*pops head up out of blanket and pile of books*
Yup! There’s someone in there! It’s me! I’ve been buried deep through the Looking Glass in many, many a curious and curiouser sort of world this fall and winter- some the sort of curious that would garner many a Cheshire cat grin, and admittedly, some of the sort that would make “Off with their head!” seem like a reasonable response. But it has meant that I’ve been rather silent in these parts for a bit. I have sent a few paper airplanes up through the rabbit hole and written a few reviews elsewhere, but now its time to wipe off the grime of the Moscow streets, wipe my glasses of the mist from the Irish fields stamp my feet of moss from German gardens and resurface once more.
As I’ve been absent for a bit, it presents me with an opportunity: to review books at a distance and see what I think either months, weeks or days later. Usually I’m a fan of recording my first impressions, giving an author their due of whatever emotions (positive or negative!) they’ve stirred up in me in the review, with my sharpest memories of quotes or images that I responded to fully intact.
But the more I read, the more I realize that the books that matter are the ones that truly have something that stay with you. Sometimes it’s a plotline, sometimes it’s a scene or an exchange of views between characters, sometimes it’s a new insight about history- sometimes it’s just a single line that matters. But my brain keeps throwing these things up for notice again and again, which means they increasingly matter in my actual life. They pop in to help me process something that’s happened to me, motivate me to make changes in my life, to aid me in making decisions. They become the musicale in my head, to paraphrase Orhan Pamuk, the ongoing murmur of voices that keeps me company as I forge ahead.
Accordingly, I thought I’d separate out my reads from the last few months into two categories: The Ones That Are Fading (Or Already Gone) and The Ones That Have Lasted (Even If Only In Part). I’ll still let you know what they’re about, of course- what fades for me might be bright forever for you. You never know- I certainly wouldn’t have guessed it with some of these- and to be honest with you while I was writing I changed my mind on the place of at least one of these- once I started talking, I realized I had more to say than I thought. These might not be as polished as I might wish, but it’s December 31st and I’m on a deadline, so let’s get ‘er done!:
The Ones That Are Fading (Or Already Gone)
Missing, Presumed by Susie Steiner
This is a missing person story with your typical strange opening- a girl missing with her phone and all her money and valuables right there and the door open. Is she dead? Did she run? But why would a talented, lovely girl at university with a solid boyfriend and seemingly great family run? You’ll never guess, guys- ALL IS NOT WHAT IT SEEMS. I wrote, briefly, at the time that I considered it above average, but with distance, the mystery itself is actually below average. It’s not well drawn and brings in some shock and awe (that isn’t that shocking) at the end to distract you from that. The only thing that brings up the level of this book is Steiner’s determined study of the lead detective’s warty, confused, complicated personality. She allows Manon to be complex in a way that does not inspire admiration and to be “just like us” in ways that are both relatable and pitiful and heartbreaking. I wish Steiner had just stuck to this- we didn’t need to know what case she was working on at all to study her personal life- in fact it might have been a more compelling mystery if we were barely told what it was. As it is, it’s too much of what it’s bad at and not quite unflinching enough at what it’s good at, offering us a cop-out pat ending that felt like an undeserved bone. I predict I’ll barely remember what this was about this time next year- pass.
The Faraway Nearby by Rebecca Solnit
Oh man, I’m going to get in trouble for having a Solnit book on this list, aren’t I? Solnit has a fairly devoted fan base, which I understand, but I think that this particular book is for a very specific audience at a very specific time. Solnit is writing about dealing with her grief after the death of her mother and at the same time having to reckon with what seems like some pretty difficult family history, and she sinks pretty deeply inwards in order to make that happen, with a book that is literally constructed to fold inwards and then open out again towards the world. As an overall metaphor, that’s brilliant- however there are a bit too many metaphors inside the big one for me to take it entirely seriously and it really became quite a slog to get through in the middle. If you’re not going through grief or a big emotional change, I’d say save this one until you are, or you might waste the experience like I feel I have probably done. As it is, all I’ll remember of this book is those damned peaches.
Jane and Prudence by Barbara Pym
I really loved Excellent Women. I think my review here made that more than clear. It was one of those books that shows you the kindness and understanding that you thought you’d never see for a particular topic, with some (albeit quiet) badassery on the side. But I am sorry to tell you that Jane and Prudence doesn’t live anywhere remotely near the land that produced those insights. It’s the story of two college roommates who have followed very different paths since they left university- one into marriage and children and a somewhat ineffective career as a retiring vicar’s wife and the other into a thoroughly dissatisfying career as a secretary and eternally-in-unrequited-passion partner in crime. While undoubtedly surface descriptions that many women have lived, Pym doesn’t breathe any life into those words the way she did with the quiet ladies of Excellent Women. It ultimately meanders and backslides into a pretty cynical conclusion about people that feels probably true, but also less immediately true than it should feel after reading two hundred pages about it. I don’t understand what this book was for, in the end.
South Riding by Winifred Holtby
South Riding details the comings and goings of the lowest rungs of the gentry, the prosperous middle class, and the struggling poor in the location of the same name. It centers around a few town council proposals and the ramifications for a circle of diffuse people as to whether or not they go through or not. I wrote at the time that this turned out to be unexpectedly absorbing and an undercover epic, and it’s true. There are far more major chords and windswept cliffhangers than you’d think a story of this seemingly small scale could merit- but they all feel earned. Our two main characters have satisfyingly complex lives and make frequently difficult and believable decisions that I appreciated watching. And not only is there drama, the story has a real social conscience. Holtby is insistent that her readers see the consequences of small decisions, especially for those most vulnerable, and especially for those who are so worn down by all the little things over time that the smallest thing can be the end. Although this is a worthy object, it winds up making sizable chunks of this thing feel rather like an overly earnest morality lesson rather than an entirely geniune resolution to a story. Of course, while that may have been more important in 1936, in 2016, it made me sigh instead of thrill to an emotionally satisfying close to character’s journeys. Even now, I would state it as my opinion that if you want to lecture people inside something you’re telling them is a novel, you better have such a damn good story wrapped around it that they don’t even mind. Few are the novels that can manage it. This was not one of them.
You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott
I say again, The End of Everything is the best of her formula. Everything else I’ve read reads a bit like just that- a formula. Including this one. This one is about the dirty undercover world of high-stakes gymanstics (which, points for being unfortunately topical, I guess). It centers on a girl who missed her first opportunity to qualify for the path to the Olympics and is in the midst of what will be her last chance before, horror of horrors, she can’t hold off the natural development of her teenage body any longer. But then some filth starts filtering to this shining surface, and as with every other Megan Abbott novel, we learn that the intensity, power and drive of teenage girls is never to be underestimated: indeed, when combined with the natural lack of brain development and no understanding of perspective, it’s downright dangerous. This one is told mostly from the perspective of a mother living through this horrifying discovery, which I thought took away some of the power of the unreliable teenage narrator and also some of the suspense, because normally functioning adult faculties give us too much certainty about the world. I also think that we’ve seen the story of a parent realizing horrible things about their “innocent” kids one too many times on Law and Order. Meh. Big ol’ meh. Read one of hers, appreciate it and be done. Don’t make it this one.
The Ones That Will Last
And these are the books from Fall and Winter that I think will stick with me for some time to come:
White Trash: A 400 Year History of Class in America by Nancy Isenberg
I’ve been talking about this book ever since I read it. It’s come in useful as a reference given recent political events (no, I won’t even say the words, but you know what I mean!), and its provoked enough reaction to make it interesting to bring up repeatedly. Her central thesis is worth repeating, because it applies to so many eras and places and reveals such a root truth about why societies (in this case particularly American society) happens to be the way it is: Society is set up for people to succeed, for sure. But only the ones that the people running it consider to be “people”. Other groups are never counted at all, from the beginning. They’re never supposed to be really there in any direct way.
But of course, if they aren’t, nothing works at all. There is always a class of people treated as “trash”, doing things that nobody counted as one of the real first-class humans ever wants to consider doing, bearing the consequences of actions to horrible to name. These people are essentially considered human tools, to be deployed when needed and discarded when done, at minimal cost to the wielders of the tools, ie the people society actually treats as humans. If they are ever held out the possibility of being treated as people at all, that too is typically a temporary tool to accomplish something. Nancy Isenberg, as the title tells us, sticks with the “white trash” class of society in America for the last 400 years, but she might as well be making an argument about any number of places at any number of times. Its thought-provoking, and the longer I sit with it the more connections I make about why this matters so much.
Clementine: The Life of Mrs. Winston Churchill by Sonia Purnell
I’m gonna say right up front that I think Clementine Churchill deserves all the medals in life for putting up with Winston Churchill for over fifty years. While Sonia Purnell didn’t convince me that Clementine was the secret-hero-in-a-cape we all needed pulling her husband’s strings at important moments, she did definitely convince me of her secondary thesis: namely that Winston Churchill was a spoiled, selfish, monstrously egotistical, emotional five-year old who would have been finished in politics and never come back without Clemetine explaining basic life shit to him over and over again for twenty years and picking up the pieces of his nonsense in his wake. I honestly don’t understand how she didn’t divorce him about five times over by the end of the 1920s, never mind by 1963. He used all of her up over and over and over again and took it his due, rarely acknowledging how hard and perfectionistically she worked to support his needs, to the extent that she neglected her health, her friends and her children. Even Purnell, who seems to love her, acknowledges that both Winston and Clementine felt that the first, second and third priority everyone should be interested in was Winston (with some stunningly terrible results for their kids, by the way- two of them essentially drank themselves to death and another one committed suicide- with eight divorces between them by the end).
Moreover, there are problems with the workmanlike parts of the history. Clementine was a guarded woman, as you might imagine, so there’s a whole lot of those words that give me the queasies in history- “she must have felt,” “there is no record of her thoughts, but it seems likely that…”, “she said that this happened, but I feel sure that…”. Horrors. It felt like not only did she go through all of the primary sources that Clementine and her children could provide, she combed through all of the archives and biographies on Winston and pulled out every mention of Clementine. My hat is off to her for completing that Herculean task, but she can spend paragraphs setting up a half-sentence, passing mention of Clementine that feels forced, because she couldn’t bear to let her not be involved in something. She also uses interviews with people still alive who undoubtedly still have their own agendas and doesn’t do a wonderful job questioning those. Finally, that old chestnut of a danger, the biographer’s partiality to her subject, was on full display here. The sections where she tries to make her case that Clementine had a stronger effect on history than Eleanor Roosevelt while not sounding like a bad feminist or like she thinks that Clementine being a better hostess means she wins were truly incredible. (My favorite is the part when she gets snotty about how bad the food was and how dirty it was at the White House under the Roosevelts and almost-but-not-quite flounces off triumphantly afterwards about how much a better wife Clementine was.)
This book therefore made a weaker case than it should have for a woman who sounds like she had an amazing amount of courage, tact, self-sacrifice, style and capacity to learn. Winston Churchill already beat this lady into the ground until she was dead over and over again- I wish this book had lifted her up more effectively. But I sympathize wholeheartedly with Purnell’s mission.
What is Yours is Not Yours by Helen Oyeyemi
This collection of short stories is an eerie, surreal, off-kilter sort of world. Her characters nearly all have understandable motives or backgrounds, all of which have somehow taken them to a slightly bizarre place that illustrates how deeply they want what they want, simply because of the things they are willing to do to get there (things that some of them are so far gone as to consider normal). Her characters create alternate spaces to thrive in, secret worlds and chambers, experimental shelters, even places in their heart that they keep alive in spite of everything that surrounds them. I would recommend Mr. Fox before I would recommend this more fractured set of tales, but I got the same feeling from it, in the end. Namely I feel an author present who has dived deep into stories the way only people who really loved them do but hasn’t lost their connection to the every day either- I feel an understanding of what’s important behind the presentation and of following through a thought to its logical conclusion. These stories weren’t comforting in a conventional sense, but they were intellectually- because you know someone’s at the helm who knows what they’re doing.
A Gentleman in Moscow by Amor Towles
This book follows a Russian aristocrat who some returns to his home country after the Revolution of 1917, is tried as an “enemy of the people” and becomes a “former person” locked up under house arrest at a hotel in downtown Moscow for four decades. Now while the premise sounds insane (why on earth is an aristocrat returning to Moscow after 1917?? Much less staying there after he gets the people he loves out??), once you accept it and keep moving forward, there’s a wonderfully pleasurable tale that follows. We watch Count Rostov adjust, grow into maturity and age all within the confines of the Hotel Metropole, resting place of the rich and famous that stays that way even under communism (remember, some animals are more equal than others). There, he is able to observe the changes taking place in his country seemingly without participating in them in any meaningful way. It isn’t dramatic, it isn’t action packed, but it is a story of a man of great courage and fortitude who tries to live his life according to his values in whatever circumscribed way he can and still be able to live with himself. It’s a book about the value of friendship and change, the limits of learning and most of all, surprisingly, about the nature of beauty. What is beauty for? Is it worth it? Why? What are you missing in life if you don’t understand the ineffable thing that keeps the Count, and others like him, alive under communism? Does it even matter, with the boot on your face? If you think it matters, spend some time with the Count. If you think it doesn’t… spend some time with him anyway. He might convince you otherwise.
The Pastor’s Wife by Elizabeth von Arnim
Of all the books I read, this quiet little thing probably made the most impression on me. It made me the angriest of anything I’d read, too, even more so than Nancy Isenberg’s book. This was a story about what it used to mean to be a woman, in essence, especially a well-meaning, ordinary sort of woman who wanted to do whatever it was people told her was the right thing- but the sort of woman honest enough to understand when what people told her was the “right” thing actually turned out to be nothing of the sort. This was about a young girl, dominated and used for her capabilities by an ungrateful, stern father, who works up the courage to escape a situation she finally accepts is not right, but does so the only acceptable way she’s been taught: by marrying. Which lands her with an equally ungrateful, if slightly more permissive, German pastor of a husband, who uses even more of her capabilities with even less notice than before (literal dirt is more worthy of his time than her). And then she tries first one thing and then another and another and another that people tell her is for the best, and the life of this sweet girl is eaten up year by year in supposed to-s and this should make it all better-s. It’s probably at least partially an unintentionally feminist book but it’s incredibly powerful for all that. It’s like Clementine Churchill’s story but without all the distracting complication of Winston winning WWII to distract you from the main point of things. Elizabeth von Arnim has become a personal hero for me. I wrote all about it for Book Riot, actually. Which is also where you can read my thoughts about my two personal favorites of hers that I read this year as well, Elizabeth and Her German Garden and The Solitary Summer. I’ll remember the feelings of joy and connection I got from these books forever.
History of the Rain by Niall Williams
This should have been a five-star favorite for me. But it wasn’t. But in a manner that ensures that oh man, will I remember it. This book focuses on Ruth, a young girl in rural Ireland stricken by an unnamed serious disease that has forced her to come home from university and spend her days bedridden, thinking over her short life that may very soon be over. It is notable for the wonderfully stream-of-consciousness style in which she tells the history of her family, intertwined with her current day thoughts and feelings, flavored with the language and plots of all the books she has loved over the course of her life. The inside of Ruth’s brain is therefore a pretty delightful place to be, and easy for anyone who loves reading to connect with and understand. Her turns of phrase and observations are witty, touching, brave, full of insight.
At least until you get to Part Two. Then the thing becomes an utter mess of maudlin self-indulgence, turning the Irish tin whistles up to 11 and the violins to 15. The cliches become rampant, the observations about as compelling as a Hallmark card. Williams turns it from a fascinating mindgame into a full on tragedy and it’s really embarrassing. To me it felt like he realized what a wonderful thing he had on his hands and was determined to draw it out as long as possible, pushing it farther and farther in the wrong direction of 5-Hankie-Town. I no longer felt like I was spending time with Ruth, but with someone inhabiting her body who wanted to show me his sweet metaphors about rain and fog. What’s more infuriating is that he seems to realize this and writes a pretty kick-ass Part Three to wind up the book. So WTF was Part Two doing there to begin with? It had nothing we needed to know and plenty of stuff we would have preferred to never see. Read this wonderful, lovely, memorable, fabulous book. But don’t read Part Two. I hope that it becomes your favorite as it can’t be mine now because of that middle section. *shakes fists and the sky* WILLIAMS!!