Once again, I am unable to keep to my own schedule! My book reviewing habit had to take a back seat during the last half of 2019. (And here I thought I would be in full control of my schedule once I was retired. Surprise!) Weddings and funerals, editing projects and a trip to London. Then the holidays. However, even though I wasn’t writing, I can report some good news about writing. In August, a little piece I had written about my unseemly appetite for corn on the cob was picked up by Woodhall Press for their upcoming anthology, Flash Nonfiction Food, due for publication spring 2020. A real live book with pages and everything. If you can’t wait for spring, you can read a version of it before publication at https://kathryntaylorwrites.com/corn-worth-a-change-of-plans/ . (Trust me, though, it’s not going to be picked up by Best American Essays 2020.) In September, WHYY ran my piece on an unexpectedly warm moment in an otherwise cold place, the Social Security Office in center city Philadelphia. (You can read that one at https://whyy.org/articles/finding-true-social-security-while-waiting-at-two-penn-center/. And since late October, I have been doing research for and writing short histories of the Humanities departments at Princeton University as one of the contributing editors of New Princeton Companion, due out from Princeton University Press in 2021.
I did still manage to do some reading. This post will record my thoughts on books read July through September. Eleven books, all but one novels. Too many to write more than a thumbnail sketch on each. Rather than Fiction (F) and Non-Fiction (NF), I am batching the books by my reactions.
LIKED VERY MUCH
Ginger Bread (F, 2019), Helen Oyememi
I loved this book, although it might not be for everyone. The major story line is a mother relating to her very ill daughter (in bed in a London flat with an additional audience of dolls and plants that talk) the “origin” story of her grandmother’s childhood in Druhâstrana (a country that may or may not exist)). If you just stop worrying about what’s real and what might not be, if you just let yourself fall under the spell of Oyeyemi’s bewitching tale, this (maybe magical) story of three generations of women bound by a ginger bread recipe (that doubles as social currency) is a joy to read. (Oyememi was one of Granta’s Best Young British Novelists in 2013 – when she was 29.)
Rules for Visiting (F, 2019), Jessica Francis Kane
I picked up this book because I read an op-ed by Kane in the New York Times Sunday Review and her “voice” made me smile. This book made me smile, too. Kane’s first-person narrator, 40-year-old landscaper and curmudgeon May Attaway, likes plants more than people, but recognizes she is missing something. In her wry way, augmented with lots of quirky allusions (for example, naming her suitcase Grendel), May shares with us her odyssey as she travels to reconnect with four different friends. in person, in a kind of protest against an increasingly virtual world. The book is filled with sly humor (especially if you like literary jokes), but it also turns out to have real emotional depth as May also reconnects with herself by the end of the book. This is not a Pulitzer Prize or National Book Award novel, although Kane has won a number of prizes for earlier books. But it is a funny, warm, and very satisfying read.
The Dutch House (F, 2019), Ann Patchett
“I’ve been writing the same book my whole life – that you’re in one family, and all of a sudden, you’re in another family, and it’s not your choice, and you can’t get out.” So said Ann Patchett at the Author’s Event we attended last September, apparently quoting herself. I haven’t read all of her novels, but I have read enough of them to understand what she means, as long as “family” is defined very broadly to also mean “place” or “circumstance.” This book is classic Patchett, and I read it in two days. It won’t be one of my favorites (those are Bel Canto and State of Wonder), and I do have some quibbles about the ending. But I was happy to be in Patchett territory, especially as the Dutch house in question (the Eden from which a brother and sister are banished when they are young) is in very recognizable Elkins Park, a suburb of Philadelphia. Fun to catch the Philadelphia area references.
A Gentleman in Moscow (F, 2016), Amor Towles
I think everyone in the world read this book before I finally picked it up. I had mistakenly thought it was a reworking of “An Englishman Abroad,” the BBC television production with Alan Bates as Guy Burgess that I had loved and didn’t want to see ruined. Turns out, of course, that this book is about a Russian gentleman sentenced by the Bolsheviks to house arrest in a grand hotel for 30+ years. I read it to give my brain some breaks while in the middle of a lengthy line-editing project. It is a big old-fashioned Dickensian novel with a great hero and well-drawn characters around him. Unexpected plus: I learned a lot about Russian history from 1900 to 1955.
Big Sky (F, 2019), Kate Atkinson
This is the 5th of Atkinson’s Jackson Brodie novels. Brodie is her very complicated private detective character. Her first several Brodie novels were turned into “Case Histories,” a British crime drama that also ran on PBS more than six years ago. The novels are more than standard crime drama. Kate Atkinson is one of the finest British authors writing today, known for her elegant yet surprisingly clever prose style. And the cases are as much about Brodie working out the puzzle of his own life as about his working out the puzzle of a crime. Here he’s on a case that seems mundane (wife tracking a philandering husband), but ends up including human trafficking and pedophilia. It does get messy, but it’s worth wading through the mess.
Dear Committee Member (F, 2014), Julie Schumacher
This is the epistolary book I mentioned in my June Month of Books. The “hero” is an English professor at a liberal arts college where the liberal arts are now getting short shrift. A year in his life is neatly embedded in letters of recommendation he writes for his students who are seeking jobs far afield from literature. I bought it on my Kindle, a clue that I wasn’t going to take it very seriously. But for English majors in particular, it is heartbreakingly hilarious.
Spring (F, 2019), Ali Smith
I am a big fan of Ali Smith and recommended her two earlier books (Autumn and Winter) without reservation or hesitation. This one is different. The plot is too complicated to summarize in a sentence of two. The lead characters are a depressed, suicidal filmmaker whose best friend has recently died, a young woman in a menial job at a terrible Refugee Removal Center, and a young girl who seems to have miraculous powers. They all end up together in a town in Scotland. The big screen behind all of this is filled with anger about Brexit, refugee detention, social media, Trump, and other ills of the year 2018. I am glad I read the book because I think Smith is a wonderful writer and she’s doing something very interesting in this seasonal quartet. (Summer is due out in August 2020.) But the book is complex (even the darn inside cover flap is confusing), and I miss the light hand and the light undercurrent of humor in the earlier books. If you haven’t read Ali Smith before, I would not recommend starting with this one.
The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life (NF, 2018), Richard Russo
A collection of pieces, many of which appeared elsewhere over the span of a number of years, written primarily for his writing students. Kirkus Review called it a collection of “personal pieces” that would let readers “know the author as a comforting, funny, and welcoming guy.” Publishers Weekly called the pieces “dazzling.” I’ve read a lot of Richard Russo (see next entry) and I’ve met him. He really is a comforting, funny, and welcoming guy. So I enjoyed reading the book. But “dazzling” it isn’t.
Chances Are… (F, 2019), Richard Russo
Four guys, best friends in college and still best friends in their mid sixties, convene from their four corners on Martha’s Vineyard for a Memorial Day reunion. Lots of time is spent in comparing memories, but the crux of the novel is that they all are still trying to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Jacy, a fifth best friend, a young woman also in their college class who had disappeared. The novel dissects the intertwining friendships as it also sets up suspense about the disappearance. The problem is, I figured out what happened just after the mid point of the book, leaving me waiting for the characters to catch up. Plus, the book felt as though it had been written in a hurry: math mistakes in the timeline, sloppy details, an ending that didn’t hang together. Much like the essay collection, I was glad that I had a new Richard Russo book to read, but the book was not dazzling.
How to Write an Autobiographical Novel (NF, 2018): Alexander Chee
Chee is a novelist, essayist, contributing editor to periodicals like the New Republic, and professor of creative writing at Dartmouth. He has an interesting backstory, growing up half-Korean and gay in Maine. His second novel, A Queen of the Night, was a bestseller, and this book is a collection of essays that explore how he got himself from his boyhood in Maine to being the author of that bestseller. He is an important presence (even when not present) at creative non-fiction writing workshops and conferences, which is why I picked up this book. His voice just did not connect with me, and I found myself having to work through it as though it were assigned reading. The other challenge: At the same time, I had recently started reading the comic novel Loudermilk, which is a wicked satire of the barely disguised, and very famous, MFA program at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Iowa plays a big part in Chee’s essays, and it was just an unfortunate coincidence that the mocking voice of Loudermilk was providing background music in my head, even though I had stopped reading it.
A Better Man (F, 2019), Louise Penny
The 15th Inspector Gamache novel, this was a big disappointment. The plot was formulaic, some situations more than usually implausible, and the writing bordering on lazy, with slap-dash sentence construction and frequent repetition of phrases and even whole sentences. When she used liturgical language to describe a Christ-like Gamache… that was just a step too far. On finishing the book, I wondered if it had just been that I had gotten tired of the series, so I sampled some reviews. It turned out I was not alone. For example, the reviewer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (my childhood morning paper) wrote, “her recurring cast of eccentric supporting characters is becoming tiresome. “A Better Man” is a good read, but it’s not on the level [of] (and far more pretentious than) this author’s best earlier works.” I’ll be interested to see whether there is a #16 and, if so, in which direction it may go.