What I read on my vacation: a bunch more and two really special ones
Sunday, January 23, 2011
“God on the Rocks,” by Jane Gardam: Gardam is the author of many novels published in England, but only a few, most notably the wonderful “Old Filth” and its companion, “The Man in the Wooden Hat,” have been released in the U.S. So when I saw this one, written in 1978 but available here only in 2010, I grabbed it. In hard copy--an addition to my actual bookshelf. It’s the story of a child, 8-year-old Margaret, observing the people around her, including her overwhelmed mother, Ellie; her religious fanatic of a father; the maid who takes Margaret for outings and has a little recreation herself; and several people from Ellie’s past. It was very good. Gardam’s books ARE very good. But I have to say I wasn’t as wild about it as I was about the first two of hers I read. Still, any Jane Gardam is better than no Jane Gardam. She’s going to be reading at Brookline Booksmith on Feb. 16. I’m definitely planning to be there.
“Mary Ann in August,” by Armistead Maupin: Some people read mysteries; some read sci-fi; my go-to fun books are Maupin’s “Tales of the City” series. I was delighted to read this latest addition, though I’m not sure it would enchant the uninitiated. But for me, another of its pleasures was realizing that there was one in the series that I had missed, “Michael Tolliver Lives.” So--here’s where the Kindle is especially fun--I downloaded it and in just a few seconds I was ready to fill in the gaps in my knowledge of my old friends from Barbary Lane.
“All Is Forgotten, Nothing Is Lost” by Lan Samantha Chang: This is a novel about poets and writing poetry, written by the director of the legendary University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop. The book is set in a similarly rarified and competitive nest of writing students, disciples of an influential and charismatic teacher, Miranda Sturgis, whose professional stature and long shimmering hair are evocative of a closer to home poetry goddess. This novel brought up the classic questions of whether or not writing can be taught, what a poet’s goals should be, and where creative satisfaction can come from. There are seekers here--of fame and fortune, of pure and non-careerist art, of the roots of creativity, of roots. Nothing comes easily, even when it seems to, no one is immune to doubt, and sometimes life interferes with creation. Just like real life.
“Rescue” by Anita Shreve: I was at the beach and I often find Shreve’s books fun to read. This one, not so much.
Now, two gems, “Great House” by Nicole Krauss and “Russian Winter” by Daphne Kalotay. I loved these books, and probably for similar reasons--complexity and nuance of character and plot and ambition of scope. Each book bounces through time and place. Each is an engaging read. And at the center of each are flawed human beings with secrets, half-buried memories, and histories of loss.
“Great House” could almost have been called “great desk” for much of the story, since, at its core, is a hulking desk that moves from person to person. But toward the end, the enlarging and facinating meaning of the term “great house” becomes clear. “Russian Winter” weaves together the worlds of ballet, Soviet Russia, estate jewelry, auction houses, poetry, and the translation from one culture to another of both literature and lives. And there’s also romance. A lovely book. Well, both of them. And good meaty tales for winter. Read both!