Penelope by Rebecca Harrington. This was a slightly quirky first novel that my sister sent me to read. Penelope is an odd girl who is beginning her first year at Harvard. At first I found her oddness a bit offputting, but eventually she began to grow on me. She’s a strangely literal person who didn’t have close friends growing up and really hopes to remedy that in college. She has a mother who consistently gives her bad advice as to how to go about making friends, and she is thrown together with a group of unlike-minded fellow first-years, including two nightmare roommates. The book is basically a comedy about one’s first year in college, and read as such it is relatively successful. Penelope ends up in a horrible play, because she can’t figure out how to get out of doing it. She gets a crush on a worldly upper-classman who uses her, and she does her best to shake off some of her dorm-mates whom she really does not like. It’s better than I’m making it out to be: what’s good about it in particular is Harrington’s creation of Penelope as an odd bird with a good heart who is always herself in every situation. As her classmates try on different personas and attitudes, she always states things as she sees them, and in Harrington’s hands this becomes a charming trait. I’d be interested in seeing what she writes next.
The Trespasser by Tana French. Tana French’s sixth novel came out at the beginning of the month and the literary world is all abuzz. I am here to say that it is excellent, too; if you liked her previous five, you will love this one. French is an American who has lived in Ireland for the past 26 years and her novels are all focused on the Dublin Murder Squad. Each book focuses on a different detective as they work to solve a case (you do see detectives from previous books, although I admit to having trouble remembering which detectives I “know” and which I do not). This book is in the first person of Detective Antoinette Conway (she and her partner Stephen Moran were in the fifth and least successful of French’s books, too). Conway and Moran get assigned a case that looks like it will be a slam-dunk domestic murder case. As they begin the investigation, however, the tensions from the squad keep encroaching on the case. For example, an older detective, Breslin, is assigned to help them out, but Conway – perhaps a little paranoid – is convinced that he keeps trying to lead them down the wrong track. The whole case is interesting, and it is also fascinating to see how Conway and Moran work together to try to get information from a witness; and at the same time they have to keep information hidden from Breslin until they work out what he is up to. Conway is also convinced that the whole squad is trying to get her to quit, and this also adds tension to the situation. It’s an excellent crime novel – definitely one of French’s best, and that is saying something.
Florence Gordon by Brian Morton. This was a very surprising little gem of a novel. It’s been on my kindle for a few years, and I no longer remember who recommended it to me – if it was you, thank you! – and I thought it delightful. It’s short – I read it in three days of commuting – but it is simultaneously witty and weighty, and very enjoyable. It primarily concerns three generations of women – Florence Gordon, her daughter-in-law Janine, and her granddaughter, Emily. Florence is a feminist and scholar, and when the book begins she is 75 and finally getting the recognition she deserves (via a NY book review by Martha Nussbaum, ha!). Florence is an outspoken curmudgeon – her interactions with people are hilarious, as she tends to say exactly what she is thinking, and what she is thinking is unexpectedly brash common sense. She is pleased to get the recognition, but she is not going to suffer fools gladly. Janine is a Seattle-ite psychologist who has a kind of internship position in NYC for a year. She is enjoying being back in the city, and is beginning to have feelings toward her new boss, which is complicated since her husband, Daniel (Florence’s son), has just arrived in the city for a few months stay. Emily is a 20 year old who is taking a break from Oberlin. She ends up doing research work for her grandmother and wins her grudging and silent respect. The tone of the novel is really excellently done – Morton gets it exactly right. All the characters are likeable and interesting. The book itself reminded me a bit of Mrs Dalloway (Virginia Woolf herself is quoted occasionally throughout the book – although not from that novel in particular), only without the depression. It’s as if Clarissa Dalloway had courage and opportunity as a young girl, and perhaps a Xanax or two as an older one. I highly recommend it.
The Woman Who Walked Into Doors by Roddy Doyle. I think I might have read this book a long time ago, as it seemed very familiar to me. I read it this time after reading somewhere that it is J. K. Rowling’s favorite novel, so was curious. It is written in the first person voice of Paula Spencer, a woman who has had a hard past twenty years to put it mildly. She married Charlo, who then beat her mercilessly. When the book begins, Paula has just found out that Charlo was killed by the police in a kidnapping and robbery. Paula had kicked him out a year hence, but in her grief she is going over all that happened in her life from her childhood on. The best thing about the book is her very distinctive and very charming voice. Doyle also explores memory in interesting ways – Paula is never quite sure of the validity of what she remembers. She’ll tell about the same incident several times, and she is always trying to get one of her sisters, Carmel, to agree with her that they had a happy childhood and good parents. Carmel very much remembers it otherwise. It’s very well done, and also depressing. Paula was a smart girl with endless optimism and she was turned into an old before her time beaten alcoholic. She finally does the right thing when Charlo starts to turn on their eldest daughter, Nicola. It is a skillful and difficult book.
Love Warrior by Glennon Doyle Melton. I am really not the best audience for this book, as I tend to be a bit skeptical of getting in touch with one’s inner warrior, and other such self-help dictums. But GDM can certainly tell a good story and she can write. The book is basically what happens five years ago when she discovers that her husband has been unfaithful. At this point in time, she was a very popular blogger and author of another book, and her marriage was part of her image on which she made her living. So she had more at stake in it then some. She then realizes that she needs to rehabilitate herself, and dives into an exploration of all her issues, beginning with raging bulimia at age 10, alcoholism in her teens and twenties, and a general self-image problem. It is easy to get swept into all this when you read, because as I mentioned above, she has talent. But as I also mentioned above, I tend towards skepticism, and a lot of her story just didn’t ring “true” to me. I feel like she exaggerates and bends a lot to make the story powerful. This book is an Oprah pick and there is a lot written about it at the moment, so I also discovered while I was in the middle of reading the book that her marriage – which in the book she is repairing – had just ended before her book tour. And although she tells Oprah that her journey was never about repairing the marriage, but about both she and her husband repairing themselves, to me their impending divorce does ruin a bit what is happening in the book. At any rate, I can certainly understand why some love the book and I think it is worthy of the attention it has been receiving; it is just not my kind of thing.
Those Who Leave And Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante. I am still slowly reading Ferrante’s Neapolitan quartet. This was the third book and I liked it better than the first two – partly, I think, because Elena and Lila are finally adults and their trials and triumphs more interesting. It is definitely more of the same though. Each women achieves in her own way, but each success and failure is inextricably intertwined with what the other is doing. It’s surprising that Ferrante is able to make this interesting, and I can’t quite put my finger on why it is. And I do also admit that at times for me it isn’t – I do get tired of Elena always getting pulled back into the goings-on of the neighborhood. I wanted her to escape. Ferrante gets this kind of a friendship exactly right though, and it isn’t something that you see much in literature. I am going to read the fourth one right away now without taking a break.
Simple Matters: Living With Less and Ending Up With More by Erin Boyle. I have mixed feelings about this book. It is a lot like what Boyle writes about in her blog, Reading My Tea Leaves, which I enjoy. She is a practitioner of minimalist living, and writes in book and blog about simplifying one’s surroundings and getting rid of the clutter. She is similar to Marie Kondo but without the whimsy and charm. There’s a part of me that is attracted to this lifestyle, but I can’t help but feel that the elephant in the very sparsely furnished room that never gets addressed is CONTROL. Minimalists basically have control issues, and they appease them by controlling everything that comes in and goes out of their living spaces. So whereas Boyle writes about it as an aesthetic and ethical choice – and I believe that it is both – I think it is also dishonest to not address the control aspect of what she gets out of her choices. In a crude nutshell: I think she and other minimalists get off on throwing things away and doing without. I also think her lifestyle is often an aesthetic preference masked as a virtue. She likes the whole look of endlessly neutral color, and beige linens, and everything taken out of the container they came in and decanted into mason jars, but then pats herself on the back for the morality of choosing to live like she does. Is it hypocritical of me then to say that I think she gets a lot right? We do have too much stuff and we can live more simply and will be happier if we do so, and Boyle’s book contains a lot of good advice about making this happen in your own life. Just read it with a grain of salt.
Unseen by Mari Jungstedt. This is a crime novel that I discovered on a list of best Swedish mysteries, and since I had recently finished reading the Asa Larsson books, which I love, I was hopeful I'd find a new Swedish writer I liked as well. Jungstedt is no Larsson though. The book was a good read -- and I think I'll read at least the next in the series -- but whereas I think Larsson is an really excellent writer, the writing in Unseen is just serviceable. That said, it is definitely a good read with a lot of suspense. It takes place on the island of Gotland and features Detective Anders Knutas, who remains rather an unknown quantity (not fully on purpose, I don't think). Anyway, a woman gets murdered on the beach; they think her boyfriend did it; but then when another woman gets murdered in the same way, Knutas realizes something else is going on. The rest of the novel is a race to figure out who is doing the killing before he kills again. Nothing groundbreaking, but I was happy daily to return to reading it.