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.
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.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel is part of my reading books about writing, even though it’s not a book about craft. It’s more about how to live as a writer, finding the time to write and read in every nook and cranny of your day, how to live passionately for the things you believe in, and possibly how to incorporate those things into your writing. And how writing can be therapy and how therapy sometimes needs to happen before you can write about what you most need to.
The thing from this book that I can’t get out my head is an image of him writing on the subway, on the way to his cater-waiter job that paid for his life for so long. It’s not about having the perfect space to write, it’s about doing the writing wherever and however you can.
I’m going to be thinking about How to Write an Autobiographical Novel for a long time to come.
Let Me Tell You is a compilation of essays and short stories by Shirley Jackson, who you may know best as the author of “The Lottery”, a story about a stoning that takes place in what otherwise seems to be contemporary America. (In one of the essays, she talks about the genesis of that story. She’d been reading a book about human sacrifice, and, whilst walking her kids to school, started thinking about how such a thing would work in the small town in which she lived.)
It was deeply entertaining – some of the stories were better than the others – but the best part of a good book were her essays. One of the best was when she was describing the old house she and her family lived in, and its ghosts which were sometimes friendly and sometimes not, but by and large seemed to approve of them living there. The whole book was smart and entertaining.
Becky Chambers writes charming science fiction novels that are primarily about all of the forms that love and family take, and Record of a Spaceborn Few is no exception.
Humans have long since left Earth and been integrated into Galactic society, but there are people who still live on the ships they first set out on, constantly improving and working on and changing those ships so people can continue to live comfortably on them. (And in a great touch: those ships are built from dismantled skyscrapers and other buildings and city structures from Earth – the Golden Gate Bridge or the Chrysler Building could be part of any ship.)
The plot comes from the fact that humans are relatively poor and technologically backwards and the Fleet is essentially that small town every teenager wants to leave for the big, exciting city. But there is also at least one person looking to come back, looking for a place to belong.
“All great literature is one of two stories; a man goes on a journey or a stranger comes to town.” – Tolstoy
(Not that the book is on par with Tolstoy, but the quote is relevant here.) Record of a Spaceborn Few is the story of the town and the people in it, full of warmth and love in many different forms. Definitely recommended.
How to Read Novels Like a Professor gives you the tools to better analyze a novel: things like voice and chapter structure and ideas and beginnings and endings. But the thesis of the book is something near and dear to my heart: that you, as a reader, when you engage with a book, you make it better. These are the tools that Foster is giving you to better, more wholly engage with a work of fiction.
This is obviously near and dear to my heart – I write these reviews because they make me a better reader. What was that book about? Do I agree with it? Did I like the characters, and does that matter? Was the language any good? Reflecting on those things and more means I engage with the books I read (even the non-fiction) more deeply and enjoy reading even more than I already do. Caring about things like structure and sentences makes a difference. Knowing how to analyze a story makes a difference.
Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore was a delight. It was exactly what it promised to be: an examination of the standard uniform of various writers, mainly but not exclusively of the 20th century. Full of pictures and pithiness, clothes project an image of who the writers want you to think they are: rebels, an aloof outsider, cultured, whatever.
It should be said that clothes do matter; even if you claim not to care what you wear, you are still conforming (or not) to a standard. Grabbing the top t-shirt on the pile (and bragging about it) says so much about who you are and the position you have in society and the amount of respect you have for those around you (little, I would argue).
Clothes do not make the writer – dressing like Joan Didion will not make you write like her – but they are another way authors express themselves. And it was fun to look at the photos and read what the various authors say about their fashion tics.
(PS I cannot imagine reading this book on a kindle/tablet. Get the hard-cover version and enjoy its design.)
I read The Secret History about a million times in college. To this day, I’m not sure why I was so obsessed with it.
When the weather turned, it seemed like a good time for a re-read. The characters were much the same: so obsessed with finding some ancient Greek definition of beauty that they’d lost all their morality. Donna Tartt’s description of the New England fall and winter were still lovely and haunting and they made me want to spend all my time at a small college in some tiny Eastern state.
What I wasn’t expecting though, was the parallels between Bunny, the tragi-comic character who drives much of the plot, and Donald Trump. They are both bumbling, in over their heads, cruel in a way that doesn’t realize its full consequences, utterly insistent that the world is the way he sees it, and charming (according to Maggie Haberman, Trump is captivating in a one-on-one setting in a way Obama never was). It made it kind of hard to read in spots, honestly.
That parallel made The Secret History surprisingly relevant – I got insight into our current president and the people around him in a way I was not expecting from a book published in 1992.
Recommended, and not just for nostalgia’s sake.
I have a sneaking suspicion that somewhere in Becky Chambers’ creative process for this book she thought, “I really miss Firefly.” This isn’t a criticism, and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet doesn’t read as fanfic. But there is some shared DNA.
Rosemary Harper joins the crew of the Wayfarer as a clerk, running away from something, we don’t know just what. Along the way we get to know her and her crewmates as they journey across the galaxy to create a wormhole from their destination back to civilization. It’s not set up as a series of short stories, but that’s the book’s structure – each interlude tells us something new about one of the crew or the relationship between the everyone. We get to see where everyone shines and what their flaws are.
And it’s also about getting along – and not getting along – with each other. We are different, we come from different cultures, we like different things, but in the end we’re all just trying to make our way in the world. A little understanding goes a long way.
I ended up listening to the audiobook, despite the fact that I’d bought the paperback. I’m glad I have both – I walk a lot, and The Long Way to a Small Angry Planet was good company. But I also like being able to go back and pick out the particular story/chapter I want to re-read in the physical book.
Difficult Women is easily the most literary of all the books I’ve read lately. Roxane Gay is an excellent author, able to express herself clearly and concisely and in a way that makes me appreciate just how good she is. Which is not to say that these stories are overly intellectual or anything. Just… she’s good.
All of the women in these stories have issues with sex, violence, feeling worthless, and the combination thereof. None of them are particularly likable. There is at least one thinly veiled story of Roxane Gay’s own gang rape at the age of 12. I cannot imagine – literally, I can’t.
Are these stories part of her working through that? Maybe? I mean, I suspect the therapy was long and involved and that’s not the kind of thing you can work through whilst writing even one book. Do I think this book of short stories would be completely different if that hadn’t happened? Absolutely, because she would have been a completely different person.
Difficult Women: worth your time.