Sunday, August 2, 2015

July 2015 Book Reviews

Glittering Images by Susan Howatch.  This book was a big old mess, although I must admit that once I had figured that out, I rather enjoyed reading it on the train each morning.  It was just generally a bit schizophrenic:  it started out a book about clergymen (well, it remains this all throughout) and seemed to be a theological comedy of manners kind of story, situated in England between the world wars (although I did have trouble remembering when it was taking place, as there aren’t a lot of historical or cultural markers that place it in the 30s.)  But then all of a sudden, the main character, Dr. Charles Ashworth, a clergyman scholar at Cambridge, is having sex in the bushes with an older American (of course!) – and sex six times in a couple of hours too, might I add.  It was at this point that I rightly began to wonder, is this a romance?  A bodice ripper?!  What am I reading?  And it is also at this point that Dr. Ashworth, wracked with guilt over his consensual rendezvous with Professor Loretta, cloisters himself away at an abbey so that he can partake in daily Freudian analysis with the head monk there, Jon Darrow.  Wait, what?!  I know!  There was truly something to annoy everyone.  And then the remaining half of the very long book consisted primarily of Dr. Ashworth’s analysis, and his coming to terms with traumas in his childhood that made him separate into two people, the “Glittering Image” of the title, a social and glib fellow, and the real, damaged self underneath.  He also tries to puzzle out a mystery involving a ménage a trois and another bishop.  Apparently there are three or four more books written in this particular series about these characters, and although I’m a tiny bit curious, I don’t think I shall read the rest.

The Accident by Chris Pavone.  This book was a recommendation I took from The New York Times “By The Book” column, and it was an excellent read.  I guess you’d say it was in the thriller/spy genre, and was my first foray into spy novels.  It was very fast-paced and fascinating from the get-go.  Each chapter switched from person to person (some repeatedly and some making only one appearance) and it read like the best qualities of a good action movie:  smart and suspenseful and surprising.  It is very much located in the world of book publishing (the author worked or still works in publishing), and it begins with an agent reading a manuscript that had been mysteriously delivered to her, and that is a biographical expose of a media mogul half-Oprah Winfrey/half Rupert Murdoch kind of figure.  The book has all sorts of revelations that the mogul, Charlie Wolfe, of course wants to keep hidden.  So you have one side trying to get the book published, and you have the Wolfe side trying to kill everyone who knows about the manuscript.  It’s very well done and a very “fun” (albeit somewhat stressful at times) read.

The Shepherd’s Life:   Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks.  This is an interesting read.  James Rebanks, in his forties now, grew up in the Lake District on a working sheep farm, and learned how to be a sheep farmer from his grandfather and father.  The chapters are all very short and in no particular order, and he writes of the daily work of a northern sheep farmer, as well as what it was like growing up in that world – which was positioned inside a world of touristry and escape.  As a teen, he was very aware of how sheep farming was dismissed by the modern world, and how their land was perceived so differently from Wordsworth’s time on.  Rebanks wasn’t a student as a youth and dropped out of school at age 15 to help farm.  But he knew he wouldn’t be able to just be a farmer, that in these times you needed a second job, so he eventually goes to Oxford (surprising all, including himself) in his twenties and becomes a historical preservationist, while still sheep farming full time.  It’s all very fascinating, as most of the daily activities of sheep farming I knew nothing of.  Rebanks is also a breeder of a special kind of sheep (two kinds, actually) and that whole breeding, and sheep showing world was equally interesting.  It’s a thought-provoking book; I recommend it.  

Life After Life by Kate Atkinson.  I was all set to read Atkinson’s new novel, God In Ruins, and read a few chapters of it.  But it is about a minor character who appeared in the amazing Life After Life, and I wanted to remember more about who did what in Life After Life, so decided I had to re-read it before moving on to God In Ruins.  So this was my second reading of Life After Life, and it was just as spectacular as the first time I read it.  Truly.  If you haven’t read this book, go do so:  it will probably be one of the best books of the century.  It’s also a hard book to describe!  Basically it follows the many lives of Ursula Todd, who is born in 1910 outside of London.  However, Ursula keeps getting a do-over, and her life starts again and again, although each time she is able to at least slightly avert the disaster that happened in the previous life.  Some of the different things she does result in the same end, and some do not.  It’s fascinating and beautifully written and wonderful, and is a good read on its own, even without the reincarnation kind of structure.  A superb novel.

Among The Ten-Thousand Things by Julia Pierpont.  This novel has been getting a lot of buzz, primarily because it was a first novel that sold for a lot of money.  And I do think it is a good book, although I am still processing what I think about how she structured it.  There are four parts:  most of the novel consists of the first and third part, which occur in the present day.  The third part picks up right where the first part left off.  However, in the second part Pierpont writes short vignettes (in a very Virginia Woolf To The Lighthouse way) that lays out what happens to the characters for the rest of their lives in bits and pieces.  So then it is rather surprising to start part three and find out it is a continuation of part one, and that you now know more than the characters do about what will happen to them.  I think it’s an interesting idea, and thought-provoking, but I’m still undecided as to whether I think it works or not.  It would have been a much more hopeful book without the glimpse into the future, for sure.  The fourth part is a few more vignettes like were in the second (some almost word for word), with a bit more here and there.  Anyway, I’d be interested in hearing what other people think about the structure.  Before I read the book I had heard that it was a book about the break-up of a marriage told from the children’s point of view.  And it is, although you get as much of the parents’ point of view as you do of the children’s, if not more.  So I guess it is the break-up of a family from everyone’s point of view.  The writing is lovely and the characters interesting and real and well-drawn, with perhaps the weakest being the mother, Deb, an ex-dancer who is not blindsided by her husband, Jack’s, affairs, yet still acts like she is.  Because Jack is more expertly created, it is hard not to end up on his side.  On the whole, very well done.

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