a Florence Nightingale trained nurse, is enlisted to keep watch over a young girl whose family is claiming has been miraculously surviving without food for four months. In an atmosphere made claustrophobic not just by the child’s being nearly bedridden, but also by religion, suspicion, fear, and all varieties of hunger, Lib must come to grips with her own past, her own assumptions and prejudices, and like her patient, determine whether or not to take the nourishment that will give her life. I liked this well enough but the ending felt false to me — I’ve no intention of giving it away — and I was slightly let down by it, feeling that Lib’s philosophical and existential ponderings had been swiftly swept aside making some of her final actions seemed less than plausible. But, I’ve recovered from my Patchett-mourning.
And there we have it, the last six books I’ve read, all sent to me or recommended to me by folks I know. Or, in the case of Crispin, blogs I read. Maybe the next time I read a book by one of my iconic, much-loved, genius authors, I should follow it up by reading their older work until I burn out and am looking for a fix of a different kind?
By the way, today is October 11, National Coming Out Day. I hope that everyone reading this has found in their life the support and courage and love to be who they are, fully and fearlessly. Thank you for spending a few minutes with me. Love and Light, and here I am, going.