Where's the book?

Monday, June 30, 2014

What is more important than Truth and Beauty, #27?

Lucy Grealy was a poet, essayist, and memoirist who had lost part of her jaw to childhood cancer and suffered through years of chemo, radiation, and failed reconstructive surgeries. Ann Patchett, author of Bel Canto and other novels, was Lucy’s best friend. This beautiful book covers the 20 years of their friendship, their fame, and their pains, loves, and losses. Grealy was not an easy friend; filled with joy and life at times, at other times overwhelmingly needy and demanding. Even if Patchett only did half of the things for Grealy she claims, even if she only gave half of the love and the loyalty she writes about, she was still one of the most giving, loving, and loyal friends ever. I was moved to tears and also cries of frustration at times, and the book made me question the extent I am willing to sacrifice for a friend. It made me want to be friends with Ann Patchett (which I already wanted to be because she owns a bookstore in Nashville, where she lives!) and it also made me want to read Grealy’s memoir, Autobiography of a Face.

Friday, June 27, 2014

An American Classic: Crossing to Safety, #26


Beautifully crafted, wise and moving, Crossing to Safety is a book for grown-ups. It’s the story of four lives, two couples, following them from their twenties as beginning academics in the depression through 40 years of trials and joys. And despite covering forty years and moving from Wisconsin to Vermont to Italy and back again, the entire book actually takes place in just one day. Wallace Stegner wrote Crossing to Safety late in his career and it is a quiet, compassionate, powerful look at friendship, marriage, youthful optimism and hard-won wisdom.

“How do you make a book that anyone will read out of lives as quiet as these?” the narrator Larry Morgan asks. You make it just like this.

Saturday, June 7, 2014

Keeping up, catching up

A somwhat unexciting threesome:

#23 How to Be Good, by Nick Hornby. I enjoy Hornby's writing, especially About a Boy (like the movie too) and High Fidelity (ditto), but this one lacked his usual charm. Perhaps he isn't as comfortable in the skin of a woman, particularly this very unlikable woman. Katie Carr, the narrator, is a family doctor, a profession she seems to think warrants her immediate promotion to sainthood. She is a "good person," as she tells us over and over, as if palpating tummies and checking for ear infections makes her Mother Teresa. Her husband David is a professional crank, who works (quite minimally) as the writer of a column in their local paper. In his column, "The Angriest Man in Holloway," and in their daily life, he carps and complains about everything that's wrong with their lives, their town, and their world. Katie is desperate for David to be nicer, happier, less impossible to live with. She's pretty cranky and miserable herself, which she blames on him. But when he undergoes an almost magical conversion into a kinder, gentler person, she is even more miserable, complaining and criticizing constantly. Is it because if David is the good guy in their marriage, she becomes the bad guy? Is it because she's impossible to satisfy, no matter how David behaves? Those questions go pretty much unexplored, as do so many things in the book -- questions aren't answered, characters flit in and out, people behave in absurd ways and their behaviors are never explained. It's a cool premise, but an unsatisfying book, and the writing often feels thin and rushed. I wish that the really good writer of About a Boy would step in and do a better version of this story. Where did he go?

#24 Whose Body? by Dorothy L. Sayers. Seems like re-reading books I once loved is a theme lately -- and it's doesn't always pan out (see here). But I was in the mood for a good old-fashioned British mystery, something with a little more heft than an Agatha Christie, but a little less sturm und drang than a current Elizabeth George. So I picked up the first of the Lord Peter Whimsy mysteries by Dorothy Sayers. I had read the entire series years ago, long enough that I don't really remember much about any of them, except that I thoroughly enjoyed them. And, wonderfully, this book didn't disappoint. Lord Peter was just as I remembered him: charming, urbane, flippant with a tragic dark side. And his wonderful manservant Bunter was also just as loyal, intelligent, and crafty as I remembered. And I had completely forgotten the solution to the mystery, which made it all the more fun. Book number two in the series, Clouds of Witness, will be coming soon. Good beach read, I think.

#25 Lady Susan, by Jane Austen. I think I've run out of good Jane Austen stuff. I've read all her books a zillion times. I've seen the movies so many times that I can recite Keira Knightley's or Emma Thompson's lines along with them. And I've even read books about the books (see here and here). I can't bear the thought of reading her unfinished works, The Watsons and Sandition, which feels like it would be so unsatisfying. So I finally turned to Lady Susan, her short, early epistolary novel, and the only complete Austen work I hadn't sampled. While as much (or nearly as much) of a pleasure as all of Jane's work, it seems obvious that this is an early attempt, particularly in the abrupt conclusion, that steps in when the letters seem to become too complicated for the youthful author to continue, and ties all the little plot strands up in a neat bow. But while they continue, the letters are a pleasure to read, particularly the ones from the Lady herself, who is a heartless, compassionless adventuress. She is cruel to her daughter, first ignoring her, then forcing her to marry a man she does not care for. She is cruel to her "friends," stealing a husband from one, enticing another's foolish brother to fall in love with her against his family's wishes and his own good judgement. Her letters are divinely nasty; here's a sample from one to her friend Alicia, bemoaning her disappointment that because of Alicia's husband's illness, Lady Susan will not be able to come stay with her in town: "My dear Alicia, of what a mistake were you guilty in marrying a Man of his age -- just old enough to be formal, ungovernable and to have the Gout -- too old to be agreeable, and too young to die." How's that for heartless? It's a short, light, fun read, but really only for Janeites who need to complete their collections.