An oldie but a goodie

I mentioned in an earlier post that I’ve been in a bit of a reading slump, despite the 60-some-odd books on my to-read pile. (Hell, maybe because of the 60-ish books on that to read pile.) So naturally, I pulled Brideshead Revisited off the shelf. I mean, what better way to deal with a slump than reading Evelyn Waugh’s masterpiece?

Because it is a masterpiece. It manages to be both silly and serious – the relationships between people are both lighthearted and the most important parts of our lives. This relationship – or rather these relationships that Charles Ryder has with both Sebastian and Julia Flyte, of the family that owns Brideshead, form who he is. I’d call it a coming-of-age story, except that it extends well into Charles’ 20s. Tonally, The Secret History owes it a debt.

If you’ve let this one pass you by, consider Brideshead Revisited. It’s worth your time.

On Being Angry

I saw a tweet a couple of weeks ago, wondering why the media was continuing to focus on men and their idea about the 2020 election when the real story was how angry women are. How done we are with all this bullshit, the casual harassment, the serial rapist that’s in the White House, every story that has come out from #MeToo. (Because y’all of course: #MeToo.)

Ninth House by Leigh Bardugo takes all of that anger – presumably her anger – and puts it into Alex Stern. She is a former teenaged drug addict who is found surrounded by a few people, mostly men, who had been brutally murdered. She had no blood on her, but she was so high that she was never a suspect. Oh, and she can see ghosts. The plot starts when, in the aftermath, Yale decides it needs her to keep their secret societies in check. The eight main societies each specialize in a particular type of magic, and a ninth house keeps an eye on each of them to make sure nothing gets out of hand or the students in them don’t get too greedy. Alex wants to be good, wants to fit in, but things keep happening. Eventually, her anger proves to be a very useful tool solving the central mystery.

It is scary and good and depicts rape, sexual assualt, and college students being the assholes that college students can be. Especially when alcohol is involved. It also features them occasionally being hit over the head with blunt objects when that happens.

But mostly, Ninth House wants to remind you how good and productive anger can be. I am here for it. You should be too.

Revisiting an old love

I read The Secret History about a million times while in college. So reading it again was a bit more like comfort than exploring anything new or looking to discover anything new.

And yet, there is something in a book you can re-read that many times. While in college, I was in love with the over the top aesthetic of this book. Now, it’s hard not to look at the characters and see tragedy written all over them. Henry, the scholar who has always been able to do what he wants; Charles and Camilla, twins who can’t live apart, not even when they need to; Francis, who needs to be allowed to be himself when he’s not at college; Bunny, fatuous and full of charm but irritating as hell; and Richard, who just wants to fit in.

I still love the aesthetic of it, the romanticism of a small college in a New England town, the fascination with beauty that is both the author’s and Richard’s, who also happens to be our narrator.

I can’t at all tell you what it would be like to approach this book, written pre-internet, as an adult almost 30 years later. All I can tell you is that I still love The Secret History, whether its because the book is great or because I loved it so much as a twenty-year-old. I will always recommend it.

Slumps and books I’m not sure are any good

I’ve been in something of a reading slump lately. Including with this book. I started Paris in the Present Tense ready for its atmosphere and characters and sank into the first chapter. After that, every time I picked it up, I read slightly less and was slightly less interested in the story. Once I was halfway through the book I found myself not caring almost at all.

I don’t think it was the story, about an older man, a failed musician, who is still fit and exercises daily, whose grandson is dying and through a series of events ends up in a street fight and kills a young man (who, it should be said, was about to kill him). You root for him, but I’m not sure you should. And I didn’t care enough to explore the middle ground.

But was it the book or was it my slump? It’s hard to tell, but I can’t recommend Paris in the Present Tense, despite my initial delight with it.

Sometimes YA Books should be read by teenagers and not adults

Life Inside My Mind is a young adult book, with essays written by 31 authors who either have a mental illness of some sort or are related and have had to deal with someone else’s mental illness in a very close way (eg taking care of a family member with Alzheimers, adopting a grandchild with PTSD). The stories are, in some cases, incredibly personal, narrating a specific occasion where their illness has changed their life.

I found the book to be generally fine. You can tell that most of these authors have practiced their stories with their therapists and even the most personal have a distance to them, a reassurance that everything is going to be ok.

My teenaged daughter, however, ate this book up, reading it in maybe less than 24 hours. That suggests that my ambivalence may be because I am not the intended audience for Life Inside My Mind. So: if you need to buy a book for a teenager, this could be a good one. For an adult, maybe not so much.

A mystery in translation

For all of my love of reading books about Paris, they’re usually books written by English-language authors. Not French authors in translation. I found The Nicolas Le Floch Affair – a murder mystery that takes place in 1774, translated from the French – I grabbed it mostly as an intellectual exercise to see how French popular writing is different from English popular writing.

So, how is it different? Well, there is a LOT more attention paid to the food. LOTS. Meals were routinely described, with recipes given in the text of the novel along with complements to the chef. I’m not going to lie – reading this book made me hungry. Clothing, too, was described in more detail. Even though these are police officers, mostly un-fancy, they also did have to go to Versailles to talk to the king, and both their regular wardrobes and court attire were described. In short, between the food and the clothes: atmosphere matters.

The other difference that took time to get over was sentence structure. In English, there is an idea (probably from Hemingway) that shorter and simpler is better. The Nicolas Le Floch Affair had, in contrast, very rambling sentences. They would have been a disaster to diagram. There was definitely an adjustment period.

The mystery itself was fairly standard: a Nicolas’ lover is murdered at the beginning of the book, he stands accused of the crime and has to find the real culprit. It’s the fourth in the series, so there were some references to earlier books that I didn’t get, but they were easy to skip over.

I am considering reading the earlier books, just for more practice. Plus, the historical period is fun. The Nicolas Le Floch Affair is worth your relaxation time.

Are all melodramas shaggy?

Shadow of Night and The Book of Life are books two and three, respectively in the All Souls Trilogy. The trilogy itself is a fun adventure story, starring a woman, Diana Bishop. She’s a researcher and witch who has stumbled upon a book about the history of all of three creature types: demon, vampire, and witch. The book goes back into the library at Oxford at the beginning of the the first book in the trilogy, and the remaining books are dedicated to getting back.

There are countless characters and subplots and lots of world building details. The author is a historian, so all of that information rings true and is told with so much affection that you can’t help but also be drawn into that affection. But the story is longer than it should have been with more characters than there needed to be – I wish it had been tighter and concise.

But then it might have lost its soul – I wrote that the first book was a melodrama, and it was. The second and third books are too. Everything is heightened, and it’s not just the life and death of the characters, it’s the lives and deaths of the entirety of creature-hood. The shagginess of the tale might be a feature, not a bug. It’s a better melodrama because of the over-elaboration and too many characters. It would have lost its soap opera-ness without them.

The trilogy is fun and makes for a good light read when you have plenty of time for it. I both started and ended this trilogy on different vacations and that was the right time to read it.

A stranger comes to town

Many stories start out with either “a stranger came to town” or “xx decided to leave town”. Movement implies change and adventure, apparently. In The Near Witch, a stranger comes to the town of Near, but only Lexi, our main character, can see him. At least at first. His arrival coincides with children starting to go missing. As you can imagine, the townspeople, once they figure out that there is a mysterious stranger in their midst, immediately blame him. Lexi and our stranger have already started to look for the children and to prove his innocence. And yes, the witches of Near are involved, as the title implies.

The Near Witch is a re-release of V E Schwab’s first book, and you can tell that it’s a first book – the plotting isn’t as tight, everything’s a little shaggier than in her later books. But the story’s spark is there, and you genuinely want to know what’s going to happen and care about the characters. It reads a little more like a YA book than an adult book, even though it’s officially an adult book.

Recommended.

Read your broccoli

This collection of George Orwell’s essays was so interesting and relevant. I would say that if you are inclined to write about politics, even to tweet about them or write a post on Facebook, you would benefit from reading his essays. Orwell was famously interested in and wrote well about politics. His points about fascism in Britain during the 1930s and while WWII was going on are relevant to our current political situation.

His essays cover many topics, not just politics (though if you want to own your own copy of Politics and the English Language, it’s in here), but also how terrible it actually was to live at a boarding school, how terrible books start to seem when you have to work amongst them all the time, and what it was like to fight in the Spanish Civil War.

Would I recommend it? Absolutely. Just be aware that this is more about eating your broccoli – necessary and good for you – than the fun of eating dessert. Luckily, you can break it off into small, essay-sized chunks.

Thoughtful Kindness

Evvie Drake is a mess. Her husband – a terrible person, shown mostly in flashbacks – dies in a car accident in the first scene of the book. Evvie is in a complicated emotional space. She was in the process of leaving him when she got the phone call. Emotionally, she’s a disaster, both mourning her husband and convinced that she’s a horrible person.

Enter Dean, a former Yankees pitcher with the World Series rings to prove that he used to be one of the best. He’s retired early from the game due to a case of the yips that no one has been able to diagnose. He’s a friend of a friend and needs a place away from everything to figure some things out. Evvie has an apartment on the back of the house, so that’s convenient.

They both need to heal. Evvie Drake Starts Over is about how you heal – the time it takes, the dumb things you do and say, the arguments you have, the way you ignore therapy as a solution until you do something so stupid that you finally give in.

And yes, Evvie and Dean have a relationship beyond just landlord-tenant.

Overall Evvie Drake Starts Over is so sweet and kind and thoughtful that I didn’t want to put it down. And it’s not due back at the library for a couple of weeks, so I might just read it again, for a double-dose of likable characters who are trying to do the right thing.